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The Blessed Effects of God’s Saving Grace
Paul’s letters tend to divide into two fairly equal parts: the first half of the letter being a doctrinal portion and the second half a practical section. Practical is to be understood in the sense of an application of the doctrine to the everyday life of the reader.
This pattern can be observed also in the letter to the Ephesians. The first three chapters have dealt with the great things God has done for us in Christ. Through Christ’s redemptive work the Christian church was established. In that church both Jews and Gentiles, by God’s amazing grace, are welcome as equals and “are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:22). The concluding three chapters deal, then, with the Christian’s response to God’s grace. How does God want Christians to conduct themselves? The answer, of course, is with a life of holiness.
A life of holiness
Paul gives some fairly pointed advice for living a holy life, which can be summed up under three major headings. Holiness of life is to show itself in
1. Unity among believers (4:1-16)
2. Living a pure life (4:17–5:20)
3. Assuming responsibility in keeping with our Christian status in life (5:21–6:9)
Holiness is to show itself in unity among believers
Ephesians Chapter 4, verses 1-6
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Paul reminds us that he is God’s ambassador, commissioned to preach the gospel. He has carried out this task to the extent of being arrested and imprisoned for his efforts. But even being a prisoner doesn’t stop him from helping his beloved Ephesians. As their spiritual father and mentor, Paul wants to see a balance between their Christian calling and their daily conduct.
The Ephesians didn’t bring themselves to faith. They didn’t by themselves find access to the Christian church. No, they were “called” by God’s grace. In his love God sent them his Holy Spirit through the gospel Paul preached. The Holy Spirit, who calls, gathers, and enlightens people, brought them in. When they were “dead in . . . transgressions and sins” (2:1), the Spirit gave them life—a new life with grand possibilities. Because the Ephesians have this new life in Christ, Paul can expect a proper response from them when he says, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.”
What kind of life does Paul—or, rather, God—expect? Paul lists four qualities, divided into two pairs.
First Paul says, “Be completely humble and gentle.” The realization of their own unworthiness before God would humble them, and in that spirit of humility, they are to be gentle toward others.
These two are internal qualities, characteristics that the Ephesians bring to the scene. The next two qualities involve irritations and aggravations from others. Here Paul urges, “Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” The key to having patience and putting up with others is love. Again, the Greek word used here is that one-way love that doesn’t look for anything in return. It simply reflects to others the undeserved one-way love we have received from a gracious God (see 4:32; also Colossians 3:12-14, especially verse 13).
Why should the Ephesians put themselves out for irksome and irritating brothers? Paul points out that there is a great deal at stake. He urges, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Nothing less than “the unity of the Spirit” is at stake. When Paul speaks of the unity of the Spirit, we need to be very clear that this is a unity the Holy Spirit has accomplished. It is the unity that exists in the holy Christian church, into which the Holy Spirit has brought all believers in Christ. It is not something dependent on us or something we create by our right actions and conduct. It does not come about because we “make every effort to keep the unity.”
Rather, Paul cautions us not to spoil the Holy Spirit’s good work by our own actions and lose the unity he establishes by disrupting the peace with petty quarrels and inconsiderate actions.
Just how great and precious that unity is becomes apparent when Paul says it is the masterpiece of the triune God. All three persons of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—were involved in effecting this unity. Paul shows this in a table beginning at verse 4. He constructs three sets of three items each—one set for each person of the Trinity. Interestingly enough, he reverses the order from what we’re used to seeing. He places the persons into this sequence: Spirit, Son, Father.
In the first set Paul highlights the Spirit’s contribution to the church’s unity by assembling three items, all introduced by the numerical adjective “one.” He says, “There is one body and one spirit*—just as you were called to one hope when you were called.” We have noted that the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, and enlightens people. Twice Paul in this verse reminds the Ephesians that they were “called.” They were called into one body, the holy Christian church. In that body all people are of the same heart and mind—of “one spirit,” if you will—because they all have one and the same hope, namely, eternity with God in heaven.
*We have preferred to use the lowercase “spirit.” The Greek language was written with either all capital letters or all lowercase letters, so it is impossible to determine from the Greek letters whether Paul intended “Spirit” or “spirit.” Since the three items seem to refer not to the Spirit himself but to draw our attention to three things the Holy Spirit has brought about, the lowercase “spirit” seems more appropriate here. The term will then refer to the attitude, the mindset, in believers.
Regarding the second member of the Trinity, Paul sets up this triad: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” In Luther’s explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that Jesus purchased and won us, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood. And he
did this so that we might be his own. He owns us. He is our Lord, and the only Lord we want or need. Furthermore, all believers by definition believe in him. He is the object of their faith. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). And the way to come to faith in Christ is through the means of grace, through Word and sacraments. In stressing the unity that exists among members of the church, Paul calls special attention to Baptism, very likely because it is the universal sacrament, intended for all age groups.
In his third triad Paul varies the form, giving us three prepositions to highlight our gracious God’s activity. There is only one God, our heavenly Father, “who is over all and through all and in all.” With his almighty power our heavenly Father looks after all and watches over them. With his matchless grace he works through his believers to accomplish his saving purpose. In fact, so close is the relationship between God and his believers that Paul can even say God dwells in his believers. As bold and daring as that sounds, Paul really is saying nothing other than what Jesus
himself promised his followers at the Last Supper: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).
Paul’s point in this whole section is that a marvelous unity binds the Ephesians to one another in their local congregation (the visible church) and binds them also to every other believer in the worldwide holy Christian church (the invisible church). Therefore, in their daily sanctified lives the Ephesians shouldn’t do anything to spoil this great blessing. Rather, they should “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Despite this unity that binds together all believers in Christ, believers always retain their own individualities. They are not reduced to a number in God’s book. He knows each believer by name. He treats each one with the utmost love and care.
Ephesians Chapter 4, verse 7
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.
God’s saving grace is without bounds or limits, but the grace whereby he distributes gifts to men for the upbuilding of the church is “as Christ apportioned it.” In other words, different people receive different portions to carry out their God-given opportunities to help build the church. That thought will be developed more fully in verses 11 to 13. First, however, Paul wants to call attention to the source of those gifts. The giver is none other than the risen, triumphant, ascended Lord Christ. Paul substantiates that from Scripture.
Ephesians Chapter 4, verses 8-10
This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high, he led captives in his
train and gave gifts to men.”
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended tothe lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the
Paul draws attention to the fact that when Psalm 68:18 speaks of God as “ascended,” the psalmist implies that God first “descended to the lower, earthly regions.” Bible scholars are somewhat divided on what is meant by “descended.” Some see this as Christ’s triumphant descent into hell on Easter morning to proclaim his victory over sin, death, and Satan. Christ’s descent into hell is certainly a doctrine clearly taught in Scripture (1 Peter 3:19,20), and it is possible that is referred to here.
Paul’s emphasis in this section, however, is on Christ’s exalted return to heaven, where he now fills “the whole universe.” Hence it seems somewhat more likely that the apostle’s reference to a descent is rather to Christ’s state of humiliation—in contrast to his present state of exaltation.
Paul would then be speaking of Christ’s descending to earth to be our substitute, living a perfect life, and dying an innocent death for us, so that he could declare, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Finished was his mortal combat with Satan, sin, and death. He captured these great enemies who long had tyrannized us and held our sinful race hostage. He lorded over these defeated foes in triumphal procession at his Ascension. They cannot prevent Christ from implementing his stated plan of having the good news of the gospel carried out to the whole world (Matthew 28:16-20;
Risen, ascended, and sitting at the right hand of the Father, Christ now fills the whole universe. He is totally in charge. But, marvel of marvels, he deigns to give us mortals a part in his grand plan to have the church spread out into all the world. To empower his church for this important
task, he “gave gifts to men.” These gifts are the portions his grace has determined his representatives need to carry out their various tasks.
Paul proceeds to list some of the gifts Christ has given to serve his cause.
Ephesians Chapter 4, verse 11
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,
It would be an engaging process to try to find names of people who might fit the categories Paul lists, but his intent seems rather to list offices or positions Christ created for the church.
Bible scholars have tried to determine meaningful distinctions between the five terms listed here. Some general distinctions can be made on the basis of examining the roots of the Greek words used. An “apostle” is someone sent out, or commissioned. New Testament usage suggests that a “prophet” was not necessarily a person who foretold the future but one who brought God’s message to others, be that a message about the past, present, or future. “Evangelists” are people who share the gospel (from euangelion, which we translate “gospel”). An attempt is also made to group the terms. Apostles, prophets, and evangelists understood to be traveling ministers, whereas pastors and teachers are assumed to serve in one specific location. Perhaps that is true. It is possible that the specific descriptions of the offices Paul lists do not conform exactly to what we have today.
Two things, however, can definitely be asserted about all the positions Paul names: they were part of the public ministry and they were instituted (given) by Christ. Hence the public ministry is
that they were divinely instituted. It did not come about through tradition, nor was it merely the
church’s response to needs that arose. In practice the public ministry may take different forms, but it is a divine institution given to the church by our ascended Lord.
Why did he institute the public ministry?
Ephesians Chapter 4, verses 12-13
to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 1until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
God’s purpose in establishing the public ministry was “that the body of Christ may be built up.” As noted previously, the “body of Christ” is picture language describing the organic unity of all believers in Christ, that is, the church. God wants that unity to be strengthened and realized ever more fully. To that end he established the public ministry positions listed in verse 11.
These public servants are shepherds who feed and protect the flock, as well as search out the lost and straying. But they aren’t to be the only ones doing the work, nor do they do it all by themselves. As part of their work, God has also directed them “to prepare God’s people for works of service.” Or as we might also put it, to prepare God’s people for service-work.
God’s people serve their fellow Christians by using God’s Word to help them grow in their faith. That Word is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Everyone is his brother’s keeper—and to do that in the best possible way requires training or preparation for service-work.
What is the goal or outcome of this service-work? Paul describes the ideal toward which we strive when he says, “Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
With the pronoun “we,” Paul switches to the first person, thereby including himself. To be sure, he is writing to the Ephesians, but what he is saying here applies to himself and to all other Christians as well.
Paul enumerates three components that comprise the goal toward which we all should strive. But they are not three separate things. They all speak of the desired “building up” that is to take place as Christians help one another through faithful use of the Word.
Paul first describes this building up as something occurring “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” Knowing Christ and believing in him are the key ingredients to bringing about the growth God looks for in his church.
As faith and knowledge about Christ grow, believers “become mature.” That process, however, is never complete here on earth. It has rightly been said that the Christian life is a constant “becoming.” Paul himself hadn’t yet attained full spiritual maturity—as he frankly admits to the Philippians (3:12-15). For a candid statement of his frustration with his frequent lapses and lack of maturity, read Romans chapter 7, particularly verses 14 to 25. Spiritual maturity is not fully attainable here, but it is what every Christian strives for personally and seeks to help others reach.
Paul’s third component in the goal toward which we are striving is that we all “[attain] to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” We might paraphrase that expression by saying, “Until we reach Christ’s full stature.” Again, that won’t happen this side of heaven.
Speaking the truth in love
Paul not only gives positive advice and encouragement, but he points out that there is a dark side, yes, a real danger, in not growing up spiritually. He sketches that for us in a series of vivid pictures that describe the grave situation from which spiritual maturity spares us.
Ephesians Chapter 4, verse 14
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.
People who don’t grow spiritually through diligent use of Word and sacrament remain infants, despite their chronological age. With no doctrinal base, they’re helpless because they have nothing firm to hang on to. That’s why Paul can liken them to people in a rowboat out on the high seas during a fierce gale. They’re swept around “by every wind of teaching.”
Or, to change the picture a bit, spiritually immature people are like unsophisticated buyers being “worked” by a slick salesperson. Because they don’t know the product, they’re taken in “by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” Without knowing it, immature Christians may not be getting pure doctrine or correct teaching. They may be accepting spiritual snake oil from false teachers. Not a good situation at all!
But there is help. Paul gives us the remedy and antidote.
Ephesians Chapter 4, verse 15
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. Far from accepting false doctrine, spiritually mature Christians will rather go on the offensive against it. They will “[speak] the truth in love.”
Far from accepting false doctrine, spiritually mature Christians will rather go on the offensive against it. They will “[speak] the truth in love.”
Let’s take a moment to review Paul’s line of thought in this chapter. He has stated that the ascended Christ (verse 10) gave gifts to his church in the form of public ministers (verse 11). These public servants of the Word are to prepare God’s people for service-work (verse 12), so that they, in turn, can help others. Paul has help from rank-and-file Christians in mind when he refers to people “speaking the truth in love.”
It is important that such speakers not only be correct (speak the truth) but also that they speak “in love.” They are not to lord it over their weaker brothers. Nor are they viciously to turn on false teachers but, rather, to speak as lovingly and as winsomely as possible in the hope of winning over the proponent of an incorrect view. Then the unity will be kept, and growth in the church will be effected.
To be sure, it is the Christians who do the speaking, but God grants the results. Paul points that
out when he reminds us that all growth and increase in the body, the church, comes from Christ, its Head. He asserts:
Ephesians Chapter 4, verse 16
From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Paul makes it clear that every Christian has a role in Christ’s church. We need to keep that in mind. We’re often inclined to think that we’re too small or too unimportant to make much of a difference. Paul helps us understand how wrong that kind of thinking is. “Every supporting ligament” is important to the body. The whole body grows and builds itself up “as each part does its work.” Every Christian is an important part of the church, because growth and improvement in the church come “from him,” that is, from Christ, and not from us.
The converse, of course, is also true. The church suffers when any Christian wastes his God-given gifts and doesn’t do his part. Again, we need only think of the analogy to the human body. Think of what misery and discomfort the whole body feels when one member is sick or fails to function properly.