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EPHESIANS 3:17 “THAT CHRIST may dwell in your hearts by faith” is the second petition.
We readily grant that we are considering a realm that is beyond the compass of any created mind, yet that does not warrant our denying God’s Word. We freely admit that the God-man Mediator does not indwell the saints, for His humanity is localized in heaven. But Christ is, essentially, a divine person, coequal with the Father and the Spirit, and in becoming flesh the Word lost none of His divine attributes. Omnipresence pertains as much to Him now as it did before He became incarnate, and as a divine person He indwells His people as really as do the other Persons of the Godhead. God the Father dwells in His children: if 1 John 4:12-15 is read attentively, it will be seen that in that passage “God” clearly has reference to the Father. The Holy Spirit dwells in the saint individually and in the Church corporeally ( Romans 8:8,11; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19); and God the Son dwells in believers. “God is in you of a truth” ( 1 Corinthians 14:25) is to be understood as the triune God.
Yet it is not only in the sense that He is omnipresent that Christ indwells His people. “Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD” ( Jeremiah 23:24) refers alike to the omnipresence of each Person in the Godhead. But when we are told that the infinite God dwells “in the heavens” ( <19C301> Psalm 123:1), “among the children of Israel” ( Numbers 35:34), “in Zion” ( Psalm 9:11), “with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit” ( Isaiah 57:15), a particular appropriation is signified, where He is specially manifested.
Let us consider more closely the meaning of our petition. That Christ personally and immediately inhabits His people is a blessed fact, and therefore there is no need to make request for the same. But over and above that, the apostle here prayed “that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith,” by which we understand him to mean that by spiritual meditations upon and loving contemplations of His complex person, His glorious titles, His mediatorial offices, His precious promises, His wise precepts, He may have a constant place, the supreme place, in our thoughts and in our affections. The apostle prayed that the saints might have a spiritual sight of Christ, a spiritual knowledge of Him, a spiritual enjoyment of Him, so that He would be present and precious to the soul; and that can only be by the exercise of faith in Him as He is revealed in the Scriptures. The apostle prayed for their hearts to be occupied with the excellency of His person, with His love and grace, with His blood and righteousness.
Our text refers to an objective dwelling of Christ in the heart — as the subjects which engage our thoughts obtain a dwelling place in our minds, and as the objects of our love secure a place in our affections. As the eye beholds an object, an image of it is introduced and impressed upon the mind; and as the eye of the spirit — faith — is engaged with Christ, an image of Him is formed on the heart. The sun is stationed in the heavens, yet when we gaze upon it steadily an image of it is formed upon the retina of the eye. As by opening the door or the window the sun shines directly into our rooms, so by the exercise of faith upon Christ, He obtains a more real and abiding presence in our hearts. Christ is the grand Object of faith, and faith is the faculty whereby we, through the light of the Word and the power of the Spirit, receive and take into our renewed minds the knowledge of His person and perfections. Thereby He is admitted into our hearts and we have real communion with Him.
As the fancy — that faculty of the mind by which it records and represents past images or impressions, forming a picture of them in the mind — is an aid to our natural knowledge in the understanding of natural things, so does faith much more help our spiritual knowledge of divine things — giving real substance to them in the soul. The beholding of Christ is not by way of fancy, but by faith giving a subsistence to Him, so that the heart finds a reality of what it believes. Yes, it has so great an influence and leaves such an impression that it changes the heart into the same image ( 2 Corinthians 3:18). Faith, by the Spirit, makes Christ a living actuality. Moreover faith produces love, and then works by it, so that the object of faith is sealed upon the heart. As Christ was received by faith at first, so by the same principle of faith we continue to receive of His fullness, feed upon Him, and commune with Him. And as the mind is exercised with believing meditations on Christ we give Him entertainment in our hearts. “That he would grant you... to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” Cannot the reader now perceive more clearly the relation between those two petitions?
There is no exercise of faith in Christ apart from and except by the operations of the gracious Spirit within the believer’s soul. Said the Lord Jesus, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” ( John 6:44).
To “come” to Christ is the same as to “believe” on Him as verse 35 of the same chapter shows, and none can come or believe unless his heart is drawn to Christ by the Father, and that “drawing” He does both personally and by the operations of His Spirit. True, John 6:44 has reference to our initial coming to or believing on Christ, yet we are equally dependent upon the Spirit for every subsequent exercise of faith. Thus we read of “faith of the operation of God” ( Colossians 2:12), and of Paul praying that God would “fulfill all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power” — i.e., His power ( 2 Thessalonians 1:11). Thus the principal effect of our being strengthened by the Spirit is that our hearts are drawn out to Christ and our faith is exercised upon Him.
As the Spirit is from Christ ( John 15:26; Acts 2:33), so the great mission of the Spirit is to direct souls to Christ ( John 16:14-15). If He first convicts of sin, it is simply to convince us of our need of a Savior. If He communicates to us a new nature, it is so that new nature may be absorbed with Christ. If He strengthens us, it is in order that faith may act upon Christ. The Holy Spirit never acts except in and through Christ with respect to His people; furthermore, Christ is never received except by and with the influences of the Spirit. A man cannot truly believe in Christ except by the power of the Holy Spirit, nor can he have the Spirit if he does not truly believe in Christ. There is mutual action in the two divine offices. The Spirit is the Water of life from the Fountain of life, Christ. The Spirit waters the soul to fit it to believe on Christ.
The majority of Christians do not realize that they are as wholly dependent upon the gracious operations of the Spirit within them as they are upon the meritorious righteousness of Christ without them. Therefore they need to seek God and count on the enablings of the former as definitely and as constantly as they trust in and rely on the finished work of the latter. As they are completely devoid of anything to commend themselves to the notice of the Lord, so they are equally without any power of their own to serve and glorify Him now that He has deigned to look on and recover them from their lost estate. Because of their helplessness He has bestowed the Holy Spirit on them: to maintain life in their souls and to draw forth that life to suitable exercise and action. It is our privilege and duty to recognize our dependency on the Spirit in order to avoid those things which grieve Him, and to seek His daily renewings. “I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” ( Philippians 1:19).
A fresh supply of the Spirit comes to us in response to prayer!
DAILY SPIRITUAL RENEWING Until the Christian has learned his dependence upon the Spirit’s workings within him, until he personally realizes his urgent need of a fresh “supply of the Spirit,” being daily renewed by Him, he will not and cannot make any true spiritual progress. Faith upon Christ will not be operative, love for Him will not be warm and regular, communion with Him will not be enjoyed. That is why this request for the saints to be strengthened with might by the Spirit in the inner man precedes the other petitions. Christ has an objective and influential dwelling in our hearts only as faith is kept in exercise upon Him and as our affections are set upon Him. As Christ was received by faith at first, so it is by the same faith we delight ourselves in Him, feed upon Him, have fellowship with Him, and draw from His fullness. But our faith is exercised only in proportion as we are first strengthened within by the Spirit. Faith is indeed an act of ours, yet it does not act by or from anything of ours, but only as it is stirred into action by the Spirit. “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” When one dwells in the heart of another, that one is the object of the intense affection of the other.
For Christ to dwell in the heart is for Him to have the chief place in our thoughts and affections. Alas, how many other objects plead our notice, claim our attention, and absorb us. How spasmodically is faith occupied with its grand Object! This shows our urgent need for praying that we may be strengthened with might by the Spirit in the inner man, for the believer cannot put forth a single act of spiritual life except by His agency. The Christian is as wholly dependent upon the Spirit’s operations within him as he is upon Christ’s work without him. He has no more power of his own separate from the Spirit than he has righteousness of his own apart from Christ. As he looks outside of himself for the latter, so he must for the former. The Spirit alone gives us strength to act grace, grow in grace, and bring forth the fruits of grace. “Thou also hast wrought all our works in us” ( Isaiah 26:12).
THE SPIRIT RENEWS THE SOUL As the Spirit graciously renews the soul of the saint, his heart is drawn out afresh to Christ and he exercises faith upon Him; and as his thoughts are occupied with Him, Christ obtains an objective entrance into his heart. He is received by us as our Lord and Savior, welcomed as the Sovereign of all our affections and actions, the Source of all our holiness and joy. If we have been sorely wounded by sin, we welcome Him as our Physician to heal, for if faith is exercised, instead of listening to Satan’s lies, we shall turn to Him who has the balm of Gilead. On the other hand, when the smile of God is enjoyed and His peace possesses our souls, if faith is exercised, instead of looking within and being occupied with our graces and comforts, we shall look to Him who is the Author and Finisher of faith, seeking a closer communion with and delighting ourselves in Him ( Psalm 37:4).
As faith is engaged with Christ He receives not only an objective but also an influential entrance into our hearts — as the admitting of the sun’s rays into a room brings light, warmth, and comfort. The more Christ becomes the supreme and constant Object of our hearts, the more we shall experience His gracious influences and sanctifying consolations. And they, in turn, will issue in more devotedness to His service; for as Matthew Henry pointed out, “Faith both admits and submits to Him.” Christ is in us as the vine is in its branches — the vitalizing and fructifying life or energy. “Abide in me, and I in you” ( John 15:4). The “abiding” there is identical with the “dwelling” here in Ephesians 3:17. To abide in Christ is to cleave to and commune with Him in the exercise of faith, the consequence of which is His influential abiding in us — vivifying, assuring. As Christ indwells us we become more conformed to His image and we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. As Christ indwells us we show forth His virtues ( 1 Peter 2:9).
As faith is engaged with Christ, as we cultivate frequent and devout meditations on His surpassing glories, the benefit gained by the soul will be immeasurable. The more the mind is thus preoccupied and filled with Him, the stronger will be its resistance to the insidious advances and entangling encroachments of the world. Carnal enjoyments will lose their attractions.
A spiritual sight of Immanuel will abase self; sorrows will weigh down less; afflictions will press upon us less hard. The more our spiritual minds are exercised on the eternal Lover of our souls, the more fervent and constant will be our love to Him, which brings us to examine the next clause of this wonderful prayer. The words “that ye” in the middle of verse 17 in our English Bibles are, in the judgment of many competent expositors, out of their proper place, and should rather be attached to the petition which follows — i.e., they should begin verse 18. We quite agree, for that is certainly the order of the Greek: “for to dwell the Christ, through faith in your hearts, in love being rooted and founded; that ye may be fully able to apprehend with all saints what [is] the breadth...” (Bagster’s Interlinear N.T.). “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith: being rooted and grounded in love.” One of the principal effects of faith is to establish our souls in love: Christ’s love to us, or ours to Him? Both, though here principally the latter. Our consciousness of Christ’s love for His people produces an answering love in our hearts for Him. There should be no difficulty raised by our defining this clause as the Christian’s love. The more I recognize and feed upon Christ’s love to me, the more there will be a response to His love. “Rooted” and “grounded”: each of those words has its own peculiar force and beauty. A double metaphor is there used: that of a tree and that of a building. The idea of the former is of its striking deeper and spreading wider into the soil; the idea of the latter is of the firm and solid basis on which the building rests. Just so far as faith daily acts upon Christ and He occupies the central place in my affections, will love for Him be the soil in which my Christian life is rooted and grounded.
Here we have three things: the present life of the Christian in the body, the life sustained and energized by acting faith upon the divine Redeemer, the heart engrossed with His love as expressed in His great sacrifice. Love to Christ is the motive of all genuine obedience and the ground of all spiritual fruitfulness. When he is rooted in love, the progress of the believer’s life will not be the result of self-effort but the spontaneous effect of an inherent power drawn from its nourishing soil. That is blessedness indeed: that is a real foretaste of heaven — love the spring of worship. When Christ dwells in the heart, love will be the foundation on which the Christian life is erected, steadfast and sure. The blessed consciousness of His love and the joyful answer of our hearts to it — this becomes the base on which the soul rests, this produces stability, security, serenity. Consciously founded upon Him, I shall be strong and “unmoveable” ( 1 Corinthians 15:58). “Being rooted and grounded in love.” Since that expression is in nowise qualified, it should be taken in its widest latitude, and understood as including the whole scope of that love which flows from faith, of which not only God in Christ but His people also are the objects. Faith and love enlarge the heart until it embraces the whole family of God: “Everyone that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him” ( 1 John 5:1).
As Christ dwells in our hearts by faith, our affections are widened as well as deepened, so that we become sharers of His affections, which embrace the entire Church, yes, all mankind; and thereby we obtain sure evidence that we have “passed from death unto life” ( 1 John 3:14). “That ye... may be able [Greek “fully able” or “have full power”] to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” ( Ephesians 3:17-19).
We have sought to show the relation which the last clause of Ephesians 3:17 has to the petition preceding it. Let us now consider the bearing which those words “rooted and grounded in love” have upon this third petition. First, Christ Himself must be laid hold of by faith, for a doubting spirit is incapable of comprehending anything but the fact of its own wretchedness. As another has pointed out, “A purged conscience is the first lesson that the Spirit of grace imparts to our souls as the Revealer of Jesus. Then, and not earlier, are we enabled [by the power of the same Spirit] to enter, with all saints, on the study of that which is the children’s portion,” or, as we would prefer to express it, “enter upon the joyful contemplation of the children’s portion,” namely, the infinite and amazing love of Christ. By Christ’s indwelling the heart, its capacity to comprehend is enlarged and expanded.
But since the second petition was “that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith,” which signifies His being steadfastly enshrined in our affections, it may seem that this third request is almost a repetition of the former. It would be if the “rooted and grounded in love” meant our apprehension of His love to us, and this is the chief reason why we feel obliged to understand it of ours to Him. If the tree is not well rooted or the building securely based, the higher it rises, the greater will be its danger of falling.
What, then, is the preventative and preservative? This: a knowledge of the character of Christ and His love. A man would be greatly pleased with a stranger who, at fearful cost to himself, saved his life. Perhaps he would be happy to take him permanently into his home. But as he came to know him better, he might regret his action and find it impossible for them to dwell happily together. He would esteem him as a deliverer, but dislike him as a close companion. But in the case of the believer, the more he knows of Christ and His love, the more he longs for Him to constantly abide in his heart: thus he is rooted and grounded in love to Him.
WE MUST EXERCISE LOVE TO CHRIST If on the one hand it is true that we must have an experimental knowledge of Christ and His love to us, it is equally true that we must exercise love to Christ in order to better know Him and His love. There is a knowledge of Christ and His love which evokes no answering love in the heart of its possessor. There are many in Christendom today who have as clear an intellectual understanding of the person, work, and love of Christ for sinners as has the saint who enjoys the most intimate fellowship with Him; yet it does not kindle a single spark of love within them for Him. Nor can anyone feelingly realize the difference between an intellectual knowledge of Christ and His love and a personal acquaintance with the same unless he has actually experienced it. Experience is the only teacher of feelings and emotions, as it is in the lower sphere of taste and sense. A man knows nothing of the real pangs of hunger until he is at the point of starving. One must actually sample wormwood or honey before he can know from taste the bitterness or the sweetness of each. One cannot know sorrow except by feeling its ache, and one must love before he can know what love is.
A deaf man can read a treatise on acoustics, but that will convey to him no notion of what it is to hear the harmonies and melodies of real music. We must have love to Christ before we can know what love to Christ is, and we must consciously experience the love of Christ before we can know what the love of Christ is. We must have a warm and steady love for Christ in order to have a deep and living possession of the love of Christ, though reciprocally it is also true that we must have the love of Christ known and felt in our hearts if we are to love Him back again.
As our being “rooted and grounded in love” is the consequence of Christ’s dwelling in our hearts by faith, so also is it the necessary preparation for our being able to “comprehend” and to “know” the surpassing love of Christ. Do we not see that blessedly illustrated and exemplified in the case of the one who has appropriately been designated “the apostle of love,” the one who was chief of the three nearest to the Lord, who was privileged to lean on His breast? Of all the disciples none was so loving as he, and therefore he — rather than James or Peter or Jude — was the one selected (because so well qualified experimentally) to write so largely upon the love of God and of Jesus our Lord. Yes, the more intensely and steadily we love Christ, the more capacitated we are to comprehend His love to us. Even in the natural, only the loving heart really knows and appreciates love. As faith is the medium of understanding, so love is the avenue for receiving love. We may speak of God’s love and think we have deep insight into the teaching of the Word, but if Christ’s name is not dearer to us than life, all our speaking will mean little or nothing.
MEANING OF “TO COMPREHEND” “That ye may be able to comprehend.” The Greek word katalambano is rendered “comprehend” in John 1:5 and here; “apprehend” in Philippians 3:12-13; “take” (in the sense of “grasp”) in Mark 9:18; John 8:3-4; “attain” in Romans 9:30; “obtain” in 1 Corinthians 9:24; and “overtake” (“come upon”) in 1 Thessalonians 5:4. Young’s concordance defines the word as “to receive fully.” Perhaps John 1:5 helps us most to perceive its force: “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” The reference there is to the Lord of glory as He tabernacled among men. The unregenerate are designated “the darkness” (cf. Ephesians 5:8), which tells of the fearful effects of the Fall. The natural man is “alienated from the life of God” ( Ephesians 4:18), and therefore from His love and light. So far from desiring the Light, the darkness repelled and repulsed it. Men despised and rejected the Light, hating Him without a cause. Here in our text is the direct antithesis. Since the regenerate both believe in and love the One who is the Light, they are “able to comprehend” His love.
Also carefully note that this “comprehend” is distinguished from the “know” at the beginning of verse 19, and that it precedes rather than follows it — as we had probably thought. The difference between the two is that the former is more a matter of effort, the latter of intuition; the one pertains more distinctly to the mind, the other to the heart. Yet the former is something far more than a mere intellectual or speculative thing, namely, that which is obtained by the renewed understanding. Nor is the one to be so sharply distinguished from the other as though there was no definite relation between them. The “and” at the beginning of verse 19 clearly shows the contrary. No, rather is there a most intimate connection between the two: in all spiritual exercises the mind is largely influenced by the heart, and in turn, the affections are regulated by the understanding. The action of the spiritual understanding is always in sympathy with the affections of the heart. If in one sense we must comprehend before we truly love, yet love thus awakened becomes in turn the fountain of desires which nothing can satisfy but perfect knowledge — hence the force of “I shall be satisfied, when I awake [on the resurrection morn], with thy likeness” ( Psalm 17:15).
Light and love, understanding and affection, are mutual handmaids. The mind has its part to play in leading the heart to love, as is indicated in the passage before us — the “able to comprehend” coming before the “to know”! The heart must first be informed about its Object before our affections are fixed on Him. First, faith’s apprehension of Christ as He is made known to us in the Word of truth, then the clear perception of His excellency and the heart’s enrapturement with His perfections. First, the understanding’s comprehension of the dimensions (manifestations) of His love, then the affection’s experience of its blessedness. “O taste and see that the LORD is good” ( Psalm 34:8) expresses what we are striving to convey. First the personal appropriation of the Lord and the soul feeding upon Him, and then the fuller discernment of His loveliness. “Taste and see [perceive, realize, know] that the LORD is good.” It is thus we obtain an experimental knowledge of Him. By means of this faculty of spiritual comprehension the believer is enabled to explore the dimensions of Christ’s love (as also the whole boundless field of divine revelation); but by means of his affections he obtains an experimental realization and appreciation of the same.
Samuel E. Pierce said, “In this prayer of Paul’s he prayed like an apostle indeed, for he begged here for the greatest blessings which believers can, in this life, enjoy, or God Himself can bestow upon them. It may be said of this prayer that it is the greatest prayer which is to be found in the New Testament, that of our Lord in the seventeenth chapter of John only excepted.”
And Alexander Maclaren pointed out, “In no part of Paul’s letters does he rise to a higher level than in his prayers, and none of his prayers are fuller of fervor than this wonderful series of petitions. They open out one into the other like some magnificent suite of apartments in a great palace-temple, each leading into a loftier and more spacious hall, each drawing nearer the presence chamber, until at last we stand there.”
A MOST SUBLIME PRAYER We are entirely in accord with the above opinions. Oh, that we had the capacity to humanly and relatively at least do this prayer justice as we attempt to “open” its sublime contents. That the apostle was here making requests for no ordinary blessings is at once apparent by its opening sentence, for he asked the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to grant His people according to the riches not only of His grace but of His glory. That is, he besought the Father to bestow in accord with that rule or standard of measurement, asking for the most valuable and glorious things that the renewed mind can conceive. Four particular favors he requested, and the order in which he preferred them is a strictly logical and necessary one, which cannot be changed without doing violence to it. That order is both doctrinal and practical, experimental and climacteric. They are distinguished from each other by the recurring “that ye,” and the force of “that” (“in order that”) is causative and preparative.
There is a most intimate relation between the several petitions, each of them rising above and being a consequence of the preceding, the second being suggested by and leading out from the first, and the second in turn being both the condition and occasion of the third, and so with the subsequent one. They are like four steps of an ascent, each of which has to be trodden before the next can be reached. At the summit or top of the ascent is the petition that the saints might be “filled with all the fullness of God,” for there can be nothing above or beyond that. There is the climax of all prayer, of all spiritual experience, of all soul bliss. We boldly say that no uninspired mind could ever conceive of such a favor or experience. Yet that very experience is what writer and reader should earnestly covet, and that very favor is what we are fully warranted in asking! But bear carefully in mind that the prayer does not begin there: that is the summit, and an ascent has to be made in order to reach it.
The first step, the initial favor sought, is to “be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man.” That is not only an indispensable requirement if we are to take the second step but equally necessary as a preparation for the third and fourth. Only by the energizing enablement of the blessed Spirit are we capacitated to move forward and upward. The next step toward the summit, the second favor sought, is “that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” The consequence of our being believingly occupied with His perfections is our “being rooted and grounded in love” — i.e., our life of devotedness and obedience to Christ thus growing out of and being based upon our love for Him — the reflex of His love to us. The third step of spiritual ascent and blessing sought is to “be able to comprehend... and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.” Love begets love.
Love is reciprocal. First, faith centering upon the person and work of Christ stimulates love to Him, and that in turn fits the heart to enter more deeply into an understanding and enjoyment of His love. This is how we personally understand the ground covered to this point.