Tuesday, March 20, 2018

“But you have not so learned Christ” – Ephesians 4:17-24

In the tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen, we are told how a couple of swindlers were able to dupe a king and his counselors and indeed an entire city into believing that they had made the emperor a suit of clothes which in fact really didn’t exist.  The key behind their fraud was that they were able to convince the people of the city that the fabric had magical properties.  The magical property was that the clothes they made with this wonderful fabric became invisible to anyone who was unusually stupid or unfit for office.  Since no one wanted to admit they couldn’t see the clothes because they had believed the tale of the fabric’s supposed magical properties, everyone agreed with the swindlers that the clothes for the emperor were magnificent.  And so the emperor went on parade with absolutely nothing on.  (This is almost like some of the parades in our cities, but that’s another story.)  It took a child to admit what was obvious to everyone, and though at first people tried to ignore the child, eventually it got around and people began to be convinced.   Even the emperor, we are told, suspected the child was right, but the procession had to go on, and so they continued on with the illusion and the fraud.

In the West, we have been similarly deceived with the blithe promises of the post-modern, post-Christian swindlers of our day.  The politicians, the academics, the pop-stars, and even the preachers of our churches have told us that we need to get rid of the rags of Biblical Christianity and to replace them with the magical fabric of post-modern morality.  And they’ve convinced us that if we don’t see the value of their worldview, it just means we are stupid.  People of course don’t want to be stupid and so we’ve gone along with things that are clearly absurd.  Like the idea that a man can be a woman or vice versa.  Or the idea that a child in the womb is not a person.  Or the idea that purposeless causes can mimic intelligent beings.  These should be obvious untruths, but since so many others go along with them, we don’t want to be the odd man out.  The emperor has no clothes, and even though a child can see the obvious, the intellectuals and the elite continue to tell us that it isn’t so and we continue to cheer the patently ridiculous.

In our text, Paul is being honest and tells us that the emperor has no clothes.  He describes what a culture is like apart from faith in Christ: the word he uses to describe a godless culture is “vanity” (17).  It’s the word the Preacher uses over and over again in Ecclesiastes to describe the purposelessness of existence apart from the knowledge of God.  There is no reason that, as Christians, we should want to go back to join the vain parade.  In fact, there is every reason for us to move in a direction opposite from the flow of a culture which is becoming more and more detached from its Christian moorings.  As it does so, we are seeing more clearly the effects of secularism upon the death of a culture.  It is not an accident that our culture is becoming more toxic, more violent, more tribal, and more enslaved to physical appetites.  The scary thing is not that this is the first time these things have popped up.  They’ve always been around to some degree or another.  The scary thing is that for the first time in a long time these things are being celebrated.

What our text does for us is to remind us why we shouldn’t join our culture in celebrating godlessness.  That’s what unbelievers do.  They know deep down they are wrong, but they don’t want to live with the conviction of sin and so they silence their consciences by celebrating wickedness with each other.  Paul described it this way in Romans: “who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them” (Rom. 1:32).  Now as followers of Christ, we have already made a break with our neighbors who don’t know Christ.  But there will always be the temptation to go back.  And so we need to be reminded again and again why.  Again, our text does that.

What the apostle does in these verses is two-fold.  First of all, he describes the situation apart from Christ (17-19).  It is a scary and an ugly accounting of life in a culture devoid of the knowledge of the true God.  But it is honest, and we need to be reminded of it because the world will try its best to cover up this reality.  And then second, the apostle urges us to be faithful to the truth centered on the person and life and work of Jesus Christ (20-24).  To be faithful we need to live out the reality that we have not only put off the old man (22) but have also put on the new man and are being renewed in the spirit of our minds (23-24). 

You could say that the banner over verses 1-16 is “walk in unity.”  The apostle begins this chapter with the words, “I therefore the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called . . . endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (1, 3).  Now, in the same way, the apostle begins again with another “therefore . . . walk” (17).  This time, the emphasis is not so much on unity as it is on purity, or holiness.  So we might say that whereas the common theme to the first sixteen verses is “walk in unity,” the emphasis in verses 17-32 is “walk in purity.”

This does not mean of course that there is no emphasis on purity in the previous verses.  In fact, the apostle’s words in verses 17-32 flow naturally out of verses 1-16.  We saw in those verses that the unity we have is a unity in diversity, and this diversity is a diversity in spiritual giftedness.  And the reason the gifts are given are so that we become more like Christ.  This idea therefore ties naturally to the apostle’s observation in verse 20: “But ye have no so learned Christ,” and the exhortation to put off the old man which is not like Christ and to put on the new man which is.

The apostle’s flow of thought therefore goes as follows: there are two reasons why you should not walk like the Gentiles.  Reason 1: because their life is a life devoid of light and life (17-19).  Reason 2: because you have not so learned Christ (20-21).  This is then followed by the twin reminders that they have put off the old man (22) and put on the new man (23-24).  Let’s now walk through this text with the apostle and really try to hear and understand his reasons and his exhortations.

Two Reasons to Reinforce

Reason One: Because their life is a life devoid of light and life.  Remember that “to walk” in this context is not a reference to locomotion but to lifestyle.  We are not to adopt the lifestyle of those who do not believe the gospel.  Why?  Because, the apostle tells us, they “walk in the vanity of their mind” (17).  It is pointed out in the various commentaries that “mind” to the Biblical writers is more extensive than what we think of when we use the term.  For them it comprehended not just an intellectual component, but a moral component as well.  Paul in Romans writes, “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient [fitting]” (Rom. 1:28).  So when Paul says that the Gentiles walk in the vanity of their mind, he is referring to the moral purposelessness that characterized the unbelievers.  This was the state of affairs in Paul’s day and it is the state of affairs in ours, as well.  We are becoming less and less able as a culture to give reasons why we should reject any kind of wickedness.  We are adrift in moral relativism and it isn’t pretty.  Paul is essentially asking, “Why would you want to go back to that, to vanity, to a life which is morally adrift?”

But this is only at the head of things, the final result at the end of a sad and scary sequence of events.  It really begins with “the blindness of their heart” at the bottom of verse 18, which is the fundamental reason given for the entire sequence.  Now this probably should be translated “hardness” instead of “blindness.”  This is the way the word is translated, for example, in Mark 3:5.  The verbal form of this word always means “to harden” (see Mk. 6:52; 8:17; Jn. 12:40; Rom. 11:7; 2 Cor. 3:14)[1].  In any case, spiritual blindness and hardness go together, as John 12:40 shows, which reads (quoting Isaiah 6:10), “He [God] hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their hearts; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.”  Spiritual blindness and hardness describe those who will not see the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3-4).  They cannot see (blindness) because they will not see (hardness).  The fundamental problem with humanity is not a lack of education.  The fundamental problem is a heart which is unresponsive and blind to life-giving truth.  This of course is not a hardness which leaves us unaccountable, but one which increases our culpability and guilt before God.

As a result of this hardness, such individuals are ignorant and know nothing of “the life of God” (18).  In fact, they are alienated, estranged, from the life of God.  This is the same word Paul uses in Ephesians 2:12 when he says that before they were saved, they were “aliens [alienated, estranged] from the commonwealth of Israel.”  One of the reasons why the ungodly mock the Christian is because they really do not know what they are missing.  They are spiritually dead and they think this is normal.  However, there is no reason for the Christian to want to go back to this because we do know what it was like.  We know what it was like to be alienated and estranged from the life of God.  We remember the bondage; why would we want to go back to that?

But this is not all.  Paul tells us that in this condition of alienation from the life of God, we were darkened in our understanding: “having the understanding darkened” (18).  When your heart is wrong, when the will and the affections are bent against the will and ways of God, your mind will follow suit.  It’s the reason why brilliant men can completely miss the evidence for God and the gospel.  It’s not a matter of the intellect, it’s a matter of the heart.  But again, if your heart is wrong, your mind will go with it.  Paul explained it this way to the Romans: “For the invisible things of him [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:20-22).  The word “sophomore” literally means “wise fool” and our universities are full of them.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this category belongs merely to second-year students! 

Finally, the end result is that such people walk in the vanity of their mind.  So spiritual hardness of heart leads to spiritual ignorance which leads to alienation from the life of God which leads to a darkened understanding which leads to walking in the vanity of the mind.  But unfortunately, this is not the end of the description, either.  Paul goes on to say, “Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness [sensuality], to work all uncleanness with greediness” (19). 

God created every person with a conscience.  It’s what Paul refers to in Romans 2:15 as the law of God written in the heart.  But you can get to a point where that law is not talking to you anymore.  You’ve become “past feeling.”  To Titus, the apostle describes it as the condition where one’s conscience becomes defiled (Tit. 1:15).  To Timothy, he describes those who speak lies in hypocrisy, “having their conscience seared with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:2).  It is a scary condition.  The result is that such people give themselves over to sensuality and uncleanness.  They not only want it, they want it insatiably.  What was at one time perhaps gross and despicable to them, they now embrace with both hands.  Sin is like leprosy; it numbs our spiritual senses so that we play with fire and end up losing toes and fingers and don’t even realize it.  This is not something you want to be.  This is a spiritual condition every bit as horrifying a physical leprosy. 

It takes the work of God to awaken a sinner from such a condition.  Like the Prodigal Son, we have to come to ourselves, to our senses (Lk. 15:17).  But our blindness and hardness of heart prevents that unless Christ comes in his power to open our eyes and awaken us from a spiritual death.  This is why Paul goes on to talk about learning Christ and being taught by him.  The Ephesians didn’t actually hear Christ himself.  But when the gospel comes to us in the power of the Spirit of Christ, it is not any different than if he were there teaching us himself.  Our eyes are opened because of the power of Christ to open our eyes; and this is his second reason.

Reason Two: Don’t walk like the unbelievers because you have not so learned Christ.  This is a remarkable saying.  Generally, you don’t learn a person.  But that is just what the apostle says in verse 20.  What does he mean?  He means that we don’t just learn about Christ; we don’t just subscribe to his doctrines and teaching.  Rather, we embrace Christ himself in all that he is for us.  We embrace him as our Savior to deliver us from the guilt and defilement of our sins.  We embrace him as our Lord and King to rule over us and to conquer our enemies.  And we embrace him as our Prophet to teach us and to deliver us from our sinful ignorance and spiritual darkness.  Hodge writes that “‘to learn Christ’ does not mean merely, to learn his doctrines, but to attain the knowledge of Christ as the Son of God, God in our nature, the Holy one of God, the Saviour from sin, whom to know is holiness and life.  Any one who has thus learned Christ cannot live in darkness and sin.”[2]

This is important to emphasize, because there has been a lot of teaching, especially in the West, that teaches that saving faith just involves affirming doctrines in the mind, whether or not it changes the heart and the life.  Sometimes this is called “easy-believism,” sometimes “antinomianism.”  But whatever name it goes under, it is unbiblical and contrary to the teaching of our text.  You don’t learn Christ and then live like the devil.  Such a person has not learned Christ at all. 

Again, the reason why this could never be is because in conversion, we don’t just come to Christ, Christ also comes to us: “If so be [assuming this has happened] that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus” (21).  Again, Jesus didn’t physically come to the Ephesians and preach the gospel to them.  They had heard the truth from the apostle Paul, and perhaps others.  But when the gospel came to them, it “was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).  It “came not . . . in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thess. 1:5).  The gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16), because in the conversion of sinners more is at work than merely speaking words of truth.  The Holy Spirit is opening eyes and hearts.  We are told that the reason why Lydia received Paul’s gospel was because the Lord had opened her heart (Acts 16:14).  And so it must be with us.  If we are saved, it is not because we were smarter than the next person.  It is because God has done a work in your heart.  Conversion is a supernatural work of God.  And that being so, it is ridiculous to think that such a person could go on living as if nothing had happened.  When God speaks life into the soul, it will be so.  Grace does not leave a person unchanged.

Two Realties to Recall

From this reality follows an exhortation based upon two realities of which the apostle reminds them.  They are tied to verse 21, “you . . . have been taught by him.”  What were they taught?  They were taught to put off the old man (22) and to put on the new man (23-24).  This is an obvious reference to changing one’s clothing and the point is that as there is an obvious difference in our appearance when we have changed our clothes, even so there is a clear difference between what we were and what we are now in Christ. 

Now there is difference of opinion over whether these verses refer to something that happens only once or whether it refers to something that happens over and over again.  It is difficult to decide, but I am of the opinion that verses 22 and 24 refer to their conversion whereas verse 23 refers to an ongoing action.  There are several reasons I take this position.

First, it is true that every believer has definitively put off the old man and put on the new man.  Paul assumes this in the parallel text in Colossians: “Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Col. 3:9-10).  We have already argued that those who live lives that are no different from unbelievers show that they were never saved to begin with.  This is also assumed in passages like Romans 6, where Paul’s whole argument assumes that the believer’s death to sin is something definitive that happened in the past and that it is in light of this reality they are to live.  It is in this context that he mentions the “old man” in verse 6: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.”  Again, in Galatians 3:27, the apostle writes, “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ [a one-time event] have put on Christ.”  These verses indicate that putting off the old man and putting on the new man is a definitive, one-time event that happens at the very beginning of the Christian life.  As Paul puts it in 2 Cor. 5:17, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”  The old man, or old self, is what characterizes us before the new birth.  The new man, or new self, is how we are described after the new birth; it is what the new birth makes us.

Second, the tense of the verbs is different in verses 22 and 24 than in verse 23.  In verse 23, Paul uses a present middle infinitive, whereas in verses 22 and 24 he uses aorist middle infinitives, which would be the verbal form we would expect Paul to use if he had meant to refer to a once-for-all action.

Finally, this fits the apostle’s pattern of exhortation.  He often lays down a general principle and then applies that principle to specific details.  For example, in Romans 6, he tells his readers that they have died to sin, that the old man is crucified.  This is the reality they are to grasp.  On the basis of this reality, they are to go on to “let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof” (12). 

To say that putting off the old man is something that happens once in conversion, however, does not mean that we are not tempted to act out in ways that characterized our life before conversion.  The NT everywhere exhorts the believer to continue to put off or put away sinful attitudes and behaviors and to put on godly behaviors and attitudes.  Though we are genuinely new people in Christ, that doesn’t mean that there are not remnants of the flesh still hanging around.  We don’t lose this all at once at conversion.  Sanctification is a continual process, right up to our death.  So there are always going to be aspects of the old nature, the old humanity that we have inherited (cf. 2:3 and Rom. 5:12-21), that we are going to have to continually fight against.  Thus, as Hodge points out[3], we are called to put off the works of darkness (Rom. 13:12), to put away lying (Eph. 4:25), and to put off anger, wrath, and malice (Col. 3:8).  We are told to “lay apart” or put aside “all filthiness” (Jam. 1:21).  On the other hand, we are told to put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27), we are to cast off the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light (Rom. 13:12).  We are to put on compassionate hearts, etc. (Col. 3:12,ff).  However, there is a difference between saying that we have put off the old man, which once it’s done is done, and saying that we are to continue to put off attitudes and actions which are reminiscent of the old man and life.  The former is done once, whereas the latter is something that we do every day.

To sum up, in verses 22 and 24, Paul is describing what happened at our conversion both negatively and positively.  In verse 23, he is describing the ongoing process of sanctification.  However, we need to be reminded of who we are in Christ and what he has saved us from.  For it is on the basis of these realities that the apostle will go on to give very specific exhortations to holiness of life in verses 25-32.

Thus, when Paul reminds them that they were taught to “put off concerning the former conversation [conduct, lifestyle] the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (22), he is essentially saying, “Don’t go back to what you were.”  As the apostle Peter would put it, “the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries” (1 Pet. 4:3).  Notice that the apostle assumes that the life he is warning them away from is something they have parted ways with.  It is the “former manner of life.”  But again, there is always the danger of going back.  And to warn us against that, he reminds us that the former lusts in which we indulged were “deceitful lusts.”  We were lured into desiring those things because they appeared to be something they were not.  These lusts were Greeks bearing gifts.  They come to us promising pleasure when in reality they are waring against our souls (cf. 1 Pet. 2:11).  Like the swindlers in Andersen’s tale, lusts offer you lavish cloths that don’t exist.  The apostle is essentially saying, “Why would you want to go back to that?  Why would you want to go back to being deceived and living a lie?” 

Then, the apostle reminds us that we were taught to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is being renewed in righteousness and true holiness” (23-24).  Whereas the old life was one of deception, the new life is characterized by truth.  One commentator translates verse 24 as “righteousness and holiness that comes from truth.”[4]   We are sanctified by truth (Jn. 17:17) and it is the truth that sets us free (Jn. 8:32).

And this new life, this new man, means becoming more and more like Christ.  For the apostle tells us that the new man is being renewed “after God.”  When you compare this with the parallel verse in Col. 3:10, it is clear that the apostle is referring to the restoration of the image of God in the soul of man.  Now, every man still has the image of God to some extent (cf. Jam. 3:9).  But it has been marred almost beyond recognition.  Christ has come to restore it, and the way he is doing that is by making us like him (cf. Rom. 8:29; 1 Jn. 3:2).  For he is the image of God par excellence (Col. 1:15). 

Of course, this does not mean that we are being deified.  Paul limits the extent to which we are being transformed into the image of Christ in the words “in righteousness and true holiness.”  Whereas our lives were once characterized by the moral purposelessness of the Gentiles, now it is characterized by the moral excellence of righteousness and holiness.  We are being conformed into the image of God’s Son by being like him in his character.

And Jesus Christ is perfection itself.  All the moral excellences of God are in perfect display in Christ.  He is strong and loving, he is wise and kind, he is utterly holy and forgiving.  To be like him is to know what perfect contentment is like.  It is to know joy that is pure and never-ending.  Why would we not want to be like Christ?  Why go back to the condition of verses 17-19 when we have learned Christ?  If you are a believer, to ask the question is to answer it.

Of course, to get there is going to take work on our part.  We have to put off and put on.  But we are to continue to be renewed in the spirit of our mind.  Perhaps the best commentary on verse 23 is Romans 12:1-2: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present yourselves a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.  And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.”  How do we do that?  By paying close attention to the teaching of our Lord in his word.  In that way we will be renewed in the spirit of our mind; not just when we absorb its truths on an intellectual level only, but when we wed that knowledge to our affections and will so that our lives and outlook are changed.

The wonderful thing is that all this is possible to us through Jesus Christ.  May we know him by faith and trust in him, who is our Savior to take our sins and purge them, who is our King to take our enemies and crush them, who is our Prophet to take our ignorance and enlighten us.  He is offered to us in the gospel; all who thirst for the life he offers may come; those who drink will be filled.

[1] Although the KJV renders the verb “to blind” in the last two references.
[2] Charles Hodge, Commentary on Ephesians, p. 256.
[3] See p. 259.
[4] Hoehner, p. 609.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Why we need spiritual gifts – Ephesians 4:11-16

Last time, we saw that our Lord is the source of spiritual gifts and that the significance of the spiritual gifts lies in the fact that they are the fruit of our Lord’s redemptive work.  However, this does not fully unpack the reasons for which the spiritual gifts have been given.  Paul does that in the verses before us.  In verse 12, we are given the purpose of spiritual gifts: “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”  The main idea in that sentence is “perfecting” which can mean to equip, to complete, to train, or to mend.  The idea that is common to all these meanings is taking something which is lacking in some sense and completing it so that no longer lacks that thing.  The church presently is imperfect and incomplete, and so the Lord has given gifts to the church to make up for that imperfection.  You see it also in the word “edifying,” which means to build up.  Again, you have this idea of taking a building which is incomplete and adding to it so that it is a complete structure.

This immediately begs the questions: in what sense is the church incomplete?  The answer comes in verse 13: “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  The apostle seems to be saying one thing in different ways, namely, that the goal for which we are being perfected is conformity to Christ (cf. Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Jn. 3:2).  We are incomplete in that we are not yet like Christ.  This does not take place in this time, for it will happen when we shall see him as he is.  However, it is the goal that we are all to be striving after in this present time.  It is the main task of the church, to become more like Christ. 

In verse 13, the apostle has introduced another idea to fill out the need for the church to be perfected or completed.  It is the idea of growth.  We are to grow until we reach the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  This idea is then reinforced in each of the following verses.  In verse 14, we are not to remain as little children, but to grow so that we do not become the victims of spiritual deception.  In verse 15, we are told to speak the truth in love and so grow up into Christ, and then in verse 16, Paul explains how this growth takes place: as each member functions properly in the body of Christ. 

Thus, Paul is talking about spiritual growth in these verses.  The reason the spiritual gifts were given were so that we might grow spiritually so that we might become more like Christ. 

But then, how does this happen, exactly?  How do the gifts function so that spiritual growth happens?  Verse 16 shows that this does not happen apart from every believer functioning properly in the body.  In other words, in some sense, my spiritual growth depends upon your spiritual growth.  We grow together. We need each other.  You see this in that phrase which is found in between “perfecting” and “edifying” in verse 12: “for the work of the ministry.”  The question has often been asked whether this phrase is parallel to the other two or whether it is dependent upon the first.  The structure of the Greek text seems to favor the view that it depends upon the first phrase.  In other words, the spiritual gifts are given so that the church will be equipped for the work of ministry, with the result that the church will be built up in edification.

Ministry, or “service,” is not just done by a small group of people in the church.  It ought to be done by the entire church.  The apostle is saying that the spiritual gifts are given so that the church as a whole would be equipped to do the work of ministry.  It is only in this way that the church grows.

Well, we have just given a quick tour of the text.  What I want to do now is to go back through the text and highlight a feature of Paul’s treatment of spiritual gifts in this text.  It has to do with the role of God’s word in the growth of the church.  I think it is important to highlight this feature for a couple of reasons.  One is that there is often confusion over the relationship between the spiritual gifts and the Scriptures.  Some, in order to make room in the church for the spiritual gifts often seem to downplay the importance of the Word of God in the church.  Others, in order to maximize the influence of the Bible in the community of God’s people seem to want to downplay any role for spiritual gifts apart from those recognized in the offices of elder and deacon.  What we see in this text, however, is a dynamic that weds the spiritual gifts with the Word of God in way that brings about the spiritual growth of God’s people. 

So how does this happen?  How does the intersection of spiritual gifts and the Bible bring about the spiritual growth of the church?  The text shows us four ways in which this happens.

First, we grow through the written word.  Paul begins in verse 11 by enumerating some of the gifts.  Now, we need to remind ourselves that in the four lists in the NT that mention specific spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 4:10-11), none of them are the same.  So, we should not think that the list the apostle gives here is meant to be exhaustive.  However, there is a reason the apostle mentions these instead of others.  I think the reason lies in the connection between the role of God’s word and the growth of the church.  You see, every one of the gifts mentioned here are in some way connected to the teaching and proclamation of God’s word.

The first two, however, are more intimately connected to the written word which we have in the Scriptures.  These are the apostles and prophets.  It has often been noted that there are at least two different ways that the word “apostle” is used in the NT.  It can refer generically to anyone who is “sent,” and so we read about those who were denoted as the messengers or apostles of the churches (2 Cor. 8:23 and perhaps Rom. 16:7).  However, the word “apostle” is mainly used to denote a very limited and distinct group of men who were specially chosen by Christ to bear his authority and to give his word to the church.  The apostle gives the preeminent qualification of an apostle in this sense in Gal. 1:1 – “Paul, an apostle (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead).”  Apostles were not appointed by men but directly by Christ himself.  In addition, they were required to have seen the risen Christ in order to be eyewitnesses to the resurrection (cf. Acts 1:22; 1 Cor. 15:5-10).  So, we see that in the nature of the case there can be no apostles in the church today.

However, that does not mean that the apostles are lost to the church so that we cannot benefit from their gift.  For they remain with us through their writings in the NT.  It is not for no reason that the early church discriminated between those writings which were directly associated with an apostle (either written by an apostle or someone who wrote under the authority of an apostle like Mark and Luke) and those that were not.  Those which were not were discounted as Scripture.  And for good reason, for the apostles are the ones who were directly commissioned by our Lord to give his authoritative word to the church.  We have already seen how the apostle described the process by which he received God’s word for the church as “revelation” (Eph. 3:3). 

Next, we come to the prophets.  The prophets in Ephesians are always put together with the apostles.  Thus, in Eph. 2:20, we are told that the church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.”  And in Eph. 3:5, we read that the mystery of the gospel “in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.”  And then we have Eph. 4:11, “And he gave some, apostles, and some, prophets.”  The fact that they are always mentioned together has led some to believe that they are the same group.  However, our text precludes that.  Paul doesn’t say, “And he gave some apostles and prophets,” but rather “some apostle, and some prophets.”  So, they are a distinct group from the prophets.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to determine exactly where the difference between them lies.  With the apostles, they spoke by inspiration from God.  Again, they are intimately connected with the transmission of the Scriptures.  The apostle Peter in fact denotes the process by which Scripture is given to us as prophesy: “We have also a more sure word of prophesy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn and the day star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophesy of the scriptures is of any private interpretation.  For the prophesy came not in old time by the will of man: by holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:19-21).  The 19th century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge believed that the difference between NT prophets and apostles lay in the fact that the inspiration of the apostles was permanent whereas for the prophets it was occasional, and therefore the authority of the prophet was subservient to that of the apostle.[1]  I find this distinction persuasive and it seems to fit well with the nature of the ministry of the prophet laid out in 1 Cor. 14. 

One more question: are there prophets today?  I tend to think not, at least not as the apostle Paul thinks of them in this epistle, for with the apostles they are foundational to the church.  You only lay the foundation once.  So I don’t think this is necessarily an ongoing gift.  And I certainly am very uneasy with people who today claim to speak the very words of God and begin by saying something like, “The Holy Ghost says . . .”  This can be a dangerous (and I think unscriptural) practice that often tends to undermine confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture.

The fact that the apostle mentions these two gifts first both in Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28 indicates that he considered these gifts of primary importance for the church.  The fact that they are so intimately connected to the giving of Scripture tells us why the word of God is so important for the growth of the church.  The starting point for any kind of spiritual growth is by taking seriously the book that the Holy Spirit has given to us through the apostles and prophets. 

The importance of Scripture is implied throughout this passage.  The “faith” that we are to grow toward in unity is the faith of the word of God (13).  The “knowledge of the Son of God” does not come through our own musings but through the Bible (13).  We grow as we speak, not our own words, but the truth in love (15), truth whose boundaries are demarcated by the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  As Paul would later exhort Timothy: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  Do you want to grow?  Then get familiar with your Bible.

However, we not only grow through the written word; we also grow through the preached word.  The next two gits Paul mentions are “evangelists” and “pastors and teachers.”  Neither an evangelist nor a pastor is concerned with creating new revelation.  Rather, their task lies in disseminating (proclaiming and teaching) already existing revelation.  

There are only three texts in the NT that directly refer to evangelists, one of which is our text.  The first of the other two are Acts 21:8 where Philip is called an evangelist, and the last is 2 Tim. 4:5 where Paul exhorts Timothy to do the work of an evangelist.  These texts seem to indicate that an evangelist was simply a person who preached the gospel to others, especially to those who had never heard (as in the case of Philip).  On the other hand, a pastor-teacher is someone who disciples and teaches those who have already received and believed the gospel.  “Pastor” literally means “shepherd” and the way pastors shepherd their flocks is by giving them the word of God, not their own word.  Some have commented that not every teacher is a pastor, but every pastor must be a teacher.  They must be “apt to teach,” and the reason is because pastors are to lead by the preached word.

I think this is significant because this shows that having your Bible is not enough.  At least, this is not God’s normal way of helping his people grow in grace.  We need to hear the preached word (this goes for the pastor as much as for those who are shepherded).  We need to have others speak the truth into our lives, and one of the main ways God has ordained for this to happen is through the preached word, especially as it regularly comes to us in the weekly rhythm of the gathering of the local church. 

You see the urgency of this in Paul’s letter to the Titus.  There, he writes, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Tit. 1:5).  Paul did not want there to be a single church without elders.  The church was “wanting” as long as this condition subsisted.  And you can see how important their function as teachers was as the following verses unfold, especially verse 9.  The elder/bishop is to hold fast “the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.” 

Some might question whether “pastor” is a reference to the “bishop/elder.”  I believe it is.  Elders are shepherds (1 Pet. 5:1-4).  Like shepherds on the watch for potential predators, elders “watch for you souls” (Heb. 13:17).  Paul exhorted the Ephesians elders himself with these words: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.  For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. . .. Therefore watch” (Acts 20:28-29, 31).

You see the reason for this function of the pastor-elder-bishop in verse 14: “that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.”  The word “sleight” in verse 14 literally means “dice-playing” and refers to the cheating and trickery that often accompanies games of chance.  False teachers don’t just come out and announce that they are teaching something different from the apostles.  Rather they will come in with teaching that sounds good, even orthodox.  Thus the apostle anticipates those who would take advantage of immature believers.  The only way to prevent their deception is for the believers to be well grounded in the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God, and thus to have attained “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (13).  And this happens as they take advantage of the gifts of verse 11, which for us means taking advantage of the written word and the preached word.

However, we all know that having your Bible and regularly attending the sermon is not enough to guarantee spiritual growth.  Unfortunately, there are multitudes who are pass by the pulpit as they go on their way to spiritual destruction.  So, that brings us to our third point, which is that we grow through the applied word.  You don’t just read God’s word, you don’t just hear it.  You must also apply it.  In verse 13, Paul writes, “till we all come in the unity of the faith.”  The word “come” means “to attain to,” or “to reach a goal.”  The goal is the unity of the faith, the perfect conformity to the character of our Lord.  We will not reach it until we are glorified in the age to come, but Paul does not envision the Christian just sitting down waiting for that to happen.  Rather, we are on a journey, working toward that goal.  We are applying God’s word to our own attitudes and situations.  We are right now being perfected and edified (12).  We are right now growing up into Christ (15).  All this points to present growth in grace and that doesn’t happen unless we are believing and obeying God’s word ourselves. 

The apostle James warns us against being content with a bare knowledge of God’s word.  “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.  For if any be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.  But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (Jam. 1:22-25).  In the next chapter, he remarks, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble” (Jam. 2:19).  Saying that we believe the doctrines of the Bible when we refuse to apply them to ourselves is useless and dangerous.

Remember that the people who bore the overwhelming brunt of our Lord’s denunciations were the Pharisees.  The Pharisees knew their Bibles.  They could quote them back to you forwards and backwards.  Their whole lives where defined by their religion.  And yet they became the steadfast opponents of Christ.  And they persisted in their opposition to the point that they connived in his crucifixion.  Then they bitterly persecuted his church after the resurrection.  Of course, our response to this should not be to chunk religion altogether.  But it should warn us against the danger of thinking that having religion and a general knowledge of the word of God is sufficient evidence that we are saved. 

Indeed, the knowledge that Paul speaks of in verse 13 is not the useless knowledge that the apostle James is inveighing against.  Hodge remarks that the word Paul uses here denotes not just cognition, but recognition.  This is knowledge to which the heart responds.  He goes on to comment, “Faith and knowledge . . . express or comprehend all the elements of that state of mind of which the Son of God, God manifested in the flesh, who loved us and gave himself for us, who died on Calvary, and is now enthroned in heaven, is the object – a state of mind which includes the apprehension of his glory, the appropriation of his love, as well as confidence and devotion.  This state of mind is in itself eternal life.  It includes excellence, blessedness, and the highest form of activity.”[2]  We not only know the word of God, we live it out daily in our lives.

Finally, the church grows through the shared word.  We not only apply it to our own lives.  We share it with each other.  We speak into each other’s lives.  This is what the apostle is referring to in verses 15-16: “But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”  The main idea of verse 16 is that the body grows as each member does its part.  Verse 15 shows that the main way this translates to the church is that each member is speaking the truth in love.   As the apostle would tell the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16).  In Hebrews, we read, “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God.  But exhort one another daily, what it is called today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12-13). 

I think I need to emphasize that the life that is being held forth in this passage is not that of a community of people whose heads are full of religious knowledge and who are trying to see how miserable they can make each other.  No, this is truth that is held with the heart, that brings the love of Christ into the heart and overflows in love to others (15-16).  It is truth that causes the heart to sing.  Did you hear what Paul said to the Colossians?  He goes from letting God’s word dwell in you richly to singing to each other.  This is not dry theology.  This is not lifeless doctrine.  It is truth that sings. 

It is this to which that the apostle is calling us.  Grow through the written word, the preached word, the applied word, and the shared word.  It is a wonderful word because it centers upon Christ and his redemptive work on our behalf.  He came for us, he died for us so that our sins might be forgiven, so that its power might be broken.  He rose again so that we might join him in everlasting glory and life.  His word is living and powerful because he lives and is sovereign over all things.  His word is infinitely valuable because he is infinitely valuable.  So may we treasure his word in all these ways.

[1] Charles Hodge, Ephesians, (Banner of Truth, reprint; 1991), p. 159.
[2] Ibid., p. 166.

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