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Ephesians (2010)

Unity of the Church

Ephesians 4:1-10

Lesson audio

Walk As Called

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

(Ephesians 4:1-3 NASB)

 

Prisoner of the Lord

His name was Curly. If you could is seen his body, you would certainly have wondered how he got up in the morning and went to do what he had to do. He had cerebral palsy; his entire skin was covered with boils; he spoke with a thick slurred speech. He also held up high the standard of Christ on campus where Christianity was officially forbidden.

You might ask why the campus police never removed him from his position, even though he cried out to all who would listen, "Jesus loves you." But look at it from their point of view: do you want to be the macho police officer who arrests an 80 pound man, a victim of cerebral palsy, for saying "Jesus loves you?" It was his frailty that kept him in place. It is a curious point: God very often uses the weakest of human beings for his purposes. The psalmist put it this way:

From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength Because of Your adversaries, To make the enemy and the revengeful cease.

(Psalms 8:2 NASB)

 

Paul shares this position during the writing of the letter to the Ephesians. He is in Rome, chained to a wall. By the standards of this world Paul was helpless. But Paul was not using the standards of this world, but the power of God. There is no doubt that this method produces a great deal of suffering for the servants of God. You might think God would be a bit more careful about how he treats his children, especially when they are to be great in the kingdom of God. In fact, he is quite careful of this. He makes it clear that those who suffer for him will reign with him. There is no greater honor available on Earth than suffering for Christ.

This is based on the fact that Christ himself suffered greatly. We have to look at that and ask the question: why should I deserve anything less? Christ, after all, suffered so that I might live eternally. If the King of Kings and Lord of lords did this, just what is it that is beyond my suffering? Indeed, were it not for the fact that the gracious Lord restricts my suffering to what I can stand, I would indeed break down under the suffering. But he is gracious and kind, knows my limits, and those limits determine the honor I will receive.

Manner worthy

So then, how are we to conduct ourselves? Paul's preaching the unity of the church, and for this he will prescribe the behavior of the Christian:

·         First we must act in all humility and gentleness. The word for humility carries with it a meaning of being humble minded. It is a mental decision, whose obvious outcome is in the gentleness of our dealings. It is most necessary to consider the possibility that one might be wrong.

·         Next he prescribes patience. The word itself was translated in many older versions as, "long-suffering." Associated with this is the concept of tolerance — but this is not the tolerance we hear of today. There is a difference between being so open-minded that you don't care about anything, and being willing to endure any human being cheerfully.

·         The secret to this is love. Any mother with a toddler can tell you this. A toddler's behavior is constantly annoying, irritating and downright grating. Despite the temptation the throttle the little monster, somehow or other the human race continues. The love that explains that, explains the tolerance and forbearance of a Christian.

Unity of the Spirit

It is a consistent theme of St. Paul: he utterly desires the unity of the church. The principle behind this is relatively easy to see: it is the unity of God himself. Perhaps this is best considered as an artistic point. God is one; therefore, everything he creates will have that same fundamental integrity. The church is his creation. Thus, it must have the same unity that God the father, God the son and the Holy Spirit have. But how do we do this?

·         First, we are told to be diligent about this. The word in the Greek actually means something like, "speedy." We are in a sense to hustle towards the unity of the church. Firefighters will tell you the reason for this: the first two minutes at a fire are worth the next two hours. The first two minutes in an argument in the church are likewise most important.

·         If you need any motivation to understand this, picture the church as the body of Christ. In a sly way here, Paul invokes that picture. He talks about the bond of peace. The word used for bond is also used for the word, "ligament." So the bond of peace is not a chain shackled to us, but rather as a ligament tying us together as a body should be tied together. If you have ever strained a ligament, the pain is an excellent teacher.

Triad of Trinities

There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

(Ephesians 4:4-6 NASB)

 

It is not entirely clear in the English, but this is high poetry. The thought echoes are profound. Everything revolves around the rhythmic element of three, which of course is taken from the holy Trinity. We may observe them thusly.

Concerning the Church

We seldom hear today any discussion of the doctrine of the church itself. By this I do not mean the doctrine the church proclaims, but rather the doctrine which concerns the nature and character of the church. We have an excellent summary here:

·         First, the church is one body. That means there is only one true church, composed of all those who believe on the name of Jesus Christ and have committed their actions to him. It does not mean that only one particular denomination will ever get to heaven (and you get to guess what that denomination is). It also means that those who are in the church have differing functions, just as the members of your body have differing functions. And might we point out: you don't get to pick particularly which function you get, anymore than your toes had any such choice.

·         We have one spirit: the Holy Spirit. The church as a whole is moved by the Holy Spirit, just as we are moved by the spirit inside us. That means that if we are to be solid and sound members of the church, we had best know which direction the Holy Spirit is going. This is one of the primary reasons that you meditate, pray, and study the Scriptures. A congregation which neglects the inner study of the self as revealed in the Scriptures is headed for disaster.

·         We also have one hope. Let me be specific and clear with this: the hope is in the resurrection of the dead. If there is no resurrection of the dead, then you and I are idiots. So what makes me think that there is the resurrection of the dead? First, Christ rose; second, he promised we would too.

Concerning Christ

Our doctrine concerning Christ is also of great importance.

·         We have one Lord. Over and over again, brilliant men and charismatic leaders have attempted the church to follow them into ruin. Over and over again, this challenge is beaten back by the Lord revealed in the Scriptures. It is to him we owe our loyalty, not to a pastor, preacher, prophet, teacher or whatever else. This is most important.

·         We have one faith. It is a fact: apologetics, the defense of the faith by reason, is identical for the Protestant, the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox. That core faith is what unites the church. It is this faith for which you should have a ready defense; it is this faith you should share willingly. One might also submit that therefore it should be preached, taught and learned.

·         We have one baptism. I regret to inform those of you who were sprinkled or baptized as an infant in any fashion that the New Testament does not know of such things. The baptism used in the New Testament and threw out clearly days of the church was baptism by immersion. If you want to do it right, that's how you do it. But please, at least do it.

Concerning God the Father

Paul now takes us through a trio of prepositions: over, through and in. To be specific:

·         God the Father is over all. This includes Christ, who will eventually reign over the entire universe. It is a humbling lesson to think that the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings is himself under the authority of his Father. God is not a benign, elderly gentleman hoping that you have fun here.

·         God the Father is through all. I submit this means that no matter how deep you dig, God is still in the hole with you. He is the maintainer and sustainer of the universe.

·         He is also in all; we might consider that we are made in his image and in that sense he is in each and every one of us.

Paul's point in this Triad is simply this: no matter what you do, where you go — even in hell — you cannot escape God. So you might as well deal with him.

The Preeminence of Christ

Paul now moves to a new point. It will bring us into one of the strangest notions of the New Testament.

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, "WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN." (Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)

(Ephesians 4:7-10 NASB)

 

The Gift of Christ

Most of us think that our abilities, experience and education are our own. But within the church we find a different rule: these things are gifts from Christ. This has some unusual consequences:

·         If you think yourself so smart as to be superior to others, please ask: just what did I get this ability? You were born where you were, your parents were who they were, your upbringing is what it is simply because Christ selected that way. You can be grateful, but you can't brag.

·         It is likewise true that he selects where you will serve. Apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and pretty much everyone else get no choice about this. God calls you; you can rebel or obey. There are no other options in the church.

·         This obviously means you have no place to exercise your ego in the church. But did you also recognize it means you have no cause for complaint? The wisdom of God has you placed where you are; kindly assume he knows what he's doing.

Concept: a Roman Triumph

Paul invokes a spectacle that most of his readers in the Roman Empire would have been familiar with: the Roman Triumph. It was a parade to celebrate a great victory. The Roman Empire placed strict rules on who could have such a Triumph; you had to take so many prisoners, so many slaves, so much gold, etc. In short, you had to be worthy.

It also helps if you were generous. The crowds would line the route, and they would certainly be expecting you to distribute from your largess. In short, it wasn't like a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade where people throw beads. You threw coins. These would preferably be made of gold, so that the crowd could see what a wonderful person you were and why they'd like to have you for the next Emperor. At least, that's the theory. Paul turns this on its head. Instead of taking gold that you confiscated from your enemies, Christ gives out his gifts as if he were in a triumphal procession from hell to heaven. We sometimes miss the sense of joy that the early church had; they could see a parade like this in their minds.

Descended into Hell

We now encounter a strange concept: Christ's descent into hell. Paul states it here; Peter hints at it in the following verse:

but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.

(1 Peter 4:5-6 NASB)

 

Peter's point is relatively clear: those who have died before the time of Christ heard the gospel when Christ preached it to them in hell. Does this mean that he led them out of hell and into heaven? If so, by what criteria did he decide who was going, who was staying? The best guess of most of the early scholars was that he indeed led them from hell, just as prisoners would be marched at the end of a Roman Triumph as a symbol of just how great the victory was. The parallel I hope is obvious. What this means for those who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, I do not know. But at least it's a bit of a hopeful sign.

More than that, it means that our Lord did not just escape death, he is Lord over death. As he says in Revelation, he holds the keys to heaven and hell. This is the awesome Lord we serve. His power indeed is beyond our comprehension, but his commands are not. He has chosen to display his strength in weakness, and we are that weakness. If we suffer with him, we shall reign with him.

 

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