Note: This sermon on Ephesians 4:7-10 was originally preached over a decade ago. My thinking and theology has changed quite a bit since then, and I preach this passage quite differently today. I do believe that Paul is seeking to encourage unity in the church, and I agree with much of what I write below. Here is how I would approach Ephesians 4:1-10 now.
How to Develop Unity in the Church
- Ephesians 4:1-3: Check your own attitude first.
- Ephesians 4:4-6: Focus on all the things you have in common.
- Ephesians 4:7-10: And regarding the things you do NOT have in common, praise Jesus for those, because He made you all different by giving you different gifts.
Grace was Given
- To each one of us
- According to the measure of Christ’s gift
- When? When he ascended
- Why? So that He might fill all things
When you are in a disagreement with someone—it doesn’t matter who, and you want to mend your relationship, what is generally the first thing that you do?
Most of us have been taught that in order to mend damaged relationships, we need to get everyone together and talk it over. Communication is the key. This is what we try to do when we go to visit marriage counselors—the husband and wife go to the counselor in order to talk it over. Parents, this is sometimes what you do when your children get in arguments with each other—you get them both together so you can get a straight story and you can all talk it over.
So it is surprising to discover that this is NOT what Paul tells us to do! Earlier in chapter 4, he has told us to walk in unity with one another, and he told that if you want unity, the first thing to do is to check your own attitude. In verses 1-3, he gave us seven specific attitudes to check ourselves on. These were the seven attitudes for unity.
In other words, he says, “Are you in a disagreement? If so, then what did you do to contribute to it? Where did you go wrong? How did you sin? What were your mistakes?”
In other words, when you are in a disagreement, the first step is not better communication. The first step is to point the finger at yourself first.
I recently attended a pastor’s conference where I talked with a pastor who did this exact thing. He has only been there for six weeks, and the church had been without a pastor for 18 months. During that time, two families had caused a lot of conflict and division within the church so that the church had dwindled down to only a handful of people.
Each of these two families blamed the other for all the strife. This new pastor, in his first few weeks there, called a meeting with these two families. He said he walked into the room, and the two families were sitting on opposites sides of the table. He said you could see the fire in their eyes and the biting remarks on the tips of their tongue—just waiting to be unleashed. They were ready to have it out with a verbal boxing match.
What did this pastor do? Not at all what they expected—but exactly what Paul says here. He handed out pieces of paper and pencils, and told them each to go off individually into a corner of the room and write down every way they had personally sinned and contributed to the conflict.
He said that when he called them all back, there were tears and requests for forgiveness, and the situation could then be dealt with peacefully and lovingly. The first step in any conflict is to look at your own attitudes. As Jesus said, look at the log in your own eye before you try to take the speck out of your brothers. That was Paul’s first instruction also.
The second step in a walk toward unity is to focus on what we have in common. And in verses 4-6, he listed seven characteristics that all Christians have in common. These were the seven elements of Unity.
Paul was saying, “If you’ve done step one, you know where you went wrong. Now, in step two, if you still have a disagreement with this person, focus on how similar you are rather than on how different you are. Differences often divide. Similarities unite.”
But now, maybe you are wondering if you ever get to focus on the differences. If you are in a genuine disagreement, at some point, you need to focus on what caused the conflict, right? That’s true. And that is what Paul begins to instruct us on in Ephesians 4:7-10.
Ephesians 4:7. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
The first word of this verse keys us into a change in focus. The word But shows us that while Paul has been giving instructions on our own attitudes and the things we all have in common, we are now shifting gears to talk about the differences we have with one another that cause so many conflicts.
The main idea in the whole paragraph is found here in verse 7 with the phrase grace was given. Those three words introduce and summarize the whole paragraph. Paul is about to instruct us on how to deal with our differences, and he begins by telling us that most of our differences we have are because they were given to us, and that these differences are an aspect of grace.
The definition of grace is getting something good which we don’t deserve. Grace is unmerited favor. So right away, Paul challenges the view most of us have about differences. He says, your differences with each other aren’t bad. They’re good and they are given to you.
In fact, he says grace was given to each one of us. Each one of us has a unique set of differences given to us. Christians are not to be clones of each other. We are not supposed to all be identical. God didn’t intend it that way. He made each one of us different. He made each one of us unique. You are not like me and I am not like you.
The last phrase in verse 7 tells us that these differences given to each one of us are according to the measure of Christ’s gift. This means that the grace gifts given to us are of nearly the same value and wealth as the previous gift Christ gave to us.
What is Christ’s gift Paul is talking about?
Back in Ephesians 2:8, we learned that the gift of God is the salvation package—for by grace you have been saved. The gift is salvation! Ephesians 4:7 tells us that grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. What is Christ’s gift? What did Christ make available to us? Salvation—which means deliverance from the divisions that break out among us on this earth, and being seated with Christ in heavenly places. Salvation is God’s life ruling and reigning in our life. And it is a wonderful gift he has given to us.
God owns all things, and when he so desires, He gives according to the infinite and matchless measure of Christ’s gift of salvation to us. Paul wants to prove what he is saying, so he quotes from the Old Testament in verse 8.
Ephesians 4:8. Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.”
Paul appears to be quoting here from Psalm 68:18. Paul’s reason for the quotation is found at the end, namely, that Christ gave gifts to men. But let me deal with the first part of the quotation first.
The quote says, when He ascended. In Psalm 68, this has in view a victorious king returning to Jerusalem from battle. And remember, Jerusalem sits on a hill, so when the king return, he ascends the hill. But here, Paul uses it to refer to Christ’s ascension back to heaven which happened forty days after his resurrection (Acts 1:3-9).
The rest of verse 8 tells us two things that occurred when Christ ascended. He led captivity captive and he gave gifts to men. What does it mean that he led captivity captive?
The verse is very clear—both in English and in Greek. It doesn’t mean that Christ freed those who were in prison, those who were captive. Rather, He took captivity itself captive.
What has captivated us? What has put us into bondage? What has enslaved us? Scripture tell us that we were enslaved by sin and death and Satan. And it is these that Christ took captive. Colossians 2:13-15 says, “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.”
This is an amazing truth! Think about it with me for a moment. We were enslaved to sin and death and Satan. And rather than just set us free, Christ took prisoner that which had enslaved us! Because of this, we know that these things can never come and enslave us again.
Imagine you were living back in the days when enemy nations would invade your land and take prisoners. Imagine you are out working in the field one day, and some enemies come charging in on their horses and take you and your family prisoner. You are carted off to be slaves. For weeks or months or years you are in bondage.
But then, one day, your king comes riding in with his army and sets you free. And then, to guarantee your future protection, he takes as prisoner those who had captured you. This gives you peace of mind, because if he didn’t do this, then it was very likely that these enemies would come back next week, or next month, or next year and take you prisoner all over again. But since your king has taken prisoner those who took you prisoner, you know that they can never enslave you again. You are free!
That is what Christ did when he took captivity captive. He took sin and death and Satan, the three things that held us in bondage, and Christ made them His prisoners so that they could never enslave us again. According to verse 8, that is the first thing Christ did when he ascended on high. He took captivity captive.
The second thing, according to verse 8, Christ died when He ascended is that He gave gifts to men. This phrase is the reason Paul quotes this passage. He said in verse 7 that each one of us has received a grace gift from God. And as proof he quotes this verse.
Which brings up a problem. The verse says that He gave gifts to men. But this is not exactly what Psalm 68:18 says. That verse reads this way: “You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive; You have received gifts among men …”
Did you notice the difference? Here, the Psalmist says that God receives gifts from men, but in Ephesians 4:8, Paul seems to misquote the verse by saying that Christ gave gifts to men.
What’s going on here? We know Paul wanted to make his point, but does that mean he can just go and misquote a verse? You shouldn’t allow me to do that, and I wouldn’t let you do that. But can we allow Paul to misquote Scripture because he is divinely inspired? No, even then we cannot. So, is this one of those errors in Scripture that Bible critics so often want to point out? No, it is not.
And I can show you this in two ways. The first way is to understand that Psalm 68 is a Psalm of David in which he talks about Israel’s victorious conquest over her enemies.
Now we know from history and from the OT that whenever nations battled other nations, the spoils of war went to the victor. The army that won was able to take whatever and whoever they wanted as plunder. The victorious army became rich with possession and prisoners.
Frequently, after such a battle, the king would receive gifts from the army. It was kind of like a tithe. They gave gold and prisoners to him for him to use to run the country. Today, we just get taxed.
Now hopefully, if the king was a good king, the riches would get redistributed among the people to give them a better standard of living. These riches would be given as gifts to the people, and be used to provide better roads, better armies and more food, etc. Again, hopefully, that is what our tax dollars are to be used for today. It’s the same idea.
When Psalm 68:18 says that he received gifts from men, it has in mind this idea of the king receiving a portion of the spoils of war that the army had brought back, so that the king could then turn around and give gifts to men who were not able to go off to war. That is the historical background to what Psalm 68:18 says.
But, if you are a student of the Word of God, and if you believe in the 100% inerrancy of Scripture as I do, this still does not explain Paul’s misquotation. Right? Psalm 68:18 says what it says, and Paul seems to change it for his own ends.
The answer to this dilemma is that Paul is not really quoting from Psalm 68:18. Very frequently, Bible writers, when quoting from the Old Testament will point out what book they are quoting from. For example, in Romans 9:25, Paul quotes from Hosea 2:23 by saying, “As it says in Hosea.” Later, when he quotes from Isaiah, he says, “Isaiah cries out concerning Israel” (Rom. 9:27). When quoting from the Psalms, Paul writes, “As David says” (Rom. 11:9).
But here, in Ephesians 4:8, Paul simply writes, “Therefore He says.” By the way, some of your translations say “it says” which is fine because in Greek, there is only one word, legei, and it can be translated either “it says” or “he says.” Both are fine.
So here, when Paul offers a quote, I would like to suggest that Paul is not quoting directly from Psalm 68:18, but rather from an ancient Jewish commentary on the Old Testament called the Targum. Sometimes Paul quotes from poets and other scholars. Here he quotes from a Jewish study guide.
Remember, Paul was a well-trained Jewish scholar known as a Pharisee. He would have owned and read from the Targum—which could be considered the world’s first study Bible.
Most of you probably have a study Bible in your lap. The Targum was like that. It had the text of Scripture, which was a loose translation (almost a paraphrase) from the Hebrew into Aramaic, and just like our study Bibles, it had explanatory notes that went along with the text. Paul, in Ephesians 4:7 is quoting directly from what the Targum says about Psalm 68:18, which include some of the historical background notes which I just mentioned to you.
So is Paul’s quotation wrong? No. Historically, he is right—kings did give some of what they had received as gifts to others, and since he is quoting from the Targum, he is accurate in his quotation as well. Here is how the Jewish Targum on Psalm 68 reads:
You ascended to the firmament, O prophet Moses; you captured captives, you taught the words of Torah, you gave gifts to the sons of men, and even the stubborn who are converted turn in repentance, [and] the glorious presence of the Lord God abides upon them.
But don’t let all of this sidetrack you. The point Paul is making is that Christ has given us gifts—which is the main point of verses 7 through 10. Verses 9-10 explain to us what Paul means by talking about Christ’s ascending.
Ephesians 4:9. (Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?
Some take this verse and, thinking of the Apostle’s Creed which says “He descended in hell,” they think this verse tells us that Christ descended into hell.
Now whether He did or He didn’t I don’t have time to discuss. I believe this means that Jesus went to the place of the dead. I’m not sure we could call this hell, but I do believe Jesus went to a place called Abraham’s bosom, which seems to be a holding compartment for Old Testament saints prior to Christ’s death and resurrection. It was kind of a holding tank—they do not suffer there. You can read a bit more about it in Luke 16 (Ezek 32:18-19, 24; Ps 63:9; Isa 44:23 indicates that “the lower parts of the earth” refers to death or the grave).
Verse 9 is showing that before Christ was glorified, He went to the greatest extreme of humility. Philippians 2 describes it beautifully: Christ, although he was “in the form of God … but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.”
And in Philippians 2, Paul goes on to describe how Christ was exalted above all things as a result. He does the same thing here with Ephesians 4:10.
Ephesians 4:10. He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)
Now this verse also proves to us that the descension of Christ in verse 9 was His coming from heaven to earth, because here, in verse 10, the ascension of Christ is him going from earth to heaven. These two events, Christ’s descension and ascension are the two bookends of Christ’s life. He came from heaven to earth and then went from earth to heaven. He came from glory to humility, and then from humility back to glory.
In fact, look at the two contrasting phrases in these verses. Verse 9 says he went to the lower part of the earth, verse 10 says he ascended far above all the heaven.
The question for some Christians is “Why? Why did Christ have to go back to heaven? Why did Christ leave? Why did Christ ascend? Wouldn’t it be easier to believe in the resurrected Christ if He was still here, walking around on the earth? Wouldn’t it be easier to have an intimate relationship with Christ if you could go to him and talk to him in person? Why didn’t Christ stay?”
The reason is the final phrase in verse 10. Christ left this earth so that He might fill all things. If Christ were here, on this earth, in physical form, can you imagine the line of people who would want to talk to him? Even if you were able to save enough money for travel expenses to go to him, you would have to wait in line for months just to talk to him for a few short minutes because of all the other people who want to see Him. But now, because He went back to Heaven, we can all come before the throne of grace any time we want for any length of time.
Now, because he went back to Heaven, each one of us has the Holy Spirit living within us. Jesus said in John 14:20 and John 16:5-7 that unless He went away, the Holy Spirit could not come. Which would you rather have, the Holy Spirit within you, which allows you constant access to God, or Christ in bodily form, which would allow you only a few seconds or minutes in your entire life? I think the choice is obvious. Christ left so that he could fill all things.
Now, when you do a study of Christ’s power and glory now that He has ascended, you will see that it is even more amazing still. Ephesians 1:21-23 says that the church is the fullness of Christ. One of the ways Christ fills all things is through the church. We are the fullness of Christ.
So now the question is “How? How are we the fullness of Christ?” The answer is in what Paul has been talking about so far in Ephesians 4. I am not Christ by myself. You are not Christ by yourself. This local church is not Christ by itself. All Christians around the world and throughout time are the body of Christ.
Christ, when He was here, had the ability to teach. He had the ability to show mercy and to serve others. He had the ability to heal. He had the ability to discern the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. He had the ability to administrate tasks to other people. He had the ability to preach the Word of God. He had the ability to lead his people like a shepherd leads a flock. He had the ability to give generously and joyfully from what he owned. He had the ability to lead others to faith.
But when Christ left, He was no longer here to do these things, so He took all of these abilities of His … and passed them out among Christians. He … what is this passage all about? … He gave gifts to men. When Christ ascended, He gave gifts to men.
Now, there is not one person today who has all the gifts. Some people have more than one gift, but the point is that every single Christian has at least one spiritual gift given to them by Christ. And it is the unified church that is the body of Christ, doing on this earth what he began to do while He was here.
Paul is in a section where he is giving instructions on how to walk in unity with one another. He has told us to look to our own attitudes first, and then to focus on what we have in common. Now, finally, he wants to tell us how to deal with those differences we have with one another. And he says, you want to know where your differences come from? He says, “Most often, your differences come from God.” Your differences are due to the fact that each one of you has a different set of spiritual gifts.
And the silly thing about spiritual gifts is that, if abused, they can just as easily divide the body as unite the body.
Let me explain to you what I mean. One of my gifts is teaching. I love to study and teach the Word of God. I look forward to the day when I can stop doing a lot of the paperwork that a church requires and devote more of my time to studying God’s Word and teaching it to you. I want to be leading Bible Studies. I want to preach through one book of the Bible on Sunday morning, another book on Sunday night and a third book on Wednesday night. Because I have the gift of teaching, I feel that there’s so much to teach and not enough time.
Now, here’s the danger, if I’m not careful, I tend to judge those who do not share my passion. If I’m not careful, I look down on those who don’t desire to study and teach the Word of God. I think that everybody should be like me. I’m tempted to think that if a person does not want to spend all their time in God’s Word, then they’re second rate Christians. So if I’m not careful, I can cause a lot of disunity by getting upset at people who don’t share my passion. But I need to remember I have this passion because it’s my gift.
When I was in Denver a few years ago, I visited over 60 churches trying to find one that I liked. My number one thing I was looking for and the number one criticism I had with those 60 churches was that “They don’t preach the Bible. They don’t preach the Bible. They don’t preach the Bible.”
You want to know why that was my criticism? Because that’s one of my top spiritual gifts! Now were all of those churches wrong? No. They were doing what God had spiritually gifted them to do, and if they attended North Valley Alliance Church, they would say I am not doing what they think a church should do.
It’s the same with all the gifts. I’m going to tell you more next week about how to know your spiritual gift, but one of the best ways, I have found, is to look at what you think every Christian should be doing – and that is most likely your spiritual gift.
If you have the gift of evangelism, you love to share your faith with other people, and you sometimes get frustrated that other’s don’t share your passion. If you have the gift of service, you love to help out here at the church, cleaning and organizing, and maybe, you have sometimes felt frustrated that more people don’t help out. If you have the gift of giving, you love to give generously of your money to the church, but sometimes you might feel like you are carrying most of the financial load of the church, and why don’t more people give?
Do you see what I am trying to get at? Spiritual gifts, which are supposed to be for the unity of body, are the same differences that we have with each other which often cause disunity within the body.
When we stop focusing on what we are supposed to be doing, and start focusing on what we think everybody else should be doing, we have stopped using our gift and have started trying to impose our gift on others.
Now, there is balance in all of this. Not everyone is a teacher, but everyone is supposed to be daily reading and studying the Word of God. Not everyone is an evangelist, but everyone is supposed to be doing what they can to share the Gospel. Not everyone is a giver, but everyone is supposed to be giving back to God a portion of what He has given to them.
To be a contented Christian, about 80% of your Christian service energy should go toward your area of giftedness and the other 20% should go toward doing a bit of everything else. So as not to become a frustrated teacher, I put try to put 80% of my time and energy toward teaching. The other 20% toward administration, service, evangelism, giving, etc.
So in Ephesians 4:7-10, Paul is saying, “Are you different? Of course you are! You each have different gifts given to you by the ascended and victorious Christ! These differences can cause disunity if they are not understood and if they are not
The verse numbers are different than in the English…but here is Psalm 68:19-20 from the Targum.
18. The chariots of God are two myriads of burning fire, two thousand angels guiding them; the presence of the Lord rests on them, on the mountain of Sinai, in holiness.
19. You ascended to the firmament, O prophet Moses; you captured captives, you taught the words of Torah, you gave gifts to the sons of men, and even the stubborn who are converted turn in repentance, [and] the glorious presence of the Lord God abides upon them.
20. Blessed be the Lord, every day he weighs us down, adding commandments to commandments; the mighty one, who is our redemption and our helper forever.
You will notice that the italics are phrases added by the Targum which are not in the Hebrew. Also note that the Targum was a paraphrase from the Hebrew, so the slight differences between the English Ephesians 4:8, and the English Psalm 68:18 are due the fact that Paul is translating into Greek from Aramaic and then we translate it into English, whereas, the Targum went directly from Hebrew, to Aramaic to English.