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At the primary school our kids attended, there was a class for gifted children. It was called the ‘opportunity class’. To get into the opportunity class, the kids had to do a test. They couldn’t study for the test; it was designed to measure raw giftedness rather than knowledge or exam technique. Well… that was the official line. In reality, everyone had worked out how to rig it: if you wanted your kid to stand a chance against the other kids, you had to pay for private tutoring. So it was not really a class for ‘gifted children’, it was a class for ‘children with some talent who also have ambitious parents’. Now the teachers at the school were fantastic; they loved teaching the children and put great effort into teaching all of their classes, gifted and otherwise. But privately, I’m pretty sure many of the teachers were a little bit jaded about the whole ‘opportunity class’ selection process.
So why did so many parents pay so much money to get their kids into the opportunity class? Because they know how the world works. In our world, gifted people have a better life. If people deem you to be gifted, you get more opportunities. That means you get a better-paying job, a better house, a better spouse, and the opportunity to breed genetically superior offspring. In our theoretical ‘meritocracy’ (which means ‘rule by those with merit’), by definition the people with merit are the people who rule. Merit is about achievement, and achievement is a combination of giftedness and effort. So if you’re deemed to be gifted, the world will put more effort into you and love you more, because you’ve got more potential to gain merit and so to rule the world. If the Department of Education deems your child ‘gifted’ they’ll put special effort in to give them a leg-up so your gifted child can become a doctor or lawyer or accountant, and so live a charmed life. But of course, there’s only so much giftedness (and so much educational budget) to go around. So you’d better pay the big bucks to tutor your child into that gifted program, to make sure they have the best opportunities in life. At least that seems to be what many parents thought. And who can blame them? After all, the Department of Education did call it the ‘opportunity class’.
This is the way the world thinks about giftedness, isn’t it? But is it the way Christians should think about giftedness? How should we wield our individual ‘gifts’?
This verse in Ephesians is talking about gifts. Paul says:
And to each one of us grace was given, according to the measure of Christ’s gift.Ephesians 4:7
If you read this verse on its own, it might sound as though Christ is sitting up in heaven like a departmental official with a finite bucket of giftedness and set of measuring cups, precisely measuring out various levels of giftedness to different people. Because there’s only so much giftedness to go round, some get a bigger measure, and some get a lesser measure. If you get a bigger measure from Christ, good for you. You’ve got potential, and you’ll live a charmed Christian life. If you get a smaller measure from Christ, then oh well, be encouraged that you’ve still got a lovely little gift, but don’t look over there at those truly gifted people with larger measures of grace or you might get envious.
The problem with reading the verse that way is that it has nothing to do with what Paul has said about gifts in the previous chapters of Ephesians. When we see this verse in light of everything else Paul says about grace and gifts, it changes everything.
Grace to each one
It is true that Paul is saying something here about the variety of God’s gifts to individuals. Paul talks about grace (“grace” means “gift”) being given “to each one of us”. In the previous few verses, Paul has repeatedly used the word “one” to talk about the unity that all believers share in the gospel: a unity in the Spirit, the Son and the Father. But now, while he still uses the same word “one”, he also adds the word “each”: grace is given to “each one” of us. He’s saying that within the common bond of unity we share in Jesus, there is also a diversity of grace and gifts.
It’s important to remember that at this point in his letter, Paul is talking about the mission of the gospel: a gospel that has gone out from Israel to the nations and is continuing to go out to the world. So when he talks here about grace and gifts, he’s not simply talking about our own personal ambitions. He’s talking about how we can play our part in God’s great purposes to sum up all things in Christ. The diversification of gifts is all for that end. But what does that mean for our own individual giftedness?
The measure of Christ’s giving
Paul says this diversified grace is given “according to the measure of Christ’s gift”. What is the measure of Christ’s gift? Let’s look back over what Paul has already said in his letter about what God has given us through Christ.
In Christ, we have the superabundant gift of being blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3–10). We have been chosen, forgiven, adopted, and given knowledge and hope. This is all “to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Ephesians 1:6). In Christ, the one God dearly loves, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of offenses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:6–7). In fact, we as the church have been given Christ himself, who is supreme over the entire universe (Ephesians 1:22).
In Christ, we have the astounding gift of salvation (Ephesians 2:1–10). We’ve been raised from death to life, from being under God’s wrath to being secure with Christ in the heavens. This leads to a wonderful future hope: we are raised with Christ so that “in the coming ages he could demonstrate the outstanding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). We are saved by grace, and this is not something that comes from our own efforts; it is the “gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
In Christ, the apostle Paul has been given the powerful gift to bring the gospel from Israel to the world. Paul says: “I became a minister of the gospel according to the gift of God’s grace that he gave to me, according to the activity of his power.” And even though Paul was “the leastest of all the holy ones,” he was given the grace to preach “the gospel—the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:7–8).
What, then, is the measure of Christ’s gift? It’s a measure that is vast, abundant, rich, free, and ultimately unfathomable. Christ is an outstandingly rich and generous giver. He has given all of us believers grace in abundance. He has given Paul grace to bring the gospel to the world. So even as Paul suffers in prison, he sees his ministry as rich grace from a lavish giver. Here in Ephesians 4:7, Paul says, according to this measure, grace has been given to “each one” of us. So we need to see our individual gifts in light of that wonderful lavish grace, don’t we? Our diversity of gifts is a diversity intended to serve Christ and his purposes in the gospel.
That’s not how we naturally approach our gifts, is it? We naturally think about our individual “gifts” simply in terms of their individual impact on our own individual lives, or our own individual ministry. After all, in our world, gifted children get ahead in life; gifted performers and sports stars get the applause. We can easily think the same way about our individual gifts. If the gifts we’ve been given by God don’t get us ahead in life or ministry or earn us applause, clearly they’re not worth much. But if we think like this, in the world’s terms, we can look at others’ gifts and envy them, or despise them, as if a rather stingy Christ has decided to give some people bigger gifts than others. But when we lift our eyes to see the measure of Christ’s gift of grace and blessing and salvation and security and hope given to all believers, we see that he is a lavishly generous giver. We’re already way, way ahead in life, aren’t we? And we have an incredible and abundant future in store. In light of this, we can value—truly value—the diversity of individual gifts God has given us through Christ.
In fact, when we understand our gifts in light of the superabundant measure of Christ’s gift rather than just in terms of our own honour or achievement, it transforms and expands how we think about what being gifted really means. What has God given us to serve him and his purposes? It’s not just our raw talent, is it? The gifts we have been given include our situation in life. They include our individual relationships and friendships and opportunities. Being a woman is a gift. Being a man is a gift. Being single is a gift. Being married is a gift. Being young is a gift. So is being old. You could fill in that sentence with your job, your ethnicity, and so many other things besides.
Indeed, like Paul’s gospel ministry that landed him in prison, our gifts even include the different ways in which we suffer and struggle in this life and long for eternity. We might think that these hard things aren’t gifts at all. If we’re focused only on our individual struggles, and if someone comes along and tells us that our struggle is a “gift”, it will just sound hollow and trite, won’t it? But when we remember the superabundant measure of Christ’s gift, and see all the incredible things we have actually been given in him, then it puts our individual gifts into perspective. These individual gifts, even the hard ones, are a way we can serve others and serve God. How? Persevering through hardship can encourage others to also lift their eyes and long for eternity. On the other hand, if we have a gift that we enjoy and that the world values, we need to remember it’s nothing to boast of in ourselves. It’s all a gift from the God who gives to us lavishly and generously through Christ. And the same is true for all the gifts God has given to others as well. So let’s rejoice in this variety of giftedness to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
As Paul goes on in his letter, he describes how God’s different gifts have been poured out on his people for the sake of the mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So our individual gifts are not simply given for the sake of our own individual use. They are gifts given for the sake of God’s great purposes. They are there so we can share the gospel, build one another up in the gospel, live for the gospel, and love and care for others in light of the gospel. All this is for the sake of Christ, who is a rich and generous giver.
So what should be our response to this measure of Christ’s gift? It should be the same response that Paul has already talked about in his letter: a response of praise, awe and wonder, humility and thankfulness. When we hear about God’s grace, it should make us both leap for joy and kneel in humble thanks and prayer. And the same attitude should be ours when we come to thinking about our individual gifts—and the gifts of others. The great God has given diverse gifts to each one of us, not so we can praise ourselves or boast in ourselves or congratulate ourselves, but so we can praise and thank him.
How does understanding God’s great grace in salvation help you to approach your own individual gifts?
How might your individual gifts—including your struggles and hardships—help you to serve Christ and encourage others?
This post is part of a series of ~70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can see all the posts so far, and subscribe to receive updates via email, audio podcast, and social media, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.