Therefore I ask you not to lose heart at my tribulations on your behalf, for they are your glory. For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God.
Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.
Comprehending the Love of Christ
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Some things in life are deceptively easy. Those are the sorts of things you expect to be very difficult and when you take a shot at them, everything works and you find yourself doing whatever it is with amazing grace and ease. I like those things. They make you feel competent.
Some things are deceptively difficult. Sometimes they seem easy to do, but after you are done, you discover that you really did not accomplish what you thought you did - or what you were supposed to accomplish. Other things look easy when you watch someone else do them, and when you take a shot at it, assuming it will be simple, you find yourself greatly taxed by the task and doing it poorly or not at all. I had that problem, for example, the first time I tried to fillet a Northern Pike. I watched the experts do it and it looked simple. When I tried, assuming it was as easy as they made it look, I totally destroyed two good fish in the attempt before I gave the knife to someone more experienced than I.
Another one of those deceptively difficult things is comprehending the love of Christ. Paul writes about it in our Epistle, and prays that the Christians of Ephesus (and all those who would eventually read this epistle) would be strengthened with power through His [that is, God's] Spirit in the inner man so that they might be able to comprehend the love of Christ. Since it requires divine power to do it, it must be more difficult that we would imagine. So, our theme this morning, as we examine what Paul is praying about, is, "Comprehending the Love of Christ".
Paul knows that it is difficult to understand the love of Christ, because he is asking the church in Ephesus not to be upset or downhearted about his own tribulations, because, he says, they are for their glory. These tribulations are the persecutions and stonings and imprisonments that Paul is facing day by day as he spreads the word of the Gospel. The hostility Paul faces in the world because of the Gospel is frightening and discouraging for the Ephesians and Paul want to encourage them and lift their discouragement over these things. He doesn't want them frightened by the hostility of the world or depressed, because these things flow to God's people out of the love of Christ. So, he prays for them to be strengthened with power by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so that they can comprehend the love of Christ.
His prayer, basically, is that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, they may believe. They need that Holy Spirit power because, they, like we, are slaves of sin and unable to believe without the gift of God's grace through the giving of the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12, to illustrate this point, that no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. So he prays that they may believe - or as Paul puts it, "that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith". Faith is also one of those incredibly difficult things - it looks easy, but it cannot be done without the working of the Holy Spirit.
His prayer is also that they may be rooted and grounded in love. By that prayer, he means that they may be rooted and grounded in the love of God for them. That love is the nearly incomprehensible love of Christ. It appears that in this epistle, faith in Christ is pretty much the same thing as being rooted and grounded in God's love. Rooted would be like a plant, drawing one's health and well-being from what one is rooted in, and grounded is to have one's foundation in or on something. In other words, our spiritual health and the foundation for our thinking and doing is to be the love of God for us.
For that to happen, we need to comprehend the love of Christ in all its fulness and meaning which is, frankly, humanly impossible (Paul says that this love actually surpasses knowledge) and is therefore part experience, and totally the gift of God. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, we can talk about the love of Christ, and detail some of the evidences of it, but we cannot fit the whole thing into our minds, or understand it as it is. It is just too big. That is why we need the work and the power of the Holy Spirit in us, as Paul is praying for in our text.
For example, Paul prays "that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God." But what does that mean? Several hours of study on that phrase didn't really help much. It is a blessing, to be sure. I believe it means that Paul prays that we will be filled by God with all that God gives, and with all that God is, himself, to the limit of our ability to be filled with it. Some of that is being filled with knowledge of the love of God, a knowledge which surpasses all knowing, and yet here Paul is, praying that we will know what is beyond knowing. The "fulness of God" is all that God intends for us, that is for those whom He has chosen and whom He loves.
This teaching is similar to the instruction, in Romans 8:17, where Paul says that he is persuaded that the troubles of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us. That means that if we knew how grand and glorious eternal life and salvation are going to be, nothing in this world would deter us or discourage us, but we would dash into the fray, knowing how little we actually risk or how comparatively little we endure for the sake of so much and such a wonderful salvation! Paul is praying here that we would be permitted to have some sort of sense of the wonder of the love of Christ and the glory of this relationship with God - I think that is what he is referring to as being filled with the fullness of God.
And that is the root of our problem here, in this life. We are fundamentally unable to sense or fully appreciate the love of Christ. We can talk about sin, for example, but we never really face or understand the horror of it, or of where it aims to take us. We can speak eloquently about the cross of Jesus Christ, but we cannot fathom its torments, nor fully appreciate forgiveness, life, and salvation from this point in our flesh. The prayer of Paul, and our prayer, is that God would fill us with His power and open our eyes, just a bit, to the magnitude of His grace and of the wonder of salvation and eternal life in glory with Him.
The only way we can believe, and the only way we can participate in that wonder and understand and experience even a bit of it, is if Christ does dwell in us and fill us with his power that we may sense and see the dimensions of His love, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of it. He can make that happen. Paul stresses that point at the end of our text. He tells us that God is capable of doing inconceivably more than we expect, or ask, or can even imagine - and he does that by means of the very power which works within us that believe, that is, which makes us believers. In other words, He is already at work in us with that power.
It is the same power that created the world out of nothing. It is the power that performed all of the great miracles of the Bible. It is the power that made Manna appear for forty years, made water pour out of a rock, the power that healed the sick and raised the dead, and caused the plagues of Egypt and divided the Red Sea. God can do more than we can ask or even imagine. And He is at work in you with that power in your faith.
Which also means that there is more to faith than we may be aware of. There may be more to it than we can imagine. Faith has given the saints of old the power to endure persecutions of a sort that make us tremble to think of them. I am always struck, for example by those early Christians whose burning bodies lit the Colosseum in Rome, and while they burned, they called to one another, singing hymns and shouting Psalms and comforting one another. Sometimes, the only way we can comprehend the love of Christ is to share, even just a little bit, in His sufferings. That is part of the reason why we are encouraged not to be downhearted about the tribulations - Paul encouraged the Ephesians not be discouraged by his tribulations, and we are encouraged not be allow ourselves to be discouraged by our own tribulations and those of our fellow believers today. They allow us to share in the sufferings of Christ, which open us up to being filled with the fulness of God by learning something of the suffering and understanding something about he love it took to endure those greater sufferings for us.
Jesus taught that when we are persecuted and troubled by others for the sake of the Gospel and for Christ, we are blessed. We take our place with the prophets and saints of old who were also treated this way, and God counts our patience and endurance in His cause as something high and holy and He rewards it with blessings and eternal rewards, to boot. Our tribulations serve as evidence of a sort for us that we are truly Christ's people, and when we view them through faith, comprehending the love of Christ provides us with comfort and encouragement. It tells us that what is happening is not pointless, but brings with it a reminder of whose people we are, and encourages us to rejoice - not in the pain or trouble but in the certainty that what is coming at last for us is going to make all of this well worth is, and thankful that we have been counted worthy by the grace of God to participate in what each and every child of God is given to bear - their share in the cross of Christ.
Viewed through the love of Christ, and the perspective which Word of God gives us, by the power of the Holy Spirit we may actually find a sense of empowerment. We are the Lord's. Far from placing that in doubt, the troubles which the world inflicts on God's chosen people confirm our membership in His family, and serve to remind us that we have the power of God dwelling in us, the same power by which He has performed every miracle recorded in Scriptures. While we may not be doing flashy signs before the world, we know we have the power dwelling with in us to endure, and to accomplish all that God sets before us to accomplish for Him. And we do a miraculous thing when we spread the Gospel, and thereby share in God's work of making saints and children of God our of sinners and slaves of the devil.
So, the prayer of Paul is that God would fill each of you with His Holy Spirit, so that by His power you might be able to not simply endure but also to rejoice in your tribulations as members of the body of Christ, and to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God.
Paul ends this short passage with a word of praise -a doxology - to God, praising God and reminding us of that power that works in us through faith. It seems fitting to close this sermon with those same words. Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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