Why we need spiritual gifts – Ephesians 4:11-16
Last time, we saw that our Lord is the source of spiritual gifts and that the significance of the spiritual gifts lies in the fact that they are the fruit of our Lord’s redemptive work. However, this does not fully unpack the reasons for which the spiritual gifts have been given. Paul does that in the verses before us. In verse 12, we are given the purpose of spiritual gifts: “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” The main idea in that sentence is “perfecting” which can mean to equip, to complete, to train, or to mend. The idea that is common to all these meanings is taking something which is lacking in some sense and completing it so that no longer lacks that thing. The church presently is imperfect and incomplete, and so the Lord has given gifts to the church to make up for that imperfection. You see it also in the word “edifying,” which means to build up. Again, you have this idea of taking a building which is incomplete and adding to it so that it is a complete structure.
This immediately begs the questions: in what sense is the church incomplete? The answer comes in verse 13: “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The apostle seems to be saying one thing in different ways, namely, that the goal for which we are being perfected is conformity to Christ (cf. Rom. 8:29; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Jn. 3:2). We are incomplete in that we are not yet like Christ. This does not take place in this time, for it will happen when we shall see him as he is. However, it is the goal that we are all to be striving after in this present time. It is the main task of the church, to become more like Christ.
In verse 13, the apostle has introduced another idea to fill out the need for the church to be perfected or completed. It is the idea of growth. We are to grow until we reach the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” This idea is then reinforced in each of the following verses. In verse 14, we are not to remain as little children, but to grow so that we do not become the victims of spiritual deception. In verse 15, we are told to speak the truth in love and so grow up into Christ, and then in verse 16, Paul explains how this growth takes place: as each member functions properly in the body of Christ.
Thus, Paul is talking about spiritual growth in these verses. The reason the spiritual gifts were given were so that we might grow spiritually so that we might become more like Christ.
But then, how does this happen, exactly? How do the gifts function so that spiritual growth happens? Verse 16 shows that this does not happen apart from every believer functioning properly in the body. In other words, in some sense, my spiritual growth depends upon your spiritual growth. We grow together. We need each other. You see this in that phrase which is found in between “perfecting” and “edifying” in verse 12: “for the work of the ministry.” The question has often been asked whether this phrase is parallel to the other two or whether it is dependent upon the first. The structure of the Greek text seems to favor the view that it depends upon the first phrase. In other words, the spiritual gifts are given so that the church will be equipped for the work of ministry, with the result that the church will be built up in edification.
Ministry, or “service,” is not just done by a small group of people in the church. It ought to be done by the entire church. The apostle is saying that the spiritual gifts are given so that the church as a whole would be equipped to do the work of ministry. It is only in this way that the church grows.
Well, we have just given a quick tour of the text. What I want to do now is to go back through the text and highlight a feature of Paul’s treatment of spiritual gifts in this text. It has to do with the role of God’s word in the growth of the church. I think it is important to highlight this feature for a couple of reasons. One is that there is often confusion over the relationship between the spiritual gifts and the Scriptures. Some, in order to make room in the church for the spiritual gifts often seem to downplay the importance of the Word of God in the church. Others, in order to maximize the influence of the Bible in the community of God’s people seem to want to downplay any role for spiritual gifts apart from those recognized in the offices of elder and deacon. What we see in this text, however, is a dynamic that weds the spiritual gifts with the Word of God in way that brings about the spiritual growth of God’s people.
So how does this happen? How does the intersection of spiritual gifts and the Bible bring about the spiritual growth of the church? The text shows us four ways in which this happens.
First, we grow through the written word. Paul begins in verse 11 by enumerating some of the gifts. Now, we need to remind ourselves that in the four lists in the NT that mention specific spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 4:10-11), none of them are the same. So, we should not think that the list the apostle gives here is meant to be exhaustive. However, there is a reason the apostle mentions these instead of others. I think the reason lies in the connection between the role of God’s word and the growth of the church. You see, every one of the gifts mentioned here are in some way connected to the teaching and proclamation of God’s word.
The first two, however, are more intimately connected to the written word which we have in the Scriptures. These are the apostles and prophets. It has often been noted that there are at least two different ways that the word “apostle” is used in the NT. It can refer generically to anyone who is “sent,” and so we read about those who were denoted as the messengers or apostles of the churches (2 Cor. 8:23 and perhaps Rom. 16:7). However, the word “apostle” is mainly used to denote a very limited and distinct group of men who were specially chosen by Christ to bear his authority and to give his word to the church. The apostle gives the preeminent qualification of an apostle in this sense in Gal. 1:1 – “Paul, an apostle (not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead).” Apostles were not appointed by men but directly by Christ himself. In addition, they were required to have seen the risen Christ in order to be eyewitnesses to the resurrection (cf. Acts 1:22; 1 Cor. 15:5-10). So, we see that in the nature of the case there can be no apostles in the church today.
However, that does not mean that the apostles are lost to the church so that we cannot benefit from their gift. For they remain with us through their writings in the NT. It is not for no reason that the early church discriminated between those writings which were directly associated with an apostle (either written by an apostle or someone who wrote under the authority of an apostle like Mark and Luke) and those that were not. Those which were not were discounted as Scripture. And for good reason, for the apostles are the ones who were directly commissioned by our Lord to give his authoritative word to the church. We have already seen how the apostle described the process by which he received God’s word for the church as “revelation” (Eph. 3:3).
Next, we come to the prophets. The prophets in Ephesians are always put together with the apostles. Thus, in Eph. 2:20, we are told that the church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” And in Eph. 3:5, we read that the mystery of the gospel “in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.” And then we have Eph. 4:11, “And he gave some, apostles, and some, prophets.” The fact that they are always mentioned together has led some to believe that they are the same group. However, our text precludes that. Paul doesn’t say, “And he gave some apostles and prophets,” but rather “some apostle, and some prophets.” So, they are a distinct group from the prophets.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to determine exactly where the difference between them lies. With the apostles, they spoke by inspiration from God. Again, they are intimately connected with the transmission of the Scriptures. The apostle Peter in fact denotes the process by which Scripture is given to us as prophesy: “We have also a more sure word of prophesy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn and the day star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophesy of the scriptures is of any private interpretation. For the prophesy came not in old time by the will of man: by holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:19-21). The 19th century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge believed that the difference between NT prophets and apostles lay in the fact that the inspiration of the apostles was permanent whereas for the prophets it was occasional, and therefore the authority of the prophet was subservient to that of the apostle. I find this distinction persuasive and it seems to fit well with the nature of the ministry of the prophet laid out in 1 Cor. 14.
One more question: are there prophets today? I tend to think not, at least not as the apostle Paul thinks of them in this epistle, for with the apostles they are foundational to the church. You only lay the foundation once. So I don’t think this is necessarily an ongoing gift. And I certainly am very uneasy with people who today claim to speak the very words of God and begin by saying something like, “The Holy Ghost says . . .” This can be a dangerous (and I think unscriptural) practice that often tends to undermine confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture.
The fact that the apostle mentions these two gifts first both in Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28 indicates that he considered these gifts of primary importance for the church. The fact that they are so intimately connected to the giving of Scripture tells us why the word of God is so important for the growth of the church. The starting point for any kind of spiritual growth is by taking seriously the book that the Holy Spirit has given to us through the apostles and prophets.
The importance of Scripture is implied throughout this passage. The “faith” that we are to grow toward in unity is the faith of the word of God (13). The “knowledge of the Son of God” does not come through our own musings but through the Bible (13). We grow as we speak, not our own words, but the truth in love (15), truth whose boundaries are demarcated by the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. As Paul would later exhort Timothy: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Do you want to grow? Then get familiar with your Bible.
However, we not only grow through the written word; we also grow through the preached word. The next two gits Paul mentions are “evangelists” and “pastors and teachers.” Neither an evangelist nor a pastor is concerned with creating new revelation. Rather, their task lies in disseminating (proclaiming and teaching) already existing revelation.
There are only three texts in the NT that directly refer to evangelists, one of which is our text. The first of the other two are Acts 21:8 where Philip is called an evangelist, and the last is 2 Tim. 4:5 where Paul exhorts Timothy to do the work of an evangelist. These texts seem to indicate that an evangelist was simply a person who preached the gospel to others, especially to those who had never heard (as in the case of Philip). On the other hand, a pastor-teacher is someone who disciples and teaches those who have already received and believed the gospel. “Pastor” literally means “shepherd” and the way pastors shepherd their flocks is by giving them the word of God, not their own word. Some have commented that not every teacher is a pastor, but every pastor must be a teacher. They must be “apt to teach,” and the reason is because pastors are to lead by the preached word.
I think this is significant because this shows that having your Bible is not enough. At least, this is not God’s normal way of helping his people grow in grace. We need to hear the preached word (this goes for the pastor as much as for those who are shepherded). We need to have others speak the truth into our lives, and one of the main ways God has ordained for this to happen is through the preached word, especially as it regularly comes to us in the weekly rhythm of the gathering of the local church.
You see the urgency of this in Paul’s letter to the Titus. There, he writes, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Tit. 1:5). Paul did not want there to be a single church without elders. The church was “wanting” as long as this condition subsisted. And you can see how important their function as teachers was as the following verses unfold, especially verse 9. The elder/bishop is to hold fast “the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.”
Some might question whether “pastor” is a reference to the “bishop/elder.” I believe it is. Elders are shepherds (1 Pet. 5:1-4). Like shepherds on the watch for potential predators, elders “watch for you souls” (Heb. 13:17). Paul exhorted the Ephesians elders himself with these words: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. . .. Therefore watch” (Acts 20:28-29, 31).
You see the reason for this function of the pastor-elder-bishop in verse 14: “that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.” The word “sleight” in verse 14 literally means “dice-playing” and refers to the cheating and trickery that often accompanies games of chance. False teachers don’t just come out and announce that they are teaching something different from the apostles. Rather they will come in with teaching that sounds good, even orthodox. Thus the apostle anticipates those who would take advantage of immature believers. The only way to prevent their deception is for the believers to be well grounded in the faith, and the knowledge of the Son of God, and thus to have attained “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (13). And this happens as they take advantage of the gifts of verse 11, which for us means taking advantage of the written word and the preached word.
However, we all know that having your Bible and regularly attending the sermon is not enough to guarantee spiritual growth. Unfortunately, there are multitudes who are pass by the pulpit as they go on their way to spiritual destruction. So, that brings us to our third point, which is that we grow through the applied word. You don’t just read God’s word, you don’t just hear it. You must also apply it. In verse 13, Paul writes, “till we all come in the unity of the faith.” The word “come” means “to attain to,” or “to reach a goal.” The goal is the unity of the faith, the perfect conformity to the character of our Lord. We will not reach it until we are glorified in the age to come, but Paul does not envision the Christian just sitting down waiting for that to happen. Rather, we are on a journey, working toward that goal. We are applying God’s word to our own attitudes and situations. We are right now being perfected and edified (12). We are right now growing up into Christ (15). All this points to present growth in grace and that doesn’t happen unless we are believing and obeying God’s word ourselves.
The apostle James warns us against being content with a bare knowledge of God’s word. “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (Jam. 1:22-25). In the next chapter, he remarks, “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble” (Jam. 2:19). Saying that we believe the doctrines of the Bible when we refuse to apply them to ourselves is useless and dangerous.
Remember that the people who bore the overwhelming brunt of our Lord’s denunciations were the Pharisees. The Pharisees knew their Bibles. They could quote them back to you forwards and backwards. Their whole lives where defined by their religion. And yet they became the steadfast opponents of Christ. And they persisted in their opposition to the point that they connived in his crucifixion. Then they bitterly persecuted his church after the resurrection. Of course, our response to this should not be to chunk religion altogether. But it should warn us against the danger of thinking that having religion and a general knowledge of the word of God is sufficient evidence that we are saved.
Indeed, the knowledge that Paul speaks of in verse 13 is not the useless knowledge that the apostle James is inveighing against. Hodge remarks that the word Paul uses here denotes not just cognition, but recognition. This is knowledge to which the heart responds. He goes on to comment, “Faith and knowledge . . . express or comprehend all the elements of that state of mind of which the Son of God, God manifested in the flesh, who loved us and gave himself for us, who died on Calvary, and is now enthroned in heaven, is the object – a state of mind which includes the apprehension of his glory, the appropriation of his love, as well as confidence and devotion. This state of mind is in itself eternal life. It includes excellence, blessedness, and the highest form of activity.” We not only know the word of God, we live it out daily in our lives.
Finally, the church grows through the shared word. We not only apply it to our own lives. We share it with each other. We speak into each other’s lives. This is what the apostle is referring to in verses 15-16: “But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” The main idea of verse 16 is that the body grows as each member does its part. Verse 15 shows that the main way this translates to the church is that each member is speaking the truth in love. As the apostle would tell the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16). In Hebrews, we read, “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. But exhort one another daily, what it is called today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:12-13).
I think I need to emphasize that the life that is being held forth in this passage is not that of a community of people whose heads are full of religious knowledge and who are trying to see how miserable they can make each other. No, this is truth that is held with the heart, that brings the love of Christ into the heart and overflows in love to others (15-16). It is truth that causes the heart to sing. Did you hear what Paul said to the Colossians? He goes from letting God’s word dwell in you richly to singing to each other. This is not dry theology. This is not lifeless doctrine. It is truth that sings.
It is this to which that the apostle is calling us. Grow through the written word, the preached word, the applied word, and the shared word. It is a wonderful word because it centers upon Christ and his redemptive work on our behalf. He came for us, he died for us so that our sins might be forgiven, so that its power might be broken. He rose again so that we might join him in everlasting glory and life. His word is living and powerful because he lives and is sovereign over all things. His word is infinitely valuable because he is infinitely valuable. So may we treasure his word in all these ways.