The Church as Gospel Community
Topic: Church Passage: Ephesians 1:3–6:9
Sermon from Ephesians 1:3-6:9 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: The Church as Community
Delivered Sunday, December 29, 2013
Due to the nature of today’s message––which is more ‘topical’ exposition than our usual practice of ‘verse-by-verse’ exposition––I plan to hop around quite a bit in Ephesians, pulling from several passages in hopes of showing you a wonderful portrait God has painted of the church of Jesus Christ. Over the next three weeks, we’ll be walking through a short series on what Christian community is and what Christian community looks like for God’s redeemed people.
Dan’s final sermon in the Advent Series even left us in a great place to reflect longer on what Christian community ought to look like in light of our shared joy in Christ. The joy we have in the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Prince of Peace is a joy to be shared not only with each other, but also with the lost world around us. So, with that note struck last Sunday, I hope the reverberations carry throughout the next three weeks.
Introduction: Why a Series on Community?
Now there are a number of reasons why we as a church will be walking through a series on community. For example, I think some of us need immediate help seeing that the church is not merely an event on Sunday morning, but a living community of people in submission to Jesus’ lordship throughout the week. While certainly not all of us, I do believe some of us come to hear expositional preaching, we come to celebrate sound doctrine, we come to experience the worship service––all of which are very good things––but largely the rest of life knows nothing of fulfilling the “one-another’s” of Scripture. Can our children and our neighbors and our coworkers see what Jesus said the world would see between his disciples––“that you love one another” (John 13:35; cf. 17:23)––when our only interest lies in a weekly message that echoes our own opinions about the world quite apart from those messages moving us to serve other people?
Also, others of us need help evaluating and adjusting priorities in light of God’s mission through the local church. Many of us fill our weeks with very good things––our work, our study, our home projects, our workout routine, workshops for our kids’ education, sports competitions, this or that recital. But then many of those good things end up ruling us in such ways that we have little to do with the local church in our day-to-day planning. Our Monday-to-Saturday schedule excludes interaction with other saints with whom we are in covenant fellowship to support and encourage and strengthen and edify on a regular basis. Can it be said of some of us that we confess Jesus as Lord while neglecting a very tangible expression of what his lordship entails, namely, serving his people regularly, even if that means we sacrifice other commitments from time to time to see a brother or sister prosper in Christ? Or, making the same sacrifices to receive care from others that we might gain more of Christ ourselves.
Still more, others of us simply need a vision of God’s plan for Christian community such that we might not fall prey to the spirit of our age that champions self-autonomy––the spirit that wants to cast off all authorities and all accountability to others to do its own thing; the spirit that refuses to submit to anyone else but itself and its own conclusions about the world and could care less what biblical truth another brother or sister may be urging them to follow. I find it a very strange thing that our culture champions self-autonomy while simultaneously promoting community all over the place. Just read the “community boards” at the local stores and little shops in our area, or just pay attention to the social-media boom. Some kind of community is being advertised all over the place. And that’s understandable when we consider that part of being made in God’s image is being made for one another (cf. Gen 2:18). But, the problem is that people often want community insofar as nobody else starts telling them what they should believe or how they ought to live. At that point, community ends. Why? Self-autonomy rules the day. Not so with God’s church, a community of people submitting to his will above all and regularly admonishing each other to do the same (cf. Matt 18:15-20).
Yet, the primary reason for this series is fairly practical and is likely very obvious to many of you, namely, we begin our new care group structures this coming week. With that comes new challenges for a large portion of you who are switching to a new group. You’ll be around new people, who were saved out of different backgrounds and from different sins. You will gather with folks who have different personalities and different life struggles and different levels of interest in some of the things you enjoy and different inclinations toward this or that temptation. You will sit down over the word of God and apply God’s truth with different members of Christ’s body than you were used to being around. You’ll have a new sister to love and walk beside patiently as she brings up the same issues from week to week. You’ll meet a new brother who may totally miss the point of a lesson and start lobbing verses at everyone who disagrees with him, and another brother who pretends that parsing Greek verbs and quoting dead theologians will solve everybody’s problems. Some of you will have a care group leader that just doesn’t lead like the last brother you had, and you’ll have opportunity to watch him grow. Others of you will have to work through the awkwardness again and find new ways to pray and trust the power of God together to transform your group into what you know it should be. I even pray that many of you will have the opportunity to show a new convert where to find Genesis 1:1 in his Bible.
The Church as Gospel Community
So, why not begin this new season in the life of our church on the right foot, so that we enter our first meetings together filled with a fresh vision of God’s plan in Christ for his redeemed community, the church? Even those of you experiencing very little shuffling of group members will, I hope, benefit from viewing your brothers and sisters through God’s eyes in Holy Scripture instead of your own. Ephesians is a great help to us in doing just that. The portrait of the church God paints using the apostle Paul is absolutely stunning; and I want to spend the rest of our time setting before you part of God’s vision for his people in relation to the message that makes his people what they are, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want us to see that the church is a gospel community. It’s not just any sort of community; the church is a gospel community; and I believe we see that from Ephesians in at least three ways.
1. The Gospel Reveals the Biblical Framework to Understand the Church
First, the gospel reveals the biblical framework by which we understand the church. We often think of the gospel merely as a message that gets people into the kingdom. That’s true in some sense, if we’re speaking about the gospel being a message about God’s world, our rebellion against him, the cross of Christ by which we’re forgiven of our sins, and then a plea for repentance and faith. Paul comes rather close to doing just that in 2:1-10, when he rehearses how God saved the believers in Ephesus. We see the same with Peter in Acts 11:14, when he proclaimed to Cornelius the message by which we must be saved. But there are also times when the Bible uses “the gospel” to refer to the grand sweep of God’s saving purposes in Christ––a sweep that reaches back to God’s actions in eternity past and stretches all the way forward to the consummation of the ages. Paul sets the church right smack in the middle of this grand sweep of God’s saving purposes.
For example, the church is seen as a community God ordained from eternity past. Right at the start in Eph 1:4, we see that “[God] chose us [in Christ] before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and blameless before him.” And not too many verses later––in verse 9––we see that God had a purpose he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time. Chapter 3, verse 10 refers to that plan as God’s “eternal purpose” that was to be realized in Christ Jesus our Lord. It was a plan that included looking with mercy upon a fallen and cursed world, providing redemption for guilty sinners through the death of God’s Son (1:7). This Son would come as a husband full of love for his adulterous bride––chapter 5, verses 25-27 tell us––and he would win her for himself by washing her and forgiving all her trespasses by the blood he would spill in her place. It was also a cosmic plan that would include God’s power “uniting all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10). Everything undone by the Fall would be made right through the work of one man, Jesus Christ, to whom God would give all authority and power and dominion (1:20-22).
It was also a plan that would include God’s special work in history with the nation of Israel, a plan that would even ‘roll out’ through his promises to Israel, only that once Christ bore the sins of the world on his back, the floodgates of salvation would open to all nations. The Law of Moses would no longer stand as a barrier, alienating the Gentile peoples from the promises bound up with God’s covenants to Israel. Rather, God’s only Son would tear down the dividing wall of hostility through his death. Jesus abolished “the law of commandments...that he might create in himself one new [humanity] in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross” (2:14-16). Now Jew and Gentile alike who believed in Jesus would obtain all God’s promises.
It was a plan that would increase the volume of worship in heaven, but not from the mouths of more angels who cannot experience such forgiveness and reconciliation. Because of the work of Jesus Christ, sinners once separated from God would now populate the coming kingdom as trophies of God’s grace. Forever, these who were chosen before history and rescued through the death of Jesus in history would reflect the immeasurable riches of God’s mercy at the end of history. God did all this, 2:7 tells us, “so that in the coming ages God might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” We’re also told three times in the introduction to this letter that God planned all this for “the praise of his glory [and his grace]” (1:6, 12, 14).
All that is but a snapshot of what Ephesians says of the church. And each piece––whether before, during, or after this world’s history––is intricately bound up with what Paul knows to be “the gospel”––the good news for the world. It is the message given to Paul––and now given to us––that “brings to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (3:9); and this message sets the framework for understanding who we are. The church didn’t just evolve from the societal pressures placed on a group of first-century Jews that had some explaining to do for their new found religion as Jesus-followers. Nor was the church an invention of the Apostle Paul, as some have argued, as sort of a zealous reaction to the Judaism of his day. It doesn’t take but a quick read of the first nine chapters in the Book of Acts to see that the church not only existed before the Apostle Paul, but was also a work of God himself, not man. The church wasn’t a social development; it was a supernatural work of God through his crucified and reigning Christ. The church has been a community of people at the center of God’s plan for the universe all along. The church was God’s idea, his plan from the beginning.
According to Ephesians, we are a community with the longest history––beginning with God’s election in eternity past––the greatest Savior––God’s only Son, Jesus Christ (1:20)––the strongest bond––the Holy Spirit (2:18)––the richest inheritance––every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (1:3)––the most extensive influence––heaven and earth (1:10)––all for the absolute highest goal––the praise of the glory of God’s grace (1:14). Now, excluding what community the three persons within the Godhead experience, do you know of another community on earth remotely comparable? What other gathering of people on earth can call themselves, “the fullness of Jesus Christ” (1:23) or “God’s workmanship” (2:10) or “fellow citizens and members of God’s household” (2:19) or “a dwelling place for God’s Spirit” (2:22). What other people on earth can say that they are the visible manifestation that God has snapped the power of sin, disarmed the rulers and authorities, and is uniting all things in heaven and earth under the reigning Son of God (1:6-10)? There is only one community for which that is true, namely, the church of Jesus Christ.
How many of you woke up this morning thinking, “I’m about to gather with a people through whom the manifold wisdom of God is being made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”?––because that’s the way Eph 3:10 talks about the church. That sounds like a gathering you’d be on the edge of your seat to enjoy, not just a “Sally, get in the car, we have to go to church.” What did you tell your son or daughter this morning while you were getting them dressed to meet with us? Was it “Son, we’re going to meet with the fellow citizens of God’s kingdom (2:19); we’re going to spend time with those God has loved with a great love (2:4); we’re going to experience the risen Christ working in his people by the Spirit (2:18); we’re going to enjoy God’s inheritance in the saints” (1:11, 18). Or was it just a matter of “Because this is what we do on Sunday, dear.” It is in the church that we see what God is up to on planet earth. Only here do we see God’s purpose in Christ made visible.
I wonder what our care group meetings might look like, and our service to one another might look like, if we all saw each other and valued each other and treated each other in this light? Yes, we have our weaknesses, we have our besetting sins on this side of the second coming, we have our irritating quirks, but what might God make of our relationships when we look at each other through his eyes––when we see each other in the grand sweep of God’s saving purposes in Christ? What might happen when we see that Ryan was just as much the apple of God’s eye as you were in eternity past; that Rob was just as much the focus of God’s rescue plan as you were; that Silvia will be displaying the riches of God’s grace in the age to come as much as you will be. Might we be able to sing, not just for ourselves, but also for each other “Be saved to sin no more, be saved to sin no more, till all the ransomed church of God, be saved to sin no more”? Can you sing that for every person in this room? Because God’s plan, the biblical framework, says that’s where he’s taking every one of us who follow Jesus as Lord. The gospel reveals the biblical framework by which we understand the church, and this is how we ought to view our community, how we ought to view each other.
2. The Gospel Is the Message God Uses to Create the Church
Second, the gospel is the message God uses to create his community. The gospel does more than simply reveal God’s eternal plan in Christ for his community; the gospel is the very message God uses to create his community within history. Connected to what the gospel reveals is what the gospel itself effects through preaching and the work of the Holy Spirit. God’s eternal purpose for the church––which is revealed in the gospel––also comes to fruition through the advance of the gospel. If you’re not a Christian this morning, and you asked any one of us who are Christians, “How did you become what you are now in Christ?” We’re not going to say, “Well, I just finally got my act together;” or “You know, everything just clicked for me one day;” or “I just finally got the smarts to know better.” We’re not going to say that––at least we better not answer that way! No, we’re all going to testify in differing ways that God saved us through person and work of Jesus Christ––we will bear witness to the gospel.
The same was true for the Ephesian believers. Look with me at 1:13, “In [Christ], you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” So, yes, God had a plan to save you before the foundation of the world, but that salvation would not come apart from you hearing the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Your hearing and your believing the gospel would be God’s effective means within history of making you his own and joining you to his people, the church. This is the pattern throughout Scripture. God’s word creates God’s people; and it’s never the other way around. “Prophesy over these [dry] bones [Ezekiel], and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord’” (Ezek 37:4). The word of God creates the people of God.
What’s happening throughout the Book of Acts as the Lord adds to their number daily those who were being saved? Answer: The proclamation of Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen for all the guilty sinners who would repent and believe in him. It’s upon hearing that gospel message that three thousand souls in Jerusalem were added to the church (Acts 2:41). It’s by hearing them proclaim “in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” that the number of the men came to be about five thousand (4:4). It’s when Philip proclaimed Christ, that many from the city of Samaria came to know much joy (8:5, 8). It’s when Paul preached that God brought Israel a Savior, Jesus, just as he promised, that the Gentiles began “rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (13:23, 48).
The only reason any of us know the Lord is that God arrested us––undeserving as we are––with the message of salvation. With that message, he helped us to see what Paul reflects on in 2:1-7 of Ephesians, that without Christ we were dead in the trespasses and sins in which we once walked. You might even be able to name some of those imprisoning trespasses and sins this morning: the rejection of God’s word for your own philosophy of living; lust for women who did not belong to you; using your body for things displeasing to the Lord; coveting your neighbors Christmas presents; a thankless attitude daily as you rise for work; a love for money and power and the admiration of others that usually comes with the territory; perhaps even using the church for your own selfish ends like I once did. Oh sinners, we were dead in the sins in which we once walked. More than that, we followed Satan, “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (2:2). Among them “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” The gospel-word exposed our helpless and hopeless condition before God, but it also did something infinitely better.
Do you remember when you heard it and understood it for the first time? It’s okay if you don’t, because this is written to remind you that though you were a great sinner, God sent a great Savior. “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ...and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (2:4-6). God took us from one of the lowest and most terrifying places as guilty sinners beneath his wrath, and through Jesus’ death and resurrection gave us a seat beside the highest of Kings, no longer dead but alive. And such a reconciliation to God spills over into reconciliation with all God’s saints, as 2:11-21 explain. That’s the good news God uses to create his community; and it has massive implications for mission to the world, but I’m saving most of that for week three. Suffice it to say for now that all we have to boast about is God’s grace working on our behalf in Christ and nothing within ourselves. He created us through the good news; he penetrated our darkened hearts with the gospel of grace. We are a gospel community because the gospel not only explains us, but because the gospel also created us. How does Peter put it? We were born again “through the living and abiding word” (1 Pet 1:23). And what “word” is that? “This word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Pet 1:25).
3. The Gospel Is the Message God Uses to Transform the Church
Third, the gospel is the message God uses to transform his community. One of the greatest mistakes we can make is to reduce the gospel to a message that gets us into the kingdom, but has little use thereafter for living in the kingdom. You will not find such a reduction of the gospel anywhere on the pages of your New Testament. Rather, the apostles stress that the message that caused our regeneration is the same message that causes our transformation. The message that justified us is the same message that sanctifies us. The message by which we started the Christian life is the same message by which we shall finish the Christian life. In 1 Cor 15:1-2, Paul writes, “Now I would remind you [all] of the gospel I preached to you, which you received [that’s conversion], in which you stand [that’s identity], and by which you are being saved [that’s transformation into Christ-likeness].” Similarly, Ephesians stands as a great letter to learn how the gospel transforms the community of faith, because Paul spends the first three chapters articulating the gospel and the last three chapters exhorting the community to live according to the gospel he’s just rehearsed. I’ll give you just a few examples.
In 4:22, we’re commanded to put off our old self, which belongs to our former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires. How is it that Paul can speak first of an “old self” and second of a “former manner of life”? He can speak that way because the one united to Jesus through faith has truly died to the old self; the old self was crucified with Christ, such that he can call it a former manner of life. The death of Jesus spelled out in chapter 2 is a death that has power to kill the old man once and for all. More than that, the resurrection of Jesus spoken of in chapter 1 has the power to create a new man that is raised up with Christ, what Paul calls in verse 24 “the new self.” And get this: that new self is created after the likeness of God. Where have you heard that statement before? How about Gen 1:26 before Adam brought the human race into sin, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” The reason Christians live differently than the world, is because God has restored his image in them through the work of Jesus. Therefore, put off the old self, which could only live a subhuman lifestyle unable to reflect God’s image rightly, and put on the new self created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. The gospel transforms us to do away with corruption that we might reflect the character of our Creator once again.
Or look now at 4:25, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” So, falsehood goes away with the old man, and now we speak truth to each other––and for what reason? We are members one of another. How did that happen? Chapter 2:16, “that he might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” More than that, Paul envisions Jesus as our peace-bringer, such that he makes us all members of God’s household. Our tongues are to be used for the upbuilding of God’s household, not it’s destruction. And combine that with another image from chapter 2: God establishes us on the one foundation of Jesus Christ, such that we’re being built up into a holy temple. How could it be that we would ever use our words to defile God’s holy temple?
Or how about 4:32? “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another [that’s the exhortation; here’s the gospel], as God in Christ forgave you.” Again, 5:1, “Therefore be imitators of God [that’s the command; here’s the gospel], as beloved children.” How’d that happen? Well it started in eternity past when God, in his mercy, predestined you “for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ” (1:5). You were not destined to remain a “son of disobedience” or a “child of wrath;” you were destined to become a son of God, to belong to a new Father who is full of mercy and patience and love toward undeserving people. Imitate him, not to become his children, but because through faith in Christ, you already stand as his children.
Then 5:2, “Walk in love [there’s the command; now the gospel], as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” How might fixing your eyes on that gospel truth and connecting it to your affection for and actions toward others transform the way you love your care group members? What we learn here from the gospel is a far cry from simply putting up with one another when we gather, is it not? Care group is not two hours of putting up with each other! If our love for each other is to be anything like Christ’s love, then it will show an affection for the others; it will take the initiative in building the relationships; it will even embrace the sacrificial measures necessary to see the other party prosper. Your introverted personality is no excuse for failing to take initiative in loving others. Neither is your extroverted personality an excuse for bombarding the introvert with everything all at once. We must both die to self, and, like Christ, consider the interest of others better than our own.
Later in chapter 5, Paul spends twelve verses reinforcing this same gospel-motivated love for the marriage relationship and the family. In the same way the gospel transforms the community of the saints, the gospel also transforms the community between husband and wife, parents and children. And did you know the gospel even has something to say of your work ethics and what is ultimately your motivation to do what you do from 8-5. Whether your co-workers are Christians or not, what they ought to observe in you is that your greatest reward is not in their money or their praise, but in God who reconciled you to himself through Jesus Christ (6:5-9). The gospel reminds you that even when your labors go unnoticed, and perhaps your integrity puts your job on the line, there is one Lord who’s risen from the dead, and he will reward you for doing the will of God from the heart.
I could go on with a number of other examples of how the truth of the gospel transforms the community of faith––how our belongingness to God determines how we use our iPhones; how our identity in Christ helps us overcome anger and fear and joylessness; how the power of the cross is at the root of all our generosity––but I hope these few examples have given you enough of a head-start to begin applying the gospel in similar ways in your discussion times, or your times of accountability, or your leadership. The point is that we are a very messy people, this present age is very dark, and the spiritual forces of evil are ferocious––just read chapter 6––but God has answered at every turn with the gospel.
So, help each other see it more clearly and savor it more deeply. Take each other to the Bible and unfold for each other how the gospel offers encouragement to weary mothers and boldness for those who are weak and humility for those who are proud and joy for those who are downcast and hope for those who are lost in darkness and correction for those who are erring. If we are to look anything like Christ, then we must be pointing each other to him through the gospel and pressing his character into one another as we look at his life and death and resurrection and present reign. The community will not be transformed by looking at each other, or looking at its leadership, but by looking at Christ, who is revealed in the gospel message.
If you’d like some further resources that may help you grow in understanding how the gospel transforms us, I’d recommend you read A Gospel Primer by Milton Vincent, or The Transforming Power of the Gospel by Jerry Bridges, or, if you want a bit lengthier book, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands by Paul David Tripp. And, although its tailored for marriage, I’d even recommend reading When Sinners Say I Do by Dave Harvey. It’s a great book for helping couples understand the transforming power of the gospel within the marriage relationship.
Conclusion: May the Lord Do Far More Abundantly...
So that’s what I’ve got for you this morning; and that’s what I hope you will discuss this Wednesday as you begin meeting together with your care groups in the new year. I would even challenge you to read Ephesians between now and then––it takes all of 15 minutes––and prepare to discuss the church as a gospel community, and what that might entail for the group’s care for one another. Pray for your group to understand each other in light of God’s eternal purpose as Paul does in chapter 1; and teach one another where more understanding is needed. Reflect together on how the gospel creates the community of faith as it is heard and embraced. How is that gospel message giving you life now? Is it a message you treasure, or a message you rarely think about? You might even take some time to walk through chapters 4-6 and learn from Paul what it means for the gospel to transform the community of faith. What sort of structure might you give your evenings together each month so that you have time to apply the gospel to this or that struggle, or even give thanks for how the gospel is working to give further hope in this or that area? What forms of regular encouragements might you give each other even outside of care group settings, so that the message of Jesus’ cross and resurrection transform your affections and empower your living and enable your dying daily? And as your care group leader, walks you through these things, may the Lord do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us. To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations. Amen.