Of course, there are many things that could rightly be identified as "spiritual priorities." Here Paul selects three that are most essential for the development and maintenance of a sound spiritual life.
1. Nourishment from God's Word (4:6). Perhaps the most basic of all is the first, spiritual nourishment. The good minister, the one who will faithfully and ably confront false teachers, will have been brought up in the Christian faith. This might be mistaken as limiting the ministry to those reared in a Christian family, but that is not the meaning. The image is of taking nourishment, and the present tense emphasizes continual action or lifestyle. However, this lifestyle is rooted in firm decisions made in the past, for the good minister has followed the teaching of the faith into the present. Both the faith and the good teaching identify the true gospel or faith in contrast to the perverted doctrines current in that church. This includes not just doctrine but also the practical principles for godly living.
The implication is clear: the Christian leader must be one who has habitually taken nourishment from God's Word and continues to do so. Yet reports from an alarming percentage of pastors and missionaries, among other Christian workers, show that under the weight of ministry responsibilities time spent in the Word of God (and in prayer) becomes irregular and haphazard. This passage makes the dangers of this neglect clear; God's servants must reverse this trend to maintain spiritual health. At the same time, the mature leader must choose carefully the spiritual food to be taken. Godless myths and old wives' tales (v. 7), a certain reference to the false teaching identified in 4:1-3, must be avoided. This does not mean that the minister should be unaware of the competing claims of other popular movements and religions. In fact, Christians ought to understand clearly the trends of thought that are influencing society and its values. But it must be an understanding arrived at and constantly examined through a careful weighing of these trends against God's values. In order to carry out this evaluation, the minister and all believers must be absorbed daily in the good teaching of the faith.
2. Training in godliness (4:7-9). The second priority is that of spiritual training—that is, training in godliness (4:7). The heretics' false teaching (the myths and wives' tales) supported a system of asceticism (the abstinence from certain foods and disparagement of marriage, 4:3). Godliness for them apparently had mainly to do with knowledge of "spiritual" things. The body, they held, could be controlled by rigorous self-denial (physical training, 4:8). But genuine godliness is the life of faith strengthened by training in the Word of God (4:7)—that is, a lifestyle lived in obedience to the good teaching. Paul admits that physical training does have a certain limited value; by means of it one can learn to control physical urges. Godliness, on the other hand, has unlimited value, for it is that life in the power of the Spirit (compare Gal 5:16-24) in which the "whole" believer, in body and spirit, comes to experience the resurrection life of Christ (compare Phil 3:10). Through it the physical passions and propensity to sin can be brought under control, and the reality of the Holy Spirit's operation in the life of the believer becomes evident.
This genuine godliness holds promise for both the present life and the life to come (4:8). So strong was the emphasis on the pursuit of this life in the Spirit in the early church that verse 8 had become a widely accepted saying: the trustworthy saying referred to in verse 9 is verse 8.
3. Mission (4:10). It is the reality of this life-changing salvation that forms the third priority of the good minister and every faithful Christian—the spiritual goal of mission. Spiritual nourishment and spiritual training draw meaning from the hope of salvation. All of the minister's efforts (for this we labor and strive, v. 10) are to be tied to the certain hope in the God who saves. Labor and strive ought not to be placed in parentheses in verse 10 (as in the NIV); these Greek terms together express the idea of "making every possible effort," which suggests a very urgent goal. And, just as in 2:3-4, it is the universal scope of God's plan of salvation (Savior of all men) that compels participation in the mission. Again, as in the earlier passage, the salvation of all is not automatic or unconditional. The qualification that follows (and especially of those who believe) links the execution and success of the mission to the preaching and specifically belief in the gospel (see notes as well as 2:4 commentary). An undertaking of this magnitude urgently requires the participation of every Christian. Why "urgently"? Because all people must be given the opportunity to respond to God. As Paul wrote elsewhere, "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?" (Rom 10:14-15).
The protection of the church from dangers such as heresy, as well as its return to order, has much to do with the soundness of its leaders. Paul advises his readers to concentrate on the basics: steady nourishment from the Word of God, pursuit of the godly life in the Spirit and the priority of mission. The false teachers in Ephesus had established different priorities as they pushed the church to the brink of destruction.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.