Blueprints and Building Materials (Ephesians 4:1-16)

The Old Testament is a collection of stories, as we all know. But the ancient Jewish people understood that these stories are all woven together to create larger stories, great movements of God’s work through history.

In our worship today we have sort of replayed one of those stories, which was collected and told through Psalm 68. If we were to read the whole psalm together, we would see that it is the story of how God rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and led them to Mt. Sinai in the Arabian desert, where he gave them the 10 Commandments.

Then, he led his people across the desert into the Promised Land, and eventually led them to another mountain: Mt. Zion, the mountain that the city of Jerusalem is built on. And when he arrived at Mt. Zion, as we read in our Call to Worship on page 1, it says “the chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary.” The sanctuary means the temple that was built at the top of the mountain of Jerusalem.

And then it says, “When you ascended on high, you took many captives; you received gifts from people, even from the rebellious — that you, Lord God, might dwell there.”

So the idea that we are supposed to get when we read Psalm 68, is this image of a God who leaves his temple on one mountain, and rolls across the desert with this massive, irresistable army that just crushes every tyrant, every abusive government, rescues every prisoner, picks up all the poor, the widows, the orphans, and carries them all up into his temple on this other mountain, where they will be kept safe forever.

And there, of course, they unite in worshiping this God who has rescued them! “Your procession, God, has come into view, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary. In front are the singers, after them the musicians, with are the young women playing the tambourines. Praise God in the great congregation; praise the Lord in the assembly of Israel.” And as they come they bring everything they own: their gold, their silver, their children, everything! and they offer all these things to him out of gratitude for their rescue. And that’s why the psalm says, “When you ascended on high — climbing Jerusalem’s mountain — you received gifts from people, even from the rebellious.”

And so the psalm ends with this God, this mighty conquering King, seated in his temple, in his throne-room, with all this massive wealth and treasure sitting around him that he has gathered from all the nations he has conquered, from all the people he has rescued.

But is that the end of the story? He accumulates all this wealth…and then he just keeps it for himself? Is that the mark of a good king? Does a good ruler use his wealth to buy apartments and handbags?

Well, in the very last verse of Psalm 68, which is printed on page 1, in our Call to Worship, in verse 35 we are told what a good king does with his wealth: “You, God, are awesome in your sanctuary; the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.

Praise be to God!

So in the Old Testament, God used the wealth of his conquests to give power and strength to his people, the people of Israel, the Jewish people.

But we are not the Jewish people.

So, do we receive power and strength from God? And if we do, what does that look like? In the Old Testament, the power and strength of God was proven through a physical kingdom, a physical temple that was literally covered in gold, a temple so beautiful that it was one of the wonders of the ancient world.

Is that what we are destined to do: build this temple that will be the wonder of the earth?

Well, no.


Because, as Paul has been teaching us so far in this letter to the Ephesians: we are the temple of God. And we discovered last week that we are actually the wonder of the universe, not just the earth! Which added quite a bit of pressure, right? It gave us some performance anxiety, and left us wondering, “Oh, great! What do we do now?”

Well, here, in Chapter 4, Paul begins to tell us what we are supposed to do now. Today he is going to describe the general structure of what the church — the temple — looks like. Then, next week and for the rest of the letter he is going to focus on the details, so that we aren’t left guessing about what real unity is supposed to look like in our lives.

So Paul starts: [1] As a prisoner for the Lord, then

— because, remember, he’s in prison for preaching this radical idea that Gentiles and Jews are actually one new race in Christ —

I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.

And what is this calling, again?

Oh, that’s right: to evangelize the universe!

So the Ephesians say, “Okay, then, Paul, please describe for us what a worthy life looks like!” In other words: tell us, what do we do now?

And Paul says, “No problem!” [2] Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

These are essential elements of the Christian life: humility. Gentleness. Patience. So we’d better make sure we understand them:

First: humility. In Greek this word means kneeling down to serve others. Pushing others ahead of you. In other words, humility is the opposite of ambition. Christians are not called to push themselves forward in their careers, climbing over the backs of others to advance up the ladder. If God raises you up to a position of authority, that’s good! — but it also means that you now have an even greater responsibility to lift others up above yourself.

Second, gentleness. In Greek, this word is very interesting. It does not mean softness. It is a word that describes a person who knows when not to get angry — and also knows when to get angry. Christian gentleness means being able to tell the difference between someone who is sinning out of weakness or grief, and someone who is sinning out of the desire to destroy. Both people are sinning, but Christian gentleness learns how to approach different situations appropriately.

Third, patience. In Greek, this word literally means long-tempered — the opposite of short-tempered. Christian patience means being slow to get angry. People are irritating! Those who are closest to us are irritating because they’re always around. Those who are farther away are irritating because they’re different. The Christian response to irritation is…patience, bearing with one another in love.

“Using these tools,” Paul says, [3] make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. [4] There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called ; [5] one Lord, one faith, one baptism; [6] one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

There is one body: the body of Christ, the church. There is one Spirit: the Spirit who animates the one body. There is one hope: the hope that one day we are going to be beautiful, the perfected poem of God, alive in a perfected universe.

There is one Lord: Jesus Christ, the head of our body. There is one faith: our faith in Jesus. There is one baptism: the water that binds us together into one body.

There is one God and Father of all: the Father who rules the universe, moves the universe, and fills the universe.

And I need to pause here for a moment and point out that Paul has just used the language of the Trinity — the Three-in-One — to explain how it is possible for we, the church, to be the Many-in-One. “There is one Spirit.” “There is one Lord.” “There is one Father.” And yet, these three are one God. Therefore, we many can be one body, one temple.

In fact, this concept of the Three-in-One is actually essential to healthy human relationships. People who do not believe that God is Three-in-One actually have trouble forming healthy relationships. Let me explain how that works:

If our God was an Absolute Unity — capital A, capital U — then we, in order to be like God, would have to do our best to practice Absolute Unity in every aspect of our lives. Which means there would be no room for diversity in our communities. In order for us to be holy like God, we would have to be identical with one another, just as the Absolute Unity is identical with himself.

And if you doubt that this is true, I can point you to an actual example: the Muslim God is an Absolute Unity. And the real life result of this belief is this: Muslim societies have a very uncomfortable relationship with diversity. Anything that is perceived as different is therefore perceived as unholy. And what is unholy must be destroyed.

But thanks be to God that our God is not an Absolute Unity! Relationship is contained within him. Diversity is contained within him. He is not just the One. He is the Three-in-One. And because our God is both diverse and unified, we can enjoy relationships that are both diverse and unified.

And that’s what Paul goes on to say next. For the first six verses he has focused on the unity of God, the unity of the church.

Now he focuses on the diversity: [7] But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.

Jesus has given each of us a different measure of grace.

Does that mean that some of us are “more saved” than others, or have “more grace” than others?

No. Remember, Paul spent the whole first chapter of this letter saying that all Christians have every spiritual blessing in Christ. That is what unifies us.

But here, Paul is talking about diversity. He is talking about different kinds of gifts. He is saying that Jesus is that king from Psalm 68, who is seated in his temple at the top of the mountain, surrounded by the wealth of the nations. And, like a good king, he is distributing that wealth to his people, giving each one exactly what they need.

And to make his point clear he goes ahead and references Psalm 68: [8] This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.”

And then, if you’re paying attention, you say, “Uh, Paul, you mis-quoted Psalm 68, verse 18! It says he ‘received gifts’, he didn’t give gifts!”

But Paul is not actually quoting verse 18. He is giving us a summary of the whole psalm, which ends with God giving gifts to his people.

Then Paul says this: [9] (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? [10] He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)


Paul, here, is basically making a theological side-note. When ancient Jews read Psalm 68, they recognized that the “one who ascended” is obviously God. Paul is pointing out to them that God is already above everything. How can he ascend further when he is already at the top?

Clearly, then, before God could ascend to his temple, he first had to descend. But when did God ever descend to earth? Well…never! if you’re a Jewish theologian who believes that God is an Absolute Unity.

So Paul is pointing out to his Jewish theologian friends that Psalm 68 actually teaches that God had to take on human form in order to descend. Therefore Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus is the Son of God, and if you refuse to believe this, you are actually speaking against the Old Testament prophets!


But anyway, Paul gets right back to his main point, which is describing the gifts that our king gives his people: [11] So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers

— and…who are these people?

Well, we’ve already met the apostles and prophets back in Chapter 2. Paul told us then that the apostles and prophets are the foundation stones of the new temple, the church. Christ is the cornerstone, the main foundation stone; the apostles and prophets are built upon that stone.

We discovered that the apostles were like the first generation of church planters: they went out preaching this new gospel of Jesus Christ. And the prophets were like the first generation of pastors: they helped to apply this new gospel to new non-Jewish situations.

And we also learned that, eventually, the teachings of the apostles and prophets became the New Testament, which is a non-race-based scripture. The New Testament, through Christ, re-interprets the race-based Old Testament, and applies its Jewish principles to all people.

So the first gift Christ has given his people is this new scripture that applies to all people.

Who are these evangelists, then? Well, according to the New Testament, an evangelist is a person who goes to new places to preach this new scripture that came from the apostles and prophets. So, evangelists are like the second generation of church planters.

And who are these pastors and teachers? Well, in the New Testament, pastors and teachers are people who faithfully interpret this new scripture that came from the apostles and prophets. So, pastors and teachers are like the second generation of prophets. Their calling is to help apply scripture to people’s lives.

Okay. So Jesus has given us these gifts, these people. But what are they supposed to do? Verse 12: they are supposed to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up [13] 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.

So what is the point of this diversity, these different kinds of gifts, these different kinds of people?

These people, these gifts, are all supposed to work together to help equip the rest of God’s people.

What are the rest of God’s people supposed to do? Works of service.

What are these works of service supposed to accomplish? The building of the body of Christ, the church, the temple.

And how long are God’s people supposed to do this? 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.

So what is the point of this diversity? Diversity actually produces true unity.

And this is ironic, isn’t it? Belief in God as an Absolute Unity results in division and the destruction of diversity. But belief in God as a Unified Diversity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — results in true unity.

And that is the point Paul continues to make here. As we grow in maturity as a church, recognizing and honouring the diversity of people and gifts among us, then — verse 14 — 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 people in their deceitful scheming.

A mature respect for diversity leads to true unity and stability. Being humble, gentle, and patient with our diversity will result in a truly unified Christian community.

By contrast, here, immaturity results in confusion, the rejection of diversity, the insistence that everyone has to be like me! This is why younger Christians, if they end up joining an immature church, can end up being led first this way, then that way, then this way again until they get tired and give up on the faith. Our churches here in Malaysia are full of people who love Jesus, but they have given up on participating in church community because they are tired! They are worn out by immature teachers who come along and say, “Hey, you have to follow me exactly! You have to believe exactly what I believe, and act exactly like me, or else — ! you’re not really a Christian!”

Friends, I don’t want CDPCKL to be that kind of church. I don’t want to be that kind of teacher. There are foundation stones in the church that must not be moved. Christ does have ethical expectations of us, expectations like humility, gentleness, patience. But what those actually look like in our daily lives can be incredibly diverse.

Our calling is to honour the diversity that our king has given to us — while also making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.

And that is how Paul finishes here:

[15] Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. [16] 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.

Every diverse part does its work. Every diverse person has a part to play in the body of Christ. We are all different. But we are all joining, and holding together, and growing, and building up the temple of God.

And you wanna know what the really good news is here? We are called to do works of service, which will result in the body of Christ being built up. We each have a part of play, but it is Christ who does the real work.

Jesus is like a workman who puts each stone in place, each brick in the wall of the temple. We are the bricks, the living stones. Then Jesus gets the cement, the glue — this mixture of humility, gentleness, patience — and he sticks us together with it. And then he says, “Okay! Now: hold on to one another!”

That is our job. Our works of service, combined with the cement of humility, gentleness, and patience, will result in us sticking together. Some of the living stones are called “evangelist” stones. They are the foundation stones for new walls. Some of the living stones are called “pastor stones”, or “teacher stones”, and their function is to make sure those walls stay firmly grounded on the foundation of the apostles and prophets: the Word of God.

And as we all work together like this, using our diverse giftings to help everyone stay centered on Christ, Jesus adds another layer of living stones, and another layer, and another layer. And he will continue to do so until one day the last living stone will be set in place.

And on that day our king will return to earth, and we will finally attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

We will be complete, a perfectly unified diversity, a beautiful image of the Three-in-One who created all things.

So, in Psalm 68, we see this Old Testament image of the Jewish God conquering the nations, destroying tyrants and abusers, rescuing the helpless, and then, victorious, ascending to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, where he shares all his wealth and power with his people so that they can build an even more glorious temple for his name, a temple that will astonish the world.

The Apostle Paul, one of the foundation stones of the church, has now re-interpreted that Old Testament image. Now it is a New Testament image. Now it is Jesus, the Son of God, conquering the nations, destroying tyrants and abusers, rescuing the helpless, and then, victorious, ascending to the heavenly temple, the new heavenly Jerusalem, where he shares all his wealth and power with his people, the new people of God, neither Jew nor Gentile but a whole new diverse race. And he gives them these gifts so that they can be part of building an even more glorious temple for his name, a temple that will astonish the universe.

And Paul has shown us the blueprints of this temple. He has described its structure to us. The deepest foundation is the Cornerstone, Jesus Christ himself. Next are the apostles and prophets, who wrote God’s Word for us. Then there are the evangelists, pastors and teachers, ordinary stones placed at strategic points in the structure, to give the building its frame. And then, every living stone, every believer, carefully shaped and placed in just the right position to do their “works of service”, which is, above all, to be humble, gentle, and patient with the stones around them!

Now, I do want to pause here for a moment and answer a question people often ask at this point. They will say, “I hear you teaching that the apostles and prophets wrote the New Testament, and that implies that we do not need apostles and prophets anymore. But I’ve been to churches where people call themselves apostles and prophets. Can you explain this?”

The church still has living apostles and prophets. Just because they are dead does not mean that they are not still with us right now in worship. They are alive in Christ, they are seated in the heavenly temple in Christ’s body — just as we are! And they are still doing their job as the foundation stones of our church. The only difference between them and us is that we still serve the temple in our bodies, whereas they continue to serve the church through their writings.

See, when Jesus left the earth for the last time, he left something behind to continue his work: the Holy Spirit. In the same way, when the apostles and prophets died, they left something behind to continue their work: the New Testament. So the church does still rest upon the foundation of living apostles and prophets. We can still interact with them — we just interact with them through their writings.

However, there are no longer apostles and prophets living on this earth. Because — think about this! — that would mean that there are still men and women on this earth who are still receiving new revelations, new interpretations, new commands from God for the church. And that would mean that they are still writing and updating the Word of God. And if that is true, then that means the New Testament is irrelevant to us. Why would we want to learn from 2000 year old apostles and prophets when we have 30 year old apostles and prophets right here with us?

The original apostles and prophets served during the first generation after Christ, while the New Testament was still being written, while the foundation of the church was still being laid. But the foundation is fixed in place now; the New Testament is finished. So in the next generation, the apostles handed off their job to the evangelists, the prophets handed off their job to pastors and teachers, and the walls of the temple started to rise.

So, if you visit a church where people call themselves apostles or prophets…pay attention and discern carefully. Sometimes when someone calls himself “apostle” what he really means is “evangelist”, or “church planter”. In the same way, some people say “prophet” when really they mean “pastor” or “teacher”. That…is okay. I mean, it’s confusing, it’s using the wrong word to describe the wrong thing, but…we all do that sometimes. So in that case, I would urge you to be humble, gentle, patient with that person, with that church.

But if by “apostle” that person means, “I am the foundation of this church, therefore you have to do what I say!”…if, by “prophet” that person means, “I am receiving special revelations from God, therefore you have to do what I say!”…then, friends, I urge you, with all gentleness — the kind of gentleness that knows when to get angry — I urge you, by the command of scripture, to run away from that church and do not look back. Because, according to the last paragraph of the bible, anyone who adds their commands to scripture is going to be cursed. You do not want to be anywhere near a church like that on Judgement Day.

And the most practical way to discern which kind of “apostles and prophets” they are is to look at the fruit of their ministry. Are those teachers humble, gentle, patient? or do they try to force everyone to be exactly like them? Do their teachings lead to unity and love in the body? or to division, fragmentation, in-fighting, gossip? Are they centered on preaching the Word of God? or are they blown here and there by every wind of teaching, always following the next cool ministry idea?

Just be warned, friends: a church that sways back and forth, always following the latest trends in ministry, trying to get ahead in their ambition…at the very least, that is a confused and immature church; at the very worst, it may be a community destined to fall under the curse of God.

That was heavy. But appropriate. Because this was a problem in the Ephesian church, just as it is today. New “apostles” and “prophets” were always showing up and saying, “Hey! We have a new revelation! Don’t listen to what that Paul guy said, we have the updated version of the gospel!”  That is why Paul took such care to describe how the temple is build, layer by layer.

So, what does this have to do with us? What does our Father want us to believe and do as we leave here today?

First, believe this: the Lord is in his temple, and he has poured out his wealth on us, his people. He has given every Christian believer gifts that we are to use in building up the living stones we find ourselves connected to.

Second, believe this: the foundational gift he has given his church is his written Word. The foundation of every true church is Jesus Christ, expressed through God’s Word; this is the source of our unity and our strength.

So, third, believe this: each one of you has a unique role to play in our community; our Father has shaped you to fit in right here, right now. He has created you to serve, to do beautiful things alongside your beautiful brothers and sisters. Some of you will be evangelists. Some of you will be pastors and teachers. If you are a parent then you already are! But this list of gifts in this passage is just the beginning. There are as many diverse gifts in our church as there are people. Even Brendan, the youngest among us, has a calling. He has a job to do among us even today — because have you noticed that a baby has a unifying influence in a community? The point of every gift is to help build up the body of Christ until all we reach maturity together on the day Jesus returns.

So what should we do because of this belief?

That’s an easy one. Paul has already told us in plain Greek: make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

We are a diverse bunch, and yet we are One. Our unified diversity as a church is a testimony to the fact that God is a unified diversity. We are many-in-one because our God is Three-in-One. Our calling is to be lifted up as God’s monument before the watching universe, as the proof of his being, his nature, his character, his grace, his wisdom.

And that is why Paul says: I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.


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