Ephesians 4:1-7 as preached by Timothy O'Day.
What we see in Ephesians 4:1-7 is that Christian unity is enjoying and displaying the goodness of God; it is a gift that we are empowered to enjoy and display for the glory of God. How do we see that this is the case? Let’s look deeper at the passage and consider three points, namely the basis, means, and refinement of unity.
1. The basis of unity is the triune God
2. The means of maintaining unity is imitating Christ
3. The refinement of unity comes by diversity of gifts
Unity is something that most people want. To be united is to feel and to actually be at one with others. As Christians, we know that we are to be united with other Christians. Jesus prayed for us in John 17:23, “that they may become one perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” Christian unity, then, is not optional. Jesus prays for it in John 17; and God gives us this command in Ephesians 4:3 to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” But how do we do that?
In the book The Hobbit, we are given an excellent picture. At the end of the book there is a great battle with dwarves, men, and elves on one side and goblins on the other. The goblins are a greater force and begin to out maneuver and overtake the allied forces of the dwarves, elves, and men. The retreat begins. But then Thorin Oakenshield bursts out of his shelter with his band of dwarves and rides into the heart of the goblin force. And as he rides out he cries to the scattering armies, “To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!” And none could be restrain. The scattering men were drawn back into battle at his display and at his call.
He rallied them to a deeper reality of bravery and became the symbol and point at which they could be drawn in. As we consider unity this morning, I want you to ask yourself, “what am I rallying around? What am I being drawn into and giving my life to?” For far too many people, the rallying cry is comfort and ease. It is answering the call to not rock the boat. But while that might give the impression of unity, it isn’t the real thing. Like fake fruit it is design and might even look real, but once you bite into it you discover it was all a ruse.
What we see in Ephesians 4:1-7 is that Christian unity is enjoying and displaying the goodness of God; it is a gift that we are empowered to enjoy and display for the glory of God.
How do we see that this is the case? Let’s look deeper at the passage and consider three points, namely the basis, means, and refinement of unity.
First, The Basis of Unity is the triune God
Verse 1 opens with “I therefore,” and the therefore points back to what Paul has just written. He has just finished a benediction in which he states his desire and hope that God will be, as he says in 3:21, glorified. He will this happen? Look at 3:21, “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” That might strike you as surprising. You might expect God to be glorified in Jesus, but here the statement is that God will be glorified in the church. That is to say, his beauty, wisdom, and goodness will be seen through and in the church. The church will be a place for people to look and see the greatness of God and, upon seeing his goodness, glorify him. How is the church to display God’s glory?
The church displays God’s glory through what he has done for us and by what he has done to us. God is glorified not just by saving his people, but by changing his people. Verses 4-6 cover what God has done for us and these verses lay out the basis of Christian unity; this is the foundation that everything else rests on. What is it? What has God given us? He has given us himself. That is to say, what Christians hold in common most fundamentally is God himself. Christian unity comes by our fellowship with the triune God. When you become a Christian you have something in common with all other Christians—God and your experience of him.
Look at verse 4-6. Each of the statements that begin with the word “one” refers to either God himself or how we experience God.
“There is one body and one Spirit”—while the church is made up of different people, we are actually one body because we have one Spirit. That is to say, we all possess the Holy Spirit. When you become a Christian, you receive the Holy Spirit. Thus, we all hold the Spirit in common and he unites us as one body. As the church, we are called the body of Christ because the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ has come to us. As we read in Romans 5, by faith “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).
“One hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism”—There is only one hope, one faith, and one baptism because we sit under and share one Lord, Jesus Christ. There is only one faith because there is only one Lord; there is only one hope because there is only one Lord; there is only one baptism because there is only one Lord. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Faith is not always a virtue. Along with that, we can say that hope is not always a virtue and baptism is not always good. Why? Because it depends on the object of faith, hope, and baptism. When you say, “I have faith,” I want to ask you, “faith in what?” When you say, “I Have hope,” I want to ask you, “Hope in what?” When you say that, “I have been baptized,” I want to ask, “baptized into what?” You can have faith, hope, and even be baptized, but this only unites you with others if it is in the One Lord. Here is where it can get confusing because there are people who say the phrase, “Lord Jesus,” but mean something entirely different from what the Bible means by that phrase. That is to say, someone can have faith, hope, and be baptized in Jesus, but if they mean something different by the name Jesus, it doesn’t unite us. Let me convey what I mean by an illustration. Baptism is the sign of the new covenant, so when you are baptized you are entering into a covenant relationship with God. What we have in common as Christians is that we are part of the one New covenant by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Likewise, I made a covenant with my wife Haley. We are united in this covenant. But if someone came up to me and said, “Hey, I am also married to Haley,” and then he pointed to a 4 foot 10 Brazilian woman, and said, “we’re part of the same covenant.” My reply would be, “Her name might be Haley, but that isn’t the Haley I am in covenant with.” They might share the same name, but unless it is the same person it isn’t the same covenant. Christian unity isn’t founded on a mere name but on the very person to whom the name refers. This is very confusing for people. When I first moved to Utah some Latter-Day Saints invited me to a unity prayer service in which people from different faith groups would pray. They had recruited a Muslim, a Jehovah’s Witness, and a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for this event and they wanted me to come along as well. When I told them no they were surprised and said, “But we all believe in God.” But that wasn’t true. We all believed in a god, but we did not believe in the same God. The substance behind the word matters. That is the real binding nature of our unity. In the church, we can say that we are one because there is one Lord and we share him.
“One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”In the church, we can say that we are one because God is really our Father. He has made us part of his family. Now, based on the context of the Bible, when we read here that there is “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all,” we can specify that the all does not refer to people in general but all people in Christ. Not all people are counted as God’s children. As we read in John 1:12, “But to all who did receive him (Jesus), who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Or as we read in 1 John 3:1, “see what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” There John is making a distinction. There is the world that does not know understand Christians because they did not understand Christ; and then there are the children of God who are children because they came to the one true Christ. As we come to Jesus, who is God the Son incarnate, we receive “the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father’” (Romans 8:16).
Putting It All Together…
What is our takeaway from all of this? Our unity is formed and shaped by God’s triunity. God himself is the basis of our unity. We are not united because we want to be (though I hope you do want it); we are united because of what he has actually done. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God desired to save a people for himself and to adopt them into the family of God. He did so by giving us Jesus, who paid the penalty for our sins and gives the Holy Spirit to those who come to him in faith. As we receive Christ, we receive the Spirit; as we receive Christ, we receive sonship and have God as our Father. Jesus is central to it all and you must trust him for it all.
But Is It Real?
I hope this sounds incredible to you. But even if it does, there may still be a lingering question in your mind: “is this unity real?” After all, we see division in churches and division between churches. What are we to do with this reality? First off, don’t deny it. While unity is real and indestructible, it is by no means a foregone conclusion. That is to say, it doesn’t just happen. How do we know? Paul has to exhort the church to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called. In other words, he tells us to pursue unity. Look at verse 3, we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. What he is saying is that we have this unity in in the triune God, but we have to maintain it. The unity is real but it is not always visible. What we have to labor towards and pursue is making this real unity into a visible unity.
John Stott has a good illustration on this. Imagine a family in which the parents are fighting, so they separate from one another. The children are all grown up and also grown apart. The family has reached the point that they no longer get together and do not even talk anymore. If you didn’t know they were family you might think that they were strangers or even enemies. But they actually have a bond that is too deep to break, even if that bond is invisible to the watching world. Now imagine you are cousins to this family. Upon witnessing their situation, you wouldn’t say, “I guess they aren’t a family!” No. You would say, “How tragic that they are not living as a family.” They are a family; they are a unit and have a type of unity, but they are not living in it and that is tragic. You would probably feel compelled and ask yourself, “what can I do to help them live in that unity and enjoy that unity?”
Unity is guaranteed by our belonging to the triune God, but it is also something that we must pursue in order to make it visible. And, as verse 3 tells us, we are to pursue this making this unity visible with eagerness. The Greek word here carries with it the meaning of hurriedness; being bent upon doing something. That means you are to diligently strive to maintain the unity given to us through our redemption in Christ Jesus. You are to bring your best to bear at making our unity visible. The point is this: when you come to Jesus as Lord, unity among his people is not something that you need to create, but it is something that you need to pursue. How do you do that?
Second, the means of unity is imitating Jesus
Jump over to Ephesians 5:1-2. Here we read, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrance offering and sacrifice to God.” The logic in these verses is that since we have been adopted as God’s children, we are to be like him. We are to imitate him just as a son is to imitate his dad. But how are we as humans to imitate God? We are to look at the God-man, Jesus Christ. If you want to know how to walk in love, as we are commanded to do in 5:2, then simply look to Jesus and imitate him. He shows us what love is in his life. I mention all of this because Paul tells us in 4:2 that the way we are to walk in a manner worthy of our calling and the way we are to eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is to walk in love. He mentions things we are to walk in such as humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another, but then he caps it all off with the words “in love.” And, as Rich Mullins sang, "we didn’t know what love was until he came; and he gave love a place and he gave love a name; and he gave love away like the sky gives the rain and sun.” But Scripture says it even better, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us, and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus. If you want to know how to love others, look at Jesus. In short, he is the one that makes unity a reality for his people and he is the one who shows us how to make our unity visible to the world.
We imitate God and live as his family when we imitate Jesus.
Right now, I have an echo in my house. Just about every time I hear Julia say something, I hear an echo of it. It isn’t a literal echo. It is the Sidney echo. “Can we have some popcorn?” Says Julia. “Can we have some popcorn?” Echos Sidney. “What a fun day!” Says Julia, and “What a fun day!” Echos Sidney. It is hilarious and it is beautiful. “Oh, look at that pretty bird,” and a snap later from Sidney, “oh, look at that pretty bird.” She wants to be exactly like her older sister, so she watches her and imitates her. How much more should we, who have receive the Spirit of Christ and are now adopted as God’s children, imitate Jesus? Here is how we imitate him—here is what walking in pursuit of unity looks like according to this passage—let’s take each virtue in pairs…
Live with humility and gentleness: Humble and gentle. These are the very words Jesus uses to describe himself in Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Jesus is humble or lowly toward us because he, the greater, comes to serve us, the lesser. He is the king who sets aside his royal crown in order to tend to our sicknesses; he is the master who stoops to wash our feet; he serves where we do not want to serve and in ways that we refuse. Jesus gives us a perfect picture of this in John 13 when he washes the feet of the disciples. Washing feet was customary, but it was done by the lowest of the low. In fact, it was inappropriate to ask your servant to do it for you. And yet, Jesus sets aside his outer garment, puts on a servants cover, and washes their feet. And that was nothing compared to what he was about to do in going to the cross. There he took on my true filth. There he took the most disgusting parts of me, the most shameful aspects of my life, and bore them for me so that I might be clean. If we are going to display the unity that God has given us, it will require us to have this same attitude of humility. It will require us to make ourselves low in service for each other. And the whole point of going low like this in service is to give rest to each other’s souls. It is to ask repeatedly not, “What can I get from you?” But “how can I give more to you?”
Jesus is gentle toward us not because he is weak but because he is powerful. When you see a baby touching something you do not think, “oh, she is being gentle.” She is actually bringing all of her power to bear in touching that object. But when you see a big, strong man cradling a baby your heart is touched. You see gentleness because you see greater power being restrained in order to care for another’s needs. Jesus, though God, did not use his position and power for anything other than our good.
Live with patience and long suffering: These items are similar but carrying with them differences from each other. To be patient refers to waiting; to bear refers to putting up with or permit. When I read these exhortations I am reminded of 2 Peter 3:9. Peter was answering a complaint from some in the church. Some complained that the Lord was slow in fulfilling his promise in returning, but Peter tells them that the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise. He isn’t lazy; he has a different purpose. He writes, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish.” That is to say, he is calling people to himself and does not desire any of those he calls to perish. He is waiting for all of his people. If you are in Christ, it is because he waiting for you and patiently endured your evil and rebellion until he called you to himself. Similarly, the Lord puts up with us. When you come to Christ, you are not perfect. You still sin even if you no longer diligently pursue sin. And in humility, the Lord bears with us; he gently deals with us to correct us and form us into his likeness. In order to make unity visible, we must all eagerly pursue patience and bearing with one another. This is going to mean waiting on each other to mature instead of simply demanding it. It is going to mean we must endure wrongs from each other. Bearing with each other doesn’t mean overlooking sin—as in pretending it isn’t real—it means acknowledging it but not letting it destroy fellowship. Bearing with one another also means not calling things that simply bother us “sin.” That is to say, there may be things that annoy you, but you have to put up with them! That’s what Jesus does with us.
As You Pursue Unity, Remember…
As you pursue unity, remember this: you are really pursuing Christ. If you pursue humility apart from Christ, you become proud; if you pursue gentleness apart from Christ, you become bitter; if you pursue patience apart from Christ, you become weary; if you seek to bear with others apart from Christ, you become resentful. But if you stare at Jesus Christ and seek him above all, then in beholding his beauty you want to echo his beauty into the world. In seeing the humble Christ, you want to be humble; in seeing the gentle Christ, you want to be gentle; in seeing the patient Christ, you want to be patient; in seeing the Christ who bears with his people, you want to bear with others. Or, even better, in experiencing the humble, gentle, patient, and long suffering Christ, you too will find yourself growing in humility, gentleness, patience, and long suffering.
We can only do these things because he first does them to us
Third, The refinement of unity comes by diversity of gifts
Unity in Christ does not lead to uniformity in all things. In fact it is God’s design for us to be different—not only in background and disposition—true that may be—but in our abilities and gifting. Verse 7 makes this clear: “But grace was given to each one of us according tot he measure of Christ’s gift. The word “grace” can very in nuance depending on how it is used. In this verse it is not saying that the grace to be saved from God’s was given to us (true as that is). It is rather saying that along with receiving the grace of being saved from sin and united to God in Christ, in Christ we receive a gift that we can use to serve the church. Paul refers to grace this way in Ephesians 3:7 when he writes, “of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. He had the particular call of being an apostle to the gentiles. Not everyone had that call or that gifting. What Paul goes on to argue in verses 8-13 is that everyone in the church is equipped by the grace of God to serve the church. Each person in the church is empowered by God’s grace in order to care for the church and this is a vital aspect of our unity. Why is it vital? Because it means we need each other!
We all have the one Spirit and thus can imitate the humility, gentleness, patience, and long suffering of our Savior. That is a gift of his grace. But you are also empowered by his grace to serve the church in other ways and you can imitate the love of Christ for the church uniquely through your gifting. Specifically, we will use our gifts to help mature one another into Christlikeness. That is what is meant in verse 13—we are to serve one another with our gifts “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” Don’t miss this: Our unity is refined, more visible and enjoyed, as we all use our unique gifts to build one another up.
Your Gift of Grace…
Now, upon hearing this, you might have one of two reactions:
1. “What’s my gift?”
2. “this church isn’t letting me use my gift.”
If you are asking the first question, I want to put you at ease with an answer. If you are making the second statement, then I want to rebuke you, so get ready for that.
First, the way to understand your gift is not taking some spiritual gifts test. It is to set your mind on the things of Christ: how do I love this church? It is to look at the needs of the body and to humbly ask the Lord, “Equip me to meet our needs.” It is asking…
Who is hurting? How can I help him or her?
Where is our church weak? How can I help us move toward strength
What commands from the Lord are we struggling to obey? How can I help us move toward obedience?
This will require you to be on your knees before the Lord, have your eyes open to the church, and have your heart informed by his word.
Second, do not view the church as standing in the way of your gift. The church is not the road block of your gift; it is the field of its use. If you get this backwards, then you will be proud before the church instead of humble in the midst of her; you will be rough with the church instead of gentle among her; you will demanding instead of patient; and you will be bitter instead of bearing with her. Having this view of your gift will lead you to the opposite of maturity in Christ. This attitude is getting it all backwards: it is asking the question, “How can the church serve my ends” instead of asking, “How can I serve the ends of the church?” Which is to ultimately glorify God. And this kind of attitude can sneak up on us, too. I remember one time sitting in on a conversation between a church member and a pastor at another church. This church member came to the pastor with an indictment. He wanted to know why the church wasn’t doing more evangelism. His statement was, in fact, “Why doesn’t your church do evangelism in this particular way?” The pastor, in replay, humbly and gently stated, “Let’s change your language because it is important. Instead of saying, ‘why doesn’t your church do evangelism in this particular way,’ ask instead, ‘why don’t we do evangelism in this particular way.’” And by changing the wording he revealed the answer. This one member thought he was being held back by the church and it was making him angry. But really the Lord had gifted him and burdened him to lead the church in this evangelism effort. The church wasn’t a road block to his gift but the field of its expression.
Pursue Unity By Pursuing Christ
Brothers and sisters, you are all gifted in more ways than I know and in more ways than you know. And the only way your gifts will come to light and come into full expression is through seeking to love and build up our church.
So let me close by going back to our first question: What are you rallying around? What is the basis of our unity? It is our God and we know our God through Jesus Christ. We really around Christ as he calls to us “To me! To me!” His is the only real and lasting unity that is offered to us. So let us pursue unity by pursuing Christ.