Equipping the Saints

What is the edification of the body of Christ all about? Who are called to carry it out, and how?

Rodrigo Abarca

The divine purpose

As you very well know, the main theme of the letter to the Ephesians is the eternal purpose of God, that is, what this purpose is all about, which are the means that God has laid out in order to carry it out, and in what way it is going to be finally fulfilled.

It is God´s desire that we make His purpose our own; therefore, He has made it known to us. This revelation is something we should never take for granted. We must understand that merely speaking about the eternal purpose of God does not mean that we have come to fully understand it or impress it deeply on our hearts. In order for that to happen, this purpose must be revealed by the Spirit of God, and become the primary issue that rules our entire lives and behaviour.

Now, what is this purpose, this mystery, as Paul calls it? Ephesians 1:9-10 says: “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ”. The words “bring together” do not only mean to gather all things around Christ. The Greek term means basically to lift up Christ as Head so that, under His authority, all things are brought together. It also means to make Him the center of everything, where all things converge and find their reason for being, their destiny, their end – in Him. In short, that He becomes all, and in all.

How is God going to carry out this purpose? There are two stages to His plan. The first one, which lays the foundation to the second, has already been accomplished. It comprises the incarnation, death, resurrection, exaltation and enthronement of his Son as King and Lord (Ephesians1:20-22).

The second stage is about His Son having to be revealed and manifested through a special creation. This creation was not the angelic race; it was the human race. Thus, the Word became flesh.

Jesus Christ is the Head

The Lord Jesus Christ is King and Lord of all things; the Father placed all things under His feet. And above all things, He appointed Him to be head over everything for the church (Ephesians 1:22). Therefore, the relationship existing between Christ and all things is different than that existing between Christ and the church. Above all things, He is King and Lord, and He governs and rules above everything. But in relation to His church, He is not only Lord and King, but also his Head.

Just as the head is linked to the body, and cannot be separated from it, in the same way Christ united himself to the church, in order to sustain her, nurture her, and express Himself through her. There exists, between Christ and the church, such an intimacy and relationship as there is no other between Christ and anything else in this created universe.

The head needs the body in order to express itself. When the Father makes Jesus head of the church, He is, at the same time, setting a limit to Him; henceforth, it is only through His body, the church, that he can express Himself, reveal himself and carry out His purpose.

Can you imagine your head ever functioning apart from your body? Your head contains all the plans you intend to carry out, such as building a house that you have long designed and recreated in your mind. But when it´s time to execute your plans, what is it that you need? Don´t you need your hands or feet?

Now, suppose you shelter deep feelings in your head. You are young and in love with somebody, and you want to tell her know much you love her. Wouldn´t you need a body to do that? If you had no face or eyes— or lacked body and facial expressions— how could you be able to express your feelings?

When Christ becomes Head of the church, He limits himself and becomes inseparably linked to her, in such a way that He now needs the church to accomplish His plans, to carry out the eternal purposes of God. This is what the second part of God´s plan is all about: that Christ fill it all with Himself by means of His church.

Jesus Christ is the Pattern

Le us go now to Ephesians 4. “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (v.10). Here is the purpose – that Christ fill the whole universe. This means, dear brethren, that not everything is full of Christ yet. In the heavens, everything is full of Him, but on earth, not everything has been filled with Him yet. The world is still under the ruler of the kingdom of the air, who is moving everywhere on earth, showing his devilish intentions and displaying his evil schemes.

But, how is Christ going to fill everything? By building His church, and filling her with Himself. And, once His church has been filled with Him, she will in turn fill everything of Him, and there shall be no room left for Satan on this planet. This is the plan. That is why verse 3:21, speaking of God the Father, states: “…to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!”. The church is the eternal fulfillment of God´s purpose in Christ.

What means is He going to use to build up His church? Let us read Hebrews 3:5: “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God´s house, testifying to what would be said in the future”. After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and reached Mount Sinai, God called him apart to spend forty days and forty nights in His presence. There, God showed him the pattern of a house or tabernacle down to the smallest detail. God revealed to Moses every single detail regarding the building of the house, the tools to be used, the furnishing and objects that should be placed there. He also gave him clear instructions regarding the priestly service, and the way in which everything had to be done in His house.

As God talked to Moses, He would say to him: “Make a tabernacle…an ark…an altar…a table…” Everytime He finished explaining something about the house, God would warn Moses: “See to it that you make everything – not the eighty percent of it, or the ninety or ninety nine percent, but everything, the hundred percent of it – according to the pattern shown you on the mountain”.

Why did God make this warning to Moses? Stephen says of Moses that he was a man educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and powerful in speech and action. The Egyptians were the greatest builders of ancient times. Even to this day, their constructions stand among the wonders of the Ancient World— the pyramids, the temples they built. Even the Israelites built whole towns for the Egyptians.

So, if somebody was knowledgeable on construction, that was Moses. And if there was a people with an expertise on the task of building, that was the people of Israel. Yet God said to Moses: “I am going to use all the skills and the knowledge that you have (if Moses had not possessed such knowledge, he would not have understood a single thing), but I have a warning for you: you cannot add anything of your own making to the pattern nor to the construction of this, my house”.

Moses must have been tempted to add to the plan he had been shown. But the Scriptures say that Moses was faithful as a servant. Do you know what a servant is? A servant is a slave. When the master commands his slave to do something, the slave must immediately set about doing what he has been told. He needs no explanation.

Moses did not demand any explanations. He did everything just as God commanded him. And because he was faithful, the Scriptures say, he can now testify and represent Christ and the church as a type.

For example, the Ark was to be a cubit and a half high, in order to represent the union between God and man, because one and a half plus one and a half make three, which is the number of the Godhead. The Ark symbolizes the union between God and man in Christ – one and a half for God, one and a half for man. If Moses had added only half a cubit to the Ark, it would still have been beautiful, but meaningless in regard to Christ.

Now, when Moses set up the Tabernacle, God was very strict on His demands regarding something that was a copy and shadow, meant to pass away. But now we are talking about God´s eternal and final house, namely, the church. If God was so severe regarding that which was but a shadow and copy, will He not, then, be as strict regarding the original? Or, has God perhaps so changed that He now allows us to improvise and add to His plans or insert our own ideas or concepts into the church, bring our opinions and notions into the building of the body of Christ? Could God have possibly changed?

No. Everything has to be done “according to the pattern shown you on the mountain” (Ex. 25:40). You may ask: do we have a pattern for the building of the house?” Of course we do! A very specific, clear and real one. That pattern is Jesus Christ!

This is why we said that the first part was the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. “He appeared in a body” (1Tim.3:16). The Scriptures say literally that He “made his dwelling (He tabernacled) among us” (John 1:14). So, upon beholding Jesus, we see God´s dwelling place in our midst. This pattern has to be shown and given to us. His fullness must come to us, and by the Spirit, He must be formed in us. Not only an aspect or part of him. Just as the fullness of God dwells in Him, so must the fullness of Christ come to dwell in the church.

Equipped by the gifts

But, how is God going to fill all, and in all? First of all, the Scriptures say, He gave gifts to men. This is how the building of the house begins. Now, as others have properly explained, here these gifts are not gifts that He gave to some. He also gives individual gifts to the members of His body, but these gifts are not given to members of the body individually, but rather, they are people that He gives as gifts to the whole body.

He prepares a man, turns him into an apostle, and hands him over to the church. He prepares other men, turns them into prophets, and gives them as gifts to His church. He takes even others, makes them into evangelists and delivers them to the church; he trains others to be teachers, and gives them to the church.

Pay attention to this. The Lord takes men and trains them, works in and with them, and He does that not in a short period of time. As He reveals Himself to them, a measure of Him and of His patterns is formed in them. He prepares them this way, and afterwards, gives them to His body. That is how He builds the house. He does not begin organizing anything. He does not use any blueprints, methodologies or plans in a piece of paper. He always begins His work with men formed by Him and sent by Him. This is God´s method.

Do the Scriptures, by any chance, contain a method to raise a church? Can it be that one day the Lord called His apostles and told them, “Come here, I´m going to explain what a church is, its flowchart and its functions? Is that the way in which God built His church? With a method, a plan?

No, my dear brethren, the plan is Himself; the method is Himself. These men have a deep knowledge of His person, have spent time in His presence and have had an intimacy with Him. They have heard His voice (1 Jn. 1:1-2).

He made apostles who were given as gifts to the church. The apostles were to lay the foundations. Paul says, “…I laid a foundation as an expert builder” (1 Cor. 3:10). Which is the foundation? Jesus Christ is. “They devoted themselves to the apostles´ teaching” (Acts 2:42). What is the apostles´ teaching all about? Everything they had heard, seen with their eyes, touched with their hands while they were with Jesus. It was that intimate knowledge that later became the apostles´ teaching. “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:42).

The Scriptures say “…the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph.2:20). The apostles and prophets, then, go hand in hand; the apostles, to lay the foundation, and the prophets, to work upon it, to enlarge it. Both the apostles and the prophets are related to the revelation of Jesus Christ given to the church through them. But the first are to lay the foundation; the latter, to deepen the foundation, to broaden the vision and understanding of Christ for the church.

The third gift He gave the church was the evangelists. They are another facet of Christ given to the church. Because, remember, the church must attain to the full measure of Christ. What did the Son of Man came to do? “…the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Blessed be our Lord Jesus Christ! He was the first evangelist of all; He came with a heart full of love for the lost.

Christ gives Himself to us through the evangelists. We would be lost were it not for the love of those who have preached the gospel on behalf of our Lord Jesus Christ; those missionaries of old who left their homes and sailed across the world to bring us the Gospel.

Then, there are the pastors and the teachers. They take all of the apostles’ teachings, the prophets’ revelation and the evangelists’ far-reaching vision, and begin to apply it all to the life of the church in every area, down to the smallest details.

Is the church thus completed already? No, not yet; this is only the beginning of the church. Pay close attention, please. Whom must you cling to? Cling to those men that God has given the church, sit at their feet, and learn Christ from them. These men are Jesus’ gift to you and to all the church. Seek them.

One more thing. Paul says to the Corinthians: “…all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas… all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Cor. 3:21-23). This means that God has given gifts to the church. But what is more important, the gifts or the church? Suppose you have a girlfriend whom you are going to marry, and you shower her with gifts – still, what is more important, your fiancée or the gifts? Your fiancée, of course! What is more important, the gifts – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers – or the Bride of Christ. The Bride, of course! They are His gifts, but she is His Bride!

Of course, the Bride is far more important than the gifts. Therefore, the Bride should not act according to the gifts, but according to the Bridegroom. We thank God for the gifts, but our eyes should be set on the Lord of the gifts.

There is no such thing as a hierarchy here. The Lord is not speaking about a hierarchical structure of government over the church; he is talking about gifts that He lavishly bestows upon the church. They come from Him; they are His. It does not mean, either, that the church appoints apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc. Men can not “make” apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or teachers. Only Christ can, and He gives them to the church. Let us not make a mistake; this is not a method. It is the very life of Christ that unfolds and develops, through the Holy Spirit, in the church.

“…All things are yours…” Lay hold of everything, seize it all. Take the apostles, they are yours; the prophets, they are yours; the evangelists, they are yours. Dear brothers and sisters, all the gifts are yours, but you are of Christ, and Christ is of God. Do not waste the gifts; do not underestimate them or take them for granted. Thank the Lord for the gifts He’s given us. Receive them all; embrace them all. But, remember, that you are Christ’s, the church is Christ’s, and Christ is of God.

So, what is the end concerning these brethren? At this point, we will have to redefine a few words, according to the Scriptures. Is their end to build up the church? No. Let us read again in Eph. 4:12 “…to equip (prepare)…” Now, if you continue to read, you will notice that the verb “build up” appears a little further on the text. The Scriptures do not say that these brethren are given to build up the church, but to prepare it. The word “equip” does not mean to make perfect, as it denotes in the Spanish Bible version Reina Valera (1960). The meaning of the Greek word used here is to prepare, to equip and to repair, when necessary. All of this is to make perfect. The idea here is somehow like when in some Spanish-speaking cultures, somebody in an enterprise says to you, “You need to take an advanced course”. Or a perfecting course, as they call it in Spanish. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to take that course to end up being perfect, but rather, to be more prepared to do your work. This is the point here: making them perfect, prepare them to do their work, to fulfill their function in the body of Christ.

The whole body builds up

The apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers are in the body in order to prepare the saints, so that they, in turn, may fulfill their own function within the body of Christ. They are not there to build up the saints. Pay close attention to this. It is important to notice how the Bible distinguishes between the two functions. Why? Because the ministry of the Word does not build up by itself.

You can attend a thousand meetings and services, receive, and be exposed to the ministry of the Word for many years, and yet not grow up a single inch in God’s edification. You may have spent a thousand hours under the ministry of the Word, but that does not mean you have been built up. God’s edification does not have to do only with receiving the Word, but also with appropriating that Word and starting to work on the edification of the body of Christ.

This is not accomplished by the ministers of the Word, but by…who? Let us find out. “…to prepare God’s people for works of service”. It is us, the saints, who carry out the works of service. And what is the purpose of these works? That the body of Christ may be built up! Edification is the key word. When the saints begin to perform their works of service, and play their roles within the body, then the edification of the body of Christ begins.

Every time you attend a Christian meeting or service and come out of it saying: “That brother preached such a beautiful sermon, so straight from the Heart of God! I have been built up!”. Do you think you really have been built up? You have not! You have been encouraged, equipped, prepared. But now it is your turn to go and build others up. You must go at once!

Just recently the Soccer World Cup was held. For that event, trainers prepare their players, teach them strategies and skills; that is, they train them. But can you think of these players never playing a single game? They would feel so frustrated! Sometimes we also act like a soccer team that has been very well trained, but never actually engages in a real match.

For how many years have you been trained now? How many sermons have you heard? How many times have you been ministered to with God’s Word? I’d dare say by now you are over-trained, my dear brother or sister. What do you think? Are you using everything you have received to build up the body of Christ, or are you idle, doing nothing but preparing yourself even more?

It is the equipping, the training, what allows these brothers, once they have received the tools they need, to carry out the works of service. What are these works of service? The building of the body of Christ.

So, what God has in mind is not mere personal edification. He wants His body to grow, His church to be built up. He wants all the body to take shape; namely, the shape of Christ.

This means the whole body needs to be connected, the different parts joined and held together by its supporting ligaments and sinews. In such unity of all its parts, the body should begin to function, grow and build itself up. This is what edification is all about. Just as the stones are joined together and raised to build up God’s house; likewise, all the members of the body of Christ, through the Word they have received from the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, nurture one another and, in turn, derive their nourishment from the Head, which is Christ.

I’m going to give you an example – the church in Jerusalem. It started out with twelve apostles and about fifteen thousand believers, including the women and the children. “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:42). Can we say that, for the following 50 years, these brothers and sisters just sat there and listened, just taking pleasure in what other believers taught? No way! God had something different in mind. He did not intend for His church to spend a lifetime receiving and listening word after word. He wanted His body to start functioning, filling all the earth with the knowledge of His Son Jesus Christ.

Jerusalem was, then, an academy. It was God’s first training school on earth. The training did not last long, only 7 years at most. When the Father thought they were ready, he put an end to it and said, “Ok, then, now that you are ready…go!!!” And who went? The apostles? No. The persecution broke out after the stoning of Stephen and, according to the Scriptures, in one single night, all believers were forced to leave Jerusalem: all were scattered, except…the apostles!

The apostles remained in Jerusalem in order to train a new generation of Christians. Their work had already been accomplished. Now, those brothers and sisters carried with them the foundation laid by the apostles, the revelation of the prophets, the vision of the evangelists burning inside their hearts; they held the teaching of the pastors and teachers, so they were ready to go. And God sent them all.

And what happened in those places they went to? Throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, even as far as Antioch, the Church of Christ was multiplied. It was not the apostles who founded the churches in Judea. It was not the apostles who founded the churches in Antioch. It was the brothers and sisters.

Now, you may say, “I thought it was only the workers who raise churches”. Well, the answer is yes and no. They raise a few. But if you have the foundations, then you too can go and lay it down in others, so you can be a worker in the service of the Lord everywhere you go.

How many of you have received the revelation of Christ from the prophets? How many of you have seen the Lord? You can go to others and tell them about Christ, about His greatness and glory, depth and authority. You can do that! You have been prepared for that by God.

Now, how many of you have listened to the Christ of the evangelists? You can, therefore, take His Word to any part of the world. You, too, are an evangelist, for the gospel of Jesus Christ is burning in your heart.

And how many have received pastoral care for years now? How many teachings have you received which are useful to build up your family, your marriage, your job, your entire life? How much have you received from Christ through your pastors and teachers? Lots! Now you are able to counsel and teach others. You too are a teacher and a pastor to others. That is indeed the Lord’s purpose! He wants us all to go and carry out His work, build up His house, raise His church everywhere.

Here is one more story that shows that this did not only happen in Jerusalem, but also when Paul and Barnabas carried out their apostolic work. Remember Paul writes a letter to the church in Rome during his ministry. Do you know that Paul had never been in Rome? He had never met the Roman church members in person. However, when he writes his letter to the Romans, in chapter 16, he begins to greet the brothers and sisters as if he had known them all his life.

Now, how could Paul be able to know those fellow believers if he had never been to Rome? The reason is that what had happened in Judea, Samaria and Antioch, occurred in Rome as well. The believers of the churches in Asia Minor and of Achaia (Greece), they had gone to Rome even when Paul had not.

Those believers founded the church in Rome. They were trained by Paul and went out later, and they planted other churches, and many years later, when Paul arrived in Rome, held captive and in chains.

Perhaps you, sister, are looking down on yourself. I encourage you to read the names mentioned by Paul. How many sisters do you find in that list? Half of it, at least, are female names. Sisters that have worked hard for the Lord, Paul says, that have been collaborating in Christ and have helped to lift the church of Jesus Christ in Rome and in many other cities.

“Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers”. He mentions Priscilla before Aquila, her husband. Do you think you can do it, sister? Are you willing? Or do you want to just sit by, year after year, listening to sermons and more sermons, and receiving training and more training, without ever doing the work the Lord requires of us?

Do you believe that the workers are supposed to do all the work? No, this is not their job. Their job is to prepare the saints so that they go and make the work of the ministry. Isn’t this what the Scriptures say? And their task continues “...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” (Eph. 4:13).

What are you, young ones, receiving training for? Isn’t it so that you play your part in this great work of the ministry that is the edification of Christ’s body? Don't be narrow-minded. Don't say: “I am not big deal, I was born in this or that small town in the middle of nowhere”. It doesn't matter where you’re from or what family you belong to. If you have Christ, if that foundation is in your heart, if you have seen the Lord, if the gospel is burning in your heart, you too can go. The Lord needs you to go and enlarge your vision and your heart.

Someone may say: “I am too old, my time is already gone”. Let me tell you, your time is never gone, dear brother. If you are old, the Spirit of God will renew and sustain you to the end. Just go and do what the Lord wants you to do. In your very church you are to do what the Lord wants you to do. Right there where you are, you have to be a worker, a prophet, a teacher, an evangelist, according to the measure the Lord has given you.

This way, we all can and should collaborate in the work of edification that the Lord entrusted His body, namely, the Church. Until everything is full with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. Amen. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Summary of a message preached in Temuco on July, 2006.

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