Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 04/18/1999
"But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, 'When he ascended on high he led captive a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.' Now, this expression, 'He ascended,' what does it mean except that he also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also he who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things."
In order to walk worthily of our calling, we must first preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, in the Body of Christ, the Church. Because this Body is the Temple of 2:19-22, and because it is the Church of 3:10, the primary way for God to receive glory is for the church to be the Church. How? Through the growth that happens to it (both qualitatively and quantitatively) when the members all exercise their spiritual gifts, which is explained in the next major section. Today, the topic of spiritual gifts is introduce by what may be one of the most poorly understood passages in the New Testament: 4:7-10.
There are some troublesome details about this passage that can easily distract us from its meaning and relevance. In the first place, it looks as if he may have misquoted Psalm 68:18, which has the Lord receiving gifts, not giving them. Is Paul mis-applying the passage? No, he is re-applying it. The key is Ps. 68:1. "Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from him." Psalm 68 is about the triumph of God, the victory of Jahweh. In the triumphal procession which a conquering king would hold in ancient times to celebrate his victory, he would both receive gifts and give them. He would receive the spoils of war taken from the enemy in order to redistribute them to his loyal troops. There would be a great victory parade in which the prisoners of war captured from the other side would be paraded in chains and made to pass under a yoke. Meanwhile, the Generals would be throwing money to the crowd from their chariots, symbolizing the dispensing of the spoils of war. (The candy thrown from floats in modern small-town parades is a faint memory of this custom.) So Paul is not misquoting. He is alluding to the setting of Jahweh's victory celebration in Psalm 68 in order to bring out the other side of the coin. The psalm refers to the king receiving gifts, but Paul wants to focus on what he would do next: redistribute them as spoils to his followers, i.e., give gifts to men.
The second troublesome detail is the reference to the "lower parts of the earth," often used as a prooftext for Christ's descent in Hell. I am not concerned to deny that doctrine, but simply to point out that this passage is not talking about it. It would be better translated, "The lower parts, i.e., the earth." In other words, it is what in Greek is called a "genitive of apposition." It is not talking about Hell but about the Incarnation. The one who ascended is the one who first came down in that sense. Hell is simply a distraction from what is happening here: After his incarnation, Christ returns to heaven ("ascends") in triumph over Satan, who has been defeated by his life, death, and resurrection. And in the celebration of that triumph he receives spoils of battle which he now will distribute to his troops.
This passage then is not here to plague us with doubts about the doctrine of inspiration due to Paul's allegedly inaccurate use of the Old Testament, nor is it here to inspire speculation about Christ's itinerary between his death and his resurrection. It is rather here to do something very important. It is here to teach us that Spiritual Gifts are the spoils of war, the tokens of triumph which Christ as conquering King gives to his loyal troops in celebration of his victory over sin and Satan, death and Hell. And it is time we understood it and began to look at them that way.
What then are the implications of a right understanding of this introduction to the doctrine of Spiritual gifts? The first is to realize that SPIRITUAL GIFTS, NO LESS THAN JUSTIFICATION, WERE PURCHASED BY THE DEATH OF CHRIST. They are therefore just as central to the Christian's identity as forgiveness of sins, a clean conscience, no condemnation, or eternal life. To neglect them is to despise the blood of Christ which won them for us.
A second implication is that SPIRITUAL GIFTS MANIFEST CHRIST'S VICTORY over Sin, Death, Hell, and Satan. How will the world know that Christ has won this victory if the Gifts are not seen as operative in his Church? Why should the world believe in this victory if they are not seen? A spectator church is a trophy case with no trophies, a victory parade with no floats or bands or ticker tape. That is why the whole discussion is introduced in this way. When the leaders function by exercising their gifts according to verse 12--not doing all the ministry themselves but rather "equipping the saints for the work of service"--when as a result the whole Body begins to function according to verse 16, building itself up in love because of what EVERY joint supplies--why, then, Satan and all Christ's enemies will pass in chains under the yoke, Christ will be glorified, and people will BELIEVE! In other words, the exercise of spiritual gifts by every member is the context within which the Gospel has credibility and preaching has power. Without it you have . . . the contemporary American church!
In the third place, THE DISCOVERY AND EXERCISE OF YOUR OWN SPIRITUAL GIFT(S) IN THE BODY IS THE PATH TO THE EXPERIENCE OF CHRIST'S TRIUMPH IN YOUR OWN LIFE. If you want to grow in your walk with the Lord, then discover your own spiritual gift(s) and use them to build up the Body of Christ in the local church. That is the way, according to this pasage, that you are connected to his triumph and become part of its celebration; it therefore unleashes the reality of his victory in every area of your spiritual life in a way that nothing else can. Therefore I say, if you want to grow in your walk with the Lord, then discover your own spiritual gift(s) and use them to build up the Body of Christ in the local church. If you want to experience victory over temptation, then one thing you must do is to discover your own spiritual gift(s) and use them to build up the Body of Christ in the local church. If you want to have faith that is vibrant and triumphant over your doubts, discover your own spiritual gift(s) and use them to build up the Body of Christ in the local church. If you want to have boldness in witnessing, discover your own spiritual gift(s) and use them to build up the Body of Christ in the local church.
Why are Spiritual Gifts so important, so essential to a victorious Christian life? Because they are the spoils of Christ's victory given to his soldiers. Therefore, they keep you in touch with Christ as Conquering King. They are the difference between faith that is merely theoretical and faith that is practical, that is being lived. They are the difference between faith that is merely potential and faith that is engaged and energized. Remember: for this also Christ died.
Beginning in the late '60's with Ray Steadman and the Body Life movement, the American Evangelical churches have begun to make some progress in recovering the biblical doctrine of Spiritual Gifts. Even the false teaching of the Charismatic Movement has helped to stimulate this recovery. But we have not yet really learned to see Spiritual Gifts as the Bible presents them: They are the spoils of war, the fruits of victory, the booty and plunder shared by our great and conquering Captain with his loyal retainers, his trusty thanes, his faithful knights in celebration of his triumph over their foes. To see them thus is to realize that they are not an optional teaching at the fringes of Christian doctrine but are essential to our identity as subjects of this King. It is to realize that to neglect them is to cheat Christ of his glory as conquering hero and to cheat his Church of the experience of his victory. It is to realize that to practice them is to know the Church as we have never seen it: a mighty army with gleaming armor, streaming banners, and flashing swords, going forth to conquer. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams