I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)
Created By the Trinity For Unity
Before we get into Ephesians again, I’d like to take a short trip back into Genesis. Specifically, I want to show you something from the creation story.
Throughout Genesis 1, we read of God bringing the natural world into existence, piece by piece. Over and over again, we’re told what God said and did as he formed the world and everything in it. At certain milestones, he examines what he created and says, “It is good.”
Something interesting changes, however, when he creates the first people. He finishes creating the animals when there is a sudden and unexplained pronoun change in the text. God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Ge 1:26). Then, we’re told, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Ge 1:27).
It would seem someone joined God in the creation of male and female. Who was it? Some have speculated it was the angels, but I have another theory. The first chapter of John’s Gospel gives us a vital clue. John writes:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)
Who is the Word? “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn 1:14). The Word is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. John refers to him as “the Word” because his Jewish audience would have understood any reference to God’s Word to be a manifestation of God and his will. God always revealed himself through his words. Jesus is the clearest manifestation of God and his will. If we want to know God, look no further than Christ his Son.
If Christ was with God in the beginning and all things were created through him, then why don’t the first several passages of Genesis reflect that? Why doesn’t it say, “In the beginning, God and the Word created the heavens and the earth”? Why did Moses, the author of Genesis, wait until verse 26 to allude to Christ’s presence at creation?
I believe there was something special and truly unique about the creation of human beings. That much is implied by the pronoun change in Genesis 1. Not only did God make a distinct announcement before creating people, but he also makes it a point to express the cooperation between himself (the Father), the Son, and, undoubtedly, the Spirit. Apparently, the creation of humans was not like the creation of everything else. There was something quite significant about it.
My theory is this: God created mankind to enjoy the same degree of peace and unity which exists between the Holy Trinity. He made us to be as close to one another as the Father is to his Son and his Spirit.
Notice what happened to the relationship between Adam and Eve once they sinned. God tells Eve, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” (Ge 3:16). Most Bible translations say, “Your desire shall be toward your husband,” but the text of the ESV seems to capture the essential meaning better than others. Sin caused perpetual conflict between men and women. Furthermore, it created conflict throughout the entire human race.
I believe I’ve previously used Genesis 11 as an example. Despite the divisions caused by sin, people remained relatively in tact as a unified people. Genesis 11:1 says, “The whole earth had one language and the same words.” The ability to communicate was instrumental in minimizing division, but they continued to sin. They continued to disobey God, so God “confused the language of all the earth” (Ge 11:9). In judgment against their sin, he took away their ability to communicate so freely. Sin effectively destroys unity.
Re-Created By the Trinity For Unity
Let’s jump ahead to the New Testament. Jesus comes to the earth to save people from their sin. He dies to make atonement. He rises from the grave. He ascends into heaven. Meanwhile, he continually promises to supply the redeemed family of God with his Spirit once he is gone. Just before his arrest, he prays these words:
“I do not ask for these only [his first disciples], but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
What did Jesus pray for? He prayed for unity. He prayed that all believers would become one just as he and God the Father are one. In other words, the plan of redemption was reversing the effects of sin. Sin caused division between people. Salvation brings us together.
In Acts 2, look what happened when the Spirit of God poured out on the people:
When the day of Pentecost arrived, [the disciples] were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [or languages] as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:1-6)
The Spirit caused a complete reversal of what happened at the tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Suddenly (miraculously), everyone could communicate with one another even though they were from all over the world and spoke different languages. God’s grace was undoing the curse of sin by bringing people together. It was re-harmonizing humanity just as God originally created us. He created us to share the degree of unity enjoyed by the Trinity, but sin disrupted that in a profound way. God is reversing that through salvation.
The Message of Ephesians
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the thrust of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is not about the subjects we typically think of when we think about Ephesians. What comes to mind when someone mentions Ephesians? We may think about the doctrine of election: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4). We probably think about salvation by grace, not by works: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works” (Eph 2:8-9).
The doctrines of election and salvation by grace are important topics covered by Paul in this letter, but what does he spend most of his time addressing? From Ephesians 2:11 through Ephesians 6:9, he primarily deals with the unity of the body of Christ in one sense or another.
First, he covers the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church. Then, he speaks broadly about love and unity. Later in Ephesians 4, he talks about the relationship between the church and her leaders. Then, he goes broad again by teaching honesty, patience, and other important subjects when dealing with other people. In Ephesians 5, he addresses the relationship between husbands and wives. In Ephesians 6, he covers children and parents as well as servants and masters.
What is the book of Ephesians all about? Is it about salvation? Yes, but it’s even more specific than that. Ephesians is about the unity that results from our salvation.
I’ve mentioned before how Ephesians 4 takes us into the practical lessons of this book. Paul seems to transition from doctrine to practice. To be clear, those categorizations of Scripture can be more harmful than helpful at times. Even in our passage today, we’ll see how interwoven doctrine and practice are. They really can’t be separated. Without doctrine, biblical practices are meaningless. Without practice, what good are Bible doctrines? Theology flows into behavior; behavior flows from theology.
Here Paul is begging us to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph 4:1). He expresses it in a slightly different way in Philippians. He says, “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Php 1:27). In other words, our behavior should match our calling as God’s people. Our lifestyle should accurately reflect our belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul says, “You are the children of God, so act like it.” How? “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3). He begins with five characteristics: humility, gentleness (or meekness), patience, forbearance, and unity.
We’ve already talked about the first four, so let’s focus now on unity.
Can Everyone Live In Unity?
We hear unity promoted a lot these days. You’ve probably seen the “Coexist” bumper stickers. People seem to have a fairy-tale notion that every religion on earth can somehow join together in perfect harmony. Christians and Muslims, believers and unbelievers, Protestants and Catholics—we can all set aside our differences, join hands, and live in peaceful unity.
Twenty years ago, Max Lucado called on 40,000 pastors at a conference to stop criticizing one another and ask for forgiveness. He urged them to take Communion together. He said we’re all sailing, both Protestants and Catholics, on the same ship with Jesus as our captain. I guess if Luther and Calvin had been there, he would have told them to apologize to the pope.
Can a believer be in unity with an unbeliever? Can a Christian be in unity with an antichrist? Can a Protestant be in unity with a Roman Catholic? Can a Baptist be in unity with a Methodist? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. All of them require a bit more information. For instance, what do we mean by unity? Many of us are required to work side by side with unbelievers at our jobs. That may be a form of unity, but it’s not the kind of unity Paul is talking about in this letter.
Remember that behavior flows from theology. Before we talk about maintaining the unity of the Spirit, we need to talk about the unity of the Spirit itself. What does that mean? It is because we have the unity of the Spirit that we are instructed to maintain it in the bond of peace. We can’t maintain something we don’t already possess. We are not told to create unity but maintain the unity which the Spirit has already given us.
Biblical Unity Is a Supernatural Connection
Briefly, let’s go back to Ephesians 2. Paul says:
For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:18-22)
In Ephesians 3, he says:
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Ephesians 3:4-6)
The unity which Paul mentions here in Ephesians 4 has already been described in the previous chapters. He’s not talking about organized unity. He’s not promoting community efforts where we join together with just anyone and everyone for one cause or another. He’s not telling us to slap a “Coexist” sticker on our cars. He is speaking of the inner, universal unity of the Spirit by which every Christian believer is bound together. It comes from the inside, manifesting itself through such qualities as humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearing love.
We can’t create spiritual unity. Only the Spirit of God can do that. Elsewhere, Paul says, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1Co 12:13). Later in the chapter, he says, “As it is, there are many parts, yet one body” (1Co 12:20).
Who did Jesus pray for the night of his arrest? “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (Jn 17:9). Then, he prayed, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (Jn 17:20-21). He prayed for the unity of believers. He prayed for the unity of God’s redeemed people saved by his grace.
Here’s the point. We can’t accomplish anything more than the Spirit has already accomplished. We are told to walk worthy of our calling. In other words, we are to balance the scale. On one side, the Spirit has baptized all believers into one body. On the other side, we are to live so that our behavior aligns with what the Spirit has already done. Our responsibility is to maintain or preserve that spiritual unity through our humility, gentleness, patience, and love. We are called to show the world our oneness in him and one another.
In short, the bond which preserves our unity is peace. Listen to what Paul says in Colossians 3:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:12-15)
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” he says. It is that peace which manifests itself through compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness, and so on. It produces a love between us that “binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
The church can have no greater testimony than unity which is not something we can plan or create. No activism, program, or conference can initiate the kind of profound unity Paul is describing. We are supernaturally joined together by hearts which have been turned to Christ. It is the Spirit who draws us to him and, consequently, one another.
Isn’t it incredible how two or more people, who seem to have nothing in common, can instantly enjoy deep, meaningful fellowship? What brings them together? It is Christ. They are joined by a spiritual, eternal union which transcends any and all superficial differences between them.
Look around this room. How many of us would be close friends who meet together every week if not for our faith in Christ? I know I wouldn’t be married, not to Danaé. If we didn’t share a belief in the gospel, she would have taken one look at me and said, “I’m not living with that guy for the rest of my life. He doesn’t even make the bed. He lets his dog run around the house, shedding his hair all over everything. Don’t get me started on his poor taste in home decor.”
I suppose you see my point.
Unity In the Father, Son, and Spirit
Notice how Paul demonstrates this unity by reflecting on the Holy Trinity. He says:
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Do you see the Trinity in these verses? If not, let me show you. First, we have the Spirit: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call.” Second, we have the Son: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Third, we have the Father: “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Let’s consider them one at a time.
1) Unity In the Spirit
Paul begins by saying there is just one body. There are no denominational, geographic, ethnic, or racial divides. There is no division between Jews and Gentiles or men and women. There is just one body, the body of Christ.
Of course, there is just one Spirit, and it is that Spirit (the Spirit of God) who brings all believers together into one body. Ephesians 2 tells us that we are joined together as one family and one structure for the purpose of being a “dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:22). Ephesians 1 tells us the Spirit is the “guarantee of our inheritance” (Eph 1:14).
In turn, we are unified by a single hope of the same calling. We may have different gifts and functions in the church, but our purpose and goal are the same. We are called into the family of God to glorify God and edify other members of the family of God. In the end, Christ-like perfection in the presence of God is what we hope to obtain.
2) Unity In the Son
There is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5). As Peter once preached, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Ac 4:12). Whose name? Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Consequently, there can be only one faith. I don’t believe Paul is talking about the faith by which we trust in Christ for salvation. Rather, he’s speaking of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The Bible sometimes uses the word faith not to describe our faith, but the doctrines of Jesus Christ and the gospel. The totality of everything the Bible teaches can be called “the faith.”
There is also one baptism. Is Paul referring to spiritual baptism or water baptism here? I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter. Spiritual baptism is by the Spirit, and this verse seems to focus on Christ the Son (one Lord) rather than the Spirit.
As we read through the New Testament, what happens to people who have learned of Christ the Lord and believed in “the faith”? They are immediately baptized not in the name of the local church or in the name of an evangelist with them, but in the name of Jesus Christ.
3) Unity In the Father
Lastly, Paul says, “One God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:6). The belief of Judaism had always been the same: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Dt 6:4). There is one God; end of story. Even so, the New Testament reveals a deeper truth about the one true God. God is one, but he is also three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
God the Father is perhaps the most comprehensive title within the Trinity which Paul shows us here. Not only is there one God and Father, but he is also “over all and through all and in all.” He’s sovereign (over all), omnipotent (through all), and omnipresent (in all). His will overrules all, his power is greater than all, and he is everywhere always.
By stressing the unity of the Trinity as well as our unity with the Trinity, Paul is essentially taking us back to the creation story in Genesis. The Trinity was involved in the creation of humankind, and the Trinity is involved in the re-creation of God’s people. Why? Sin divides, but salvation restores. We are brought into the intimate relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit, and we are brought into a relationship with one another.
Maintaining Unity In the Family of God
Today, we face a real challenge in the general Christian community. While many of us seem to understand there are limits to biblical unity, we’re not always sure where the dividing lines should be drawn. Paul told the Romans, “Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Ro 16:17). On the other hand, Jesus tells us not to separate the weeds from the wheat because we might “root up the wheat along with them” (Mt 13:29).
Where do we draw the line? If you’re looking for a black-and-white answer, I’m afraid there isn’t one.
I grew up being told my denomination was the one and only true church of Jesus Christ. It makes things simple to believe every Christian under a certain denominational label is a true Christian. Elders in the church would often use this passage in Ephesians 4 as their proof text. “Paul says it right here,” they’d say. “There is only one body, one faith, one baptism, and so on.” The problem is, they miss the point. Paul is not describing an organized unity; he’s talking about a spiritual unity between all born-again believers.
Again, our unity is a “unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3). It is a spiritual unity. When we attempt to “maintain” this unity as Paul tells us to do, we are striving to foster a relationship between us and—who?—other redeemed, born-again people.
The problem we run into is that not every believer is equally faithful or theologically-grounded. Apollos, for example, was “competent in the Scriptures” and “fervent in spirit,” but he was also greatly lacking in his understanding of the gospel (Ac 18:25). The Galatian churches were woefully deceived by false teachers, but Paul calls them “brothers” in Christ (Gal 6:18). The Corinthian church was plagued by serious sin issues, but Paul refers to them as “the church of God … sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1Co 1:2).
Sometimes we have to look deeper than the theological confusion that fills contemporary Christian churches. That’s not to say we can enjoy close fellowship with every child of God. Time and time again, the Bible warns us to avoid the influence of sin and false doctrine. We have an obligation, however, to love and nurture fellow Christians. We are to teach and disciple the family of God with meekness and patience, being careful not to destroy good wheat in our attempts to overthrow heresy.
The best advice I can give is be careful. Move slowly and gently. Don’t minimize the truth to spare someone’s feelings, but approach them with clarity of your mission. Our aim is to preserve the unity of God’s family. We are here to build up one another. Recognize that someone who is deceived by some false teaching may very well be an immature babe in Christ. I should also point out that not every doctrine should be cause for any amount of contention. See Romans 14.
As we continue our study of Ephesians 4, it will become clearer just what we are called to do regarding God’s family. In the meantime, let unity and peace be our guiding principles. If it’s possible someone you’ve met is a budding stalk of wheat, then water them; don’t pluck them out of the ground. For the sake of God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit, see whether there is a spiritual bond between you that can be nurtured into a more substantial relationship.