Equip to Serve
August 8, 2021
I. Turn to Ephesians 4:11-16. Ephesians 4:11-16. As you turn there, I want you to imagine a football team with me. This football team is pretty dysfunctional. The coach can explain the playbook pretty clearly, but neglects all of his other duties. The quarterback tries to lead in the coach’s place, but only runs the drills he knows—thus training everyone to be quarterbacks. Over half the players sit in on the huddles and talks, but as soon as feet are needed on the ground running drills and throwing passes, they leave to do other things. There is in-fighting over the color of their jerseys, some players heard of a play from another team and want to do that instead, and some only show up on Christmas and Easter, err, I mean, the first day of playoffs and the Superbowl but still insist they are part of the team. The season starts, the team takes the field, and… they lose—pretty badly. In fact, they lose every single game. The coach keeps telling them the plays but does nothing else, the quarterback keeps running the drills, and a group continues to show up half the time—and no one can figure out why they aren’t winning. For us on the outside, it’s pretty obvious, but the team continues to try the same things over and over again with no change in the results.
II. Unfortunately, leaders not equipping others for their work, people being trained and equipped to function in only one way, the bulk of the work falling on the shoulders of a few while the rest act as consumers, and everyone feeling a bit frustrated actually is not the description of any football team, but rather, a very accurate description of the current American church. A church that has just one of these components would be described as an unhealthy church but the reality is that many churches have two or more of these problems. So the question before us this morning is simply this: What can the church do to fix these things? How can a church look healthy again? Indeed: what does a healthy church look like? To answer that, let’s look at Ephesians 4. Read with me starting in verse 11. “11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
III. To understand this passage, let’s first look at the context of this letter. Paul wrote this to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was located in modern-day western Turkey. Known for its multiple pagan cults, Ephesus was a major city in the Roman empire—the fourth or fifth largest port city in the world at the time. Paul stayed in Ephesus for about 3 years building up and teaching the church. But by the time of the writing of this letter, Paul had been absent from Ephesus for about 7-8 years. They needed instruction and encouragement. The Ephesians were ordinary people just like us. Some were rich, some poor. Some were employed, some were servants. Some worked at the port, and some in small villages. They were committed followers of Christ living in the world. Like us, they needed to understand the foundations of their faith in Christ and how to live in that reality. I find it very telling that, even though Paul is writing to Christian churches, he devotes three chapters to telling them what the gospel is.
IV. This is important because, to be able to live out the exhortations in Ephesians 4:11-16—to be able to grow in maturity in our faith as a church—we should first understand that our life begins through the gift of salvation offered through Jesus Christ. This is the Gospel. Before coming to Christ, the Bible describes us as dead in our sin. That is very serious language—dead in sin means being spiritually dead. Having no spiritual ability or understanding. Dead in sin means that there is nothing we can do—no work, no striving, no effort—that could wipe away our sins or earn our way to heaven. But God, in His infinite grace, sent Jesus Christ to live a perfect life. And, having lived a perfect life, died on the cross in our place for the forgiveness of our sins and rose again—conquering death! Through this redemptive work, Jesus gives us the gift of salvation; He causes us to be reborn, to be spiritually alive: that if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised him from the dead, we will be saved. We will have new life! And we will be a part of his Bride, the church, and we’ll need to seek the help, direction, and encouragement of the rest of the assembled body of Christ.
V. But a fresh understanding of the Gospel means we join the church as a rookie, not a seasoned veteran. Even those who have been followers of Christ for a long time don’t have everything figured out. Just like a football team needs training and practice, so too does the church need to strive to grow in their spiritual health and maturity. But often, we try to go it alone. Is it possible to mature outside of the church? Is there something equivalent to practicing on our own instead of going to team practices, progressing at our own rate of motivation, defining our own goals, and still be able to show up on game day? Essentially, can we figure this out on our own?
VI. Look at Ephesians 4, verses 11-12 with me, “11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” First, we see that Christ gifted the church with leaders. To give, in the sense of this verse, is to set forth something for the benefit of others—it is for the benefit of others that the gift of leaders is given. We often think of gifts as something that is for our own enjoyment. Yet, the leaders that Christ has given to his people are supposed to be used for the benefit of the church. So who are these leaders? And what is their purpose in the church?
VII. The first group of leaders are the apostles. The Biblical sense of the apostle was an individual who had personally seen and been sent by Jesus Christ. The marks of a true apostle were signs, wonders, and miracles in the power of Christ. With this criteria, I believe this group of leaders ceased after the last original disciples passed away. The second group of leaders are the prophets. Biblically, the most common function of the prophets isn’t future-telling as we may be tempted to think, but “forth-telling,” or “truth-telling.” The prophets in the Bible were people who stood up for the truth, called out the sins of others, and bluntly urged others to follow God’s ways. Prophets unashamedly speak truth in clearly defined, black-and-white terms.
VIII. The third group of leaders are the evangelists. The evangelist is a traveler who brings the Gospel to others. Now, every Christian is called to be a witness, but the evangelist is especially gifted and called to this work and, in the context of this passage, to train and equip others to be better witnesses as well. The last two groups are closely connected but are still unique. The shepherd, in the Greek, is the pastor, the feeder, and protector of the local church. The pastor is called by God to care for the well-being of the local church and protect them from spiritual danger. The teacher is known for their knowledge of the Bible and the ability to clarify truth in simple terms. Teaching is, no doubt, the duty of all pastors, but the pastors take on the extra function of defending the church against false doctrine and spiritual abuse. Just like all thumbs are fingers but not all fingers are thumbs, so too do all pastors teach but not all teachers are also pastors.
IX. These are the leaders that Christ has given to the church. But the emphasis in this passage isn’t on the leaders but on the purpose for which Christ has gifted them and then gave them to the church. This purpose, in verse 12, is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. The word for “ministry” here is translated as “service or servant.” This word indicates a humbling service—the “roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty” type of service and ministry that Christ exemplified. But this equipping for ministry is not the end goal either, but for the purpose of building up the body of Christ. Just like the leaders need to share their gifts, so too do the saints—the set apart ones, that is, all of us—need to share their equipping. We are equipped to use our equipping. We don’t give someone a hammer and tell them never to use it. We give it to them to pound in some nails. Anything that is done by the church, whether it be providing nursery care, visiting those in need, witnessing, making meals for new parents, leading home Bible studies, outreach into the community, worship, VBS, cleaning the bathrooms, anything and everything—this is the work of all the committed followers of Christ to build up church. It’s not only the leaders who are responsible to do the works of ministry, it is the responsibility of the believers in the church!
X. We often get this mixed up. Many people expect the leaders to do everything. The thinking goes something like this: “why witness when we can invite a friend to church to hear it from the pastor? Why start a Bible study when we can join someone else’s? Why do the work? Isn’t that what the leaders are supposed to do?” As we see in this passage, it is not. The leader’s primary responsibility is to equip others for the work of ministry to build up the church. Every Christian, in turn, has a ministry and function in the church to help build up the body of Christ.
XI. A healthy church, then, is a church equipped by Christ. That is our first point today. A healthy church is a church equipped by Christ. From the leaders to the building up of the body, it is all of Christ. He has given His people what is needed to build up the body. Three steps are taken in these two verses. First, Christ gives leaders to the church. Then, the leaders equip the saints—that means, all of us—for the work of ministry. And lastly, the saints use their equipping to build up the body of Christ. A healthy church is a church equipped by Christ.
XII. It is a humbling thing to know that Christ is working through us to build up the church. He not only gives us new life but also gives the church leaders to equip the saints for works to build up the body of Christ. What a gracious Savior we serve! From here, Paul takes a step back in this passage from looking at the players of the team and focuses on the purpose and goal of the team. What is the church working towards? What is the objective? When have we arrived at the goal?
XIII. Look at verse 13-14 with me, “13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” The church should never think of a process without fixing and keeping their eyes on the goal. Notice how Paul breaks down this goal into two parts in verse 13.
XIV. The first part of this goal is reaching the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God. As people gain new life in Christ and come to the church from different backgrounds of error, ignorance, and sin-filled lifestyles, and they begin to move away from false teaching and false assumptions towards truth. Moving toward the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of Christ means that we begin to understand and apply the truth of the Gospel to all areas of our life. We abide in Christ and depend on His provision in all things. And we move past head knowledge to heart knowledge. Knowledge is more than just mental assent—it is knowing Christ and Christ knowing us in relationship. We cannot know someone who we do not communicate with or listen to. Attaining unity, then, involves the knowledge gained through a serious study of God’s Word, the discernment through the Holy Spirit’s work to understand and apply it, and prayer to God to grow our relationship with Him.
XV. The second part of this goal is to become mature—a maturity that is measured by nothing less than Christ Himself. Christ-likeness is the standard toward which we must grow. This maturity is difficult to pursue. The challenges of the devil, false doctrine, and sin take us off track and we are tempted to give up. But we can’t give up—the full maturity in Christ that God intends for all of us requires that we exercise the gifts that Christ has given us and work to build up the church. We must become completely like Him—fully Christ-like. But complete Christ-likeness is not possible in this life—we will not be perfectly sanctified until we are with God in His glory. But even so, this should not stop us from pursuing it now. After all, Christ has gifted leaders to equip the saints for the work of ministry specifically so that we mature towards Christ. To settle for “good enough” and to become complacent denies the goal and purpose of Christ’s work. The goal of the church is unity, maturity, and the pursuit of Christ-likeness.
XVI. What is stated in the positive in verse 13, Paul reiterates in the negative in verse 14. If verse 13 is the finish line, verse 14 is the start line. Paul exhorts us to grow in maturity so that we will no longer be wavering, easily tricked, and distracted children. Children do not hold the assurity of truth that adults hold. A child falls and cries like they’ve lost their foot. An adult picks back up and goes on with their day. A church moving toward full unity in Christ is leaving behind immaturity with its intertwined characteristics of ignorance, gullibility, and individualism. For the maturing Christian who leaves behind infancy, the states of ignorance and gullibility stop being an excuse and become a catalyst for deep study and greater works of service.
XVII. Every member in the church should strive to mature in their faith. We should not be immature consumers but eager servants. Instead of pursuing individualism, we should be pursuing unity within the body. Through Ephesians, we see that immaturity is a highly dangerous condition because it lays the Christian open to manipulation by cunning people and the forces of error. This is not a neutral state for the believer but rather a place where Christians fall prey to false teaching. For the believer to mature out of this perilous state, he or she must actively participate in an equipped and serving church. And that participation will not be perfect right away. When we start to serve, we will still stumble, drop passes, and run into the field goal posts. Over time, we will mature. Over time, we will learn where we fit in the team. Over time, we become seasoned veterans. We must realize, then, that to the extent that we neglect doing works of service is the extent that we cripple someone else’s maturity. If I, in my own immaturity, do not do what I am gifted or equipped to do, then I am actually hindering someone else’s faith—I am hindering the entire body of the local church.
XVIII. A healthy church, then, is a church maturing toward the standard of Christ. That is our second point for today. A healthy church is a church maturing toward the standard of Christ. The purpose of the believers doing works of service is unity, maturity, and the pursuit of Christ-likeness. To disregard the equipping or the purpose of the believers is to stay immature, weak in faith, and faltering. A healthy church is a church maturing toward the standard of Christ.
XIX. On a football team, a quarterback throws the ball, the linemen guard the quarterback, and the kicker kicks. Each has their specific duty and function on the team. Still, no matter what position they play, every player does lots of sprints during practice. Likewise, each member in the church has a different role in the body of Christ. There are various works of ministry to do in the pursuit of maturity. But Paul shows in this passage that there is a work in which the whole body engages—don’t worry, it’s not sprints. Look at verses 15-16 with me, “15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
XX. Contrasted with verse 14 where Paul warns the Ephesians that deceivers will cause the immature to waver, Paul tells the Ephesians to be different. They are to speak the truth in love. The literal Greek in verse 15 is “truthing in love.” Of course, “truthing” is not a word in English, but the idea is clear. Maturity involves truth-telling, truth-maintaining, and truth-doing love. And this love is an “agape” love—a love that seeks the benefit of the undeserving—even at our own expense—and is intertwined with humility, gentleness, and a willingness to work for unity and peace. The deceivers described in verse 14 are not so—they are cunning and crafty; only looking out for themselves. The Ephesians are to be different; WE are to be different. In humility and love, we look out not for our own interests but for the interests of others. And we speak the truth. True love, God’s “agape” love, humbly speaks truth even when it’s hard.
XXI. And the result of this common work that we all participate in is that we grow up in maturity to the head, which is Christ. Truth and love—a simple formula that grows us to maturity when we are all engaged in doing it. No longer immature and tossed about like a little boat in a storm, we will grow in stability and spiritual maturity—which is growth into Christ. Christ is the head—not man. No leader gifted to the church by Christ is the head of the church. The leaders are still sheep a part of Christ’s flock—only called to a specific function. And that function is one of service. From Christ alone, we receive our capacity for growth and activity. Each member has his or her distinct role in the well-being of the whole. The body obtains unity through its diversity. It is unified when it’s diversified. And, this unity in diversity is essential for the proper growth of the church. We do not seek our own growth, but the growth of the body as a whole—not our own building up, but the building up of the whole. This is spiritual increase, not numerical increase. And this increase, this building up, is above all in love. Love is the lifeblood of the body. It is the ultimate criteria for the assessment of church growth—how far are we characterized by true, Christ-like love?
XXII. A healthy church is a church working through Christ’s direction. That is our third and final point for today. A healthy church is a church working through Christ’s direction. The members of the body work towards their purpose by speaking truth in love. And Christ grows the body when each part in the body works properly. Not speaking the truth, or not speaking in love indicates that each part is not doing its work and growth of the body will be hindered. We must each do our part as Christ has gifted us. A healthy church is a church working through Christ’s direction.
XXIII. Through Christ, we have life. From Christ, the church is gifted. To Christ-likeness, the church moves. And it is through Christ making the body grow that the body matures. It is all of Christ. He is Supreme overall. Christ makes and grows His church. It is only through His grace that a healthy church is equipped. It is only through Him that a healthy church matures. And it is only through His direction that a healthy church grows. This leads to our big idea for today: Christ equips His church to mature through work and service. The whole passage can be summed up with this statement. Christ equips His church to mature through work and service.
XXIV. This is the awesome power of Christ. The Christ who gives gifts to the church, to whom the church matures, and who directs the church is the Christ who conquered all the evil forces of the universe through His death and resurrection. All authority in heaven and on earth is His and He is, therefore, powerful enough to change us from being dead in our sins to mature and committed followers of Him. And the beautiful reality of Christ’s plan to affect this change is that we are a part of it. Christ equips us to keep false teaching at bay, to maintain unity, and to guide the church to reach its destiny of full union with him. Through Christ, we are a part of something that started at the beginning of time and will reach its full consummation at the end of all things. It is humbling to know that, because of Christ, our life is much bigger than politics, our work, or our family. We have work to do that has eternal ramifications. Christ equips His church to mature through work and service.
XXV. In view of all of this, how do we practically apply this to our lives? First, get involved in the church. We cannot mature by ourselves—maturity happens in the context of the body of believers. When the church gathers, make it a priority to be a part of that gathering. The first step is to actively commit to your church. Secondly, leaders, focus on practically equipping Christ followers for works of service. To do that, you need prayer and discernment—work to understand how God has gifted each person and what role they are meant to have in building up the body of believers. Spiritual assessments are a great starting point. Equip each person in light of their gifting and with the needs of the church in mind. Members of the church, you too need to be in prayer and seeking out your gifting and role in the church. It will do no good to learn how to do something if you are not gifted or called towards that role. Be intentional, humble, and discerning towards God leading. The next step is for the whole church—get to work. Stand up, do a few stretches, and then get to work. See what needs to be done, and get it done. Is the church reaching out into the community? How many times have you witnessed to your friends or co-workers in the past month? Do you help out on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights or do you mainly sit in on the services and then go home? Do you give of your money and time to the church? Those are just a few questions to open your eyes to possibilities—there are so many ways to serve. Look for them, opportunities are all around you. Lastly, there is one work that we are all to do and that is to speak the truth in love. Take time this week to pray that God would grow in you the courage to speak the truth, the compassion to do so in love, and that he would provide opportunities for you to put that into practice. It could be as small as giving an encouraging remark to someone who is faithfully serving, and it could be as serious as gently calling out someone in sin. Whatever opportunity God presents, speak the truth and do it in love.
XXVI. Christ equips His church to mature through work and service. Let’s step up, join together, and get to work.