Growing Together

We stopped last time at Ephesians 4:13 with a focus on unity and maturity; a plea for growing in Christ together.  The apostle Paul continues in verse 14, “As a result [a result of growing together], we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14).

One picture of a “growing in Christ” community is a community of conviction and balance.  Conviction is an unwavering adherence to the primary doctrines of Christ.  Our community faith is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is built on the foundation of Jesus and the apostles’ teaching.  And this foundation protects us from being “carried away by every wind of doctrine and the trickery of men.”

Our convictions, held in community, are also balanced.  Left to our own whims, personalities, inclinations, and extremes, we can easily go off into doctrinal fads.  We can jump off and on both theological and practical living bandwagons according to what seems most popular or interesting at the time.  But in community, we find a balance that keeps us on a straight path.

So instead of straying in belief or practice, “We, speaking the truth in love, are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Eph 4:15-16).

Wow!  What a summary of growing up together!  Christ is the head.  We are the body; in Christ and empowered by Christ in us.  The whole body is “fitted and held together” – fully functioning as it should – “by that which every joint [every believer] supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part.”

This is you and me!  We are the “individual working parts”.  No part is insignificant.  Every part has value.  No part is allowed to languish on the sidelines.  The body needs you.  The body needs us all!

I love the phrase “fitted and held together by that which every [believer] supplies”.  We just returned from our daughter’s wedding outside Houston Texas.  Prior to the event, there was a lot of “fitting and held together”.  A bride in a perfectly fitted wedding dress.  Parents in suits and dresses specific to the occasion.  Grandchildren in matching flower girl dresses, dresses for a special music appearance, and young ring bearers looking dapper in matching bowties and suspenders.  A pastor, a groom, groomsmen, and bridesmaids all beautifully dressed for their part.  And a sharply dressed grandson escorting his Nana down the aisle.

All that fitting together presented a snapshot of a completed picture.  If any of the 30 folks referred to above had shown up in a tee shirt and jeans, something would have been off in the picture.  Each had a “uniform” that was fitting and supplied what was needed to complete the picture.

You have a “uniform”.  Your uniform of good works, your uniform of exercising your gifts for the benefit of the body, your uniform of encouraging fellow believers all contribute to “the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”  Not only do they contribute, but your gifts and participation are desperately needed.

The passage ends with the simple words “in love”.  Love is, of course, the driver behind this whole growing together enterprise, and a topic for another time.

Unity and Maturity

Our unity as brothers and sisters in Christ is a clear picture of how we are walking in our new identity.  It is one of the over-arching messages of Ephesians chapter 4 as Paul begins to describe what a “new identity” life or walk looks like.

Since we are “one body, one Spirit, one calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:4-6), let’s “be diligent to preserve that unity” (Eph 4:3).  Let’s do that by practicing our spiritual gifts for the benefit of the entire body.  In that way, we will “build up the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man or woman” (Eph 4:12-13).

What Paul is saying here is, “Let’s grow up together.  Let’s press on to maturity together.  What does this look like in a church setting; in a community of believers?

Arrogant and self-righteous believers – who are not practicing the humility and unity of Ephesians chapter 4 – will look down on those who are less mature.  They will state, or at least imply, that once you reach some righteous standard, once you reach some level of adherence to our rules, you can be accepted as equals; you can be part of our tribe.  This kind of thinking is exclusive, divisive, and the opposite of grace.

And it rejects what God has already called and created.  He called all of us who embrace the gospel message into His family.  In Him, by Him, and through Him, we are equals in the family God created.  As the hymn says, “We all stand on level ground at the foot of the cross.”

So what does a more inclusive, grace-oriented, and accepting unity look like?  As purveyors of grace, we humbly say, “Come as you are.  All are welcome here.  There is no rule-adherence or righteous standard for joining our group and being part of our lives.”  Does that mean we have no standard such that we welcome sinful practices?  No, not at all.  There are righteous standards aplenty in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.  But how can we benefit the whole body if we use the standards to block relationships from growing?

Grace does not say there is no standard for obedience.  Grace says, “Let’s proceed to the standard together!  Let’s grow together!”  We are back to the word “together”.  And we will investigate more of what this “together” looks like next time.

Crossing the Bridge

In Ephesians 4 verse 1, Paul crosses the bridge between our identity and our behavior.  “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called…”  With that launch, the remainder of the book (chapters 4-6) describes how to live the Christian life.

Paul takes us from our identity (“our calling”) to our behavior (“our walk”).  And he starts right off with a foundational picture of what that walk should look like, given who we are in Christ, when he continues in chapter 4, “…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3).

Our aspiration to humility, gentleness, patience, love, and peace are not related to a self-help formula or a “how-to” recipe.  No, the formula to success to live in a certain way is already inside us and the power to do it is inside us as well.  It is located in the “inner man” (Eph 3:16).  It is located in the “new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph 4:24).

This “likeness of God has been created” is just that; a brand new creation.  When we dissect Paul’s reference to us as a “new creation” (I Cor 5:17), the Greek language is very clear that this is something brand new, never seen before.  This is not a remodel, not an improvement on the old you.  Your new righteous self is exactly that; someone brand new.

Do you see how this sets us free from the prison of our past?  God is not out to clean up and improve the efforts of your dead spiritual self that you lived in before Christ.  God is making something brand new in you.  And so in the remainder of Ephesians chapters four, five, and six, the apostle spurs us on to “lay aside the old self” (Eph 4:22) and “live into your righteous self” (Eph 4:24).

Laying aside the old self and putting on the new self is the foundation for obeying every command that follows.  Why?  Because we only have the power to obey if we are putting on the new man.  The old man cannot do it.  Our flesh cannot do it.  There is not enough willpower in your old man to accomplish the righteous life.  The Christian life can only be lived by your new man; a new self that is really Christ living His life through you.

There are many descriptors the New Testament uses to say essentially the same thing about living this life.  Christ living His life though us (Gal 2:20), walking in the Spirit (Gal 5:16), putting on Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14) are all various ways to describe our walk.  When we do these things, obedience flows; and the joy of obedient living grows.

Now, is it too much of a stretch to say that this obedience flows naturally from our new self, an almost unstoppable force?  You tell me.  Because when we walk this way, obedience flows.  Life-giving abundance flows.  Service to others flows.  Giving ourselves away flows.  We feel the power of a river flowing just as Jesus promised in John chapter seven.

“On the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, … ‘He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.” ‘  But this He spoke of the Spirit, who those who believed in Him were to receive” (Jn 7:37-39).  May this promise come true by the Spirit in you today!

Ephesians and Your New Reality

Last post was just a warm up for unleashing my passion for the link between our identity in Christ and our obedient behavior.  Simply put, the connection between the two unlocks the power and the joy of living the Christian life.  And who does not want more power and more joy?

I believe the New Testament shouts this message to us.  Let’s look at this connection in one of the apostle Paul’s most familiar letters; the book of Ephesians.  This letter is built on the foundation and pattern of explaining who we are in Christ (chapters 1-3) and then developing the idea of how that identity informs our living (chapters 4-6).

Paul spends chapters one through three describing our identity in Christ with these observations.  You are…

  • Blessed with every spiritual blessing (Eph 1:3).
  • Chosen to be holy and blameless before Him (Eph 1:4).
  • Adopted as sons of God through Jesus Christ (Eph 1:5).
  • Forgiven your trespasses (Eph 1:7).
  • Lavished with the riches of His grace upon us (Eph 1:8).
  • Sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise (Eph 1:13).
  • Redeemed as God’s own possession (Eph 1:14).

Are you getting the impression that almost every verse of the first chapter of Ephesians describes some aspect of our new identity in Christ?  The pattern continues in chapter two, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us…made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places” (Eph 2:4-6).

Continuing, we are…

  • Saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8).
  • God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10).
  • Brought near to God by the blood of Christ (Eph 2:13).
  • Reconciled to God and into one body through the cross (Eph 2:16).
  • Accessible to God the Father in the Spirit (Eph 2:18).
  • No longer strangers and aliens, but fellow-citizens with the saints (Eph 2:19).
  • The dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph 2:22).

Concluding this section at the end of chapter 3, we come to Paul’s powerful prayer asking God the Father to reveal to us all the “new” that is available to us through Christ to live the life.  “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:14-19).

To go from our identity as “beloved by God, made alive with Christ, and raised up with Him” (Eph 2:4-6) to actually “being strengthened with power, feeling Christ dwell in our hearts, and knowing the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3:19) is the aspiration of every believer.

Let’s take that journey together as we cross the bridge into chapter four and the application part of this letter.  See you on the other side next time.

Two Realities and Living By Faith

So you may be thinking at this point in our discussion, “Yes Jay, you have quoted a lot of Scripture over these last few posts.  You have clearly laid out the we are now beloved children of the Father, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, containers of the divine nature, and co-resurrected with Christ.  You explained in great detail from Galatians 2:20 how our salvation included the death of the old and original version of ourselves and has been replaced by Christ living His life through us.  But there is still a crucial step to go.  How do we put all this beautiful spiritual reality into practice?”

Ah, this is a legitimate and tremendously important question.  After all, this is really the Christian life in a nutshell.  It is taking all that spiritual reality that the New Testament describes as having already taken place when we trusted Christ and marrying it with the physical reality we walk in; how we actually live.

We can comprehend the above concepts such as Christ in you, but until we feel it, live it, and experience it in our daily lives, have we really connected with that reality; does it really change our here and now?  If you feel like you are understanding the theology of our change inside, but don’t know where to start in fully stepping into it, you and I are on the same path.  And let’s take the next few steps together.

Remember, we live and move in a world of two realities; the spiritual reality and the physical reality.  In our spiritual reality, all kinds of new things have already happened to us in our relationship with God – a new identity, a new nature, a new power over sin, and much much more.  And it is our faith that brings all this spiritual reality into our physical experience.

This is why we say the Christian life is lived by faith.  And could this be why Christ beckons us in the gospels over and over again to believe, to have faith, to trust His words and life as true?

By faith, I believe the spiritual realities – the promises of God – can literally change my physical world.  By faith, I believe that my spiritual realities can become my daily experience.  This faith connection between the two worlds is a point that the New Testament writers consistently emphasize.  They are always showing us the link between the facts of our spiritual reality and the faith required to live into it.

Let me give you one example to illustrate.  In Romans chapter 8, Paul writes (and I paraphrase slightly to zero in on the main idea), “So then brothers, we are not under obligation to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, but rather to the Spirit, to walk in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit because we are children of God.  We have not received a spirit of slavery and fear, but a spirit of adoption as children who cry out ‘Abba! Father!’  The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:12-16).

Paul makes a direct link between our new identity as children of God (children in such an intimate relationship that we cry out, “Abba! Father!”) and our obedient behavior.  Our walking in the Spirit – behaving in a way that fits our spiritual identity, behaving in a way the Spirit would act, obeying God in this physical reality – is directly related to the spiritual reality of our identity as God’s children.

Do you see this connection?  The New Testament is saturated with this message.  This is who you are in Christ (spiritual reality); so you now have the freedom, the power, and the obligation to live in a certain way (physical reality) that fits your new identity.

We will continue to explore this beautiful and life-giving connection next time.