Unity of the Church

By Mike Mazzalongo Verse: Ephesians 4:1-16 Posted: Sun. Jul 22nd 2012
This section of the epistle describes the proper response to God's offer of salvation and the blessings attached to it, the first of which is to maintain the unity of The Spirit.

Paul begins by praying that God opens the Ephesian church's eyes so that they will be better able to appreciate the blessings of salvation. He describes the hopeless situation of the Gentiles in the past and the glory that they now have as equal partners with the Jews as brothers in Christ and members of His body, the church. He teaches them that salvation and their inclusion into the kingdom was a plan God kept secret from the beginning (even the angels did not know the full details). He also explains that God now uses the church as the medium for the revelation of this good news to all creation in heaven and on earth. Finally, he prays that God expand their capacity to receive Christ into their hearts so that they will be totally possessed and filled with His love. With this idea we end the second main part of the letter dealing with the universal nature of the church and move into a discussion of the church's obligations.

So far Paul has described in great detail the things that God has done for them through Christ. In the final section the Apostle will review the response that God expects from the church. This includes three obligations that the church has in response to God's wonderful plan of salvation and provision for His people. The first of these is the need to preserve unity, and Paul will use up this entire chapter speaking on this point.

The Call to Unity

1 Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

He begins by exhorting them to preserve the unity that already exists, and to which they (the church) were added. The church does not create unity; unity already exists between the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. When Jesus gave His life to create the church, His word to instruct it, and the Holy Spirit to sustain it, He made the church part of this unified Godhead ("That they may be in us." - John 17:21). Jesus is part of the divine and unified Godhead, and the church through the cross, the word and the Holy Spirit is part of Jesus. Therefore the church is also (through its connection to Jesus) part of the unified Godhead. Every person (Jew or Gentile) who becomes part of the church also becomes part of the unified Godhead.

Jesus, as Paul has explained, has maintained his unity with the Father and Holy Spirit by accomplishing the plan of salvation. Paul explains what the church must do in order to maintain its unity with Christ because disunity in the church equals disunity with Christ and the Godhead; this is why unity is such an important issue. The threat of division among the Ephesians also threatened the loss of unity with Christ. And so, Paul begins this section by encouraging them to preserve unity and he explains how they are to do this.

Preserving the unity in the church requires that we have a certain attitude towards one another, and Paul explains what this attitude should be. It begins with humility, a virtue that is the opposite of pride and vanity. A humble person has an accurate assessment of self. Another similar attitude is that of meekness. One who is meek does not constantly seek his own will, and is not violent. Paul mentions the quality of patience, so necessary to maintain unity and peace in any organization, not only in the church. A patient person is one who is willing to put up with trials, suffering, failure and the offenses of others without losing control or cheerfulness. He finishes this list by mentioning forbearance, which is the ability to not be easily provoked to anger or discouragement by the actions of others.

Paul tells them that in Christ both Jews and Gentiles are equally blessed, saved and precious to God. He tells them that by practicing humility, patience, meekness and forbearance with one another they will be able to preserve the unity into which they entered when Jesus brought them into the church.

The Basis of Unity

4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

Many times we confuse unity with conformity. Conformity is sameness. We become the same as something or someone else (i.e. McDonald's restaurants serve the same tasting foods no matter where you go). Unity, on the other hand, is the experience of sharing. We share a similar hope, leader and ideals. The sharing of these becomes the basis of our unity, not the effort to all be the same. In verses 4-6, Paul will mention seven objectives that the Ephesians share and in so doing brings them into union with one another and God.

  1. One body – There is only one group of saved; one church in God's eyes.
  2. One Spirit – The Holy Spirit; His work and influence.
  3. One hope – Salvation and its effects.
  4. One Lord – Jesus (there is no other by which we are saved – Acts 4:12).
  5. One faith – The teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.
  6. One baptism – There is only one baptism (immersion in water in the name of Jesus – Acts 2:38) that puts us into the one body, gives us one spirit, permits one hope, unites us to one Lord and taught by one faith.
  7. One God – Creator of heaven and earth. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The One who sent Jesus.

Paul's point is that these things (beliefs, responses on our part) unite us to Christ, to God and to one another. They are at the center and hold us together as one. For example, in the "one" baptism I am united to Christ, and through Him to God and the Holy Spirit, but also to everyone else who has experienced the same baptism. Of course, the opposite is true as well, to be divided from these things is also to be divided from Christ and each other. So, maintaining the unity that exists in the church requires a right type of attitude towards one another and a sharing of the elements of our faith (body, spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, God).

God Helps us Keep Unity

7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore it says,

"When He ascended on high,
He led captive a host of captives,
And He gave gifts to men."

9 (Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.) 11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

Of course, we are not alone in our effort to maintain unity, God helps us with certain gifts that He provides. At this point Paul describes a set that we rarely perceive as "gifts." In regards to this unity and the maintaining of it, each person has received a gift (grace) in order to contribute to the unity that already exists (verses 7-10). This grace has been given by Christ to each, and given according to His ability (or fullness) to give out these gifts. And just how "able" is Jesus to give gifts? Paul quotes an Old Testament Psalm (Psalms 68:18) that summarizes Christ's achievements on behalf of men: He has died and gone to the underworld, He has resurrected and ascended to the right hand of God. His presence fills both the spiritual and physical realms. The point is that Jesus is supremely able to supply abundantly the "gifts" needed to maintain this unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Paul then explains that the gifts he is talking about here are not different kinds of powers, but in fact are people! And each is a gift in two ways: first there is the enabling and empowering from God to carry out some kind of ministry as one of these servants, and then the blessing one receives as you receive the gift of ministry from these people. Either way, they are the gifts that help the church maintain unity.

The gifts he mentions are:

  1. The Apostles – These were messengers chosen by Christ to witness the resurrection, establish the church and record the New Testament so that we can continue teaching the church to know and obey all the commands of Christ today (Matthew 28:18-20).
  2. Prophets – There were different types of prophets. Old Testament prophets like Isaiah counseled kings and foretold of future events concerning the nation of Israel and the coming of the Messiah (Isaiah 53:1-12). New Testament prophets also foretold the future (i.e. Agabus, Acts 21:10-11) but in addition to this they served the church by teaching God's word before the New Testament record was compiled and organized. Today we have the complete revelation of God's word in the Bible and no longer have need for inspired prophets. This ministry is now carried out by preachers and teachers who use the inspired word of God to preach the gospel, warn of the judgment to come and teach the church the will and purpose of God.
  3. Evangelists – These men proclaimed the gospel (i.e. Phillip, Acts 8). They also established and organized congregations as well as promoted unity (i.e. epistles to Timothy and Titus).
  4. Pastors and teachers – Elders who shepherd by teaching (Acts 20). Those who teach the word but don't shepherd (Acts 13).

These servants of the church are gifts (even today) because their role and abilities come from God. Their work consists of building up the church and maintaining that unity that Paul speaks of at the beginning of the chapter. They do this by supplying each saint what he or she needs to serve others in the body. Their goal is to achieve perfect unity in Christ by cultivating the following: unity of faith by helping others grow in their knowledge of and trust in Christ; unity of relationships by establishing correct priorities (i.e. Christ first, others, then self); unity of service by growing in the ability to share the gospel and express love to God and others. Christ gives these people to the church so they will serve the church in helping it mature in every phase of unity.

Results of Unity

14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

One result of unity is being firmly planted in the word and not being easily seduced by lies, tricks, and the plans of evil men and Satan. Another is speaking the truth in love. This type of speech has no patience with gossip, divisiveness or hypocrisy, but excels in the ability to speak the word to the lost and those who are struggling. Another product of unity is maturity in Christ. We become like Jesus in our attitude and character, and this strengthens our unity with God and each other. Finally, unity promotes cooperation in mutual service. The body functions in the way the head directs for the strengthening of every member. The idea is that the body is to grow to the point of maturity that the head has already accomplished (we become like Jesus, perfectly united to God and each other). God provides key agents (gifts) in the body to help every part grow towards this ideal.

Summary

Of course, like conformity, there is also a downside to the pursuit of unity. The cost of unity is discomfort! It is not easy maintaining love, patience, gentleness and forbearance with someone you disagree with about the one Lord, faith, baptism, etc. That is why conformity is so appealing (everybody agrees or they are out, and it's easy to get along with people who agree with you). But God says that we need to make an effort to maintain unity through peace since He knew it would not be easy because we are not all at the same maturity level, we have been taught different things, we are sinful and our sins limit our understanding. In many instances we have misunderstood what we have been taught, and we have prejudices as well. Because of these things we find it difficult to get along, to be patient and loving towards those who don't agree with us. But making the effort to maintain unity despite these obstacles is the true test of our discipleship because Jesus said, "Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples" (John 13:35).

Notice that He didn't say:

  • How big a group you are will prove...
  • That you are all the same will prove…
  • That you know all the doctrines will prove…
  • That you think you're right will prove…
  • That you're very motivated will prove…

All those who have confessed Christ and have been buried in baptism have been added to a divinely united circle that includes the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and the church. The greatest task we have as Christians is to maintain that unity and that oneness by loving one another despite our differences.

Reading Assignment:  Ephesians 4:17-5:14

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