Stick together.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 August 2018

Ephesians 4.1-16.

Now that God’s provided his adoptive kids with his superabundant riches, it’s time for us to live like his kids. So here’s the part of Ephesians where Paul moves away from the salvation theology, and gets into how we Christians are supposed to behave towards one another. We’ve been predestined for God’s kingdom; now let’s walk like inheritors of his kingdom.

Paul especially emphasized the unity we oughta see among Christians, who are after all sharing the same Master.

Ephesians 4.1-6 KWL
1 So I, the captive in the Master, encourage you to walk the calling you were called to,
appropriately: 2 With all humility and gentleness.
With patience, putting up with one another in love.
3 Eager to defend the Spirit’s unity, in peace’s joint captivity: 4 One body. One Spirit.
Just as you were also called in one hope of your calling.
5 One Master. One faith. One baptism. 6 One God,
and Father of everyone, over everyone, and in everyone.

Most of the time preachers apply this to Christians who are members, or regulars, of the same church. We’re supposed to love our fellow church members, be patient with them, live in unity with them. Which is true; we should. But that’s not at all the idea Paul had in mind.

Multiple denominations of Christians wouldn’t exist for another two centuries or so, and it’s likely Paul never expected them to ever exist. Even though multiple denominations in the Hebrew religion existed—Pharisees and Sadducees and Samaritans—the early Christians didn’t expect the body of Christ to be likewise fragmented. It’s a violation of Jesus’s will, y’know. Jn 17.20-23

So when Paul wrote this, it applied not just to Christians who shared a church body, but every Christian everywhere: We’re to put up with any and every fellow Christian, no matter what their stripe, whether we fellowship in the same congregation or not. Every denomination and theology. We’re to encourage unity with all of them, because that’s what Jesus wants. Because all of us do have one body, one Spirit, one Master, one faith, one baptism, and one God.

True, you get certain Christians who insist we can’t interact with certain churches. Because they insist they get to define orthodoxy, and if you’re not orthodox enough for them you’re not a true Christian. I would say otherwise: Only Jesus gets to define who’s his and who’s not, and when Jesus told us how to identify true followers, true teachers, and true prophets, he didn’t tell us to look for orthodoxy; he told us to look for fruit. Fruity Christians have the Holy Spirit in them, so they belong to Jesus. Fruitless Christians, no matter how orthodox their beliefs, aren’t obeying Jesus, and aren’t really his.

And y’notice Paul mentioned a few of the Spirit’s fruits in the above passage: Humility. Gentleness. Patience. Love. Peace. If you can’t be bothered to try these things, of course your church isn’t gonna hold together. Or interact with other churches. Or interact with anybody; you’ll turn into one of those isolationist cults who only come out in public to wave “God Hates Fags” signs. You’ll think you’re the only ones going to heaven, ’cause the rest of “Christendom” can’t possibly. And it’s gonna suck to be you when you finally stand before Jesus.

The problematic Psalms quote.

If you don’t believe the bible has any errors in it, you’re not gonna be happy with this next bit. Because Paul misquotes some bible pretty badly.

I don’t know whether it’s because Paul misquoted it, or because plenty of Christians likewise have the bad habit of pulling bible verses out of context—’cause hey, Paul did it, so why can’t they? Either way this passage is really popular among people who completely ignore Paul’s reasons for quoting it, and instead use it to defend their odd theories about what happened between Jesus’s death on Good Friday, and his resurrection on Easter. So they likewise misquote some bible pretty badly.

Ephesians passage first.

Ephesians 4.7-10 KWL
7 Grace is given to each one of us by measure of Christ’s gift,
8 which is why the scripture says, “Going up to the heights,
he takes captives prisoner; he gives gifts to people.” Ps 68.18
9 This “going up,” what’s this?—a reminder that he also went down to the lower parts, to earth.
10 The same Jesus who went down, is also who goes up far above all the heavens to fulfill everything.

Paul’s point in quoting Psalms is to talk about how Jesus went to heaven, and from there he sends down his gifts. In the next verses Paul lists the gifts he means. But in this passage, Paul figured he had a proof text from the Psalms which included the two ideas he wanted to get across: Jesus went up, and he gave us gifts.

The passage comes from a David psalm about how God is victorious in war.

Psalms 68.17-19 KWL
17 God’s 20,000 chariots and thousands of archers—
my Master with them in Sinai, in the holy place18 you went up to the heights.
You took captives prisoner. You took gifts from humanity.
And from the rebels too, so the LORD God could dwell there.
19 Bless my Master! Day by day he loads us.
The God of our salvation! Selah.

Now y’notice the psalm’s not actually about Jesus. This isn’t a messianic psalm, a poem about God’s anointed ruler (which could apply to both ancient Israeli kings like David, and to Jesus); it’s about the LORD conquering his enemies. Yeah Jesus is the LORD, but still.

“The heights” David wrote about, are the hills of Israel. Not the highest heavens. And when the LORD, David’s Master, went up these heights with his chariots and archers, it was to conquer Israel’s foes. It was to take them prisoner. It was to take the spoils of war. It was to establish the land as belonging to the LORD and his people.

It’s not just a stretch to say this psalm can sorta be a metaphor for Jesus taking his throne in heaven; it’s downright wrong. Because this psalm isn’t at all about that.

Plus there’s the fact Paul changed the words. David wrote the LORD laqákhta mattanót/“took gifts” from humanity. Ps 68.18 But Paul wrote Jesus édoken dómata/“gives gifts” instead. No, Paul wasn’t quoting the Septuagint, ’cause that translation’s élaves dómata also means “took gifts.” Paul used a whole different verb. Big difference between taking and giving.

It’s an obvious discrepancy in the bible. One even inerrantists concede they can’t explain away. Like A. Skevington Wood in the Expositors Biblical Commentary:

Attempts have been made to account for the apparent discrepancy by the conjecture that Paul was quoting from memory and that his recollection was imperfect, or that he arbitrarily doctored the text to suit his line of argument. With more plausibility some have claimed that, under the inspiration of the Spirit, Paul felt free to amplify the meaning of the Psalm, since the giving is implicit in the receiving for. But it seems more probable that the apostle was drawing on an ancient oral tradition reflected in the Aramaic Targum on the Psalter and the Syriac Peshitta version, both of which read, “Thou hast given gifts to men.” Early rabbinical comments applied the verse to Moses when he received the Law on Sinai so as to bring it to the people.

Basically Wood’s saying Paul got it wrong ’cause he was quoting a bad Aramaic translation. And maybe that’s true. It’s certainly more reasonable an explanation than, “Paul totally changed the meaning, but it’s okay because the Spirit inspired him to change the meaning of what he previously inspired David to write.” Um… no.

If this is an error in the bible, does this mean we now freak out and throw out Ephesians? Or, as some apologists claim they’d do, throw out the bible entirely? Of course not. The responsible thing to do is work around the problem. There are plenty of other verses in the New Testament which indicate Jesus went to heaven, so let’s quote those instead of this one. There are plenty of verses throughout the bible which state God gives gifts (and really good gifts!) to his kids, so let’s also quote those instead of this one. We should never use a problem verse as a proof text. Find better verses if you can. And if you can’t, don’t claim what you’re trying to teach is biblical. You’re not on solid enough ground.

So I’ll bring up the primary other thing Christians try to prove from this passage: The idea Jesus went to hell.

When Jesus died, he went to ádis/“Hades,” the afterlife. In the KJV the word gets translated “hell,” and when the Apostles Creed says Jesus descended into hell, that’s what it means: Jesus is human (though also God) and when he died he went to the same afterlife as every other human. He didn’t get any special privileges just because he’s God; he didn’t get to have a quick visit to his heavenly throne room. He experienced what every human will experience. And came back.

Still, a myth popularly called “The Harrowing of Hell” cropped up in the second century. It claims Jesus went to hell, beat up the devil, unlocked the cages, and took all the Old Testament saints with him to heaven. And that’s what Paul meant by this passage: He wasn’t trying to give a basis for how God gives gifts to his children, but slip in a story, for no good reason, about Jesus’s afterlife experience. The “lower parts” mean the underworld, and the “takes captives prisoner” has to do with freeing the previously-captive saints. Whenever somebody’s called upon to prove the “Harrowing of Hell” tale, they point to this passage and claim, “See that’s what Paul meant.”

No he didn’t. That’s you taking Paul’s out-of-context quote even more out-of-context.

Paul had no reason to bring up Jesus’s afterlife experiences. Not in this passage, anyway. He could’ve mentioned it elsewhere in his letters; he didn’t. His focus, same as that of most first-century Christians, was on resurrection, not afterlife. We know very little about the afterlife because it ultimately doesn’t matter. We’re coming back to life. The dead will rise again.

But when we get resurrected, the afterlife is where we emerge from. It’ll be around till the End, and get destroyed at the End. Rv 20.13-14 I know; you’d rather go to heaven than the afterlife, like popular culture tells you will happen. But I don’t have any biblical evidence that any of us go to heaven before we’re raptured. And even then, God’s goal is to put New Heaven and New Earth together, Rv 21 not abandon one for the other.

Jesus brought us presents! Namely leadership.

When Jesus went to be with the Father, he sent us the Holy Spirit, who granted us all the abilities we need to grow as Christians. These abilities include all the “offices,” as Christians call ’em. Paul didn’t list them to give us an idea of how churches are to be organized; I dealt with the fivefold ministry idea elsewhere. He meant Jesus didn’t leave us without leadership, without people who can guide us to follow him better, instead of stumbling around and figuring out Christianity on our own.

Ephesians 4.11-16 KWL
11 Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.
12 They’re for the purpose of setting up holy people for good works;
for building up Christ’s body 13 till we’ve all arrived at a unified faith and knowledge of God’s Son;
for producing a mature, measured-up, complete Christian.
14 We’ll no longer be spiritual infants, wave-tossed and pushed around
by every gust of clever teaching, by crafty people with ulterior motives.
15 May we grow up through holding to truth, through love,
and through everything which comes from our head, Christ.
16 Through him, the whole body comes together, fits together, and grows the body—
every joint in the supply, however each part works. He makes it establish itself in love.

Not that plenty of go-it-alone Christians, people who “don’t care for established religion,” don’t try to figure out Christianity on their own regardless. They don’t want leaders. They figure they need that no man teach them; 1Jn 2.27 they’ll just follow Jesus directly, or interpret the bible without any help from fellow Christians. And y’notice their antisocial efforts invariably produce fruitless spiritual infants—exactly as Paul described.

I realize Americans are raised to be independent, to think for ourselves and do for ourselves; that if we depend on others it’s either exploitation or a sign of weakness. For this reason we don’t usually think of leadership as a gift: It’s either a necessary evil, or something we wanna take over for personal gain. But to God, leadership—namely his leadership—is absolutely a gift. His commands are a blessing: Now we know how to follow him! Now we know his will for our lives. Now we can live the way he wants.

True, corrupt leaders are awful. Definitely don’t want those. But humble servant-leadership, following Jesus’s example? That’s precisely what Jesus wants every single one of his followers to practice and become. The way we do that is to stick together, look out for one another, meet one another’s needs, bear one another’s burdens, and be fruitful. Be the church Jesus designed us to be.


Bible difficulties.