Common Ground (Ephesians 3:8–13)

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Doug Van Meter - 24 April 2016

Common Ground (Ephesians 3:1–13)

Ephesians Exposition

As we have seen, Paul, in Ephesians, is glorying in the power of the gospel that has made outsiders into insiders and insiders truly insiders (2:18). Those who once did not belong now believe and therefore they do belong. Those who were at one time alienated from both God and one another now share in the life of Christ. There is great common ground shared by all believers, regardless of any superficial differences. In our third study of Ephesians 3:1–13, we will consider this common ground, with particular emphasis on v. 12, where we see at least three explicit truths concerning the common ground shared by believers.

From Series: "Ephesians Exposition"

This series comprises the sermons preached at BBC during an exposition of the book of Ephesians.

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In his excellent book, Love in Hard Places, Don Carson says of the church:

Ideally … the church is not made up of natural ‘friends.’ It is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common ancestry, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort…. [Rather, we] are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.1

In other words, though there are many things that we do not have in common, we have the most important thing in common. And this makes us uniquely uncommon. This gets the attention of a watching world—and universe. This is important, for as Jamie Dunlop adds, “A church composed of natural friends says little about the power of the gospel.”2

As we have seen on several occasions, Paul is glorying in the power of the gospel that has made outsiders into insiders, and insiders truly insiders (2:18). Those who once did not belong now believe and therefore do belong. Those who were natural enemies are now a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake. Those who were at one time alienated from God and from one another now share in the life of Christ. They are on common ground. And this is amazing to those who know the human condition.

I think here of Steve Saint, whose father, Nate, was killed by the Auca Indians when he went to them as a missionary. Years later, one of the men who killed Nate was saved, and Steve bears witness that that man became a second father to him.

This amazing expression of God’s manifold wisdom is brought to light throughout the New Testament. Matthew was a tax collector and Simon a Zealot. The two would normally have been at each other’s throats, but God saved them and they laboured side by side for the sake of the gospel. In the early years, the Jerusalem church, led by Jewish apostles, faced a challenge of division between the Hebrew and Hellenised widows. The apostles selected Hellenised men to deal with the problem. The church at Antioch was led by men from vastly different backgrounds, including one raised in Herod’s household, but they all worked together in the gospel. Paul preached to the guard of the prison where he was incarcerated and they soon worshipped together in the same church.

In all of these examples, there is a common theme. Through the gospel of Christ, though they may have been very diverse people, living in diverse circumstances, and though they may at one time have been natural enemies, nevertheless they were saved by a common message that addressed their common problem. The result is that they came to love a common Saviour, and so they came to share common ground.

This is how God intends for the church to be. He intends for the church to be a community of those who share in the life of Christ regardless of any other differences that may characterise them. This is clearly Paul’s theme in Ephesians.

But lest we think that this only concerns ethnic difference, we should bear in mind the many other differences that exist in the community of faith: generational differences, gender differences, socio-economic differences, political differences, cultural differences, personality differences, diverse social abilities, etc. There is not much that is uncommon about this. This is reflected in our wider society. What is uncommon is the unity that exists in the midst of so much diversity. To find common ground, and to exist happily together on this common ground, is uncommon indeed!

We have looked at this theme on several occasions, and now we dig again into these “unsearchable riches” (v. 8). Let’s not miss this. We are rich redemptively and relationally. We have been delivered from the poverty of the all too common sin of self-centredness with its resultant relational discord.

The emphasis in this study arises particularly from v. 12, where Paul, having spoken of God’s “eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 11) reminds his readers—particularly Gentile believers—that through the work of Christ they share common ground with all believers, regardless of any superficial differences. Because they share in the supernatural dynamic of the gospel, they are on common ground with Jewish believers.

In v. 12, there are at least three explicit truths concerning this common ground—and at least one implicit truth.

May our study of this text help us to appreciate and to live out our life together on common ground.

We Share the Common Ground of Acceptance

A church that is composed of those who have in common natural affinities is not necessarily wrong, but in many, if not most, cases, it is a weak expression of the power of the gospel. But when those who are diverse are in partnership by and for the gospel, then this is a powerful expression of the gospel. In many ways, this is Paul’s point in this passage. He glories that these who were at one time natural enemies are now, quite literally, together for the gospel. They share common ground—at the foot of the cross.

The first thing that Paul mentions concerning this commonality is that “we have boldness.”

Whatever this means, let’s not miss the point that this rich gift is to be experienced and enjoyed together. “We” are bold together.

The word translated “boldness” means “outspokenness.” It means “to speak freely” or “to speak plainly’.” The emphasis is upon “freedom of expression” or “freedom of speech.” Paul asked these believers later to pray for him that he might open his mouth boldly to preach the gospel (6:19). He desired to overcome any hindrances to freely declaring the truth.

This word is used in the book of Hebrews in the context of encouraging those who are hesitant to confidently, boldly come to Christ. It is used in Hebrews in this way with reference to prayer (4:16).

Acceptance

The point that Paul is making is that we believers are on the common ground of acceptance. We are accepted in the Beloved and therefore we have boldness to enjoy this acceptance.

Because of the gospel, because God has accomplished or realized His plan of one new man in Christ, we who have been accepted by God are to be accepting of one another. We might put it this way: Our common ground is level ground. The cross of Christ and the Word of God are great levellers. There is no difference among believers. This is the power of the gospel that God intends for the church to display to a watching universe. After all, if the heavenly rulers and authorities are observing (vv. 9–10), then so are the earthly.

There are to be no barriers between God’s people. Each member counts. If God is keen to commune with a person, then how can we not be? Yes, in some cases, you will have to dig deep to do so, yet do so we must.

Do you determine your acceptance of someone on any other basis than on the fact that they are in Christ? We should be careful how we treat and how we speak of one another (Matthew 18:6–9).

Prayerful Acceptance

It would seem that all of these things might be on his heart, but Paul is writing most particularly in a redemptive and a prayerful sense. Paul is saying that Gentiles, who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, share with Jewish believers the privilege of boldly confessing Christ as their Lord and Saviour, and share the common privilege of boldly and expectantly praying in His name. They share the common ground of being on praying ground (see 2:18).

Regardless of one’s differences, regardless of whatever diversity there is in the church, every believer shares the common ground of freedom to pray. Because of the gospel, we are free to speak plainly to God; we share in the bold privilege to come to the throne of grace. We are bold together. And, I might add, we must be bold together. We must gather to pray.

Note how the early church were bold together (Acts 1:12–14; 2:1–4; 3:1; 4:23–31). They were bold together in prayer and then they were bold together in proclamation (6:4; 12:5).

When people who are diverse in many ways nevertheless join together in prayer, then what becomes clear is the common affinity of real need and of a sense of dependence upon the Lord. In this way, there really are no differences among us. This prayerful expression of such common ground is a testimony to something supernatural: the gospel of the grace of God.

When we are bold together, we are corporately expressing that we share the common ground of sinfulness, weakness, dependence and reverence. Is this perhaps why some are not bold together?

Prayer is both the expression and the means of meaningful community. We need to meet on common ground (literally) if we will grow stronger in the expression of the common ground that is ours by the gospel of Christ.

We Share the Common Ground of Access

This second point is actually the hub of the principle of being on common ground. The key phrase is “access with confidence.”

The word “access” is used first by Paul in 2:18. It connotes “bringing toward” and “admission.” It was a term in the ancient world that spoke of being giving admission to a throne room. We might say today that one is given an audience with one of supreme authority. Paul is using the word here in this sense. He is speaking of being given admission and acceptance before the Lord of the universe.

You will remember, contextually, that Paul has said in chapter 2 that Christ removed the middle wall of partition separating Jews from Gentiles. The point he is driving home is that these people who were at one time at enmity, not only with God but also with each other, are now together worshipping and serving the Lord as one new man in Christ.

Further, these Gentiles at one time were excluded and alienated from God. They were not able to approach God as they were restricted to the court of the Gentiles. However, because of what God has accomplished in Christ (v. 11), God’s eternal purpose has come to pass and now Gentile and Jewish believers are on common ground. This is what Paul is emphasising in v. 12.

Assurance

Because of the person and work of Jesus Christ, we have a continual audience with God. But Paul then adds one more phrase: “with confidence.”

This word is similar to the earlier term translated “boldness,” but it is a bit different. It means “trust” or “reliance.” The word “assurance” is a good synonym.

It is a strong word, which expresses the idea of firm belief in someone and therefore a confident relationship. Paul is saying that those who belong to the church have been provided with the privilege to approach God without fear of reproach from Him. We are assured that we will be accepted. And every Christian stands on this common ground.

Those who belong to this one new man in Christ all share the common ground that we are accepted in God’s throne room, that we really are seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that we will not be rejected—regardless. This has wide implications for the church.

Notice again the corporate element: “in whom we have … access.” As we will soon see, the basis of this access is the same: faith in Christ. But for our purposes now, we need to note that we have access together. We have been accepted by God together. We therefore belong together.

A Common Belonging

We share in a common brotherhood; we should therefore be accessible to one another.

No member of the church should feel rejected—unless, of course, their behaviour becomes injurious to the body. If someone claims to be a member of the church and yet their behaviour and/or beliefs indicate they have no access to God’s throne room, then the church has the responsibility to say so (Romans 16:17–18; Titus 3:9–10; etc.). God is committed to protecting those who belong.

But, this scenario aside, the principle remains that we are to be “accessible” to all to whom God has given access. And sometimes this requires hard work—and faith. Consider the faith that it must have taken for Barnabas to trustingly accept Saul as a brother (Acts 9:26–30).

A Common Responsibility

We share the common responsibility to foster this assurance. We should help to strengthen one another’s assurance.

God desires His children to enjoy access to Him. There is a sense in which He does not want us to knock before we enter, but rather to simply run in and to throw our arms of trust around Him.

I used to love it when my grandchildren would come into my office and do just that. I would hear a little knock and would jump up and open the door. I would have been quite happy for them to simply barge in.

Sometimes, we need to help one another to embrace their birthright of entrance to the throne room of God.

We can do this by exhorting them from Scripture to embrace this right and pray. We can offer to pray with them. We can arrange to meet with them to encourage or admonish them. We can remind them of the wonderful truth, so poetically put:

Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For His grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.

I am not suggesting flippancy. We are on hallowed ground, to be sure, but at the same time it is common ground for us all and God wants for us to make the most of it. This is why Paul is writing; this is why we have the New Testament.

We Share the Common Ground of our Approach

As we consider the communal blessings revealed in the earlier part of this verse, we would be wise to ask how it is that we get to this common ground. And the answer is, by believing. We might add, by believing together.

The final phrase of v. 12 reveals the means: “through faith in Him.” There is only way in which we can acceptably be accepted, and that is by faith alone in Christ alone. Those who have been given such faith, and who manifest such faith in repentance from their idols as they turn to the Lord Jesus Christ, find that they are in a large company of people who have done likewise.

In other words, this common ground that we share is reserved for those who believe the gospel. This may sound elementary but it is essential and, sadly, all too often neglected.

Jamie Dunlop writes, “Supernatural community comes from supernatural faith.”2 We dare not take this for granted. We are on common ground, but not because we climbed here. Rather, by God’s gracious power, we have been placed here. And the means of the powerful placement is faith.

In other words, we believe together and therefore we are on common ground together. Our common ground is the gospel. So it does matter what you believe.

Let me illustrate from an advert that I recently read on a church’s website. The heading read, “Whatever your thoughts on church, whatever your beliefs about God, you are welcome here. We want to make a lasting difference in your life, in our community, and in the world.”

I understand what they are saying and the point they are trying to make. They are simply opening the door for visitors to come and to know that they will be welcomed. I know the ministry of this particular church and that it is faithful with the gospel. They are reaching and discipling people.

Indeed, in most cases, everyone who attends a church gathering should be welcome. But there are a some important things to be qualified.

The church is to be welcoming, but not necessarily affirming. Though all are welcome on the Lord’s Day, regardless of what they believe, not all are welcomed into the church. If there is no common ground of belief then there can be no common ground of belonging. Belief does precede belonging. Yes, we must believe before we can belong.

This no doubt is why people who gather with Christians, who are not yet Christians, sense that they are outsiders. Though we need to be careful that we do not unnecessarily create this impression, at the same time there is a powerfully compelling effect when one senses that he is an outsider and yet desires to be an insider. For the church to minimise the difference between those who believe and those who do not is neither helpful to people nor honouring to God. If we truly care about people, we will want them to know that they are on the wrong side and that they need to be on the right side by having God on their side (Psalm 124:1). The gospel turns outsiders into insiders. To those on the outside, the gospel remains a mystery. But not for those who, by God’s grace, are now on the inside. We want all to be get in on the inside story!

It is therefore both irresponsible and dangerous to treat outsiders as if they are insiders.

Though all are welcome to attend the Lord’s Day gatherings, regardless of their beliefs, nevertheless our goal is for erroneous beliefs to be changed. By the power of the gospel, we desire for people to believe the truth. After all, if there is no faith in Him Christ Jesus our Lord, then there is no true, essential common ground.

By the way, the church I am speaking about here knows this. A recent sermon on is website is called, “The God We Pray To.” Obviously, they are defining their theology. It does matter what you believe about God, and that church knows and proclaims this.

As I said earlier, those who are dangerous to the church, and to themselves, should not be welcomed (Matthew 18:15–20; 1 Corinthians 5:1–5; Titus 3:9–11).

So, since what we believe is so important, if what we believe is essential for whether or not we belong, then we must never minimise the truth that faith comes from the Word of God (Romans 10:17). This is why it is essential that the church be well nourished. We need to be a well fertilised ground.

As the church proclaims the Word of God, the goal is always that it be a Christ-centred, gospel-pointing declaration. We must preach Christ and Him crucified lest people’s faith “rest in the wisdom of God rather than in the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 2:5).

What does this faith look like? It looks like acknowledgement of one’s sinfulness and hopelessness before a holy and just God who must punish sin.

It looks like the confession that our only hope is in the sacrificial death of the sinless Son of God, who proved that His sacrifice was accepted by God on behalf of sinners when God raised Him from the dead.

It looks like trusting Christ, relying fully on Him as your Saviour and Lord.

In short, it looks like believing what God in His Word has revealed: that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

It looks like this room full of people who are sinners but saved by the grace of God. It looks like us who were lost and unbelieving but now found, forgiven, freed by God’s gift of faith.

Let me mention some important truths related to this.

First, if we minimise the common ground of the gospel, then we will lose ground. The gospel must not be tampered with.

The common ground, in other words, is not a playground. This is a serious matter. The gospel is God’s and we must honour it as such. To play fast and loose with the gospel is to invite God’s displeasure and even judgement. It is also to imperil the souls of others.

Second, our common ground of the gospel is solid ground. There is, therefore, no reason to fret (v. 13).

Third, our common ground of the gospel is fruitful ground—fertile soil for the fruit of godliness and for the fruit of supernatural relationships. The church is, in a very real sense, a multigenerational family of foreigners.

Fourth, we should be building upon this common ground (see 2:19–22). We share in a common building project. Every believer is to be involved in outreach.

Fifth, and finally, our common ground is hallowed/holy ground, not a playground. Our behaviour indicates whether we truly believe and belong together.

Our common ground is a common bond. The gospel is the cause of those with common diversities being brought together into an uncommon unity.

Having reflected on this theme, let us respond by reflecting on what each of us needs to do to make the most of this hallowed ground.

To whom will you reach out today? To whom will you send an encouraging message? Whom will you seek to visit and minister to? With whom will you seek to share the gospel? With whom will you engage to exhort, admonish, to help in their walk with Christ? With whom will you pray? Will you join with the church for prayer?

At the end of the day, it is not mere superficial affinities that matter but rather it is gospel affinity that matters. It is the power of the gospel that can truly form a unified people with such diversified backgrounds. The world—in fact, the universe—is watching (vv. 8–10). Let us so live that they will marvel, be convicted, and perhaps even be converted through the testimony of such a common ground.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop, The Compelling Community: Where God’s Power Makes a Church Attractive (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), Kindle edition.
  2. Dever and Dunlop, The Compelling Community, Kindle edition.
  3. Dever and Dunlop, The Compelling Community, Kindle edition.