For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. 4 For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; 7 if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. 9 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; 11 not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, 13 contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.
We leap from Romans 8:1 to Romans 12:5 today because I want to trumpet a call for your whole-hearted, God-exalting, Christ-sustained, Biblically-grounded involvement in a small group this year at Bethlehem. It's not a great leap. The link between the two texts (8:1 and 12:5) is the massive little phrase, "in Christ." Romans 8:1 says, "There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." Romans 12:5 says, "So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another."
Members of One Organic Whole and Members One of Another
What this means is that the church is like a human body with arms and legs and hands and feet and eyes and ears and tongue and nose and neck. "So we who are many are one body." The church has a unity in diversity the way the human body is one with diverse limbs and organs. "So we who are many are one body."
But Paul goes further than that in what he says about the church as a body. The point is not merely unity in diversity, but also profound interconnectedness. He says, "So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another." What does "individually members of one another" mean?
It means that our unity is more profound than just belonging to the same body. We belong to each other. The unity of the church is more profound than being part of the same organic whole. It is being part of each other. "Individually members of one another." But what does that mean? It means that my left shoulder and my right hand are not merely parts of the same body.
It means that the organic connection in one body involves a deeper unity that Paul describes as the shoulder being a member of the hand and the hand being a member of the shoulder.
You can see the significance of this if you just picture what would happen if I got shot in the left shoulder. My right hand would immediately and instinctively reach for my left shoulder – just as immediately as if my hand itself felt the pain. The members of my body are members of each other because they are so much a part of each other's pain and pleasure. If I kick the coffee table full force with my little toe in the dark while trying to shut windows in the rain, my hands and my legs and eyes all join in the reaction. If my eyes see a baseball coming ninety miles an hour at my head, my back and stomach muscles react with a ducking motion.
And none of these reactions are the result of a long chain of arguments or reasons why it would be good to help. It's immediate. It feels the pain or the danger or the pleasure that the other part feels, and the reaction of the body part is, as if it were, happening to itself.
So verse 5 teaches these two things: 1) "We, who are many, are one body in Christ;" and 2) We are therefore "individually members one of another." We belong to one unified organism. And we belong to each other. We are part of one organic whole, and we are part of each other.
Each Member Has Gracious Giftings for the Body of Christ
Then, in verse 6 Paul tells us how this profound interconnectedness is supposed to work. He says, "We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us." In other words, the benefits that flow from one member to another flow in the form of unique gifts that each member has. Giftedness determines much of the way one member graces another member. My hand serves my wounded shoulder differently from the way my feet serve my shoulder or the way my eyes serve my shoulder. The hand has different gifts than the feet and eyes.
Paul lists seven kinds of gifts in verses 6-8: prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, mercy. What's amazing about this list is that at least four of them are virtues that all Christians should have – and I would say must have – in order to be obedient Christians.
- "Service" – since Paul calls all Christians to "serve one another in love" (Galatians 5:13).
- "Exhortation" – since Hebrews 3:13 commands all Christians to "exhort one another day after day."
- "Giving" – because Paul calls all Christians to "share (same word in Greek) with him who has need" (Ephesians 4:28).
- "Mercy" – because Jesus says to all Christians, "Be merciful as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).
What does this teach us? It teaches us that gifts are not tidy categories distinct from each other and possessed wholly by one person and not at all by another. Rather gifts are varying measures of grace which God has worked in different proportions in different lives. You see that in the key word "grace" in verse 6: "We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us." Gifts (charismata) are ways of blessing others with the grace (charis) that God has given to us.
God may grace you with an unusually tender-hearted disposition to show mercy. Or he may grace you with an unusual delight in lavish generosity. Or he may grace you with an unusually forceful or bold bent toward exhortation. Or he may grace you with an extraordinary servant-heart that sees needs and moves toward them the way others move toward food when they are hungry.
The point is that these are the forms or ways or channels through which the individual members bless each other. The grace of God comes down (vertically, as it were) from God, and we bend it outward through our gifts (horizontally) and extend it to others, not in seven ways but a hundred ways. God has, you might say, at least 256 colors of grace and he mixes them into infinitely varied combinations of usefulness and blessing in the church.
This Is Pie-in-the-Sky Theory without Smaller Groups
One of the convictions that we have here at Bethlehem is that all this is pie-in-the-sky theory if the members in the church do not have a web of deepening, regularly-nurtured personal relationships. That is one of the reasons we believe so deeply in small groups. Once a church is more than 30 or 40 people, interpersonal ministry falls off dramatically if there is no effort to fold people into smaller groupings where Romans 12:5-8 can become a regular, personal, relational reality.
I'll come back to that in a minute. But let me show you first why I said that the leap from Romans 8:1 to Romans 12:5 is not a large leap. I want to put the small group ministry at Bethlehem on the solid rock of truth that we have seen in the last three years from Romans 1-7.
Three Great Realities Because We Are "In Christ"
There are three great realities that come into being when people trust Christ as their Savior and King and Treasure and are thereby united to the risen Lord. Three great realities arise from our being "in Christ" by faith. And each one builds on the other.
1. Justification Because We Are in Christ
First, "in Christ" there is no condemnation. Romans 8:1, "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Another way to say this is that we are "justified," that is, declared just and righteous, because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to us in him. "[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21). So our imputed righteousness is the first reality that comes with being "in Christ." And that is the foundation of everything that follows in the Christian life, and is distinct from everything that follows.
2. Sanctification Because We Are in Christ
Second, "in Christ" we receive power to bear fruit for God and serve others with the help of the Holy Spirit. In other words, not only is justification a reality because we are "in Christ," but also sanctification. Romans 7:4, "You also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another [there's union with Christ], to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God." When we were joined to Christ, his righteousness was imputed to us, and then his power was imparted to us to fight sin. This is probably what Romans 8:2 refers to when it says, "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death."
So when we are united to Christ by faith, first there is instant justification and then there is progressive sanctification. Christ's righteousness is imputed to you and Christ's power is imparted to you. One is declaration and the other is liberation.
3. Members of One Body in Christ
The third reality that comes into being when God puts us into Christ through faith (1 Corinthians 1:30) – and it is built on the first two! – is our membership in the body of Christ. That's the small leap to Romans 12:5, "So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another." In Christ we find righteousness to be justified. In Christ we receive power to be sanctified. And in Christ we are united into one body and are members of one another.
Biblical small groups are not a therapeutic method. They are not a psychological strategy. They are not an organizational technique. They are a living expression of a supernatural new creation in Christ – the body of Christ, which gets its exalted standing and its practical power from union with the crucified and risen Lord of the universe, Jesus Christ. The solid rock of truth on which our small-group ministry stands is the great double reality of God's justifying and sanctifying work.
A Wartime Mindset and Lifestyle
When I first thought of this message last summer I was reading the history of the battle of Iwo Jima, an eight-mile-square island of volcanic rock 600 miles south of Tokyo. February 19, 1945, 800 American ships amassed to assault the island with its two strategic air strips. The Marines fought a total of 43 months in the Pacific in World War II, and in this one-month assault on Iwo Jima they incurred 1/3 of their total losses. They took the island, but left behind the largest cemeteries in the Pacific: 6,800 American Marines dead, most of them were 18-20 years old.
The application that I had in my mind to this message was this – and now with the crisis we are in today it is all the more powerful and relevant: We are feeling some of the reality of what it means to be at war. I was going to point out that if Christians really saw the world for what it is, we would know and feel that we are always in war. Satan is a powerful enemy, deceiver, and murderer, and he tries to highjack every good plan and purpose of your life and use it to destroy. Our own flesh and indwelling sin are like covert, welcoming bases of operation for this evil. The casualties are not only bodies lost for time, but souls lost for eternity.
A wartime mindset and a radical vigilance and a disciplined use of our spiritual armor are essential, if we are not to be lulled into the stupor of a peacetime mentality. And the armor I speak of is not sword, or bullets, or bombs, or tanks, or grenades, but the word of the cross and prayer and love and suffering for the sake of Christ. How much more do we feel this spiritual wartime sense of urgency today!
And then I was going to ask: How did these marines do it? How did they run behind each other into the thickest machine gun fire imaginable? The second battalion sent 1,688 boys ashore into the face of those guns. 1,511 were killed. 177 left the island. 91 of those were injured. What kept them going?
Of course there is no one simple answer. But one answer that came out over and over in this book, Flags of our Fathers (New York: Bantam Books, 2000), was this: Those are my buddies, and they need me. James Bradley, the author, commented, "These boys would fight to the death for one another. And that motive made them invincible" (p. 147).
Oh, that God would turn our small groups into invincible platoons of faith and love and witness and service. Oh, that when the next calamity strikes perhaps nearer to home, every suffering and grieving saint at Bethlehem would be surrounded by a band of wounded healers lavishing the many-colored grace of God on each other and pressing on! I have been at Bethlehem for over 21 years now. And my life is so rich with relationships. What a precious base from which to launch a radical life! I so much want this for you all.
Would you please, for your own soul and for the good of others and for the glory of Christ, join a small group this year?