Unity in the Body of Christ

We find ourselves now at the hinge of the book of Ephesians. For the first three chapters, Paul has been filling our minds and hearts with the wonders of God’s glorious grace in our salvation, this grace which was lavished on us with mercy and love—even when we were dead in our trespasses—and by which we are brought to new life in Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live our lives to the praise of his glory. Beginning chapter 4 with a “therefore,” Paul reminds us to base what he is about to teach us on this foundation of grace which he has so beautifully built, so that we may understand how to walk in step with Christ.

Read Ephesians 4:1,2

In verse 1, Paul again mentions that he is a prisoner “for the Lord.” This fact underlines all that he is about to exhort us to do with the stark truth that living in step with Jesus may not, in fact, be comfortable, popular, or even safe. Paul is not telling us to “live our best lives now.” He is telling us that living for Christ will be counter-cultural, will alienate those around us who reject the Lord, and will be an offense to the world. Yet, even in prison, God caused Paul’s ministry to flourish as we see in the snippets from his letters where he mentions those who are with him and sends greetings from them to the churches to whom he writes.

Also, (and this is pure speculation on my part) I wonder if he would have had as much time for writing if he had been free to visit all his churches in person and preach and teach the things that God was laying on his heart. His letters which make up so much of the New Testament were written from prison, and we now have them as a treasure-trove of doctrine and a map for living as Christians even today.

The second question in our study asks us what it means to “live a life worthy” (vs. 1) of the calling we have received. To answer this, we must begin with the meaning of “worthy.” The worth of something is its value; something that is highly valuable carries more worth than something of less value. Paul has elsewhere described the calling we have received as “a holy calling,” to which God called us, “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Tim 1:9). The worthiness of our calling is not derived from us, but from God, who set his love on us before the ages began, and, because of his own purpose and grace, saved us in Christ.

What role did Jesus play in our calling?  He paid for it by his death on the cross. Our calling is of inestimable worth indeed.

So, what does living a life worthy of this calling look like? Choosing righteousness over sin? Sacrificing old sinful habits for new holy habits? The next three chapters of Ephesians will walk us through what Paul means by walking “worthy of the calling.” Don’t forget the context in which he is writing this exhortation to the Ephesians: as far as he is concerned, living out this calling is worth going to prison.

We next look at the graces to which Paul encourages us in verse 2, the first steps of walking worthily, as it were. We are to walk “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” It is no accident that he begins with humility, for without it we cannot treat others with gentleness or patience or bear with one another in love. The opposite of humility is pride, and don’t we see that at the root of all our sin, especially as it concerns our treatment of those around us? It was pride that caused our first parents to rebel in the Garden in the first place, reaching out and grasping what was forbidden in the hope that it would raise them to equality with God. And yet humility was chiefly displayed by our Savior, as Paul wrote to the Philippians when he was encouraging them to, “in humility count others more significant than [them]selves.”

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)

In the Philippian passage we note two things: that the attitude of humility about which Paul is writing is not something we must drum up on our own, but it is ours already if we are in Christ, and, this humility is a product of obedience to God. Humility goes right against the grain of our nature and fits uncomfortably at first, but as we continue to wear it, prayerfully exercising it in more and different situations, it won’t tug and pinch as much as it did at first. Remember that our Savior put on humility as he left the glory of heaven for the discomforts of this world, the insults of his own people, and the agonies of the cross. It’s only fitting that we, his followers, put it on too.

An attitude of humility leads to treating others with gentleness. In older translations of the Bible the word used for gentleness was meekness. Meekness does not mean weakness, but power under control, as in a domesticated animal trained for service. Think of a horse, an animal far larger and stronger than a human, trained for riding; or think of an ox, large and strong, trained to the yoke for pulling a wagon or a plow. Again, Jesus is our model when he said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learns from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matt 11:29).

In his commentary on Ephesians, Rick Phillips shares an insightful definition of meekness from Matthew Henry. Listen for the similarities to animals trained for service.

“Matthew Henry points out that the hearts of men and women are by nature unruly like that of a wild donkey. ‘But the grace of meekness,’ he says, ‘when that gets dominion of the soul, alters the temper of it, brings it to hand, submits it to management; and now the wolf dwells with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the kid, and a little child may lead them.’ He says meekness is first directed toward God; it ‘is the easy and quiet submission of the soul to his whole will.’ We then are meek toward our fellow men, which is what is meant by translating this word as ‘gentleness.’  [Richard D. Phillips, Ephesians, a Mentor Expository Commentary, (Christian Focus Publications; 2016), p. 311] [Matthew Henry, The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit (Morgan, PA; Soli Deo Gloria, 1996), 17-18]

After gentleness, the apostle next encourages us to patience. As anyone who has been among Christians for any length of time knows, if one prays for patience one is asking for a trying circumstance through which that patience will be learned. And so, we don’t often pray for patience until we are in the thick of a situation which demands it. But Paul is here telling us that we should be seeking patience right along with the rest of these graces, so yes, let’s pray for patience! The circumstances through which we learn patience may be difficult—to say the least—but knowing that through them we are growing more holy ought to change our attitude toward them. As Paul has elsewhere taught, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that our suffering produces endurance (patience)” (Rom. 5:3).

The next phrase in this list of graces needs to be read thoughtfully. When we read “bearing with one another in love,” does the word “love” jump out and cause you to miss what preceded it? This isn’t simply an exhortation, as found in numerous other places in Scripture, to “love one another.” This is an exhortation to love one another when loving one another is not easy to do. To “bear with” one another implies a burden. I will be the first to raise my hand and confess that I know I have been burdensome to others in my church family. We may clean up well for Sunday church, but we’re not always so easy to get along with when the rubber meets the road. From personality differences to just having a bad day, we all need this grace to bear with, and be borne by, others. After all, when Christ bore our sins in his body on the tree it was out of his unsearchable love for unlovable sinners. Sisters, we must love one another, and that is not conditional.

We must love one another even when it’s hard, because Christ loved us even when it was deadly.

Read Ephesians 4:3-9

In verse 3 we are told that we must “make every effort,” or, be “eager” to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Like its twin verse in Romans, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (12:18), this is a general exhortation which will require prayerful wisdom on the part of each reader to apply to the situations in which we find ourselves. Paul will give us some solid guidelines to help us in the rest of his letter to the Ephesians, but it’s not plug-and-play: it will take effort. The effort isn’t unaided by the Lord, and would be impossible without him, but since we aren’t robots or puppets, we do need to work at doing the right things to maintain the peace and unity of the body of the Church.

This is not saying that our brothers’ and sisters’ response to us is our responsibility. It is saying that we must strive on our own part—often doing battle within our own hearts and minds—to lovingly keep peace with our brothers and sisters. We may need to step out of our comfort zones (yeah, those). The best place to begin is on our knees in prayer, bringing our brothers and sisters before the Lord. Yes, we pray for our own hearts to love others, but we also pray for the Lord’s blessings upon those with whom we are struggling to maintain peace and love. We must search out whether they have actually sinned against us, and we therefore must forgive them, or does the issue begin with our own sin towards them? This is the perfect opportunity to pray with David:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23, 24)

There is an even deeper reason for the urgency to pursue peace with our brothers and sisters. Our study points us to Romans 5:1 which reminds us that “we have been justified by faith,” not by anything we ourselves have done, and we therefore “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” If we have peace with our infinitely holy God, to whom our sin and rebellion were infinitely offensive, we must, then, have peace with the rest of our brothers and sisters who have also been reconciled to God, because “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, on God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). The Church is a unified whole, bound together and shot through and through with the love of God for his people. The apostle John has even stronger words for us to this end:

“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:19-21)

We are together in this body into which we have been called by God. If we don’t love the Church and pursue its peace, according to the passage from 1 John, it is questionable whether we belong in the body. To love the Church is a mark of assurance that we are in the faith. This love is not a mere suggestion, it is a commandment from the Lord, and if we say that we love him but disobey his command to love one another, we are lying about our love for him.

Paul next gives us another clue to staying humble in verse 7, “grace was given to each one of us, according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” which in Romans he expounded more broadly, in case we’d miss it.

“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…” (Romans 12:3-6)

Read Ephesians 4:10-13

There are several lists in Scripture of the gifts given by God to the saints (1 Cor. 12:7-11, 28-30; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Peter 4:10, 11), yet even taken all together these lists are not complete. There are many gifts, and then there are many ways in which the varied gifts may be applied. For instance, one who has the gift of encouragement may use it to come alongside a sister in time of need and help to shoulder her cares, another may encourage others by writing books (or blogging), and yet another may share encouragement through the medium of song-writing and music.

Because the Lord chose our gifts for us and gave them to each of us in the measure he deemed appropriate, we have no reason to boast about them or use them to gloat over others. Christ ascended to heaven following his resurrection and sent the Holy Spirit to distribute his gifts to his Church, not for our own selfish uses, but for his glorious purposes. God’s purpose in giving us gifts is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry (that’s us!), for building up the body of Christ (also us!), until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13 parenthetical additions mine). Used as intended, our gifts benefit the entire Church. James Boice puts it best when he writes:

“…let us seek out our gifts and ask how we may use them to the building up of Christ’s body. Christ does not squander his gifts; each one is essential. He does not withhold his gifts; they are poured out in full measure. He is not indifferent as to how his gifts are used; he has his own wise and lofty purposes in view. He does not give his gifts at cross-purposes; all are to serve and edify the church. He does not abandon those to whom the gifts are given; rather he continues to work through men and in them for the church’s well-being. Where the gifts are received in this spirit and are so used, there the unity of the Spirit is maintained, and the body of Christ is built up “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature.” [James Montgomery Boice, Ephesians, An Expositional Commentary, (Baker: Grand Rapids; 1988) 138]

Read Ephesians 4:13, 14

According to Paul, the purpose of our gifts is to build one another up until we reach maturity in the faith. What does that maturity look like?

“… until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (vs. 13, 14)

This may read initially as if we are all to know everything there is to know about our faith and agree on every point of doctrine. This is not what Paul is saying. There will always be those who are more knowledgeable and those who are just beginning to learn. There will always be disagreements among true believers about issues of the faith which are not essential to salvation. Paul is encouraging us to get the basics right and to know who has saved us. When Paul writes that we need to attain to the unity of the faith, his emphasis is on the one faith in our one Lord (vs. 5); “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

This is the bedrock of our belief, not the depths of which we will never come to the bottom as we continue learning from Scripture about our Lord and our salvation. Paul writes elsewhere that it is of “first importance” that “Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, for our justification” (1 Cor. 15:3,4; Romans 4:25). Knowing that it is Jesus who saves us and not ourselves is the bedrock of faith in which we find true unity.

When we are anchored to this bedrock truth we can grow up into deeper knowledge of the Son of God. When we are anchored, and growing, surrounded by other believers in various stages of maturity, we are not tossed to and fro by the waves or blown about by every wind of doctrine. Jesus described the difference between mature and immature faith in very similar terms, linking maturity to obedience:

“Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6:47-49)

Which is precisely Paul’s point. We must believe the truth and act on it.

Read Ephesians 4:15, 16

Verse 15 contains a phrase which summarizes the principle and goal of our relationships within the body. Paul here tells us that we are to be “speaking the truth in love.” We must be truthful with one another, even if the truth is hard to take. Especially in these instances, we must speak with love and concern for our brothers and sisters. To speak less than the truth is not loving, though it may be easier. This goes right back to our earlier point from verse 3 that we are to make every effort and be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Circumstances differ, and our brothers and sisters are individuals with differing backgrounds and levels of maturity. We must exercise prayerful wisdom in order to speak loving truth in times of need.

Finally, the mystery and goal of all things, that God purposed to “unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth,” is restated here. We are “to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body to grow so that it builds itself up in love” (vs. 15, 16). As we humble ourselves and serve one another with gentleness, patience, and love, as we bear with one another and make every effort to seek peace, as we use our gifts for the edification of the church, we are growing up into Christ and his body, the church, builds itself up and grows in love! What a mystery! What a glorious tribute to him who loved us and saved us!

Let us, then, make every effort, to the praise of his glory!

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