One of my favourite passages in all of Scripture is found in Ephesians. Actually, Ephesians, though smaller as compared to other portions of Scripture, carries a very significant role in explaining some of the greater and more ‘cosmic’ concepts of the work of God. This small letter packs in much wisdom and revelation.
And one passage I really enjoy pondering is found in 4:7-16. It, too, is filled with rich aspects in regards to the purpose of God in Christ for the new covenant age that dawned so long ago. Though a bit of a lengthier passage, here are the words from the NIV:
7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8 This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he took many captives
and gave gifts to his people.”
9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)
11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
From these words, we find that the goal for the body of Christ is both unity and maturity. Both of these are important. No, they are very important! It took me a while to grasp that one major goal of God was to prepare the bride for marriage to Christ (and I’ve still got more to grasp!). And this calls for movement towards unity and maturity. We cannot miss this if we are to fulfil the purposes of God.
But, there is another reason I like this specific passage.
Here, in these words of Paul, we are told that, when Christ ascended back to the Father to reign over all, he gave specific gifts to the church to help us move towards this unity and maturity. What are those gifts. There listed in vs11: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. These five gifts (or four, as some see shepherd and teacher as one gift, as in shepherd-teacher) are known as the Ephesians 4 ministry gifts, though many refer to them with various other names such as the ascension gifts (since they were given at his ascensions – see vs8) or the five-fold ministry gifts (or four-fold, if one believes shepherd-teacher are a combination gift).
Now, for the most part, many Christians, both in the past and in the present, have seen the necessity and function of only 3 of these gifts since the end of the first century AD and movement towards the closing of the canon of Scripture. Those three still needed are evangelist, shepherd and teacher. This means the ministry of apostle and prophet has ceased, and quite some time ago.
Of course, with the rise of Pentecostal, charismatic and neo-charismatic (‘Third Wave’) churches over the last 100+ years, one will definitely find churches that still believe prophets (and prophecy) are still necessary and active today. And with a massive 500+ million Christians who would count themselves as part of such Pentecostal, charismatic and neo-charismatic church groups, such a belief is not as uncommon in this earlier part of the 21st century.
However, most all Christians would find it difficult to venture down the path of allowing for apostles today. They were the ones called to write Scripture (kind of receiving the baton from the Old Testament prophets). They were the select few who were given Christ’s special authority to help the church transition into this new covenant gospel. A post-resurrection, physical experience is noted as one main requirement for an apostle and such was only privy to that first group. Once their foundational revelation and message was recorded (as found in our New Testament today), there would no longer be a need for such a ministry.
Now, before considering various views on which of these gifts are actually active today, I think it important to first ask this question: What is the purpose of these ministry gifts? They do not arbitrarily exist, as if God needed to add to his list of gifts for his people. There is a goal here.
Even more, this is an important practical question that we need to raise. We get so caught up in debating whether prophets and apostles could still exist today, we can actually forget why Jesus gave such gifts to the church.
Paul does make it quite clear in this passage as to the purpose of these ministry gifts:
- To prepare and equip God’s people for works of service, or ministry, since the Greek word could be translated either way (vs12).
- So that the body of Christ might be built up (vs12).
- To help Christ’s body reach unity in the faith and knowledge of Christ, becoming mature and grown up into the fullness of Christ (vs13).
Jesus desired to gift people in these ministries so that the body of Christ could be prepared, equipped, built up, unified and mature! Sounds a worthy purpose of God!
But I would add there is more here – not so much seen through the quotation of another passage in Ephesians. Rather, the grander purpose comes alive when we think about Jesus. If anything, at our core we have a Christ-centred faith. And so here is the even bigger picture worth emphasising before diving into the intricacies of these ministries:
- Jesus, himself, functioned in all five of these ministries. Meaning he was the great apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher.
- The Holy Spirit came in Christ’s stead to continue the exact same ministry of Christ. And, so, the Holy Spirit is the apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding and teaching Spirit of Christ.
- The whole body of Christ, indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of Christ, is now called to be the whole Christ in the whole earth. That means we are an apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding and teaching people. Not everyone individually in these 5 ministries. But the whole community functioning holistically in these five areas of God’s grace gifting.
- Therefore, Christ’s desire is to continue to gift individuals in such ministry roles to help equip the body to function wholly in these areas.
Now, I know those bullet-point statements are loaded. The questions might be overwhelming. But it does unfold into a very practical purpose. Of course, one may not have realised that Christ functioned in all five of these ministries. But he did. I mean, some realise Christ was a teacher or a prophet. But was Christ an apostle?
Yes, he was an apostle (and I’ll share some things in forthcoming posts). And it will do us well to remember that Paul, Peter, John or any of the others were not the greatest apostle or evangelist or shepherd. Simply stated, there was no other that lived out these five ministries like the divine Son. Of course, we wouldn’t expect anything less, right?
Hence, here we are today, some 2,000 years after Christ’s ministry, looking to be the whole Christ to the whole world. To accomplish this, I believe the best way is to function in ministry as Christ did himself.
I think you know that I am be no means a cessationist. Which of course means that I believe in the Holy Spirits’ direct involvement in the church today in many ways. Specifically for what I am trying to say here, I do believe that the gift of prophecy still exists for today.
But do you know what I find truly odd and disturbing? What I see coming out of the current movement that emphasizes the ministries of apostles and prophets is something that has ripped the church apart. The folks claiming to be prophets and apostles in the church are introducing new beliefs and new practices into the church that are causing a huge divide with the rest of God’s people. Even a huge divide with many folks that would claim the name “pentecostal” or “charismatic.” Me for one.
This whole thing seems to be having the exact opposite effect of what Ephesians states is to happen as a result of their ministry–that of uniting the church.
I understand your concern. I see it as well. I think there are just as many looking to be faithful to God in these ministries than there are those being unfaithful. It’s just that the crazy stuff gets more tv time and press.
You’ll always have people being unfaithful – we are broken and in need of transformation. But abuse and misuse should never be seen as the factor that says these things are real in Christ. Rather, we are called to be biblical and healthy. Many abuse marriage, but we know marriage is good. Many abuse church leadership, but we know it is a healthy practice. Etc.
Let’s look to be faithful.