“It’s all about me and Jesus” — a sentiment frequently made to express the fervency of one’s personal relationship with God. Such fervency is, with no doubt, remarkably valuable. The question remains whether this is a sufficient statement of Christian faith (“it’s all about…”) or is even potentially misleading. In Ephesians 3:18, Paul prays for Christians, as translated in NASB, that they “may be able 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…”
What is the focus of this prayer? That Christians would have personal experiences of the love of Christ? Is Paul’s focus on personal inward experience of love? The surrounding context should at least have us on the alert. Ephesians 2:11-22 describes God uniting Jew and Gentile into one new humanity in Christ, who are built together into a temple where God might dwell. Ephesians 3:1-12 describes the gospel whereby Jews and Gentiles are made heirs together and one body together. The passage following the prayer, Ephesians 4:1-6, urges believers to “bear with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” Ephesians 4:7-16, emphasizes the purpose of Christian ministry as working towards the “unity of the faith” (4:13) so the whole church is a single body, unified and growing together. Thus, the prayer in chapter three is surrounded by long passages articulating the necessity of unity and love in the body of Christ, a love that is not merely personal and inward, but interpersonal and outwardly-moving.
In Ephesians 3:18, the word “comprehend” is καταλαμβάνω (katalambano). The primary meaning of this word is “to make something one’s own, to attain.” Paul uses this word in Phil 3:12: “I press on, if also I might make my own/attain that for which Christ Jesus made me his own.” “To comprehend” is to mentally make something one’s own, and is a nuance of καταλαμβάνω (katalambano) which is a relatively minor usage of the word. We should probably assume more common meanings for a word before selecting less common. Beyond this, if we look at Ephesians 4:13, we find a cluster of five words that also occur in this prayer:
…until we all (3:18 – with all the saints) attain to the unity of the faith (3:17), and of the knowledge (3:19) of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness (3:19) of Christ (3:17).
The word “attain” in this verse is καταντάω (katantao) rather than καταλαμβάνω (katalambano). Paul uses καταντάω katantao) parallel to καταλαμβάνω (katalambano) in Philippians 3:11-12 – “If somehow I might attain (καταντάω, katantao) to the resurrection from the dead…but I press on if also I might make my own/attain (καταλαμβάνω, katalambano) that for which Christ Jesus made me his own.” Is it possible that in light of the parallel use of these two words in Philippians 3 and the common words between Eph. 3:18 and 4:13, that Paul’s essential burden is the same? Is it possible that “attaining to the love of Christ” (3:18) and “attaining to the unity of the faith” (4:13) are parallel ideas?
What would happen if we keep in mind the focus on unity in the surrounding context and read this passage with καταλαμβάνω (katalambano) meaning “attain?” Christ “dwelling in your hearts” (the “your” is plural in Greek) refers not so much to the private experience of faith, but Christ himself living and expressing himself in the midst of the Christian community. To be “rooted and established in love” is not individuals, but the whole Church having its foundations laid in the practice of love, it’s entire life together shaped and guided by love. Thus Paul prays that the Church would “attain to,” and “live up to” the width, length, height, and depth of the love that Christ himself loves with. The church needs to be strengthened so they can walk out this kind of love. Then the church experiences (“knows” – Eph. 3:18) the love of Christ by loving others and being loved within the christian community. This does not exclude personal experiences of the love of Christ, or even the necessity of such. It merely places them in a larger context. It is as the Church lives up to and attains to the love of Christ, loving one another with Christ’s own love, that we become a holy temple which is filled with the fullness of God’s glory.