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!


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