Being in Step

Explore the Bible Series

October 17, 2010

 

Lesson Passage: Ephesians 4:1-16

 

Introduction:

 

The Christian Church seems hopelessly fragmented.  Thousands of denominations and sectarians litter the religious landscape, and I see little evidence of healing the wounds among the broadly variant groups. Some of the boundaries that divide God’s people arise from genuine, humble disagreements about important issues of the faith, but, let’s be honest, many of the fault lines form because of unseemly behavior and attitudes.

 

First, I must address the theological differences that divide Christendom.  A few days ago I received an e-mail from a dear friend who made an appeal to “historic Christianity.”  My friend possesses great wisdom and humility, and I think I understand his use of this term; however, I found myself asking “Whose history do we regard as historical Christianity?”   Most groups assert their unique right to the designation “the historic faith of the apostles”, and this dizzying array of apostolic claims often produces confusion and disappointment. 

 

The liturgical churches (I think of the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox traditions) claim apostolic authority grounded in the Scriptures and the succession of ecclesiastic authority through bishops.  Unfortunately, they do not fully agree on that succession.  “Bible Christians” hope to recreate New Testament Christianity by careful study of the Scriptures.  This laudable ambition, however, has produced less unity than one finds in the liturgical churches.  Some groups delight in calling themselves “non-denominational” in a well-meaning effort to rise above the sectarian din. Of course, the moment they denominate themselves, “non-denominational” they take on denominational baggage, simply adding to the fragmentation they hope to avoid.  Baptists, sadly, have contributed to this dismal situation (Frank Meade and Samuel Hill indentify twenty-seven Baptist groups in the U.S., and they do not include the dismal fragmentation of the SBC—See Handbook of Denominations in the United States).

 

I certainly do not want to add to this disarray; so, I will conscientiously avoid offering simplistic solutions to this troubling quandary.  Paul, however, lends us invaluable counsel that will, if carefully observed, lead to improvement in the relations among those who profess Christ.  Please note that the apostle began Ephesians 4:1 with “therefore”, pointing back to the theological principles expressed in the previous section.  Perhaps, if we follow Paul’s directives, we may piece together groundwork for compassion, humility, understanding, and dialog among Christians.  Here are, as I see it, are some foundational principles on which believers may find substantial agreement.

 

  1. God exists, and he loves his creatures with compassion that transcends what we can imagine.  Time and space do not constrain this love, and, by its very nature, divine compassion will remain a mystery to people unless God reveals his character.
  2. God has revealed himself, according to Paul’s theology, through the person and work of Christ; that is, through the Lord Jesus we humans encounter the eternal God of heaven and earth (I realize, a bold claim indeed, but it reflects one of Paul’s central assertions).  
  3. God has taken pity on sinful people, people enfeebled by a fallen nature, weakness of will and moral resolve, bent toward distrust, morally blind, and slaves to a foolish disposition. 
  4. God’s love is not passive and inactive; rather, he has acted, in time and space.  The Lord’s pity moves beyond simply feeling sorry for the unfortunate state of the human race, and, in his grace, the Creator has acted to save mankind from sin and self.  Paul employed rich human images to reveal the salvific work of God: adoption, redemption, inheritance, workmanship. All of these immeasurable blessings ensue from the death of Jesus, on the cross, and through Christ’s glorious resurrection from the grave.

 

I’m sure that these simple observations do little justice to grand scope of Ephesians 1-3, but these four points, at least, give God’s people some common ground to dialog about the Christian faith.  If we can establish some commonality on theological issues, perhaps then we can move to attitudinal and behavioral problems that may hinder unity.  Paul takes up that subject in Ephesians 4-6. 

 

Lesson Outline:

 

I.       Essential Qualities of Christian Character (vv. 1-2): Paul introduced this new section of Ephesians with an appeal, grounded in his imprisonment, for growth in godly character (v. 1).  He used a familiar image of “walking”, thus implying progress and exertion.  “Calling” may imply one vocation, one’s God-appointed task in life; or, the word could refer to one’s calling to grace, by the Holy Spirit.  The apostle highlighted five qualities that mark those who walk with God.

A.    “lowliness”: The word denotes humility borne of an appropriate estimate of one’s utter dependence upon God.

B.     “gentleness”: The King James Version translates this word “meekness”, and it reflects mildness of disposition.  This quality must not be confused with weakness; rather, it indicates strength under control.  The term proves notoriously difficult to translate into English, but it reflects a spirit that refuses to assert one’s will on others.

C.     “longsuffering ”: A very common term in Paul’s writings, this characteristic denotes forbearance, patience, and self-restraint in the face of provocation.

D.    “forbearance”: The gracious ability to bear with the faults and weaknesses of others. 

E.     “in love”: The appeal to love probably refers to all of the first four characteristics; that is, these other qualities grow from the soil of genuine love for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

II.    The Need for Christian Unity (vv. 3-6): Above all, Paul promoted Christian character as a catalyst to unity in the church. The New Testament knows nothing of “lone wolf” Christianity.  Embracing the faith means the believer is introduced to a new, essential relationship with the people of God.  One simply cannot embrace Christ and, at the same time, reject Christ’s church.  Frankly, this principle may make some believers uncomfortable, but the difficulties of church unity cannot negate the believer’s critical relationship with the people of God. 

A.    The admonition to promote Christian unity (v. 3): Preserving the harmony of the church takes hard work, thus Paul’s use of the term “endeavoring.”

B.     The nature of unity (v.3): The context demands, as Vaughan points out, that this unity is not merely external or organizational: rather, it is grounded in loving relationships.  This loving bond exists because of the work of the Holy Spirit who transforms self-centered people into a sacrificial, compassionate church.

C.     The grounds of unity (vv. 4-6): Vaughan identified seven features of Christian harmony.

1.      “one body”: This word, of course, describes the church, the body of all of God’s people, in all places, times and circumstances. Paul apparently had the universal church in mind.

2.      “one Spirit”: The Holy Spirit enlivens and empowers the church.

3.      “one hope of your calling”: Believers are united in the future hope laid up for them as eternal inheritance. 

4.      “one Lord”: Christianity allows for only one Lord, preeminent in all things.

5.      “one faith”:Vaughan believed this refers to the experience of faith rather than an allusion to a body of doctrine.

6.      “one baptism”: Again, Vaughan thought this reflected the experience of water baptism, not the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

7.      “one God and Father of all”: One God and Father holds the family together.

 

III. Unity and the Diversity of Spiritual Gifts (vv. 7-16)

A.    Every Christian has a divinely appointed gift (v. 7): “Grace”, in this context, denotes spiritual gifts, bestowed in the context of God’s grace.  Each believer, by the grace of the Lord, has received a special spiritual gift, a divinely-bestowed capacity to serve the Lord in some specific way.  Christ determines the nature and measure of the gifts.

B.     Christ fills the church with these special gifts (vv. 8-10): Again, Paul grounded his claims in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Christ’s redemptive work, in regard to the church, occurred as a guarantee of the fullness of divine gifts bestowed on God’s people. 

C.     Paul emphasized, in this passage, the leadership gifts (v. 11)

1.      Apostles: The New Testament seems to indicate these qualifications for an apostle: direct contact with the earthly ministry of Jesus, eye witness to the resurrected Christ, and a recipient of a special commission as an apostle (See Vaughan).  Of course, the New Testament used “apostle” in this restricted sense, but, at times, it also extended “apostleship” to a somewhat broader group.

2.      Prophets: Prophets spoke under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Here again, Vaughan thought the gift of prophecy was limited to the First Century.

3.      Evangelists: These men were missionaries who preached the gospel in unevangelized areas.

4.      Pastor-teachers: It seems best to join these descriptive words as reference to a single spiritual gift.  The pastor serves as a shepherd of the Lord’s people, and he tends the flock by teaching the counsel of the Lord.

D.    Paul Outlined the Purpose of Spiritual Gifts (vv. 12-16)

1.      The equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry (v. 12a): Pastors multiply their work as they equip the people to minister to the church.

2.      The edifying of the body of Christ (vv. 12b-13): Every believer must contribute to the building up of God’s church.  Only when each believer fills his/her role will the church grow toward unity, knowledge of the Son of God, and moral excellency—the fullness of Christ.

3.      Spiritual maturity (vv. 14-16): Division and discord are the marks of immaturity, evidenced by moral and theological instability.  Paul warned that childish believers proved particularly susceptible to the unworthy allurements of crafty false teachers. Believers must grow up in all things, again, unto the fullness of Christ.  Only this fullness can knit together the body of Christ in loving unity.