13. God’s Plan to Build the ChurchRelated Media
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 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. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 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. (Ephesians 4:7-16 )
What is God’s plan to build the church?
“Church growth” is a big movement in Christianity. Some, using secular thinking, teach that you cannot grow a heterogeneous church—one with different ethnic and socio-economic groups—because people don’t like to cross those boundaries. Others focus on business principles—you need a coffee shop, and a relaxing and inviting atmosphere where people’s “felt needs” are met. In fact, I read one book on church growth that said in order for a church to grow the service must last no longer than an hour. The logic is that people don’t want to worship for more than an hour—fix your service around what people want, and your church will grow. Clearly, most principles guiding church growth initiatives today are secular instead of spiritual.
But, what is God’s plan for church growth? Christ says in Matthew 16:18, “On this rock, I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Christ is building his church, and we need to find out how he is building it so we can partner with him. When we build on secular principles, we get what man can build—a secular church that won’t last (cf. Ps 127:1). But if we build according to Christ’s principles, we get what God can build—a church that the gates of hades will not prevail against.
In Ephesians 4:7-16, Paul teaches specifics about God’s plan to build his church so we can get involved and do our part—but also so that we don’t build according to any lesser plan.
Big Questions: What is God’s plan to build his church, as seen in Ephesians 4:7-16, and how can we apply this to our lives and to our local churches?
God Builds His Church through Gifting Believers
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” (Ephesians 4:7-8)
When Paul says “But,” it is not just a conjunction; it is meant to be adversative. It can be translated “In spite of that” or “On the other hand.” He is contrasting the previous teaching of making every effort to keep the unity of the church because there is one body, one Lord, and one Spirit (v. 4-6) with what he is about to say.1 Essentially, he says that though it is Christ’s will for the church to be unified, it is also his will for it to be diverse. Each believer receives a different grace from Christ.
In this context, “grace” means “the ability to perform the task God has called us to.”2 Paul describes this grace as “gifts,” saying, “‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.’” He pictures Christ as a conquering king, distributing booty to his followers. This is similar to what Paul teaches in Romans 12:6-8:
We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
When Christ ascended to heaven—conquering death, sin, and Satan in his resurrection—he distributed gifts of grace to his people. Now, it must be understood that spiritual gifts are not the same as talents. Talents are natural gifts received at birth. However, spiritual gifts are received at spiritual birth or sometime later, as Christ through the Spirit distributes them (cf. 1 Cor 12:7).
There is some controversy over this, as some believe people only receive spiritual gifts at salvation. However, several passages seem to indicate otherwise. In 1 Corinthians 12:31, Paul calls believers to “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” This statement wouldn’t make sense if there were no opportunity to receive greater gifts. Also, Paul exhorts Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6). It seems clear that Timothy received another spiritual gift after salvation. Therefore, I believe it is good to both desire and pray for spiritual gifts.
God gifts believers to serve and build up the church. First Corinthians 12:7 says, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” In Ephesians 4:16, Paul adds, “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.” As each person uses his specific gifts, the church grows.
Interpretation Question: What are these spiritual gifts?
The five lists of spiritual gifts in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:28-30, Romans 12:6-8, 1 Peter 4:10-11, and Ephesians 4:11 contain around 20 gifts, depending on how you interpret and count them. They include teaching, administration, mercy, exhortation, helps, tongues, faith, miracles, and giving, among others. However, it is clear that the authors do not mean these lists to be exhaustive. In fact, we see other gifts mentioned in the Bible. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul talks about the gifts of singleness and marriage. In Exodus 31, Bezalel was gifted by God with craftsmanship in order to build the tabernacle. For this reason, many believe there could be numerous gifts not mentioned specifically in the Bible such as intercession, casting out demons, and leading worship. As we find our gifts and use them to build the body of Christ, the church grows. God empowers us with grace—unmerited favor—to build his church. This is his plan.
Application Question: How do we find our spiritual gifts?
Because spiritual gifts are given to build the body of Christ, we find them by getting involved and serving. As we serve, it becomes clear what our gifts are. Here are two tests to determine them. First Corinthians 14:4 says, “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” I think we discern two characteristics of spiritual gifts from this verse. (1) They typically edify the person using them, even as a person speaking in tongues edifies himself. As one uses his gift of teaching, he will grow in faith and come to know God better. As he uses his gift of mercy—listening and ministering to the hurting—he himself will be built up. (2) And of course, using these gifts will build others up, as prophecy was said to edify the church.
Therefore, if you think you have the gift of teaching and as you teach you feel edified, good! But if nobody else is edified or encouraged by your teaching, it may not be your gift. Typically, spiritual gifts edify both the user and the receiver. One exception might be the gift of tongues. When a person uses this gift, it only builds him up unless it is interpreted. That is why Paul places tongues last in the list in 1 Corinthians 12:28. He implies that it is the least important gift.
So how do you find your gifts? Find a way to serve the church. While serving, you will find out what edifies you and others and what doesn’t. You will find out which gifts you have and which ones you don’t have. And as you continue to use your gifts, they will get stronger. Paul tells Timothy not to neglect his gift, but rather to stir it into flame (cf. 1 Tim 4:14, 2 Tim 1:6). We are all responsible for developing our gifts to their fullest potential for the kingdom of God.
Application Questions: What are your spiritual gifts? In what ways has God called you to develop and use them?
God Builds His Church through the Ascended Christ’s Authority and Rule
This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) (Ephesians 4:8-10)
When Paul refers to Christ ascending on high, this is not just a change of location, but also a change of position. Ascending on high represents Christ’s authority in heaven at the right of hand of God, which Paul previously referred to in Ephesians 1:19-21:
and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.
Since Christ’s ascension, he rules the universe as king, far above all rule, authority, power, and dominion. And one day, he will rule it not only positionally, but actually—at his second coming. And this current rule and authority play a part in God’s plan to build his church. In fact, Christ said this before his ascension in Matthew 28:18-20:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
When believers evangelize, serve, and build God’s church, they are working through the authority of the ascended Christ. God has given us the power and authority of Christ, which is why Paul teaches that we are seated in heavenly places with Christ (Eph 2:6). He is referring to Christ’s authority, and our authority in him. And one day we will, along with Christ, even judge angels at the second coming (1 Cor 6:3).
In Ephesians 4:8-10, Paul describes how this authority to rule and distribute gifts was secured by Christ. As mentioned, in the passage about Christ ascending on high, leading captives in his train and giving gifts to men, he pictures Christ as a conquering king parading through the city and distributing booty. Paul quotes Psalm 68:18. In this psalm, David depicts God “as marching in triumph before all Israel after the Exodus.”3 God not only conquered Egypt for Israel, but also the nations who attacked them in the wilderness.
However, as we compare the Old Testament passage with Paul’s quotation, there is a slight difference. Psalm 68:18 says that God “received” gifts from men instead of giving them—this may refer to Egypt giving gifts to Israel as they left for the wilderness. Therefore, Psalm 68 is not a prophecy about Christ. Rather, Paul is making a “general allusion to the passage for the sake of analogy.”4 He is showing Christ as the victorious one through his death, resurrection, and ascension, even as God was victorious over Egypt and other nations. Christ conquered sin, death, and Satan in his ascension, and he distributed spiritual gifts to his people, even as God conquered nations and gave gifts to Israel.
Interpretation Question: Who were the slaves in Christ’s victory parade?
- Conquering kings (or generals) commonly brought back captured enemies as slaves, which might picture Christ making a public spectacle of Satan and his demons. Colossians 2:15 says, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
- Conquering kings also commonly recaptured their own soldiers who were previously prisoners and brought them back to their cities in victory parades.5 The captives in Christ’s victory parade also probably picture believers who were previously slaves to Satan, but now are free in Christ.
Interpretation Question: What is Paul referring to when he says Christ descended to “the lower, earthly regions”?
There are at least three different views on this.
1. The reformers believed it referred to the incarnation.6 When Christ descended, he left heaven and came to earth as a man to die for the sins of the world. But, at his resurrection, he ascended to heaven to rule. Support for this may be found in John 3:13, which says, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (ESV).
2. The early church fathers believed it referred to Christ going to hades during his three days in the grave.7 Support for this is found in 1 Peter 3:18-19, a controversial passage:
For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison
They believed that during Christ’s time in the grave, he went to hades—the abode of the dead—and proclaimed his victory over the devil (cf. Col 2:15). Support for this is found in Christ saying he would spend three days in the “heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40), as the heart of something typically refers to the center. Further support is seen in Christ telling the thief on the cross that on that same day he would be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43).
Hades, or sheol, had two compartments. One was paradise (i.e. Abraham’s Bosom), where the righteous dwelled, and across from it was a place of torment. In the Old Testament, the righteous did not dwell in heaven but in paradise—across from the damned. In fact, communication took place between the two places, as seen by the rich man communicating with Abraham about Lazarus in Christ’s story in Luke 16:19-31. Some scholars believe this was a parable—meant to share a specific point—and that one can’t accept all the details (such as the righteous dwelling in sheol). However, this story doesn’t read like a parable. Typically, the people in parables aren’t named; Lazarus was most likely a real person, just like Abraham.
In the New Testament, it is clear that believers now live in heaven. In 2 Corinthians 12:2 and 4, Paul equates paradise with the third heaven. He also teaches that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8), who is in heaven. The question then becomes, “When did paradise, and therefore the righteous, move to heaven?”
Many believe Paul is alluding to this in his conquering king illustration. They say that when Christ descended to the lower part of the earth—hades—to declare victory over the enemy, he took paradise and its inhabitants, the Old Testament faithful, back to heaven to be with him.
John MacArthur says this about the early church’s understanding of this doctrine:
Early church dogma taught that the righteous dead of the Old Testament could not be taken into the fullness of God’s presence until Christ had purchased their redemption on the cross, and that they had waited in this place for His victory on that day. Figuratively speaking, the early church Fathers said that, after announcing His triumph over demons in one part of Sheol, He then opened the doors of another part of Sheol to release those godly captives. Like the victorious kings of old, He recaptured the captives and liberated them, and henceforth they would live in heaven as eternally free sons of God.8
3. Others believe it refers generally to Christ’s ultimate humiliation in his death.9
They say that Paul is simply referring to Christ’s ultimate humiliation on the cross, as taught in Philippians 2:6-11:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Christ descended to the depths of the earth in his death. Humbling himself and becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross—was the ultimate descent of Christ. There he bore hell itself, enduring God’s wrath for our sins. And because of this humiliation, God exalted him and gave him a name higher than any other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee would bow in heaven and on earth. And all will call him “Lord.”
Whatever view (or compilation of views) we take, Paul’s point is that Christ’s descent led to his victory. God exalted his victorious Son above every power and principality in heaven and on earth, and this enables him, as the conquering King, to give gifts to believers.
Application Question: How should believers apply the reality of Christ’s authority over the universe and his ultimate rule?
1. Believers must remember that they minister with Christ’s authority.
Believers have been raised with Christ, and his authority goes with them as they minister. Christ says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:18-19). We should not feel insecure, fearful, or incompetent as we minister, for Christ gives us his very own power and authority to build his church. Indeed, Christ has given us his Spirit—a Spirit of power, love, and self-discipline to do his work (2 Tim 1:7).
2. Believers must remember the authority of Christ when engaged in spiritual warfare.
The devil was defeated in Christ’s resurrection and ascension (Col 2:15), and believers are seated in heavenly places with Christ. Therefore, Christ’s authority ministers through us when we confront the devil’s works. Jesus says the gates of Hades will not prevail against his church (Matt 16:18). We must remember this when the lion roars and tries to instill fear, doubt, or worry. We walk in our ascended Lord’s authority to minister to those oppressed by demons and blinded by the enemy. Christ has anointed us to preach the good news, to proclaim freedom to prisoners, and to set the oppressed free (cf. Luke 4:18). Thank you, Lord, for your victory!
3. Believers should continually pray for Christ’s full reign on this earth.
When Paul says that Christ’s descent and ascension were “in order to fill the whole universe” (Eph 4:10), he refers to Christ’s ultimate rule in heaven and on earth. Believers should desire this and pray for it. Christ himself teaches that we should pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” (Matt 6:10, KJV) and this must be our hearts’ desire. We are Christ’s ambassadors on earth: awaiting his return and building his church until he comes. Lord, come. Lord, come! Amen.
4. Believers should remember that humility leads to exaltation.
This is true not only for Christ but for us as well. The first will be last and the last will be first (Matt 20:16). Whoever wants to be first must be last—the slave of all (Mark 9:35). We live in a world system where everybody wants to be served, and nobody wants to serve others. However, it is the humble—the ones who serve—that God exalts. “‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6).
Application Questions: Why is understanding Christ’s authority so important to building the church? How can we apply this truth in our daily lives and ministries?
God Builds His Church through the Ministry of Gifted Leaders
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 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. (Ephesians 4:11-14)
Observation Questions: What ministry leaders does Paul list in Ephesians 4:11, and what are their ministries?
Next, Paul describes the gifts that the ascended Christ distributes. To our surprise, they are not really “gifts” at all—they are gifted leaders. Certainly, each believer receives a gift(s), but here Paul focuses on gifted leaders—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.
The apostles were the original twelve disciples (minus Judas), Paul, James the brother of Jesus, Matthias, and a few others. They had to have seen the risen Christ so they could bear witness of him (Acts 1:22). God authenticated their ministry through miracles (Heb 2:1-4, 2 Cor 12:12).
Along with the prophets, they built the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20) by writing the New Testament and teaching its doctrines. Since the foundation of the church is already built, there are no apostles in that sense today. However, there may be apostles in a secondary sense. The Greek word “apostolos” simply means “sent one.” It was also used of those officially sent out from churches. If there are apostles today, they would be missionaries, church planters, ministry leaders, etc.
The next leaders Christ gave the church were prophets. They gave messages that were directly from God, and, like the apostles, built the foundation of the church by writing the New Testament and teaching its doctrines. There are, of course, no modern day prophets in this sense of the word. However, there are prophets in a secondary sense. Paul describes them in 1 Corinthians 14:3 as speaking to people “for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” They may at times be identified by addressing social sins and failures of God’s people, even as the Old Testament prophets did. God often gives them insight into an individual’s life, a church, or even a nation in order to strengthen and encourage people.
The next gift Christ gave the church was evangelists. Evangelists are gifted in sharing the gospel with people either one-on-one or corporately through evangelistic preaching. They typically feel very comfortable around unbelievers, and are often gifted at answering questions that are hindering these people from coming to the Lord. God uses the evangelist to bring people to Christ, and he uses the church to disciple these new believers.
Finally, he gave pastors and teachers. Because “teachers” lacks the article in the Greek, some believe this is one gift, pastor-teachers. The main responsibility of a pastor is to feed the church through teaching. However, it is possible for a person to be gifted in teaching but not in pastoring. Paul mentions the gift of teaching individually in 1 Corinthians 12, so he is probably referring to two separate gifts in Ephesians 4:11. Pastors, or “shepherds,” care for people, while teachers have a special gifting to understand the Word of God and to help others understand it.
Application Question: How should we respond to the fact that Paul calls these leaders “gifts” to the church?
1. The fact that Paul calls these leaders “gifts” reminds us to be thankful for them.
Our leaders are subject to many attacks, and they are prone to discouragement and burnout. In the US, more than 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month.10 If Satan had only one bullet, he would aim it at our spiritual leaders. And since they are our gifts, we must always be thankful for them instead of criticizing and neglecting them.
2. The fact that Paul calls these leaders “gifts” reminds us to take care of them.
As with any other gift, we should be good stewards. Galatians 6:6 says, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.” Of course we should make sure that their financial needs are met, for Jesus says, “A worker is worthy of his wages” (Matt 10:10, cf. 1 Tim 5:18). But sharing “all good things” also refers to giving our leaders protection, encouragement, and love, among other things.
3. The fact that Paul calls these leaders “gifts” reminds us to not overly exalt them.
Paul rebuked the church in Corinth for overly exalting their spiritual leaders and separating into rival factions over them. Some were saying, “I am of Paul,” and others, “I am of Apollos.” Paul responded, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only men” (1 Cor 3:5). In 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, he added,
So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
Paul reminded the Corinthians that all things were theirs—meaning that these men were given by God to aid them. We should definitely honor and obey our spiritual leaders (Heb 13:17), but we must make sure not to idolize them.
Interpretation Question: How do these leaders help the church grow?
Paul says these leaders are given:
to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:12-13)
1. Gifted leaders help the church by preparing God’s people for works of service.
Scripture does not endorse a model where pastors and teachers are paid professionals who do all the work while the congregation does nothing. In a very real sense, good pastors try to work themselves out of a job. They train the church to evangelize, baptize, disciple, and serve in various other ways.
The establishment of clergy and laymen has greatly hurt the church. John Stott shares a helpful story about a congregation he visited in the US.
On the front cover of their Sunday bulletin I read the name of the Rector, the Reverend Everett Fullam, then the names of the Associate Rector and of the Assistant to the Rector. Next came the following line: ‘Ministers: the entire congregation’. It was startling, but undeniably biblical.11
This is a biblical model of church ministry. The whole church ministers to its members and to the world. As it does this, it is “built up.”
2. Gifted leaders help the church come to a unity of the faith.
They do so by teaching sound doctrine, faithfully feeding the church the Word of God. Paul says that God gave gifted leaders, “so that the body of Christ may … reach unity in the faith” (v. 12).
The church in general is full of doctrinal disunity, but God has provided godly leaders to help us know and become united in the truth. For this reason, pastors should not avoid difficult texts or controversial doctrines—it is their job to help the church to come to a unity of the faith.
Regarding selecting an elder, Paul says, “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9). Godly leaders help the church come to a unity of faith by opposing wrong doctrine. Just as much of Paul’s teaching addressed false doctrine in the church, good leaders uphold sound doctrine today.
3. Gifted leaders help the church come to know Christ.
They help the church come to “the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4:13), a knowledge that is not only mental, but is primarily experiential. We certainly see this in Paul’s pastoral prayer for the Ephesians: “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” (Eph 1:17). His hope was for the Ephesian congregations to know God more. And this was his desire for himself as well. In Philippians 3:8-11, he said:
What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Paul wanted to know Christ and to help others know him as well. Lord, help your church know you!
4. Gifted leaders help the church to become more like Christ.
Ephesians 4:13 says, “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Romans 8:29 says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” God saved the church to conform it to the likeness of his Son, and he predestined believers for this purpose, even before time. As gifted leaders teach the Word, pray, and serve, the church comes to look more like Christ.
As the church matures, believers are no longer tossed to and fro by various false doctrines (Eph 4:14). Paul describes the spiritually immature as infants, and like physical infants, they lack knowledge and discernment—making them vulnerable. This is why cults and false teachers prey on spiritual infants, and why gifted leaders must protect them by helping them mature and grow strong in Christ.
Application Questions: Why are spiritual leaders so prone to discouragement and burnout? How is God calling you to better care for your spiritual leaders? Why are spiritual infants so prone to strongholds and false teaching? How can churches better care for spiritual infants?
God Builds His Church through the Ministry of Gifted Members
Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 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. (Ephesians 4:15-16)
God’s plan is not just to build the church through the ministry of gifted leaders, but also through the ministry of every member. As mentioned, he provides these leaders to equip the church for ministry, and as each person serves the church, it grows. In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul focuses on the members’ role in building the church.
Interpretation Question: How do church members help the body of Christ to grow?
1. Members help the body of Christ grow by living out the truth.
The text “speaking the truth in love” is very hard to translate into English. Some translate it “truthing in love.”12 The Greek verb “alētheuō” literally means “to speak, deal, or act truthfully.”13 It refers not just to speaking, but also to acting in accord with the truth. When believers live out God’s truth in speech and action, the church grows.
However, when the church is not living out the truth, it hinders growth, pushing people away from God and one another. First Corinthians 5:6 says, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Sin and compromise spread and affect everybody—destroying the spiritual atmosphere of the church. In addition, Christ says we either gather with him or scatter (Matt 12:30). There is no in between. When believers live out the truth, the church grows—and when they don’t, it dies.
2. Members help the body of Christ grow by loving one another.
Truth without love leads to pride and division. First Corinthians 8:1 says, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Speaking the truth without love only pushes people away. Christ taught the truth, but he also ate and drank with sinners, and he forgave the prostitute. We must speak and practice the truth in a loving manner, which includes forgiving and being patient with others. Love is the ground in which the seed of truth grows. If there is no love, people are pushed away. However, if we only have love and not truth, then we have liberalism—a gross acceptance of sin.
3. Members help the body of Christ grow by being connected.
Paul describes the growing church as being “joined and held together by every supporting ligament” (Eph 4:16). It does not grow when the members are separated. When we live in isolation from one another, just attending church but not getting involved, the entire church suffers. The parts of Christ’s body need each other, just as the eye needs the hand and the hand needs the eye.
Therefore, we must make effort to be connected and also to keep the unity of the body of Christ (Eph 4:3). We must work to heal any division that tries to destroy the body or keep it from growing.
4. Members help the body of Christ grow by serving.
As mentioned, Paul says the body grows “as each part does its work” (Eph 4:16). Each member of the body has a role, even the little toe. Without it, the body is unstable. This is how most churches function: they are unstable and not functioning properly because people aren’t fulfilling their roles.
What is your role in the church? How is God calling you to fulfill it? God builds his church through the service of gifted members.
Application Questions: Using the body as a metaphor, what part(s) of the body would you be and why? In what ways can you better encourage the participation and unity of other members in your local church or ministry?
Christ says, “On this rock, I will build my church.” God is building his church today. What is his plan? How is he building the church, and how can we get involved?
- God builds his church through gifting believers.
- God builds his church through the ascended Christ’s authority and rule.
- God builds his church through the ministry of gifted leaders.
- God builds his church through the ministry of gifted members.
Copyright © 2016 Gregory Brown
Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®, Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked KJV or AKJV are from the King James Version or Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible.
All emphases in Scripture quotations and commentators’ quotations have been added.
1 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (p. 134). Chicago: Moody Press.
2 Hughes, R. K. (1990). Ephesians: the mystery of the body of Christ (pp. 129–131). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
3 Hughes, R. K. (1990). Ephesians: the mystery of the body of Christ (p. 132). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
4 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (pp. 137–138). Chicago: Moody Press.
5 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (p. 138). Chicago: Moody Press.
6 Stott, J. R. W. (1979). God’s new society: the message of Ephesians (pp. 158–159). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
7 Stott, J. R. W. (1979). God’s new society: the message of Ephesians (pp. 158–159). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
8 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (p. 140). Chicago: Moody Press.
9 Stott, J. R. W. (1979). God’s new society: the message of Ephesians (pp. 158–159). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
10 Accessed 1/18/2016 from
11 Stott, J. R. W. (1979). God’s new society: the message of Ephesians (p. 168). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
12 Stott, J. R. W. (1979). God’s new society: the message of Ephesians (pp. 171–172). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
13 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (p. 159). Chicago: Moody Press.
Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)