I’ve been preaching through Ephesians and stressing a movement in the letter between chapters 3 & 4. In the first three chapters Paul dwells on the believers understanding of God. He describes God. He describes God’s vision for the church. He reminds the disciples what God, through Christ, has done for them.
In chapter 4 the letter transitions to discussing more practical issues for the church to implement. In the first part of the chapter the emphasis is on unity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. But unity doesn’t mean uniformity and the chapter moves to describing differences among members of the body.
Verse 11 contains a list of apparent roles or positions within the church:
- Pastors; and
We need to clearly grasp that this verse doesn’t describe a career path. Too often I feel there’s an expectation that people work their way up this ladder and that becoming an elder or deacon is a perk of congregational longevity. Rather, Paul here outlines the functions the early church needed to become mature. The gifts and roles listed here are not comprehensive and all served a function in equipping the church and promoting unity and peace.
Apostles were witnesses to the resurrection: since the resurrection is the foundation of the church, the testimony of those who had seen the risen Jesus was the first Christian preaching. Early Christian prophets spoke in the name of the Lord, guiding and directing the church especially in the time before the New Testament was written. Evangelists announced to the surprised world that the crucified Jesus was risen from the dead, and was both Israel’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. Pastors looked after the young churches ; teachers developed and trained the understanding of the first churches.
N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (2004, p49)
The images of unity in Ephesians 4 explain why at Lawson Rd we make a big deal when people place membership in the local congregation. It’s exciting when people respond to the calling of Christ in baptism and a commitment to live for God, but Scripture consistently describes new converts participating in local congregations committed to each other. It’s possible that God’s given someone the gift of teaching described here, but when people don’t commit to the other Christians they worship with, they leave uncertainty about their commitment to unity.
Or on the other side, placing membership in a local church lets the elders, deacons, pastors and teachers know the person wants to be equipped by them. It’s difficult to challenge people to grow in Godly maturity when the leaders don’t know clearly who they’re leading. In 1 Peter 5:2 elders are told, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…” Who is the flock under their care? It’s not defined, but membership is way of knowing whether a person is under the care of Lawson Rd elders, or leaders at another local congregation.
While there’s nothing specific in this passage distinguishing between the local church and the universal church, we need to remember that this letter is written to a local congregation, so the teaching it contains is to be applied in that context unless otherwise noted. The call for unity applies to the Ephesian church and the various tensions they experience to divide. The spiritual gifts and leadership roles listed here apply to the local church. Life as a Christian is not about having the right birth certificate, being baptised in the right way, at the right place or by the right person. It’s about living as healthy part of the body of Christ.
While some church leaders (such as Paul) traveled from congregation to congregation, in general, the leaders at one congregation did not have responsibility for the Godly growth of another congregation. Their task of equipping God’s people for works of service relates to those who are part of that church family.
My last blog post asked, “Who benefits from your faith?” or “Who were you saved for?” This week the text builds on that thought. God has gifted you for the work of equipping others so that the unified body of Christ may be built up. Are you exercising your gifts and talents for the benefit of others?
As a church leader, I find myself often bogged down in a lot of tasks and details that seem distinctly un-spiritual. Surely I have a higher calling than comparing this year’s energy bill to last year’s bill and discussing who’s the best church member to manage the church’s thermostat.
Don’t get me wrong. Thermostat management is an important function to church growth. If members/guests are habitually too hot or cold their motivation to continue attending will no doubt diminish. But is that really the responsibility of church leaders? In a small church the answer may well be “Yes”, but it’s never our primary responsibility.
In Colossians 1:9-14 Paul provides a tremendous example of how church leaders should care for God’s flock. I find his prayer personally inspiring. (However, I also find that he uses a lot of run on thoughts and doesn’t take many breaths, so I outlined these verses) He doesn’t beat around the bush. He focuses on the Big Picture describing his vision of how the Gospel impacts people’s lives.
I love the heart behind Paul’s prayer for these young Christians. His primary concern is that the Spirit fill them with the knowledge of God’s will. But this is not his final goal. The reason for the knowing God’s will is so they can 1. Live a life worthy of the Lord, and 2. Please him in every way.
As a church member I would be thrilled to know that this was the primary concern of my church leaders. I would be enormously encouraged to know that they were regularly praying for my spiritual growth, not just in conforming my behaviour, but in my real relationship with God and knowledge of His will. I long to live a life worthy of the Lord and to please Him in every way, but it’s an ongoing struggle. While I assume my church leadership share these goals for me, it’s comforting to hear Paul, and my leaders, express it.
As a church leader I know that far too often I have prayed, both in leadership meetings and privately, that someone might attend worship services more regularly or for deliverance from a particular crisis a member is experiencing, rather than for the spiritual maturing of the church. It’s much easier to be reactive, than proactive. To be fair, most members are a lot more forthcoming about a co-worker’s mother’s kidney disease, than the total absence of their own prayer discipline, or their struggle with anger. This lack of transparency within most churches increases the challenges elders and other leaders face as we care for the souls in our care.
I expect that church leaders who regularly pray for “the Spirit to fill their church members with the knowledge of God’s will” would also discuss different issues in their meetings. They would be more likely to consider ways God could use them to increase the church’s knowledge of God. They would discuss the growth of members, not just the struggles. They would spend more time discussing how they could encourage members to “live lives worthy of the Lord“. Thermostats might never be mentioned.
Have you known church leaders that you regard as particularly “spiritual”?
- How did they express their spirituality?
- How did they communicate their concern for your soul?
- How did this person impact your faith?
Read Colossians 1:9-14 again.
- Can you imagine Paul chairing a church business meeting or elders’ meeting?
- How do you think Paul’s meeting would run?
NOTE: I have been a member/minister at 7 churches since my baptism. This post reflects my collective church experience in addition to other resources I have encountered. I believe the vast majority of churches struggle to integrate the Spiritual and Physical needs of the congregation and to be more Proactive than Reactive. As do most individuals. I think that’s why I find the clarity and focus of Paul’s prayer so striking.
Neither do I recall having any particular conversations about thermostats, but used that simply as an example of the type of issues that can demand attention at times.
I must confess that I found this week’s sermon preparation academically exciting. I only hope the church members also experienced some spiritual excitement from the message.
I was fascinated by the similarities in the praise of Zechariah (Lk 1:67-79) and the angels (2:10-14) which I’ll lay out below.
Zechariah: [God] has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David… to rescue us from the hand of our enemies… (1:69, 74b)
Angel: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you. (2:11)
While Zechariah clearly anticipates an earthly Davidic king and rescue from the oppression of the Romans, the angel doesn’t shy away from that expectation. In fact, the angel emphasises Jesus’ Davidic heritage by referring to the “town of David”, rather than to Bethlehem.
However, we sell Zechariah short if we think his understanding of God’s salvation was limited to political deliverance. Zechariah understood the connection between political peace for God’s people and their holiness. He knew from studying the prophets that Israel had lost its freedom because of their sinful neglect of their covenant with God. That’s why in v77 he summarises John’s mission as being to give his people the knowledge of salvation throug the forgiveness of theirs sins. Which is certainly consistent with the Christian understanding of Jesus as Saviour.
Zechariah: the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death. (1:78b-79b)
Angel: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. (2:10)
Zechariah and the angel both see God working through Jesus to replace fear and darkness with joy and peace. While the reference to Jesus as “the rising sun” is unusual, the imagery of Jesus bringing light to a dark world is frequently used in the NT. Eg. John 1:4-5
Paul uses similar language in an interesting way in Ephesians 5:8b-10 where he calls upon Christians to “Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.” Not only is Jesus the “rising sun”, but Christians are “children of light”. And while Jesus bring joy and peace, Christians are to reflect our Saviour by first “finding out what pleases the Lord” and then living it.
Zechariah: …to guide our feet into the path of peace. (1:79c)
Angels: …on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (2:14b)
Both Zechariah and the angels expected the Messiah to bring peace, but the both regard the peace as conditional. Zechariah has already connected it with the forgiveness of sins, and here implies that while Jesus guides our feet, we still have to walk down the path. Jesus isn’t dragging anyone down the path of peace.
Likewise, while the angels declared “joy to the world”, the peace is limited to those “on whom his favor rests”. Without going into a lengthy explanation, I understand that phrase to reference those who accept Jesus as Saviour, Messiah, and Lord. They are the ones who receive God’s favour. Jesus comes for all, but not everyone benefits from his coming!
So maybe you’re not jumping out of your skin with excitement right now, but I find the comparison fascinating. We find Luke repeating the same message, but quoting different people saying the same thing in different ways.
FINALLY: An interesting point about 2:11 is that this is the only place in Scripture that all three of these titles for Jesus are used together: Saviour, Messiah (Christ), and Lord. Also, if you’re looking for some indication in look about the deity of Christ… there’s that whole Son of God thing in 1:35 & 3:37, but additionally, in 1:46-47 Mary refers to God as her Lord and Saviour, titles that the angels also bestow upon Jesus in 2:11!
I know I didn’t really discuss the nature of the promised peace, so maybe you can help me out?
- Do you think the angels are only speaking of spiritual peace / forgiveness of sins? or are they speaking more broadly than that?
- How have you experienced God’s peace in your life?
- Should Christians expect peaceful families, or peaceful societies?
- Surely churches should at least be peaceful places? If so, then doesn’t that mean Christians carry a peace that goes beyond spiritual reconciliation?
Since this is my last post before Christmas, let me wish everyone a very HAPPY CHRISTMAS!!
I’m beginning a new sermon series on the Gospel of Luke. Since most movies and story books tend to tell a unified story of Christ’s birth, I thought I’d use this post to highlight how each Gospel tells the story in different ways, highlighting different events.
- Doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus at all. The book begins with the ministry of John the Baptizer, then the baptism, temptation, and ministry of Jesus.
- In his first 18 verses John presents the deity and incarnation of Jesus. He makes it very clear that Jesus was divinely present at creation, but “became flesh and lived among us“. But John never mentions Bethlehem, or gives details of Jesus birth.
- Begins with a genealogy linking Jesus with David and Abraham.
- We’re simply told that “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.“
- An angel appears to Joseph, reassuring him of Mary’s fidelity.
- The birth of Jesus is never described. Chapter 2 begins after the birth of Jesus with the visit of the Magi.
- Only Matthew tells of Jesus’ flight to Egypt and Herod’s execution of Bethlehem’s baby boys.
- Begins with the promise of a son to Zechariah & Elizabeth.
- An angel visits Mary predicting she would bear a miraculous son, even though she’s a virgin.
- Mary’s song.
- Birth of John the Baptizer.
- Zechariah’s song.
- Joseph & Mary travel to Bethlehem where Jesus is born.
- Singing angels appear to shepherds and announce the birth of a Saviour, a Messiah.
- 8 days after his birth Jesus is presented at the temple where Simeon and Anna prophesy over him.
- Luke tells the only account of Jesus childhood when in 2:41-51 he describes Jesus’ visit to the temple at Passover when he was 12 years old.
I appreciate the efforts people make to consolidate these four accounts into one story. I think that having one story makes it simpler to remember all the facts. But generally, I’m cautious of efforts to harmonise the Gospels.
It seems to me that when we attempt to consolidate the Gospel stories we’re saying that the four writers made mistakes, or overlooked information. While harmonisation may simplify the story, we do ourselves a disservice as Bible students in the process.
- Did Luke really not know that Jesus’ family spent time in Egypt?
- Was Matthew completely unaware of the angels singing to the shepherds?
- Did Mark not know how or where Jesus was born?
- Did John forget important arguments to support his statement that “The Word became flesh.”?
Each of the Gospel writers told the story differently because they were writing to different audiences with slightly different emphases. While Matthew highlights fulfilled prophesy, Luke fills the pages with people rejoicing at the birth of a Saviour. The two Gospels present two perspectives of the same event and we can dwell on each perspective and benefit from it. We lose something important when we merge the separate accounts into one generic story.
- Have you considered the role each of the Gospels have in telling of Jesus birth?
- Do you have a favorite one? As I said in my sermon, I relate to John who gets straight to the point and doesn’t require me to interpret his story.
- Since only two Gospels describe the birth of Christ, does this mean it’s unimportant? Where does his birth rank in importance compared to other events in Jesus’ life?