Ephesians 4:11-16 (“until we all attain to the unity of the faith”)

Ruins of Celsus Library in Ephesus

(Eph 4:11-14 ESV) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds 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.

This is all one sentence. But Paul says a lot in it, so we have to take it piece by piece. We just have to remember that it all connects.

V. 11 is a list of church leaders. We’re told that leadership is something given by God. Therefore, those who are leaders have the most solemn task imaginable — one given them by God himself. The congregation may have selected them. The elders may have hired or recruited them. But their gifts of leadership was given by God to be used in his service.

And this gift was given for particular purpose: “to prepare God’s people for works of service” (NIV) or “the work of ministry” (ESV). Now, we’d want to say “to teach sound doctrine” or “referee fights”! But Paul says the job of the elders, ministers, and other leaders to equip the membership for “works of service.” (“Ministry” is not a reference to a church office. It translates diakonias, meaning “service.” The most literal definition is “waiting on tables.” It’s a reference to humble service.)

Now, this is very much in context. A couple of chapters earlier, Paul says,

(Eph 2:8-10) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Now, this is one of the classic, great statement of grace — and we often stop there. But Paul tells us plainly God’s purpose in saving us: to re-create us “to do good works” which God prepared for our doing. Jesus didn’t die to create a worshiping society — he died to create a service organization.

Now, “good works” here is surely the same as “works of service” in v12 and the “work” each body part is described as doing in 4:16.

In 4:12, Paul continues by saying that preparing the members for works of service is “so the body of Christ may be built up.” Now, work makes strong. That’s why gyms require work. (I suggested that my gym install motors so the weights could be lifted automatically. They didn’t take kindly to the notion!) If the church is a body, the only way it can be built up is by hard work — but not the work of building; rather, the body working hard in service to others. That’s the metaphor. Want a stronger, bigger, healthier body? Put your body to work. The church will be built up by working for others, not by working on building it up.

4:13 then adds, “until we all reach unity in the faith.” Now, in context, this is a bit surprising. I mean, we think that we’ll reach unity through Bible study. Paul says the solution is to get busy serving others!

Now, Ephesians 4 begins with one of the great unity passages in the New Testament:

(Eph 4:3-6) Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

And so it’s not surprising that Paul wants to talk about unity. It’s just surprising that he expects us to get there via works of service. Don’t divide over Calvinism and Arminianism, or over countless other issues that have no impact at all on the mission God has given us. Rather, cooperate. Stand shoulder to shoulder changing the world through works of service.

Paul next adds another surprise: “and in the knowledge of the Son of God.” We are to “reach unity … in the knowledge of the Son of God” by being equipped to do works of service.

The word translated “knowledge” is epignosis, and it appeared earlier back in chapter 1:

(Eph 1:17) I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.

As is so typical in Ephesians, here Paul sees knowledge of Jesus as a work of the Spirit in our lives. But in chapter 4, this knowledge is gained through works of service! This is no contradiction. Rather, our working as servants of Christ makes us more open to the Spirit’s teaching.

Now, the knowledge Paul is concerned with isn’t book learning. It’s knowing Jesus — not about Jesus. He promises us that we can know Jesus himself. But this makes sense. The more we act like Jesus, the more we can know Jesus.

I’m a writer. Writers understand me in ways that non-writers cannot. Jesus is a servant. And only servants can know him well.

Verse 13 concludes with another surprise: “and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Now, notice that the subject of this clause is “we all.” Paul isn’t saying that we attain this fullness and maturity be heading off on some individual spiritual quest. It’s achieved by the body together!

I think the idea is something like this. You want knowledge of Jesus? You want to be mature in Jesus? You want the complete blessing of being in Jesus? Well, it’s not hard to get there. But you have to get there as a body — working together and working alongside each other. And you get there, not through the academy or the debate hall, but among the people who need you and need the church. Get out there, do the work of Jesus, and you’ll be surprised at how much like Jesus you become!

Which brings us to the next verse –

(Eph 4:14) 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.

How do we escape false doctrine? How do we keep ourselves firmly rooted in the gospel and sound doctrine? By working hard for Jesus. You see, you love the people you serve. The emotions follow the actions. If we’ve invested our lives in each other, in crying with those who mourn, in visiting in the hospital, in celebrating their victories, then we’ll be united because we couldn’t bear not to be united.

Which brings us to –

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

This is one of most abused passages in the New Testament (in a long, long list!) “Truth” in Paul’s vocabulary is the truth about Jesus — the gospel. Colossians is closely parallel to Ephesians in many ways, and way likely written at about the same time. They share many concepts and turns of phrase.

(Col 1:3-5) We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints– 5 the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel.

You see how Paul uses “truth”? There are many such examples.

This means that Eph 4:15 is speaking of “speaking the gospel in love.” He’s talking about evangelism! Evangelism arising out loving works of service for others. But he’s also talking about how we should speak with each other. Rather than pounding on each other about this theory or that speculation, we should be reminding each other that the gospel brought us grace and so we must give grace to each other, that the gospel teaches us to be self-sacrificing servants, that the gospel teaches us to worship from the heart.

Note the contrast. V. 15 is about speaking the gospel in the love. V. 14 is about false doctrine. Stick to the basics. As we say here in West Alabama, “You’ve got to dance with who brung you”! The gospel saved you. It’ll keep you saved. Any teacher who gets away from the gospel is a danger to the church.

4:15 continues: “we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” Speaking about Jesus helps us, as a body, grow into Jesus.

Now, Paul calls Jesus the “head” of the church. Paul is referring back to this passage–

(Eph 1:22-23) And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Jesus is head. The church is the body. And Jesus is head “over everything for the church.” In other words, his role as “head” is to have authority over the universe. However, this authority is exercised not “over” the church but “for” the church. But this makes perfect sense when you consider,

(Eph 2:6) And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus … .

You see, the church is seated “with” Jesus on the heavenly throne. After all, no one sits on a throne without placing his body on the throne as well!

Therefore, this passage is not about Jesus’ authority over the church. Rather, it’s about the church working for Jesus, just as Jesus works for the church. (This affects how you read Ephesians 5:23 as well, of course.)

V. 16 says, “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” “Every supporting ligament” means we have support to hold us close to Jesus, to incorporate us fully into the body — the church — which allows each of us to grow and build ourself up “as each part does its work.”

Normally, Paul would speak of each of being built up — by Jesus or by others. But here his emphasis is on each of us doing our own part. As we work, we grow and we are strengthened. But, again, this is not an individual work. Rather, we grow “into Jesus” — becoming more and more a part of the body, and more and more securely held together and supported.

Now, there’s a point to all this. Grace, you see, is about many things, and among those is unity. Unity is one of several steps along the road toward having the fullness of Jesus. It’s also a step toward effective evangelism.

But it all starts with the leadership calling the members to have a heart for service. Grace is not about kicking it back and taking it easy! It’s about honoring God’s purpose in saving us — so that we’d be freed from paganism and pointless ritual and worry and distractions and guilt in order to do good works.

Salvation isn’t academic. It’s not getting the right “position” on the issues. It’s not knowing all the answers. It’s serving others. And getting busy in service will lead us to many, many other blessings.

It’s not that we need to go to college so we may one day serve. Rather, we need to serve so that we’ll one day truly understand.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to Ephesians 4:11-16 (“until we all attain to the unity of the faith”)

  1. Royce Ogle says:

    You have wonderfully described what I call "Christ focused and grace driven living". You can't focus on Jesus without loving and serving the other sheep. In fact, the way you flesh out your love for Jesus Christ is by serving and loving others,…sheep and those who are not yet sheep.

    Lets see now… How long was your Sabbatical?


  2. Laymond says:

    "Salvation isn’t academic. It’s not getting the right “position” on the issues. It’s not knowing all the answers. It’s serving others. And getting busy in service will lead us to many, many other blessings."

    I often tell others, If you ask for God's help, you need to be doing something, anyone can do nothing, on their own. 🙂

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