The Gospel and Relationships (Ephesians 4:1-6)
When you boil it right down, we only have two basic problems. One is that we believe the wrong things; the other is that we don't act consistently with our right beliefs.
That may sound confusing at first, so let me back up and explain. One of the big problems that we sometimes have is that we believe the wrong things. Let me give you an example. Someone I know, who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, had an airline ticket for 18:00 hours. We all know that this translates to 6 PM. Except she somehow got it in her head that her flight was at 8 PM. So when she showed up to the airport, she of course missed her flight. And because she was flying charter, this mistake ended up costing her hundreds of dollars plus a lot of time. Her problem is that she had a wrong belief. She believed that her fight left at 8 when it really left at 6. The solution would have been to bring her beliefs in line with reality.
That's why, by the way, the Bible spends so much time teaching us what we should believe. In many ways it's more important than telling us how to behave. Someone's put it this way:
The Bible spends much more time on shaping the spiritual mind than commanding particular behavior. We need far more training in the ways of grace, of spiritual perceptions, and of what God is really like than we do on how to communicate with our spouse. Understanding the glory of Christ is far more practical than our listeners imagine. (Lee Eclov)
It just may be that some of your biggest problems in life may be a result of wrong beliefs you have about God, about Jesus, about the gospel, and about yourself. This is why theology is so important. It's also why what we've been studying in Ephesians 1-3 is so important as well. Paul's told us about God's eternal plan, about us as sinners, and about what God is doing to reconcile all things under the reign of Christ. He's also told us how the church fits into this. This helps correct one of our two basic problems: the problem of wrong beliefs.
So that's one of our two basic problems, and here's the other one: not acting in a way that's consistent with our beliefs. A police officer pulled over a man for careless driving, but instead of giving him a ticket, the officer arrested the driver and threw him into jail. A few hours later the officer came to the jail cell, let him out, and apologized. "There's been a terrible mistake," he said. "When I saw the fish emblem and the WDCX sticker, and the 'honk if you love Jesus' sticker, and then saw the way you were driving, I concluded that the car must be stolen. Now I realize that you're just a hypocrite, and hypocrisy, unlike auto theft, is not a crime." There are a lot of times that we believe exactly the right thing, but our conduct doesn't line up with our beliefs.
These are our two basic problems: wrong beliefs and inconsistent conduct. Most everything that's wrong with us is some combination of these two problems.
So as we come to Ephesians 4:1 we read, "As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received." This statement is the hinge of the book. It takes everything that Paul says we should believe in chapters 1 to 3 and applies it to how we should live in chapters 4-6. In chapters 1 to 3 he's told us of God's eternal plan, and how we, as individuals and the church, fit into it. Now Paul is saying, "Live a life worthy of what's true." And the rest of the book is going to apply what he's told us. It's going to answer the question, "If what Paul has told us up until now is true, how would our lives be different?"
In other words, Paul wants the whole deal with us. He wants us to believe the right things, but then he wants us to bring the rest of our life in line with these beliefs. And although he's going to cover a lot of topics as he applies what he's taught, he's going to begin with an interesting topic: relationships.
The Challenge of Relationships
Why would Paul begin by applying what he's been teaching us to relationships? One of the reasons is because there are few areas of life that are more challenging – and important – than relationships. This is true especially within the church.
Paul's been teaching us some pretty amazing things that we ought to believe about or relationships. For instance, in chapter 2 he taught that God has broken down the wall of hostility between groups that previously had nothing to do with each other. He's brought peace between the two groups, making them into a new humanity and the very dwelling place of God. Then in chapter 3 he's said that the church is proof to angels and demons that the gospel is true and that it works. This is pretty heady stuff. And the thing is, it's true. We don't have to make it true. It already is.
So that's what's true. But then we look around and see what actually exists around us. There's this person who always seems to be a bit cantankerous. And then there was this incident that happened a couple of years ago, and since then you've never really talked to that person. And you've never seen eye-to-eye on issues with this other person. And you just don't like the way that certain people look. It may be true that God has eliminated the hostility between us and made peace between us, but you wouldn't always know it by the way that we act.
My second year as a student pastor, I attended a board meeting. The pastor and a particular board member always seemed to clash. At one point the board member said something combative. The pastor smirked, and things exploded from there. Within minutes both had left the meeting in anger and the rest of us just sat there staring at each other. "His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace" (Ephesians 2:15). You wouldn't have known it that evening.
I wish I could tell you that this is the only time I've seen hurt and tension and conflict within the church. I've seen someone almost physically attack a pastor. I've seen people leave churches with unresolved issues. I've seen friendships break down.
I've seen people get hurt by others. I've seen tensions come up over all kinds of issues. I've seen high-grade and low-grade conflict and everything in between.
So the real question in each of these cases is what kind of problem we have. Is it a belief question or a problem with living consistently with those beliefs? Paul helps us figure out which problem we tend to have in this passage, so let's ask ourselves which problem we tend to have.
1. Is it a belief problem?
The problem with some of us is that, frankly, we don't believe the right things about each other. Our biggest problem is that our thinking hasn't adjusted so that we understand who we are. As a result, the way we see each other tends to be shaped by our likes and annoyances rather than what God says is true.
John Stott is a wise and older minister from London who's had a big influence on the evangelical church. He's honest enough to admit that he finds some people draining and even difficult to like. But when he deals with people like this, he responds by working on what he believes about them. As he stands face to face with this person he has difficulties appreciating, he says, "Oh, what a precious child of God you are. How much God loves you." That's exactly what we're called to do: to believe the right things about each other, to correct the mistaken beliefs that we have as we relate to each other.
So what are some of our mistaken beliefs? One of the most common is that we can remain independent. It's surprising how many of us think that we can come to church on Sundays without our lives becoming enmeshed with each other. I don't say this to make you feel guilty; I say this because it's a belief that needs to be corrected. For some of us it's an issue of inconsistency, but for others of you it's a belief issue. You don't even believe that church is meant to be more. But this belief has to change.
For others of us, it has more to do with the belief that we can choose whom we love. I've had people tell me that they are going to refuse to love some other person for all kinds of reasons: music, length of hair, age, or because they believe something different on some secondary issue of doctrine. One of the most subtle ways this happens is when we choose people who are like us and who share our tastes. When this happens in an entire church, pretty soon everybody is just like everybody else, and you don't have to wrestle with the differences because there are none.
But Paul writes to the Ephesians – to a church where people are genuinely different – and he tells them what they must believe about each other in verses 4 to 6:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Paul says that there are seven things that unify us:
- One body – There is only one church, so if you are part of God's people, you are united with every other believer in Jesus Christ. There may be different congregations, but there is only one body, and you are united with every other member of that body.
- One Spirit – There is only one Holy Spirit. Regardless of who we are or how we came to faith in Jesus Christ, the same Holy Spirit is at work within us and has made us one.
- One hope – Hope doesn't mean something that we wish for but probably won't happen. Hope in the Bible means a confident expectation in what God has promised us. We've already heard Paul say that the Holy Spirit is proof of what's yet to come. Paul is speaking of the day in which we will stand shoulder to shoulder with people from every nation, denomination, and age. The things that divide us now will be gone
- One Lord – A.W. Tozer gives the illustration of a hundred pianos. If you try to tune the pianos to each other, it's going to end up as a disaster. You'd never get an accurate pitch. But if you tune them to one tuning fork, they would automatically be tuned to each other. Tozer says that we don't become unified by pursuing unity with each other; we become unified by pursuing Christ. The more we're in tune with our one Lord, the more we'll be in tune with each other.
- One faith – I believe that Paul is talking about the gospel here, the body of our belief. It's that God has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to become a man, and to die for our salvation. It's by grace and through faith – not by anything we've done or could do – that we're saved. This gospel joins us together across all possible barriers because it's the gospel that unites us.
- One baptism – It really doesn't look like we have one baptism when you look at how different denominations practice baptism. But when Paul wrote this, baptism was kind of the entry point to one's walk with Christ. Every new disciple was baptized, so that everyone in the church could look at each other and remember that they shared the same entry point of baptism. It's what we're trying to recover here at Richview, that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are baptized as one of the first things we do. It unites us with Christ, and therefore also with each other.
- One God and Father of all – Finally, Paul says that the source of all that we have in common is our God and Father. God the Father is the one from whom all of this flows. Paul has mentioned the Spirit and Christ, but here he reminds this that all of this flows from the one true God who is over all, through all, and in all.
Paul is saying that our unity is based on what God has accomplished through Jesus Christ. We have the same Savior. We share the same Holy Spirit. We have a common hope, a common faith, a common baptism that unites us. Unity isn't something we create; it's something that already exists because of what God has done.
And so Paul asks us to examine our beliefs, because it's easy to lose this belief because we look and act so differently from each other. With some churches and with some people, the problem is that they don't have a strong enough theology of relationships. At Richview we need to really understand that in Christ we have become one. It's not enough to just attend church. We need an understanding that we are one as a result of what God has done.
But for some of us, the problem isn't our beliefs. The problem is that we don't act consistently with these beliefs. So Paul leads us to ask a second question:
2. Is it a behavior problem?
Let's face it. Some of us do have a correct theology of relationship within the church. Our problem isn't our theology; our problem is the guy two rows over who drives us crazy. Our problem is applying our theology to real people who really sin and who really let us down. It's why Paul applies his theology of relationships in verses 2 and 3:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Paul has just revealed some of the most profound theology in all of Scripture about the eternal purposes of God, and now he goes to apply it. And this is what we find? Advice on getting along? Yes. The reason is because God's purpose is to bring all things under unity under Christ. And since he's done this very thing in the church, we had better preserve the unity that God has given us. And if we're going to do so, it involves applying our theology in real churches with real people, not as an ideal but as a reality.
And this is what it will take, according to Paul:
- Humility – The Greeks in Paul's day saw humility as a quality for servants and wimps. If someone back then called you humble, it wouldn't have been a compliment. But Paul urges us here to pursue humility, literally lowliness of mind. It means that we see the inherent worth and value of others, refuse to insist on our own rights, and put their interests before our own.
- Gentleness – Gentleness refers to a disposition towards others. Some used it to refer to domesticated animals. It means controlling one's strength to be courteous and considerate of others, being more concerned about the common good than getting our own way.
- Patience – A different way of putting it is to be long-suffering towards aggravating people. It's closely related to the next and final quality:
- Bearing with one another in love – There will be tensions and conflicts, and sometimes we'll have to just put up with each other. But Paul says not just to do this, but to do it with love.
This is what it will take if we are to apply our theology of relationships. Don't you love how real this is? There will be real tensions and real aggravations, and Paul says we're to maintain the unity that we have in the gospel through huge doses of humility, gentleness, patience, and just plain old putting up with each other in love.
Martin Luther, the Reformer of the 16th century, had a really bad temper. He once called fellow Reformer John Calvin "a pig" and "a devil." Mark my words, that and worse will happen sometimes even in the church! But John Calvin replied, "Luther may call me what he will, but I will always call him a dear servant of Christ."
Maybe some of us need to change our beliefs about relationships within the church. I hope you've seen from Paul that the church is more than a collection of people who come and go while staying independent. The gospel – what God has done through Christ – has made us one. Some of us have to adjust our beliefs so that we really understand the church. "Christ wants to create a 'people,' not merely isolated individuals who believe in him," writes one preacher (Sinclair Ferguson). When we come to Christ we belong to him, and we therefore belong to each other.
But maybe some of have the right beliefs about relationships, and our challenge is to change so that our conduct matches our beliefs. And not just in some ideal church community in which people are nicer than they are here. Paul calls us to relationship not in some dream world, but in the real world of people who will require every ounce of patience Christ can give us.
And this can only happen through Jesus. "For Jesus Christ alone is our unity. 'He is our peace.' Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
Father, may we think the right things, biblical things, about relationships. And may we bring our actions in line with what is true and right, not through our own power but through Jesus Christ.
We come now to the table because we need him. May we live lives worth of the calling we've received, and may we do so in the way we love one other. In Jesus' name, Amen.