Lesson 39: “For the Perfecting of the Saints”
Purpose: To help class members understand that the process of “perfecting … the saints” (Ephesians 4:12) requires us to increase our faith in Christ, follow the teachings of the apostles and prophets, and protect ourselves from the wickedness of the world.
Ephesians is traditionally believed to be Paul’s letter to the Saints at Ephesus – the capital city of the Roman province occupying what we now know as Turkey. According to the book of Acts, Paul briefly visited Ephesus on his second missionary journey, and on his third missionary journey he lived in the city between two and three years. You’ll probably recall the story in Acts that the introduction of the gospel to Ephesus caused “no small stir” (Acts 19:23) – the silversmiths and sculptors who made their living by creating small tourist statues of the goddess Diana (or Artemis) actually rioted in the streets against Paul and his companions and the threat to their livelihood represented by Christianity.
Because Paul spent those years at Ephesus, he must have known the members of the church there intimately, and known the life of the church – their strengths and weaknesses – as well as any other church he ever knew. It isn’t surprising that after leaving them, he should write back to them with affection and advice. He did that in other epistles – his letters to the Corinthians, for instance, contain numerous references to his experiences with them. His knowledge of their particular problems is explicit, and he sends greetings by name to many individual members.
His letter known as Ephesians, though, contains no personal references to members in Ephesus, and makes no mention of any events of Paul’s ministry there. Because of this, and because the earliest known Greek manuscripts of the epistle do not include the reference in verse 1 to Ephesus, many scholars doubt that this epistle was written to the Ephesians at all, but that sometime over the course of history it somehow became associated with the church there. I mention that not to cast doubt on the legitimacy of this book of scripture, but to point out again how much we do not know about the early Christian church and our own scripture. The value of the teachings of the New Testament come not because we have direct knowledge of the creation of the scripture, but because we have a spiritual response to the Bible, and the testimony of latter-day prophets to the validity of the scripture.
Scripture Discussion and Application
1. The dispensation of the fulness of times
2. Jesus Christ is our cornerstone
3. Unity between husband and wife and between parents and children
4. Putting on “the new man” and “the whole armour of God”
5. Praying for Church leaders
6. “By grace are ye saved through faith”
The letter we know as Ephesians is written to believers who are unified in the faith. It is a time of peace within the church. Let’s read from chapter 4:
1 I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,
2 With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love;
3 Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling;
5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
6 One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
How well do these verses describe the Church today? Are there any differences between this description of believers and our own experiences in the Church?
In that same chapter 4, let’s read verses 11-16
11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;
15 But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:
16 From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.
Again, how well does this fit us in the Church today? Which parts best characterize us? Are there aspects of these verses that we need to work on?
Verse 12 contains a familiar phrase, “For the perfecting of the saints.” That calls to mind the old “three-fold mission of the Church,” to which was recently added a fourth. What was that mission statement?
We often associate that statement of the missions of the Church to President Kimball, because of a talk he gave in April 1981. [Call on assigned class members to read the three quotations below]
My brothers and sisters, as the Brethren of the First Presidency and the Twelve have meditated upon and prayed about the great latter-day work the Lord has given us to do, we are impressed that the mission of the Church is threefold:
• To proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people;
• To perfect the Saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and by instruction and discipline to gain exaltation;
• To redeem the dead by performing vicarious ordinances of the gospel for those who have lived on the earth.
All three are part of one work—to assist our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ, in Their grand and glorious mission “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”
This was not a mission statement, however, that President Kimball cooked up in 1981 because it was a cool thing in the business world to have mission statements. This formulation goes back much further. John A. Widtsoe made a similar statement in his 1939 book Priesthood and Church Government:
[I]n all of its activities, a quorum of the Priesthood must keep in mind the threefold duty which rests upon the Church, namely:
To keep the members of the Church in the way of their full duty.
To teach the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it or accepted it.
To provide for the dead, through the ordinances of the temple, the means by which the dead, if obedient, may participate in the blessings that are enjoyed by those who have won citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
But even that doesn’t go back far enough. Let’s read from Doctrine and Covenants 110, watching for these missions as they were spelled out in the earliest days of the Restoration:
Doctrine and Covenants 110:11-16:
11 After this vision closed, the heavens were again opened unto us; and Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north.
12 After this, Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed.
13 After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said:
14 Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—
15 To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—
16 Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.
To be sure we all recognized what was being said there, which of the missions was identified in the verse referring to the gathering of Israel? Which mission was referred to in the verse saying that the gospel of Abraham would bless us and our seed in all generations after us? And which was referred to in the mission of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers?
Is any one of these missions is more important than the others?
Let’s turn back to Ephesians now, 4:12 –
God instituted the organization of the Church, giving the offices and officers named, “For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”
What is your first impression as to the meaning of “perfecting of the saints” according to the usual English meaning of those words?
My commentaries inform me that the Greek word translated here as “perfecting” is the same word used in other places to mean “equipping” or “training” or “disciplining” – God gave the Church organization “for the equipping of the saints” or “for the training of the saints.” Does that change your understanding of this verse? In what ways does having the church organization that we have lead to the equipping or training of church members?
Take a moment to think of your own calling in the church, or one that you have had before. In what ways does that calling, or should that calling, contribute to the perfecting of the saints in the sense we’ve just described?
If you kept this idea in the front of your mind – that your calling is a gift from God contributing to the perfecting of the saints – how might that affect the way you perform your calling?
One of the purposes outlined for this lesson by the Church is “to …understand that the process of “perfecting … the saints” … requires us to increase our faith in Christ.” What does faith in Christ have to do with the organization of the Church, or our filling our callings within that organization?
Paul tells us that this organization of the church is given to us, according to Ephesians 4:13, “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Now, these are the kind of beautiful sounding phrases that just roll off the tongue and leave us feeling happy … but on the practical level, the meaning of the verse can be hidden behind the poetry. One teacher suggests that we look at the grammar of the verse:
The subject of the clause is “we all.”
The verb of the clause is “come.”
The two phrases beginning “unto” – “unto a perfect man” and “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” – are two objects of the verb.
So, we are given the organization of the Church “until we all come unto a perfect man.” But what is a perfect man? Is it a perfect individual who is a member of the Church? Is it the Church, where all its members have formed the perfect body of Christ? Or is the perfect man Christ himself?
There are other phrases in these verses that are so familiar that we may breeze right by them, thinking we understand them when there may, in fact, be more to them than we have thought. What about the phrase “unity of the faith”? What do we mean by that? Aren’t there some aspects of the gospel that some of us understand differently from how others understand them? Does “unity of the faith” require that we be unanimous in the best way to be missionaries? in our understanding of the Word of Wisdom? in what it means to “study the scriptures”? in the methods used by God to create this world and put life here? If we must be uniform in our belief and action on these points, how do we reach that unanimity? If we can be unified while still holding different views on, say, the time and effort we owe to redeeming the dead, then are these topics on which we hold different views really part of our faith?
Paul goes on to give general advice to the Saints on how to live as Saints, with specific advice to husbands and wives, and parents and children. He also speaks of the duties of servants and masters, or, as we might think of them in modern terms, the duties of employees and employers.
Speaking to servants, or employees, he says:
5 Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;
6 Not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;
7 With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men;
8 Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.
What does Paul mean by “eyeservice” or being “men-pleasers”? If you are an employee, or anyone who is answerable to another for your time and activity, what do Paul’s words about “eyeservice” and “men-pleasers” have to do with you?
Speaking to masters, or employers, he says:
9 And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.
How might masters, or employers, be tempted to be respecters of persons? What model does Paul recommend for those who rank above others in the workplace?
Finally, let’s discuss a few verses from chapter 6 that I like especially well because of their use of symbolism:
13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
14 Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;
15 And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;
16 Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.
17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Now, this is obviously metaphorical – God doesn’t ask us to put on the literal bronze armor of the ancient warrior. Yet I love these verses because they call to mind the temple, where we really do physically enact the putting on of clothing that could symbolize truth and righteousness and peace and faith.
And I point that out for a practical purpose. Many of you come from extended families who have been LDS for generations. Some others of you are converts, or have extended family members who are no longer LDS. I recommend that you file away a memory of these verses somewhere in your mind, in case there comes a time when you need to explain to non-LDS family and friends why a Latter-day Saint family member is being buried in temple robes. It can help to remove the strangeness and upset that people might feel, by reading these verses and noting that the clothing is symbolic of how your family member wished to face eternity.
Symbols work best when we don’t try to pin them down too exactly, but we can still benefit by looking at these symbols a little more closely:
Paul refers to a “shield of faith.” How can faith truly be a shield against “all the fiery darts of the wicked”?
Paul links “the preparation of the gospel of peace” with the shoes on our feet. Can you think of any way in which feet and mobility are a particularly good symbol for spreading the gospel of peace?
The epistle of Ephesians is only 6-1/2 pages long. Its doctrines are ones that we are familiar with, because they speak about what we want the Church and its members to be like. The wording of the King James version may be ambiguous at times, but Ephesians is much easier to understand than some of the other New Testament epistles. If you have not yet taken the time to read this brief book, if you haven’t been reading the New Testament but have been relying on Sunday School teachers to present it to you, this is a very good time for you to pick up the Bible and read the scriptures first-hand.