Summary: Presents what church members have been given to serve in the church.
What do you have to offer Jesus? You, who believe and follow him; you who have joined his church, his body – just what do you have to give to make any real difference to that body? That is what we are considering today. We have been told to walk in a manner worthy of our calling, and that manner is described as walking in humility and gentleness, with patience and forbearance in love, with this addition – eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Then we are told that unity is founded actually on what is not dependent on us, namely, the facts that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father. So what does unity have to do with us? What do we have to contribute? That is what our passage speaks to us about.
The standard interpretation of this passage goes something like this. The Apostle Paul has just emphasized our oneness. Now, in verse 7, he emphasizes our diversity, what makes us different, namely that Christ has given us different gifts. And speaking of gifts, Paul is reminded of a quote from Psalm 68, which in turn leads him to an aside about Christ’s descending and ascending.
That is how I have always handled the text, focusing on our variety of gifts and wishing that Paul had not inserted the obtuse reference about Christ. Indeed, when reading aloud I typically skipped over the verses 8-10, so as to get to stay on target about our gifts. But now I think such an approach is slightly off the mark. Here is what gave me pause.
First is the brevity of remarks about our spiritual gifts. Compare this brief verse with the relatively lengthy treatment in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. Those chapters really do lay out the diversity of gifts. Paul distinctly explains how the members have different functions, and he then takes time to list what they are. It may seem like that is what he is doing in verse 11, but it is not the same as in the other two letters, which describe a wide variety of gifts accessible throughout the church. What he lists in verse 11 are offices of a church, restricted to a few with a particular calling. If diversity of gifts is Paul’s intent in verse 7, he misses a golden opportunity to expound on that diversity that he doesn’t miss in 1 Corinthians and Romans.
Second, the choice of wording is a bit off. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Why does Paul use the word “grace”? The Greek word is charis. The commentators tell me that Paul means “spiritual gift,” which in Greek is charisma. Well then, why doesn’t he use charisma, which is the word he uses for “spiritual gift” in 1 Corinthians and Romans? And why does he speak of grace given according to the measure of Christ’s gift? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, as he puts it in Romans 12:6: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” Now that is a clear statement about having diverse gifts that are given to us according to grace.
And then there is this inordinate amount of time given to Christ ascending on high. Paul doesn’t take up manuscript space in the longer letters to talk about this. Just what is he getting at?
I think Paul’s intent is not to contrast oneness and diversity, but to encourage and to challenge each church member to participate in the church’s work. In verses 4-6, Paul did not present one unifying element. He presented seven elements. The point of the repetition of “one” was to make clear that each element was objectively a single fact. There are not many bodies, many Spirits, many Lords, and so on. The “one” trait true of them all is that they were objective truths that did not depend on what church members thought or did about them. Baptism? You want to argue over baptism? Argue all you want, but the one baptism by which the Spirit joins the believer to Christ is not going to change or be diminished. And the same is true for all the six other elements. These elements of unity are not dependent on us.
So, then, are we irrelevant? Do we play no role in church unity? To the contrary, Christ has deigned to empower each one of us to build up one another in unity. He has given to each individual “grace.” Do you see what I am getting at? Verse 6 reads: there is “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” We might read that and conclude that there is power in “the all,” the church as a whole. When we are all together there is great power.