The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached January 10, 2021*
Sermon Audio: Member’s Ministry: Speak Truth (Eph 4:11-16)
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. – Eph 4:11-16
Public protests devolved into riots; tensions over police brutality and racial hostilities boiled over; the American people felt uneasy as a bellicose president attempted to use his position to steamroll over those who opposed him and intimidated the media into only giving him positive press. The year is 1968 and Lyndon B. Johnson is stuck in the mire of Vietnam, steadily losing support for the war as the days go by. The landscape of America had been rocked and reeled by the advent of French existentialism and postmodern philosophies that had been imported into its universities, questioning the very idea of objective truth, identity, or meaning in life. The creation of teenage culture just a decade earlier had devolved into the sharp cultural divide between youth and their parents, creating suspicion and distrust in one another. These together gave rise to young people questioning many of the moral systems of their parents, bringing about the sexual revolution of the 60’s and alternative political ideologies which sought to radically correct the failures of past generations. Bob Dylan spoke to the world: You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, because the times they are changing.
In 1965 news reporters from CBS stationed in Vietnam showed footage of US troops using flamethrowers and zippo lighters to torch thatch-roofed villages of non-combatants while Vietnamese women and children wailed in the background. Public support of Vietnam began to plummet and university students began to organize protests against the war. American journalists, up to this point, had never questioned or sought to undermine the American government in a war effort, but more and more often younger journalists sought to make it clear that they found the American war in Vietnam to be wrong. There was one journalist, however, who sought to keep personal evaluations out of his news reports, whose aim was to tell America “the way it is…”. Walter Cronkite, the CBS news anchor from 1962-1981, was known as “the most trusted man in America.” Seen as a paragon of impartiality and objectivity, Cronkite’s nightly news broadcasts rarely ever involved his personal commentary. Thus, when Cronkite traveled to Vietnam in 1968 and returned to report on the status of the American war effort, the country eagerly looked to hear from “Uncle Walter” on what was really going on. Cronkite himself had been frustrated with the cynicism of younger reporters and wanted to see for himself whether or not the Vietnamese offensive was as morally problematic and pyrrhic as they claimed.
Cronkite’s report spent the majority of time interviewing generals, soldiers, and recounting the military strategies, remaining typically impartial and objective in his reporting. However, at the very close of the program Cronkite noted that he, unusually, was going to give his own “subjective” opinion. He famously noted that “from his vantage point” the only conceivable outcome of continuing to fight in Vietnam was to arrive at a bloody stalemate, thus America must negotiate for peace. Lyndon B. Johnson, after watching Cronkite’s report, switched off the TV and told an aide, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” And he did. Support for the war bottomed out and a few weeks later LBJ made a news announcement that all bombing would cease in Vietnam and, much to everyone’s surprise, that he would not be seeking re-election as President.
As we look at the turmoil in our country, the upheaval and division, we lack a unifying voice like Cronkite. There is no one who can tell our country “the way it is.” At least, no one we all will listen to. Postmodernism has only soured into a more vitriolic, angered force—you have your truth and I have my truth, but if you don’t affirm my truth then you are a danger to me. Trust in institutions like the government, media, and universities have only sunk lower. And the rise of information technologies coupled with social media platforms have given us oceans upon oceans of information with little wisdom in how to navigate it well. Like a toddler dumping over a bucket of BB’s, the internet scatters millions of data-points before us—some of them reliable, many not—and we have to try to discern who to listen to. A piece of objective, peer-reviewed, well-researched journalism can pop-up on our Facebook feed right next to a meme that makes wild, baseless accusations. And both will be seen in the same medium, giving them both an air of similar credibility. Add on to this that our society has emphasized feelings as a source of truth, and we are left with simply choosing what to believe based on what we want to believe. So logic, evidence, reason matter far less than emotional anecdotes, outrage, and fear. Truth, therefore, is in the eye of the feeler, and there are as many “truths” as there are people.
What does this have to do with our text? I am bringing all of this up to show that our current cultural location has presented a grave, grave danger for the church. Far more dangerous than any political outcome, revolution, or upheaval, the demise of Truth presents an existential crisis for our faith. Truth in the capital “T” sense—not the personal, subjective idea of “my truth,” but the Truth; truth that is regardless of who affirms it, regardless of whether or not we like it, Truth that is true for all peoples of all cultures in all places. Scripture teaches us that the church, and therefore the Christians who comprise the church, live and grow through Truth.
Give a plant water, and it grows. Give God’s people the Truth, and they will grow. More specifically, give them the truth spoken in love to one another, and they will grow in every way into Christ.
Sifting through our befuddling times, growing in wisdom and discernment, knowing who to listen to and who to ignore is a much needed task for Christians today. We dishonor God and hurt people when we champion things as “true” that are actually false. But long before we can enter into the puzzling exercise of doing that, we need to be trained by the schoolmaster of God’s eternal, unchanging Truth: God’s Word. While there may be a cacophony of contradictory voices screaming for your attention and your belief today and you are overwhelmed about who to listen to, here in this Sacred Book we need not be left wondering who to listen. Here, in these pages we can meet our Savior and listen to Him. And as we do that, we will be better equipped to face this ever-shifting world with the solid, unshifting bedrock of Truth under our feet. And this task, this ministry, is a ministry for us all.
Paul begins this section by explaining that God has given gifts to the church through specific offices: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” Eph 4:11-12. A few verses prior to this we are told that upon Jesus’ ascension to Heaven He has given the church gifts (Eph 4:8). These gifts given from Jesus Himself are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. While we would hold that some of these offices are no longer functioning in the post-apostolic church, we can notice the common denominator among all of these offices: they all have a gift in speaking God’s Word. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers all are charged with bringing God’s Word to His people. This is important because it helps us understand how they are supposed to “equip the saints for the work of the ministry.” Christians are prepared for the work God has given them by receiving God’s Word from the pastors that Jesus has given them as a gift.
So, my role as your pastor and any other pastor here is to so speak God’s Word to you that you become competently prepared to fulfill the work of the ministry that God has given you here in this church. This is why I devote the lion share of my time in preparing to teach God’s Word. If I do not, then you will be unprepared for your work: “building up the body of Christ.” As we noted last week, this text assumes that “the work of the ministry” is actually carried out by the members of the church, not just the pastors. Perhaps that seems odd to you: isn’t that why we pay you? Isn’t it your job to do the ministry? But, alas, the Bible says otherwise.
But I want you to think about this from another angle. This is true not just because the Bible explicitly says so, but also because it makes sense in why it produce the healthiest disciples. If you were to attend a workout class where the instructor stood up and showed everyone how to do the exercises, how to lift the weights, and then sent everyone home without having them doing the exercises at all, would they be getting any healthier? Wouldn’t it be better to have your instructor show you how to do the exercises and then put the weights in your hand and say, “Okay, now you do it.” It will certainly be more difficult, but it will also make you stronger, healthier than the other class who just watches their instructor workout. The design of the ministry in the New Testament is a ministry that is led by the pastors who are equipping the saints, but is finally accomplished by the members themselves picking up the weights and doing the work themselves.
This is why we are considering this for these four weeks. Members of the church can fulfill the work of the ministry through their love, speaking, praying, and giving. But here in Ephesians, Paul is going to highlight “speaking.”
You’re work is defined as such: “building up the body of Christ, 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,” Eph 4:12-13. The last two statements, “mature manhood, to the stature of the fullness of Christ,” are, in many ways, simply parroting the call to “build up the body of Christ”—to make it stronger, more mature, to look like Jesus. It is the phrase in the middle that helps shed considerable light on what that actually looks like: “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”
What should you be prioritizing as a member of this church? Unity. Earlier in Eph 4:1-3 Paul defined “unity” as the defining marker of what it means to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling of Christ.” But, this isn’t a “unity at all costs” kind of unity. It is a unity “of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Our unity flows from a unity around God’s truth. The “faith” here refers to the objective content of our faith; what we believe in,namely, the knowledge of the Son of God. So our unity is not a unity that comes from arriving at the lowest common denominator in our doctrine or watering down the truth and shaving off the sharp edges so that we can stretch our tent as widely as possible. Our unity is a unity that is found in truth.
But, dear friend, I hope you see this danger. If our aim is to preserve the unity of our church, and that unity comes from our shared convictions of truth, then that means that we need to be discerning enough with knowing where to draw those lines of doctrine and where not to. In other words, there are doctrines that we will divide over, but that does not mean that we divide over every doctrine. So, that means that you need to know your Bible well enough to know when a doctrine is central enough that it must be fought over, and when it is just something that we can simply disagree on but maintain our unity together. This is the intent of our Statement of Faith. It is a collection of doctrines that we require for membership in the church because it includes what we have deemed to be central to our faith and unity as a church. If you’re wondering what doctrines are important enough to divide over, it might serve you to read through that statement. Also, it might help you to go back through the video series we did on conscience last year.
So, what is the work of the ministry? Building up the body until we reach the unity of faith and knowledge of the son of God, till we are mature, till our life reflects Christ’s life. And how do we do that? Look down to verses 15-16, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 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,” Eph 4:15-16.
This looks like speaking truth in love to one another. This phrase (speaking truth in love) doesn’t primarily refer to telling someone an inconvenient or uncomfortable fact in a kind way; it isn’t the equivalent of “with all due respect” (“Hey man, I’m just trying to speak the truth in love, but your breath smells terrible”). “Truth” here is referring to God’s Truth, right doctrine. As we will shortly see, it is set in direct contrast with false doctrine in verse 14 that destroy people’s souls. It is when we speak robust, Biblical, orthodox doctrine to each other, that the whole church grows. This shows us that we cannot think that doctrine is some arid, boring, dead thing that inflates your brain but does little else. The Bible teaches us that God’s truth brings life, growth, vitality. We can throw away the false dichotomy of a warm heart or rigorous intellectual life. Our handling of right doctrine, our speaking of it to one another, is the vigor and lifeblood of growth in the church.
But this assumes two things are necessary: (1) you must speak these truths to one another, (2) and it must be done in love.
These truths were never meant to simply be understood, believed, and then kept to ourselves. What good is it for a doctor to receive his years of training, his understanding of ailments, his medical equipment, only to be brought before the sick and dying and remain quiet, do nothing? God’s truth was never intended to be kept safe and secure in the quiet museum of our minds, but was intended to be raked through the mud in the rough and tumble of life. It must be used or God’s people will not grow. This means that we are willing to prioritize other people’s good over our own comfort. It may feel awkward and uncomfortable to speak truth to another person—but we aren’t waiting for things to feel easy, we are trying to be obedient to our Lord in our work of the ministry.
But, of course, this cannot be done without love. Of course, speaking the truth to another is a display of our love for them. If our love for this person is lacking in our heart, if it is not evident, not communicated, then the truth may cause them to wilt, not grow. This is why we need to strive to build the relational bridges of love now so that when the time comes to drive the truck of God’s truth over that bridge, it is strong enough to bear the load. So this is why we ought to strive to practice hospitality, be faithful in our small group attendance, share meals together, pray for one another, so that our hearts can be knit together in love.
So, if a brother begins to wander off into sin, we pursue after them and speak the truth of the gospel, reminding them of God’s grace and of the need for repentance.
If a sister is struggling with assurance of her salvation, we speak the truth of the eternal security that is found in her being predestined from before the foundations of the world.
If our child is questioning why God lets bad things happen, we speak the truth in love to them, reminding them of God’s good and (sometimes) mysterious sovereign purposes.
What happens if we fail to carry out this task? Look back to verse 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.” So, we need to speak the truth in love to one another, build one another up in Christ until we reach the unity of the faith, we need to do the work of the ministry because, if we do not, we will remain children in the faith who are susceptible to making a shipwreck of our souls. The image Paul gives us is of a small boat bounced around by the waves, blown about by every crosswind, and behind those forces are deceitful, cunning people who are looking to take advantage of you. Friends, do you see the dire consequences of what happens if we fail to do the work of the ministry? People’s souls are on the line!
Notice, that we are told that it is “human cunning” and “craftiness in deceitful schemes” that empowers this false teaching. This tells us that false teaching that wants to make a shipwreck of your faith doesn’t presentitself as something dangerous. It is “crafty,” the word used to describe Satan in Eden (Gen 3:1). Satan made his temptation to Eve sound attractive, plausible, wise. So, young people, be warned: there are a thousand ways that the world wants to trick you, wants you to believe its lies, and they will advertise almost all of them in positive, attractive, even moral ways. But if the only concept of “false teaching” you have in your mind is of something that looks bad from the get-go, there will be a great deal that will sneak past you. But how can you guard yourself from that? Read your Bibles and be intimately connected into the life of the church where other people will speak God’s truth to you in love.
Friends, while the tempest of misinformation and information swirls around us, while we see a lack of a unifying voice to make sense of current events, what can we do?
1. Make first things first. I may not be able to know with confidence what news stories are reliable and which aren’t, but in God’s Word I have something that is unquestionably reliable. So I will set my heart and my mind primarily on this Truth. Phil 4:8 tells me that I should set my mind on what is “true”—so God’s perfect, inerrant truth should be what dominates the majority of my mind and heart. So, friend, read your Bible.
2. Create an alternative to the world. As the world fractures and splits, the Church provides an alternative community.
a. Here, when we speak the truth in love to one another it means that we reject the idea that Truth is a personal creation, but an objective reality that exists outside of us that we submit to—regardless of whether we like it or not.
b. Thus, when we speak the truth in love to one another we grow in humility because we learn that sometimes we are wrong and need to be corrected.
c. When we speak the truth in love to one another we are showing that a deep love for one another can be displayed in speaking truth. Speaking truth is not something we reserve for crushing our opponents, but for loving our brothers.
d. When we speak the truth in love to one another we demonstrate that we know that we are responsible for one another. When one of us begins to walk into sin, when one of us begins to struggle, we do not “cancel” them, we do not condemn them, we lovingly go after them.
When we create a community like that, that is built on an ecosystem of love and truth, then we are met by the misinformation of our age, we will be far better prepared because: (1) we’ve lived our lives in connection with people who are different than us, so we understand that our perspective is sometimes limited, (2) we know that Truth isn’t dependent on our feelings or preferences, (3) we’ve been humbled by our own sin and know that we have certainly been wrong before, so that gives us pause before brashly asserting our own interpretation, (4) and we have been discipled by the Biblical pattern of wisdom, which exhorts us to be slow to speak, quick to listen, patient in evaluating evidence, willing to examine a matter fully, check sources, and in detail before pronouncing a verdict.