The Church as Spiritual Community
Topic: Church Passage: Ephesians 4:1–6
Sermon from Ephesians 4:1-16 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Series: The Church as Community
Delivered Sunday, January 5, 2014
As I did last week, I will do again this week. I’ll pull from several passages in hopes of showing you God’s portrait of the church of Jesus Christ. For those of you who missed last Sunday, we entered a short, three-part series on what Christian community is and what Christian community looks like for God’s redeemed people. For those of you who weren’t here, let me bring you up to speed.
Part One Summary: The Church as Gospel Community
In a nutshell, we saw how the gospel provides the biblical framework by which we understand who we are, how we got here, why we exist, and where we’re going. The gospel reveals the grand sweep of God’s plan in Jesus Christ for the church. In Jesus Christ, God planned to show mercy to rebels. His plan reaches back to eternity past when God chose from a fallen humanity a people, a bride for his Son (1:4). His plan then ‘rolls out’ through God’s work in history, the most supreme work being when God’s own Son entered history to provide redemption for guilty sinners (1:7). And his plan will ultimately increase the volume of worship in heaven. 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 (2:7). Such is God’s plan for the church; and so goes the gospel.
More than that, we saw that the very gospel that explains us is also the very gospel that creates us. It was through the means of hearing “the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation,” that God saved us and brought us into his family, the church (1:13). We were born again “through the living and abiding word,” as Peter tells us, and that word is “the good news [or the gospel] that was preached to [us]” (1 Pet 1:23, 25). And the gospel message, which God used to make us what we are, would be the same message God uses to transform us into all he desires us to be, a community of people who bear God’s image rightly in the world (4:24); a community whose passions are captivated not by the power of sin, but by the preciousness of their self-giving Husband, who gave his life to win his adulterous bride (5:25-27). So, we concluded last week that the church is a gospel community. The gospel explains us; the gospel created us; and the gospel transforms us.
Gospel-Word and Spiritual-Power
But what do we really mean when we say things like “the gospel created us” and “the gospel transforms us.” Yes, yes, the Bible is replete with passages revealing that the word of God always creates the people of God. But is it the mere dictation of sentences from a prophet’s mouth, or the mere words on a page or spoken by an evangelist that creates a people and transforms a people? The Bible reveals there is more to this picture. The church is indeed a gospel community; but it is only a gospel community insofar as it is also a spiritual community.
The Church as a "Spiritual" or "Spirit-filled" Community
Now, since people use the word “spiritual” in all sorts of ways, let me define what I mean by it. I’m using the word “spiritual” much like Paul uses it in 1 Cor 2:15, where he contrasts the “natural person,” who rejects the things of God, with the “spiritual person,” who embraces the things of God. What is different about the “spiritual person” that enables him to accept the things of God—things like the truth about God and our sin and the reconciliation God provides in the cross? What does the spiritual person possess that the natural person does not? He has the Spirit of the living God abiding in him, and teaching him, and opening his eyes to God’s mercy in Christ. Hence, Paul calls that person, “spiritual.” The church is made up of these kinds of individuals, spiritual individuals, individuals who possess God’s Spirit.
We even see there in Eph 1:13-14 Paul assuring the community of believers with these words: “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, who is the guarantee of our inheritance.” The church is a community sealed with the Holy Spirit; he marks our acceptance with God and characterizes us until Jesus returns. For those of us who know Jesus Christ, we would do well to remember that we haven’t always been a people marked by this Holy Spirit. No, 2:2 says that at one time, we all followed a different spirit. When we were dead in our sins, we followed “the prince of the power of the air [that’s Satan, the god of this world], the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” Together with our bondage to sin, Satan was our oppressing master until God arrested us with his love in Christ, until God shone in our hearts with the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and put his Spirit within us (2 Cor 4:6). The church is a gospel community only when the Spirit of God indwells that community. The gospel word creates us and transforms us insofar as God’s Spirit makes it effective, applies it to our hearts, and arrests our affections for Jesus more and more and more.
This is why Paul thanks God for the little gathering of believers in Thessalonica, “because,” he says, “our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:5). Without the Spirit shining the spotlight on Christ through the preaching of the gospel—just like Jesus said he would do in John 16:13: “when the Spirit of truth comes…he will glorify me [i.e., he will make the risen Lord Jesus glorious in the eyes of his people]”—without the Spirit shining the spotlight on Jesus, awakening us to the beauty of God’s mercy in the cross, filling us with the life of God, there would be no church, no Christianity, no relationship with God. The church is a word-and-Spirit kind of community. The gospel of Jesus will characterize us as much as the Spirit makes the word effective; and the Spirit will fill us as much as we center each other on the gospel of Jesus. The word and Spirit go together in shaping who we are and empowering what we do.
Four Characteristics of a Spiritual Community
So then, what does it look like for the church to be a spiritual community? I’ll give you just four characteristics of the church as a spiritual community, four characteristics of a community characterized by the Spirit.
1. The Spirit unites the church under one Lord.
First, the Spirit unites the church under one Lord. It doesn’t take much reading in our Bibles to see how sin wreaks havoc on community. In chapters 3 and 4 of Genesis, the sin of one man, Adam, brought great strife into the marriage relationship; and not too much further into the story we’re told that Adam’s oldest son, Cain, kills his younger brother out of jealousy. God created community for the good of man; and sin destroys it. Not only does sin separate us from fellowship with God, but it also separates us from fellowship with one another.
Just think of the countless number of relationships torn by sin, ruined by pride, and hopelessly at a loss because of people’s bondage to self-worship. At every turn, it seems like disunity reigns. In America, over half of marriages end with divorce; families are torn apart by horrific sins; friendships are ended over lies and betrayal; entire nations are at each other’s throats over power and money; ethnicities draw lines in the sand against one another; feminists prepare their counterattacks against the male chauvinist pigs; republicans blame the democrats for the economy’s problems and vice versa; younger generations despise the older generations who lack their swagger, while the older generations outright reject anything new despite what value it may bring to society; just a few clicks here or there on the internet, and you have one man fueling a multi-billion dollar industry that further wrecks the lives of our fellow image bearers; and the list could go on. Just read the news.
The world is an illustration of what Tit 3:3 says is true of everybody apart from Jesus Christ: “passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” As one writer put it when we entered the chaotic society in Somaliland for missions, “It was a dark insanity.” That’s an accurate description of community apart from Christ, regardless of how clean it sometimes looks on the outside. Without Christ, true community doesn’t exist, only darkness and hostility. But let me read to you from Eph 2 what happens to a fallen community, when Jesus comes to the rescue.
Verse 13, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man [or humanity] in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
Now, specifically, Paul is talking about Jesus reconciling believing Jews and believing Gentiles—two ethnicities known for their animosity toward each other because of sin. He’s talking about reconciling them into one new people. And Jesus does that first by reconciling them to God through his death on the cross—if there’s no peace with God in your life, there will never be peace with others—and secondly by reconciling them to each other. His death tore down everything that would keep them apart—and he did the same for all of us. But how is Jesus’ objective, reconciling work on the cross two thousand years ago—how is that work—brought to fruition as history plays out? If all of us are born into the dark insanity of the world, how is it that we’re actually delivered from it and united to this new humanity?
The answer is in verse 18: “For through [Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” The Holy Spirit does this work. The dark insanity is no match for the Holy Spirit. He takes the reconciling work of Jesus, presses it into the hearts of individuals supernaturally, thrills them with it, such that God becomes their trust—they come to him to whom they’ve been given access—and unity then flows out to others. Unity between them and the other brothers and sisters even becomes what they labor for. Chapter 4, verse 3 says, these people should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” “Eager!” You pursue it zealously! Why? Because Christ pursued unity with you zealously, even at the cost of his own life. He pursued your unity with God and your unity with his covenant people, even when it meant his death. And his Spirit now lives in us. The Spirit of God will not let the people of God break the bond of peace created by the Son of God. To break that unity with our corrupting talk and bitterness and anger and clamor and slander and false assumptions about each other grieves the Spirit, chapter 4, verse 30 says.
As God’s new humanity, we must trust that the power of the Spirit to preserve our relationships and foster unity in our relationships is greater than our own ability to produce it. We must look our fears in the face—when you know the encounter is going to be awkward, or this conversation has the potential to erupt, or this confession may not be received well—and tell those fears about the omnipotent power of the Spirit of God who applies the work of the Son of God to the people of God all for the glory of God. The Spirit is our only hope for community.
Some of you may be sitting in a dark insanity right now, and you don’t know where to turn for help in your relationships with your parents or your husband or your children or your friends. You are alone and wonder if God even cares? Please know that God not only sees your need for community, but he’s already acted on your behalf in Jesus Christ to give you community with himself if you follow Jesus, and then to provide you with a family whose relationships are supernaturally mended through the Spirit. That’s not to say the church is a perfect community. Even Ephesians assumes we’re going to need to forgive each other for our offenses. So, we’re not perfect, but we are united under one Lord by the third person of the Trinity, and he is mighty enough to preserve us. And no community can make such a claims save the church of Jesus Christ.
2. The Spirit indwells the entire church, not just a few people within the church.
Second, the Spirit indwells the entire church, not just a few people within the church. There was a time—as God’s plan rolled out under the old covenant—when the Spirit did not indwell every individual in the community. The Spirit was certainly at work in God’s chosen people under the old covenant, but only in a way that anticipated the much greater outpouring of God’s Spirit under the new covenant. The Spirit was poured out on the prophet and the priest and the king in Israel, and even on a few other designated leaders. The Spirit empowered these special leaders to lead and judge and mediate and speak on behalf of God, but not every individual enjoyed such a blessing. We even see Moses looking to a future day when the picture would be a bit different for God’s people. He says in Num 14:29, “[Joshua] are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” This same wish is then picked up later by the prophets who announce that a day is coming when the entire covenant community would possess the Spirit, not just a few in leadership. That day would come when a new covenant would be established and the reigning Messiah would poured out his Spirit on all his people (e.g., Joel 2). Might I direct your attention again to what Paul calls the Holy Spirit in verse 13? He calls him “the promised Holy Spirit.”
When Jesus died on the cross, he inaugurated the new covenant—we celebrate that this morning at the Lord’s Table. And when he rose from the dead, God seated him as the reigning Messiah above all rule and authority and power and dominion (1:20), and it’s from that reign that he pours out the Spirit on every individual in his community, not just a few of us. The promised Holy Spirit belongs to everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord: he belongs to Becky, and to Donna, and to James and Amy, and to Wes, and to Roberto, and Tygre. He indwells all of us, so much so that Paul characterizes the church like this in 2:22: “In [Christ] you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Isn’t that amazing? Once we were without God in the world; now we’re still in the world and being called a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. The Spirit indwells us all.
I hope that gives you some level of courage and confidence in your Christian life, because in your greatest moments of defeat and lack and need and despair, you still have the third person of the Godhead dwelling in you. He’s there to give you life. More than that, he indwells about 170 other saints in this community who possess the same Spirit that helped Moses lead God’s people through the wilderness; the same Spirit that anointed the priests to intercede on behalf of the people; the same Spirit who inspired the prophets to speak God’s word in times of need; the same Spirit who enabled a David to take confidence in his God while the faith of the community gave way; the same Spirit who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead and gave him an indestructible life. And God has given these Spirit-indwelt brothers and sisters to you and you to them. Turn to them when you’re in need; and when someone comes to you in need, trust the Spirit to do his work through you. He is able. Even when all you can see are inadequacies in yourself, the Spirit is able to make you a competent minister.
3. The Spirit empowers and gifts the church for ministry.
Third, the Spirit empowers and gifts the church for ministry. So here’s the picture so far: the Spirit unites a new people under on Lord and indwells each and every one of them. Now, we need to see what happens in the church when he indwells them. Paul speaks of it in terms of empowerment in 3:16. He prays, “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” We see it again in verse 20, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” Where’d that power come from? From the Spirit in verse 16. So, the Spirit is the motivating power behind the life of the church. But let’s get a little more concrete on what this means for community as Paul does in chapter 4.
Read with me in 4:7, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” So all of us are given a measure of grace, and that grace is referred to as Christ’s gift. Verse 8, “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, [namely] the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” I wish I had time to take you to Psalm 68 to explain this, but suffice it to say for now that this is a picture of King Jesus coming from heaven to earth to do battle with sin, death, and the devil, winning (!), and then ascending mount Zion to take his heavenly throne, and rule over his people. And in the wake of his victory, he gives gifts to the church. The ones he mentions here are “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors, and teachers.” He lists them because of their primary role in equipping “the saints for the work of ministry,” verse 12 says. But we also know from elsewhere that these aren’t the only gifts he gives to the church (Rom 12:5-8; 1 Cor 12-14). He also gives his church people who serve and teach and give and exhort and lead, and then others who help and administrate, and another who does acts of mercy and another who prays and another who sings. Jesus gives all kinds of gifts to the church.
We also know how those gifts come to us while he’s in heaven. They come by the Spirit: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). But why does Jesus empower and give us these gifts through the Spirit? The rest of verse 12 tells us. The equipping by leadership and the work of ministry by everybody in the church—it all has this goal: “for building up the body of Christ, 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.”
Christian Growth Doesn't Occur in Isolation
Application: Christian growth doesn’t occur in isolation, but in community. That’s not to say we shouldn’t spend time alone with God—we do grow through that as well, and we’re really no benefit to others when we neglect that discipline. But to attempt growth as a Christian apart from the church is a contradiction to what life in Christ is about. As John Stott put it in his reflections on Acts 2: “[God] didn’t add [people] to the church without saving them, and he didn’t save them without adding them to the church.” Christian growth doesn’t occur in isolation, but in community. According to Eph 4, the community—with all its various gifts—plays a vital role to your maturity in Christ just as much as you play a vital role in seeing that the church matures. The picture is one in which we’re all playing our own respective parts toward each other’s growth in Christ-likeness.
This is why we emphasize for people entering membership and reiterate for our members the value of corporate worship and care groups and members meetings—the three primary care structures in Redeemer. Some of you can’t make care group on Wednesday nights because of your night shifts, but I would encourage you to find other ways to meet more often with another brother or sister. Some of you are already doing that, because you know that you will not reach maturity in Christ on our own. In fact, Heb 10:25 warns Christians that to neglect meeting with one another is stepping into dangerous territory. We need each other, that we might stir one another up to love and good works (Heb 10:24). We need each other’s exhortations every day, “that none of [us] may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13). I can’t take the time to ask each of you how the sermons are affecting your life each Sunday, where you’ve been convicted, where you need repentance, what particular besetting sins you wrestle against, what about Jesus looked beautiful to you again. But your care group members can; your accountability partner can.
How Are You Using Your Gifts?
Here’s another application: what gifts are you giving away? Jesus didn’t give you gifts to keep them in your prayer closet; he lavished you with the Spirit’s gifts so that you might lavish them on others. God’s Spirit empowers you every day, so that you might invest in the spiritual fitness of others. Verse 16 says that our growth depends on each part “working properly.” If nothing is coming out in service to your brothers and sisters, then one of three things are going on: either the Spirit isn’t present at all and you need Christ; or you’re in blatant disobedience to God; or you’re paralyzed by just not knowing what they are. If the first two are true of you, repent and submit yourself to Jesus’ lordship. He stands ready to save and forgive, and any one of us would count it a joy to walk with you through what that looks like. If you simply need help knowing your gifts, here are a few helps on how to discern the way the Spirit has gifted you for the church. Using your gifts is a matter of Christian stewardship, according to 1 Pet 4:10, so here we go.
Start by reading the word of God, which reveals to us who the Spirit is and how he works in the lives of individual Christians. Then pray. Paul says we should earnestly desire for the Spirit to work through us in unique ways to build up the church. Moreover, Jesus tells us in Luke 11:13, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” So, look at the word, pray, and then love. Love is the indispensable virtue governs the use of all spiritual gifts. We shouldn’t sit around and wait to discern our gifts before we love others; we should simply love and the Spirit will gift us and fill us accordingly in order to build up the church. Look at the needs of the people in this church or in this or that ministry or in this or that neighborhood and seek to meet them. Then, as you’re loving folks, look for how God excites you over this or that ministry, and listen for confirmation from others in the church. Since the gifts function for the church’s health, the church will also play a role in recognizing how the Spirit is at work in you.
So, that’s the short, paragraph version of discerning your gifts—word, prayer, love, look, and listen. If you want the longer, two-page version, email me and I’d be glad to send it to you. The point is that for those of you who are believers, God’s Spirit is at work in you in a very unique way for the good of this church, that we all might become more and more like Jesus—I don’t care if you enjoy teaching or selling books; serving parents and children in DIG or decorating the fellowship hall to thank them; leading a care group or organizing events for the care group; caring for children in nursery, or writing a poem for the Lord’s Supper. All of you have a contribution to make toward our growth in Christ-likeness—which leads us right into the last characteristic of the church as a spiritual community.
4. The Spirit enables the church to love as Christ loved us.
Lastly, the Spirit enables the church to love as Christ loved us. The more and more Jesus—through the work of his Spirit—conforms us into his image, the more and more we will love. Is that not what being “spiritual” truly means? If anybody was filled with and empowered by the Spirit it was Jesus. John 3:34 even tells us that Jesus was given the Spirit without measure. And what characterized his life? Love—a love that goes like this: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The maturity of a community is not found merely in what they confess, or merely in what they achieve, but in how much they love one another sacrificially. When the Spirit unites and indwells and empowers and gifts the church, the world witnesses a very tangible display of the other-oriented, self-sacrificial love of Jesus. God gives us his Spirit, so that the world will experience what he is like, the God who is love.
When God fills us with the Spirit, it produces an other-oriented lifestyle in his people, not a lifestyle that’s always bent on asking why everybody isn’t serving me and meeting my needs. The Spirit produces a sense of responsibility in us all for the welfare of the other members of his church. Look with me for a moment at 5:18. Paul writes, “Don’t get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit;” and then three times expresses the other-oriented life the Spirit produces: verse 19, “addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; verse 20, “giving thanks to God;” verse 21, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That last one—“submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ”—then plays itself out in some lengthy application for a husbands submission to Christ, and what that looks like in loving his wife sacrificially; a wife’s submission to her husband, and what that looks like in terms of respect; a child’s submission to his/her parents, and what that looks like in terms of honor; and even a servant’s submission to his master, and what that looks like in terms of obedience and good work. The point is that the disposition of the all the members in Christ’s community relate to each other not however they feel, but however the Spirit teaches them in Christ. And his way is love, a love that dies to self to see the other prosper in Christ.
Or what about Gal 6? Paul’s charge toward the end of Gal 5 is for us to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16); and when we do, he says we fulfill what the whole law pointed toward, a community of people who love their neighbors even as themselves (5:14). So, like he does in Ephesians, Paul also does in Galatians: he brings together life in the Spirit and love. Then he gives us some very positive, concrete examples of what that includes. Chapter 6, verse 1, “[it means we] restore [a wayward brother or sister] with a spirit of gentleness.” We don’t beat them over the head with truth or callously pretend like we have it all together. No, no, we restore them with gentleness—gentleness saturates our tone of voice; deep trust in the power of the gospel gives us patience; an affection for their soul fills our eyes with compassion.
Or, how about Gal 6:2? Walking in the Spirit looks like this: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Now that doesn’t mean that everyone should just exchange each other’s burdens; rather, it means that those who are more able should bear the burden of others who are less able. But here’s what may challenge some of us: the command assumes that we actually know each other’s burdens—whether that be through you communicating honestly about your needs instead of putting up a façade, or through you actually asking the hard questions of people. I love it when people tell me their burdens; it gives occasion for Jesus to shine through the tangible deeds of his people! This command also assumes that we’re also available to meet the needs once they’re voiced, and that we actually take the initiative in meeting them as Jesus took the initiative in meeting ours. And don’t worry if you can’t meet the needs by yourself, you have 170 others to volunteer! Know, be available, and act.
That’s just three examples, but I think you get the point. God has put his Spirit in us that the very love of Christ might characterize us. The Spirit unites us; he indwells us; he gifts us; and he enables us to love. I had a New Testament professor in seminary named John Taylor. And one day he began his lecture on the Book of Acts with this question: “The Book of Acts—acts of the apostles, acts of the Spirit, or acts of Jesus Christ, which is it?” After mulling over the book of Acts together for an hour and a half, I got his point—the answer was “Yes!” The reigning Christ empowered his church to act by the power of his Spirit. I pray that he will do the same for all of us; and just by way of reminder as we begin the New Year, I’d like to end with us all reading from our church covenant before we eat the Lord’s Supper together. If you’re a member of Redeemer, would you please join me in reminding each other again of who we are and how we love? If you’re not a member, view this time as an opportunity to hear yet another snapshot of the church as a spiritual community…