“The Grace of True Church Growth”
April 10, 2016
God’s grace allows the church to grow toward maturity.
I. The Giver of the Gifts of Maturity (Ephesians 4:7-10)
II. The Sequence of Growth to Maturity (Ephesians 4:11-13)
III. The Evidence of Maturity (Ephesians 4:14-16)
More than 30 years ago Paul Christiansen and I were prayer partners. That was when my daughter Bethany was maybe two years old. His sons, Marcus and Daniel were about fourteen and eleven. I remember a conversation we had walking around the block. I said something like I was looking forward, in Bethany, to the development of common sense. Paul, with the wisdom of a father of teens said “Based on what I’ve seen so far you’re going to have a while to wait.” It takes a while to grow up. It doesn’t happen immediately. You’re not grown at two, or at eleven or fourteen. You do make progress, but I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that ‘grown up’ doesn’t really click in until you’re around 25 or married, or a parent, or all three. And for some people, not even then.
Maturity is a process. For example, babies are born with big heads. They don’t look big because we’re used to it, but compared with the rest of their body, their heads are disproportionately large. It takes ten or twelve years before the body grows to match the head. Another example is a classic experiment in child development. Take two identical glasses with equal amounts of water. Pour one into a tall skinny glass and ask a child “which has more water?” A four-year-old will say, almost invariably, that the taller glass has more water, whereas at age five or so, a child can tell you the two have the same amount. Something clicked in their brain, a new level of maturity.
Maturity is a process. As every child goes through a process to reach adulthood, so you and I as members of the Body of Christ are in a process of growth, that Jesus has created, so his Body, the church, will reach maturity. God’s purpose for the church is growth to maturity and only God’s grace allows the church to grow to maturity. But the church only grows as you and I grow. As God gives us the grace to mature, the church begins to fulfill God’s purpose.
We begin with Christ, the giver of grace, giver of the gifts of maturity. Paul never tires of talking about Jesus. Ephesians 4:7-10 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
In Ephesians 4:1-6 Paul emphasized the unity of the Spirit. In contrast to that he now emphasizes the diversity of Christ’s gifts. He literally says that to each and every one of us a different grace has been given.
He is not talking about the saving grace given to all who believe, grace which shows itself in the faith of the believer. He is not talking about sustaining grace, ‘the grace in which we stand,’ the indwelling work of the Spirit. Stott affirms that this is ‘serving grace,’ gifting to serve the body. The last reference to grace in the letter was this kind. “Though I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” It was a grace given to him to fulfill his role in the church.
In the same way Christ has given a grace of service to everyone in the church, no exceptions. Each and every one has a different gift, a different serving grace. Elsewhere in the New Testament these gifts are listed, though the other three different listings do not, I think, include all the gifts or even mixtures of gifts that the Holy Spirit might give. But here we don’t have a list of gifts at all. This is a list of gifted leaders whose gifts are used to bless the whole church.
Before he gets there, as we’ve come to expect, Paul pauses to focus our attention on Jesus, on the giver of the gifts of maturity. He quotes Psalm 68: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” Psalm 68 pictures God’s rescue of his people: how he marched in triumph through the wasteland, brought them to Mount Sinai, led them to the promised land, and then ascended Mount Zion, leading captives in his train, the custom of all triumphing kings in ancient times. Paul reminds us of this ascent because he wants to link the gifts given by Christ to the ascent and reign of Christ.
But in doing so he creates an apparent contradiction with the Old Testament text. Paul says that Christ ascended on high and gave gifts to men. The Psalm says that he ascended on high and received gifts from men. Why the difference? The Hebrew verb is ambiguous. It can mean receiving something from, but also taking something among. The Hebrew of Psalm 68:18 could say ‘he took gifts among men.’ In fact, both things are implied, receiving and giving. Both fit what Peter says of Jesus in Acts: “exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” He received the Holy Spirit, then poured out the Spirit, who gives gifts and gift leaders.
But Paul can’t leave the quote without honoring Christ. Verse 9: “(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)” Christ is the one who ascended, because Christ first descended from heaven to earth, emptied himself of his glory, humbled himself as a servant, obedient to death, even death on a cross. But God exalted him above everything, giving him a name above every name.
It is out of this victory that he gives the blessings of redemption to those who believe. In “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” by C. S. Lewis, the children, the heroes are given gifts: A sword and shield to Peter, a horn to sound at need to Susan, a vial of healing liquid to Lucy, gifts to use in their service of Aslan. In the Tower of Geburah, by John White, Gaal himself gifts to the heroes: A book of his laws, powerful against his enemies, a key to open any door, and again, a sword and shield. These authors sensed that those who do God’s will need God’s gifts. They were right. The church desperately needs God’s gifts.
But what are these gifts, given by the ascended Christ? It turns out they are people, people with specific ministries, given so that the church might mature. Look at verses 11-13: And he gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God's people for the work of ministry, so that the body of Christ may be built up, 13until we all reach the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, growing to a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.
The giving of specific, gifted individuals to the church is the first step in a sequence that leads to maturity. In 1st Corinthians Paul says “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6and varieties of activities, but the same God empowers them all.” Here Paul is talking about the varieties of service, the roles vital to the life of the church.
So, Paul was an apostle. So were Peter, James, John. The kind of messenger that Paul has in mind here is one of this small group of men, eyewitnesses to the risen Christ, personally chosen and authorized by Jesus, sent out to be the foundation of the church, and the means of revealing its mysteries. This kind of apostle, I believe, was given only to the first generation of the church. If they were to be eyewitnesses of the risen Lord, this was inevitable. Their gift was foundational to the establishment of the church and of the New Testament - and it is in the New Testament writings that their authority is with us today. There are no more apostles, but we are still under the authority of their words.
The second gift is prophets. Once again, they are associated with the authoritative telling forth of the Word of God. In the Old Testament, the refrain of the prophets was ‘hear the word of the Lord’ and in the New the prophets also reveal His truth. It is likely that the portions of the New Testament not written by the apostles, Mark, Luke-Acts, Hebrews, and Jude, were written by men with this gift. Such prophecy was also a foundational gift to the church. Paul said in Ephesians 2:20 that the church is built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” I believe that once the foundation was laid, and the Scriptures completed, the authoritative work of these two offices was done.
On the other hand, there is an ongoing work of apostles and prophets. Apostolic roles include pioneer missionaries, church planters, and ministry leaders. Prophets, today, are gifted with supernatural insight into the application of Biblical truth to both cultural and specific local situations. They speak to us of what God’s word is asking us to do or remember right here and now. But always under the authority of God’s Word. We need to reject any prophetic ministry, any dream or vision that seems to carry as much weight as God’s word, or to undermine the place of God’s word in speaking truth to the hearts, minds and souls of believers. Today God gives the roles of apostles and prophets without diminishing in any way the pre-eminent and direct authority of His Word.
After apostles and prophets, Paul names evangelists. The noun ‘evangelist’ occurs only three times in the New Testament, here, once of Philip the evangelist, and once of Timothy’s work. But the verb, ‘evangelize’ or ‘share Good News’ is found often, and applied to all Christians. Even so, there are some who are specially gifted and effective like Billy Graham or Campus Crusade’s Bill Bright. Within the church, while all get to share the Gospel, a few are specially fruitful at doing so. I’m thankful that God has gifted Todd Cobbs in this way.
Paul identifies the fourth gift as pastor/teacher. Or possibly the fourth and fifth gifts are pastor and teacher. The Greek can go either way. I believe it’s helpful to keep the two together though I’ve known people with only one of these gifts.
Pastor is literally shepherd, which communicates clearly the core idea. The word is used of Jesus, ‘that great shepherd of the sheep,’ but also of church elders. Peter says “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care.” Paul addresses the Ephesian elders in Acts, saying: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God.” Titus and 1st Timothy give the ability to teach as one of the requirements for an elder. So, it seems to me that this last gift, pastor/teacher, is the gift of elders for the church. Elders, including pastors, are the shepherds and teachers of the flock.
The sequence of maturity starts with those Christ graciously gives to the church. As Stott points out all of them are intimately involved with God’s word. Apostles and prophets, the original voices of that word, and then evangelists and pastors who share the word, with unbelievers for salvation, with believers for growth. But the sequence doesn’t, and cannot end there. These leader ‘prepare God’s people for works of service.’ They equip God’s people to use the gifts they’ve been given. The word prepare can mean repairing something, bringing something to its intend function, or restoring spiritual health.
Leaders then, are to be sensitive to both the strengths and weaknesses of their flock, and to work by perfecting their strengths and strengthening their weaknesses. This is done that the flock may be fitted for the work of ministry, for service. The people of the church are encouraged to be servants, to do the good works God has prepared in advance for them to do.
And what is the next step in this sequence? The body of Christ is built up. Paul mixes his metaphors, because the word built up is the word he used for the church as a building, a temple where God dwells. It isn’t usually used of living things, like a body. But the meaning is clear: these works of service make the body strong and growing. Just as parents provide food and water, shelter and clothing so that the bodies of their children might grow up and mature, so also church leaders must not fail to equip the members to serve, because in doing so they enable the body to grow toward maturity.
Leaders equip members to serve, so the body can grow, so that, next, ‘we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God.’ The two things go together. As two planets can’t get closer to their sun without coming closer to each other, so we can’t grow in our knowledge of the Son of God without growing closer to each other. Paul prayed about our knowledge of the Son of God in Ephesians 3. He prayed that they would “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” As we know more of God’s love, God himself fills us and makes us one.
And the final end point is that we become mature: complete, perfect. The church becomes a mature man. In chapter 2 we learned of Christ’s goal, to make one new man out of the diverse people who believed in him, to forge them into one body, a mature person. What is maturity? I think we all have an intuition. It’s stability. It’s a focus on God, dependence on prayer, a deep influence of God’s word. It’s increasing victory over temptation. It’s doctrinal stability, as we’ll see. But in summary, maturity is Christlikeness. Paul says, “growing to a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.” You achieve maturity when you obtain the fullness of Christ, when self is done away with. When you can say with Paul “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me,” you are becoming mature. When you can say with John the Baptist “I must decrease but he must increase,” you are becoming mature.
The fullness of Christ is the measure of maturity. But since this is the standard, we find that when we measure ourselves, no matter how mature we are, we fall short. That’s OK. Paul is encouraging us to continue to strive for maturity. Not some earthly measure that is easy to achieve, but a heavenly standard, that calls us on, further up and further in, ever higher in Christlikeness.
So that’s the sequence of maturity: the grace of God gives leaders as gifts and gifts to people. The leaders equip believers to serve. This serving causes the body to grow, we reach unity, know Christ better and become more like him, more mature. But Paul wants to expand that last point, to give evidence of what stable growth in Christ achieves. Verses 14-16: so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows, so that it builds itself up in love.
God’s grace allows the church to grow toward maturity. What will this look like? Well, for one thing we can’t be infants. You can’t be spiritually an infant and at the same time be a mature man or woman. Now it is true Jesus told us to become like children, but he was talking about innocent trust and dependence. There are many aspects of childishness we’re supposed to grow out of.
Unfortunately, we often remain stuck in childishness. Gail tells a story about when our girls were little. Sometimes a baby gets so distraught, so tired and hungry she can’t even calm down enough to eat. Gail would want to say: “If you’ll just be quiet for a minute, I’ll be able to help you.” Isn’t that the way we are with God? We get so distraught that we can’t see his hand. What are other signs of immaturity, childishness? How about temper? Uncooperativeness? Misbehavior? An inability to see consequences? Children are also deeply self-centered. All these things have their parallel in the Christian life, and all of them have to be left behind as we grow to maturity.
The one Paul is most concerned with here is gullibility and changeability. The less mature a child is, the harder it is for that child to hold to one task, keep one thing in mind, stay the course. In some of the funniest strips of the comic Family Circus, Billy was sent on a task, and the dotted black line traces his meandering path around the yard and the neighborhood before he finally gets it done, or forgets it entirely. Children are easily distracted. Children are also gullible. Back when Ruth was little she was the star of a little game called gullible points. She was just the age to believe anything you told her, no matter how outrageous. She would say “really?” Beep, gullible point.
Paul is concerned about both these qualities of immature people, distraction and gullibility. His image is of a little child in a small boat, tossed back and forth by waves, blown here and there by every wind of teaching, by the craftiness of men. It’s a great picture - you can imagine the storm blowing them around, how helpless they feel, how hard to stick to one direction.
Immature people find it hard to stick to the path of truth, hard to stick to a life of righteousness. Instead they follow spiritual fads, whatever is entertaining or thrilling, whatever popular mis-leaders and cultural loves come along. Paul says such mis-leaders are cunning and crafty men, who resort to tricks and deceit to lure others into their error. Maturity leads to stability in doctrine and life. I’ve had several conversations lately with mature men who were still striving to be like the Bereans, to analyze teachings old and new to see if they were in conformity to Scripture. That’s the path to stable maturity.
There are two more evidences of maturity here. The first, mentioned briefly, is important: speaking the truth in love. You can almost always identify a mature person, because they can correct you and point out a fault or a failure, while at the same time leaving no doubt they love you and that they care. This is a mature skill, one of the most difficult skills in the Christian life.
Finally, mature people grow up. Mature churches grow up. If you had a baby who weighed nine pounds at birth, and two years later the baby still weighed nine pounds, and could not sit up or crawl or walk, you would know that there was a developmental problem. In the same way, individual believers and even churches must be growing if they are to reach maturity. A believer who continues to be defeated by the same sin issues, the same personality issues, and the same doctrinal doubts year after year, without periods of victory and confidence isn’t growing. A church that continues to struggle with the same lack of outreach or community, year after year, without making progress in any way is developmentally delayed. Maturity is evidenced by growth.
Speaking the truth in love we will in all things grow up. The sentence doesn’t stop there, but it’s kind of good to pretend it does. We will, in all things, grow up. If I came up to you and said with a knowing look, “Grow up,” what aspect of your life would pop into your mind? You probably well know what area of your daily walk is most in need of maturity. God’s grace is given that you may grow up in this area. Leave behind childish ways.
Grow up, Paul says, into Him who is the head, that is Christ. This is maybe the most beautiful part of all. I said earlier that babies are born with big heads, that it takes years for them to grow to match their heads. In the same way, our head is fine, but we are often the 97-pound weakling, the wimp who gets sand kicked in his face. We need maturity, muscle, some biceps and triceps, so we can grow up to match the head. Christ is the head, we are the body, and the body needs to become a fit tool to carry out the heads’ commands. Paul says that from Jesus the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
The secret of a strong body, a strong church, of mature growth, is those last two phrases. Just as we are to speak the truth in love, so we are to be built up in love. This building up is to be done with selfless care, concern for others. That was the great command of Jesus, the implicit command every time the church is addressed in Scripture: Love one another. To the extent that we love one another in practice, we grow, as a church and as individuals. To the extent we hate or hurt or are indifferent and uncaring toward one another, we stagnate.
We are to grow up in a healthy way, growing in love, as each part does its work. Every cell in the body, every nerve, every muscle every bone, every organ has been specifically designed by God to do its work, to fulfill a purpose, If even one of those organs, bones, muscles fails to grow with the rest, the body won’t reach maturity. In the same way each of us is an organ, a bone, a muscle, a part of the body. If one of us is missing, or failing to do his or her part, the body suffers and fails to grow. But God gives grace so that the church can grow to maturity.