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You’ve probably heard about the “many paths” view of religion. The idea is that all religions, despite their differences, are ultimately united because they’re all heading towards a common goal. The “many paths” idea isn’t just about trying to encourage peace and toleration between religious adherents. It’s about actually trying to find something overarching and philosophical that unites the religions: all the religions are really paths to a common X. What is X in this formula? It varies. Sometimes it’s a code of morality. Sometimes it’s a vision of social harmony. Sometimes it’s a feeling of spiritual transcendence. Sometimes it’s a general sense of love: love for God, love for others, love for self, love for creation. Whatever X is, the “many paths” view is a claim that X is what all religions are really all about. It’s meant to be inclusive. But you might guess that the many paths idea normally doesn’t get very far in practice. It’s unstable. It either leads to a kind of lowest-common-denominator religious soup that doesn’t inspire anyone in particular and so fizzles out; or it ends up becoming a religion itself, with its own creed based on the supremacy of X (X being a particular version of morality or harmony or transcendence or love, etc.), thereby excluding everyone who doesn’t agree with the supremacy of X.
The point I’m making is that we can’t avoid being exclusive, even if we want to. While we can (and should) seek to be peaceable, tolerant, and generous, whenever we say that something really matters or is supremely important, then anyone who disagrees with us will feel excluded. The better question to ask is not whether a religious idea is inclusive enough (that’s a dead end). The better question to ask is whether it’s true. And in these verses of Ephesians, the apostle Paul claims that something is both supremely important and true. He claims it’s true for everyone, despite our differences. In other words, it’s an (unavoidably exclusive) claim for unity. Where is this unity located? It’s not located in a code of morality, or a vision of harmony, or a feeling of transcendence, or a sense of love. It’s located in God. And by God, I don’t mean a general sense of divinity, but a specific understanding of who God is. Which God? The God whom Christians have confessed and professed down through the ages. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is one God. Therefore, he’s the only God.
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were also called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all.Ephesians 4:4–6
One body, one Spirit
Paul says: “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were also called in one hope of your calling”. Paul has used all of these words previously in Ephesians to describe the mission of the gospel. The words “one body and one Spirit” point back to chapter 2, where Paul was talking about the gospel-based unity between Israel and the “gentiles” (other nations). The “one body” is the new humanity made up of these two previously hostile groups: Jesus died on the cross “to form the two, in himself, into one new humanity, so making peace, and to reconcile both in one body to God through the cross” (Ephesians 2:15–16). And through his apostles and others, Christ “came and preached the gospel” so that this unity was made real in the lives of those who heard and believed that gospel. This is all based on the work of God’s Spirit: “because through him, both of us have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:17–18). So as the gospel is preached and believed, the Spirit builds believers, in different places, into a dwelling place for God (Ephesians 2:22). The words “one hope” also point back to things Paul has said previously about the mission of the gospel. The early Israelite apostolic community were the “first to hope” in Christ (Ephesians 1:12). And through the preaching of the gospel (Ephesians 1:13–14), the gentiles also come to share in this same “hope” (Ephesians 1:18).
In other words, the gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel that unites. That’s because it’s a message of salvation, peace, and hope—for all who believe. It’s a gospel that lifts us from the depths to the heights. It tells us that we’re all sinners, under God’s wrath, in need of salvation. Then it tells us the incredible news that through believing in Jesus, we are forgiven. In fact, more than forgiven: raised, lifted up, given strength and security in God’s love, made his children, and given a glorious hope. That gospel is for all who believe. So the gospel, and the preaching of the gospel, from Israel to the gentiles, means that there is “one body”, “one Spirit” and “one hope”.
If you’re familiar with saying Christian creeds in church (e.g. the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed) you might notice that these verses sound very creed-like. But there’s a difference: Paul moves in the opposite order to a regular creed. A regular creed starts with the Father, goes on to the Son, then speaks about the Spirit and his work among the church. In other words, a regular creed begins with the highest heights of theological truth, and then brings it all down to earth. But here, Paul moves in the opposite direction: he starts with the on-the-ground realities and then moves toward the heights. Why? Because it’s the logical place to start at this point in his letter. Paul has just been talking about those on-the-ground realities of the gospel mission. He now wants to show his readers that these realities are connected to the highest and greatest truths in the universe. In fact, Paul keeps doing this throughout Ephesians 4–6. He keeps both lifting our eyes to the heights, and bringing it all down to earth to show how it works on the ground. Here, he’s on an upward trajectory: from our own daily walk (Ephesians 4:1), to our face-to-face relationships (verses 2–3) to the mission and the activity of the Spirit (verse 4), to the unity we share in confessing the Son (verse 5), to the Father himself who is over all (verse 6). Throughout the following verses, Paul keeps taking us up and down, showing us how the realities on the ground are connected to the greatest truths about God. (Preachers, take note: don’t just stay in the heavens, and don’t just stay on the ground: do both for your people and show the connections!)
One Lord, one faith, one baptism
The next item on Paul’s unity agenda is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”. These are all connected to one another. The “Lord” is Jesus Christ, the Son of God (see Ephesians 1:2). Even though the gospel mission is happening among many different people—Israel and the various nations—there is a common factor which unites this mission: Jesus Christ. This shouldn’t be a surprise to us if we know anything about the rest of Ephesians. In Ephesians 1 Paul has already spoken about God’s plan “to sum up all things in Christ: things in heaven and things on earth, in him” (Ephesians 1:10).
How are people brought under the Lordship of Christ? Through “one faith”. Paul isn’t speaking here about a general feeling of faith. He’s talking about believing in specific truths about a specific person: Jesus Christ who died on a cross and rose from the dead to bring salvation. We learn about these specific truths in the gospel (see Ephesians 1:13). So Jesus Christ isn’t a general religious idea, he is a specific person who did specific things. Moreover, those specific truths can’t be bypassed when it comes to God and salvation. He is the path, because he is the Son of God. There is, in other words, “one faith”.
There is also “one baptism.” Baptism is about becoming a Christian through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The word itself means “dunking” or “immersing”. In the New Testament (and today), baptism normally involves an actual dunking in water, which symbolically enacts being immersed in the truths and promises of God himself. Baptism isn’t a magic ritual and it doesn’t do anything by itself. But baptism is about clearly and publicly expressing faith in the Lord Jesus Christ—and through that faith, we are saved. Here, Paul says there is “one baptism”. He’s not saying there is one way of doing baptism. You’ll probably be aware that different denominations today do baptism differently, especially when it comes to infants. But even though there might be different ways of doing baptism, there is still one baptism, because baptism is always about the one faith and the one Lord Jesus Christ. There is an account in Acts 19:1–7 where Paul arrives in Ephesus and finds twelve men who had received only the baptism of John the Baptist. But Paul told them that this baptism was incomplete. John’s baptism was an Old Testament-style baptism, which was always meant to point forward to faith in Jesus Christ. So Paul baptised them “in the name of the Lord Jesus”, and they visibly received and were sealed with the Holy Spirit. This is the “one baptism” Paul is talking about here in his letter: the baptism in which people believe the one truth of the gospel about one Lord, Jesus Christ. Even though we’re all different and we may come to believe in Jesus in different ways, these differences don’t change the fact that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. For example, there’s no special path for Jewish believers to be saved in one way, and for gentile believers to be saved in another. There is only one way to be saved—believing in this gospel message about Jesus Christ.
One God and Father of all
This is all grounded in the unity of God the Father. There is “one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all.” Paul is describing God here as the one who rules and sustains the entire world. He is, as Paul has already said, “the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:15). It’s not as if there is one local god for some groups of people and another local god for others. There is one God and Father of all. Now the fact that God is “Father of all” doesn’t mean God automatically brings salvation to every person: God saves those who believe in his Son Jesus Christ, not everyone in the world. But even though salvation is for those who believe in Jesus Christ, it’s vital to remember that the God who saves us is not just our personal or cultural deity. He is the God who rules and sustains the entire world. And so God’s unique Son Jesus Christ—and the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ—is for all the world.
The scandal of the one and only
This, then, is the unavoidable scandal of the One and Only God. Saying that God is “one” doesn’t sound too scandalous, does it? But if God is “one”, then he is also “only”. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; that means there are not many paths. This is an exclusive claim, isn’t it? It’s scandalous. But it’s an unavoidable scandal. Firstly, it’s unavoidable because any claim to supreme truth will always sound exclusive to someone. But secondly, and more importantly, it’s unavoidable because it is the truth. Of course, I’m assuming at this point that you believe it. If you don’t believe it, I’d urge you to check it out. An easy way to start doing that would be to come face to face with Jesus by reading about him in one of the Gospels. But if you do believe it, don’t run away from the unavoidable scandal of the One and Only God. This is a truth to hold onto with everything we’ve got. In fact, it’s a truth to proclaim to the world—and everyone in it.
Do you believe in the One and Only God whom Paul is talking about here? Do you need to investigate further to see if it’s true?
How might knowing this truth about the One and Only God encourage you to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with others?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.