Ephesians chapter 4 is one of the most comprehensive descriptions of the identity of church ever provided by the Apostle Paul. Much of what he says is straightforward, but the whole thing hinges on an image that is equal parts important and confusing:
“This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.’ (What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)” [Ephesians 4.8-10]
By my own admission, the significance of this image would have been lost had I not done some extensive research on it. But once it was explained to me, the picture began to explode with meaning.
Paul references Psalm 68:18 here, and in doing so he appeals to what would have been a very accessible metaphor to 1st century readers: that of kings and kingdoms. That is a more difficult image for us to embrace, as it is now functionally antiquated. Kings, queens, and royalty are merely symbolic in today’s age. The current Prince of Wales is Prince Charles, the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth II. And while many are fascinated with the life of their extended family, nobody confuses them with the state governments that are actually creating the policies that effect the daily lives of their respective nations.
But if we hope to get to the core of what Paul is saying about the identity of the church, we have to enter into these images through the lens of the 1st century listeners. Here’s a shorthand description of what this would have meant to them:
The quality of an individual and family’s life was affected more by the character and conduct of their king than almost any other single factor. To have a bad or selfish king was a recipe for almost certain misery. But to have a good king changed everything. A good king would ensure that there was provision, opportunity, and safety for all of his constituents. In short, a good king would oversee the kingdom in such a way that everything under his oversight would thrive.
One of the universal customs then was the celebration of a king who had just been victorious in battle. When the king successfully led the army into a battle and protected the people and freed the captives, their would be jubilation in the land. The people would respond by throwing a processional victory parade and the king would triumphantly march back into his land. To demonstrate the collective victory, as well as to show his love for the them, the king would distribute gifts as he re-entered the kingdom.
This is the picture that Paul elicits when describing the nature and identity of God’s church. It is a victorious king. It is a king who has freed the captives and ensured freedom for the people. It is a king who has ascended back to his rightful place on the throne. It is a king who has given out gifts to the people for the purposes of continuing the mission he had begun.
Why is the image of a victorious, gift-giving king so central to the identity of church?
That question played a huge role in redefining how I thought about church, and about the future participating I hoped to have.