A Commentary by John Stott
Still Paul has not finished his account of the sovereign exaltation of Jesus. He has written of his resurrection *from the dead* (verse 20) and his enthronement *far above all rule* (verse 21); but now he goes on to relate the meaning of this double triumph *for the church* (verse 22). This further truth he outlines in two pregnant expressions, both of which have caused much trouble to commentators. The first is that God *made* Jesus *the head over all things for the church which is his body* (verses 22-23a), and the second is the phrase *the fullness of him who fills all in all* (23b). Difficult as these clauses are, they are so important that we must spend a little time seeking to fathom them.
The first speaks of Jesus as ‘head’, and assigns him a headship which extends over ‘all things’. ‘All things’ are mentioned twice in verse 22, and in the context embrace not only the material universe but also and especially all intelligent beings both good and evil, angelic and demonic, who people it. This universe and these beings Christ rules. Since ‘all things’ have been put under his feet by God, he is thereby ‘the head over all things’. The ‘head’ and the ‘feet’, the ‘over’ and the ‘under’, are obviously complementary.
But Paul goes further than this. His point is not just that God made Jesus head over all things but that he ‘gave’ (*edoke*) him as head-over-all-things *to the church which is his body*. For he whom God gave to the church to be its head was already head of the universe. Thus both universe and church have in Jesus Christ the same head.
The other puzzling expression, on the elucidation of which gallons of printer’s ink have been expended, is the final one, *the fullness of him who fills all in all*. All readers of Ephesians ought to be aware of the three main alternative explanations of these words. As far as grammar and language are concerned all three are possible, and all three have had distinguished advocates. If I tentatively opt for the third, it is on consideration of context and the analogy of Scripture, rather than of grammar and vocabulary . But the reader must make up his own mind.
The first explanation takes the phrase as a description not of the church (the body) but of Christ (the head), i.e. ‘… the church, which is the body of him who is the fullness of him who fills all in all’. In this case Paul is saying not that the church is the fullness of Christ, but that Christ is the fullness of God, who fills Christ as indeed he fills all things. At first sight this is an attractive interpretation. It fits the context of Christ’s supremacy. It also has parallels in Scripture, for God is said elsewhere to ‘fill heaven and earth’ (Je. 23:24; cf. 1 Kgs.8:27; Ps.139:7), and in Colossians the fullness of the Godhead is said to dwell in Christ (Col.1:19; 2:9). Also this interpretation has had learned proponents, including among the fathers Theodoret, and in modern times C.F.D.Moule of Cambridge and G.B.Caird of Oxford. Yet the difficulties are considerable. For one thing the syntax is awkward, requiring God to be both subject and object of the same sentence (‘God…gave as head to the church Christ who is the fullness of God’). For another the parallels are not exact. Colossians indeed says that God’s fullness dwells ‘in Christ’, but stops short of identifying Christ with God’s fullness. Hodge goes so far as to say that the latter identification in ‘unscriptual’: The fullness of the Godhead is said to be in Christ; but Christ is never said to be the fullness of God’. And there is another inexact parallel. In both Ephesians and Colossians it is Christ, not God, who ‘fills all things’ (Eph.4:10; Col.1:16-17).
If, then, we hesitatingly reject this first explanation, we move on to two more, both of which take ‘the fullness’ as being a description of the church rather than of Christ. These verses do in fact contain the first use of the word ‘church’ in Ephesians. It is first identified as Christ’s ‘body’, and then as his ‘fullness’, *the fullness of him who fills all in all*. The difficulty here is that the noun ‘fullness’ (*pleroma*) can have either an active or a passive meaning. Actively, it means ‘that which fills’ or the ‘contents’ of something; passively it means ‘that which is filled or full’, not the contents but the container. Both senses have been applied to the text we are considering.
Take the active sense first: ‘that which fills or completes’. Scholars are agreed that this is the commoner use of *pleroma*. In classical Greek it was used of the contents of a bowl or basin, and of either a ship’s cargo or a ship’s crew. And this active meaning is frequent in the New Testament. Thus, the fragments of loaves and fishes which filled the baskets are *pleromata* (Mk.6:43; cf.8:20). *Pleroma* is the word used for a ‘patch’ of new, unshrunk cloth which when sewn on to an old garment fills up the hole or tear (Mk.2:21; Mt.9:16). Again, in the quotation from Psalm 24:1, ‘the earth is the Lord’s,’, the Greek for ‘and everything in it’ is ‘and its fullness’. i.e. its contents (1 Cor.10:26). And we have already seen that God’s fullness dwells in Christ, meaning that whatever fills the Father also fills the Son (Col.1:19; 2:9).