Chapter 3 of Ephesians ends a three-chapter section; as chapter three closes, it reads very much like the end of a letter, rather than the middle.
Yes, there is a definite textual and thematic ending here at the end of chapter 3, as Paul finishes his doctrinal comments (the “indicative” section of the letter that comprises the first three chapters), and then begins the “imperative” section of chapters 4-6. By the time we arrive at 4:17, we are into full blown instructions and exhortations.
Knowing what Surpasses Knowledge - Paul uses an interesting phrase at 3:19: “…to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…” This seems at the outset quite an odd thing to say. How can we “know” something that surpasses knowledge? Isn’t that an absurdity? Of course, the word “know” here has something to do with existentially realizing and experiencing God’s love, while the word “knowledge” pertains to more to our intellectual understanding.
Some will jump on a fragment of a verse like this and say, “See! Christ cares nothing about what we ‘know,’ but only what is in our heart, where His love resides.” The problem with such a statement is that it throws the baby out with the bathwater, failing to see that Paul assumes knowledge (intellectual understanding) is there in the first place, and that it is valuable. If it were not valuable and desirable, what would be the point of describing Christ’s love as exceeding it? In the rest of his New Testament writings, Paul teaches clearly and repeatedly that we are to seek knowledge and wisdom from the apostles and prophets. That particular kind of knowledge is recorded in the Scriptures.
Paul’s statement “…to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” tracks with the shift in emphasis (indicative to imperative) which he is about to bring in chapter 4. In fact, it seems quite transitional as we read from v.19 down through 4:1. In effect, chapters 1-3 are addressed to doctrines and understanding, while most of chapters 4-6 are addressed to our experiencing and exemplifying God’s love, outwardly through our life and behaviors, in concert with the foundational doctrines and principles of chapters 1-3. The imperatives (“to do’s”) of chapters 4-6 move us into the experiential light of the surpassing love of God, and are extensions of (flow from, go on from, result from, move beyond our) proper knowledge and understanding as addressed in chapters 1-3.
If we gain understanding and then put that understanding into practice, then we will truly “know” (experience, feel, realize, actuate) the love of Christ that will carry us beyond the knowledge we have gained so far in the process. There is nothing about this which suggests “knowledge” is being devalued or warned against – on the contrary, knowledge is vital if we are to fully experience the love of Christ.
The love by which we are raised to everlasting life in Christ surely exceeds all human knowledge. How can the one who is created fully understand the one who did the creating? How can one who is created anew (born again, regenerate) understand the love of the tortured and crucified one who made regeneration possible? How can the finite comprehend the infinite?
Furthermore, that which God has planned and designed for those whom He saves, and that which Jesus has done in the Father’s will to carry it out, cannot be compared to anything we could possibly invent or imagine. Yet, we are made in God’s image and according to His purpose, and the knowledge and understanding of our faith and the Gospel is vital to our ongoing discipleship and growth in Christ.
Good works? - If we were unbelievers, and if we knew nothing of the Gospel or of the great doctrines of faith, we might do some good deeds here and there. We might, in fact, appear to others – even Christians – to be very good. We all know people who deny Christ yet are esteemed to be “good people.” But with the knowledge of our faith (Biblical indicatives) as the foundation of our trust, our identity and our worldview, our actions (Biblical imperatives) lead us into a life in which we increasingly “…know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge…”
If we are coming to know the love of Christ which exceeds knowledge, then we are also in union with Christ.
The point here is that the apparent “good works” of an unregenerate person – that is, one who is not in Christ and has no union with Him – are “good” only in a humanistic way. But such works are not built upon a true knowledge of Christ, nor of any relationship with Him. Thus, those works are disconnected from that love of Christ which exceeds knowledge, and from union with Him. These works are therefore completely humanistic, and by any Biblical definition not “good.”
The love of Christ which exceeds knowledge transforms humanistic works (“filthy rags”) into works of faith in the righteous one, which can be called “good” by the grace of God.
Pray for Understanding - Paul prayed (v.14-19) for the believers in Ephesus, that God would grant them the power to comprehend (know, understand, grasp) God’s love, which has “…now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit…” (3:5). This knowledge of the scope and depth of God’s love in Christ would, some 30-40 years after Paul wrote to the Ephesians, be compiled into what we now call the completed New Testament. This marvelous word of God expresses the knowledge of the apostles and the prophets and is the primary means by which the Holy Spirit reveals the truth and principles of the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.
The more we study and learn about God and His amazing plan as revealed in Holy Scripture, the greater our understanding and appreciation of His love, and the larger our capacity to expand and learn even more of through experience with Christ. This is not to say that study of Scripture and experience with Christ are two different things – on the contrary, knowledge of Scripture is a vital part of union with Christ. The more we are reminded of the great truths of scripture (especially the glorious Gospel of Christ), and the more deeply we investigate and learn them, the more rooted the foundation upon which we grow in Him.