Professional athletes are constantly looking for ways they can grow bigger and stronger. Some look for shortcuts and take anabolic steroids, which give them a fast-track to muscle growth. Unfortunately, though their muscles get bigger, all the supporting parts of their body do not. Assuming they don’t get caught and banned from their sport, the chances are very likely that they’ll get injured as they tear ligaments, tendons, or break bones because they are trying to find a shortcut to growth—and ultimately that shortcut makes them weaker.
In our text this morning, the apostle Paul describes the church as being like a body and gives us instructions for how the church is supposed to grow. He says that there are no shortcuts, but that every part of the body must do its job in order for the church as a whole to grow both bigger and stronger.
Since we are jumping into the middle of a book of the Bible, it is important to understand the context of this passage. Paul probably wrote the book of Ephesians to a group of churches in the area around the city of Ephesus. This city was known for its great wealth, extravagance, and moral decline. Their society was not much different from our own. They faced the same problems we do. In the midst of these problems, Paul sought to give the church instruction in how they should function and grow. His instructions are equally as applicable now as they were then.
The first half of the book really focuses on theology and right belief, and the second half focuses more on putting those beliefs into practice. We are going to look at Ephesians 4:7-16, which is in the second half of the book. In these verses, God gives us instructions on how the church is supposed to grow.
God Gives Each Believer Spiritual Gifts, So We Should Use Our Gifts
Verse 7 tells us,
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.
When Paul speaks of each of us being given grace we immediately think about being forgiven of sin. In our minds Grace=Forgiveness. But God does more than just save us from our sin; he also equips us to live the Christian life. He has given us each saving grace, but he has also given us eachserving grace! That’s what Paul is saying here—that Christ has given each believer a unique ability to help build up the church.
In the first six verses of Ephesians 4, Paul talked about the church’s unity, pointing to the fact that we all have the same Lord and same Spirit. Now he draws a contrast, saying that we all have the same Lord and the same Spirit, but we each have different gifts. So we are to be unified in Christ while embracing the diversity of personality and gifts that exists within the body.
In verses 8-10 Paul explains how we get these gifts. Some think when Paul says Jesus descended into the lower, earthly regions it means that Jesus went to Hell and freed people from Satan’s grasp. That isn’t what Paul is saying. He is saying that Jesus was in Heaven, descended to earth, and that after being brought down as low as any man can be, he was exalted to the highest place in all creation. After conquering sin once and for all, He ascended victorious—and as the victor, gives gifts to his people.
In verse 11 Paul lists four specific gifts given to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers.
The way Paul uses the terms apostle and prophet here refers to gifts that don’t exist in the same sense today. Apostles and prophets communicated God’s truth to the people in a unique and special way. Today the Bible carries on the same role—and it was written by those whom God gave to the church as apostles and prophets.
Evangelists are those God has gifted to carry the gospel to others. Every believer is supposed to share the gospel with others, but some are uniquely gifted for this job. They have a special ability to communicate the message in a way that brings people to repentance. Many missionaries today have this gift.
The last gift given to the church is pastor/teachers—they are really tied to one another, not separate gifts. The term pastor literally means “shepherd”, so these people are to feed, protect, and care for the “flock” of believers in a given area. They are to both shepherd and instruct a body of believers.
Too many people seem to believe that the work of ministry is to be done by people possessing these four gifts. But listen carefully to the words that follow in verse 12:
[these gifts are given] to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up
The people who possess the gifts mentioned in verse 11 are not supposed to do all the ministry, they are to equip everyone else for service! In other places in the Bible we see that God gives every believer their own unique gifts for ministry—not just the “professionals”.
Ask yourself a question. How many ministers does our church have? If you answered two, that shows a problem in thinking. If the only people we consider to be ministers are the pastoral staff, then we are not functioning the way Jesus intended. A church with 200 or more believing members should have 200 or more ministers! True growth comes only when the membership is actively involved in service to the Lord.
Some of you may ask how you are supposed to serve. That depends on your gift. Don’t feel that you must serve in the same way as someone else, but look for how God has gifted you and serve in that way. If you aren’t sure what your gifts are, let me give you a few suggestions.
- Spend some time studying the passages on spiritual gifts in the Bible. The lists aren’t exhaustive, but do give insight into what God wants believers to do. All of the passages speak of one goal—building up the body of Christ. (see Rom. 13, 1 Cor. 12 and 14, and 1 Pet. 4)
- Ask God to help you see where you can serve Him.
- Try serving in different ways. Chances are that when you serve God in the way He’s gifted you, you will find that it is incredibly fulfilling.
- Ask other believers who know you well if they have an idea of what your gift might be. Often others can clearly see what we cannot.
If we will each do the work God has equipped us to do, amazing things can happen. Think about a symphony orchestra. In a large orchestra there may be 200 people, each playing their own instrument. If they just play whatever they feel like at the moment, the result is a terrible noise that is unpleasant to be around. But what happens when each of them is focused on making music? Each person plays his or her part. Each person is attentive to the conductor and listens to the others so that they blend together. They ensure that they are all on the same page of the same piece of music. Some parts stand out and some blend into the background—but the result is something far more beautiful than any one of them could accomplish alone.
That is a picture of the church. If we would each focus on finding and implementing our gifts we could accomplish great things. We would have people starting new ministries. We would find new and meaningful ways to love the people in our community. We would start seeing more visitors as people invited their lost friends to church. We would have our current ministries staffed by people who are enthusiastic and committed to the work. We would be actively involved in making a difference in the community in practical and life-changing ways. These things are possible; but we each have to play our part.
We Should Be Seeking Spiritual Maturity Together
The other lesson is that as Christians, we should each be moving toward spiritual maturity. Paul tells us that the major problem the Ephesian church was facing was that they were spiritually immature. As a result, like little children, they believed whatever anyone told them and were being led astray. You know how gullible little children are—they believe whatever you tell them. If you tell a child that the word “gullible” is written on the ceiling, they’ll look up! The problem we face is that many of us are still children in our faith. We believe whatever anyone tells us because we don’t know any better. As a result, we are easily led astray. If we want to stand firm in the midst of a decaying society, we must become mature believers.
Paul tells us how to grow toward maturity in verse 15.
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.
Though the NIV translates this as speaking the truth in love, that doesn’t really capture the essence of what he is saying. Literally translated, this passage reads as “truthing” in love. That carries the idea of speaking and living the truth in love.
To become spiritually mature we have to go beyond simply knowing the truth or even sharing the truth—we have to actually live the truth. It is scary to actually live the truth in our lives. It is far easier for us to just get comfortable where we are and stop moving forward. It’s like the guy in the video who wanted to stay in Kindergarten because in 1st grade they didn’t have nap time. He failed to realize that in 1st grade he would learn how to read for himself. Sometimes growing spiritually is a scary prospect, but the payoff is definitely worth it. Sometimes we get scared that God will ask us to do more than we are ready to do, but the only way we can grow is to keep pushing ourselves further.
As he closes out the passage, Paul points out that the body of Christ only grows like it should when every part does its work. In order to grow spiritually, we all need to be involved, because God has made us dependent on each other. If you aren’t doing your job or you aren’t growing in your faith, the body suffers. When one part of your body doesn’t work right, other parts have to compensate to make up for it.
We have a responsibility to help each other grow in our faith. We need to challenge each other to keep moving forward. So talk with your Christian friends about how you are growing. Ask your friends what they’ve been learning about God. Ask them how they’re living out their faith. Ask yourself the same kinds of questions. We can’t allow ourselves to stand still, because doing so makes us weak.
As the church, we should want to grow both bigger and stronger. Professional athletes know that if they want to grow, they must exercise. They know that if they want to win, they have to play as a team. If we want to grow as believers, we have to exercise our faith in the way we live each day. There are no shortcuts in the process—shortcuts ultimately make us weaker. Spiritual growth has little to do with slick programs and entertainment, and everything to do with helping every believer to play the role God has given them in ministry. If each of us will work at exercising our faith and seeking spiritual maturity, the body of Christ will be healthy, big, and strong.
Let me challenge you to make a commitment this morning to do something to go deeper in your faith. Be specific; find something specific where you can test or use your gifts this week. Depending on your gift, maybe you can look for people who are hurting and care for them, or for people in need and work to meet their needs by offering your skills, resources, or money. Maybe you can look for ways to teach and mentor other believers. Maybe you can help organize others. The key is to find a way to use your gift to build up the body. Some of you may not have a spiritual gift, because you aren’t a true believer. Maybe you realize that you’ve been playing a game and have never really turned control of your life over to Jesus. If that is the case then make today the day that you truly commit to Christ. Wherever you are today, commit to doing more than simply talking about the truth, but work at actually living the truth. God has given us clear instructions on how to build the body, so let’s get to work.