Connected in Unity

| Ephesians 4:1-6

The Point:  Unity is a given, but staying unified takes work.

Maintain the Unity of the Spirit:  Ephesians 4:1-6.

[1]  I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  [2]  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  [3]  eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  [4]  There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call–  [5]  one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  [6]  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  [ESV]

[1-6]  “For three chapters Paul has been unfolding for his readers the eternal purpose of God being worked out in history. Through Jesus Christ, who died for sinners and was raised from death, God is creating something entirely new, not just a new life for individuals, but for a new society. Paul sees an alienated humanity being reconciled, a fractured humanity being united, even a new humanity being created. It is a magnificent vision. Now the apostle moves on from the new society to the new standards which are expected of it. So he turns from exposition to exhortation, from what God has done (in the indicative) to what we must be and do (in the imperative), from doctrine to duty, from mind-stretching theology to its down-to-earth, concrete implications in everyday living. Paul has taught them, and he has prayed for them [1:15-23 and 3:14-19]; now he addresses to them a solemn appeal. Instruction, intercession and exhortation constitute a formidable trio of weapons in any Christian’s teacher’s armory. Besides, Paul was no ordinary teacher. He uses the emphatic personal pronoun of self-conscious apostolic authority, as in 3:1. And he again describes himself as a prisoner for the Lord. He is both a prisoner of Christ, and a prisoner for Christ, both bound to Him by the chains of love and in custody out of loyalty to His gospel. Thus the authority of one of Christ’s apostles and the passionate conviction of a man under house arrest because of his vision of a united church, together undergird his exhortation. I urge you, he writes, to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called. What this life is to be like can be determined only by the nature of the divine call of which it is to be worthy. What is this? The new society which God is calling into being has two major characteristics. First, it is one people, composed equally of Jews and Gentiles, the single family of God. Secondly, it is a holy people, distinct from the secular world, set apart to belong to God. Therefore, because God’s people are called to be one people, they must manifest their unity, and because they are called to be a holy people, they must manifest their purity. Unity and purity are two fundamental features of a life worthy of the church’s divine calling. The apostle treats the unity of the church in verses 1-16 and the purity of the church from 4:17 to 5:21. Paul elaborates four truths about the kind of oneness which God intends His new society to enjoy. They may be stated in the following four propositions: (1) It depends on the charity of our character and conduct [2]. (2) It arises from the unity of our God [3-6]. (3) It is enriched by the diversity of our gifts [7-12]. (4) It demands the maturity of our growth [13-16]. It will be observed that charity, unity, diversity and maturity appear to be the key concepts of this section.”  [Stott, pp. 146-148].

 

“1. Christian unity depends on the charity of our conduct [2]. Paul immediately portrays the life worthy of our calling as being characterized by five qualities – lowliness, meekness, patience, mutual forbearance and love. He has prayed to God that we may be rooted and grounded in love [3:17]; now he addresses his appeal to us to see to it that we live a life of love. Humility or lowliness was much despised in the ancient world. Not till Jesus Christ came was a true humility recognized. For He humbled Himself. And only He among the world’s religious and ethical teachers has set before us as our model a little child. Moreover, the word Paul uses here means ‘lowliness of mind’, the humble recognition of the worth and value of other people, the humble mind which was in Christ and led Him to empty Himself and become a servant. Now humility is essential to unity. Pride lurks behind all discord, while the greatest single secret of concord is humility. Personal vanity is a key factor in all our relationships. If, however, instead of maneuvering for the respect of others (which is pride) we give them our respect by recognizing their intrinsic God-given worth (which is humility), we shall be promoting harmony in God’s new society. Gentleness or meekness is not a synonym for weakness. On the contrary, it is the gentleness of the strong, whose strength is under control. It is the quality of a strong personality who is nevertheless master of himself and the servant of others. Meekness is ‘the absence of the disposition to assert personal rights, either in the presence of God or of men’. Humility and gentleness form a natural couple. For the meek man thinks as little of his personal claims, as the humble man of his personal merits. They were found together in perfect balance in the character of the Lord Jesus who described Himself as gentle and lowly in heart [Matt. 11:29]. The third and fourth qualities also form a natural pair, for patience is longsuffering towards aggravating people, such as God in Christ has shown towards us, while bearing with one another speaks of that mutual tolerance without which no group of human beings can live together in peace. Love is the final quality, which embraces the preceding four, and is the crown and sum of all virtues. Since to love is constructively to seek the welfare of others and the good of the community, its binding properties are celebrated in Colossians 3:14. Here, then, are five foundation stones of Christian unity. Where these are absent no external structure of unity can stand. But when this strong base has been laid, then there is good hope that a visible unity can be built. We may be quite sure that no unity is pleasing to God which is not the child of charity.”  [Stott, pp. 148-150].

 

“2. Christian unity arises from the unity of our God [3-6]. Even the casual reader of verses 3-6 is struck by Paul’s repetition of the word one; in fact, it occurs seven times. A more careful reading discloses that three of these seven unities allude to the three Persons of the Trinity (one Spirit [4]; one Lord [5]; and one God and Father of all [6]), while the remaining four allude to our Christian experience in relation to the three Persons of the Trinity. This truth can be expressed in three simple affirmations. First, there is one body because there is only one Spirit [4]. The one body is the church, the body of Christ [1:23], comprising Jewish and Gentile believers; and its unity or cohesion is due to the one Holy Spirit who indwells and animates. Secondly, there is one hope belonging to our Christian calling [4], one faith and one baptism [5] because there is only one Lord. For the Lord Jesus Christ is the one object of the faith, hope and baptism of all Christian people. It is Jesus Christ in whom we have believed, Jesus Christ into whom we have been baptized, and Jesus Christ for whose coming we wait with expectant hope. Thirdly, there is one Christian family, embracing us all because there is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all [6]. The over all … through all … and in all whom God is Father, are His family or household, His redeemed children [2:18-19]. From these verses we must assert that there can be only one Christian family, only one Christian faith, hope and baptism, and only one Christian body, because there is only one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The unity of the church is as indestructible as the unity of God Himself. But how do we reconcile this unity of the church with the evident disunity of the church throughout church history. At this point a necessary distinction needs to be drawn. It is the distinction between the church’s unity as an invisible reality present to the mind of God and the church’s disunity as a visible appearance which contradicts the invisible reality. We are one, for God says so. Yet outwardly and visibly we belong to different churches and different traditions, some of which are not even in communion with one another, while others have strayed far from biblical Christianity. Paul himself recognizes this paradoxical combination of unity and disunity. For in this very passage, in which the indestructible unity of the church is so emphatically asserted, the possibility of disunity is also acknowledged. Consider verse 3 which contains a strong exhortation to maintain the unity of the Spirit. Paul first describes the church’s unity as the unity of the Spirit (meaning a unity which the Holy Spirit creates) and then argues that this unity is as indestructible as God Himself. Yet in the same context he also tells us that we have to maintain it! What can he mean? What is the sense of urging the maintenance of something indestructible, and of urging us to maintain it, when it is a unity of the Spirit, which He created and is therefore presumably Himself responsible for preserving? There seems to be but one possible answer to these questions, namely that to maintain the church’s unity must mean to maintain it visibly. Here is an apostolic exhortation to us to preserve in actual concrete relationships of love that unity which God has created and which neither man nor demon can destroy. We are to demonstrate to the world that the unity we say exists indestructibly is a true and glorious reality. The verb translated eager in verse 3 means that we are to spare no effort, and it is a call for continuous, diligent activity. Not only haste and passion, but a full effort of the whole person is meant, involving their will, sentiment, reason, physical strength, and total attitude. This eagerness for unity is sorely lacking in many evangelical churches today. Is this an apostolic command we are guilty of largely ignoring? Take the local church first, for presumably it is to this that Paul is primarily referring. Some Christian fellowships are marred by rivalries between individual or groups which have been allowed to fester for years. How can we possibly condone such things? We need to be eager for love, unity and peace, and more active in seeking it. But Ephesians may have been a circular letter addressed to several churches. Perhaps even in the city of Ephesus itself there were now so many Christians that they met in several distinct house churches. So Paul may have in mind the need for unity between as well as within the churches. If so, his concern would apply to inter-church relationships today. There is room for differences of conviction among us as to the precise form or forms in which God wants Christian unity to be expressed. But we should all be eager for some visible expression of Christian unity, provided always that we do not sacrifice fundamental Christian truth in order to achieve it. Christian unity arises from our having one Father, one Savior, and one indwelling Spirit. So we cannot possibly foster a unity which pleases God either if we deny the doctrine of the Trinity or if we have not come personally to know God the Father through the reconciling work of His Son Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Authentic Christian unity in truth, life and love is far more important than union schemes of a structural kind, although ideally the latter should be a visible expression of the former.”  [Stott, pp. 150-155].

Questions for Discussion:

1.         How does 4:1-6 connect to chapters 1-3? Note Paul’s use of therefore. How does the calling to which you have been called relate to chapters 1-3? Why does Paul, in his letters, always teach doctrine before discussing duty? Note here that if you emphasize duty before laying the foundation concerning how and why we can obey God, then you quickly move into legalism or a works-based relationship with God.

2.         What five qualities characterize the life worthy of our calling? How are each of these five qualities necessary for Christian unity?

3.         Note Paul’s sevenfold use of one in 4:3-6. What is Paul teaching us here? What three affirmations can be made from 4:3-6? Note how these three affirmations center around the Trinity. There can be no unity in the church unless it is built upon the unity of the Trinity.

4.         What can you do to maintain this Christian unity both within your local church and among Christians who attend other churches?

References:

The Letter to the Ephesians, Peter O’Brien, Eerdmans.

The Message of Ephesians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

Ephesians, Frank Thielman, BENT, Baker.