Commentary on Ephesians 4:1-16
Our passage begins the so-called “moral” section of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.
In other words, commentators often remark that in chapters 1-3 the focus is on doctrine while chapters 4-6 highlight implications for the personal and social life of Christians. But the truth is a little more complicated. These verses contain a number of images and metaphors that are not neatly contained in the category of “morality.”
Our passage appears to be tied together by the theme of unity in the church. Depending upon the interpreter’s situation, it might be useful to speak to the need of unity in the church. But there is also a wealth of other ideas in these verses that can be unpacked separately. This is the route we will take. We will lift up the ideas of captivity, calling, and what it means to be a “mature” (see 4:13) Christian.
Paul begins our section by reminding his listeners that he is a “prisoner in the Lord” (4:1). However, as Paul sees it, his frequent stays in prison are never without purpose. He does not simply refer to himself as a prisoner but as a “prisoner in the Lord” (compare 3:1). We might consider imprisonment to be a “waste” of time because it inhibits our freedom to do what we want to do. But Paul has a different perspective. Even confinement does not diminish his energy for his mission in life: to proclaim Christ. Indeed, he even reports to the church of the Philippians that his imprisonment serves to spread the gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:12-14). Perhaps there are two lessons that might be drawn from Paul’s example.
First, we should never limit Christ’s presence and power to places we typically regard as holy or sacred. As Paul’s own situation reminds us, the power of Christ can never be constrained by a physical or social location. We might think divinity goes hand in hand with wealth, splendor, influence and comfort. But almost everything in the gospels subverts this understanding.
God shows up in a manger and not a palace. The first to hear about the incarnation are not statesmen but shepherds. Jesus is regularly accused of hanging out with sinners and then, like Paul, becomes a prisoner of the state on the way to a shameful death. And then the first witnesses of the resurrection are women, deemed by their culture to be unreliable gossips.
Second, it is worth noting that stays in prison can often hone understanding and insight. Letters from captivity (like Ephesians or Philippians) are profound meditations on the meaning of faith in the midst of suffering and exclusion. Present examples could point to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, or Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Interpreters might consider reading one of these texts as a way to sharpen the proclamation for this week.
Called and Callings
Paul pairs the words “called” and “callings” in two different places in the passage (4:1 and 4:4). The reader is reminded of the relationship between our being called by God and the subsequent assignment of a calling in the world. The language of calling links the church with the election of Israel. God has chosen for himself (1:4) a people and this election depends firmly on God’s decision. It is done “before the foundation of the world” (1:4) and it relies solely on God’s gracious initiative (2:8). And the result of being called is that the faithful now have callings where they lead lives marked by humility, love and patience (4:2).
It is easy to get confused about the dual nature of a call. It is worth underlining that being called and having a calling must be distinguished but never separated. Our relationship with God simultaneously involves a relationship with neighbor or community. And these callings are multiple as it is impossible for a Christian to not be in some type of calling at all times of life.
Just as God is active in every nook and cranny of creation so God uses his people to make sure people are fed, clothed, comforted, educated, protected, etc. Proclaimers would be wise to remind listeners that a calling should not be pared down to a job or occupation. This would mean wide stretches of human experience would be outside of God’s providence. God calls us not only to work but to friendship, family life, citizenship, etc.
The Need for a Grown-up Faith
Paul makes a contrast here between children, who are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” (4:14) and those who “grow up” (4:15) in faith and thus contribute to the building up of the body of Christ (4:16). Paul is saying here that knowledge of Jesus’ identity is linked closely with unity in the church (4:13). We often think of being in the body of Christ as mainly a social activity. We gather together to bear one another’s burdens or we work together to address a need in the community or the larger world.
Of course, these are important expressions of the body of Christ. But Paul is highlighting here that the body has a “mind” as well. In other words, it is important for congregations to know what they believe and why they believe it. We live in a time that tends to undermine any claim to truth out of fear of being divisive or intolerant. But Paul advocates “speaking the truth in love” (4:15). In other words, our bearing witness to the truth is grounded in a deep humility (4:2).
After all, we are passing on what we have received and not what we own. Like John the Baptist, we do not possess the truth as much as we point to the truth in the person of the crucified and risen Christ.