Each year the President of the United States stands before Congress to deliver his State of the Union Address. From one year to the next, what is said is often not very memorable. It is often an opportunity to review accomplishments of the past and sketch out what the President hopes to accomplish the coming year. It is important to review the year past and plan for the year to come. That is what well do this morning, but we will do it not by me highlighting what I think is important, but through the lens of Gods Word. Our passage this morning is Ephesians 4:7-13 and gives us a wonderful glimpse as to what the church is all about.
As weve examined Pauls letter to the church in Ephesus we seen how he stresses the organic unity of the Church. The work of the triune God unites different people into one body. What results is an invisible unity, a unity which we may not always like, but a unity none the less. The body of Christ, although diverse due to differing cultures, differing expressions, differing theology, is nevertheless one. How we will experience this unity is the at the core of our passage this morning. Though united by the triune God, we, who are many, are not only one by Gods grace in salvation, we will ultimately realize this unity as God brings us to full maturity. How does He do this? By giving gracious gifts to His church. We are united by Gods grace.
Gods grace gives gifts
Paul begins moving from the repetitious "one", from unity, to diversity as he says: "but to each one of us..." Grace not only unites all Gods elect people as one; grace then is given to each one individually. Too often "grace" is nothing more than a by-word for salvation. It is too easy for us to think no further than just grace as the means by which I am made new, obtain heaven, am accepted by God. But while all that may be true, it never goes far enough.
This much fuller understanding of grace was hinted at in 2:8-10. The grace which saves us from an eternal death, the grace which is a gift from God, which is received by faith, is a grace that also makes us Gods workmanship. The God who molds us as trophies of grace, also forms us to live in light of that grace, to do good works. If, for you, being a Christian is only about heaven, youve missed what eternal life is all about. This is grace for living today. There is grace that is given now.
By way of emphasis Paul makes it clear that grace is given to each and every one of us. If we are His, if the Father has chosen us, the Son died to redeem us, the Spirit seals us, then there is grace poured out on you.
Notice the extent of that grace "it is given as Christ apportioned it." This is better translated as "to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift." In proportion to Christs gift, God measures out the grace we need.
What is the extent of Gods grace to you in Christ? How far did God go in making you His own? The extent of the Cross, to the point of death, that is how far God goes in equipping you to live today. You are not only forgiven of sin, clothed with Christs righteousness, but also are equipped to honor Him with your life today. But as it is always with grace, the rule used to determine how much grace you will receive is not your own merit, nor your promise for a bright future, not even how much you ask, but on the basis of Christ and Christ alone. He is the measuring rod, the ruler for our grace.
In order to explain how this grace flows from the Father, through the Son to us, Paul quotes from Psalm 68:18. As is often the case when we read a citation from the Old Testament we scratch our heads and wonder why this passage was used.
Psalm 68 is a picture of Gods triumph over His enemies through the conquest of Egypt up to Davids success in bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. But those events are just a faint picture of the greater victory achieved by God through Christ. The picture here is that of a triumphal entry by a conquering King. The vanquished are lead in tow; the spoils of war are divided. But what should stand out is the reversal which takes place. Paul, either emending the Psalm or quoting from another version, says: "he gave gifts to men" instead of "received gifts from men." This is a powerful picture of how merciful our God is. What is expected is that those conquered foes would be sold as slaves, would be killed in sport or religious sacrifice, are the spoils of war. But this conqueror gifts the conquered.
Paul then goes on to explain what this passage means. With a firm Cross-centered view of history, Paul unfolds the meaning of the ascent and descent. This is one of those notorious passages of Scripture that we make a can of worms when we refuse to let the text speak for itself.
Through Church history, many have over-analyzed the descent into the lowly earthly regions as Christ's descent into Hell. This is the verse often cited as the support for the Apostles Creed when we confess that Christ descended into Hell along with the obscure passage of 1 Peter 3:19 about Christ preaching to the spirits in prison who disobeyed at the time of the flood. Such an understanding has more in line with Greek mythology than Scripture. What we profess in the Creed is not Christs physical descent into hell itself, but His suffering the torments of hell while on the Cross which were completed before He died and pronounced that it was finished while still on the Cross.
What Paul is saying here is what he said in Philippians 2:6ff when he described the humiliation of Christ in the Incarnation. In order for God to pour out His grace on us in the form of gifts given to each one of us, first victory had to be assured. Before a triumphal entry into heaven, there first must be a conquest of the enemy. That conquest is the humiliation of Christ in His taking on human form, in suffering the agony and torment of temptation, of the pain of the Cross. Before He ascended to the right hand of the Father, He first descended to take on our sin.
What does this mean for you and me?
First, Gods grace to us flows from Christs sacrifice for us. The context of grace is the Cross. If you are in Christ, then you have already received grace; it has been given because Christs victory is already assured. Now that you are so gifted by God, remember how it was you were given so much. The humiliation of Christ in the Incarnation means that you and I serve in humility, too.
What Paul is showing us is that even in our Lords life and ministry the way "up" was "down." Christ descended in order to ascend. So, too, as our Lord taught His disciples, the way to greatness is through service. If we are to employ spiritual gifts in a way that is consistent with the way our Lord obtained them for us we must humble ourselves as He humbled Himself.
The good news here is that Cornerstone has not been orphaned by her Founder to try as we might to grow and mature. We dont have to resort to techniques of self promotion, of domination of weaker churches, of adopting an inflated view of ourselves to make it through tough times. Rather, Gods grace is present already to make us what we are to be.
Second, serving is what it means to belong to the body of Christ.
As grace has been given to each one and that grace came about through the work of Christs death, burial, resurrection and ascension, serving is not an option. To refuse to serve, to reject the gracious gift, is to refuse to belong. When in the human body one portion rejects its role, when the foot refuses to walk, when the hand goes limp, when gangrene sets in, amputation is often the only course to take. Service is not an option.
What is more, as Christ has so equipped each of us to serve the body of Christ, we must conclude that not one of us is so equipped that we, without the assistance of others, can supply what we need. There is a symbiotic necessity to the Church. We can not function without each other. God has gifted each of us, but none of us are so gifted as to not need the other. We each are given a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. It is not complete until each piece is in its place.
As I look at our church, I am pleased that we have the emphasis on grace that we do. But grace, when properly taught, will lead to service, will produce action. I see this happening here as people roll up their sleeves and serve.
We have numerous people teaching, caring for each others children, reaching out. There are those who are encouragers, who know how to show mercy. This must continue and grow. As our numbers have grown over this past year, we now have more people so gifted to serve and more people to serve. Never allow numerical growth to mean you can remain a detached observer. Gods grace has hands and feet. If you are not plugged into some form of serving others, let this be your opportunity.
Gods grace gives different gifts
While weve received gifts by Gods grace, we all dont get the same thing. Unlike that Christmas when you were eight and your grandmother knitted everyone the same sweater, only in differing sizes, Gods gifts vary among them. While Gods ultimate goal is unity, He achieves that not by forcing us into the same mold, but by showering us with a variety of gifts. The list in verse 11 focuses on some specific gifts. Other lists can be found in Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12 and 1 Peter 4. These gifts can be set into two categories.
Apostles: While the word means "sent one" the use of this in the New Testament specifies one who was immediately appointed by Christ, who witnessed Him after the Resurrection and was rendered infallible by the gift of inspiration. This is a person of unique authority, who governed the early Church, by nature of Christs direct commission.
Prophets: This gift was to speak with Gods authority, communicating the Word of God to the Church that didn't have the post-resurrection canon. The prophets of the New Testament appear to be subordinate in authority to the Apostles, in that their inspiration was occasional. The nature of their office is fully taught in 1 Corinthians 14:140. On occasion they might foretell the future, as in Acts 11:28 and 21:9,11, but like the Old Testament prophets their great work was to 'forth-tell the word of God. This might be in bringing to light with convicting power people's sins or in bringing new strength to the Church by the word of exhortation.
Where are the apostles and prophets today? Here in the foundation laid for us: Gods Word.
Paul previously described the work of the apostles and prophets in 2:20 as the ones who laid the foundation for the Church. We understand such gifts and offices to have ceased since the foundation is already established. We dont pour concrete footers after the framing is in place when building a house, nor do we set aside the important work of the apostles and prophets today.
Evangelist: With the foundation laid, now we come to those who build on that foundation. The term evangelist is unfortunately tainted by the prefix "tele-" but this gift was given so that new churches would begin, so people who do not know Christ would hear the Gospel, and by Gods grace, respond in faith. These are our modern day missionaries, church planters, who serve the body of Christ by drawing those outside the Church into the body. We are not given a lot of details about this gift beyond this passage. We are told that Philip, in Acts 21, was an evangelist and whose four daughters were prophets. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5 to do the work of an evangelist.
Pastor-teacher: If the evangelist is the obstetrician, then the pastor is the pediatrician. This is perhaps the most familiar title to us today, but unfortunately it is not well understood. Pauls listing of these specific gifts should be read as four, not five gifts. Pastor and teacher should be joined as a dual description of the same gift.
The grammar joins them as each gift is introduced by an article followed by its noun, but here the article precedes that of pastor which is then joined to the next word without the article by a conjunction. In Greek, this joins the two words into a hyphenated term. This gift is that of a teaching shepherd. Indeed it would be hard to see one without the other.
The duties of the pastor (which literally means 'shepherd') are to feed the flock with spiritual food and to see that they are protected from spiritual danger. Our Lord used the word in John 10:11 to describe His own work, and He continues to be the chief pastor (Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:4) under whom others are called to 'tend the flock of God.'
The title pastor is used in conjunction with elder and overseer or bishop. In the passage I just read in 1 Peter 5, the elders are told to be shepherds of Gods flock. Paul told the elders in Ephesus this same thing when he saw them for the last time. In Acts 20:28, the elders are called pastors and bishops, that is, shepherds and overseers. This tender, caring, nurturing title suggests a touch here, a kind word there, a gentle prod at the right time. Yet it also suggests resolute strength and protection of the flock. A pastor/teacher is to make feeding the sheep a top priority, as Christ three times charged Peter to do (John 21:15-17).
Gods grace gives different gifts toward one goal
Why does God give this variety of gifts to the Church? What is the goal? The immediate goal is given in verse 12. The goal of Gods gracious gifts is so that Gods people will be prepared.
Just as we saw in verses 7-10, Gods gifts are given with a view toward serving others and not an end in themselves. These specific gifts mentioned are to prepare others. It is from this word "prepare" that we get the English word "artist," someone who works with his hands creating something. This word is used in Matthew 4 of James and John who were mending their nets. Elsewhere in Greek, it was used of setting broken bones, of reconciling shattered relationships. The word means to help make functional, to get something ready for service. The job of pastor-teacher is essentially that of mending the saints, getting them ready.
How does this preparation take place?
The list in verse 11 is not exhaustive, but answers the question of how unity among a diverse people is realized. There are other, very important gifts, but the focus here is that of teaching. The means by which the people of God are prepared, how believers are mended and set to work is through the evangelist, the pastor-teacher applying the truths laid down by the apostles and prophets.
That is not the end, though. Preparation must produce. Yet here the Church has often derailed. A distorted view of Gods gifts has poisoned what the Church is all about. For some time the Church read these verses with a comma in verse 12 which made a list for what the pastor was to do. It mistakenly read that that pastor-teacher was to prepare Gods people and also do the work of service.
The effect of this simple grammatical mistake was to view that ministry, that is, serving, was left up to professionals while everyone else came as spectators who listened and left. The pastor was to teach, encourage, maintain the focus on Christ as well as making sure everyones needs, both physical and spiritual, were being meet. Christianity became a spectator sport, like football - eleven men down on the field, desperately in need of rest, and 50,000 people up in the stands desperately in need of exercise.
But as the NIV correctly translates this verse, the pastor is to prepare Gods people so that Gods people do the works of service. The service here can also be translated with that very professional sounding word, "ministry." The ministry of the Church is accomplished by the prepared people of God.
This is a watershed text for the doctrine of the Church. It effectively eliminates the traditional model of the local church as a "pyramid, with the pastor perched precariously on its pinnacle, like a little pope in his own church, while the laity are arrayed beneath him in serried ranks of inferiority." It also shoots down the model of a "bus, in which the pastor does all the driving while the congregation are the passengers slumbering in peaceful security behind him." (Stott, Gods New Society, pg 166-167) An example of this outlook is seen in the 1906 Papal Encyclical Vehmenter Nos: 'As for the masses, they have no other right than of letting themselves be led, and of following their pastors as a docile flock." (Stott, One People, 9).What is the state of Cornerstone? We have seen tremendous numerical growth over the past few years. From 1995 through 1998 we grew 10% each year. This past year, we grew 30%. Each year offerings have exceeded our expenses. This past year income exceeded expenses by 40% putting us in a good position to buy land and build.
But with growth comes pains of people not being well welcomed, integrated, given opportunities to serve. We must be more intentional in how we respond to visitors, making extra efforts to get to know not just a small group of people, but reaching out to others.
With increased giving comes increased responsibilities to manage those monies responsibly. We are well past subsistence budgeting, so now we must look for ways to honor God with the gifts given to this body.One way weve looked beyond these four walls is through our dedication to missions. This year we saw several people leave our ranks to serve God in various places: Jenny in Wales, Jamie in Senegal, Katy and John in Japan. We look forward to Nicole going to Papua-New Guinea and a team from our church going to serve in Mexico. While serving God throughout the world is important we can not neglect serving God here. It can be easy to sacrifice by proxy, to give of our money, but not our time, our talents, our reputations among our own friends, family and neighbors. We must not allow outreach to distant lands replace outreach to our own communities. People have willingly stepped up to the plate to serve in various ways as weve increased our Sunday School options, added to our music, volunteered with office help, as well in the behind the scenes encouragement through a casserole and listening to a friend. We are at a crossroads. We can chose to coast, which can only mean going backward, or we can look to Christ for the grace to move ahead. We need to commit ourselves to prayer that God would pour out His grace on us to continue to serve, that none of us would try to do everything, but that each of us would do something. At the conclusion of our worship, during our congregational meeting, we will be receiving nominations for elders and deacons. These positions are not crowns of achievement, accolades given to those we think honor should be given to, but a specific opportunity to serve. But there are other ways to give build up the body of Christ. Join with me in asking God to continue to use us for His glory.