After the foundation of the church was laid in the first century, the need for the ministry of the apostles and prophets ended, so these offices have passed away (Eph. 2:19–21). Yet the church’s duty to grow into mature manhood remains, so God continues to work through evangelists, pastors, and teachers to equip the saints for ministry, giving us what we need to serve Christ’s body and further the collective growth of the whole (4:11; 1 Tim. 3:1–13).
Paul’s emphasis in Ephesians 4:12–14 on the body’s advancement past childhood and growth to maturity, besides describing the ongoing need for the church’s teaching ministry, tells us something important about our place in redemptive history. We are often tempted to believe the early church had it all together, and that life would be grand if only we could return to the apostolic era. Of course, we never get beyond our need for the pure apostolic doctrine, and seeing the apostles face to face doubtless had many benefits. Still, Paul’s exhortation for the first-century Ephesian church to grow past childhood into maturity indicates that the body of Christ was somewhat immature even in the apostolic era. In fact, despite the problems in the church today, it is not inappropriate to see us as better off than the first-century Christians. Unlike the early church, we have access to the entire canon of Scripture and the words of all the prophets and apostles, not just those individuals who could visit from time to time on their missionary journeys. We also have centuries of teaching that has plumbed the depths of God’s Word, stood firm against heresies, and contributed to our understanding of revealed doctrine.
Until Jesus returns, however, we have need to progress toward mature manhood in Christ, and at no time should we think that we have nothing left to learn or that we have it all together. At those moments, false teachers can worm their way into our midst and pull us back toward spiritual infancy (Eph. 4:14). As John Calvin comments, God allows errors to arise so that we might mature in our knowledge and grow into adulthood as the body of Christ: “The attempts of Satan to darken, by his falsehoods, the pure doctrine of Christ, are at no time interrupted; and it is the will of God that these struggles should be the trial of our faith.”