Sunday, December 16, 2012

Unity in the Body of Christ

International Sunday School Lesson
Study Notes

Lesson Text: Ephesians 4:1-16
Lesson Title: Unity in the Body of Christ

Introduction

Have you ever wondered why there are so many different churches? On the one hand the answer to that question is rather complicated because it involves understanding historical, geographical, theological, and doctrinal issues. On the other hand, the answer can be rather simple. Sometimes God separates people in order to further the gospel (Acts 13:1-3). These occasions are rare but sometimes necessary for purposes only God designs. Sadly, the most common reason churches divide is because people cannot agree over trivial things such as methodology (the way things are done) or control (who calls the shots). When that occurs it does great damage to the cause of the Christ and the spread of the gospel.

Paul's call for unity in the body of Christ is not a call for ecumenical religion (one world religion). His call was for Jew and Gentile to worship and serve the Lord as one in Christ without promoting certain distinctions between themselves within the church. He wanted the church to avoid the divided church mentality that is so prominent today and accepted by many as the norm.

Unity in the body of Christ is essential if the church is to succeed in her mission. On the night Jesus Christ was betrayed, He prayed for the unity of the church so that the world would believe the church's message about salvation in him (John 17:21). In keeping with our Lord's prayer for unity, the Apostle Paul expresses the same burden in our lesson text.

The Exhortation to Unity (Ephesians 4:1)

The first section of Ephesians (chapters 1-3) reveals what God in sovereign grace can do and has done for man. But now Paul switches his focus from doctrine to duty as he stops talking about the blessings we have in Christ and starts talking about the application of those blessings to our lives. The doctrines of the first three chapters are weighty and deep, yet wonderful. The duty of the last three chapters are demanding, yet rewarding.

Verse 1

"I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called"

The exhortation "I...beseech" from Paul is a general plea that flows from the preceding doctrines, and is enforced by the authority and the sufferings of the person beseeching, in this case, Paul. Paul's reference to his being "the prisoner of the Lord..." reveals that he knew he was not in prison because of Nero or the Roman Empire, but because "the Lord" had so designed him to be in prison. His captivity was "of the Lord." And it was while Paul was in prison in Rome that he wrote this letter to the Ephesians. Furthermore, Paul referred to his captivity to add force to his exhortation for the Ephesians to "walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called." To walk "worthy" is to walk with a testimony of what Christ has done in your life. The Greek word for "worthy" carries the idea of a "balance" or a "scale." The thought is that the Ephesian believers are to "lead a life worthy of the calling to which they had been called." As Christians we have been invited to live our lives according to the standards of God. We may have many different jobs and live in several different locations throughout our lifetime, but we have one single calling: to live with and for Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:20; Colossians 2:6).

Paul was very serious about the words "walk worthy." He prayed for the Colossian believers and asked God to help them "...walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing" (Colossians 1:10). He exhorted the Thessalonians to "...walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto his kingdom and glory" (1 Thessalonians 2:12). To "walk worthy" is not the exceptional Christian life, it is the normal Christian life.

What is the life to which we have been "called?" If you search the scriptures the "calling" of the Christian is referenced many times. Our calling is a "high calling" (Philippians 3:14). Our calling is a "holy calling" (2 Timothy 1:9). Our calling is a "humble calling" because "...not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called" (1 Corinthians 1:26). As great as these aspects of our calling is the most wonderful is our "heavenly calling" (Hebrews 3:1). It is only those who come to grips with the greatness of God's grace who will ever "walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called."

Verse 2-3

"With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

If there is to be unity in the body of Christ there must be in our lives the presence of the five indispensable virtues Paul lists in verse 2. "Lowliness" means "to have a humble opinion of one's self." We would call it humility. This can only be present when we maintain a sense of who we are and our absolute dependence upon God. It also means we understand ourselves to be small because we are small. "Meekness" means "gentleness or mildness." It means the often raging emotions and ambitions of life have been bridled to Christ's control. Both "lowliness" and "meekness" were despised in the Greek culture and are for the most part despised in American culture when it comes to successful living.

"Longsuffering" means "patience, endurance, steadfastness." It is the "postponing of actions or evening the score." A longsuffering person has no desire to retaliate. This virtue involves never giving up, never admitting defeat and slowness to avenge wrong. In order to maintain unity we must be patient with one another. "Forbearing one another in love" means "patient with one another." It means you continue to "love" your brother or sister in Christ even when they are offensive to you (Colossians 3:13). There is nothing more devastating to unity in the family of God than being impatient with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Most of us grew up in homes where we had to be patient with others and yet we are so impatient with fellow believers.

"Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" means we should make every effort to keep the unity among God's people. "Endeavouring" means "exertion, studying, spending yourself." "To keep" means "watch, cherish carefully as a mother would her child." These words taken together suggest and inward effort is required to maintain the "unity of the Spirit."

"Unity" is not about how we get along on the surface but about how we are made "one internally" It is sharing a common life. It is how you and I are related positionally in Jesus Christ. The "unity of the Spirit" is the oneness we share because we are saved by grace. The "bond of peace" is that which holds believers together. For Christians, "peace is not merely the absence of turmoil, but a "bond" that keeps turmoil from developing. The word "bond" is a word that refers to "a ligament" that hold the human body together.

If we live a lifestyle of self-denial and love for others, our efforts at unity within the church are more likely to be successful. It is when preachers and church members jockey for control and power that the church becomes a fractured fellowship. Whether or not this was a problem at Ephesus is not stated by Paul but you have to assume there was the danger or Paul would never have written these powerful words.

The Provision for Unity (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Verse 4-6

"There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all."

In these verses Paul presents his famous list of "seven ones." First, "there is one body." Paul often used the metaphor of the human body to represent the church (1 Corinthians 12:27). Since every human being only has "one body" Paul uses that reality to show us that there is only "one body" of believers. Everyone who is a Christian is in "one body" and that "body" is Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:30). There is no Baptist body of Christ, no Lutheran body, no Presbyterian body or Church of God body. There may be denominational differences and doctrinal differences in this life but every Christian who has been born again by God's saving grace is in "one body."

Second, there is "one Spirit." It was the Third Person of the godhead, the Holy Spirit who placed us in the body of Christ when we were saved (1 Corinthians 12:13-14). There is not a Holy Spirit for the Baptist and another for the Pentecostals. There is only "one Spirit." The Holy Spirit is the author of unity, not division. Yet how often there is division between pastor and congregation or members of churches out of harmony and fellowship with each other. And when division happens it is not uncommon for everyone involved in the division to claim to have been led by the Holy Spirit.

Third, "one hope of your calling" is the result of a unified body in the Spirit. When believers realize by the power of the Spirit that we are one in Christ it gives us the ability to embrace the hope we have of eternal salvation. This "hope" is not primarily about our future in heaven (although we do have that hope) but rather the "hope" we now have of salvation. The hymn writer said it this way, "My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness."

Fourth, "one Lord" is a reminder that Christians have a single redeemer. This "one Lord" is the object of our "hope" and the One we serve as the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22). "Lord" is a reference to the Second Person of the Trinity, the Lord Jesus Christ. According to Jesus' teaching it is impossible to serve "two masters" (Luke 16:13). This is the heart of Christian unity, the key to oneness. When Jesus is "Lord," all hindrances to unity vanish.

Fifth, we have "one faith" because we have "one Lord." The church has only "one faith," one conviction of truth and that truth is Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 4:13). "Faith" is commitment to the "one Lord." This is more than intellectual recognition. This is a commitment to the Person, promises, and demands of Jesus Christ the Lord.

Sixth, "one baptism" speaks of the believers full identification with Jesus Christ. Commenting on this verse, Doctor John Phillips writes, "Despite arguments to the contrary, Paul had water baptism, not Spirit baptism, in mind here. If he had meant Spirit baptism, he would have linked it with 'one Spirit' in Ephesians 4:4, not with 'one Lord' in verse 5. Also we must remember that Paul did not address this Epistle to theologians, but to ordinary believers who would naturally think of their own water baptism when they read the unqualified words, 'one baptism.' In that day, there was only 'one baptism.' The unscriptural idea of infant baptism had not been invented in apostolic times. Baptism of believers by immersion was the New Testament mode of baptism," (Phillips Exploring Series Commentaries).

Seventh, "one God and Father of all" is the cornerstone of the Christian faith and unity. One God was the heart of the Jewish faith (Deuteronomy 6:4). This has not changed with the coming of the Son of God. Christians believe there is only one God. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a denial of the oneness of God. Our "one God" is "Father of all." That means He is the source and creator of all things. There exists no one to challenge or rival Him. Paul then uses three prepositional phrases to describe God's presence: "above all, and through all, and in you all." "Above all" speaks of God's control. "Through all" speaks of His providence. "In you all" speaks of His presence.

What wonderful and amazing provisions the believer has to guarantee unity and oneness in the church, the body of Christ.

The Expression of Unity (Ephesians 4:7-16)

Having exhorted his readers to walk worthy in unity and having declared to them the great provisions for unity, Paul now proceeds to show how unity functions in the church. Unity expresses itself through each gifted member who has been saved by grace.

Verse 7

"But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ."

"But" means Paul is going to change subjects but connect the previous truths with what he is about to say. Paul is going to connect the thoughts of the first six verses with the thoughts of the next four verses. "Given" is a word that reminds us of the gracious heart of God. The dominate message throughout all of the Bible is that God is a giving God (John 3:16; Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:57; Ephesians 2:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:8; James 1:17). Therefore, it should be no surprise to us as God's children that "unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ."

What is this gracious "gift" being talked about? Certainly we know that salvation is a gift that cannot be earned (Ephesians 2:8), but that is not what Paul is talking about in this verse. Paul is talking about gifts of measured grace being given to "every one of us" in the body of Christ. The "gifts" spoken of here is a reference to spiritual gifts. No believer has every gift because if that were true then someone else would not be needed in the body of Christ. All believers have at least one spiritual gift.

A "spiritual gift" is a divine ability which God gives to an individual for the purpose of glorifying God with that gift and serving others with that gift through the body of Christ, the church (Romans 12: 4-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-7). These "gifts" are not talents or natural abilities. These "gifts" are different from the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). These "gifts" are determined by the sovereignty of God. That means God does what He wants to do with each of "us" and in each of "us." These "gifts" are "given" and distributed by the Holy Spirit. The point is that Christ provides His church with gifted people to do the necessary ministries. And while we are all unified together in the body of Christ we all have different "gifts."

Since all believers have a spiritual gift we need to use that gift with the "grace" God has given us. As we minister through our "gifts" we must do it with a gracious attitude. What a thrill the truth of Ephesians 4:7 should be to every member of the body of Christ!

Verse 8-10

"Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things)"

When a "gift" is given it is just logical that someone pays a price for that gift. The spiritual gifts that each believer possesses have come at a price. In order to present that truth Paul takes us back to a very unusual passage of scripture from the Old Testament to create an analogy of the price that was paid for our gift from God. The passage from which Paul quotes (not an exact quote) is Psalm 68:18, where God is described by the psalmist as gaining a mighty victory over His enemies, because of which they pay Him tribute. Paul's Jewish readers would recognize these words as words of celebration.

In the Old Testament when a city was captured the victor would bring back the spoils and captives of war. But they would also liberate any of their own soldiers they had previously been held by their enemies. That's what is meant by the words, "he led captivity captive." Paul says that what happened with Jesus when He "ascended up on high." The Lord Jesus came down upon this earth and He went against each and every enemy you had, sin, Satan, death, and the grave and won the battle against every one of them. Christ won victory over all that opposed us. He then "ascended up far above all heaven, that he might fill all things" back to His home in heaven and He paraded in front of all the inhabitants those He had delivered. That is the meaning of the phrase "He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men" (Colossians 2:14-15).

In verse 9-10 Paul takes the analogy of verse 8 and brings it all up to date for his Ephesian readers. What does "...he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth" mean? First, Paul is saying if Jesus "ascended" he had to first of all "descended" because he started in heaven and he couldn't have gone back up if he hadn't first come down. When he first "descended" he did so at Bethlehem in His incarnation. When Christ died He "descended" even further when he went into the grave. But what also happened is that after his death Jesus (His Spirit) went into "the lower parts of the earth" a place called "Sheol," and preached the gospel to those who were there (1 Peter 3:18-19)

Prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Old Testament teaches that when people died in the Lord they went to a place called "Sheol" which a two compartment sort of place. On one side was a place called "paradise" where those who were saved went and on the other side was "torment" where the souls of those who did not believe went. A picture of this is in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). So, over in paradise are all the Old Testament believers who had trusted Christ before the cross. On the other side, in torment are all those who had rejected Christ. During the time between Christ's death and resurrection the spirit of Jesus went to "Sheol" and preached the gospel in that place. Jesus actually "descended" into hell. Not the torment side; He went to the paradise side.

Jesus' message to those on paradise side was one of victory and deliverance. Those who had died in faith looking forward to the cross now received a welcomed message. When Christ "ascended up far above all heavens" he took with him those who had long awaited the finished work of Christ on the cross and paraded them before God in heaven. Today, no believer is in "paradise." When a believer dies today they go immediately into the presence of the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

The "gifts" that Christ "gave unto men" when he "ascended" are the trophies of his victories. And when you and I receive and exercise the spiritual gifts Christ has given us in His church we are parading and showing forth the evidence of his victory over sin. When the unified body of Christ functions in and through her spiritual gifts everyone knows these are not our natural talents and abilities but rather gracious gifts given to us by our conquering Savior!

Your spiritual gift is a BIG DEAL! Christ paid for your spiritual gift with His own blood!

Verse 11

"And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers"

Although Paul lists separate offices and functions within the body of Christ in these verses, his emphasis is not upon giving special favors to certain individuals. This is about different areas of ministry or categories of service, not favoritism and special people. Remember, this is about the God-ordained unity of the church.

God's first four gifts were for the foundation of the church. There are five words listed but the word "some" is recorded four times. "Pastor and teachers" is actually one word. You can be a "teacher" and not be a "pastor" but you cannot be a "pastor" and not be a "teacher." The two go together. "Apostles" is "one sent with authority to do a certain task." "Apostles," were those commissioned by Jesus personally. New Testament "apostles" were also those who had seen the risen Christ. Paul was the last apostle to see the risen Christ (Acts 9).Although some Christian leaders still use the title "apostle" today there are no biblical "apostles" alive today (Ephesians 2:20). "Prophets," are those who were given a special word from God to communicate to the church. One such example is "Agabus" in Acts 11:27-28; 21:10. The ministry of the "prophets" became less important as the Word of God became available as the written New Testament. Like the "apostles," there are no biblical "prophets" alive today. "Evangelists," are those who proclaim the gospel message through preaching. Timothy is known is called to do the work of an "evangelist" (2 Timothy 4:5) as is Philip (Acts 21:8). The gift of evangelism and "evangelists" is still operative in the church today. "Pastor and teachers" is actually one word. A "pastor" is a shepherd who tends to the needs of the flock. A "teacher" is that part of pastoring that is primary to his role and function. The New Testament "pastor-teacher" is responsible for the teaching of God's Word to God's people (1 Timothy 3:2). The "pastor" has a ministry of "teaching."

Verse 12

"For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ"

Ephesians 4:12 must be interpreted in light of the words "And he gave some..." in verse 11. Christ did not call the pastor to "perfect the saints" and to do "the work of the ministry" and "for the edifying of the body of Christ." Christ placed gifted people in the church to do that. He placed the pastor-teacher in the church to equip the gifted believers. No pastor can do everything listed in Ephesians 4:12. And if he tries he will quickly die from exhaustion or discouragement. Now that doesn't mean the pastor-teacher is to just show up on Sunday and preach. The pastor-teacher works hard and long to equip those gifted in the church. He prays and invests his life in the life of those God has saved and placed within that body.

When everyone in the body of Christ uses their spiritual gifts the results is "the perfecting of the saints." "Perfecting" means "to bring to full potential." Many pastor-teachers are bold from the pulpit in telling people how to live but weak in example and teaching people how to reach their full potential in Christ. Gifted people make possible the "work of the ministry." As the pastor-teacher invests God's Word in your life it prepares you for spiritual service. The church is not a rest home but a barracks for training soldiers of the cross. Every member of the church is to be involved in "the work of the ministry" (1 Corinthians 15:58; 1 Peter 2:5; 2 Thessalonians 3:11).

"For the edifying of the body of Christ" means "for the building up" of the body of believers. A church cannot survive on the personality of the pastor or the finances and influence of a few families. If the church is to be "built up," there must be biblical teaching, Christian love, encouragement and support for all believers. That was true in Paul's day and it is true in our day.

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 fulness of Christ"

Is there a goal to all Paul is teaching? Yes! The goal is that "we all come in the unity of faith..." Again we are confronted with the theme of "unity." "Unity" is so crucial to the life of the believer and the church. God saved us to place us in "one body." He gave us leaders to instruct us and train us to use our different gifts in a united way. And now, Paul tells us that it is all about "coming in the unity of faith."

When the church uses her spiritual gifts instead of sitting around and admiring them it results in an agreement on matters "of the faith." Our faith is what we believe. It is the truth. This is not talking about an authoritative preacher imposing his beliefs on a group of people but rather an agreement arrived at because of proper biblical instruction. That's the meaning of the phrase "knowledge of the Son of God." Growing in a deeper "knowledge" of Jesus is a life-long process that cannot be attained outside the ministry of the local church. "Unity" is not about you giving up a little of what you believe and me giving up a little of what I believe so we can find some common ground. "Unity" is about all of God's children getting the truth. Division occurs when people don't get the truth!

Every believer's goal is to "come...unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ." It's obvious that none of us in this life can arrive at that level. However, that was Paul's goal and that should be our goal as well (Colossians 1:28-29; Philippians 3:14-15).

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"

This verse is filled with interesting words and phrases that will prevent the church from falling short of our goal of unity and Christ likeness. "That we henceforth be no more children" is a plea from Paul to grow up. One of the greatest assets to unity is spiritual maturity. And no believer can grow without fellowship and spiritual nourishment.

"Children," those not old enough to speak, those vulnerable" can easily be "tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine." "Carried" means "borne here and there." So many Christians are tossed here and there because of sudden gusts of teachings that catch their attention. New music, new ministry, new this and that lures people away from the foundational truths of scripture which alone produce spiritual growth and maturity. The health and wealth gospel that is so powerful today is a perfect example of "every wind of doctrine." And that doctrine in particular has been promoted "by the sleight of men." "Sleight" means "dice." These stadium packing, 3-D promotions of the gospel will trick you with their half truths. They also use "cunning craftiness" which means they are clever and good at what they do. Their props and presentations are high octane but laced with "deception." It is only a mature unified body of believers that can resist such foolishness.

Verse 15

"But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ"

God's people should never tolerate false doctrine and false teaching for the sake of unity. That is one of the main responses when the health and wealth preachers are challenged concerning their false doctrine. They respond by saying they are interested in helping, not hurting. They want to bring people together, not divide. Solid biblical truth is the only foundation upon which to build unity.

If the body of Christ is to "grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ," false teaching and false doctrine must be challenged (Titus 1:9). And when we challenge and confront it we must be sure we do that in "love."

Verse 16

"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."

For Paul, the church that lives and ministers in unity is like a human body that is functioning properly. Just like the physical body has arms, legs, feet, hands, and other body parts that work together, so will the "whole body" of Jesus Christ be "fitly joined together." "From whom" refers to Jesus Christ. The "body" of Christ cannot be "joined together and compacted" from any other source than Jesus Christ. The church doesn't exist because we are all from a certain race or place or because we all have the same color of face. It exists because of "Christ."

Christ has so designed the church to function "by that which every joint supplieth." Churches don't survive by clever people or culturally savvy individuals. Churches flourish and grow by what each gifted believer brings to the ministry. Diversity is not a threat to unity. It is a vital part of unity. Paul's use of the word "joint" reminds us that each of us touch the lives of other believers. Where there is close relationships there is unity and there is Christ-like growth. The words "fitly joined together" and "compacted" are words of cohesion. Just like your physical head controls the actions and decisions of the remainder of your body so Christ has placed us in His body to work together in an inner dependence upon Him and one another. He is the head and we all work together "effectually."

In a day when so many people are moving away from relationships and intentionally avoiding people, Paul's words are so important. "Together" is essential for unity. The design of God for unity and oneness results in "the effectual working in the measure of every part, making increase of the body unto they edifying of itself in love." The word "increase" means there is a dynamic and power within the unity of the body of Christ that causes spiritual growth. Everything that is produced in the church and in our lives is to manifest "love." And when Christians are built up according to God's plan and touch each other's lives through the biblical use of our gifts, and do it all in "love," then the world will know that we are God's children (John 13:34-35).

Conclusion

There are many Christians who differ greatly when it comes to doctrine and other issues regarding Christianity. The diversity of churches, denominations, and approaches to worship increases year after year. All of us who are truly saved by grace have Christian friends and family who worship differently, witness differently and view the world differently. And while we may not all agree on every aspect of the Christian life there is one thing that is certain. Everyone who has truly been saved by grace is "one in Jesus Christ."

God gave us His only begotten Son that we might be saved. God gave us His church that we might be a family. God gave us spiritual gifts that we might minister to others and grow up into Christ in and through His church. God gave us unity that the world might know that He loves them and can save them. God gave us this lesson to remind us of all the above.

Amen.