The Characteristics of the Worthy Walk
with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (4:2–3)
Here Paul gives five essentials for faithful Christian living, five attitudes on which walking worthily in the Lord’s call are predicated.
These characteristics, of which humility is the foundation, form a progression, the genuine exercise of one leading to the exercise of those that follow.
Tapeinophrosunē (humility) is a compound word that literally means to think or judge with lowliness, and hence to have lowliness of mind. John Wesley observed that “neither the Romans nor the Greeks had a word for humility.” The very concept was so foreign and abhorrent to their way of thinking that they had no term to describe it. Apparently this Greek term was coined by Christians, probably by Paul himself, to describe a quality for which no other word was available. To the proud Greeks and Romans, their terms for ignoble, cowardly, and other such characteristics were sufficient to describe the “unnatural” person who did not think of himself with pride and self-satisfaction. When, during the first several centuries of Christianity, pagan writers borrowed the term tapeinophrosunē, they always used it derogatorily—frequently of Christians—because to them humility was a pitiable weakness.
But humility is the most foundational Christian virtue. We cannot even begin to please God without humility, just as our Lord Himself could not have pleased His Father had He not willingly “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and … humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7–8).
Yet humility is terribly elusive, because if focused on too much it will turn into pride, its very opposite. Humility is a virtue to be highly sought but never claimed, because once claimed it is forfeited. Only Jesus Christ, as the perfectly obedient Son, could justifiably claim humility for Himself. “Take My yoke upon you,” He said, “for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:29). He came to earth as God’s Son, yet was born in a stable, raised in a peasant family, never owned property except the garments on His back, and was buried in a borrowed tomb. At any time He could have exercised His divine rights, prerogatives, and glory, but in obedience and humility He refused to do so because it would have been to go outside His Father’s will. If the Lord of glory walked in humility while He was on earth, how much more are His imperfect followers to do so? “The one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
Although humility is at the heart of Christian character, no virtue is more foreign to the world’s ways. The world exalts pride, not humility. Throughout history, fallen human nature, ruled by Satan, the prince of this world, has shunned humility and advocated pride. For the most part humility has been looked on as weakness and impotence, something ignoble to be despised. People unashamedly claim to be proud of their jobs, their children, their accomplishments, and on and on. Society loves to recognize and praise those who have accomplished something outstanding. Ostentation, boasting, parading, and exalting are the world’s stock in trade.
Unfortunately the church often reflects that worldly perspective and pattern, building many programs and organizations around the superficial enticements of awards, trophies, and public recognition. We seem to have found a way to encourage boasting that is “acceptable,” because such boasting is done in the name of the gospel. But in doing so we contradict the very gospel we claim to promote, because the hallmark of the gospel is humility, not pride and self-exaltation. God’s work cannot be served by the world’s ways. God’s call is to humility and His work is only accomplished through humility.
The first sin was pride, and every sin after that has been in some way an extension of pride. Pride led the angel Lucifer to exalt himself above his Creator and Lord. Because the bright “star of the morning” continually said, “I will, I will, I will” in opposition to God’s will, he was cast out of heaven (Isa. 14:12–23). Because he said, “I am a god,” the Lord cast him “from the mountain of God” (Ezek. 28:11–19). The original sin of Adam and Eve was pride, trusting in their own understanding above God’s (Gen. 3:6–7). The writer of Proverbs warns, “When pride comes, then comes dishonor” (11:2), “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (16:18), and again “Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, is sin” (21:4).
Isaiah warned, “The proud look of man will be abased, and the loftiness of man will be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Isa. 2:11; cf. 3:16–26). “Behold, I am against you, O arrogant one,” God declared against Babylon, “For your day has come, the time when I shall punish you. And the arrogant one will stumble and fall with no one to raise him up” (Jer. 50:31–32). The last chapter of the Old Testament begins, “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff” (Mal. 4:1). The Beatitudes begin with “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), and James assures us that “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6; cf. Ps. 138:6).
Pride is the supreme temptation from Satan, because pride is at the heart of his own evil nature. Consequently, Satan makes sure that the Christian is never entirely free from the temptation of pride. We will always be in a battle with pride until the Lord takes us to be with Himself. Our only protection against pride, and our only source of humility, is a proper view of God. Pride is the sin of competing with God, and humility is the virtue of submitting to His supreme glory.
Pride comes in many forms. We may be tempted to be proud of our abilities, our possessions, our education, our social status, our appearance, our power, and even our biblical knowledge or religious accomplishments. But throughout Scripture the Lord calls His people to humility. “Before honor comes humility” (Prov. 15:33); “The reward of humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, honor and life” (22:4); “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (27:2).
Humility is an ingredient of all spiritual blessing. Just as every sin has its roots in pride, every virtue has its roots in humility. Humility allows us to see ourselves as we are, because it shows us before God as He is. Just as pride is behind every conflict we have with other people and every problem of fellowship we have with the Lord, so humility is behind every harmonious human relationship, every spiritual success, and every moment of joyous fellowship with the Lord.
During the days of slavery in the West Indies, a group of Moravian Christians found it impossible to witness to the slaves because they were almost totally separated from the ruling class—many of whom felt it beneath them even to speak to a slave. Two young missionaries, however, were determined to reach those oppressed peoples at any cost. In order to fulfill God’s calling they joined the slaves. They worked and lived beside the slaves, becoming totally identified with them—sharing their overwork, their beatings, and their abuse. It is not strange that the two missionaries soon won the hearts of those slaves, many of whom accepted for themselves the God who could move men to such loving selflessness.
A person cannot even become a Christian without humility, without recognizing himself as a sinner and worthy only of God’s just condemnation. “Truly I say to you,” Jesus said, “unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself …” (Matt. 18:3–4). At the height of his own fame and recognition as a prophet, John the Baptist said of Jesus, “I am not fit to remove His sandals” (Matt. 3:11) and “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Martha was busy doing many things supposedly for Jesus’ sake, but on three different occasions we see Mary simply sitting humbly at Jesus’ feet. In all four gospels the writers hide themselves and focus attention on Jesus. How easy it would have been for them to subtly include accounts favorable to themselves. Matthew identifies himself as a despised tax-collector, which none of the other gospel writers does. On the other hand, he does not mention the feast that he gave for his fellow tax-collectors to meet Jesus. Because of Matthew’s humility, it was left to Luke to write about that.
Mark probably wrote under the tutelage of Peter, and possibly because of that apostle’s influence he does not report two of the most amazing things that happened to Peter during Jesus’ ministry—his walking on water and his confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. John never mentions his own name, referring to himself simply as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
In a compilation of old quotes is an excellent paragraph written by Thomas Guthrie:
The grandest edifices, the tallest towers, the loftiest spires rest on deep foundations. The very safety of eminent gifts and preeminent graces lies in their association with deep humility. They are dangerous without it. Great men do need to be good men. Look at the mighty ship. A leviathan into the sea, with her towering masts and carrying a cloud of canvas. How she steadies herself on the waves and walks erect on the rolling waters like a thing with inherent, self-regulating life.… Why is she not flung on her beam’s end, sent down floundering into the deep? Because unseen beneath the surface a vast well-ballasted hull gives her balance and takes hold of the water, keeps her steady under a pressive sail and on the bosom of a swelling sea. Even though to preserve the saint upright, to preserve the saint erect and safe from falling, God gives him balance and ballast bestowing on the man to whom He has given lofty endowments, the tendant grace of a proportionate humility.
Humility begins with proper self-awareness, “the virtue,” said Bernard of Clairvaux, “by which a man becomes conscious of his own unworthiness.” It begins with an honest, unadorned, unretouched view of oneself. The first thing the honest person sees in himself is sin, and therefore one of the surest marks of true humility is daily confession of sin. “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9). “We are not bold to class or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves,” Paul says; “but when they measure themselves by themselves, and compare themselves with themselves, they are without understanding” (2 Cor. 10:12). It is not only unspiritual but unintelligent to judge ourselves by comparison with others. We all tend to exaggerate our own good qualities and minimize the good qualities of others. Humility takes off our rose-colored glasses and allows us to see ourselves as we really are. We are not “adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves,” says Paul, “but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).
Second, humility involves Christ-awareness. He is the only standard by which righteousness can be judged and by which pleasing God can be judged. Our goal should be no less than “to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6), and Jesus Christ walked in perfection. Only of Jesus has God ever said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
Third, humility involves God-awareness. As we study His life in the gospels we come to see Jesus more and more in His human perfection—His perfect humility, His perfect submission to the Father, His perfect love, compassion, and wisdom. But beyond His human perfection we also come to see His divine perfection—His limitless power; His knowing the thoughts and heart of every person; and His authority to heal diseases, cast out demons, and even forgive sins. We come to see Jesus Christ as Isaiah saw the Lord, “sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted” and we want to cry out with the seraphim, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory,” and with the prophet himself, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:1, 3, 5).
When Paul looked at himself in self-awareness, he saw the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). When Peter looked at himself in Christ awareness, he said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). When Job looked at himself in God awareness, he said, “Therefore I retract, I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
Our business success, fame, education, wealth, personality, good works, or anything else we are or have in ourselves counts for nothing before God. The more we rely on and glory in such things, the greater barrier they become to our communion with God. Every person comes before the Lord with nothing to commend him and everything to condemn him. But when he comes with the spirit of the penitent tax-collector, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner,” God will willingly and lovingly accept him. “For everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:13–14).
Humility always produces gentleness, or meekness. Meekness is one of the surest signs of true humility. You cannot possess meekness without humility, and you cannot possess meekness with pride. Because pride and humility are mutually exclusive, so are pride and meekness, or gentleness.
Many dictionaries define meekness in terms such as “timid,” or “a deficiency in courage or spirit”; but that is far from the biblical meaning. Praotēs (here translated gentleness) refers to that which is mild-spirited and self-controlled, the opposite of vindictiveness and vengeance. Jesus used the adjective form in giving the third beatitude (“Blessed are the gentle,” Matt. 5:5) and to describe His own character (“For I am gentle,” Matt. 11:29). Gentleness is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23) and should characterize every child of God (Col. 3:12; cf. Phil. 4:5).
The meaning of praotēs has nothing to do with weakness, timidity, indifference, or cowardice. It was used of wild animals that were tamed, especially of horses that were broken and trained. Such an animal still has his strength and spirit, but its will is under the control of its master. The tamed lion is still powerful, but his power is under the control of his trainer. The horse can run just as fast, but he runs only when and where his master tells him to run.
Meekness is power under control. Biblical meekness, or gentleness, is power under the control of God. A meek person is normally quiet, soothing, and mild mannered, and he is never avenging, self-assertive, vindictive, or self-defensive. When the soldiers came to arrest Him in the Garden of Gethsemane and Peter drew his sword to defend His Lord, Jesus said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53). Even in His humanity Jesus had access to infinite divine power, which He could at any time have used in His own defense. Yet not once did He choose to do so. His refusal to enlist divine resources for anything but obeying His Father’s will is the supreme picture of meekness—power under control.
David displayed such meekness when he refused to kill King Saul in the cave near Engedi, although he had easy opportunity and considerable justification from the human point of view (1 Sam. 24:1–7). After David himself became king, he again showed the restraint of meekness when he refused to retaliate against the malicious taunts, curses, and stone throwing of Shimei (2 Sam. 16:5–14).
Moses is described as, “very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3). Yet he fearlessly confronted Pharaoh in the Lord’s name (see Ex. 5–12), angrily confronted Israel with her rebelliousness and idolatry (32:19–29), and even boldly confronted the Lord to forgive the people’s sin (32:11–13, 30–32). Yet Moses’ confidence was not in himself but in the Lord’s character and promises. When God first called him, Moses replied, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since Thou hast spoken to Thy servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10). As he served the Lord throughout his life, Moses had God’s rod to remind him that the great work to which the Lord had called him could be accomplished only in the Lord’s own power. That he himself was nothing and God was everything were the marks of Moses’ meekness. As Martyn Lloyd-Jones has observed, “To be meek means you have finished with yourself altogether.”
Yet the meek person is also capable of righteous anger and action when God’s Word or name is maligned, as Jesus was when His Father’s house was made into a robber’s den and He forcibly drove out the offenders (Matt. 21:13). As Paul affirms later in this letter, it is possible to be angry and not sin (Eph. 4:26). Like the Lord Himself, the meek person does not revile in return when he is reviled (1 Pet. 2:23). When the meek person becomes angry, he is aroused by that which maligns God or is harmful to others, not by what is done against himself. And his anger is controlled and carefully directed, not a careless and wild venting of emotion that spatters everyone who is near.
One of the marks of true meekness is self-control. People who are angered at every nuisance or inconvenience to themselves know nothing of meekness or gentleness. “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city” (Prov. 16:32). Two other marks of meekness, already mentioned, are anger at God’s name or work being maligned and lack of anger when we ourselves are harmed or criticized.
The meek person responds willingly to the Word of God, no matter what the requirements or consequences, humbly receiving “the word implanted” (James 1:21). He is also a peacemaker, who readily forgives and helps to restore a sinning brother (Gal. 6:1). Finally, the person who is truly meek and gentle according to God’s standards has the right attitude toward the unsaved. He does not look down on them with a feeling of superiority but longs for their salvation, knowing that he himself was once lost—and would still be lost but for God’s grace. We are to be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks [us] to give an account for the hope that is in [us], yet with gentleness (praotēs) and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15). Not only Christian women but all believers should be adorned “with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet. 3:4).
A third attitude that characterizes the Christian’s worthy walk is patience, which is an outgrowth of humility and gentleness. Makrothumia (patience) literally means long-tempered, and is sometimes translated longsuffering. The patient person endures negative circumstances and never gives in to them.
Abraham received the promise of God but had to wait many years to see its fulfillment. “Thus,” the writer of Hebrews tells us, “having patiently waited, he obtained the promise” (Heb. 6:15). God had promised that Abraham’s descendants would be a great nation (Gen. 12:2) and yet he was not given Isaac, the child of promise, until after Abraham was nearly a hundred years old. “Yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God” (Rom. 4:20).
God told Noah to build a ship in the wilderness, far from any body of water and before there had ever been rain on earth. For 120 years Noah worked at that task, while preaching to his neighbors of God’s coming judgment.
In the chronicle of faithful Old Testament saints in the book of Hebrews, Moses’ patient endurance is mentioned twice. He chose rather “to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen” (Heb. 11:25–27).
James said, “As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (James 5:10). When God called Jeremiah, He told the prophet that no one would believe his message and that he would be hated, maligned, and persecuted (Jer. 1:5–19). Yet Jeremiah served the Lord faithfully and patiently until the end of his life. Similarly, when the Lord called Isaiah he was told that the nation would not listen to him nor turn from their sin (Isa. 6:9–12). Like Jeremiah, however, he preached and ministered with patient faithfulness.
Paul was willing to endure any hardship, affliction, ridicule, or persecution in order to patiently serve his Master. “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart?” he asked the Christians at Caesarea after the prophet Agabus predicted the apostle’s arrest and imprisonment. “For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).
When H. M. Stanley went to Africa in 1871 to find and report on David Livingstone, he spent several months in the missionary’s company, carefully observing the man and his work. Livingstone never spoke to Stanley about spiritual matters, but Livingstone’s loving and patient compassion for the African people was beyond Stanley’s comprehension. He could not understand how the missionary could have such love for and patience with the backward, pagan people among whom he had so long ministered. Livingstone literally spent himself in untiring service for those whom he had no reason to love except for Christ’s sake. Stanley wrote in his journal, “When I saw that unwearied patience, that unflagging zeal, and those enlightened sons of Africa, I became a Christian at his side, though he never spoke to me one word.”
Aristotle said that the greatest Greek virtue was refusal to tolerate any insult and readiness to strike back. But that is not God’s way for His people. The patient saint accepts whatever other people do to him. He is “patient with all men” (1 Thess. 5:14), even those who try his patience to the limit. He is patient with those who slander him and who question his motives for serving the Lord.
The patient saint accepts God’s plan for everything, without questioning or grumbling. He does not complain when his calling seems less glamorous than someone else’s or when the Lord sends him to a place that is dangerous or difficult. He remembers that God the Son left His heavenly home of love, holiness, and glory to come to earth and be hated, rejected, spat upon, and crucified—without once returning evil for evil or complaining to His Father.
A fourth characteristic element of the worthy Christian walk is forbearance to one another in love. Peter tells us that such “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8). It throws a blanket over the sins of others, not to justify or excuse them but to keep the sins from becoming any more known than necessary. “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions” (Prov. 10:12). Forbearing love takes abuse from others while continuing to love them.
Forbearing love could only be agapē love, because only agapē love gives continuously and unconditionally. Erōs love is essentially self-love, because it cares for others only because of what it can get from them. It is the love that takes and never gives. Philia love is primarily reciprocal love, love that gives as long as it receives. But agapē love is unqualified and unselfish love, love that willingly gives whether it receives in return or not. It is unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodness—love that goes out even to enemies and prays for its persecutors (Matt. 5:43–44). That is why the forbearance of which Paul speaks here could only be expressed inagapēlove.
The ultimate outcome of humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance is being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Spoudazō (to be diligent) basically means to make haste, and from that come the meanings of zeal and diligence. One commentator describes it as a holy zeal that demands full dedication. Paul used the word in telling Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15; cf. Titus 3:12–13).
Preservation of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace should be the diligent and constant concern of every believer. Paul is not speaking of organizational unity, such as that promoted in many denominations and in the ecumenical movement. He is speaking of the inner and universal unity of the Spirit by which every true believer is bound to every other true believer. As Paul makes clear, this is the unity of the Spirit working in the lives of believers. It does not come from the outside but the inside, and is manifested through the inner qualities of humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearing love.
Spiritual unity is not, and cannot be, created by the church. It is already created by the Holy Spirit. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.… There are many members, but one body” (1 Cor. 12:13, 20; cf. Rom. 8:9). It is this very unity of the Spirit for which Jesus so earnestly prayed in the Upper Room shortly before His betrayal and arrest: “Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, the name which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are, … that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us.… And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity” (John 17:11, 21–23).
The church’s responsibility, through the lives of individual believers, is to preserve the unity by faithfully walking in a manner worthy of God’s calling (v. 1), manifesting Christ to the world by oneness in Him (cf. Rom. 15:1–6; 1 Cor. 1:10–13; 3:1–3; Phil. 1:27). The world is always seeking but never finding unity. All the laws, conferences, treaties, accords, and agreements fail to bring unity or peace. Someone has reported that throughout recorded history every treaty made has been broken. There is not, and cannot be, any peace for the wicked (Isa. 48:22). As long as self is at the center; as long as our feelings, prestige, and rights are our chief concern, there will never be unity.
The bond that preserves unity is peace, the spiritual belt that surrounds and binds God’s holy people together. It is the bond that Paul described in Philippians as “being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (2:2). Behind this bond of peace is love, which Colossians 3:14 calls “the perfect bond of unity.”
Humility gives birth to gentleness, gentleness gives birth to patience, patience gives birth to forbearing love, and all four of those characteristics preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. These virtues and the supernatural unity to which they testify are probably the most powerful testimony the church can have, because they are in such contrast to the attitudes and the disunity of the world. No program or method, no matter how carefully planned and executed, can open the door to the gospel in the way individual believers can do when they are genuinely humble, meek, patient, forbearing in love, and demonstrate peaceful unity in the Holy Spirit.
The Worthy Life
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Years ago when my wife and I were in a Christian education class in seminary, we were given an assignment to design a Sunday school curriculum. It was to have various age levels and an overall theme, tying the various subjects, classes, and age groupings together. Today, years later, there is much about this curriculum that I have forgotten, but the unifying concept is still vivid in my mind. It was based on the principle that “input” (what is taught as content) should equal “output” (the expression of content in practical works of service).
This curriculum was never put into practice; it was only an exercise. I cannot say how successful we might have been in matching each bit of information to some practical expression, but I do know that the principle itself is valid. The apostle Paul followed the same principle in his major epistles. Anyone who has studied Paul’s letters knows that they tend to begin with a doctrinal section and that this is customarily followed by a section containing practical advice or application.
The epistle to the Romans fits this pattern. The doctrinal sections are in chapters 1–11. The practical section is chapters 12–15, beginning with the words: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” In Galatians the division is between chapters 1–4, on the one hand, and chapters 5 and 6 on the other. The latter section of Galatians begins: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
This is the point to which we have now come in our study of Ephesians. With the possible exception of Romans, no New Testament letter contains a stronger or more exhilarating presentation of theology. Chapters 1–3 have spoken of predestination and election, adoption and redemption, the work of the Holy Spirit, rebirth, the work of God in joining people from all nations and all walks of life together in the one holy body of Christ, the church. This is so marvelous a section that Paul ends chapter 3 with a doxology. We want to say with Paul, “To [God] be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (v. 21). And we do say this, passionately and intently—if we have understood the teaching in these chapters.
Yet the letter does not stop. Paul immediately goes on to say, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” He is telling us that doctrinal “input” must be matched by an equal, practical “output” of that doctrine in our lives.
Scales of Life
This important idea is also contained in the word “worthy,” which Paul uses in verse 1. “Worthy” means to have worth or value. But it is more than that. It means to have a worth equal to one’s position. A worthy opponent is one whose gifts equal one’s own. A workman “worthy of his hire” is one whose service merits the wages he receives. In his commentary on Ephesians, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes this as a scale in which the weight on one side always equals the weight on the other, in this case the weight of practice equaling the weight of doctrine: “The Apostle … is beseeching them and exhorting them always to give equal weight in their lives to doctrine and practice. They must not put all the weight on doctrine and none on practice; nor all the weight on practice and just a little, if any at all, on doctrine. To do so produces imbalance and lopsidedness. The Ephesians must take great pains to see that the scales are perfectly balanced.”
But that is hard to achieve.
There are some Christians who are primarily intellectual in nature. They love books, enjoy study, and delight in the exposition of the Bible’s great doctrinal passages. This is a good thing. It is proper to love doctrine and rejoice at what God has done for us in Christ. Paul himself obviously did this; we can tell from the way he has unfolded his doctrines in the first three chapters of this letter. But the intellectual believer faces a great danger and often has a great weakness as a result of failing to overcome the danger. He loves doctrine so much that he stops with doctrine. He reads the first three chapters of Ephesians and delights in them; but when he comes to chapter 4 he says, “Oh, the rest is just application. I know all about that.” Then he skips ahead to the next doctrinal section and neglects what he perhaps most needs to assimilate.
On the other hand, some Christians are primarily oriented to experience. They thrive under the teaching found in the second half of this book. They want to know about spiritual gifts and their own exercise of them. They are excited about Paul’s teaching about the family and other such things. This is “where it’s at” for them; they find the doctrinal section dry and impractical.
But, you see, each of these is an error. Doctrine without practice leads to bitter orthodoxy; it gives correctness of thought without the practical vitality of the life of Christ. Practice without doctrine leads to aberrations; it gives intensity of feeling, but it is feeling apt to go off in any (and often a wrong) direction. What we need is both, as Paul’s letters and the whole of Scripture teach us. We can never attach too much importance to doctrine, for it is out of the doctrines of God, man, and salvation that the direction and impetus for the living of the Christian life spring. At the same time, we can never attach too much importance to practice, for it is the result of doctrine and proof of its divine nature.
Calling and Conduct
Paul’s way of teaching this truth in verse 1 is to urge us to live worthy of our Christian calling. The old versions used the word “vocation” at this point, but “calling” is better, at least in contemporary speech. Vocation has come to mean something we choose, while calling is something for which we are chosen. We remember here that the word “church” (Greek, ekklēsia) means “the called out ones.” The emphasis is upon what God has done, which is the point Paul has been elaborating in the opening chapters of Ephesians. Because God has set his hand upon us and called us, changing us from what we were into what we have now become, we are to live as Christians in this world.
Two parts of this calling deserve special notice. First, God has called us “out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). This means that we have been given understanding. Before our calling we were like the blind man in John 9. We could not see Christ, and we were not even fully appreciative of our blind condition since, having never seen, we could never fully value sight. We thought the way to happiness was the world’s way. We did not know that we were spiritually bankrupt, emotionally warped, and morally naked. When God called us, opening our eyes to the blessed truths of the gospel, for the first time we understood the nature of God’s way and perceived how desirable it is. This is so basic to the experience of salvation that if a person has not had an opening of the eyes to see things differently, we may properly wonder if he has actually been saved. How can a person be urged to live a life worthy of his calling if he has not begun to understand what that calling is?
But there is more than this. The first part of God’s calling involves being brought into light from darkness; that is, it involves understanding. The second part involves God’s calling us out of death into life, which is what Paul emphasized in Ephesians 2:4: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” This means that God, who has awakened us to a new life also gives us the power to live that life. It is because we are now spiritually alive, where before we were spiritually dead, that we are able to heed Paul’s urging and live for God.
In the remainder of this letter Paul is going to develop two main themes, both aspects of the worthy life: (1) unity among believers and (2) the godly life, particularly in regard to relationships. The first will be considered in 4:4–16. The second is from 4:17 to the end. However, in the first three verses of chapter 4 Paul gives a preliminary statement embracing both: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” There are five specific characteristics of the worthy life in these verses.
- Humility. Everyone knows that Christians should be humble. Humility is the opposite of pride or self-assertion. If we are saved “by grace … through faith … not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8–9), it is evident that Christians cannot be proud. We are to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility [are to] consider others better than [our]selves,” as Paul says in Philippians 2:3.
But it is not easy to do, because our pride is easily wounded by what we consider thoughtless or unfair conduct by others.
In his commentary on Ephesians, Watchman Nee of China tells of a brother in south China who had his rice field on a hill. During the growing season he used a hand-worked water wheel to lift water from the irrigation stream that ran by the base of the hill to his field. His neighbor had two fields below his, and one night he made a hole in the dividing wall and drained out all the Christian’s water to fill up his own two fields. The brother was distressed. But he laboriously pumped water up into his own field, only to have the act of stealing repeated. This happened three or four times. At last he consulted his Christian brethren. “What shall I do?” he asked. “I have tried to be patient and not retaliate. Isn’t it right for me to confront him?”
The Christians prayed, and then one of them replied. “If we only try to do the right thing, surely we are very poor Christians,” he said. “We have to do something more than what is right.”
The Christian farmer was impressed with this advice. So the next day he went out and first pumped water for the two fields below his and then, after that, worked throughout the afternoon to fill his own field. From that day on the water stayed in his field, and in time the neighbor, after making inquiries as to what caused him to behave in such a fashion, became a Christian. This is humility. It is refusing to insist on our rights and actually putting our neighbor’s interests before our own.
- Gentleness. In the older versions this is called meekness, but for us “gentleness” is probably better, simply because meekness is so generally misunderstood. To most, meekness suggests weakness. But that is not the idea at all. Meekness was the chief characteristic of Moses, according to Numbers 12:3 (where the niv uses the word “humble”), but Moses was not a weak man. He was a strong man, strong enough to appear before Pharaoh, declaring, “This is what the Lord says: Let my people go” (Exod. 8:1). Similarly, the Lord Jesus was meek or gentle, yet strong. He said of himself, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28–29). He told his disciples, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).
- Patience. It takes time to learn patience, and unfortunately one of the chief ways we learn it is through suffering. A rather pious individual once came to a preacher and asked him to pray for him that he might have patience. “I do so lack patience,” he said, trying to be humble as he said it. “I wish you would pray for me.”
“I’ll pray for you right now,” the preacher replied. So he began to pray: “Lord, please send great tribulation into this brother’s life.”
The man who had asked for prayer put a hand out and touched the preacher on the arm, trying to stop his prayer. “You must not have heard me rightly,” he said. “I didn’t ask you to pray for tribulation. I asked you to pray that I might have patience.”
“Oh, I heard what you said,” the preacher answered. “But haven’t you read Romans 5:3, ‘And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also, knowing that tribulation worketh patience’? It means we acquire patience through the things that we suffer. I prayed that God would send tribulations so that you would have patience.”
Another valid translation of the word “patience” is “long-suffering,” which means “suffering long.” It is what God does with us. He suffers long with us; if he did not, there would be no Christianity. Therefore, we ought to suffer long or be patient with each other.
- Bearing with one another. The suffering aspects of patience come out clearly in this next Christlike characteristic, but there is a difference. This one relates specifically to trials we have as a result of uncharitable conduct toward us by other Christians. When the non-Christian neighbor stole the field-water of the Chinese Christian, the Christian showed patience, gentleness, and humility in the way he dealt with the offense—and won the unbeliever to Christ. But what if that neighbor is a Christian, wronging us in this or some other way? What is to be our attitude to him or her? Paul’s answer is that we are to endure the wrong, suffer the slight. Thus, we are to demonstrate a way of life superior to that of the ungodly world and show the special unity which is ours in Jesus Christ.
- Unity. The fifth characteristic is that believers are to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v. 3). It is evident at this point, in case we had missed it before, that each of these characteristics is related to the others (which the translators show in part by their groupings of them) and that they have all been tending in the direction of this great matter of unity, which is to be Paul’s theme for the next thirteen verses. Christians are to be one because, as he will say in just a moment, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (vv. 4–6).
It is important to say two things about this unity. First, it is “the unity of the Spirit,” which means that it is a unity the Holy Spirit has already given to those who are in Christ. This is a wonderful and often a very visible thing. Harry Ironside writes about how he once fell sick while in the midst of a series of meetings in Minneapolis and was forced to return home to California by train, which was the best mode of transportation in those days. He could barely stand. So the porter made up a lower berth for him and allowed him to recline there throughout the day. The first morning he opened his Bible and began to read it as part of his devotions. A stout German woman happened by and stopped when she saw the Bible. “Vat’s dat? A Bible?” she asked.
“Yes, a Bible,” Ironside replied.
“Vait,” she said, “I vill get my Bible and we vill haf our Bible reading together.”
A short time later a tall gentleman came by and asked, “Vat are you reading?” He was a Norwegian. He said, “I tank I go get my Bible too.” Each morning these three met, and others collected. Ironside wrote that once there were twenty-eight people and twenty-eight Bibles and that the conductor would go through the train, saying, “The camp meeting is beginning in car thirteen. All are invited.” It was a great experience.
At the end of the trip, as the cars divided up in Sacramento, some to go north and some south, the German woman asked, “Vat denomination are you?”
Ironside replied, “I belong to the same denomination that David did.”
“Vat vas dat? I didn’t know dat David belonged to any denomination.” Ironside said, “David wrote that he was ‘a companion of all them that fear God and keep his precepts.’ ”
The woman said, “Yah, yah, dat is a good church to belong to.”
This is a real and wonderful unity, as I said. But at the same time, it is often destroyed by false pride, narrow denominationalism, and sinful striving for position. So Paul says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” This is the second important thing to be said about unity. The first is that we have a unity given to us by the Holy Spirit; it corresponds in some measure to the doctrinal truths of Christianity, which is why Paul lapses into doctrine again in verses 4–6. But, second, we are to keep or maintain this unity, which corresponds to the practical or experiential side of Christianity.
3 Paul concludes his description of the worthy walk he urges his readers to adopt with a fifth trait—one that brings home the point of the preceding ones. Using a present tense participle that modifies the main verb “I urge you,” Paul insists that his readers must continually “make every effort” to keep on maintaining the unity of the Spirit. “Unity” (henotēs, GK 1942), a word occurring only in this letter (also at 4:13), points to a reality they already possess in Christ (recall 2:14–18; see 4:4). Though they have not created this precious commodity, they must maintain it as part of their corporate life as a church. Note how insistent Paul is here. He does not view the maintenance of unity as a luxury; believers must conscientiously and diligently pursue the unity of the Spirit (not the spirit of unity). The genitive case is probably subjective here, for the Spirit is the agent who unifies. In Schnackenburg’s words, 164, we find here the “unity effected by the Holy Spirit.” Recall Paul’s words earlier: “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:22). Unity has a spiritual basis, but it has visible results. Perhaps its attainment in history has been so difficult because Christians have not sought spiritual unity. They have pursued only their own (often conflicting) agendas—which they have called “unity.” To strive for the unity the Spirit produces requires that one incontestably pursue God’s agenda.
Paul describes the means for maintaining this unity as the “bond of peace,” or the “bond which is peace” (cf. 2:14–15, 17). Peace, which is not an end in itself, forms a bond, a kind of glue that cements members of the church to one another in Christ. This is the theological reality—the indicative: Christ achieved peace via his death (2:14–18). Now follows the imperative: Christians must implement unity by sparing no efforts to live in peace. In effect, “Become what you are.” Quarreling, fractures, and hostilities—either on the level of the church universal or within each local church—destroy the unity of the Spirit. Paul urges that peace must prevail. As Yoder Neufeld, 173, insists, “The church is the beachhead for a peace that is to extend to the cosmos.” Christians must work at preserving unity by living in peace with one another.