To the Measure of the Stature of the Fullness of Christ

By Ryan Itzel

Introduction

            The Christian life is one of not only knowing the truth, but also practically implementing that truth. Followers of Christ must accompany good theology with practical application. This week will feature a brief look into the book of Ephesians and will seek to explain the theology of 4:7-16, and accurately apply it using the full context of the epistle. It is my hope with this post to encourage you to remember the greatness of our God, how He has called us to live, and the blessings He has given the church for edification.

Since the book of Ephesians is an epistle (letter), written by the apostle Paul to the church of Ephesus during the first century A.D., it is important to understand the part (verses out of a chapter) by the whole.[1] The Roman emperor at the time was Nero. He was a wicked ruler who hated Christians and promoted their murder for his own entertainment. Paul wrote this letter while he was imprisoned in Rome, and thus refers to himself as “an ambassador in chains,” (Ephesians 6:20).[2] Paul formatted this book into two parts. The first three chapters focus on the theology of the New Testament, while the last three focus on the practical application of that theology.[3]

The Church of Ephesus was located in what is now Turkey (Asia Minor). John MacArthur says it was, “an important political, educational, and commercial center, ranking with Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch of Pisidia in southern Asia Minor,”[4] Since Ephesus was a place of such high standing, the letter contains important doctrinal truth most likely for the purpose of preemptive correction of false teachers and teachings.[5] 

When interpreting a specific passage out of this epistle, we must look at the context of the entire book, the context of the historical/political climate in which it was written, as well as the city to which it was written.While there is some reason to believe this letter was not specifically directed to the church of Ephesus (it might have been a general letter meant to circulate among churches and simply began in Ephesus) for the purpose of this post we will view Ephesus as the intended recipient. Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, writes to the church of Ephesus, while in prison (Acts 28:16-31), to teach them the truth of the Word of God and how that should direct their daily conduct.

Meaning of the Passage

           Steve Lawson said, “All whom God begins a work of salvation never fall away from grace”[6] While God will keep all those who are His, guarding them from losing their salvation (the seal of the Holy Spirit is seen in Ephesians 1:13-14;4:30), man is still easily swayed to disobedience, immature living, and bad doctrine (Ephesians 4:14). In this passage Paul builds on the theological truths he taught in chapters one through three, and begins to take the first step of practical application.

“But grace was given”

            Paul begins this chapter with a call to proper living. He implores the Ephesian believers to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). Chapter one reminds believers of the riches they have in Christ, due to God’s sovereign choice to adopt them, and seal them by the Holy Spirit. Chapter two looks at the state of man before this adoption. Man was dead in sin and far off from God, divided from a relationship with their Creator and even the fellow creation. But the blood of Christ broke that barrier, bringing unity between man and God. Chapter three explains the mystery of salvation to not only the Jews, but to the Gentiles also. Because of these rich truths Paul urges the Ephesians to live worthy of their calling as sons and daughters of Christ.

            “Paul described the new life that God’s blessing would produce within the church” (The New Testament: Its background and message).[7] Earlier in Ephesians 2:8-10 Paul clarifies that salvation is not earned by behavioral change (works), but instead, genuine salvation will produce a new walk (daily conduct). In this salvation by grace, God has gifted each person uniquely with different spiritual gifts (Ephesians 4:7-8).[8]

“Therefore it says”

            Next, Paul turns to an Old Testament passage to “show how Christ received the right to bestow the spiritual gifts.”[9] In verse eight, Paul applies Psalm 68:18 to Christ, and then proceeds to interpret his application in verses nine and ten. He describes Christ’s incarnation to “the earth” and ascension back to the heavenly realm, rightly ruling all things due to His perfect fulfillment of the Old Testament.[10] Because of Christ’s position and work on our behalf, He has the right to bestow the spiritual gifts previously mentioned in Ephesians (and to be mentioned). This was meant to prompt the Ephesian believers to the continual worship of Jesus as Lord.[11]

“And he gave”

            Paul now switches from Christ, who is able to give gifts, to what gifts were actually given (Ephesians 4:11). Paul provides a list of gifts that were given to some in all churches, not only the church of Ephesus. Robert Gromacki says, “The ascended Christ, as the Head of the Church, has given gifted men (apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers) to perfect saints so that the saints, also gifted by Christ, might do the work of the ministry”[12] He is not implying that the “gifted men” have the ability to make perfect, those whom they shepherd, but rather how God uses them in the sanctification process. He then points out a very important reminder that the apostle Paul explains vividly in 1 Corinthians 12. While some are gifted as leaders of the church (apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers) Paul is by no means telling the Ephesian church that only these few are gifted by God. Paul is simply describing  the necessity of these gifted men for the purpose of equipping the saints to do “the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). It is important to note that here the term “apostle” was specific to the 12 (and Paul who was uniquely added later - 1 Corinthians 15:8), and that “prophets” did not refer to anyone who had the gift of prophecy, but to a specific office during the apostolic age.[13]

“the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God”

Paul now points to the goal of gifting men for church leadership. “If the edification of the church proceeds from Christ alone, he has surely a right to prescribe in what manner it shall be edified.”[14] Calvin’s quote describes the authority of “Christ alone” to providentially guide and grow His church. One of the ways in which He providentially leads is by the gifting of these church leaders. They were given for a purpose and this purpose was not hidden in ambiguity or lofty ideas, but communicated through clear instruction. The leaders were meant to “equip.” This is to prepare all believers for the work of ministry and edification, leaving behind the sins of the flesh for the pursuit of God honoring servant-hood (Ephesians 4:12). The “work of ministry” is not specific to church leaders but to all saints.[15] Paul, speaking to believers, desired for the Ephesians to “attain the unity of faith (faith here is the revealed truth of correct doctrine, specifically that of the gospel), a deep knowledge of the Son of God (a deep relationship/intimacy), and to reflect the character of the Son with whom they have relationship.[16] Spiritual Maturity was the goal (Ephesians 3:13).

The goal of maturity was given because of the child-like characteristic of all Christians as they go from death to life (Ephesians 2:1-4). Paul did not want the Ephesian believers to stay babies in their faith. His desire for maturity was born out of a concern for the symptoms of childish (immature) faith (Ephesians 4:14). These symptoms manifested themselves in the form of doctrinal confusion (being easily swayed to believe false-truths). Instead, they were to grow up and conform to the likeness of Christ their God (Ephesians 4:16). And it is from Christ that all parts of the body of Christ (saints) are held together and matured (Ephesians 4:16). Spiritual maturity on the part of each believer was vital because the “body” does not function properly unless each part is actively pursuing the same goal. Obedience to Christ’s commands was only to be gained in the church of Ephesus, and in every church, by growing each saint to spiritual maturity. This was accomplished by Christ through apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers.

Significance of the Passage

            The theology of Ephesians 4:7-16 was clear to the church of Ephesus. God has gifted all believers, but through Christ, the church had been blessed with specifically gifted people who were given for the purpose of equipping the body of Christ. The need for these gifted men came from spiritual immaturity in the church, which often led to confusion about correct doctrine and immature behavior. God used the gifted men to grow the church of Ephesus to maturity. 

            The historical context is very important to understand in discerning the application for the church today. As mentioned in the previous section, the apostles and prophets were specific to the early church (prophets were also in the Old Testament). To understand this we must look at the full context of the epistle.[17] In Ephesians 2:20 we see that the “foundation” of the church is built on “the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Foundations are only laid once, thus, the apostles and prophets were given for the purpose of the writing of the New Testament Scriptures, to authenticate the message of the gospel, and to prepare the early church for the spreading of the gospel to the whole world. But with the whole of Scripture being complete (Scripture alone is sufficient and authoritative), the age of apostolic ministry and prophets has ceased.[18]

            The church today is blessed with evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. These are given for the same purpose that they were given to the church of Ephesus. Christians in the modern church often trust in Christ as their Savior and never progress on to maturity. The church in many cases lacks in spiritual discernment when it comes to false doctrine, and is often “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14). This, however, is only the symptom. The issue lies with a failure to listen to Paul’s command to “equip the saints” (Ephesians 4:12-13). As church leaders, God calls these men (men who were in both the Ephesian church, and in the modern church today) to equip the saints, that their conduct might be worthy of the calling, and that they might not be swayed by false doctrines. Church leaders are meant to present all of their sheep as mature in Christ.

            First, this is accomplished by understanding, with humility, from where the church’s gifting and maturity truly comes. Verses fifteen and sixteen give the answer. Paul, speaking of the body of Christ, reminded the Ephesians that they are the body, but Christ is the head. Paul then in verse sixteen points to Christ who not only leads the body but also holds the body together. This fundamental truth is vital to growing the spiritual maturity of the body. Christ both holds the body together and equips it for ministry. God does this equipping today through the evangelists, shepherds and teachers.

            The second aspect to growing spiritually mature people is the active building up (in love) of the sheep. The problem in this step is the temptation toward nominal Christianity. When the deep teaching of doctrine is abandoned, maturity can only go so far. A church like this is full of people who know a little bit about everything but never plunge the depths of Scripture's doctrine. This is not what Paul had in mind when he described “mature manhood” (Ephesians 4:13). What then is the solution? Paul gives the answer: “we are to grow up. . . when each part is working properly,” and the result of this “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). Elwell and Beitzel say this in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible:

Doctrine and life are never separated in Paul’s thinking, but in Ephesians the connection is even more vital than usual. The believer’s life is to be lived in a manner worthy of the great purposes of God. The believer’s “calling” is not merely to be saved or eternally happy, but to participate with the entire body, the church, in bringing glory to God. [19]

Christ equips people to equip others that they might grow into spiritual maturity, being held together by the head of the body, which is Christ Himself. But right function in the church is greatly impacted by the body as a whole. When only a few in the body pursue maturity by knowing the truth and practically living it out in obedience, the church as a whole suffers. The shepherd of the flock must be intentional and observant in his shepherding in order to grow the church with consistency and depth. The modern Christian must focus on Christ as the source of this powerful change, for Christ has the right to grow His church how He pleases. 

Conclusion

            Looking back at Paul’s structure of the book of Ephesians, we are given clear insight into spiritual maturity. The first three chapters focus on right doctrine, and the second three on right living. Orthodoxy is useless without orthopraxy. In other words, knowing the truth gives no benefit if holy living absent from the life of the believer. MacArthur says, "So much of the confusion over how to properly and successfully pursue sanctification comes from fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of sanctification. Followers of Christ, therefore, must understand the character of this Holiness that they are commanded to pursue."[20]

            Correct doctrine is vital to the Christian life and spiritual maturity. However, doctrine alone does not demonstrate spiritual maturity. It must be accompanied by obedient conduct in daily living. This is why the Ephesians and the early church were given apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. The church today is blessed by the last three, that the body of Christ might know the truth and learn to live the truth.

[1] Kaiser, Walter C., and Moisés Silva, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2007), 174.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).

[3] John F. MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary: Unleashing Gods Truth, One Verse at a Time, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 1680-1681.

[4] Ibid, 1680.

[5] MacArthur, MacArthur Commentary, 1680.

[6] Steven J. Lawson, Foundations of Grace, (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2006), 393

[7] Thomas D. Lea and David A. Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2007), 440.

[8] MacArthur, MacArthur Commentary, 1692.

[9] Ibid, 1692-1693.

[10] Ibid.

[11] W. A. Elwell, and B. J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 706.

[12] Robert G. Gromacki, New Testament Survey, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1974), 252.

[13] MacArthur, MacArthur Commentary, 1693.

[14] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 282.

[15] MacArthur, MacArthur Commentary, 1694.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Kaiser and Silva, Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics, 174.

[18] John MacArthur, Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 381-385.

[19] Elwell and Beitzel Baker Encyclopedia, 708.

[20] MacArthur, Biblical Doctrine, 638.

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