Sunday, January 5, 2020


Unity Does Not Mean Uniformity
Ephesians 4:4-16

As Paul continues with the theme of peace, he again makes the point that the church of Jesus Christ is a unified body. In fact, he emphatically makes this declaration, stressing it several times in a single sentence. He states it simply as it were a fact, without qualifications:   

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6 BSB) 

In the verse that comes before these, in verse three of chapter four, Paul talked about the unity in the Spirit in the bond of peace, the subject that we also examined in the sermon last week. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” Paul had stated in that verse.

Perhaps we would agree that if we were able to achieve this peace and unity in every local church, it would naturally lead into unity of the body of Christ as a whole. Sadly however, unity is not a word that often describes the church today.

Whether or not Paul saw a lack of unity in the church in Ephesus, we do not know, but he certainly knew that in some of the churches that he began, the people were not acting in a unified fashion—the church in Corinth being perhaps the worst offender.

“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul wrote to them, “that all of you agree together, so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be united in mind and conviction.”

“My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: Individuals among you are saying, ‘I follow Paul,’ ‘I follow Apollos,’ ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’”

“Is Christ divided?” he asks them. “Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

Not a Half-Time Pep Talk

Despite these outward displays of conflict however, Paul nevertheless makes the statement of the church being “one” as unconditional. His statement is not an admonition to the people that they “should” act as one, as a coach might reprimand his team at half-time.

“Let’s start to play like a team, not like a bunch of individual hotshots!” (At least that is what my coach used to tell us at times).

It is a fact that the church is one body and one Spirit. In spite of the divisions that we make in our organizational churches, in the true church of Jesus Christ there is no division. Despite the various allegiances that we hold to denominations, popes or pastors, priests or prophets, there is only one Lord and there can be only one Lord. It is in this one Lord where we must hold our common faith.

In addition to this, there is only one baptism. It is unfortunate that the practice and mode of baptism has divided the church, depending upon what teaching each one stresses about the tradition. Instead of the ordinance of baptism drawing the church together and unifying it, we instead have allowed it to be something that has caused separation in the church. Were we to correctly understand what baptism was to signify, we would see that it was given to us by God as an ordinance to draw us together. Paul also emphasized this to the Galatians: 

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28) 

In our own view of our relationships with other local congregations, it is common to think that unity in the churches would come about if we all think alike and all act alike. When someone speaks or demonstrates something that is outside of what we consider the accepted tradition, even though there is nothing that is contrary to the teachings of Christ in the way that they view a matter, we tend to separate ourselves from them.

But unity is not to be based on wearing the same uniform and singing the same songs, or even by observing church tradition exactly in the same way. True unity is much more fundamental than that. Unity comes about simply because of the indisputable fact that there is one God and Father of all, who is over all through all and in all. At the end of all discussion, there is nothing more than that. 

Unity Does Not Mean Sameness

Although Paul stresses unity within the church, we are not to understand this to mean that every person or every part of the church is identical. Paul makes this point several places in his writings. Perhaps the clearest explanation of the distinctions that exist among us is in his explanation of the working of the body of Christ. 

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly. (Romans 12:4-6 NAS) 

The Measure of Christ’s Gifts

This is the same sentiment that Paul was talking about when he wrote to the Ephesians, “Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gifts” (Ephesians 4:7 ESV).

When one thinks about it, unity in the body can never be based on everyone being the same—thinking the same, acting the same, or having the same ministry. Unity can only come about when every member acts and works in accordance with the gifts given to him or her. Paul also expands upon this theme in another of his letters: 

For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. And if they were all one member, where would the body be? (1 Corinthians 12:14-19 NAS) 

Anything, in order to be defined as a “body,” must have many different parts or aspects to it that are dissimilar from one another yet exist and function in coordination with each other. Paul then reconfirms this truth by concluding these thoughts with the same statement with which he started it. “But now there are many members, but one body.” 

Receiving and Giving

It is by speaking of the grace given to us according to the measure of Christ’s gift that leads Paul to quote from the book of Psalms. Actually, it is not a direct quote, but is an adaptation from Psalm 68:18.

Paul states the verse as, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:8 NAS).

In the Psalm, instead saying that Christ “gave gifts to men,” it says that he “received gifts among men.” However, Paul states it as he did because he is talking about the equipping of the church with various sorts of gifts and ministries, and how these should lead to unity. 

What Happened When Christ Ascended Into Heaven

By referring to this verse in the Psalms, Paul brings up an interesting and somewhat difficult to understand occurrence in the life of Christ. We will look at the verse in Ephesians again, along with the two verses which follow it. I am going to make the quotation from a different translation, which may be a little more understandable to our ears:  

“When He ascended on high, He led captives away, and gave gifts to men.” 
What does “He ascended” mean, except that He also descended to the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the very one who ascended above all the heavens, in order to fill all things.  (Ephesians 4:8-10 BSB) 

It is somewhat outside of Paul’s line of thought to interject a mention of the host of captives, but since it is mentioned in this verse, we ought also to mention it. Paul is speaking here (as was King David in the Psalm) of the victory of Christ over the demonic forces. These are the captives whom Christ is said to have “led away.”

Ancient kings, when returning victorious in battle, would often bring their captives back to their home cities as a demonstration of the victory that they had won. In much this same way, David portrays God as returning to the higher regions of creation, leading his captives away.

Paul, in expanding upon this thought, mentions that this ascension of Christ far above the heavens was necessarily predicated by his descent to the earth. This is what he meant by saying that Christ “descended into the lower parts of the earth.”

This is not a reference to Jesus descending into hell, but simply that he lived in the lower part of his creation—upon the earth. Before he ascended into heaven, he first lived a life here on earth. Thus the victory that Christ achieved was both in the heavens and on the earth. It was only in this way that his presence would be filled in all creation.

Interestingly, David also sees the receiving of gifts as having to do with the presence of God in all of creation. The purpose of the gifts, David says, is that the LORD God might dwell “even among the rebellious,” that is, even on the earth. We will soon see that Paul also speaks of the gifts given by Christ to the church as being necessary for living in the world. 

The Gifts of the Spirit

The gifts given by Christ are those gifts of ministry that have a definite goal and which are to be used in specific ways to strengthen the people of God. The list that Paul gives may not be a complete enumeration of every gift, but it is adequate for us to see the nature of the gifts:

“And it was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for works of ministry, to build up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12 BSB).

In our normal thinking about giving and receiving of gifts, the gift usually is for the benefit and enjoyment of the recipient. Birthday presents are given for the delight of the one celebrating the birthday. However, it is very important to see that the gifts that Paul is talking about are not gifts given with this same manner and for this purpose. The gifts of the Spirit have as their purpose the benefit of others.

Actually, when King David wrote in the Psalms of God receiving gifts (instead of “giving gifts” as Paul said), the verb that David uses[1] is one that can be used with the idea of “receiving in order to give.”[2]

The gifts that Paul talks about are also given by Christ to the church for the benefit of others. They are given so that the people of God “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” (Ephesians 4:13 ESV).

Again Paul speaks of the church being the "fullness of Christ," If you recall, he also spoke of the church as being the fullness of Christ here on earth in the very first chapter of his letter  (Ephesians 1:22-23).

The reason that these gifts, given for the benefit of the churches, are so important is so that “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14 ESV). 

Keeping on the Right Track

Herein lies a big problem that we often see in churches today. Because many are not exercising the gifts in the correct manner that God has given them, the people of God often are not equipped to distinguish spiritual error when it creeps into doctrine. This is often largely because the teaching in some churches is fueled primarily by emotion rather than truth. We often have abandoned truth for what “feels good.”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with expressing emotion in worship. Emotion is part of who we are as people, and as we worship with our entire being, it will be an emotional experience as well as intellectual.

The difficulty comes when emotion is the driving force behind our worship. If we are ruled by our emotion, we will make poor decisions. Also, emotion is primarily self-gratifying, instead of what Paul says, “For building up the body of Christ.” People who measure worship by what emotional experience they receive are often pursuing self-interest at the expense of seeking the betterment of others.

The reasons for these inappropriate attitudes may be multiple, but a major reason is because the gifts of ministry are often not used in the manner for which God intends them to be used. We often use the gifts of ministry for self-promotion and self-commendation. 

Truth + Love

The benefits of the proper use of the spiritual gifts given to the church are very great. If they are employed in the ways that God intended them, their use will result in the maturity of the church for which God has always intended. The church is to be as a body of believers who has Christ as the head, and each member contributing his or her gifts for the betterment of the body. It is why it is important to not only attend a church, but to be active in the ministries of the church. The fuel that gives growth is love, all taught in the context of truth: 

Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16 ESV) 

I will close with what Paul writes to another church. As I have mentioned before, Paul’s message in his letters to the various churches often involved similar subjects. These words that he wrote to the Colossian church are a good summary of where we have also arrived in the letter to the Ephesians:  

Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with hearts of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive any complaint you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which is the bond of perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, for to this you were called as members of one body. And be thankful.  

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him. (Colossians 3:12-17 BSB)

[1] Laqakh 
[2] This according to a note in the New American Standard Bible, which states, “Paul apparently takes his cue from certain rabbinic interpretations current in his day that read the Hebrew preposition for ‘among’ in the sense of ‘to’ (a meaning it often has) and the verb for ‘received’ in the sense of ‘take and give’ (a meaning it sometimes has but with a different prepositions)” 

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