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Study Guide Prepared by: John McVay

Key Texts: Eph 4:1-16

Key Questions

  1. Is the role of the ascended Jesus described in our passage limited to the first century? If not, what are the implications for the way we staff congregations and view each other as church members today?
  2. How have Eph 4:11-13 been important to Seventh-day Adventists in understanding the functioning of spiritual gifts in general and in understanding the role of Ellen White? (see Wednesday’s lesson)
  3. How might Eph 4:1-16 offer a corrective to some, defective views of church “unity”?

What shift occurs at Eph 4:1? Paul begins the second half of his letter with a verb that signals the shift to pastoral counsel: “I . . . urge” (ESV; parakaleō). As a way of sharpening the appeal, Paul alludes again to his difficult circumstances as a prisoner. The urgency of Paul’s entreaty suggests that he is applying the teaching he has shared in chs. 1–3 to real issues he believes need to be addressed.

How can we understand our passage—which can seem a bit disjointed—as a coherent whole?

  • Eph 4:1-6 A Call to Unity
    • Eph 4:1-3 – Adopt the attributes and actions that foster unity in the church
    • Eph 4:4-6 – The seven “ones”: A hymn-like celebration of unity
  • Eph 4:7-16 The Exalted Jesus gives gifts that nourish unity
    • Eph 4:7 – Each church member is gifted by Jesus
    • Eph 4:8-9 – How Ps 68:18 predicts the exalted Jesus giving unifying gifts
    • Eph 4:11-16 – The gifts the exalted Jesus gave to His church and how they unify the body of Christ

What should we learn about the unity of the Church from our passage? Paul accents two different perspectives on the theme of unity in Ephesians 4:1–16, ones that he holds together as complementary: 1) The unity of the church is a reality, a theological fact that is to be proclaimed and celebrated (Eph 4:4-6); 2) The unity of the church requires the vigorous nurture of believers and is a goal toward which the church moves, nourished by Christ and the gifted ones He has provided (Eph 4:1-3, 7-16). The blessed, God-given reality of unity should not lead us to passivism. Paul encourages us to be “eager [spoudazō, “be zealous or eager,” “make every effort”] to maintain the unity of the Spirit.”

How many church members are to contribute to the health, growth, and unity of the church? It is crucial to note that while Paul will accent the crucial role of “ministers of the word,” he believes that every church member is a gifted and important “part” of the “body of Christ.” “None misses out on Christ’s bounty” (Peter O’Brien, Ephesians, PNTC, 287). He begins and ends the segment, Eph 4:7-16, with this thought. Since spiritual gifts are seen as an expression of God’s “grace” (Rom 12:6; 1 Pet 4:10), we may understand the phrase “Christ’s gift” (Eph 4:7) as referring to Christ’s role in giving spiritual gifts and see Paul as alluding to the giftedness of each church member. Paul returns to the thought in the context of the body metaphor in Eph 4:16b, noting that it takes “each part . . . working properly” for the body to “grow” and “build itself up in love.”

How does Paul use Ps 68:18 to talk about the exalted Jesus as the Giver of gifts? Paul quotes Ps 68:18, reading it as a prophecy about Jesus: “‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’” The psalm portrays the Lord, Yahweh, as a conquering general who, having won a great victory, (1) ascends to his capital city, leading a large group of captives, and then (2) distributes gifts to those generals and soldiers who contributed to the conquest. To understand our passage, we need to stay close to the plot of the psalm, to the order of events it discloses.

Paul reinterprets the psalm, applying it to Jesus who, following His resurrection, (1) ascends to heaven and then (2) descends (through the Spirit at Pentecost), distributing gifts to His church.

In Eph 4:9-10, Paul is establishing two things: (1) The Jesus who ascends and is exalted is the same One who descends-in-the-Spirit to distribute spiritual gifts (Eph 4:9); (2) Reversing the point, the One who descends-in-the-Spirit is to be identified with the exalted Jesus who had ascended to the throne of God (Eph 4:10) [Note: See Friday’s lesson for important comments on translating Eph 4:9, which does not in the Greek text distinguish which happens first, the ascent or the descent, and remarks about the phrase “He led captivity captive” (NKJV) or “he led a host of captives” (ESV)].

What gifts does the exalted Jesus give? The Greek text names the gifts without any explanatory phraseology, reflected well in the ESV: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” (cf. NKJV “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers”). The Greek syntax suggests that the last two labels represent a single group, pastor-teachers, which means we have four types of “ministers of the word” that are identified. Note two interesting shifts from Paul’s earlier discussions of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12, 14; Rom 12): (1) Jesus is the Giver of the gifts (cf. the Spirit); (2) The gifts are not spiritual gifts given to people; they are people, gifted people given to the church.

In this idealistic, nearly problem-free letter, what challenge does Paul discuss in Eph 4:14? (See the remarks in Thursday’s lesson) Paul may have intended readers to bring the three metaphors he uses together something like this: “‘Stop being babies, tossed high by waves and blown all about by every gust of teaching in this sea of human trickery.’”1David Williams, Paul’s Metaphors (Hendrickson, 1999), 206 n. 41. Paul’s descriptions whet our appetite for more information. Does he know of actual heresies that are threatening the house churches of Ephesus? Perhaps he has in mind the erroneous views circulating in Colossae (and reflected in the closely related epistle to the Colossians) and worries that these might become more widespread. To quote Thursday’s lesson: “Paul believes divisiveness to be an important mark of error: That which nourishes and grows the body and helps it ‘hold together’ is good while that which depletes and divides is evil. By turning from the divisive teaching and to that of tested and trusted teachers (Eph 4:11), they will advance toward true Christian maturity and play effective roles in the body of Christ (Eph 4:12, 13; cf. vv. 15, 16).”

How does Paul redeploy the body metaphor here in Eph 4:1-16? Ephesians 4:1–16 represents the most detailed use of the body metaphor in the later writings of Paul (cf. Col 2:18–19). The passage focuses on the role of the “gifts” (domata, Eph 4:8) as they relate to the theme of unity. It is instructive to compare Paul’s use of the body metaphor in 1 Cor 12. In both passages, Paul uses the body metaphor to understand spiritual gifts. In 1 Cor 12, while God arranges the gifts in the body (1 Cor 12:18, 24, 28), it is the Spirit who gives the gifts (1 Cor 12:4–11). In Ephesians, as we noted above, the gifts are given by the triumphant Christ (Eph 4:8, 11). In 1 Cor 12 there is a greater variety listed of both spiritual gifts and body parts (foot, hand, ear, eye, head), though none of the gifts is identified with a specific body part. In Eph 4, referents are provided for a shorter list of body parts. Christ is the “head” (kephalē, Eph 4:15; whereas in 1 Cor 12 the head was not distinguished as a particularly significant body part), ministers of the word (Eph 4:11) are “ligaments” (haphē [s.], Eph 4:16),2Following the technical sense of the term defended by BDAG, 155, J. Armitage Robinson, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, 2nd ed. (Macmillan, 1904), 186; “haphē,” L&N 1:101-2; “haphē,” EDNT 1:181. and other church members are “parts” (meroi, Eph 4:16). Here in Eph 4:11–16 Paul wishes to accent the role of apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers in fostering the unity and growth of the church. These leaders are to be treasured “as part of the royal largesse which Christ distributes from his position of cosmic lordship after his triumphal ascent.”3Andrew T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 162. Paul also innovates in his use of the body metaphor in introducing the concept of the growth of the body, a thought that permeates Eph 4:11–16.

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