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Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan.

“But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.”

Ephesians 4:7, 8

In the first three chapters of this epistle God has used the apostle to instruct in many precious truths. These truths are among the doctrines of the apostles (cf. Acts 2:42). These truths serve as the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20).

Now the Spirit leads the apostle to apply these doctrines to the lives of these recently converted Ephesian Christians. The first application concerns the unity of the church of Christ and the necessity to keep or preserve this unity (4:1-16). As these recently converted Christians grow up in the faith, there will be many temptations to disagree with each other, to make war with each other, and to separate from one another. In the face of these temptations, they are urged to make every effort to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

The reason why the calling to preserve the unity of the church is so important is that the basis of this unity is found in the seven “ones” of verses 4-6. Preserve the unity of the church precisely because there is “one body” of the church, a spiritual, invisible reality. The one church is the result of the activity of the “one Spirit,” who alone produces and maintains the one life in every member of the one body. The goal of the Spirit’s work in the members of the body is to lead them to the “one hope.” The one body has one Head, even the “one Lord.” They are all given the same gift of the “one faith.” And they all have been given the spiritual reality of the “one baptism,” namely, all of the members are washed in Christ’s blood. This wonderful unity is because there is “one God,” but also because all the members have the “one God” as their “Father.” They are children of the same family.

As amazing and as wonderful as is the unity of the body of Christ, it is just as amazing and wonderful that in the unity there is a diversity. While all the elect are one in Christ, they are not identical. Though we are so much one, yet we can be addressed in this verse as “every one of us.” We retain our individual selves, our own personalities. The unity of the body must not be conceived as uniformity. Uniformity means that every member is identical in every respect, without variations or differences. The glory of the unity of Christ’s body is that we are not merged together into a single, solid mass, without individual identity, but that there is a diversity in the unity, and a unity that comprehends endless variations. The unity does not do away with the diversity, and the diversity does not break the unity. The diversity in the unity makes for beautiful harmony!

This is an amazing truth. But let us all recognize that it is one thing to say a loud “Amen” to this truth, and another thing to have a genuine appreciation for the various members of the body!

How can the unity and the diversity be present at the same time in the body of Christ? They co-exist because the source of the unity is also the source of the diversity. The source of the unity is Christ, the Head of the body. And the source of the diversity is Christ, the Giver of the various gifts in each member.

Christ is the Giver of the variety of gifts enjoyed by the church as a whole and by each member in particular. It is not that the members, as parts or pieces, have to be put together and made to harmonize. Rather, the unity is first, and the parts arise out of the unity. This truth is pictured in the human body. Just as the body begins with one cell that contains in it all the different parts of the human body, so the body of Christ begins with its unity—in its Head. That the unity of the body is first is implied in the fact that the calling given to us as members of the body is to keep or preserve the unity, not to make it.

The truth that Christ is the Giver of every diverse gift and manifold grace in His body was spoken approximately 1,000 years earlier. The apostle is inspired in verse 8 to quote Psalm 68:18, “Thou hast ascended on high, thou has led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men.”

The Spirit gives here in Ephesians 4:9, 10 an explanation ofPsalm 68:18, “(Now that 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 up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)” According to the psalmist, when God delivered Israel from their enemies, it was as if God Himself came down to deliver them, and then, having done so, ascended into heaven again. First, notice that the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle, when quoting the psalmist, to apply the quote to Jesus Christ. While the psalmist speaks clearly of Jehovah, the Spirit moves Paul to speak of Christ. This proves the deity of Jesus Christ.

Also worthy of note is the difference between the Psalm and the quote in Ephesians. Psalm 68:18 speaks of receiving gifts for men, and Ephesians 4:8 speaks of giving gifts unto men. Do not see this as a contradiction. The same Spirit inspired both. Jesus did receive gifts of the Father (Acts 2:33), and it is those gifts that He received that He gave to the members of His body.

Our text declares that the possibility of Christ giving gifts is to be found in the fact that He descended. When our text explains Psalm 68:18, then we are to understand that God’s coming down to deliver Israel is applied to God the Son descending, humbling Himself to come in the likeness of our sinful flesh in order to deliver His people from their sins. The apostle explains that if Jehovah ascended, He had to descend first. Jehovah begins above, and if He ascends, then He must have descended first. And Jehovah did descend. He did so in Christ Jesus, the only begotten Son of God. He descended into the “lower parts of the earth”—a graphic description of God, the Son, humbling Himself to come in the likeness of our sinful flesh. Jesus Himself described His incarnation this way. “No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (John 3:13).

The point of the apostle is that it is Christ’s humbling descension that earned for Him the gifts He later distributes to all the members of His body. He came down in the likeness of sinful flesh in order to conquer, by means of His suffering, that which held His people captive, namely, sin, the devil, death, and hell. Sin holds man captive. We are deceived into thinking that a life of sin is freedom, doing what we want. However, that is the greatest slavery of all. It is the slavery of being under the curse of the law. But Christ Jesus defeated that which holds us captive. To lead “captivity captive” refers to the practice of a conquering king leading his conquered enemies in a victory parade. The Lord Christ forgives us all our trespasses and He blots out the handwriting of ordinances “that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:14, 15).

After defeating His and our enemies, the conquering Christ is exalted, set at God’s right hand “in the heavenly places, far above all principalities, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come” (1:20, 21). He is given a name above every name (Phil. 2:9, 10). All things are put under Christ’s feet, and He is given to be “head over all things to the church, which is his body” (1:22, 23). His resounding defeat of His and our enemies earned for Him the right to be Head of the church, and in the position of Headship, He dispenses the various gifts all the different members of His body possess. Let us not miss the point: the Spirit wants us to know that the presence of the diversity of gifts in the one body of Jesus Christ is the result of nothing less than God descending to the earth in order to destroy the enemies of the church, and then ascending back to heaven. There is no doubt that the very presence of the body of Christ and the unity of this body required the same descending and ascending of God. But the application here is only to the diversity in the church. Let no one think less of the diversity in Christ’s body than He does!

When we, the members of Christ’s body, consider the unity and the diversity of the church, then we see that the various members, each being gifted with a function to perform for the whole, are altogether under the one and only Head, Jesus Christ. We see that every one of us is given grace. This grace is a part of the grace of salvation—that grace by which we are saved (2:8). This grace is the grace of the functions or positions given to each member. We have “gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy,” or ministry or teaching or exhortation, or giving, or ruling, or showing mercy (Rom. 12:6-8). All the members have “received the gift,…as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (I Pet. 4:10).

To every member of the church is given the grace that enables him or her to perform a particular function. To each member is given a unique position and function in the body, and with it is given the ability to exercise that function. Christ’s distribution of those gifts is according to the measure He had determined. Each member is gifted according to a perfectly wise plan, so the result is the functioning of a beautiful, harmonious body, of which Jesus Christ is the Head.

We have not only different gifts, but also different capacities for the use of those gifts. Consider the tremendous variety in the human body! So in the church, the body of Jesus Christ, there are given various gifts: wisdom, knowledge, exhorting, giving, encouraging, praying, serving, teaching, ruling, loving. Doctor Luke, fisherman John, and rabbinically trained Paul differed one from another and yet fit together in the body. Every member must be busy in his position, functioning for the sake of the whole. And no member may despise other members just because they differ. The eye may never exalt himself over the foot, nor may the foot consider himself unnecessary just because he is not an eye (I Cor. 12:14-25).

There is an equality even though some gifts appear to be more important than others. As in the human body, some parts are more comely than others, yet the uncomely ones are as necessary (I Cor. 12:22). The functions differ—and they are meant to be different. Yet they are all essential to the harmonious working of the whole. Each member must labor “that there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another” (I Cor. 12:25). Each member must labor for the same commendation: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” Each must be faithful in the use of that which was given to him by the grace of God. And each must realize when looking at the other members of the body, that if the different members have been given grace by God, then they are viewed as indispensable.

The differing grace will make for apparent inequalities (especially from our human perspective). Instead of being disturbed by this, we must see that each member is graced for the sake of the full and harmonious functioning of the church. When we recognize these differences and gradations, then we must respect them; for in respecting them, we respect Him who gifted or graced them.

Let us see the implications of the truth of the diversity within the unity of Christ’s body. First, let every one of us confess our pride and proneness to jealousy. Let us confess our self-seeking and our feelings of being neglected or unimportant because we are not like another member. Let us humble ourselves before the Head and ask Him to forgive us, to cleanse us, and graciously to continue to use us in His body.

Also let us humbly recognize that what we have is what we have received. We do not have anything of ourselves. “Who maketh thee to differ from another? And what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” (I Cor. 4:7). Let us confess with Paul, “I am what I am by the grace of God” (I Cor. 15:10). And because it is all of grace, then no one can boast. Because it is all of grace, each member is essentially equal with all the other members. That equality is that each is damn-worthy, and it is only by grace that he is brought into the body of Christ.

Let us be content with what we have been given. Let us consciously be used by God for the sake of the other members of the body. Let us seek to use the gifts we have been given, however lowly we may sinfully think them to be. Let us use the gifts we have received for the glory of the Giver. He who glories, let him glory in the Lord, the Giver of the gifts, and the Head of the church.

“But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.”

Ephesians 4:7, 8