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How Can We Know the Depth of God’s Love If It Surpasses Knowledge? (Eph 3:18–19) - Mondays with Mounce

Why do we do what we do? Some of us are motivated by duty; we do things because we ought to. Some of us are motivated by a sense of right and wrong; we do things because it is the right thing to do. But how many of us are motivated by love?

About 12 years ago my prayer to God was that I do things because I love him, that my actions would be an extension of my love for him and his love for me. “Duty” and “right and wrong” are my primary motivators, and I don’t like that; love should be primary (without neglecting the other two).

Many things have happened in the last 12 years that have pushed me on this issue, but the preacher yesterday included Ephesians 3:18–19 in his sermon, and it reminded me of my prayer. It is amazing what the little Greek word τε can do.

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is that they “may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and (τε) to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (NIV).

I would love “to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” But when the NIV (and most translations) translate the τε in v 19 as “and,” it sounds to me that there is something else in addition to v 18; that the Ephesians must also “know this love that surpasses knowledge.” But if you make these two thoughts concordant, they conflict. Paul wants them to learn God’s love (v 18) which is something that surpasses knowledge (v 19). As if v 18 weren’t difficult enough, I am now told in v 18 it is impossible. I also find myself wondering if “love” means two different things in the two verses.

τε is an extremely weak connector. When it is not used as a correlative, BDAG gives three meanings.

  1. marker of close relationship between sequential states or events, and likewise, and so, so.
  2. marker of connection between coordinate nonsequential items [and]
  3. marker w. ascensive stress and serving without copulative force, even [see 2 Cor 10:8]

If you put our passage under definition 1, you have this conflicting idea that Paul wants the Ephesians to know something they can’t know, or that “love” has a double meaning. It feels to me that the English “and” is stronger in meaning than the Greek τε. And after all, the love that “surpasses knowledge” is the same love that is so “wide and long and high and deep.”

This explains a few of the other translations. “And thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (NET, italics added). “May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully” (NLT). In his commentary, Hoehner says, “Although it is nearly impossible to state explicitly the difference of meaning between it [τε] and other coordinating conjunctions, it can generally be claimed to express an internal logical relationship (whereas καί is an external relationship) and can probably be translated in this context as “and so” (page 488), citing BDF #443(3), Moule, Idiom Book, 197, BAGD 807, BDAG 993).

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is that God will powerfully strengthened them through his Spirit (v 16) so that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith (v 17a), and that they be rooted and established in love (v 17b), a love that is so wide and long and high and deep (v 18) that ultimately it surpasses knowledge (v 19).

This is why you and I should do what we do. Jesus agrees (John 17).


Professors: Request an exam copy of Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, Fourth Edition, here.

Photo by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash.

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