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Why Jesus Gives Gifts to the Church

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jul 30, 2017

Ephesians 4:11-16

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Ephesians chapter 4. I want to look at a section that runs from verse 11 to verse 16. When Jesus gives you a gift, it’s a good thing to consider why He gives you that gift, to understand what it’s for, to understand what it’s supposed to produce in your life and the life of the congregation. And that’s what Paul is talking about here. This whole section that we’re going to look at begins with Paul quoting loosely from a psalm. And he explains that when Jesus ascended on high, he led captivity captive and gave gifts to men. But if you go back and look at that psalm, the psalm says that when the anointed of the Lord ascended, gifts were given to him. So is Paul misremembering that psalm? No. Because if you look at the end of the psalm, you see that God then bestows gifts upon His people. So what Paul is explaining to you is, in the ascension, as Jesus led captivity captive, He didn’t simply receive tribute from us like conquered peoples would give tribute to their conqueror. He actually bestowed gifts on His people. It’s another way that Paul testifies to the deity of Christ because in that psalm it’s God who is the gift-bestower.

And then he starts, in this passage, explaining why Jesus gave the gifts. And that’s what I want to look with you tonight about. In verse 11, he will tell you what gift Jesus gave. In verse 12, he will explain what that gift is supposed to do. In verse 13, he will explain what that gift does is supposed to produce. So what the gift is, what it does, what it’s supposed to produce. And then he will summarize again what the total effect of this is going to be in the congregation. So in verse 14, he says it’s going to be productive of truth and discernment. In verse 15 in the first part, he says it’s going to be productive of love. And then at the end of verse 15 and the beginning of verse 16, he says it’s going to be productive of a real Christian Gospel congregational growth. And I want to walk through that progression with you briefly tonight. But before we read God’s Word and listen to it proclaimed, let’s look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.

Heavenly Father, we bow before You tonight. We wouldn’t be any other place than with Your people, under Your Word. And we come here craving a blessing. We want You. We want Your gifts. We want to understand why You bestow Your gifts. We want to understand what those gifts are supposed to do and produce in our lives and how that’s to be reflected in the life of this congregation. So we ask, Lord, that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word. That You would grant us, by the Spirit, to understand this truth. And more than that, to believe it and to embrace it. And this we ask in Jesus’ name, amen.

Ephesians chapter 4, beginning in verse 11. This is the Word of God:

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

Amen, and thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.

When I was a little fellow, maybe six, seven, eight, nine years old – that range – I started noticing what I was getting for birthdays and Christmases and from whom I was getting those gifts. And I developed a preference for certain gifts that I was receiving from certain people. And I developed, I am sad to say, a certain disappointment – I think that’s maybe the best way to put it – in some gifts that I was receiving from other people. So, by way of preference, I liked it when I opened up the envelope and there were dollars in it. Or, I liked it when I received matchbox cars. Or, superhero action figures, and the like. But when I received from my great-aunt, Marjorie, a letter on my birthday or a card at Christmas, I pretty much knew that what was in that envelope was not going to be one of my favored gifts. Because my great-aunt Marjorie had a tendency to do things like type out poems for me. Now look, I’m seven, eight, nine years old; I’m all boy! I’m not really interested in poems! Or she would read me stories and record them on a cassette tape. She lived in Decatur, Georgia and was the church treasurer for about forty years at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, and she’d record stories. Some of them might be Biblical stories; some of them might be Rudyard Kipling stories or something like this. And she would send me a cassette tape with stories.

Now truth be told, one of my favorite things ever when I would go visit my great-aunt Marjorie was to sit down on her knee and for her to read to me and tell me stories. So I really did like that, and she couldn’t come to see us frequently in Greenville, South Carolina and so I’m sure that doing things like recording those stories was her way of sort of extending what we would often do together when I was there. But as I grew older, suddenly the gifts that I had not valued that she gave me became exceedingly precious to me. The type-written, transcription she did of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If,” now on sort of faded, sort of orange paper, used to hang in my office here at First Pres and it’s somewhere, Jan’s put it somewhere at RTS. I need to go find it again and see where it is in my offices there. And that means to me more than I can possibly tell you. And I go back and I look at the things that she gave me, many of which my mother saved when I would have discarded. And so when I was actually moving to Jackson, I received this green box of stuff and I wondered, “What is this green box of stuff?” And I opened it up and about a third of it is stuff that Aunt Marjorie had given me.

And I realized the care with which she was choosing the things that she was sending to me or giving to me on birthdays. And I realized that the things that she was trying to give me were character forming things and conviction forming things and life forming things. They were really significant gifts that she had put time and thought into, and she was, again, a single lady, working for a church in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s when single women working for churches, especially as church treasurers, didn't make much money. So she didn't have a lot of money to spend but she put a lot of thought into those gifts. They really mattered and they mean more than I can say now.

Well sometimes, the gifts that the Lord gives us are kind of like that. We don’t appreciate why He gives us certain things. I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to Joni. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Joni Eareckson Tada diving off of a pier in Virginia and hitting her head in the sandy bottom and snapping that vertebra and being paralyzed from the shoulders down. Today is the fiftieth. And if you’ve ever heard her talk, she talks about that gift that God gave her that day. Now those are the kind of gifts of that we don’t want God to give us. “Lord, please don’t give me that kind of gift!” But she honestly looks at that gift that way. In other words, it’s a mature way to look at a hard gift that God was giving her.

Well, thankfully tonight we're not talking about a hard gift. We're really talking about a wonderful gift that, my guess is, almost all of us appreciate this gift at First Presbyterian Church. You have had a bunch of these gifts over the last 180 years. You're 180 years old this year and you've had a bunch of these gifts over the last 180 years. And by and large, people at First Pres understand that these are gifts. But I think it's good for us to pause and remember what they're for. So I'd like to look at this passage with you tonight and think about the gift, what it's supposed to do, what that's for, what it's supposed to produce in you, and then what that is supposed to create in congregational life.

The Gift

So let’s start off with the gift. Look at verse 11 with me. “And he gave some as apostles and some as prophets and some as evangelists and some as pastors and teachers.” I’m going to leave off the first three because that’s a whole sermon series right there – apostles, prophets, and evangelists – and just camp on the last two words that he says, “pastors and teachers.” And he probably means those things to be combined. The pastors are teachers; the teachers are pastors. They’re shepherd-teachers. He’s talking about pastor/teacher/shepherd/elders. That’s what he’s talking about here. That is the gift that Jesus has given to you, His Church. He has given people, specifically qualified men to be pastor/teacher/shepherd/elders. Now it’s interesting that almost always in the New Testament that is not in the singular; it’s in the plural. And that is one of the major things in Presbyterianism. You don’t just have a pastor; you have elders. You have pastor/teacher/shepherd/elders. It’s more than one because the church is not built around one personality.

There’s a reason why they stick CEO in my title at RTS and I won’t go into that, but I always get just a little antsy about that name because that’s certainly not what I was when I was here! I’ll tell you that! I remember Erskine Wells sitting me down and ‘splaining some things to me when I became the pastor here at First Presbyterian Church! There is definitely an understanding of the eldership at First Presbyterian Church but that’s a beautiful thing. But all of those pastor/teacher/shepherd/elders are gifts from God to you.

The Purpose

Now for what? Well, you see that in verse 12. "For," look especially at the first phrase," For the equipping of the saints for the work of service." So what are those gifts given to you for? To equip you for the work of service. Now, this is really important for us to understand because very often – we have a high view of preaching in the Presbyterian world and we can kind of think, "Okay, the preacher is supposed to do the ministry and I'm supposed to sort of soak it in." Well, I hope you soak it in, but the preacher's doing the ministry in order to pour into you so that you do ministry. Notice again the language. "For the equipping of the saints for the work of service." It's not that the pastor/teacher/shepherd/elders are to do all the work. They're here to equip you to do the work of ministry. Now that's very important for us to remember, especially where the preaching of the Word is valued and respected and even admired because the preacher is not just here to do the main work. He is here to equip you to do the work.

I’ve told you the story before of when I went to Edinburgh. Dr. Doug Kelly told me exactly where I was going to go to church. “Now Ligon, when you go to Edinburgh you are going to go sit under the ministry of Mr. Jim Phillip at the Holyrood Abbey Church of Scotland.” And I just said, “Yes sir, Dr. Kelly,” and that’s where I went! And you who know Doug Kelly know that’s not a bad imitation by the way! That is what he sounded like, right? Right Seth? Okay! But when I got there, for a variety of reasons, I began reading the writings of a former evangelical who had become very, very liberal and critical. And it was a soul-killing time. And the Lord used a number of things to keep me from just going over the edge. One was my mother. My mother has always been my theological conversation partner and I would write to mother and talk to mother on the phone and mother could stand toe to toe with me theologically and challenge me when she saw me drifting one way or the other and that was a very significant thing. One was godly professors. I remember going into one of my professor’s offices and I sort of poured my heart out to him about the things that were unsettling me. And he said, “You know, when I was your age I had the same struggles and let me explain to you how I worked through those things.”

Ministry by Church Members

But one of the things that really ministered to me was people in the congregation who did not even know that they were ministering to me. They had been poured into by a faithful minister and because they had been poured into by a faithful minister, their lives bore the marks of the work of the Holy Spirit. And so I remember one night being out at an Indian restaurant with a young couple, Ian and Allison, who did not know any of my struggles. And we did not talk about my struggles, but though they were my age they were incredibly mature; and they were also wonderful people. And I remember we probably talked three hours that night at that Indian restaurant. And I remember at one point in the evening looking at Ian and Allison and thinking in my head, “There is no way that two human beings could be like this if it is not true that the Holy Spirit transforms and sanctifies people’s souls.” So just that conversation proved to me the truth of God’s Word.

Why? Because they had been sitting under the ministry of faithful teaching that had poured into their lives and without even knowing it, they poured back into my life at a very crucial time. That is exactly how verse 12 says it’s supposed to work. Do not discount the power of the ministry that you will do to one another in your lives. I felt it this morning. I was blubbering and crying all through the first service. I told Trisha Walters, “I just don’t want to embarrass y’all when I get up there!” And finally I’d cried myself out enough that I was okay during the second service. But the force of feeling you sing in the eight-thirty service and then just looking into your faces, it hit me again how much I got ministered to for eighteen years standing in this spot. It wasn’t a one direction thing going on here. You were pouring back and building up in lots of ways. I’m a hymn-watcher. While you’re singing hymns, I’m watching you. And I’ve done that for years and I watch in specific parts of hymns to see what people are doing. And I learn a lot when that happens. But it also ministers to my own soul. So the equipping that the pastor/shepherd/teacher/elders are to do is to pour into you so that you do the work of ministry. And then he goes on to say, look at the end of verse 12 – what does that do? It tends to the building up of the body of Christ. So the pastor/shepherd/teacher/elders, they want to build up the body of Christ, but they don’t build up the body of Christ by themselves. They build up the body of Christ by pouring into you and then you pour into one another and the body of Christ is built up. It’s really important for you to understand how this gift works.

The Products

Then, what is that supposed to produce? Look at verse 13. Here's the aim of that job that Jesus has given to His gifts. He gives gifts. Who are they? Pastor/teacher/shepherd/elders. What do they do? They equip the saints for the work of service. What does that accomplish? What's the goal? What's the aim of that work? Verse 13, "until we all attain to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ." Well, there's a sermon series in that sentence too. But just camp on three things with me.


First of all, notice the phrase, "the unity of the faith." Paul knows that congregational unity does not just happen. You know we are all really different. Even in this congregation where we share a lot of commonalities from our culture, we are very different people. And we wouldn't be together if it weren't for the Gospel. And so unity is an issue. How does that unity flourish? Well, Paul says here it's a unity of the faith. That is, it is a unity not just derived from us believing the same things, but how the things that we believe shape our lives.

For instance, one of the things that we believe in common is that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. What is that belief designed to do in us among other things? Kill pride! If you’re saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone you can’t walk around, “Well, I’m pretty special!” That’s a pride-killing belief. And what does Paul say in Philippians 2 is the thing that is causing disunity in the Philippian congregation? Pride and selfishness. So if you’re going to have unity, somebody’s got to be killing pride and selfishness. And Paul says, “I’ve got a good suggestion for that. If the Word of God is being preached, the faith that is being preached is designed to kill pride and selfishness in you. And so if there’s going to be unity, it’s going to come from this shared belief, this shared faith that’s being proclaimed from the Word of God to the people of God.”

That’s huge for us. You need to care as much about the cultivation of that unity as you do about doctrinal fidelity. Both of those things are absolutely essential. The elders here will know that until his very last session meeting, if Sidney Robinson was present and we were going around asking for prayer requests, Sidney Robinson was going to suggest that we pray for unity in the session. I loved that man. And usually he would be the one who would end up praying for it during the elder’s prayer meeting. Paul really values that because we need a united witness to the world. And if we’re disunified we’re in trouble.

Knowledge of Jesus

Second, look at this phrase – “the knowledge of the Son of God.” Isn’t that a glorious thing? Paul wants to see in the congregation the knowledge of the Son of God. He does not mean he would like you to know things about Jesus. He means he wants you to know Jesus. Remember when Paul says, “I have counted everything rubbish in comparison to knowing Christ”? Remember J.I. Packer starts out his book, Knowing God, telling the story of walking in the woods with a fellow scholar who had lost his opportunity for professional, academic advancement because of his testimony to Christ. And Packer was extending his condolences to his friend and saying, “I’m so sorry for what you’ve gone through.” And his friend just matter of factly says, “It doesn’t matter because I have known God and they have not.” Paul doesn’t just want you to know about Jesus; he wants you to know Jesus. Because if you know Jesus, there is nothing that anybody can take away from you of ultimate value equal to that.

Have you ever been listening to somebody have a conversation about somebody that you know personally? And it becomes clear to you in the course of the conversation that they actually don't know the person half as well that they're talking about as you do because you know them. Well, the apostle Paul is saying the goal of this ministry in the congregation is that you walk away knowing Jesus.


And then third, look – “to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” So Paul wants these people to mature. So they’re going to be united in the faith, they’re going to know Christ, and they’re going to be matured. Just as Jesus is the exact representation of God. Here it is. If you want to know what your heavenly Father is like, look at Jesus, because in God there is no un-Christlikeness at all. Jesus says this to His disciples. “Show us the Father and it is enough.” “Haven’t you seen me? If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” And Paul now extends it and says, “I want you to look like Christ. I want people to say, ‘Boy, those people, they act like Jesus.’” That’s the effect of the ministry of the Word and then their mutual ministry to one another.


Now, what's that supposed to produce? Look at verse 14. "As a result, we are no longer to be children tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness and deceitful scheming." In other words, they are so established in the truth that they have Biblical discernment. Since I graduated from college and started seminary a long time ago, about every five years I have seen some crazy fad sweep through the evangelical world. It may be a theological fad; it may be some sort of a technique or methodological fad. But about every five years, somebody comes along with a secret key. And the lemmings go right over the cliff following the secret key. And the apostle Paul is saying, "The reason I want the ministry of the Word in your lives and you being matured and you being united in the faith and you knowing Christ is so that you have discernment; you don't follow after those crazy false teachings that are floating around all over the place." So it's a congregation that is established in the truth. And that's why you hear the truth and doctrine and teaching here at First Presbyterian Church. Not so that we can walk around and say that we're smarter than everybody else but to build up our discernment.


Then, what else? Look at verse 15. “Speaking the truth in love.” Ah! He wants people who speak the truth, not just speak the truth lovingly but speak the truth in the interest of love. That is, you remember how Paul says in 1 Timothy chapter 1 verses 3 to 15 that the goal of his instruction to Timothy, to not let false teachers have any influence on the congregation and to tell the congregation not to listen to false teaching but to listen to teaching that is rooted in the truth, the goal of that instruction, Paul says, is “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Isn’t that interesting? The goal of Paul’s telling Timothy, “Teach them good doctrine. Teach them the Bible. Don’t let them listen to bad doctrine” is so that they live lives of love. Truth and love are not in competition. Like if you care too much about the truth you won’t be loving! The truth is designed to create people who love.


And what does this do? Well, look at the end of verse 15 and verse 16 – “to grow up in all aspects into him who is the head, even Christ. From whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” So what does all this do? It leads to us growing up together into a comprehensive, congregational maturity as a body. And notice how he comes back to love again – “building up of itself in love.” Notice that Paul’s view is, if I could put it this way, “No Christian left behind.” The kind of growth that he wants in the congregation isn’t purely individualistic. He wants the whole congregation together to grow. Listen to what Calvin says about this. “This means” – he’s talking about verses 15 and 16 – “This means that no increase is of use which does not correspond to the whole body.” Wow! And by the way, Paul says this all the time. You already heard him say it earlier in this passage, that he wants you together with the saints. He says the same thing in Ephesians 3:14-19 – “together with all the saints he wants you to know the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.” Paul is very concerned that the whole body together mature.

Why? Because the church is God’s “Plan A” and there is no “Plan B.” You are God’s plan for witnessing to His reign and rule in this world. You are God’s plan to responding to what’s happening in this crazy culture. You are the plan. And David Strain and Ralph Kelley and Billy Dempsey and Ed Hartman and Gabe Fluhrer and Wiley Lowry and David Felker – and I’m going to miss a bunch of guys that are on staff. Sorry! – and all of your elders, they’re here to pour into you so that this happens. That’s what Jesus gave you the gift for, so it’s obviously really very important in your life and in the life of this congregation. God has given this congregation good gifts for 180 years. Don’t take that for granted. Understand what it’s for. Be encouraged what he’s given you. I was reminded again today what He had given me as a member of this congregation. You be encouraged by what He has given you as a member of this congregation and then be ready to give to one another.

Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank You for this time in Your Word. We ask that You would bless it to our hearts, that You would get all the praise and glory as we think Your thoughts after You, and that You would conform us to the truth which is spoken in this passage. These things we pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.

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