The Gospel & The Church
Nick Esch, 11/5/2017 Cornerstone Baptist Church
What would you say is central to your life? What’s the central purpose of your life? If someone were to observe your life, what would they say you are focusing on, what would seem truly important to you, what would they see that you’re committed to? No doubt, there would probably be many answers to that question, and many, if not most of those answers would probably be good things; things like your family, your career, your health, or your walk with Christ… Or maybe not… Think about that for a moment; what would they see if they observed your life?
What if we could observe God and see what’s central to Him; what would we see? Well, in Ephesians 3 God actually tells us what His grand purpose is, what His central focus is in this world. And that should have a massive impact on what the central purpose of each of our lives is. I mean if something is of central focus to God, if something is God’s grand purpose in the world then shouldn’t we pay close attention to such things? Shouldn’t we pay attention to what God thinks is important, and as Christians shouldn’t those things play an important role, play a central role in our own lives as well? The answer is yes… But what is it that is so central to God’s purposes?
In Ephesians 3:8-11 Paul says that God made him a minister of the gospel to the Gentiles, “to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Now, did you catch the weight of what I just read? Paul just told us that, “God’s chief design in the universe is the public display of his manifold wisdom in and through local churches” (John Folmar). He said that this is all a part of God’s eternal purpose that is being realized and coming to pass in and through Jesus. God’s Word is telling us that the church is central to God’s plans and purposes in this world; that all of creation itself exists, in one way or another, so that the church might display God’s wisdom, God’s nature and character to all of creation…
The world and even many people who claim to be Christians act as though the church is completely irrelevant; but at the heart of God’s plan, of God’s eternal purpose is the church. If this is all a part of God’s chief design in the universe, if this is at the heart of why God created all things, then our gathering for worship on Sunday, and being a member of a local church has more significance than we can possibly understand. Now when I asked you to identify what is at the center of your life, was the church on your list? If the church is so central to God‘s plans and purpose, shouldn’t the church be central to our plans as well? Friends, if the church is central to God’s purpose, it must be central to our lives. How can we take lightly what God takes so seriously? As John Stott once said, “How dare we push to the perimeter what God has placed at the center?”
The church is central to God and therefore it should be central to Christians as well. It’s the church that God has called out of darkness into His marvelous light to magnify His glory in the world. As Paul says in Ephesians 3:21, “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” But what does that look like? What does it look like for the church to be central in our lives, and what does it look like for the church to magnify the glory of God in the world? Well, Lord willing, that’s what God’s Word is going to teach us today; so look with me at Ephesians 4:1-16.
Our passage begins with Paul telling the Ephesian church, and every church along with them to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. Paul referenced this idea of calling in 1:18, where he talked about the hope to which Christians have been called, and he mentions this same thing again in 4:4, when he mentions the one hope that belongs to our call. And the hope of Christians is not in this world, but in the gospel and Jesus alone. And that’s what Paul is getting at when he’s calling us to walk in a manner worthy of our calling; we’re to walk in a manner worthy of the calling of the gospel. Paul is essentially saying the same thing he did in Philippians 1:27, where he said, “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ…”
But before laying this out he reminds the Ephesians that he is a prisoner of the Lord. He brings this up to remind them of how he is walking, or living in a manner worthy of the gospel. He’s given up his freedom for the gospel. He’s suffering in prison for the cause of the gospel, so that all types of people from all around would come to know and love Jesus. So in bringing this up Paul is saying at least two things: 1) the manner of life that is worthy of the gospel is a life that is marked by sacrificial obedience… and 2) this sacrificial obedience should display Christ as our greatest treasure; that’s what makes it worthy of the gospel call. So Paul brings up his imprisonment to point us to what the life lived for the gospel looks like, and to tell us that Jesus is worth it. And that’s really how we magnify the glory of God; we show that Jesus is worthy to be praised, that He is better than anything we could gain or lose in this life.
From here he gets more detailed, saying in verse 2 that we are to do this with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love… Humility and sacrificial obedience go hand in hand, because humility is like an emptying of oneself. In the Roman world humility was looked down upon; it was seen as something that was typical of a slave, not your average citizen. So this call to humility would have been controversial, to say the least. And really today the call to humility is still controversial. The culture around us tells us to love ourselves above all else, to be true to ourselves, to follow our hearts, to keep ourselves as number one in our lives. But that’s virtually the opposite of humility. Now, don’t get me wrong, humility isn’t looking down on yourself or something… As C. S. Lewis once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” At the heart of humility is a willingness to die to oneself, to forgo your own rights for the benefit of others. And we would do well to keep that in mind; in our day of social media and the like, there are people who claim to be Christians constantly ranting about their rights. But beloved, humility is a central mark of a Christian and humility leads to a forgoing, to an abandoning of our rights for the benefit of others. And if that’s what humility looks like, then it makes sense that along with this Paul says the church is called to gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love. All of these are sacrificial qualities that demand we die to ourselves, and the love that we are called to here is especially, because it’s a gospel-love, a love that was modeled for us by Jesus on the cross.
In fact all of this was modeled perfectly by Jesus. Jesus emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. And on that cross He loved us and gave Himself for us. He was gentle and patient as He bore with His persecutors in love, even asking God to forgive them as they led Him to His death. He was humble and loving as He suffered for us in love; that’s why He’s spoken of as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53. He suffered for us, He poured Himself out in love, He abandoned His rights in complete commitment to our good and God’s glory. And that’s really what love is here: it’s a sacrificial commitment to the good of others.
In great love and total commitment to our good, Jesus, God the Son, God in the flesh poured Himself out to the death on the cross. That’s the good news of the gospel—that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That’s more than good news, that’s great news. And it’s that great news and our great God and Savior that makes us humble. You see, humility is a reflex to seeing and pursuing something great. Only God can make us humble. But if our eyes are open to the amazing grace of God in the gospel, to His great glory and great mercy in Christ, then how can we not be humble? Friends, if you are struggling with pride, get your eyes on Jesus.
Jesus shows us what humility looks like, but He also shows us what the greatness of God looks like. In Christ we are shown how to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, but that’s not all; He also shows us how to maintain unity, a unity that He purchased for us on the cross. In verse 3 we see that we don’t create unity, we just maintain it. Unity in the church is created by Christ and the Spirit of Christ; and we seek to maintain it as we follow the example of Christ, being humble, gentle, patient, and bearing with one another in love.
In verses 4-6 Paul summarizes our unity in the gospel by saying, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Here we see that the unity for which Christ died to obtain is a unity in the gospel (our one hope); indeed it is the gospel that is the body of faith that brings us together into one body through one baptism under the Triune God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all together here; for it was all three Persons of the Trinity that were at work in and through the gospel to save us from our sin and to save us into the body of Christ, the Church. Through the gospel we are brought into the family of God, to live as sons and daughters of the King, displaying His glory and majesty through our love and unity together in the church.
This is gospel unity, not uniformity; it’s unity even among great diversity: diversity among age and ethnicity, diversity that goes throughout all nations and generations. This is a unity that is impossible to achieve on our own and impossible to maintain on our own; but that’s why Paul says what he says next. In verse 7 he says, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” The grace he’s speaking of here is not the grace of salvation, but gifts or abilities. God in His grace gifts each one of His people with spiritual gifts to serve the body, to maintain unity, to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. We don’t come up with these on our own, but they come to us according to the measure of Christ’s gift, according to His generosity in the gospel; and let’s not forget how great His generosity is—He gave all: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
That’s what Paul is getting at in verses 8-10. “Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)” He’s quoting Psalm 68, a song speaking of God’s march of victory to His throne, and He’s tying it to Jesus. Just as a victorious king marches home from victory with a host of captives and the spoils of war that he gifts to his people; so too Jesus descended, coming down from glory and coming into the warzone, into this sinful broken world, and He fought the battle against sin, Satan, and death, and He won; and after defeating His enemies through His perfect life, sacrificial death, and death defying resurrection, He ascended back into heaven with a host of captives. He came across enemy lines and won the battle and turned many from the rebel army into sons of the King. And just as a good king gives gifts to his people, so too does Jesus give good gifts to His people; He fills His people with His Spirit who gives to each a gift of grace, a spiritual gift.
In the person and work of Jesus God triumphs over His enemies—even sinners like you and me—but in His grace, He transforms sinners like you and me into His beloved children. For all who will turn from their sin and trust in Him will be saved, will be transformed, will be brought into the family of God. Have you done that? Friend if you aren’t a Christian understand that you are a rebel against God, and you will answer for your rebellion against Him; but all of that could change today if you will repent and believe, so I invite you to do that. Trust in Jesus and be saved… Your sin is no match for God’s grace; He can save even the most wretched of sinners; and when He saves, regardless of who He saves, He gives gifts to all of His children enabling us all to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, to maintain unity in the body, to magnify His glory in the world… Do you realize that? If you are a Christian you have been especially gifted by God to live and to serve for His glory and the good of His people.
Every member of the body of Christ is given gifts of grace, and every member of the body is a gift of grace to the rest of the body. In verses 11 and 12 we’re told that, “he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Paul isn’t trying to give us an exhaustive list of the leaders or gifts here; he’s simply telling us that the saints, the church, the body have been given by God the gifts of leaders, and each of those leaders has a gift of grace to serve the body with.
Though we don’t have time to go into what each of these gifts are in detail, what we can see just by doing a brief overview is that each of the gifts listed here are gifts associated with the Word of God. The apostles were dedicated to the ministry of the Word, and even wrote much of the New Testament. The prophets declared and applied the Word of God to the people of God, and wrote much of the Old Testament. Evangelists proclaim the Word, specifically the gospel, calling people to repent and believe the Word made flesh. And then the last two, which actually seem to be referring to one originally, the teachers who are shepherds, or your translation may say pastors, and that’s what it seems to be referring to, to the pastors who teach. Pastors love, led, serve, protect, and minister to God’s people by graciously teaching God’s Word… What this list has in common is that all of these leaders are gifted in articulating the gospel, in preaching and teaching God’s Word, and ministering to God’s people. And the purpose for these leaders serving in this way, in a gospel Word focused way, is so that they equip the church to exercise her gifts and to live and serve for God’s glory and the good of His people—to do the work of ministry, building up the body of Christ. Just as the leaders have gifts, so too do the rest of the members of the church; and just as the leaders are a gift, so too are the rest of the members a gift to the church…
Now understand this: Christ died to save a people—He loved the church and gave Himself up for her—and here God’s people are referred to as saints—those who have been made holy in Christ, who have been called out of the world and into the body of Christ. And that body language is important; it points to our connection to Christ and to our connection to one another. The church as a whole is united to Christ in such a way that He is in us and we are in Him. Today is the day of prayer for the persecuted church, which reminds me of what Jesus told Saul when He was persecuting the church. He said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me” (Acts 9:4)? Jesus so identifies with His church that when they hurt He hurts, when they are persecuted He is persecuted. All Christians throughout the world throughout all time are His body, and He is the head of the body; when the body hurts the head hurts—we are connected…
But, even though we are connected to Christ and the church global and eternal, the life of the body plays out in the local church, in a community of believers who know one another, who love one another, who are committed to the good of one another; it plays out through local churches who are striving to maintain unity and oneness in the gospel by living lives marked by humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love. So get your mind around what that means; the church has been given the gifts of leaders to be equipped for the work of building up the body, of doing the work of ministry, exercising their God given gifts to serve the body, to maintain unity, to walk in a manner worthy of their calling, that they might magnify the glory of God in the world. This is every member ministry…
This is a part of every Christian’s calling. There are so many people who claim to be Christians yet want nothing to do with the church, but this passage is telling us that this is what being a Christian is all about. God gives the church leaders, those leaders equip the church with the Word to do the work of ministry, of building up the body. And in verse 13 we’re told that we are to build up the body, “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.” And that’s the great goal; a church that looks more and more like Jesus, so that we might shine out His glory to the world. And you see, when we don’t give ourselves to these things we are seeking to rob God of His glory. When we claim to want to want Christ yet want nothing to do with His church we are hurting our brothers and sisters in Christ and Christ Himself. Just as when Jesus told Saul that he was persecuting Him when he was persecuting the church, so too if we are avoiding the church, we are avoiding Jesus; if we are neglecting the church we are neglecting Christ.
But, when we give ourselves to Christ and His church, seeking to be obedient and to live for His glory, seeking to build up the body, it also builds us up—it not only works for Gods glory and the good of His people, but also for our own good. Notice it says in verse 13 that when we do the work of ministry we all attain unity, knowledge, and maturity. As we seek to help others grow, we grow. So when we give ourselves to Jesus we are to give ourselves to the church; we are to do the work of ministry, “so that (as verse 14 says) 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. Rather (verse 15), speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” We are to be utterly committed to the church, seeking the good of the body, using our gifts, our talents, our time, our finances, our lives to help the body mature in Christ; that’s what Paul means by “in love” here.
As we said earlier, love in this passage is a gospel-love, a love that was modeled for us by Jesus on the cross; it’s a sacrificial commitment to the good of others. So we are to be in relationship, in community with our brothers and sisters in Christ in such a way that they know we are radically committed to their good, that we truly love them; and in that context we are to speak truth to them, we are to speak the truth of God’s Word, the truth of the gospel to them, seeking to help them grow in Christ; and that’s not only good for them, but it’s good for you as well—it’s good for all of us; we grow together. Now, I think most if not all of you believe the church is important… Most of you would never say you want Jesus but want nothing to do with His church; but what does your life say? How big of a priority is the church in your life? How committed are you to a local church, to the body of Christ, be that here or elsewhere? Is the church central in your life, or do you push it aside whenever something comes up? Are you an active member of a local church?
Now you might be thinking, “Well, I would be, but there’s no where for me to serve…” Friends, that’s just not true. According to this passage it’s a small minority that are doing the work on Sunday morning; the real work of ministry takes place all week. Being an active member of a local church means rightly joining, and then committing yourself in love to work for the good and the maturity of your brothers and sisters in Christ. It means opening your life to them, and giving of your time, using your gifts, your talents, your finances, using your life to help them come to know, love, and follow Jesus all the more. This certainly takes place in part through our worship services and Bible studies, but it also happens through relationships, week in and week out. Our leaders equip us with the gospel so that we can then minister that gospel to one another: again, this is every member ministry…
I asked you earlier what you are focusing on, what is truly important to you, what are you committed to in your life. And for most of you your answer was probably something like your family, your career, your health, or your walk with Christ… And all of those things should be important to us, and our walk with Christ should be of upmost importance; but our own walk with Christ is linked to the body. As we see in verse 16, “the whole body [is] joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped…” We are linked, we are united in Christ, we have been brought together through the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We can’t simply think as individuals; we have to think about the whole body. In a very real sense, we are only as strong as our weakest link. You may think you are growing and flourishing in the Lord, but if that growth is just about your individual walk with Christ, if it’s not about you and the community of Christ walking and growing together, then you are still falling utterly short. It’s only when each part [of the church] is working properly, that the body grows and builds itself up in love. And when the community of faith is a community marked by sacrificial love, then we will truly magnify God’s glory in the world.
John Stott said, “The church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God. It is not a divine afterthought. It is not an accident of history. On the contrary, the church is God’s new community. For his purpose, conceived in a past eternity, being worked out in history, and to be perfected in a future eternity, is not just to save isolated individuals and so perpetuate our loneliness, but rather to build his church, that is, to call out of the world a people for his own glory.” We are called to link arms together, to covenant together in Christ as a local church, to sit under the preaching and the teaching of the Word of God, to submit to the leadership and oversight of our leaders, and to give ourselves to doing the work of ministry, to building up the body in love. And in doing this we magnify God’s glory, we make the gospel visible to the world. And as the Puritan Thomas Chalmers once said, “The church is a tool for the gospel not for our preferences.” It’s not about us as individuals, it’s about the body, it’s about Christ.
Beloved, if we would be serious about following Jesus we must be serious about the church. We must make the church’s corporate gatherings, worship and study a priority in our lives, and we must likewise open our lives up to the church and live in genuine community together. Not only must we make Sunday a priority, we must likewise make Monday through Saturday a priority, seeking the good of the body, using our gifts, our talents, our time, our finances, our lives to help the body mature in Christ.
There are many good things in our lives that we need to give time and attention to, but if we really love Jesus, if we really care about following Christ, then the church most play a central role in our lives. Friends, if the church is central to God’s purpose, it must be central to our lives. How can we take lightly what God takes so seriously? “How dare we push to the perimeter what God has placed at the center” (John Stott)? Beloved, following Jesus is a community project… Let’s decide this day to give our lives to truly following Jesus…