The Ascended Christ’s Gifts to His Church
“Wherefore He saith, When He ascended up on high, He led
captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. …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.”
—Ephesians 4:8; 11-12
When Christ, already before His great passion, told His disciples what He would have to suffer and endure for their sakes as the Redeemer of the world (Matthew 16:21; 20:18-19; Luke 18:31-33), they were “understandably” upset because of their spiritual ignorance of His true mission and of its cost to Him; and they supposed that He could have “redeemed Israel” without being humiliated, abused, tortured and slain (Luke 24:21; cf. Matthew 16::22-23). But when, in His lengthy discourse with them on the night of His betrayal, Jesus also foretold what they would have to suffer and endure for His sake after His ascension into heaven (John 15 and 16), Jesus said that sorrow had filled their hearts because of the prospect of these things (John 15:21; 16:1, 3, 4, 6). And they were particularly sorrowful because the Savior would not be with them anymore —visibly, according to His local presence— to teach them, to encourage them, and to sustain them. It wasn’t as if He were about to desert them in their time of need and to leave them “comfortless” (John 14:18), He told them; but He would send them “another Comforter” to be their constant companion, “even the Spirit of Truth” (vv. 16-17), “the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My Name,” He further explained. “He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (v. 26). For the appearance of that Comforter the disciples were to wait in Jerusalem “not many days” after Jesus’ ascension from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:4-5)
The ascended Christ made good on that promise within ten short days when, on the first Christian Pentecost, He sent them His Spirit in extraordinary measure, in the outpouring prophesied by Joel in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28-32) and fulfilled to the letter on the fiftieth day after His resurrection as recorded by Luke in Acts 2:1-21. It was then that the disciples received “power from on high” (Luke 24:49), not only for that momentous occasion on which they proclaimed in numerous foreign languages “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:4-11), but for their entire apostolic service, during which they were witnesses for the Lord Jesus (Acts 1:8) in their preaching, in their teaching, in the miracles which they performed in validation of their message, in the thoughts which they expressed and in the very words which they wrote “by inspiration of God” as they penned the Holy Scriptures of the New Testament (II Timothy 3:16).
But that same Holy Spirit was given by the ascended Christ, not only to the apostles whom He had chosen and upon whom He had bestowed His extraordinary gifts; but He gave the same Spirit unto His entire church in the ministration of the precious Means of Grace through which the Spirit would continue to edify the Savior’s mystical body and preserve it unto life everlasting. Such gifts of grace were His to grant (Matthew 28:18). He had earned the right by the work He had accomplished (John 17:4ff.). He had been given the privilege in His exaltation (Philippians 2:9). For St. Paul, in verse 8 of our title-text, first quotes the Psalmist’s praise (Psalm 68:18) of the victorious and ascended Messiah, who, by His death on Calvary, destroyed the power of His enemies, death,. hell, and Satan (Hebrews 2:14). It was this Messiah, “The Lord, our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6), who, in His triumphant resurrection on the third day, witnessed the Father’s satisfaction that His beloved Son’s mission of redemption had been accomplished and had purchased the reconciliation of the world unto Himself (II Corinthians 5:19). It was this quickened and exalted Christ; who, in His descent into hell, proclaimed His victory over all His enemies (I Peter 3:18-19) and, in His ascension into heaven, “led captivity captive,” that is, as the supreme Victor, paraded His vanquished foes as the spoils of His triumph and put them to open shame as the casualties of His accomplished warfare (Colossians 2:15). It was this exalted and ascended Lord, who had now entered into the unlimited and perpetual use of the divine power and authority which had been communicated to His human nature at His conception (Matthew 28:18), who earned the right to “[give] gifts unto men,” and who now “fills all things” with His repletive presence (Ephesians 4:10) as the King of kings and Lord of all lords, the Head of His precious Church.
What gifts specifically did the exalted and now ascended Christ give to His church on earth? And for what purpose? St. Paul writes that “He gave some, apostles.” These gifts were given in the form of men and in their ministration of His grace. A careful study of verse 11 is necessary because the English language does not convey precisely what the original Greek text indicates, and the inserted comma after the word “some” to separate it from the words “apostles,” “prophets,” etc., doesn’t really help the situation. As it reads in English, “some” could refer to the quantity or number of apostles given [some apostles as opposed to many apostles]; and it could also indicate the recipients of Christ’s gifts [He gave to some Christians Apostles, and to some He gave prophets, etc.]. The latter usage is very common in English: “He gave me a present.” But the Greek is very clear indeed. The word “some” refers to the gifts themselves — some of which were apostles, some of which were prophets, some of which were evangelists, and some of which were pastors and teachers —but all of which were given for the purpose of appropriately equipping the believers to serve one another’s spiritual edification.
Some gifts Christ gave to His church as apostles, those whom He specially and specifically “sent out” (John 20:21) or commissioned [_πόστoλoς = one sent out] to give their eyewitness testimony of Him (Acts 1:8; II Peter 1:16-18); to make disciples of all nations through the application of the Means of Grace (Matthew 28:19-20); to proclaim His Word, both Law and Gospel, in all the world to every creature (Mark 16:15-16); to teach or indoctrinate His believing disciples (Matthew 28:20) according to the norm of Scripture (I Timothy 6:3; II Timothy 3:16; etc.); and both to speak and to write down, by the verbal inspiration of the Holy Ghost, His authoritative and infallible Word (I Corinthians 2:13; I Thessalonians 2:13; I Corinthians 14:37; etc.) for our learning. When therefore the early church in Jerusalem continued steadfastly in “the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42), the believers in that local congregation were “perfected” or reliably and thoroughly equipped “for the work of ministration” [Gk.], the work of serving one another spiritually by “edifying the body of Christ,” by building up His mystical body authoritatively and infallibly, not merely in numbers but in spiritual strength, stamina, and endurance unto salvation.
Some gifts the exalted Christ gave as prophets, as New Testament prophets, men (and occasionally also women, Acts 21:9) who received special revelations from the Lord to pass along to their brethren, messages usually limited in their scope and intended to address special circumstances in the local congregations. Those who had been specially “gifted” in this manner were to make use of that gift properly and humbly, confident of God’s purpose in bestowing it upon them for the benefit of the believers. Those whose gift of prophecy was a special ability to unfold divine truth were to “prophesy according to the proportion of faith” (Romans 12:6), that is, to speak according to the analogy of faith. There is no evidence in Scripture, however, that this special gift of prophecy —whether only the prophecy of special and limited revelations OR the gift of extraordinary exposition of divine truth— continued past the apostolic age; neither is there any indication in Scripture that we are to look for such “prophecy” anymore today since we have in the completed Scriptures “a more sure Word of prophecy, whereunto [we] do well that [we] take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place” (II Peter 1:19; cf. Psalm 119:105; Jeremiah 23:28).
“And He gave some [as] evangelists,” those whose special gifts made them notably fitted for “missionary work,” as we would call it today, of witnessing the good news of the Gospel to the heathen. Philip, one of the deacons in the church at Jerusalem, was one such “evangelist” (Acts 21:8), who, at the direct (immediate) prompting of the Holy Ghost, approached the Ethiopian eunuch on the road in the so-called “Gaza strip,” instructed him concerning Christ’s vicarious atonement, and baptized him (Acts 8:26ff.). While every Christian is to be an “evangelist” in the wider sense of the term (Mark 16:15), the Lord gave to the early church particular individuals, whose work and office were not the Pastoral Office of the local congregation, but who went forth to spread the “good news” of the Gospel in the community at large and, under the Lord’s blessing, to gather together a local flock of professing believers. Again, there is no indication in Scripture that the Lord specially [and immediately] sends forth such “evangelists” today. While an individual congregation, or a group of congregations in consort (as in a conference or synod), may commission a missionary to work in a certain locality or in a specialized sphere (institutional missionary, prison missionary, foreign missionary), such men are not incumbents of the Pastoral Office. If and when a congregation is formed as the result of the Lord’s blessing upon their labors, then that congregation, as the agency of the Holy Ghost, calls its own shepherd and overseer according to the ordinance of God (Acts 20:28; Titus 1:5; etc.); and that individual then has the Pastoral Office of that flock in that place (I Peter 5:2).
Finally (and this gift of the exalted Christ continues to be bestowed upon His churches to the present day), “He gave some [as] pastors and teachers.” Also in the Greek text of this verse, the expression “pastors and teachers” is not separated, as if two distinctly different functions and offices were spoken of. On the contrary, the Pastoral [Shepherding] Office of the local congregation is clearly described in Scripture as the “teaching office” (John 21:15ff.; I Peter 5:2a), as the “preaching office” (II Timothy 4:2), as the office of “oversight” (Acts 20:28; I Thessalonians 5:12; I Peter 5:2b); as the “ruling” office in which God’s Word is the norm and authority (Hebrews 13:7 and 17); and as the office of “accountability” (Hebrews 13:17) to the Chief Shepherd (I Peter 5:4) of His sheep, Christ Jesus, the Head of His Church. Where this office has not been established in a local congregation, something is lacking or “wanting,” St. Paul writes to Titus (1:5), and such a situation should be “set in order” or corrected. The Pastoral Office is indeed the only God-ordained, divinely-instituted and mandated, office in the church today, as the Scriptures clearly teach, all other offices and helps to the Ministry of the Word being left to the Christian liberty and judgment of each local congregation to establish or not to establish as it deems necessary and wise from time to time, according to circumstances and need (as was the case with the diaconate in Jerusalem (Acts 6). The idea that auxiliary offices in the church are “part of the Pastoral Office,” as if that one office can be fractionalized and compartmentalized into offices that exist according to their own right, or that such auxiliary offices and their incumbents are not under the authority and oversight of the congregation’s pastor, or that such auxiliary offices can exist independent of and apart from the Pastoral Office, is contrary to Scripture. There is simply no Word of God to back up such claims.
Why did the exalted Christ give “some [as] pastors and teachers,” and why does He do so still today, providing men with gifts and talents well-suited to the work of the ministry (I Timothy 4:14), moving them to dedicate themselves to His work, as did Isaiah (Isaiah 6:8), and blessing their study and preparation (II Timothy 2:15)? He gives them “for the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” He gives them so that they can “preach the Word; be instant, in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (II Timothy 4:2ff.), so that, under their stewardship of Christ’s Word and Sacraments (I Corinthians 4:1-2), His sheep and lambs may be fed and pastured, that they may “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18), that they remain “steadfast and unmoveable” (I Corinthians 15:58; Hebrews 3:14), well-grounded in doctrine (Ephesians 4:14-15), “thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 3:17), and, by God’s grace, “sincere and without offense till the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10) and “faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:10b). That is a “tall order;” but that is the reason why the Lord of the Church has given to it “pastors and teachers” as His mouthpieces (Luke 10:16), as His undershepherds (John 21:15ff.), as His stewards (I Corinthians 4:1), as His watchmen over the House of Israel (Ezekiel 3:17).
For the sake of the Savior’s mystical body, the Church; for the sake of our local congregations (both as God sees them—the true believers, and as we see them—those who confess His Name and use His Word); for our own sake and for the sake of our children who need regular and consistent nourishment from the Manna of God’s Word and the careful oversight of faithful shepherds, let us pray the Lord of the Church that He would mercifully prevent a famine of the hearing of His Word from occurring in our midst (Amos 8:11) but ever graciously continue to give us “pastors and teachers” — “for the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” To that end, may He move the hearts of men throughout our Conference with the earnest desire to serve Him in the Pastoral Office and to be trained for such service in our seminary program, so that a future ministry may thus be provided for us, for our children, and for their children after them, through which God’s Name may continue to be hallowed among us in the faithful preaching, teaching and practice of His pure Word to the salvation of our souls!
Lord, bless Thy Word alway,
our souls forever feeding;
and may we never lack
a faithful shepherd’s leading!
(TLH 485, 6a)
—D. T. M.