That ye may be able to comprehend with all saints, what is the breadth and length and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge.
These words are very deep, and difficult to understand; for St. Paul does not tell us exactly of what he is speaking. He does not say what it is, the breadth and length, and depth, and height of which we are to comprehend and take in. Only he tells us afterwards what will come of our taking it in; we shall know the love of Christ.
And therefore many great fathers and divines, whose names there is no need for me to tell you, but whose opinions we must always respect, have said that what St. Paul is speaking of is, the Cross of Christ.
Of course they do not mean the wood of which the actual cross was made. They mean the thing of which the cross was a sign and token.
Now of what is the cross a token?
Of the love of Christ, which is the love of God.
But of what kind of love?
Not the love which is satisfied with sitting still and enjoying itself, as long as nothing puts it out, and turns its love to anger -- what we call mere good nature and good temper; not that, not that, my friends: but love which will dare, and do, and yearn, and mourn; love which cannot rest; love which sacrifices itself; love which will suffer, love which will die, for what it loves; -- such love as a father has, who perishes himself to save his drowning child.
Now the cross of Christ is a token to us, that God's love to us is like that: a love which will dare anything, and suffer anything, for the sake of saving sinful man.
And therefore it is, that from the earliest times the cross has been the special sign of Christians. We keep it up still, when we make the sign of the cross on children's foreheads in baptism: but we have given up using the sign of the cross commonly, because it was perverted, in old times, into a superstitious charm. Men worshipped the cross like an idol, or bits of wood which they fancied were pieces of the actual cross, while they were forgetting what the cross meant. So the use of the cross fell into disrepute, and was put down in England.
But that is no reason why we should forget what the cross meant, and means now, and will mean for ever. Indeed, the better Christians, the better men we are, the more will Christ's cross fill us with thoughts which nothing else can give us; thoughts which we are glad enough, often, to forget and put away; so bitterly do they remind us of our own laziness, selfishness, and love of pleasure.
But still, the cross is our sign. It is God's everlasting token to us, that he has told us Christians something about himself which none of the wisest among the heathen knew; which infidels now do not know; which nothing but the cross can teach to men.
There were men among the old heathens who believed in one God; and some of them saw that he must be, on the whole, a good and a just God. But they could not help thinking of God (with very rare exceptions) as a respecter of persons, a God who had favourites; and at least, that he was a God who loved his friends, and hated his enemies. So the Mussulmans believe now. So do the Jews; indeed, so they did all along, though they ought to have known better; for their prophets in the Old Testament told them a very different tale about God's love.
But that was all they could believe -- in a God who was not unjust or wicked, but was at least hard, proud, unbending: while the notion that God could love his enemies, and bless those who used him despitefully and persecuted him -- much less die for his enemies -- that would have seemed to them impossible and absurd. They stumbled at the stumbling-block of the cross. God, they thought, would do to men as they did to him. If they loved him, he would love them. If they neglected him, he would hate and destroy them.
But when the apostles preached the Gospel, the good news of Christ crucified, they preached a very different tale; a tale quite new; utterly different from any that mankind had ever heard before.
St. Paul calls it a mystery -- a secret -- which had been hidden from the foundation of the world till then, and was then revealed by God's Spirit; namely, this boundless love of God, shown by Christ's dying on the cross.
And, he says, his great hope, his great business, the thing on which his heart was set, and which God had sent him into the world to do, was this -- to make people know the love of Christ; to look at Christ's cross, and take in its breadth, and length, and depth, and height. It passes knowledge, he says. We shall never know the whole of it -- never know all that God's love has done, and will do: but the more we know of it, the more blessed and hopeful, the more strong and earnest, the more good and righteous we shall become.
And what is the breadth of Christ's cross? My friends, it is as broad as the whole world; for he died for the whole world, as it is written, 'He is a propitiation not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world;' and again, 'God willeth that none should perish;' and again, 'As by the offence judgment came on all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of one, the gift came upon all men to justification of life.'
And that is the breadth of Christ's cross.
And what is the length of Christ's cross? The length thereof, says an old father, signifies the time during which its virtue will last.
How long, then, is the cross of Christ? Long enough to last through all time. As long as there is a sinner to be saved; as long as there is ignorance, sorrow, pain, death, or anything else which is contrary to God and hurtful to man, in the universe of God, so long will Christ's cross last. For it is written, he must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet; and God is all in all. And that is the length of the cross of Christ.
And how high is Christ's cross? As high as the highest heaven, and the throne of God, and the bosom of the Father -- that bosom out of which for ever proceed all created things. Ay, as high as the highest heaven; for -- if you will receive it -- when Christ hung upon the cross, heaven came down on earth, and earth ascended into heaven. Christ never showed forth his Father's glory so perfectly as when, hanging upon the cross, he cried in his death-agony, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' Those words showed the true height of the cross; and caused St. John to know that his vision was true, and no dream, when he saw afterwards in the midst of the throne of God a lamb as it had been slain.
And that is the height of the cross of Christ.
And how deep is the cross of Christ?
This is a great mystery, and one which people in these days are afraid to look at; and darken it of their own will, because they will neither believe their Bibles, nor the voice of their own hearts.
But if the cross of Christ be as high as heaven, then, it seems to me, it must also be as deep as hell, deep enough to reach the deepest sinner in the deepest pit to which he may fall. We know that Christ descended into hell. We know that he preached to the spirits in prison. We know that it is written, 'As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.' We know that when the wicked man turns from his wickedness, and does what is lawful and right, he will save his soul alive. We know that in the very same chapter God tells us that his ways are not unequal -- that he has not one law for one man, and another for another, or one law for one year, and another for another. It is possible, therefore, that he has not one law for this life, and another for the life to come. Let us hope, then, that David's words may be true after all, when speaking by the Spirit of God, he says, not only, 'if I ascend up to heaven, thou art there;' but 'if I go down to hell, thou art there also;' and let us hope that THAT is the depth of the cross of Christ.
At all events, my friends, I believe that we shall find St. Paul's words true, when he says, that Christ's love passes knowledge; and therefore that we shall find this also; -- that however broad we may think Christ's cross, it is broader still. However long, it is longer still. However high, it is higher still. However deep, it is deeper still. Yes, we shall find that St. Paul spoke solemn truth when he said, that Christ had ascended on high that he might fill all things; that Christ filled all in all; and that he must reign till the day when he shall give up the kingdom to God, even the Father, that God may be all in all.
And now do you take all this about the breadth and length of Christ's cross to be only ingenious fancies, and a pretty play of words?
Ah, my friends, the day will come when you will find that the measure of Christ's cross is the most important question upon earth.
In the hour of death, and in the day of judgment; then the one thing which you will care to think of (if you can think at all then, as too many poor souls cannot, and therefore had best think of it now before their wits fail them) -- the one thing which you will care to think of, I say, will be -- not, how clever you have been, how successful you have been, how much admired you have been, how much money you have made:- 'Of course not,' you answer; 'I shall be thinking of the state of my soul; whether I am fit to die; whether I have faith enough to meet God; whether I have good works enough to meet God.'
Will you, my friend? Then you will soon grow tired of thinking of that likewise, at least I hope and trust that you will. For, however much faith you may have had, you will find that you have not had enough. However so many good works you may have done, you will find that you have not done enough. The better man you are, the more you will be dissatisfied with yourself; the more you will be ashamed of yourself; till with all saints, Romanist or Protestant, or other, who have been worthy of the name of saints, you will be driven -- if you are in earnest about your own soul -- to give up thinking of yourself, and to think only of the cross of Christ, and of the love of Christ which shines thereon; and ask -- Is it great enough to cover my sins? to save one as utterly unworthy to be saved as I. And so, after all, you will be forced to throw yourself -- where you ought to have thrown yourself at the outset -- at the foot of Christ's cross; and say in spirit and in truth -
Nothing in my hand I bring,
In plain words, I throw myself, with all my sins, upon that absolute and boundless love of God which made all things, and me among them, and hateth nothing that he hath made; who redeemed all mankind, and me among them, and hath said by the mouth of his only-begotten Son, 'Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.'