If you want to grow in Christ—if you want the Holy Spirit in your life—then you must begin with identifying and living out your spiritual gifts.
What are the spiritual implications of “gifts” and service? How central is this teaching to your personal spiritual life and connection with Christ? These are the questions that the New Testament addresses in a passage from the epistle to the church at Ephesus. It begins with a familiar statement repeated from Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12: “To each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph. 4:7).1
Then it moves on immediately to why this is true in verse 8. Paul quotes a text from the Old Testament, the Bible as he knew it: “ ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men’ ” (v. 8). In verses 9 and 10, Paul applies this text to Jesus. The reference here may be unclear unless you know something about how certain things were done in Bible times. When a king went to war and then returned victorious, it was the custom to bring back wealth that had been expropriated from the defeated enemy. This would include captives who were sold as slaves as well as money, works of art, expensive furniture, etc. As Paul traveled around the Roman Empire in the first century he may have actually seen one of these victory parades.
The generals always distributed gifts from among the captured items to the citizens of the city. What is the point that the text is trying to convey here? Spiritual gifts are the spoils of war in Christ’s great conflict with evil and Satan. Because Jesus was victorious on the cross and ascended to the Father on resurrection day, He has the right to give gifts to His people. He has a right to His share of the skills, technology, and intellectual and physical wealth in the world, and for Him, nothing is more valuable than human beings.
In this sense each individual who becomes a follower of Jesus is a gift. Paul in this passage shifts the language from describing spiritual gifts as somewhat objective commodities or abilities (wisdom, prophecy, etc.) to personal roles. “He gave some to be [this], some [that].” (v. 11). He uses several examples, “apostles . . . prophets . . . evangelists . . . pastors and teachers,” but in each case the spiritual gift is about “being” something. The “captives in his train” (v. 8, NIV) are men and women that Christ has liberated from His old enemy, the devil, whom Christ—in His spiritual authority won on the cross in the victory over sin—appoints to be His agents in the world. In other words, if you believe in the liberation (salvation) that Christ has provided by dying on the cross and rising again on the third day, then you are gifted to be something in His missionary force in the world.
What is the purpose of spiritual gifts? The answer is clearly stated in verses 12 and 13: “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.” This is a very careful description of what is meant in Matthew 28:19, 20, where Christ commissions His followers to “make disciples” by “baptizing . . . [and] teaching them . . . all things.” It is also a statement of what is necessary for the believer to become spiritually mature. If one does not embrace one’s spiritual gift and join in with Christ in His mission in the world, then that person has no hope of attaining real spiritual development in the Christian faith.
Spiritual maturity is defined in the last part of verse 13 as attaining “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Spiritual maturity is a balanced whole, not hyper zeal in one direction with all of the other dimensions ignored. Spiritual maturity is the full picture of Christ’s message and mission, not unbalanced emphasis on a few points. Of course, it takes time to grow into a full knowledge of the Christian faith and a balanced, wholistic understanding of Christ’s mission. But, if we do not embrace immediately the spiritual gift that Jesus has uniquely appointed to us as individuals and live out that ministry to the fullest, then we have no hope of attaining spiritual maturity.
If you are tempted to ignore the whole business of spiritual gifts because it does not make sense to you or because your life is busy and you think you cannot do more than show up for worship on Sabbath, then Paul has a specific admonition for you in verses 17 and 18: “You should no longer walk as the rest of the [unbelievers] walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.” Finding and accepting your spiritual gift is central to your spiritual life, your connection with the Holy Spirit and—through Him—with Christ and the Father.
It is not an overstatement of the text to summarize Ephesians 4 with the idea that it is through our spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit works in our lives. When people pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and at the same time sit back and ignore the opportunities to find and use their gifts, their behavior is blocking their prayer. If you want to grow in Christ—if you want the Holy Spirit in your life—then you must begin with identifying and living out your spiritual gifts.
Those who would turn the conversation about spiritual gifts to merely “speaking in tongues,” or other matters of personal experience, are missing the point. God’s gifts are for mission.2