Walter MacGilvray on the ‘love that passeth knowledge’ (Eph. 3:19) – Part 1

In what sense may it be said that the love of Christ passeth knowledge? Looking at the connexion in which the statement is here presented to us, it is evidently of the largeness – the unlimited expansiveness of that love that the Apostle is speaking. But while this is the immediate, it is by no means the only, sense in which the words may be understood. In proof of this we observe –

In the first place, that the love of Christ passeth knowledge as to its rise and origin. The language of Scripture plainly intimates that this love is from everlasting; that it began, not only before those who are the objects of it were born, but before the world was created, or the foundations of the earth were laid. It was then that ‘the covenant of peace’ was entered into, and that the Father assigned to the Son that spiritual ‘seed’ of whom He speaks so often, and on whom He appears to have set His love from the first moment that they were ‘given’ to Him. For He who calleth the things that are not, as though they were, and who seeth the end from the beginning, saw them and knew them long ere they came into actual existence. In the Book of Proverbs there is passage in which this truth is mystically, yet manifestly, and very grandly described (Prov. 8:22-31). It is difficult for us to form any conception of the idea that runs through this magnificent passage, or to realise the fact that ere the mountains were settled, or the hills were brought forth; ere God had established the clouds, or set compass on the face of the deep, His only Son, ‘who was by Him, as one brought up with Him,’ found His chief joy in looking forward to those days when He should come to visit and redeem His people. Even then, in the dim solitude of those distant ages, He ‘rejoiced in the habitable parts of the earth, and His delights were with the sons of men.’ In this respect, then, it may be truly said that the love of Christ is love that ‘passeth knowledge’.

2. But we observe, further, that it passeth knowledge as regards its cause, or motive. We can easily understand how the good should love the good. We can also understand why the ungodly should love those who are as ungodly as themselves. We can even understand why we are naturally disposed to love them who love us, whatever their character or dispositions may be. In these cases, there is natural law by which like draws to like, and love wakens love. But it is hard to comprehend how One who is so infinitely pure and holy should love a race of creatures in whom there dwells no good thing, but who, on the contrary, are ‘deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.’ And yet such is the natural condition of those on whom the Son of God has set His heart. With the view of bringing out the singular nature of this fact, the Apostle says, ‘Scarcely for a righteous man will one die, yet, peradventure, for good man some would even dare to die; but God commendeth His love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners,’ – that is, rebels against God; ‘children of wrath’; ‘evil, unthankful, unholy’; ‘yea, hateful, and hating one another’ – it was while we held this character, and lay in this state, that ‘Christ died for us.’ It is clear, therefore, that the love which led Him to make the last and the greatest sacrifice that could be made – for ‘greater love hath no man than this, that man lay down his life for his friends’ – did not spring from, and was not called forth by, anything in us.

What was it, then, that moved Him to look upon us with such favour, and to give us such an extraordinary proof of His regard? It was not merely pity for the sadness of our fall, and the greatness of our misery; for the angels who kept not their first estate fell from greater height than we did, and sank down into deeper abyss of misery and ruin; and yet, we do not learn that He ever felt any compassion for them, or that He ever thought of interposing on their behalf. On the contrary, we read that He ‘passed by them’, and came to save us. It is in vain that we attempt to trace out the cause of this, or to assign any special reason for His distinguishing and self-sacrificing love toward us. We know that it was not prompted by any merit on our part, and that it sprang from no partiality or caprice on His. All that we can say of it is, that it ‘passeth knowledge’.

3. But we observe yet further that the love of Christ passeth knowledge as regards its compass and extent. This, as we have said, seems to be the thought which the Apostle had mainly in his view in the case immediately before us. For, in labouring to give us some idea of the vastness of this love, he tells us of ‘its length, and breadth, and depth, and height’; and then, as if feeling that there were no terms of measurement by which any adequate idea of it could be conveyed, he stops short and says, it ‘passeth knowledge’. He speaks of it as we speak of infinite space, the limits of which we cannot comprehend, and the absolute dimensions of which we find it impossible to realise. But yet, by looking at the language which the Apostle uses, we may follow to some extent the train of thought that passed through his mind. In general, the idea that he seeks to express is, that the love to which he alluded was ‘higher than heaven, deeper than hell, longer than the earth, and broader than the sea.’

But marking his words more particularly, we may at least try to affix definite signification to the various terms that he employs. By the ‘breadth’ of Christ’s love we may suppose him to mean that it extends to all ages and to all nations, to all ranks and classes of men. By the ‘length’ of it we may understand him as referring to its duration and continuance; reaching from the eternity that is past to that eternity which is before us in the great cycles of the future. By the ‘depth’ of it he might have intended to point out the dark abyss of sin and misery into which the objects of this love had sunk, and to which it stooped down to rescue and to raise them. And by the ‘height’ of it, the state of elevation and advancement to which it is the means of lifting them up, when they are ‘exalted together with Christ’, and made ‘to sit together with Him in heavenly places’.

All these expressions, however, serve to convey but faint idea of the Apostle’s real meaning. We find that they did not satisfy his own mind; and therefore, although he speaks of the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of the love of Christ, he, as it were, casts the imperfect description aside, and declares, in one word, that it ‘passeth knowledge’.

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