But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers. (Ephesians 4:7-11)
But Grace Was Given
Two weeks ago, we considered the transition which Paul makes at this point in his letter to the Ephesians. He says, “But grace was given to each one of us” (Eph 4:7). After explaining so thoroughly the unity of believers in the body of Christ, Paul reminds us that members of the body do not cease to be unique. God calls us into the same body for the same purpose, but we still retain our individuality. Unity is not uniformity.
J.B. Phillips paraphrases verse 7 this way: “Naturally there are different gifts and functions; individually grace is given to us in different ways out of the rich diversity of Christ’s giving.”
Before we go any further, it’s important to remember that grace is grace. God’s nature is one of giving. God is a God of grace because he freely gives, not because any of us have earned his grace. His grace is entirely self-motivated. It is his sovereign act of giving.
Grace is a remarkable concept. Think about it. For those who are married, think back to when you met your future spouse. Think back to when you were dating and getting to know each other. Chances are, you saw something in the other person that made you think, This person is worthy of my love. I know marriage takes sacrifice, but I will gladly sacrifice myself for this person.
God couldn’t do that when he chose to love us because we were not worthy. We were his enemies, fighting and rebelling against him. Listen to what Paul tells the Romans:
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:8-10)
What did Jesus tell Nicodemus? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3:16). Can you imagine sacrificing everything for your enemy? Would you willingly devote your life to an enemy, inviting them into your home until death do you part? It seems that our greatest display of love falls short when compared to God’s love for his people. As we often sing, God’s grace is simply amazing.
The Measure of Christ’s Gift
As it relates to our text, this grace is unique to Christ. The word is charis which is not the same as charisma (often translated, gifts). This grace is the enabling power which allows our special gifts to function as God intends. Paul says, “Grace [charis] was given … according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph 4:7). It is measured out to each one of us according to God’s purpose. In other words, we receive his enabling grace to whatever degree is necessary for the operation of Christ’s gift.
Put another way, each believer has unique gifts given to him or her by God, and it is God’s grace which enables those gifts to be used. As Paul points out, this grace is not given in equal measure to each one of us. He gives precisely the amount of grace we need for any gift he intends for us to use for his glory and the building up of the body of Christ.
It’s very similar to a statement Paul made in Romans 12:
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. (Romans 12:3)
To be clear, Paul is not talking about saving faith. Rather, we might call it faithful stewardship. It’s the degree of faith needed to exercise our unique spiritual gifts. Since we do not all possess the same spiritual gifts, God does not give all of us the same degree of grace or faith.
If we understand this point, we will be better equipped to understand the diversity of Christ’s body (i.e., the church). By God’s intentional, sovereign design, we are not all the same. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Our perspectives, abilities, gifts, and understandings are different. We need to acknowledge that fact because it is by God’s design.
My favorite analogy is the one that compares the body of Christ to music. In our songbooks, you’ll notice there are four lines of notes. Each line represents a different singing part: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. With a few exceptions, most of us sing the soprano part since that is the primary melody of the song. As great as singing in unison can sound, it simply doesn’t compare with the sound of four-part harmonies. When the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass parts all come together in a song, it sounds angelic. It’s incredible.
God has designed the church to function similarly. He does not give the same measure of grace to each person. As a result, we have different gifts. We are equipped to perform different functions. We even have varying degrees of comprehension. The Spirit does not open up every truth to every believer.
We see a good example of that in Luke 24. As many times as Jesus taught his disciples about his suffering, death, and resurrection, most of them could not understand it. Peter even argued with Jesus over it. “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you,” Peter said (Mt 16:22). He outright rejected the notion. Why? There’s a vital clue in Luke 24 where Luke tells us:
Then [Jesus] opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:45-47)
The truth of his suffering and death was always right in front of them. The Old Testament prophets had written about it long ago, but the disciples couldn’t see it. Though they heard it from the mouth of Christ himself, they just couldn’t believe it. Why? God had not opened their minds to understand it yet. Apparently, God operates by his own sovereign timeline, and he opens our minds to specific truths at specific times.
Do you remember Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1? He said:
I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe. (Ephesians 1:16-19)
Keep in mind that he’s writing to born-again believers. Jumping back a few verses, we read:
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it. (Ephesians 1:13-14)
Paul is writing to born-again believers whom the Spirit of God has already sealed until they acquire possession of their eternal inheritance. Even so, he prays that God might give them revelation and insight. He prays that their hearts would be enlightened to a fuller comprehension of Christ and his gospel.
In the church, we have different gifts and functions at different times. God gives us varying degrees of understanding of spiritual things. That’s not a reason to be proud, and it’s not a reason to be jealous of one another. It’s just a fact we need to acknowledge. If for no other reason, we need to recognize our diversity because it is our diversity that works to build up the collective body. We’ll see that as we continue in this chapter of Ephesians.
For now, just know that we each have certain gifts and capabilities through which we are to serve in Christ’s name. Peter said it this way:
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 4:10-11)
Notice how Peter designates our spiritual gifts. In general, we have either speaking gifts or serving gifts. I don’t think the Bible ever gives us an exhaustive list of potential gifts, but perhaps they all fit into one of those two categories. Regardless, our gifts are given by God’s sovereign grace, and we are to use them for his glory as we serve others.
When He Ascended On High
As we move to verse 8, Paul seems to interrupt himself with a quote from Psalm 68. He says, “Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men'” (Eph 4:8). As Paul often does, he’s using the Old Testament to make his point. He’s explaining how Christ has the right and authority to give us gifts.
Psalm 68 is a song of victory. David is celebrating the triumph of God over Israel’s enemies. You can imagine the victorious king parading through the streets after a battle with the spoils of war. He’s marching through the city with all the prisoners of war he’s freed. In other words, he ascends on high to lead a host of captives. He has won the battle, so he’s leading those who were once held captive by the enemy.
If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because that is the very theme of the gospel itself. The gospel is the good news of Christ the King freeing us from our slavery to sin and Satan. Paul says:
Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18)
Near the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, he was visiting the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth where he was asked to read from the book of Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll, and this is what he read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
My favorite part of the story is what came next. Jesus sat down. It was customary for teachers to stand while reading the Scripture but sit while teaching. It was their way of showing a distinction between the words of God and the words of man (the teacher). When Jesus sat down, he said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). It’s enough to send chills through your body.
Immanuel had come. God in the flesh was with them. As John said, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). In less than three years, the captives would have liberty. The oppressed would be set free. Through his death and resurrection, Christ would liberate his people once and for all. Slaves of sin would no longer be in bondage.
He Gave Gifts To Men
Once that happened, “he gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).
By the way, some translations of the Bible will say “people” instead of “men” in this verse. That’s not an attempt by some to make the Bible politically correct. The original word does not refer exclusively to males. In this case, men is used generically to refer to both men and women.
I should also point out that Paul does not accurately quote Psalm 68 here. Paul says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8). Psalm 68, however, says, “You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men” (Ps 68:18). In Psalm 68, the king receives gifts. In Ephesians 4, the king gives gifts. Why? Did Paul make a mistake?
Chances are, Paul was quoting a Jewish hymn. Jewish songwriters did the same as many Christian songwriters have done. They pieced together various passages of Scripture to form their lyrics. Sometimes they would slightly tweak Bible verses to fit the flow of the song better. Then, people who were familiar with the song might quote the song rather the Scriptures which inspired its lyrics. How many times have you heard a pastor quote “Amazing Grace” or some other hymn while he’s preaching? Paul may have done the same thing here.
Regardless, he’s pointing to the act of a conquering hero who divides the spoils of war among his men. Once Jesus ascended into heaven, he sent us his Spirit. He once told his disciples, “Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12). Right before his ascension, he said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Ac 1:8).
Jesus set us free, and his Spirit supplies us with the gifts we need.
He Had Also Descended
Notice Paul’s explanation in the next verses: “In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?” (Eph 4:9). Obviously, if Christ ascended into heaven, returning to his Father as he promised he would, then he must have first descended from heaven to earth.
Having quoted Psalm 68 (or at least a version of it), Paul feels it is appropriate to comment on the incarnation and ascension of Christ briefly. Let’s not forget that the incarnation of God in the flesh, his life on earth, his death, and, ultimately, his resurrection are the heart of the gospel message. Elsewhere, Paul defines the gospel this way: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1Co 15:3-4).
In his first epistle, Peter takes this concept a bit further by saying:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison. (1 Peter 3:18-19)
Not only did Christ descend to the earth, but he also descended even further into what Peter calls prison. What prison? Peter goes on to describe those in this prison as those who “did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (1Pe 3:20). Who disobeyed God in the days of Noah? Whether Peter was referring to devils or just disobedient people, Christ descended as far as Sheol or Hades, the place of the dead.
Even so, Paul also reminds us that “he who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:10). Ultimately, Jesus is exalted. He humbled himself down to the lowest regions of earth, but God raised him to the highest position above all the heavens.
What point is Paul trying to make? What does the ascension of Christ have to do with spiritual gifts and his enabling grace? The answer is authority. Perhaps we could say power. Look back at verse 8. The reason Jesus can give gifts to his church is because he was victorious. He conquered our enemies. He freed us from slavery. He ascended back to his position of authority in heaven. Therefore, he has every right to divide the spoils of war among us so to speak. He has the right to give us spiritual gifts and the grace to use them.
He Gave the Apostles
From here, Paul returns to the practical lessons at hand. He begins by saying, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (Eph 4:11). He begins with the church’s leadership. Before he addresses the body as a whole, he wants us to understand the role of our leaders.
The first and perhaps most obvious point I can make is that the church’s leadership is by the sovereign choice and divine appointment of Christ. He gave the apostles. He gave the prophets. He gave the evangelists. He gave the shepherds and teachers. While these positions are vocations which men willingly enter—Peter said, “Not under compulsion, but willingly” (1Pe 5:2)—it is God who leads men into these roles.
Of course, that begs the question, how will a man know when God is calling him to become an evangelist or pastor? Personally, I don’t think it’s complicated at all. First, the man will have a willingness to do it. Second, he’ll have the gifts required to do it (namely, to teach). Third, God will provide him with opportunities to do it. In other words, his calling will become self-evident. He’ll know it, and those around him will know it.
What about apostles and prophets? Occasionally, we see people claiming to be apostles or prophets. I’ve noticed more and more churches with Apostle So-and-So on their signs out front. Are men still appointed to be apostles and prophets today? First, I believe we need to define these roles.
Earlier in Ephesians, Paul said the apostles and prophets were used to build the foundation of the church (see Ephesians 2:20). That’s a significant clue. Once a foundation is laid, a builder doesn’t continue expanding that foundation. Rather, he builds on top of it. He builds up from it.
Another vital clue is how the apostles, in particular, were chosen. When the early church was looking to replace Judas Iscariot, Peter suggested these qualifications. He said:
“One of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22)
First, an apostle needed to be chosen by Christ himself. Second, he needed to be a witness to the resurrection. Both qualifications, of course, exclude anyone living in modern times. Even if one makes the argument that Christ could reappear to someone today as he did to Paul after his ascension, we would still need to explain why another apostle is necessary since the foundation of the church has already been laid.
Furthermore, we see that the apostles of the New Testament possessed miraculous gifts to confirm the message they preached. For instance, Hebrews 2 says:
It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:3-4)
Even if we use the word apostle in a generic sense—the word can simply mean messenger—every known apostle in the New Testament had miraculous abilities. Barnabas, for example, is called an apostle. He wasn’t one of the twelve (or thirteen apostles), but God still gave him “signs and wonders to be done by [his] hands” (Ac 14:3). In fact, we don’t even find a single mention of apostles within the book of Acts after Acts 16. It appears the apostles served an important role in the foundation of the church, but their particular calling was not perpetuated.
He Gave the Prophets
What about the prophets? One notable difference between apostles and prophets is similar to a primary difference between evangelists and pastors. In the New Testament, prophets appear to work exclusively within a local church while apostles have a much broader ministry. For example in Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas are referred to as prophets of the church at Antioch until the Holy Spirit says, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Ac 13:2). From there, they are sent out as messengers (or apostles).
At times prophets would speak new revelation from God. Other times they would simply expound on previous revelations. In other words, they always spoke for God, but they were not always speaking brand new revelation.
The third distinction of prophets is the practical nature of their teachings. Apostles spoke general doctrinal messages while prophets spoke on a more personal and practical level.
Those distinctions aside, the prophets are similar to the apostles in that they are not perpetuated. Perhaps the gift of prophecy still exists, but the offices of both apostles and prophets have since given way to evangelists and pastors. Again, the foundation has already been laid. By the end of the New Testament, we do not read of Paul or anyone else ordaining new apostles or prophets. Instead, we read of them instructing evangelists as well as pastors and teachers.
He Gave the Evangelists
Next, Paul lists evangelists. These are men who proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Specifically, they explain the way of salvation to those who do not yet believe. Philip, for instance, was an evangelist. He went where Christ was unknown and led people to faith in the Savior. New Testament evangelists teach the gospel to new believers, build them up, and move to the next area.
If you feel as though the role of evangelists is almost altogether ignored in the church today, it’s because we live in a part of the world where local churches abound, and most of the population is already familiar with Christianity. I’m not suggesting there isn’t a need for evangelists in the United States, but we typically find the need less pressing.
Keep in mind; however, even pastors are instructed to “do the work of an evangelist” (2Ti 4:5). That’s precisely what Paul told Timothy. Of course, Timothy wasn’t really your traditional pastor. He traveled wherever Paul sent him. Regardless, pastors do have an obligation to evangelize. Technically, we all have a duty to evangelize.
Evangelists, though, are called specifically to evangelize. Ideally, the local will have both pastors and evangelists. They’ll have men to focus on the needs of the church as well as men to focus on the needs of the surrounding community.
He Gave the Shepherds and Teachers
Last but not least, Paul mentions shepherds and teachers. Some Bible translations say, pastors and teachers. These are the men whose primary responsibility is to care for the local flock. They are like shepherds because they oversee the flock and tend to its needs. They are also teachers because teaching the Word of God is the primary means of feeding the flock.
By the way, I believe “shepherds and teachers” is best understood as one role of the ministry, not two. In every other passage, we see the two functions combined into one position. For example, 1 Timothy 5:17 says, “Let the elders who rule well [i.e., shepherds or pastors] be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”
Someone might ask, “Are elders and pastors the same?” My answer is yes. I believe they are same, but not all elders (or pastors) will necessarily serve in the same capacity. Paul implied that when said, “Especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Some pastors may not teach as much as others. They should still have the ability to teach according to 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, but they may primarily serve as overseers rather than teachers.
Briefly, I’ll make a few points about church elders for you think about and possibly study further.
1) Appointing elders is one of the first steps in starting a new church.
In the planning stages of Joy Church, Wade and I talked about calling ourselves Simple Church or something similar. The problem is, there is a “simple church” movement which promotes church without leadership. This movement doesn’t believe pastors and elders are necessary, which is certainly not biblical.
Whenever the apostles formed a new church, one of the first steps they always took was appointing qualified elders to lead the church. By God’s design, the church needs structure and leadership.
2) Churches should strive to have a plurality of elders.
Frankly, the one-pastor model that is so prevalent in many small churches isn’t biblical. We never read of a church in the New Testament with only one elder.
3) Elders should not be dictators, but they do rule over the church.
They can’t be dictators because Peter said, “Shepherd the flock of God … not domineering over those in your charge” (1Pe 5:2-3). Even so, they rule over the church because the book of Hebrews tells believers, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls” (Heb 13:17).
It stands to reason that church leaders would act as leaders. Some people might argue for congregational rule in all matters, but that undermines God’s design of the church. If you’re in favor of congregational rule because a pastor could become a dictator, then see point number two. That is one of the benefits of having multiple elders in the church. A plurality of elders prevents one man from imposing his will on the church.
4) The primary task of elders is to teach.
Yes, pastors do more than teach, but teaching seems to be the biblical emphasis. Three times in John 21, Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” Paul told Titus, “For an overseer, as God’s steward … must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Tit 1:7; 9).
5) Neither spiritual gifts nor the ability to teach ends with elders.
Let me put it this way: The role of a pastor is not to give you a fish; his goal is to teach you to fish. You’ll understand what I mean as we continue our study of this chapter next week.