9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:9-16 ESV
In an attempt to encourage the Ephesian believers, Paul paraphrased a verse from one of King David’s psalms.
You ascended on high,
leading a host of captives in your train
and receiving gifts among men… – Psalm 68:18 ESV
As a former Pharisee and a student of the Hebrew scriptures, Paul knew that this passage was written by David as a praise song to God, thanking Him for His divine assistance against Israel’s many enemies. In verse 18 of David’s psalm, he describes gifts being given to God as an expression of gratitude and praise for His divine intervention in their military affairs. But Paul takes this Old Testament passage and repurposes it to drive home his point about God having given the gift of grace to all who believe in His Son (Ephesians 4:7).
“Paul made a valid application of Christological significance to the Old Testament passage. On the one hand, according to Psalm 68:18, God ascended Zion as a victorious king worthy of being the recipient of gifts of homage. On the other hand, according to Ephesians 4:8, Jesus also ascended to the heavenly Zion as the victorious Lord who lovingly bestowed on His church the gifts of ministry essential to her future well-being.” – Bibliotheca Sacra 148:591 (July-September 1991):335-36
In Paul’s application of this verse to the Ephesian context, he portrays Jesus as the one who, having accomplished a mighty victory over the enemy, ascended back into heaven. But rather than receiving gifts from men, Jesus poured out the gift of the Spirit on His church. This gracious outpouring of the Spirit resulted in the provision of divinely-enabled gifts to assist the church in its ministry. Paul mentions just a few of those gifts in verse 11 and explains their purpose.
…he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. – Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV
In his other letters, Paul provided a series of lists that contain other gifts provided to the church. They include the speaking gifts such as apostleship, prophecy, teaching, evangelism, exhortation, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. But he also lists gifts of service that include leadership, helps, mercy, giving, faith, healing, and miracles. Paul fully believed that Jesus had provided His church with everything it needed to not only survive but thrive.
Paul was reminding his readers that Jesus, the Son of God, had descended from on high and taken on the role of a lowly servant. He had left His rightful place at His Father’s side and chosen to take on the form of a man. Paul eloquently described the “descent” of Jesus in his letter to the church in Philippi.
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT
And as a result of His incarnation and crucifixion, God raised Jesus from the dead and “elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:9 NLT). And Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell and equip His followers with the power to use their God-ordained gifts and display the fruits of a righteous life – all so that the body of Christ might be built up or edified. In his letter to Timothy, Paul described the church as the household of God and “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 NLT). Jesus poured out gifts on the church so that all of its members might be adequately taught and prepared to carry out His mission on earth.
And, according to Paul, the goal of this “work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12 ESV) is the spiritual maturity of every believer. It will continue unabated and uninterrupted until “we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT). This is a lofty and seemingly impossible goal. But Paul’s point is that it is the work of the Spirit, not the flesh. God sent His Son so that sinful humanity might be restored to a right relationship with Him. But Jesus sent the Spirit so that redeemed men and women might have the power they needed to experience the full potentiality of their new nature. Their spiritual transformation was to be ongoing and evidenced by an ever-increasing capacity to thrive in a hostile and often harmful earthly environment.
In verse 14, Paul telegraphs where he is headed with this line of reasoning. He is preparing his readers to receive a stern but loving lecture regarding false teachers. And he does so by reminding them that their ongoing spiritual maturity is both non-optional and extremely vital. When the members of Christ’s body are growing effectively, they “will no longer be immature like children…tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching,” and they won’t be easily deceived by those who try to trick them “with lies so clever they sound like the truth” (Ephesians 4:14 NLT).
This was all intended as a set-up for Paul’s main point. He is preparing the Ephesian believers to receive his not-so-flattering assessment of their current spiritual condition. In a sense, Paul is describing them as immature children who are being tossed about by every wind of new teaching. Rather than growing up in their salvation, they have remained like helpless and defenseless children who lack discretion and discipline.
According to Paul’s assessment, the Ephesian church was not where it needed to be spiritually. The leaders of the church were not effectively doing their job of equipping “God’s people to do his work” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And, as a result, God’s people were not edifying one another and strengthening the body of Christ. Paul calls them to course correct, demanding that they “speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT). They needed to express their love for one another by being honest in their assessment of one another. There is a sense in which love must be hard and unforgiving, pointing out the flaws and failings of one another so that the body of Christ might be healthy and whole. Paul is recommending the truth found in Proverbs 27:6: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” He is echoing the sentiment expressed by King David in another one of his psalms.
Let the righteous man strike me; let his rebuke be an act of loving devotion. It is oil for my head; let me not refuse it.
Paul’s heartfelt desire was that the Ephesians would experience all the gifts that Christ had poured out on their behalf. He wanted them to experience the unity that Christ had died to make possible. He longed for them to display the spiritual maturity that the Spirit made available. And he prayed continually that their lives would reflect the character of Christ that God’s grace had made attainable. As far as Paul was concerned, there was no reason for the Ephesians to be living in doubt, fear, immaturity, disunity, or impurity. God had provided everything they needed. He had done His part. He had sent His Son and His Son had sent the Spirit. Now, it was up to them to live out what God had ordained for them.
He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. – Ephesians 4:16 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.