What is Paul Measuring in Ephesians 3:18?

What is Paul Measuring in Ephesians 3:18? April 11, 2023

a hammer, measuring tape, pencil, and speed square
Image credit: Steve Lieman / Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a puzzle in Ephesians that I never knew existed before. In Ephesians 3:18 (ESV), Paul prays that his readers “may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth.” But he never actually specifies what he’s measuring! The breadth, length, height, and depth have no object, whether in the Greek or in the English translation!

Now, I’ve read Ephesians plenty of times before, and I was always taught that Paul is measuring the love of Christ. That’s certainly the majority view among scholars. And it’s even reflected in the NIV translation, where Paul prays that the Ephesians “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.”

But, despite this majority view, I’ve become convinced that Paul is measuring something else: the church of Christ, represented metaphorically as a temple.

Using the metaphor of a temple to describe individual believers (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:19) or the collective church (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:9-17) is, of course, a common theme both in Paul and in the broader New Testament. And I believe there’s good reason to think Paul is using this metaphor in Ephesians 3:18. So, bear with me as I lay out a few observations about the passage, and see if I can’t make a convincing case for my position!

Observation 1: Dimensions Accompany Temples in Scripture

The first thing that points to the possibility that Paul may be working with a temple metaphor in Ephesians 3:18 is the fact that descriptions of the various temples in scripture frequently include their dimensions. In fact, scripture often spends entire chapters detailing the dimensions of temples, their courts, their contents, and their surroundings.

Consider the following examples:

  • Exodus 25-27 is an extremely lengthy description of the dimensions of the tabernacle, its courts, and its contents.
  • 1 Kings 6 lists the dimensions of Solomon’s temple and its surroundings.
  • Ezra 6 gives the dimensions of the rebuilt temple.
  • Ezekiel 40-42 is another extremely lengthy description of the dimensions of a future eschatological temple which Ezekiel sees in a vision.

Moreover, we should also mention the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22, which is clearly expanding on Ezekiel’s temple vision. (Compare, for example, Ezekiel 47:1-12 to Revelation 22:1-2.) Just like the other passages, it wouldn’t be complete without a few measurements (Revelation 21:15-17).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that any time somebody measures something in the Bible, it has to be a temple. But it does mean that, when we’re seeking to unpack literary symbolism, we should be attuned to the possibility that dimensions might be associated with a temple metaphor.

But that’s not the only reason to think Paul has a temple in mind in Ephesians 3.

Observation 2: Consider the Context

The second bit of evidence that points to Ephesians 3:18 being a temple metaphor is that Paul has actually already described the church as a metaphorical temple quite extensively in Ephesians.

To save space, I’ll avoid quoting Paul’s entire discussion of the church as a metaphorical temple. But here are the most important verses, from Ephesians 2:18-22.

“For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

Clearly, then, the church-as-temple metaphor was at the top of Paul’s mind as he was writing Ephesians. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find that Paul would use it again in the very next chapter.

And this is made even more likely when you consider that the intervening verses are widely considered to be something of an aside—a break from Paul’s main argument. Having concluded his temple metaphor in Ephesians 2:22, Paul begins to say “for this reason I…” in 3:1. But he breaks off into an extended discussion of his mission as an apostle to the gentiles, before picking up again with “for this reason I…” in Ephesians 3:14. That second “for this reason I…” begins a prayer that includes our mysterious measurements.

Thus, if we take the common view that Ephesians 3:1-13 is an aside, Paul’s main argument moves directly from an obvious use of the church-as-temple metaphor to a prayer that I believe contains another use of that very metaphor. These context clues increase the likelihood that the dimensions in Ephesians 3:18 are referencing a metaphorical temple.

But there’s still one more piece of the puzzle we need to put into place before we can appreciate the full weight of this argument.

Observation 3: Consider Paul’s Language

The final bit of evidence that Paul is referencing a metaphorical temple in Ephesians 3:18 is that he uses temple language repeatedly in his prayer in Ephesians 3:14-19. Here’s the full text.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father… that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Did you note Paul’s frequent use of temple language in these verses?

  • He prays that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith, just as God would dwell in the temple (see, e.g., Matthew 23:21).
  • He prays that they may be “grounded” in love. But the Greek verb translated “grounded” literally means “to lay a foundation,” such as the foundation of a temple. In fact, Paul uses the same root word to describe the foundation of the metaphorical church-temple in Ephesians 2:20.
  • He prays that they will be filled with all the fullness of God, just as God’s presence filled the temple (see, e.g., Ezekiel 43:5).
  • He references the glory of the Lord, again language associated with the Jewish temple (e.g., Ezekiel 43:5 again).
  • Finally, he references God’s spirit in your inner being, more language associated with the New Testament believer-as-temple and church-as-temple metaphors.

Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-19 is therefore loaded with temple language, which points us back not only to other temple texts, but also to his own temple metaphor only a few short verses earlier! This strongly suggests that he has the temple metaphor in mind in these verses, and that he’s praying that, among other things, the Ephesian believers will “comprehend” the enormous dimensions of the glorious church-temple the Lord is constructing!

Admiring the Temple

If we take these three observations and put them together, we’re left with powerful evidence that Paul intends Ephesians 3:18 to describe the expansive measurements of God’s new temple, his church, drawn from every corner of the earth and built into a singular people within whom he will dwell.

This hypothesis fits with the frequent measurements of temples in scripture. It fits the broad context of Paul’s argument in Ephesians, where he’s already used the temple metaphor extensively. And it makes sense of the frequent temple language in the immediate context of Ephesians 3:18. It therefore deserves strong consideration as Paul’s possible intended meaning.

And it should also cause us to reflect. If my interpretation of this passage is correct, what would it look like for God’s people to live out Paul’s prayer? What would it look like for us to be filled with his Spirit, and embody the kind of unity that should come from being his singular dwelling place, his singular body, here on Earth? Further, what would it look like for us to comprehend the glory of God’s design for the church, a unified temple for his Spirit, built from people from every nation, race, language, and culture?

May we truly stand back in awe of God’s temple, his church, and the gospel work he has done in bringing us together.

Got any questions or comments about what I’ve written today? Please scroll down and leave them below! I’d love to interact with you, and to engage in good-natured discussion or debate.

Moreover, as I said at the beginning, I’m aware I’ve disagreed with the majority position of scholarship on this issue. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not personally a biblical scholar, though I think my arguments about the text can stand on their own. I’m always open to being shown why I’m wrong though! So feel free to jump in with good evidence!

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