After Christ ascended, having completed the work of redemption by which the New Covenant was introduced, he granted his new people the gifts consistent with their status. The church now is the “household of God, . . . the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Peter wrote, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10). The Gentiles had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:9, 10). Jesus would not leave his people unprepared and without guidance as they made their way through this life in anticipation of “seeing him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
I. From his throne of redemptive authority, Jesus Christ has sent gifts to the church essential for its maturity.
A. Christ gave the church some persons who were apostles.
- Paul knew that this calling was the one Christ had given him. Throughout his ministry, he marveled that Christ had set him forth as an apostle while at the same time he had to defend his genuine apostleship against enemies.
- In Galatians 1:1-2 he made a strong statement and then through a historical narrative demonstrated his apostolic status. In Galatians 2:8, he wrote, “For he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles.”
- This was not only a settled fact to be defended and executed faithfully by Paul, but a source of awe and wonder: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:8, 9).
- Against false apostles, Paul defended the reality of his ministry by a recitation of his surpassing revelations, his sufferings, and a statement of apostolic powers (2 Corinthians 12:1-13).
- The apostles were a small number called specifically to their task by Christ himself. He appointed twelve during his earthly ministry, one of whom would be the betrayer (Matthew 10:1-4). Jesus indicated the divine authority that accompanied their mission (5-42) concluding, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (40).
- He promised to them the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit in carrying out their commission (John 16: 12-15). We see the inter-operations of each person of the triune God in this promise of revealed truth to the apostles. Subsequent to his resurrection, a fresh commission was given and a promise of the coming of the Spirit to do as Jesus had told them (Matthew 28:16-20, a time in which the eleven remaining disciples were commissioned: John 20:19-23 where Jesus renews his promise of the Holy Spirit to give them authority to preach the true terms of forgiveness of sins, a task that would include an exposition of the entire gospel message; Acts 1:4-8, where Jesus points to the specific time and place of this apostolic empowerment.)
- Paul was called as an apostle by the resurrected Christ himself, even though he was not among those who were with Jesus from the time of John the Baptist until he was taken back to heaven (Acts 1:21, 22). He was called as “one untimely born,” acknowledging himself as “the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God, but by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:8-10).
- Through the apostles, therefore, revelation was given that would constitute the truths of the gospel and would govern the church until Christ returns (3:4-6, 9; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 10 [“because our testimony to you was believed”]; 2 Thessalonians 2:14, 15). Their preaching would be accompanied by signs of supernatural blessing on their ministry (2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:3, 4).
B. Christ gave the church some persons who were prophets.
- The prophets seem mainly to have been persons in local churches who were granted gifts of the Spirit enabling them to preach revealed truth. The apostles could not be everywhere, and local churches still needed a ministry of special revelation in the truths of the gospel and the ordering of the people of God under the new covenant. The prophets could preach new covenant truth before the completion of the written revelation. That is now complete.
- Their message was the same as the apostles, but they did not have the historical qualifications of apostles. Sometimes they itinerated (Acts 21:10-14), women could prophesy (Acts 21:9), but not at the time that the church had gathered for corporate worship and proclamation (1 Corinthians 14:33-35),
- All prophets would recognize the priority of the apostolic ministry and authority over issues of church order and doctrine (1 Corinthians 14:36-40).
- Paul looked upon the prophets as receiving revelation parallel to that of the apostles and that their revealed truth elucidated the place of Jesus in his person and work as the foundation of the church, as the wisdom of God, and as the mystery that was hidden in God as his eternal purpose (Ephesians 2:20; 3:4-6, 9-11).
- There were people who claimed to be prophets but were not, even as there were those who claimed to be apostles and were not (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22; 1 John 4:1-6; 2 Peter 2:1 2 Corinthians 11:3-6; Revelation 2:2).
- With the death of the apostles, so ended the post-resurrection period of immediate special revelation. Along with the apostles, the prophets had served their purpose and their gift of special revelation no longer was to be continued. Prophetic ministry now exists by the faithful exposition of the word, proclaiming its truths both of grace and of judgment, in times of thriving and in times of opposition (2 Timothy 4:1-5; Revelation 11:1-12).
C. Christ gave the church some persons with a special gift of evangelism. Philip, who was a deacon, also was referred to as an evangelist (Acts 21:8). His gift and opportunities for evangelism are described in Acts 8:4-8, 26-40. In 2 Timothy 4:5, Paul instructs Timothy to do “do the work of an evangelist.” It is clear that the apostles also worked as evangelists in going to areas where the gospel had not been heard and starting churches through their preaching and teaching. Paul took advantage of the synagogues, the market places, private homes, and places for public disputation. The evangelist has great clarity in his understanding of the gospel message, a deep assurance of his own standing with Christ, a skill in courageous and clear communication, and adeptness in discerning opportunities for gospel witness.
D. Christ gave the church men who are equipped to shepherd the church through their teaching ministry. The ongoing work of ministry—apostolic, prophetic, and evangelistic—comes in the context of the work of the pastor/teacher. Paul considered himself as a preacher and teacher in conjunction with his work and calling as an apostle (2 Timothy 1:11). To the word of the apostles the pastor gives his mind and in doing so he carries the word of revelation into the life of the church. Instructions for this office are abundant in the New Testament. The Pastoral Epistles—1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus—contain specific instructions for this office. Qualifications are given in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. These statements of qualifications are supplemented and illustrated by the many instructions about personal life, ministerial interaction with people, doctrinal fidelity, and teaching that saturate the Pastoral Epistles. Though the only functional quality listed is “apt to teach,” the character and content of the teaching ministry dominates the concern of Paul. This is true also of the correspondence of Peter (1 Peter 5:1-7).
II. The immediate purpose of these gifts to the church is for the glory of Christ.
A. These gifts function in such a way as to prepare Christians fully for ministering within the congregation. The gifts that Christ gave operate together to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” As we find in several New Testament passages, the church functions as a body in which its health depends on “each part working properly” (16). See 1 Peter 4:7-11; 1 Corinthians 12; Colossians 3:12-17).
B. Paul looks to several things to be accomplished by this work.
- “Building up the body of Christ,” probably refers both to the work of evangelism in bringing the lost to faith in Christ and the spiritual growth of Christians.
- The gift of evangelists is peculiarly related to conversion growth but the entire body also is a means of showing the edifying influence of gospel truth (1 Corinthians 14:24; 1 Peter 3:13-15). In their regular ministry, pastors are consistently presenting truth in such a way that the gospel is held forth in its converting power by exposition of Scripture and a constant zeal for the truth (2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:2-6; Ephesians 5:19).
- One of the major works of biblical truth is that its power conforms lives to principles of holiness and righteousness. This is a major theme throughout Ephesians (4:21-32; 5:8-10; 6:10-18). Fitting his people’s minds for heaven is one of the ongoing works of the Spirit through the gifts he gave to the church. Their vigorous fight against indwelling sin, their conscientious resistance to the corrupting forces of the world, and their preparation for battle with the presently-operating forces of darkness call for an unceasing influx of the truth of Scripture along with the edifying influence of Christian fellowship.
- This work of “building” will go on “until” the consummation of all things in the return of Christ. This is an unending task of grace to be pursued in the church as long as the saints are alive and then will continue at their death until the resurrection, and then will be the full occupation of the redeemed in heaven. The difference is, that in this life the building project involves dealing with sin and Satan; in heaven it will be the grace of endless growth in the knowledge of God unhindered by remaining sin or satanic opposition. We will be sanctified completely and Satan and all his demons will be consigned finally and everlastingly to their prison of hell particularly prepared for them.
- One goal is a unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God (13). Paul conceived of maturity (“mature manhood”) as beginning with and deriving its energy from unity of understanding and commitment to all that is revealed in Scripture. The revelation received by the apostles and prophets (3:5) constitutes the “faith” and should be learned, believed, and trusted to the most complete degree possible in this life.
- By adhering to the revealed truth, we come to know the Son of God and are in that way conformed to his holiness and more and more reflect the perfection of his manhood–”to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Christ’s true and full humanity was not only a necessity for his saving work, but he serves as an example of obedience under opposition, and attaining full perfection despite suffering (Hebrews 5:7-9).
III. The inculcation of revealed truth necessarily eliminates deceit and error.
A. (Verse 14) We will not stay in a state of spiritual immaturity. Like the new-born babes in their eagerness for a mother’s milk, we should desire the word of God (1 Peter 2:2) and we should never outgrow such eager longing. In point of malice, we should be as inexperienced as children. But in point of doctrinal understanding we must outstrip the state of childhood, “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Hebrews 5:13).
B. The condition that constitutes immaturity will be discerned and overcome.
- Eliminating instability of doctrine is an important key (14b). Our grasp of truth should be so steady that we are not dislodged from our foundation by challenges to the clear teaching of Scripture, the person of Christ, the character of redemption. Hebrews says, “Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” “Good from evil” refers both to moral discernment and discernment of true doctrine from false doctrine (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22).
- We may more easily discern the cunning attractiveness of plausible human schemes. Often merely human extrapolations from biblical vocabulary may seem to present plausible ideas that in reality undercut the clear content of biblical witness.
- The biblical idea of justice is an important and pervasive concept built on God’s own character and the revealed law of God. With th power of that concept bolstering the argument, one may speak of “justice” in a way that actually contradicts biblical categories. In Colossians, Paul also warns against being taken captive by “philosophy and empty deceit,” and to be discerning so as not to be deluded “by plausible arguments” (Colossians 2:4, 8).
- “Love” saturates the biblical narrative and is fundamental to theological points of election, regeneration, atonement, Christian fellowship etc. Some have used it as a presupposition to undercut clearly revealed truths of Scripture such as church discipline, eternal punishment, and the sovereign prerogative of God in salvation. Biblical concepts must not be extrapolated from their biblical context and logic to create teachings that conform only to “human cunning by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”
- Paul, and all the apostles, closely guarded the doctrine received by revelation and warned severely against any departure from it (Galatians 1:9; 1 Timothy 1:3; 4:1-6). John measured all truth and error by adherence to the apostolic message: “We [the apostles] are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 5:6).
IV. (Verses 15, 16) In accomplishing this purpose, all gifts must function together.
- The teaching of truth from a motive of love gives all believers a great conformity to the perfection of Christ. The eventual perfection of the body begins in love and ends in love. We must speak “the truth in love,” so that the body “builds itself up in love.”
- The entire scheme of redemption begins in love, a manifestation of divine purpose to show the internal principle of unity in the Trinity (1:4, 5).
- Our telos, final purpose, is to be eternally engaged in measuring and delighting in the love of Christ as a manifestation of the divine love (3:18, 19).
- As we love God, we must also love his revelation of himself and thus speak his truth out of a true affection for every proposition of Scripture.
- Thus planted in love, we minster the truth from the context of knowledge that God has loved his people with an everlasting love and thus, to emulate the redemptive context of God, we speak his word in love.
B. The energy for this work comes from Christ himself. Christ is both the goal and the source of the faithful functioning of our gifts.
- We grow up into Christ. “In every way,” refers to the consecration of the whole person to Christ. The end of sanctification is that our “spirit, soul, and body will kept blameless” (1 Thessalonians 5:23) and will be conformed to the beauty of the perfect devotion of Christ to the will of his Father. God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). Christ’s humanity as the last Adam is the model toward which all the redeemed are progressing and which will be the final state of human perfection (1 Corinthians 15:45-49): “Just as we have born the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (49).
- We grow from Christ. “From whom the whole body etc.” The energy and spiritual power by which the growth into Christ’s image occurs flows from Christ himself.
- The body as a single unit, nevertheless, has many parts which must function properly to maintain its unity. Every joint must do its work. Every member of the body has to function for the body to be a body (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). The joints connect all the different parts of the body so that the functioning of the distinct parts is the functioning of the whole.
- When both joints and parts operate properly and efficiently, the body can maintain its necessary growth. All the systems by which cells are repaired, disease is resisted, limbs retain strength, the lungs function for the breath of life, the digestive system continually provides nutrients, the heart sends blood. These parts would work in vain if the joints failed and the feet became separated from the body, or the right arm fell from the body, or the body itself fell away from the head. So with the church. Every gift supplied by Christ must perform its work, every part, every joint. So teaching, preaching, administration, mercy, hospitality, worship, discipline all aim at the goal of honoring Christ and conforming the church to his stature of holiness.
- We build ourselves up in love. With the goal of being like Christ and being informed consistently by his truth, and with the energy supplied by Christ through his Spirit, the body itself is fit for functioning and then “builds itself up in love.”