Gifted for Spiritual Maturity - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10B - Ephesians 4


Ephesians 4:1-16              New Revised Standard Version

4 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

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

“When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;

    he gave gifts to his people.”

9 (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended[a] into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.


                As a child, I loved Christmas, especially the part about opening presents. Getting up on Sunday morning to see what Santa brought was the highlight of the day. Now, I’ve grown up and Christmas has more to do with the message of the incarnation than the opportunity to open presents. But gift-giving is still part of the Christian life. In fact, we read in the letter of James that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

                God is a gift-giver. There is the gift of grace that leads to redemption (Rom. 3:24). There is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 10:45). Quite often the gifts of God have a practical value. They are designed to empower the people of God for ministry in the community and beyond. That is, they are given with the expectation that the result is the common good of all. Along the way, when put to proper use, the end result is, for the individual, spiritual maturity. That is all to the good for the community as well as the individual.

                The author of the letter, whom we will call Paul, while again acknowledging the disagreement as to authorship, invites us to consider what it means to live a life worthy of the calling to be a follower of Jesus. The qualities of life Paul emphasizes here include humility, gentleness, patience forbearance/tolerance, and love. These are the kinds of life qualities that one must have if the people of God are to live together peacefully and in unity. That is Paul’s concern. He wants the churches to whom he is writing to experience unity in the Spirit. We’ve already seen him address the presence of division between Jewish and Gentile components of the community, where he tells us that Jesus broke down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14). While it might be true that Jesus broke down those walls and has opened up the circle to bring Gentiles into the family on equal terms, the task of integration/assimilation is still ongoing. Truth be told history records that such integration never reached fulfillment as Christianity became an increasingly Gentile/non-Jewish movement. Nevertheless, the author/Paul still has hope that the two communities can find common ground in Christ.

                Chapter 4 of Ephesians marks a turn in the focus of the letter. While the first half of the letter (chapters 1-3) are seen as setting the theological foundations for the church. Now, we move to the practical dimensions of the letter (as based upon the foundations laid earlier). The emphasis on unity found in the opening chapters continues here.  Paul calls on the members of the community to patiently bear with one another in love. After all, as Paul reminds us “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord (Jesus), one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Here again, we see hints if not an overt word about the Trinity. More importantly, we see here a focus on their common faith that is sealed in the one baptism (in water) and rooted in the “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all, and in all.”

                With this opening call for the followers of Jesus to live lives worthy of their calling and in service to the unity of the body in place, Paul moves to his second point and that has to do with the spiritual gifts given to the church by Christ. These gifts, as we see also in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, 14, are meant to unite the community as one body in Christ. These gifts, according to the reading here in Ephesians 4 are designed to achieve both unity and maturity in Christ through the Spirit. As we see in verse 7, “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” It is good to remember that the Greek word for grace is charis, thus what Christ gives to the church are expressions of grace that are manifested in ways that enhance maturity and unity. As seen in Romans and 1 Corinthians, each is given a gift/gifts according to Christ’s decision. Thus, the gifts will be diverse in character and number. Here in Ephesians, only five gifts are mentioned, but we needn’t limit ourselves to that number (see my book Unfettered Spirit for a more in-depth conversation about spiritual gifts, their diversity, and purpose).

                Paul provides a scriptural foundation for what is to come with an appeal to Psalm 68:18 (Septuagint). In the Greek version of the Psalm, Christ is said to have ascended on high and made captivity a captive and then gave gifts to his people. Paul takes this to mean that the one who ascended also descended into the lower parts of the earth (Eph. 4-8-10). While the Psalm originally focused attention on Moses’ ascent on the mountain to receive the Commandments, which he then brought down to the people, Paul uses this to speak of something very different. Whatever Paul has in mind here, and it’s clear that he is using mythological language to describe how Jesus gifts the church for maturity, the focus is on the gifts that Jesus gives to the church.

                As noted above, Paul mentions five gifts: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. These gifts are given to the church (and to the people who exercise them) to equip the saints for the work of ministry. While these five gifts could be understood as offices (and have been understood in that way) that isn’t necessary. One could read this in a more informal way of speaking of those who plant churches (apostles), preach (prophets), share the gospel (evangelists), pastor (caring ministry), and teach (educate). Together those gifted in this way build up the church. At the very least the ministry of a teacher is designed to equip the saints to do the ministry (and not do the ministry on their behalf). It’s worth noting how presuppositions guide translation. The NRSV and NIV speak of pastors and teachers equipping the saints for ministry, while the KJV, reflecting a more clerical vision, speaks of pastors and teachers doing the work of the ministry. Thus: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12 KJV). While the NRSV, in my mind, best reflects the message of the passage, it’s worth considering the possibilities of different visions.

                Whether it is clergy doing the ministry or the people doing the ministry (the latter my choice), the goal here is to become a healthy functioning body, with Christ as its head. Each part of the body, each member, is joined together by ligaments so that it might work properly, promote growth, and build itself up in love. As Sammy Alfaro writes: “The last verse in this section beautifully imagines the organic restorative work of the church, whose members, after being equipped and brought to a healthy working order, are able to promote the healthy growth of the greater church. This is not merely a doctrinally fine-tuned intellectual community of faith; it is the church practicing love (v. 16)” [Connections, p. 207].  Is this not a vision worthy of our attention in times such as this when the world and the Christian community is experiencing division that is rooted more in cultural dynamics than theological ones.

                For more on this passage see my Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, (Energion Publications, 2010), chapter 5. 

Image Attributioin: Grace Came Down..., from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved July 25, 2021]. Original source:


Abuaissa said…
I just ordered your study guide on Ephesians. I'm looking forward to reading it for further insights into Ephesians.
Robert Cornwall said…
Abuaissa, thank you!

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