Diversity of Gifts but a Unity In Purpose: An Exegesis of Ephesians 4:7-16


Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of the most widely known and used letters in the New Testament. Although there is a modern debate on both the original author and audience, there is no question that as Hoehner writes, “The Letter to the Ephesians is one of the most influential documents in the Christian church.” Specifically, this text is commonly seen as a listing of the leadership gifts God has given to the church. About this list specifically found in verses eleven and twelve, Calvin writes, “The government of the church, by the preaching of the word, is first of all declared to be no human contrivance, but a most sacred ordinance of Christ… Another inference is, that no man will be fit or qualified for so distinguished an office who has not been formed and molded by the hand of Christ himself.” Our periscope, however, is more than simply a list of leadership gifts. In it we see five gifts that have been given to the church for a fourfold purpose. God has given a diversity of gifts that the church might become strong, mature, and united in love and action.

Historical Context


Until recent times, the authorship of Ephesians was never truly questioned. From before Chrysostom (1581) to beyond Coleridge (1830) there was never any serious questioning that Paul was the author. It was not until F. C. Baur and R Boltmann that this fact came into dispute. These men and their disciples claimed that Ephesians uses gnostic terms and ideas. Since Gnosticism came much later, Paul could not have been the author. Although the idea of gnostic influence has been abandoned, some modern scholars still deny the authorship of Paul on five grounds: 1) its theology, 2) its vocabulary, 3) the literary style, 4) its close relationship to Colossians, and 5) it is more impersonal than other Pauline letters. Although it is a truism to claim that most (perhaps as much as 80%) modern scholars deny Pauline authorship, Hoehner makes an excellent case in demonstrating that this is simply not true. By his count, over the past seven decades, it is a pretty even split between those who accept and those that deny it.

We will deal with some of the five reasons for doubt in the next section, but first let us look at five reasons why Charles Hodge, in his commentary on Ephesians, believes we can be confident that the author is Paul.

  1. The epistle announces itself as written by Paul the Apostle. 2. There is nothing in its contents inconsistent with the assumption of his being its author. 3. All the incidental references which it contains to the office, character, and circumstances of the writer, agree with what is known to be true concerning Paul. The writer was an apostle, an apostle of the Gentiles, a prisoner, one to whom Tychicus stood in the relation of a companion and fellow-laborer. 4. The style, the doctrines, the sentiments, the spirit, the character revealed, are those of Paul. 5. The whole ancient church received it as genuine. As to this point the judgment of the early ages is unanimous.



Some early manuscripts for this letter do not include “at Ephesus” in the first verse. This has led some scholars to believe that this letter was not specifically written to Ephesus but was meant as a circular for many churches. Michael Immendörfer disagrees. In his book Ephesıans and Artemıs he writes, “Ephesians was not written in a vacuum… there are good reasons that the author had a concrete situation in mind, i.e., recipients living in the surroundings of ancient Ephesus.” He goes on to show how many of the unique attributes of Ephesians, like its heavy emphasis on building fit within the thought framework of the city of Paul’s day. He writes, “Ephasus was moved five times… During [Paul’s] time, the subject of city construction was ever-present for the Ephesians, and the building terminology used in Ephesians would have been quite familiar to them.” Immendörfer also points out the use of “capstone” in conjunction with building terminology fits in well with the local legend of how the “capstone” in the Temple of Artemis was placed. Finally, Immendörfer points out that there are seven honorific titles and divine attributes of the goddess Artemis are used in Ephesians of Christ and what he does for us. This makes it clear not only that the book of Ephesians was clearly meant for the city of Ephesus but it also firmly establishes Paul as the author. It not only explains away some of the objections raised against his authorship but also demonstrates the same tactic we see him using in Acts 17 when preaching in Athens.

Date and Location of Writing

With the question of the author and audience settled, we now turn towards the date and location. In Ephesians 6:21-22, Paul writes that he is sending this letter along with a man named Tychicus. He is also mentioned as coming with Onesimus at the end of Colossians (4:7-9). This is almost certainly the same Onesimus who was the subject of the letter to Philemon. So we see that three of the four prison epistles are here linked together. Once we add the fact that Timothy was with Paul for the writing of Philemon (vs2), Colossians (1:1), and Philippians (1:1), there is no reason not to believe that all four epistles were written at the same time and place. Based on this presupposition, Köstenberger writes, “If the letter was written during Paul’s Roman imprisonment, then it dates to around 58-60… Since Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon all appear to have been written at approximately the same time and since Philemon belongs to the final phase of Paul’s imprisonment, a date around 60 is reasonable.”

Literary Context

Internal Canonical Context

This letter to the Ephesians can be divided into two topics: theology (chapters 1-3) and practice (chapters 4-6). Chapter one is a reminder of their spiritual blessings in Christ (1:3-14) and Paul’s prayer that they would receive spiritual wisdom (1:15-23) The second chapter Paul reminds the church at Ephesus how they have been made alive in Christ (2:1-10) and now they have peace in Christ (2:11-22). The third chapter opens with the revelation of God’s mysteries (3:1-13). Finally, this section is completed with a prayer for spiritual growth (3:14-21) which transitions into a plea for spiritual unity (4:1-6). This is where our section picks up with the diversity of gifts given for a unified purpose (4:7-16). Then there are practical exhortations to live in holiness (4:17-32), love (5:1-5), light (5:6-14), and in wisdom (5:15-20). This is followed by practical applications for husbands and wives (5:21-33), parents and children (6:1-4), slaves and masters (6:5-9), and spiritual warriors (6:10-18). The conclusion wraps up with a prayer request (6:19-20), personal greetings (6:21-22), and a benediction (6:23-24).

External Canonical Context

All of the Pauline epistles are situational. They do not merely present theology, but they do so from within a specific context or in responding to a specific need. Some of his letters, like Philippians and Philemon, state upfront what their purpose is or make it very clear through the context. In other letters like Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing a variety of topics and needs. I agree with Köstenberger that the three main themes in Ephesians, “is the need for 1) unity in the church, 2) a distinctive Christian ethic, and 3) vigilance in spiritual warfare.”

Our specific text bears a resemblance both in content and in basic outline with the texts in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 that also speak of spiritual gifts. In Romans, we see a three-part structure: 1. We are one body each belonging to the others (Rom 12:4-5). 2. We have different gifts according to the grace that was given to each of us (Rom 12:6-7). 3. Be devoted to one another in love (Rom 12:8-16a) The primary thrust can be seen in the commands that bookend this entire periscope. Romans 12:3 states, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Romans 12:16b concludes, “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”

A similar structure is found in 1 Corinthians except that the focus in Romans was on humility in Corinthians it is on changing their outlook or maturing the way they think. We can see this in how Paul opens up the pericope, “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols” (1 Cor 12:1-2). Then, after a much longer and detailed exposition Paul concludes, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:11-13) In between these two statements we have a similar, but much longer and detailed three part outline. 1) We are one body with many parts (1 Cor 12:4-6, 12:12-26) 2) God has given many gifts to that body (1 Cor 12:7-11, 12:27-31). 3) Love is the most excellent way (1 Cor 13).

In Ephesians we again see a similar three-part outline taking shape. 1. There is one body (Eph 4:1-6). 2. That body has been given a diversity of gifts (Eph 4:7-13). 3. Those gifts are to be used to build the body up in love (Eph 4:14-16). Here in Ephesians, the focus in on all this happens as we, the church, are working together in love (Ephesians 4:2, 4:16).

Content Analysis

Ephesians 4:7 – Introduction

As has been said above, the book of Ephesians can be divided into two parts. The first three chapters are theological in nature and chapters four through six deal how the theology presented can be applied. This transition can be seen immediately as Paul urges the church at Ephesus to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph 4:1). Paul then tells the church five ways they can live that life. They must be humble, be gentle, be patient, be loving, and keep the unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:2-3). Paul then dives deeper into that unity of Spirit. He lists seven things that unite us. There is one body (the church, see 1 Cor 12:12-13, Rom 12:4-5, Col 1:18-24, etc), one Spirit, one hope (of salvation, see  Rom 5:2-5, Rom 8:24-25, 2 Cor 3:10-12, etc), one Lord (Jesus), one faith (see Rom 10:10, Eph 2:8-9, Heb 10:39, etc), one baptism (our response to salvation, see Acts 8:36-38, Rom 6:4, Col 2:12, etc), and one God and Father of all.

After laying this foundation of unity in the Spirit, Paul then transitions into the diversity of gifts. However, this is not diversity for diversity’s sake. As Mbennah writes, “The primary purpose of this section is to call the recipients of this epistle to grow towards the goal of spiritual maturity.” Paul writes in 4:7, “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.” The words “each one” refers to every distinct individual within a group. Where in 4:4 Paul speaks of the church as a unified body, now it is as though he were pointing out every single individual within that unified whole.

To each one grace has been given. The word grace used here is the same word that is used in John 1:14 when Jesus, “came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This grace is also translated favor when the angel Gabriel says to Mary that she has “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). One chapter later Luke uses it again when he says Jesus grew “in favor with God and men” (2:52). Luke uses the words again when he says that the martyr Stephen was “full of God’s grace and power” and he “performed great signs and wonders among the people” (Acts 6:8) From these three examples, we can see that when Paul is writing about the grace or favor that is given, he is not speaking of a generic gift universally applied but a specific grace given to each individual within the body of Christ.

This is made more clear further on in 4:7. This grace is given “as Christ apportioned it.” The word “apportioned” is used two more times in this periscope. The first of these is in 4:13 where we are “attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” The Greek word disappears in the NIV translation of 4:16, but “as each part does its work” would be better understood “as the measure of each part does its work.” The word “apportioned” or “measure” can be limitless as in John 3:34: “For God gives the Spirit without limit.” Paul also uses it to put a “limit” on his boasting (2 Cor 10:13) It can also be variable. It is the word Jesus uses when he says about judging that “with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt 7:2) The point here is that there is a clear diversity of gifts. These gifts do not just vary in type, as will be seen below, but also in size, or “measure”, or “apportioning”.

Ephesians 4:8-10 – Ascended and Descended

Paul continues on from 4:7 with a quote from Psalm 68:18. However, there are two very distinct differences between Ephesians 4:8 and the Psalm. In Psalms 68 we read, “When you ascended on high, you took many captives; you received gifts from people.” However, in the letter to Ephesians, Paul writes, “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” The first change, two instances of changing “you” to “he” are of minor importance. The second change is significant enough that, according to Frank Thielman, “some scholars think Paul is not quoting scripture at all.”

Two different explanations are offered for why Paul made the changes he did. Both explanations are dependant on how the entirety of 4:8-10 is interpreted. The first interpretation looks at Psalms 68:18 through the lens of Jewish interpretation. In this view, Psalm 68 is celebrating the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Law from God and then descended to give it to the people. In the same way, Jesus ascended into heaven and then the Spirit descended at Pentecost.

In the second view, Paul is not referring to this one verse in particular, but he is using it as a touchstone for referencing the entire Psalm. According to Gary Gromacki, Psalms 68 is a Davidic Psalm celebrating the conquering of Jerusalem and David’s ascent with the ark to the city. In this view, “Paul referenced the first part of Psalm 68:18 to show that Jesus as the Divine Warrior ascended to heaven and has the authority to give gifts because he has won the victory.”

Moulton does not believe there is a need to choose between either of these possible interpretations. He argues that both provide a good interpretive lens through which to view the ascent and descent imagery. He says, “Both would fit the overall context of the letter. Both could have served rhetorically to strengthen the author’s appeal to unity.”

Ephesians 4:11 – Leadership Gifts

“So Christ himself gave the apostles” (Eph 4:11). Normally, when thinking of an apostle, the first thing that comes to mind would be the twelve Apostles. Of course, Paul is included, but some would argue that he is a special case that the gentiles might have an apostle of their own. However, it is clear that the gift of apostleship is much broader than this. Paul claims that he might be an apostle to some, but not to others (1 Cor 9:1-2). He lists Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7) among the apostles showing that it is a gender-blind leadership role. Jesus uses the word when he says that the messenger (apostle) is not greater than the one who sent him (John 13:16). Paul uses the word of “our brothers” who are “representatives of the churches” (2 Cor 8:23). Thielman says that in Paul’s view, the apostles were “probably those who first took the gospel to the Gentiles – people such as Barnabas, Timothy, Silvanus, Apollos, and, preeminently, Paul himself.”  He says that “apostles were envoys – people who someone or some group had sent on a specific mission.”

“So Christ himself gave… the prophets” (Eph 4:11). A prophet is someone who speaks a specific word from God to a specific people for a specific time. It is clear that the New Testament role of the prophet was different from that in the Old Testament. The same Agabus who prophesied a famine throughout the Roman world (Acts 11:28) also warned Paul what would happen if he were to go down to Jerusalem. Paul acknowledged the warning, and yet he went down anyways (Acts 21:10-15). Scripture also mentions the four daughters of Philip as prophets (Acts 21:9) demonstrating that this gift, like that of apostle and all the leadership gifts, is gender blind.

“So Christ himself gave… the evangelists” (Eph 4:11). The word for evangelist is only mentioned three times in the New Testament. Philip, the father of the four prophets, is called an evangelist in Acts 21:8. Paul commands Timothy to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim 4:5). The third use is here in Ephesians 4:11. The word itself means “bringer of good news” and Hodges claims an evangelist someone who is “sent to preach the gospel where it has not been previously known.”

“So Christ himself gave… the pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11). There are some who would argue, like Hodge, that “pastors and teachers… must be taken as a two-fold designation of the same officers, who were at once guides and instructors of the people.” This theory is based on two assumptions. The first is that the Greek kai linking the two words designates that they form one group. An example of this could be Mark 15:1 where the “elders and scribes” (KJV) designate one group with two functions. The second reason is that every pastor should be both a shepherd and a teacher. There is one office in the church, but it performs two functions.

This argument falls short on both counts. First of all, not every use of kai necessarily links the two nouns in this function. Just two chapters earlier in Ephesians, Paul links apostles and prophets in the same way and yet he is clearly talking about two distinct groups of people. As for the second point, Harold Hoehner points out that even if all pastors should be teachers, it is clear that not all who are gifted as teachers are also pastors. Thielman claims that “Paul may have intended to imply that ‘pastors’ and ‘teachers’ were overlapping but not necessarily identical groups.

Ephesians 4:12-13 – Purpose of the Gifts

The word translated “equipping” in the NIV is not found anywhere else in scripture. In other translations, the word can be rendered “perfect” (ASV, DARBY, KJV, NKJV, YLT) or “prepare” (ICV, GNT, RGV). How this word is translated depends on how the rest of verse 12 and 13 is viewed. In these verses, there are three prepositional phrases: for the equipping (or perfecting) of the saints, for the work of the ministry, and for the building up of the body. The first way to view these phrases is that they are parallel. God has gifted apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers for the equipping of the saints, and for the work of the ministry, and for the building up of the body. This view is the traditional view of theologians down through history including Calvin and going back at least as far as Chrysostom.

Support for this view is twofold. First, it fits stylistically with how Paul writes in the rest of his letter. Similar parallels can be found in Ephesians 1:3, 1:20-21, 2:7, 4:13-14, and 6:12. Also, the word “ministry” in “work of the ministry” is often used specifically for preaching or the “ministry of the word”. (Acts 6:4, Acts 20:24, 2 Cor 3:6,  2 Tim 4:5, etc) Thielman concludes this point in saying, “The ‘work of the ministry’ therefore, probably belongs to the five groups listed in verse 11, all of whom fill roles that involve communicating the gospel and its implications to others.” Mbenna opposes this view when he writes, “If the apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors and teachers must also do the works of service to build the body of Christ, it would mean that the apostles, evangelists, prophets, pastors and teachers do all the work and that the remainder of the saints would not be expected to do any such tasks.” This is a weak argument in that it creates a straw man. No modern scholar who holds this view believes that it means the apostles and the rest exclusively do the work of the ministry. They are simply stating that the work of the ministry is one of the three reasons Paul lists for why those gifts have been distributed to the church.

The second view is held by a majority, but not all, contemporary scholars. This view sees these three prepositional phrases not as coordinate but rather as dependent. The work of the ministry is dependent on the equipping of the saints. The building of the body is dependent on the work of the ministry. Thus, these three prepositional phrases denote a progression. Mbenna sums up this view by saying, “This means that the sole purpose of equipping the saints would be for the saints to be capable of, and accustomed to doing the works of service. This is perceived not only as necessary but also as the methodology for ‘building up of the body of Christ’.”

Although this view is in the majority in recent times Thielman, who does hold to this view, claims that some “interpreters suspect the exegesis of the text has been driven more by concerns about the structure of the modern church than by dispassionate scholarship.” Although the former view seems to fit better with Paul’s original intent, a moderate stance on both views are doctrinally true and can stand up to a holistic reading of scripture. Yes, the gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher were given for the equipping, the work, and the building. Yes, the entire church should be about the work of the ministry, and the body of Christ is built up when the entire church is about its work. The only incorrect view is one that excludes the other of possibly also being true.

In verse eleven, Paul talks about who receives the gifts. In verse twelve he moves on to what the gifts are used for. In verse thirteen he shares why. Just as there are three actions, equipping the saints, works of service, and building the body, there are also three goals, unity of faith, knowledge of the Son of God, and becoming mature. All three of these goals stem from the first clause “until we reach” and have the end result in mind “attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”


Ephesians 4:14-16 – Result of the Gifts

Paul now turns to the final portion of this periscope on unity in faith and purpose through a diversity in gifts. He will here demonstrate the result of the gifts in action first through a negative example of the weak-minded (4:14) and then through the positive contrast of a mature body (4:15) united in love and action (4:16).

In the negative example of verse fourteen, Paul will mention two things done to the immature and then the three ways false teachers will do those things. He starts out saying, “Then we will no longer be infants…” The word Paul uses for “infants” is the same word he uses in 1 Corinthians 3 when he accuses the “infants” of being divided claiming to follow him, or Apollos, or Cephas. (1 Cor 3:1-4). It is the same word he uses multiple times at the end of the love chapter when he says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.” But on reaching maturity, “I put childish ways behind me” (1 Cor 13:11) In Galatians 4 the NIV translates the word as “underage” to describe those “in slavery to the basic principles of the world” (Gal 4:3). Paul then uses two parallel illustrations to demonstrate what happens to these weak-minded “infants” when they are exposed to false teaching. They are “tossed back and forth by the waves” and they are “blown here and there” by the wind. These illustrations bring to mind Jesus’ teaching about the wise and foolish men in Matthew seven and also James’ description of the double-minded man who is unstable in all he does (Jas 1:6-8). Osborne views these weak Christians as “those in a small boat at the mercy of the storm-tossed sea and as a small bird at the mercy of a hurricane. Neither has the strength or maturity to enable it to cope with these insurmountable forces.”

After showing the two things that happen to infants, he then goes into the three ways that false teachers deceive. These false teachers are cunning, crafty, and deceitful. Thielman says that the word translated “cunning” refers to dice playing and infers cheating. He says that Epictetus used the word to talk about those claiming to be philosophers but who lived a life disproving the claim. The word translated “deceitfulness” is used four other times in the New Testament. When the Pharisees and Herodians brought Jesus a coin to trick him, Jesus “saw through their duplicity” (Luke 20:23). Paul uses it in quoting Job when he says God “catches the wise in their craftiness” (1 Cor 3:19). He also says that the serpent tempting Eve in the garden was “cunning” (2 Cor 10:13). Finally, he says that those preaching the gospel “do not use deception or distort the Word of God” (2 Cor 4:2).

In verse fifteen Paul contrasts maturity with the negative, weak-minded example he had in the previous verse. In every way, this is a contrast to the verse above. Where false teachers use cunning and deceit, true disciples speak the truth in love. Where fourteen speaks of the immature being blown and tossed about, fifteen and sixteen speak of the mature who are secure as a part of the body, joined and held together.

So Paul says the result of the diversity of gifts is first to be strong (not weak-minded), then to be mature, and finally, in verse sixteen, the body is built up in love, as each part does his work.


God has given to the church a diversity of gifts. As has been shown, five leadership gifts are listed in Ephesians 4:11. Although there might be some overlap, each of these gifts is unique in form and function. An apostle is not an evangelist. An evangelist is not a teacher. A teacher is not a pastor. Each of these gifts has unique ministry applications, but they also serve a unity of purpose. The primary function of all these gifts is that the church might become strong, mature, and united. The strength is seen through the equipping of the saints. Maturity is displayed when the saints partner with the leaders in doing the work of the ministry. Both strength and maturity are displayed as the body is built up.

This is just as true for our time as it was at the time of the writing of the epistle. The world today still needs apostles who are commissioned and sent out on a mission for Christ. The world today still needs prophets who will speak boldly the word of God to specific circumstances faced in our generation. The world still needs evangelists who will bring good news to those that have not yet embraced it. The world needs pastors who will be faithful undershepherds of God’s flock. And the world today still needs teachers who will dive into and then rightly explain the truth of God’s word to all believers. Most of all, the world today needs those of all these gifts working in harmony to build the body of Christ that is united in love and action.

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