Ephesians 4:7-10 “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.’
(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.)”
The subject of the spiritual gifts has been constantly discussed in the last forty years. This is a helpful part of the New Testament in shedding some light on that theme. Notice the context, how immediately before our text Paul has been telling us about all those privileges that we share in common as Christians. We are all in one body, indwelt by one Spirit, knowing one hope, acknowledging one Lord, sharing one faith, experiencing one baptism, worshipping one God and Father of us all. All these blessings are the privileged possession of every single Christian without exception. The weakest lamb in the flock of Christ knows these blessings; every one of us who is in Christ shares in them. Now if there were this uniformity of blessing, and nothing more that that, then you might expect Christians to be a rather monochrome people. For example, you’d expect this value system to result in all our young men to be dressed similarly, rather soberly – rather like the dark suited Mormons who come evangelising on our doorsteps – and the women too to be dressed more or less identically – as if they got their stuff from Charity Shops. You might anticipate one kind of Christian personality – a little naive and enthusiastic and affectionate, but not too much; one kind of Christian congregation – overwhelmingly lower middle class; one kind of IQ – no geniuses but neither any dunces; one kind of piety of mild enthusiasm; one kind of language which we all spoke, with no range of personalities or affections, nothing very showy or splashy, almost Christian clones; no eccentrics at all. Decorum reigns.
You do find monochrome in members of the cults – those film stars who are into Scientology, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses you meet on your doorstep. Non-Christian religions also seem to create a recognisable psychological ‘type.’ But it is significant to me that this is not what you get in an evangelical Christian or in a gospel church. What a range of people and congregations you meet. One reason for that is the rich variety of backgrounds and personalities which the gospel penetrates. How different were the apostles whom Jesus called; one was a collaborator called Levi or Matthew, a tax-collector working for the Romans, while another was a freedom fighter called Simon the Zealot, someone at the very opposite of the political spectrum, a man who opposed Roman occupation. In the New Testament there is no record of any feuding between them. The four evangelists don’t seem at all interested in this Christian difference in politics. So people come into the kingdom of God bringing their backgrounds with them.
Another reason why we Christians are not people of lifeless or colourless uniformity is the fact that there’s a variety of gifts which are distributed to every Christian by the Lord Jesus. So the followers of our Saviour are not clones of one another – as if we’d all been mass-produced in some heavenly factory. The unity of the church is enriched by the range of the gifts Christ gives as well as the different cultures and temperaments and personalities from which Christians come. None of the women look as if they got their clothes from the Salvation Army store!
It is to this theme that Paul now turns. In these verses the apostle opens up the question of the different graces which Christ decides to give to each one of us. Clearly we all mutual beneficiaries of our status in Christ, but then the apostle writes, “To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (v.7). You understand that this ‘grace’ that Paul writes about here is not the redeeming grace or loving pity of God which saves every single Christian. Every Christian is, of course, given the Holy Spirit, and the gift of everlasting life. However, Paul is not talking of that here, but rather the gifts of grace, the charismata which Christ’s grace creates and sustains, those gifts of the Spirit which equip each one of us for our different forms of service. There’s never been a single Christian to whom Christ has given every one of the gifts – the apostle Paul didn’t have all the gifts, but neither has there been a single Christian without any gift, lacking any charisma at all. All Christians have some divine endowments, or aptitudes, or abilities, just as Christ has apportioned them. That is the invariable divine order, that we are made alive by the Spirit of God but also that we are given spiritual gifts, and it is that latter point the apostle is making here. That is where Paul is at this juncture. So what do we say about these gifts?
1. THE GIFTS ARE GIVEN BY CHRIST.
These gifts are often called ‘spiritual gifts’ or ‘gifts of the Spirit’ but notice that in these verses it is the Son of God who is the one who gives them. There is an insistence on this: “Given as Christ apportioned it . . .” (v.7); he gave gifts to men (v.8); “It was he who gave . . .” (v.11). Jesus Christ is the personal author of the gifts which the Christians in the Ephesian congregation had received. Think of one of the parables of Jesus; a lord decided to give certain talents to three of his servants. To one he decided to give five; to another he apportioned two, and to another he gave one. The lord was the one who determined which of his servants would get which number of talents. It is Jesus who decides who shall receive which spiritual gifts. There are some possessions we value simply because of the person who gave them to us. They are not the most expensive things we own, but we esteem and deeply love the one who gave us those gifts. Those objects in our home are especially important to us. When people notice them and ask us about them we smile and say, “Do you know who gave me that? It was so-and-so. . .” We enjoy talking about that person with warmth in our voice and gratitude in our hearts. Now multiply by infinity; we are thinking about the Creator of the universe, the Son of God who died for our sins, the one who is now the ruler of the universe. He loves us, and he has decided, “I am going to give to you these gifts – certain aptitudes or talents or abilities or sustained concerns or some office within the church.” Possessing these gifts has affected our character and our whole life. In other words Jesus has changed us by the gifts he apportioned to us. Sometimes a preacher will be overwhelmed by this fact. “The Son of God has given to me a call to declare his word? Has he gifted me to pastor the people of God? Am I deluding myself about this?” And then the fiery darts will begin to fly, and every preacher has to examine his life humbly and at the end bless God for entrusting him with such a vocation.
You remember on the day of Pentecost that the people of Jerusalem are bewildered by the extraordinary sights and sounds they are seeing, a rushing mighty wind, cloven tongues as of fire resting on the apostles, these Christians miraculously speaking in many languages known by all the foreigners who were there for the feast. Everyone heard in his own language the wonderful works of God. What was going on? Who was behind all this? Peter explains to them, telling them that Jesus Christ of Nazareth whom they had crucified and killed on Golgotha is now “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33). The Lord Jesus is our great benefactor.
He gives us these gifts as the King of kings, the Conqueror of the world, and of sin and the devil. You think of the problem charity agencies have in getting supplies of food to starving people. There has been the UN fiasco in Iraq; the scheme was set up of ‘Oil for Food.’ Oil was bought from Iraq during the decade of sanctions and the UN money was designated to feed the hungry millions in the country, but there was total corruption so that Sadam Hussein and his henchmen prevented the gifts reaching the people and those crooks have lived lives of vulgar luxury while the people starved. Again people in Britain wanted their gifts to reach Ethiopian people in need but they never reached them, and that has been typical third world support during the last decades. The men in power in Ethiopia used the money raised by Bob Geldof’s appeal to buy armaments; hundreds of thousands starved to death.
Our Saviour is always effectual! He guarantees that all those who need his gifts receive them, and he gives sustaining grace while life and thought and being last, or immortality endures. The Lord Christ has all authority on earth as well as in heaven. Having ascended on high he has “led captives in his train” (v.8). Who are these captives? Certainly it would include the god of this world, Satan, whom Jesus has overcome. The devil is at the end of Jesus’ chain. Then it would also include the world system of sinners who are at enmity against Christ and who sought to kill him. He was mightier than they. It would include also death, but he conquered that too when he rose from the grave on the third day. They are all captives in his train. So all the might of this world and its god can’t prevent the gifts of our mighty ascended Jesus reaching all the people in his church whom he has targetted to receive them day after day. Should the United Nations decide to combine with the rulers of darkness from hell and build a dam – a sort of huge Berlin Wall – all around the heavenly Jerusalem to prevent the gifts of Christ leaving the throne of God the project would be destined to total failure. You might have stood on the edge of the mighty Niagara Falls and watched those millions of tons of water cascading over the falls day after day, never ever stopping for a mini-second. So it is with the gifts of Christ; there are millions of Christians all over the world today, and Jesus rends the heavens and he is pouring out his gifts of grace upon the whole church. See it flood down; not one is excluded. ‘Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.’ Imagine thousands of men and women with their bare hands trying to stop the Niagara river from pouring over that great escarpment. Neither earthly nor satanic powers can prevent Jesus’ people receiving Jesus’ gifts. He has conquered his enemies and greatly limits their effectiveness. If they step out of line he yanks their chains. “This is why it says, ‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men'” (v.8).
So every one of us has received his own gifts from Christ, and we have to reckon with their presence in our lives, and the place they carve out for us in the church. Possessing these charismata we all have a function, a role and a responsibility within the congregation. None of us is redundant, or superfluous, or useless. Each of us has gifts to be exercised in the church, a contribution to be made which no other member is able to make. That makes our existence in the body meaningful and useful, and that is what Paul is talking about in this section. We are not all teachers, nor evangelists, nor rulers in the church, but God has given us something distinctive and individual to use in the service of his name. It may be a ministry of intercession; it may be an ability to bring comfort and encouragement to those who are despondent. It may be the gift of hospitality, or energy and toil, of liberality, of seeing what someone else doesn’t see and doing the thing that’s necessary. Whatever it is no Christian can say “I have nothing to offer,” nor can he say, “I have no place to exercise my gifts,” because few of us rush off after the service. We’ll listen to you. You have plenty of people to talk to, and there is the Prayer Meeting every week for you to make a public contribution.
Of course, every true gift is costly, and it needs to be nurtured. It develops and matures; it grows wiser and stronger. If a gift costs nothing then it is worth nothing. If it is simply an unplanned explosion, well that requires no sacrifice and no training. It is not worth anything. A true gift is a burden and it seems to get heavier with the years, and only the energy of God can help us exercise it so that it develops.
2. THE GIFTS MAKES US DIFFERENT FROM ONE ANOTHER; THE FRUIT MAKES US THE SAME AS ONE ANOTHER.
Let me make this point very briefly; I say it so often that most of you know it, but there is always one who hears it for the first time, and thus it is helpful for them to repeat it and for me it is safe. I am saying this, that the exalted Son of God is the one who transforms the church from being a monochrome community to becoming a technicolour fellowship. He does this by the richness of the gifts he pours onto every gospel congregation. He sends the Spirit into every single life, and the first consequence of that is to create one beautiful multifaceted fruit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gals. 5:22). If that’s what I’ve been calling the monochrome it’s pretty magnificent! Such precious fruit is given to every Christian, first, of course, in seed or early beginnings, and then, as the fruit are fed and nurtured, a thirty-fold increase results, or a sixty-fold or even a hundred-fold. Let every Christian strive to grow in grace, especially in love.
However, the Lord Jesus does something more, he apportions gifts to his church, the gifts of service, and by these gifts every single Christian becomes different from every one else, for example, in our abilities in teaching, serving, encouraging, displaying constant generosity, stewardship, leadership, a ministry of mercy, administration, strengthening, comforting and so on. These gifts make us different from one another. They are gifts to minister to one another and gifts to receive ministry from one another. The gifts and the fruit are quite different realities in our lives. The fruit makes us the same while the gifts make us differ. Let me prove that point by answering Paul’s questions about gifts in I Corinthians 12:29 and 30: are all apostles? No, only the twelve. Are all prophets? No. Are all teachers? No. Do all work miracles? No. Do all have gifts of healing? No. Do all speak in tongues? No. Do all interpret? No. Paul is talking about gifts by which we differ from one another, and so you cannot seize any one of these he mentions in these verses and say that every Christian has got to have this gift, and that this is the definitive mark of a true Christian. Some Christians have some of these gifts and other Christians didn’t. Now let us do the same with the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 and ask whether all have love. The answer must be yes. You can’t be a Christian and be a stranger to love. Do all have joy? Yes. Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice! Do all have peace? Yes. My peace I give unto you. Do all have patience? Yes. Do all have kindness? Yes. Do all have goodness? Yes. Do all have faithfulness? Yes. Do all have gentleness? Yes. Do all have self-control? Yes. None of those graces as we should have them or will have them, but none utterly bereft of any of them. Our oneness in Christ is a oneness in the fruit of the Spirit.
3. CHRIST’S GIFTS ARE PERFECTLY SUITED FOR THIS WORLD.
We are given gifts because they are essential for the body life of the church and for its outreach to the world. Jesus knows what gifts are needed right now, and he gives to each gospel congregation those gifts; “that congregation in Wales needs these gifts. I will give them.” None of the gifts we are given are useless or redundant gifts. There isn’t one. We get from Christ relevant 21st century gifts. Let me use an illustration from developing a talent; an Eskimo wouldn’t be helped by receiving the gift of being able to drive rickshaws in Thailand; no Aberystwyth housewives would be helped by having the gift of bullfighting; a bushman in the Kalahari wouldn’t be helped by having the gift of ice-skating. Such skills are useless for those people. When Christ gives a gift it is perfectly suited for the world we live in now, and for our entire futures.
The reason for that is that the Lord Jesus Christ knows our world. He understands men and women and the human situation from the inside. He was no detached outsider. He is bone of our bone and he has shared in the experience of our environment. He dwelt among us. He chose not simply to be born, but to be born in our low condition. His mother Mary was overwhelmed at Jehovah’s grace in choosing her; “God has looked at the lowly estate of his servant,” she says. She had been raised in the most humble circumstances. Jesus was born in a stable, and when they looked for a place for the baby to sleep only the animal food trough was available – Mary and Joseph hadn’t designed baby’s room. Then Jesus was whisked away by his parents to Egypt as a refugee family. They had to walk all the way there, and then they lived as aliens in north Africa for a couple of year eking out a living. Jesus spent almost thirty years in a village which was an insignificant group of houses on a rocky hillside of thornbushes and paths. When he was a man he had no money to pay temple tax. He couldn’t purchase a home for himself – he had nowhere to invite his friends to come to celebrate the Passover. Some of his disciples came from homes where there were hired servants. Jesus didn’t. His friends were taken from ordinary stumbling and falling folk, despised by the Pharisees. Jesus knows the human situation very well, so he is not going to give useless talents, or luxury concerns. He faced far more enmity and problems than we face and so he knows what we need.
Paul speaks here of the fact that the Lord had “descended to the lower, earthly regions” (v.9). When you’ve lived from eternity as God with God as had our Lord then the incarnation was exactly that, an entry into lower, earthly regions. It meant a whole new set of relationships: “with his brothers and sisters; with his disciples; with the scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees; with Roman soldiers and with lepers and prostitutes. It was within these relationships that he lived his incarnate life, experiencing pain, poverty and temptation; witnessing squalor and brutality; hearing obscenities and profanities and the hopeless cry of the oppressed. He lived not in sublime detachment or in ascetic isolation, but ‘with us’, as the fellow man of all men, crowded, busy, harassed, stressed and molested. No large estate gave him space, no financial capital guaranteed his daily bread, no personal staff protected him from interruptions, and no power or influence protected him from injustice. He saved us from alongside us” (Donald Macleod, “The Person of Christ,” IVP, Leicester, 1998, p.180). So he knows what gifts are needed to oil the machinery and keep the ecclesiastical wheels turning, and which gifts are relevant for each one of us in the body of Christ, to be the salt and light of the world, to love one another fervently and purely, to minister to one another and to receive ministry. His graces alone can help us live like that.
Let me put redemption in its context in creation. You know that before the Lord redeems us he creates us, and as he knits us together in our mother’s wombs he is even then preparing us for the gifts he is going to apportion to us later on. I once heard Gladys Aylward, the missionary to China, speaking in Barry, South Wales, about 45 years ago. When she was a teenager she lamented two things about herself, the first being how short she was – she wasn’t five feet in height. She wished she were six inches taller. When she got up to speak she took the big pulpit Bible off the pulpit and stood on top of it so that she could see the congregation and the congregation could see her. She also longed to be a blond and not the raven-haired girl she was. But when she got off the boat in China she found that she was the same height as most Chinese women, and that she had the same colour hair as they all had. The Lord was preparing her in her mother’s womb for her life work, and then, when she became a Christian he gave her spiritual gifts of compassion, and initiative, and energy, and facility to learn a language, and prayerfulness. The Lord prepared her perfectly for the work he gave her to do. He has prepared you as a Christian for this winter and the year ahead and for all your life.
4. THE GIFTS OF THE WORD ARE SUPREME.
You see that supremely in this chapter don’t you? See the list Paul gives from verse 11, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. They are all gifts of the word, aren’t they? You know that there is no comprehensive list of the gifts of the Spirit in any one passage of the New Testament but in the other four lists that do exist it is clear that the ministry of God’s revealed word is central to the use of all the other gifts. The word stabilises the other gifts; the word nourishes the other gifts; it focuses those gifts. Those other gifts are giving expression to that word in different ways. In the first list in the New Testament in I Corinthians 12:8-11 there are nine gifts mentioned, and at least five of them are word gifts – wisdom-word, knowledge-word, prophecy, speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. Those are all to do with the word of God coming to a congregation. The next is in I Corinthians 12:28 where eight are listed and four of them are word gifts – apostles, prophets, teachers and tongues. The next list in the New Testament is Romans 12:6-8 where seven gifts are mentioned and four of them are word gifts, prophecy, teaching, exhorting, and leadership. The one other list consists of just two gifts mentioned by Peter in I Peter 4:11, speaking and serving. Incidentally you will see that if these are the five lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament this means there are no special gifts of music or singing mentioned anywhere.
There is this overwhelming emphasis on the word gifts, and the very foundation of those is the gift of the apostles. This fact is of great practical significance in the life of the church. If we lose sight of that then we have lost sight of the balance of Scripture. That is basic to our own understanding of the pattern of new covenantal worship. First we sing and pray to God, and then he speaks to us, and so the climactic aspect of worship is the apostolic word of God coming to us in the power of the Spirit by the man whom God has gifted and authorised for that very work. As he preaches we are worshipping; we are repenting of our sins, seeking God’s grace to obey, blessing God for what he has done for us in his redemption, reconsecrating ourselves to live more godly lives by the power of grace, and so on. One kind of worship follows another. So the sermon is the climax of our worship.
5. FOR ALL THE GIFTS WE MUST GIVE AN ACCOUNT.
All these gifts were once Christ’s; they were part of his vast reservoir of every grace and virtue, and then he determined out of that fulness to apportion this gift or that gift to me or to you. So he took what was his and, absolutely freely, he gave those gifts to us. I wouldn’t possess my gifts at all unless Christ willed that I should have them. He is vitally interested in how I am going to use them, in other words, he holds me responsible for their exercise. Wouldn’t that be the case with you, if you had something of great value, say a business that was very profitable, and you gave it to a beloved grandchild, wouldn’t you be interested in whether he valued it and how he used it? What if your husband had given his very life building up that business? It was a business he had established out of nothing by his brilliance. He worked long hours for years to make it profitable, and he had a workforce who were loyal and specially skilled. This was a business whose reputation was known all over the world. Wouldn’t you be vitally interested in knowing how the person to whom you had given it dealt with it? Again you must multiply by eternity. These gifts of Christ were bought by his agony and bloody sweat in Gethsemane and on Golgotha. They are blood-bought gifts and they have been freely and lovingly entrusted to you by him. Won’t Christ hold you to account as to how you’ve dealt with them?
In Jesus’ parable of the talents after some time had passed the lord summons the three servants to settle accounts with them and he asks them one by one what they did with the talents he gave them. The one who had been given five had worked away and he had made five more, and there was much praise for him; “I will put you in charge of many things.” The one who had been given two had also worked with them and gained two more. Great praise to that man too: “Come and share your master’s happiness.” Then the man who had been given just one apologised; he said to his lord that he knew what a hard master he was. He didn’t want to lose his one talent and incur his master’s anger so he had hidden it away, but . . . “Here it is!” Hey presto! And he produced it, immaculate, unscratched and unchanged from the time he’d first received it. It was not stained by a drop of sweat or by any tears that had fallen on it. Was the master pleased? He was not! Listen to his words in Matthew 25:26-30: “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'”
Listen to J.C. Ryle preaching on this parable; “Our gifts, our influence, our knowledge, our health, our strength, our time, our senses, our reason, our intellect, our memory, our affections, our privileges as members of Christ’s church, our advantages as possessors of the Bible – all, all are talents. Whence came these things? What hand bestowed them? Why are we what we are? Why are we not the worms that crawl on the earth? There is only one answer to these questions: all that we have is a loan from God: we are God’s stewards; we are God’s debtors. Let this thought sink deeply into our hearts” (J.C.Ryle, “Expository Thoughts on Matthew,” Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, p.357).
Who is this man who buried his talent? How will we know him? Don’t we all say, “Is it I? Is it I?” Shouldn’t we all examine ourselves? I tell you that he is the one who spurns the Bible or a Bible preaching church. He is the one who neglects the Sabbath. He is the one who loves the world and the things of the world, who belittles revealed orthodox doctrine and holy living, who never gives a reason for any hope he has to anyone who raises the subject of Christianity in his company. He buries his Lord’s precious talent in the ground. What light he’s had, but he doesn’t use it. Daily he is robbing God. He has been entrusted with much, but he makes no return. The prophet Daniel once said to a great king, “You did not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways” (Dan.5:23).
Again, listen to Ryle: “There is a judgment before us all. Words have no meaning in the Bible if there is none: it is merely trifling with Scripture to deny it. There is a judgment before us according to our works, certain, strict, and unavoidable. High or low, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, we shall all have to stand at the bar of God and receive our eternal sentence. There will be no escape; concealment will be impossible. We and God must at last meet face to face. We shall have to render an account of every privilege that was granted to us, and of every ray of light which we enjoyed; we shall find that we are dealt with as accountable and responsible creatures and that to whomsoever much is given, of them much will be required. Let us remember this every day we live: ‘let us judge ourselves that we be not condemned of the Lord’ (I Cor. 2:31).” (Ryle, op cit, p.338) So we must give an account for the stewardship of the gifts Christ has given to us.
6. GIFTS NEED TO BE STIRRED UP.
“Fan into flame the gift of God which in you” (2 Tim. 1:6) Paul tells Timothy. In other words there is a very real danger that the gift we have may be well nigh useless. It may be languishing; it may be atrophied; it may be very close to extinction. If Timothy, who had had so many privileges, needed such an exhortation how much more do I, or you? Unless we take immediate and urgent action then the character which God has given us will languish to the point of disappearance. Bunyan tells us of a pilgrim he calls Mr. Pliable who came to the Slough of Despond. He struggled for a short time and then got out on the wrong side and went back to the City of Destruction. You think of a woman whose voice was heard in the Prayer Meeting interceding for the church; it is heard no longer. You think of those who were involved in the life of the church, with the young people, in the outreach, in hospitality but are not so any longer. What has happened? The gifts were neglected and they died. It was not that that Christian passed through a time of hardship. The Puritans used to say that there were thousands more who perished in the trial of prosperity than who ever perish in the trial of adversity. The result is that these people ceased to have any further relevance in the church – either to God or man.
How can a Christian lose his gifts? If we despise the gifts of God in our own hearts. If we begin to scorn praying, or preaching, or rule and government, or initiative – those are fatal signs that our gifts begin to languish. If we are uneasy in the presence of any sort of leadership over us, or if we don’t want the risk and the pain of being exposed to searching, discriminating preaching, or if we don’t want the possibility of new initiatives that may take us into different paths, then we have started despising the gifts of God, and the Spirit is grieved. Have you not heard the injunction not to quench the Spirit? God has given us a certain gift, but like all gifts it is costly and makes demands on our time and our flesh and so we start to extinguish it without realising that this is what we are doing. Men don’t want the responsibility that it has brought into their lives. They don’t want the commitment to the church of Jesus Christ that it entails. To exercise this gift increasingly interferes with what I want to do with my life and so I quench it. I give it no oxygen of faith and love; I turn off its life-support system and let it die. I am quenching the Spirit.
I may also neglect it. I may fantasise that if Christ has given me a gift that that gift has such heavenly power that it is going to look after itself. It is going to be self-perpetuating, so I ignore it; I don’t exercise it; I don’t care for it; I don’t nourish it; I don’t train it or discipline it. I simply neglect it. If you neglect a house plant you know what will happen to it. If you neglect a pet you know what will happen to it. If you neglect a child you know what will happen to it. So it is with the gifts that Christ has given to us. We can despise them, and quench them and neglect them.
Gifts need to be fanned into flame. Make them blaze forth again in all their glory, with all their potential again being seen. Stir them up; “Be revived! Awake thou that sleepest and rise from the dead and Christ shall give thee life!” How do I fan my gift into a flame?
i] Take heed to yourself. Let’s start there. Look at your own soul. How is your devotion to God? How close is your walk with God? Maybe we have become parasitical in the body of Christ, living off other people’s knowledge of God and their experience. Our own personal character has deteriorated on a moral and spiritual level. It is part of the tragedy of able men and women that for so long their gifts can support and sustain them when all the life and vitality and integrity has gone. But the gifts, by their sheer brilliance, can keep a man going for so long that his problem is obscured even from himself. Take heed to yourself. We cannot afford to neglect our own souls, to ignore elementary religious practices like prayer and searching preaching. If we do we shall soon become useless, a spectator, full of self-justification and grumbles. Soon we shall become liabilities to the whole body of Christ, and so we are to fan into flame the gift that is in us by taking heed to ourselves.
ii] Gifts also need to be nourished and trained. Specific provision should be made for them. It is so tempting for a Christian to concentrate on what he or she imagines to be points of weakness in their lives. A man may be a great teacher, and yet he may be lacking in other qualities and he may say to himself, “I must work away in those other areas because I can afford to neglect my strengths.” It is a great mistake, because we cannot afford to neglect that in which we are strong. Maybe that is the area in which the devil will come and cause us to move into a syndrome of uselessness and vain repetition and we grow barren and not know that the Spirit’s gift has left us.
Timothy was a preacher but Paul told him, “Preach the word.” Timothy might have protested, “But my preaching is what I do best. I don’t need to be told that.” “Strengthen that gift,” says Paul, “Nourish it, and encourage it, and cherish it, and provide for it, and develop it, and build it up in every possible way.” That applies to all of us whatever our role or function. If we rule then let’s develop our management skills and counselling and leadership. Or if we serve, or give hospitality, or show compassion – whatever it is – let no one here think because they are strong in one area and have been active in that area for years that they can afford to neglect it. Whatever you are doing for Christ and his church could be done much better. You are to grow there; that is your calling; that is where you are to lay out most of your strength.
iii] Gifts need also to be constantly exercised. There is no preacher whom God is using who is not under enormous pressure at every kind of level and from every angle, from friends and enemies, from the church and the world, from his own family as well as from strangers. There is no preacher who does not need to fan the flame and stir it into a new light and heat that he’s never known before. But I am extending that same counsel to all of you. Whatever the calling God has given to us in the church of Jesus Christ, let’s get on with it! Let’s exercise it! Let’s discharge the responsibilities of that role. Let’s exercise the charisma that God has given us. As Paul tells Timothy elsewhere, “Give yourself wholly to it.” Our role in the body of Christ ought to be a matter of urgent concern for us; it ought to be our priority. With all your strength and the power of your intellect, with all the experience you have gained, and all your physical energy and all your common sense and wisdom, put everything you have into the gift that God has given to you. Surely that is where we are being tested. Are we fanning it into a flame? Are we stirring it up to new life? Are we giving ourselves wholly to developing the gifts God has given to us?
“Lord, hast Thou made me known Thy ways?
Conduct me in Thy fear;
And grant me such supplies of grace,
That I may persevere.
Let but Thy own almighty arm
Sustain a feeble worm,
I shall escape, secure from harm
Amid the dreadful storm.
Be Thou my all-sufficient Friend,
Till all my toils shall cease;
Guard me through life, and let my end
Be everlasting peace.” (John Fawcett, 1739-1817)
31st October 2004 GEOFF THOMAS