Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ephesians 4:7-13

7But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8This is why it says: "When He ascended on high, He led captives in His train and gave gifts to men." 9(What does "He ascended" mean except that He also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10He who descended is the very One who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11It was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

After stating in the clearest of terms that individual Christians are parts of one body, Paul starts v7 with the word, “But.” He’s going to talk about our differences now, but without losing sight of the unity (body, hope, faith, baptism) we share through one Spirit, one Lord, and one God. In v7, Paul says that each individual Christian (each part of the body) has grace bestowed on them “according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (ESV). The word “gift” literally means “donation.” The gifts we are given are meant for the body to share (1 Peter 4:10-11). We often think of spiritual gifts coming from the Spirit, but Paul attributes these to Christ. And saying this seems to bring Paul’s mind to how costly those gifts Jesus has given to His church were to Him, and so in v8, he goes to Psalm 68:18, and says this New Testament reality is just like that triumphant procession of God the King in the Old Testament Psalm, who is going up to a city with all the spoils of war flowing in behind Him. Though in the Psalm, the Lord receives gifts from men, Paul sees Jesus as distributing gifts, or sharing His glory. This Psalm was associated with Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit was poured out on the church, as a gift. So we might say that Jesus dispenses gifts to His people out of His great victory by or through the Holy Spirit. And so it’s no wonder that this Psalm came to Paul’s mind when he considered the Lord Jesus Christ, who gives gifts to His people out of this great victory He has won over the forces of sin and death and hell.

But even that thought of Paul causes a greater and deeper reflection on the price Jesus paid to win that battle – His own humiliation. In v9, Paul notes Jesus came to the lowest depths of the earth. He emptied Himself by taking on human flesh (Philippians 2:5-11) not of His essential attributes but of His glory; He bore the shame, even suffering the ignominious death of the cross for our sakes, and through that descent, through that humiliation, He won this great victory, and so ascended on high. We are to imitate His humble service. And then this thought of victory resurrects within Paul a sense of praise, as v10 declares. Jesus, the One who descended in order to ascend, is exalted higher than the heavens and fills “the whole universe!” The very purpose of Christ’s ascension is the completion and fulfillment of the eternal purposes of God. Ligon Duncan says, “It’s a huge, grand, plan. It’s not just saving us from the deserved punishment of hell that we would have apart from His atoning work and saving grace, but it’s bringing us into a family, a household, a new society, a new community that is part of this glorious restoration of all things in the new heavens and the new earth. And Jesus’ reign is part of the eternal purposes of God.” He is holy (other) and exalted in heaven, but filling all things, He is with us here and now.

When we come to v11, Paul gets back on track with the gifts that Christ apportions to His body. Paul lists gifts as if they are whole persons (perhaps they are), including apostleship (witnesses of the resurrected Christ commissioned to serve the Church as “sent ones”), prophecy (foundational prediction, exhortation, encouragement, warning, and explanation; see Acts 15:32; 21:9-11; 1 Corinthians 14:3; Ephesians 2:20), evangelism (gifted people to proclaim the gospel; see Acts 21:8; 1 Corinthians 1:17), pastoral ministry, and teaching (the last two gifts are thought to be a single set of individuals who shepherd and train God’s flock; see 1 Peter 5:2). These gifts are actually living, human gifts though there are more (Romans 12:4-9; 1 Corinthians 12). Paul’s point is that God blesses His flock with shepherds; He graces the Church with leaders, people to fill foundational roles in the building and instruction of the congregation. Many people think that if the church is going to impact our own culture, effectively engaging the community, in evangelizing the lost and in building up the saints, then what we really need is new strategies, new techniques, and new methods. In our church (Southeast Christian), you often hear the quote, “Methods are many, principles few; methods may change, but principles never do.” Here’s another quote from the nineteenth century Methodist minister, E. M. Bounds, to consider in light of Paul’s teaching here: “The church is looking for better methods, but God is looking for better men.” Paul draws our attention here not to methods, but to people. Ligon Duncan says, “The church may be looking for different methods and strategies and approaches, but Christ is giving men – godly, gifted people – to the church to equip the church for the work of ministry.” That’s the effective strategy, and God does it.

V12 explains that these gifts of specific types of gifts – gifts of speech – are meant to “prepare God’s people for works of service”. Leadership and authority are granted for the sake of service. Leaders aren’t supposed to do the work of the church; they’re supposed to train others to do it. People can think that really the only important ministry that is done is the ministry that is done in the pulpit or in a classroom where the word of God is being taught. Paul is emphasizing the pastor/teacher is here preaching and teaching the word of truth to the congregation not because that’s the only important work of service in the church, but to equip the laity to do church ministry – all the important works of service in the church that need to be done. The whole congregation is called to involve themselves in the work of service – not to do the elders’ job, but to be equipped by the elders to do their work of service in the congregation. In fact, my gift (teaching in this situation) is ultimately for God’s glory and for your edification, for service to Him and you; I need to teach you sound doctrine so that you will be encouraged and equipped to serve with right motivation. And your gift, whatever it may be, is for service to Him and me. At least it’s supposed to be, according to Paul. The things that the Lord has given to you, He has given to you for the well-being of the whole body (see 1 Peter 4:10-11). Are we serving one another with our gifts of grace? We need to create a mindset that’s on the lookout for those gifts and encourages on another in the exercise of those gifts. When is the last time you said to a fellow church member, “I just want to tell you how you have encouraged me in this or that or your trust in Christ; it has been a blessing to me, to my children, and/or to our congregation”?

Isn’t it interesting that Paul speaks of these gifts of imparting knowledge (apostleship, prophecy, evangelism, pastoral ministry, and teaching) as the means to prepare people for works of service? Sound doctrinal understanding is to lead to life-transformation. We are predestined to be conformed to the likeness of Jesus (Romans 8:29), and that comes by the Spirit through the sound exposition of the word of God. Paul elaborates as he concludes this thought of the purpose of our diversity in v13. The purpose for distinctions in our gifts and roles is the building up of the body (which comes through mutual edification and humble service) “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Church unity (something we already have, according to Paul) is not hindered by but is served (grown to greater depths in terms of its expression) by diversity among its members and mutual submission (placing oneself under the service of doctrinal leadership). Thus, differences ought to be celebrated and not feared or despised.

So to summarize, the reason Christ graciously gives godly leadership to the church is so that the church will be equipped to serve (with a right foundation for service). And when service is fulfilled daily by all, the church is built up, revealed by a greater display of the unity we possess in the faith (sound Biblical doctrine) and in the knowledge (intensely deep and transforming intellectual knowledge) of Christ. And finally, built up to maturity, the church attains the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. So no wonder Christ graciously gifted the Church; He wants the Church to be filled with Himself. See 1 Corinthians 12. Calvin adds, “Our true completeness and perfection consist in our being united in the one body of Christ. No language more highly commendatory of the ministry of the word could have been employed, than to ascribe to it this effect. What is more excellent than to produce the true and complete perfection of the church? And yet this work, so admirable and divine, is here declared by the apostle to be accomplished by the external ministry of the word. That those who neglect this instrument should hope to become perfect in Christ is utter madness.”

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