Ephesians 1:23 “The church . . . is his body, the fulness of him who fills everything in every way.”
Doctors, and nurses, and personal trainers, and fitness teachers, and dieticians, are all the kind of people who are professionally aware of the perils of ill health. They are the people who care for their bodies. One thing we know without a shadow of a doubt about the church of Jesus Christ is that it is well cared for, very well cared for. This is a time when we members of this church must keep our nerve. By every human criterion the church in Europe is in a bad way. Observers constantly tell us that attendances are on the decrease. The church itself is in confusion. It is increasingly marginalised and irrelevant. Many Christians have become consumers and will pick a congregation that suits them. We ourselves know the sadness of people jumping ship and leaving us. In the face of these sombre analyses some church members are tempted to press the panic-button. We live in a market economy and people instinctively turn to market solutions. The church, they insinuate, is like a commercial company which is losing its customers and needs to diversify. Do some consumer research and find out what the people want. For example, shouldn’t we abandon the great hymns? Let’s leave word-centred worship. Bring in musicals and choreography and clowns. Give the children flags to wave during the singing. Take a soft line on Christian ethics. That’s what the consumers want. Go for the sound-bite; the 30-second advert.
All over the country there are signs that congregations are capitulating to this kind of market-driven analysis. But such options are just not open for the church to take. We have clear Rules of Engagement. The Lord, the Head of the church, has told us what our business is. We are here to preach the gospel. We gather to worship the Lord with reverence and with godly fear for our God is a consuming fire. We erect and maintain a structure of relationships in which the strong are encouraged to bear the burdens of the weak. “It may be that men don’t find any of that attractive. They may want to worship a different kind of god, or do something other than worship. Of course we have to ask ourselves whether we are fulfilling our Rules of Engagement in the most effective way. But we have no right to tear up our Commission or to change our God-given product in favour of others which men think more marketable, or to abandon the activities assigned to us and concentrate on others which men think more promising. Even though our churches emptied to the point of extinction we must remain true to our mandate. We have to contextualise, of course, and adapt to our own time and place. But we cannot change our core business: ‘Go! Make disciples of all the nations and tell every human being, “I have good news for you!”‘” (D. Macleod in a lecture in Stornoway under the auspices of the Lewis Evangelical Lecture Fellowship, 14 January, 2000).
It is essential if we are to keep our nerve that we frequently return to the New Testament, particularly to the book of Acts and also to the epistles and examine there the nature of the church. We might ask that first generation of Christians who had been in the presence of Jesus Christ such questions as these, how much singing and music were the apostles engaged in while in Galilee. How much of it was found in the New Testament congregation? What musical instruments did they use? Did they use any? How much drama or mime was found? Did women preach or rule? What part did children or teenagers play in the services? What was the actual message which their ministers and evangelists preached? We wouldn’t have to search for long to find answers to those questions. But there are other questions, even more basic and important. What is the church? What is its relationship to Jesus Christ? Is it a fairly flexible voluntary society which has to work out for itself in every culture how to promote the message of Jesus Christ, or is it attached to him far more intimately and organically than that? What does our text tell us?
1. THE CHURCH IS THE BODY OF CHRIST.
“God has placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body” (vv. 22&23). Let me break this down into smaller pieces. I have, in fact, six or seven little points of clarification to begin with. Will you come with me through these? This is in part an exercise in removing the rubble that surrounds this great truth, some of it having accumulated over the centuries.
i] The first is very simple that this is not the only place where the church is called the body of Christ. If we turn to the fourth chapter of this epistle we read these words, “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephs. 4:15&16). Again there is a very similar statement in the letter to the Colossians, about Jesus Christ “the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow” (Cols. 2:19). Or again in that same letter Paul says, that Christ “is the head of the body, the church;” (Cols 1:18). So we meet this definition of the church as the body of Christ in a number of places in the New Testament letters.
ii] The concept of the church as Christ’s body must be important from the number of times it is mentioned, yet we may not absolutise that metaphor and make it the one definitive or even supreme declaration of what the church is. When people come into membership in our church one of the elders stands at the front and he reads to us a number of the striking statements about the church in the Bible. It is the covenant people of God; the congregation of believers; the assembly of saints; the household of God; the fellowship of the Spirit, and so on. It is pictured as a bride, a flock, a vine, a field, a mountain, a city, a kingdom, a temple, and so on. The church has to be a rich enough entity to include all the vast number of the people of God through the ages. So many metaphors are found in the Bible. I can appreciate what Rabbi Duncan said about his anticipation of heaven, that after a sight of Jesus the head he longed to see the body of Christ, the church. This theme of the church being a body is particularly mentioned by the apostle Paul when he is opening up the nature of the relationship of the church with the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God. Scarcely anything magnifies the church more than this definition, that it is Christ’s body.
Our Head couldn’t be in a more powerful position. The God-man has been invested with immeasurable authority. He reigns in heaven at the right hand of God. That is where Paul begins when he speaks of the church here. He doesn’t start by saying where two or three gather together in Christ’s name Jesus is there in the people because we are the body of Christ. All that is perfectly true, but that is not Paul’s angle here. The apostle starts with Christ as the Sovereign king of glory in the midst of the throne of God. Never forget that. We know where Christ is at this moment. He is at the command centre of things in heaven and over the whole universe
iii] There is a slightly different emphasis on the church as the body of Christ in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There the whole of the body, the head as well as the trunk, is referred to as the body of Christ. In other words, there Paul writes of the ‘ear’ and the ‘eye’ and the ‘sense of smell’ – I mean even parts of the head – as being the body of Christ. There Christ is pictured by Paul as being outside the body, and all of us Christians are compared to different organs of the complete head and trunk. We, like one living body, are serving and worshipping the Christ who is out there. But in our text in Ephesians 1 Christ is the head, and we are the rest of the body joined to the head and taking its directions and support from this One who is our great head.
iv] It might seem to you natural or even a bit commonplace to speak of an organisation or group of people as a ‘body’. A commentator will speak of a team of sportsmen as ‘a fine body of men’. A general will speak of his troops in the same way. The term ‘corporation’ means just that – a group of people who are legally joined as one body. But, as Edmund P. Clowney, my old teacher, pointed out in his lectures on the church in my seminary days, the New Testament figure for the church is not simply that it is a body of people. It is the body of Christ. Obviously that means more than the church is some kind of Christian corporation. We shouldn’t be surprised that the body figure for the church is related to Christ – “the body of Christ” – because all the figures for the church are related to Christ. If the church is a bride then Christ is the bridegroom. If the church is a flock, then Christ is the Shepherd. If the church is a temple, Christ is the Builder, the foundation, the Cornerstone. If the church is a group of disciples or pupils, Christ is the Teacher. So Paul is telling us of an intimacy and an organic union and a dependency which our own congregation has to its Head.
v] Now let me take another little step of clarification: I need to make plain one other confusion, and that is from the Roman Catholic teaching that the church is the “continuing incarnation” of the Son of God on earth today. Remember that the Incarnation of the Son of God was a historical event that took place in the world about 2,000 years ago, for a specific purpose, to effect the redemption of fallen man through the offering of the body and soul of Jesus once and for all. A congregation cannot re-enact those functions because of its relationship with Christ. The function of the church is not sacrifice and mediation. It is proclamation and witness-bearing. But the organised Roman church, because it claims to be the perpetuation of the Incarnation claims many of the functions that are Christ’s, that is, to remove original sin, to regenerate, to give the Holy Spirit, to forgive daily sins, to give absolution, to give grace and strength, and so on. I want to reject their claim that the church is the Son of God in the flesh. The head of the church, the living Jesus Christ, alone exercises those grand prerogatives.
vi] You sometimes hear it said in Protestant circles that God has no eyes but our eyes, and no hands but our hands, and no voice but our voice, and no legs but our legs to do his work. I am so glad that that is not true. I am delighted that the living Lord could meet with Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. When Saul saw the great light and heard the voice on the Damascus road he was not seeing and hearing the church, as J.A.T. Robinson of “Honest to God” fame claimed. Saul of Tarsus was seeing the glory of God the Son and hearing his voice. Our Lord can convict and create repentance; he can bring long buried truths of the gospel to the top of a man’s mind; he can plant his love for the Saviour in that man’s heart, and make him a new creation. It was the Lord who opened Lydia’s heart. A man can go to his lonely bed a sinner, and he can get up out of that bed the next morning a believer. Of course, God normally uses means. He uses Christians; he uses the means of grace, godly living, a credible witness, preaching, and so on. But God is not helplessly wringing his hands and pleading with men, “I have no voice or feet but yours.” Let us take seriously the Great Commission, but the church is not the “continual incarnation” of Christ. The incarnate Christ is seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. He is clearly distinct from the church here on earth – just as a man’s head is distinct from a man’s body.
vii] One final point of clarification needs to be made, that there is a crucial distinction between Christ’s own flesh and bones and the church. Those are two distinct bodies. Paul refers to both those realities in the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians. He talks of the church in verse 18, saying, “Christ is the head of the body, the church.” Paul is making it clear that by Christ’s body he is referring there to the church of believers. Then he goes on four verses later to verse 22 and he talks of the body of Christ hanging on the cross for us and he says, “now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death.” He has the two concepts in his mind, Christ’s body (which is the people of God) and Christ’s physical body, in that reference, hanging upon the cross, and he refers to these two very different concepts within a few sentences of one another. You are a biblical enough congregation not to confuse those two uses of “the body of Christ” – that it can refer to all the people of God and also to the body of Christ’s flesh and bones in which he suffered, died, was buried, rose and later ascended to heaven.
You are still with me after that exercise in rubble removal and clarification? Good on you! Now we must let the positive implications of this truth that the church is the body of Christ begin to sink in, because as this is true we cannot think of Christ apart from the church, and we cannot think of the church apart from Christ. They are as close as the union of the head and its body. But Christ is not the body, the church is, and the church is not the head, Christ is. There is no living head without a body, and there is no living body without a head. That is true in the physical realm, and it is true in the spiritual realm too. Of course the language is in a sense figurative, but the point is very practical and concrete. The church on earth, which is the glorious body of Christ, is as closely related to the offices and functions of Christ as Christ’s own physical body is related to his person. So what is the church? Not a building, not a denomination, not a list of members, not groups of people who voluntarily on a Sunday gather together and worship God for an hour or two. Christ’s church is his living organism on earth, not physical, rather one that exists on an immensely higher plane of reality than those biological or zoological organisms we are acquainted with on earth. What can we learn from this?
i] The body is absolutely dependent upon the Head.
All of a body’s direction and drive proceeds from decisions taken by the head. One of the most serious indictments you can bring against a professing church is to say, “That congregation’s dead.” In your judgment it is not a living church, it is dying if not already dead. Of course, if it is the body of Christ it cannot be dead, but often in our experience what we learn of churches – what they believe, what conduct they will tolerate or even encourage, their attitude to the Lord Jesus Christ, their wild fire – and we say, “That church is dead.” I can use that phrase because we find such a statement on the lips of the Lord Jesus himself in one of letters to the seven churches. To the church at Sardis Christ says, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Rev. 3:1). That is an indictment found in Scripture. From the lips of gentle Jesus himself. What an anomaly – his own body and yet dead! What a tragedy. There is no point in such a church having this ambition of joining in the ecumenical hyper denomination. It will still be dead, and no life can come from many dead churches all joining together. That can only result in a bigger graveyard. It needs divine life. It needs a great awakening.
What has happened to such a church as that to have died? The congregation has had a divorce from Christ. It has come to believe that it didn’t need the Head, and has cut itself off from him, the one from whom all life proceeds. It is relying on its wits, and its traditions, and its prejudices, and all its human devices, what Paul refers to as the “enticing words of men’s wisdom.” It has ceased looking to and depending upon the Head. There was a specific time even in Paul’s life when there were the dangerous beginnings of this attitude even in the apostle! How did the Head in heaven respond? The Head of the church gave the apostle a dose of persistent weakness and pain. Paul refers to it as a ‘thorn in the flesh.’ It was almost unbearable and so Paul had to go to the Head of the church about it. He didn’t go to a quack! He didn’t go to the other apostles. He didn’t go to his fellow elders. He went three times to Christ pleading with the Head each time for one thing, that this thorn in the flesh might be taken away, but the Head of the church finally gave his answer to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” So as Paul thought over that reply, why the Lord was dealing with him in this way, he told Christ that henceforth he would glory in his infirmities, because when he was weak then he’d go to the Head and get strength from him. He realised that when he thought he was strong he wasn’t bothering to ask the Lord for help. Paul quickly learned the folly of losing touch with Christ. His weakness drove him to the Head of the church, the one who says to us, “Without me you can do nothing.”
Why did the Head give one of the members of the body such pain? Because Paul was in danger of growing independent of the Head. You remember what had happened? The apostle had had such glorious blessings, being caught up on one occasion to paradise itself, and so he was showing the first signs of spiritual autonomy, he was getting puffed up. So the thorn was prescribed by Christ to keep an apostle hanging on to the Head, looking to the Head, praying to the Head, knowing that without the Head he was impotent.
How intimately Head and body are related. The Head will not let the union be broken without doing something to prevent it. There is no such thing as a believer unrelated to Jesus, and there is no member of Christ outside the body. Believers never exist as independent units. The church is Christ-chosen, Christ-quickened, Christ-sustained, Christ-revived and Christ-glorified. The gospel congregation is absolutely dependent upon its Head. Paul says, “I live, yet not I, Christ liveth in me.” This is how we survive, and this is how we meet the enmity of the world, because our life is hid with Christ in God. If the church is going to do anything effectually it is because it is doing what the Lord tells it to do in his word by the strength which he supplies for the work. Can you think of a physical body being able to do anything without the head giving the signal? Such a body cannot made a movement without the head; it cannot take any action at all, it cannot utter a word without the head. The head must tell this right arm to rise and to descend again. This arm does not and cannot act independently of the head. What if all the signals from the brain were cut off and prevented from reaching the rest of the body? What would happen? Could the arm say, “Well, I’ll just do my own thing, see if I care if you don’t help me!” No. So the church cannot say to Christ, “Well, I will just ignore you. I am going to grow in spite of you. Each one is going to win one and every one will be a tither!” No. Such an enterprise is doomed to failure. The result of the head doing nothing would be the body’s utter inertia. Immobility would result. “Without me you can do nothing.”
What do you see in the book of Acts? The Head is directing and strengthening his body – right through those 28 chapters. You meet the Lord adding to the church daily such as should believe. We are told that it was as many as the Lord ordained to receive eternal life who actually received it. We’ve heard his promise in the gospels where the Head has said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” In the Acts he shows us that he does build his church. The Head strengthens his body. So as a congregation and as individual Christians we are absolutely dependent upon Jesus Christ. If we are going to keep going through this new century living credibly godly lives it will not be by my scolding you or whipping you into action, or suggesting loads of devices and schemes that are sure-fire and guaranteed ways of making churches grow. We have to address our Head and ask him for grace to persevere, and work, and pray, and love, and weep, and be courageous, and abound in his work – his work I say, what he has given us to do. Then, as he tells us what to do week by week in the preaching, we go ahead and we do it. If it is cross-bearing, as it must be, then we pick up our cross. If it is plucking out the right eye we will pluck it out. If it is loving our neighbour as ourselves then we love him like that. If it is loving our enemy, yes, that too by the strength he gives. If it is giving a reason for the hope that is in us, we give it. If it is being unashamed to declare the whole counsel of God we declare it without shame. He who tells us these things must give us strength to do them. The body is dependent on the Head. That leads on to the second point:
ii] The body is subject to the Head.
The church is a divine institution. God thought of it; he planned it; he structured it; he told the congregation of the faithful what it had to do. He gave it two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There was no committee or council of church leaders in the first century who devised all of that. “How many sacraments shall we have? Let’s vote on it.” There was nothing like that. The Head of the church told his body the things that were necessary in order for it to be the extraordinary body of Christ. He is the one who gives the congregation pastors and teachers. He is the one who gives elders and deacons. Church government comes from him. The congregation owes all its functions to Christ’s directives. For example, Christ has told the church to go into all the world, and make disciples from all the nations, and teach people everything he’s given to us. He has not left outreach to us as a kind of option. “Shall we evangelise or not?” It is a commandment like any of the ten commandments. Do what he says.
“Preach the word!” Preaching is whatever vehicle we can use to get Christ’s message across to the whole world. Jesus never had a pulpit. Sometimes he preached on a hill, sometimes from a boat, sometimes around a table, once at a well. It doesn’t mean a congregation scenario like this one today. It doesn’t mean a carefully prepared sermon like this. This is preaching, of course, but it isn’t the only way of serving Christ by words. When Jesus spoke to the one solitary woman of Samaria that was preaching. When he spoke to Nicodemus, that was preaching too. When Philip spoke to the Ethiopian eunuch, or Paul spoke to the Philippian jailer, that was also doing what the Head of the church has told us to do. Our four written gospels are preaching, perhaps the greatest preaching of all time. They are evangelism. They tell the good news. I can be no better friend to you than tell you the stories of Jesus from Mark’s gospel each Sunday morning. Preaching is what gets across our Head’s message to the world. Are we delivering his message? As far as the Head of the church is concerned it is what is conveyed that matters, not where it is conveyed. We can prepare it carefully, and then preach it, and then put it on a website. Or we can talk about this message he has given to us in the staff room tomorrow, or in a kitchen with six other students who never go to church. We can speak it where the world can challenge us and heckle and even blaspheme and contradict, but we are doing what our Head tells us to do.
We can tell every man and woman, and every boy and girl, “You can go to God in your rags, because that’s what the Prodigal Son did. Straight home! Just as he was, in the clothes that he stood in. Only after he got home did he dress up, and then it was his Father who did it.” That’s our message. It is not to make wretched men feel even more wretched about themselves than they do already. The Head has not given to the body a message of doom. The head sends us forth with the incredible message that the mighty Creator God is love. Every tribal god in the pantheons of Greece and Rome was an angry god, consigning sinners to the flames, striking terror in the souls of all their devotees. None of those gods loved. None of them cared. None of them wiped away tears. None of them clothed prodigals or put shoes on their feet or rings on their fingers. A body which is subject to its Head is a church with good news, that the vilest offender who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives. It is a body that hopes, and a body that loves because its head is full of compassion, touched by the feeling of our infirmities, made in every point like us except for sin. Let us be faithful to him. Let us always obey our Head in everything. That is our main function. We are placed here under orders. We are acting under a commission. We have been given our vocation. There is a vital relationship between the Head and the body, as long as there is obedience and a willingness to know. There can be no divine blessing without that.
iii] The body receives empathy from the Head.
No cross or misery befalls the body of Christ unrelated to the head. The early church was persecuted mercilessly by Saul of Tarsus. He said, “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth . . . I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme” (Acts 26:9-11). Yet when the risen Head of the church met with him on the road to Damascus his words to Saul were not, “Why are you doing this to my people?” They were, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 26:14). Paul asked whose was this voice speaking and Christ said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 26:15). The identity of Head and body was complete. Remember what the teenager Michael Bruce wrote:
“Our fellow-sufferer yet retains
A fellow-feeling of our pains;
And still remembers, in the skies
His tears, and agonies, and cries.
In every pang that rends the heart,
The Man of sorrows had a part;
He sympathises with our grief,
And to the sufferer sends relief.” (Michael Bruce, 1746-67)
The head not only feels for us, but he feels with us. He possesses such total sovereignty, but he has clothed himself in our clay. He has taken the seed of Abraham, and been born in our low condition. He has come into all our vulnerability. He has been in the valley of the shadow. He has been tempted. He has known spiritual anguish, and he forgets none of that whatsoever. The sovereign Head is today that very man who sees his church persecuted, widowed, orphaned, on the rack, under the cosh, lonely and dying and his heart breaks for us and with us in sympathy. There is no degree of pain the body knows that Christ does not understand. There is no spiritual anguish or darkness, and no Satanic presence which our Head does not comprehend. He understands his own body’s hurts.
2. WHAT RESOURCES MUST BELONG TO THE BODY OF CHRIST.
Paul goes on to define the church in this remarkable way, “his body, the fulness of him who fills everything in every way” (v.23). What can we bring to the Lord of heaven? What do we have to give him when we come to him as sinners and need the pardon of our sins?
What’s in our hands?
“Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace.” (Augustus Toplady, 1740-1778).
How do we come to the Lord?
“Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come.” (Charlotte Elliott, 1789-1871)
What do we bring to the Lord, and what do we say?
“My empty vessel I may freely bring;
O Thou, Who art of love the living spring,
My vessel fill.” (Mary Shekelton, 1827-83).
All we have to bring to God is our utter emptiness. That is where every effective Christian life begins, in a realisation of that. We have nothing in our hands. We have no arguments why the Lord should display his love to us. We plead his mercy. We have no other plea. “The Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins,” that is all we know, “and so be merciful to us.” Remember the thousands converted on the day of Pentecost. They were empty men and women who were cut to the heart at the part they had played in the death of Christ and they repented of their sin. They were all filled with the Spirit, every one of them. The Lord Jesus Christ, the great Head, out of his great fullness, poured out the Spirit upon them. You will remember what John says in the opening of his gospel, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (Jn. 1:16).
Paul talks in our text about Christ’s fulness. It is one of the great themes of the New Testament, that it has pleased the Father that in Christ should all fulness dwell (Cols. 1:19). He has been given this sovereignty, and also this fullness by God. It is all the result of a divine bestowal. Of course he was eternally the fulness of the Godhead. There was nothing that is divine that the Son of God ever lacked, but now as the head of the church the God-man has been given sovereignty and the fullness of grace by God for the sake of the church, his body. The Father loves the Son and has given him all things. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. He has been given a name that is above every name. Paul is talking about the investiture of Christ at the right hand of the Father. God has loved Christ so much for what he has done on Golgotha that he has said to him, “Ask of me and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Sit at my right hand.” He has given Christ people, and power to protect them and the Spirit to quicken and sanctify them. God has been pleased that in Jesus the Head all fulness should dwell. How beautiful, how glorious the sight of Christ must be! He is the being of all beings, the perfection of all perfections, the very glory of all glories, the eternal God-man, infinitely full of grace and truth.
The New Testament is saying that every conceivable grace and virtue is found this moment in a limitless supply in the Son of God. You will find in him love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control and every other virtue you can imagine, and many we can’t. You will find them in an immeasurable store. There is every grace beyond degree in Christ; the fullness is vast, unmeasured, boundless and free. You cannot see the east or west, nor the north or south of this heavenly reservoir of merit. In vain the first born seraph tries to sound the depth of love divine. All the divine attributes are found there uncurtailed and unrestricted and infinite. Imagine God opening every single sluice gate in heaven as wide as they could be opened, and pouring out every grace in a great Niagara flood in all the full measure of all the fruit of the Spirit. He could pour them out, not just for a million years without any restraint at all, but for ever and ever and ever, and the Lord would never have begun to exhaust the fullness. These graces are utterly without limit. Plenteous grace with Thee is found. The Head of the church as God the Son is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, omnicompetent and omnibenevolent. All those great Latin-based theological words apply to Christ the head of the church. So too Jesus’ love and joy and peace and so on are omnipotent, and omniscient, and omnicompetent, and omnibenevolent graces. He loves God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. Such pure divine love from Son to Father flows out of his fulness. He loves his people with the same fulness of love, the very same love with which he loves the Father he also loves that illiterate Chinese woman who has put her trust in him.
There is never a shortage of a single grace in Christ. That would be impossible. He doesn’t have seasons when he is going through a difficult patch and his resources are stretched. There is never a sudden run on mercy, for example, so that it is in temporary short supply. There is no drought in Christ; no leanness in Christ; no famine in Christ; no winter barrenness. Seven full years are not followed by seven lean years. He never has sudden moods of miserliness. He never gets frustrated or vindictive or grudging towards us. There are no restraints in him towards the church whatsoever. There is always a superabundance. At this very moment – think of it – the world-wide church, that is his body, the people of God in every continent, are receiving from Christ, the graces of patience, forgiveness, gentleness, strength, endurance, joy, courage, hope, peace, contentment, wisdom, vision, energy, poverty of Spirit, meekness, peacemaking, righteousness, purity, discernment, sanity, parental love, the heart of a servant, rule, inspiration, insight, lucidity and so on. So that . . .
“Every virtue we possess
And every victory won,
And every thought of holiness
Are His alone.” (Harriet Auber, 1776-1862)
From the fullness that is in Christ we are all recipients, receiving grace upon grace in never ending plenitude. In Alaska, Mexico City, Patagonia, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, China, India, Russia, the Middle East, Europe, African from Libya to the Cape – over all the world that grace of Christ is being shed on his people at this very moment.
“See, the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal love,
Well supply Thy sons and daughters,
And all fear of want remove.
Who can faint, while such a river
Ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace, which like the Lord, the Giver,
Ever flows from age to age.” (John Newton, 1725-1807).
We start to receive from Christ’s fullness as soon as we put our trust in him. We bring our little dirty souls to him. We come trembling and weak into his presence, and his response is breathtaking. Immediately we receive full pardon for our sins. Every single one, the sins of the past and the present and the future are all forgiven. We are clothed in the righteousness of Christ. We are given a Shepherd to lead and protect us. We are joined to Jesus Christ as a branch is joined to a tree. We are filled with the Spirit of Christ then and there. Our affections are set on things above. Our bodies become the temples of the Spirit. We are given new hearts. We are made new creation. Every thought is made captive to Christ. Our souls are renewed. That is the privilege of every single Christian from regeneration. Of his fullness we then receive, but that is only the start. The Sovereign Head seated at God’s right hand commands these initial blessings upon all his body, but his graces never stop coming to us. Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise.
Isn’t that mighty consolation in tough times? Is there any place for underestimating the church of God even when it is at a low ebb of influence and power? Oh, what the church needs is to lay hold of this truth and put it into exercise in believing prayer. “Lord, all fulness dwells in you. We feel our terrible emptiness. We need love, and courage, and patience, and wisdom, and power, and forgiveness, and humility, and every other grace. We want to receive of your fullness which fills everything in every way.” What resources and dignity belong to the gospel congregation and every individual Christian. We are constrained to cry, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Every single believer, the weakest lamb in the flock, the newest believer, the most backslidden Christian who is yet a member of this body – what supplies each one of them may receive from this fountain head, this vast reservoir of grace at the right hand of God. “Our sufficiency is of God.” Are you beginning to comprehend with all the saints the length and breadth and height and depth of the love of Christ which passes knowledge?
You see how this theme is going to overwhelm the apostle Paul as he goes on through this letter. The church is being filled with the fulness of its Head, Jesus Christ, in everything and in every way. Paul is staggered with this reality. You cannot do justice to this by describing it as ‘sufficient’ grace. This is superabundant immeasurable grace, and so this is why Paul goes on to say that the church is being filled to the measure of all the fulness of God (Ephs. 3:19). More than that, the church on earth and heaven is “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephs. 4:13). Are you not overwhelmed? “I shall attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ?” Yes, but not alone. You as a member of the body of Christ. What a glorious hope we have and what resources now. We don’t have mere sufficiency for what God is asking of us today, we have superabundance. More than we know what to do with is at our disposal, “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” The fullness is Christ’s, while the whole church in the whole world today is the receptacle. Christ is pouring forth abundantly all the graces of his Spirit upon us. That is why Paul can say such things as that the church is “more than conqueror”. It does not just survive, or get by, or even conquer; it “more than conquers”. In other words it absolutely triumphs over sin and Satan and hell and the world, and it sits down at the right hand of God with Christ in heaven with its footstool all its enemies. More than conquering!
Today we need a new assessment of what the church is. Our thinking is lamentably inadequate. “Are you supporting the cause?” we ask, as though the body of Christ was something that needed propping up by us. “Don’t leave the cause,” we say, “or the cause will suffer.” But we look at these verses and we can see that the cause is not something that we have to support; the cause is something that supports us. We cannot survive without Christ filling us day by day. There is no task you are given, no duty you are asked to perform, no trial you face, no pressure you pass through, no office you are asked to fill in the church which does not find in Christ Jesus our head the plenitude of wisdom, power and love to perform the task. It is an insult to the fullness of him that fills all in all to shrink from any responsibility that the church bestows on us.
What an opportunity we have today to build up the church of Jesus Christ. Don’t underestimate the great opportunity that is yours to evangelising the lost. Never think of any of your work in isolation from the body. In everything we do we have to cultivate and promote the sanctification of the whole body of believers. If a church member is indifferent to the sanctification of others and their growth in grace, faith, love and so on, then that neglect of fellow believers will interfere with his own growth in grace. His lack of concern for them will become a vice which gnaws away at the root of his spiritual growth. The great commandment is to love our neighbours as ourselves. If we do not have a concern for their sanctification then it is because we are not burning with zeal for the honour of Christ, because the honour of his body is the honour of Christ. The coldness of our zeal for this honour is evident if we shrug our shoulders with little regard for them. Our ministry to them dies and they are impoverished. We fail to encourage them and we ourselves are the poorer as a result. No member of a physical body can shrug at the weakness of another member. The brain cannot say, “That is the heart’s problem not mine,” because brain and heart are interconnected in the body. Thus it is in the body of Christ. All the members are interconnected and interdependent.
You are not a lonely little Christian doing something all by yourself. You do it with us. Bring your work to the Prayer Meeting, share it all with your fellow believers, bring everything into relationship with the body of Christ. Take everything you receive from Christ back to the throne of grace in thanksgiving, and there yearn for more. Don’t think of your responsibilities and challenges in isolation. Always bring your work into relationship with Christ your Head.
“Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such
none can ever ask too much.” (John Newton. 1725-1807).
This is the age of the Spirit in which young men see visions and old men dream dreams. When you are dismayed by your backsliding and discouraged by your sins and responsibilities then remember that the church is the fulness of Jesus Christ and that fullness fills everything in every way. Go to him for help! The King in heaven can see that mother having to look after five little boys, that woman living alone coping with Parkinson’s, that man enduring so much pressure in his work and not home until the middle of the evening day after day, that wife caring for her husband as he is beginning to forget her name and his relationship with her. Christ sends from his fullness to his people day by day so that their faith does not fail. Nothing separates them from the love of God.
I had a letter this week from my friend Ben in Canada. His wife has cancer, and this is what he said: “Elizabeth has begun a new week of chemo. The cancer count we found out has risen up 700 points. She does keep in cheerful spirits. An old friend called and told her that their church were praying that the Lord would heal her. Elizabeth said, “We really pray that the Lord will do his will, and that he would glorify himself.” That rather set her friend back somewhat. It was that sort of “Oh yes . . . of course” reply. She then said to Elizabeth, “Well, Jesus did say whatever we ask in his name he would give us.” “Yes, said Elizabeth, “But we are also told that we get whatever we ask according to His will. We know that His will is good and perfect.” Her friend was silent.
“It is interesting how people react to her calmness, even Christians. How loath they are to glorify the Lord. Several have voiced opinions that are purely psychological, that it is her demeanor, her disposition that is the secret of her strength. They do not see the Lord’s grace, or even that this is an answer to their own prayers. They think it is her natural disposition, and they fail to see that throughout her Christian life Elizabeth has been submissive to the Lord’s will and purpose, and has not questioned the Lord’s love. She was the same when Katherine, our Down’s Syndrome daughter, was born. Her husband however has not always been so acquiescent! But we do know the comfort and care of the Lord day by day.” What is the secret of Elizabeth’s peace and patience through these months? Of Christ her Head’s fullness she is receiving grace for grace, and her modest husband too – my dear former roommate.
We are living in strange days where there is such an underestimation of the church of Jesus Christ, and such odd criteria in measuring its effectiveness. Don’t let the foolish and uninformed judgments of men and women influence your thought or encourage your disaffiliation from the body of Christ. If you love the Saviour, and if you know something about his offices as a prophet, or a priest or as a king then you cannot think of them except as they are his who is the Head of all things for the church, the fulness of him who fills everything in every way.
22nd February 2004 GEOFF THOMAS