Endeavoring to Keep the Unity

November 4, 2012 / No. 3644

Dear radio friends,

To be a prisoner—that is the greatest shame. A prisoner is a man kept under close watch in a cell because he has been found guilty of committing a crime. He is no longer free. He is being punished.
The apostle Paul was in prison. He was locked away in a house that was being carefully guarded. Paul makes reference to this in Ephesians 4:1-3, the passage we consider today. We read in those verses:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Paul refers to himself as the prisoner of the Lord. This was literally true. He was a prisoner, unable to come and go as he pleased. His crime? He was a prisoner of the Lord Jesus Christ; he was tried and found guilty of belonging to the kingdom of Christ.
Paul does not see this as a shame, however. And neither do we. This was an honor. Paul refers to himself as a prisoner of Christ here in verse 1 as a title of honor. Paul was imprisoned for the sake of Christ because, in reality, Paul was a prisoner to Christ. He did not come and go according to his own will. Christ was his Lord, his Master. Christ had sent him to places that Paul himself had not known that he would go. Paul’s will was subject to the will of Christ, his Ruler. This was why Paul was in prison. He served Christ unwaveringly. It is with his authority as prisoner to Christ that Paul now gives us the exhortation of this chapter before us.
The verses we consider today begin the second half of this letter Paul writes. This is typical of almost all of the letters that Paul wrote. The first half of the letter is devoted to instruction in the blessed truths of the gospel. It is called the didactic section of the letter. In the first half Paul lays the doctrinal foundation that underlines everything he teaches in the second half of the epistle. We have learned in our broadcasts some beautiful truths about the church. We have learned of the election of the church. We learned that Christ is the Head of the church. We learned that the foundation of the church is Jesus Christ and the Word. We have learned that to be a true member of the church we need to be made alive from the dead. Then, finally, we learned of the mystery of the church, that in Christ the church, once limited to one nation, has now become universal in scope. All these truths form the basis for the exhortations and instruction we receive in the last three chapters of this letter.
That means that we begin the practical section of this letter. In the chapters to come we will receive all kinds of instruction and admonition in how we are to behave in the sphere of the church institute. The first admonition we receive is to endeavor to keep the unity of the church.
Unity. Blessed unity. Unity is oneness—oneness of thought, of aspirations and goals. It is to dwell with each other in agreement. The church is a unity. It is the body of Christ, after all. Christ is the Head of that body. It is His will that the body performs. His life is in the body, and the various members of that body work together harmoniously in order to achieve what the Head tells them to do.
The body whose members do not work together harmoniously, because they do not listen to the head, is a dysfunctional body. It is a person who has MS.
The church of Jesus Christ is a unit. And its members are called by Christ their Head to live in unity with each other. This is an amazing reality, of course. Just as a body is made up of a diversity of members that are so different from each other, so is the church. The finger is so different from the ear, or the ear from the nose, or the nose from the knee, and so on. There is a huge diversity of members in the human body. Yet, they are a whole, a unit. The body with all its members is one.
Well, the church is made up of young and old, men and women, different races, different classes of people. The members have their own personalities, their own abilities, their own talents and gifts. There is a diversity of people in the church. And yet the church is a unit, it is one. It is a living organism.
This unity is worked in the church by the Spirit. It is a unity of the Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. It is that Spirit that provides the electrical impulse, so to speak, between the Head (who is Christ) and the members of His body, the church. A human brain sends electrical impulses to the various members of the human body in order that they might fulfill its commands. The Spirit is sent by Christ to dwell in each one of the members of the church. And as that Spirit lives and works in us, Christ dwells in us. So Christ, through His Spirit, directs the members of the church to live and dwell in unity with each other. This is why Paul speaks of the unity of the Spirit. Just as the members of the human body work in unity with each other, so also the members of the church. If the members do not live in agreement of thought, aspiration, and goals the church is dysfunctional, a diseased body. This, then, is what lies behind the exhortation of these first few verses of Ephesians 4.
This is also the idea of the bond of peace that Paul speaks of in verse 3. A bond unites two or more people together into one. And peace is that which creates the bond. Peace. Blessed, blessed peace! Unity and peace go hand-in-hand with each other. One cannot be had without the other. Unity produces peace and peace, unity. Peace is tranquility, harmony, good order. The bond of peace is the harmony and tranquility that bind the members of the church together with one another. When there is harmony and good order among the members of the church, then there is joy in the Lord. The church becomes a beautiful place in which to live and dwell, a desirable and happy place. Why? Because there is peace there and everyone likes to have peace. Who does not like to enjoy peace and tranquility in life? The church must be that. There must be a peace that binds together the members of the church into one in unity.
But we must understand that the apostle Paul here in these verses gives a command to the church institute, this church in Ephesus and its members. He commands them: Walk worthy of your calling. The saints and faithful, as they live together within the confines of the church institute, are given this command in order that by it they might endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. But why does the church institute receive such a command if the church is a unit already? If all those who are in Christ are members of His body and fulfill the will of their Head, why must we endeavor to keep that unity?
Because, dear listener, such unity does not come naturally to the members of the church. You see, ever since the fall of man into sin, there is one vice, one particular evil that characterizes every member of the human race: pride. Man is inclined toward self-exaltation, self-centeredness, and self-pleasing. Such pride is the root cause of contention and strife. Pride produces in man all kinds of other sins and wickedness. The proud man thinks he knows it all, that he is the epitome of truth and right. The proud man is quick to speak evil of his neighbor to others. One who is proud is quick to feel sorry for himself when he thinks he is being wronged. A proud man is rough and merciless in his dealing with others. He is not patient with others, willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Arrogance and haughtiness come out in his demeanor and dealings with others. He is not willing to live in peace and love when there are differences of opinion. He is standoffish and judgmental. He seeks himself and his own and is easily provoked. A proud man is quick to think evil of another and to shun him.
Pride is a horrible thing, my friends. And every man, by nature, is characterized by it. God’s people are not immune to this sin simply by virtue of their salvation. I wish we were! There would then be no reason for the admonition of this verse.
The result of such pride in the church is division and strife. It interrupts the unity and peace of the congregation. Instead of there being unity amidst diversity, there is emulation and wrath and strife and divisions and even schism. Paul addresses these sins numerous times in every one of his letters. The church institute that is characterized by this to one degree or another is not a very pretty church. When members of a church are constantly criticizing one another, or the church itself, and when they in anger argue with each other, they do not display unity and peace. On the contrary, there is a certain negativism that infiltrates the whole church. The zeal and enthusiasm of the saints in the gospel wanes. The church loses its joy and harmony. It loses its blessed peace, where people desire to come out for a little while just to rest.
For this reason, God’s saints are called to endeavor to keep the unity. We are called to exert ourselves with all that is in us to keep peace in the church. There are ways, you know, that make for peace. There are avenues that we can walk that will guard carefully the unity of the church. Well, we are to give our diligence. Strive to attend to those ways that will make for unity.
Here is the gift God gives His people in Christ: peace. Here is the gift He gives His church: unity. These are wonderful gifts. These are precious gifts. But they are so fragile. So the command: take care of these gifts. Keep them. Guard the unity and peace of the church carefully. Do not let them slip away because of the sin and pride found in your sinful flesh. Watch your tongue. Guard your actions. Hold in check your thoughts. Keep the peace—even when there is controversy in the church, which there is going to be.
There is a way to keep the peace. But when there is difference of opinion or controversy, the worst comes out in us because pride is thin-skinned. It is so easily hurt and it is so quick to take offense. It is so sensitive. For that reason pride is so quick to retaliate: “What can I do to hurt the next guy? What can I do to show everyone that I have been hurt? Somehow, some way, I will justify myself and show that I’m not the one in the wrong here.”
No! That is when we must strive the harder to maintain the peace of the church. That is when we must insist that the harmony of the church, the unity that belongs there, may not be hurt. We guard it and keep it. No matter what the cost. Even if that means that we let heresy win the day? Heresy and wickedness may never win the day in the church. But there is a way of dealing even with these and still makes for peace in the church. And Paul says now: “Follow that way. Love the church and love the unity of the Spirit there.”
Paul prescribes for us also the manner in which we are to endeavor to keep the unity of the church in these verses. That is given us specifically in verse 2: “With all lowliness and meekness, with long suffering, forbearing one another in love.” When the members of the church are characterized by the virtues mentioned in these verses, then the result will be unity and peace in the church. That means, of course, that all the vices and sins that stand contrary to these virtues must be shed from us each day, while we cloth ourselves with these virtues. The chief virtue that needs to be guarded and kept is that of humility.
Ah, the opposite of pride—humility. It requires a deep sense of one’s own littleness and unworthiness. Literally it is translated lowliness of mind. This virtue reveals itself to others only when we have a humble opinion of ourselves. One who is humble knows his own unworthiness and his own littleness in comparison to God. He, in faith, acknowledges how great is his Creator and how small a creature he is in comparison to God.
In faith, he understands, too, that he is not even worthy to stand in the sight of a holy God. So, humility is confessing with Paul that when I compare myself to my fellow believers, then I can say of myself that I am the chief of sinners. A humble man sees his need for the cross and the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. That is where humility begins. If we know ourselves to be the chief of sinners, then certainly we also confess that we are less than the least of all the saints. How dare I raise my eyes in pride over someone else in the church when I know who I am—the chief of sinners? How presumptuous I would be to think of myself more highly than another if I truly believe, like Paul, that I am the least of all saints.
With that virtue must be found her twin: meekness. Humility and meekness are the “peanut butter and jelly,” the “soup and sandwich” of virtues. One cannot be had without the other. When one is humble, then he is also meek. To be meek is to esteem our brother or sister more highly than ourselves. It is the willingness to put the name and the welfare of someone else above that of our own name. The result of meekness is gentleness and kindness. In other words, what characterizes us within shows itself to others in how we deal with them. Humility is an inner disposition of the heart. Meekness is the resultant action—the ability to speak kindly and gently to others. When we are meek we bolster another person. We are ready to encourage others rather than cutting them down. We suffer someone to hurt us without, in pride, retaliating. Such meekness Jesus exhibited when He was reviled on the cross and He reviled not again. This, too, we must endeavor to walk in if we are to keep the unity and keep the peace. No grudges, no vengeance, no anger.
These virtues of humility and meekness form the foundation for the next two virtues. We must be longsuffering and forbear one another in love. Every member must exercise himself or herself with longsuffering, first of all. This word means, as it looks, to suffer long when put to hurts and misfortunes. When there are insults and injuries aimed at you, then suffer them. Persevere patiently without retaliation. Do not become discouraged or lose heart. Longsuffering is a tough virtue to exercise. When we are hurt, the natural reaction is to hurt back, certainly not to suffer long with the sins and weaknesses of others.
Then there is the twin sister of longsuffering: forbearance. Without letting up, Paul gives us another double-dose. This literally means to hold oneself erect. The idea is that we stand up straight when others pour out upon us contempt and scorn. Because we love the church so much, and because we love our fellow members in the church, we do what is best for the fellow saint. Even if that means sustaining or bearing the insult or injury he would aim at us.
Is anyone listening here today able to fulfill such virtues in our dealings with fellow saints in the church? Anyone here free of pride? Anyone here able to act in these ways to our fellow saints? There are a few, but they are rare exceptions who are characterized by these virtues. Blessed is that person who is. The point is, do we see how much we must love the church? Not only are we called to join the church, but we are to love the church. Do you see how much we ought even to sacrifice ourselves for the unity of the church of Jesus Christ in this world and for the peace of Zion? Are we willing to be defamed and hurt because we love the church? Are we willing to keep silence and positively defend our brothers and sisters in the Lord because we love the church? Not because we are such grand and noble people, but because we love the church. We love God’s people. We have cast our lot with them in this world.
“For sake of friends and kindred dear, my heart’s desire is Zion’s peace; and for the house of God, the Lord, my loving care shall never cease” (Psalter 350). That is why we guard ourselves and seek to be characterized by the virtues here in this word of God before us.
In the first verse of this chapter we are given the incentive to do so. Paul beseeches the members of the church in Ephesus. That word “beseech” means simply that Paul entreats or encourages the members of the church in Ephesus to walk worthy of their calling. This is not a harsh rebuke. The members in the Ephesian church, we read, are characterized by their first love. So Paul entreats them: walk worthy of your calling. But in this command we find the incentive to endeavor to keep the unity of the church. True members of the church of Christ have been called by Christ. They are believers. They have been called out of the darkness of sin and into God’s light. They have been called out of death and into life. That is the “vocation” that is referred to here. It is our spiritual call and the fervent effectual call by which we have been saved. In other words, the incentive to keep the peace of the church is the very salvation believers have received in Christ. They are not of this world anymore. We belong to Christ. We are living members of His body. What a privilege. We are called by God’s grace. Well then, Paul says, walk worthy of that calling.
There it is. Walk in your place in the church and do so suitably, in a manner that is worthy of Christ. Grow and progress in grace and love. Do this as you walk with God’s saints. This can be done only when there is peace and unity in the church.
How much are you and I striving to avoid pride, envy, and self-seeking? How humble are we? Have we cast in our all with the church? How do we view our lives in the church where we are members? God give us grace to keep the unity of the church and pray for the peace of Zion.
Let us pray.
O Lord our God and heavenly Father, we are thankful for Zion, Thy church. May we endeavor to put aside our own sin and to walk in unity and peace with our fellow saints. Where we have failed, Father, forgive us and give us the strength now to go forward and endeavor to keep the unity. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.