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In Paul’s letter to the Christians of Ephesus he writes, referring to Jesus Christ, “And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect person, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph 4: 11-13). Paul goes on to explainthat we will “come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God.” What a huge project—unity with other believers and knowledge of the Son of God, even to the “stature of the fulness of Christ”!
About now, we may want to give up and shut the Book, thinking that doesn’t sound like me, or I’ll never get to the fulness of Christ! But look more closely at what Paul says. His word, perfect means “brought to its end, finished, wanting nothing necessary to completeness, full grown, mature,” a slightly different slant on the idea of perfection. The earlier line, “for the equipping of the saints” is sometimes translated, “for the perfecting of the saints”—in both cases, this is maturity or completeness and wholeness, not flawlessness.
As we set out to reach this knowledge of Christ through personal experience with him, not just head knowledge, the goal is the “perfect person”—that is, someone who has actually come into “the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Paul is talking about being fully mature in Jesus, fully becoming the persons he wants us to be in our relationship with him. That’s still a big project and one we need help with! In the next several verses, Paul elaborates on what he means by “fully mature”—i. e., not vulnerable to deceit, able to discern the truth when hit by various “waves of doctrine,” speaking truth to each other, and being joined with other believers in love. That’s more understandable and yes, impossible alone.
Paul is telling us that we don’t grow into maturity by ourselves. It’s clear from what he writes that Jesus has not only given us his Spirit but also human helpers to fulfill his purposes—that is, to build up his body, individually and as a whole. We have help—human, as well as divine. There’s more: The helpers Paul specifies are “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.” Consider Paul’s list. Many he describes are like those who have helped us grow spiritually. Parents took us to church, pastors and Sunday school teachers taught us and explained what we read in the Bible. Would we have learned the Bible without them? Maybe Good News Club or VBS were your experience. Add those helpers. Would we have understood the hard parts of the Bible without these people? Then at some point, one of Jesus’ servants gifted as an evangelist laid out the gospel as if he were talking just to us. We opened our hearts and received Jesus. The helpers Paul lists are recognizable.
So far so good. But what about the apostles? That sounds so “New Testament” we’re apt to shove the word back into first century irrelevance. But I’m remembering one Dr. S. F. Tenney, a person who ministered to the Alabama-Coushatta Indians of East Texas and was among the early pastors of mychildhood church. His daughter, Miss Emma Tenney, was a very old lady still coming to church when I was a child. Dr. Tenney was an apostle and an evangelist, as is every church planter. I’ve worked in church planting—a church start-up in a suburb near Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia. Every missionary is an apostle and an evangelist, someone sent out. What Paul tells the Ephesians is understandable in our context.
What about the prophets? Paul writes the Corinthians and explains a prophet’s work in everyday terms: “The one who prophesies edifies, exhorts, and comforts” (I Cor 14: 3). Many servants of God have edified and built us up, comforted us, challenged us about wrong directions and actions. Parents, friends, pastors, radio ministers, sons and daughters, Christian professors, writers, teachers—many have ministered to us in ways Paul defines as prophetic.
What qualifies these human helpers who further the work of the kingdom and build us up in Christ? Their work is, at its heart, the work of the Spirit, whom Jesus called “the Helper.”Energizing the helpers he calls, the Spirit fulfills his work in us to the Father’s glory.