How can we continue to follow the path to Christian maturity in our modern context?
Do we see our love and obedience towards Jesus as a whole-life and whole-self calling or do we want to compartmentalise our faith, putting it away at certain times? (Perhaps at work, when raising the family, during leisure activities, when spending money.)
Do we see our active membership of the body of Christ as essential, both receiving from and giving to its spiritual growth?
When challenged by life, tempted by sin, seeking to serve, do we take time to take in the glory and authority of the ascended Christ?
Is attention to the word of God a consistent part of our lives? Are we careful to understand the breadth and balance of the gospel to ensure we are not followers of spiritual fashion? Do we encourage others in the church with biblical teaching?
Is the aspect we admire most in our fellow disciples their Christlikeness?
It was once Jesus had ascended that he sent his Spirit as he promised the early disciples for the work of globally spreading the gospel and building his church. In doing so he gifted members of his church with diverse gifts. ‘So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.’ v11 The core roles or ministries for the church establishing a unity in the faith, knowledge of the Son of God and becoming mature as a Christian or as a church were all communicators of the word of God. These gifts of grace all continue to have core importance in the modern church although apostles in terms of eye witnesses of Jesus and authors of the New Testament were unique to the first century. Apostle means sent, in that broad sense many continue to be sent for gospel purposes but not as the uniquely authoritative biblical apostles. Their message is now contained in the New Testament. The purpose of these ministries of the word is to equip the whole church v12 for service. The objective of the service is to build up the body of Christ from the call to Christ to, ‘the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ v13 The whole body of Christ is to minister to the whole body of Christ drawing upon the ministry of the word.
There were spiritual dangers to the early church arising from false teaching, evidence from the letters from the apostles is that this frequently occurred. False teaching was motivated by people’s self interest. Fashions in spiritual teaching were as common then as now and immature followers of Christ were liable to be deceived. The false teachers were clearly convincing and dedicated to their deception. Which is why Paul urges the Ephesians to persist in speaking the truth v15 (the apostolic gospel) to combat the divisions false teaching creates and enable the church to grow in Christian maturity.
In receiving Christ’s grace or favour we are sharing in his spiritual victory over sin, death and spiritually evil forces. Which is why Paul quotes Psalm 68:18, ‘You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men.’ Paul applied the Syriac and Aramaic translation of Psalm 68 where the victorious king gave as well as received gifts. Psalm 68 celebrates God’s salvation of his people where they are given victory over their enemies and the Lord dwells on Mount Sinai having defeated the foreign gods who are worshiped on other mountains (Mt Bashan) creating the opportunity for Gentiles to worship the Lord in addition to Israel. This image of God’s triumphal ascension to his throne having defeated his enemies is perfectly applied to Christ’s ascension, the captives are the spiritual powers Jesus defeated on the cross. Because of his victory he is the one able to give spiritual gifts to his people. His rule following his victory and ascension fills all things. ‘By cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.’ Colossians2:14-15
The apostles had a very strong awareness of Jesus ascension and heavenly rule as they were first hand witnesses. Paul himself had been taken up into heaven as part of his commissioning and equipping for taking the gospel to the Gentiles. To equip ourselves for service we also need to spend time in prayer, worship and bible reflection taking in the power, glory and authority of the ascended Christ. It will increase our love, awe and faith in him.
Earlier in Ephesians Paul explains that the means of our salvation is from God’s grace, meaning his undeserved favour. Oh, how much we often want to deserve salvation because of the things we have done but sadly not one of us can honestly stand before the holy God and say I have lived up to your standard. We have nothing to brag to God about except what Jesus has done. We cannot even boast that at least we had enough faith to trust in him because even that faith is a gift of God. Grace then is Christ Jesus’ immeasurable riches expressed in kindness towards us who are saved through faith. Ephesians 2:7 Saving grace is a gift every believer in Jesus shares in common. But God’s grace does not stop there, it goes beyond that to enable each believer to bless the whole body of believers, uniting and building them up as the people of God. It is so easy to think of salvation egocentrically. Grace is about “my salvation”. Grace is also about how “I am a gift to others for their benefit”. Just as all believers share Christ’s saving grace so we also share his grace to bless others. God’s grace equips us differently, person by person, but it is all from Christ and no one is excluded from the calling to serve the body of Christ according to the grace we have received. How often do we either ignore or try to avoid the grace we have received? Received grace as with obedience to love God with all our heart is a whole life thing. Paul in Romans says, ‘we are members one of another, Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads,[a] with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.’ Romans 12:6-8 Paul in 1 Corinthians reinforces the message, we are all ‘empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.’ 1 Corinthians 12:11
Whole body, whole heart, whole mind – Ephesians 4:13
In the first century it was an apostolic priority that churches grew in Christian maturity. Not simply individuals but whole churches. In a lot of cases twenty first century churches have lost that vision. When modern preachers stand in front of a church they may be being realistic if they assume they are speaking to gathered individuals, not the unified body of Christ who all consider they are living under the same shared calling. Frequently congregations listen holding back judgement as to whether they are individually included in the message. There can be a reserved skepticism that wants to leave to personal discretion as to whether the message is asking too much of them or is too inconvenient. Now it is true that the New Testament carries many warnings about not being subject to false teaching that may arise within the church including this week’s passage when Paul cautions the Ephesians not to be ‘tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.’ v14 But let us assume we know the preacher is a careful, balanced student of the bible and not subject to extreme positions. Why then is there such a tendency to not fully commit? Listening to bible teaching or reading Christian literature can become an inner battle between heart and mind. Jesus urged us to fully commit with both heart and mind and in doing so quoted Deutoronomy 6:5 in Mathew 22:37, ‘And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”’ All our soul, heart and mind is clearly not a Sunday only, or even length of sermon only, matter. It is a whole life issue. The command was given not to individuals but to a whole people, the people of God collectively. God’s judgement, when the people were not obedient, came on all the people not just on a select few although the leadership took the greater responsibility. So how is a church to behave so that they can grow in whole obedience?