Apostle Paul: Passionate Discipleship
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Sermon on the Mount
#3. Unity in the Church (Ephesians 4:1-6)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Part of JesusWalk -- Vision for the Church
[4:1] 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.
We Christians are a sadly divided people, and it should not be so. The history of Protestantism, especially, is the story of dispute, disagreement, and division. For example, in the United States alone, there are some 250 different denominations and fellowships of Baptists. We Christians are Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox, pre- and post-millennial, Arminians and Calvinists, traditional and contemporary, conservative and liberal, and so on and on.
It's okay to have differences. That's part of being human. It's the way God made us. Husbands and wives have differences, but work hard at building on common ground, talking through differences, and maintaining a marriage, a unity, in the face of all sorts of situations and obstacles.
Differences aren't the problem. It's how we handle the differences. This week's passage is the Apostle Paul's appeal to the church to be united, unified, whole. Listen with me to the Word of God.
"As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received." (4:1)
Paul begins with a strong appeal. The Greek verb parakaleo is variously translated here "urge" (NIV), "beseech" (KJV), "beg" (NRSV). The root idea of the verb is "to call alongside." But here it is used in the sense of "to urge strongly, appeal to, urge, exhort, encourage." Paul appeals, he begs, not just as an apostle but as a prisoner for the Lord. He is appealing to his readers' sympathies.
Paul appeals to Christians to act with integrity, to live out their faith in everyday practice. "Live a life" (NIV) or "lead a life" (NRSV) is the Greek verb paripateo, "walk" (KJV). Here it is used figuratively, "to conduct one's life, comport oneself, behave, live as habit of conduct."
The Ephesians are to conduct themselves in a way that is worthy of their high calling as Christians. Sometimes we use the term "calling" as a special calling to full-time Christian ministry. But here it is the calling or invitation of Christ to follow him, which comes to everyone the same. "Worthy" is the Greek adjective axios, "pertaining to being correspondingly fitting or appropriate, worthy, fit, deserving."
In Greek there is a word play going on. Three words in this sentence come from the same root, kaleo -- parakaleo ("beg, beseech"), klesis ("calling"), and kaleo ("to call"). They reinforce the idea of God's calling.
Now Paul examines attitude:
"Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love." (4:2)
Let's look at the various elements of the attitude required to maintain unity:
Humility (Greek tapeinophrosune), "humility, modesty." You've seen it! Our congregations, our denominations, our fellowships of "like-minded" churches develop a pride in our "distinctives," or our "tradition," or our "purity," or our being "Spirit-filled," or our unbroken succession from the apostles themselves, or whatever. The result is that we look down on other Christian groups. Dear friends, our pride should be in Christ Jesus and in his Spirit working freely in our midst, not in the peculiarities of our history or beliefs. When we "glory in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:3), rather than in ourselves, we can have true humility. And that humility is required to keep unity in Christ's Church.
Gentleness (Greek prautes), "gentleness, humility, courtesy, considerateness, meekness in the older favorable sense." It's hard for us to understand meekness and gentleness. But the lexicographer's definition, "the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one's self-importance" rings true to me.  You've met people who keep you at arm's length, who project an aloofness, an air of superiority. Their self-image is at stake and they can't seem to be "real." Jesus lived gentleness -- in fact, this very gentleness and openness is what attracted people. In contrast to the Pharisees' hardness, Jesus exhibited an openness towards others that freed them.
"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle (praus) and humble (tapeinos) in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30)
This kind of gentleness and openness is essential for unity in Christ's Church. Away with Pharisaical aloofness among brothers and sisters that keeps us apart!
Patience (Greek makrothumia), "state of being able to bear up under provocation, forbearance, patience toward others." Maybe the best commentary on this word is the KJV translation -- "longsuffering." All humans are resistant to change. Change is hard and takes time to get used to. We're in a hurry for others to adopt our point of view or "get their act together," but when it comes to our own lives -- well, it just takes time. We must extend to others the same kind of patience that we wish them to extend to us. Patience is one of the core Christian virtues and is vital to Christian unity.
Forbearance (Greek anecho), "to regard with tolerance, endure, bear with, put up with." In America we live in an overly-tolerant society where we are often willing to tolerate practically any behavior or belief in the name of freedom of expression. But in the church, the pendulum often swings very far in the other direction. We are, frankly, intolerant of other points of view, of other interpretations, of eccentricities, of differences. Over the years, God has led me to participate in churches of many widely different points of view. I have found that fundamental churches can be intolerant. But even liberal churches, which pride themselves on their tolerance, can be intolerant of those who disagree with them.
We are called as Christians to endure, to bear with, and to put up with one another. We may not be terribly comfortable with others. But our job description is to bear with one another. Look at Jesus. He put up with Peter's impetuousness, James' and John's pride, Thomas's unbelief. Jesus had his eyes on what they could become, not on their immaturities and blind sides. Forbearance and tolerance are necessary for the unity of Christ's Church.
Love (Greek agape), "the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, affection, regard, love." The term agape wasn't very common in classical or koine Greek. But Paul and other Christians selected this word to describe the particular quality of Christ-like, unselfish love that looked out for others' needs rather than one's own. Love is the last quality in Paul's list of essential attitudes for unity, but the most all-encompassing.
"Love is patient (makrothumeo), love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails... And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, 13)
Sometimes we find justifications "in love" for our divisions and separations. But too often we are unwilling to go to the limits of love to maintain unity.
Paul doesn't pretend that unity is easy. He says in the form of a command:
"Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." (4:3)
"Making every effort" (NRSV, NIV) or "endeavoring" (KJV) is the Greek verb spoudazo, "to be especially conscientious in discharging an obligation, be zealous/eager, take pains, make every effort, be conscientious." Because unity is so difficult, we must be willing to work extra hard to maintain it.
"Keep" (NIV, KJV) or "maintain" (NRSV) is the Greek verb tereo, with the basic idea of "keep watch over, guard." Here it means, "to cause a state, condition, or activity to continue, keep, hold, reserve, preserve something." Paul is so serious about continuing unity in the Church uses a verb meaning "to guard"!
Just what is this unity? "Unity" is the Greek noun henotes, "a state of oneness or of being in harmony and accord, unity." It occurs in Ephesians 4:3, 13, and a textual variant in Colossians 3:14. The word also appears often in the writings of Ignatius, 30-107 AD.
Notice the kind of unity -- the "unity of the Spirit," that is, the unity which the Spirit brings. This unity does not spring out of your tolerance or intolerance. Rather it comes from the Spirit of God. To sin against that unity is to grieve the Holy Spirit that brings it. The Spirit is the author of the unity, but you and I are commanded to maintain it by means of (Greek preposition en) the peaceful ties, or the "bond of peace." "Bond" is an interesting word, a compound Greek noun. Desmos is the Greek word for "a band or ligament (of the body) or shackle (of a prisoner)." But the compound word in our passage adds the preposition sun-, "together with." So the resulting noun sundesmos, means "that which brings various entities into a unified relationship, uniting bond."
Now let's look at some of the bases of our union:
"There is one body and one Spirit -- just as you were called to one hope when you were called." (4:4)
There's an old story about someone who died and when he got to the pearly gates, St. Peter introduced him to an angel who showed him every place in heaven, then pointed out a particular building. "Don't go in there," the angel instructed. "Why not?" asked the newcomer. "Oh, that's where the Baptists are and they think they're the only ones here." We laugh, but we must get the point -- we Christians are of a single body, have a single Spirit, have a single hope.
One body. Whose body is Paul talking about? Jesus' figurative body. We become part of his body by responding to God's call in faith. No denomination or fellowship has a corner on Jesus. No one defines who is part of his body. He does. We can think of the Universal Church as Jesus' cosmic body, but each individual congregation is also a microcosm of Jesus' body in a particular locality.
One Spirit. All true Christians have the Holy Spirit in common (1 Corinthians 12:1-6; Romans 8:9; etc.). We can claim that evil spirits infest Christian groups that we don't agree with, overlooking our own terrible problems. But we have no more right to be so judgmental than the Pharisees who claimed that Jesus did miracles by Beelzebub -- a very sobering passage if you read it! (Mark 3:22-29)
One hope. The hope we have in common is that we will live eternally with Christ and God, forgiven before God's judgment seat. We hold differing speculations and conjectures about future details and scenarios. It is the hope of Christ that unites us, not our view of the timing of the rapture! Let's emphasize what we agree upon.
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism (4:5)
"... one Lord, one faith, one baptism...." (4:5)
One Lord. "Lord," of course, refers here to Jesus Christ, because the Father is mentioned in the next verse. We have Jesus in common as our Lord, Master, and Leader.
One faith. Does this refer to a single body of doctrine or a single attitude of believing in Jesus?
We know that during Paul's life and ministry there were at least two kinds of Christianity practiced. (1) In Jerusalem and Judea a very Jewish Christianity was practiced, that observed both the Mosaic Law and the teachings of Jesus. (2) On the other hand, Gentile Christians in cities outside of Israel didn't keep Kosher kitchens. They didn't circumcise their baby boys on the eighth day. They didn't worship on the Sabbath in a synagogue -- often they had been expelled from the local synagogue. Rather they met on Sundays in homes and out of doors to worship.
Their practices were different. What was common body of faith united both Jewish and Gentile believers? Probably the core of it is expressed by Paul in 1 Corinthians:
"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures...." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
Since the First Century, as the church has grow up in various localities, it has taken on the customs and flavor of the cultures into which the gospel has come. Irish Christianity feels a lot different than East African Christianity. You get the picture. But the core is the same. We have that basic faith in common.
The church constantly needs renewal and revival to keep it from being so tradition-bound that it becomes numb to the Holy Spirit. But make no mistake -- it is the Lord reviving and renewing his own body.
One baptism. The point here is not the mode of baptism (sprinkling, effusion, immersion, etc.) or the age of the person baptized. Christians differ about the "right" way. But we all believe that through baptism we are united to Christ.
When we squabble about whether or not we'll accept one another because of the form of baptism, we are foolish and petty. Yes, we should study how to administer baptism properly to new converts, but not as a way of dividing Christ's body!
One God and Father of Us All (4:6)
"... one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (4:6)
One God and Father. Paul reaffirms the monotheism of Judaism, and refers to God as "the Father of us all." Of whom is he speaking when he says "us all"? All humans or all Christians? Here, he is speaking of all Christians, because that is the focus of the immediate context.
Over all and through all and in all. However, there is a universal sense, too, that can't be dismissed. If all humankind is created in God's image (Genesis 1:27), then there is a sense in which his image is in us and upon us all. Certainly, Ephesians 3:14-15 sees the Father in a universal light, "from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name" (NRSV). There is also a sense in which all humans are God's children, as Paul explained to the Athenians when describing the "unknown God" (Acts 17:28). Moreover, Christ is the unifying focus of the universe (Ephesians 1:10) he created (John 1:3, 10; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2).
We affirm that "God is over all, through all, and in all." But this doesn't mean Gentiles are automatically saved. Paul tells the Ephesian Gentiles that, prior to their conversion, they were "without hope and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12). Paul tells us, "For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened" (Romans 1:21).
What irony, that humans who were made in God's image and find their purpose and meaning in God are still alienated from him. Jesus Christ provides forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with the Father. Only through Jesus can human beings become whole and at peace with their true selves, and become God's children in a very special sense (John 1:10-13).
Limits to Unity
We are commanded to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We are not commanded to separate from other Christians, but from the sins of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:17 - 7:1).
The Apostle Paul tell us that in "disputable matters" (NIV), "opinions" (NRSV), or "doubtful disputations" (KJV) we are to refrain from condemning our brothers and sisters (Romans 14:1, 10). Christian practices vary from one culture to another, from one tradition to another. We may not agree with another's interpretation, but we refuse to make "disputable matters" a test of fellowship. We strive even more diligently to maintain the unity of the Spirit. We are told to "Accept one another ... just as Christ has accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (Romans 15:7).
I see two exceptions to this strong command for unity, and each must be exercised only with much prayer, fear, and trembling. (1) First, when it becomes necessary to discipline a member who fails to repent of gross sin (1 Corinthians 5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; Matthew 18:15-17). (2) Second, when it regards permitting false teachers to undermine the very basics of the Gospel. (Romans 16:17-18; 2 Corinthians 11:13; Galatians 1:6-8; Ephesians 4:14; Philippians 3:2; Colossians 2:18-19; 1 Timothy 1:3, 19; 4:1-3; 6:3; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 4:3; Titus 1:10-14; 3:10-11; cf. 2 Peter 2:1ff; 1 John 2:26; 4:1-3; 2 John 7, 10-11; Revelation 2:1, 14-15, 20-23) Even for the sake of unity, we cannot allow false teachers to tear down and distort the basics of the faith.
But we must be extremely careful in discerning members and teachers. Too often the Church has made the mistake of rejecting and ejecting the very reformation and revival movements that it has so desperately needed. Too often we Christians have separated over "disputable matters" when we have been commanded to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
A Word of Confession
I must confess to you all that I am still growing in my understanding of the unity the Spirit brings. God is gradually overcoming my prejudices.
Bible teaching has always been important to me. When I was younger I was sure I was right and everybody else was wrong. But as I've grown older I've had to reverse some of my previously-held positions because I found that the Bible didn't teach them. My tradition taught them, but not the Bible.
I've learned that doctrinal understanding is strongly influenced by the traditions of those who helped shape our faith. We can be trained to look only at a certain set of scripture verses that support our position and to underemphasize others.
From my tradition I can find fault with lots of people's doctrines. I can find errors in Catholicism and Evangelicalism, with Orthodoxy and Liberalism. I can criticize both hyper Calvinists and rigid Arminians. Not to mention various groups that you could call "cults." I'm an expert at finding fault with other groups -- and so perhaps are you.
I've gradually learned that even some in "cults" have a love for Jesus and a zeal for his work that far exceeds many in my own tradition. Is their theology faulty? Without a doubt! But they seem to love the same Jesus I love. They read the same Bible. They seek to obey the same New Testament commands.
In Romans 14, Paul talks about relating to those with different, perhaps stricter convictions. Then he says a word that convicts me:
"Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand." (Romans 14:4)
My dear friends, I must confess that I have judged some servants of Jesus that I had no right to judge. Yes, I can evaluate the truth of their doctrine according to the Bible and I must. But I cannot judge their faith or their relationship to God through Jesus. Are they saved? That's for God to judge, not me. Since they confess and seek to follow Jesus as Lord; I must consider them my brothers and sisters (1 Corinthians 12:3), and thus strive to maintain unity with them, too.
The history of the Christian church displays an immense variety of kooky, non-biblical theology, even within so-called "orthodox" groups. Anyone can find fault, but who can "maintain the unity of the Spirit in a peaceful uniting bond"? Can we do that for Christ's sake?
I listen to Jesus' great high priestly prayer and realize that he was praying for you and me:
"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:20-23)
Father, forgive me for the times I have separated myself from my fellow Christians. Forgive me for not striving to maintain the unity of the faith. Forgive me for disregarding the uniting bond of peace. Please work more fully in me your own humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and love. Display clearly to us the essential unity of your Church here on earth, I pray, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
"Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:3)
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- (Ephesians 4:1) What does "living a life worthy of your calling" in 4:1 have to do with maintaining unity in the Church in verses 2-6? What is "worthy" about unity? What is "worthy" about separation from fellow Christians? What is our "calling"?
- (Ephesians 4:2) What characteristics or attitudes are necessary for maintaining unity with other Christians according to verse 2? Which of these do you think is most important? Which is most difficult?
- (Ephesians 4:3) According to verse 3, who brings about the unity? Who is to maintain it? What is a "bond of peace," do you think? According to the wording in verse 3, is Christian unity to be a prime goal or a secondary goal for us?
- (Ephesians 4:4-6) What are the seven elements that unite all Christians mentioned in verses 4 through 6? Which one or two are most compelling to you? Why?
- (Ephesians 4:5) In what sense should "one baptism" unite us rather than divide us? How can we maintain the unity of the Spirit and still disagree with other Christian groups about the administration of baptism? Should striving for unity blur our faithfulness to Biblical understanding? How do we balance the two?
- What act of Christian unity could you practice over the next two weeks that would help you live out this truth in your life? In what area do you need to repent?
Standard abbreviations are found on the references page. http://www.jesuswalk.com/church/refs.htm
- BDAG 764-765.
- BDAG 803.
- "Calling" (NIV, NRSV) or "vocation" (KJV) is the Greek noun klesis, "invitation to experience of special privilege and responsibility, call, calling, invitation" (BDAG 549).
- BDAG 93-94.
- BDAG 989.
- BDAG 861.
- BDAG 612-613.
- BDAG 78.
- BDAG 6-7.
- BDAG 939.
- BDAG 1002.
- BDAG 338.
- Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians. In his Epistle to the Philadelphians the call to unity is different than in Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Ignatius emphasizes unity with the bishop and an appeal to those who have gone astray to return to the unity of the church.
- BDAG 966. sundesmos also appears in Colossians 3:14, "the uniting bond of perfection," or "perfect harmony" (NRSV).
In-depth Bible study books
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- Apostle Paul: Passionate Discipleship
- Disciple's Guide to the Holy Spirit
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ