The High Goal with a High Price
Sabbath Day Sermon: Saturday 27 October 2001
"As a prisoner of the Lord, I beg you to live in a way that is worthy of the people God has chosen to be His own. Always be humble and gentle. Patiently put up with each other and love each other. Try your best to let God's Spirit keep your hearts united. Do this by living at peace. All of you are part of the same body. There is only one Spirit of God, just as you were given one hope when you were chosen to be God's people. We have only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. There is one God who is the Father of all people. Not only is God above all others, but He works by using all of us, and He lives in all of us" (Eph.4:1-6, CEV).
Today we approach one the most difficult things that human beings find in achieving, namely, unity. To be of one mind, heart, spirit and purpose has always been the goal of all socially-minded people for there can be no doubt that when people work co-operatively together that everyone benefits. Throughout history, people have sought unity in one of two ways: (a) compulsion; and (b) persuasion. In the army everyone is compelled to obey the rules of military discipline. Without it, you cannot mould an effective fighting force. Soldiers know that they have a high chance of being killed and not everyone wants to die, and so you can understand why in military training something of the freedom of the spirit is suffocated. Not until you are in the battlefield and high principles of virtue persuade you of your own free will to help your comrades in desperate circumstances is the other kind of unity born. Old comrades - those seasoned in battle, who have suffered together and helped one another - are amongst the most unified people you can find, even if they come from completely different backgrounds. The horrors of war, which have a tendency to either bring out the best or worst in man, demonstrate that unity between diverse people is possible. When you face death together with comrades, all social distinctions become meaningless - race, rank, education, wealth, class, fame - all these become utterly meaningless. Stripped of all the outer masks and facades by the brutality of death, men suddenly find themselves coming together.
The Christian faith expects no less a unity, only the unifying factor is not death but life. What bonds brothers and sisters in Christ together is the presence of an amazing power called love. Because this kind of love expects everyone to shed falseness and pretentiousness, and because it does not recognise social distinction, it creates a unity all of its own based on a culture of selflessness. And as on the battlefield, brethren and sisters serving their Master together, and often suffering together, experience a bonding that is both great and glorious. The bond that ties us together is surely one of the most desirable of realities.
Other realities, sadly, intrude on this utopian vision. Churches are divided. Communities of Christians are divided. Even Christian families are divided. What is it that makes this unity so elusive and what must we do to obtain it? My purpose today is to examine this short passage of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians and to answer that question.
Paul writes this letter with a vision. He knows what unity means and he knows the formula for obtaining it. However, this is no formula as in a recipe. It is not something than you can obtain in a cookery book. The formula is not something that can be written down on a piece of paper, read, memorised, and then executed. The formula for spiritual unity between the brethren is contained in a way of being. He writes: "I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord ..." (v.1, NKJV). Later, when he comes to rebuke wayward Christians, he says: "As a follower of the Lord, I order you to stop living like stupid, godless people" (v.17, CEV). The apostle is a prisoner and a follower of Yah'shua (Jesus), and he explains why he is in a prisoner at the beginning of the third chapter: "Christ Jesus made me His prisoner, so that I could help you Gentiles" (Eph.3:1, CEV).
We really can't understand what unity is until we have understood the condition of men like Paul who did. Fortunately none of us in this congregation has ever been in prison, though I know one of you has worked in one. And there are few who don't know what prisons are like from what they have seen in films and documentaries. A prison is a place where you lose your freedom. It is a small space in which one is confined, mostly behind locked doors. To be in prison is to be limited. Now though the apostle was often thrown into literal prisons for preaching the Gospel, it is not a literal prison he is talking about here. He is declaring that he is the prisoner of Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) but not in a prison building with four walls. He is free to move around. He isn't even under house arrest, as he subsequently came to be also. And he isn't in a spiritual prison either as we know from his other writings because he joyfully writes about the freedom which Christ gives Him and to all believers. But he is a prisoner nonetheless.
Paul the prisoner of Christ is like the romantic who is a prisoner of love. One of the qualities of love - true love, that is - the love of Christ - is that it is self-limiting. To truly love as Christ loves is to make yourself a prisoner of the Lord Yah'shua (Jesus). It means to forego certain freedoms in order to bring the freedom of Christ to those who do not know it. When Paul accepted His calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles, he gave up practically everything else he was doing. Like all the prophets of old, upon receiving his call he forsook his social life, his social habits and customs, his friends and interests, and devoted his entire life to proclaiming the message of salvation to all who would hear him. From the time of his conversion, he changed every priority in his life and made himself the prisoner of only one goal: to bring life, love and liberation to the non-Jews.
Those of us like myself who get the call to me a minister understand only too well that this means forsaking certain freedoms and devoting one's whole soul to spreading the good news of Christ. At one time I had many ambitions that reflected both talents and interests I had. Politics, scientific research, secular education, and writing secular history were all passionate interests of mine. I don't have time for any of these now, though I am sure I could have prospered in any one of them - now my entire focus is serving my Lord in the propagation of His Gospel, allied to which of course is presiding over and teaching my family. I have happily surrendered virtually every other interest in order to do these things. I have, though in a lesser way to the illustrious apostle, joined the ranks of thousands of other ministers who have made themselves a prisoner of the Lord Yah'shua haMashiach (Jesus Christ) so that I may win and disciple souls for Him. Because I have limited myself to this task, I have made myself a voluntary prisoner of the task. Though in this case the prison is actually a cell to liberation.
This prison, however, is not just for pastors, evangelists and others. It is for everyone who names the Name of Christ. Everyone who is truly born again of the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) is a prisoner of love and of service. The old life is gone and a new one has begun. The freedom to act in Christ comes with a price: it means excluding the old way of carnal living. To be a Christian mean self-limitation - God won't force you, but rather invites you as a gentle Father to let go of useless works that lead to death and to turn around and set your eyes on the things that really matter. You cannot have your feet in both worlds, even though with few exceptions everyone tries for a while, but have to eventually choose one or the other.
"I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called" (Eph.4:1, NKJV).
Being a prisoner of Christ isn't an unpleasant task and isn't like the humiliation of, say, a Captain in the army being demoted to a Private. Yes, it very often means demotion in the world system, the loss of rank, position, prestige and fame which mean so much to carnally-minded souls. But becoming a prisoner of Christ means promotion to a Royal Priesthood, receiving the custodianship of a sacred banner to which all men and women everywhere are invited to rally. Becoming a prisoner of Christ means receiving an honour far greater and more glorious than any worldly position can bestow. To be a prisoner of Christ means becoming a leader of men and women, a guide in the valley of the shadow of death, a deliverer of the lost and oppressed. And what more worthy calling could there possibly be?
Now what if you do not want to do this? What if you do not want this honour? Then it follows you are not a prisoner of Christ. And if you are not a prisoner of Christ, then you are a prisoner of yourself and of the world system. And if you are these things, the glories which Paul talks about can never be yours.
When a man puts on a uniform his behaviour changes. He starts acting like a soldier. Uniforms do things to people. A Christian soldier has no outward uniform, however, at least not one that can be made in a tailor's shop. But a uniform he does have, and he is expected to wear it - not to make himself feel proud or important - but to bring glory and honour to the King which it represents. This uniform Paul proceeds to describe:
"I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:1-3, NKJV).
Army officers wear pips and other insignia on their lapels to indicate a rank. In the British Army, a Lieutenant wears two pips, a Captain had three pips, a Major wears a crown. And there are many other ranks. In the Army of Christ, a believer wears a number of emblems which the apostle describes as lowliness (humility), gentleness (meekness), long-suffering, forbearance, and keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. These are five of the marks of a believer.
Please note that these things don't just "come" automatically once you accept Christ as your Saviour but are things we are commanded to do. The moment we enter the Army of Christ through the profession of our faith we are commanded to be humble, gentle, long-suffering, forbearing, and builders of unity in peace. Though these things come naturally eventually, they are states which have to be learned by self-discipline and eventually become a permanent part of us through habit. More importantly than this, perhaps, is that fact that in our own power doing these things is very difficult, if not impossible, which is why we are endowed with the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit), which is the power of God, with which to accomplish them. Notice that when he speaks of building unity, Paul says "try(ing) your best to let God's Spirit keep your hearts united" (v.3, CEV). It is the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) which brings unity, but in order for it to be able to do this, we must let it operate freely in us. And to enable this to occur means quite simply that we must live a life of obedience in Christ. For the Spirit to build unity, there must therefore be a relinquishing of the control of the flesh and a subjecting to the will of Christ.
Paul speaks of five pips of Christian rank here and it is no accident that the fifth, unity, is at the end of the list and must be reckoned as being the highest rank of all, for reasons I shall explain presently.
The first pip is Lowliness or Humility. If a picture is needed of this, then the opposite would be of a very proud General strutting around with his chest out and his head held high showing off all his medals. Unlike a General who knows his rank and power, and exercises it accordingly, a Christian is the very opposite - he knows that he is nothing and that all he has is because of Christ. He knows that he has nothing to boast of. He knows also that the most joyful position is one of Servant, just as Christ was, who demonstrated His lowliness before He died by stripping Himself to the waist like a common house slave of the time and kneeling down to do the most menial task there was, washing dirty, smelly feet. They wore no socks in those days, just sandals, and so being out on the dusty road would have meant feet covered in grime. Yah'shua (Jesus) said that in this act of service done by the Incarnate God man should understand that they too are expected to live in imitation of Him. Voluntary and willing humility and service, such as Christ showed when he washed the apostles' feet, is the first hallmark of a believer. And anyone can do it. All you have to do is fall to your knees and serve everyone else as though you were the least important person present. And when everyone else does that, you are all on the same level! A Kingdom of complete equality because you can't descend any lower - you see, everyone is Lower Class in earth but Upper Class in heaven.
The second pip is Gentleness or Meekness. This is the exact opposite of anger and irritability. We must often force ourselves not to react according to the disposition and nature of the flesh which is so easily aroused to anger and irritability. We must stop ourselves short until it becomes a natural habit. "A soft answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger" (Prov.15:1, NKJV).
The third pip is Long-suffering. This means not allowing others to provoke you to impatience. It implies self-control of your mental and emotional reactions to provocative situations by staying calm and peaceful when perhaps all around you is like a raging storm. This is one of the marks of spiritual maturity. It does not imply complete detachment in the oriental religious sense - it is not a neutering of the feelings or the passions, but like an undetonated piece of dynamite, it means not pushing the plunger when you most feel like venting your displeasure.
The fourth pip is Forbearance which implies supporting and lifting up your brothers and sisters in Christ in their miseries, sufferings and trials of life. It also implies coping when the going gets tough. But more than that the apostles admonishes us to "bear with one another in love" (v.2, NIV). This doesn't mean that we should quietly boil inside but implies we should be using the love of Christ to put out any negative forces so that calmly and in peace we can reach out and bless others. The worse thing a patient in a hospital can experience is when a doctor or nurse has a pained look on his or her face at your own suffering. The best healing for a patient when you are suffering is to have someone who is calm, assured, and radiating peace, strength and love. Someone trying to be empathic by flustering over you does more harm than good. So when someone is having a tough time, invoke the love of Christ to create within you the kind of spirit that you would like in your brother or sister.
And finally, the fifth pip: "Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4:3, NKJV). And really this is the other four pips all combined.
There are, in the New Testament, really only two prayers that are recorded at any great length. The first and most important one is what we know as the "Lord's Prayer" and is the model prayer for everyone one of us. The other great prayer of the Master, which was aimed specifically at those who would have faith in Him, was that there should be unity between the brethren. This wonderful prayer, which is found in the Gospel of John, is called the High Priestly Prayer and is perhaps one of the profoundest prayers ever written, having deep theological and spiritual implications. For within it is contained the whole mystery of the Godhead and of godliness itself. And what is amazing is that Christ makes a direct link between the unity that he shares with Yahweh-Elohim our Heavenly Father, and with the unity which we are supposed to share with one another. He says:
""I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me" (John 17:20-23, NKJV).
Do you see the supreme importance and witness of unity? Yah'shua (Jesus) is telling us directly that the unity of believers is the prime evidence that Yah'shua (Jesus) is who He says He is. If we are not united, we are actually witnessing against Christ, for we are claiming His power whilst proving to unbelievers that that power doesn't work. In reality, the power is absent because of carnality, but unbelievers don't know that, for carnality is all they really know. Unity is therefore a prime imperative. Without it we are no longer witnesses of Christ but witnesses of the flesh and of Satan.
The whole message of Christianity is relationship - it's about how people relate to one another. It's not about living this or that precept, but how these precepts bond believers together. Paul tells us how we are to behave towards one another in order to effect this unity - we are to be humble, meek, long-suffering, and forbearing in love. And then Yah'shua (Jesus) tells us in His High Priestly Prayer that unity is the consummate goal -- that's what Christianity is all about. It is not just about spiritual unity, moreover, but also a unity of sentiments, desires, and affections, such as is worthy of, and springs from, the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit). By the "bond of peace" we are to understand a peace or a union, which in the Hebrew is called echad or "oneness", where the interests of all parties are concentrated, cemented, and sealed - the Spirit of God being the seal upon this knot.
Having understood how we are to behave toward one another in order to realise this unity, Paul goes on to tell us the objective ground for that unity:
"There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Eph.4:3-6, NKJV).
And earlier in the same epistle he says that Christ has brought Jews and Gentiles together "as though we were only one person, when He united us in peace" (Eph.2:15, CEV). Here the same concept is repeated - namely, that whilst we are many people in Christ, we should act and behave as though we were only one person! That is why in the Book of Revelation the Bride of Christ is treated as one person even though in actual fact she is millions of the redeemed. Here then is the grand clue of true Christianity - it is echad, oneness, just as God is echad or one.
This tells us a million-and-one truths about everything. It teaches us that God is both one and many. He is both One God and Three Persons; and those three Persons are echad, or one. It is exactly the same principle that Paul teaches in the marriage relationship in chapter 2 (v.22) - husband and wife are to be one, just as the wives in a plural relationship are to be one, behaving as though they were one person, since they are a reflection of how the Body of Christ should be one. In the chapter we are studying Paul then goes on to explain what unity in diversity means, by explaining the different offices in the church or assembly, some of whom are:
"... apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head -- 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" (Eph. 4:11-16, NKJV).
Here is the whole mystery of godliness, here is the whole purpose of existing, and here is the way to do it. There is not in this vision of echad, which is the fullness of everything, even the remotest hint of the "solo Christian", because such a species does not exist. There may be people calling themselves "solo Christians" but if they are they are about as far away from Christ as those who do not claim Him at all. The whole purpose and mission of the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) is to bring this unity of many about - about making the many echad or one, just as God is echad. The spirit of godliness, the spirit of holiness, the spirit of purity, and the raison d'être of everything is building this unity in the power of Christ's resurrection power.
I pray that you will meditate deeply on these passages and discover what it is we are all called. The whole thrust of the New Covenant is the removal of walls of partition - it is a gathering of the fruit of Yahweh's patient labour over the millennia into one, to return to Him as echad. For myself, I have found the deepest satisfaction and joy in this unity and know exactly what King David meant when he exclaimed:
"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
(Ps 133, NKJV)
For brethren to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there Yahweh commanded the blessing --