One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Ephesians 4:7-16. After focusing on our unity in Christ in Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul turns to the great diversity among the body of Christ – all worked out by the Holy Spirit according to the grace of God.
But, as he comes to the end of that passage (Ephesians 4:16), Paul stresses that the diversity is not simply a demonstration of the myriad grace of God, it is also through all of the different (diverse) parts of the body of Christ that the Spirit works to build us all up – when we are all working together as God directs us and provides for us.
In Ephesians 4:11, Paul focuses on a few of the ways that God works through his children: as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. These people who have been gifted by the Holy Spirit and given by Jesus Christ equip the church for works of service. The evangelist, then, proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ, but also equips other believers to do the work of service of proclaiming the gospel, even those who are not gifted as evangelists. Those gifted at teaching and shepherding not only teach and shepherd others, they also equip other believers to do the work of service of teaching and shepherding as well.
But, what about the apostle? How does the apostle equip the church? Usually, I’ve heard it suggested that apostles equip the body of Christ by proclaiming the gospel, revealing the word of God, and teaching and shepherding. But, these are actually including in the work of the evangelist, the prophet, and the teacher and shepherd. What is distinctive enough about those gifted as apostles that would cause Paul to list them separately?
There is one distinction of those gifted as apostles: they are specifically gifted to travel from place to place serving God. In other words, while they may do many other things, the gifting of apostle is primarily to do the work of the itinerant servant.
So, how does the apostle – the itinerant servant of God – given to the body of Christ by Jesus to equip the church – actually equip the church as Paul instructs in Ephesians 4:12-13? What is the work of service that the apostles equip others to do?
Just as the evangelist equips others to evangelize, and the teacher equips others to teach, the itinerant servant (apostle) equips others to travel from place to place just as the itinerant servant does. I think we see a beautiful picture of how this kind of equipping (to be itinerant servants) worked itself out in the life of some believers in this passage:
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. (1 Thessalonians 1:6-8 ESV)
While the believers in Thessalonica (a city where Paul only stayed a few weeks) did not travel as far and as wide and as often as Paul and others gifted as apostles, they did travel enough to proclaim the word of God around their region and into neighboring regions. Paul – gifted as an apostle to travel from place to place as an itinerant servant of God – had equipped them (even in a short period of time) such that they were also traveling from place to place to proclaim the word of God.
How could you see itinerant servants working today to equip the body of Christ? What are some ways that others (not gifted as itinerant servants) could serve when equipped by itinerant servants?
Addendum: Yesterday, on Facebook and Twitter, I linked to an older post that I wrote about itinerant servants. Several new comments were pertinent to this post, so I thought I would include a couple of excerpts here:
Eric writes: What I should have said is, “I would call those people ‘Christians’ or ‘Christ Followers.’ In one way or another I think it is what we’re all called to do and by making a distinction dismisses it to the role of a few.
Mark writes: Eric suggests that Christians should be itinerant in general, and I absolutely agree, but I hesitate to make that an absolute. I’m guessing there are many Christians around the world who never leave their village/town, and certainly the duration that someone feels led to stay/go will vary widely. But I think Eric brings up a great point that in general, Christians should be less tied to some tangible thing (house/job/preference) and be more tied to the leading of the Spirit, wherever and to whomever that might lead.
Greg writes: Looking over 2 millenia of the church, we also have a really messy macro trajectory, with very little scripture to back up anything we have done or built. And yet, histories pages are filled with the love and leading of Gods people, and His blessing on all of us.
And today, I’m genuinely jealous of my children who I suspect are going to see the glory of God like few generations in history.