For the Work of the Ministry – Part 1

In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the believers at Ephesus, we find a familiar passage in the fourth chapter that is typically used to enumerate or list officers within the church. It’s easy to become so comfortable with this passage, focusing on each of these alleged offices, and then the debate over whether the final one is shepherd-teacher or shepherds (pastors) and teachers, that we miss the actual point and purpose of this passage, namely Christ’s gifting of each individual in the body of believers. Furthermore, it is a passage that develops the concept of the priesthood of believers performing the work of ministry, contrary to all modern conceptions of professional ministry.

Our passage, Ephesians 4:11-12ff, builds upon the discussion of unity, at the beginning of chapter 4. As the chapter unfolds, we see the apostle weaving together a strong statement on the unity of believers which reaches its apex with, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” From here, the passage transitions into our discussion which might best be summarized as the diversity of believers within the unified body of Christ. This statement on diversity begins with the following passage

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

Ephesians 4:7

Here, in the midst of verses on unification, we see that among believers there is diversity with regard to the grace given and the measure of Christ’s gift. The diversity being championed here has little to do with ethnicity or other modern qualifying notions of diversity, and everything to do with the diverse gifting that Christ has bestowed upon every believer, unified in the body of Christ. In this verse we see that grace was given and that Christ has a gift. Perhaps it might be better to view this as Christ’s gift of grace. The word grace, charis, is related to the word the apostle develops elsewhere, charisma, which refers to spiritual gifts. It is likely within this range of meaning that the apostle is developing the concept of Christ’s gifting of believers for the work of the ministry, as we will see (see Romans 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:4).

Commenting on this passage, Arnold writes,

To each individual God has given a gift to contribute to the growth of the body. Paul is not anticipating his discussion of gifted leaders in 4:11 and suggesting that divine gifting is granted only to these leaders. Rather, every individual member receives grace from God to use in the building up of others in the body (4:16).

Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians, Arnold, pg. 246

Building upon this, we arrive at a difficult Old Testament quotation in Ephesians 4:8, from Psalm 68:18, which in its original context was a reference to the victory that God secured for Israel. Perhaps it’s best to view this Psalm as speaking of God’s past victory for Israel (68:7-18), His present victories (68:19-20), and His future victories (68:21-23; 28-31). In the middle of this section on future victories, verses 24-27, there is a procession of worshipers, presumably those who were set free in verse 18, which culminates in the submission of all earth’s kingdoms to God (68:28-31).

In both passages, from the original Psalm and the quotation in Ephesians, the Victor leads a procession of those formally held captive. However, the usage in Ephesians takes on a different meaning. There it is used in reference to the victory that Christ secured through His death and resurrection and then subsequently at His ascension, His giving of gifts to men. The apostle’s use and application actually fits within the theme of the Psalm, God’s past victories point forward to the success of His future victories. In this case, the same victorious God of Israel is the same victorious God who conquered sin and death, once again setting the captives free.

The difficulty in reconciling these two passages arises because in the Psalm, the Victor receives gifts while in the epistle the Victor gives gifts. Though a variety of commentaries attempt to untangle this shift, perhaps the most straight-forward explanation is that Paul, under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wants to draw our attention to Psalm 68 in its entirety to see that as God has acted in the past, He is acting in the present, and will be perfectly consistent in His future actions. Paul then sees Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension as the true fulfillment of the future victory anticipated in the Psalm, the conclusion of which states the following,

Awesome is God from his sanctuary;
    the God of Israel—he is the one who gives power and strength to his people.

Psalm 68:35

In the Psalm, the movement takes us from Sinai to God’s sanctuary. In the epistle, there is a similar movement from earth (descended) to the heavenly sanctuary (ascended). It is here (I believe), that the apostle sees the fulfillment of verse 68:35, cited above, and simply makes the connection to the ascension in verse 68:18 as the means to secure the giving of “power and strength to his people.”

That knot untangled (maybe), as we move into Ephesians 4:11, true enough, the Apostle provides for us a list, but there’s no justification to formulate offices from this list, only that there are those whom Christ has given specific gifts to in order to perform specific functions. Each of these from the passage are bulleted below

  • Apostles
  • Prophets
  • Evangelists
  • Shepherds and
  • Teachers

In the next post, we’ll unpack the meaning of these as we work our way towards understanding their role to, “equip the saints for the work of the ministry,” the every member ministry or priesthood of believers.

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