The Call to Unity
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Ephesians 4:1–4:6
If you know me very well, then you know that I am not a big fan of cartoons and comics. I never have been. On Saturday mornings as a child, while my friends were wasting time watching animated cats and mice chase one another across the TV screen, I was being entertained by watching cowboys catch cattle-rustlers and horse-thieves. Even on Sunday mornings, I never could understand why everyone competed to be the first to read the comic section of the newspaper. Just give me the sports page.
I have to admit, however, that I was a “Peanuts” fans. Maybe it was because I always wanted have a dog like Snoopy, but more likely it was because I was able to relate to some of the characters in that comic strip. In one of the more classic episodes, Linus has revealed to Lucy that he wants to be a doctor when he grows up. If you’re familiar with the “Peanuts” characters, then you know that Lucy did not exactly possess the gift of encouragement. So, in response to Linus’ aspirations, she replies, “You a doctor! Ha! That’s a big laugh! You could never be a doctor! You know why? Because you don’t love mankind, that’s why?” (Now, you have to be familiar with the comic strip—and with Lucy—to catch the irony in her statement).
Having been silenced by the most skillful of discouragers, Linus pauses until Lucy leaves the scene before blurting out, “I love mankind...it’s people I can’t stand!!”
Truth be known, some of us would have to admit feeling the same way at times. We love humanity, but it’s people we can’t stand. I’ve been told that well before the cartoon artist Charles Schulz put those words into the mouth of Linus, Albert Einstein had made a similar statement. Therefore, even though I can’t say with certainty where that quote originated, what I can say is that it has been and remains a sentiment that most of us identify with more often than we might like to admit.
Getting along with others can sometimes be difficult. Especially is that true when we live our lives in close proximity to one another. And lest we think the church is immune from this “carryover” of our sin nature, it isn’t. As someone has expressed it,
“To dwell above with saints with saints we love...O, that will be glory.
But to dwell below with saints we know...well, that’s another story.”
Throughout the first three chapters of his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul has taken us to lofty heights in detailing for us the rich “spiritual blessings” that are possessed by those who belong to Jesus Christ by faith. As we mentioned the first week of this study, this epistle can be divided into two main sections: chapters 1 through 3, which explain what we believe as Christians; and chapters 4 through 6, which speaks to how we are to behave. And while there is not a clear-cut distinction between doctrine and duty, there is the need for us to move beyond our theological distinctions and put into practice what we know to be true by faith. So, even though we are transitioning into the practical part of this letter, we must resist the temptation of supposing that our behavior is in any way removed from what we believe.
As we have seen in recent weeks, Paul has been arguing for the unity the Body of Christ, the Church. Through the revelation of “the mystery” which had been hidden from ages past, God was able to do what no manmade social program before or since has been able to accomplish: bring together “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9) under one Head, Jesus Himself. Christ died and rose again in order to create a people for God. Since His ascension back into heaven and the pouring out of His Spirit upon His first followers, Jesus—through the commissioning of every believer—has been building His Church, and He has given us the assurance that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
If you have turned from your sin and are trusting Jesus Christ alone as the source of your right standing with God, then you are a part of His Church. This local fellowship is a microcosm of the larger community of all believers, wherever they happen to be gathering to worship this day. It wouldn’t be entirely correct to refer to ourselves as a “part” of the Body of Christ, but rather as a representative of it. Or, to say it another way, each congregation is a local manifestation of the heavenly entity known as “the Church.” Therefore, the exhortations that the apostle gives in these verses are of critical importance for us if we are to live out our faith in Christ, and to practice what we profess.
As sinners who have been saved “by grace...through faith” (cf. Ephesians 2:8), we are still going through the lifelong process of sanctification. In other words, we are not yet all that we one day will be. And, like Linus, we too struggle at times to live in harmony with one another. Paul understood this, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he penned this passage so that we might understand it as well.
What we find here is a call to unity within the Body of Christ. Now, let’s be clear about something...unity is not the same thing as uniformity. The simple distinction is that unity is intrinsic or inwardly motivated, whereas uniformity is extrinsic and is motivated by outside pressure. In other words, we can conform without being transformed by God’s Spirit. In fact, the Bible has a word for that: “hypocrisy.” God’s goal for us is that we become “transformed by the renewing of (our) mind” (Romans 12:2), and thus be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).
That is the setting for these verses we will be looking at. So will you follow along in your Bible as I read them for us?
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.
Three things are mentioned by Paul in his call to unity within the Body of Christ. In verse 1, he states for us the goal of unity. In verses 2 and 3, he reveals the graces for unity. And in verses 4 through 6, the ground of unity is explained to us. So, we’ll begin where he does, in verse 1 with...
The goal of unity (verse 1)
We are reminded—as we were in verse 1 of chapter 3—that when he wrote these words, Paul was incarcerated in Rome for having been a faithful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As we noted then, we see again here that the chains that bound him may have belonged to Caesar, but that he was “a prisoner for the Lord.” And even though he was detained, his prayers on behalf of his fellow believers knew no bounds.
His concern for them is evident, which is why he urges them “to walk in a manner worthy of (their) calling” in Christ. The Lord had “chosen” them for Himself from “before the foundation of the world, that (they) should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). So in beginning this latter half of his epistle, he exhorts them to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which (they) have been called.”
Paul frequently speaks of the Christian life as a “walk.” It refers to our “manner of life,” or the way in which we conduct ourselves. In exhorting us to “walk” in a “worthy” manner, he uses a word that implies “equal weight.” If we can picture balancing scales, the writer is saying that our Christian conduct should be in balance with the “calling” we have received in the Lord. In other words, our practice as Christians should match our profession. To put it simply, we should “measure up” as genuine followers of Jesus Christ. That is the goal of the apostle’s plea for unity.
As you are aware, this is not something that happens naturally. We need grace—and lots of it—if this is to be a reality in our lives and experience. So, in verses 2 and 3, Paul speaks to us about...
The graces of unity (verses 2-3)
Three graces are mentioned in verse 2. They are “humility,” “gentleness,” and “patience.” If these sound familiar, it is probably because they are reminiscent of “the fruit of the Spirit” that Paul refers to in Galatians 5:22 and 23). There, as here, these are qualities or characteristics that are generated and produced by the Spirit’s active presence in the life of the believer.
“Humility” speaks of “lowliness of mind” or not thinking more highly of ourselves than we have a right to think.
“Gentleness” is sometimes translated “meekness.” But let’s be clear...“meekness” is not to be equated with “weakness.” This biblical word (“πραυτηs”) has been described as “power under control.” One commentator has likened it to “the absence of the disposition to assert one’s personal rights.” “Gentleness” doesn’t “look out for ‘number one.’”
And “patience” refers to “longsuffering,” especially toward aggravating people. The Greek term (“μακροθυμια”) implies being “long-tempered” and “being able to put up with a lot.”
Granted, none of these graces will be seen in perfection in any of us in any of our lifetimes. Jesus Himself is the only One who modeled them in their fullness. What’s more, these graces are not self-generated through acts of our own will, but are rather produced in and through us by means of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. That does not mean, however, that we are to idly sit by and wait for these changes to take place and these characteristics to be formed in us. The two participles that Paul adds at the end of verse 2 and in verse 3 serve as imperatives. We are commanded to, first, “bear...with one another in love; and, second, “to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In other words, change is possible but only if we want it and are willing to allow God to have His way with us. We must place ourselves along the path in which the Lord Himself is walking and not try to “live life” or “do church” in ways we may think best.
The church’s “unity” is described as “the unity of the Spirit,” or as something that God’s Spirit creates. And here’s the point: although this “unity” is not the result of our own achievement—that is, we can do nothing to give it birth or cause it to grow—the text exhorts us with a sense of urgency to “maintain” it. It is not “unity” at any price, but it is an “eager” willingness to become aligned with God’s investment of Himself among His people.
That brings us to Paul’s final point in this passage. It is here that we find the foundation of his exhortation. Without...
The ground of unity (verses 4-6)
...we would be left to figure things out on our own. But, thanks be to God, we have a firm foundation. Verses 4 through 6 are permeated with expressions of the “unity” being called for in verse 3. There are those who believe that these verses were an early confession of faith or statement of belief in the first century church. It certainly reads as if that could have been the case. Let’s read them again:
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
What we have here is the basis for all Christian “unity.” Our oneness in Christ is not the result of our denominational affiliation, our preferences in style of worship, or even in the translation of the Bible we read from. Our “unity” as members of His Church is founded upon the seven fundamental aspects of “unity” that Paul refers to. This is what binds together every true follower of Jesus.
There is, first of all, “one body”...one body of believers, one Church. Yes, there are untold numbers of local churches scattered across our nation and around the world, but there is one universal Church of which every sinner who has been purchased by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ is a member. Although Christians may debate some theological points, there are certain basic fundamentals of the faith we must all subscribe to or we risk showing ourselves not to be Christians at all. These include the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, His atoning sacrifice for sin on the cross, His bodily resurrection from the grave, and salvation by grace through faith.
In the second place, we are told that there is “one Spirit.” This reference is, of course, to the Holy Spirit, who indwells every true believer. What’s more, as Paul adds parenthetically here, He is the agent of our call. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit, who would “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (cf. John 16:8), and that is precisely what took place in your life to draw you to Christ. The Holy Spirit is the source of our “unity” in the Church.
What’s more, there is “one hope that belongs to your call.” This is the “hope” or confident assurance that every follower of Christ possesses. It is that which encompasses every “spiritual blessing” that we already possess, as well as the “hope” that Christ will ultimately reign over every inch of His creation and that we will reign with Him.
The “one Lord” that Paul mentions is none other than Jesus Himself. We give our allegiance to no one else. He alone is “Lord,” and as the Scriptures declare elsewhere, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).
Let me pause here long enough to ask if you know Jesus as “Lord.” Have you truly repented of your sin and called upon His name for salvation. There is coming a day when every knee will bow before Him and every tongue will confess Him to be “Lord” (cf. Philippians 2:10-11). If He is not your “Lord,” then He is not your Savior. And if He is not your Savior, then you are without “hope.” My sincere prayer for you is to dethrone every other “lord” that is competing for the control of your life and call upon Jesus Christ, the crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again “Lord.” Christ is the “cornerstone” of our “unity” in the Church.
As if “on cue,” Paul adds that there is “one faith”—one settled body of truth that every Christian believes—namely, the Gospel. We have been created by a perfectly holy God to live in perfect fellowship with Him. That relationship was broken when sin entered the world, and the effects of sin’s curse have fallen upon every one of us. Therefore, we have been separated from God because of our inherited sin nature and the acts of sin we commit. There is no way we can remedy our sinful condition...we can never be good enough or do enough good deeds to make up for our sin of rebellion against God. Our only hope is to respond to the grace of God, who sent His only begotten Son into the world to live a sin-free life and become our substitute by dying on the cross for our sins. Those who repent of—or turn away from—their sin and trust Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice are saved. That is the “one” Gospel, the “one faith” that every true Christian believes.
Closely linked to our “one faith” is “one baptism.” Together these two form the “entry expressions” of our relationship with Christ and His Church. It is unclear whether Paul is speaking of the “Spirit-baptism” that he refers to in 1 Corinthians 12(:13)—the act by which every believer becomes a part of “the Body of Christ”—or if water-baptism is in view. I’m not sure that a clear distinction can be made. What I do know is that the New Testament never recognizes an “unbaptized Christian.” Search as you may...I don’t believe you will find one. Water baptism is the outward expression of the inward reality that has taken place when a person commits his/her life to Jesus. Someone has called it “the seal of incorporation into the Body of Christ.” Because Paul is addressing the Church, church membership requires “believer’s baptism.” If a person is not willing to submit to the waters of baptism in obedience to our Lord’s command, there is every reason to question the validity of that person’s faith.
Finally, in verse 6 Paul adds, “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Let me make a couple of observations related to this phrase. In the first place, the four-fold repetition of “all” could possibly refer to “all Christians,” or it may speak of God’s transcendence over all things. Based upon what Paul has said in chapter 3, verse 10 about “the manifold wisdom God” being “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” through the Church, I believe that God’s transcendence is in view here. And while God is transcendent over all, He is “Father” only to those whom He has called and who have committed themselves to Him. It is imperative that we make that distinction.
Furthermore, the three prepositions that are employed in this final verse—“over,” “through,” and “in”—express the sweeping operation of God’s power in men’s lives. In other words, God is absolutely sovereign over all things. There is “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Interestingly, this “one (Triune) God” is represented by all three Persons in these verses. We see the “Spirit” in verse 4, the “Lord” Christ in verse 5, and “God” the Father in verse 6. All three play critical roles in bringing us to faith, as well as in sustaining the “unity” of the Church that bears His name.
John Stott has summarized this idea with this statement: “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.”
Rarely is there a need to call for unity when people share a wide blend of demographic similarities. It’s when people differ in age, gender, ethnic background, cultural upbringing, and personal preferences that pleas for unity generally need to be sounded. Amazingly, God chose to go the difficult route of bringing people of varied backgrounds together when He created the Church. Paul wrote about many of our differences—including the manner in which God has gifted us individually—in 1 Corinthians 12. Look around this morning. We are not all alike. In fact, we are probably more dissimilar with one another than we are similar. And—now get this—that’s just the way the Lord meant for it to me.
But such diversity does not come without the potential for difficulties. If it did, there would be no need for passages like the one we have looked at this morning. This is a call for unity—unity amidst diversity—among God’s people.
I began this message with an illustration about cartoons and comic strips, things that more often than not are amusing to us. But as we prepare to conclude, I need to get very serious with you. Events of this past week have served to remind us of the racial tensions that still exist in our world. Much uniting work still needs to be done. Many believed when an African-American was elected to the highest office in the land, that racial healing would be a natural outflow. That has not happened. Seven years later, tensions between the races have not eased and may have actually grown worse. Once again we have been reminded that authentic unity will not come at the hands of a human leader or group of leaders. It will only come as a result of the supernatural healing work of the God who made us and who offers to remake us by redeeming us through the death of His Son and reconciling us to Himself and to one another.
The only viable plan for creating unity out of diversity is the one that God reveals in His Word. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
The charge for us to “maintain the unity” of the Church must mean that we are to maintain it visibly. But how are we to do that? We may claim to know who we are and to whom we belong, but how will the rest of the world ever know? Jesus gives us the very clear answer in John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” “Love one another”...a command that is given no fewer than ten times in the New Testament. In fact, I believe that all of the “one another” passages that are addressed to the Church find their foundation in this one command. Church, we are to “love one another” in the same way that Christ has loved us (cf. John 13:34). The epistles flesh out for us what that looks like with dozens of exhortations that deal with how we are to do life with “one another.” Many of them deal with our maintaining attitudes of humility and showing deference among ourselves.
This was first modeled for us in the Trinity. It isn’t by accident that Paul alludes to all three members of the Godhead in these verses. And lest we forget, Jesus made the unity among His people is Hithe main feature of His high priestly prayer in John 17(:22). It was there that He requested of the Father, “That they may be one even as we are one.” You see, the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is constantly on display in the Church.
When we do this right—in the power of God’s Spirit—we will seem weird and strange to the world, and perhaps even like “fools” (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:10). But if they observe us long enough and we are consistent enough, they will be unable to deny the life altering effects of the Gospel and the reality of our Lord and Savior.
So, what are you presently doing to make this unity visible and apparent? As we look about this room this morning, we are different in many ways. The one common thread that binds us together is our love for Jesus and for one another. The question is, are we doing all we can to make that visible. Are we intentionally reaching out to those who may not share our natural distinctions, or are we content to be comfortable only with those who are most like us? Who is it among our membership that you know least—someone of a different race or a different age, perhaps? Are you willing to take the first step toward them to build a bridge of love in order to start a new relationship? Just think...if each of us was willing to do that, not only would we bring the love of Christ to “one another,” but the world would have reason to see that there is something beautifully unique and wonderfully rare among those who name the name of Jesus.
My brothers and sisters, we are the Body...the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.