God's Plan for the Church - Part 1

Tom Pennington • Ephesians 4:7-10

  • 2003-10-12 AM
  • Sermons


A number of years ago I heard an account of about an instructor at a prestigious fire fighting academy in one of the countries leading fire departments. On the first day of a new class of raw recruits, the instructor pulled them together for some basic ground rules about life in the academy. He started by assigning some basic but necessary menial duties to a number of the individual recruits. He gave them very specific chores like washing the trucks and putting away the hoses, greasing the pole and even feeding the station mascot. After he completed passing out all of the assignments, he asked each recruit to recount exactly what his job was to be. One after another these eager young cadets eagerly responded by listing their appropriate assignment and their specific assignment. When they were done the instructor paused for a moment, and then he said, "You're all wrong. Your job is not to wash trucks and to put away hoses; your job is to put out fires."

It's easy in the details of any enterprise to lose sight of the big picture. That's true of the church as well. We can get lost in the details and forget the overarching responsibilities. We get so busy in our programs and schedules and activities that we lose sight of God's plan for His church. That's why I've decided this week and next, as we begin serving together, that we would step back and take a look at the big picture. We would re-examine God's plan for His church. He has given the church a very specific plan in how the church is to function. But what exactly is that plan? Well Paul lays it out in detail in these brief but profound verses in Ephesians 4.

On his second missionary journey, Paul had left Aquila and Priscilla in Ephesus, and they had probably founded the church in Ephesus. But Acts tells us that on his third missionary journey, Paul actually stayed in Ephesus and pastored there for a period of more than three years. And it was during that time that the church was really firmly established. It was during those three years of ministering along side these people that Paul came to love them dearly. And so, it's not a surprise that when Paul finds himself in chained to a Roman soldier in a prison in Rome that he seizes the opportunity to write his beloved church. And it's not a surprise, because of that, that Ephesians is one of his richest of his letters, filled with profound theology and very practical insight into Christian experience and the church. But if Paul felt that the congregation he pastored for more than three years needed to be reminded of the plan and purpose of the church, then how much more important is it for us.

By the time we come to chapter 4, Paul has already reminded the Ephesians of the crucial role that the church plays in God's program for the world. Specifically, in chapter 3 Paul unfolds what he calls the mystery. That simply means a truth that was previously unrevealed. In verses 3 and 4 he eludes to this mystery, but notice verse 8 of chapter 3, Paul says,

To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles, the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery [There's our word] which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; [He said this is an amazing mystery that God had planned from eternity past but it's been hidden. What is this great mystery?] Verse 10, so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known in the church to the rulers and the authorities in heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.

These verses are saying that today God is putting the fullness of His wisdom on display in the church. Verse 10 goes even further to say that "rulers and authorities in heavenly places" that's a reference to angels and demons. They're scrutinizing the church to witness the incomprehensible wisdom of God. And according to verse 11 this was God's eternal plan, that His wisdom would be displayed in the church.

Commenting on this amazing passage, James Montgomery Boyce writes,

It's as though the church is a stage upon which God has been presenting the great drama of redemption, a true-life pageant in which it is shown how those who have rebelled against God and wrecked His universe are now being brought back into harmony with Him.

But how should the church, this show piece of God's wisdom actually run? How should it function? What is God's great plan for the church? It's in this passage that we will examine this Sunday and next that Paul answers those questions.

Specifically, we're going to look at the paragraph that begins in verse 7 and continues through verse 16. You follow along as I read the passage that we'll be studying today and next week, beginning in Ephesians 4:7, Paul writes,

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 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 pastor (pastor) 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. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love," [Or holding to the truth in love] we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love."

Now in those compact and amazing verses Paul addresses several elements of God's plan for the church and we're going to look at them in the message this morning, tonight and next Sunday as well. In verses 7 - 10 he addresses the gifts of individual believers. In verses 11 and 12 he deals with the role of gifted men in the church. In verse 13 he gets to the ultimate goal that we're shooting for as a church, and then in verses 14 - 16 he deals with the practical application of all of this for us.

This morning I want us to examine that first issue, the gifts of individual believers, in verses 7 - 10. Verse 7 begins with a contrast, but or on the other hand. Paul began the chapter by calling for spiritual unity among the people of God, and then without any introduction he launched into what is one of the most eloquent descriptions of our unity that exists in all of Scripture. Verse 4,

There is one body" [That is, all who follow Christ compose one living organism composed of mutually related and interdependent parts.] and one Spirit, [that is we've been placed into the church by one spirit.] just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; [That is we all share the certainty of eternal salvation and an eternal inheritance.] one Lord, [We all bow before one great sovereign Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ.] one faith, [We are united around one great body of doctrine. And he continues to say,] one baptism,

The end of verse 5 we are all publically associated with Christ through the same ceremony and probably implied in that expression is the baptism of the Spirit by which we were placed into the body of Christ in the moment of our salvation. Verse 6, "one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all." That is everyone who follows Christ and worships the true God of the Bible shares the same Father. The unity we enjoy is absolutely amazing.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote,

We are all equally sinners. We are all equally helpless. We have all come to one and the same Savior. We have the same salvation. We have the same Holy Spirit. We have the same Father. We even have the same trials. And we're all marching toward the same eternal home.

That's the basis of our unity. But unity is not uniformity. As soon as Paul finishes underscoring our unity he turns to our diversity. In verse 7 he says, "but" or on the other hand, "to each one of us individually grace was given." Paul's point is that for any church to be healthy there must be the kind of unity described in verses 4 - 6 and there must be the kind of diversity described in verses 7 and following. Without the unity of verses 4 - 6 you may have a crowd, but you don't have a church. But without diversity, even a true church can never function properly, anymore than a human body can function without its diverse parts. The divine plan calls for a certain kind of diversity in the church. Notice that the diversity extends, Paul says in verse 7, 'to each one of us.' Christ has given every believer a gift. Here is the essence of what Paul intends to say in verses 7 - 10. If you belong to Christ, He has given you a unique and specific gift to enable you to serve in the church.

But what exactly is this gift? And how did you get it? And why did you get it? And how do you use it? Those are questions that are going to be answered both in this passage and in some other texts that we'll look at this morning. In Ephesians 4:7-10, Paul will explain for us four crucial perspectives about the gift He has given you. Four crucial perspectives about the gift He has given you.

The first perspective is in verse 7, the specific character of Christ's gift. Notice the specific character of Christ's gift. Paul says,

"But to each one of us grace was given…." [Paul uses a similar expression to that back in chapter 3, notice verse 7. He speaks of the gospel] "of which I was made a minister, according to the gift of God's grace which was given to me according to the working of His power." [Verse 8] "To me," [He says] "the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ,"

Notice that Paul isn't describing the grace given in salvation, but God's grace in equipping him for service. Verse 8, he says, "grace was given to me to preach." It's equipping grace. When Paul says that grace was given to each one of us, he means grace to serve God in a particular way.

The Greek word for grace is "charis". The word that normally refers to spiritual gifts is "charisma". You can see how they're related. You can hear the sound even in English. The plural is "charismata". "Charisma" the Greek word literally means "a grace gift". That indicates the nature of this gift this gift that we receive is an expression of God's grace, an expression of His unmerited favor. And notice that it's passive. "Grace was given." That points to the source of the gift. It's what theologians call the divine passive, when the subject is understood. It's God who did the giving. In fact, Scripture attributes this gift to all the members of the Trinity. We won't take time to look at each of the references, but each member of the Trinity is said to participate in giving us this gift that we receive.

Paul is referring to what we call spiritual gifts. The tense of the Greek verb translated "was given" describes an event that happened in the past. The event was at your conversion. As a result of your salvation, as a result of your becoming God's child, He endowed you with a special gift to enable you to serve with a spiritual gift. My favorite definition of spiritual gifts is this adapted from a book called Body Life by Ray Stedman. He says something similar to this. "It is a unique capacity for service that is given to every true Christian and that he did not possess before salvation." In other words, a spiritual gift is not a natural talent. It's a gift that you receive at the moment of your salvation. Now a spiritual gift can be exercised through a natural talent. For example, someone who's naturally gifted as a communicator may also have the spiritual gift of teaching. Or someone who's talented at carpentry can use that natural skill and experience to exercise the spiritual gifts of helps, to go help someone else in the church who's in need. But this gift is something supernatural given at the moment of your salvation. And every one of us without exception has received the spiritual gift from Christ given to us through the work of the Spirit.

The Scripture is replete with this message. First Corinthians 12:7, "to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit." First Corinthians 12:11, "the Spirit distributes to each one individually just as He wills." First Peter 4:10, "each one has received a special gift." Romans 12:3, "God has allotted to each a measure of faith." Just as every member of the human body fulfills a particular role, so does every member of the body of Christ there isn't a single member of the body of the local church, or of the universal church, that doesn't play a part or have an assignment, have a role to fill and has been gifted by Christ to fill that role. Romans 12:4 and 5 says, "all members don't have the same function" but verse 6 says, "gifts that differ according to the grace given to us." There's that expression again, the grace given to us.

James Montgomery Boyce writes, "It's failure to see this truth," that is the truth that every believer has been gifted for service in the church. He says,

"It's failure to see that truth that has led in church history to what John R. Stott has termed "the clerical domination of the laity." There has developed with the church for a variety of reasons a kind of division between the clergy and the laity in which the clergy are supposed to lead and do the work of the Christian ministry while the people (which is what the word laity means) are to follow docilely and of course give money to support the clergy in their work."

This mindset is absolutely pervasive in the church. This mindset of let the pastor do the work, and we come to watch. In 1906 there was a papal encyclical that was circulated that just epitomizes this attitude. Listen to what this paper said. "As for the masses they have no other right than of letting themselves be led and of following their pastors as a docile flock." Scripture on the other hand says that Christ has given to each Christian a unique capacity to serve in the church.

Now what are these spiritual gifts and in what categories do they fall? The spiritual gifts in the New Testament are primarily listed in Romans 12 and in 1 Corinthians 12, easy to remember. There're two lists in 1 Corinthians 12, and there is one in Romans 12. There are eighteen total spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament. When you look at those eighteen though they fall into two categories. First there are what we could call the temporary sign gifts. That is those gifts that were given at the foundation of the church to confirm the word of the apostles and the truth that they were speaking. If you turn to (you don't need to turn there), but if you look at 2 Corinthians 12:12, a number of the gifts are sighted, the miraculous gifts are sighted there, and they're called the signs of an apostle. Because they were given to confirm the truth that they were speaking and those were temporary in nature. They were signs of an apostle and now that the apostles are gone they're no longer needed.

The second category though, in addition to temporary sign gifts, the second category are what we could call permanent edifying gifts. Those are the gifts that are available to us today. Peter breaks down that second category that is the permanent edifying gifts into two categories. I love the way Peter's mind works. In 1 Peter 4:10 and 11 he essentially takes all the remaining gifts, that is those gifts that are active today, that are in the church today, and he separates them into two categories. He says there are those who speak, and there are those who serve. And essentially, that separates those remaining permanent edifying gifts: teaching and serving.

Of the eighteen gifts listed in the New Testament, four were probably sign gifts; best we can determine. Two of the eighteen are in both lists so you can take away those. So, you're dealing with about twelve permanent gifts. Now that may not be exhaustive, that may only adequately represent the potential diversity. But those twelve permanent gifts become a sort of divine pallet.

A hobby of mine is oil painting, and I've enjoyed learning about color and tone and all of those issues relating to God's creation. It's an amazing thing about color, and perhaps some of you are already aware of this, there are only three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. Those colors can't be mixed from other colors. They can only be derived from substances in which they are inherent. But if you have those three colors (red, yellow, and blue), you can get the entire range of tone and color, you can create the entire range of tone and color that exists from those three primary colors. There isn't a single color on which your eye will fall today, that can't be mixed from those three primary colors.

God in gifting His people has a pallet instead of three primary colors of twelve primary colors. And you picture God as the divine artist taking a little of this color and a little of this gift and a little of this gift and mixing them together in a special and unique formula on the divine pallet and then painting each of us with that unique gift in which to serve in the church. An infinite variety God has available at His disposal. What an amazing reality to each one of us, God gave a special capacity to serve Him in the church.

Now before I leave this first point. Let me answer a question that many of you probably have, and that is how can I discover my gift? What is my gift? Well first of all you need to know that it's not hidden. God has no interest in hiding from you what your gift is. But there are some practical steps that you can take to help discern it. Let me give you a few of those. How can you discern where your capacity lies?

Number one: study what the Scripture says about gifts. We obviously don't have time in our message this morning to look at, in detail, each one of the gifts that are listed in Romans 12 and in 1 Corinthians 12, but I encourage you to do that. There are several good resources, probably some even here in the book store that you could get that would spell out what those gifts are and as you study them and as you see what they are you'll be you'll begin to get a grasp on what your gift is.

Secondly: pray for God's direction. Pray for God to give you insight into yourself and your gifts.

Number three: assess your own desires as well as your strengths and weaknesses. Take an honest assessment of what you long to do and of your strengths and weaknesses in terms of ministry.

Ultimately, though, number four: you should seek the wisdom and confirmation of others. We can't know ourselves and so you should seek the wisdom and confirmation of others, ultimately the rest of the church is responsible to evaluate and affirm your giftedness in a certain area.

Number five: just faithfully serve. You see, when we serve, when we choose to get involved we tend to gravitate toward the area of our gifts. Look at our physical bodies. So much of the function of our bodies is involuntary, that is we don't have to think about it. The parts just do what they're supposed to do. Our liver didn't have to complete a three-page personality assessment to determine how it should function in the body. God made it to serve a certain function, and it just does that. The same is true in the church. You just need to decide to get involved. And as you do, the Lord will direct you into the area of your gifts.

So, the first perspective Paul refers to in this passage is the specific character of Christ's gift. The second perspective we need to see is the sovereign assignment of Christ's gift. It's also in verse 7, notice he says, "but to each one of us, grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift." The sovereign assignment of our gift. How did you get your unique capacity to serve in the church, and why is it that you receive your gift and not that which someone else has? Paul says you received it in exactly the proportion God determined to give it. God in His infinite wisdom gave you precisely the gift He thought best for you to have and to use in the church that you would be involved in. The New Testament everywhere makes the same point. Romans 12:3, "… through the grace given to me" Paul says, "I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith."

First Corinthians 12:11, "the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one as He wills." First Corinthians 12:18, "God has placed the members each one of them, in the body, just as He desired." First Corinthians 12:24, "God has composed the body,"

But I think Paul drives this message home in a unique way in 1 Corinthians 12. I want you to turn there for a moment. First Corinthians 12 beginning in verse 4. Paul is beginning in the Corinthian Epistle to deal with the issue of tongues, but he doesn't start by dealing with the abuse of tongues. He starts in chapter 12 by laying out a foundation, a foundational understanding of spiritual gifts. And notice how he begins in verse 4. He says, "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit." In other words, God has chosen the character of your gift. The Spirit is the one who accounts for the diversity in the church. Verse 5, "And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord."

The word "ministries" has to do with the context in which we use our gift. His point here is not only has God determined the character of your gift in verse 4, but in verse 5 He's decided the context in which your service will be performed. For example, you have the gift of teaching. God's decided where you'll use that gift and what context you'll use that gift, in what church and in what setting in that church, whether in Sunday school or in adult fellowship or in the public worship. Verse 6, and "There are varieties of effects," Or outcomes or results "but the same God who works all things in all persons."

In other words, not only has God sovereignly determined what gift you will have, and not only has God sovereignly determined where you will use that gift and in what context you will use that gift, God has even sovereignly determined the results of your efforts.

Paul wants us to understand that gifts are distributed by the Spirit, for the Spirit's purposes. He gives us a place to use those gifts in His own plan, and the results that come from our use of our gift in that context is from the hand of God. God has determined what unique combination of gifts you will have, and you can do nothing to change that. If you are especially gifted, then this truth should destroy all temptation to pride because you did absolutely nothing to get the gift you have. God sovereignly determined to give it to you, and if you feel that you're less endowed and you don't have the gifts you wish you had, then this truth that God is the one who determined what gifts you would have and the place in which you would use them and the results of your efforts. That truth should keep you from discontent.

God's sovereignty, however, doesn't undermine human responsibility, and there are some things that are recorded in the New Testament that we have to do regarding spiritual gifts. I'm not going to give you all of these. Let me give you three thoughts in terms of responsibilities we have with our gifts in spite of the fact that God is sovereign.

Number one: the church is responsible to evaluate a person's giftedness. You can't decide that you're gifted enough to teach an adult fellowship group. The church evaluates and confirms those gifts, that's why Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:22, "do not lay hands on anyone too hastily." Make sure, in fact, they've been gifted and called to that, in that case, a specific ministry of the Word. The church is to confirm and evaluate a person's giftedness.

My father-in-law, who was a pastor in rural Georgia when he wasn't teaching during the week. On Sunday's and on the weekends he would go down into rural Georgia and pastor in churches down in that area to help strengthen them and to encourage them. And it wasn't one of his churches, but he tells the story of a friend pastor of his who sent off a young man to seminary, and he came home after his first semester at Christmas time, and the pastor dutifully offered him a chance to preach. And so, the young man got up to preach this message that he'd spent all semester preparing, and he began to preach and a few minutes into the message there was this dear old Christian lady sitting down in the front, and she began slowly to nod her head back in forth, to shake her head no. He went on just a few minutes further in his message, and he started saying something that couldn't at first be audibly understood, but as time went along it became clear what she was saying, she was nodding as he was preaching, "the Lord ain't called you to preach, the Lord ain't called you to preach." Well maybe that's not the best way to come to explain that reality, but that's how it's supposed to work. The church is responsible to confirm the giftedness of individuals.

There's a second responsibility we have regarding spiritual gifts. Not only is the church responsible to evaluate our giftedness, but you can and should progress in the use of your gift. You should make progress. First Timothy 4, Paul says something very interesting to Timothy. He says, "don't neglect the spiritual gift within you." That seems to imply that Timothy could weaken his gift by misuse or non-use of his gift. Paul goes on in 1 Timothy 4 to say, "take pains with these things Timothy, be absorbed in them" listen to this, "so that your progress will be evident to all." Frankly this verse applies directly and specifically to me. You should be, and in God's goodness and help, you should be able to see each week and over time, progress in the function and use of my gifts – and so should others, yours.

Number three: not only should the church evaluate our giftedness and should we progress in the use of our gift, but Scripture says we are also responsible to soberly evaluate how our gift fits into the body. Romans 12:3, a verse I read earlier says we're to thing soberly and not more highly of ourselves than we ought to think. We're to have sound judgment about our gifts. That's the context of that verse. We're to soberly evaluate how our gifts fit into the body. You see there're two extremes. There were two extremes in Corinth, and there're two extremes today regarding gifts. One of them in 1 Corinthians 12:15 – 19, Paul says the foot all of a sudden decides that it's tired of being a foot that its role is inferior and that it wants instead to be the hand. This is frequently a temptation for us to consider our giftedness as insignificant compared to others and to want the role that they have.

The other extreme or the other sinful reaction is to consider our giftedness not inferior to others, but superior to others. In 1 Corinthians 12:20 - 24, all of a sudden, the head decides that it doesn't need the feet. It assumes that its role in the body is superior, and we could make that same conclusion that our gifts, whatever they be are superior to those around us. Either superior in kind, for example in Corinth they tended to look down on all non-tongues gifts. And Paul has to correct that in 1 Corinthians 12 - 14. In a teaching church, there can be a tendency to look down on serving gifts as if they don't have the same value.

We can also think our gifts are superior in quality, that is, when others who have the same gift are using their gift, we can always be critiquing or criticizing them in our mind or even to others. None of those responses are appropriate. We are to soberly evaluate how we fit in the body. God has placed us sovereignly in the place we have with the ministry we have for His purposes, and we're to do that to fulfill that function soberly. Each one of us has received a unique capacity for service in the church measured out to us by God's wise and sovereign hand and we're to be humble about and content with the role God has assigned us in the body, and we're to use our gift faithfully.

So far, in Ephesians 4 we've seen the specific character of Christ's gift and the sovereign assignment of Christ's gift, and that brings us to Paul's third point and the third crucial perspective about Christ's gift to us and that is: the special occasion of Christ's gift; the special occasion of Christ's gift. Verse 8,

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….)"

Now when you you've read this passage in the past you may have been tempted just to skim this part, because at first it doesn't really seem to fit into the flow of Paul's argument.

I remember when I was in school, I would stay up sometimes late at night into the wee hours of the morning writing term papers. And occasionally, well probably more than occasionally, I would fall asleep, and I would wake myself with a start and continue typing and a few minutes later I might drift off again, and then wake up and type a few more lines. The next morning when I took that paper out of the typewriter, and yes it was a typewriter in those early days, and I would read what I had written it was disjointed and confusing. And later when I served as an English teacher, I read many papers like that.

At first glance it's almost like Paul dozed off in the middle of dictating the letter of Ephesians. But, in reality, verses 8 - 10 not only fit, but they reveal the genius of the mind of the Spirit. Usually, when we give or receive gifts, there's a particular occasion; a birthday, an anniversary, perhaps a wedding, or some other significant event. What Paul wants us to know is the occasion for the spiritual gift we have each received. So, he begins in verse 8 with "therefore it" or "the Scripture says", and then he quotes Psalm 68:18.

Psalm 68 is a victory hymn. It's a hymn that David wrote to celebrate both his conquest of the Jebusite city; you know the city that would eventually become Jerusalem the capital of Israel and to celebrate the ascent of the Arc of the Covenant up to Mount Zion there in that city. That arc representing the throne of God as it was taken up to His throne room if you would on the top of Mount Zion. And David wrote this hymn to celebrate the capture of that city.

But Paul's quotation of Psalm 68:18 isn't exact, in fact, it's not exactly the same as either the Septuagint, that is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament or the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. So, Paul may be making a general illusion to this kind of verse as an analogy to what happened with Christ, rather than saying that what happened with Christ was a specific fulfillment of a specific prediction in Psalm 68. Or, under the inspiration of the Spirit, Paul may be interpreting Psalm 68 in the way it should have been interpreted. Regardless, this is the scene. In the ancient world, and really until the modern Geneva conventions of war, when a king defeated his enemy in battle he would return to his capital city with all of the pomp and circumstance that his kingdom could muster. There would be a great parade and part of that parade would include the prisoners of war especially the officers and the notable people of the opposing army. In addition, the king would sometimes give gifts from the spoil to his people.

When I was in Rome, I had the chance to see the Arch of Titus, and on that massive stone archway are carved reliefs depicting the Roman general leading his victorious army in triumph into the city with all the captured prisoners of war coming behind him in chains. That's the picture behind these verses. When He, that is Christ, ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives.

Now Paul doesn't tell us who these captives are, but there's nothing in Psalm 68 or here in Ephesians 4 that suggest these captives are either (a) the redeemed, that is us, or (b) Old Testament believers that were until now were held in some subterranean holding cell and on Christ's ascension He took with Him. You won't find that in either of those texts. Since in the psalm, in the context of the psalm Paul quotes, it's the enemies of Israel that are being led captive, it's probably best here in Ephesians to conclude that as well. The enemies of that Christ defeated at His cross are the ones He's leading captive. The hosts that are in rebellion against Him, the demons and all of those who opposed His great plan, who thought they had won a great victory at the cross, those are the ones Christ in His triumph into heaven is leading behind Him captive.

In verse 9 Paul asks, what does "… HE ASCENDED ON HIGH" refer to? What does that expression mean? It's logical, Paul says, to assume that if He ascended, He must have first descended. Specifically, he says, "into the lower parts of the earth." Now, that expression has garnered a variety of interpretations in the history of the church, "the lower parts of the earth." But the best understanding of it is that it simply refers to the earth. In the incarnation Christ humbled Himself to live in this world that's so much lower than the heavens. It refers to His extreme condescension. Christ came from the heights of heaven to the lower parts of the earth. In fact, in Isaiah 44, the phrase the lower parts of the earth is contrasted with the height of heaven.

So, here is what Paul intends to say. Forty days after His resurrection Christ ascended back to heaven from the incredible humiliation of living here in this world. The humiliation of dying on a cross, and as He returned He led His enemies in triumph behind Him, and He also gave gifts to men, specifically spiritual gifts to every believer, and, as we'll see tonight, gifted men to the whole church. As Christ marched in triumph back into the throne room of His Father, He led those He had captured behind Him, and He gave gifts to us. Paul completes his point by adding in verse 10, "He who descended (is)is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens…." [ The lower parts of the earth describes Christ's humiliation. Far above all the heavens describes His exaltation.]

The Jews believed that there were seven levels to heaven, and Paul of course in 2 Corinthians refers to being caught up to the third heaven. But the only thing far above all the heavens is the throne of God and God Himself. And that is what Christ has been exalted to. Turn to Philippians 2 and notice verse 6.

… although Christ existed in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but He emptied Himself," [ All the prerogatives of Deity and] "taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men, Being found in appearance as a man," [ And He keeps going down] "He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death," [ And He goes even lower,] "for even death on a cross."

Remember the law said cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree. So, He went from the height of heaven and equality with God to cursed. That was His humiliation. Verse 9 begins His exaltation.

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow; of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God His Father.

Christ, who descended into the lower parts of the earth, has ascended into the very presence of God and is exalted there forever.

This is Paul's point in Ephesians 4. Don't take your gift for granted. Christ won the right to give you that gift at a tremendous cost. He had to leave the glory that He shared with His Father and come all the way to earth, become a man, to become a lowly slave even to stoop to the cursed death of a common criminal. And then He defeated His enemies and He ascended back to the throne of God in triumph. That's the occasion that prompted Christ to give gifts to His people. Treasure your gift. Thank God for it, and use it as Christ intended in His church because you have received it in celebration of a very special occasion.

That brings us to the final perspective that Paul explains here and that is the singular purpose of Christ's gift; the singular purpose of Christ's gift. Now the immediate purpose of gifts is found in verse 12. They're to be used for the work of service. That's an expression that we'll examine in detail tonight. But there're other New Testament texts that make the same point that these gifts are to serve. For example, 1 Corinthians 12:7 says, "as each one of you" that is every single Christian "has received the manifestation of the Spirit" literally the Spirit produced this play, he says "you received it for the common good." That is, literally for profit. Your gift is for the profit of everyone else.

Peter makes this same point in 1 Peter 4:10. "As each one has received a special gift, employ it" [ How?] "in serving one another." [ So, your gifts aren't for you, they're meant to edify the entire church. The immediate purpose of spiritual gifts is to serve and to serve in the church.]

But their ultimate purpose is found at the end of verse 10 in Ephesians 4. "so that He might fill all things." You see Christ's condescension, His ascension and His giving of gifts are all intended to do one thing – to exalt Him until He fills everything in the universe and until He rules sovereignly everything. It's intended to exalt Christ. As Barclay writes, "The ascension of Christ meant not a Christ deserted world, but a Christ filled world." Peter puts this same point (that these gifts are to exalt our Lord and to hold Him up), he puts it a little differently, but listen to what Peter says in 1 Peter 4. He says,

"As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, … [let him speak as it were,] the utterances of God; whoever serves, … [let him do so as] by the strength which God supplies; so that" [ Here's the goal or purpose] … "in all things God may be glorified through Christ Jesus, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever."

He says, use your gift. Employ it in serving one another. So that, in all things, that is the functioning of every member of the body, God may be glorified. You see when each of us use our gifts, when the body of Christ functions properly, we reflect the glory of our God. And when others see the church working together like that it causes them to think more highly of our God. The proper exercise of our gifts gives glory to God.

At Grace, Sheila and I had the privilege of becoming good friends with the world's foremost classical guitarist, Christopher Parkening. Perhaps some of you have enjoyed his music. He described to us, on a number of occasions, his master tutor Andres Segovia, the foremost classical guitarist of his times and perhaps of all times. And I couldn't help but think as I heard Chris play, that his playing, as people heard the beautiful tones that came out of the guitar and the skill with which he played that every time he played, it reflected on his teacher. It reflected on Andres Segovia. It brought glory if you will to Andres Segovia. And even so, when you and I use our gifts in the church in a way that pleases and honors God who gave them, it brings glory to Him. And Peter says He's worthy of being glorified because he ends that passage by saying this, 'to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen.'

What are the practical lessons for us from this study this morning as we've looked at spiritual gifts? There're several overarching principles that flow from the apostle's argument, and I give them to you briefly.

Number one and this is an important one: don't mistake the presence or effectiveness of your gift with the presence of personal holiness. Don't mistake the effective use of your gift with personal holiness. You see the Corinthians were an amazing church, as you read through the book; it's amazing what they were tolerating. They were allowing incest to go on unconfronted. They were allowing drunken brawls to occur at the Lord's table. There was petty infighting about who belonged to what group. And yet Paul begins the Corinthian epistle by saying this in 1:7, "you are not lacking in any gift." You see God gave gifts for us to serve the church, and we can use them effectively and still in our hearts not be right with God. You see God once spoke very effectively through a donkey. Don't mistake the effectiveness of your gift with the presence of personal holiness.

Number two: learn to value the diversity of gifts God has placed within the church. Be thankful that we're not all the same and that we don't all have the same function. Sometimes we can frustrate one another if we're not careful because we function differently; we think differently; we behave differently; we approach problems differently. But learn to value the diversity that God has placed within the church.

Number three: don't become proud because your gift is more visible and don't become discontent because your gift is less so. Remember God's sovereign placement of you in the place He wants you.

Number four: determine to use your gift in this church as the channel through which your service to God flows. You see if you're a believer, you have a gift. Start using it in serving the fellow believers here. If you have a speaking gift, just this morning I made announcements about Sunday school teachers for the children. Get involved in using your gift in this body. Maybe you use it for private encouragement; maybe you use that teaching gift in Bible studies. However you use it, use it. God gave you that gift to function in this church. If your gifts are in the serving area, there are so many ministries in this church where you could serve. But use it. That's the reason God gave it to you, and He commands you to do it.

Number five: develop a constant awareness of God's sovereignty in the area of what gifts you have, the context in which you will use those gifts and even the outcome of the use of those gifts. God does what God does, our job is to be good stewards as Peter says, of the gifts we've been given.

And number six: determine to use your gift with the right motive and that is to build other believers up and to glorify your great God.

Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You for how it instructs us.

Lord, forgive us for being selfish with the wonderful gifts You've given us. Help us to use them in the church to Your glory.

We pray in Jesus' name, Amen.