This morning we’re in Ephesians 4, looking at Paul’s exhortations to a local church. Turn to Ephesians 4:11-16.
We live in the age of the individual. It’s no longer the age of the nation or the tribe or the community. This is the age of the individual.
It’s tough to be an individual in 2020. We’ve been hit by wave after wave of stormy circumstances in our personal lives. We’ve been blasted by strong winds of political and social change.
How do you stay strong as an individual in that kind of environment? How do you overcome anxiety in that kind of situation? How do you make sure that you are not blown off course into a direction that you don’t want to be?
We see the challenge of the individual in verse 14.
We are vulnerable to the influence of our environment – tossed by the waves, to violent movement up and down at the whim of our circumstances.
We are vulnerable to the winds, literally ‘whirled around’.
Without the strength of maturity, we are like a ship in the ocean with no rudder, mechanism to steer through external forces.
What are those forces? Paul is talking about powerful social and cultural forces. The power of the crowd. The momentum of new ideas.
How do we withstand those forces? The remedy is in verse 13. An individual who is connected to a body, knit together and building itself up, is strong.
What does that look like? How do you get that?
Let’s start in verse 11. The first thing we see is that God has given us 5 types of people to help build the body. Apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers.
There are two dominant interpretations of this verse.
One that is very common in the last 15 years is the missional model which sees in this list a mix of gifts 1) that should be in every church body and 2) every believer will have one or more of.
According to this view every believer in this room has at least one of these 5 giftings.
The more historical view is that Paul is here providing a list of gifts that are uniquely directed at equipping all of the others for ministry. Some of those are still necessary, but others aren’t.
In the NT, we see apostles and prophets functioning in a very unique and specific role..
We saw that earlier in Ephesians in 2:20 where Paul writes that the household of God is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.
And in 3:5 where he writes that the mystery of the gospel has been revealed to the apostles and prophets.
In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.
My understanding of the apostles and prophets is that they were foundational roles. They were given foundation gifts. It was the apostles and prophets who wrote the NT scriptures and established the foundation of what we call the canon.
Canon comes form a Greek word meaning rod.
Origen used the word to denote “what we call the rule of faith, the standard by which we are to measure and evaluate everything that may be offered to us as an article of belief.” -F.F. Bruce
In time canon came to mean “an officially accepted list of books”.
The first Christians were Jewish believers who accepted an Old Testament canon. After encountering Jesus, the Christian Jewish community was prepared to accept additions to their canon.
They believed the OT was unfinished.
They believed that God was establishing a new covenant.
They believed that some among them were chosen by God and given the authority of Christ as his messengers in the world.
Before long each of the new churches had gathered a collection of writings by these messengers. Writings from John and Peter and Paul and James and others.
These became increasingly valuable to the church for a variety of reasons:
1. They were the Word of God.
“The church upheld the apostolic witness in its sacred literature as a way of grounding its faith in Jesus, represented by the apostles’ teaching, and insuring that the church’s tradition was not severed from its historical roots and proximity to Jesus, the primary authority of the early church. . . If it was believed that an apostle wrote a particular book, that writing was accepted and treated as Scripture. There is no doubt that all of the books of the NT were placed in the canon because the majority believed that they were written by apostles or members of the apostolic community.”
Lee Martin McDonald
2. They needed stability.
“The churches needed to know which books should be read, revered, and applied to their varied and often precarious situations in a generally hostile social and religious environment. They had many problems to address and they needed assurance regarding which books would serve as their source of authority.”
Geisler and Nix
3. The rise of heretics.
Marcion was a man who left behind orthodox Christian teaching and published an abridged list of canonical books. With the influence of men like Marcion, the need for an accepted standard become acute.
4. The circulation of spurious writings.
With the rapid growth of the church and the reputation of the apostolic writers, many imitation books began to circulate.
5. The growth of missions
As early Christians began to take the message of Jesus to new cultures they needed to translate the Scriptures into new languages and dialects. Which writings should they focus their energy on?
Diocletian called for a destruction of the sacred books of Christians in 303AD. You might be willing to give away your Francis Chan book for burning, but not your Scriptures.
As the value of the apostolic writings became more evident, early fathers of the church began to maintain lists of recognized scriptures.
There is a list evident in the writings of Irenaeus, the disciple of John.
A document called the Muratorian fragment in Rome in the 2nd century contained a list of Scripture.
Origin and Athanasius developed lists in the 3rd century.
In time, church councils felt the need to formally establish an official canon of Scripture.
“When at last a Church Council – the Synod of Hippo in AD 393 – listed the 27 books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity.”
Maybe the most important criteria for judging documents was the question: “Was it written by an apostle or prophet?”
The apostles and prophets laid the foundation for the church by delivering the message of the NT Scriptures. They were leaders commissioned directly by Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit to give us what we now call the New Testament.
The apostles and prophets laid the foundation.
The evangelists carried that message to the world.
Teachers and shepherds served the new communities of love where the message was carefully taught and applied.
To attain maturity and stability, you have to be in a community built on a foundation. You have to be in a community that looks to the Word of God as it’s basis.
You have a Word which transcends history, it stands above the wind and waves. It transcends the pendulum swing of human interest. It transcends temporal and local interests of tribes and cultures and nations.
You have dedicated leaders with a sacred responsibility to study the Word.
Now in verse 12 Paul tells us what the evangelists, pastor and teachers do with the Word of God.
Does it surprise you to read that the work of pastors and teachers is not to do the work of ministry? It doesn’t say that does it? Their job is to equip others to do the work of ministry.
Equipping does not convey the full sense of the original word. The Greek word means to restore or perfect. The verb is used to refer to mending nets, forming the shape of the universe or restoring someone who has fallen in sin.
Like a fishing net is worn and experiences tears as it moves through the water, our souls have tears and gaps. We have places that need mending.
Pastors and teachers help that process.
There is a beautiful tension that is communicated through this phrase. The great purpose of the church is to bring the message of the grace of the gospel to people who are broken and disintegrated by sin.
Here’s the tension:
As people respond to that message they are welcomed into the body where the repeated ministry of the gospel mends and restores souls. That mending process is preparing them for the work that was done for them.
A pastor I know of likes to say at his church, “You can come as you are but you can’t stay that way.”
You’re going to change. You’re going to find healing. You’re going to become healthy. You’re going to grow up into responsibility.
Through the faithful teaching of the Word of God, souls are mended and perfected.
Often we think of the work of service as the various ministries of the church: child care, hospitality, music, etc. These are all necessary and wonderful opportunities for service. But I don’t believe that’s what Paul had in mind.
The word translated service is diaconia – to serve, to carry as a go-between. It was used of someone who waited on tables or a courier carrying a message. What are the saints equipped to serve? Isn’t it the Word of God?
Isn’t that what Paul describes in verse 15? Speaking the truth in love?
Paul is describing a process of forming a church body full of saints, strengthened and renewed by the Word of God, who in turn are becoming masters of the Word of God themselves.
He is setting a standard for the regular Christian as someone who is capable of ministering the Word of God.
Every Sunday morning there are a variety of needs in this room. There is someone struggling with doubt. There is someone struggling under dark clouds of discouragement and depression. There is someone experiencing deep shame and feelings of guilt. There is someone eaten up by anxiety and fear. There is someone who is profoundly hurt and having a tremendously difficult time forgiving the one who hurt them. There is a marriage crashing on the rocks. There is someone entangled in the grip of addiction.
What is going to help them? Isn’t it you? Isn’t it brothers and sisters ministering the Word of God to one another? Speaking the truth in love?
We try really hard to help Christians read their Bible on a regular basis. But what we really need is Christians who are masters of their Bible, ready to speak healing words of truth in love.
There are a few lessons for us in all of this.
First, we should be aware of the dangers of isolation. Alone, I am like an infant. I am vulnerable to the winds and the waves.
I am not mature without you. Think about that. I may mature in my gifts, I may mature out of causing damage in my limitations, but I am only mature and complete when I am interconnected with you.
I may be able to study the Bible and communicate it from a stage, I may have some wisdom and discernment to offer counsel, but I will never bring all of those strengths which Christ has not given me. I need you for that.
Second, we might need to rethink how we approach church on a Sunday morning.
The Sunday service is a time to be encouraged and to be instructed. But it is more than that. It is a time to be equipped. We ought to come to church Sunday as practitioners, coming to be trained.
Third, we should not underestimate our importance.
There is a crucial qualification to the work of maturity in Ephesians 4: growth happens as each part does its work.
This is a beautiful picture of the church – diverse body parts, coming together under one head for a work of love. Only Jesus is great enough to pull it off. Only in Jesus can such a diversity of perspective and personalities come together.
He is the reason we are here, isn’t He?
Tom Brown is the planting pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Wichita. Tom and his wife, Mandy, have worked together in ministry for 18 years and have four children. More about Pastor Tom Brown