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(The Message)
1 In light of all this, here’s what I want you to do. While I’m locked up here, a prisoner for the Master, I want you to get out there and walk—better yet, run!—on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere.
2 And mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love,
3 alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.
4 You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly.
5 You have one Master, one faith, one baptism,
6 one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.
7 But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift.
8 The text for this is, He climbed the high mountain, He captured the enemy and seized the booty, He handed it all out in gifts to the people.
9 Is it not true that the One who climbed up also climbed down, down to the valley of earth?
10 And the One who climbed down is the One who climbed back up, up to highest heaven. He handed out gifts above and below, filled heaven with his gifts,
11 filled earth with his gifts. He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher
12 to train Christ’s followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church,
13 until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.
14 No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors.
15 God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do.
16 He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.
17 And so I insist—and God backs me up on this—that there be no going along with the crowd, the empty-headed, mindless crowd.
Building the Church’s Unity
The opening sentence of chapter 4, where Paul says, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” marks the turning point in the book of Ephesians. The message moves from theology to practicality. This is typical of Paul’s writing. You can observe the same change in
and .
This shift can be expressed in many ways: from doctrine to duty; from creed to conduct; from the Christian’s wealth to his walk; from exposition to exhortation; from the indicative to the imperative; from high society to a high life. Because of the amazing theological realities of chapters 1 through 3, Paul urges the Ephesians (and us) “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
The Greek word translated “worthy” is axios, which has the root idea of weight. This is the word from which we derive our English word axiom, which means, “to be of equal weight.” In an equation the axiom indicates doing something to each side of the equation so it remains true. Paul is saying we should try to live lives equal to the great blessings described in chapters 1 through 3. We are to be like the man who said, “Christ has done so much for me, the rest of my life is a P.S. to his great work!”
How are we to walk worthy? That should be our natural response. And the remainder of the book answers this. But the immediate charge in chapter 4 contains two ways of doing this: first by walking in unity (vv. 1–16), and then by walking in purity (v. 17ff.). We will now take up the theme of unity, which we will explore in two studies (vv. 1–6 and vv. 7–16). The present meditation divides under three headings: 1) The Character Which Brings Christian Unity (v. 2), 2) The Divine Origin of Christian Unity (vv. 4–6), and 3) The Charge to Build Christian Unity (v. 3).
This subject has a special poignancy today in a world which has so failed in its attempts at unity and is so alienated. I was in my teens during the fifties when ecumenism was the big thing with the mainline denominations. But it all came to naught because it was based on an “eviscerated, spineless” theology instead of a “vertebrate system of Christian belief.” Today the World Council of Churches is little more than a “mouse that roared.” I was in my twenties in the sixties, and I remember visiting Haight Ashbury in San Francisco and being handed flowers and underground newspapers proclaiming a new day of peace. The bright colors were colors of optimism, the communes wishful microcosms of the new order. But today all that is left are some middle-aged anachronisms — cultural dinosaurs. We live in a cold, fragmented world.
Recently a UPI story told of a wheelchair-bound man who was ticketed for setting fire to his armchair. “I set the chair on fire because I’m here by myself,” said John J. Davies, fifty-eight. “I was afraid, but I didn’t care. I wanted to get attention.… I set the fire so someone would get me out of here.” Arson investigators said Davies was ticketed for misdemeanor arson to discourage him from doing it again. “Maybe he’ll realize it’s something serious,” Fire Captain Joseph Napravnik said. Actually John Davies already thought it was serious. Alienation and neglect are like death.
I recently spoke to a young man who is so starved for attention that he has his hair cut once a week just to be touched by another human hand in a nonthreatening manner. Life for so many in this world is like an elevator ride — everyone facing forward, no eye contact, no conversation or interaction — and then everyone rushes off to their faceless endeavors. The world is looking for a new humanity, a third race, which is not only walking in unity, but has open, inviting arms and hearts.
THE CHARACTER WHICH BRINGS CHRISTIAN UNITY (v. 2)
The unity which Paul urges upon us begins with character: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (v. 2).
The people who bring unity are first of all “humble and gentle.” Humility was despised in the ancient Greco-Roman world as a slave-like quality. What was admired was the mega-souled or “great-souled” man who was complete and self-sufficient. Ernest Hemingway, as he portrayed himself in his prime, would be a good example — brimming with male elan, in control, self-assured, needing nothing. The proud white hunter in The Snows of Kilimanjaro to whom his adventurer mistress said, “You’re the most complete man I’ve ever known” — that is the man the Greeks would have applauded.
But here Paul extols humility and couples it with the tandem characteristic of “gentle[ness]” (or meekness, as it is more often translated). This meekness/gentleness is not weakness. It is rather strength under control. There is nothing spineless or timid about it. Jesus described himself with both words, saying, “I am gentle [meek] and humble in heart” (). We see his steel-like meekness in two ways. First, in respect to himself — his power not to practice retaliation, his ability to forgive. And second, in his fierce defense of others or of the truth. I like John Wycliffe’s translation—mild.
Pride and self-promoting arrogance sow disunity, but a humble, gentle man or woman is like a caressing breeze. Charles Simeon, the great preacher of Kings’ College and Holy Trinity Cambridge, was like this. Hugh Evan Hopkins, his biographer, tells us:
When in 1808 Simeon’s health broke down and he had to spend some eight months recuperating on the Isle of Wight, it fell to Thomason to step into the gap and preach as many as five times on a Sunday in Trinity Church and Stapleford. He surprised himself and everyone else by developing a preaching ability almost equal to his vicar’s at which Simeon, totally free from any suggestions of professional jealousy, greatly rejoiced. He quoted the Scripture, “He must increase; but I must decrease,” and told a friend, “Now I see why I have been laid aside. I bless God for it.”
Those who walk in unity are not only humble and gentle but, as the second couplet says, “patient, bearing with one another in love” (v. 2). J. Dwight Pentecost tells of a church split that was so serious each side filed a lawsuit to dispossess the others from the church, completely disregarding the Biblical injunction not to go to court against fellow believers. The civil courts threw it out, but eventually it came to a church court, where it belonged. The higher judiciary of the church made its decision and awarded the church property to one of the two factions. The losers withdrew and formed another church in the area. In the course of the proceedings the church courts found that the conflict had begun at a church dinner when an elder received a smaller slice of ham than a child seated next to him. The root of the impasse was an absence of patience and forbearing love — not to mention humility and gentleness!
We are to “be patient,” not short-tempered, literally long-tempered. The twin quality of “bearing with one another in love” means far more than tolerating each other — love is to oil our relationships. The Apostle Peter, who began as a proud, rough, impatient man, says in his first letter: “… have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart” (1:22); “Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers …” (2:17); “Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble” (3:8); “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (4:8).
The truth which radiates from verse 2 is that Christian unity doesn’t begin with an external structure, but rather in the attitudes of the heart — humility and mildness and patience and loving tolerance of one another. “The unity of the Spirit” (v. 3) takes people who are so different and makes them live in soul-satisfying unity. What diversity there is in the average church! Think of all the body types (somatypes): tall, short, round, thin, muscular, unathletic. Then imagine all the mental types (psychetypes): nervous, calm, mathematical, unmathematical, artistic, musical, other-than-musical, etc., etc. There are huge differences among us! But when the spiritual fruits of humility and patience reign, there is unity. Christian unity in profound diversity brings great glory to God!
THE DIVINE ORIGIN OF CHRISTIAN UNITY (vv. 4–6)
In verses 4–6 Paul celebrates the origin of our unity: “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Many New Testament scholars believe this was an early Christian confessional hymn, and it may well have been (cf. ; ). The important thing to see is that it teaches us that our unity is rooted in the Holy Trinity (“Spirit,” v. 4; “Lord,” v. 5; “God,” v. 6). Each of the seven great unities in verses 4–6 is connected with one of the Persons of the Trinity.
First, we see the Person of the Holy Spirit and his work in bringing unity — “There is one body and one Spirit” (v. 4a). The Holy Spirit creates the Body of Christ, of which we are members. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (). The Holy Spirit creates, fills, coordinates, orchestrates, and empowers the Body of Christ. This accounts for the delightful serendipities we all experience when meeting other believers so different from us — a brief soul-fellowship with a taxi driver on the way to the airport in Washington, D.C. — the same experience in a jeepney in Manila — an exchange of heart in a village in Switzerland — another on the streets of Cambridge.
Second, there is the Person of Christ and his work in ministering unity — “just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (vv. 4b, 5). There is no doubt that the “one Lord” here is Jesus. says, “There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (cf. and ). As our “one Lord” he creates “one faith” because he is the object and focus of our belief. Because of our “one faith” we all have participated in “one baptism” — “into the name of the Lord Jesus” (; ; cf. ). The question of water or Spirit baptism is not in view here. Rather, the passage is presenting one shared baptism. Sharing “one Lord” and “one faith” and “one baptism” brings “one hope,” which is, first, the return of Christ. “… while we wait for the blessed hope — the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (). Second, this is the hope of sharing glory with him (; cf. 1:18 and , ).
Lastly, there is the Person of the Father and his work in unity — “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (v. 6). Again we have the great Ephesian emphasis on our shared paternity. My younger brother Steve and I could hardly be more different. He is a sky diver, motorcycle racer, mechanic, home builder, custom car builder, cabinetmaker, carpet layer, barber, and professional salmon fishing guide. I have spent my life in the ministry and with books. But despite our great differences we have the same father, we are brothers, and we have a deep, undying love for each other. We are, after all is said and done, family.
And so it is with those of us who are brothers and sisters in Christ. After all is said and done, we have the same Father — we are family. Our unity comes from seven grand unities all rooted in the Holy Trinity: “one body … one Spirit … one hope … one Lord … one faith … one baptism … one God and Father of all.”
What are the implications of our unity being rooted in the the Holy Trinity? Simply this: our unity is eternal and unbreakable. “The unity of the church is as indestructible as the unity of God himself. It is no more possible to split the church than it is possible to split the Godhead.” You and I will never be separated! Our unity is more solid than the Himalayas and more enduring than Venus or Mars.
The obvious question is, If this is so, why are there outward divisions in the Church? Some Christian fellowships will not even speak to each other. How can this be?
THE CHARGE TO BUILD CHRISTIAN UNITY (v. 3)
To begin with, we should note that Paul recognizes this problem in verse 3 by commanding us to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” “Make every effort” comes from a root word which means to make haste, and thus gives the idea of zealous effort and diligence. “Do your utmost to keep the unity of the Spirit — this is urgent!”
This has tremendous significance for the local church. There is no room for rivalries or hatreds or factions. This is a call to focus on our Triune God, the root of our unity. The Apostle John makes a monumental statement in this respect: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (). This verse informs us that the closer we draw to God, the closer we will be to each other. If we would truly live this principle, not just give a superficial nod to it, there would indeed be unity.
Suppose for a moment that by a miracle we could bring some of the great Christians of the centuries together under one roof. From the fourth century there would come the great intellect Augustine of Hippo; from the tenth century, Bernard of Clairvaux; from the sixteenth, the peerless reformer John Calvin. From the eighteenth century would come John Wesley, the great Methodist advocate of free will, and along with him George Whitefield, the great evangelist. From the nineteenth century comes the Baptist C. H. Spurgeon and D. L. Moody. And finally from the twentieth century Billy Graham. If we gathered all these men under one steeple we would be unable to get a unanimous vote on many matters. But underneath it all would be unity. And the more these men lifted up Christ and focused on him, the greater their unity would be.
The other thing suggested by the command in verse 3 (“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”) is to be peacemakers. To begin with, a peacemaker is characterized by honesty. The prophet Ezekiel warned against those who act as if everything is all right when it is not, who say “‘Peace,’ when there is no peace” (). Such individuals, according to Ezekiel, are merely plastering over cracked walls, and when the rain comes, the walls fall (vv. 10, 11). Jeremiah, using some of the same phrasing, put it memorably: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (). The peacemaker is painfully honest about the absence of peace in the world, in the society in which he moves, and in his own personal relationships. He admits when he is at odds with others. He does not pretend that things are OK when they are not.
How this speaks to our condition. All of us tend to putty over the cracks. (I think this is particularly a male tendency.) Even in our most intimate relationships, we tend to act as if everything is fine when it is not. But our avoidance heals the wound only slightly and prepares the way for greater trouble. May God help us to be honest, for the stakes are high.
Next, a peacemaker is willing to risk pain. Anytime one attempts to bring peace societally or personally, he risks misunderstanding and failure. If we have been wrong, there is the pain of apologizing. Or we may have to endure the equally difficult pain of rebuking another. It is so much easier to let things slide, but that is not the way of the peacemaker.
These two qualities of the peacemaker (honesty about the true status of peace and willingness to risk pain in pursuing it) beautifully anticipate the next quality, which is a paradox: the peacemaker is a fighter. The peacemaker makes trouble to make peace. The Scriptures enjoin the aggressive pursuit of peace, telling us to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (). “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (). St. Francis of Assisi understood this call to the active pursuit of peace, as his prayer so beautifully recalls:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hate, may I bring love;
Where offense, may I bring pardon;
May I bring union in place of discord.
Though the peacemaker is a fighter, he is not to be thoughtless or pugnacious. Rather, his character and personality are to be permeated with the shalom of God. He is gentle. James wrote, “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness” (, ). The peacemaker is tolerant in the best sense of the word. He realizes we are all of fallen stock and so does not demand perfection of others. He is humble. And most of all he is loving.
How beautiful true peacemakers are. Filled with peace themselves, they are honest about the state of the relationships around them. They are honest about what is in their own hearts and sensitive to where others are. They refuse to say “peace, peace” when there is none. They are willing to risk pain and misunderstanding to make things right. Peacemakers will even fight for peace. Are we like this?
There are lonely, alienated people all around us who long for a new humanity where there is peace and love and acceptance. And if they see the Church living out its indestructible unity with humility and gentleness and patience and forbearing love, they will be drawn to it. Jesus prayed, “May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (). If the Church reaches out to the people of the world, those people will come and find the unity they need. “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” ().
Are we walking in unity? If not, or if we wish to enhance it, we must do four things:
First, we must reflect on our unity, deeply rooted in the Holy Trinity, and its sevenfold basis. Our unity with fellow believers is indestructible.
Second, as an extension of this, we ought to focus on Christ. We should often read , — or even better, memorize it. We must honestly confess our lack of focus and then spend several minutes each day focusing on him. In prayer, we can ask him to help us maintain his unity.
Third, we need to consciously ask the Holy Spirit to help us cultivate a character which builds unity — a character of humility, gentleness, patience, and loving forbearance.
Fourth, we must be peacemakers: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v. 3). We must admit the absence of peace when there is none. We need to confess our culpability if there is any. We must take the steps which make for peace.
All of Paul’s letters contain a beautiful balance between doctrine and duty, and Ephesians is the perfect example. The first three chapters deal with doctrine, our riches in Christ, while the last three chapters explain duty, our responsibilities in Christ. The key word in this last half of the book is walk (, ; , , ), while the key idea in the first half is wealth. In these last three chapters, Paul admonishes us to walk in unity (), purity (), harmony (), and victory ().
These four “walks” perfectly parallel the basic doctrines Paul has taught us in the first three chapters.
Before we look at this section in detail, we must note two important words in : therefore and beseech. The word therefore indicates that Paul is basing his exhortations to duty on the doctrines taught in the first three chapters. ( are parallel verses.) The Christian life is not based on ignorance but knowledge, and the better we understand Bible doctrine, the easier it is to obey Bible duties. When people say, “Don’t talk to me about doctrine—just let me live my Christian life!” they are revealing their ignorance of the way the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer. “It makes no difference what you believe, just as long as you live right” is a similar confession of ignorance. It does make a difference what you believe, because what you believe determines how you behave!
The word beseech indicates that God, in love, urges us to live for His glory. He does not say, as He did to the Old Testament Jews, “If you obey Me, I will bless you.” Rather, He says, “I have already blessed you—now, in response to My love and grace, obey Me.” He has given us such a marvelous calling in Christ; now it is our responsibility to live up to that calling.
The main idea in these first sixteen verses is the unity of believers in Christ. This is simply the practical application of the doctrine taught in the first half of the letter: God is building a body, a temple. He has reconciled Jews and Gentiles to Himself in Christ. The oneness of believers in Christ is already a spiritual reality. Our responsibility is to guard, protect, and preserve that unity. To do this, we must understand four important facts.
The Grace of Unity ()
Unity is not uniformity. Unity comes from within and is a spiritual grace, while uniformity is the result of pressure from without. Paul used the human body as a picture of Christian unity (), and he adapts the same illustration here in this section (). Each part of the body is different from the other parts, yet all make up one body and work together.
If we are going to preserve the “unity of the Spirit,” we must possess the necessary Christian graces, and there are seven of them listed here. The first is lowliness, or humility. Someone has said, “Humility is that grace that, when you know you have it, you have lost it.” Humility means putting Christ first, others second, and self last. It means knowing ourselves, accepting ourselves, and being ourselves to the glory of God. God does not condemn you when you accept yourself and your gifts (). He just does not want us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to—or less highly than we ought to.
Meekness is not weakness. It is power under control. Moses was a meek man (), yet see the tremendous power he exercised. Jesus Christ was “meek and lowly in heart” (), yet He drove the money changers from the temple. In the Greek language, this word was used for a soothing medicine, a colt that had been broken, and a soft wind. In each case you have power, but that power is under control.
Allied with meekness is long-suffering, which literally means “long-tempered,” the ability to endure discomfort without fighting back. This leads to the mentioning of forbearance, a grace that cannot be experienced apart from love. “Love suffereth long and is kind” (). Actually, Paul is describing some of the “fruit of the Spirit” (); for the “unity of the Spirit” () is the result of the believer “walking in the Spirit” ().
The next grace that contributes to the unity of the Spirit is endeavor. Literally it reads “being eager to maintain, or guard, the unity of the Spirit.” “It’s great that you love each other,” I once heard a seasoned saint say to a newly wedded couple, “but if you’re going to be happy in marriage, you gotta work at it!” The verb used here is a present participle, which means we must constantly be endeavoring to maintain this unity. In fact, when we think the situation is the best, Satan will move in to wreck it. The spiritual unity of a home, a Sunday School class, or a church is the responsibility of each person involved, and the job never ends.
The final grace is peace—“the bond of peace.” Read for the most vivid treatment of war and peace in the New Testament. Note that the reason for war on the outside is war on the inside. If a believer cannot get along with God, he cannot get along with other believers. When “the peace of God” rules in our hearts, then we build unity ().
The Ground of Unity ()
Many people today attempt to unite Christians in a way that is not biblical. For example, they will say: “We are not interested in doctrines, but in love. Now, let’s forget our doctrines and just love one another!” But Paul did not discuss spiritual unity in the first three chapters; he waited until he had laid the doctrinal foundation. While not all Christians agree on some minor matters of Christian doctrine, they all do agree on the foundation truths of the faith. Unity built on anything other than Bible truth is standing on a very shaky foundation. Paul names here the seven basic spiritual realities that unite all true Christians.
One body. This is, of course, the body of Christ in which each believer is a member, placed there at conversion by the Spirit of God (). The one body is the model for the many local bodies that God has established across the world. The fact that a person is a member of the one body does not excuse him from belonging to a local body, for it is there that he exercises his spiritual gifts and helps others to grow.
One Spirit. The same Holy Spirit indwells each believer, so that we belong to each other in the Lord. There are perhaps a dozen references to the Holy Spirit in Ephesians, because He is important to us in the living of the Christian life.
One hope of your calling. This refers to the return of the Lord to take His church to heaven. The Holy Spirit within is the assurance of this great promise (). Paul is suggesting here that the believer who realizes the existence of the one body, who walks in the Spirit, and who looks for the Lord’s return, is going to be a peacemaker and not a troublemaker.
One Lord. This is our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us, lives for us, and one day will come for us. It is difficult to believe that two believers can claim to obey the same Lord, and yet not be able to walk together in unity. Someone asked Ghandi, the spiritual leader of India, “What is the greatest hindrance to Christianity in India?” He replied, “Christians.” Acknowledging the lordship of Christ is a giant step toward spiritual unity among His people.
One faith. There is one settled body of truth deposited by Christ in His church, and this is “the faith.” Jude calls it “the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (). The early Christians recognized a body of basic doctrine that they taught, guarded, and committed to others (). Christians may differ in some matters of interpretation and church practice; but all true Christians agree on “the faith”—and to depart from “the faith” is to bring about disunity within the body of Christ.
One baptism. Since Paul is here discussing the one body, this “one baptism” is probably the baptism of the Spirit, that act of the Spirit when He places the believing sinner into the body of Christ at conversion (). This is not an experience after conversion, nor is it an experience the believer should pray for or seek after. We are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (), but we are never commanded to be baptized with the Spirit, for we have already been baptized by the Spirit at conversion. As far as the one body is concerned, there is one baptism—the baptism of the Spirit. But as far as local bodies of believers are concerned, there are two baptisms: the baptism of the Spirit, and water baptism.
One God and Father. Paul likes to emphasize God as Father (, ; ; ; ). The marvelous oneness of believers in the family of God is evident here, for God is over all, and working through all, and in all. We are children in the same family, loving and serving the same Father, so we ought to be able to walk together in unity. Just as in an earthly family, the various members have to give and take in order to keep a loving unity in the home, so God’s heavenly family must do the same. The “Lord’s Prayer” opens with “Our Father”—not “My Father.”
Paul is quite concerned that Christians not break the unity of the Spirit by agreeing with false doctrine (), and the Apostle John echoes this warning (). The local church cannot believe in peace at any price, for God’s wisdom is “first pure, then peaceable” (). Purity of doctrine of itself does not produce spiritual unity, for there are churches that are sound in faith, but unsound when it comes to love. This is why Paul joins the two: “speaking the truth in love” ().
The Gifts for Unity ()
Paul moves now from what all Christians have in common to how Christians differ from each other. He is discussing variety and individuality within the unity of the Spirit. God has given each believer at least one spiritual gift (), and this gift is to be used for the unifying and edifying (building up) of the body of Christ. We must make a distinction between “spiritual gifts” and natural abilities. When you were born into this world God gave you certain natural abilities, perhaps in mechanics, art, athletics, or music. In this regard, all men are not created equal, because some are smarter, or stronger, or more talented than others. But in the spiritual realm, each believer has at least one spiritual gift no matter what natural abilities he may or may not possess. A spiritual gift is a God-given ability to serve God and other Christians in such a way that Christ is glorified and believers are edified.
How does the believer discover and develop his gifts? By fellowshipping with other Christians in the local assembly. Gifts are not toys to play with. They are tools to build with. And if they are not used in love, they become weapons to fight with, which is what happened in the Corinthian church (). Christians are not to live in isolation, for after all, they are members of the same body.
Paul taught that Christ is the Giver of these gifts, through the Holy Spirit (). He ascended to heaven as Victor forevermore. The picture here is of a military conqueror leading his captives and sharing the spoil with his followers. Only in this case, the “captives” are not His enemies, but His own. Sinners who once were held captives by sin and Satan have now been taken captive by Christ. Even death itself is a defeated foe! When He came to earth, Christ experienced the depths of humiliation (), but when He ascended to heaven, He experienced the very highest exaltation possible. Paul quotes , applying to Jesus Christ a victory song written by David ().
There are three lists of spiritual gifts given in the New Testament: , ; ; and . Since these lists are not identical, it may be that Paul has not named all the gifts that are available. Paul wrote that some gifts are more important than others, but that all believers are needed if the body is to function normally (, ). Paul named, not so much “gifts” as the gifted men God has placed in the church, and there are four of them.
Apostles (v. 11a). The word means “one who is sent with a commission.” Jesus had many disciples, but He selected 12 Apostles (). A disciple is a “follower” or a “learner,” but an apostle is a “divinely appointed representative.” The Apostles were to give witness of the Resurrection (), and therefore had to have seen the risen Christ personally (). There are no apostles today in the strictest New Testament sense. These men helped to lay the foundation of the church—“the foundation laid by the Apostles and prophets” (), and once the foundation was laid, they were no longer needed. God authenticated their ministry with special miracles (), so we should not demand these same miracles today. Of course, in a broad sense, all Christians have an apostolic ministry. “As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you” (). But we must not claim to be apostles.
Prophets (v. 11b). We commonly associate a prophet with predictions of future events, but this is not his primary function. A New Testament prophet is one who proclaims the Word of God (; ). Believers in the New Testament churches did not possess Bibles, nor was the New Testament written and completed. How, then, would these local assemblies discover God’s will? His Spirit would share God’s truth with those possessing the gift of prophecy. Paul suggests that the gift of prophecy had to do with understanding “all mysteries and all knowledge” (), meaning, of course, spiritual truths. The purpose of prophecy is “edification, encouragement, and consolation” (, literal translation). Christians today do not get their spiritual knowledge immediately from the Holy Spirit, but mediately through the Spirit teaching the Word. With the Apostles, the prophets had a foundational ministry in the early church and they are not needed today ().
Evangelists (v. 11c). “Bearers of the Good News.” These men traveled from place to place to preach the Gospel and win the lost (; ). All ministers should “do the work of an evangelist,” but this does not mean that all ministers are evangelists (). The Apostles and prophets laid the foundation of the church, and the evangelists built on it by winning the lost to Christ. Of course, in the early church, every believer was a witness (; ), and so should we be witnesses today. But there are people also today who have the gift of evangelism. The fact that a believer may not possess this gift does not excuse him from being burdened for lost souls or witnessing to them.
Pastors and teachers (v. 11d). The fact that the word “some” is not repeated indicates that we have here one office with two ministries. Pastor means “shepherd,” indicating that the local church is a flock of sheep (), and it is his responsibility to feed and lead the flock (, where “elder” is another name for “pastor”). He does this by means of the Word of God, the food that nourishes the sheep. The Word is the staff that guides and disciplines the sheep. The Word of God is the local church’s protection and provision, and no amount of entertainment, good fellowship, or other religious substitutes can take its place.
The Growth of Unity ()
Paul was looking at the church on two levels in this section. He saw the body of Christ, made up of all true believers, growing gradually until it reaches spiritual maturity, “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” But he also saw the local body of believers ministering to each other, growing together, and thereby experiencing spiritual unity.
A free-lance missionary visited a pastor friend of mine asking for financial support. “What group are you associated with?” my friend asked.
The man replied, “I belong to the invisible church.”
My friend then asked, “Well, what church are you a member of!”
Again he got the answer, “I belong to the invisible church!”
Getting a bit suspicious, my friend asked, “When does this invisible church meet? Who pastors it?”
The missionary then became incensed and said, “Well, your church here isn’t the true church. I belong to the invisible church!”
My friend replied, “Well, here’s some invisible money to help you minister to the invisible church!”
Now, my pastor friend was not denying the existence of the one body. Rather, he was affirming the fact that the invisible church (not a biblical term, but I will use it) ministers through the visible church.
The gifted leaders are supposed to “equip the saints unto the work of the ministry, unto the building up of the body of Christ” (literal translation). The saints do not call a pastor and pay him to do the work. They call him and follow his leadership as he, through the Word, equips them to do the job (). The members of the church grow by feeding on the Word and ministering to each other. The first evidence of spiritual growth is Christlikeness.
The second evidence is stability. The maturing Christian is not tossed about by every religious novelty that comes along. There are religious quacks waiting to kidnap God’s children and get them into their false cults, but the maturing believer recognizes false doctrine and stays clear of it. The cultists do not try to win lost souls to Christ. They do not establish rescue missions in the slum areas of our cities, because they have no good news for the man on skid row. Instead, these false teachers try to capture immature Christians, and for this reason, most of the membership of the false cults comes from local churches, particularly churches that do not feed their people the Word of God.
The third evidence of maturity is truth joined with love: “Speaking the truth in love” (). It has well been said that truth without love is brutality, but love without truth is hypocrisy. Little children do not know how to blend truth and love. They think that if you love someone, you must shield him from the truth if knowing the truth will hurt him. It is a mark of maturity when we are able to share the truth with our fellow Christians, and do it in love. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” ().
One more evidence of maturity is cooperation (). We realize that, as members of the one body and a local body, we belong to each other, we affect each other, and we need each other. Each believer, no matter how insignificant he may appear, has a ministry to other believers. The body grows as the individual members grow, and they grow as they feed on the Word and minister to each other. Note once again the emphasis on love: “forbearing one another in love” (); “speaking the truth in love” (); “the edifying of itself in love” (4:16). Love is the circulatory system of the body. It has been discovered that isolated, unloved babies do not grow properly and are especially susceptible to disease, while babies who are loved and handled grow normally and are stronger. So it is with the children of God. An isolated Christian cannot minister to others, nor can others minister to him, and it is impossible for the gifts to be ministered either way.
So, then, spiritual unity is not something we manufacture. It is something we already have in Christ, and we must protect and maintain it. Truth unites, but lies divide. Love unites, but selfishness divides. Therefore, “speaking the truth in love,” let us equip one another and edify one another, that all of us may grow up to be more like Christ.
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