It has been a long time and much has happened, even to the point that it has added some further color to these verses here today.
“to the building up of 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, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12b-13, NASB95)
The responsibility of the shepherd is to care for, tend to, and feed the sheep. The objective is to see them built up as one body in Christ. When this works well it is an awesome thing, but when either the shepherd neglects his task or the sheep do not listen to His voice it reflects just how distant at least some in the picture have strayed from listening to our Lord and Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
In His prayer to the Father in John chapter 17 Jesus asked that those who were given to Him would be kept as one. This didn’t extend only to those He personally chose and walked with according to the will of the Father, but all who would subsequently follow in belief. He said in verses 10-23,
“and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. “I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled. “But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. “I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. “As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. “For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:10–23, NASB95)
We see in our Lord the priority on oneness that is found in being united to the Father through the Son according to the Word of Truth. He prayed that we would be one just as He was one with the Father. This is the kind of unity that Jesus put a priority on. It was not a convenient unity, but a unity that called on all involved to grow in love, knowledge, and obedience to the source of that unity—our God. And, one of the amazing outcomes of this is that the world would look upon us and see just how differently we do things. This is the kind of relationship that we are to have with each other as we look to the source of that relationship who is our God and Father who sent His Son to give Himself for us and bring us into His body—the church.
It is for this reason that the apostle Paul continues to expand on the things that build and preserve the “unity of the faith.” In this the starting place of our growing knowledge, awareness, and trust is none other than Jesus Christ. Jesus told His disciples that in coming to know Him that they came to know the Father. Responding to Philip, He said, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.” (John 14:9–11, NASB95) Jesus has made Himself known to us and it is our responsibility to continually grow in our knowledge of Him.
Then as we do this and as our lives are conformed to what we learn of Him, we ourselves grow in maturity, which according to this passage is measured not by our size, strength, knowledge, or talents, but by “the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” In other words, our maturity is measured by how closely we resemble our Lord in every aspect of our lives. The reality is that not one of us will accomplish this perfectly this side of the heaven. It is impossible for us to do. But is not impossible for our Lord to continually shape us as we seek after Him, submit ourselves to Him, and follow Him with our whole hearts, not keeping anything from His hands to change. Jesus is not only the standard for our maturity, but He is also the means of our maturity through the inner working of the Spirit as we hide His Word in our hearts and follow after Him. The Bible is more than a good self-help book. We read in Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12, NASB95)
So, getting back to the initial statement concerning the objective of the pastor to grow the church in the unity of the faith, it is his task as He looks to our Lord and His Word to walk according to the power of the Spirit, hand-in-hand with the other leadership of the church to exemplify, teach, and promote a built up body, one in faith. When we see chinks in this it is a sure sign that a couple of things are happening. First, it is a sign that our enemy is busy. The devil is an opportunist, and he will take every opportunity to seek to destroy that which God has begun. Second, it is a sign that at least some in the body have given in their hearts and lives an opportunity for him to work. As Paul would say later in this same chapter, “do not give the devil an opportunity.” When these situations arise, maybe even over good desires, we are to step back and look to God for our direction on how to proceed.
Pushing through in our own strength is never the right answer. One of my favorite counseling verses is James 1:19. “This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger;” (James 1:19, NASB95) I find it interesting that the verse begins with “This you know….” Isn’t it interesting how easy it is for us to get into trouble with one another when we blow past the things we know to do the things we know we should not do. James said, “This you know, my beloved brethren.” Again, isn’t it amazing how we do this probably even more frequently with those we love as opposed to those we don’t know and who we possibly might even show more restraint around. Sometimes our familiarity becomes out greatest hindrance as we neglect the things that we should be paying the greatest attention to especially with those we love the most.
Then, James gets to the heart of the point writing, “But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger;” The context of much of chapter one in James is our looking to God in everything. Here we are encouraged when situations arise that might otherwise illicit a foul response that we are instead to be “quick to hear.” Sure, from a human standpoint, we need to be people who listen fully to each other, who seek to hear not only their words, but their heart and even their hurt. But more than that, we are to take that pause, however brief, to listen to God and seek His best response even if that means not having a response in the moment. This is so contrary to many of us who really are quick to hear what others say, so quick that we really don’t hear anything at all.
We are also to be slow to speak. We are to refrain from continually shaping our response while we listen to the words of another. We are to refrain from seeking the continual argumentative rebuttal or the quick put down or send off. We are to refrain from responding in such a way that we needlessly hurt another. What we are to do instead is to think about our words and respond in accordance with that which promotes both grace and truth. Then we read that the result will be that we are slow to anger. We don’t fly off the handle. This may not necessarily speak to the response of the other, but it does speak to our guarding our own hearts, our own words, and our own actions. Then as we promote this in the body, we promote the unity of which Jesus spoke and Paul wrote. And in the church, this needs to start with the leadership. These are the men set apart by God to shepherd and oversee His church. But when it starts there and is lived throughout the body the results will be amazing.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35, NASB95)
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