When I was a brand-new Christian, the first book of the Bible that I studied was Ephesians, because my church was teaching through it. I remember being struck by the vibrant church community that was described in this epistle. Paul almost seems giddy as he bounces back and forth between the soaring praise and prayers in this book to the instructions on how to love and bear with one another in the church. They way he described life together in the church and in the family was compelling.
I also encountered one of my "life verses" in Ephesians, a standard for godly speech that both rebuked and inspired me: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen" (Eph. 4:29 NIV). When year later I started reading the ESV, I was reminded even more strongly of the impact of my words on others: "... that it may give grace to those who hear." I had that verse taped on my mirror for years so that I would be reminded to curb my tongue.
Recently I've been immersed in Ephesians once again through the Bible study written by my friend, Wendy Alsup, called By His Wounds You Are Healed: How the Message of Ephesians Transforms a Woman's Identity. This 35-chapter study on Ephesians is designed to be marked up, reflected upon, and thoroughly digested. As Wendy writes at the beginning of the study:
Written from prison around A.D. 60, Ephesians is unique among Paul's letters because he is not addressing a specific doctrinal or sin issue in the church there. Unlike 1 Corinthians in which some guy is sleeping with his step-mother or Galatians in which Peter is tolerating a legalistic view of the gospel, Paul gets to talk to the church at Ephesus about the big picture of the benefits of Christ's sacrifice for us on the cross and the way that impacts our entire lives. The book reflects a very connected, coherent thought process from beginning to end. Each thought builds succinctly on the previous thought, and context means everything in Ephesians. Unlike Proverbs, where you can pull two or three verses out and prepare an accurate, concise lesson from them, no piece of Ephesians can be pulled out and accurately handled without clearly examining the whole book.
As expected, Wendy takes readers through an in-depth, passage-upon-passage examination of the beauty of Ephesians. I've underlined and starred many segments of the book, but one comment that hit me profoundly was something Wendy wrote about the maturity of the Body of Christ as described in Ephesians 4:13-16.
In dealing with our Christian community, it is essential we keep our eye on the prize--the end result of the Body of Christ growing together in unity and maturity in the true knowledge of God. As the daughter of a cotton farmer, I remember a farming illustration I heard growing up. If a farmer wanted to plow a straight line for a row of crops, he needed to keep his eye on a fixed point at the end of the row. If he looked down where he was, he would make a crooked line. But if he kept his eye on the spot that he wanted to reach at the end, he would maintain a straight line for his row of crops. This is a helpful illustration for us as we deal with issues and relationships within the Body of Christ, the Church. We have to keep our eye on the goal. What is the end result of all God is doing now? It is a church that is unified in the faith and the knowledge of God, measuring up to the stature of Christ. God is moving us toward the goal of Christian maturity in which we are no longer weak Christians easily deceived by every new doctrinal error. We will be a Body that works together in harmony and unity, each part doing its job. And what does fully realized Christian maturity look like? It looks like Christ (v. 13)!
As we discussed before, the Church is NOT there yet, but God calls us to choose the proper place to fix our focus. He calls us to focus squarely on the goal to which he is conforming his Body. We are not to focus on all the ways the Church fails him and us now. I am not suggesting we stick our head in the sand and ignore her failings. That is not Christian unity either. But I am saying that our perspective on the current failings of the Church must be informed by the end result that God promises he will accomplish--a beautiful, mature Body steadfast in correct doctrine where members work together and support each other. Knowing where we are going is a great help to making choices now on how to respond to current struggles.
Amen and amen. I know everyone who is currently part of a local church can nod in agreement. We can see the failings, sins, and weaknesses all around us because we're part of them. But if we keep our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith, we will rejoice in what God will accomplish. Don't look down and create crooked lines. Look at the end goal with eyes of faith and pray we attain to the fullness of Christ.
Obviously I highly recommend this study. I also recommend that if you aren't already familiar with Wendy's writing, you check out her blog, Practical Theology for Women.