A Commentary by John Stott

Ephesians. 1: 15-23. c). Jesus Christ’s headship of the church. The third alternative (continued).

Now we come to the third alternative, which takes *pleroma* in its passive sense, not as ‘that which fills’ but as ‘that which is filled’, not the contents but the filled container. According to AG this is ‘much more probably the meaning here.’ If so, then the church is the fullness of Christ not because it fills him, but because he fills it. And he who fills it is described either as filling ‘all things’, ‘the whole creation’ (JB), which is precisely what he is said to do in 4:9, 10, or as himself being filled, i.e. by God as in Colossians 1:19 and 2:9. Putting the two parts of the clause together, it will then mean either that Christ who fills the church fills the universe also, or that Christ who fills the church is himself filled by God. The former is the more natural because God is not mentioned by name. But in either case the church is Christ’s ‘fullness’ in the sense that it fills it.

After considerable reflection on the whole passage and the exposition of many commentators, I have come to think that this last alternative is the most likely to be the correct interpretation, for three reasons. First, because of the analogy of Scripture. The safest of all principles of biblical interpretation is to allow Scripture to explain Scripture. Certainly nowhere else in Scripture is the church explicitly said to ‘fill’ or ‘complete’ Christ (It is true that in Col.1:24 Paul claims that his sufferings ‘complete’ Christ’s, but the reference is specifically to suffering, and indeed to his own sufferings, not to the church’s), whereas constantly Christ is said to indwell and fill his church. For the church is God’s temple (2:21-22). As his glory filled the Jerusalem temple, so today Jesus Christ who is the glory of God fills the church by his Spirit.
Next, the context confirms this. In the latter part of Ephesians 1 Paul refers to the resurrection and enthronement of Jesus as the outstanding historical display of God’s power. His emphasis throughout is on the lordship and sovereignty of Jesus over all things. For him to go on to say that the church somehow ‘completes’ this supreme Christ would seem very incongruous. A more appropriate conclusion would surely be to stress how this supreme Christ fills his church, as he also fills the universe.
The third argument concerns the bracketing in verse 23 of his ‘body’ and his ‘fullness’ as successive descriptions of the church. Being in apposition to one another it would be natural to expect both pictures to illustrate at least a similar truth, namely Christ’s rule over his church. The church is his ‘body’ (he directs it); the church is his ‘fullness’ (he fills it). Further, both teach Christ’s double rule over universe and church. For on the one hand God gave Christ to the church as head-over-all-things (verse 22), and on the other the church is filled by Christ who also fills all things (verse 23). It is this which leads Markus Barth to go further and propose an actual fusion of the metaphors. Pointing out that the ‘body’ and the ‘fullness’ images come together in Ephesians 4:13-16 and Colossians 1:18-19 as well as here, and that medical writers of approximately Paul’s time, like Hippocrates and Galen, thought of the head or brain as controlling and coordinating the functions of the body, Dr. Barth summarises Paul’s understanding that ‘the head fills the body with powers of movement and perception, and thereby inspires the whole body with life and direction.

Tomorrow: Ephesians 1:15-23. Conclusion.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Ephesians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.