Commentary on Ephesians 4:1-16
Ephesians 4:1 is a major hinge in the letter. Here the author turns from describing all that God has done for the cosmos, the church, and Paul himself to consider the kind of life that is the fitting response.
As the author turns toward exhortation, the preacher will need to be clear and careful so that this text does not lose its moorings in God’s grace. Fortunately, this passage is rich with reminders that the life being described comes as God’s gift. Three aspects of that divine giving are particularly highlighted.
First, the exhortation begins with a reminder that God is the one who has called us. This “worthy” life must begin there. The calling referred to here is not some particular activity or occupation, but is the entirety of our life in Christ. This life within God’s grace has always been God’s plan.
Ephesians has already made the astounding claim that God chose us not only before we did anything to deserve or even desire it, but before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). The life which we are to live in response is “worthy” (Ephesians 4:1) not because it can ever deserve such overflowing grace, but because such grace both calls for and calls forth a life that is in line with God’s intent for all creation.
Second, since we have already heard how God intends to bring everything to unity in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10), it is unsurprising to hear that the worthy life nurtures the unity of the church. Verse 3 calls us to “maintain” (or “guard”) the unity given by the Spirit. Though this unity is certainly central to the exhortations of this passage, it is first of all a gift from God rather than something we produce.
The author stresses this by naming seven (the number of completion) things that are “one”: one body of the church, called and sanctified by one Spirit; one hope which flows from God’s calling; one Lord Jesus whom we all confess and into whom we are growing up; one faith and one baptism which bind us to him and to each other.
Finally, the list comes to its climax in the one God and Father of all, whose saving activity fills the cosmos. In this remarkable proto-Trinitarian text, the unity of the church is rooted in the eternal unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We do not create this unity, but we are called to nurture and care for it in the way that we treat one another, with humility and gentleness, patience and love (verse 2).
Third, “bearing with one another” (verse 2) will be necessary because God has not only given the church its fundamental unity, but has also given the church a rich diversity of members. Each is a recipient of God’s grace (verse 7) as the Spirit calls, equips, and gives people to the church. The goal behind such giving is not uniformity, but a unity which reflects and serves God’s reconciliation of the whole creation in Christ. If we aren’t encountering and learning to love people who differ from us within the church, then something is wrong; this is not the healthy community that God desires.
Too often we act as though the purity of the church depends on dividing until only those who look, talk, think, and act alike are left together. But differences are not divisions, and Spirit-given differences within the church are not a problem but are God’s good gift so that together we can learn how to “speak the truth in love” (verse 15). That particular instruction sometimes becomes an excuse for abusive speech used to push down others and gain power for ourselves, all under the self-justifying banner of “truth-teller.” It reminds me of a colloquialism in the American southeast which goes “Bless your heart,” which usually means “Oh you poor thing, you don’t realize how idiotically wrong you are, but I’ll be glad to set you straight.” It is not a blessing at all. Such is not the “speaking the truth in love” to which this text calls us.
God’s calling, the unity of the church, and its diversity, are all affirmed as God’s gifts here, and yet they are gifts that we can distort and deny. This text should be painful to us. There are too many of God’s children with whom we refuse to work or worship. When we experience divisions in the church, we need to realize that we are getting the very thing that we have truly desired the most: being right in our own eyes, and not bothering to learn how to love those who are genuinely different, whether that involves our Hindu neighbor, or the congregation down the street, or our brother/sister in the next pew.
Yet this is not a text of despair. Verse 13 recognizes that we are still growing toward maturity. If that promised growth depended on ourselves, it would be a doomed project. But this text reminds us that we are held by the calling of God, we are given to one another by the Spirit, and we are united in the Lord who is head of the whole body.
The church’s growth into Christ (verse 15) is God’s gift and promise. We have not yet grown up, but it is happening as we continue to encounter one another at the Supper, at the hearing and singing of the Word, and in the ministries of the church. As Martin Luther once wrote:
This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.1
1 “A Defense and Explanation of All the Articles.” Luther’s Works 32, p. 24. Edited by George Forell. Augsburg, 1958.