In Ephesians 4:4-12, the apostle Paul says this:
“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all. But unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith,
When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, And gave gifts unto men.
(Now this, He ascended, what is it but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ . . .”
In this passage, Paul is giving the Ephesians reasons to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” among themselves, and all other Christians with whom they interact. He’s doing this by describing and defining that unity, and how the Ephesians are to preserve it.
In the first sentence, he lists to them the essential things that they all have in common. In the following sentences, he describes the essentials of their unity that they don’t have in common, and yet are part of their unity from the Spirit. These essentials are “the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ”. When Paul uses the word “grace” here, he specifically means God’s undeserved favor of giving each believer a spiritual gift that is essential to preserve the unity of the Spirit.
In the sentences after the first one, Paul teaches the Ephesians 5 main things about the gifts that come from Christ:
- The Variety of Christ’s Gifts (vs. 7)
- The Victory for Christ’s Gifts (v. 8)
- The Vigor Behind Christ’s Gifts (vss. 9-10)
- The Voices of Christ’s Gifts (v. 11)
- The Value of Christ’s Gifts (v. 12)
First, Paul describes the variety of Christ’s gifts:
“But unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ.”
Here, clearly Paul begins this passage with a contrast. What’s he contrasting? The things that Christians have in common (the body, the Spirit, hope, the Lord, faith, baptism, God, and the Father) and what they don’t have in common (“but unto each one“).
The thing that believers don’t have in common is “the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ”. What does Paul mean by this? First, let’s define what he means by “grace” here. Paul has actually used this word in this same sense in verses 6-7 of chapter 3:
“. . . the Gentiles are fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel, whereof [of which] I was made a minister, according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power . . .”
What does Paul mean by “the gift of that grace of God” here? Well, it’s that which is the basis for his appointment to be a minister, or server, of the gospel according to the working of His power. What does this mean? That the reason that Paul was able to be “made a minister” was because he received a gift of God’s grace by His power. In other words, Paul received the gift of apostleship from God to be a minister of the gospel. That’s almost exactly what he says in verse 11 of our passage:
“And he gave some to be apostles . . .”
So, the grace that Paul says every believer has been given is the grace of a spiritual gift. But what does it mean that they were given “according to the measure of the gift of Christ”? First, the word “measure” means a measured portion, or a specific portion of something. And that something is “the gift of Christ”. This doesn’t refer to something different from “the grace given”, but simply means that this grace is a gift, or is a free, undeserved, blessing from Christ to every believer. However, clearly, not all believers get the same gift, since all of the gifts are measured specifically for each individual believer, as suits each of them best.
After this sentence, Paul describes to the Ephesians the victory for Christ’s gifts:
“Wherefore he saith,
When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive,
And gave gifts unto men.”
What does Paul mean by “wherefore” here? It’s just another word for “therefore”, so he’s implying that what follows it is a logical conclusion from the fact that “unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ”.
So, what is the deduction he makes from the fact that every believer has received a measured gift from Christ? That “he saith” something. Who is this “he”? Well, some translations use the word “it” instead of “he”, and some also clearly show that what follows is a quotation from the Old Testament, so Paul’s basically saying that Scripture, the human author, and God Himself say what follows.
So, what does Scripture say about the fact that Christ gave each believer a gift?
“When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, And gave gifts unto men.”
This passage from one of the Psalms of the Old Testament describes the ascension of Christ, His victory over “captivity”, and His gifting of men.
First, it says that Christ “ascended on high”. What does this mean? Well, Paul tells us later in this passage:
“He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all the heavens . . .”
In other words, the Psalm is saying that Christ ascended into heaven itself, the spiritual realm where God’s presence is particularly manifested.
Second, the Psalm says that “he led captivity captive”. This would be better translated “he led captives captive”, which is similar to how most good translations render it. In fact, this is the general way that it’s translated in the passage as it’s found in English Old Testaments.
So, what does it mean? In order to find out, we have to look at the context of this passage in the Psalms, which is Psalm 68:7-18:
“O God, when thou wentest forth before thy people,
When thou didst march through the wilderness; . . .
The earth trembled,
The heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God:
. . . Sinai trembled at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
Thou, O God, didst send a plentiful rain,
Thou didst confirm thine inheritance, when it was weary.
Thy congregation dwelt therein:
Thou, O God, didst prepare of thy goodness for the poor.
The Lord giveth the word:
The women that publish the tidings are a great host.
Kings of armies flee, they flee;
And she that tarrieth at home divideth the spoil.
When ye lie among the sheepfolds,
It is as the wings of a dove covered with silver,
And her pinions with yellow gold.
When the Almighty scattered kings therein,
It was as when it snoweth in Zalmon.
A mountain of [might] is the mountain of Bashan;
A high mountain is the mountain of Bashan.
Why look ye askance, ye high mountains,
At the mountain which God hath desired for his abode?
Yea, Jehovah will dwell in it for ever.
The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands upon thousands:
The Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the sanctuary.
Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led away captives;
Thou hast received gifts among men,
Yea, among the rebellious also, that Jehovah God might dwell with them.”
First, to understand this passage, we have to understand the basics of what’s going on here. It begins with God marching “through the wilderness”, then moves on to “kings of armies” fleeing from God and being “scattered”, and finishes with the Lord ascending on high, leading away captives, and receiving gifts. In the original context, the author is clearly describing the march of Israel through the wilderness, which resulted in victory over “kings of armies”, and eventually led to God dwelling in the sanctuary in Jerusalem, which is “the mountain which God hath desired for his abode”.
So what does this description tell us about what it means that Christ “led away captives” when He “ascended on high”? It tells us that the “captives” are His enemies that He defeated through His life, death, and resurrection. When He ascended, He had victory over His enemies. But who are the enemies that He defeated?
Paul tells us in Colossians 2:13-15:
“ And you, being dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, you, I say, did he make alive together with him [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses; having blotted out the [certificate of debt] written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us: and he hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross; having [disarmed] the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it [the cross].”
Here, Paul says that God “disarmed the principalities and powers”, then “made a show of them openly, triumphing over them” through the cross of Christ, and thus, through Christ Himself. So, the enemies that Christ led away captive were “the principalities and powers”. But who are they?
Paul tells us in Ephesians 6:11-12:
“Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
First, Paul says that the Ephesians are to put on the whole armor of God to be able to stand against the wiles of “the devil”, who is the most powerful evil angel, who is at war with God. Then, he says why. Their wrestling isn’t against flesh and blood, but who’s it against?
“. . . against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
In other words, their wrestling is against the devil’s hosts — demons. Thus, what Paul means in Colossians 2, and what the Holy Spirit means in Psalm 68, by Christ’s enemies who He led away captive, or defeated, are demons, and the devil himself.
The third thing that Paul includes from Psalm 68 is that Christ “gave gifts unto men”. Clearly, this refers to “the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ” “unto each one of us”. In other words, these gifts are spiritual gifts given to each individual member of the church, or each believer.
But why did He give gifts to believers? Because “he ascended on high” and “he led captives captive” in His victory over sin, death, the devil, and demons.
The third thing that Paul teaches us in this passage is the vigor behind Christ’s gifts:
“(Now this, He ascended, what is it but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)”
In this parenthesis, Paul explains the significance of the passage from Psalm 68 that he’s just quoted. Specifically, he points to the significance of the words “he ascended”. What is the significance? That those words imply that “he also descended into the lower parts of the earth”.
Now, what does Paul mean by “the lower parts of the earth”? Well, he has to mean a similar thing to how this phrase is used in other parts of Scripture. For example, consider Isaiah 44:23:
“Sing, O ye heavens, for Jehovah hath done it; shout, ye lower parts of the earth; break forth into singing, ye mountains, O forest, and every tree therein: for Jehovah hath redeemed Jacob, and will glorify himself in Israel.”
What does the speaker here mean by “lower parts of the earth”? They are clearly in the same category as “ye heavens”, “ye mountains”, “O forest”, and “every tree”. Are any of these things inside the earth, or under the earth? No, every thing mentioned that’s connected to the earth is on the earth — the mountains, forest, and every tree. Hence, we should understand “lower parts of the earth” here as simply referring to the low points on the earth — in contrast to the mountains, it seems.
Another place where we find a similar phrase is Psalm 139:14-15:
“I will give thanks unto thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:
Wonderful are thy works;
And that my soul knoweth right well.
My frame was not hidden from thee,
When I was made in secret,
And curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.”
Now, do the words “the lowest parts of the earth” mean under the earth here? Obviously not, since the author is simply saying that his body was formed in the womb on the earth.
Given the way the phrase “lower” or “lowest parts of the earth” is used elsewhere in Scripture, and since Paul’s mind was saturated with the Old Testament, being a “Pharisee of Pharisees”, we must understand “the lower parts of the earth” in our passage as simply referring to low points on the earth, in contrast to the higher parts of the earth. In general, it simply means that God the Son came to earth as a man.
After giving us the significant implication of Psalm 68’s statement that Christ “ascended”, Paul then explains the significance of this implication:
“He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”
Why does Paul even say this? He’s emphasizing the significance of the fact that God became a Man, and that this Man ascended into heaven. Why?
“. . . that he might fill all things.”
What does this mean? Paul has said something similar in Ephesians 1:22-23:
“. . . he [God the Father] put all things in subjection under his [Christ’s] feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.”
What does it mean that Christ “fills all in all”? Does it mean that He fills all the members of the church in all things? Well, if that was the case then Paul would simply be repeating himself, since he has just said that the church is the fullness of Christ — that is, that Christ fills the church. Rather, we should see the word “all” as referring to the “all things” that Paul has just said God has made Christ the head over, and the “all things” that He has put in subjection under His feet. So, Paul is saying that, it is not just the Head of the body who fills the body, but it is also the “fullness of Deity in bodily form” who “fills all things” in all things who is the One filling the church. In other words, Paul is pointing out to the Ephesians that this very same One who fills them is the One who fills the entire universe with His divine presence.
And how does this divine presence of Christ manifest itself? Paul tells us in Colossians 1:18-19:
“And he [Christ] is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in him should all the [His] fulness dwell . . .”
So, how will Christ’s filling of all things, which is the result of His resurrection and ascension, manifest itself ultimately? In Him having “the preeminence”, or “first place”, “in all things”.
In the context of our passage, how does Paul’s parenthesis about Christ’s ascension and incarnation fit into his explanation of Christ’s gifts to the church? He’s teaching that the basis for Christ’s ability to give gifts to the church is His incarnation, ascension, and filling of all things. Now that He’s in heaven, He fills all things, and especially the church, through the Person of the Holy Spirit. Because of His ascension and filling of all things, He’s able to give spiritual gifts to His church through His Spirit. And He does this all as a human being who is also God Himself. That’s why He had to ascend “far above all the heavens”, or space, and fill all things, before He could give “gifts unto men”. “All authority in heaven and on earth” had to be given to Him, and He had to be given “the glory that [He] had with [the Father] before the world was” (Matthew 28; John 17).
After this parenthesis on the vigor behind Christ’s gifts, in that He fills all things, Paul moves on to the voices of Christ’s gifts:
“And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers . . .”
The reason I call this list “the voices of Christ’s gifts” is because, in this clause, Paul names the speaking gifts that Christ gave to the church. In other words, all of these gifts are supernatural abilities that involve speaking.
Paul begins with the apostles that Christ gave to the church. The Greek word translated “apostles” literally means “sent ones”, and carries the idea of an authoritative representative of the sender. In this case, the Sender is Christ.
So, who were the apostles that Paul refers to? Well, the word “apostle” actually is used in 2 ways in the New Testament.
The first way is found in what the apostle Peter and Luke say in Acts 1:21-26:
“Of the men therefore that have companied with us [the apostles] all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto the day that he was received up from us, of these must one become a witness with us of his resurrection. And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show of these two the one whom thou hast chosen, to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas fell away, that he might go to his own place. And they gave lots for them; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.”
In this passage, we see that one of the qualifications of this type of apostle was that he had to be “witness” of Jesus’s resurrection. In other words, he had to see Jesus after He was raised from the dead.
We also find another distinctive mark of this type of apostle in 2 Corinthians 12:12:
“Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, by signs and wonders and mighty works.”
Here, Paul says that true apostles did “signs and wonders and mighty works”. In other words, they performed miracles.
Another qualification for any type of apostle is what we find in Romans 15:18-21:
“For I will not dare to speak of any things save those which Christ wrought through me, for the obedience of the Gentiles, by word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Holy Spirit; so that from Jerusalem, and round about even unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ; yea, making it my aim so to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, that I might not build upon another man’s foundation; but, as it is written,
They shall see, to whom no tidings of him came,
And they who have not heard shall understand.”
In this passage, Paul says that the aim of his apostolic ministry is to “preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named”. That is, his mission was to preach the gospel where Christ hadn’t been named yet. This was one of the distinctive characteristics of New Testament apostles, and one of the reasons why Paul puts apostles first on his list of speaking gifts that Christ gave to the church.
So, if that’s the first type of apostle, what’s the second? We see this in Acts 14:14:
“But when the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, heard of it . . .”
Here, Barnabas is clearly called an apostle, and yet, nowhere is he said to have seen the risen Lord Jesus, and nowhere in the New Testament is he said to be a part of the 12 Jewish apostles, unlike Paul, who is associated with the 12. Barnabas is called an apostle here because he was simply another “sent one” to people that had never heard the gospel before.
We see a similar thing in Romans 16:7:
“Salute Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen, and my fellow-prisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also have been in Christ before me.”
It is clear that these people are nowhere grouped together with the 12 apostles, but Paul says that they are “of note among the apostles”, implying that they are apostles themselves.
The second gift that Paul lists is “prophets”. In Acts 15:32, we see one distinguishing characteristic of New Testament prophets:
“And Judas and Silas, being themselves also prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed [strengthened] them.”
The word “exhorted” basically means to urge someone to do something, and that is what these prophets were doing. And notice that Luke specifically points out that the reason they did this was that they were “themselves also prophets”. Clearly, Luke isn’t saying that they primarily foretold the future when they “exhorted” the brethren. Basically, they preached sermons.
However, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14:29-30 how prophets got their messages:
“And let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern. But if a revelation be made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence.”
Here, Paul says that “a revelation” may be given to a prophet while he is sitting, and listening to another prophet speak. What does this mean? That prophets were given direct revelation from God, and that revelation is what they preached, and what they used to exhort the listeners.
So, the basic nature of the New Testament ministry of prophet was that it had to involve receiving direct divine revelation, which was used to exhort Christians. It could involve both foretelling the future, and forthtelling the Word of God, as Acts 15:32 shows us. In fact, this is exactly what we see with the Old Testament prophets, as well as with John the Baptist. Most of what they preached was not revelation about future events, but revelation about the present.
The third gift that Paul lists is “evangelists”. As the name suggests, these were people who preached the gospel. However, since Paul says that Christ gave them to the church “for the perfecting of the saints,” they didn’t only preach the gospel to unbelievers, but to believers. In fact, we see a hint of this in 2 Timothy 4:1-5:
“I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry.”
In the context, Paul is charging Timothy, who is a pastor, to preach the word to his church. Thus, when he tells him to “do the work of an evangelist”, he must not be referring exclusively to evangelizing unbelievers, but to evangelizing believers. This is how he’s to “fulfill [his pastoral] ministry”.
The fourth, and final, gift that Paul lists is “pastors and teachers”. The Greek construction of this phrase clearly indicates that the word “teachers” describes, or qualifies, the word “pastors”, so it could be translated “pastor-teachers”, or “pastors who are teachers”. In other words, it’s referring to the same group of people.
So, what does “pastors” mean? The Greek word translated “pastors” literally means “shepherds”, or those who tend sheep, so with this word Paul describes the care that these people have for their brethren. How do they do this? Well, there are many parallels between literal shepherds, and spiritual shepherds.
First, in the middle east, and the areas next to it, shepherds didn’t herd or drive their sheep, but led them. And the way they led them was with their voice, as well as their walk. Jesus tells us this in John when He says that His “sheep hear [His] voice, and they follow [Him].” In the same way, New Testament pastors are commanded to “preach the word”.
Second, the purpose of these shepherds leading their sheep was to lead them to food and water. Similarly, pastors are to lead spiritual sheep to the food of the Word of God.
Third, shepherds also protected their sheep from predators using violent means. In the same way, pastors are to protect brethren from false teachers and false teaching by naming them, and teaching against them.
Finally, shepherds brought wandering sheep back into the sheep fold by grabbing them with their shepherd hooks, and stopping them from leaving the only place of safety and provision. Likewise, pastors are to correct and rebuke brethren when necessary, and even to put them out of fellowship when they don’t repent of habitual sin.
The apostle Peter sums it up in his commands for pastors in 1 Peter 5:2-3:
“. . . Tend the flock of God which is among you, exercising the oversight, not of constraint, but willingly, according to the will of God; nor yet for filthy lucre [ill-gotten gain], but of a ready mind; neither as lording it over the charge allotted to you, but making yourselves ensamples [examples] to the flock.”
Paul not only calls this gift, though, “pastors”, but “pastors and teachers“. Why does he do this? Because pastors aren’t only spiritual shepherds, but they are also teachers. And what are they to teach?
Again, Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 4:2, in his command to Timothy, a pastor-teacher:
“. . . preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.”
How is Timothy to teach the Word of God, or Scripture? “With all longsuffering and teaching.” Hence, it’s God’s Word that pastor-teachers are to teach.
After this list of speaking gifts that Christ has given to the church, Paul finishes our passage with their value:
“And he gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ . . .”
So, why did Christ give all these speaking gifts to the church? To “perfect”, or “furnish completely” the “saints”, or “holy ones”. What for?
“. . . the work of ministering . . .”
What does “ministering” mean? It simply means “serving”, and often in the New Testament the Greek word translated “minister” is used, and originally referred to waiters, as it’s used in the account of the first deacons in Acts 6. So, Christ gave the speaking gifts to the church to equip all the saints for the work of serving.
But why? For the purpose of “the building up of the body of Christ”. The phrase “building up”, since it’s referring to a body, refers here to growth in maturity and strength. What are all believers supposed to be equipped to do by their work of serving others? To build up the body of Christ, or the saints.
So, if you’re trusting in the God-man Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, and His resurrection from the dead as the only grounds of God’s forgiveness of your sins, how does this passage apply to you?
- Grace of a spiritual gift was given to you according to a specific measure of that gift from Christ. You don’t need to seek it, since you already have it.
- Satan and demons are defeated foes, although they still war against us. There is no reason to be afraid of them, since Christ has led them away as captives in His victory over them.
- Since Christ ascended far above all the heavens, He is filling you now with His divine presence through His Spirit’s living inside of you. Christ is with you wherever you are.
- We, the church, have been given speaking gifts, including “sent ones” (missionaries), those who “prophesy” Scripture (preachers), evangelists, and pastor-teachers.
- These gifted people are to equip saints for the work of serving.
- We are all to be equipped for the work of serving, and we are all to do the work of serving others in the body of Christ.
- The aim of all of our service for other believers should be that we will build them up, or make them more like Christ.
Therefore, if you have been given the gift of being sent to unreached people, go. If you have been given a gift for preaching the Word, preach the Word. If you have been given the gift of proclaiming the gospel, proclaim it. If you have been given the gift of shepherding and teaching believers, shepherd and teach them. Whatever gift you’ve been given, use it to equip other saints for our work of serving, so that we may all be built up.
If you aren’t trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, and His resurrection as the only grounds of God’s forgiveness, you haven’t been given the grace of Christ’s gift, and you are one of His enemies. If you don’t repent of your rebellion against Him, then He will lead you away captive to hell, just as He led away demons captive in His victory over them. God is now commanding you to change your mind and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, His death for our sins, and resurrection as the only terms of peace with Him and His forgiveness because He has fixed a day that will soon be here, on which He will judge people like you in righteousness, and confine them to eternal punishment in hell for their sins against Him. God sent His divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to punish Him on the cross for our crimes against Him, to raise Him from the dead, and to make Him the King of the universe. Please change your mind and trust in Him, His death for our sins, and His resurrection for God’s forgiveness of your sins, peace with Him, and eternal life. He promises to embrace all who come to Him by trusting in His Son as their risen Lord and substitute on the cross.