WEEKLY SERMON BLOG
“Building the Church” - 1 Peter 5 & Ephesians 5
The Evangelical Church of the late 20th and early 21st centuries has produced scores of books on how Pastors and lay leaders can grow their churches. In each book, one will find a different collection of insights into how to successfully direct the ministry of a local church so that the numbers of attendees will increase significantly. The extensive amount of this literature and its divergent content suggests that the Bible is either silent on this issue, or gives only scant general information about how ministries are to be conducted in the local church. Clearly, the idea is that there is a significant degree of freedom that Christians have regarding how they will structure their fellowship, and the way they will engage in various ministry efforts. Also implicit in this view is the idea that churches grow as a result of us having the right structures in place and that they pursue ministry in the right way (defined by what is most attractive to those we are trying to reach).
But this is not the teaching that we find in the New Testament. Jesus did not say that Christians build the Church; He said that He would build His Church (Matt.16:18). It is true that He does this through Christians, but this is fundamentally different that the Christians doing it themselves. In addition, the New Testament is not silent about either church structure or how ministries are to be done. The real dynamic of building the Church is to be obedient and faithful to Christ as the Lord of the Church so that He will work through our efforts to bring individuals to new life and enable them to grow in their spiritual lives to be what God desires them to be.
But, how does this work in practice? We will see that in three different passages God gives us specific direction about what we are to do to be used by Christ to build His Church.
I. The Role of Leaders: (I Peter 5:1-4)
In this passage, the Apostle Peter provides instruction regarding how leaders are to function in Christ’s church:
It is informative to observe at the outset of Peter’s instructions, how he addresses the leaders of the churches to whom he is writing. Peter addresses them as fellow elders, and he “exhorts” his readers to follow his instruction. Instead of specifically addressing his readers using his title as “apostle” (and thus stressing his authority over them as one who was chosen by Christ Himself to be His spokesman), he addresses the leaders of this church as fellow elders (suggesting that they are his peers). The Greek word translated as “exhort” speaks of appealing to someone else to make the right choice for themselves and thus it conveys a very different idea from giving orders or commands. The principle this reveals is that leadership in the church is more about influencing others to make the right choice, not about compelling them to make that right choice.
The basis of Peter’s exhortations to the leaders of these fellowships was his first-hand experience being “a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed” (vs.1b). The idea here is that these leaders were to heed Peter’s exhortation because what he was telling them was rooted in objective truth, not subjective opinion. The application to those in the present time is that leaders now (whether professional or lay) are to recognize that we are to urge others to do those things that are rooted in clear Biblical teaching, and never urge others to follow our own preferences or agendas.
Next Peter exhorts the leaders of these churches to “shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (vs.2-3). Peter has already said that he was addressing elders. Now Peter tells those elders to shepherd their congregations and act like overseers. This passage demonstrates that the titles, elder, shepherd (pastor), and overseer (sometimes translated as bishop) are all different descriptions of a single role. In the Bible, the job of being a shepherd was often employed as a pattern for the sort of leader that God intended for His people. The reason for this is because a shepherd was entrusted with the welfare of someone’s sheep and had to give account to the owner of the sheep if any were lost, harmed, or failed to thrive. Actual shepherds were responsible to guide, provide for, and protect the sheep entrusted to their care. Therefore, the reason God uses the imagery of shepherding for leaders in the church is because God entrusts His people to church leaders and He expects these leaders to care for, feed, and protect His people. To serve as an overseer means to take responsibility to make sure that all is well for God’s people, and to do whatever is necessary to ensure the well-being of the congregation. Peter says that the leader is not to do this because he is forced to, but because he desires to. Thus, no one should even seek the role of leader in the church unless it is their desire to make sure that God’s people are protected, that they grow, and that they thrive. The other wrong motive for ministry is the hope of “dishonest gain” (the Greek word Peter used refers to being motivated exclusively by gaining money by any means). The contrast between pursuing leadership for gain and doing it “eagerly” relates again to the idea that one should seek to lead in the church not because of some ulterior motive, but because one really wishes to minister to others. Next, Peter writes that the leaders of the church are not to act as lords over their fellow Christians. The Greek word that Peter employed for being a lord over others refers to bringing someone under authority, subjugating them to one’s will. This prohibition is in harmony with Jesus’ teaching to the twelve that leadership in the Kingdom of God would not be characterized as having power over others, but as serving them (Matt.20:25-28). This does not mean that leaders are not to be empowered to make decisions; it means that exercising control of others is not the way the Christian leader exercises influence. Instead, the Christian leader provides an example for other believers to follow. The leader is to exemplify in his life, the things that he teaches. Therefore, the influence of the godly leader comes from his character and godly reputation.
Peter concludes his instruction here with the following words of encouragement to faithful Christian leaders, “when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away” (vs.4). The “Chief Shepherd” of course is Jesus and this indicates that there will be a time of accountability to Christ. The faithful Christian leader can look forward to a glorious reward for taking good care of God’s people. However, the implication is that for those who do not heed Peter’s instruction, they will face the unpleasant consequences for failing to properly take care of God’s precious people that were entrusted to their oversight.
II. The Process of Growth: (Ephesians 4:15-16)
In these two verses Paul explains how God has designed the church to function so that all those who are a part of it can grow as they should:
Paul explains that the growth of the Christian community is dependent upon “speaking the truth in love” (vs.15a). In the New Testament, “truth” refers primarily to the spiritual truth revealed in and through Jesus Christ. Therefore, this is not a reference to general education, but to the mutual encouragement to think, act, choose, and believe in accordance with those truths that are revealed in the Bible. Love is given as the context of this truth-speaking. The principle here is that we cannot grow without spiritual truth, but we will not grow if that truth is not ministered to one another as an expression of our genuine love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. This balance is much easier to comprehend than to practice. Throughout the history of Christianity there have been occasions where neither the truth nor love marked those who claimed to be followers of Christ. In addition, many who endeavor to speak truth, do it in such a way that it does more harm than good because the truth is spoken harshly, hypocritically, or indifferently. The only way that others will hear the truth that we must confront them with is if they genuinely believe that our only motive in giving them that truth is because we genuinely care for them and want to protect them from the harm that will come if they do not live in light of that truth. The opposite problem of speaking the truth without love, is to express love without truth. Love without truth, isn’t love. This is because love seeks the best for those whom one loves. The truth is in the best interest of everyone. The reality is that when we no longer wish to speak the truth to others because of how they will react to us for doing so; we are acting selfishly. This is because we are more concerned with how one’s own life will be affected than how the other person’s life will be affected. God’s design is that believers are always to engage one another with what is true, and to do so as an expression of genuine love for the other person.
Paul then informs us that the purpose of speaking the truth in love is that all the saints “may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ” (vs.15b). Believers are re-born to new life in Christ. Just as a newly formed person must grow physically, so the believer must grow into what he or she is intended to be when fully mature. For the believer, maturity is measured by becoming like Christ. Therefore, the ministries of the local church are to be structured and pursued with the intent of contributing in different ways to enabling Christians to become progressively more like Jesus Christ.
Paul then explains a key principle regarding how the church is to develop Christ-likeness in the fellowship; it comes through Christ “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (vs.16). The “whole body” of course is the entire congregation of a given local church. According to Paul’s teaching here, every believer in a local church is meant to be a part of the growth process. God’s design is that believers are to be inter-connected to one another in relationships. As believers relate to one another they each contribute to the spiritual growth of others through the use of their talents, abilities, and knowledge. Through these the believer is empowered to minister to the spiritual needs in the lives of their fellow believers. The expression “effective working” is better translated in the ESV as “working properly”. The idea is that if each person fulfills the role that they were designed to fill within a local church then communal and individual spiritual growth will take place. The language that Paul uses pictures spiritual growth as being built up like a structure. This metaphor is helpful because when people build something they have a specific understanding what they are trying to achieve. The same should be true of Church ministry. This imagery also helps us understand that the contributions that various members of the body are to make to one another is meant to result in positive growth (edification) and not hindering growth (as in tearing down what was being built up). Again, Paul stresses that this is to be done in love, as the necessary environment that will enhance the process of
III. The Individual Responsibility:
(Ephesians 5:10, 15-17)
Paul then lists a series of practical admonitions that explain precisely what each individual Christian is to do so that they can grow to become like Christ:
First, Paul instructs the believer to discover what is pleasing to our lord Jesus Christ (vs.10). The Greek word that is translated as “finding out” means to investigate something with the intention of proving that it is genuine or true. The idea is that the believer is to seek to learn what is genuinely pleasing to Christ by an active investigation. This is necessary because it is not the natural inclination of the human heart to seek to do those things that are pleasing to someone else. Instead the common human orientation is to seek to please one’s self. The source of the knowledge of what pleases God is of course the Word of God.
Later in the passage, Paul gives the second admonition to his readers, “see then that you walk circumspectly” (vs.15a). The Greek word translated as “circumspectly” means to do something carefully with close attention to what one is doing. To “walk” of course is a common Hebrew idiom that refers to the manner of one’s lifestyle. Therefore, the believer needs to be careful about the way they live their lives, because it is the only way to ensure that their choices, actions, beliefs, and speech is genuinely pleasing to Christ.
Paul’s third admonition is to “walk…not as fools but as wise” (vs.15b). Hebrew wisdom (which forms the backdrop to the NT understanding of wisdom) teaches basically two ideas that separate the wise from the foolish. The wise make decisions based upon what is real, and on what will actually achieve the intended results. The fool on the other hand makes decisions on the basis of his or her own perceptions and preferences. In regard to spiritual growth; the Bible is where we learn about what is genuinely real. Therefore, if one wishes to understand what is genuinely real, one must become familiar with Biblical truth. Otherwise one will attempt to grow as a Christian using one’s own assumptions and biases as a guide. Along with this one must come to understand what actually accomplishes spiritual growth. The answer to that question is also in the Scriptures. The foolish alternative is to attempt an approach that is the product of human imagination. The foolish person is doomed to fail in his/her quest to please God because they seek to pursue the Christian life in ignorance. Only the wise will succeed because they equip them with the knowledge that is necessary for success.
Paul’s fourth admonition is to practice “redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (vs.16). To redeem the time means to make the most of every opportunity. Everyone has only a finite amount of time in this life. We should see time as a precious resource that should be invested in the development of our spiritual lives. Jesus explained why this should be a priority:
The principle that Jesus taught is that we can either use the resources of life to invest in our present life on earth, or to invest in the life to come in Heaven. The choice we make regarding such investments indicates what is most important to us. Paul notes that this is an evil age, and to live for it is to fail to live a life that is pleasing to God, and it is most certainly not wise. Therefore, this is an encouragement to invest the resource of our time in heavenly things.
Paul’s fifth admonition is to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (vs.17). The will of the Lord represents the sum total of all the ethical teachings of the Bible. Wisdom is seeking to learn those things and live by them. To live in harmony with the will of Christ is to be in submission to His authority over our lives. As Jesus Himself taught, it makes no sense to call Him our lord if we do not obey what He has told us He wants us to do (Lk.6:46). The emphasis here is upon coming to understand the will of Christ. That is because it is impossible to consistently live in harmony with God’s will if we do not know what it is.
Paul’s sixth and final admonition is “do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit” (vs.18). Paul writes that rather than filling oneself with wine that leads to wickedness, one should give oneself over to being filled by the Spirit which results in godliness. The basic idea is that in our own resources we cannot please God with our lives. However, God supplements our resources with the Holy Spirit. The translation gives a false impression by rendering the key preposition as “with”. This translation suggests that the Spirit of God is what the believer is filled with. However, the proper translation of the preposition is “by”. The intent is to indicate that the Spirit is the agent who fills us. What the believer is to be filled with is explained earlier in this letter:
The believer is to be filled with the fullness of God from within to the point that we are so saturated by what He is that we come to fully resemble Him. The Spirit does this by (as we are taught in the New Covenant-Jer.31:31-34) internalizing God’s word in our hearts. Even though it is God’s Spirit who does this, we have the responsibility to open ourselves up to it and yield to His work within us.
As the individual believers of a fellowship do this they and their leadership can properly engage in the process of spiritual growth, and as a result Christ will build His Church to be all that He intends it to be.
The application here is to obey not our opinions, our preferences, or our cultural traditions; but to build our mutual lives around the word of God. Choosing not to do this is how cults and heresy begin. In the end, everyone will eventually be made to recognize that Christ is lord (Phil.2:9-11). The reality is that for many this will be a forced subjugation. However, this is not the case for the believer. The believer’s salvation comes as a result of recognizing Jesus not only as the Savior from sin, but as the rightful lord of our lives. Our confession of faith involves the willing recognition of His lordship and our submission to it (Rom.10:9). Jesus taught us that if we truly love Him we will obey Him (Jn14:15). Obedience to all that Christ taught is in fact the substance of our discipleship; the building of the church.
In the Bonds of Christ,