I spent a little time last week talking about revival, which isn’t easy for me; it’s much easier to spend a lot of time on the subject, which is no doubt why I’ve been thinking about it all week. One thing that occurred to me is that if revival does come—and I pray for it—it won’t look like what we expect. It won’t just be a matter of people being more moral, and it won’t just be more people coming to church. Both of those things will happen, but that won’t be all; and our churches will not be the same except with more people. As Peter says, judgment begins with the household of God. Before God brings revival through us, he’s going to revive us; before he exalts us by working through us for the salvation of many, he’s going to humble us, so that we know that it’s all by his grace, not something we’ve earned by our own wonderfulness and good work.
Revival is a great rupture of the routine, because it is a great work of God. I do not say “the ordinary,” as if to imply that God doesn’t value ordinary people or times or things; but an ordinary faith isn’t necessarily—and shouldn’t be—a routine faith. We all have the tendency to slide into a routine faith, a faith of the routine, even a faith in the routine, when things are going well enough; we get into a mode where sure, we know we have some areas where we need to improve and some things we wish were different, but in general, we feel like we’re pretty good people, with a pretty good handle on life. When you can look around and figure—as the late Rich Mullins put it in one of his songs—that by the standards ’round here, we ain’t doin’ that awful, it’s easy to start to think that God doesn’t have anything big left to do with us—just routine maintenance to keep us running well, and the occasional upgrade to improve the experience.
As we said last week, though, that’s just not the case, because God is on about something much bigger than just approving the life we’re already living, or even giving us a better version of the life we have; he’s about transforming us, growing us out of this life and setting us free from ourselves, giving us new life, making us the people we were created to be. He’s doing more than just blessing us as individuals, or even transforming us as individuals—he’s saving us as a people, blessing each of us so that we can bless each other, building up each of us so that we build each other up, so that we are built up together into his body, his temple, the place where his Holy Spirit lives.
This is what Paul’s on about in these passages, and it’s why in Ephesians he does what he does with Psalm 68. We talked about this a while back, the oddity that Psalm 68:18 says that God received gifts, while the quotation of that verse in Ephesians 4:8 says he gave gifts; the key, as you may remember, is that this psalm celebrates God as warrior king, and in the ancient world, victorious kings would give away some of the spoils to their supporters. They plundered their enemies not simply to enrich themselves but to reward and strengthen their friends—something we see clearly in this psalm. In verse 12, the psalmist observes, “The women at home divide the spoil”; and in verse 35, God is praised because “he gives power and strength to his people.” Thus the gifts Christ gives his people are precisely those gifts he has taken from his enemies. The one who des-cended from heaven to the earth, Paul says, has now ascended back to heaven in victory, showering on his people the gifts he received.
And what were those gifts? Us. Ephesians doesn’t say, “Jesus gave special tal-ents to individuals”—rather, it says, “Jesus gave people, who have particular talents and skills, to his church.” The focus isn’t on individuals, but on his body. Christ came down to live among us, to die on the cross for our sins, to rise from the dead in victory over sin and death, and to ascend back to heaven in glory, where he now intercedes for us before the throne of grace; and in his victory he won us as the spoils, and from his place before the throne he now gives each of us as gifts to his people.
In laying this out, Paul specifically highlights those who have been given to the church in various leadership roles, but note the purpose he names for such people: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Too often, churches are defined by their pastors, denominations by their leaders, and both by their structures; but Paul says no, the purpose of those leaders (and thus, logically, those structures) is to serve the people of God, such that his saints—that’s all of us—are well-trained and -equipped to do the work of the ministry of the church. He’s not exalting leaders here; he’s reminding us of our place.
Now, if Ephesians is clearly community-oriented in what it has to say about spiritual gifts, 1 Corinthians might seem to be more individualistic—the Holy Spirit gives some people the gift of prophecy, and some the gift of faith, and to some words of wisdom, and so on; but in truth, the same point is in view here: the Holy Spirit gives us various gifts for the building up of the body of Christ, so that we will be able by the Spirit of God to do the work he has given us to do and play the part he has called us to play in the greater work of the whole people of God.
In other words, the Spirit hasn’t given us gifts in order to enrich us and strengthen us as individuals, or because he wants us to have the life we want. His purposes aren’t focused on us, but through us, to build up the whole body of Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit in us is designed to enrich and strengthen the people of God to carry out the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ in our community and our world. Our gifts are not intended for us to use to serve ourselves, to bless ourselves, but to serve and bless others.
To say this cuts across the grain of our culture, which is narcissistic in its view of religion and faith as it is in everything else; the great idol of our culture, I think, is happiness, as it worships in many forms a god who aims to please and just wants us all to be happy. As such, it’s easy for us to see the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit as being primarily for us as individuals—to give me salvation, to boost my self-esteem, to make my life richer and more fulfilling—and it’s easy for churches to attract people by preaching that message; but that’s not the message Paul gives us here, because that’s not what God is on about in our lives. God is giving us something better.
Now, this is good news, but it’s not always the way we understand or present the good news. I appreciate the intent behind the old line “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” but that’s not exactly on point. Truer to say that God has a wonderful plan to redeem the world and reconcile it to himself, and because he loves you he has included you in his plan, which will not always feel wonderful to you personally. This is a challenge to our egos, because it requires us to take second place in our own lives, to accept that our lives are not first and foremost for us and our purposes. At the same time, though, there’s also comfort in this, in a couple ways.
First, when we come up against times when we feel inadequate, when we aren’t overcoming the challenges we face, when we’re confronted with the areas in our lives where we just aren’t good enough or strong enough, that doesn’t mean we’re disqualified or that God can’t use us. The truth is, none of us is intended to be enough on our own; we need each other, because God made us that way. Our weaknesses and un-gifted areas are as much a part of his design as our strengths and our gifts. Understand this, because this is important, and God did it deliberately: he took all the gifts and strengths that are necessary for us to grow to maturity in Christ, as individuals and as a people, and he mixed them up and gave some of them to each of us—and then he gave each of us as gifts, to the church and to each other. He designed us and prepared us to work together, to live together, to be fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each of us has strong areas that stick out, and weak areas where we have holes; I am strong where you are weak, and you are strong where I am weak, and we fit together such that our strong areas fill in the weak areas of others, while others’ strengths fill in our weaknesses.
Second, we each have something important to contribute. The gifts we have, whether we or others consider them great or small, are the gifts God has given us by his Spirit to fit us for the work he has given us—and he’s given us that work because he values it, and because he values us. The world might not think that what we can do matters, but God does; the church might not honor our contribution, but God does.