How do we know the unknowable?
Of all the prayers of Paul recorded in Scripture, Ephesians 3:14–19 is my favorite.
Ephesians 3:14–19 (ESV) — 14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 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, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Paul makes this petition to God on behalf of the Ephesian Christians. His request in verse 19 is nothing short of stunning: “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” How is it possible to know that which is unknowable? Paul’s prayer is that the Ephesians would know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge! How do you know something that surpasses knowledge? How does that work? The answer, I think, has to do with a type of knowing that is more than intellectual; it is experiential. If you are going to know something that surpasses knowledge, then you have to experience it so that you will know it even thought you can’t explain it. The Christian life is more than an intellectual awareness of factual data. Knowing the love of Christ involves mind, heart, body, and soul. The Christian experience encompasses the totality of who you are and who you are becoming.
But before going any further, let me clarify what I am not saying. I am not saying that truth is dictated or confirmed by our experience. Our emotions are not stable; our affections rise and fall. Truth stands outside of us and our experiences. God has spoken in his word and God’s word is objectively true irregardless of our experience. The Bible, consisting of the old and new testaments, is the only unchanging, infallible, source of truth. In the person of Jesus Christ, the word of God became flesh. God has revealed himself in the person of his Son who is the truth (Jn 1:14; 14:6). God’s word and the word of God incarnate are where ultimate truth are to be found. No amount of feelings—no matter how sincere—can trump the objective truth revealed in God’s word.
But we must also affirm that knowing the truth and being set free by the truth (Jn 8:32), brings us into a relationship with Jesus Christ in which His Spirit grants us new affections and desires. Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3 is for the Ephesians to know the reality of this relationship. Specifically, he wants them to know the love of Christ—a love that surpasses knowledge. So back to my original question, how do I know the unknowable? How do I know love that surpasses knowledge? I know it like I know the warmth of the sun’s rays on a beautiful spring day. I know it like the know the satisfaction of a drink of water after a grueling basketball practice. I know it like I know the experience that happens inside of me when I come home from work and my kids are so excited to see me that I can hear them yelling through the door before it’s open. This is the type of knowing that Paul is praying for here. It is an experiential knowing that manifests itself in the inner man even though we may not be able to fully articulate it.
“I love you six.”
Bryan Chappell, in his Ephesians commentary, talks about our knowledge of the love of Christ by using an illustration from the tragic comedy, A Thousand Clowns. Chappell describes how one of the characters in this play, a little boy, expresses his love for his mother. The boy tells his mom, “I love you six.” The number six was the highest number the boy knew. So by telling his mother that he loved her six, he was telling her how much he loved her within the confines of his own limited knowledge. He stretched his mind to the breaking point to express his love for his mother. Like the boy in this story, we too are limited in our capacity to comprehend and articulate our knowledge of the love of Christ. But the amazing truth about Ephesians 3 is that it is not our love for Christ that transcends the limits of our knowledge, it is Christ’s love for us that is beyond our human ability to fathom. Paul’s prayer is that these believers would know the love that Christ has for them—a love that surpasses their own knowledge!
Christ’s love for his people is so great, so glorious, so infinite, that when his people try to articulate this love, they are like a little child who looks at Jesus and says, “Jesus, you love me six.” Our minds are too puny, too limited, too finite to comprehend the infinite magnitude of Christ’s love for us as his people.
Love that produces spiritual power
Many Christians struggle in their daily life to possess the type of spiritual power that Paul talks about here. They succumb to the same sinful temptations; they lack the type of affection for God that they think they should have; they are complacent about Bible reading and prayer. Perhaps the reason we don’t experience greater spiritual power in our lives, is not first and foremost because we don’t love Christ enough, but because we do not understand the magnitude of Christ’s love for us. And the reason we don’t understand the magnitude of Christ’s love for us is because we don’t understand the depths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We are like the young girl that plays the daisy petal game as she thinks about her true love. She takes the flower and peels off the petals of the flower one at a time saying, “He loves me; he loves me not; he loves me; he loves me not.” If the last petal falls on the statement, “he loves me,” then her true love really loves her. Many Christians treat God’s love for them in a similar manner. The petals of the flower represent their successes and failures or moments of obedience and moments of succumbing to sin. So they look at the petals and determine God’s love for them based on how they are doing. It might go something like this: First petal, I read my bible today. He loves me! Second petal, I didn’t spend any time in prayer. He loves me not. Third petal, I shared the gospel with someone. He loves me! Fourth petal, I yelled at my child again. He loves me not. And we wonder why we are not strengthened with power in our inner being. The problem of course is that we are looking to ourselves as the source of our power and we fall back into believing the lie that God’s love for us is contingent upon how good we’re doing.
But if Christ’s love for us was like that, then we could fully understand the love of Christ. That type of love is very comprehensible. If I’m doing good, then I’m loved. If I’m not, then I’m not loved. This is not so hard to comprehend from a human perspective. But the reason that God’s love for us surpasses knowledge is because his love for us is not like that at all. Here is how it works in light of the truth of the gospel. If you have been justified by God and are united to Christ through faith and indwelt by His Spirit, then you can take the flower and say something like this:
First petal, I read my bible today. He loves me! Second petal, I gave in to temptation again. He loves me the same. Third petal, I yelled at my kids today. He loves me. Fourth petal, I had no desire to commune with God today. He loves me. Fifth petal, I sinned again. He loves me. He loves me, he loves me, he loves me!
You strip away everything that you have done—good and bad—and all you are left with is the fact that he loves you. And you look at that pathetic flower stem with no petals and you wonder why God loves you. This is what is unknowable. This is unexplainable. This type of love is what produces spiritual power in the lives of God’s people.
Attempting to know the unknowable
So let me take just a few more paragraphs to try to know the unknowable with you. How are we going to do that? We are going to remind ourselves of the gospel of God’s love. We are going to remind ourselves of the Holy Trinity’s love for his people and how He has manifested that love from eternity past to eternity future. We will not even have to step outside of Ephesians to accomplish this.
Predestined in love
Ephesians 1:3–5 (ESV) — 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,
When did God set his love on you if you are a Christian? God set his love on you before the world ever came into being. “In love” he predestined you (Eph 1:4–5). Did God set his love on you because he randomly drew your name out of a hat? No. In love he predestined you for adoption before you ever existed. Why? Why did God choose to love you? He loved you because he loved you. I’ll say it again, he loved you because he loved you. How can we comprehend this? We can’t. What can we say to God for graciously choosing to love us when we did not deserve it? All we can say is thank you. God we thank you that you loved us before the world ever came into being.
Redeemed in love
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How did God manifest this love to his people. He manifested his love by rescuing them from their sin.
Ephesians 1:7–8 (ESV) — 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight
The Father determined to love us and the Son manifested the Father’s love and his own love by shedding his blood for our sins to redeem us from the condemnation our sin deserved. He did this out of the overflow of his grace, not because of anything good in us. He lavished his grace on us. The Lord Jesus Christ shed his blood and bore the infinite wrath of God in our place so that we could be redeemed.
Regenerated in love
The Father planned redemption, the Son accomplished redemption, but that redemption had to be applied to our lives. God determined to love us out of his own free grace and he applied the saving benefits of Christ’s atonement to us at the specific point in our lives when He gave us the Holy Spirit and made us spiritually alive.
Ephesians 2:1–5 (ESV) — 1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—
Why did God raise our spiritually dead souls to life so that we could be made alive? Because of the great love with which he loved us. Why did he love the unloveable? I don’t know. He loved us because he loved us. He predestined us in love, he redeemed us in love, and he sent the Spirit to quicken our dead souls simply because he loved us. How are we to comprehend this? We must pray, “God make us to know the unknowable!” But wait, there’s more.
Adopted in love
Because of the great love with which God has loved us, there is a future in store for us. God has stored up a glorious inheritance for all of the children he has adopted into his family.
Ephesians 1:5 (ESV) — 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,
Ephesians 1:18 (ESV) — 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
Ephesians 2:7 (ESV) — 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
God’s love for us will be revealed into eternity as we receive the inheritance of universal dominion with Christ forever and ever. What kind of love is this that we should be given so much when we deserved none of it and would have rejected it all if not for the grace of God? It is a love that surpasses knowledge. Predestined in love, redeemed in love, regenerated in love, adopted in love, and will be the recipient of that love into the coming ages! This type of love surpasses knowledge. It is too wonderful. We cannot comprehend it. And when we begin to understand God’s love for us in this glorious gospel message, then our affection and our love and our power starts to grow. We will, I think, begin to know the unknowable. We will begin to know what it means to know the love of Christ like we know a hurricane from the eye of the storm.
When we know the unknowable love of Christ in this manner, we will have power in the inner man. When we know this kind of love, then Satan will have no power to discourage us. When the flesh rises up with the promise of a greater affection, there will be no room in our hearts for such a weak and fleeting pleasures. When our outer body suffers under the curse of decay, the inner man will be overflowing with power—power that comes from being rooted and grounded in the love of Christ.
Do you know the unknowable? Too many Christians, including me, know it like the boy who knew how to count to six. So what should we do? Pray. We should pray Ephesians 3:14–19 for our lives. Should we expect God to answer? Honestly, isn’t this a little idealistic? Should we expect God to answer our prayer when we aren’t even sure what we are praying for? Paul thought so. I’ll leave you with his words from Ephesians 3:
Ephesians 3:20–21 (ESV) — 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.