A LIFESTYLE OF COMMUNITY

 

Week of January 2, 2011

 

Bible Verses:Ephesians 4:4-7,14-16,25-32.

 

Lesson Focus:This lesson is about the necessity of staying connected to a community of believers.

 

The Foundation for Community: Ephesians 4:4-6.

 

[4]There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call-- [5]one Lord, one faith, one baptism, [6]one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. [ESV]

 

First, there is one body because there is only one Spirit. The one body is the church, the body of Christ, comprising Jewish and Gentile believers; and its unity or cohesion is due to the one Holy Spirit who indwells and animates it. It is our common possession of the one Holy Spirit that integrates us into one body. Secondly, there is one hope belonging to our Christian calling, one faith and one baptism because there is only one Lord. For the Lord Jesus Christ is the one object of the faith, hope and baptism of all Christian people. It is Jesus Christ in whom we have believed, Jesus Christ into whom we have been baptized, and Jesus Christ for whose coming we wait with expectant hope. Thirdly, there is one Christian family, embracing us all because there is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. In the context, the all refers not to all people indiscriminately but to all who are His family, His redeemed children; those who are in the one body. There can be only one Christian family, only one Christian faith, hope and baptism, and only one Christian body, because there is only one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The unity of the church is as indestructible as the unity of God Himself. But how does this account for the evident phenomenon of the disunity of the church that we see all around us? At this point a necessary distinction needs to be drawn. The distinction is between the churchís unity as an invisible reality present to the mind of God and the churchís disunity as a visible appearance which contradicts the invisible reality. We are one, for God says so, and in interdenominational conventions and conferences we sense our underlying unity in Christ. Yet outwardly and visibly we belong to different churches and different traditions, some of which are not even in communion with one another, while others have strayed far from biblical Christianity. Paul himself recognizes this paradoxical combination of unity and disunity. For in this very passage, in which the indestructible unity of the church is so emphatically asserted, the possibility of disunity is also acknowledged. Consider verse 3 where Paul writes eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This is a very strange exhortation. Paul first describes the churchís unity as the unity of the Spirit (meaning a unity which the Holy Spirit creates) and then argues that this unity is as indestructible as God Himself. Yet in the same context he also tells us that we have to maintain it. What can he mean? What is the sense of urging the maintenance of something indestructible, and of urging us to maintain it, when it is a unity of the Spirit, which He created and is therefore presumably Himself responsible for preserving? There seems to be but one possible answer to these questions, namely that to maintain the churchís unity must mean to maintain it visibly. Here is an apostolic exhortation to us to preserve in actual concrete relationships of love that unity which God has created and which neither man nor demon can destroy. We are to demonstrate to the world that the unity we say exists indestructibly is not the rather sick joke it sounds but a true and glorious reality.

 

The Purpose of Community:Ephesians 4:7,14-16.

 

[7]But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. [14]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. [15]Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, [16]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 grow so that it builds itself up in love. [ESV]

 

[7]The contrast between verses 6 and 7 is striking. Verse 6 speaks of God as the Father of us all. Verse 7, however, begins but grace was given to each one of us. Thus Paul turns from all of us to each of us, and so from the unity to the diversity of the church. He is, in fact, deliberately qualifying what he has just written about the churchís unity. Although there is only one body, one faith and one family, this unity is not to be misconstrued as a lifeless or colorless uniformity. We are not to imagine that every Christian is an exact replica of every other, as if we had all been mass-produced in some celestial factory. On the contrary, the unity of the church, far from being boringly monotonous, is exciting in its diversity. This is not just because of our different cultures, temperaments and personalities, but because of the different gifts which Christ distributes for the enrichment of our common life. Verse 7 refers to Christís grace in bestowing different gifts. Saving grace, the grace which saves sinners, is given to all who believe; but what might be termed ďservice grace,Ē the grace which equips Godís people to serve, is given in differing degrees according to the measure of Christís gift. The unity of the church is due to Godís grace having reconciled us to Himself; but the diversity of the church is due to Godís gifts distributed to church members.

 

[13-16]Paul goes on to elaborate what he means by building up the body of Christ. It will evidently be a lengthy process, leading to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood. This is the goal to which the church will one day attain. This goal here is not Christ but its own maturity in unity which comes from knowing, trusting and growing up into Christ. We pause to note that the churchís unity, although already in one sense given and inviolable, yet needs in another sense to be both maintained [3] and attained [13]. Both verbs are surprising. If unity already exists as a gift, how can it be attained as a goal? Probably we need to reply that just as unity needs to be maintained visibly, so it needs to be attained fully. For there are degrees of unity, just as there are degrees of sanctity. And the unity to which we are to come one day is that full unity which a full faith in and knowledge of the Son of God will make possible. This expression effectively disposes of the argument that unity can grow without Christian faith or knowledge. On the contrary, it is precisely the more we know and trust the Son of God that we grow in the kind of unity with one another which He desires. This full unity is also called mature manhood. Some interpret this individually of each Christian growing into maturity in Christ, which is certainly a New Testament concept. But the context seems to demand that we understand it corporately. The church is represented as a single organism, the body of Christ, and is to grow up into adult stature. Indeed, Paul has referred to it as the new humanity which God is creating, or as the one new man [2:15]. To the oneness and the newness of this man he now adds matureness. The one new man is to attain mature manhood, which will be nothing less than the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, the fullness which Christ Himself possesses and bestows. Although it seems that this growth into maturity is a corporate concept, describing the church as a whole, yet it clearly depends on the maturing of its individual members, as Paul proceeds to say: so that we may no longer be children [14]. Of course we are to resemble children in their humility and innocence [Matt. 18:3], but not in their ignorance or instability. Unstable children are like little boats in a stormy sea, entirely at the mercy of wind and waves. Paul paints a graphic picture, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about meaning swung round by shifting winds. Such are immature Christians. They never seem to know their own mind or come to settled convictions. Instead, their opinions tend to be those of the last preacher they heard or the last book they read, and they fall an easy prey to each new theological fad. They cannot resist human cunning or the craftiness in deceitful schemes. In contrast to doctrinal instability, which is a mark of immaturity, we should be speaking the truth in love. Paul writes that the church grows into maturity by truth and love. To allow ourselves to be hurled hither and thither by the fierce blasts of false teaching is to condemn ourselves and the church to perpetual immaturity. Instead, what we need is the truth, provided we speak it in love. For it is in love that the church grows and builds itself up. What Paul calls for is a balanced combination of the two. Truth becomes hard if it is not softened by love; love becomes soft if it is not strengthened by truth. Paulís vision for the church is to display charity, unity, diversity and growing maturity.

 

The Characteristics of Community:Ephesians 4:25-32.

 

[25]Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. [26]Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, [27]and give no opportunity to the devil. [28]Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. [29]Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. [30]And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. [31]Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. [32]Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.[ESV]

 

[25-27]Verse 25 contains the first of four admonitions in 4:25-5:2 that take first a negative form, then a positive form, and then supply a clause giving the reason for the admonition. Here Paul gives a negative exhortation not to lie, then a positive command to speak the truth, and finally a clause indicating why truthfulness with each other is important. Paul urges the Ephesians to forsake all lies and speak the truth. Certainly the avoidance of lies is of little use without the active pursuit of truth. The followers of Jesus should be known in their community as honest, reliable people whose word can be trusted. The reason given is not only that the other person is our neighbor, whom we are commanded in Scripture to love, but that in the church our relationship is closer still, for we are members one of another. Fellowship is built on trust, and trust is built on truth. So falsehood undermines fellowship, while truth strengthens it. Scripture plainly teaches that there are two kinds of anger, righteous and unrighteous. In 5:6 we are told of the anger of God which will fall on the disobedient, and we know that Godís anger is righteous. So was the anger of Jesus. There must therefore be a good and true anger which Godís people can learn from Him and from their Lord Jesus. In the face of blatant evil we should be indignant not tolerant, angry not apathetic. If God hates sin, His people should hate it too. At the same time, we need to remember our fallenness, and our constant proneness to intemperance and vanity. Consequently, we always have to be on our guard and act as censors of our own anger. If we are wise, we shall be slow to anger, remembering that the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God [James 1:19-20]. So Paul immediately qualifies his permissive be angry by three negatives. First, do not sin. We have to make sure that our anger is free from injured pride, spite, malice, animosity and the spirit of revenge. Secondly, do not let the sun go down on your anger. This instruction illustrates well the folly of excessive literalism in interpreting the Bible. We are not to understand Paul so literally that we may take leave to be angry till sunset. No, the apostleís intention is to warn us against nursing anger. It is seldom safe to allow the embers to smolder. Certainly if we become aware of some sinful or selfish element in it, then it is time for us to cease from it, and either apologize or be reconciled to the person concerned. We are not to hold on to the anger until sunset and then let go of it. Paulís third qualification is give no opportunity to the devil, for he knows how fine is the line between righteous and unrighteous anger, and how hard human beings find it to handle their anger responsibly. So Satan loves to lurk round angry people, hoping to be able to exploit the situation to his own advantage by provoking them into hatred or violence or a breach of fellowship.

 

[28-30]Paul goes beyond the negative prohibition of do not steal by drawing out the positive implications. It is not enough that the thief stops stealing. Let him start working and earning a living. Then he will be able not only to support himself and his family but also to give to those in need. Instead of sponging on the community, as thieves do, he will start contributing to it. In verse 29 Paul turns from the use of our hands to the use of our mouths. Speech is a wonderful gift of God. It is one of our human capacities which reflect our likeness to God. So let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths. The word translated as corrupting (or ďevilĒ) is a word used of rotten trees and rotten fruit [see Matt. 7:17-18]. When applied to rotten talk, whether this is dishonest, unkind or vulgar, we may be sure that in some way it hurts the hearers. Instead, we are to use our unique gift of speech constructively, for building up people and not for damaging or destroying them. Jesus taught the great significance of speech. Our words reveal what is in our hearts, He said, and we shall have to give an account on judgment day of every careless word we have uttered [Matt. 12:33-37]. If we are truly a new creation of God, we shall undoubtedly develop new standards of conversation. Instead of hurting people with our words, we shall want to use them to help, encourage, cheer, comfort and stimulate them. Paul now introduces the Holy Spirit in verse 30. The apostle was constantly aware that behind the actions of human beings invisible personalities are present and active. He has just warned us to give no opportunity to the devil [27]; now he urges us not to grieve the Holy Spirit. Since He is the Holy Spirit, He is always grieved by unholiness, and since He is the one Spirit [2:18; 4:4], disunity will also cause Him grief. In fact, anything incompatible with the purity or unity of the church is incompatible with His own nature and therefore hurts Him. One might add that because He is also the Spirit of truth, through whom God has spoken, He is upset by all our misuse of speech, which has been Paulís topic in the preceding verse. The sealing took place at the beginning of our Christian life; the Holy Spirit Himself, indwelling us, is the seal with which God has stamped us as His own. The day of redemption, although we already have redemption in the sense of forgiveness, looks on to the end when our bodies will be redeemed, for only then will our redemption or liberation be complete. So the sealing and the redemption refer respectively to the beginning and the end of the salvation process. And in between these two points we are to grow in Christlikeness and to take care not to grieve the Holy Spirit.

 

[31-32]In verse 31 Paul lists six unpleasant attitudes and actions which are to be put away from us entirely. Bitterness is a sour spirit and sour speech. It is an embittered and resentful spirit which refuses to be reconciled. Wrath and anger are similar, the former denoting a passionate rage and the latter a more settled and sullen hostility. Clamor describes people who get excited, raise their voices in a quarrel, and start shouting, even screaming, at each other, while slander is speaking evil of others, especially behind their backs, and so defaming and even destroying their reputation. The sixth word is malice, or ill will, wishing and probably plotting evil against people. There is no place for any of these horrid things in the Christian community; they have to be totally rejected. In their place we should welcome the kind of qualities which characterize the behavior of God and His Christ. We are to be kind to one another. Tenderhearted is compassionate, while forgiving one another is literally ďacting in graceĒ towards one another, as God in Christ has acted in grace towards us.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.†††††††† In verses 4:4-6, Paul sets forth the reasons for the unity of Godís Church. But then he instructs all believers to work at maintaining this unity in our local churches [4:3]. Due to the presence of sin in our redeemed lives, we must work hard at maintaining this unity. What things can you do in order to maintain the unity in your local church?

 

2.†††††††† How does God design the diversity of the church to contribute to the unity of the church?

 

3.†††††††† How has God designed for His church to grow in spiritual maturity? What role are you playing in the spiritual growth of your local church?What is the relationship between the spiritual growth of individual members and the spiritual maturity of the local church?

 

4.†††††††† In 4:25-32, Paul lists some specific rules for living in true righteousness and holiness [4:24] that are crucial for the unity and spiritual maturity of the church. Which of these characteristics are you struggling with in your life at the present time?

 

References:

The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, Inter Varsity Press.

The Letter to the Ephesians, Peter OíBrien, Eerdmans.

Ephesians, Frank Thielman, ECNT, Baker.