Yesterday we focused on the centrality of Christ in all things regarding the church. Today we want to expand and develop that thought. It is my belief that most of the problems that confront not only the religious world but in our lives would be solved if he were the focus of our teaching. This approach must be applied by all who claim loyalty to him. I realize that from a realistic, practical point of view this is “mission impossible” because people today are like Israel of old – married (joined) to their idols.
“Leave Israel alone,
because she is married to idolatry.” (Hosea 4:17 (NLT).
But this does not prevent people who care about the situation from doing what they can to bring to realization whatever God’s purpose is for us in this world. Indeed, if we are to ever have any influence with the world we must be a living demonstration of what we preach. If we ever hope to heal the breaches then we must become healers ourselves. If we are to ever achieve the unity the Lord desires for his people we must actively pursue unity.
But on what basis? The major thrust of churches of Christ has been to preach the return to the church of the first century as the solution. We have pointed out the salient features of the early church as contrasted with the denominations of today. What this comes over to most people is that this is a sales job. People read it as “My church is better than your church,” and come back with “My church is just as good as your church!”
The church is not the basis of unity – Christ is. This is what the apostle Paul said in Galatians 3:26-28 …
“… for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s appeal to the Ephesian saints regarding unity in Ephesians 4:1-3 is based on the first three chapters in which he had elaborated on what God had done in bringing about his eternal purpose in Christ.
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you 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.”
Notice the word “therefore.” This word points back to what has been said in the first three chapters. The teaching found there is the basis of what these Christians are now urged to do – including what he says about “keeping (maintaining) the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” What we find there is that our individual salvation and hope are “in Christ” (ch. 1). The bringing of Jews and Gentiles together in one body and that body being the temple of God is realized “in him” through the means of his sacrifice (ch. 2). The church as the manifestation of God’s eternal purpose is made possible “in Christ Jesus our Lord” (ch. 3). It is upon the basis of what God has done for us in Christ that the plea of Ephesians 4:1-3 is made.
In view of what Christ has done in shedding his blood to purchase the church, the correct response on the part of the church is called for. Some have emphasized that the appropriate response is that the church be “cross shaped.” That is simply a way of saying that everything we do as the people of God is to be done in response to Christ’s sacrifice for us. That applies whether we are responding to his love individually or collectively.
What does that look like in practical terms? Obviously it will look like Jesus.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:9-11).
What are the commandments we are to keep? Let Jesus explain …
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14).
John explains this in practical terms in 1 John 3:16-18 …
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
Whatever else may have been included in the commands Jesus spoke of here, the point of all was this …
These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (John 15:17).
But, someone says, “Isn’t the church commanded to do benevolence, etc?” Listen to what Paul said about this subject in 2 Cor. 8:8 …
“I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.”
… and then he roots it in what “our Lord Jesus Christ” did …
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
There is the “command.” Paul purposely says that his exhortation to them was not given as a command, but to encourage them to prove that their love was genuine. The sacrificial grace of the Lord was the motivation to get them to respond to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem. The command to care for the needy is in the command to love which is imperative because of Christ’s love.
The preaching of the gospel is to be done on the same basis. Paul referred in Philippians 1 to some who did not preach Christ out of a sincere motive and to others who did so “out of love.” Even though Paul rejoiced that Christ was preached, obviously those who did so out of love had the right motivation. The others were seeking to do harm to Paul.
When we respond to the needs of others we are modeling ourselves – whether individually or collectively – after the image of Christ. The same goes for the edification of one another. In Ephesians 4, Paul speaks of the gifts of enabled men whose responsibility it was to bring the saints to such a state of maturity and unity that instead of being blown about by various false doctrines they might …
“… Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16).
Everywhere in the New Testament you turn, there you will find Christ and his love as the foundation upon which the lives and actions of God’s people are to be built. His love inspires us – our love responds. We respond in appropriate ways to his love, always motivated out of a desire to glorify him. Self is put the background. Christ is preeminent, not only as the sovereign of the universe, but in our hearts as well.
Some may view this as too risky. They think we have to be reined in and restrained by law. We have to know precisely what to do and how to do it. But God did not create us to be robots. He created us as free agents with the capability of knowing and loving him. He gave us the freedom, not to do as we please, but to choose to love and serve him. This is where the only real freedom is to be found. If God was willing to take the risk of granting us freedom, shouldn’t we be as generous with others as he has been with us?
The truth of the matter is that love is a much more effective means of controlling people. Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 5:14-15 …
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Here it is Christ’s love that hems us in, that keeps us from doing what we might otherwise do. Yes, Paul does say earlier in this chapter that the fear of God motivated him to “persuade others” (v. 11). It is unfortunate that the KJV renders the word for fear here as “terror.” This same word (phobon fr. phobos – fear) is sometimes used to mean “worship.” It is the same idea as in Ecclesiastes 12:13 where the “whole duty” of man is to fear God and keep his commandments. It means to reverence, respect, to stand in awe of his majesty and his grace.
This passage is not saying that we must impose a system of law on others to keep them in line. There is something more powerful than even fear of condemnation that restrains us and keeps us from doing wrong. It is Christ’s love for us. Our response to his love might properly be called “fear” because in our love for him we fear or dread to displease him.