In Ephesians 4:13, Paul says that Christ gave us the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to build up the body of Christ until we attain the “fullness of Christ.” Scripture uses the word “fullness” to describe a sense of completeness. So the “fullness of Christ” represents growth into the maturity and wholeness of Christ.
But to really understand what Paul means when he uses this term, let’s take a look at how the Bible uses the idea of fullness.
Moses blesses the Israelites
Before Moses’s death, he speaks a blessing over the tribes of Israel in Deuteronomy 33. As we grasp what’s being said here, it will help us piece together an understanding of the Bible’s use of fullness. Moses speaks the following prayer over Joseph (which would cover the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim):
“May the Lord bless his land
with the precious dew from heaven above
and with the deep waters that lie below;
with the best the sun brings forth
and the finest the moon can yield;
with the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains
and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills;
with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
and the favor of him who dwelt in the burning bush.
Let all these rest on the head of Joseph,
on the brow of the prince among his brothers” (Deuteronomy 33:13-16, emphasis added).
Moses’s blessing to Joseph’s offspring is a prayer for the world to yield the fullness of its fruitfulness. He wants so much more than the world to offer up her gifts to these tribes; he wants to see the world produce all it’s capable of producing.
Fullness in the Book of Romans
Throughout Paul’s Epistles, he jumps on this idea of fulfillment to make some vital theological points. He uses the Greek word “plērōma” to describe things coming to completion. The first example happens in Romans 11.
Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring (Romans 11:11-12, emphasis added)!
Paul is discussing Israel’s rejection of Jesus and whether God has abandoned His people. The apostle argues that they haven’t transgressed beyond reclamation. In fact, he argues that if Israel hadn’t found themselves outside of God’s will, then the Gentiles wouldn’t have availed themselves of God’s salvation.
But Paul seems to point to reconciliation with Israel. The word the NIV translates as “full inclusion” is plērōma. The New King James Version translates it this way:
Now if their fall is riches for the world, and their failure riches for the Gentiles, how much more their fullness (Romans 11:12, NKJV, emphasis added)!
The fullness of the Gentiles
Paul uses this term again as he wraps up his thoughts in Romans 11.
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved. As it is written:
“The deliverer will come from Zion;
he will turn godlessness away from Jacob.
And this is my covenant with them
when I take away their sins” (Romans 11:25-27).
This time the NIV translates “plērōma” to indicate the full number of the non-Jewish people who will choose to follow Jesus. There is a point when the complete number of those outside of the nation of Israel will have come into the kingdom, and then God will bring the rest of His plan to fruition.
Both uses of fullness here point to the completeness of God’s plan. At some point, God will finish His work at the loom and step back. At that moment, every thread will be accounted for, and the tapestry He has been working on will be seen for what it is: the fullness of His plan. It might not be apparent now, but we will all rejoice in awesome wonder at its conclusion.
The fulfillment of the law
Later, in the same Epistle, Paul addresses an entirely different topic but brings up the same image of fullness. The Greek word for “has fulfilled” is “peplērōken,” the perfect active verb tense of “plērōma.” When the “fullness” level is at capacity, it has been “fulfilled.”
Paul uses this when talking about the relationship between love and the law.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10, emphasis added).
Jesus also uses the verb form of “plērōma” in talking about the law. He says:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished”(Matthew 5:17-18, emphasis added).
What do these two uses of fulfillment have in common? They’re both talking about the law being brought to completion. According to the Jews, there was only one way for the law to be fulfilled: it had to be kept. To break one element of the law was to be a lawbreaker.
When Jesus showed up and seemed to discount many first-century best practices for religious leaders, there was some question about the law. Did Jesus think the law should be thrown out? In the Sermon on the Mount, He assures them this not the case.
He hasn’t come to overrule the law; He’s come to fulfill it. We can think of it as humanity’s massive debt. He wasn’t going to forgive the debt; He was going to pay it. In that way, the obligation would be fulfilled.
In Romans, Paul argues that love is the fulfillment of the law. When we act in love toward others, we’re fulfilling the law. So it makes total sense that when Jesus was crucified, bearing upon Himself the sins of the world, He carried out the greatest act of love, fulfilling the law’s requirements.
The fullness of time
Paul also uses the idea of fulfillment when he addresses God’s plan. Here’s how he states it in the opening of his letter to the Ephesians:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effectwhen the times reach their fulfillment-to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Ephesians 1:3-10, emphasis added).
With a beautiful flourish, Paul addresses all the blessings that are ours in Christ. Those in Christ were predestined to experience God’s grace, which led to redemption and to receive the mystery of His will. And when were these things made clear? When the times reached their fulfillment.
We can think about God’s will like a vegetable garden. God’s will was planted, and when the produce was ripe and ready (reached its fulfillment), it was plucked and brought to the table. Again, we see fulfillment used to express completion.
Fullness in the Book of Colossians
It’s easy to take our theology for granted today. However, the early church was still establishing Christian theology, and in that interim, false teachers were coming into the church and creating problems. Paul addresses that problem in Colossae.
He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. ForGod was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1:17-20, emphasis added).
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, andin Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority (Colossians 2:8-10, emphasis added).
Paul is trying to clear up some theologically murky water. Some scholars suggest that the verses from chapter one actually spring from an early Christian hymn. Whether that’s true or not, Paul wants his readers to understand that Jesus was not just a prophet or influential teacher. On the contrary, thefullnessof God dwelled in Him.
Jesus was filled to the brim with the character and divinity of God. Paul hammers this point home again in the second chapter when he reiterates that the “fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” When we look to Jesus, we are looking at the earthly expression of God.
And then Paul makes a powerful and important statement: “and in Christ, you have been brought to fullness.” Those aligned with Jesus share in His divinity. Through Christ, we have been brought to fullness, which you could take to mean that we have been ushered into what it means to be fully and completely human.
The fullness of Christ
Now that we have a firm understanding of fulfillment, we can take a look at what Paul says about the “fullness of Christ.”
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure ofthe fullness of Christ(Ephesians 4:11-13 emphasis added).
In talking about the church (the body of Christ), Paul points out that Jesus has equipped people with unique gifts to help the church. And when each of them uses their talents to build up the church, the whole church grows to look more like the One the church represents.
Attaining the fullness of Christ is growing to completion so that we corporately look like Jesus. That’s why Paul prays this way in chapter 3:
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 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, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge-that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:16-19).
It’s important to remember that Paul’s church Epistles aren’t written to individuals; they’re written to collected believers. When he uses the pronoun “you,” he uses it corporately and talks to all the believers. His prayer is for the church to be rooted and established in love with a clear understanding of God’s deep and abiding love for them. When all these people begin to grasp this love, they will be filled with the fullness of God.
As we mature as believers individually, we give ourselves over to the building up of the church. And as the church is rooted and established, it ripens. It becomes filled with the fullness of Christ. That’s how the church becomes salt and light.
Dive into Jesus’s teachings
For us to grow into the fullness of Christ, we need to draw close and stay connected to the vine (John 15:5). If you’re interested in brushing up on Jesus’s teachings, check out All the Parables of Jesus.