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There are some things we can understand easily. There are some things we can only grasp with effort. And there are some things that are so profound that we’ll never be able to get our minds around them completely.
I’m a fan of space. I love hearing about the findings of physicists, astronomers and cosmologists. I don’t understand all the intricate details of how they work it all out. I know just enough maths and physics to appreciate something of what they’re doing, and to realise how little I really know, and how small I am. Take millisecond pulsars, for example. A gigantic star, millions of light years away, explodes in a huge supernova. It creates a fireball ten million billion billion times bigger than the Hiroshima explosion. In its ashes, it leaves behind a neutron star made of dense atomic nuclei, squashed together at a density 10 trillion times greater than steel. A teaspoon full of neutron star weighs about the same as all the water in Sydney Harbour. Sometimes this neutron star will steal matter from a nearby star and start spinning. Some neutron stars spin hundreds of times a second: a whole star rotating as fast as an idling car engine. Many of these super-dense, revving stars send out pulses of electromagnetic radiation, milliseconds apart. We could use these millisecond pulsars as standard clocks, to help us to detect gravitational waves, explore space-time bending, and understand more about the tiniest particles in the universe.
Could we ever travel to a neutron star? Imagine you could get into the fastest jet on earth. Last time I checked, this was the SR-71 Blackbird. Its official speed record is almost 4,000 km per hour. Now imagine you could speed it up 100 times to 400,000 km per hour. Then imagine you could take it on a trip to space. It would take you an hour to get to the moon. It would take you 8 days to get to Mars, the closest planet to Earth. It would take you 4 months to get to the planet Saturn. It would take you a year and a half to get to the (now ex-) planet Pluto at the edge of our solar system. To get to the closest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, it would take you 12,000 years. To get to the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy: 80 million years. To the next closest galaxy, Andromeda: 7 billion years. To the edge of the visible universe: 40 million, million years. And they think the size of the non-visible universe—which, by definition, we can never penetrate—is vastly huger than this: a million, million, million, million…
The universe is, to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams, “vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big”. But apart from astronomers and cosmologists, we don’t tend to look up very much, do we? We have so many lights on earth, especially in our cities, that they drown out the lights of the stars and the planets. We don’t use the night time to look up at the heavens; instead, most of us use the night time to look down, to focus our attention on our devices and screens, to immerse ourselves in virtual worlds online, filtered and tailored to match our personal preferences. And so, compared to the size of the real world (let alone our universe!), the dimensions of our private personal worlds are often vanishingly small.
In these verses in Ephesians, the apostle Paul is praying that people’s worlds would expand, and that their minds would be blown. He is praying for people who have come to believe in Jesus Christ. He wants them to see how huge this is. He’s not talking about physical space and physical knowledge (though this is mind-blowing enough). Rather he’s talking about something even greater: knowing the purposes and character of God, the creator of the universe.
I pray so that you would be able to grasp, together with all the holy ones, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which goes beyond knowledge, so that you might be fulfilled with all the fulfilment of God.Ephesians 3:18–19
The size of God’s plan
Paul begins: “I pray so that you would be able to grasp, together with all the holy ones, what is the breadth and length and height and depth”. Paul prays that believers will be able to understand the huge dimensions of something. Of what? Paul doesn’t say explicitly. But the words Paul uses here are words used hundreds of years before by the prophet Ezekiel. Paul has already referred to ideas from Ezekiel a few times in his letter so far (e.g. in Ephesians 2:1–10). So he’s probably referring to Ezekiel here as well. What was Ezekiel talking about when he used these words about breadth and length and height and depth?
At the time Ezekiel wrote, God’s people Israel were in a situation of great suffering and despair. They were living in exile in Babylon, as a result of God’s judgment for their sins. They were away from home, and oppressed by ungodly authorities and powers. In this situation, Ezekiel received a great vision about what God was going to do in the future. It was a vision of a temple. The old temple in Jerusalem had been the place where God had dwelled among his people. But because of Israel’s sins against God, God had left the building, the temple and the city had been destroyed, and the people had been taken to a foreign land. But even in this situation of judgment and despair, God gives Ezekiel a vision of a future temple: a temple of enormous proportions. In that temple there was an altar, and the vision describes that altar in terms of its “height”, its “breadth”, its “length”, and its “depth” (see Ezekiel 43:13–17). This would be an altar where God would again show his love for his people. Sacrifices for sin would be made there, sin would be atoned for, God’s wrath would be turned away, and God would dwell again among his people.
Ezekiel needed power to grasp the dimensions of this altar in this visionary end-times temple. That’s not because Ezekiel had any architectural or building work to do himself—after all, this temple was a future work of God, not a present work of Israel. But Ezekiel needed the power to grasp the dimensions because he needed to lift his eyes beyond the despair and suffering of the exile to see God’s purposes for his people and his plans for his world. God would again be glorified, and his people would be holy. The temple is constantly described in Ezekiel as a holy place with holy people ministering in it. And here in Ephesians, Paul prays for believers to be strengthened and able “to grasp, together with all the holy ones, what is the breadth and length and height and depth”.
Paul is talking here about God’s plans for his world, plans that began with God’s word to Israel. These plans are fulfilled, not in a physical holy place on earth, but in Jesus Christ who has died as a sacrifice to bring forgiveness of sins and even now makes holy those who believe in him. So Paul is talking about God’s multidimensional plans for his world. These are plans that Paul has already been describing as he writes his letter. These plans involve dimensions of time and knowledge, personal, social, international, and even cosmic dimensions. As Paul is in prison, and his readers are tempted to look down and despair at the weakness of it all, Paul wants them to be able to see that God has fulfilled, is fulfilling, and will fulfil those plans to sum up all things, in heaven and on earth, in Christ (see Ephesians 1:10).
The love of Christ
That’s huge enough. But then Paul goes on to speak about something even bigger—bigger than the breadth and length and height and depth, bigger than the fulfilment of God’s plans and promises to Israel. It’s something that we can know truly, but never plumb its depths. What is it? The love of Christ. Paul prays that his readers will “know the love of Christ which goes beyond knowledge.” Paul is speaking here about the love God has shown to us in Jesus Christ. He’s speaking about the way God has taken us, people who were living against God, completely undeserving, spiritually dead and without any claim on him, and brought us forgiveness, adopted us as his children, raised us to life, given us new lives to live now, and granted us a sure and rich hope for the future forever.
This is something we can know truly through the gospel, yet it’s also something whose depths we can never fully fathom. The more we see God’s love through Christ, and the more we reflect on it and praise God for it, the more huge it becomes, in all its rich dimensions. As we contemplate how great a saviour Christ is, we see even more how great sinners we were. As we dwell on the rich life he has given us now and will give us in the future, we see how dead and powerless we once were. As we praise him for choosing to adopt us as God’s children, we see afresh how lost we are without him. Christ’s love is something we can never exhaust; its depths are immeasurable. This is the love that Paul prays for his readers to know.
Paul prays that his readers would know this unfathomable love of Christ “so that you might be fulfilled with all the fulfilment of God”. When we think of being fulfilled, we normally think about being fulfilled personally, having our own desires gratified and having our own dreams come true. But that kind of fulfilment is far too small, because our desires and dreams are always too small. When Paul speaks of the fulfilment of God, he is speaking of God fulfilling his plans through Christ—plans which are vast and wonderful beyond imagining. This is the fulfilment of God, and this is the first place to look for our own fulfilment. So Paul prays that his readers’ lives will become full and fulfilled, not simply by pursuing their own individual dreams, but by being caught up in God’s great plans for his universe—and even more so, by being caught up in Christ’s love for us. This is the fulfilment that will strengthen us even as we go about our individual lives. And, as Paul goes on to say a little later in his letter, this is what will lead us to live for him together, loving one another and speaking the truth in the context of those loving relationships (see Ephesians 4:13–16).
Do you see how huge this is?
Does this mean God doesn’t care about my individual life, or the details and nitty-gritty of my individual plans or dreams? Yes of course he does! Very soon in Ephesians, Paul starts to talk about how God’s huge plans and Christ’s huge love deeply impact our individual lives and relationships, in all sorts of areas—from relationships to work to family life to how we speak day by day. We’ll get to them very soon in this series. But first, let’s keep dwelling for a moment on Paul’s prayer for believers in Christ here. He asks God, through his Spirit working in them and through Christ dwelling in them, to enable them to see how huge this is. He wants them to lift their eyes beyond his suffering and their discouragement to see the vast dimensions of God’s plans for his world. Even more than this, he wants them to lift their eyes to see the love of Christ, a love which is truly knowable yet ultimately unfathomable. He wants them to be fulfilled—not simply in their own personal dreams, but in the plans and the love of God for them through Christ. And so, he wants them to praise the glory of the God whose plans and love are vast and boundless.
Take some time now to reflect on the dimensions of God’s plans and purposes, and to praise God for them.
Continue to reflect on the depths of Christ’s love for you, and praise God for it.
 Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (London: Del Rey, 2005 ), p. 65.
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.