Resource by: John Piper
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
Our focus today is on Romans 12:4-6a, namely, on the foundation and nature and implications of being one body in Christ. Keep in mind the bigger picture. Paul has spent 11 chapters teaching us the gospel of Christ—that we are great sinners, that God is infinitely holy and just, that we are therefore under his wrath and condemnation, but that God, in his great mercy has sent his Son Jesus Christ whose perfect obedience and death in our place makes it possible for God to justify—declare righteous—all who trust in Christ, so that there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
And on the basis of that great work of salvation for all who believe in Christ he now begins to build his application for life in chapter 12. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God . . .” In other words, the Christian life is built on the mercy of God. We are not a people trying to earn the favor of God. We are people who are stunned that we have been shown utterly undeserved favor mercifully because of Christ. We do not try to earn mercy with a merciful life. Instead we are able to live a merciful life because we have been shown mercy.
So chapter 12 begins to describe this life and call us to it. First Paul deals with our life as worship toward God. Then he deals with humility and lowliness in relation to ourselves (v. 3). Then he deals with our relations with each other in the church (vv. 4-13). Then he deals with our relation to our enemies (vv. 14-21). Then he deals with our relation to the civil authorities in chapter 13:1-7 and so on. All of this is what life looks like when you know that you have peace with God by faith alone and Christ has become the foundation and summation of all your hopes.
So focus with me on verses 4-6a. I see three points to make about the church as the body of Christ and two applications to our situation today. The first point is that the unity of the body of Christ is created in Jesus Christ. Second, individuality is valued in Christ. Third, God’s grace sustains all ministry in Christ. And the two applications are these: First, intentional commitment to racial harmony and ethnic diversity in the body of Christ is implied here; and second, participation in a small shepherd group helps us fulfill God’s vision for us as a mutually ministering body with varied gifts. That’s the outline. Now let’s go to the Scripture and see these things.
1. The Unity of the Body of Christ Is Created in Jesus Christ
First, the unity of the body of Christ is created in Jesus Christ. Let’s read verses 4 and 5a and stop with that tremendously important little phrase “in Christ.” “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ.” We, though many, are one body in Christ.
When Paul speaks of the church as a body he moves back and forth between two meanings that overlap. One is that the universal church—every believer in Christ who has ever lived—is the body of Christ. For example, Ephesians 1:22-23, “He put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” That’s the invisible, spiritual, universal church of all believers, the body of Christ. But the other meaning is that that Paul thinks of each local church as the body of Christ as well. For example in 1 Corinthians 12:27 he says to that church, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
I don’t think he wants us to draw a hard line here. So when he uses the word “we” here in verses 4-5—“We have many members . . . we are one body . . .”—even though that includes himself hundreds of miles away, I don’t think he means to say, “We are only talking about the universal body of all believers, not your local body.” I think he is referring to how that local church should function as a body, and yes, I am in a larger sense a part of you all in Christ.
What Does It Mean to Be “In Christ”?
The phrase I want us to focus on is the phrase, “in Christ” in verse 5a: “so we, though many, are one body in Christ.” What this phrase means is that the interwoven unity of all the members into one body is created and brought about in Christ. One simple way to say what that means is that as each of us is in relationship to Christ, we are therefore in relationship to each other. If I am Christ’s brother, and you are Christ’s sister, then you are my sister. By creating relationships with himself, Christ creates the relationships in the body.
But the truth here is deeper than that. What it means to be “in Christ” far more profound than the human analogy of family relations suggests. That would be precious enough. But it’s far more and far better than that.
What this phrase “in Christ” means is that when you trust Christ as your Savior and Lord and Treasure (Philippians 3:9), a union is established between Christ and you in such a way that everything in Christ that can be shared will be shared with you. Everything that he is, and everything that he has that can be shared will be shared with you. And there is only one thing that can’t be shared—his deity, and its unique God-defining attributes (like omnipotence and omniscience and eternality). But everything else that Christ is and has is yours in him.
Consider a few examples from the way this little phrase “in Christ” is used. This is what it means for you to be “in Christ”:
- 1 Corinthians 1:4, we receive grace in Christ.
- Romans 3:24, our redemption is in Christ.
- Galatians 2:17, we are justified in Christ.
- Ephesians 4:32, we have forgiveness of sins in Christ.
- Romans 8:1, there is no condemnation in Christ.
- 2 Corinthians 5:17, we are a new creation in Christ.
- Romans 6:23, we have eternal life in Christ.
- Philippians 4:19, God supplies all our needs in Christ.
- Ephesians 1:3, we have every spiritual blessing of heaven in Christ
- Colossians 1:28, we will be presented to God perfect in Christ.
- Romans 8:32, we cannot be separated from the love of God in Christ.
Paul’s aim in talking this way is that we stand in awe of Christ. That we love Christ, and admire Christ and follow Christ and enjoy making much of Christ above all things.
Paul has not departed from his passion in verse 3 to keep us humble and make Christ great. Listen to the way he relates this truth to boasting in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, “Let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”
You belong to him. You are in him. There is a union by faith so that all that he is, he is for you. It is simply breathtaking. Oh, that God would help us believe it with all our hearts.
And the only thing—and it is a huge and wonderful thing—to be added from Romans 12:5 is that we experience all of this together in one body. “So we, though many, are one body in Christ.” Redeemed together. Justified together. Forgiven together. Created anew together. Every need met together. Loved by God together. Perfected together. Living forever together—and all of this glorious unity created in Christ and for the glory of Christ.
Oh, let us never trivialize the church! It cost God the life of his Son to create this. And what you share with the persons sitting near you in Christ is a life and an inheritance and a union so great and so profound that it surpasses the value of all other human relationships and all inheritances and can never end.
That’s the first thing to see: The unity of the body of Christ is created in Jesus Christ .
2. Individuality Is Valued in Christ
Second, individuality is valued in Christ. Look at verse 5 again and focus on the second half of the verse: “So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
One could argue that Paul’s focus here on the individual is really to stress that each of us is part of the collective unity called the body and that each of us is connected with every other member of the body. So one might say: There is no effort here to emphasize the value of individuality, but the contrary, to say that the body is all that counts.
But in view of verses 6-8, I don’t think that would be right. Verse 6 says, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” That is a conscious effort to make explicit our individual differences created and willed by God’s grace. Then he spells out different gifts in verses 7-8. So it would not be fair to say that Paul is trying to minimize our individuality and only emphasize the corporate reality of the body.
Would it not be better to say it this way: Paul is saying that our true individuality is found—discovered, experienced—in relationship to the body of Christ. Think about verse 5b, “and individually members one of another.” Members (parts) of one another. One by one. Individually. Here’s what Paul is saying: I am part of you. You are part of me. I am like your eye or your ear or your hand or your foot. And you are like my eye or my ear or my hand or my foot. Each individual, Paul says, is part of the other individuals in the body.
Here is the amazing thing: That’s who I am. I am a part of you. Which means that my individuality—my individual identity, as God has created me to be—cannot be known except in serving you as I rely upon Christ. And yours cannot be known except in serving others in reliance on Christ. That’s what hands and feet and eyes and ears do. They serve. That’s why we have gifts.
Paul values individuality so highly that he does not fail to tell us how our true individual selves can be known, namely, by living in relationship others and by serving and being served in the body of Christ. And then from that position and identity (as we will see later in the chapter) we express our individual identity with Christ in relation to the world. Love other people with all your heart in reliance on Christ and you will discover who you are.
So, the first point was that the unity of the body of Christ is created in Jesus Christ. And the second point was that individuality is valued in Christ—indeed, discovered in the body of Christ.
3. God’s Grace Sustains All Ministry in Christ
Now, third, God’s grace sustains all ministry in Christ. We saw this last time, and so I will only point it out and close with two applications. Verse 6: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” What we are in our differing individuality we are by grace. You may not think so. You may not approve of what God has made of you for the sake of his body. You may think he made a mistake. Or that he is cruel. I don’t think that is mainly a self-esteem issue. It’s mainly a God-esteem issue. Will you trust him—that your individuality is a work of grace. You are a gift of grace to the church. You will find that when you start loving the church in practical ways.
Now, two implications. The first has to do with racial harmony and ethnic diversity in the body of Christ. Listen to Ephesians 3:6 as Paul draws out the ethnic implications of being in Christ: “The Gentiles are fellow heirs [meaning: with the Jewish believers], members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
What that means is that the unity of the body of Christ created in Christ includes the nations. All the races and all the ethnic groups. By coming into union with Christ, they come into union with me, and you. And since Paul doesn’t make a fixed distinction between the body of Christ locally and the body of Christ universally, that has implications for us here.
What it means very simply at Bethlehem is that we think this reality should be visible in our church. God is sovereign, and God is gracious. He positions his people as he wills. We are not the final builders of the body of Christ. But what it does mean is that we steadily—and with faith and hope—pray toward and work toward ethnic diversity and harmony in Christ in this church. We think it is a great honor to Christ. I invite you to join us in this prayer and this work.
The final application of this message is that we believe your participation in a small shepherd group will help you become who God created you in Christ Jesus to be, and will help us fulfill God’s vision for us as a mutually ministering body of believers with varied gifts. The biblical picture is clear: to be a Christian—to belong to Jesus Christ—is to be part of his body and “individually members of one another.” This is why we have small groups, and why we work hard to help you find one that frees you to serve and be served in relationships of love.
It is an amazing calling and an amazing identity: being the body of Christ and individually members of one another. There is more to be discovered about yourself in Christ than you ever dreamed. And Christ will be more and more honored by every discovery you make.
Source: John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.