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Filled With All the Fullness of God

Author
Category Articles
Date January 18, 2019

The statement with which Paul concludes his prayer in Ephesians 3 is so remarkable that it is undoubtedly true to say, as Dr Lloyd-Jones has said, that ‘there is no more staggering statement in the whole range of Scripture than this’. It may be described accurately as the ‘climax of all prayer’. 1 It is this very grandeur that makes it so difficult for us to grasp the essence of the Apostle’s thought. The profundity of the statement is clearly of such a character that it would be presumptuous to imagine that we can fathom its depths. However, following the analogy of Scripture we are able to trace out something of the significance of these tremendous words.

Characteristically the Apostle has expressed his prayer with an extreme economy of language and for this reason it is more than ordinarily necessary to consider the words in the fuller context of the whole Scriptures and especially of Paul’s other epistles. When we do this it becomes clear that there are at least three leading ideas present in the Apostle’s words.

The Believer’s Conformity to God’s Fullness

We learn from the Apostle that in Christ all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily (Col. 2:9), that he is the image of the invisible God and that he is in the form of God (Col. 1:15; Phil. 2:6). The Apostle has also shown us that it is the determination of grace to conform us to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 1:21). If these two strands of truth are brought into conjunction with our text we will find that to be indwelt by and conformed to Christ is, in one respect, to be filled with the fullness of God. We may make the equation: ‘If Christ dwells in my heart by faith, the fullness of the Godhead dwells in me by faith’. 2

As we confess this truth we must also be alert to the uniqueness that belongs to Christ and not allow our understanding of this promised conformity to encroach upon his uniqueness. There is a totality belonging to the fullness of God dwelling in Christ that is never to be the believer’s possession. Our full conformity to Christ will glorify us but it will not deify us. We must be conscious of the disparity between the fullness of God that will, through conformity to Christ, inhere in us and that fullness which is exclusively his. The filling of the believer with all the fullness of God through conformity to Christ is, for this reason, to be seen as an element of Paul’s prayer but it is not representative of its total significance.

Two further considerations enforce the point that we should look further for the precise significance of the Apostle’s words. First, the ‘architecture’ of the prayer. The petitions are patently progressive and climactic in character. Already Paul has prayed that Christ may dwell in their hearts by faith (v 17) and so to confine this culminating statement to that particular petition would be to produce an unlikely tautology. Second, Paul’s terminology needs to be noted with care. When Paul intends to express the precise thought of a divine indwelling he makes his purpose clear by the use of that particular term (Col. 1:19; 2:9):3 By the use of a different word in Ephesians 3:19b it is reasonable to assume that he intends to convey a different meaning. And nothing in the context conflicts with this assumption. To be filled with all the fullness of God expresses an experience distinct from being indwelt by all the fullness of God. Some of the implications of this will be considered below.

For these reasons it appears that the Apostle is praying for a blessing which includes conformity to Christ but which, in certain respects, transcends even that glorious prospect.

The Believer’s Reception of God’s Fullness

Our conformity to Christ is a part, a facet, of the complete salvation we receive through the grace of God. It is the purpose of God to donate to the believer such a fullness of his grace that the Scriptures use the most stupendous terms in which to describe this divine purpose. They speak of our inheritance as one in which we are blessed with every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3), Christ becoming our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). By Christ we receive reconciliation and from him we receive the Spirit of adoption whose specific task it is to enable us to know the richness of the things that are freely given us of God (1 Cor. 2:12). Having given us his Son, the Father assures us that with him he will freely give us all things (Rom. 8:32; Rev. 21:7). A generosity of such lavishness moves the church to exclaim with joy and amazement: ‘Of his fullness have we all received’ (Jn. 1:16).

It will be noted that there is a slight but significant difference present in the wording of John 1:16 and Ephesians 3:19b and this difference may seem to indicate that these thoughts are not strictly parallel. What John writes is that believers receive ‘of his fullness’, whereas Paul speaks of them being filled with’ all the fullness of God’. The apparent discrepancy is explained by understanding that Paul’s expression implies a filling with respect to all the fullness of God. Dr Richard C. H. Lenski seems to catch the significance of the phrase more helpfully than most commentators. ‘The idea in eis is not, “filled with all the fullness of God” (A.V.), nor “unto”, i.e., up to the limit or measure of God’s fullness; but, “with respect or with regard to” all the fullness of God’. The thought expressed seems to be that God’s grace is of such singular generosity that he holds back from his people nothing of himself that will be to their spiritual advantage. It is no less than all the fullness of God that is brought to us in the covenant of the gospel. The entire spectrum of the divine attributes contribute to our salvation and blessedness. Each of the three Persons of the blessed Trinity is profoundly involved and active in the donation of grace, the accomplishment and application of redemption.

The Apostle’s thought is not that the believer will receive exhaustively all the fullness of God, (such an understanding would be a drastic confusion of the capacity of the Creator and the creature) but that the believer will receive extensively of all the fullness of God. It is in the context of this immense liberality that we may contemplate the promised vision of God, the visio dei.

The Believer’s Beholding of God’s Fullness

The suggestion that the words ‘filled with the fullness of God’ convey the thought of the believer beholding the fullness of God will need to be established before being briefly amplified. A number of considerations combine to constitute a telling case for this interpretation.

a) The Apostle’s vocabulary. It is our responsibility to take with full seriousness the precise words the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture to employ. This is a constantly relevant consideration and it is especially so when the text contemplated is one expressed with the brevity and conciseness of this prayer. Also we are to recognize that there are certain phrases and expressions that are used in Scripture with the utmost economy and reserve and we must take care to preserve the force and grandeur of such expressions. The phrase ‘all the fullness of God’ is such an one.

b) The Apostle’s use of the word ‘filled’. The idea of beholding is not as remote from the Apostle’s statement as may at first be thought. In his epistles the word translated ‘filled’4 is used some twenty-four times and never, when the subject is personal, does it carry a literal sense, but it is always used to express the thought that a person’s mind, heart, or affections are suffused, dominated, or pervaded by an emotion, characteristic or experience (cf Rom. 1:29, 15:14; 2 Cor. 7:4; Eph. 5:18; Phil. 1:11; Col. 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:4). Furthermore it is highly significant that according to Paul’s use (2 Tim. 1:4) this filling can result not only from an actual reception or assimilation of that with which a person is said to be filled, but may also result from a meeting or an encounter. This consideration permits us to say that, at the very least, beholding is, in Paul’s mind, one means whereby we may be filled.

c) The structure of the prayer. If Paul’s use of the word filled suggests that being filled with all the fullness of God may result from beholding that fullness, then we may say that his theology almost demands that we recognize the contextual validity of this concept. The climactic character of this prayer, which has already been noted, and the statements which follow it constrain the conclusion that its peak — which is formed by the statement we are considering — is a plea for the bestowal of the highest conceivable blessing upon those for whom the Apostle prays. In the Word of God that pre-eminent blessing is uniformly, in both Testaments, represented as the vision of God given to the redeemed, their beholding his glory (cf Ex. 33: 18ff; Job 19:25ff; Ps. 42:1ff; Psa. 33:17; Jn 17.24ff; I Jn. 3:1ff; Rev. 22:4). It is this reality that lies at the heart of the Apostle’s prayer.

We have seen that two other blessings at least partially indicated by this statement, namely, our conformity to Christ and our reception of the fullness of God, are complementary to this supreme blessing. Conformity to Christ is both the consequence of beholding and receiving the divine fullness (2 Cor. 3:18; Jn. 15:4; 1 Jn. 3:6; 3 Jn. 11) and also the condition that renders our vision of God’s glory a blessing and not a catastrophe (Ex. 19:21, 24:10f; Jud. 6:22f; Psa. 6:5f; Heb. 11:27). The close relationship existing between these distinct blessings and the nature of their reciprocity should not obscure the fact that in Scripture it is specifically the beholding of God that is held to be the quintessence of glory.

Though the reality of the vision of God is in every way transcendent, yet the light of the Word of God allows us to confess certain truths that belong to this mystery (1 Cor 2:9-10). We learn that this vision of God is not a seeing of the Divine essence as it is in itself, for God is spirit and essentially invisible (1 Tim 1:7). This invisibility is because God dwells in light inaccessible and yet, paradoxically, is surrounded by impenetrable darkness (Ex. 20:21; 1 Kg. 8:11f; 1 Tim. 6:16). He is, in Milton’s noble synthesis, ‘Dark with excessive bright’, or as Henry Vaughan finely says, there is in God ‘a deep but dazzling darkness’.

It is super-eminently in the face of Jesus Christ that we see the glory of God; he alone is the express image and full outshining of the invisible God; it is in Christ that the Invisible is seen (Heb. 1:3; Jn. 1:18, 14:9).

‘Otherwise we know it not, we see nothing of it; that is the way of seeing and knowing God, declared in the Scripture as our duty and blessedness.5 Commenting on Hebrews 1:3, John Owen reiterates the point: ‘The Lord Christ being the “brightness of his glory”, in whom his glory shines out of that thick darkness that his nature is enwrapped in unto us, and beams out of that inaccessible light which he inhabits; and the “express image of his person” , representing all the perfections of his person fully and clearly unto us … ‘

In the Person of the Saviour
All His majesty is seen,
Love and justice shine for ever;
And without a veil between.6

This beatific vision is described as a seeing with the eye of the body of a bodily form and also a spiritual apprehension of a spiritual person (Jn. 17:24; 1 Jn. 3:2; Rev. 1:7). The seeing with the eyes without the perception of the soul is unavailing (Isa. 53:2; Lk. 24:16; Jn. 20:15ff; Eph. 1:18). With sensitivities refined we shall see him as he is, in the splendour of his glory, with the full regalia of his majesty.

This vision will be a vision of all the fullness of God, for we shall see Christ in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily. ‘The unveiled glories of the Deity shall beat full upon us, and we shall for ever sun ourselves in the smiles of God’.7 But we do well to remember that it is one thing to see, it is another to comprehend, and an exhaustive comprehension will for ever elude us: ‘No finite intelligence whatever, be it man or angel, can penetrate the inscrutable abyss of the Divine nature . . . neither in this world nor the next will the created mind comprehend it’. 8

The vision the believer is given of the glory of God commences at the moment of regeneration (Acts 26:18) and is thereafter cumulative until its full and surpassing consummation in glory (2 Cor. 3:18). This consideration is reflected in the Apostle’s prayer: his prayer is not confined to the experience of blessing reserved in heaven, for certainly it includes the vision of faith which we now enjoy. Indeed it is the fact that now we see by faith the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ that assures us that we shall experience the vision of God in glory hereafter (Jn. 1:11-13; 1 Jn 3.1f).9

Bunyan tells us that from the Delectable Mountains it is possible, on a clear day, to see the gates of the Celestial City and ‘also some of the glories of the place’. It would have been on such heights that Jonathan Edwards unconsciously expounded the essence of the Apostle’s grand, elusive statement with these words: ‘The saints in heaven shall see God. This is the highest part of their blessedness. The vision of God is the heaven of heavens. They shall see everything in God that tends to exalt their esteem and admiration, everything that is lovely, everything that tends to excite and inflame love, to warm and endear the heart. They shall see everything in God that gratifies love . . . that the soul hereby shall be inflamed with love and satisfied with pleasure’.10

‘I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God’.


This article was first published in the August-September 1984 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.

Notes

    1. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, The Unsearchable Riches of Christ, (Edinburgh 1979), pp. 277f.
    2. op, cit. p. 284.
    3. katoikeo,
    4. pl­ēroō
    5. The Works of John Owen, ed. Goold, (London 1965), p. 294.
    6. William Gadsby, 1773-1884. From the hymn ‘0 what matchless condescension’. Number 514 in Gadsby’s Hymns.
    7. Ezekiel Hopkins, quoted in, A Puritan Golden Treasury, ed. I. D. E. Thomas (Edinburgh 1977), p. 133.
    8. W. G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (London, 1972),p. 70.
    9. cf Owen, Works, I, p. 50f and pp. 288ff
    10. Quoted by John Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards On Heaven and Hell, (Grand Rapids, 1980), pp. 47f.

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