One of the consequences of sin in the world is illness. I feel that I’ve spent more than my fair share of time in hospitals with a variety of illnesses and injuries. These occasions tend to leave me overwhelmed with the complexity of modern medicine in my part of the world. I’ve been tended to by medical specialists, surgeons, radiologists, internists, respiratory therapists, physiotherapists, nurses of various ranks, dieticians, pharmacists, laboratory technicians, and x-ray technicians. Along with all of these fine folk, I think of all of the people who work as medical support staff in hospitals and the volunteers who often play a crucial, though not often recognized, role in the health care system.
Some of what are seen as the most humble jobs in a medical centre are critical. For example, all of the surgeon’s skill may be squandered if an infection takes hold because the custodial staff failed to keep the environment clean. Or, the best diagnosis and treatment plan is wasted if the pharmacist is careless in preparing the prescription. I suspect I could fill our time together with examples like these.
We could look at it this way, each person in a medical centre brings his or her gift into play for the benefit of the patients. Some of these gifts are highly specialized. Others are more general, but they are all needed. Each one plays its own unique role in ensuring that the patient has the best possible chance of being restored to health.
In the passage we’re going to look at today, Paul gives the what and the how and the why of the church. He makes it clear that God gives specially equipped men and women as His gift to the church. At some level, each one of us is God’s gift to the church! Yes, even you.
Ephesians 4:11 “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 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, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
This passage is important for us to understand because we’ve seen from our earlier studies that God’s purpose is to bring all of us into relationship with Himself and with each other. So if God is bringing us into His family, His kingdom, His church, we’d better know what we’re getting into so we can do what we’re supposed to be doing.
It will help to consider what the church is supposed to be producing. Schools produce graduates. Corporations produce profits. Factories produce products. Families produce the next generation. So what do churches produce? Disciples. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commanded the apostles to “Go and make disciples of all the nations…”
The idea behind being a disciple is to be a student, a pupil, a learner. In our case, our teacher is none other than Jesus, Himself. Like any good teacher He uses a variety of teaching methods to instruct us about God, ourselves, the world and so on. We learn things from other Christians who are more mature in their faith. We learn directly from the Bible. We learn some spiritual lessons simply through the circumstances of life. The idea is that throughout life we go on learning – indefinitely.
In school, we look forward to graduation. There is an end in sight. It’s not uncommon for students who are really diligent to eventually know more than their teachers. However, in our role as learners of Jesus, we’ll never get to that stage. The best we can hope for is to continually become more and more like Him – more spiritually mature.
I grew up in a family of five children. My wife and I have four children. So I’ve had lots of opportunity to observe what we can call “natural maturity.” Both parents and children look forward to several milestones which mark progress through the stages of childhood.
One early goal is the child’s ability to feed him or herself. This takes a big burden off of the parents. It’s time consuming for a mother to nurse her baby. Of course, I’m not suggesting that the only thing that’s happening during nursing time is physically nourishing the child. The mother/child bond strengthens in important ways during that stage of life. I’m thinking more about when solid food is introduced. It’s a great day when the child can get the pieces of food from plate to mouth with some degree of reliability (and not too much mess).
The next goal is for the child to take care of personal hygiene. Going to the bathroom is a big accomplishment for little people. This is followed by learning to wash hands and face, then bathing, how to handle a toothbrush and comb so on. Around this stage, children learn how to dress themselves and tie their own shoes.
These things are all related to the child’s physical well-being but soon that’s not enough. Parents want to see their youngsters learn how to work diligently, get along well with others, make good decisions and live interdependently in the family and later in society. We want them to learn how to take care of themselves without being selfish and at the same time to be able to put others first without losing their own sense of self.
Finally, the cycle becomes complete when our children have children of their own. The new grandparents get to watch their children walk the next generation through all of the stages they went through as they raised their family.
It’s not all that different in the church, the family of God. Of course, all of this is happening in the spiritual realm, but the same kind of steps are followed. New Christians start by simply receiving instruction about life in the Kingdom of God. They listen to sermons, Christian music, personal counsel and the like. As the maturing process continues they learn how to study the Bible on their own to draw out the truth and compare it with what others have learned from the same passages.
As they continue to develop, these maturing Christians learn how to get victory over sin in their daily lives. They learn how to confess their failures and sins and receive forgiveness so that their relationship with God stays fresh. They learn to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters without squabbling and also how to get along with those outside of the family of God. They learn how to listen to the Holy Spirit.
Eventually, they mature to the point where they can see the role God has for them to play in the church. God gives them and their spiritual strengths as a gift to the church so they can build into the next generation of Christians. Through their ability to proclaim the Word of God, to preach the gospel, to teach the Bible and guide others in the way of Christ they equip their spiritual children to do the same.
Paul makes it clear that this process is to bring everyone to spiritual maturity involving two things. Firstly, the unity of the faith. Christians often have some differences of opinions about things like how to carry out church meetings or the best way to evangelize. We also have personal preferences about things like the kind of music we enjoy, whether we like big groups or small groups, or how much we involve our intellects and our emotions in worship. But what makes us all Christians, what ties us together is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came to earth to live a perfect life, die a horrible death in our place, then overcome death and return to heaven. Whatever else might tend to divide Christians, this brings us together.
The other mark of maturity is knowledge of the Son of God. There are several Greek words which Paul used in relation to “knowing” and “knowledge.” The one here refers to precise and correct knowledge, typically used of things to do with God, Himself, and the ways of God. Spiritual maturity involves more than just a basic general knowledge of the doctrines of the faith and a personal acquaintance with Jesus by faith. The idea here goes deeper than this. Paul encourages us to explore the truth, the knowledge of Christ, at a profound level.
And there is a good reason for Paul to want his spiritual children to grow in their faith and knowledge of the Lord. In verse 14 he warns that if we don’t we’ll be like children changing our minds every time we hear a new idea and there are lots of people out there inventing ideas to lead Christians away from the truth.
Instead of our faith being a confusing, changing mix of vague ideas, as maturing Christians we will be able to speak the truth, not just with conviction, but with love so that where ever others are in their journey of faith, we are helping them move forward toward Christ. This in turn will prepare them to do the same so that, every individual member of the whole church is encouraging every other member in one way or another.
When God does something, He does it for a reason. Here we see that when God places us into the Church, it is so that we can both learn from others and help others. Each one of us is a gift of God to His family. Far too many Christians stop growing soon after they start. They become satisfied with what we might call a “minimum level of maturity” and fail to reach their potential for God. This week, think seriously about positive contributions you can make in the spiritual life of your church. Then, get out there and actually do it.