7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”
9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
(Ephesians 4:7-10 NIV)
Today’s passage is a lot to understand. By God’s grace, we will walk through Paul’s meaning and application.
First of all, let’s set the context, the background. In verses 1 through 6 of chapter 4, Paul focuses on the unity of believers in Christ. Yesterday we looked at the seven “ones”, how we are complete in Christ, lacking nothing.
Starting in verse 7, Paul expands on the idea of unity, and now speaks about diversity within the body of Christ. Remember, unity does not demand uniformity, where we all look alike, dress alike, act alike, do the same things, etc.
When Paul speaks of diversity, he is not using our modern-day definition of diversity, which focuses on the individual doing whatever they want, with no restrictions, all for the benefit of that individual. Instead, Paul talks about diversity in terms of individual contributions to the body of Christ, as part of the unity we have in Christ. It’s not about us, it’s about Him. Our differing skills, abilities, giftedness, etc. are to be used not for our glory, but for God’s glory, for the purpose of furthering the Gospel and loving others.
Starting in verse 7, we see Paul addressing diversity through God’s administration of His Grace toward us. First of all, let’s remember that God loves us and has given every one of us His grace. No one that claims Jesus as Savior and Lord is left out. We receive His grace when we come to Christ.
Notice that Paul said (verse 7) that Christ apportioned it. Don’t worry, there is plenty of grace for everyone. Does that mean that we all get the same amount of grace? No. Is that unfair? Absolutely. Just as you would not give a 3 year old the same amount of food as a 300 pound football player, so God gives us exactly the amount of grace we need each day. Some of us need more than others, and God knows that; it’s actually His design.
In verse 8, Paul quotes Psalm 68. So why does Paul quote this psalm when talking about unity and diversity?
Psalm 68 talks about a king coming back victorious from war. The king of Israel would come back a hero, leading his troops in a glorious procession. They would go up on Mount Zion, the “holy hill”, and give thanks to God for the victory.
As part of the procession, the king would also bring back the spoils of war, and distribute the spoils as gifts as he saw fit to do so. The king also brought back two groups of people – captives, foreigners who would be made into servants for the Israelites, and Jewish people who had been held captive in the foreign land, and were now free.
The word picture that Paul is painting for us is that Jesus is the King, He has already won the victory over sin and death, and now distributes His grace just as the Old Testament king would distribute the spoils of war. Grace is one of the many signs of Christ’s victory.
And what about the two groups of people brought back from the war? How do hey tie in to this story? Just as the king would bring back Jewish people imprisoned in the foreign land, Jesus brought us back from the prison of sin and separation from God. We are free to live in Him, forever thankful for what He did for us that we could not do for ourselves. And the prisoners brought back from the war? Sin and death (eternal death, separated from God) are now captives of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.
In verses 9 and 10, Paul jumps on a short parenthetical rabbit trail to tie the Old and New Testaments together, to build a “bridge” in their understanding from before Christ to after Christ.
Before Christ died and rose again, when people died, they did not go directly to heaven. They went to a place called Sheol, because Messiah (Jesus) had not yet died for their sins. Sheol is not hell, like some have said; however, Sheol did have two parts. Followers of God would go to the pleasant or righteous part of Sheol, awaiting the coming of Messiah. Those who did not follow God would go to the unpleasant part of Sheol, awaiting their fate. Followers of God were like the Jewish prisoners being held captive in the foreign land, and those who did not follow God were like those who were led back to Israel as captives, to serve the nation of Israel.
Paul’s point is that through Christ’s death and resurrection, He led His followers (from the good part of Sheol) to heaven, and sentenced those in the bad part of Sheol to eternal separation from Himself. Paul likely threw that in to preclude a bunch of questions about what happened to those in Sheol now that Christ was resurrected. Paul knew that bringing up Psalm 68 would prompt that discussion.
A lot to digest today! My prayer is that we would seek to live in the unity that God gives us, while using the diversity of grace that God gives to each one of us for His glory, not our own. We’ll take a look at some specific examples of those gifts of God’s grace tomorrow.