Paul wrote, “Whereby he saith, when he ascended on high he led captivity captive and gave gifts to men. (Now this, He ascended what is it but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some to be apostles; and some prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:8-12).
Ephesians 4 is pivotal: the three chapters before include revelations reflecting the mystery (the church) that had been hidden for ages in God’s mind. Following the exhortations of Ephesians 4:1-16, the apostle turns to exhortations to Christians in their various roles in life: husband and wives, parents and children, and servants and masters. The apostle appealed to the Ephesians: “Walk worthily of the calling they had been called with, to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He has carried them through how God, from eternity, planned to bless all nations in His Son, Jesus, which blessing is the forgiveness of sins. He has shown them (chapter 2) how God had broken down the partition wall (the Law, Eph. 2:14-15) between them and that God had reconciled Jew and Gentile together to each other and God in one body (the church, 2:16). He has revealed that the mystery of God is made known by the church — that mystery is that Jew and Gentiles are fellow citizens (2:19), fellow heirs, fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promises in Christ (Eph. 3:6).
Still, although God joined Jew and Gentile together in one body, the enmity that had existed for centuries between them was something not easily overcome and persistent diligence on the part of all of them was necessary if they were to keep the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He reminded them that there was one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God — and that all had been blessed with the gift of salvation (4:1-7).
The gift of salvation given to all was not the only gift Jesus gave His church. The imagery of 4:8, “when he ascended on high he led captivity captive and gave gifts to men,” is drawn from the victor or conqueror of a city or nation when he led a “victory march” exhibiting the booty he had gained from those he had conquered, as well as the prisoners and slaves he brought back with him. To those who had sent him out and supported him, rich gifts were given. Christ “led captivity captive.” He had conquered death, the grave, sin, and Satan. By His resurrection, death and the grave need hold no fear for man. By His death, freedom from sin is possible and Satan (who introduced both sin and death to man) has been conquered. Paul continued the imagery of Christ’s victory march by stating that Christ “gave gifts to men.”
“He gave some … apostles.” This word means “one sent” and in the general meaning of the word we read that Paul and Barnabas were apostles (Acts 14:14) and that Andronicus and Junias were said to be “of note among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7). In the same general sense of the word, James, the Lord’s brother, is called an apostle (Gal. 1:9). Jesus is called the “apostle and high priest of our confession” (Heb. 3:1). For most people, however, “apostle” is the word they connect with the twelve men whom Jesus chose from among His disciples and then called “apostles.” These men became His ambassadors to preach the gospel to all the world (Matt. 28:18; Mk. 16:15), and special qualifications had to be met before one could be an apostle in this latter sense: they must have accompanied the Lord from the “baptism of John” and been a witness of the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:21-22).
Paul was an apostle on the same level as the twelve who, although he had not accompanied the others during Christ’s personal ministry, he was a witness of the resurrected Christ. His apostleship was to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:7-9; 1 Cor. 15:8-9). There is a uniqueness in the twelve and Paul, and inasmuch as to be an apostle in the sense they were, it was necessary that one be a witness of the resurrected Christ. None meet that qualification today and so none are apostles as were these men. It was of these men the apostle wrote when he said, “And he gave some to be apostles …”
When Jesus chose the twelve during His personal ministry, He “gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of diseases and all manner of sicknesses” (Matt. 10:l). He even gave them power to raise the dead (Matt. 10:8), and although at least Peter did this on one occasion (Acts 9:36-41), there is no record of any they raised during the personal ministry of Jesus. However, the four gospels emphasize the works of Jesus (not the twelve), and just a small sample of what Jesus did are recorded (Jn. 20:30; 21:25). The scope of the apostles’ preaching during Jesus’ personal ministry was limited, for Jesus charged them, “Go not into any way of the Gentiles, and enter not into any city of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and as ye go, preach, saying the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt. 10:5-7). But after Jesus’ resurrection when He was preparing to return to heaven to His Father, that limitation was removed.
Jesus charged them, “Go, teach all nations …” (Matt. 28:18); “Go into all the world …” (Mk. 16:15), and, “that repentance and remission should be preached in my name among the nations …” (Lk. 24:47). When Peter made the “good confession,” Jesus promised, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatsoever they shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). Still, while Peter had the privilege of opening the kingdom both to Jews and Gentiles (Acts 2:38; 10:44-48), power to bind and loose was given to all the apostles (Matt. 18:1, 18). The apostles were promised that “in the regeneration … ye (the apostles) also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). As Christ’s personal ambassadors, they revealed Jesus’ will to and for men, for they spake not from themselves but from the Holy Spirit (Matt. 10:20). The early church recognized the authority of these men and they “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42). When Jesus gave His “gift of apostles” to man, He gave to man His absolute authority and word.
We do not have living apostles today for His apostles were faithful to fulfill “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). They died but their words live on. “All scripture is … profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Jude urged Christians to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).