Lesson Focus: We are being called to develop habits of humility, gentleness, and patience so that we might grow in our unity and maturity as the church.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Be encouraged to develop habits of humility, gentleness, and patience.
Understand that our Triune God is the basis for the unity to which we have been called.
Seek to grow in our unity and maturity of faith so that we, as the church, might look more and more like Jesus.
Catching Up… So far in our study of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we have looked at his opening blessing in which Paul seeks to offer praise and thanksgiving to God for what God has done. This opening blessing sets the tone for the rest of the letter as it puts on display God’s intention that a divided world might be made one with its creator and one with each other.
We then moved on to chapter two, where Paul encourages his mostly non-Jewish friends to understand themselves in the same way that Jewish people understand them, as Gentile sinners. Paul does this not so that he can look down on his friends but rather so that they can begin to understand their former alienation from God and what God has subsequently done to bring them into God’s family.
The move is crucial for their understanding of the healing that God has brought through Christ. Subsequently, Paul describes for us how God has broken down the dividing wall of hostility that has existed between God’s people and the Gentiles and has created for himself a new unified family. This has been God’s intention for creation since before the foundations of the world.
Then, last week, we explored Paul’s hopes and dreams for his friends through a prayer that he offers on their behalf. Paul hopes that God would help them know the inexhaustible and unknowable love of Christ so that they might be rooted and grounded in that loves. The love of Christ is to be the rich soil and the means by which we grow up into mature Christians who participate in the unified body of believers. It may seem impossible that we might grasp the love of God in its fullness or that we would be filled with the fulness of God, but Paul confesses that what is impossible with us, God can do. And, God will do it because that is what God desires for us.
While the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians have dealt more with doctrine, chapters 4-6 will deal more with moral instruction. To be sure, there is a significant connection between the two sections and the doctrinal statements that Paul has made, specifically how the unity that exists with God the Father, Son, and Spirit, leads us toward unity here and now. As is always the case with Paul, Jesus Christ takes center stage.
We will split up this week’s passage into two sections. Verses 1-6 encourage the Ephesians to focus on unity. Verses 7-16 build on this focus on unity while showing how unity can be maintained through recognizing and using the gifts of ministry that God gives.
Intently Desire Unity – 4:1-6 Paul’s first admonition to his Ephesian friends is that they might “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Here Paul is not giving a new command, but he is reminding them to walk in the way they have been accustomed to walking, namely that of one who has been brought near to God. Having already taken great pains to help the Ephesians understand themselves and their own past and subsequent current reality, Paul begs them to walk in the path of unity. For it is to unity that the Ephesians have already been called.
Verse 2 details what unity looks like, humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with one another in love. These are the habits that the Ephesians need to continue to nurture if they are going to walk in the way of holiness.
In the Ephesian’s current social and cultural context, humility was not a virtue; instead, it was a habit to avoid. In other places, specifically Philippians 2:3, humility is offered as the opposite of seeking one’s selfish ambition, tending to the benefit of the other (Fowl, 130). So, Paul is urging his Ephesians friends to lay aside their selfishness so that they might tend to the needs of others for the sake of unity. Additionally, Paul urges his friends toward gentleness and patience.
Gentleness in the Old Testament is a term that is often used to describe God’s propensity toward responding to the sinfulness of humanity with mercy and compassion (Fowl, 131). In this view, gentleness goes way beyond the careful handling of something breakable, as appropriate as that image might be regarding unity, to our active and intentionally grace-filled response to the sinfulness of those around us. Unity cannot be preserved if we are all too willing to break ties with our brothers and sisters over the slightest sin or transgression. The habit of patience is grammatically tied to the phrase, “bearing with one another in love.” Indeed, that is what patience is, love working within and through us so that we might continue in unity with one another even in the face of significant stress. Taken as a whole, the call toward humility, gentleness, and patience assumes that failure will be a constant fixture within the body of Christ. This is why Paul has so profoundly prayed that his Ephesian friends be rooted and grounded in Christ’s inexhaustible love.
Still attached to the preceding list of habits, verse three stresses the dynamic nature of tending to unity. The NRSV translates the beginning of the verse as “making every effort to maintain the unity….” The original Greek, however, carries with it a sense of eager zealousness to do just that. It’s not that we just give it a good try, but that we show a keen interest and an intense desire to practice humility, gentleness, and patience so that we might continue to be unified. It should be noted here that it does not appear that Paul is addressing a fractured group of believers but that he is encouraging them to continue to do what they have already been doing. This is not a call for individual piety but a call to work together as a community.
Now that Paul has urged them to pay special attention to the unity of the Body of Christ through the power of the Spirit, he reminds his readers why we are called to unity. Verses 4-6 are possibly a creedal or confessional statement. Because there is one God who is the Father of all, there can be and is one body of believers unified through the love of Christ and the power of the Spirit. The confession of 4-6 is deeply trinitarian in nature and provides the basis for our call to unity. “Paul in 4:3–6 draws Father, Son, and Spirit together in ways designed to underwrite the unity of the church. This call to unity will only have force to the extent that Paul (and then the Ephesians) imagine Father, Son, and Spirit to be united” (Fowl, 135).
We do not create this unity that comes from God, but we can destroy it, which seems to be part of Paul’s point. We are called to walk in a way worthy of our calling as a unified family.
Gifts for Building – 4:7-16 This section can be split up into two separate units, 7-10 and 11-16. The first section proclaims that we have been given grace as a gift from Christ. This is not generic grace but grace to help maintain the unity of the body. At this point, Paul roughly quotes Psalm 68:18 to make that point that Jesus’ journey through the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and later sending of the Spirit is the mechanism through which we receive these gifts.
It’s in verse 11 that we get an idea about what these gifts are. The gifts that we have received through Jesus are that some would have specific tasks to do within the body to move it toward a mature unity. Some are to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers. The church has a history of taking this list and making it a basis for church structure and organization. It has not been wrong to do that, but probably is not Paul’s primary intent. Instead, Paul maintains that these gifts are given lavishly to us so that we might “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
It is not Paul’s intention here and now to offer up a specific description for each of these positions; rather, he is content to say that God has blessed us with individuals and groups of people who are committed to working so that the church grows in maturity and that it one day looks entirely like Christ (“to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Verse 13). Indeed, these apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are tasked with helping us grow up so that we will not be easily tricked or blown about by every new theology or line of thinking. With this growing maturity, the church is equipped for the work of ministry.
Speaking the truth in love is not a trait of children who are easily tossed about. Rather, it’s the mark of a unity that has been preserved through the continual and intentional habits of humility, gentleness, and patience. The final image of the chapter ties together previously used images of growth and building up. By the habits previously mentioned, by speaking the truth in love with the help of the gifts of God that have been given to us, we are enabled to grow together, working properly so that we might look like Christ.
So What? Paul has made it very clear that the life to which we have been called is one of unity as the body of Christ, the church. Earlier in the letter, Paul clarifies that we were once far off but that God has chosen us through Christ to become a new and unified family. As God continues to reveal himself to us through Christ and in the power of the Spirit, we are being rooted and grounded in love so that we might grow in maturity. This is our call.
It is clear, though, that the initiative is always with God. The call is from God. Any unity we experience is from God. We do not create unity, but we can destroy it rather quickly. Paul is urging us to continue down the path we have already started. He is urging us to continue to follow the call.
To do that, we will need to be intentional about our habits, specifically humility, gentleness, and patience. We are not just to be intentional, but we are to be keenly interested and zealously pursuing those habits. The call to Christ-like unity is not easy. These three habits presuppose failure, sin, and transgressions on our part. There would be no need to be patient if not for the faults of others. So, Paul calls us to cultivate those habits, and as we do so, we will maintain unity in the Spirit and walk toward and in peace. Of course, this unity is not just God’s desire for us, but it is on display for us in the Trinitarian nature of God. In God’s three-ness, God is unified, and so it is God’s desire for creation and for the church to be unified as well.
The church is not left to seek after these unifying habits by itself. No, God has given us the gift of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers who work to build up the body of believers so that we might come to full unity and maturity in Christ.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Paul begs us to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have already been called. Given the context of the letter so far, what is our calling?
Take a moment and come up with definitions for the following words, humility, gentleness, and patience. What do those three words have in common?
How do these three words help us in our attempts to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace?”
Verse 4 uses the word “one” a lot. There’s one body, one Spirit, one Lord (Jesus), one God…etc. While Paul is not attempting to make an explicit Trinitarian argument, how might the unity of God as three in one help us understand our need to be unified in the same way?
Paul says that through Jesus’ incarnation, teaching, death, resurrection, ascension, and through the sending of the Spirit, we have been given specific gifts. What are those gifts?
What is the purpose of those gifts that God has given us?
Describe how someone might “speak the truth in love.” Why would this be important for maintaining unity and growing in maturity?
Paul talks about the church in fluid and dynamic terms, “joined and knit together” and “building itself up in love.” What does this say about the nature and future of the church?
Stephen E. Fowl, Ephesians: A Commentary, ed. C. Clifton Black, M. Eugene Boring, and John T. Carroll, First Edition, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012).
F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984).