Saturday 21 April 2012

Growing together (Ephesians 4:7-16)

How do you measure growth?

If you are a company, growth is measured in terms of profit: How much money did you make last year? If you are an individual, growth might be measured in terms of achievement: How well did you do in that exam? Whatever your answer, the way you measure growth shapes the way you fuel growth. It determines what you spend your money, your time and your energy on - to expand your business, to work out more at the gym, to put in more hours in the library, even to add up more friends on your Facebook page.

Which brings me to the question: How do we measure growth here in the Chinese Church? Each year, I’m asked to prepare an annual review looking back at the events and reflecting back on the changes that took place here in the English Ministry. Each year, I ask myself the same question: How have we grown? Some might say to me, That’s not the point. The point is to recognise God’s grace and be thankful. After all, Jesus reminds us that he will build his church (Matthew 16:18). Paul reminds us that God is the only one who can bring about growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). Our job is to be faithful with the gospel, to continue building on the one foundation of Jesus Christ.

And yet, today’s passage challenges us to think about what it means to grow. Paul tells us we are supposed to grow, that the whole reason why God gave us spiritual gifts is so that we will grow, and that there will be serious problems in the church if we do not grow. In other words, when we look back at the last twelve months, Paul wants us to be able to see growth, to be able to discern spiritual growth, in our personal lives and here in the Chinese Church. How do we do that? What are we meant to look out for?

Three things:

(1) Growth that comes by God’s grace
(2) Growth that is rooted in God’s truth
(3) Growth that builds one another up in love

Growth comes by God’s grace

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. That is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”
Ephesians 4:7-8

In a few moments Paul will deal with spiritual gifts, that is, gifts empowered by God’s spirit, to be used for the building or strengthening of God’s church. These are supernatural gifts that come from Jesus himself. But Paul begins by saying, I’m talking about every single Christian in this church. “To each one of us grace has been given.” He’s not referring to a select few but every believer in Christ. No one is left out.

To help us understand how this is so, Paul quotes an Old Testament passage from Psalm 68. It is a picture of God as a conquering king. He has defeated his enemies in battle and as a sign of his victory, he ascends to his holy mountain, referring to Mount Sinai. (If you remember from our studies in the book of Exodus, Sinai was the place of God’s presence, a mountain covered with smoke and fire, out of which God spoke to the Israelites.) Anyways, the victory of God over his enemies is the occasion in which he distributes gifts to men. It is this act of ascension that Paul picks up on to demonstrate the source of our gifts, which we have received now as Christians. Paul is saying, in a similar way, our gifts come from an ascending king in victory: Jesus Christ when he ascended after his death on the cross. Have a look at what he says next.

What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions. He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
Ephesians 4:9-10

Remember that Psalm 68 was talking about God, the God of the Israelites, the God who demonstrated his power in the Exodus, that God. What Paul does is he takes this image of a conquering king and applies it directly to Jesus in his humility and in his humanity. “He who descended is the very one who ascended,” Paul says. Jesus came to earth to engage in battle - he became a man in his incarnation, he humbled himself as a servant and died on the cross - this was Jesus taking on the forces of evil, taking into himself the punishment for our sin and taking out the devil. Finally, he rose as a sign of his triumphant victory over sin, death and Satan. In John’s gospel, Jesus talked of his “descending” and “ascending” in numerous occasions. He tells Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” and then he immediately refers to the “lifting up” of the Son of Man as a way of speaking of the cross (John 3:13, see also John 6:62). The cross is the battlefield where we see Jesus’ descent and ascent - his descent in humility and humanity; his ascent in victory over sin and his enemies.

Therefore, the gifts that Christ bestows upon us aren’t simply a reflection of his generosity and grace, it is first and foremost a powerful display of his victory. He has ascended “higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe,” whereby “fullness” is an expression of Christ’s dominion and authority (see Chapter 1, verses 22 to 23) not so much that Christ’s presence will be felt everywhere, but that his headship will be clearly seen over everything. “He fills the whole universe”. In other words, Jesus Christ is Lord over all.

Now that’s the first part of the Psalm: Jesus Christ is the conquering King. But next come the gifts. The key thing to notice is not that he gives gifts to people, but that he gives certain people as his gifts to the whole church.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.
Ephesians 4:11 (NIV11)

If you are reading from the New International Version of the bible (NIV), you might notice that the version I quoted above is slightly different (which is from the updated NIV 2011), in that the previous translation had “some to be apostles, some to the prophets...” and so on, making it seem as if Jesus gave out titles (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers) or gifts to a certain few to hold these titles (eg. the gift of apostleship, of prophecy, of evangelism and so on). But as the latest translation makes clear, those are not the gifts. Rather, the people themselves are given by Jesus for the good of the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists and the pastors. We often think of gifts in terms of abilities (like preaching, singing, cooking) or possessions (money, the church building, our car). Yet here is one category of gifts we might have missed: people; individuals tasked with the responsibility of leading God’s church. The question is who are these people?

We have encountered the first two before. The apostles and prophets have been mentioned twice so far in Ephesians. In Chapter 2, verse 20, the “apostles and prophets” form the foundation of the church. In Chapter 3, verse 5, the “apostles and prophets” receive the revelation of the gospel through God’s spirit. In both instances, God used the apostles and prophets to do two things: (1) to receive the gospel; and (2) to establish the church through the preaching of the gospel. These were specific people in history used by God. The twelve disciples of Jesus were the first apostles (additionally, if you turn back to the very beginning of Ephesians we see there that Paul also introduces himself as an apostle). The word apostle means messenger, literally, “sent ones”. In the ancient world before the Internet, before Twitter and Facebook, important messages were sent through people. Through messengers. That’s what the apostles were sent to do: To carry the message of the gospel. Their job was to faithfully communicate that message, not modify it to suit their fancies, not to add to it to make it sound more impressive. As apostles sent by God, they spoke the message of God’s Son, that Jesus Christ is Lord through his death and resurrection (Romans 1:4). On the other hand, the prophets were a category of God’s servants from the Old Testament who spoke directly from God. Many of their verbal announcements began with, “This is what the LORD says.” Often times God spoke through his prophets to call his people to repentance, that is, to turn away from idols and serve the only true God. You can see immediately that apostles and prophets had one thing in common: they both spoke God’s word.

Christians debate as to whether we ought to have apostles and prophets today. Some churches have modern day apostles and prophets in their leadership team and they would back up their practice with verses from the bible. A key passage is actually the one we are looking at today. God has given apostles and prophets to plant churches, to lead churches and to strengthen churches, they would say. And as Ephesians 4:7 makes clear, the offices of apostle and prophet are given by Jesus himself, no less than the evangelists, pastors and teachers who are also included in the list of gifts given to build Christ’s church. Most churches have no problem having evangelists, pastors and teachers they argue, so why ignore the even greater gifts of the apostles and prophets? Now it is important here to note that modern-day apostles and prophets clearly distinguish themselves from the New Testament apostles chosen by Jesus, that is the Twelve, and the Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Those were Apostles (with a capital “A”). Together with the prophets, the apostles witnessed to and wrote down God’s full revelation which has now come down to us in holy scripture - the prophets representing the Old Testament, the apostles representing the New. In other words, they wrote the bible. So, when Paul refers to the foundation of the “apostles and prophets” in Ephesians 2:20, he is talking about the foundation of the gospel that is outlined and revealed in the bible. Paul is saying that God’s word is the foundation of God’s church.

Now where does that leave the apostles and prophets today? While the bible does refer to a select group of individuals as the first apostles (the twelve chosen disciples of Jesus) and the Old Testament prophets, still, looking through the New Testament letters we find other apostles and other prophets outside of these exclusive circles. Barnabas is called an apostle in Acts 14, so are Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16. The church at Antioch had prophets, Acts 13 tells us, and Paul writes to the church in Corinth giving guidance on how prophecy was to be incorporated into corporate worship (1 Corinthians 14). Clearly, these apostles and prophets are not to be confused with the foundational apostles and the Old Testament prophets, and yet there they are, serving in the church and exercising their spiritual gifts of ministry. So, does that mean we should start advertising for apostles and prophets here in the Chinese Church? Actually, no. In fact, doing so might actually miss the whole point of Ephesians 4.

Firstly, Paul isn’t referring to the apostolic office in generic terms. Rather, it is the foundational non-negotiable unchanging witness of the first apostles that is in view in Chapter 2, verse 20. And in Chapter 3, verse 5, the apostles receive a revelation so unique and exclusive that God had kept it hidden from every single generation before them. So while the term apostle might be used elsewhere in the New Testament (and by Paul himself) as a generic way of referring to missionaries or church planters, it certainly cannot be the case here in Ephesians. These apostles in question are the original eye-witnesses, set apart by God to establish the non-negotiable gospel.

Secondly, the prophets mentioned here in Ephesians may not be referring to the Old Testament prophets. Aha! You might say, So you do believe in a modern-day prophetic office. Well, no, I don’t think those are kind of the people Paul has in mind either. You see, every argument for the exclusivity of the apostles we’ve just seen in Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 applies just as well to the prophets; notice that Paul pairs them up: “the apostles and prophets”. Interestingly, Ephesians 3:5 talks about God’s revelation that has “now been revealed” to them. Meaning, Paul is not talking about past revelation to the Old Testament prophets but a present unfolding of God’s will. I think the prophets he has in mind are people like Mark and Luke who wrote the gospels. Mark and Luke were not apostles (you might additionally include the author to Hebrews). Yet what they witnessed to and recorded in their writings were more than historical anecdotes. They were writing scripture. They communicated God’s word. In the case of Luke, who was a medical doctor and a missionary partner of Paul, he actually wrote one-third of the New Testament (more than the apostle Paul even). Paul is saying, don’t discount these gospel records simply because the authors don’t begin their sentences with “Thus saith the LORD”. They are God’s prophets who have received God’s revelation - a revelation surpassing even that of the Old Testament writers like Isaiah and Jeremiah. They have received the full revelation of the gospel. Their writings have the full weight of God’s word.

To use Ephesians 4 as scriptural basis for a modern-day apostolic and prophetic office within the church would miss the point. Paul is referring to their specific combined witness to Jesus in the gospel recorded for us in the bible. This argument has nothing to do with some special level of authority in the church or the display of signs and miracles. The bigger issue is the foundation of the church built on the testimony of these original apostles and prophets. If we get this, then we see the flow in the remaining gifts of the evangelist and the pastor.

The evangelists were people whose job was to preach the gospel. (Literally, the word evangelist means gospeller). Who are evangelists supposed to preach the gospel to? When we have evangelistic events in church, we usually invite our non-Christian friends because the evangelist’s job is to tell them about Jesus, to tell them the good news. And yet, this week at Rock Fellowship, we studied Paul’s letter to the Romans where he says that he is so eager to visit them in order to preach the gospel to them. In other words, Paul wants to evangelise the Romans, the surprising thing being that these Romans were already Christians. And yet, Paul says, having heard that they had put their faith in Jesus, he was all the more eager to preach the gospel to them! The lesson for us is this: the gospel is not just the ABC’s of the Christian faith, it is the A to Z. We need to keep coming back to the gospel. We need to keep holding on to the gospel. That’s why when Paul tells Timothy to “do the work of the evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5), he is telling Timothy to preach the gospel in a situation where there is already an established church, where there are already Christians, but where there was false teaching, a sore lack of leadership and all sorts of troublemakers in this church. 2 Timothy 4 is the only job description for an evangelist to be found in the entire New Testament, and it has nothing to do with getting non-Christians to become Christians, but everything to do with strengthening confessing believers in their knowledge of the gospel. Actually, I think the modern equivalent of the evangelist would be the church planter or even the missionary. That is, the ultimate responsibility of the church planter and missionary is not simply to convert a few Christians and then move on, it is actually to establish a community of Christians as the church of God rooted in the gospel; to appoint leaders who are firm in their grasp of the gospel and who keep bringing people back to the gospel. That’s the job of the evangelist - to remind everyone of the centrality and importance of the gospel - to non-Christians, yes, of course - but perhaps more so, to Christians so that they will continue to stand firm on the gospel.

Finally, we have the pastor and the teacher. Paul intentionally connects the two roles together, such that he could either be talking about (a) the pastor who teaches (the pastor-teacher, as it were) or he might be highlighting (b) two levels of authoritative teaching - one as a form of leadership (pastoral) and the other, as a form of instruction (teaching). Today, pastoral ministry has come to be equated with counselling. You go to your pastor when you feel depressed and he pours you a cup of tea, gets you to talk about your feelings and then prays for God to give you strength and guidance. That’s not the bible’s definition of a pastor. The pastor’s responsibility is to lead, to guide, to protect the church under his care; and Ephesians 4 tells us how: It is through the preaching and teaching of scripture. In fact, that is precisely what Paul is doing through this letter. He is speaking with all the authority of an apostle, with all the love of a brother-in-Christ, with all the responsibility of a pastor over this church by unfolding the implications of Christ’s death on the cross. The heart of pastoral ministry is the preaching and teaching of God’s word.

These four roles of ministry - apostle, prophet, evangelist and pastor-teacher - are all word-based ministries. Their authority comes from the bible, not themselves. Their focus is the bible, not themselves. How does this fit in with the bigger picture of God’s grace, of Christ gifting the church with these people? It is saying this - and at this point, I am going to sound heretical to some of you - it means that the gospel is not enough. Hear me out now. God didn’t just drop a holy book called the bible from heaven into our laps with a sticky note saying, “Read me.” He gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to speak the gospel. Isn’t that what Jesus did after his resurrection? He sent his friends out into the world saying, “Go and make disciples... teaching them to obey everything I commanded you.” He sent his apostles, he gave us the witness of the New Testament and gospels, he gave us individuals who told us what it meant to trust in Jesus, what he did for us on the cross, who prayed with us to trust in his sacrifice for our sake on the cross; he gave us church leaders who knew their bibles and kept opening up the scriptures to speak God’s word into our lives. The gospel isn’t enough. To each one of us God gives us friends, family, brothers and sisters who care enough about us to remind us again and again about the gospel. Why? So that we will grow in maturity in this gospel.

To prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the full measure of the fullness of Christ.
Ephesians 4:12-13

The new season of the Great British Menu has just started and this week in particular features a contest between chefs from the Midlands, one of whom is from Cambridge. The winner of the series will have the honour of preparing a banquet for athletes who will be competing at this year’s Olympics. So the chefs from each region compete against one another by preparing their dishes - a starter, fish dish, main course and dessert - and a panel of judges chooses the best menu to put through. Now for me, the interesting thing about the contest is not just the final judging episode at the end of each week, but the preliminary episodes leading up to it where the contestants spend a whole day preparing each of the courses. The whole episode focuses therefore on all the work that goes into preparing the one dish. You get to see the ingredients they use. You get to see all the techniques, the tools, the skill that is often hidden behind the kitchen doors. And really, it’s just a bunch of cooks chopping and stirring and mixing stuff together. They even show the bit where each chef has to scrub and clean the stoves after each round. To me, that’s real cooking. It’s the preparation, it’s the patience, it’s the experience, thought and concentration that goes into the food.

The apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors are like these master chefs. Their job is to prepare God’s people. They are not CEO’s, military commanders and big shots barking orders from behind the pulpit. Their purpose is to equip Christians in the church with what they need to carry on and do the work that God wants them to do. I think that’s a revolutionary thought for church leaders today. It means putting a priority on training men and women for ministry. It means putting in the hard work of preparing your bible studies, of preparing your sermons and then teaching your brothers and sisters to read God’s word for themselves. In the same way that good food takes hard work and preparation, so growing mature Christians takes planning, patience and perseverance. You are equipping them with the gospel, giving them the confidence they need in the gospel to boldly serve Christ in faith, without reserve. This is what it means to build the body of Christ. It’s not growing a big congregation of thousands. It’s not having multi-million pound church complex with state-of-the-art sound system. Building the body of Christ means training and equipping believers for the work of the gospel.

Conversely, when teaching is absent from the life and ministry of the church, Paul says, the result is not no-teaching, but false teaching. The result is immaturity: the inability to discern God’s word from man’s.

Growth is rooted in God’s truth

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.
Ephesians 4:14

Paul says, if we focus on the gospel, “we will no longer be infants”. Some translations have, “we will no longer be children”. In other words, we won’t be like kids. Let’s think about that for a moment and ask ourselves: Why would that be so bad?

Imagine if the church was run by kids, would that be necessarily a bad thing? I mean, kids are less hung-up than adults. Kids are more innocent than adults, aren’t they? What’s so bad about being more like the kids at Sunday school? Open up a bag of Haribo and it’s good times! Didn’t Jesus tell us that we need to be more childlike in order to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3)?

Paul is not saying that if kids ran the church, we would lose all our members. He isn’t saying that if the church took its eye off the gospel, we would cease to exist. What he says is that we will be “tossed back and forth by the waves, blown here and there by every wind of teaching.” He is saying that the church will hop from one fad to another. That’s what he means by being like kids. He is warning us about being childish. Childish people lose focus. One day we will be all up and excited about one thing. The next day, we will lose interest and find something else to spend all our money, attention and time on. He is talking about immaturity and irresponsibility.

Again, the picture is not that of a church full of Christians who do not know the gospel, who, if you asked any one of them, “Did Jesus die for your sins?” they would answer, “Of course!” They know the gospel. They can tell you the gospel. But for them, there are other things more important than the gospel. “The gospel is for outsiders who haven’t heard the gospel. As for us, we need to move on from the gospel,” they might say. Notice that Paul describes the people behind these “winds of teaching” as smart guys. They are “cunning and crafty”, he says. Meaning, These guys are not idiots, they are, in fact, intelligent. But Paul also tells us that they are “deceitful”. Their purpose is to lead the church into destruction by leading the church away from the gospel. Remember that earlier we saw that the pastor-teacher derives his authority not from himself, but from the teaching of the gospel. Teaching represents authority. Who we listen to here in the church is who we submit to as the church. Elders are primarily tasked with teaching the church. Timothy is instructed by Paul to entrust the gospel to men who are able to teach. So when deceitful men assume a teaching role in the church, but are teaching us something other than the gospel, they are effectively leading the church away from the gospel. And when we invite such men to teach us, we are giving them the power to do so.

My point is this: When we neglect gospel-focussed, biblically faithful teaching in the church the result is not less teaching, the result is not no-teaching; the result is a proliferation of false teaching. More fads. The church will be drawn into controversy over unessential things, we will argue over unimportant things when we abandon the most important thing: the gospel.

Paul says we need to grow up in the gospel. Don’t be childish. Don’t be distracted. Keep standing on Christ our solid ground so that when the winds come, when temptation comes, when persecution comes, we will stand, we will withstand, we will stand firm. This is growth rooted in the truth of God’s word.

Growth builds one another up in God’s love

So we’ve seen that we need to grow in God’s grace, to grow in God’s truth and now finally, Paul says, we need to grow in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does it work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

This love is not independent of the grace and truth. We exercise our gifts in love. We speak the truth in love. Paul is bringing the previous two points together. Or put it another way: Love is not just a description, it results in an action. Love is not a noun, it is an active verb. You speak the truth in love. You work and serve one another out of love.

Love is more than just an emotion. Sorry to use a stereotype, but to the girls among us, Paul is saying that love isn’t just a feeling that you have. Recognise that when people around you are serving you, when they are working hard, when they are faithful in doing their job, that’s love. Paul says, it is the whole body working together, building one another up in love.

But to the guys, Love is not empty action, either. We speak to one another the truth, but it’s the truth conveyed in love. We do our jobs, we get it done, not just for the sake of the exercise or for showing off, but in order to build each up in love. There is a loving manner we need to adopt even as we are working hard, even as we are sacrificing our time and energy, otherwise we lose the plot. We speak, we work, we act in love.

Jesus says, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35) What is he saying? Jesus is not saying that we need to be lovely. Love is not a description, love is an action. Jesus is saying that when the world sees Christians loving one another, serving one another, sacrificing for one another - in action, in truth, in obedience to Jesus - they will say, “Those guys are the real deal. They follow Jesus.”

This is what it means to grow as the church. (1) It is growing in God’s grace - our gifts come from him, our leaders come from him and they are paid for through victorious sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. (2) It is growing in the truth - standing firm on the gospel, strengthened by God’s word, mature in our focus on Jesus. Finally it’s (3) growing in love for one another. Church is the context of Christian growth. You don’t grow as an individual, but as part of the body of Christ. Paul says, “We will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ.” We grow together as we submit to Jesus as head over his body, the church.

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