…may have strength 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…
The atmosphere of being rooted and grounded in love is for a purpose – that we might know the love of Christ. We are useful beings to God and our significance is found in our usefulness to Him. We experience His grace in order to know His love, and we know His love in order to share His love. If we disrupt this divine process, if we isolate these parts too separately from one another, then we do damage to the divine plan. To show love to a child and then to not expect that child to show love to another is to damage him and to undermine the purpose of love.
But in this verse we are merely further along in the experience of learning. The rooting and grounding matters of love of verse 17 have now moved above ground and whether Paul envisions a plant growing or a building being constructed is debated among scholars, but it does not matter, for both and either fit the purpose as an illustration – and it is a beautiful illustration.
Now I should add parenthetically that this phrase of verse 18 is taken different ways. The majority believe Paul is writing about the love of God in Christ, which is how I understand it. Others, however, believe that he is referring back to earlier arguments presented in the chapter, about the plan of God for the salvation of the gentiles, or the outworking in the world of His grace to all people. In this way, they believe he is saying, “That you may comprehend with all the saints the great purposes of God’s redemptive plan to unite all mankind under Christ through grace, and that you may know the love of Christ.” Though I do not see it this way, there is nothing theologically wrong with this interpretation, in fact, in many ways it fits neatly into the arguments of the chapter and of the entire letter about the unity of the church – “breadth and length and height and depth” referring to the different ethnic groups coming into the Church universal.
But I agree with the majority of biblical scholars that this phrase is about the love of Christ, because it reads better that way grammatically, and because of other passages in the Bible on the same theme. The church may be an illustration of this principle of God’s love, but his meaning seems more connected to expound on the immeasurable nature of Christ’s love.
First, this speaks of love’s origin. Love is of God and as such has no boundaries. It is not a trait that God has conjured up to use for a period and then discard when it serves it purpose, rather it is who He is. When we try to measure love we are trying to measure God.
Job 11:8-9 speaks about the deep things of God and describe them as being higher than the heavens, deeper than Sheol or death, longer than the earth, and broader than the sea. The psalmist wrote, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Where shall I hide from your presence?” and then proceeds in similar language to speak about heaven, death, the length of the earth and the breadth of the ocean – as well as adding darkness and light (Psalm 139:7-12).
The hymnist wrote: “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure,” and that is the idea here. His desire is that all the saints, all those who are saved is the meaning, catch this fact. “Saints” in scripture does not refer only to those “super Christians” but to the common believers, every one who believes is a saint in the Bible’s estimation. So his prayer is that all the church would come to realize and comprehend that the love of Christ is beyond measure. “How high is up? How deep is down?” is the idea.
Second, this speaks of our experience with love. “Comprehend” is katalambano in Greek, and it means to lay hold of, to seize, to possess, and to comprehend. It has the idea of possessing knowledge to the point of its practical use and application. Knowledge of the love of Christ is not theoretical or theological only – it must come down to the level of experience. To know that the love of God is immeasurable in theory is one thing; to comprehend and grasp that my circumstance is not beyond His love is another, and that realization is what he is praying for.
Our consciences are peculiar things. We were originally made in the image of God, so we have a conscience, an awareness of what is right and wrong. But these are marred by sin and do not function properly. In Romans 2:15 it says that our consciences both defend us and accuse us before God – they defend us by saying something good about us in that we have one, yet they accuse us because we do not always follow them. The psalmist asked where he could go from the presence of God, but we might very well ask ourselves where we can go from our own conscience? We may try and silence it – and some have almost achieved this – but yet it is still there. David wrote, “My sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3), and we can be hounded and troubled for years by the feeling of shame and guilt. All of us have moments in our lives where we wish we could be given another opportunity to relive so that we might do the right thing and not the wrong thing.
But our consciences are not God and they seem to misfire as often as they function correctly. So what is the solution for this? Here it is: to comprehend the greatness of God’s love, for it is His love demonstrated in the grace in Christ that covers our sin. The sin we committed that seems to cover the length of a continent and the breadth of the ocean needs to meet the love of Christ that surpasses both. Though our sin goes deep, the grace of God goes deeper. Where sin abounded, grace super-abounded (Rom. 5:20).
Would you right now take the sins that trouble you and put them in your mind next to the cross of Christ, and accept through faith that there, on the cross, these sins were atoned for and you were cleansed from? This is a mental exercise, but it is one of faith. Take them one by one, the ones that trouble you, and leave them there. Accept by faith your forgiveness. Live by faith in the love of Christ. Do not trust in your feelings or even in your imperfect human conscience, rather trust in the word of God that affirms you are forgiven in Christ.