A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 4:7-10. a). The giver of spiritual gifts is the ascended Christ.
According to verse 7 each gift is Christ’s gift, and this truth is now enforced in the following verse by a quotation from Psalm 68:18: *When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men*.
Psalm 68 is a call to God to come to the rescue of his people and vindicate them again, as in olden days. For he went in triumph before his people after the exodus (verse 7), so that Mount Sinai trembled (verse 8) and kings were scattered (verses 11-14). Then, desiring Mount Zion as his abode (verse 16), he came from Sinai to his holy place (verse 17) and ascended the high mount, leading captives in his train. It is all very vivid imagery. It seems that the transfer of the ark to Zion is likened to the triumphant march of Yahweh into his capital.
Paul applies this picture to Christ’s ascension, not arbitrarily because he detected a vague analogy between the two, but justifiably because he saw in the exaltation of Jesus a further fulfilment of this description of the triumph of God. Christ ascended as conqueror to the Father’s right hand, his train of captives being the principalities and powers he had defeated, dethroned and disarmed (1:20-22; cf. Col.2:15).
In the application of Psalm 68:18 to Christ, however, there is a textual problem. For the Psalm reads that God ascended the mount, ‘receiving gifts from men’, whereas Paul’s quotation is that Christ ‘gave gifts to men’. Some commentators do not hesitate to say that Paul changed the wording to suit his purpose. For example, J.H.Houlden writes: ‘There is no need to suppose that the alteration was other than deliberate’. Others think it was ‘an unintentional misquotation’. Because of the apostle’s known regard for Scripture both these explanations seem *a priori* unlikely.
The place to begin an explanation is surely to see that the two renderings are only formally but not substantially contradictory. Words cannot be interpreted by themselves, but only in context. So we need to remember that after every conquest in the ancient world there was invariably both a receiving of tribute and a distribution of largesse. What conquerors took away from their captives, they gave away to their own people. The spoils were divided, the booty was shared (For Old Testament examples see Gn.14; Jdgs. 5:30; 1 Sam.30:26-31; Ps 68:12 and Is. 53:12). It seems possible that the Hebrew text itself may imply this, since the verb could be translated ‘brought’ rather than ‘received’, and it is not without significance that two ancient versions or translations, one Aramaic and the other Syriac, render it ‘gave’. So evidently this was already a traditional interpretation.
One other interesting point needs to be made. Liturgical custom in the synagogues associated Psalm 68 with Pentecost, the Jewish feast commemorating the giving of the law. Paul’s use of it in reference to the Christian Pentecost, then makes a remarkable analogy. As Moses received the law and gave it to Israel, so Christ received the Spirit and gave him to his people in order to write God’s law in their hearts and through the pastors he appointed (verse 11) to teach them the truth. This whole argument that ‘receiving’ and ‘giving’ belong indissolubly to each other is aptly illustrated in Acts 2:33 where Peter on the day of Pentecost said: ‘Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit; he (sc. Jesus) has poured out this which you see and hear’. Christ could only give the gift he had received.
Tomorrow: Ephesians 4:7-10. a). The giver of spiritual gifts is the ascended Christ (continued).