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Ephesians 4:1-16 Biblical Commentary:
In chapters 1-3, Paul outlined the blessings associated with being a child of God. In chapters 4-6, he outlines the responsibilities associated with that status.
Verses 1-16 (especially verse 1) set the tone for the rest of this letter.
EPHESIANS 4:1-3. WALK WORTHILY OF THE CALLING
1I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk worthily of the calling with which you were called,2with all lowliness and humility, with patience, bearing with one another in love; 3being eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord“ (v. 1a). Earlier, Paul mentioned being “the prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles” (3:1). Paul was imprisoned on several occasions—initially in Philippi by the high priest and Sadducees (Acts 5:17-18; 21:27-30), but later (at the instigation of Jews) by the Romans (Acts 16:19ff; 21:31ff). The Romans took him via Caesarea (Acts 24:1ff) to Rome (Acts 28:11ff). Later in this letter, Paul will describe himself as “an ambassador in chains” (6:20).
If Paul was the author of this book, he probably wrote it from his imprisonment in Rome. If Paul wasn’t the author, as some scholars believe, the book was probably written in the last third of the first century by someone close to Paul.
“beg you to walk worthily of the calling (klesis) with which you were called“ (v. 1b). This is the central theme of the rest of this letter—an appeal to live up to the high calling to which God has called them.
Klesis (calling) means a call or an invitation. The New Testament uses klesis to speak of God’s invitation to become a member of the kingdom of God—to experience adoption into God’s family—to gain salvation and the hope of life eternal.
Having been invited by God to a high calling, these Christians need to “walk worthily of the calling.” Both Old and New Testaments use the word “walk” as we would use the word “live.” In other words, Paul is pleading with these Christians to live their lives in accord with their Godly calling.
What would it entail to “walk worthily of the calling with which you were called”? A complete answer would fill many pages, but Jesus gave an excellent summary statement:
“‘You shall LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD with all your heart.. (and)
‘You shall LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR as yourself.’
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
(Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:29b-31; see also Luke 10:27)
“with all lowliness” (tapeinophrosyne) (v. 2a). Lowliness is not often seen as a virtue today. We prize assertiveness rather than lowliness. However, as Christians, we are called to emulate Christ, who “existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
“and humility” (prautetos) (v. 2b). Prautetos (humility) is the kind of graceful spirit that comes from a deep faith that God is good and will prevail in the end. We might talk about such a person as the strong, quiet type.
“with patience” (makrothymia) (v. 2c). The word makrothymia suggests endurance or steadfastness rather than a passive kind of waiting. It withstands adversity without quitting. It endures opposition without striking out at the opponent—or, at least, without striking out too quickly or violently. It possesses the strength of rock-steadiness.
“with one another in love“(agape) (v. 2d). The word anechomenoi means “to bear” or “to endure” or “to exercise patience or restraint.”
Every relationship requires bearing, enduring, and exercising patience or restraint. That is true in marriages. It is true in churches. It is true in friendships. It is true in work environments.
A cautionary note: We should not suggest that people bear with one another in every circumstance. Parents should not bear unacceptable behavior by their children. Victims of spouse or child abuse will need to escape from the situation when danger dictates that. When dealing with an alcoholic or drug addict, “bearing with one another” often becomes co-dependency and enabling behavior. Alcoholics and drug addicts don’t need enablers. They need people to confront them and to demand change.
But even when dealing with unacceptable behavior, we can act in agape love—a concern for the well-being of the other person. That might involve tough love—setting standards and refusing support until the person meets the standard—but there is no requirement for agape love to be soft and cuddly on all occasions.
“being eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace“ (v. 3). The lowliness, humility, patience, and love that Paul urged in verse 2 will make it possible to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
The Holy Spirit makes unity possible. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit…. There are many members, but one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13, 20).
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul talked about the diversity of members in the body of the church (1 Corinthians 12:14-17). He likened the diversity of the church to our physical bodies, which have hands and feet and ears and eyes. We can imagine what life would be like if these body parts were at war with each other. We wouldn’t be able to accomplish even the smallest tasks—walking a straight line or picking up a sandwich. It would be a miserable existence. So also, in the church, disunity equates to dysfunction.
But unity in the church doesn’t come easily. We must rely on the Spirit to make it possible to work together harmoniously “in the bond of peace.”
EPHESIANS 4:4-6. ONE
4There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you also were called in one hope of your calling; 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all.
“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you also were called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (vv. 4-5). The key word for verses 4-6 is “one.” These verses continue the emphasis on unity begun in verse 3.
The body mentioned here is the church.
If you were reading these verses aloud, where would you place the emphasis? Would it be one BODY, one SPIRIT, one LORD, one FAITH, one BAPTISM, one GOD? That’s how I would usually read a list like this.
But these verses call for a different approach: ONE body, ONE spirit, ONE lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism, ONE God—because the emphasis is not the diversity of gifts but the fact that all believers share them.
“one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all“ (v. 6). The foundational creed for Israel was “Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one: and you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
This is the key to our unity. We believers might see things very differently, but we have one Godly Father whom we worship and who directs our lives.
The “all” in this verse, in its original context, would have meant Jews and Gentiles, but in our world today would mean black and brown and white—Asian, Indian, and American. However, it would not mean all people, but rather all believers.
EPHESIANS 4:7-10. HE WHO DESCENDED ALSO ASCENDED
7But to each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. 8Therefore he says, “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” 9Now this, “He ascended,” what is it but that he also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.
“But to each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ“ (v. 7). In verses 4-6, Paul emphasized our unity. Now he acknowledges our diversity—the grace given to each of us—distinctive grace made to measure, just as a custom-tailored suit is made to measure.
In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul spells this out in more detail:
“For even as we have many members in one body,
and all the members don’t have the same function,
so we, who are many, are one body in Christ,
and individually members one of another.
Having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us,
if prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith;
or service, let us give ourselves to service;
or he who teaches, to his teaching;
or he who exhorts, to his exhorting:
he who gives, let him do it with liberality;
he who rules, with diligence;
he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:4-8).
“Therefore he says, ‘When he ascended on high’“ (v. 8a). Paul is quoting Psalm 68:18, which says, “You have ascended on high. You have led away captives. You have received gifts among men.”
In its original context, this psalm celebrated victory over God’s enemies—and a triumphal procession bringing the spoils of victory, including prisoners, up Mount Zion to the temple, the dwelling place of God.
Paul relates this verse to Christ, who “ascended on high…, led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.”
Earlier, Paul gave more detail about this ascension. God “raised (Christ) from the dead, and made him to sit at his right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule, and authority, and power, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come. He put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things for the assembly, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:20-23).
“he led captivity captive“ (v. 8b). As noted in the comments on verse 8a above, Psalm 68 pictured a triumphal procession. Now Paul uses that imagery to picture Christ’s triumphal procession with freed prisoners in tow.
I love the expression, “he led captivity captive.” I must confess that I have not found a great deal in commentaries to help me with this phrase, but I envision Christ breaking into the spiritual prison in which these people were imprisoned—opening the doors to set them free—and throwing away the keys.
Paul told the Roman church, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2). That’s the sort of thing that this Ephesians verse celebrates.
“and gave gifts to men’“ (v. 8c). This has occasioned lots of scholarly comment, because Psalm 68 says, “You have received gifts”—not “you gave gifts.” Some think that Paul misquoted the psalm. Others cite the Syriac Peshitta manuscript which says, “You have given gifts.” Still others think that God received gifts to redistribute them to his people. However, there is no definitive solution to this textual problem.
“Now this, ‘He ascended,’ what is it but that he also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?“ (v. 9). Verses 9-10 have also occasioned lots of scholarly comment.
• Some people pair this verse with 1 Peter 3:19-20, which says that Jesus, “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who before were disobedient.” They believe that Jesus descended into hell in the time between his crucifixion and the time of his resurrection.
This understanding is incorporated into the Apostles’ Creed, which says that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
But is that the meaning of this verse? Possibly, but not certainly.
• Some believe that descended and ascended refer to the Incarnation. The best expression of this idea is found in Philippians 2:5-11, where Paul says that Christ Jesus existed in the form of God, but “didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped.” He “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
I prefer this understanding of this verse, but acknowledge that both of these theories have merit.
“He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens“ (v. 10a). While Biblical references to the heavens sometimes refer to the sky above the earth (Genesis 9:13-17) or outer space (Genesis 1:14), they more often refer to the dwelling place of God (Psalm 102:19; Isaiah 63:15; 66:1)
The phrase, “all the heavens” is interesting. The Jewish people believed in as many as seven heavens. Paul talked about a man who was “caught up into the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2).
“that he might fill all things“ (v. 10b). Earlier, Paul said that God “put all things in subjection under (Christ’s) feet, and gave him to be head over all things for the (church), which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22-23).
Christ has the power to “fill all things”—to meet all needs—to give each person the grace needed (v. 7).
EPHESIANS 4:11-14. VARIOUS GIFTS FOR THE PERFECTING OF SAINTS
11He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, shepherds and teachers; 12for the perfecting of the saints, to the work of serving, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a full grown man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error;
“He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, shepherds and teachers“ (v. 11). This is one of five lists of this sort in the New Testament (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28-30; 1 Peter 4:10-11). None of these lists are the same. There is substantial overlap, but there are also a number of gifts that are found only in one or two of the lists.
• Apostle means “one who is sent.” The apostles served as God’s ambassadors.
• Prophets act as messengers—telling people what God wants them to know.
• Evangelists proclaim the Gospel.
• Shepherd-pastors take care of sheep. The word shepherd was used metaphorically in both Old and New Testaments to speak of caring leadership (Psalm 23; John 10).
• Teachers instruct people in sound doctrine (1Timothy 1:8-11; 2 Timothy 3:16; Titus 1:9)
“for the perfecting (katartismos) of the saints” (v. 12a). The word katartismos means to complete or to perfect or to make ready. The work of the apostles, prophets, etc. (v. 11) is for the purpose of preparing the saints for the lives they/we are to live and the work they/we are to do.
“to the work of serving” (diakonia)” (v. 12b). Our culture prizes taking, but Christ prizes serving. He said, “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 20:26; see also Matthew 23:11). Paul called Christ a servant (Romans 15:8) and himself a servant (1 Corinthians 3:5, 9; 2 Corinthians 6:4; Ephesians 1:23).
This call to service is one of scripture’s many Great Reversals. The Beatitudes are a series of reversals (Matthew 5:1-12). Jesus says, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).
“to the building (oikodome) up of the body of Christ” (v. 12c). The Greek word used here, oikodome, is usually associated with the building trades—with the construction of a house or a tower or a barn. The work of the apostles, prophets, etc. (v. 11) is for the purpose of providing Christians a sturdy foundation and strong walls and a solid roof so that they might survive the storms that will buffet them—and the temptations that will threaten them.
“until we all attain to the unity of the faith“ (pistis) (v. 13a). In this context, pistis (faith) has to do with doctrine—the body of Christian doctrine. The purpose of Christian nurture is to school believers in the revealed truths so that they might be united in their beliefs.
“and of the knowledge (epignosis) of the Son of God“ (v. 13b). There are two Greek words for knowledge—gnosis (general knowledge) and epignosis (a knowledge of moral values). It is the stronger of the two words that is used in this verse.
“to a full grown (teleios) man“ (v. 13c). The word teleios is sometimes translated perfect, but the idea here is maturity—being a full-grown adult.
While children are charming, adults who have never outgrown their childish ways are less so. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). The goal of Christian nurture is that believers might grow into mature spiritual people.
“to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ“ (v. 13d). This is the goal of Christian nurture—that we become like Christ.
“that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error“ (v. 14). We begin life with limited ability to assess possible trickery. As we grow, we attain experience (often the hard way) that makes us wiser and better able to resist temptation. The goal of Christian nurture is to ground us doctrinally so that we can stand our ground when others seek to derail us.
EPHESIANS 4:15-16. MAKES THE BODY INCREASE
15but speaking truth in love, we may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, Christ; 16from whom all the body, being fitted and knit together through that which every joint supplies, according to the working in measure of each individual part, makes the body increase to the building up of itself in love.
“but speaking truth in love“ (agape) (v. 15a). It is a great challenge to speak the truth in agape love—the kind of love that puts the welfare of the other person first. One temptation is to speak the truth so sharply that it wounds rather than heals. The opposite temptation is to avoid conflict by avoiding difficult conversations.
Speaking the truth in love is a Godly thing. Truth spoken in love stands a chance of being heard, whereas truth spoken without love is almost certain to be rejected. One of the goals of Christian nurture (vv. 11-13) is that we come to a point where we can speak the truth in love.
“we may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, Christ“ (v. 15b). What are the “all things” in mind here? The virtues mentioned in verse 2 would certainly apply: Lowliness, humility, patience, love, unity, and peace. Unity, faith, and knowledge of the
Son of God (v. 13) would also apply. None of these things is likely to come to us easily. At best, we will spend our lives growing into spiritual maturity.
We are Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:27), and Christ is the head of the body. We need to grow until the body of Christ is in keeping with the head.
“from whom all the body, being fitted and knit together through that which every joint supplies (dia pas ho epichoregia haphe—by every supporting joint), according to the working in measure of each individual part, makes the body increase to the building up of itself in love“ (agape) (v. 16). The body mentioned here is the church—the body of Christ, who is the head of the church.
The individual parts are connected by joints or ligaments that make it possible for them to work together.
In verse 11, Paul mentioned apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers—some of the members of the body. In 1 Corinthians 12:14-17, he talked about our human bodies having many members—feet, hands, ears, eyes, noses—each of those members being vital to the welfare of the body at large. So also, each member of the church is important to the church—Christ’s spiritual body.
Therefore, it is important for us to respect each individual member of the body of Christ. We need to insure that each believer is enabled to contribute according to the gifts given them—and that the multiplicity of gifts are “fitted and knit together” to serve the whole.
As we know from our physical bodies, we cannot grow strong if our body parts are in rebellion—if they are fighting one another. Perhaps the best examples of this are autoimmune diseases, where the body loses its ability to distinguish between foreign substances (which the immune system needs to attack) and one’s own body (which the immune system needs to leave intact).
In like manner, the church cannot grow strong if the individual members are not working in harmony. As anyone who has been involved in the leadership of a congregation knows, working harmoniously is harder than it sounds. The only way we can do it is by acting in agape love—love that focuses on the well-being of the other person. That kind of love makes it possible for us to hold our tempers when things don’t go our way—and to maintain harmonious relationships even with our opponents. It makes it possible for us to avoid selfish, self-destructive behaviors.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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