Preparing to Live
Living Requires Experiencing Christ’s Love (1)
We’ve been studying the prayer that Paul prays for his Ephesian friends as recorded in Ephesians 3:14-21 under the title “Preparing to Live.” And we’ve been following as Paul builds a ladder of requests from a prayer for inner strength to a prayer that they would allow Christ to settle down and be at home in their hearts to a prayer that they be rooted and grounded in love. We now reach rung number 4 on the ladder and with it we have reached truly holy ground as Paul prays that they may comprehend the unknowable; he wants them to know the fullness of Christ’s love.
All the previous petitions prepare for and lead up to this petition. They were essential as preparation, but they are not ends in themselves; they are designed to lead on to this grand objective. We find ourselves, as it were, upon the pinnacle of Christian truth. There is nothing higher than this. God grant us His Spirit that we may consider it aright! We are in a rarefied atmosphere; in a place to which, unfortunately, we are not accustomed. It is impossible to come to this subject without a feeling of inadequacy. How can one possibly explain what it is to know and experience the love of Christ? Let us pray that His Spirit will teach us.
A few years ago a woman wrote in a national magazine about how being the younger sister of a brilliant student in the high school of a small town was difficult. She said that while her grades were average, her sister made history at their alma mater when she crammed four years of high school into three and graduated at the top of her class. Twenty years later, the author attended a school reunion where she encountered two former teachers who had also had taught her sister. Their faces brightened with recognition. “You remember me,” the author beamed. They nodded and said, “You’re one of the Barber girls.” “Do you know which one?” the author queried. The teachers put their heads together and whispered for a moment before they gave their answer: “You’re the other one.”
The other one! The other one. No one wants to be the other one, do they? No one. And you see, in a nutshell, at the heart of everything about Christ’s love – the thing you most need to know is that although He knows and loves billions of people, and although you may be lost in your own work, school or even home – you will never, ever be “the other one” to Jesus. Never! The thing you need to know about the love of Christ is this – He knows your name. And in knowing your name He knows everything about you and about your life. He knows your good and He knows your bad. He knows your reputation and He knows the real you! He knows it all, and yet He loves you. He knows your name.
Max Lucado, the San Antonio-based pastor and author that many of you have probably read somewhere along the line, wrote a book called A Gentle Thunder. In it he says this, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If he had a wallet, your photo would be in it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, he’ll listen. He can live anywhere in the universe, and he chose your heart…Face it, friend. He’s crazy about you.”
Isn’t that good? The problem is we are like children paddling at the edge of an ocean; there are untold depths in this love of God of which we know nothing. Paul is praying that these Ephesians, and we with them, may go out into the depths and the deeps, and discover things which we have never even imagined. Whatever we may think we know of God’s love, let us assume that we are mere novices, babes who have only scratched the surface and whose lives can be enriched by the study and application of this subject and we ask the question, what is required to know and experience the love of Christ leading to life lived with a capital “L”?
The first thing it takes to see, understand, comprehend, know the love of Christ is people. People. Strange as it may seem, you can’t know the love of Christ in isolation. Paul prays in verse 18 that the Ephesians “may have strength to comprehend with all the saints.” Who are these saints and why did Paul add this little phrase?
Who are the saints? You may recall that in the very first verse of this book we were confronted immediately with these saints: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” If you were with us then, you may recall that we noted that the word “faithful” in Christ Jesus could just as well be translated “believing ones.” When Paul says saints, he is not thinking about some super-duper spiritual group of people who are over and above the rest of us. In fact, it is the rest of us he means when he says saints –any true believer in Christ. You may recall Vernon McGee’s comment: “There are only two kinds of people today: the saints and the ain’ts. If you are a saint, then you are not an ain’t. If you ain’t an ain’t, then you are a saint.”
So, the point here would be that Paul is praying that all believers, not just some elite minority, but all believers would experience the wonderful, overwhelming love of Christ. That is Paul’s prayer. There are no upper crust Christians in God’s eyes – whatever some may think of themselves. The Bible frequently emphasizes this aspect of truth. In the Book of Revelation, for instance, in the letter to the Church at Pergamos, the Lord Jesus Christ says: “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” The one who conquers here is the true believer, the one who has overcome sin and Satan, not in his own power, but because he has trusted Christ as Savior.
The ‘hidden’ manna! Every provision. The white stone with a name written on it that nobody can understand except the recipient! Others can see the lettering but it means nothing to them. None understand it save those who truly receive it. This is a secret love that no one else knows. The picture is that of a great affection between two persons which they have kept between them as a great secret. They are enjoying it, their hearts are ravished by it; but no one else knows anything about it. They are enjoying the very secrecy of it, in a sense. Such is the character of this love to which the Apostle refers. The world knows nothing about it; it is only for the saints, but it is for all saints. Not only does he know your name, the day is coming when He will give you a new name. As the old hymn put it, “The love of Jesus what it is, none but His loved ones know”. Only believers -- but all believer – can know the love of Christ.
But I also think that Paul prays that we “may have strength to comprehend with all the saints,” to make the point that we will never understand the precious love of Christ in isolation, away from others. We need each other for many things and not least to understand the love of Christ. The great British commentator F. F. Bruce says, “It is vain for Christian individuals or groups to imagine they can better attain the fullness of spiritual maturity if they isolate themselves from fellow believers.” We need each other. I need you, and like it or not, you need me. We experience Christ’s love with all God’s consecrated people. We find it, or should, in the fellowship of the Church. John Wesley’s saying was true, “God knows nothing of solitary religion.” “No man,” he said, “ever went to heaven alone.” The church may have its faults; the church members may be very far from being the people they ought to be; but in the fellowship of the Church we find the love of God.
We need to be rooted and grounded in love because it is love alone that can recognize love. Love alone recognizes love, love alone understands love; indeed it is love alone that can receive love. Like attracts like. You must have love in your heart if you are going to know love and experience it. It is love alone that can appreciate love. You will not be able to appreciate the most glorious music if you are not musical. There are people who are almost driven mad by the sound of some great symphony because they are devoid of a musical faculty. Likewise people can walk through the finest Art galleries and be bored. They are lacking in an artistic sense. To truly know love, we must have willed to be loving. The principle is this: The more we love others, the more we will know the love of Christ.
When we choose (for this is agape, remember – something we choose to do) when we choose to really love others, we will find that there are those who are very easy to love – and then, there are others -- those who are tough to love. There are those who are altogether unlovely – who are different from us, apart from us. Furthermore, they are unresponsive to our outreach, cynical about our expressions of concern. Perhaps they are even the ones stabbing us in the back in some way and the Lord is asking us to love them. What do we learn about Christ’s love in that process? What do we learn? Well, we learn what it meant for Christ to love a human race where absolutely everyone was like that. Where not a single person was righteous. Where not a single one sought after God. Where everyone was antagonistic, rebellious and unlovely. And yet he loved us all the way to death on the cross.
If our eyes are really open we can get a perspective from others that we would never have had in any other way. You see, each one of us sees ourselves as basically lovable, cuddly, charming and infinitely approachable. We don’t see our righteousness as filthy rags in God’s eyes; we don’t understand the depths of our rebellion. We’re like the guy who goes to a dentist. During the examination, the man says, “My teeth are great. But let me tell you something. I never brush my teeth. I never use a rinse on my teeth. I never use a breath mint. I eat garlic all day long. And I’ve never had bad breath.” The dentist says, “You need an operation.” “What kind of operation?” “On your nose.” See, this having to love the unlovely is partly God’s way of operating on our nose, getting us to see our own unloveliness and what it meant for him to love us. Getting us to see our own decrepitude from His perspective. We need people to understand Christ’s love. Those same people can also help with the second thing we need.
Second, if we are to improve our recognition of the boundless love of Christ we must have perception. Why perception? Well -- ordinarily we think of love as being something that is very easy to spot. It is not something that we would put on our list of things to do – Find love! What – is love lost?! We don’t think of it as requiring finding or comprehending. Love? It’s either there or it is not, and if it is there, you can hardly miss it. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear Paul pray in verse 18 that the Ephesians, “may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19) and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” Here He is -- suggesting that we have this massive, absolutely boundless reservoir of love coming from our Savior, and yet he prays that we will have strength to see it. He prays that we will have comprehension to see it. He prays that we will know it. What is that all about? If it is out there as big as the universe, how hard can it be to see? Why is Paul taking such pains praying that these people will not miss the obvious? And in that very question lies the answer. The reason that Paul is praying so earnestly is that while Christ’s love always is -- it is not always obvious. I read the best commentators that exist on this passage, and not a single one asked this most important question – why pray that they see the obvious, but I tell you, this is the key to understanding this passage. If you don’t get this, you will miss it all.
Let me illustrate. A few years ago, I knew of a young couple who grew up in fine Christian families, were talented and attractive in their own rights and even more so when they combined their lives in marriage. It was easy to see Christ’s love in the bringing of them together in the wedding ceremony they shared that honored Christ, in the further schooling they went through to increase their ability to minister in full time service for their Lord. Easy to spot Christ’s love. Probably didn’t need any of the things Paul prayed for to see it.
Then the day came when I was talking to a pastor friend who was a great model for me, he mentioned that he had been at the hospital that morning to see an older member of our congregation who was suffering from cancer. He was well into his 80’s, was suffering great pain, was ready and wanting to go home and had asked prayer in that regard, and yet for several weeks he had hung on. Pastor Loren said, “I don’t know why the Lord does not take him, but I know there is a reason.” It wasn’t a week later that death came -- not for the old man but for that the young couple who had both been killed in an automobile accident on their way to a new church where the husband was going to take up responsibilities for a staff position he had been called to fill. The shock was stinging. And as Pastor Loren and I discussed these two happenings going on at the same time, we could not miss the paradox of the Lord taking the young couple with a life of service ahead of them while leaving the older gentleman who was ready to go, wanted to go, and whose productivity seemed to be behind him.
And now the question – had the love of Christ which had previously been so visible in the life of that young couple been suddenly removed? Was the blessing gone? Was death a sign that love had stolen away? On the other hand, was the lack of death in the lingering illness of the old man a sign that Christ’s love had been lifted in his case? Is God’s love, like ours, somehow here today and gone tomorrow? Is His love whimsical and arbitrary – dependent on circumstances? Is it perhaps not so boundless after all?
Of course the Bible’s answer is steady and sure. Psalm 36:7, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God!” Paul says in Romans 8:38-39, “ . . . neither death nor life, . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Beloved, the love never ceased; it never got less; it never wavered; it never slowed, stopped nor diminished – but from a human perspective, it got a lot harder to see, did it not? And suddenly, if you were the parents, in one case, or the children in the other case, or close family or friends in either case, you needed strength to comprehend the love of Christ is those circumstances. Are you with me? Do you get it? Sometimes – many times – often times it is easy to see the love of Christ, but other times, it is hard; it is tough; it is almost incomprehensible, and in those hard times we need strength to comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth – the shear wonder of the love of Christ that surpasses all understanding.
Folks, the love of Christ is forever. It is steadfast, never ending, always flowing, positively boundless. Nothing we can say, do or think can every stop that that. It is -- because He is. Do you see that? But it is not always obvious, which is why Paul prays as he does. Look again at his prayer in verse 18 that the Ephesians, “ may have strength to comprehend.” The word used for “strength” is found only here in the NT and it has the sense of being able to attain an objective. The word “comprehend” is καταλαμβανω, which means “to seize, lay hold of, grasp” and hence “to comprehend”. Here it is used in the Greek middle voice which gives it the reflexive sense “to grasp, comprehend or understand for oneself.” You already know my term – “to get it”. So, put it all together and what Paul is praying here is that when the hard and difficult things come we will be strong enough in our faith to “get it” – to comprehend that even though it doesn’t look like it right now, the love of Christ surely endures. It is flowing just like always. There hasn’t been a single break, stoppage, outage, or even slow down in the flow. It is there. Oh, it’s a wonderful truth to grasp. And no wonder Paul prays for it because that kind of faith doesn’t happen overnight.
I started a new job one time very early in a business career where I was program manager for a company that manufactured and delivered very sophisticated fingerprint identification systems. I had barely walked in the door, figured out where my office was when my new boss came in and said, “Listen, I hate to spring this on you, but the FBI will be tomorrow to do acceptance testing on a new system. Good luck!” Good luck? I mean, at that point what I knew about automated fingerprint identification could have fit in my little finger and I had the most sophisticated people in the world coming to run three days of tests! I must tell you, it was an incredible experience because when I got checking around I found that the disarray was so great that no engineer had been assigned to actually run the system, no test plan had been agreed and no one was sure of anything except, “I think that’s the FBI system over there.” Somehow we muddled through the testing; the system eventually did what it was supposed to do despite my having no clue how -- and when we delivered the system to the FBI 5 months later I can tell you that I knew a lot more about the system. I had a clue how it operated and knew what needed to be done to run a good test. But I can tell you that with almost 2,000,000 lines of software code, I still didn’t know everything about the system. It took months and even years to really get conversant with all that was going on. But though I didn’t understand it all; the system just clicked away identifying fingerprints, whether I understood it or believed it or not.
See, that’s the way it is with God’s love. You can’t know all about it today, tomorrow, or in this lifetime – but to the extent that you learn to identify it, to believe it you can be living in the good of it, enjoying it, appreciating it, reveling in it. But it is complex; it is not simple. It takes strength to perceive it through the eyes of faith, and as believers we should be getting better and better and better at seeing the love of Christ even at those times when it’s tough. It’s like this -- You know the team isn’t going to have a good season when the coach starts by saying, “This is a basketball” and someone says, “Coach, can you slow down a little. Not so fast.” You know you’re in for a long season, right? When God says, “Here is the love of Christ in this situation,” we don’t want to be the ones who are sitting back and saying, “Not so fast.” Right? We want to be comprehending, seeing it in all its glory even when it’s hard. Perception – the ability to see it when it’s not really obvious.
Let me conclude with this thought. It is often people that God uses to sharpen our perception. Let me ask you, how would you do if you were suddenly swept from your comfortable upper-middle class home at the age of 54, thrown into a concentration camp where you watch thousands upon thousands die in gas showers and experience unbearably harsh physical conditions. What if you saw first your own aged father and then your beloved sister die from the harsh conditions while suffering untold humiliation, pain, suffering and unspeakable conditions yourself? How would you do? Would you be strong enough to see, comprehend and know God’s love in a situation like that? Corrie Ten Boom was. She was the daughter of a Dutch watchmaker who first helped protect neighborhood Jews during WWII, but then later went through all the horror I just described, coming out with faith intact and an appreciation for the love of Christ I cannot even imagine. God gave her a speaking ministry. Perhaps some of you saw the film of her life or saw her in person.
One of the things that Corrie Ten Boom used to carry with her during her travels in old age to share her story was a quilt. She would hold it up to audiences and it would look like a tangled affair. Then she would turn it around to reveal on the other side the words, “God is love.” And then she would tell her audience, “Not everyone has to go through what I did, but part of the reason that God allowed that in my life was to show that there is no pit too deep for God.” She saw God’s love where very few of us would have. She understood that what looks like a tangled mess now truly is a revelation of God’s love. She understood that whether we are at the top of our game or in the deepest pit of abandonment that this world can offer – He still knows our name and He loves with a love that endures forever. Come next week as we delve further into this great subject.