In September 1979, I found myself rushing to actively pursue membership in a fraternity at university. I was seeking identity, connection and community with all I thought it had to offer: meaningful, lifelong relationships; a sense of self-worth; a glorious, opportunity-filled future; joy. How wrong I was!
I was rejected, while two of my friends were accepted. It was said that I did not meet the “profile”; I did not fit the identity. I was crushed.
So I sought to find it in athletics. God gave me a stress fracture in my hip and I could not run for several months. And, like Jacob, I was transformed and found forgiveness and my true and lasting identity—in Christ.
I found connection and community. I began to find meaningful and lifelong relationships. I found true self-worth and an ability to be comfortable in my own skin. I found the most glorious, opportunity-filled future. I found joy. Or rather, joy found me. This was experienced in my identity with and as the church. You see, by the power of the gospel of Christ, I was brought into the truest and fullest of fraternities: the Body of Christ, the family of God, the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Many months later, I found myself rejecting an invitation to join the Delta Upsilon fraternity. It just was not that important any more. What I had maximised before was now minimised because I was beginning to know God and was therefore maximising the major means towards that end: the church.
Our time in this passage has been worth the effort. I believe that it has been fruitful for us as a church. I know of some who have been stimulated towards a more passionate pursuit of the knowledge of God. And I trust that we are now even more persuaded that this pursuit is to be together.
This prayer is a corporate concern for the corporate welfare of the congregation. It is for this reason that we cannot speak of knowing God without at the same time addressing the need to maximise the church. In other words, the knowledge of God—which makes life worthwhile—is a team effort. If we will know God, we will prioritise and maximise the church; and to the degree that we properly maximise the church, we will grow in our knowledge of God. These are joined at the HIP (Hope, Identity, Power) as Paul shows from vv. 17–23.
In this study, we will bring our consideration of this prayer to a close. My aim is to be very pastoral and therefore practical in the light of the principles arising from this prayer. I want us to come away with profound appreciation for the Lord Jesus Christ and with a solid grasp of why we should maximise the church, His church. We will attempt to do so under five headings.
We Must Honour the Church
Paul valued the church and wanted his readers to value her as well. The Lord who loves the church inspired Paul to write this and so we can conclude that He values her. Do you?
Paul mentions the word “church” in v. 22 for the first of nine times in this epistle. The word is used proportionately more times in Ephesus than in any other New Testament book (followed by 1 Corinthians and then Revelation). This is understandable since the church, God’s community of faith, is the theme of the epistle.
The Greek term ekklassia means “a called out assembly” and was used primarily of a religious congregation. The emphasis was upon assembly; it was used to describe a group that assembled together with a common concern. Interestingly, it was used with reference to Ephesus when Paul was establishing God’s assembly there (Acts 19:39). However, there the context was a legislative assembly, whereas here Paul is speaking of a heavenly assembly with very earthly ramifications (see Hebrews 12:22–24).
The church is an assembly, a congregation or community, whose members share the common experience of God calling them out from the power or domain of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Colossians 1:13). The church therefore is a uniquely called, unique congregation. (see 1 Peter 2:9–10).
The church exists because the Lord Jesus Christ loved her and gave Himself for her (5:25). The church exists because Jesus shed His precious and pure blood for her (Acts 20:28). Therefore, the church is to be highly valued. She is to be honoured. She is to be prized. She is to be prioritised. The church is to be maximised and never marginalised in our affections, nor minimised in our involvement.
Of course, prioritising the church can be a problem if in doing so we bypass Christ. However, this does not need to be the case. As Edmund Clowney says,
To be sure, if the church rather than Christ becomes the centre of our devotion, spiritual decay has begun. A doctrine of the church that does not centre on Christ is self-defeating and false. But Jesus said to the disciples who confessed Him, “I will build my church.” To ignore his purpose is to deny his lordship. The good news of Christ’s coming includes the good news of what he came to do: to join us to himself and to one another as his body, the new people of God.1
An Important Distinction
The New Testament uses the word “church” in two important ways: It is both visible and invisible; it is both local and universal.
The “church,” as Paul uses it in v. 22, is a reference to the church universal; the “called out assembly” of Christians throughout all ages in all places. In this sense, the church is “one body” (4:4). First Corinthians 12:13 refers to this concept as well: “For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one Body.” And clearly when Jesus used the word “church” for the first time, He was referring to the universal church: “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).
We Are One Body
Paul speaks of the church as “His body” (v. 23). We must never lose sight of the reality that the local church is a microcosm of the universal church. It is for this reason that we pray for other local churches, for those we know both personally as well as for those with whom we have no temporal contact.
Because we are literally members of one body—the body of Christ across all ages—we are to maximise our affection for it. We are to be concerned about the plight of our brothers and sisters around the globe. We are to joyfully share in the triumphs of the church across the globe and across the ages. We are to rejoice when the church prospers elsewhere, even when (especially when?) we do not experience such prosperity.
Further, we are to so maximise the church that we grieve over her setbacks and apparent defeats and over her declensions. We are to pray and to labour, as we have opportunity, for the reformation and revival of the global church. As we maximise the church we will look for ways to join together for the gospel.
We live in an age in which there are wonderful ways to network with other local churches. Ministries like Together for the Gospel and The Gospel Coalition afford such opportunities. In our specific context, BBC is a member of Sola 5, an association of God-centred evangelicals in Southern Africa. This affords us opportunity to strengthen and be strengthened by other churches.
You see, as we experience the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God, the eyes of our heart are illumined to know the hope to which everyone in the church has been called, and the identity that we share with everyone who has been converted and the power that is available to every Christian in the church on this planet. This, by the way, is why we sense such affinity with complete strangers who are Christians. The sense of connection is real, for we are connected in the same body to the same Head.
However, the predominate use of the word ekklesia is with reference to the local church.
This is not meant to minimise the universal church. Far from it. In fact, the key to maximising the universal church is to maximise the local church. It is precisely because we do not make enough of the local church that we have minimised the church. What we practise locally is what we will promote globally. This is so important for us to understand. Let me illustrate.
In a broken world, even good things are tainted with an element of bad. So with the Great Awakening in eighteenth century America (1720–1740), and to some degree in England. There were many blessings associated with this unique work of God in the colonies: tens of thousands of conversions; added to the churches; a wonderful legacy of God-centred preaching and an honest wrestling with the work of the Spirit; and reformation of the church in many areas.
But as I mentioned, there were also some negative effects. Perhaps the most corrosive was the introduction (particularly in Western-influenced churches) of what is commonly called (sometimes criticised and cursed) celebrity Christianity. One historian explains,
There had been revivals prior to the Great Awakening, but they were led almost exclusively by local pastors and confined to particular congregations. The success of the Great Awakening revivalists undercut the traditional role of the minister. To many it appeared that the local pastor could not attract crowds and usher in a powerful revival. Thousands of people left “cold” churches for those that appeared to be more spiritually vibrant. Baptist churches were among the primary beneficiaries of these defections.2
This malady, which gained prominence some three hundred years ago continues in our day. But it will be helpful to note that this is not a unique problem in any age. In fact, Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.
(1 Corinthians 3:1–7)
We are prone to external comparisons; we are prone to favouritism; we are prone to being impressed by giftedness; yes, we are prone to idolatry. And the result is that often we miss the blessings that are right in front of our noses. We are prone to despise the day of small things (Zechariah 4:10) and the result is that we miss out on big blessings.
Such spiritual myopia is evidenced in that, too frequently, we have minimal appreciation for the dignity and importance and value of the church. The result of this devaluation is that, as we touched upon previously, the local church is often not prioritised by her members as she should be. Because we do not maximise the universal church we minimise the local church. To quote James, “My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:10).
I am aware that there are many Christians who float from local church to local church without any serious membership commitments. Many do this from an expressed love for universal church. They speak of the universal body of Christ and glory in the ability to go from church to church for fellowship and “feeding.” But this in itself mitigates against their expression of love for the universal church. After all, of what use is an amputated arm to the body? There must be local commitment if there will be universal contribution.
I would go so far as to say that it is this failure to maximise the church local that has led to the marring of the church universal. As the church local grows in a healthy knowledge of God, this contributes to a broader health in the church universal. We might say that, as the local church progresses, the universal church is protected.
Let me summarise: Those who know God maximise what He maximises. Therefore, we maximise His universal church by maximising our local church.
We Must Appreciate the History of the Church
Some years ago I listened to an interview of a pastor who had just finished preaching through every book of the New Testament. The interviewer asked him if he would begin preaching through the Old Testament. The pastor replied, “No, I don’t think so. We are not Grace Community Synagogue.”
The interviewer chuckled, but I couldn’t help feel that that was an unwise response and a misunderstanding of the Old Testament.
Christianity, unlike every other religion, is uniquely grounded in history. Our faith is dependent upon God’s actions in history; it is rooted in the historical events of the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension. Take these away and we should be the most lamented, most pitied because most duped people in history. After all, simpletons and fools stake their lives and eternal destinies on lies.
Paul makes the point that the power that God “has toward us” is rooted in the historic act of the resurrection and ascension. But though this is the key historic act that undergirds the gospel foundation of the church, there is more to church history than this. In fact, this is a key concern of Paul in this letter.
Paul will speak of the “mystery” that God had revealed to him, and clearly the mystery is that of the multinational church, the new Israel of God. Paul, a converted Pharisaic Jew (by the way, I use “Pharisaic” here in a complementary way) was amazed that God had fulfilled His promise to Israel in the new covenant church.
A “mystery” in the Bible is a truth that can only be understood if God reveals it. So it is with the new covenant church.
As you read the Old Testament, you can become confused because of the “mysterious” passages that speak of a universal people of God even while God’s focus is clearly on the Jews. Many of the prophets spoke of a day when Gentiles, and even ostracised eunuchs, would one day be included in the people of God. (Hosea 1:6–11; Isaiah 56:3).
Occasionally, Gentiles are included in God’s gracious actions, and some of them even made it into the genealogy of Messiah (Rahab, Ruth). Peter mentions that sometimes the prophets themselves did not know what they were writing; they did not fully comprehend. It was a mystery to them.
But then the Lord began to clear away the fog of confusion and, in the ministry of the apostle Paul, it finally became clear. Perhaps that is the underlying, though perhaps unconscious, reason that Ephesians is a favourite book of a multitude of Christians. It clears up any mysterious confusion about our identity. Gentile Christians (which make up the majority of the universal church) are not second class saints next to Jewish Christians. Rather both Jew and Gentile believers are seated in first class for we are “seated in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:6). The church is not a mere parenthesis in history, but rather it has always been God’s focus in history (Revelation 13:8). Paul exalted in his privilege to reveal what was previously a mystery but was now a glorious reality: that Jew and Gentile believers (of all ethnicities) are one body in Christ. This was an amazing revelation in the first century and it remains so today. And I might add that the world is waiting to see this revelation. It is for this reason that Clowney can say, “Christian witness that is limited to private religious experience cannot challenge secularism. Christians in community must again show the world, not merely family values, but the bond of the love of Christ.”3
What will unite South Africa? Rugby? Soccer? A thousand times, no! The answer is that unity with diversity can only be found in the body of Christ, the church.
Always on His Mind
The heritage of the church will help us to prioritise the church. That is, when we come to realise the centrality of the church in the mind and plan of God then we will appreciate how central it should be in our minds and plans.
The church is not an afterthought. It is not a parenthesis. In a real sense everything else in history was the parenthesis surrounding what God was and is doing in church history. The church has always been on God’s mind. Just follow the plotline of Scripture.
The institution of marriage at creation was ultimately about the church (cf. Genesis 2:22–25 w/ Ephesians 5:30–33). Yes, the creation ordinance of marriage was a pointer to the new creation order where Jesus would be Lord over all to the church as her Groom.
The scattering of the nations in Genesis 11 was ultimately for the purpose of one day regathering them in the church (Acts 2).
The call of Abraham was intimately about God’s plan, not primarily for Israel, but rather for the church: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). The establishment of the nation of Israel itself was for the purpose of creating a people, a vehicle through which God would save the world (Exodus 19:4–6; cf. Isaiah 56:7; Genesis 12:1–3).
The chaotic rootlessness of modern society as well as ethnic strife points us to the story we have lost. It is the greatest story ever told, the story of God’s saving love. That story does not begin at Bethlehem’s manger: it begins in the Garden of Eden, when God promises that the Son of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. It continues in God’s promise to Abraham, made with an oath, “Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of His purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised (Heb 6:17). The story of the church begins with Israel, the Old Testament people of God.”3
As Revelation 12 makes clear, Satan was aware of this, which explains his constant onslaught against God’s chosen nation throughout its history. In fact, the onslaught continues.
The very phrase “chosen nation” is illustrative of this point. The question that should arise is, chosen for what? She was chosen as the nation through which ultimately Messiah would come (Isaiah 7; 9; etc.). The genealogies of Mathew 1 and Luke 2 point to this. The Davidic covenant was all about this.
Unfortunately, many have assumed that Israel was the main thing and, by default, the church is merely the other thing. That may sound harsh, but when Christians speak of two peoples inhabiting eternity (Jews and the rest), or when Christians speak in such a way implying that God will save Jewish people simply because they are Jewish, then we need a corrective measure—a corrective measure called the Bible.
As we will see in our studies in chapter 2, the gospel accomplishes the opposite of what Nehemiah was called to do: It tears walls down rather than building them up.
We Must Know the Head of the Church
Knowing the Head of the Church will equip us to maximise the church.
In reality, we will never give the deserved honour either to the universal church or to the local church if we do not first give proper honour to her Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The value of the church is measured by the value of the one who is at its head. “Christ in the capacity or position here ascribed to Him is presented as a gift of God to the Church. Having exalted Him to the highest and invested Him with supreme dominion, God gives Him to the Church…. God, in giving Christ to the Church, gave Him in the capacity of Head over all things.”5
With the Head we have, the Lord Jesus Christ—the one who gives us life, who directs us, who sustains us, who energises us—the church is to be the priority of the Christian.
Look who He is: “head over all things” (v. 22). This cannot be overemphasised. Yet sadly, perhaps the biggest failure on our part is that we underappreciate and therefore we underutilise this truth.
God the Father put everything under the feet of Jesus for the purpose of giving to the church a glorious Head, an overcoming Saviour, an almighty Lord. God wants our eyes opened to this; He wants us to be so convinced and so confident that we will become unstoppable in our seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness; that we will be immoveable from our faith;that we will always be abounding in the work of the Lord; that we will be indomitable in our relationships as we forgive and as we seek forgiveness; that we will be undaunted as we seek to disciple the nations; that we will be unflappable as we seek social justice; that we will be unshakeable in our faith as we face otherwise humanly hopeless situations.
In short, God the Father has given to His children such a Saviour that there is no reason at all why we should not be living supernatural lives. What we need in order to do so is to have the eyes of our understanding (“hearts”) illumined to see Christ. We need to know Christ. And when we do, we will maximise His church. After all, the church is Christ’s body; how can we not maximise it?
Consider that the one who “fills all in all” (v. 23) fill’s up the church. He completes it, He controls it, He constrains it (2 Corinthians 5:14), He causes it. How foolish we are to minimise what God maximises.
We will appreciate the glory of the church to the degree that we are persuaded of the sovereignty of Christ. If we truly appreciate that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, then we will be committed to what He is committed to: the building of His church (Matthew 16:18).
How Can We Know Him?
We will know the Head of the church fundamentally by exposition. After all, Jesus Christ is the final revelation of God from God (Hebrews 1:1–2), and the Bible is the record of this revelation. Exposition, doctrine, is nonnegotiable if we will know Christ.
J. I. Packer says somewhere that he is of the conviction that the Christian should read at least one chapter from the Gospels daily. He argues that this is a practical and wise way to keep Christ before us, which is necessary if we will not forget our Lord.
We need to read and to think and to listen and to learn about Jesus. This is vital for knowing the one who is the Head of the church; knowing the one who is the Head of the body to which we belong.
But of course, as we have been repeatedly reminded, this is not enough. Exposition and the Spirit’s illumination are necessary for true realisation of Christ and devotion to Him. And this comes in the context, more often than not, of obedience to Him. When we properly, biblically, devotedly maximise the church then God mobilises us to accomplish great things for Him.
Packer notes that those who know God have great energy for God, and they have great boldness for God. But this all flows from the fact that they also have great thoughts about God. As we grow in our knowledge of God in Christ (through meditation on His revelation in His Word and determination to believe it) then we will find ourselves compelled and mobilised to serve Him. This will move us to action for Him. As the eyes of our understanding are increasingly opened to the glory of God in Christ, the greatness of our expectations will increase. We will then be mobilised and energised to attempt great things for Him.
For example, our church was recently challenge from Matthew 14:13–21 in the area of orphan care. Doubtless we believe the historical record of this miracle, but do we really believe it? If we do then we will do! Obedience is inseparable from belief. We are to know Christ, the Head of the church, by experience. That is more than a mere truism. If we expect great things from Christ then we will attempt great things for Him.
The apostles believed God and turned the world upside down for Him (Acts 17:6). When they were forbidden to preach the gospel they chose to obey God rather than men and prayed for boldness to do so (Acts 4:13–31). Paul did not know all that the future held for him, but he was not swayed from obedience by threats to his life (Acts 20:22–24; see 9:6, 15–16).
Contemporary missionaries in Islam-dominated North Africa display similar resolve. Our churches need a vision that is longer than merely getting through the next week or surviving the latest conflict or crisis in our congregation. We need members witha vision to make a difference who move from merely “having a conversation” to actual participation in gospel ministry, thereby manifesting a demonstration of the transforming power of the gospel of Christ.
To the degree that we are impressed with our Head, we will appreciate and prioritise the body over which He gives life and which He leads.
We Must Embrace the Hope of the Church
“Hope” is a short word, but it carries huge implications. At the risk of repeating myself, we need to maximise the church because it is God’s means of hope for this world.
The church is entrusted with the stewardship of the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation and the key to changing the world.
Jesus came to save His people from their sins. He came, “not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him would be saved” (John 3:17). Paul tells us that God, through the redemptive work of Christ, worked to reconcile the world to Himself and that this ministry of reconciliation is now entrusted to His people who are designated “ambassadors of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19–20). That is both a heavy and a hopeful responsibility. After all, since Christ is the one reconciling, we know that it will not fail. The church can and must make a difference.
I am well aware that one day the Lord Jesus Christ will return to earth and will glorify the entire universe, along with those who are His people. But in the meantime, we are to make much of Him as we maximise His church. As we do so, the world will experience His rule. In some way, our investment in His church will have enduring results (Matthew 6:19–21; 1 Corinthians 3:8–15).
Christian, be hopeful about the church and be helpful towards her. Again, expect great things and attempt great things. Maximise your efforts.
We Must Contribute to the Health of the Church
The church is worth the trouble. The church is worth the heartache. The church is worth the investment of our time, talents and treasures.
Recently, having been involved in some challenges in our congregation, I said to my wife, “It is at times like these that I sometimes wish I could move to an island.” But immediately I followed up that comment with the disclaimer: “But the church is worth it.” And it is. The church—universal and local—is worth the pain that sometimes accompanies membership. What God has planned for His church, and what He has planned for the local church, is worthy of the risks that accompany being a part of it. As Chapell observes, “She can be an ugly bride. But she is beloved of Christ and the only instrument that will ultimately fulfil his purpose on this earth. That is why she is worth the effort, and worth the dedication of our lives.”6
Yet as we grow in our knowledge of God we will find ourselves having great contentment in God and this will spur us on to maximise church. Such contentment will empower us to do all we can to promote her health.
“Active” and “Nonactive” Members?
If you are not actively engaged in the Body of Christ can you say, with any sense of integrity, that you are a member? After all, it is God which works in you both to desire and to do His will (Philippians 2:12–15). And His will is clearly that you faithfully and fruitfully function in the body of Christ, the church.
In the human body, failure to exercise can have debilitating, even disastrous, consequences for one’s health. So with the church. Non-exercising, non-participating members can be debilitating to the church. And if there are many such, it can prove disastrous.
Others will be overworked and discouragement can set in. Resources will be lacking and opportunities will be passed by because of a lack of resources. Love for one another can shrink as a lethargy in love for God sets in. In fact, this happened to the Ephesian church (Revelation 2:1–7)! A critical spirit and eventual cynicism can arise, with disease the heart, and this is not any good for anyone!
If we want a healthy church, one that knows God and therefore maximises what He is maximising—the body of Christ—we all must be healthy church members. Such members will pursue the knowledge of God. Really, in a nutshell, this is what it comes down to.
Christian, in light of the riches available to us, let us know God, together. And then, together, let us maximise church, the most glorious fraternity to which anyone has ever been invited and accepted.
- Edmund P. Clowney, The Church: Contours of Christian Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), 15. ↩
- Joseph Early, A History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2015), Kindle edition. ↩
- Clowney, The Church, 16. ↩
- Clowney, The Church, 16. ↩
- S. D. F. Salmond, The Epistle to the Ephesians: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3:280. ↩
- Bryan Chapell, Ephesians: Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2009), 74. ↩