“Our Theological Vision: Aspirational Values:
Shepherding & Discipleship Part 2: Building One Another Up”
May 1, 2022
Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
The Reading of the Word
We return tonight to our theme from this morning: shepherding and discipleship.
This morning we focused on the aspect of bearing one another’s burdens. This evening we will focus on the calling to build one another up.
In a sense, this morning focused on how we minister to one another in the church with our struggles. This evening we are focusing on how we encourage one another to grow in our spiritual walk of discipleship.
So, if you heard the sermon this morning, and your take-away was that now we can coast and let others do all the work in our spiritual life, and not worry about growing ourselves … then tonight’s sermon should help re-balance that.
There will still be some overlap between the two sermons, and the two concepts. But hopefully the overlap is helpful for us.
Much of what I will say tonight will draw from a sermon I preached here several years ago. [“The Church: The Body of Christ Building Each Member Up” preached here at FPC on October 14, 2018.] But I again thought that it was worth coming back to those concepts and lessons tonight, in the context of this series.
With that said, we come to our text for this evening: Ephesians 4:7-16.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this evening.
The Apostle Paul writes:
4:7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.8 Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
This is the word of the Lord.
The Need for Others to Build Us Up
Atul Gawande is a surgeon, a public-health researcher, and a writer.
In 2011 he wrote a piece for The New Yorker titled “Personal Best: The Coach in the Operating Room.” He begins the article by saying: “I’ve been a surgeon for eight years. For the past couple of them, my performance in the operating room has reached a plateau. I’d like to think it’s a good thing – I’ve arrived at my professional peak. But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better.”
He goes on to talk about how in the first two or three years in practice, as a surgeon, “your skills seem to improve almost daily.” As he progressed, he said he would compare his own surgery statistics to the national data and soon he was beating the averages. “My rates of complications moved steadily lower and lower.” he writes. “And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t. It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one.”
Gawande wondered if he had peaked. His numbers were good, but he wanted to grow beyond where he was. But there wasn’t a clear way forward.
And then, one day, he writes, “I watched Rafael Nadal play a tournament on the Tennis Channel. The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal” who won his sixth French Open title that year – even Rafael Nadal “has a coach. Nearly every elite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be. But doctors don’t.” And then he wonders: “Why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?”
Gawande notes that there are really two different pedagogies for those who are trying to excel in a field. In the first model, which he calls “the teaching model,” he says: “there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. You can go the rest of the way yourself.”
The second model, which he calls “the coaching model,” “proceeds from a starkly different premise: it considers the teaching model naïve about our human capacity for self-perfection. It holds that, no matter how well-prepared people are in their formative years, few can achieve and maintain their best performance on their own.”
Gawande wanted to know which of those models was right. And as he wrestled with that question, he called world-famous violinist Itzak Perlman. Perlman said that he didn’t know why most concert violinists didn’t have coaches. But he did. His wife, herself a Julliard-trained concert-level violinist, served basically as his coach – helping him see where he could improve, providing feedback and guidance and advice.
Gawande did more research and learned about programs in all sorts of areas, especially in teaching, to help people improve through a relationship with someone who could observe them and find ways to build them up and help them grow in their work.
So finally, he decided to get a coach himself. He asked a retired surgeon whom he had studied under to begin observing his surgeries and giving him feedback. In the first surgery his mentor observed, Gawande felt everything went beautifully. He was confident in his work. He expected there wouldn’t be much advice for his mentor to give.
As they sat down in the surgeon’s lounge afterwards, his mentor pulled out a little notebook that was dense with small print notes he had taken during the surgery – all on how Gawande could improve. They went through them together one by one.
Gawande writes “That one […] discussion gave me more to consider and work on than I’d had in the past five years. It had been strange and more than awkward having to explain to the surgical team why [Dr.] Osteen was spending the morning with us. ‘He’s coaching me,’ I’d said. Yet the stranger thing, it occurred to me, was that no senior colleague had come to observe me in the eight years since I’d established my surgical practice. Like most work, medical practice is largely unseen by anyone who might raise one’s sights.”
Gawande goes on to note that while such relationships have proven helpful in a number of fields, many professionals, while they might mention that they know some other colleagues who could use such help, do not want that kind of help themselves.
“The prospect of coaching forces awkward questions about how we regard failure,” Gawande writes – questions he experienced firsthand when his mentor observed a surgery that did not go so well. Afterwards Gawande was frustrated. He was supposed to be an expert, why should he have to listen to someone else find fault with what he had done? He writes: “I knew [my relationship with my mentor] could drive me to make smarter decisions, but that afternoon I recognized the price: exposure.”
And it’s for that reason, Gawande claims, that the idea of inviting such people into one’s professional life is still unappealing to so many people.
That article stuck out to me because what Gawande describes as being true of surgery and many other professions, I think is true for us in our spiritual lives as well.
Many of us, when we first became Christians, or when we were early in our Christian walk, we knew we needed help. We needed orientation, we needed guidance. We needed not just information to go home with and apply on our own, but we knew we needed people close to us, to help us see how to apply Biblical truth to our lives, to help us see where we were failing to do that, to help us see how we could improve our spiritual walk in the day-to-day struggles of life. We knew we needed other people who would be close to us, who would challenge us, who would observe us. We knew we needed to be discipled.
Yet many of us as we grew in our faith, whether we consciously thought about it or not, came to think of our spiritual lives under the first model Gawande mentioned: the teaching model … the model where we would eventually grow to the point where we didn’t need anyone else building us up or discipling us. Sure, we’d need ongoing reading, and sermons, and information, but we would be far along enough in our spiritual career to apply it to ourselves. We didn’t need anyone else who would challenge us up close – who would see our faults, or push us to apply these things to our lives.
We stay involved in the church as Christians, but the details of attending to our spiritual growth are mostly a solo affair.
Consciously or not, have you made that assumption?
Have you approached your spiritual life as if that is true?
And to be clear, you can be very involved in the life of the church and still have this view. You may value the opportunities it gives you to serve, or the ministries it has for your kids, or the content of the teaching and sermons, or the quality of the music and worship, or some combination of those things.
But attending to the details of your spiritual life … that you think of as primarily a solo project. You don’t need anyone to help you think that through personally. You don’t need anyone else’s advice. You certainly don’t need anyone else observing you closely enough to offer such advice.
Do you tend to think that way?
Consider our text from Ephesians 4.
One of the first things we should note as we consider this text is what it says about our need for the Church if we are to be built up in Christ.
John Calvin gets at this well in one of his sermons on this text. He writes: “The substance therefore of that which St. Paul is minded to say is that Jesus Christ, having all riches in him, has not made distribution from them to each one of us in equal proportion, at least so that we should all be completely perfect in ourselves […] From this we have to conclude that he who presumes in himself and surmises that he has all that is necessary, grossly deceives himself […] For there is no man who has received such perfection that he does not need to profit from his brethren.” [Calvin, 361-362]
Note that Calvin does not say that we all could profit from the brethren, from the Body of Christ – but that we all need to profit from the brethren, from the Body of Christ.
Unlike that first model Gawande mentioned – the teaching model – we do not ever get to a point in this life where we no longer need the Body of Christ in order to grow spiritually.
That’s the first thing we need to see from our text: the need for others to build us up.
How Others Are Given to Build Us Up:
The second thing we need to see is how Christ builds people up through the Church. What does that look like in our text?
Well, to answer that question, we will look at verse eight. Paul has told us in verse seven that Christ gives grace to his people. He goes on to tell us what that looks like in verse eight. Paul writes: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”
Paul here is quoting Psalm 68:18. Although he’s kind of changing it. If you look back to Psalm 68:18, you’ll notice that the psalm says that God received gifts among men, but Paul said he gave gifts to men.
What’s going on here?
G. V. Smith has pointed out that the focus of Psalm 68 is “the entrance of God into his sanctuary in Zion.” – the ascension up the mount to the sanctuary. The psalm says that as he ascended, he led a host of captives in his train. But who would these captives be, coming with him up the mount, and to the sanctuary?
Well, they would be the Levites. And Smith goes on to point out that Psalm 68:18, and Paul’s restatement of it in Ephesians 4:8, both seem to echo how Numbers 8 and 18 speak about the Levites as God’s captives, as a possession which God has received, and as a possession which God then gives to his people.
In Numbers 8:14 God, identifies the Levites as his – as a group he has taken for himself. They are, in a sense, his captives. And then in Numbers 18:6 he explains the purpose of this – he says “And behold, I have taken your brothers the Levites from among the people of Israel. They are a gift to you, given to Yahweh, to do the service of the tent of meeting.”
The Levites are a people taken captive by the Lord, they are taken from the people, and then given to the people as a gift.
If Smith is right, then Paul is not misquoting Psalm 68:18, but offering commentary and interpretation. The Levites are both the captives, and the gifts which Yahweh has received, and also the gifts which he then gave to his people.
As O’Brein puts it: “If Psalm 68 is read in this light, then the captives taken in Yahweh’s train as he enters his sanctuary are not his foes, but his ministers whom he has taken and then given to his people to serve them on his behalf.” [For a summary of Smith, see O’Brein, 292-293]
And this would seem to fit even more when we look to verse 11 of Ephesians 4, as Paul describes some of the gifts: the gifts are the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers. They are the special officers, given to minister to the Church, just as the Levites were special officers to minister to Israel.
That brings us back to our original question: How should we think about Christ’s equipping work of discipleship through the Church?
Well, he takes people captive, he receives them to himself, and then he gives them to his people as a gift, in order to build his people up.
That is what he did with the Levites, and that, Paul tells us, is what Christ still does in his Church today. God distributes his people, as gifts to his people, for the spiritual growth of his people.
And spiritual growth is the purpose of this distribution. Paul tells what this process should lead away from in verse 14, and what it should lead to in verses 13 and 15 – they are to grow away from spiritual childishness and towards spiritual adulthood.
“The goal of nurture is to grow in maturity in the image of Christ.” [Clowney, 140]
So Christ has taken his people captive, then distributed them to his people for their building up into the image of Christ.
We might ask one more question though: Whom does he distribute? Who are the gifts? Which group of people?
At first glance in might look like Paul is talking about only one set of people in the Church. He specifies special ministers and officers within the church in verse 11: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers. These are the ministers of God’s Word – those whom God has set apart to specific offices to minister the Word of God to God’s people, much like the Levites in Israel. And so at first glance it seems like Paul is just talking about the relationship between ministers and their congregations.
But while Paul is certainly highlighting and focusing on such officers in the Church as prime examples of this process, he also tells us that they are not the only ones being distributed as gifts for the building up of the Body of Christ.
In verse 7 Paul writes “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” And in verse 16, in an apparent inclusio with verse 7 [O’Brien, 286] he writes that it is “when each part is working properly” that the Body of Christ grows “so that it builds itself up in love.”
Taken as a whole, the Apostle Paul tells us here that Christ works in his people, discipling them, building them up, and working towards spiritual maturity in them through the other members of the Body of Christ – through their fellow Christians. Verses seven and sixteen stress that Christ intends to work in and through all of his people in this way.
Paul is telling us that the Church is the Body of Christ building each member up towards spiritual maturity.
That is how Christ carries out that work.
But what does this look like in detail?
Well, there is a lot we could say. But let’s highlight five dynamics that at either described, or implied in this passage – five ways in which Christ calls us to cooperate with this work.
Receiving Discipleship from Leaders:
First, we are to receive discipleship and building up from the leaders and officers of the church.
That is, after all, what we said Paul highlights in verse eleven, as he lists the leaders, officers, and ministers of the Word among God’s people.
This takes several forms, including the call to receive what Christ offers us through the preaching, the teaching, the sacraments, and the leadership in worship that he provides through his ministers.
There is a lot we could say there, but as we have already covered so much in earlier sermons in this series, including the role of preaching and worship, let’s instead consider some of the other ways Christ works through his ministers.
One obvious way that Christ seeks to shepherd and disciple his people is through the one-on-one ministry of pastors to their congregants. Done well, this can have a significant impact on the life of God’s people.
The famous Puritan pastor Richard Baxter noted that he had found in his own experience as a minister that some of his congregants, who had for a long time been unprofitable in their hearing of his formal teaching, had “got more knowledge [of the faith] and remorse of conscience in half an hour [of close conversation with him], than they did from ten years [of listening to his] public preaching.” [Baxter, 196]
And as the church father Gregory the Great explained, a minister is often needed, like a physician, not just to present general doctrine, but to diagnose the spiritual needs of an individual, and to give an exhortation fitting for their spiritual condition. [Gregory, Part 3, Prologue, p.89-90]
And while we know that God uses his whole church to minister to his people, there are also situations that need the attention, specifically, of a pastor – and often not just in a one-off meeting, but in a number of meetings over a length of time. Once again, our conviction about the value of this kind of ministry is why one of the concrete steps we are pursuing now as a church is to hire an additional assistant pastor to assist with the work of pastoral counseling and discipleship that Pastor Gutierrez and I are currently seeking to do.
In addition to our ministers, we know that our elders also have an important role to play in the shepherding and discipleship of our congregation. Which is why another of our concrete steps we plan to pursue going forward is to clarify and discuss the best way to utilize the gifting of our elders in this area.
But, of course, we know that the leadership of our church in terms of discipleship is not limited to our ministers or elders. Our deacons, as they minister to various individuals and families in the church do this work of building up and discipling God’s people. Our Women’s Ministry of Faith leadership does this kind of work with the women in our congregation.
And in addition to that, many others in leadership roles like bible study leaders, Sunday school teachers, youth group volunteers, VBS volunteers, accountability group leaders, and other roles also do this work, of building up God’s people and discipling them from a position of leadership.
And we want to create more opportunities for our members to take on roles to serve God’s people in this way. This is one of the reasons why we hope to establish a small group ministry at our church in the season ahead – a ministry which will call for a number of men and women to step into leadership roles, from which they can build up the men and women of our congregation.
In all this we see that one way Christ calls us to receive his discipleship and building up is from leaders within the church.
Receiving Discipleship from Peers:
But as we said, and as Paul makes clear in verses 7 and 16, leaders are not the only ones Christ uses to build up the Body of Christ. But Christ uses all of God’s people to do that work.
This means that a second way that Christ calls on us to cooperate with his work is for us to receive discipling and building up from our peers in the church – allowing them also to disciple us.
But we often resist seeking help from our peers. It’s often a tough thing for us to do. And I think that’s true for a few reasons.
It’s tough first because we don’t like to admit that we need to grow. We worry what others will think. At the end of his article in The New Yorker,Gawande describes a patient noticing his mentor in the background as she was being prepped for surgery. He describes the interaction like this: “‘Who’s that’ [the] patient asked me as she awaited anesthesia and noticed [Dr.] Osteen standing off to the side of the operating room, notebook in hand. I was flummoxed for a moment. He wasn’t a student or a visiting professor. Calling him ‘an observer’ didn’t sound quite right, either. ‘He’s a colleague,’ I said. ‘I asked him along to observe and see if he saw things I could improve.’ The patient gave me a look that was somewhere between puzzlement and alarm. ‘He’s like a coach,’ I finally said. She did not seem reassured.”
Admitting to others that we know we have real room for improvement makes us feel exposed and insecure. We worry what others, especially those who maybe look up to us, might think. It’s one thing to admit in abstract terms that you know you have so far to grow. People view that as a very spiritual statement. But if you actually seek someone out to help you grow in concrete ways, then people might begin to wonder what’s wrong with you.
And that’s a problem. Because as we read in our text, it is through such concrete relationships and intentionality that Christ usually builds his people up. He gives others as gifts to us, to help us grow. So whom has Christ put in your life? What gift might he be offering you through them? What peer should you be pursuing a relationship with, in which you might overtly ask them to help you grow spiritually ?
Remember the words we heard this morning, from Theodoret. You are strong in one area, but deficient in another. Your friend has the opposite strengths and weaknesses. The Lord has brought you together that you each might learn from – that you each might be discipled by – the other, in the area where you are deficient. [Theodoret, Epistle to the Galatians 6.2, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT:VII:89]
We need relationships like that – and probably more than one.
The Desert Father John Cassian, writing to monks who wanted to grow spiritually, pointed this out to them that they “must not seek all the kinds of virtue from one person, however outstanding he may be. For there is one who is adorned with the flowers of knowledge, another who is more strongly fortified in patience, one who excels in the virtue of humility […] while still another is decked with the grace of simplicity, […] that one by mercy […] and still another by toil.” Cassian goes on to explain that rather than expecting to receive all we need from one other person, we should be like a bee, going from flower to flower, seeking to benefit from the strengths of each person, and to be discipled by them in the areas of their strengths, not expecting any one person to be able to teach us everything or help us in every area of life. [Cassian, 5.4.1-2]
So – whom has Christ provided whom you can learn from and grow from? Who in this room might build you up in the Body of Christ?
A second way that Christ calls on us to cooperate with his work is for us to receive discipling and building up from our peers in the church – allowing their strengths to minister to us.
Giving Discipleship to Others:
A third way that Christ calls us to cooperate with his work is for us to disciple others – for us to work with what gifts God has given us in order to build others up.
Paul tells us that God has gifted you in certain ways. And you are his. You are his captive. And he intends to gift you to others. Whatever gifts you have, whatever spiritual maturity you have gained, whatever abilities you have been blessed with, they are not yours alone because you are not yours alone. You are Christ’s. And he desires each part of the Body, including you, to use the grace they have been given to minister to others, in order to build them up, and to build up the Body as a whole.
Where has God blessed and strengthened you? Are you using that gift to bless others? How might you build up the brothers and sisters around you? How might you help others grow in the Lord? Again, you need not be gifted in every area for this – you just need to be willing to minister to others in the areas God has gifted you, even as you seek help in the areas where he has not. The form of discipleship that you can give to others might not be glamorous, and it might not be showy, but in one way or another, Christ desires to give you and your abilities as a gift to his people. Have you submitted to him in that, or resisted him?
A third way that Christ calls us to cooperate with his work is for us to disciple others – for us to work with what gifts God has given us, in order to build others up.
Giving by Receiving:
A fourth way that Christ calls us to cooperate with his work is for us to receive ministry and discipleship from others, as a way of giving an opportunity for God to work in them.
What we mean here is that we should recognize that when we are willing to receive discipleship from others, its not just that they are helping us, but we are also helping them, by giving them an opportunity to grow in their own discipleship, as the sacrificially serve us.
Now, this category doesn’t come up directly in Ephesians 4, but it is alluded to more in a text we heard from last week, in 1 Corinthians 12, where verse 22 says of the Body of Christ that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Why are they indispensable? Because Christ uses them as well, to build up the Body.
How does he do this? Well, as Christ calls them to minister to you, and help disciple you, Christ is, in fact, discipling them. He is teaching them to minister to others. He is teaching them to love others, when they need to make sacrifices in their lives to disciple you. He is teaching them patience when you are being stubborn or difficult. Now, we are not supposed to be difficult on purpose. And we don’t really like our weaknesses to be the means by which God is growing and discipling others. But this is how God works. And if no one was willing to receive discipleship from others, then no one would learn the love and patience that is a part of discipling and ministering to others.
And so a fourth way that Christ calls us to cooperate with his work is for us to receive ministry and discipleship from others, as a way of giving an opportunity for God to work in them.
Receiving by Giving:
And then finally, on the flip side of that, Christ also calls us to cooperate with his work as he uses the needs of others to grow and disciple us.
When we must stretch ourselves to try to build up and disciple others – whether formally or informally, whether they are our children, or our friends, or our peers in the church, or someone else – when we have to step outside of our comfort zone to give discipleship and care to try to build someone else up in the Lord, we need to recognize that in the midst of that effort, the Lord is also at work in us. He is discipling us.
And that’s true – and this is important – that is true even when we don’t see encouraging results we want to in the life of the person we are trying to minister to. In fact, it’s true even if, in the end, they turn on us, and reject us, and we can see no fruit in their lives from our efforts.
Another pastor recently impressed this point on me and a few other men, by paraphrasing a portion of Calvin’s Institutes. He reminded us that we need to see that in any disappointment or struggle we have with other people, there are always at least two things going on. One is what the other person intends towards us when they disappoint or reject or even try to harm us. But the other is what God is trying to do in us through those same circumstances. We often get so caught up in the first aspect – the human aspect – that we neglect to consider the second aspect – what God is at work in us to do through those circumstances. But Joseph, and Job, and David, and many others, knew how important the second aspect. We must as well. [He was drawing from Institutes I.xvii.8]
Even when the outcomes are disappointing, whenever we reach out to minister to, build up, or disciple others in the faith, God is also at work in us – discipling us – through that process.
The Church is the Body of Christ, which Christ uses to build each member up, thus building up the Body as a whole.
Our call is to cooperate with that work of discipleship that Christ is doing among his people.
One way we hope to do that is to create more places for this kind of discipleship to happen.
But just as with bearing one another’s burdens, we must each decide that we will cooperate with Christ’s work of building us up and discipling us through his people, and in using us to build up others.
We need to decide that we will cooperate with how the Lord will work in these ways, both through our strengths and through our weaknesses. We need to accept the help and the vulnerability that comes with this. We need to accept that the Christian life is not an independent project. We don’t graduate from the school of discipleship and then go off and do the rest on our own at some point. As disciples, we never grow beyond our need for the Body of Christ.
And so Christ graciously provides us with his Body – with his people. There, in his Church, he gives gifts to his people – gifts of other people who will build us up in his image. And there he gives us as gifts, to help build up others.
Let us value the discipleship he offers in his Church, and let us eagerly seek those gifts, and give him thanks for them.
This sermon draws on material from:
Baxter, Richard. The Reformed Pastor. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007. (First published 1656)
Calvin, John. Sermons on The Epistle to the Ephesians. Translated by Arthur Golding, revised by Banner of Truth Trust (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973)
Cassian, John. The Institutes. Translated and Annotated by Boniface Ramsey. Ancient Christian Writers. (New York, NY: Newman, 2000)
Clowney, Edmund P. The Church. Contours of Christian Theology Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995).
Gawande, Atul. “Personal Best: The Coash in the Operating Room” The New Yorker. October 3, 2011. Accessed at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/10/03/personal-best
Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care. Translated by Henry Davis, S. J. Ancient Christian Writers. New York, NY: Newman Press, 1978.
Leithart, Peter J. The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003).
Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves in a collection of four works titled The Inspirational Works of C. S. Lewis (New York, NY: Inspirational Press, copyright 1960, collection printed 1994)
O’Brien, Peter T. The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999)
Most of this sermon is drawn from my October 14, 2019 sermon, titled “The Church: The Body of Christ Building Each Member Up”: https://www.faithtacoma.org/the-church-nicoletti/the-body-of-christ-building-each-member-up-ephesians-47-16
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