But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men”. Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?
He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things. And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ (NASB).
Alexander the Great once gave a magnificent golden cup to one of his lowly servants. The servant was overwhelmed. “Your majesty: he said, “This is too much for me to take.” Alexander looked at him with a smile and said, “But it is not too much for me to give.”
Once the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit is given to us, we understand just how unworthy we are and, what truly sinful people we are. God’s gift is overwhelming. This is the Holy Spirit’s work for us.
Basically, the Holy Spirit does three things for us as believers. First, the Spirit does work for us. This is the work of salvation. Second, the Spirit also works in us. This is called sanctification. Finally, the Holy Spirit accomplishes His work through us. This is the area of Christian service. This third area is the concern of our message.
I. THE GIVER OF SPIRITUAL GIFTS VV. 7-9
According to verse 7, each gift is Christ’s gift to His church. Every Christian at least has one spiritual gift. There are some Christians who have more than one spiritual gift. The question is: “are you using your spiritual gift to serve Christ?” In verse 8, Paul quotes from Psalm 68:18. “When He ascended on high, He led captives a host of captives and He gave gifts to men.” In this Psalm, God is portrayed as a conqueror marching to the gates and taking tribute from the fallen city. Paul used that picture to teach that Christ in His crucifixion and resurrection was victorious over Satan and his demonic host. When Christ ascended to heaven, He gave gifts to His church. In ancient times what conquerors took from their captives in war, they gave away to their people. The spoils were divided and the booty was shared (Gen. 14; Judges 5:30; 1 Sam. 30:26-31; Psalm 68:12).
Verse 9 has posed problems to many preachers and teachers of the Bible. There are three theories that have been proposed. Let me give them to you and tell you which I prefer. The first theory refers to the lower parts of the earth as the grave. The second theory refers to the lower parts of the earth as Hades (the place of the dead). The third refers to the lower parts of the earth as the earth itself. If you have heard some preachers say that when Jesus died, He went to hell, they base their statement on this verse and 1 Peter 3:19. The problem is that there is no obvious reference to Hades or hell in Ephesians 4:9. This is reading too much into the biblical text. It is a stretch of Scripture to say what is not there. I subscribe to the third theory that refers to the lower parts of the earth as the earth itself. I believe Paul is simply referring to Christ’s incarnation. The incarnation precedes the ascension. In His incarnation, Jesus descended to the depths of humiliation when He came to earth. In His incarnation, Christ divested Himself of insignia of majesty, especially the suffering He endured on the cross (Phil 2:5-11). It is through this renunciation and humiliation of death on the cross that Christ has defeated the principalities and powers in His resurrection. One thing you and I need to guard against is to separate the three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Together they are involved in every aspect of the church’s well being.
II. THE GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT ARE VARIED VV. 10-11
The incarnate Christ is the same as the ascended and exalted Christ. The Christ who descended in humiliation is the same who ascended in exaltation. Because of His ascension and exaltation, Christ has retained His universal authority and power. And with this exaltation, power and authority, He has dispensed spiritual gifts to His church to bring it to maturity. In verse 11, the Apostle Paul tells us the variety of gifts. Notice the word some. He does not say He gave all. Ladies and gentlemen there are varieties of gifts. It is important to recall this because today many have a restricted view of charismata (spiritual gifts). There are others who are preoccupied, even obsessed with only three of the more spectacular gifts, namely, tongues, prophecy, and healing. The New Testament lists about nineteen to twenty spiritual gifts, and the list is not exhaustive. In this text Paul presents only five of the spiritual gifts. First, Christ gave some to be apostles. The Greek word for apostle means, one sent with a commission. The word apostle has three main meanings in the New Testament. First, the term applies to every Christian. Jesus said, the servant is not greater than his master; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him (John 13:16).
Therefore, in a general sense every Christian is both a servant and an apostle. The word apostello means to send. All Christians are sent out into the world as Christ ambassadors and witnesses to share the gospel of Christ. The context in Ephesians 4:11, eliminates the first meaning of apostle because Paul says some not all. Second, there were apostles of the churches (2 Cor. 8:23; cf. Phil. 2:25). These were messengers that churches sent out as missionaries or on some errand on behalf of the church. One important distinction of a missionary is this: a missionary is sent on behalf of a local church to plant a church or to serve Christ in a certain capacity. There is nothing like a missionary or apostle who is not affiliated with a local church. There is no “lone ranger” missionary in the New Testament. Third, there were apostles of Christ, a very small and distinct group, consisting of the Twelve, including Matthias, who replaced Judas Iscariot, Paul, James the brother of Jesus, Barnabas, and perhaps one other. These were personally chosen and authorized by Jesus, and had to be eyewitnesses of the risen Lord (Acts 1:21-22; 10:40-41; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8-9). The apostle Paul is using the term apostle in the third sense. The apostles were the foundation of the church and the organs of revelation (Eph. 2:20; 3:26). Therefore, without hesitation it is fair to say that there are no apostles today in a narrow and restricted sense. What about prophets? Here again it is important to make a distinction. The English word prophecy derives from a Greek word meaning, public expounder. In the primary sense in which the Bible uses the word, a prophet was a person who stood in the council of God, who heard and even “saw” God’s word, and who in consequence spoke from the mouth of the Lord; and spoke His word faithfully. See Jeremiah 23:16-32. In other words, a prophet was a mouthpiece or spokesman of God, a vehicle of God’s direct revelation. In this sense we must conclude that there are no prophets today. Nobody can presume to claim an inspiration comparable to that of the prophets of the Bible, or use their introductory formula, “thus says the Lord.” If these were possible, we would have to add their words to Scripture and the whole church needs to listen and obey (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18-19).
If anybody tells you that he/she receives fresh revelation from God that person is a false prophet. Apostles have no successors, any more than prophets have, for the foundation was laid and finished centuries ago. You cannot tamper with the word of God and go scot-free. In fact, church history has revealed many people who claimed to receive fresh and special revelation from God. One of them even claimed that he was the Holy Spirit. Today the New Age Movement is teaching a similar concept (Sherry McCraine). The gift of prophecy was a supernatural gift. And in order to discern between false and true prophets, the Holy Spirit gives the gift of discerning of spirits to other believers. NT believers were not to despise prophesying but they were told to test the spirits (1 Thess. 5:20-21; 1 John 4:1).
Is there a subsidiary gift of a prophet? The answer is yes. Some see it as a special gift of biblical exposition, an unusual degree of insight into the Word of God so that by the ministry of the Holy Spirit modern prophets hear and receive the Word of God. Notice that this is not a new revelation, but a fresh understanding of the old. The second part of the prophetic office was the edification, instruction, consolation, and exhortation of believers in local congregations (1 Cor. 14:3). In this sense, prophecy was not given to scare an individual or as a form of divination or fortune telling as we see today. Prophecy was given to encourage and build the body of Christ for the purpose of advancing the kingdom of God on earth. There are some who have a sensitive understanding of the contemporary world and can read the signs and times together with the denunciation of social sins by making a perceptive application of Scripture to them (Francis Schaeffer, A. W. Tozer).
After apostles and prophets Paul mentions evangelists. The word evangelist occurs only three times in the NT (here, Acts 21:8 and 2 Tim. 4:5). The verb form evangelize is used frequently to describe the spreading of the gospel. The term evangelist simply means one who announces good news. It may refer to the gift of evangelistic preaching, or of making the gospel particularly plain and relevant to unbelievers, or of helping timid people to be committed to Christ, or effective personal witnessing. In a sense, every Christian is an evangelist, because in the Great Commission Christ commands us to take the gospel to all the nations of the world. Therefore, evangelism is not limited to professional evangelists (Billy Graham, Louis Palau, Bonke, etc). The gift of evangelism is also given to many lay people (Philip, a deacon). There is a great need for gifted evangelists today who will pioneer new ways of using and developing their gift so as to penetrate the vast unreached people of the world for Christ. There are many millions of people who have not heard the gospel. We need many evangelists to reach these people with the good news that Jesus saves.
This leads to the gift of pastor. The Bible does not often use the word pastor. In the OT, the term translates the Hebrew word for shepherd. The NT uses the word pastor only once with the root idea of shepherd (v. 11). Pastors are called to tend God’s flock, doing so in particular by feeding them through teaching (John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2). Every Pastor must be a teacher, yet not every Christian teacher is a pastor. Among many Christians the word pastor is one of the most commonly preferred designations for ordained clergy. Its use is consistent with the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ who called Himself the good Shepherd (John 10:11) and the great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb. 13:20). If Jesus is the chief Shepherd, then there must be assistant or under shepherds. Someone has said that evangelists catch the fish and the pastors clean them.
What about teachers? The word teacher means an instructor. When the message of Christ has resulted in conversion, the new believer must be taught (Matt. 28:18-20). One of the great needs of the church is for more gifted teachers of the Bible. Teaching is simply a Spirit-given ability to build into the lives of Christians the knowledge of God’s word and its application to their thinking and conduct. The goal of teaching is to conform Christians to the likeness of Christ.
In verse 12, Paul states clearly why Christ gave these gifts to His church. The purposes of the spiritual gifts are both immediate and ultimate. The immediate purpose is to equip the saints for ministry or to equip God’s people for work in His service. The ultimate purpose is for building up the body until we all reach maturity in Christ. The mentality that lay people come to church to sit and hear a sermon and then go home is not from the NT. It was a deviation and a corruption that crept into the church during the medieval times. That is why I don’t believe the pastor doing it all in the church. I don’t like one man or one woman show church. That is not the NT concept of church. Why does the Holy Spirit give spiritual gifts to Christians? Does the Holy Spirit give you a spiritual gift to sit on it? God will one day ask you what you did with the spiritual gift He gave to you. The work of evangelists, pastors, and teachers is to equip, and edify you to develop your spiritual gift for service to Christ. What are you doing with your spiritual gift? It is a human tendency to overestimate what you can do alone and to underestimate what we can accomplish as a team. As a body of Christ, we can accomplish more working together as a team than we would dream possibly working as an individual. Therefore, use your spiritual gifts as a part of the team in building the church as we advance the kingdom of God on earth.