The Grace of Christ in the Gifting of His Church
Passage: Ephesians 4:7–4:12
The Grace of Christ in the Gifting of His Church
The New Testament employs a number of images to describe the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and these images are more than metaphors. They capture something essential about the church’s nature. For example, we think of the Church as the Bride of Christ, as Paul says in Ephesians 5. That image reminds us that there is a covenant union between the Lord Jesus and his people. Or, we think of Jesus’ words in John 15, where he is the Vine and his people – the church – are the Branches. Here, the image reminds us that the church lives only as we abide in Christ. In both instances, the images are more than metaphors. They actually teach us about the very nature of the church.
But perhaps the most instructive image for the church is that of the Body of Christ. It’s the image that Paul uses in our passage today, Ephesians 4. This image pictures for us the interconnected vitality of the church. Christ himself is the Head, from whom the whole Body is joined together, and each member, regardless of position, is part of the whole. Just like with a body, the church is both diverse and unified, and the image Paul employs captures something of that reality. The Church is the Body of Christ.
And yet, within the NT’s teaching on the Body of Christ, there is a surprising tension that should shape how we function as a church. The tension is this. On the one hand, the Body of Christ is complete, lacking in nothing. All the fullness of God dwells in Christ bodily, and therefore, the church – Christ’s body – is full as well, endowed with the very wisdom of God. It’s a blessed truth, brothers and sisters – that we, the Body of Christ, are complete in the Lord.
But on the other hand, the NT also very clearly speaks of the Body of Christ as needing to be built up, as needing to mature in Christ. Think about Paul’s detailed instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 regarding spiritual gifts. His aim is clearly for the church to grow in the faith. And that’s the tension that marks the NT’s teaching on the Body of Christ. On the one hand, the church is complete, and on the other hand, the church has work to do.
Now, here’s the key question, brothers and sisters. What bridges the tension between the Body as complete and the Body as needing work? What moves us from one reality to the other? The answer is what Paul describes here in Ephesians 4, specifically what he says in v12. The answer is the work of ministry, or we might say the work of service that the Body ministers to itself. As each member of the Body engages in ministry, the Body grows up into the completeness of Christ. That’s the answer to the tension. That is Paul’s point here in Ephesians 4. The way we grow into Christ’s completeness is through the ministry of the Body to itself.
Brothers and sisters, in the life of Midtown Baptist, this truth has been essential from the beginning. Think of those three words on the front of your bulletin, taken from our mission statement. What are we called to do as a church? We treasure, build, and proclaim. Where’s the build come from? Right here in Ephesians 4. At our core, we have aimed at this kind of ministry from the very beginning. Of course, 8-plus years have now passed, and a lot of things have changed. But this Ephesians 4 conviction hasn’t changed. This philosophy hasn’t shifted. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we’ve got this down, or that we’ve arrived. We don’t always live up to our own convictions. But that’s why we have convictions, isn’t it? It’s so that we have something to aim at, something to check ourselves against in order that we might grow.
And that is what I pray these messages do in the life of our church. Like I said in the note I sent out this week, think of these messages like an annual physical. It’s a check-up, a reminder of what constitutes healthy church ministry.
Here’s what I want to do this morning. I want to look at this foundational text in Ephesians 4 and remind us of our core convictions about the church’s ministry. Next week, Lord willing, I’m going to define for us what it means for a church to grow, but this week, I want to remind us of what is necessary for a church to do ministry. To that end, let’s note together three core convictions for ministry.
Every Christian is Equipped with Christ’s Body-Building Grace
The first conviction comes in vv7-10 – Every Christian is Equipped with Christ’s Body-Building Grace. Ephesians ch4 is the beginning of a new section in Paul’s letter, where his focus shifts to living out the gospel of Jesus Christ. You can see that there in v1, as Paul calls the believers to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called. And central to that calling is the church’s unity in the gospel. I hope you heard it as we read, but seven times in the opening verses, Paul references unity – One body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. Do you hear it? It’s the glorious reality of the gospel. There is one Lord who has saved each of us and joined us to his one Body, the Church.
Running through the sermon today is this essential thread of unity. Why should I care about building you up? Why not just focus on myself and my spiritual health? Because you and I are joined together in the one body of Christ. Listen, if we don’t get this point, then the rest of Paul’s teaching will just sound like mushy mumbo-jumbo. Your spiritual life is tied up with mine, and therefore, the ministry of all is necessary for each. There is only one Body.
But as Paul comes to v7, he makes a surprising shift. Vv1-6 are all about unity, but then in v7, Paul shifts to focus on the Body’s individual members. Do you see it there in the text? Paul’s point is profound. Listen again – “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Now, the grace in view here is not the saving grace of gospel faith. Paul already explained that grace back in chapters 1 and 2. The grace here is what we might call the grace of gifting. In fact, Paul repeatedly uses language of giving to make this point. V7, v8, v11 – three times, the Lord gives to his people. What’s the emphasis? To drive home that no one is left out. Every believer has received from the Lord Jesus.
And these gifts are the fruits of Christ’s saving work. This is Paul’s point in vv8-10. Now, there is a lot we could unpack here, but the basic point is clear. Paul quotes Psalm 68, which celebrates God’s victory over his enemies. And as God ascends his throne in triumph, he shares the spoils of victory with his people. Here in v8, Paul connects that idea of victory with the Lord Jesus. Christ is the Triumphant Lord has conquered his enemies and delivered his people. He came down to earth, v9, he defeated sin and death, he ascended again to heaven’s throne, v10, and from that throne, Christ now shares his victory with his people. He gives gifts to the church, and those gifts are expressions of Christ’s grace. That is astounding, brothers and sisters. Whenever you and I minister to one another, we are tangible, physical expressions of the grace of Christ to his church.
Think about that for a minute. That’s really a staggering statement – to minister within the body is to be an expression of grace from Christ. Think about how that changes your perspective on taking a meal to someone, or that short prayer you send via text. Think of how it changes that conversation where you lovingly challenge a brother or sister to live in step with Scripture. Think of how it changes the way you receive that conversation. It makes those instances more than what they appear on the surface. Those actions are expressions of the Lord’s grace, from one member to another. And what Paul is saying here is that every member of the Body has received the gifting to minister in this way.
At the risk of stating the obvious, brothers and sisters, let me remind you that your membership in the Body of Christ is not accidental. Actually, let me put it more personally. You are not accidental. You are not unnecessary to the life and ministry of the Church. There should be no peripheral members in the church of the Lord Jesus, and there should be no members who merely sit-and-see. That kind of halfway membership misses the depth of grace Christ has given to his church.
In fact, I want to camp out on this for a minute. At this point, we could go off into a discussion of the different spiritual gifts, and there may be some value in that. But the specific gift you have, brothers and sisters, is less important than your conviction as to what that gift is for. I want to camp out here on this idea that halfway membership actually misses the depth of Christ’s grace. Whenever we remain on the fringes of a church, we live with one of two faulty ideas. One is that my gifts are sufficient for my own spiritual life – I don’t need any other Christians to help me grow. The other faulty idea is that my gifts are unnecessary for the spiritual lives of others – other Christians don’t need me to grow. Both of those ideas are faulty and ultimately dangerous. If Christ has given gifts to each one of us, then no one’s gifting is sufficient on its own. You have gifts I don’t have, and therefore, I cannot grow as Christ intends apart from you. What’s more, if Christ has given gifts to each one of us, then no one’s gifting is unnecessary for the church’s life. You have gifts we would miss without you, and therefore, we cannot possibly grow as Christ intends apart from you.
Do you see the centrality of the Body, brothers and sisters? Christ has given grace to each one of us. You can’t grow on your own, and the church can’t grow without you. Practically, I pray you see the absolute necessity of gathering with the people of God, week in and week out. Before we can even discuss spiritual gifts, we have to start first with faithfulness to be with the church. You may have innumerable spiritual gifts, but if you’re not here with the God’s people, you can’t use them as Christ intends.
I’ll just say it as straightforwardly as I can – if gathering on Sunday with the church is not an integral point of your week, then friend, you need to rethink your priorities, especially in light of Ephesians 4. And listen, it’s not about mere attendance or pumping up the numbers. It’s about faithfully stewarding Christ’s grace to his church, both the grace he has given you to minister and the grace he intends for you to receive from others.
Some Christians are Uniquely Entrusted with Christ’s Body-Building Word
That’s the first conviction we have about ministry – Every Christian is equipped with Christ’s Body-Building Grace. The second conviction narrows the focus a bit, and we see this in v11 – Some Christians are uniquely entrusted with Christ’s Body-Building Word. Having established that Christ gives gifts to his church, Paul now identifies one particular kind of gift the Lord gives. And interestingly, Paul says these gifts are not things or skills, but people. Notice again v11 – “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints.” Now, this is another point in the passage where we could spend a good bit of time uncovering some interpretive insights. There’s a lot here. But for our purpose this morning, we need to answer one question. What ties these offices together in v11? Paul clearly is referring to groups of people who serve the church, but what ties these offices together?
The answer is the ministry of God’s Word. Think about it. The apostles and prophets were specially used by God in the revelation, recording, and confirmation of God’s Word. And evangelists, like Philip in the book of Acts, are uniquely called to spread the Word in gospel witness. It’s the Word of God that ties v11 together.
But it’s the final office that gets our attention this morning – that of shepherds and teachers. Paul overlaps these two terms to describe one office in the church – the office of pastor. In fact, this may be a good point to pause and offer a clarifying reminder on what exactly a pastor does. As the culture becomes increasingly post-Christian, this is a question I get a lot – “What exactly do you do each week?” And there are a lot of different answers, especially if you consider what sometimes passes as pastoral ministry. What is a pastor?
Here is my far too-brief definition, drawn from Ephesians 4. Pastors are shepherds who serve Christ by ministering his Word to the church. Each part of that definition is essential and must not be overlooked. A pastor is a shepherd. He is not an executive or a manager or a life-coach. He’s not even a visionary or a pioneer or a decision-maker. A pastor is a shepherd. Think in terms of that shepherding imagery. As believers, Scripture tells us we are the flock of God, journeying together to the green pastures and still waters of the New Jerusalem. But Scripture also tells us that journey is dangerous. As an expression of grace, Christ gives his people shepherds to lead them. This means the pastor’s one requirement is that he be faithful. When the flock gets to the green pastures of God’s city, the Lord will ask each shepherd, “How did you tend my flock? Did you guard, feed, protect, and lead them, or did you feed and take care of yourself?” That’s the pastor’s identity. Not an executive or a manager, but a shepherd.
At the same time, each shepherd is only a servant of Christ. That’s the second piece to the definition. Pastors are shepherds who serve Christ. The apostle Peter in his first epistle uses a unique title for Jesus. Peter calls Jesus the Chief Shepherd. That’s a vital point. No pastor owns the sheep. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd, which means every pastor is only a servant of Christ. The pastor’s calling is to follow in the Chief Shepherd’s footsteps. Just as Jesus laid aside his garments to wash his disciples’ feet, so also the pastor lays aside any pretense in order to serve Christ’s people.
And the pastor performs this service by ministering God’s Word to the church. That’s the final, indispensible piece. All a pastor has to give the church is the Word of God. This is why preaching, teaching, and prayer are the bedrock activities of the pastor – because all we have to give the church is the Word of God. The pastor’s authority comes from Scripture, so that he leads the church only insofar as he remains in step with the Bible. And the pastor’s wisdom comes from Scripture, so that he is not called to be an expert on all matters of life but only on matters that relate to the faith and spiritual health of God’s people. This is how the Chief Shepherd’s voice is made present in the church – through the pastors’ ministry of God’s Word.
Brothers and sisters, I am reminding you of this because it helps round out my exhortation from a few moments ago. I urged all of us to make gathering with the church a priority, and perhaps surprisingly, thinking about the role of pastors helps explain why that is so important. Consider the flow of this passage. V7, Christ gives gifts to his church. V11, one such gift are shepherd-teachers who minister the Word of God. And therefore, the Word-driven ministry of a church, overseen by faithful shepherds, is Christ’s gift of grace for the church to grow. We need to hear the Word of God, brothers and sisters, but hearing that Word on our own is not sufficient. We need to hear it proclaimed in the life of the church.
This is why the preaching of the Word is the central feature of the church’s worship. Listen, on the surface, sermons are odd events, if you think about. One guy talking for some length of time about material from an ancient text. To the watching world, that’s odd. Why do we do it? Not because of tradition, and not because pastors are super-spiritual beings. No, preaching is central because we believe, on the basis of Ephesians 4, that it is a gift of grace to the church from the Lord Jesus himself.
I hope this either reshapes your perspective on the church’s worship, or simply reminds you of what you already hold dear. These minutes we spend together on Sunday are nothing less than the outworking of the Lord Jesus’ grace to us. He is the Good Shepherd, he has not left us alone. He has given us Word, and he has given us shepherds who will tend us with that Word. This, then, is our second conviction for ministry as a church – Some Christians are uniquely entrusted with Christ’s Body-building Word.
All Members are Essential in Christ’s Body-Building Work
Let’s look now at our third and final conviction for ministry. We’ve seen how every Christian is equipped with grace, and we’ve considered how some Christians are uniquely entrusted to minister the Word. The final conviction from v12 puts it all together – All members are essential in Christ’s Body-Building Work. Now, in the flow of the passage, the question at this point is this – “What is the purpose of the pastors’ ministry of the Word?” Notice the next phrase in v12 – “to equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” That is what you might call a paradigm-shifting statement. Notice the pastors’ are not called to do the work of the ministry. Rather, they are to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Who are the saints? The members of Christ’s body, the church – you and me. The work of ministry is what the Body together is called to do. This is the reason Christ bestowed grace on each one of us back in v7. It’s because the Body as a whole is called to do the work of ministry.
Let me state this plainly. This idea in v11-12 turns much of modern church thinking upside down. “The ministry” is not reserved for a clerical class of people within the church. Rather, the ministry belongs to the saints as a whole. To be sure, some are called in a unique way, as we just saw. But notice that even these uniquely called ministers are simply servants who equip the saints.
Notice in v12 how the entire church works together to build itself up. Look at the last phrase, v12 – “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Very simply, what is the work of ministry? It is building up the Body, and that building up requires each member to be engaged.
Now, at this point, we could again go off on a discussion of specific spiritual gifts. And there may be some value in that. But perhaps it would be better this morning to simply remind you of two broad ways each member is called to build up the church. These broad ways are not gift-specific. If you’re a Christian, then you are called and gifted to serve in these ways. When it comes to building up the church, think of just two words – Serve and Care. Let’s flesh those out:
To build up the body, each member is called to serve. This means fulfilling the practical needs of the church – from serving in children’s ministry, to setting up chairs, to working on the budget, to playing music, to following up with visitors, to cleaning up the physical space, to running sound, to taking up the offering – these are simply the practical things that must happen in order for the church to function. How do we build up the body? We serve.
But the second word is key. To build up the body, each member is called to care. More specifically, to care for the spiritual health of each other. This too is worked out in almost innumerable ways – pray for each other, faithfully attend the church’s gatherings, reach out to people who are disconnected, reach out to folks who are new, sacrificially give to meet the church’s financial needs, invite a fellow member to read through the Scriptures with you, text another mom or dad with encouragement from the Bible, confess your sin to each other, reach out to those who seem to be drifting away, start a Bible study with other people who live in your area, remember important events in each other’s live and reach out with encouragement and prayer on those dates, and on and on we could go.
Brothers and sisters, what I’m trying to do here is get us to see that discipleship is simply taking the initiative to care for someone, with the Scriptures, so that we follow Jesus more faithfully. That’s it – that’s discipleship. And what Paul is saying here in Ephesians 4 is that each of us has been given grace to do this work. All members are essential in Christ’s Body-Building Work.
Let’s put the pieces together here at the end. These are our convictions for church ministry. It begins with every Christian equipped with Christ’s grace. This grace is then uniquely worked through the ministry of the Word. And then it all comes together with the Body building itself up – the shepherds equipping the saints, and the saints carrying out the work of ministry.
Now, I hope your heart is stirred by this biblical vision of church ministry. But at the same time, we also need to be honest and acknowledge that this approach to ministry is not easy. It is hard as a church to work out an Ephesians 4 ministry. It can happen, but it often requires a number of shifts in how we think about the church. That’s what I want to do here at the end. I want to summarize these convictions in the form of three mindsets a church must adopt to see this kind of ministry take root.
Mindset #1 – a church must value corporate over individual. Instead of viewing church as a place where my needs are met, I view church as a place where I serve to meet other people’s needs. What’s more, I understand that my spiritual health as a Christian is intricately connected with the ministry of the Body to which I belong. We have to think corporate over individual.
Mindset #2 – we must think culture over program. Instead of aiming for programs that disciple members, we must strive for a culture where members disciple members. Programs may serve us in that pursuit, but even then, a program is a means, not an end. What we’re always aiming to see in our church is a culture of members discipling members. We think culture over program.
Mindset #3 – we must pursue covenant over convenience. Perhaps the greatest scourge of church life in America is an attitude of convenience. It goes like this: “I invest in the church when its convenient for me. But when it becomes inconvenient, I simply look for another place that fits my life.” Instead of that unbiblical perspective, we need to think in terms of covenant – a promise that we make to one another to live out the Christian life together. This is why we have a membership covenant, brothers and sisters – because we don’t want to be a church defined by convenience. We want to be shaped by covenant commitment.
Now, even as we think about these mindsets, there is still the question, “But what does this look like in practice? How do we know it when we see it?” That’s a good question, and to answer that question, I want to read you a letter from one of our families here at Midtown – Matt and Michelle Jorgenson. They sent me this letter and asked me to read it to you, and in the Lord’s providence, it perfectly illustrates what this kind of ministry looks like in the church. This is what they write:
The church is a Body, the Body of Christ. And when every member is engaged and equipped to serve, incredible ministry happens, to the glory of Christ. By God’s grace, we’ve been able to lay that foundation here. But by God’s grace, let’s press deeper, together. Amen.