Ephesians Chapter 4: One Body, One Spirit, One Hope
Now at last we come to the field of exhortation and prayer. With another “therefore” (4:1) to encourage us in doing what we ought because of what God has done for us, Paul addresses himself to setting his readers to rights. Whatever we might have thought before, it now becomes quite plain that the predestinate purpose of God left the believer with a choice, whether he would do the will of Him who had called him, or not.
“I therefore the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called” (4:1). There is something pathetically beautiful that Paul, who in prison has now no power to command compellingly, should allow himself to “beseech”. It is true that the ordinary word for “exhort” is here used, but the reference to his imprisoned condition seems to justify the translation. He is not seeking to exercise apostolic authority upon us, and tell us that it is our duty to live a certain way. He is rather saying that, with absolutely no power to command on his part, he is relying on the compulsion of the glories he has revealed, to persuade us that a faithful walk is the only reasonable course.
“Walk worthy of your calling” is our counterpart to God’s deeds. He called not merely to future reward, but to a way of life. He laid down how that way of life might be successfully lived, and now it is the business of his children to respond. But it is not easy at once to put a finger upon exactly what we are to do. The advice remains still of a very general and subjective character:
- with all lowliness and meekness with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love (4:2).
Thus far this is purely passive counsel. And it might seem that the Apostle is asking three times for the same thing: for meekness, lowliness, and longsuffering are not sharply distinguished qualities in our minds. But there are shades of meaning: “lowliness” -, which is what Paul himself, showed at Ephesus (Acts 20:19) means setting a low estimate upon yourself without affectation. It is not the pride that apes humility, inwardly setting a high value on itself while outwardly it affects a shamefaced demeanor. “Meekness” can be looked upon as meaning the spirit, which accepts the sufferings and humiliations of this world without repining or blaming God; and ‘‘longsuffering” that which continues to endure all that comes upon us without losing patience with it, or refusing to be profited by it. All this concerns primarily our attitude to what God provides for us, even though it may be needful to be meek in face of the arrogance of others (each esteeming his brother to be better than himself), and long-suffering is enduring troubles which come upon us owing to the wrong headed behaviour of our fellows. And these are certainly true of the “forbearing one another in love”. For in these words there is put upon us the responsibility of dealing with our brethren as the Lord has dealt with us. We are to forgive men their trespasses in the measure, which we expect and hope to be forgiven by God. But again there are no threats here. It is true, of course, that if we refrain from doing this there are penalties to be feared and endured, but the apostle’s purpose here is not to threaten us. Here he is appealing to our better nature. Note: “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. See how wonderful the Spirit’s unity is, says Paul to us. Do your part then not to divide it. Behave towards your God and towards your brethren in such a manner that the Spirit’s work will not be frustrated in earthy disunity.
And to make the appeal more eloquent, he recited the unities which exist in the purpose of God:
- There is One Body (4:4)
- and One Spirit (4:4)
- one hope of your calling (4:4)
- one Lord,
- one faith,
- one baptism (4:5),
- One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (4:6).
No one would doubt that there is One God and Father of all, nor that there is one Lord, nor that there is one Spirit. No one can question that, if we are baptised acceptable into the same Lord, there is but one baptism, and no one schooled in the scriptures would question that there is but one true faith, and one true goal which can be called the hope of our calling. And as to the One Body, the apostle affirms that there is one of these also: as we might reasonably expect from the fact that there is but one head, and there is none other name under heaven given among men wherein we may be saved.
But the nature of this body is a matter of dispute. There are those, such as the Roman Catholic church, which claim that the body must be a visible one, and that outside that church there is no salvation. It is true that this doctrine is somewhat modified Protestant lands allow for those who are catholics in “spirit”, but it remains the fact that the visible church, with a visible Papal head, is of the essence of catholic teaching. The same can be said of some other bodies, even some of the smaller sects. But the matter can only be settle by considering the other occasions when this “One Body” doctrine is used by Paul.
It is first used in Romans 12. As we have many members in our physical bodies, so has the Lord many members in His (12:4). The members differ in their functions, and have various earthly members, and have various gifts provided by their head (12:5ff). But it is not a purely automatic relationship, as our physical make up is. Exhortation is needed to hold the spiritual body together. The exhorter must be told to exhort (12:8), and the one who ministers to minister (12:7). The method whereby this harmonious exercise can be secured is also set out, and there appears in the prescription the word love: “Let love be without dissimulation” (12:9)
It is the same, though in much more detail, in the next use of the figure, in 1 Corinthians 12-14. For here it is very plain that the unity of the body is not automatic. Corinth is full of strife and competitions, as absurd in themselves as if the foot shall say, because I am not the hand, I am not of the body” (12:15). And amidst all the strife and disunities of Corinth there comes the fullest exposition of the sovereign doctrine that the body must be held together by love: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am nothing” (13:1). All the qualities, which in our epistle we are bidden to show, are here seen clearly to emerge from showing this spirit. For if “love seeketh not her own and envyeth not”, there can no disunity arise. We ought always to consider the famous chapter of love in this context. Love is not here introduced without a motive, but in the direct setting of the needs of the Corinthian church. Unity cannot be secured without it. If it is unfailingly taken as the guide, unity cannot fail to follow.
Our own chapter introduces the third example, and, here also, the means of keeping the One Body united is the same. It can be accomplished only by the constant manifestation of love: “Acting the truth in love the disciples grow up in all things unto him which is the head, even Christ” (4:15). But the situation could plainly be otherwise, if love were not shown. In what is perhaps the first hint of criticism that this letter contains, the work of the Lord’s ministers is said to be to ensure “that henceforth ye be no more children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” (4:14), but should become a united man in Christ. Disunity did, therefore, exist here. The evil work of them that held the doctrine of the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6) evidently had ground prepared for it even now. The Asian Christians were loyal but unstable, enthusiastic but unreliable, and in some respects they were still “children, tossed to and fro, and blown about”.
It is clear that the unity considered is not a physical unity, represented by a visible head, at all. The unity is known in the mind of God. There may exist cankers in the earthly body, but they do not exist in the bride of Christ. Schisms occurring upon the earth cause dishonour to the name of our Lord; they may cause to stumble those little ones who believe in the Lord (and so bring a heavy responsibility upon those who are responsible for them), and the power of the Gospel may be seriously weakened by the dividing of the forces which should be working in harmony: but “the Lord knoweth them that are His”, and whatever evils arise from the quarrellings and presumptions of disciples on the earth the Lord will steadily build up His own holy temple from among men. He will do this wherever He finds His word received and the spirit of repentance properly displayed in acceptable baptism, and He will not allow Himself to be moved from this because we, on our part, may insufficiently have endeavoured to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
The manner in which the Lord accomplished the education of the body is set out in this chapter in words of singular beauty and difficulty: “Unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, ‘When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men’. “ (4:7-8). In the Psalm itself (68:18) it would be possible to suppose that, in the ascension of the Lord, the tables were turned upon sin and death, which hath no more dominion over Him, and the Lord received power to compel tribute from all men, including those who would have rebelled. And the day of the Lord’s return will show this to be true. But the use of the passage in Ephesians seems to bring out the additional thought that the Lord Jesus “led captive a captivity”: that is, took a large number of prisoners with Him when He ascended to God. In this case it would be in beautiful harmony with the thought of “leading us in triumph in Christ’’, which Paul expresses elsewhere, where the saints appear in His figure as the captives who are made to follow the victors’ chariots in the Roman triumphal procession. It is true that we are willing victims of His triumph, and that we are Christ’s bondslaves only to become freer than we ever were before, but the Lord’s victory is none the less complete. It may be, too, that the victory of the Cross expressed in Colossians, “have spoiled principalities and powers we made a show of them openly” (Colossians 2:15), “triumphing over them in his cross”, is also intended. The powers, which had enslaved men, are themselves reduced to impotence by the might of His death.
As always, the Lord’s victory is wrought by His suffering. He descends into the lower parts of the earth before He ascends in triumph. He “descends unto hell, rises from the dead, and now sits at the right hand of the Father” (4:9). It is from this that there arises His power to give gifts, for “it is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not away the Holy Spirit will not come unto you” (John 16:7). And He provided abundantly for the needs of the earliest church. Apostles were there to lead and command, prophets to minister the divine revelations, evangelists to spread abroad the gospel, pastors to care for their needs and guide them in the paths of righteousness, and teachers to instruct both them and their young (4:11). All that they required was there to effect the transition from the unruly and disordered into the perfect, love-bound unity of the perfect man in Christ (4:12-16). All that is required is still there. The message of the apostles is with us now, and the abiding revelations of the older and newer prophets. Pastors and teachers and evangelists can find all the instruction, which they need to discharge their office in this fund of wisdom, and the same Lord over all can be asked to watch over them in their work, to prosper and extend it in His service.
The exhortation becomes gradually more penetrating. “Remember”, was all we were asked at first; “be humble” was added to this later; and now there follows: “walk no longer as the Gentiles walk” (4:17). Behind this there may lie all manner of fears that not all was well with those to whom Paul was writing, but he conceals his fears delicately by calling attention to the Gentiles’ evil deeds, the things which the Christians used to do before they were converted, and warning them to be an their guard against them (4:18-19). This would appear to establish that these saints were, as we thought possible before, in something the same position as Corinth, for these are openly wicked things which they are asked to avoid: lasciviousness, all uncleannesses with greediness”.
It can sometimes be wondered whether the lessons of these warnings are properly heeded. It has probably always been the case that the evils of the world have provoked some emulation of them inside the camp of the saints, and it must be that offences come. There is perhaps not a problem in the life of the world, its commerce, pleasure, and lust, which does not at some time find a partner in the body of the believers: and we are from time to time terribly reminded of the fact. It happened in the first century and it can happen now. Yet it would surely be greatly for our spiritual good if we could persuade ourselves in all our ways to walk a little further from the edge of the precipice. There is a temptation which assails the hearts of many men and women, if not to do the abominations which are done in the world, at least to read about them, or talk about them (with a protestation of shock and abhorrence, perhaps, which it might be possible to think of as insincere), or hear about them from the lips of others or on our radio, or see them on television, screen or stage. In all these things we may be able to protest our innocence to each other or our accuser, but it is surely difficult to feel innocent in the conscience in the presence of these defiling associations? A later verse tells us to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather even reprove them; for the things which are done by them in secret it is a shame even to speak of” (5:11-12). Those who talk lightly about there being “no harm” in certain indulgences, and “no commandment” against certain relaxations, might surely think again about them in the light of what we read here. It is not that we are here being told what we must and must not do: we are being advised as to what is good for us.
The old man was put off, formally, in baptism. He must be put off constantly in practice (4:22). We were reborn in baptism: the rebirth must bear its constant fruits in behaviour, “putting on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (4:24). The beginning in baptism was only the beginning: watchful vigilance to keep our garments, and keep them white, is needed throughout. We took up our Cross once, to be crucified with Christ in baptism. It is needful to keep our old man suppressed by “taking up our cross daily” also (Luke 9:23).
We can pass rapidly through the particular counsel given to this end. We are to “put away falsehood and speak truth, for we are members one of another” (4:25). This means, not merely that we are not to tell open lies, but lies of any shade, including white ones, are forbidden us. For the effect of all these is to deceive our neighbour, with whatever pretence they may be whited. And deceiving our neighbour is a thing we could never wish to do, if we remembered that our neighbour is a neighbouring member of the same body, doing the same work, serving the Lord, and working to the same end.
We may be angry, but not so as to sin (4:26), and this perhaps is a two-fold counsel. If we do lose our temper, let us quickly seek to have it restored again, and above all not let it burn through the night so that impulse becomes hate. And there are grounds for anger, which are legitimate and proper, as when the Lord showed anger against those who refused his words and preferred the ways of evil. But the guiding thought is to examine whether our anger is personal irritation, offended dignity, or jealousy, on the one hand; or whether it is zeal for the Lord, on the other. A good clue is to consider whether we are enraged at the person, or at the deed. If it is the former, our anger is almost certainly sinful, for judgement belongeth unto the Lord; if it is the latter, our wrath may be wholesome and good.
The counsel against theft is wonderful. To steal is wrong, of course, and the thief must rob no more (4:28). But he has a wonderful alternative. Why not let him signalise his reform by turning the tables. He could work with his own hands and earn money sufficient for his needs, and then give away what was over to those who might otherwise have been driven to theft. Could repentance be better exhibited?
On “corrupt communication” (4:29) we could expound indefinitely. There are communications, which are corrupt because of the message they bear: tale-telling, spreading of false rumours foolish jesting which is designed to excite our baser passions (see 5:4). There are words and phrases which knowingly take in vain the names of our God and saviour. There are corruptions of these names whose sound is innocent but whose blasphemy is merely concealed. And, there are needless exaggerations of truth which cast doubt on our sincerity. All are in their way corrupt communications, and all are unbecoming in a disciple. Against tale-bearing and evil rumour the law is strict - and “a whisperer separateth chief friends’ -; against vain oaths the Lord and James speak emphatically, our ‘Yes’ should mean ‘Yes’, and “Yes, I really mean it!” should be superfluous, to say nothing of more emphatic protestation (Matthew 5:33-37; James 5:12). The mark of an upright man in scripture is the word of his mouth, for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh”. The fundamental remedy for the problem of evil-speaking is, of course, the cleansing of our inward being, and any censorship of the lips is a poor substitute for the purification of the fountain (James 3:11). Nevertheless, to keep a watch upon our mouths is a good way of reminding us of the iniquity of our hearts, and he that bridleth the tongue is able also to control the whole body (James 3:2-11). The tongue will sooner or later give our hearts away if we are not pure in heart, and it is not by accident that the flawlessness of the Lord’s behaviour is expressed in the form: “He did not sin, neither was guile found in his mouth”. That is as near to outward proof of righteousness as one can get, for “If any offend not in word, the same is a perfect man”. Therefore, the commendation of the future blessed takes the form: “These were purchased from among men, to be the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no guile, for they are without fault before the throne of God.” (Revelation 1:4-5). Our best testimonial that we had truly followed the Lord Jesus would be that our “speech was always with grace, seasoned with salt”. For of Him it is written that they “wondered at the gracious words which He spake”. This is “that which is good to the use of edifying”, in this chapter (4:29).
“And grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, in which ye were sealed unto the day of redemption (4:30). This is the most compelling exhortation to righteousness. The Holy Spirit revealed God’s will through the prophets - and Israel rejected the prophets, though God rose up early and sent them. Was not this a grief to God? The Holy Spirit gave conception to Mary and wrought by her Son God’s mighty works. Yet Israel looked at the palpable fruits of the Spirit of God and in defence of its own way ascribed them to the devil. That was their unforgivable sin. To maintain their own stand they were prepared to blaspheme, would not repent. It can happen to Christians, too. It is possible to throw God’s kindness back in His face by complete and calculated indifference to His goodness, “doing despite unto the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:29). Those who have participated in the Holy Spirit’s gifts may fall away in such a manner as to crucify the Son of God and put Him to an open shame (Hebrews 6:3-6). A man may be so far gone in sin that he will not even seek for forgiveness for himself, and this is the sin unto death (1 John 5:16-17). But Paul is still not threatening. He is asking us in common gratitude not to repay the goodness of God by causing Him pain. Could He reasonably ask for less?