I was preaching through Ephesians, one of the grandest books of theology in the New Testament. Ephesians was John Calvin’s favourite letter. It’s been called “the crown of St. Paul’s writings,” “the divinest composition of man,” “the Grand Canyon of Scripture.”
I enjoyed working through the first chapters of the book, which survey what God has done for us in Jesus, the astounding measures he’s taken to redeem us for his glory. It’s hard to read Ephesians 1-3 without being overcome with what God did to save us and to establish the church.
In chapter 4, Paul begins to explain what this means for how we live. The first implication, emphasized in different ways throughout chapters 4 to 6, is surprising: “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
What’s the appropriate response to what God has done to redeem his people? To be humble, gentle, and patient with each other; to put up with each other; to maintain the unity that’s ours in Jesus.
I can never read chapter 4 without being struck by what Paul says. I shouldn’t be surprised. The Ephesian church would have felt the ongoing tension between Jews and Greeks, one that would have grated nerves on both sides every week. Through his redemptive work, Jesus has created a new humanity in which the old divisions disappear. The church must reflect his act of reconciliation, and real-life traits like humility, gentleness, and patience. If our actions don’t reflect these characteristics, it’s not clear that we understand what Jesus came to do.
Jesus has established unity between previously divided factions. Our job is to maintain it.
Some passages are difficult to apply. Ephesians 4:1-6 isn’t one of them. In his commentary, Clinton Arnold outlines how we should respond:
- If we are quick to get angry, we need to work on patience.
- If we have a tendency to be proud, arrogant, egocentric, and boastful (and who doesn’t struggle with these?), we need to work on humility.
- If we are insensitive, bullish at times, rough, bossy, or quick to impose on others, we need to work on gentleness.
- If we struggle with being intolerant with the shortcomings of other people, we need to work on bearing with one another in love.
- If unity among fellow believers in our own local churches is not a priority for us, we need to make it a priority.
- If the ardent pursuit of unity between churches in our cities is not a priority, we also need to make this a priority.
Paul leaves no wiggle room. He offers no exemptions based on how right we are on an issue, or how wrong other believers may be. We can challenge each other. We don’t need to sacrifice truth. A commitment to truth will reveal itself by the humility and gentleness we demonstrate to each other in the middle of controversy.
The more we feel the tension to pull apart, the more we need to pay attention to Paul’s words.
I’m in my fifties. I can’t remember a time when I’ve sensed more conflict within the church. I see a lot of name-calling and sarcasm between factions. Some of us have lost friendships over the issues that divide us.
We need to deal with the issues. Unity shouldn’t come at the expense of truth and conviction. But we can’t claim to understand the gospel if we’re not pursuing humility, gentleness, and patience. These qualities are not signs of an irenic personality or those who are soft on truth. They’re the qualities of every believer who’s working out the implications of what God has done through Jesus.
The more we face division, the more we need to lean into these qualities, even when, especially when it’s hard.