This week, I (Michael) had the great privilege of teaching Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in the SBS program on our campus. I was blessed not only by my time of study, but by the great group of students I have come to know in different ways through my interaction with them, though I am not staffing SBS this year. I was really challenged to bring a focused message from the book to them, as I know they are still in the early days of their study of the Bible; I wanted them to leave encouraged by their time in such a powerful book. From this place, I was amazed to discover that the big message I felt to bring by way of encouragement to the students was, “make the main thing, the main thing.”
When in a season of intensive study, there can be a temptation to be pulled out from the central parts of the message of the Bible by peculiar peripheral discussions. I’m not suggesting these discussions are bad, but if investing study into these areas comes at the expense of not only understanding but applying the wisdom of the central truths of the Gospel, they can become unhelpful. By way of example, in Ephesians Paul mentions the terms “in Christ” and “in him,” speaking to the reader of unity with Jesus and His work on the cross 22 times. Terms referring to the controversial topic of predestination, however, come up two or three times. I would suggest that Paul’s purpose in writing likely centered a lot more on “in Christ” than on predestination. Instead of coming at our understanding of what it means to be in Christ through a lens of predestination, we should being examining predestination through our identity in Christ. As we start to understand and apply the idea of being in Christ to our lives, this informs our understanding of God’s foreknowledge and eternal plans.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the human development model of spiral dynamics (which clearly is connected to Ephesians, right?!). The connection on which I’ve been meditating lies within the theme of unity (which Paul focuses on in Ephesians), and the natural tendency we have towards tribalism. After we realized that our basic needs could be met better if we worked together in tribes, humanity soon started to realize that other tribes were a potential threat to their own tribe. The negative result of tribe-thinking is a tendency to see anyone who is not in our tribe as a threat. In the church this can look like schisms caused by strong fear of people who do not hold to the same doctrines or practices as us. Yet when Paul gives practical instruction to his Ephesian audience, it seems to me that every command (if followed) will bring greater unity to the body of Christ, while disobedience births great division. Paul is not calling for uniformity of experience, but love that is active in expression to one another. Here I am greatly tempted to ignore the main thing so I can lose myself in a peripheral discussion, because the main thing is difficult. I live and have lived in enough Christian communities to have moved past the honeymoon phase of fellowship. When you move past this phase, you realize that, without Jesus, you would not choose to live and work with some of the personalities you live and work with. The main thing that is so tempting to avoid? I am greatly challenged by Paul’s call to actively love people.
In Ephesians 4:25-32 Paul says,
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Most of the things Paul tells his audience not to do: lie, being angry, stealing, corrupt talk, bitterness, etc., are all things that tear down relationships. All things he commands, however, build up. What hit me like a hammer is the placement of the comment on grieving the Holy Spirit. Right in the middle of a list of things that break down community, Paul tells the Ephesians not to grieve the Spirit. In moments of looking at something I know I shouldn’t be looking at, or doing something I know I shouldn’t be doing, I’ve often wondered if my actions have grieved the Holy Spirit, but I have never once given thought to whether I am grieving the Spirit when I say and do things to hurt my relationships with others.
If I’m honest, this simple revelation has been really convicting, but really, what Paul is saying should be of no surprise. When pressed, Jesus said the greatest commandment was loving God and loving your neighbor. It shouldn’t be too shocking that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is pretty much about loving God and loving people. Teaching Ephesians has been a reminder to return my focus on the main thing of loving Jesus and those He has called me to love. How is the Lord calling you to do the same in your life?