The Greatest Thing In The World
“That ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able 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, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.”—Ephesians 3:17–19
This is part of the apostle’s prayer for the church at Ephesus. I dwell particularly on this “love that passeth knowledge.” You will know that Paul was the apostle of faith; love was not his strong point. It was John who was the apostle of love. But in his Epistle to the Corinthians, the 13th chapter, Paul tells us that love is the greatest thing in the world when he said “and now abideth faith, hope, love, but the greatest of these is love.” It is not love in the ordinary sense of the term that the apostle is speaking of here, but love in its highest and holiest aspects. The greatest message that this world ever received is condensed into a statement of three words, with nine letters in all: “God is love.” That is the sum of redemption; it is the burning heart of the revelation. In those three words you have the whole meaning, purpose, and work of salvation.
When the Westminster Assembly was arranging the creed that so many people recite week after week, they had considerable trouble in finding a definition of God. Finally it was decided to spend some time in prayer about the matter. When George Gillespie, a Scotch covenanter, led in prayer and cried, “Oh, God, Who art a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in whose Being are wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth,” a member of the council said, “What better definition of God could we possibly have than the opening words of Brother Gillespie’s prayer?” So that definition went into the creed.
Now that is a nice story and it is a wonderful explanation, but to my mind it leaves out the best word of all. It seems to me that by Divine revelation John was given the definition when he said, “God is love.” A great deal of the apostle’s writing was done on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and it is quite possible that as he looked out over those illimitable waters he got his vision of the measureless love of the Eternal One, of that “wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” We know that [Frederick William] Faber walked on the beach at Dover in the early morning when the sea was crimson with the rising sun, and it spoke to him of the blood that cleanseth from all sin. In the ecstasy of his joy he cried:
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.”
It may be that John got his inspiration in a similar manner. At any rate the great theme of God’s love was the burden of his message ever afterward. That “God is love” is a wonderful truth for struggling, tired, weak men to live on, and there is no greater truth to pillow your head upon when you are passing through the valley of the shadow.
There is another great hymn written on this subject, and I sometimes think no greater ever was written. We have learned something of its birth. A horrible darkness had fallen upon the glory of a youthful life. A brilliant man with a glorious outlook for the future was suddenly plunged into gloom which settled down and intensified into a total eclipse of all the light of day and all the glories of nature. George Matheson had gone blind. In the hour of that agony the woman who had promised to be his wife forsook him on account of that affliction. Then there came to him as a gift from heaven those words which we might almost term immortal:
“O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.”
Some of us who have had lesser infirmities and have much smaller capacity for receiving and comprehending the great things of God frequently find that in the darkest hours of Christian experience there comes to us the most precious consciousness of that Divine love.
You will notice that the apostle here makes use of a paradox. He prays that we may comprehend and know the love of God that passeth knowledge—know what is unknowable. This is a favorite method of the apostle in presenting truth, and especially the deepest truth. He talks about “seeing the unseen,” of “having nothing” yet “possessing all things,” of “being sorrowful” yet “always rejoicing,” as “poor” yet “making many rich.” These to the natural man seem to be contradictory statements. They could not be received by the natural man, but God hath made known to some of us through His Spirit the direct and sweet meaning of these words. However, I am not attempting to speak on the positive side of my text, but rather on the negative. We will consider some of these things that we cannot know about the “love of God that passeth knowledge.”
First: We Can Never Know The Cause Of His Love.
Why He loves me is a problem I cannot solve. You may search all the books men have ever written, and every chapter in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, but you will not find a cause for His loving men. You may learn that He loves things that are holy, true and good, but He never loved me for my holiness or goodness. I was blind, deaf and dumb in sin. I was dead in my trespasses; yet He loved me. We know that love begets love, but He never loved us because of our love for Him. In the Scripture the order is reversed. “We love Him because He first loved us.” “While we were yet enemies Christ died for us.” I do not wonder that the apostle says, “His ways are past finding out.” Indeed, I am beginning to feel that everything about God is unsearchable. You cannot fathom His love; you cannot measure His wisdom; you cannot conceive of His infinity, nor can you explain His nature.
Since I have been in Chicago, I think I have had more questions sent to my office through the mail by members of the congregation regarding the Bible and the Trinity than I have ever had in all my life before. A great many of these questions would puzzle Gabriel. I am sure no living man could answer them. There are many things about the eternal Father and the future life that we shall never know until we “see Him as He is.” “Now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.”
It is said of Augustine, that great saint of God, that on one occasion while greatly perplexed about the doctrine of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, equal in wisdom, power and glory, yet the three in one, was walking on the shore of the ocean. As he meditated, he observed a little boy with a sea shell running out into the water, filling his shell, and then pouring it into a hole which he had made in the sand on the beach.
“What are you doing, my little man?” asked Augustine.
“Oh,” replied the boy, “I am trying to put the ocean in this hole which I have made.”
Augustine learned his lesson, and he said as he passed on, “Oh, I see it now. That is what I am trying to do. Standing on the shores of Time I am trying to put into this little, finite mind things that are infinite.”
So, beloved people, there are some things that are beyond the power of our ken. Let us be content to have God know some things that we cannot know now. We may wonder, we may admire, we may adore, we may worship, but we can never know the cause of God’s love for poor, fallen, lost men such as we were.
Second: We Can Never Know The Beginning Of That Love.
When did He begin to love me is a question I might well ask. Was it that night when the Spirit of God arrested me and made me feel that I was a sinner and that Jesus Christ was the only Saviour? Was it when
“My conscience felt and owned its guilt
And plunged me in despair.
I saw my sins His blood had spilt,
And helped to nail Him there?”
No, that was not the beginning, for it was love for me that brought Him to that cross, nineteen hundred years before I was born. I can go back to the Garden where He promised to Adam and Eve that He would give the fallen world a Saviour that would bruise the head of the serpent. I can go beyond that to the first created angel. We have no further data. Yet the Scripture assures me that from away on beyond that creation of the first being of any description, God loved us. “I have loved you with an everlasting love” saith the Almighty, and that which is eternal is not only without ending, but it is also without beginning. You can never know the beginning of that great love.
Third: We Can Never Know The Greatness Of His Love.
The apostle here talks about its height, its depth, its length, its breadth. Oh, how high is that love! It is like climbing some lofty mountain in the Alps or the Rockies. You think when you reach a certain summit you will have arrived at the top, but you find that beyond, through the clouds, there are other heights which you can never scale.
“Higher than the highest mountain,
Deeper than the deepest sea.”
This love is a height without a covering, a depth without a bottom, an ocean without shores, “boundless love beyond degree.”
Sometimes it is illustrated by the father’s love, sometimes by the mother’s love. David, you remember, said, “Like as a father pitieth his children so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.” David had experiences with his children. He knew something of a love that made him sad. He had a bad boy, one who tried to drive him from his throne and from his kingdom. Oh, how he suffered, but he ever loved. You remember when the army went forth to meet Absalom and his hosts David whispered to each officer as he passed out of the city, “If you come upon the young man Absalom deal kindly with him for my sake.” When that messenger came flying from the battlefield bearing the news of the victory the watchman saw him a long way off and he cried to the inhabitants of the city, “A messenger comes with good news.” But David’s heart was full of fear. When David inquired as to the safety of Absalom, the young man said, “Oh, I saw a couple of men surrounding him under a tree.” He feared to tell him the truth. Just then a second messenger cried out, “Be it unto all thine enemies as it is with Absalom this day,” and David knew the awful story. Forgetting all about the triumph over the rebels, he turned with bowed head and broken heart, crying, “Oh, Absalom, my son, my son! Would that I had died for thee!” To me, that picture always gives forces to David’s statement, “Like a father pitieth his children.”
Isaiah speaks of the mother love, and he paints the tenderest of all pictures, that of a mother holding a babe to her breast. The question is asked, “Can a mother forget her sucking child?” It seems impossible, and seldom is it true, but sometimes it is so. “She may forget, yet will not I forget thee, saith the Lord.” Oh, my dear friends, it is impossible for us to comprehend the greatness of the Father’s love.
Fourth: It Is Impossible To Know The Immutability Of That Love.
You remember that splendid hymn of John White’s:
“All things on earth are changing
But Jesus changeth not.”
Is it not true that in all the universe there is only one thing that never changes?
“Change and decay in all around I see,
Oh, Thou who changeth not, abide with me.”
God alone is changeless. “I am the Lord; I change not.” “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.” It is easy to change the love of human beings. A little mistake or an unkind act will do that, but nothing ever changes the love of the eternal Father.
You remember how Peter had sworn that he would never forsake Him, that he would follow Him to prison and to death, and yet how his treacherous heart deceived him, and a few hours afterward he denied Him, denied Him again, and finally denied Him with oaths and curses. Just at the moment of that third denial, a cock crew, and Jesus, who was standing before the high priest in his judgment hall, turned and looked upon Peter. It was not a cynical look; it was not even a look of reproof. It was the sad expression of love, the love that never fails, that met the gaze of the fallen disciple, and it broke his heart. He went out and wept bitterly. One of the first things that Jesus said on arising from the tomb was, “Go tell my disciples AND PETER.” The denial had not changed that love; death did not change it. It was stronger than death. It is the greatest thing in the world.