It has often been asked in a sigh of exasperation, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Without Jesus, this really is a difficult question to answer. After all, we are on the same planet, made of the same stuff, and experience a lot of the same problems, and have similar plans for the future, so why IS it so hard to get along? The answer of course is that we are sinners. We don’t get along because we are opposed to unity. We like to look out for our own interests, or the interests of our own tribe, if we are in a more collectivist culture. For those that we do tend to align with, we do so because of something larger that unites us, but as the last few years have demonstrated, even people that were close have split apart over politics, pandemic responses, or just the rough and tumble of life.
I’m starting here because unity is unnatural. Unity just doesn’t happen. Something or someone has to pull people together and that unity has to be maintained. The same is true in the church. There is a reason that Paul in this fourth chapter of Ephesians begins here. In order to have unity, you need other character traits that don’t come up naturally either. So if you have unity with your fellow church members and the character traits to maintain that, then you are well on your way to walking worthily.
This chapter begins the second half of the letter. The first half has given us the doctrinal foundation for the Christian life, and here the second half gives us a photograph of the Christian life. This life is different, people, weird even! People should look at us and say, “I wouldn’t have put those two together to be friends.” But then, once they’ve heard what unites us, then they should be able to say, “Oh, of course, that is why they are so tightly united.” We are going to explore what that looks like as we examine our two points today out of this chapter. A new walk united with others doesn’t come naturally and Unity can only be found in God.
A new walk united with others doesn’t come naturally
The rest of the book of Ephesians is going to have a different tone than what we have seen thus far. The whole book of Epheisans has forty commands in it. The first half of this letter had all of one command. The other thirty-nine appear in this second half (Merkle, 68)! Here, we see the first one: walk worthy. We have been told some pretty incredible things in the first half of this letter. We were told that we were dead sinners have been raised to new life and adoption by the King of the universe. Now we are told to live like it! Jerry Bridges, in his book The Pursuit of Holiness uses this illustration: In the military, when an officer is disciplined for wrongdoing, part of the language they use to describe his actions is “activity unbecoming of an officer.” That officer is not acting in accord with his rank. When we sin, we do things that are unbecoming of a Christian. It is something that happens in our Christian lives, and Paul is here to urge us to walk in a way that is worthy of the call we have been given. As one commentator put it, “conduct always follows calling. It is only after the experience of new life or regeneration that God’s people are able to follow his commands faithfully and worthily” (Merkle, 68).
So how do we walk worthily? Is it through difficult physical challenges like other religions? Do we need to go without food for weeks at a time, or crawl over a bed of red hot coals? No, what we are called to do is even harder. We are to have all humility and gentleness.
Let’s take a look at humility. Humility was not considered a virtue in the ancient world. In fact, the Greek word for it didn’t exist until the New Testament times (Honeher, 506). It is a virtue, but it is often misunderstood. It isn’t thinking that you are the scum of the Earth. It is more profound than that. One commentator put it this way:
"The demand to humble oneself like the child that was placed among the disciples [Matthew 18:1-5] does not mean that one should make oneself lower than one actually us. Rather, one should know, like the child, how lowly one really is. Humility is to know how lowly we are before God. Such humility and lowliness bring joy and bliss, for they permit one to share in the royal rule of heaven" (Verbrugge, 556, emphasis added).
Do you see the difference? The false humility that just beats on oneself is still focused on oneself! A godly humility has caught a vision of how great God is. This leads to the recognition of how lowly we are in comparison, but we are so thrilled with God that we don’t really notice ourselves at all! We have heard that a Being that grand has called us to Himself, so there really isn’t any room for self-exaltation.
Gavin Outland had a wonderful podcast talking about humility. He described two kinds of humility. One was the kind that you feel walking into a grand throne room and coming face to face with the king. The other is when that king steps down from the throne to cook your breakfast. Both are humbling but in different ways, and we get to experience both of these with our Lord and King Jesus (Ortland).
So how does this work out practically? You stop looking at life as you being the main character and everyone else as extras. You aren’t the director, and you aren’t the star of this movie. Jesus is. This means anything that you think you are entitled to, you aren’t. People will think that they are entitled to life following their preferences, they aren’t. People will think they are entitled to sexual experiences, so they will watch porn or go outside of marriage to seek their satisfaction. People will think they are entitled to ease, so they won’t serve. Humility changes all of that. Humility looks at God, looks at oneself and says, “Whatever you would have me do, Lord.” Y’all, humility is freedom. Freedom from yourself. You actually drive a pretty hard bargain. The things we naturally pursue require an awful lot of work that ultimately comes to nothing. God calls you to difficult service, no doubt, but it is always, always worth it!
Humility goes hand in hand with gentleness. Aristotle described gentleness as being “between ‘excessive anger against everyone and on all occasions’ and ‘never being angry with anything’” (Hoehner, 506). In other words, gentleness is using just enough force as is necessary. When you need to put a contact lens in your eye, you don’t jam it in there, nor do you do nothing. You use just the right amount of force to get it into your eye but no more. Gentleness in interpersonal relations works the same way. If you want to communicate something, especially something hard, you need to use some force, but there is a line when it becomes excessive. It’s difficult to reign in. Gentleness is another one of those character qualities that doesn’t come up naturally. Yes, some are more hesitant to get into conflict but don’t confuse self-preservation with gentleness. Gentleness is using just enough force when you feel like using all your force. Or as my old seminary professor put it: [Humility and Gentleness] together, then, refer to an attitude that both recognizes one’s true position before God (a suppliant in need of his help) and is willing to be kind and gracious to others even when circumstance might excuse one from showing these qualities…” (Thielman, 254).
Now, if we were trying to ask hard questions around here, we would look at the story of Jesus flipping over tables in the temple. Does flipping over tables, making a whip, and driving people out of the temple really considered an example of gentleness? Remember, gentleness is only using the force that is necessary, and in this example, Jesus, with perfect insight into the situation, saw that this was the needed force. Sometimes that level of force is required. Jesus was also God and could have been justified in killing them for desecrating the temple, so honestly, this was a gentle response. Sometimes we have to make our points strongly. When the kid tries to put a butterknife in the outlet, you’re gonna raise your voice! You do what you need to do, but when that level of response isn’t required, that is where gentleness gets hard.
Patience is next! Patience is one of those things we are warned not to pray for. If you pray for more patience, God will give it to you in the form of more ways to grow in patience. That means waiting! I think of patience as being on God’s road going God’s speed limit. When you try to rush things, the road paradoxically gets longer.
Being humble and gentle for a moment is one thing, but doing so over a long period of time is where the real challenge comes in. This is all part of the command to bear up with one another. Looking up the word “bear up” does accurately translate to our modern “put up with” or “tolerate.” But Paul adds that we are doing this “in love.” This means our humble, gentle, patient bearing up with one another is not done through gritted teeth, but is done with a loving smile. In this way, it is similar to being a total caregiver for a family member. Is it easy? No it isn’t. But do we do it because we love the person, and it is that love that keeps us going, a love planted by God.
It is important to say that bearing up with one another does not mean that we turn a blind eye to sin that needs to be dealt with. That’s not loving. Letting someone poison themselves when you can do something about isn’t loving. We don’t need to become sin detectives looking around trying to find mistakes. Honestly, there will be plenty that will come right up at ya for you to deal with without having to hunt them down yourself. Instead, we confront sin when we need to, and then patiently work with each other as God grows them.
None of this is possible without being changed by Jesus. We can’t do this long term without being converted.
All of this is done in the service of eagerly maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. What this means is we are simply keeping up what the Holy Spirit has already brought to us: unity. To borrow again from Thielman: “[P]eace is the ‘fastener’ that preserves the church’s unity. It must be energetically worked out in practical ways, such as lovingly putting up with each other’s foibles, being polite and gentle under provocation, and being humble” (Thielman, 255). If there is no peace in the church because people aren’t being humble, gentle or patient, we won’t have unity.
Unity is important because that is what God is building. As we saw in chapter 1, all things are being summed up in Christ. Ultimately, everything is going to be unified one day, and we as the church are to model that. This is unity for unity’s sake or unity to put a good face to the community, this is unity because that is what God creates.That’s what humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing up, all gifts from the Spirit, create. And if it isn’t being created, then we have to wonder if God is with us. We have to wonder if we are really united because of Christ.
Unity can only be found in God.
We will go over this section quickly with the main point that the basis of our unity is in the Trinity (Hoehner, 513). The Spirit, Son, and Father and all of their works are what provides us a basis of unity. We have the same Lord, the same Savior, the same indwelling Spirit, and the same Father who is in control of all who will bring us to the same hope in the end! Can we not be united with all of that being true?
So what is our takeaway from this passage? One, this sort of unity begins at home. This passage is about a united church, and if your family is Christian as well, they are part of that church, too. If they aren’t Christian, then they need to be brought into the church so you can be even more united with them. And if they are in the church, then we really have no excuse. We aren’t supposed to get proud, harsh, and rushed with our kids, our siblings, our parents, or our spouses. We are called to be humble, gentle, patient, and bearing up with them, too. Not just when it is easy to do so. It’s very easy for me to be humble and gentle with the kids when we are sweetly cuddled up with a book. It’s a lot harder when they are fighting, but that’s exactly when it counts. One practical way to see where your humility is is do you listen well when people speak to you (Ortland).
Two, this extends to our behavior online. Zingy one-liners and punchy memes often don’t carry with them the character of humble, gentle, patient, and bearing up. Even if they are your political enemies, Paul doesn’t seem to have an exception for these qualities. Can we speak against evil rulers? Yes, and we should, but only with the force necessary. Being humble, gentle, and patient means being precise and careful with our words, something that the internet seems absolutely not made for. Your Christian walk should go into cyberspace with you.
Third, and finally, always remember Who unites you, not what. I remember a rebuke I received in seminary. I was speaking with another colleague about an upcoming assignment that was difficult and required lots of work. I was trying to encourage him by saying, without thinking too much about my words, “Well, the faith is worth it.” The professor, Dr. Park, looked at me with a stern face and said, “HE is worth it.” I didn’t quite grasp the full significance of that response in that moment, but as time went on, I think I do understand now, and it is likely one of the most important things I learned there. What Dr. Park was warning me against was even lightly thinking that I was working just a job. She didn’t want me equating, even by implication that working for the church was like working for any other faceless institution like Southern Company. I am here, you are here, because of Jesus and His work. Jesus is who unifies us, Jesus is the one we worship, Jesus is the reason why we get up each day. It isn’t just some religion. It isn’t just another club. This gathering here is in response to the person who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead! That’s why we are here. That’s why this is worth it. It’s because of Him. If we forget that then we will just look around and say, “Is Mark worth it?” No, I’m not. I am not worth the trouble, but Jesus is. You don’t put up with me because of me, you put up with me because of Jesus. You call me out on my sin not because of me, you do that because of Jesus. Jesus has called us to be united together with Him at the center. God’s glory is the goal of our unity, not approval of the world. So if you have it out for someone, forgive them. Not for their sake or even for yours. For the sake of Christ. Is there a sin that you have observed that needs correcting? Boldly, yet gently go in Jesus’ name.
A day is coming where we will all be perfectly unified. There will be nothing to be patient with or anything to bear up. But until that day comes, let’s enjoy a taste of it right here, today.
Hoehner, Harold, Ephesians
Ortland, Gavin, Crossway Podcast, “The Cure to Our Polarization and Outrage: Humility”
Ortland, Gavin, Crossway Podcast, “10 Practices to Kill Pride”
Merckle, Benjamin, Epheisains, ESV Expository Commentary
Thielman, Frank, Ephesians
Verbrugge, Verlyn, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology: Abridged Edition.