Ephesians: Living Out Unity in Diversity (4:7-12)

The following message was delivered at Ohio Valley Baptist Church on September 28, 2014:

An Unbalanced Dichotomy

Unity is a central theme in the New Testament. The Bible reveals clearly that God cares about community. He also never intended our Christian lives to be a purely individualistic pursuit, separate from the covenantal community. Some powerful passages that speak on unity are:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10).

“And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).

“That together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6).

But unity is especially prominent in Ephesians—especially in chapter 4. Months ago, we saw how we are to live out unity in our oneness—that we are unified in Christ.

I think, unfortunately, we run into a dichotomy in two ways however, when it comes to our understanding unity: On one hand, we tend to think that the Christian life is entire about our individual relationship with God. We use the phrase, “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” But the truth is, there is no such thing as “private Christian faith.” The Bible knows nothing of a lone-ranger Christian. And while God cares about us individually, we are corporately united into one body. On the other hand, we tend to think of the Christian life as entirely corporate without any individuality. We may think that because we are unified, that individuality is lost—where there is no need for individual spiritual growth because we are to be focused on “building up” the church.

Both of those tendencies are lacking. We need to find a balance in both where we realize that God saved us individually but united us corporately. Unity does not mean that individuality and individual responsibilities are lost. Unity reigns, but Christ does not work merely at the universal level. He works in the individual and gives grace to each person. That’s what our text is about tonight. Paul’s main point in Eph. 4:7-12 is this: grace has been given to every individual in the church, because Christ took as captives and transformed us into people He could use. We are gifts to the church. Specifically, God has given preachers and teachers for the purpose of edifying the people of God to build up the body of Christ.

Now, while explaining this text, tonight I am going to do something that I don’t often do while preaching. The only reason I am doing it tonight is because I feel like it is entirely appropriate for this passage. I am going to try to weed out the misconceptions and the interpretive mistakes that surround this passage of Scripture. Because often times, when you study a passage of Scripture, you can easily read a misconception right into the text without even letting the text speak. And if you’re not letting the text speak for itself, you’ve got a problem (who then, is doing the talking?).

It’s something that we do more often than we’d like to admit. I feel like it is necessary to clear those misconceptions out of the way so we can see what Paul truly meant here in Ephesians 4.

The Text: Ephesians 4:7-12, ESV

“7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says,

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,

and he gave gifts to men.”

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.”

I. Grace Was Given to Each One (v. 7)

Paul begins this new section of Ephesians 4 by saying, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (v. 7). Paul now focuses on the individuals who make up the universal church. This is seen in the apparent language change here. Paul begins to refer to individuals here in v. 7 on through v. 12. The apparent language change/shift in thought is from Ephesians 4:1-6 to the passage we are looking at tonight. In 4:1-6, the church is pictured as universal and characterized by oneness:

“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:4-6).

He turns from the “all of us” to the “each of us”; you will see that Paul is very individualistic in his focus in this passage. So Paul says that “grace was given to each one of us.”

What is this grace? It’s important to know what Paul means here by “grace,” for it is given to all of us in the body—and it is according to Christ’s sovereign distribution that we are given it. It is not saving grace.That was already given to the believer (Eph. 2:8-9). This grace is what you might call “service-grace.” This is the grace which equips God’s people to serve. And just like salvific grace, it is given—not earned. It isn’t given according to how disciplined you are as a believer, it isn’t given according to your own spiritual goodness, it is given “according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”

So, if this grace is for service, and it is given, then to whom is it given? “ . . . each one of us.” Paul includes himself and all of the Ephesians in this and says that “grace was given to each one of us.” In fact he even says that in Eph. 3:8: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” This equipping/serving-grace is given to the weakest sinner saved by grace, and it is given to the most seasoned saint in the church of God. Not one is left out. None misses out on Christ’s bounty. Service grace is given to every believer. If this is true, then a few implications can be made:

1) We have no reason not to be used by God in the church. If He has given us the grace necessary, we have no excuse. Often times we think we’re insufficient for the job. Well, you are insufficient for the job! But God has given you grace! In fact, it’s better to recognize that you are weak, because then you will depend on God’s power completely to carry out what tasks He desires for you:

“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10, emphasis mine).

Isn’t God’s grace enough? Christ didn’t give us a “little grace,” in fact, according to Ephesians 1, He “lavished upon us” the riches of His grace (1:8). God wants to use us in some way or another, and He has given us the grace necessary to carry out whatever service it may be that He has given us.

2) Since grace for service is given to every believer—we are on equal footing. You cannot be greater than someone else, and someone else cannot be greater than you. Grace is something that is undeserved—God is not obligated to give you grace: He chooses to. So there is no room for pride in saying that you’ve done more than someone else. Grace is given to each one of us.

3) Since grace is given, and it is a gift—we are accountable to use it. We are to use it for “the work of ministry.” We are accountable to use it, and allow God to use us in the church. It is wasted if it is not used.

It’s Going to Take All of Us

The last thing Paul says in v. 7 is that this grace was given “according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” No one is really sure about what Paul means here by “Christ’s gift”, but there are a few passages of Scripture where Paul speaks about this topic that will give us some clarification:

“4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:4-8).

“4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7).

The main difference between Ephesians and those two texts is this: spiritual gifts given to people are the point of focus, whereas, in Ephesians the people themselves are seen as gifts themselves! The other two passages we looked at were about the specific gifts of the Spirit—here in this text of Ephesians, grace is given to every individual. So if your name doesn’t fall under the lists of Romans 12 and 1 Cor. 12, you have no excuse whatsoever for not serving in the church in some way.

The purpose for the giving of this grace was for service: use it! If we want success in our church, and in our ministry—we’ve got to get up off of our sanctified seats—equipped by God’s grace and get out into the action. It will require work, but God supplies all the grace we need. I’ve heard it said before, “The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary.” —Anonymous

Two men riding a bicycle built for two came to a long, steep hill. It took a great deal of struggle for the men to complete what proved to be a very stiff climb. When they finally got to the top, the man in front turned to the other and said, “Boy, that sure was a hard climb.” The fellow in the back replied, “Yes, certainly! And if I hadn’t kept the brakes on all the way, we would certainly have rolled down backwards.” If they had cooperated together, it wouldn’t have been such a struggle now would it? In the church, we need full cooperation to accomplish work that really matters. It’s going to take all of us—working together as God has individually gifted us and given us grace.

II. How Grace is Given (vv. 8-10)

We’ve seen how Christ has sovereignly given grace to all believers, but something made the giving of this grace (and the giving of these “gifts”) possible. What was it? Well, this bestowal of grace by Christ is confirmed by an application of an important Old Testament text. Paul is using a text from the Old Testament as reliable Scripture to explain what he has already said about the dispensing/giving of grace to individual believers.

What text is Paul referring to here?

Paul is talking about Psalm 68 here, focusing on v. 18:

“You ascended on high,

leading a host of captives in your train

and receiving gifts among men,

even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there.”

This Psalm is about God’s triumphant victory over His enemies. What you have here in this verse is a picture of God ascending on a high mountain, being victorious in a battle—bringing captives with Him and then receiving gifts among men as spoil/loot. During battles, not only in Old Testament times but just history in general, once one side would become victorious, they would get the treasures and possessions of the losing side—and distribute them among their own people. That is the picture you get of God and His enemies in Psalm 68. Paul says, “Hey, the rising of Jesus Christ, His ascension; is a fulfillment of this Old Testament text.” Paul applies this picture to Christ’s ascension to heaven, not because there happened to be an analogy between the two events, but because Paul say in Jesus’ ascension a further fulfilment of this triumph of God. So it is clear that Jesus is the one who ascended. He was taken back up to heaven before the disciples in Acts 1:9-11.

What Captives?

But what is meant by “a host of captives”? Who did Jesus lead out, and where did He lead them out from? There are many people who have misinterpreted the reference to captives here. What are some misinterpretations?

1) The captives are the Old Testament saints which Christ rescued by going down into Hades. Here is a quote from a popular study Bible to summarize this position:

“When Jesus hung on the cross, He consoled the penitent thief that he would be in paradise with Christ on that day. One of the accomplishments of the Resurrection was to lead “captivity captive,” that is, to remove Old Testament saints from Abraham’s bosom (Hades; Luke 16:19-31) and lead them to heaven.” ¹

While this statement about the Old Testament saints is true, Paul did not have it in mind when penning Ephesians 4:8-10. The text is about the church. If the “captives” are OT saints, then how does the church receive gifts from them? Paul says that “he led a host of captives, and gave gifts to men.”

2) Demonic powers. Some say that the captives here are demons—that Jesus went and preached to the demons in hell (and led them out?) But this text says that Jesus “led a host of captives,” He led them out of somewhere and gave gifts to men. If Paul is referring to demonic powers here, then what spoil is to be received by demons?

So what is Paul talking about here? Paul is referring here to us. We know this because of the context here (being about the church, and people being given as gifts to the church) and because his quotation of Psalm 68 is referring back to Numbers 8, 18. In Numbers, God took the Levites as a gift, and then gave them back to His people in order to minister to the congregation. You need to remember how Paul is applying this Old Testament text. He is saying that this Scripture is proof for the giving of grace to those in the church—and how He has given us gifts.

Paul is saying here that Christ took us as captives, then transformed us into somebody He could use! We we’re the captives—but now we are the “gifts [given] to men.” Paul is talking about how Christ has gifted the church. He has given us to the church as gifts for building her up. We were once useless, now we are useful to Him. We were once captives and slaves to sin (John 8:34; Rom. 6:20), now we are His servants (Mark 10:43-44; John 12:26). We were once enemies of God (Rom. 5:10; Col. 1:21), now we are His soldiers (2 Tim. 2:3; Philem. 2).

Christ captured us as captives, overcame our sinful resistance to Him (because we couldn’t overcome it on our own) and then transformed us into a people for Himself that He can use for His praise, His honor, His glory, His exaltation—so that Jesus Christ will be known where He is not made known!

Further, Paul mentions something about the descent of God into humanity: “(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)” (vv. 9-10). Paul says that Jesus came to the earth (v. 9; See also Philippians 2:6-11). But he doesn’t leave out His triumphant resurrection. Paul is saying this to explain how Christ won the right to give us as gifts to the church. He is saying this to show how Christ won the right to take us as captives and transform us into useful people for His kingdom and purpose—through the cross. It happens through the cross, where the grace and wrath of God intersect—where sin is paid for, where Christ will be triumphant over death, hell, and the grave.

III. Specific People as Gifts (v. 11)

So we’ve seen how grace is given to every believer—we’ve seen how Christ has taken us as captives and transformed us into people He could use. We’ve seen that all of this is possible through the triumphant death and resurrection of Christ. But are there specific people Christ has given to the church?

Paul says here that there are specific people that Christ has given to the church: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (v. 11).

Are There Apostles and Prophets Today?

There are those in a certain Pentecostal sect who claim that there are apostles and prophets today, and that this text is the warrant for that belief. But this text does not support that claim. There were apostles and there were prophets—they were given revelation and we have their revelation. Those of that theological system claim that there are apostles and prophets today who receive new revelations or have apostolic authority—but there is no support in the Scriptures for this. Further, we do not need a new revelation from God. What we have in God’s Word is what we need. This “sword of the Spirit,” (Eph. 6:17) which is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12), is all we need—it is sufficient (For more on this discussion, see Are There Prophets Today? by Grace to You).

IV. Purpose of Individuals (v. 12)

Grace was given to each individual—we were taken as captives and transformed into people God could use, this was possible through Christ’s triumphal ascension. He has specifically given evangelists, shepherds, and teachers to us today. But what is the purpose of those whom God has given specifically? It is to equip the saints. My job, and your job if you are a teacher is to equip the saints.

Let Us Live It

We have seen tonight that grace has been given to every individual. Are you accessing that grace? Is God using you in the church? The giving of this “service-grace” was made possible because Christ took the initiative to take us as captives, save us, redeem us, and make us into people that He can use. Do you realize that you are a gift to the church? God has given you as a gift to the church! God has given specifically shepherds and teachers for the purpose of equipping believers for the work of ministry. Christ has given you grace, He has made you a gift to the church—and He’s even given shepherds and teachers to equip you.

Once there was a Chinese prince who died and was given a glimpse of both heaven and hell. First, he was escorted to hell, where he found tables laden with various foods and delicacies, but the people were sitting there angry and frustrated, quarreling with each other. They were not permitted to pick up the food with their fingers, and they couldn’t feed themselves because they were given chopsticks which were ten feet long.
Then the Chinese prince was taken to heaven. Again he found a beautiful banquet, and again only ten-foot chopsticks. But here the people where happy and content, for they sat on opposite sides of the tables, each one feeding the person across from him.

We have to work together. God has given us what we need to be unified and to show this world the power of the gospel in our unity—are we living it? We can—God has given us the power for it! But let us live it. Let us live out this unity until we depart from this world—only to be unified eternally in the presence of our God and Savior.


1. Descent Into Hell, The King James Study Bible (Colombia: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1988), 1835
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