Monday, February 19, 2018

The Source and Significance of Spiritual Gifts: Ephesians 4:7-10

What does Christ expect of me as a Christian?  The answer is that he expects you to walk worthy of his calling.  This is what Paul beseeches his readers to do in the first verse of the application section of his letter to the Ephesians.  It is the banner that waves over the entirety of chapters 4-6.  In some sense, everything that Paul will say from this point on is just an exposition of what it means to walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we have been called.

He begins with a call to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (4:3).  For Paul, unity was essential because we live out the Christian life in the context of the Christian community, the church.  Paul clearly believed that spiritual development and maturity happens as we rub shoulders with other believers (cf. 4:16).  But that is not going to happen if you can’t get along with other believers.  And this is not always easy, which is why Paul exhorts us to be lowly and meek and longsuffering and forbearing, all in a spirit of love (4:2).  If we are not endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, it’s not going to be kept.

So verses 2-6 warn us against trying to live out our Christian life in isolation.  It warns us against the rampant individualism that has divided and paralyzed the culture of the church. 

But there is another danger that threatens to undermine our ability to walk worthy of our calling.  It is the danger of wanting everyone to be the same.  In some sense, it is opposite to the problem of individualism.  We naturally are attracted to people that are just like us, with similar personalities and giftings.  We like people who see things the way we see them. 

This is a problem in the wider culture, especially in the political realm.  Commentators warn us of the fact that too many people live in echo chambers.  Conservatives only want to listen to other conservatives and liberals only want to listen to other liberals.  Some people only listen to Fox News and others only listen to CNN.  We are drawn to Facebook groups of people who are just like us.  We follow people who validate our own personal choices.  And this problem carries over easily into the context of the church. 
The irony is that when we want everyone to be like us, we probably think that we are pursuing unity.  But what is really happening is that we are extending the call to unity into areas where there ought to be diversity.  And so we are really undermining the very unity to which Christ calls us.

The unity to which our Lord calls us is a unity in diversity.  Yes, there is “one body and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (4-6).  But, there is not only a “you all” aspect to the church, there is also the “every one of us” aspect of the church (7).  At verse 7, Paul switches from “all” to “each one,” from unity to diversity.

The diversity that Paul highlights here is the diversity of giftedness.  It is the diversity of gifts that enriches the church and makes it a place where people can grow in grace and learn better to walk worthy of God’s calling. It is important to know where the diversity lies.  It does not lie in diversity of doctrine, for there is “one faith, one Lord, one baptism.”  It does not lie in diversity of religion, for there is “one body and one Spirit, and one hope.”  The Christian church is a society with bounds, and these bounds are determined by the Word of God in the Bible.  There is such a thing as heresy.  Just because you name the name of Christ does not mean that you should be in the church.  The apostle John reminds us, “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God.  He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hat both the Father and the Son.  If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed” (2 Jn. 9-10).  It is a serious thing to abide not in the doctrine of Christ.

Unity is not achieved by removing the boundaries between the church and the world.  Unity is achieved by holding fast to Christ as he is revealed to us in the Word of God, the faith of God’s people.  Within this unity, however, there is a lot of room for different ways to fit into the church.  In particular, there is a lot of room for diversity of gifts.  And it is only as we support this diversity and benefit from the gifts of others that we will truly grow in the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

What does the apostle teach us about this diversity of giftedness?  I think he does two things in these verses.  First, he shows us who the source of our gifts in verse 7 is: “But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.”  Jesus Christ is the source of every believer’s gift or gifts.  Second, in verses 8-10, he shows us what the significance of our gifts is.  They are the fruit of our Lord’s victory over Satan, sin, and death.  In verse 7, we see Christ sovereignly presiding over the distribution of the gifts and in verses 8-10, we see Christ supremely preeminent in the exercise of the gifts.

Let’s see how this works out in the text.

First, in verse 7, we see Christ sovereignly presiding over the distribution of the gifts.  Now, I think it is significant that the word that Paul uses here in verse 7 is not “gift” per se, but “grace.”  In 1 Corinthians 12, for example, he uses the word charisma, “spiritual gift” (1 Cor. 12:4).  However, in this place Paul doesn’t say charisma but charis (although it is clear that both words are related).  However, given what Paul goes on to say in the following verses, it’s obvious that charis here refers to spiritual abilities for service in the kingdom of God.  So there is salvation grace (cf. Eph. 2:8-9) and there is service grace, and it is the latter that the apostle is talking about here.  But it is of course completely fitting that “grace” is the word used to describe our spiritual gifts, because our gifts are not something that we create for ourselves.  They are given to us, freely, and apart from any merit on our part.  Every spiritual gift is a grace in that sense.  You didn’t earn them and you don’t deserve them.  They are gifts freely given to you by Christ.

And he gives them to every believer: “unto every one of us is given grace” (7).  Every believer has a spiritual gift.  In other words, we are all given the ability to serve in the kingdom of God.  You are not meant to be a spectator.  You were not meant to take up ground.  Even if we are given one talent, we are expected to use that.  We each have a unique role to play in the advance of God’s cause upon the earth. 

This idea is implicit in all the “one another” texts in the NT.  We are told to “be kindly affectioned one to another, in honor preferring one another,” to “be of the same mind one toward another” (Rom. 12:10, 16).  We are to “by love serve one another” and to “bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 5:13; 6:2).  We are to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16).  We are to “comfort yourselves together, and edify one another” (1 Thess. 5:11).  We are to “exhort one another daily, while it is called today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).  The apostle Peter sums it up when he writes, “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10).  Peter thus shows that all the “one another” texts are calls for each of us individually to serve the church with the gift or gifts given to us. 

The point here is that when the Scriptures speak about the spiritual gifts, they are not talking about some special ability that only some believers have.  They are not necessarily a reference to the gifts of healing and prophesy.  They are a reference to the way Christ has equipped you and every other believer to help the church grow in Christlikeness.  In other words, these verses are speaking about you and to you.  You have a role to play in the advance of God’s kingdom.

But that is not the only thing Paul has to say about the dispensing of the gifts.  He also tells us that our Lord not only gives the gifts, but he determines what the gift is that you have.  We are given grace “according to the measure of the gift of Christ” (7).  In 1 Cor. 12:11, Paul write that “all these [the different gifts] are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”  The Spirit, of course, is the Spirit of Christ (cf. Rom. 8:9) so what is said about the Spirit is also true of Christ.  He apportions, through the Spirit, to each person the gift that he decides for them to have. 

Not only that, but our Lord also decides the measure of our giftedness: “according to the measure of the gift of Christ.”  He not only determines what our particular gift is, he also determines the amount of the gift that we receive.  Some people are more gifted than others.  Some will be more gifted than you and others may be less gifted than you.  But the point here is that you are not the one who determines the level of your giftedness; Christ is.  As John the Baptist put it, “A man can receive nothing, except it be given to him from heaven” (Jn. 3:27). 

So Christ is the one who sovereignly presides over the distribution of the gifts.  Now in the following verses, the apostle grounds this reality in an OT text, namely, Psalm 68:18.  In doing so, he opens a window into the significance of the gifts that our Lord gives to his church.

He writes, “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captives and gave gifts unto men” (8).  Now a lot of ink has been spilled in commentaries over this verse, because Paul doesn’t quote the passage verbatim.  In fact, it appears that the apostle has changed the meaning of the verse.  The main point of difference between Paul’s quotation and the actual verse is that Paul says that “he . . . gave gifts unto men,” whereas the psalmist writes that God “received gifts for men.”  So there is the difference between giving gifts and receiving gifts.  How do we deal with this apparent discrepancy?

Psalm 68 is a celebration of God’s victory over his enemies and the enemies of the people of God.  Thus, the psalmist rejoices in God’s righteous protection of his people and especially of the defenseless (the widows and orphans, ver. 1-6); he celebrates the exodus and the conquest of Canaan (ver. 7-10), and he goes on to exult in God’s victory over the Gentile kings who opposed Israel throughout their history (ver. 11-18).  It is in this context that verse 18 comes in: “Thou [God] hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them.”  The idea in verse 18 is of a conquering king taking spoils from his conquered enemy. 

Paul takes this verse and turns the taking of spoils from enemies to giving gifts to friends.  But we can see that the idea of one implies the other, so that though Paul’s quotation is not exact, neither does it violate the meaning of the Psalm.  For kings took the spoils from their foes and lavished them on their friends.  King David himself did this as recorded in 1 Sam. 30:26. 

Christ did this on the cross.  He blotted “out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:14-15).  He spoiled the principalities and powers by his redemptive work.  And then he lavished the grace of his victory over them upon the church. 

The apostle goes on in verses 9-10 to expand upon the ideas implicit in verse 8.  In particular, he focuses on the phrase “he ascended on high,” and he applies this to the resurrection of Christ: “he . . . ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things” (10); compare Eph. 1:20-23.  But as he says, ascending implies descending “first into the lower parts of the earth” (9). 

Again, a lot of ink has been spilled over this verse and what it means.  Many of the early church fathers took this to mean that Christ descended into hell between his death and resurrection.  Others have taken it to refer to the incarnation.  Christ descended from heaven to earth when he was born.  However, I think this descent is a reference to the grave.  His ascension followed his descent into the grave.  There are two reasons why this interpretation is compelling to me.  First, because if this were just a reference to the incarnation, it seems that Paul would have simply written that Christ descended to the earth, not to the lower parts of the earth.  But second, and more importantly, this same sequence of death followed by resurrection and glorification appears in Eph. 1:19-23, including Christ filling all things: “Which [power] he wrought in Christ when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.”

Now the significance of the gifts is in full view.  The gifts are the spoils of Christ’s victory over Satan, sin, and death.  They are the part of the fruit of the death and resurrection and ascension of Christ.  They are an extension of Christ filling all things.  So we should not take the gifts lightly.  To despise the gifts is to despise the redemptive work of our Lord.  It would be to despise his victory over his enemies and ours.

But what are we to do with this phrase, “that he might fill all things”?  Not too long ago I heard R. C. Sproul say that when he was expositing through this passage, when he came to this phrase, he didn’t know what to do with it.  So I’m not sure I can handle it either!  However, my modest proposal is that this is just a very picturesque way of saying that Christ’s dominion extends to the farthest reaches of the universe.  As he put it to his disciples in the Great Commission, “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Mt. 28:18).  When our Lord ascended, he ascended to take the throne of the universe.  As Daniel predicted, “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.  And there was given unto him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14).  In other words, our Lord’s dispensing gifts is part and parcel of his sovereign dominion over all the universe, which is an extension of the victory which he accomplished by the cross.

So now that we’ve seen what Paul is saying in these verses, let’s go back to the question we raised at the beginning of our message: how can we walk worthy of our calling?  The answer in these verses (7-10) is that we do so by using our gifts and by benefiting from the gifts of others.  Now what is necessary for us to do that?  Three things.

First of all, you need to understand the source of your gifts.  Jesus Christ is the source of your gifts.  Now knowing this will do at least two things.  It will keep you from pride.  The very last thing you want to do is to take your gift and use it as a platform to draw attention to yourself.  We need to remember that we would not have any ability to serve Christ and his people if he had not given us the grace to do so.  Remember what the apostle said to the Corinthians: “For who maketh thee to differ from another?  And what hast thou that thou didst not receive?  Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).  Pride will poison your gifts.  It’s like a putting a drop of arsenic in a healing balm.  Being able to serve others with our gifts is an amazing thing, but if we start to become puffed up in our use of the gift, don’t be surprised when God takes it away from you.

I think this one reason why God often sends brokenness into our lives.  He made Jacob limp to remind him of his frailty and the fact that he was constantly dependent upon God.  He gave the apostle Paul a thorn in the flesh to keep him from being puffed up with pride.  If God has sent pain into your life, know that pain is better than pride, because pain reminds us that we depend every moment upon God’s grace, whereas pride hardens our heart against dependence upon the grace of Christ. 

But knowing that our Lord, not us, is the source of our giftedness will not only keep us from pride, it will also keep us from despair.  If you are looking at your life and wondering if it has any meaning because your achievements don’t compare with others; if you are burdened because you look at the victories of others and you seem to have only defeat; if you feel guilty because your gifts don’t stack up against the gifts of others, then you need to remember this.  You need to remember that you don’t have the ministry of someone else because you don’t have the gifts of someone else.  And that is not your fault.  In fact, it’s nobody’s fault.  You have the gifts that Christ wanted you to have.  And so you don’t have to feel guilty because you’re not doing what someone else is doing.  You just need to do the things to which Christ has called you to do.  And if that means doing things that no one will know about, that’s okay, if that’s what Christ has called you to do.  At the end of the day, the value of our gifts doesn’t come from the praise of men but from the call of Christ upon our lives.  Better to be a doorkeeper in the house of God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.

The second thing we need to do is to understand the reason for your gifts.  Our gifts are given to us to serve and advance the kingdom of Christ.  This is only implicit in our text, but Paul makes it explicit just a few verses later.  However, it’s already in the word for gifts: “grace.”  God’s grace is his favor bestowed freely and without consideration of merit in order to bring men and women into fellowship with himself.  Grace extends to every part of our salvation.  It is not just given in order to give men and women the forgiveness of sins, it is also given to make us more like Christ.  And that is where our gifts come in.  The fact that they are called “grace” points us to their place in the application of Christ’s redemptive work to his people. 

If you are a Christian, you need to understand that it is not just the preacher’s job to make sure that believers grow in grace.  It’s your job, too.  You have a role to play.  There is no believer without a gift, and there is no gift that does not have some function in the spiritual growth of the church.  So don’t isolate yourself.  Don’t seal yourself off from others.  Open your heart and your home to others, and especially the people of God.  And this reality does not depend upon age.  If you are a believer, it doesn’t matter whether you are 8 years old or 80 years old: you have a gift and you are meant to use that gift for the cause of God and truth.

Finally, you need to understand the significance of your gifts.  Don’t undervalue them: they are the spoils of Christ’s victory over his enemies and yours.  It doesn’t matter how small they might appear in the eyes of men.  If Christ has given them to you, they are more valuable than the greatest scientific achievement or the greatest military victory, or the greatest political accomplishment, or the greatest business deal.  No Nobel Prize can compete with the gift you have been given.  For before it was given to you, it was purchased by the blood of the Son of God.  You aren’t going to use your gift if you think it is useless or worthless.  But neither is true.  It is most useful and most valuable. 

So thank God for your gifts.  And in the name of Christ and by the power of the Spirit of Christ, go out and use them.  

Monday, February 5, 2018

Keep the Unity of the Spirit: Ephesians 4:1-6

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is very clearly divided into two parts.  Chapters 1-3 give us doctrine and chapters 4-6 give us duty.  So with the word, therefore,” the apostle is moving from exposition to application, from the credenda to the agenda.  In the first three chapters, Paul uses the imperative only once (2:11); he uses it forty times in chapters 4-6.  It is important that we know certain things; that is the point of chapters 1-3.  But we must put what we know to practice, and this is the point of chapters 4-6. 

We must have both doctrine and duty.  I know some Christians prefer doctrine over duty and they decry as legalistic all who preach sermons directed to the life.  But such people are mistaken.  Those who hold doctrine without duty only possess a useless knowledge and a barren intellectualism that spreads division and death in the church.  On the other hand, there are those who prefer duty over doctrine and think that too much time spent on doctrine is time wasted.  Get out there and do stuff!  But such people have shallow roots and end up petering out over time.  Because their roots don’t go down deep into the truths of God’s word, they don’t have the motivation and resources to keep going when the going gets tough.  Moreover, often what they do isn’t grounded in Biblical truths and ends up undermining the very cause they claim to live for.  We need doctrine and we need duty.

Paul spends about the same time on both doctrine and duty here in Ephesians.  That says a lot.  He wants to make sure that we are rooted and grounded in the truths of the gospel.  He wants you to know what you have been given in Christ.  He wants you to know that to which you have been called.  Note how he begins: “I therefore the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (4:1).  As we shall see, the emphasis in the first six verses is on unity.  But the overarching exhortation is not one to unity, it is to walk worthy of your calling, God’s calling.  Before you do anything, you need to understand your calling.

What is this calling?  Paul has mentioned it just once before in this epistle, in 1:18: “that ye may know what is the hope of his calling.”  The calling that Paul is talking about is not something that we do to ourselves, it is something God does to us.  It is God’s calling.  Here in 4:1, it is a calling of which we are the recipients, “wherewith ye are called.”  God does the calling. 

What has he called us to?  Well, in Romans 8:29-30, we read, “For whom he [God] did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.  Moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”  God’s calling is a calling unto salvation.  God calls those whom he predestinates, he justifies those he calls, and glorifies those whom he justifies.  God’s calling is part of an unbreakable chain of salvation. 

In Romans 8:30, it is linked to God’s predestination.  Paul has talked about that in Ephesians 1:5.  There, he writes that God the Father has “predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will.”  This indicates that God calls men and women to become part of his family, to enjoy the adoption of children by Jesus Christ.  Being called into the family of God means that now it is imperative that we act as members of this family.  That is Paul’s point here at the beginning of Ephesians 4: you are now a son or daughter of the Most High.  Through Jesus Christ our Savior, you have been given the incomparable privilege of relating to God as your Father.  Now walk like it!

Leonard Ravenhill, a British-born evangelist, pastor, and author, once recalled seeing the royal family, and the thing that struck him most was the way in which the children of the royal family acted.  He said they bore themselves in such a way that it was obvious these where children of the King of England.  Now Paul is reminding us of our calling, and in doing so he is implicitly reminded us that we are children, not of an earthy king or queen, but of the King of heaven and earth.  Bearing his name, it is imperative upon us that we live in such a way that we reflect the glory of our glorious Father in heaven: “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye have been called.”

I love the way Paul exhorts us to this.  “I . . . beseech you.”  The word that the apostle uses here is almost impossible to translate into English in a single word.  It has such a wide variety of meanings that translators and commentators really struggle exactly how to put it.  Personally, I think those who land on a single word do injustice to the meaning.  There is no single word that adequately renders Paul’s meaning here.  “Beseech” is good, but the word also carries the meaning, to exhort, to appeal, to encourage, to comfort, and to beg.  Paul is doing all those things here.  He is not just exhorting them, he is also encouraging them, appealing to them.  In doing so, he is not hitting the Ephesians over the head with the stick of authority, though he certainly does carry authority as an apostle and prisoner of Jesus Christ.  He is appealing to them, not to show them who’s boss, but to encourage them to do what is ultimately for their good and God’s glory.

But this appeal also alerts us to the gravity of that to which they are called.  Walking worthy of your calling is not something to be shrugged off.  It is far more important than most of the other concerns competing for our attention.  The glory of God is at stake.

It’s important to see this because everyone wants to be part of something bigger than themselves.  If you are a Christian, you need look no further.  You are already part of something infinitely bigger than yourself: namely, the display of the glory of God in this world.  And you don’t necessarily do that by doing something “big” as the world defines big.  You do it by walking worthy of the calling to which you have been called by God.

What does this look like?  Paul begins to answer that question in verses 2-6.  Really, all of chapters 4-6 show us how to walk worthy of our vocation.  But the first part of the answer to what this looks like begins in 4:2-6, and that’s what we will consider together this morning.

The heart of Paul’s exhortation in these verses is found in verse 3: “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  The emphasis on unity in these verses is unmistakable.  In verses 4-6, the word “one” is used seven times, referring to the unity of the body of Christ.  So what we are to do is given in verse 3: keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  How we do this is found in verse 2, and why we do this is found in verses 4-6.

We begin with the what in verse 3.  There Paul exhorts us to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Notice that Paul does not exhort them to create the unity of the Spirit.  There is a reason for this.  The unity that Paul is speaking about here is not something you can create.  It is something that has already been created.  Jesus Christ did this on the cross: he reconciled both Jew and Gentile “unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby” (2:16).  In verses 4-6, the unity described is assumed and provides the basis for the appeal in the previous verses.  This unity is a unity that is cemented into the salvation that Christ came to accomplish.  All who are redeemed by him enjoy the unity resulting from belonging to Christ.  Our Lord prayed shortly before his death, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.  And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (Jn. 17:20-23).  Being “one” in the sense in which our Lord speaks here encompasses all the blessings of redemption. 

I think this is important because often we focus our attention too much upon external forms of unity.  I’m not saying, of course, that we should totally ignore such things.  But we should not put too high a premium upon them.  The unity that our Lord came to accomplish and the unity that we are called to keep is the unity that springs directly from our Lord’s redemptive work for his people.  All who share in his redemption share in this unity.  It is the unity shared between all who embrace the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord that we are to keep.  How awful it is when we will have no fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ because they don’t dot every “I” and cross every “t” the way we do. 

It is the unity of the Spirit.  It is “of the Spirit” because the blessings of redemption are applied to us by the Holy Spirit.  It is why Paul begins his epistle by thanking God “who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (1:3).  When we considered that verse, we noted that “spiritual” doesn’t refer to our spirits but to the Holy Spirit.  The blessings are applied to us by the Holy Spirit.  All who are born again are born again by the Spirit of God (Jn. 3:8).  Those who share in Christ’s salvation are thus partakers of the work of the Holy Spirit upon their hearts.

It is this unity that we are to endeavor to keep.  We are to be eager to keep it.  We are to make every effort to keep it.  Those who have no desire to pursue the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace show that they know nothing of the salvation which is ours in Christ, because they show that they are strangers to the family of God.  The apostle John teaches that if we are in fact born again and bear the imprint of the Father’s character upon our hearts and lives, then we are going to be attracted to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  If we love the Father, we will love his children.  Our hearts will go out to them, not in word only but in deed and in truth. 

Given the nature of this unity, it should not surprise us that this is where Paul begins in the application section of his epistle.  When God saves us, he does not save us onto an island.  Our lives as children of the Most High are not to be lived out through rugged individualism.  They are to be lived out in the context of the family of God.  You cannot be a follower of Christ and ignore his family.  You are saved and called into a family and it is in the context of this family that you grow in grace.  And as Paul will show in the following verses, our growth in grace and maturity depends in large measure upon our interaction with other believers.  God has not given you all the gifts.  You depend on other believers and their gifts to grow up into the measure of the stature of Christ.  And we obviously need to be unified in order to fully benefit from the giftedness of each other.

We all need each other to display God’s glory to the world.  Think of the church as a puzzle.  Each believer is like an individual piece.  By themselves, they don’t show much of the picture.  But when put side by side in their proper places, they create a beautiful picture of the glorious grace of God in the salvation of his people.

However, we all know that the reality is that often this unity is not kept.  It is broken by a thousand petty differences.  It is broken over misunderstandings.  It is broken by selfish choices and sinful habits.  So the next obvious question is, “How do we keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?”  And Paul tells us in verse 2: “with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love.”  We now move from the what to the how.  Let’s consider each of the words in their turn.

First, lowliness.  But what is lowliness?  In Phil. 2:3 it is contrasted with strife and vainglory; those who are lowly esteem others better than themselves.  In 1 Pet. 5:5 is it contrasted with pride.  In Romans 12:16 the lowly are contrasted with those who “mind high things.”  In other words, to be lowly is to be humble.  Charles Hodge says that it “includes a low estimate of one’s self, founded on the consciousness of guilt and weakness, and a consequent disposition to be low, unnoticed and unpraised.”

It should not surprise us then that being lowly is not something that you are going to learn from the world.  The world wants nothing to do with sin and guilt.  It doesn’t want to admit guilt and weakness; it wants to ignore it and cover it up.  And so there is no ground for lowliness.  In fact, the Roman philosopher Epictetus put the quality of lowliness as first on his list of character traits to be avoided.  The world does not commend lowly people.  It commends those who push themselves into the limelight.  It commends those who are self-assertive and bold and brash.  And I would bet that if you read a lot of self-improvement books today, they are going to agree with Epictetus.

But if unity is to be kept through lowliness and humility of mind, it is no wonder why the world is so rent with divisions.  The very thing that disgusts them is the very thing that is the only cure to the hatreds and suspicions that tear our world apart.  It gives the church a unique opportunity to show the world what true peace and unity looks like.

If you are a follower of Christ, you must be lowly.  After all, isn’t this the way he described himself?  “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek, and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Mt. 11:28-29). 

Everything in this world is crying at you to exalt yourself.  If you listen to these siren calls, you will torpedo the manifestation of the unity of the church.  We desperately need people who are willing to be lowly.  These are the only people who will be able to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  They are the only people who will be able to help the broken and the hurting.  Proud people don’t minister grace and peace.  They minister hurt and divide.  We need lowly people, people whose lives are characterized with all lowliness.

Next, Paul exhorts us to meekness.  Meekness is strength under control.  It is gentleness.  Aristotle described the meek as those who lived between the extremes of being angry all the time and never being angry at all.  Meekness, in other words, is not weakness.  It is the ability to control oneself and to endure the faults of others, knowing that God will make all things right in the end.  A meek person applies the truth of Romans 12:19, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”  It is supremely illustrated in the life of our Lord, who was meek and lowly in heart, but who was by no means a weak person.

The only way unity can be maintained is by people who are not always wanting to insist upon their rights.  Our whole society is filled with groups of people who are insisting upon their rights.  And it’s tearing our nation apart.  The church, if it is to be any kind of witness to the world, is going to have to go a different direction – the direction of meekness.  We need to be gentle with others.   After all, God has been gentle with us.  It is his gentleness that has made us great (cf. Ps. 18:35).  Stop insisting upon your rights.  Give way to others.  Be like Christ.

Then Paul urges longsuffering, which he further describes as forbearing one another in love.  These exhortations tell us something very important about the church.  They tell us that the church is not perfect.  They tell us that if you belong to the body of Christ, there are going to be people who rub you the wrong way.  You don’t forbear with people who treat you the way you want to be treated.  Or you don’t forbear with people who are just the way you want them to be.  You have to forbear with people who get on your nerves, who are inconsiderate, who treat you badly.  It is no sign that you need to leave a church because someone there bothers you.  No, it is a sign that you need to be longsuffering.  You need to be patient.  You need to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

The key of all this is love.  To love someone in a Biblical sense is to seek their highest good, even if seeking that good comes at great expense to you.  The great exemplar of this, of course, is the love of God sending his Son to die for our sins.  Our highest good is eternal fellowship with God, and God sought that for us at great cost to himself – the sacrifice of his Son.  We are to imitate this: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.  He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.  In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.  Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:7-11).  We are to love the brethren in the same way God loved us!

That brings us, finally, to the why.  That is given to us in verses 4-6.  We are to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace because the identity of the church is inseparable from the unity of the church.  Paul focuses on seven realities upon which the unity of the church is based.  In doing so, the apostle also draws our attention to the fact that the unity of the church is a Trinitarian unity: it is based upon the persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit. 

He begins with the realities connected to the Spirit of God: one body and one hope (4), for it is the Spirit of God who brings us into the one body of Christ (“For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit,” 1 Cor. 12:13) and who fills our hearts with hope (“And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us,” Rom. 5:5). 

He then focuses on the realities connected to the Son of God: one faith and one baptism (5).  In the NT, “Lord” is almost universally a reference to Jesus Christ the Son of God.  Our faith is centered on Christ and on what he has done for us; the embrace of the gospel is what makes us Christian.  The one baptism is our outward affirmation that we have been buried with Christ and risen with him from the dead into newness of life (cf. Rom. 6).  (I cannot help but observe that according to this text, baptism is not about our connection to a denomination but about our connection to Christ.)

Finally, Paul focuses on the reality connected to the Father: the one family (6).  The “you all” of verse 6 is not a reference to all of humanity but to the church, the body of Christ.  God the Father is the Father of all who belong to Christ and he is above, through, and in them all.  He is not the absent Father, he is ever present to bless his children.  He loves them and they love him back.

It is in this way we are to walk worthy of our calling.  Paul’s plea 2000 years ago is just as relevant today as it was then.  Do you want to grow in your gifts?  Then begin by keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Do you want to grow in grace and holiness?  Then keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Do you want to flourish in your relationships?  Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  Do you want to stand firm against the evil one?  Keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  This is where is all begins.  Walk worthy of the vocation to which you were called!

The Gathering (Acts 2:41-47)

What is the church? What is its purpose? How does it function? If we claim to be a true church, then it behooves us to be able to answer the...