Unity out of Diversity
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Ephesians 4:7–4:16
7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
By nature people fear diversity. By “fear” I don’t necessarily mean that we are frightened by it, but that it has the potential for making us feel “uncomfortable.” Just this week I came across these sobering words: “There is no greater enemy to vital life-breathing faith than insisting on cultural sameness. When fear rules your theology, God is nowhere to be found in your paradigm, no matter how many Bible verses you tack onto it.”
It’s true isn’t it? Take the word “fellowship” for example. It has become such an overworked term among Christians. To many it has become synonymous “hanging out” with those with who are “most like us”...which, in effect, means to the exclusion of those who are not. We seem to have a natural aversion to treading on “unfamiliar turf.”
I can understand that, can even relate to it to some degree. Several years ago, I was asked to speak at the church where a former student of mine was serving as pastor. That Sunday had been set aside as “Men’s Day,” and I had been asked to bring a message of challenge to the men of the church. It was an African-American church in the truest sense of the word. Out of respect, I—the guest speaker and the only White person within shouting distance of the church—was escorted to a seat on the platform...front and center between the pastor and his large cadre of deacons. Those of you who were raised in Black churches know that services at times can be rather spontaneous. Just about the time I was settling into my perch, the pastor calls all the men in the church to the front to form an impromptu men’s choir. And so help me, he positions me smack dab in the middle of the front row of that group. The music starts and the clapping and swaying begin. I knew the song, but I wasn’t familiar with all of the motions and the movements the others were doing. But I did my best to try and fit in. As I was beginning to get into it, the door at the back of the sanctuary opened and a family of four walked in. At that very instant the father saw what was going on at the front of the church, stopped dead in his tracks, and I’ll never forget the look on his face...first, surprise and then a huge smile of laughter. He leaned over and whispered something to his wife, and she too joined in the amusement of the moment. They made their way to their seats and the service went on without a hitch. But I learned a little something about being out of my “comfort zone” that day.
And there is a sequel to that story . Following that initial exposure, I was invited back to that church to preach on several more occasions. And it wasn’t long before—despite our ethnic differences—that I discovered an ongoing level of “fellowship” that had been missing in nearly every other church I had ever been a part of. In more recent years I have reflected about that experience and have come to realize that unity in the midst of diversity can be a pathway to maturity. Or to be more specific, it is through our diversity that God delights to create unity; and through our unity in Jesus Christ, He is able to produce within us spiritual maturity.
In a little over a month, some of you will be seated on the living room floor of your home attempting to put together an item of some sort that you have purchased for your children or grandchildren as a Christmas gift. As some of you know, trying to build something that comes out of the box looking nothing like the picture on the box can be very frustrating. It is especially maddening when parts are missing and the instructions are written in a language we don’t understand. There are times when it feels that way in the life of a church.
Fortunately, the Lord has not left us to find solutions in the dark. He has given us instructions in His Word. And that’s not all...He has also given us the equipment and the empowerment to carry out His instructions in His way. And His way is often surprising.
It is amazing to me how God is able to take varied “broken” and “spare” parts and make something beautiful from them. In fact, He specializes in creating unity out of diversity. As one author has explained, the Church is like the pieces of a puzzle that are assembled by God’s amazing grace. The passage before us helps to explain how He does that...it is through the process of “gifting” His people that the parts are all brought together.
As we mentioned last week, chapter 4 begins the practical section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The first three chapters address the matter of doctrine—what Christians believe—whereas the final three chapters speak to our duty—how Christians are to behave. Beginning in chapter 2, the writer has pled with us to understand that—regardless of our natural differences—we have become “one” by virtue of our common faith in Jesus Christ.
His emphasis on that inclusive unity reaches a pinnacle in verse 6 of chapter 4, when he refers to the “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Now here in verse 7, he shifts from the inclusive “all” to the individual “each one.” You see, unity does not eliminate individuality. We see that here in verse 7, and again in verse 16, the “bookends” of this passage. As this text explains, God gives gifts of grace to His Church so that it will grow to unity and maturity as the Body of Christ.
This is one of four New Testament passages where the subject of God’s gifting His Church is mentioned. The others are found in Romans 12(:6-8), 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 and 28-30), and 1 Peter 4:10-11). Each list differs significantly from the other, and even taken together they are not exhaustive. This morning we will focus only on those gifts that are mentioned here in Ephesians 4, seeking to determine their function and purpose.
We’ll begin by looking at...
The distribution of the gifts (verses 7-10)
Paul’s opening statement in verse 7 reads, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Here at the outset we are reminded that Christ is the Giver of the gifts to His Church. Because they are of “grace,” we did or can do nothing to receive them. They are distributed solely at the Lord’s discretion.
In 1 Corinthians 12, we find Paul’s familiar discussion in which he likens the Church to a physical body and the members as its individual parts. There he argues that every part is necessary for the body to function properly, and that no part should be envious of or belittle any other part. It doesn’t take a lot to see how Paul’s illustration applies to the Church. We may wish that we had a different gift—a gift like “someone else’s”—but we must remember that God’s gifts to His Church are sovereignly bestowed. And in His giving them, He makes no mistakes. He didn’t get your “gift tag” mixed up with someone else’s package.
To emphasize this point, Paul alludes to a passage of Scripture found in Psalm 68, a Messianic psalm written by David. This psalm is clearly a hymn of victory that depicts a conquering warrior parading those he has vanquished as the spoils of victory in grand procession. There are some interpretive issues regarding how Paul adapts verse 18 of that psalm to support his point. They make for interesting discussion, but those need not detain us now. There is one aspect, however, that needs to be briefly mentioned lest we wander off into speculative interpretation.
In his parenthetical explanation in verses 9 and 10, Paul speaks of Jesus’ “ascent” and “descent.” With regard to the latter, it is said that He “descended into the lower regions, the earth.” Some translations add the word “of” between “regions” and “the earth;” and while that is not grammatically incorrect, it has led to some interesting interpretations.
For example, a number of highly reputable Bible scholars cross-reference this passage with 1 Peter 3:19 and believe that Jesus descended into Hades between His death and resurrection and preached to the departed spirits there. That isn’t what Paul is alluding to here. It is more within the scope of Paul’s argument to understand Christ’s “descent” as His coming to earth by means of His incarnation. That being so, His “ascent” would refer to the resurrection/ascension event, in which He—within the context of Psalm 68—would have returned to heaven to display the spoils of His victory over sin, Satan, and death in triumphant procession. In other words, to the earth He “descended,” and from the earth He “ascended.”
He did this, as the last phrase in verse 10 declares, “that he might fill all things.” The word for “fill” (“πληροω”) may just as easily be translated “fulfill”...and I think that is the way it should read here. When Jesus began His earthly mission, He did so to “fulfill” the will of the Father in all respects (cf. Matthew 2:15). It was necessary for Him to drink the “full cup” of suffering for that to happen. There never would have been a Church had He cut short the work His Father had sent Him to do. But when that work was finished—“fulfilled”—the seed of the Church was planted and, as conquering Hero, He was then able to distribute the gifts necessary for the building of His Church. And, as Jesus Himself declared in Matthew 16:18, nothing would be able to stop it.
In verse 11, Paul unveils some of the significant aspects which describe how the Lord would carry out the plan of building His Church. It is here that we find...
The designation of the gifts (verse 11)
This verse speaks of four “gifts” given by Christ to His Church: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” Most Bibles translate “shepherds” as “pastors,” but “shepherd” certainly describes the primary duty of a “pastor”...he tends to the sheep of the flock the Lord has assigned him. It is the same role that is elsewhere referred to as an “overseer” (1 Timothy 3:1) or an “elder” (cf. Titus 1:5). In Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:18), we see all three descriptors of this one role coming together when he tells them to “Pay careful attention to (themselves) and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit (had made them) overseers.”
So, let’s take a moment to consider each of these “gifts,” define them, and see if we can discover how they are being manifested in the ongoing ministry of the Church. As I pointed out last week, it would incorrect to say that every local church is a “part” of the universal church. It is better to see it as a miniature representation of the larger body, inasmuch as all of the gifts that the Lord bestows are for every local gathering. Unfortunately, in far too many cases, these gifts are often hidden, or worse “buried.”
The first gift mentioned in verse 11 is “the apostles.” In a broad sense that term means “sent ones.” We see this in Matthew 10, where in verse 1 we read, “And (Jesus) called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.” And then in verse 2, their designation is changed. They are not called “disciples” in this verse, but “apostles.” Why, because they have been “sent out.”
But there is a more specific sense in which this term is used in the New Testament. According to 1 Corinthians 9:1, an “apostle” is someone who was said to have seen the risen Christ. No one since the close of the New Testament can legitimately lay claim to having laid eyes of the resurrected Jesus. Anyone who says he has does so with no biblical support. We can safely say, on the basis of Scripture, that the apostolic gift was given for the foundation of the early church until the writing of the final book of the New Testament. The “apostles” spoke with the authority of Christ Himself, and some of them wrote Scripture. Today we have the complete and final word of God, and so that the need for “apostles” no longer exists. You and I are able to declare, “Thus saith the Lord” because we have an apostolic record of God’s revealed truth, and not because there are still “apostles” among us.
The second gift in this list is “the prophets.” As with “the apostles,” this designation has both a broad and narrow meaning. When the Church was born in the Book of Acts, certain individuals were gifted to receive direct revelation from the Lord and proclaim it exactly as it was given to them. These individuals were not so much “fore-tellers” as they were “forth-tellers,” meaning that they ‘spoke forth” the message that God had given them to proclaim. That gift, per se—like the gift of apostleship—was also temporary for the same reason. Once God’s recorded revelation was complete, the need for the gift of “prophecy” ceased. Paul very clearly alluded to this happening in 1 Corinthians 13:8 when he wrote, “As for prophecies, they will pass away.” And as the Book of Acts demonstrates, this gift did cease.
Occasionally, we may hear of contemporary preachers being referred of as “prophets.” There is a sense of validity to that—that is, if he gives forth the Word of God through proclamation—but I would be cautious in applying the term to anyone today for this reason: biblical “prophets” received direct revelation from God, whereas—ever since the close of the canon—you and I receive indirect revelation through the inspired and inerrant Scriptures. In fact, any so-called message—no matter who gives it—that doesn’t square with what has already revealed by God is “false prophecy” and is to be soundly rejected. In order to avoid confusion, we are better off not using the term “prophets” when speaking of “preachers” today. As we sometimes say, Temple Hills Baptist Church is a “non-prophet” organization.
That being said, you may be concluding that the gifts of “apostle” and “prophet” have nothing to do with us today. But let’s not be so hasty. Consider this: the very Bible you hold in your hands this morning and read from throughout the week is the fruit of the faithful labor of those who at one time bore those titles. That Bible remains God’s perpetual gift to His Church, and it was given to us through “the apostles” and “the prophets.”
The third gift mentioned is “the evangelists.” Interestingly, there is only one person (Philip, cf. Acts 21:8) who is called an “evangelist” in Scripture. Elsewhere, Timothy—and by way of extension all ministers—are charged to “do the work of an evangelist” (cf. 2 Timothy 4:5). But before you feel as if you have been let “off the hook,” I remind you that every follower of Christ has been called to “preach the Gospel” (Mark 16:15) and “bear witness” to the Savior (cf. Acts 1:8). Clearly, God has gifted certain individuals who have the unique ability to communicate the Good News. During the infancy of the Church, these were primarily itinerant preachers who went from village to village proclaiming the need for sinners to repent of their sin and trust Christ. Then, and even now, those possessing “the gift of evangelism” are often the first to penetrate enemy lines with God’s truth.
Throughout her history, the Church has needed “evangelists” to proclaim the message we have come to believe. Have you ever considered asking God if perhaps He has gifted you in that way? Evangelism is not a natural ability, but a supernatural gifting that must be discovered, developed, and deployed in His service. While every follower of Christ is to be about doing “ the work of an evangelist,” some among us have been equipped to carry out that role in unique ways. When is the last time you had an intentional “Gospel conversation” with someone. Would you be willing to take that “risk” this week...maybe even with someone who isn’t “just like you.”
Moving on to the final gift on the list, we come to “the shepherds and teachers.” Grammatically, this designation refers to one role having two aspects. Earlier, I referred to “the shepherds” as “pastors” and mentioned that the term is further identified with the role of “elder” and “overseer.” The addition of “teacher” further describes the function of the “pastor.” In fact, in both lists of pastoral qualifications given to Timothy and Titus, being “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and “give instruction in sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9) is requisite. The foremost function of the pastor is the faithful exposition of Scripture for God’s people. Indeed, that is the primary means by which he “shepherds” them. That is not all that he does, but if he is not doing that he is certainly not fulfilling the call of the “pastor-teacher.”
I often wonder if the Lord is even now raising up the next generation of pastors from this congregation? I pray that is the case. I am grateful for my fellow-elders, who on occasion share this pulpit with me and who teach regularly. But there are others among us whom God may be calling to pastor and teach as well. That is why you often see others of our men leading in Bible study, small group events, and speaking on Sunday evenings. We want to be able recognize those whom the Lord may be calling to this role and encourage them to pursue their possible call. Will you join me in praying for those who may as yet have not heard God’s call to pastor?
In summary, what we find in verse 11 is a list of the “ministry-gifts” that God has given to the Church. But to what end? Paul answers that question in verses 12 through 16 by explaining...
The determination of the gifts (verses 12-16)
By “determination,” I am referring to the purpose for which the Lord has given gifts to His Church. That reason is stated in the first few words of verse 12, but in typical fashion Paul amplifies it more fully in the remainder of this section.
So, why is it that God gives these gifts? First, “To equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” The desired outcome is the “building up” of the church. That may imply “numerical growth,” but Paul’s emphasis in these verses is that Christians “grow deeper” by maturing in their walk with the Lord. Remember in verse 1 of this same chapter, he had urged them to “walk in a manner worthy of (their) calling.” The gifts are given to serve that purpose. Therefore, the responsibility of the “pastor-teacher” is “to equip the saints” to become not only “hearers,” but “doers of the word” (cf. James 1:22). It is only when believers are “equipped” and able to handle the Scriptures in a mature manner that the Church will grow.
Notice how Paul describes this growth in verses 13 and 14. He begins by saying “Until we all attain...” and he then lists three “target areas” followed by a purpose statement. The three areas toward which we are to strive are: first, “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God;”second, “to mature manhood;” and third, “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The mention of “unity” once again reminds us of our diversity, and each of these statements aims toward maturity. Because we are “one in Christ,” all of our natural differences take a backseat. Despite our diversity, we are able to grow together in “faith” and in our “knowledge” of Christ. By the way, the Bible knows nothing of “faith” that is not founded upon knowing God’s Word. The goal is maturity. It is to become like Christ Himself. This is a process, and it will not happen apart from our willingness to make full use of the gifts God gives to His Church. To put it boldly, you cannot be a Christian by yourself!
God seeks our growth and maturity, as stated in verse 14: “So that we (and note the plural) may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” The word for “children” (“νηπιοs”) would be better translated, “babies.” Whether we realize it or not, the enemy is out to keep us in a perpetual state of spiritual infancy. He will do everything he can to keep us from “growing up” in our faith. Immature Christians do not frighten him in the least. And there is no device too devious or diabolical for him to employ to keep us “gumming pablum” when God desires to feed us solid food (cf. Hebrews 5:14). Those who are the most vulnerable to succumb to his wiles are those who are immature in the understanding of God’s truth. So, how is your time in the Word these days? We cannot expect to mature if we do not know the Scriptures.
Verses 15 and 16 provide the divine alternative...and here is the ultimate reason that God has gifted His Church: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” What we have in these two verses, in essence, is a description of a healthy local church. It is a maturity that is founded upon unity made up of diversity for the glory of God.
You will observe that when “each part is working properly” it is able to “(build) itself up in love.” This suggests that every member is to be growing spiritually, and that together we exhort and encourage one another to grow in Christ. The gifts mentioned are given to equip the whole body, but each member must do his/her part.
That is why our church insists on “meaningful membership,” and does not encourage “spectator mentality.” Temple Hills Baptist Church is in its sixty-second year, it has had its share of “peaks and valleys” in living out its mission. God has given us grace through the years, but I would like to believe that our most significant days of ministry still await us. Wouldn’t you? Are you willing to be a part of that hapening? Our unity amidst our diversity becomes an undeniable testimony for the Kingdom of God when we allow our Lord to mature us for ministry for His eternal glory.
Someone has written that there are “a million ways to shatter the image of God, but only one way to restore it.” And that way is through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our God loves diversity, and His glory is made evident when He brings unity from it.
On the seal of the United States is printed the words, “E pluribus unum,” which is Latin for “out of many, one.” That motto could just as readily be applied to the Church. When Jesus instructed His followers to carry on His mission following His departure, He told them to take the Gospel to “all nations” (cf. Matthew 28:19). We know that mission will be completed just as He mandated because the Scriptures tell us that He will one day be worshiped has been by people “ from every tribe and language and people and nation” for who His blood was shed (cf. Revelation 5:9). You and I have the privilege of playing a part in hastening that day.
There are three things that I would like for us to take from this passage and to consider as we advance along the path that God has marked out for us:
In the first place, we need to recognize that unity is not something that we manufacture. It is something that we already have in Christ. The task we have been assigned is to protect and to maintain what He has already created. And we do that as we grow to maturity in Christ, appropriating the gifts He has given to His Church. We are His instruments He has chosen to make that happen...the hands and feet, eyes, ears, and mouth that He has chosen to employ. And, like Jesus, we must be about “our Father’s business” (cf. Luke 2:49).
Secondly, we need to realize that diversity alone does not produce unity. Although the unity that God has created among us is born out of our diversity, we must work toward recognizing that our differences remain but fragmented pieces that require the mortar of Christian discipline to hold them together. By that I mean we must not “neglect meeting together” (cf. Hebrews 10:25) for “teaching and fellowship, praying, and participating in the Lord’s Supper” (cf. Acts 2:42) whenever the church meets. If we keep ourselves from these means of God’s grace, then we should not expect to grow.
And that brings me to my final point, which is our need to admit that maturity requires letting God transform our diversity into unity through the gifts that He provides. This is actually an expansion of my first point, with the added emphasis of allowing God to have His way within and among us. This means that we no longer insist on our own method of “doing church” and trying to shape God’s will to fit our “comforts” and “desires.” In all likelihood, that may mean “denying ourselves”—often of those things that mean much to us—in order to follow Him and to demonstrate that we are indeed His disciples (cf. Luke 9:23).
An anonymous writer has pointed out that the path to maturity progresses through four stages: “help me,” “tell me,” “show me,” and “follow me.” With each phase there is the need for others to be with you in the process. The bottom line, my friends, is that we need one another...and, even more importantly, the Body of Christ—the Church for which Jesus died—needs everyone of us who have been bought by His blood.
By God’s grace, may we allow Him to blend our diversity into unity that will grow to spiritual maturity by means of the gifts He has given. And, as with all things, may He alone receive the glory.
The psalmist has written, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity” (Psalm 133:1). Out of our diverse backgrounds and experiences you have been pleased to bring us together as one in Jesus Christ. We sense your smile when our differences become parts of the multi-colored tapestry that You are weaving for the glory of Your Son. Be pleased, we pray, in the midst of this assembly to unite our hearts so that we are all moving toward the same destination. In our weakness, give us Your strength through our implementation of Your gifts to this local body. Mature us in our unity amidst our diversity so that the world may marvel—not at us—but at the Savior who alone is worthy of praise. His name is Jesus, and we offer this message and this prayer in His name. Amen.