What do you have to offer Jesus? You, who believe and follow him; you who have joined his church, his body – just what do you have to give to make any real difference to that body? That is what we are considering today. We have been told to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, and that manner is described as walking in humility and gentleness, with patience and forbearance in love, with this addition – eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Then we are told that unity is founded actually on what is not dependent on us, namely, the facts that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father. So what does unity have to do with us? What do we have to contribute? That is what our passage speaks to us about.
The standard interpretation of this passage goes something like this. The Apostle Paul has just emphasized our oneness. Now, in verse 7, he emphasizes our diversity, what makes us different, namely that Christ has given us different gifts. And speaking of gifts, Paul is reminded of a quote from Psalm 68, which in turn leads him to an aside about Christ’s descending and ascending.
That is how I have always handled the text, focusing on our variety of gifts and wishing that Paul had not inserted the obtuse reference about Christ. Indeed, when reading aloud I typically skipped over the verses 8-10, so as to get to stay on target about our gifts. But now I think such an approach is slightly off the mark. Here is what gave me pause.
First is the brevity of remarks about our spiritual gifts. Compare this brief verse with the relatively lengthy treatment in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. Those chapters really do lay out the diversity of gifts. Paul distinctly explains how the members have different functions, and he then takes time to list what they are. It may seem like that is what he is doing in verse 11, but it is not the same as in the other two letters, which describe a wide variety of gifts accessible throughout the church. What he lists in verse 11 are offices of a church, restricted to a few with a particular calling. If diversity of gifts is Paul’s intent in verse 7, he misses a golden opportunity to expound on that diversity that he doesn’t miss in 1 Corinthians and Romans.
Second, the choice of wording is a bit off. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Why does Paul use the word “grace”? The Greek word is charis. The commentators tell me that Paul means “spiritual gift,” which in Greek is charisma. Well then, why doesn’t he use charisma, which is the word he uses for “spiritual gift” in 1 Corinthians and Romans? And why does he speak of grace given according to the measure of Christ’s gift? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, as he puts it in Romans 12:6: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” Now that is a clear statement about having diverse gifts that are given to us according to grace.
And then there is this inordinate amount of time given to Christ ascending on high. Paul doesn’t take up manuscript space in the longer letters to talk about this. Just what is he getting at?
I think Paul’s intent is not to contrast oneness and diversity, but to encourage and to challenge each church member to participate in the church’s work. In verses 4-6, Paul did not present one unifying element. He presented seven elements. The point of the repetition of “one” was to make clear that each element was objectively a single fact. There are not many bodies, many Spirits, many Lords, and so on. The “one” trait true of them all is that they were objective truths that did not depend on what church members thought or did about them. Baptism? You want to argue over baptism? Argue all you want, but the one baptism by which the Spirit joins the believer to Christ is not going to change or be diminished. And the same is true for all the six other elements. These elements of unity are not dependent on us.
So, then, are we irrelevant? Do we play no role in church unity? To the contrary, Christ has deigned to empower each one of us to build up one another in unity. He has given to each individual “grace.” Do you see what I am getting at? Verse 6 reads: there is “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” We might read that and conclude that there is power in “the all,” the church as a whole. When we are all together there is great power.
That is true; there is power in “the all.” But grace – the power to serve – is also in each one of us. How much grace? How much power? “According to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Now at this point we are suppose to think that Paul is explaining the diversity of gifts. According to how Christ measured out his gift to each person, that is what each person received. Some received many gifts, some few. Some received powerful gifts, some humble gifts.
But is that where the next verses take us?
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 parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
Verse 8 is a quote from Psalm 68:18 with a slight twist. The psalm says he “received from,” not “gave” gifts to men. The image in the psalm is that of a conquering king returning home in triumph. He is marching in a parade, leading his captives and bearing with him the spoils of war, which, by the way, he would then share – give – to others. The verb for “received” could be translated “brought.” There are two ancient translations, one Aramaic and the other Syriac, that translate the term as “gave.” So Paul is not being overly free with his own version.
Verses 9 and 10 raise the question of what Paul is actually saying. What does “descended into the lower parts of the earth” actually refer to? Some believe it speaks of the time between Christ’s death and ascension – that Christ descended into hell or hades. Most Reformed commentators take it to speak of Christ’s descent in humiliation to earth.
So the full picture of 8-10 is this. Using Psalm 68 as the guiding image, Christ is depicted as the conquering hero who descended to earth, waging war against the dark forces of Satan and winning the great victory of redemption. He then ascends to heaven, returning home in glory to his Father bearing gifts and giving gifts.
Listen to the conclusion of Psalm 68:
32 O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God;
sing praises to the Lord,
33 to him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
behold, he sends out his voice, his mighty voice.
34 Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel,
and whose power is in the skies.
35 Awesome is God from his sanctuary;
the God of Israel—he is the one who gives power and strength to his people.
Blessed be God!
Apply this to Christ:
Ascribe power to Christ,
whose majesty is over the church,
and whose power is in the skies.
Awesome is Christ from his sanctuary;
the Head of the Church—he is the one who gives power and strength to his people.
Blessed be Christ!
Remember what Paul has already said in 1:20-23. He speaks of the power that God:
“worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
This exalted Christ, who is head over all things, was given to the church and fills the church. This victorious Christ, through whom God the Father has blessed us with every spiritual blessing (1:3), is the one who gives grace to each one of us according the measure of his gift, which is great measure indeed.
This passage is not about diversity. The church is filled with diverse members with diverse gifts. That is true. But the point being made here is about power, power that each member of Christ’s body possesses to serve his or her Lord.
Let me suggest some practical lessons for us as individual members of Christ’s body.
1. No excuse
The first is that this passage strips away from us the “humility” excuse from serving the Lord and serving his body, the church. Moses’ response to God’s call to service exemplifies such a ploy. God calls Moses to deliver his people from Egypt. Moses’ tries to back out. “Who shall I say sent me?” “No one will believe me.” After God answers each objection, Moses’ reverts to the “humility” excuse: “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). What a humble man! He would have liked to help out, but he just doesn’t have the needed gifts.
Then God replies: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (vs. 11-12). “I am your Creator, Moses. And you are telling me what you are not capable of doing? I don’t think so.”
Moses then reveals what really is in his hear: “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” He just doesn’t want to do it. He took his blows years ago, and he doesn’t want to get back in the ring. He has found a relatively comfortable life. He has settled down. He has grown old.
What’s your excuse for not serving? Too old? Too young? Too weak? You’d like to serve but when it came to giving out gifts, Christ…, well, let’s just say Christ did not embarrass you with riches.
Is that really the problem – that you don’t have much in the way to give? Or is it really the same as Moses’ problem – he took a beating and lost his motivation or his nerve to get back into the ring. Maybe you have served; maybe you have given the best you got, and you got beat down. Maybe the burdens added to you make serving too difficult to add. I suppose Moses really did have difficulty speaking. Standing up to Pharaoh and to an unruly crowd is difficult enough without also being tongue-tied.
It is hard to step forward when you are shy; hard to serve people when feeling awkward. Maybe you have an infirmity; maybe you are old or young and you have physical limitations. Maybe…well, the list is easy to add to. All of us have much about us to turn to excuses of humility.
The reality, though, is that the Lord who calls us to service is our Creator who made us. Furthermore, we are told that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:10). Thus, God simply is not interested in our excuses for why we cannot serve.
2. Don’t Measure by Human Standards
Our problem is not that we lack gifts or power to exercise our gifts but that we don’t know how to measure what we have. We use the wrong set of balances. The teachings of Jesus should have made us alert to this. Remember the time he observed people standing in line at the temple putting money into the offering box? There were many rich people putting in large sums. Then a poor widow walks up and puts in two small coins. Jesus doesn’t say, “It’s not much, but she did what could.” He says that she put in more than all the others. He thinks that giving even a cup of cold water is worthy of reward. He says that the least in the kingdom is great.
So when we denigrate our gifts and power to serve with comments like “it’s not much,” “I don’t have much to give,” we are just wrong. Don’t misunderstand me. Of ourselves, we are poor; we are weak. We don’t have anything to boast about. But when it comes to the gifts and power that our generous Lord has given to each of us, we are wealthy and mighty.
“But I don’t see that in my life.”
Well, then, open your eyes. Quit measuring what you do and who you do it for according to earthly standards. You know that depiction of Jesus about the final judgment. He is going to call forth the sheep, saying, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Why? Because when they did the so-called humble tasks of visiting someone in prison or who was sick, of taking food or clothing to someone in need, he viewed those tasks as noble service rendered unto him.
And there is much that you do that you can never see, except perhaps you will be given grace to see in glory. Have you seen that commercial, I think for an insurance commercial, in which one person does a good deed for someone? Someone else sees it and is motivated to do something nice for somebody else. Another person sees that and as a result does a good deed. So the first do-gooder has no idea of the real impact his simple deed accomplished.
And so you do not know. You cannot know. You are not omniscient and cannot see how one act affects another which affects another. You know nothing of the spiritual world and cannot see how what you do affects that world. And you simply do not have the right scales by which to weigh or measure your deeds accurately in the system of God’s kingdom. But Christ knows; he sees all, and your Lord measures your deeds precisely as they are.
3. Give Christ His Due
A third lesson to take away from this passage is that we should be giving Christ his due. It sounds humble to think lightly of our gifts. “Oh, I’m not doing anything special. I don’t have great gifts.” Again, it is proper not to boast in ourselves. Paul even warns believers in Romans 12 about this: “I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” We should not let our spiritual gifts lead us to an exaggerated view of ourselves.
But there is an equal problem of Christians who excuse themselves from service by claiming that they have little to offer to the Lord. They forget that the victorious, ascended Christ has given grace to everyone according to the measure of his gift, which hardly can be declared of little value. Has God not made you? Has he not created you anew in Christ Jesus and prepared works for you to do?
You say that you are weak with little to offer. Has the Lord not said that his “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9)? He loves putting his treasure in “jars of clay.” That is how he shows that the surpassing power belongs to him and not to us.
You say that you do so little. Has the Lord not said that the smallest of a deed done for the least of his people is great work done for him? Who are you to denigrate work that the Lord deems noble? And if you say that you have only help a few people or simple people, who are you to devalue the persons whom you help who are made in the image of God?
You shouldn’t be wishing you could do great things for your Lord; you should be thanking him for allowing you – a jar of clay, a weak, frail creature – to do great things for him now. Thank him for making a phone call to encourage a person a noble deed. Thank him for making your faithfulness to fold bulletins, to take a meal, to speak kindly to a passerby, to give a few coins, to give a cup of cold water a deed worthy of reward.
We do too much wishing; we need to do more thanking. We spend so much time in prayer asking God to give opportunity to do something great; we need to spend that time asking him to open our eyes to the opportunities given to us every day. We need to give God his due.
4. Get to Work
And then we need to get to work. Don’t get hung up on knowing what spiritual gift you have. Do you need to know that before you sit in a rocking chair or on the floor in the nursery? Do you need to know your gift before you sit at a table and share a meal with a homeless guest at Community Dinner? Do you need to know your gift before you greet a fellow worshiper? Or do you really find it convenient to say, “I haven’t found my gift yet”?
Some of you are quite aware of your gifts and yet you know you are not giving what you can. You know what you can do and the impact you can have, but…well, how do you explain to your Head, the Lord Jesus Christ why you will not serve to your full capacity? You may have good reasons. There are times when we need a break, when we cannot spread ourselves too thin. But it is also true that those “breaks” turn into long retirement. Is it time to get back into the service you know you are gifted for?
Some of you are waiting for someone else to find a job for you. You are ready for an assignment when that assignment comes your way. You don’t need an assignment to befriend another person. One of the things I do is hook up people. A woman meets with me for counsel, and I then get another woman to meet with her; the same with men. How great it is to learn, as I did this past week, of an older man mentoring a younger man, and no one needed permission! What a joy it is to discover the ways in which members of the body are serving one another in the power of the grace given to them by their Lord Jesus Christ.
Your Lord, your one Lord Jesus Christ, who has ascended on high and given gifts freely, who has given you grace according to the measure of his generosity, calls you to serve, calls you to the joy of doing the good works, which God the Father has prepared for you to do, and which the Holy Spirit has empowered you. Catch the vision; get to work.
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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By D. Marion Clark. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org