Sunday, December 29, 2019


Our Life in the Church – Ephesians 4:3
Beginning with his words on humility and patience in the fourth chapter of Ephesians, we see a broadening of focus in the purpose of Paul’s letter. Up until this point in his letter, he was primarily writing of all the blessings that we have in Christ.

The first part of the book of Ephesians speaks primarily of the riches that these blessings are to us as individuals, and also of the blessings promised to us in the church.

However, in the second and third verses of the fourth chapter, Paul begins to speak also of our responsibilities as believers. Beginning here, he begins speaking of our relationships to others. He more or less defined patience as “bearing with one another in love,” and then further adds that we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3 ESV).

This unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace are to be the underlying themes of the rest of this letter to the Ephesians. Whatever may be the particular subject about which Paul is writing at any moment in the last half of this letter to the Ephesians, this two-fold goal of unity and peace in the church are the prime factors. It is upon these two that all other topics of the letter rest.

Likewise, on these two things also rest the life of the church. The life of the church always depends on the unity that we are to have in the Holy Spirit and the bond of peace we are to create and maintain among ourselves. 

Unity Based on the Lowest Common Denominator

Speaking of peace as the world defines it, it seems to be a growing problem in our federal government to see a determined intransigency on the part of our elected government officials in Washington. People with sometimes extreme positions often refuse to compromise them at all. They become unyielding in their view of how things should be done.

I do not have to comment much on this fact, since this is a widely accepted opinion. The trouble comes largely because we basically have two broad philosophies of government, each often refusing to compromise with the other in order to move legislation forward. In the realities of the governments of the world, compromise is sometimes necessary. This is especially true in democracies. Peace between two viewpoints cannot be attained unless there is compromise.

However, in some ways, I must say that I respect those who have such firmly held convictions that they do not want to compromise. When two opposite extremes compromise their beliefs in order to reach an agreement, we end up with governance based on watered down convictions. We may have unity, but it is a unity that is based on the lowest common denominator.

For better or for worse, that is the way of the world: unity can come only if it is based on the lowest common denominator. It is that way because the unity we seek must be upheld only by that which men and women themselves are able to achieve. In the world, it is the best that we are able to do.

However, this type of unity is not the way of the church as the body of Christ—at least it should not be. The Apostle Paul also speaks of unity in the body of Christ, but unlike in the world, our unity should not be based on insipid convictions and the lowest common denominator.

Rather than this, unity in the church will come about if it is based on the highest common denominator. Here is what Paul writes: 

I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called… eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6 ESV)

Notice that the unity that Paul is writing about is not unqualified. He is not saying that it does not matter what one’s lifestyle and beliefs are. These things are important. But neither is he speaking of a unity that comes about because we all compromise our convictions. Rather, the unity that Paul is speaking about is one that is based on the Holy Spirit.

It is important to make this distinction, since many may agree on the positive aspects of unity, but think that unity can only come through compromise of the convictions of the various parties. As I have said, unity that comes about in this way is a unity that is based on the lowest common denominator. 

Unity Based on the Highest Common Denominator

However, the unity of the Spirit is a unity that is based on the highest common denominator. There is a fundamental difference between these two perspectives. When we try to unify based upon the lowest common denominator, we must go through a process of tearing down our convictions until we get to the point where all conviction is more or less meaningless.

In addition to this, besides being a rather empty unity, it is also a very unstable one, since any idea that is original has the potential of upsetting the whole group. Conformity to the group becomes the standard.

On the other hand, a unity that is based upon the highest common denominator is completely the opposite, at least when the highest common denominator is the Holy Spirit. If we base our unity on the Spirit, our first reaction to the convictions of others is not to tear them down to the level of conformity to the group, but rather to build them up into conformity with the Holy Spirit.

It is a unity that explores beliefs and conviction and endeavors to build them into a proper relationship with Christ. It is not a discouragement of convictions, but an encouragement of convictions and how they are best expressed as part of the body of Christ.

Instead of finding some lower point of all conviction, in the Holy Spirit, we aspire to the highest point of conviction. We are led in forming our convictions by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

Transforming Theory into Reality

Understandably, many of us may consider this to sound good in theory, but perhaps a bit too idealistic to be transferred into the everyday realities in which we find ourselves. It is for this reason that Paul dedicates the remainder of the letter to explain some of the principles that will help us to bring this idealism into reality.

In understanding these practical applications, it is first important to look at a few more truths regarding our position in Christ. As we have seen, in the first part of his letter, Paul had already spoken quite extensively on our position in Christ. However, in reading only this first part, one could take this explanation of what Christ did primarily in terms as what was done for us as individuals. Paul does speak somewhat in that portion also of the blessing as regarding the church as a whole, but his main emphasis was directed to Christians as individuals.

In this second section of the letter, Paul is to bring in another aspect of these blessings and our responsibilities regarding the blessings. This further reality is what Paul intends to explain regarding the entire church as the body of Christ. One could say that the first half of the letter is mostly doctrinal, and the second half more practical. 

The Bond of Peace

This is partially explained in the second part of the two-fold theme of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The link that unites us as a group of individuals within the church is the bond of peace.

In continuing with the scripture that I quoted in the previous post on Ephesians (Worthy of the Calling), we see that in that letter Paul   also writes of peace: “And beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body” (Colossians 3:14-15 NAS).

The peace of Christ is another way of talking about the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There are at least three aspects of this peace that are mentioned in these verses in Colossians. 

Peace in Three Parts

There are three aspects of peace that are brought out by Paul. First of all, we see that it is love being the perfect bond of unity. The reason that this is important is related to the third aspect of peace that he mentions in this verse. The third aspect of living in peace is that we are called not only individually, but also “in one body.” This “one body” includes all believers who have been called in Christ. To arrive at the point of this unified body however, we must travel through the second.

The second aspect of peace is necessary so that the peace achieved in the body of Christ is not the same tenuous and artificial external peace which is sometimes achieved in the world. Rather than the external act of compromising convictions, the peace of Christ is instead based on internal matters. The peace of Christ is an issue of the heart.

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Paul says.

We often define peace only as an absence of conflict. It is as far as our thinking goes. When speaking on a global level, for example, we may say that if our nation is not in warfare with another country, we are living in a time of peace.

But of course we know that this is not necessarily true. We know that one can only live in peace if he or she has peace within themselves. The worst conflict is the one that rages internally. We oftentimes do not know how to rise above a turmoil that seethes inside of us, or perhaps even take the first steps against it.

It is only the peace that rules in our hearts that can define what true peace actually is. Without inner peace, there can be no true external peace. It is because of this that achieving peace is so difficult for us.

A peace that is a true peace cannot come about unless there is an abiding inner peace. An external peace that exists without internal contentment is a peace that cannot last. Externally, we may have compromised our inner convictions in order to arrive at the point where there is no open conflict with others, but within, a conflict may still rage.  This is something that we perhaps all realize, but it is good to again remind ourselves of it. True peace is such an ephemeral and fleeting thing in our world that we lose sight of what peace truly is. 

Internal Peace Expressed Externally

True peace must be an issue of the heart. It is only when we have true peace internally that we can arrive at the third aspect of peace that we see in the verse we noted in Colossians—the peace of being called “in one body.”

This is a concept of peace that we may not be so familiar with. When we talk about inner peace, we can all probably identify with personal efforts to attain peace within ourselves, but extending that internal peace to others is something with which less of us may be able to identify.

When we look at inner peace as a personal issue only, we may equate it to one in which we are constantly going through phases of introspection seeking inner contentment. This is the teaching especially of many eastern religions. When I was a young man living in India, I met many American and Western European young people who had traveled to India to learn to achieve “inner peace.”

But what they were learning would carry them only half-way in achieving true peace. It was a teaching primarily of introspection. With introspection, the individual himself or herself becomes the focus of their attention. That is almost the definition of introspection.

Introspection is of course also necessary. We need to deal with internal issues. But even in this we can see that a large part of those issues that we see as personal is how we relate with others. Our personal peace can only come about if we are living in peace with others.

Experientially, we know this is true. Conflict that I have with another does not only affect my relationship with that other individual when I am with him or her. I carry the conflict around with me 24 hours a day, even in the absence of the other person.

In the same way, Paul is saying that the full peace of Christ can only come about within ourselves if we are part of a community of people who relate well to one another. This, of course, is the body of Christ, and the ability to relate well to one another can only come through the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Excessive introspection will eventually drive us away from peace, because after a certain time, it simply becomes a form of selfishness. It is only by seeing our relationship within the body that will bring us to the peace of Christ. This was the third aspect Paul mentions in the peace of Christ—the unity of the Spirit. 

Back to Love

This brings us back to the first aspect of the peace of Christ—love. It is only love that will bring about the perfect bond of unity. It is for this reason that the issue of love becomes so important. Love is not introspection, because love focuses one’s attention upon others, and not on oneself.

This type of love comes about as a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). It is not a type of love that we are able to produce and maintain on our own power. It is because of this that unity in the church must not be unity brought about by compromise, but the unity of the Spirit. 

It is peace achieved in three phases:

1. True peace can only be realized if there is unity among all parties.

2. Unity can only attained if we realize that we truly are one body. In order to be one body, each must not look primarily for what personal benefits he or she can achieve, but rather what benefits can come to others.

3. This comes about by practicing love, brought to us by the highest common denominator that we all must seek—the unity of the Holy Spirit.

Practicing these three aspects of the peace of Christ will begin to teach us what Paul means when he says that we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

This “one-ness” in the church will be the subject of the next sermon.

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