This Sermon was delivered at BCF Apr 22, 2007 as noted in my blog post...
Rod told me, when he asked me to speak for him, that I should just share what I have been thinking about lately. It sounds easy when you say it like that... It doesn't feel easy to me – it is with a certain degree of fear that I begin this morning – but I do intend to share with you some of the things about which I've been thinking – My text will be from Ephesians chapter four and you can go ahead and turn there if you like.
There are, to oversimplify things a bit, two basic kinds of messages that we hear from the pulpit and that we find in God's Word. They are in response to two basic questions. First - there are messages that are primarily to those who do not yet believe. These messages answer the question “What must I do to be saved?” and explain the salvation that God extends to us through Jesus. This is the Good News, the Gospel, and is not only needed by those who do not believe, it is valuable as well to those of us who have already placed our trust in Jesus. We need to hear about our foundation over and over again – Faith in the person of Jesus Christ and the work that He accomplished through his death and resurrection, acceptance of God's offer of Grace to cover our sin and the reality of our incorporation into Christ. These are the basics, if you will, the foundation for all that we believe and do and we need to have those foundational truths recalled to mind on a regular basis.
There is another kind of message, however, for those of us who have been saved and are continuing in our salvation. At some point the question occurs to every Christian – “What do I do with my salvation?” How do I live, now that I am a blood bought believer? Am I just waiting now, waiting for the promise of the resurrection and life in Heaven with Jesus?
Paul has a thing or two to say about both these questions. In fact you might say that his Pastoral Epistles frequently follow this pattern – first instruction in the foundational truths of the Gospel and second instruction in the life of faith that results. Some people like to say the Epistles are divided up into Theology and Application. I'm not sure I like this - it's actually all theology with Paul - but it's true that the focus changes.
Ephesians certainly follows that pattern and it is probably the rich language and doxological passages in the first three chapters that we are all most familiar with. The riches of the inheritance that we have in Christ and Exaltation of Christ “far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come”. Our former deadness without Christ (“And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins”) and what God did about it - “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us...” The paradoxically impossible prayer of Chapter 3 with all the superlatives that Paul can think of... I can't resist starting here by reading the end of Chapter 3
14 For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, 16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height-- 19 to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, 21 to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Isn't that awesome? Paul's prayer for the Ephesian Church is that they would be be able to understand the width and depth and height and length of the Love of Christ which in fact is beyond all knowledge. And then he can't find enough superlatives to describe the awesome power of God – exceedingly abundantly above... Paul runs out of words to describe the immensity of the power of God. That “Amen”, however, marks the transition we were talking about as Paul switches to a more pastoral voice. What shall I do with my salvation? How shall I live? Lets read the first 16 verses of Ephesians chapter 4 to see how Paul answers those sorts of questions:
I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called 2 with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, 3 endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. 7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore He says: "When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men." 9 (Now this, "He ascended"--what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) 11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ-- 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
How does Paul answer those questions of ours? “Walk worthily”. So what does he mean? How do we do that?
I'd like to make some general observations here as we look into Ephesians Chapter 4. First - Paul's instructions here do not nullify his earlier proclamations! Paul is continuing in Chapter 4 to proclaim the Grace of Jesus Christ and the Power of God. Indeed, it is only by grace, as we will see, that we can walk worthily. Secondly - Perhaps what first pops into your mind when you hear “walk worthily” is the idea of personal piety – that Paul wishes for you to avoid sin and pursue relationship with God. This is true and a part of it, of course, but it's not all that Paul has in mind. Paul's idea of walking worthily is a calling to become a living part of the living Body whose head is Christ. As we will see Paul does call us to exercise specific virtues and forsake sin. But as we will also see, the context for everything he has to tell us in chapter 4 is life in the Body of Christ.
“v1 I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called.”. I'm always interested by those “therefores” in scripture – usually they indicate that a statement is justified by the previous argument – you might mentally get in the habit of substituting “because” for therefore and figuring out what the because is , there for, no pun intended. Many commentators suggest that Paul is giving specific emphasis to the fact that it is he, a prisoner, making the request, and the NKJV translation seems written that way. In that case we might read it as saying “because it's me asking and I am a prisoner of the Lord, walk worthily”. I'd like to suggest, however, that it is because of his previous doxological pronouncement that Paul commands the Ephesians to walk worthily: specifically that the Ephesians Church would begin to understand the riches and depth of the Love of Jesus and the power of God and the prayer that “to Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever”. In that case it's more like “because of what I just explained to you – walk worthily”.
I lean towards this interpretation primarily because it makes the overall argument of chapters 2 -5 more cohesive. Chapter 3, in fact starts with the same phrase that the KJV translates “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles”. Clearly here Paul is referring to the previous thought, not the fact that he is a prisoner. Another hint can be seen by looking at the parallel passage in Colossians 3 that we read. Colossians 3 is really almost a Cliff's Notes version of Ephesians 2-5 and it's really fascinating to read them together. There, however, the “therefore” in verse 12 is clearly saying “walk this way because of your unity in Christ.”
So enough of the context – what does Paul have in mind? Verse 2 says that we are to walk with lowliness, gentleness and longsuffering, bearing with one another. Why these particular virtues? Notice the similarity – lowliness could be translated humility or modesty, gentleness similarly could be meekness or humility as well. Longsuffering might now be rendered patience or fortitude but the old word captures its meaning well enough. Bearing with one another literally just means “putting up with one another”. Are you hearing the common meanings of this list of virtues enough to guess what it is that Paul has in mind?
Fortunately we don't have to guess. Paul sums up this list of virtues – the way of our walking with their purpose - “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace”.
This unity of the Spirit – what is it and how do we keep it? I warned you that I'd be sharing what I think about! I am personally interested in reading the writings and beliefs of our particular spiritual ancestors – the Anabaptists who formed the radical edges of the Protestant Reformation and later the Pietists, inspired by them, some of whom became the Brethren here in America. I am interested partly out a sense of history and origins but partly I am interested because I think the Anabaptists, Pietists, and our own Brethren forebears got many things right that State Christendom around them got wrong. Separation of Church and State, believers baptism, the priesthood of all believers and a primary emphasis on the authority of the Scriptures are all areas in which the rest of the Church has moved towards the formerly radical anabaptist and pietist ideas.
Unity, however, is a concept that the Brethren got particularly wrong and and in my reading of Brethren History that misunderstanding has continued to plague the various offshoots of the Brethren tree to this very day. Carl Bowman notes in his excellent sociological study “Brethren Society” that the Brethren much, more so than most other Anabaptist groups, defined Unity as “Sameness”. Alexander Mack, the founder of the Brethren movement said that it was the influence of the spirit of error and a false gospel which “divides [men] into a multitude of different occasions and opinions” and Peter Nead, one of the most prominent of the early American Brethren wrote that “the people of God should be united and as uniform in their customs and habits as possible, that there be no difference of character among them”.
That idea, that uniformity is unity, is in many ways exactly opposite the concept that Paul expresses here. There is a unity of mind referenced in the New Testament, but I'm convinced that is not primarily what Paul wants us to think about in verse 3. Not “everybody do the same thing” but “everyone seeking the same end in their diverse ways”.
Paul does not say here “endeavoring to keep unity of spirit” which might express the first concept concept but says “unity of the spirit” - spirit (pneuma being preceded by a definite article) and Paul is talking about a unity that we as believers experience as inspired by the Holy Spirit because we are one in Christ.
Follow Paul's explanation here: 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. The appeal here is to the unity of monotheism – it echoes the Shema of Deut 6:4 “Hear O Israel – the Lord our God, the Lord is one!” Paul is making a theological point in these verses – our Unity as a Body stems from the unity of the nature of God himself and in His presence through the Spirit in us. More to the point of his overall argument, however, all this unity is to set up the first word of verse 7 - “but”
Our unity is in Christ and through the Spirit but it is expressed in the diversity of the gifts of the Spirit. We're going to ignore some of the theological footnotes Paul is tacking on in verses 9 and 10 but just note the overall point he's making – The gift being referenced in verses 7 and 8 are the gifts of the Spirit, some of which are listed in verse 11. These gifts are diverse: prophets, apostles, evangelists, pastors teachers – and other lists have additional gifts. Their purpose, however, is singular – there is One Body and these diverse gifts were given so that they all in their own ways might build up the body. Many of the parallel passages make this point even more clearly – 1 Cor 12 makes this argument - “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are differences of administrations but the same Lord, and there are diversities of operations but but it is the same God which worketh all in all.” Romans 12 makes a similar argument – this a theme of Paul's as he has seen the Holy Spirit work in the Church.
So we've got Paul's overall argument in mind – let's look a bit closer at some of the verses. Paul says a couple of things about the gifts in verse 7 and 8 that are very interesting
First the gifts are for every believer. Verse 7 reads “unto every one of us” and the “every” is a more emphatic version of “each”. Paul is emphasizing that it is to each and every one of us that the gifts are given. If you sit in the pews on Sunday and think that there is nothing that you have to contribute to the building up of the Body, than take it up with Apostle Paul, because he says this is not true with emphasis...
Further, these gifts are by grace. You may in fact be in the opposite camp – confidently secure that it is your own intrinsic talent that you have to offer to the family of God. This also is incorrect. The gifts are charis (grace) given to each of us who believes – and the word charis in the New Testament has been filled and tied to the idea of unmerited divine favor. This sense is strengthened by the connection to our Redemption – as we will see briefly in verses 8-10 the gifts are given to us as part of Christ's triumph over the powers and as part of His great victory which enables our reconciliation to God and to each other in Christ. The gifts are not merely our natural talents and inclinations but are instead part of the work of the Grace of God in each of our lives.
Finally, the person doing the Gifting is Jesus Christ Himself. Verse 7 is translated awkwardly in the KJV “according to the measure of the Gift of Christ” but the sense of the verse is that Christ is doing the apportioning, the measuring, of our Gifts. Again than we are confronted with our own will which may wonder if there is not some mistake in the way in which we are called to build up the Body. Perhaps we are like Moses – protesting that we are not leaders or good talkers... Perhaps we are like the disciples in the upper room – unwilling to enter into humble service to our fellows. In all our cases Jesus is the one who is doing the apportioning and in faith all we can do is humbly accept the place of service and gift of grace that He has chosen to give each of us individually as part of His triumph over the powers of this world.
About verses 9 and 10 I don't have much to say. Paul sees a grammatical implication in the words of Psalm 68 that he quotes in verse 7 and so notes that Jesus must have descended. Commentators read this as referring to the incarnation of Jesus in the form of man or alternatively referring to Jesus' descent into Hell after his death that is hinted at in other sections of the NT (cf I Peter 3:18-20). I'm unclear as to the purpose of Paul's reference – perhaps to show that the Hebrew Scriptures testify to the eventual incarnation of Jesus. The purpose of Jesus' ascent, however, is clear for Paul – it is so that He might “fill all things”.
How is it that Christ is filling all things? Part of what He is filling is the Church with his Divine Gifts. Paul here lists only a few – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Other lists (1 Corinthians 12, for example) are more expansive with wisdom, faith, healing, tongues, knowledge, miracles and various other manifestations of God's power being listed among the gifts. Here in Ephesians Paul seems to be focusing more on those gifts that have an associated office in the Church. The purpose of the gifts, however, (whatever list is used) is always to build up the Body.
This is a consistent theme of Paul's. In the parallel passages of Romans and 1 Corinthians, where the biological metaphor of the body is also used, we are all different members of the Body who must all function in our different ways for the overall health of the body. In Ephesians this idea is reinforced by explanation and made somewhat stronger I think. Verses 12-16 are at the heart of what Paul is saying and where I want to focus.
Notice first the “for” in verse 12. Jesus did not spiritually gift the members of His body so that they could display their talents or prove their spiritual worth to God - No! the Gifts are given to each one “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ”.
This is particularly crucial given the list of Gifts Paul has chosen to make here. As we saw the gifts he listed here are “official gifts” - they go with a particular office in the Church. And there are times when those of us who are laity fall into the trap of thinking that “ministry” is not my job – that's what we elected elders and ministers and deacons and teachers for, right? Ministry. This is exactly backwards – the gifts, the gifts of office included, are to equip everyone in the body for the work of ministry.
I should note that there is some disagreement about the translation of this passage – some versions would have v12 be three statements that all represent the reasons for the gifting in verse 11 - “for the equipping of the saints (comma) for the work of ministry (comma) for the edifying of the body of Christ”. The focus than is on Jesus who gave the gifts for the threefold purpose of equipping the saints, the work of the ministry, and the edification of the Body. This tends to be a minority view among modern translations partly because of the grammar and partly because of the context. It does rest the burden of ministry more firmly upon the shoulders of the officials of the Church, yet the ministry consists of perfecting or equipping the saints and edifying the Body as a whole so I'm not sure that the sense is actually changed that much. I personally like the way the NKJV translates the verse because the idea of equipping all the saints for the work of the ministry is more consonant with Paul's consistent overall vision of ministry in the Church – as in 1 Cor 14 for instance, where the Church is most powerful as each one shares in the exercise of their gifts. Here as we will see as well, Paul envisions each part of the body contributing as each part does its share....
You may be asking yourself... Why? Why does it matter? Why the focus on the Body and involvement in the Body by believers? Isn't it enough if I just love Jesus and have faith in him? I don't need anyone else to be saved... Verses 13-15 are the answer, the practical side of the explanation by Paul for the absolute necessity of the Body. You may have heard the saying that “there are no Spiritual Lone Rangers”. This is profoundly true – and it is one of the paradoxes of our faith. On the one hand: Yes! Faith must be individual! No one can believe for you! You yourself must individually come before Christ and repent and have faith in Christ. And yet Paul says you will then best grow to the maturity of faith as a part of the Body of Christ. We're back to our question: What am I to do with my salvation? The answer: Become a part of the Body of Christ in order to grow in Him! We are to be individuals in our faith, but cannot be individualistic in our life of faith.
This reality - my need for the Body of Christ – is, I think an, acknowledgment of our still fallible and finite natures. We are new creatures in Christ. But we still live in a fallen world and are still fallible creatures. Paul's goals for us are lofty – his vision for believers in verse 13 is similar to his prayer for the Ephesians at the end of chapter 3 - to come to the knowledge of the Son of God, to become adults in Christ who are measured by the stature of the perfection of Jesus Christ! This is impossible – and yet this is the result and the goal of the Gifts Jesus distributes to the Church. It is through your help, Brothers and Sisters, and through the divine grace that Jesus has measured out to each one of you, that I will become mature in Christ. Your diverse gifts, each one of you, make up my own lack...
This understanding of the purpose of the Body and of the Gifts helps us to have insight into the concept of Christian unity. If homogeneity and uniformity are what make up Christian unity – how can anyone else (who is just the same as me) help me to grow? And what do I have to offer that anyone else does not? No - Christian unity is attained, and maturity developed by the application of our diverse gifts to one another in a way that builds each other up in faith and maturity.
The result of this process – the Gifts given for the equipping of the Saints for ministry in the Body, the increase in unity and growth in Christ – is that we become mature. Paul says that we should no longer be children who are easily fooled and deceived. You want to know how it is that you can become more mature in your faith and more like Christ in your walk?
The means by which this happens, Paul tells us in verse 15, is speaking the truth in love, and the end result is that we grow up into Jesus.
It is important here to note that “in love”, through agape, is the only context in which this growth can occur, both here and in the next verse.
What does it mean to speak the truth in love? I think this phrase for a lot of people summons up images of Matthew 18 and Church discipline. That is perhaps, a part of what Paul has in mind for us. More typically, however, I think this is an encouragement to relationship! How do you measure the depth of relationship between two people? Affection and honesty! You like all of your friends, but it is only with your closest friends that you can risk being truly honest! If you want to fulfill this command, drop the facade we all use to keep people at a polite distance, stop talking about the weather to make conversation, and honestly discuss the stuff that's real to you with your brothers and sisters. How's your walk? What are your doubts? What keeps you up at night? In the company of the saints who also have been saved by the grace of God, we don't need to pretend, we don't need to protect our image. To the degree of that we are willing to be honest we are able to profit from the Gifts that each member exercises.
Paul himself provides another example of speaking the truth in love – read Ephesians and Paul's love for God and for the Ephesian Church rings through clearly. Paul honestly wants the best for the Ephesians – and so he tells them where they need to walk more closely to God and proclaims God's truth to them.
I believe that the Apostolic office has ceased – none of us speaks with divine mandate in the same way that Paul did. And as believers together we must be sure that we are acting in love – both for God and in agape for one another – earnestly seeking the best of our brothers and sisters. We must be willing, however, to speak the truth to one another as God gives us insight. To return to our theme – none of us here can claim to be perfect or to have attained all – but it is through your diverse gifts that you can help me in the areas where you are strong and I am weak.
This also, I suspect, is where the virtues of the first few verses enter in. If you will speak the truth to me, speak the Word of God to the situations of my life, I must be willing to hear it. And only if we all are engaged in the disciplines of humility and patience and meekness is this likely to happen successfully. By nature and culture we are individualistic and proud. Very little children learn soon to reject any council that thwarts their wishes - “You aren't the boss of me!” Ever heard that? How much more difficult is it for us as adults! It takes humility and meekness to say – “yes perhaps you are right and I am wrong...” And conversely we are unlikely to contribute anything to the edification of the body if we walk around arrogantly dispensing advice to all who so evidently need our help... We must speak the truth, but it must be in love and it must be “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
And what a wonderful metaphor Paul presents for us as the summation in verse16. Verse 15 ends by calling Christ our head. The probable meaning here is the Greek sense of the head as the source of things and verse 16 pursues that idea - it is “from Jesus” that the Body is put together and through the contribution that each joint has to make that the Body can then grow. Again the growth is in the sense of maturity – Paul started the idea of the body measuring up the the manhood of Jesus in verse 13, continues it in 14 by asserting that we are no longer children, suggests growing a body that measures up to its head – Jesus – in verse 14 and now declares that the end of this growth is edification in love. It is the love of Jesus, vast beyond all understanding and measure that impels us to walk worthily and the result is agape – believers imitating Christ by developing love , love like God's – that permeates all that they do.
I'm going to stop with verse 16. You might yourself read through the rest of chapter 4 which continues in richness – the death of our old man and the new man created by God leads Paul to more specific pastoral instructions - Speak truth to one another. Be angry and sin not. Work so that you can give to those who have a need. Speak only what is valuable to the Body and be kind to one another – all of it is advice aimed at practically preserving the unity of the body. I'd like, however, to offer you four concrete suggestions from what we have already covered.
First we all must start with the Love of Jesus. This has been a message answering the second kind of question, a message for those of us who believe. To those who do not I can only say that I pray Paul's prayer for you that you will discover the immensity of Jesus' love. To those of us who believe, that love which we experience, which we know as a reality, impels us to desire intensely that we would walk worthily of our calling and ever draw nearer to Jesus. Our desire must be from His love, our work must be through His love, and it is the experience of His love that allows us to enter into Agape for our brothers and sisters as well. Let Love be your plumb line - In everything that you do in the Body you must be able to say that Love is behind it or all our human attempts at edification and growth will go astray.
Second – strive to exemplify the corporate virtues that enable us, in all our diversity, to rub the sharp corners off each other rather than just striking sparks. Do you try to be humble and meek and patient with your Brothers and Sisters in Christ? Our own nature rejects these virtues and our culture teaches us to despise them. And yet if we will not enter into the Body in love and with humility and patience, we squander the gifts Christ has chosen for us and shut ourselves off the from the avenue Christ has chosen for our growth in Him. With the knowledge of the immensity of Christ's love for me firmly in view, it is easy, I find, to be humble and patient. When I am not those things it is usually because have let go of that view...
Third – recognize that you, each and every one of you, has been graciously gifted by Jesus as part of his triumph over the power of this world specifically for the purpose of edifying the Body. Are you exercising your gift? Are you using it to build up the body? Especially here as Paul focuses on those who serve in official capacities in the Church – do you teach, prophesy, speak the word and minister so that those under your care would be equipped for ministry? And for the rest of us: are we willing to be so equipped? Are we willing to participate in ministry?
Fourth and finally, are you willing to speak the truth in love? And are you willing to hear it when it is spoken? It isn't very complicated, but that doesn't make it easy to do. Some of us need help in being willing to speak the truth and some of us need help in speaking in love, but it is the necessary task, the context for our growth together. Be honest with one another, be transparent, be intimate with one another. We, each one of us, if we commit to so doing can contribute to the growth of the Body so that together we grow up into Christ Jesus in all things.
Seems difficult, doesn't it. You know what? It's worse than that, it's impossible – on human terms. But God isn't stymied by a little thing like the impossible – and this is what He calls us to! “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”