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Writing to the Ephesians, Paul talks about his prayer life:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, ... [that you] 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. (Ephesians 3:14;18-19 ESV)

According to the the NET Bible footnotes:

The object of these dimensions is not stated in the text. Interpreters have suggested a variety of referents for this unstated object, including the cross of Christ, the heavenly Jerusalem (which is then sometimes linked to the Church), God’s power, the fullness of salvation given in Christ, the Wisdom of God, and the love of Christ. Of these interpretations, the last two are the most plausible. Associations from Wisdom literature favor the Wisdom of God, but the immediate context favors the love of Christ. For detailed discussion of these interpretive options, see A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC), 207-13, who ultimately favors the love of Christ.

I don't have Lincoln's commentary available, so I don't know what shape the discussion would take. Christ's love fits the prayer's theme, but isn't it redundant with the very next phrase? In fact the next phrase seems pretty clear that nobody can understand that love, so what would Paul mean by praying that the Ephesians would have "strength to comprehend"?

  • Interesting question. I have always assumed it was referring to love, but this does raise the question of how you can know that which surpasses knowledge. +1 – Jas 3.1 Nov 25 '14 at 20:35
  • @JonEricson the next phrase seems pretty clear that nobody can understand that love - On the contrary, that is the entire point of the prayer: that you may have the power ... to know ... that which surpasses knowledge. Hence, the need for power/ability. cf 1 Corinthians 2:10, the preceeding verse said that the mystery of the Gospel was not known before, but, v10, God has revealed them to us by His Spirit. Hence, the 'unknowable' is 'known' in Christ. Paul is asking for that same power here, to know the unknowable. – user6152 Nov 25 '14 at 20:56
  • @BenjaminHoogterp: That reads like the nugget of an answer. – Jon Ericson Nov 25 '14 at 21:19
  • PS in addition to my answer, I recommend reading more of Knox. I had a hard time summarizing his and Best's ideas (Best's commentary is not free, unfortunately). There is a lot of excellent material, particularly the introductory material to the epistle in each work. – Dan Nov 26 '14 at 8:49
  • @JonEricson Didn't know if it merited one or not. Seemed overly-simplistic. Expanded it into a fuller answer, while trying keep it as simple as I can. – user6152 Nov 26 '14 at 18:13
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Prolegomena

The question assumes Pauline authorship, a point on which scholars are divided.1 It must be noted that I do not take Paul to be the author of Ephesians—I regard this epistle as pseudonymous. This is important for understanding the approach I will present because it begins with the observation that the author of Ephesians modeled this epistle after Paul's epistle to the Colossians (and also 2 Corinthians and Romans to an extent). This dependence on these (largely undisputed) Pauline writings affects how this passage should be interpreted. The author of Ephesians is a Hellenistic Jew (pseudonymously) writing in the Pauline tradition but applying Paul's thought to the situation of the Christian church in his own day (most likely the late first century).

Vv. 14-19 are one long sentence in the Greek text and appear to be part of a prayer. For the sake of brevity, I will avoid discussing the entirety of this passage to focus exclusively on the question asked, but it must be taken as a whole to be fully comprehended and must be understood with the backdrop that the author is adapting other Pauline writings, particularly the epistle to the Colossians.

Four Dimensions?

... ἵνα ἐξισχύσητε καταλαβέσθαι σὺν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἁγίοις τί τὸ πλάτος καὶ μῆκος καὶ ὕψος καὶ βάθος....2

"... that you may have the ability with all the saints to grasp what is the breadth and length and height and depth...."

The way these dimensions are listed is problematic—it is geometrically false:

The final fourfold phrase is difficult; it is wrong to speak, as many commentators do, of four dimensions; there are only three spatial dimensions; here width and length are two measurements at right angles in the same plane, height and depth two measurements at right angles to that plane but in the same vertical dimension and therefore indicate only one dimension. The phrase is then geometrically incorrect, a mistake which no educated Greek would have made. It may have been this difficulty which led to the inversion of the two final nouns in [manuscript discrepancies].... A single article governs the four nouns implying that they are to be taken as a unit and not interpreted separately; [the author of Ephesians] may be using a pre-existing formula. Since actual physical measurements cannot be in mind the phrase must be interpreted metaphorically.3

Knox (along with many other scholars)1 believed that the author of Ephesians heavily borrowed Pauline language in this passage (particularly Romans 8:39 in the specific phrase of interest):

He prays ... to the Father ... that God will so strengthen his readers in accordance with the riches of His glory (the rhetoric of Colossians) in the inner man (2 Cor. 4:16) that Christ may be able to dwell in their hearts by faith (the commonplace of 2 Cor. 6:16), and that they may be so rooted and grounded in love (Col. 2:7) that they may be able to "comprehend" with all their fellow-saints the full dimensions of the love of God. The writer's faithfulness to his model is responsible for the addition to the normal three dimensions of Greek geometry, length, breadth and height (or depth), of a fourth of depth (or height). His reason for the insertion was that he found both "height" and "depth" in Rom. 8:39 and did not understand their meaning; after all the Pauline circle was not really interested in astrology; Paul had used it and then let it drop after the normal habit of midrashic exposition. The writer found it in his original and it suited well with his taste for a lofty style of writing; consequently he has inserted it here.4

This strongly suggests that the fourfold dimensions must be understood metaphorically rather than as literal measurements. But what was the referent of this metaphor?

That they may have the ability to grasp... what?

A genitive referent is expected yet none is provided. Is this formula used elsewhere in contemporary literature? Best, in his commentary on Ephesians, finds no clear support for such a fourfold dimension reading in literature contemporary to the epistle's composure.5

According to Best, some of the suggested ideas for potential referents among scholars include the following, with a summary of Best's refutation of each sub-indented:

  • the use of spatial imagery to express God's omnipresence

    • While similar language does occur in the Hebrew Bible, these specific words are not used and the context is generally non-metaphorical (usually specific references to heaven, earth, the sea, or Sheol).
  • a Stoic metaphor for coming to understand the greatness of God

    • In some philosophical thought, in particular that of Stoicism..., the soul is thought to walk (metaphorically) in heaven and, by seeing and understanding its dimensions, to understand the greatness of God.... Yet we never encounter the fourfold formula and classical writers would probably never have thought of four spatial dimensions.6
  • metaphorical language for the magnitude of the cosmos

    • This has no precedent in the context of the passage and the author likely would have ended the phrase with τοῦ κοσμοῦ if this was intended. However, it may fit into the idea of comprehending God's love from a Hellenistic perspective.
  • use of a familiar Gnostic magical formula to convey God's power / omnipotence

    • This fourfold formula has been identified in a fourth-century Greek magical papyrus, but it is linked with "two other nouns, φῶς,αὐγή, which are not spatial, so that there is actually a sixfold formula and therefore no proper parallel. [Commentators have attempted] to overcome its late date by supposing that texts existed prior to Ephesians which used the phrase, but [they provide] no evidence to support this supposition."6
  • the measurements of the heavenly city / new Jerusalem, or a continuation of the temple imagery in 2:18-22

    • This doesn't fit the immediate context, but it is plausible that it is a revisitation of the temple imagery in 2:18-22 being used as a metaphor for the people of God.
  • metaphorical language for the immensity of God's wisdom

    • This is plausible and overlaps with the idea of 'knowledge of God' (or of God's love).
  • metaphorical language for the greatness of God's love

    • Best and Knox, along with the majority of commentators,7 support this interpretation. The immediate context of v. 19 strongly supports this option, and it also fits with the context of the Pauline language that is likely being borrowed here from Romans 8:39).

Knox agrees while broadening the understanding to incorporate how the author and his audience would likely have understood the text. His observations serve as a helpful conclusion to this answer, tying together several of the above-mentioned interpretive options.

Paul had written (Phil. 3:12) of "grasping" God as God had already grasped him, in language in which the thought of laying hold on God was coloured by the thought of "grasping" the goal in a race (1 Cor. 9:24). The writer of Ephesians seems to have missed that colouring and treated the language of Philippians as if it meant "comprehending" God with the understanding in the sense of "knowing" Him as in 1 Cor. 13:12. The change in meaning was natural, for the difficulty of finding God, of which Plato had written in the Timaeus (28c), was one of the most hackneyed quotations of Hellenistic literature, especially in Jewish literature, which used the quote to prove the need of a special divine revelation, such as it alone possessed....

In the present passage the rhetorical dimensions suggested the vastness of the love of God; it can indeed be "comprehended", yet it passes knowledge (Rom. 11:33, 1 Cor. 2:9). At the same time the thought may have been coloured by the common belief that the "mind" can ascend to heaven and "comprehend" its dimensions or the variation of the theme in the form that the full "comprehension" of the cosmos carries with it the "comprehension" of God.

In any case the love of Christ cannot be fully understood; it surpasses knowledge and is better than Gnosis. It is the only power which will bring the readers to a completeness in which they can contain all the fullness of God (Col. 2:9). The transition from Christ dwelling in the heart to the "comprehension" [with a suggestion of occupying], the full dimensions of the divine nature, and back to the thought of being filled with a divine pleroma, would be abrupt if the passage were not largely a cento of Pauline phrases and if the transition from the language of the soul's ascent to God to that of God's descent to the soul were not a common feature of popular theology.

The writer has thus established the plain Pauline system of the love of God as manifested in Jesus as the supreme mystery and the highest Gnosis.8


1 Percy, passim; J. N. Sanders, ‘The Case for the Pauline Authorship’, Studies, 9–20; D. E. Nineham, ‘The Case against the Pauline Authorship’, Studies, 21–35; H. J. Cadbury, ‘The Dilemma of Ephesians’, NTS 5 (1958/9) 91–102; L. Cerfaux. ‘En faveur de l’authenticité des épîtres de la captivité’, Littérature et Théologie Pauliniennes, Bruges, 1960, 59–71; R. Kasser, ‘L’autore dell’Epistola agli Efesini’, Protestantesimo 17 (1962) 74–84; J. Murphy-O’Connor, ‘Who Wrote Ephesians?’, TBT 18 (1965) 1201–9; J. I. Cook, ‘The Origin and Purpose of Ephesians’, RefR 18 (1965) 3–18; Van Roon, passim; Caragounis, 35–56; J. B. Polhill, ‘An Introduction to Ephesians’, RevExp 76 (1979) 465–80; G. A. M. Vleugels and J. C. Coetzee, ‘Onderzoek naar de synoptische relatie van de brieven aan de Efeziërs en aan de Kolossenzers’, In die Skriflig 22 (1988) 37–46; M. D. Goulder, ‘The Visionaries of Laodicea’, JSNT 43 (1991) 15–39; J. H. Roberts, ‘The Enigma of Ephesians - Rethinking some positions on the basis of Schnackenburg and Arnold’, Neot 27 (1993) 93–106.

2 Eberhard Nestle et al., Universität Münster. Institut für Neutestamentliche Textforschung, Novum Testamentum Graece, 27. Aufl., rev. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelstiftung, 1993), Eph 3:18.

3 Ernest Best, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark International, 1998), 344.

4 W.L. Knox, St. Paul and the Church of the Gentiles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939), 191-2. Available on Archive.org. Footnote #4 on p. 191 corroborates the notion that Greek geometry clearly understood three dimensions.

5 Best, 344-6.

6 Ibid., 345.

7 Including A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC), 207-13 and the NET translators, as noted in the question.

8 Knox, 192-3.

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  • Regarding A genitive referent is expected yet none is provided.: It took me a while to figure out what you meant (e.g. τοῦ κοσμοῦ in your 3rd bullet, yes?). I think none is expected to my ear because it's also not there in Romans 8:39 (which I agree it echoes, regardless of authorship issues ;-)): οὔτε ὕψωμα οὔτε βάθος οὔτε τις κτίσις ἑτέρα.... I can't quite figure out why that one doesn't leave a big hanging question mark the way Ephesians 3:18 does. τί and/or τὸ maybe? – Susan Nov 26 '14 at 9:48
  • @Susan not necessarily. Any genitive referent would suffice, this is what the reader would have anticipated to find, but no referent is specified. – Dan Nov 26 '14 at 15:32
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    The clarification that "comprehend" meaning to "grab hold of" rather than as a synonym to "understand" helps explain they the author prays for "strength". Thanks! – Jon Ericson Nov 26 '14 at 16:07
  • My two cents, depending on one's perspective there certainly can be "breadth and length and height and depth" Imagine yourself standing in a doorway with no main floor, rather a high ceiling, a deep sub terrain, hugely wide and hugely long. Get's me nervous just thinking about being there. :) – John Peters Dec 2 '14 at 1:02
  • "...height and depth two measurements at right angles to that plane but in the same vertical dimension and therefore indicate only one dimension." – Dan Dec 2 '14 at 5:06
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This may be overly simplistic, but here goes..


The subject of which Paul is writing is the Love of God.

...and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:17b-19

Paul is communicating to the Ephesians the prayer that he prays on their behalf. Paul says that he asks that they "may have the power ... to know ... that which surpasses knowledge". This is the reason for Paul's prayer, that they would be given the power / ability / right to know the unknowable, which illustrates the need for the prayer.

Be it noted that the NIV duplicates the subject in v18, while keeping it in v19.

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, 19 and to know this love ...

Ephesians 3:18-19a NIV

The notion in the verse is correlated in 1 Corinthians 2:9-12. v9 indicates that eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love Him. This is often misapplied as pertaining to Christians, but actually has no direct bearing on the life of a NT believer--it is referring to those without the Spirit, as the next verse indicates.

v10 goes on to say, "But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit". That is, what was unknown in the Old Covenant is revealed, by the Spirit, in the New.

Hence, Paul prays for the supernatural enduing of power, through the Spirit, thus to make the "unknowable" "known". 1 Corinthians 2:14 agrees, saying that the natural man cannot understand spiritual things. As Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 13:2, "If I ... can fathom all mysteries and all knowldedge", it seems that this knowing is in degrees, even as faith is (Romans 12:6), and so Paul is praying for its 'increase'.

Paul's prayer is then two-fold

  1. That they would know the breadth and length and height and depth (I often think of one of these as a quality, rather than a dimension--e.g., density would work).
  2. That they would know it, ginōskō, it, or be intimately aquainted with it.

Paul wants believers to not only be fully aware of the scope of God's love, but to partake in it as well.

Thus doing so, the final goal of all of this is, as Paul writes,

...that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:19b

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Verse 3:18 ..."what~a [thing] [be] the breadth, and length, and depth, and height" (~Robin)

I was wondering if this neuter "thing" might be the spirit, referred to, back in >verse 3:16 ... "through the spirit of~Same, into the man within" ... (~Robin)

It was noted above (somewhere) that there are source text variants involved, so I thought that others might appreciate being shown just what these are;, not that I can see what impact that they might have to do with the original question, but it's always good to have a good handle on the background ...

"3:17* through the trust, to~the Anointed to down-dwell among with~the hearts of~you; 3:18* in with~a~love having had been rooted, and having had been set, [*3:18] so-that you should out-strengthen to down-obtain, together with~all the sanctified [ones], what~ [thing] [be] the breadth, and length, and depth, and height," (~Robin)

"3:17 katoikEsai ton christon dia tEs pisteOs en tais kardiais humOn 3:18 en agapE errizOmenoi kai tethemeliOmenoi [*3:18] hina exischusEte katalabesthai sun pasin tois hagiois ti to platos kai mEkos kai bathos kai hupsos (RP2005)

3:17-18* Syntax (Verse Break)

Note: The Byzantine text verse ends verse 3:17 with “humOn” and starts verse 3:18 with “en agapE,” while the Alexandrian text ends verse 3:17 with “tethemeliOmenoi” and starts verse 3:18 with “hina exischusEte.”


3:18* Syntax

βάθος καὶ ὕψος ‭א A Ψ (1505) 1739 1881 Byz syrh (Origen) Jeromept ς ND Dio bathos kai hupsos

a~depth {0899 N-NSN} and 2532 {CONJ} a~height {5311 N-NSN}


*hupsos kai bathos ὕψος καὶ βάθος p46 B C D F G I P 0278 0285 33 81 (326) 365 1175 pc it vg cop Origentextaccording to 1739mg WH NR CEI Riv TILC Nv NM

a~height {5311 N-NSN} and {2532 CONJ} a~depth {0899 N-NSN}

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In John 16 Jesus told his disciples that he had things to communicate that they were not able to bear (carry) yet:

NASB 12“I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13“But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. 14“He will glorify Me, for He will take of Mine and will disclose it to you. 15“All things [matters] that the Father has are Mine [disclosed to me]; therefore I said that He takes of Mine and will disclose it to you.

Westcott and Hort / [NA27 variants] 12Ἔτι πολλὰ ἔχω ὑμῖν λέγειν, ἀλλ' οὐ δύνασθε βαστάζειν ἄρτι· 13ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας, ὁδηγήσει ὑμᾶς εἰς / ἐν τὴν / τῇ ἀλήθειαν / ἀληθείᾳ πᾶσαν / πάσῃ, οὐ γὰρ λαλήσει ἀφ' ἑαυτοῦ, ἀλλ' ὅσα ἀκούει / ἀκούσει λαλήσει, καὶ τὰ ἐρχόμενα ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. 14ἐκεῖνος ἐμὲ δοξάσει, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λήμψεται καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. 15πάντα ὅσα ἔχει ὁ πατὴρ ἐμά ἐστιν· διὰ τοῦτο εἶπον ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λαμβάνει καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν.

He was saying the things he had to say were beyond their strength to carry. They were too heavy for their feeble minds to lift up and carry around.

He did promise though that they would receive the "breath of truth" which would lead them into all of the truth, not just the easy to handle truths that Jesus had been teaching them. All the matters that the father had disclosed to Jesus would be revealed to them by the divine breath.

In Ephesians (as in Corinthians) Paul calls attention to his unique calling to "make known the mystery (secret) of Christ":

YLT Ephesians 3: 1For this cause, I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you the nations, 2if, indeed, ye did hear of the dispensation of the grace of God that was given to me in regard to you, 3that by revelation He made known to me the secret, according as I wrote before in few [words] — 4in regard to which ye are able, reading [it], to understand my knowledge in the secret of the Christ, 5which in other generations was not made known to the sons of men, as it was now revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit —

This mystery related to the combination of the Jews and gentiles into a single new humanity and new regime called "the gathering":

6that the nations be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in the Christ, through the good news, 7of which I became a ministrant, according to the gift of the grace of God that was given to me, according to the working of His power; 8to me — the less than the least of all the saints — was given this grace, among the nations to proclaim good news — the untraceable riches of the Christ, 9and to cause all to see what [is] the fellowship of the secret that hath been hid from the ages in God, who the all things did create by Jesus Christ, 10that there might be made known now to the principalities and the authorities in the heavenly [places], through the assembly, the manifold wisdom of God, 11according to a purpose of the ages, which He made in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12in whom we have the freedom and the access in confidence through the faith of him, 13wherefore, I ask [you] not to faint in my tribulations for you, which is your glory.

What may seem to some as a rather mundane piece of religious correspondence is Paul pulling back the curtain to reveal spiritual versions of the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest and all the most powerful and awe inspiring spiritual realities that defy human imagination.

Paul sees plainly what are hidden from others, just as Elisha did:

NASB 2 King 6: 15Now when the attendant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” 16So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the LORD opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

And so Paul likewise turns to prayer and ask God to open the eyes of the Ephesians:

14For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15of whom the whole family in the heavens and on earth is named, 16that He may give to you, according to the riches of His glory, with might to be strengthened through His Spirit, in regard to the inner man, 17that the Christ may dwell through the faith in your hearts, in love having been rooted and founded, 18that ye may be in strength to comprehend, with all the saints, what [is] the breadth, and length, and depth, and height, 19to know also the love of the Christ that is exceeding the knowledge, that ye may be filled — to all the fulness of God; 20and to Him who is able above all things to do exceeding abundantly what we ask or think, according to the power that is working in us, 21to Him [is] the glory in the assembly in Christ Jesus, to all the generations of the age of the ages. Amen.

All the things he is revealing about the Gathering are so far beyond their ability to comprehend so he prayers for them to give them strength to bear their height and depth, etc. and to lay hold of things that defy human comprehension. Unbearably unimaginably grand themes of divine wisdom, love and power. Things Jesus said to the disciples that they would be taught later. Paul is the vehicle of the divine breath to reveal this secrets.

So the "height and the depth" etc. are the mysteries that Paul is revealing by the divine breath involving the new love community. "The love of Christ" is both how much Christ's role as groom and the love of God brought into human experience within the kingdom of God's dear son.

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What is it that Paul prays Ephesians will comprehend?

In short the answer is to comprehend - "the Bible truths."

Ephesians 3:17-19 (NRSV)

17 "And that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."

Christians must strive to comprehend the scriptures.

Trees need to be rooted deep into the soil to withstand the strong wind forces, Christians need to have their faith deeply rooted in knowledge and love for Jesus to withstand the temptations.

One way to comprehend the Bible , is to make a persistent effort to study it, and so grasp the "breath and length and height and depth"- of the Bible Truths. Therefore Christians should not be satisfied with elementary knowledge to be found in God's word,but on the contrary , should strive to deepen their comprehension of the scriptures and consequently strengthen their faith and love for God , Paul wrote:

Hebrews 5:12 (NRSV)

12 "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food;"

Hebrews 6:1 Amplified Bible (AMP)

6 "Therefore let us get past the elementary stage in the teachings about the Christ, advancing on to maturity and perfection and spiritual completeness, [doing this] without laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God."

The love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.

Satan knows what is written in the Bible,more than any saint, but this does not make him love God, Christians on the other hand ,study the Bible because they love God and his Son Jesus ,and not just to accumulate knowledge about them, they search with zeal to deepen their knowledge of the Bible truths, that will increase their love and strengthen their faith in God, in this way they get "to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge."

Christians are urged to seek the Bible truths, like seeking silver and hidden treasures and to incline their hearts to understanding, that is seeking it conscientiously and striving for it eagerly.

Proverbs 2:1-5 (ASV)

1" My son, if thou wilt receive my words, And lay up my commandments with thee; 2 So as to incline thine ear unto wisdom, And apply thy heart to understanding; 3 Yea, if thou cry after discernment, And lift up thy voice for understanding; 4 If thou seek her as silver, And search for her as for hid treasures: 5 Then shalt thou understand the fear of Jehovah, And find the knowledge of God."

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