Equipping the Saints: "He Ascended on High"

The Gifted Community

    The key images of the church in the New Testament are well known and have been well documented by various writers. The images of family, body, and bride are all living and organic metaphors. Interestingly, Paul also takes the non-living metaphors and transforms them into living ones: the temple of stone comes to life! What Paul is doing is pointing to the twin poles of reality: the church is both an institution and an organism, and neglecting either reality leads to error. We'll talk about this in the next chapter.

    Ephesians and Corinthians are the richest mines for understanding the nature of the church. We'll also look at Hebrews 8, however, which parallels many thoughts expressed in Ephesians 4. Before we reach into the New Covenant understanding of the gifted community, we need to reach back into the Old Testament as Paul does in Ephesians 2: 19-22,

    Now therefore, we are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

    This passage is rich and is itself foundational for what we wish to accomplish here.

    The Temple was a shadow of things to come. As a fixed structure, it pictures that which is given and unchangeable. Now we are a living temple, composed of living stones, founded on the empowering ministry of leaders/equippers. Living stones participate in the living building, and at the point of connection Christ is made known (Eph. 4:16 'knit together by what every joint supplies"). Note, only the entire building constitutes the living temple, another corrective for our inward focus. Individual stones are fitted into the wall, and only the "effective working of each part" causes the growth of the body. Only as the entire body is functioning will the fullness of Christ be revealed corporately.

    How do we become a habitation corporately? We are filled with the Spirit. The first result of being filled with the Spirit, is "speaking to one another." How do we create the space for this to happen? If we fail to do so, what is the point of being a corporate habitation of the Spirit? God doesn't dwell in buildings made with hands. When the Lord comes to His temple and the word is released, it won't only be through a few leaders. The whole building is a living Temple, and Christ is made known when we actually function as a body, releasing gifted ministry as in I Cor.14.

    Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Col. 3:16

    The word that Christ has given must be released. The music in each heart contributes to the symphony. The light that passed through the prism must be re-combined in order to recreate the original white.

    How do we equip the body so that this can happen? Maybe we simply need to enable the Lord to release His word in His body.

    The problems we run into are many. The brightest light can dominate and we might never see the other colors. The loudest trumpet may continue to sound, completely covering the delicate tones of the flute. It's interesting that in 1 Cor. 14 Paul restricts the operation of the more important gifts with the caution that the less spectacular gifts are even more necessary: "the parts of the body which seem weaker are indispensable" (1 Cor.12:22-25). Graham Cooke comments that,

    People who feel insignificant remain ineffective and small. They become grasshoppers in their own sight and may never inherit all that Jesus died to give them. Good leaders take what is small and enable it to grow. Starting where people are at, they take them through progressive levels of encouragement, appreciation, and development to a place of personal effectiveness and personal significance.

    The order Paul desires to establish arises from his concern that all contribute, that there is a broad representation and discerning balance of gifts, since only as all minister will individual members reach the maturity of Christ (Eph.4:13). We need one another!

Fathers and the Giver of Gifts

    It would be pointless to talk about gifted ministry without talking about the Giver. In fact, it is evident that teachers have focussed on the fivefold gifts of Ephesians 4 and neglected the flow and completeness of the passage. We live in among a leader fixated people! Let's look more closely at Ephesians 4 and then at the parallels in Hebrews 8.

   But to each one grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore he says;
   When he ascended on high, He led captivity captive,
   And gave gifts to men. (Ps.68:18).
(Now this, "He ascended" - what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

   And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head - Christ - from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by that which every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. 4:8-16

    The passage opens with relational unity in verse 2 and 3 ("unity of the Spirit," and "bearing with one another in love") and then moves immediately to a sweeping panorama of unity ("one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.") Next Paul focuses on the victorious Giver, who "ascended on high," and moves through the listing of gifts ("he gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists and pastors and teachers.") Paul then mentions the direction of these gifts ("equipping the saints"), and ends on two notes: the functioning of the healthy community ("joined and knit together by what every joint supplies,") and the means of growth, love! The body "upbuilds itself through love," the primary task is relational and on that note Paul closes one of the most often quoted passages in the New Testament.

    Isn't it odd that our focus has been the governmental function, and not the community function? Moreover, we have missed the flow of the passage, with Christ the Giver at the center and the outward flow of love in gifting to the body. Perhaps we as leaders have been too focussed on our own significance in the community. Perhaps we have been pushed in that direction both by our teachers and our followers. Our culture has itself been management rather than relationship focussed. Our task orientation (since most church leaders are male) has itself pushed us away from the dimension of mystery and toward management and control.

    Larry Crabb, in his recent work, "The Safest Place on Earth," comments that we have a choice: we can be either managers or mystics. Most of us feel somewhat out of place in community: we don't always feel safe and community itself is a mystery. We prefer structures we can understand and control. The problem is, God is less interested in predictability and control than we are! Or, from another perspective, He wants to be the one in control, and He doesn't always tell us in advance what He is up to!

    Traditionally we think of fathers as the ones in charge. We picture a pyramid, with fathers on top, then mothers and children below. This is a classic image of patriarchy and it fits well with the old paradigms of management and control. In Part II of theological reflections we'll look more closely at the New Testament teaching on fathers and authority. For the moment let's focus on the One who is at the center.

"He Ascended on High"

    In Ephesians 4: 8-10 Paul writes that Jesus ascended on high "that he might fill all things." From that place of kingly authority he gave gifts to men. As part of His victory and His rule from on high Christ distributes "as he wills."

    Now consider Hebrews 2:3,4, where God's great salvation is attested "by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will." It is part of Jesus' work of salvation to give gifts to ALL His people (given "to each" for the "common good" 1 Cor.12:7). It is His fullness in us that together we are His body (Ephesians 1:23).

    The implication is that we His body physically manifest His glory, or fail to do so. We manifest His glory and say YES to His will when we honor the work He has done. Part of "the great salvation" which we may be guilty of neglecting is not discerning the body. Have we failed to honor His will in distributing gifts to His people? The gifts that God places in the body are a witness to his great salvation.

    The "fullness of Christ" in Eph.4:13, or the "whole body working properly" of 4:16 is precisely the correct interrelation of the ministries of 4:11,12 - in line with the divine unity of 4:3-6. We have tended to individualize this, in step with our self-focussed culture, by focussing on the gifts of a few or on the maturity of individual believers. The result? We have tended to make ministry into something done by the few to the many.

    But it is completely out of line with the flow of the chapter to center all this on the maturity of the individual believer. The phrases "unity of the faith," "mature humanity," and "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" refer to the divinely coordinated ministries of the body.

    Incredibly, it seems that it is precisely the diversity of giftings and multiplicity of ministries of the body that will bring harmony. It's a measure of our failure to attain significant relationships that we haven't come anywhere near this, and have even feared it and restrained it. Our failure to be a true community has left us with the only reasonable alternative: we have become managers rather than mystics. We live with only a shadow of true community.

    If this is not true, then why do we value the working of a few gifts so much more than others? Why do we fail to create a place where all these gifts can function together, and in fact imply by our order of meeting that only a few gifts (and a few people) are really important? Jean Vanier comments,

    So we have to create structures which encourage everyone to participate, and especially the shy people. Those who have the most light to shed often dare not show it; they are afraid of appearing stupid. They do not recognize their own gift.. perhaps because others haven't recognized it either.

    Recently my wife travelled to a conference to assist in the ministry there. Called on spontaneously to do workshops on spiritual and emotional healing, she proceeded to lead two sessions. In spite of the good things that happened, the high point was at the end of her second workshop.

    As she was finishing and women around the circle were sharing, the turn came for a young lady seated beside her. This woman was mentally challenged.

    She said, "I just came because my spiritual mother came. And I just love the Lord. And I know he is healing me because I can walk better today, and my arthritis isn't hurting me so much. And I just love Jesus and all he has done for me."

    When she shared this the Spirit suddenly came in power, and my wife found herself weeping and rejoicing in the goodness of God. God didn't need her to elaborate, and the simple words of this woman of faith said it all.

    We have much to answer for, and it's frightening! Do we think ourselves greater than God that we can neglect his sovereign will? If we haven't really seen his glory in his church, it is partly because we have not released the fullness of the Spirit's ministry.

The Identity and Authority of the Believer

    The first place that the old patriarchal paradigm breaks down is here. If Christ was raised on high and then simply gave gifts to men, we might be able to justify a pyramid of authority, flowing through leaders and out to the body. The Catholic conception of the church would be safe.

    But it is not, because as Christ was raised on high, so were we raised with Him and seated with Him in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). Colossians 3 opens with this reminder ("if then you were raised with Christ"), then 3:5-15 talks about how we should live (compare chapter 5 of Ephesians). Finally, 16-17 draw a close parallel to Ephesians 5:18-20, with almost an "order of service."

    The flow, then, for Ephesians 4-5 and Colossians 3 is parallel:

  • WHO we are as a people of God , our identity, anointing and authority
  • HOW we should live in the world - love
  • HOW our peoplehood should be manifest when we meet together - use of gifts and context of mutual submission, or
  • Being/Identity - God's People
  • Doing/Life Together - Ethics and Community

    What we do flows out of who we are. With every believer gifted for service and literally "IN CHRIST", there is something seriously wrong with the old wineskin of authority and ministry. Now let's move on to Hebrews 8.

    Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer. Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary; for when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, "See that you make everything according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain." Hebrews 8:1-5

    Chapters 8-10 of Hebrews are focused on the service performed by the High Priest, who sits at the right hand of God in majesty and ministers "at the true tabernacle, which the LORD erected, and not man" (8:2). The author is speaking here of both identity and authority. Jesus is now our High Priest and He has performed His sacrifice once for all.

    The Temple was a shadow of things to come. Now we have a living temple, composed of living stones. So how do we become a habitation corporately? We are filled with the Spirit, and we speak the word to one another. As we allow the word to dwell in us richly (corporately) God dwells in His temple.

    One point that may not be clear is that when the Lord comes to His temple and the word is released, it can be through any part of the body. "My sheep hear My voice." If the word dwells in us richly and we are all filled with His Spirit, then "you may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged" (1 Cor.14:31).

"The true tabernacle, which the Lord erected, not man."

    Many of our practices which outwardly seem good have in reality been built by human effort. Sunday mornings don't reflect New Testament worship because they are built on an Old Testament practice of priesthood.

    Hebrews 8: 3 says that "every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer." Recall Ephesians 4, where "the one who ascended" offered gifts to men, and his gifts were that some should be ...." the fivefold ministries. As above, we tend to focus on leadership. But these gifts are not given to DO the work but to empower OTHERS to do it. This includes the pastoral work of building healthy connections and thereby releasing ministry in the body. Apart from relationship and intimacy, there is no ministry.

    As I read this verse a great grief come over me that we not made Jesus' headship real, instead placing men in the position of lordship over the body. We have failed to make Jesus' priesthood real, because we still regard only certain people or offices as priestly (the medium is the message; our actions speak louder than our words). The result? We have failed to regard or empower every believer as a priest, fully able and called to enter the Holy Place and to sit in authority with Jesus. We teach and talk about the identity of the individual believer, then take away in practice what we have given in theory. No wonder believers are confused, bored and disillusioned!

    Now let's continue with Hebrews at verse 10.

    This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach every one his fellow or every one his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more." In speaking of a new covenant he treats the first as obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Hebrews 8:10-13 (RSV)

    A few weeks after I began working on this book, in mid February, the Lord woke me up one morning and spoke this verse to me (the interior voice). The context is the heart of the new covenant. I felt the Lord say that we have not walked this out and have not entered His rest, preferring bondage in Egypt. Then I came to verse 13,

    "In that he says, "A new covenant," He has made the first obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away."

    I felt the Lord say our old covenant ways of doing church are vanishing away. The temple man has built is already crumbling. He made it obsolete almost 2000 years ago, "and if we rebuild what God has destroyed, we are found to be transgressors."

    I was also struck by 9:9,10 which in the NKJV says that "the way into the Holiest of Holies was not made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing...." the ordinances were symbolic for the present time... "imposed until the time of reformation." The writer is not referring to our day, but we NEED a new reformation, and a new anointing of boldness.

    Chapter 10:19 tells us that we have "boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus." How many believers truly have this boldness? Who has taken it from them? The Lord has opened a door that few use, because few know their identity and authority as kings and priests of our God.

    What is the purpose of such authority? Ministry! To speak the word with boldness! What a revolution we will have when the ordinary believer sees himself or herself as a legitimate minister of the gospel! Truly, the apostolic purpose of fathering is to raise each one to full authority as a Priest and King of our God.

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• © 1999-2002 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on May 31, 2001