Text: Ephesians 4:1-6
We have reached the half-way stage in our exploration of this letter of Paul to the Ephesians. And as we pass from the first into the second half of this great epistle, we immediately notice a change of scenery. There is a shift from
- Principles to practice
- Belief to behaviour
- Doctrine to duty
- Exposition to exhortation
- Credenda to agenda
- Indicative to imperative
- What God has done to what we must do
And yet the two halves of this letter are inseparably connected. 4:1 makes this clear:- ‘As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.’
Paul has been expounding, in the first half the epistle, the ‘calling’ that God’s people have received. Through the gospel, God has has called Jewish believers and Gentile believers to form a single new humanity, the body of Christ, the church. And now, in the second half, he will explain what it means to live a life worthy of that calling.
And the first thing on his agenda is unity. ‘Make every effort,’ he says in v3, ‘to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.’ More generally, from verses 1-6, Paul spells out God’s part and ours in this vital matter of Christian unity. He tells us that God has drawn on his vast resources to create it, and that we must apply our best efforts to maintain it.
1. God has drawn on his vast resources to create Christian unity
There are certain kinds of unity that we can create. A football team, an army, a choir, a political party, can all be united around a shared aim or purpose. But no human effort or skill or organisation can create the kind of unity of which Paul speaks here. Only God can take people, not only utterly diverse in age, gender, ethnicity and ability, but also alienated from him and from one another in their fallenness, and fashion them into one solid building, one co-ordinated body, one loving bride.
Only God can do that. That’s why Paul calls it, ‘the unity of the Spirit’.
In 4-6 the apostle hammers this home by listing 7 unities relating to God that underpin our unity as his people.
Three of these unities refer to who God is.
(a) One Spirit – Paul calls it ‘the unity of the Spirit’ because it is created by God the Spirit. It is he who has made us alive in Christ, and it is he who indwells God’s people.
(b) One Lord – Our common allegiance to Lord Jesus Christ binds us together.
(c) One God and Father of us all – God has adopted us into his family and we are thereby brothers and sisters to one another.
We can’t fail to notice the trinitarian structure embedded here. Reversing of the usual order we have one Spirit, one Son, one Father. This is no accident. Paul is speaking of Christian unity and very soon he will speak of Christian diversity. God himself is the epitomy of unity in diversity. Just as God is three in one, so his people are many and yet one.
The other four unities refer to what God has done.
(a) God has constituted his people as one body. Here we have, of course, one of Paul’s favourite metaphors of the church. And once again it conveys very strongly the idea of unity in diversity. The human body consists of many differents types of cells, tissues, organs and systems, but with a mutually shared life. The thing that unites the body is not the similarity of the different parts, but the life that they have in common.
(b) God has called his people to one hope – Paul has expounded the Christian hope in chapter 1. We look forward to a unified and reconciled cosmos, 1:9f, and to a glorious inheritance, Eph 1:18, having already received a foretaste in the gift of the Spirit, Eph 1:14. The existence of a unified church now is an anticipation of the final unification of all things.
(c) God has established his people in one faith – There is one way of salvation –for it is by grace we have been saved, through faith in Jesus Christ.
(d) God has welcomed his people in one baptism. Baptism is the badge, the outward sign, of our membership of the people of God.
In all of these ways, then, Paul emphasises that Christian unity is rooted in who God is and what he has done. It follows that Christian disunity must be a repudiation of the one God we claim to worship, and a denial of the one gospel we say we believe in. Christian disunity is, in fact, a contradiction in terms.
No wonder, then, that we find Paul urging his readers ‘make every effort to keep this unity in the bond of peace.’
2. We must apply our best efforts to maintain Christian unity
I wonder if you find it puzzling that Paul can on the one hand assert that Christian unity is created by God, and yet on the other hand urge us to maintained ourselves? But, when you think about it, it’s not so puzzling. It’s just the same in marriage, for example: God has so joined husband and wife together that they become ‘one flesh’. And yet every couple realises sooner or later they can’t take their relationship for granted. They have to work at maintaining it.
Now, in this matter of Christian unity I have never yet met a Christian who did not agree that it’s a good idea in principle. ‘The communion of saints’ sounds a wonderfully heavenly idea. But how much effort are we putting in to turn principle into practice here and now?To dwell above with saints we love, That will be grace and glory. But to live below with saints we know; Well, that’s another story!
So what is this ‘bond of peace’ in which we are urged to keep the unity of the Spirit?
Well, I think that Paul has just described it in v2:- ‘Be completely humble and gentle; be patient (literally, ‘long-tempered’, as opposed to ‘short-tempered’), bearing with one another in love.’
These are not popular traits. They never have been. But lest we are tempted to think of them as pathetically weak and unattractive, let us remind ourselves that what we see here is a perfect portrait of Jesus Christ. Mt 11:29 (‘I am gentle and humble in heart’). And Paul in 2 Cor 10:1 speaks of the ‘meekness and gentleness’ of Christ.
So, what efforts can we make to put all this into practice?
(a) Let’s be builders, not wreckersI saw them tearing a building down, A gang of men in a dusty town. With ‘yo heave ho’ and a lusty yell, They swung a beam and the side wall fell. I asked the foreman if these men were as skilled As the men he’d hire, if he were to build. He laughed and said, ‘Oh, no indeed. Common labour is all I need.’ For these men can wreck in a day or two, What builders had taken years to do. I asked myself as I went my way, Which kind of role am I to play? Am I the builder who builds with care, Measuring life by the rule and square? Or am I the wrecker who walks the town, Content with the role of tearing down?
To knock one another down is easy. It takes real effort and determination to build one another up.
(b) Let’s make good use of our forgetories
Clara Barton, founder of the America Red Cross. She was once reminded by a friend of a wrong done to her some years earlier. “Don’t you remember?” asked her friend. “No,” replied Clara firmly. “I distinctly remember forgetting that.”
There are many minor irritations and disagreements that we can simply overlook. In this regard, may God grant us the gift of a blind eye, a deaf ear, and an appalling memory.
(c) Let’s make every effort to include one another in
One of my weaknesses is that I tend to wait for others to decide whether they want to include me in or include me out. I need to be more willing to take the intiative, even if a fellow-Christian seems unfriendly towards me.He drew a circle that shut me out. Heretic! Rebel! A thing to flout! But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that brought him it.
(d) Let’s get into the habit of speaking good, rather than ill, of one another
One of the most distressing and destructive habits that can occur in church life is when one Christian can find nothing good to say about another. Brothers and sisters, should not be so. How can one part of the body be so hateful and hurtful towards another?
Two of the greatest leaders and evangelists of the Great Awakening were John Wesley and George Whitefield. They were friends and close associates in Christian ministry. They had a well-publicised falling-out over a point of doctrine, such that they continued their ministry separately. Someone once asked Whitefield, ‘Brother Whitefield, do you think that we shall John Wesley in heaven!’ Whitefield pondered the question for a moment, and then replied. ‘No, I don’t think that we shall see Mk Wesley in heaven. You see, he will be so close to the throne, and you and I will be so far away from it that we shall hardly get a glimpse of him.’
When speaking to a fellow-Christian, there may be a place for rebuke, correction, confrontation even. For truth’s sake, Paul confronted Peter to his face. But when speaking about one another, we need to ask, ‘Is what I am about to say true, is it necessary, is it loving?’
Christian unity, then, is not an optional extra. God has drawn on his vast resources to construct his people as one building, with Christ as the cornerstone, which rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. He has constituted his people as one body, with Christ as the head, each part contributing to the proper function of the whole. He has called his people to be one bride, with Christ as the bridegroom who loved her and gave himself for her.
Can our response be anything less, than, ‘Lord, by your grace, we will be that one solid building, that one fully-functioning body, that one holy bride, that you have called us to be’?