Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Bauer, Michigan.
Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.
The apostle begins this section of his epistles by calling upon the Ephesians to walk “worthy of the vocation (calling) wherewith ye are called” (Eph. 4:1). Then he explains in the next verses: “with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2, 3). Those who have become “light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8) are to be “not drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). When we are filled with the Spirit, the Spirit equips us for proper worship (Eph. 5:19, 20) and for dealing with our fellow-saints. That is our text, Those filled with the Spirit have the responsibility of “submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God.”
We absolutely need the Spirit to be submissive. One filled with wine does not submit but asserts himself. He usually does a lot of talking—about himself. On the contrary, when one is filled with the Spirit, he has everything he needs to be equipped to submit one to another.
Our text informs us of the proper spiritual disposition required for living together as a fellowship of churches. It also tells us of the disposition of heart that is needed for us to cooperate as fellow-officebearers and as delegates to Synod. We need to be filled with the Spirit, and being filled with the Spirit we will be able to submit one to another.
We take our theme from the text: Submitting One to Another.
First, we consider the activity of submitting ourselves one to another. Then we will consider four reasons for submitting ourselves one to another. Finally, we will consider how we will be able to submit one to another, what must be our motive. What is the activity; why do we do it; and how is it possible for twenty-three men with many years of experience, well-trained and equipped, to submit one to another?
The word “submit” means “to be in subjection.” This word can be used in three different ways. First, it is used in the realm of the physical: it is the submission of the inferior to the superior because of greater strength or more intelligence. Second, there is a submission which is spoken of in the following verses, namely, a legal submission to a God-given authority. Thirdly, there is a submission which is spiritual; it comes from inside.
In classical Greek this word is used to refer to soldiers under an officer. The soldiers did everything the officer commanded. If they did anything other than what the officer commanded of them, they were insubordinate. But God takes this word out of its normal context and uses it in the Scriptures not in a regimented, legal sense. The text gives us two reasons why God’s use is different from the classical Greek use. God requires a spiritual submission which arises from within because, first, it is a submission of “one to another.” The same one to whom I am submitting is, in turn, submitting to me. This is a mutual submission of everyone to all others all the time. There is no instance when I can consider myself superior to another. The second reason why this submission is inner is because of the words “in the fear of God.” In awe of the majesty of God I have the ability to submit to others. What soldiers must do by command, the soldiers of the cross do voluntarily.
Willingly we submit one to another. This consists of a thinking about one another. We do not think only about ourselves. We think about what others are saying, and we take into consideration why they are saying it. We consider who they are. Who are the delegates speaking at a meeting of Synod? I think about them, I consider thoughtfully rather than act impetuously. Most troubles and clashes in the home and church result from thinking about ourselves rather than about others. Then we individuals become individualistic, asserting ourselves. But we must first think about others. Where are they coming from? What are they intending to say? What do they mean?
Secondly, submitting ourselves one to another means that we are always ready to put ourselves under others. It is not doing things through “strife or vainglory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Phil 2:3). It is looking not on our own things, but “every man also on the things of others.” This was the mind-set of Christ, who humbled Himself to us by setting aside all His own glory to become like unto us. Jesus esteemed you more than His own life. Can you not esteem each other more than yourself?
So important is this putting ourselves under each other, that the apostle begins Philippians 2 with the powerful words, “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (1, 2).
Submitting one to another is to remember that we are joined together in one mutual bond of love. Then we can hold our tongue, listening patiently, letting others speak, being charitable, considering them in the best possible light. Submitting one to another is not resenting criticism. It is not being impatient with the opinions of others.
Submitting one to another means that we will not despise “the less comely parts” (I Cor. 12:23). We realize that there is no part of the body of Christ which has a right to despise the less visible or beautiful parts. I have no right to look on another delegate to Synod and think, he does not know what he is talking about, but I know what I am talking about.
This is the kind of instruction given to us in seminary, when we were advised that in the ministry, we must listen to our elders, who, though they may not have had a seminary training, can teach us much. Maybe those elders’ usage of the English language is poor, but when they speak, we should listen. And does anything really change when we have twenty, thirty, or forty years of experience in the ministry? Do we, after so much experience, have the right then to despise the less comely parts? The old and the young do not conflict, but complement each other. God can use an illiterate, old, godly man, and He can still mighty enemies with babes (Ps. 8:2). God can use the old saint to teach us, and He can use the young one, just out of seminary, to teach us, because it is not they who teach, but He. Officebearers with God-given authority over other humans in the church, do not have the right to lord it over others. This was not only the mind of our Reformed fathers when they wrote the Church Order, demanding equality among office-bearers, but this was also the mind of Christ in Matthew 20:25-28. The ungodly lord it. “But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
You delegates have God-given authority, but that authority is not given in order that you might be ministered unto, but in order that you might minister, or serve. The position of minister, elder, or professor is to be respected, not because the persons in the position are greater, but because God gave the position. The responsibility is to serve. Fellow-delegates, this week we are to serve each other. Are you ready to do that, brethren? Are you ready to serve the church and each other? We have this privilege, not so we can be greater, but so that we can serve the Body of Christ.
Why must we submit one to another? Why must we esteem others better than ourselves?
The first reason is that you and I must live the confession of Paul in I Timothy 1:15. “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” The perspective is not that I was chief sinner, but that I presently am; I always am chief. This is the awareness that within us lies the power of the body of this death, which has the capability of sinning terribly. I must and will submit to others, because I, more than seeing others, see my God who sent His Son to die for me, which consciousness makes me see how great a sinner I am.
Secondly, we submit ourselves one to another because of the truth of I Corinthians 4:7. “For who maketh thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” Everything you are and have, you have been given. If you have an insight into a truth or an issue, it is not that it came to you by yourself, but it was given to you. It was a gift from God, so you cannot take credit. If God gave you more intellect or more skill in an area, if God gave you more ability or talents than others, wherein do you have the right to glory over others? Glory in what? You cannot glory in yourself, because it is not of you. Do we not mean it when we say, “By the grace of God I am what I am”? This means that you and I have nothing in ourselves in which to glory. But all that we have has been given to us, and God must receive the glory.
The third reason for submitting ourselves one to another is found in Galatians 3:27, 28. “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bondnor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” This was the apostle’s emphasis in Ephesians 4. We are all equal one with another. You cry to the same Father to whom I cry. You were washed in the same blood that washed me. You say to the same Lord that I do, “What wilt Thou have me to do?” You have the same Spirit in you that I do. So how is one greater than another? Not at all.
Fourthly, we submit one to another because we are saved, not individually, but covenantally, as part of an organism. Not individually, but together. We are members together of one body (Eph. 4:11-16; I Cor. 12:27). In Christ, the whole matters most, not the parts. Thus we are to consider the whole rather than just our own good. Christ gave gifts, especially that of the preaching, to equip the saints to be able to serve one another (Eph. 4:11, 12). Then we become willing to forgo personal rights because we are so grateful to be a part of this glorious body.
How can we submit one to another? There is only one way. There is only one way that we can appreciate the beauty of the body. There is only one way we can tame our pride. This one way is found, not by looking at each other, but by looking at God. “… in the fear of God.” The spiritual strength to appreciate and comply with this command to submit one to another comes from “the fear of God.”
There must be constantly burning within us the consciousness of God. That I submit to you is not because of you, but because of God. I may owe someone nothing with respect to himself, yet I owe him something in respect of God. The fear of God must motivate us because nothing is more contrary to human nature than submission. Only God can tame our selfishness and subdue our pride, and only He can make us be considerate of others.
The motive of the fear of God consists first of knowing God—not comprehending Him, but knowing Him as the infinite One, as the One whose majesty fills the heavens. Know Him as the One whose glory would make a heaven filled with suns seem like a candle. Knowing Him as the One who is sinless and thrice holy, before whom the sinless angels cover their eyes and bodies as they serve Him. This knowledge of God makes us fear Him.
This knowledge of Him makes us fear Him even more when we know Him to be our Father. The wonder that this majestic God would condescend to see and know us! This is the only way we can say, “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” We do not look at each other, but at Him who would save wretches like us. This is to know God in the sense that everything we know of Him is another reason to love Him because our knowledge of Him shows us His love for us first. When the knowledge of the great Majesty becomes knowledge of the Father, then that takes the terror out of the fear of God and makes it love.
This knowledge of love becomes deep spiritual reverence, awe, and wonder. It is not fright, as Adam and Eve were afraid when they tried to hide themselves, before God gave them skins with which to cover themselves. It is the knowledge of childlike faith which approaches Father, which says, “Father, help”; “Father, I need thee.” Aware of the Father’s love we know that He will respond. Then there is no fear in love (I John 4:18). We do not want to displease the God who used such great grace to save us.
“In the fear of God” means that you and I, delegates and advisors to Synod, live and walk and think this week with each other in the consciousness of the majesty of our God, acknowledging our indebtedness to Him for our creation and for our redemption. Then we see God behind each other. Then we hear Him using each other. Then when His Word comes from the other, we submit. Then, when we realize He gave His Son to die for the other, we will submit to him. Then, to make our point, we do not have to do any table-pounding. Then, to make our point, we do not have to use our pulpit voices, especially not in a deliberative assembly. Then we can talk humbly, submitting one to another in the fear of God.
I have directed these words, of necessity, to the delegates of Synod; but, congregation, this is the way we are to live with each other all the time. God uses my wife to speak to me and I must submit. God uses my children to speak to me and I must submit to them. Our Savior submitted Himself to us and that is what saved us.
Fear God, and if that does not move you to submit yourselves, then nothing else will. Fearing God we want to submit ourselves quietly to His will when He commands us to submit to each other. Then it is not a grief nor is it irksome to serve.
Fear God, submitting yourself under the mighty hand of God, and then you can submit one to another. Amen.