Parting Gifts

Gift-Wood

Ephesians 4:7-13 “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.)  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”

From time to time our family plays host to guests from around the nation and around our world. There was the seminary student from Germany who wanted to see the Southfork Ranch while he was in the United States. There was the theologian and his wife from Sweden who became my friends when I visited their country. They made the long drive to see me when they were visiting relatives in our country. There have been visiting pastors and professors who stayed in our home when they came to preach or lecture at some special service or seminar.

Many of our guests have had the practice of leaving behind a parting gift as a gesture of their thanks. They are generally nothing extravagant–maybe a little nick-knack or wood carving that reflects something of the art and tastes of their own culture. Maybe it is little jar or bottle of something with flavors unique to the place they come from. On my own travels I have also scattered little gifts around the United States and Northern Europe to thank my hosts for their hospitality.

The Apostle Paul says that when Jesus left us and returned to heaven, he also left us parting gifts. But Jesus’ gifts are no mere trinkets! He left us people, servants who feed us his word and build up our faith. “Apostles…prophets…evangelists…pastors…teachers” are the representative list Paul gives us in Ephesians chapter 4. Some of the titles, and the shapes of their ministries, might have changed over the last couple of thousand years, but this gift has never worn out or been used up. It is a gift that constantly reproduces itself, as each generation produces even more servants of the gospel.

What makes them gifts is not their pedigree, their personalities, nor the list of diplomas, awards, and accolades with which they come to us. It is the loving service they offer to the body of Christ. Paul says that through such people God is building us up to maturity. Christian faith and life is never a do-it-yourself project. It isn’t self-improvement. It may wound my pride to think that I haven’t reached maturity, or that I can’t just grow myself, but that is the biblical fact. The Savior doesn’t address us as “children of God” for nothing. Then let our pride be wounded, and let us hear the gospel our pastor’s preach, and the word our teachers teach. That gospel is the power of God for salvation, and that word planted in you can save your soul.

Salvation, spiritual safety, is nothing to take for granted or scoff at. We ignore the gifts of preachers and teachers Jesus left behind for us at our own peril. Every day our souls are battered by a spiritual hurricane of lies and temptations. Some blow at us from the outside, from a world with twisted ideas about God and what is right. That world knows no sin, and so it knows no Savior. Some storms whirl around inside my heart, which is not yet so mature that it likes only what God likes, and thinks only how God thinks. If you are sailing your ship through a hurricane, do you want to try to make it with a one-man crew? Can you man the rudder, secure the rigging, navigate the maps, and run the bilge pump all by yourself? Or will you take on board all the help you can get to steer your ship safely to the shore?

That is why, when Jesus ascended into heaven, he left behind his parting gifts. He left us messengers of his word who expose the dangers of sin, and who never let us lose sight of the beacon of God’s grace. It always beams, “Your sins are forgiven! Your sins are forgiven! Your sins are forgiven!” Then God is growing us up in our faith, growing us together in love, and leading us safely home.

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