Describing the Lord’s strategy for spiritual growth, the apostle Paul penned the following powerful words:
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–13)
The term “measure” is translated from the Greek word metron and refers to God’s standard for evaluating and measuring the maturity level of both the universal church and local assemblies. Local churches are, of course, to be the visible expressions of the universal church and are the only way we can measure corporate maturity. It’s also very clear that the ultimate standard is Jesus Christ Himself, particularly the way He lived during the days He walked on earth as the incarnate Son of God.
In Ephesians, Paul defined maturity in a corporate or collective sense. God’s plan is that “we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NKJV).
I believe Paul used this phrase “perfect man” as a metaphor to illustrate that all members of Christ’s body are to reflect the perfect Son of God, the “man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5) who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). As men and women who are followers of Christ, we are to be mature reflections of God’s perfect Son, Jesus.
Paul used the same metaphor when writing to the Corinthians, reminding them that when he “was a child, . . . [he] talked . . . thought . . . [and] reasoned like a child.” However, when he “became a man,” he “put childish ways behind” him (1 Corinthians 13:11). In both instances, Paul was saying that the church (both universal and local) should become mature, reflecting its founder, Jesus Christ.
Reaching this state of maturity will not happen in an absolute sense until the church has been caught up and presented to Christ. As the apostle John wrote, “We know that when he [Jesus Christ] appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul described this moment as being “face to face” with Christ (1 Corinthians 13:12).
As an old man in exile on the Isle of Patmos, John witnessed this glorious, future, and eternal moment in a prophetic vision and recorded it in Revelation 19:6–8:
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)
As John described this scene, the Holy Spirit inspired him to select another beautiful metaphor to illustrate the church: a bride who had adorned herself for her bridegroom.
No earthly wedding will ever be as glorious and magnificent as when God the Father presents to Jesus Christ, His Son, His eternal bride—the church. We will then be ultimately perfect—measuring up to the fullness of Christ. In that day, all members of the body of Christ will be given to the Savior “as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).
Although someday “we will all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51) and we will be with Christ and like Him, until then we must live in the present—just as New Testament Christians lived in their present environment. We have not yet been caught up to meet Jesus face-to-face (see 1 Corinthians 13:12). In the meantime, it’s God’s plan that “each part does its work.” We are to grow together as believers, reflecting the righteousness, compassion, and love of Jesus Christ more and more each day (see Ephesians 4:16).
This is why John, in his first epistle, exhorted us in the here and now: “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). Although this is a personal exhortation, Paul made it clear in his Ephesian letter that purity is to be a hallmark of the Christian community. As we have seen, we are to become “a radiant church” that is “holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).
The apostle Paul probably had in mind both eternal and earthly perspectives for the church when he penned the words “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). But as he continued to describe God’s plan for the church, he focused more specifically on local expressions of the universal body of Christ. Consequently, Paul stated that churches in the here and now will mature and become doctrinally stable. Its committed members won’t be “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Ephesians 4:14). Mature believers know what they believe as well as how to live. They speak “the truth in love” to one another—and as they do, they “grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
“The moment we take our eyes off of the Lord Jesus Christ as our model and example, we cease to be the local church God intended us to be!”
In other words, as a local church grows and matures, its committed core and those who are newcomers to the faith and immature will become more and more like the perfect man, Jesus Christ. Together, they will reflect His image. It’s God’s will that when mature believers live as they should, Christians at various levels of growth, from “infants” to “adolescents,” will become a part of the committed and unified core, and together they will more and more reflect the “perfect man,” as they grow into the “fullness of Christ.”
Paul’s letter to the Colossians is often called a twin epistle because it’s closely linked to the letter to the Ephesians. However, unlike the Ephesian letter—which was probably written to be read in other churches throughout Asia—the letter to the Colossians was directed to a specific local church. As a result, Paul identified Christians in that city as the “faithful brothers [family] in Christ at Colossae” (Colossians 1:2). As with the term “disciples,” biblical authors used the term “brothers” to describe those who were part of a functioning and visible local church.
Although worded differently, the following paragraph from Paul’s letter to the Colossians in many respects parallels the paragraph in Ephesians:
I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is. (2:1–5)
Paul’s concern for every local church is that all of its members function with one ultimate goal in mind: that “the whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16). Jesus prayed for all of us who have come to faith in Christ, that we “may be one” as He was one with the Father (John 17:20–23). Love and unity are interrelated, inseparable concepts. Consequently, Paul wrote to the Colossians to encourage them and the Laodiceans and other local communities of faith to be “united in love” (Colossians 2:2).
In order to be “united in love,” these believers needed to have a “complete understanding” of who Jesus really is (Colossians 2:2). In other words, in order to attain “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (the phrase he used in Ephesians 4:13), we must know and understand that in Christ are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). There is no other source of truth, for He is the Truth (see John 14:6).
Paul’s concern for these believers was the same as his concern for the church in Ephesus and the other churches in Asia—that they as local communities would “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge [that is ‘the full riches of complete understanding’ Colossians 2:2] of the Son of God ” (Ephesians 4:13). Then and only then would they become like Christ. If they continued in this direction, they would not be like “infants, tossed back and forth . . . by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).
Becoming doctrinally stable was a problem for the believers in Colossae and Laodicea, just as it was for those in Ephesus and in the churches of Asia. This is why Paul wrote: “I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments” (Colossians 2:4). They needed to know that in Christ are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:3)—that truth is not to be found in the wisdom of this world (see 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 and James 3:13–18).
The moment we take our eyes off of the Lord Jesus Christ as our model and example, we cease to be the local church God intended us to be! We can have no other focus and still be truly Christian—and mature. Paul made this point abundantly clear to the Colossians and Laodiceans who were dabbling in a belief system that Paul categorically called “hollow and deceptive philosophy” because it was based on “human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” (Colossians 2:8).
Paul also made clear the distinction between our corporate life on this earth and our corporate life in heaven. While on earth, we are to become more and more like Christ. However, in heaven, we’ll be like Christ in His perfection. “When Christ, who is your life, appears,” Paul wrote, “then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). In other words, as John stated, we will “be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). At that moment, “we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). Perfection will have come, and the imperfect will have disappeared (see 1 Corinthians 13:10). We will no longer “know in part”; rather, we will “know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We’ll be face-to-face with our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s concern, then, for the Colossians and the Laodiceans was in essence the same as his concern for the Ephesians. He wanted them to attain “to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). Though their issues varied, Paul’s goal for all churches was the same.
As Paul sat chained to a Roman guard, he also wrote to the Philippians—probably during the same year he wrote to the Ephesians and to the Colossians. Once again, he focused on Jesus Christ as the true measure of a church. Becoming even more creative, Paul appealed to Jesus’ model of servanthood, humility, and sacrifice when He identified with our humanity:
Your attitude [as a body of believers in Philippi] should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5–8)
How are Christ’s attitudes of servanthood, humility, and sacrifice reflected in the church? First, note that Paul used the second person plural to address the believers in Phillipi (“your attitude”). It’s also clear from the context that he was addressing their relationships with one another. He was appealing to their corporate attitude, which includes both a corporate endeavor and a corporate result—not just a personal discipline leading to personal maturity. As Paul taught the Ephesians, to arrive at this corporate attitude “each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16).
Second, note that Paul’s preface to what is often called the great kenosis passage leaves nothing to the imagination in terms of this community endeavor:
1. Servanthood enables Christians to be like-minded and to become one in spirit and purpose (see Philippians 2:2).
2. Humility eliminates selfish ambition and vain conceit and causes us to consider others better than ourselves (see verse 3).
3. Sacrifice enables us not only to look to our “own interests, but also to the interests of others” (verse 4).
In this letter, Paul emphasized the characteristics of the stature of Jesus Christ that should serve as a measurement for a maturing church. When a church community demonstrates these qualities, it’s well on its way to “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
This is why Paul prayed the following prayer for these believers in Philippi:
And this is my prayer: that your love [as a body of believers] may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight [i.e., “the full riches of complete understanding” described in Colossians 2:2], so that you [as a community] may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9–11)
by Gene Getz
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