The Ascension of the King
Scripture Reading: Ephesians 4:7-16
Sermon Title: The Ascension of the King
Sermon Text: Ephesians 4:7-10; Psalm 68
MAIN IDEA: Recognize and praise the manifold wisdom of God’s work to glorify Christ.
The Ascension on High
Taking Enemies Captive
Giving Gifts to Men
Praise the Wisdom of God
NOTE: “Scripture quotations are from the NASB." I provide this manuscript as a courtesy. I do not follow the document word for word during the message. I also do not write the document with the intent of publication; there may be grammatical errors throughout. Thanks for understanding.
The Filling of All Things with Christ
God’s primary purpose in all that He does is to fill all things with Jesus. Jesus is to be over all, through all, and in all. When Jesus fills all things, all will be right with Creation.
The church is Christ’s body. God intends for the church to be filled with Jesus. Being filled with Jesus is to think, talk, and walk in perfect submission, obedience, and delight. We have not arrived, but this is where God is leading His children.
The first three chapters of the letter to the Ephesians is written to lay the groundwork for the church to be in unity with God’s plan and with one another. The first three chapters establish the truth that all believers are called by God. We are called to one hope. As children of God, called by God, we are to walk worthy of our calling.
Chapter four begins by teaching to walk worthy of our calling is to walk in harmony and agreement; as one body. Walking worthy of our calling begins by being mindful of how we interact with one another. We are to demonstrate all humility, gentleness, patience, and show tolerance for one another in love. There will be people in our midst who annoy us. There will be people who sin or lack maturity. We will fail one another. Christ died for our sins, and He forgives us. We must be like Christ; filled with Him. We must diligently seek to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace by being humble, gentle, patient, and loving. There is one faith, one hope, one baptism, one Lord, one Spirit, and one God and Father of all. And, there is one church.
Verses 7-16, of chapter four, continue to teach how we may walk in unity. Whereas verses 1-6 speak about being patient and tolerant with one another, these verses teach us to preserve unity by using our gifts to bring about the building and maturation of the church.
The gifts of service are used by God to build up the church and fill the church with Jesus. Each member fits together and does their part to bring about growth and maturity in the body.
The result God is aiming for is that Jesus Christ is glorified. God is filling us with Jesus. We are being brought to our full stature and fullness of Christ. He is doing it with each member, and He is doing it by fitting all the members together in one unified body.
The main teaching for this morning’s message is: Recognize and praise the manifold wisdom of God’s work to glorify Christ.
Our goal is to recognize how God is working to glorify Christ. After we recognize how He is working, we may more fully praise His wisdom.
Psalm 68 – The Wisdom
As mentioned, the passage teaches that God, by His grace, gives to each member gifts. The gifts are used by God to build up the body of Christ so that it will reach perfect maturity and unity with Christ.
What is amazing about the passage is how Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, quotes Psalm 68.
Let’s read the verse in Ephesians where Psalm 68 is quoted.
Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.” (Eph. 4:8)
To fully understand our passage, we need to put ourselves, as much as we are able, in Paul’s shoes. We need to understand how he understood the relationship of Psalm 68 to God gifting the church for the glory of Christ. Of all the passages in the Old Testament to choose from, why Psalm 68? (For example, why not a passage about the Levites leading worship?)
Note: Addressing Paul’s wording change
Before we look at Psalm 68, look again at the last phrase of Ephesians 4:8. It says, “and He gave gifts to men.”
Now, let’s look at Psalm 68:18. This is the verse Paul is quoting.
You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men, even among the rebellious also, that the LORD God may dwell there. (Ps. 68:18)
Notice Paul does not quote the verse directly. He changes the last phrase. In Ephesians, Paul says, “He gave gifts to men” and here, it says, “You have received gifts among men.”
There is a big difference between giving gifts and receiving gifts. Why the change?
Paul is not being inaccurate in quoting the Psalm if we read the quote as a paraphrase of the main teaching on the entire Psalm. Eleven verses of the Psalm reference God blessing the Saints by providing for them. Many of the blessings come from God receiving gifts from His enemies and giving those gifts to the saints.
If I were an elder in Ephesus, I might teach it something like this:
Paul is teaching us that God gifts His people for His glory. To help us understand, Paul quotes Psalm 68. Paul takes one verse and quotes enough of it to bring about familiarity with the reference. But, he wants us to think about the entire context of the Psalm and not just the one verse. Paul did not make a mistake in his writing by changing the word ‘receive’ to the word ‘give.’ Instead, what Paul is doing is giving us the bigger picture.
In essence; we are to understand the quote like this: (to paraphrase), “You, Lord, have ascended on high. You have led captive Your captives. You receive gifts from men, including from those who rebel against You. You give those gifts to Your chosen people. You dwell in the midst of Your people as the Sovereign Provider.”
Let me say it another way.
We have been taught it is wrong to change the wording in Scripture. Paul’s change of wording is exactly opposite of what the verse says. Imagine Paul is with us, and we hear him quote the verse and change the wording.
Paul says, “let me quote Psalm 68” and he says, “Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.”
Someone in the crowd familiar with Psalm 68 would say, “Wait a minute Paul! That is not what the Psalm says. It doesn’t say, ‘He gave gifts to men,’ it says, God ‘received gifts.’” Why did you change the wording?
To which Paul might reply, “I am not unfaithful to the Scripture. Yes, verse 18 says, God receives gifts from the wicked; but, we all know that when God receives those gifts, He gives those gifts to His people. I changed the wording from receive to give as a literary tool to convey the main teaching of the Psalm. Do not think of just verse 18, but think of the entire Psalm.”
Paul’s word change is an important clue to help us understand how to interpret Paul’s use of Psalm 68 in Ephesians. Paul quotes one verse and rewords it with the intention of capturing the main teaching of the entire Psalm. Therefore, let’s understand Psalm 68.
Understanding the entire Psalm as it relates to Ephesians 4 brings nothing short of amazement and wonder. The goal of the sermon is to cause us to worship God’s wisdom. The more we know about the Psalm, the more amazed we will be about Paul’s reference and God’s wisdom.
We will exposit the Psalm and reference it in three subjects. Each section corresponds to Paul’s quote of the Psalm in Ephesians 4:8.
The verse has three major subjects:
- The ascension on high;
- taking enemies captive;
- and giving gifts to the saints.
Let’s look at the first subject:
The Ascension On High
Psalm 68:18 begins with the phrase:
18 You have ascended on high,
Not God, But the Ark
When King David writes, “You have ascended on high,” he is not referring to God, but he is referring to the Ark of the Covenant. The Psalm is written as a celebration of the Ark of the Covenant being brought to its final resting place in Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant is a visual representation of the presence of God among His people.
Look at verses 24-25:
They have seen Your procession, O God, The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary. The singers went on, the musicians after them, in the midst of the maidens beating tambourines. (Ps. 68:24-25)
1 Chronicles 15 and 2 Samuel 6 speak about King David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. It was a major event involving all the people of Jerusalem. It was a mighty procession, a parade of parades, with King David leading the way dancing with all his might. You may be familiar with the story.
The reason David writes that God ascended on high is because the Ark was placed upon Mount Zion, the highest point in Jerusalem. We know it today as the Temple Mount.
Look at verses 15-16 of Psalm 68:
A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan; a mountain of many peaks is the mountain of Bashan. Why do you look with envy, O mountains with many peaks, at the mountain which God has desired for His abode? Surely the LORD will dwell there forever. (Ps. 68:15-16)
Mount Bashan is a taller, more majestic mountain. Mount Zion looks like a hill in comparison to Bashan. Yet, God chose for the Ark to be placed upon Mount Zion, which is in the midst of the city. Psalm 2 references Zion as God’s holy mountain.
“But as for Me, I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain.” (Ps. 2:6)
Throughout the Scripture, Zion is referenced as the city of David. We refer to Mount Zion as the heavenly city of God’s dwelling. Just as Hymn 416 in our hymnal says, “We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion. We’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.”
The significance of the Ark being placed upon Mount Zion
It is vitally important for us to understand the historical and religious significance of the Ark being placed upon Mount Zion.
Moses constructed the Ark based on God’s instruction. Inside the Ark were three objects: the stone tablets of the Covenant; Aaron’s Rod, and pieces of manna which the Lord provided to feed the people in the wilderness. These objects represent the covenant relationship with God, God’s miracles to free His people from captivity, and God’s provision. The Ark, for the Israelites, represents the manifestation of God's presence on earth. God is with them and the Ark is proof. It is from the Ark God’s shekinah glory emanated.
The Ark served as a symbol of worship and sacrifice. When God spoke to Moses, He spoke from between the two Cherubs on the Ark lid (Num. 7:89). Once a year, On Yom Kippur, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood upon the Mercy Seat, which is the lid of the Ark of the Covenant.
When the Israelites moved through the wilderness, the Ark went before them. They were led by the Ark and a pillar of clouds by day (Num. 10:34); and pillar of fire by night. When the Jews crossed into the Promised Land, the waters of the Jordan River parted at the presence of the Ark (Josh. 3). Whenever the Israelites went to war conquering the Promised Land, the Ark went before them.
The presence of the Ark served to motivate the Israelites. It seemed to be an instrument used by God to perform miracles and bring victory.
There is a great deal we might say about the Ark, but for our purposes this morning, and for the sake of time, let’s speak about the importance of the Ark in the Psalm.
From the time of Moses onward, the Ark served as the most significant object in Israel. The Ark symbolizes the presence of God among His people. When the people rested in the wilderness, God’s presence was at the center of the camp. When the people went forward, God’s presence led the way. When there was a need to make a sacrifice for sin, the blood of the lamb was sprinkled upon the Ark. When God spoke to Moses, He spoke from the Ark. When battles needed to be won or when the walls of Jericho needed to come down, the Ark went before the army of Israel.
At the time of the Psalm, King David sits upon the throne. All the Promised Land is under the control of the Israelites. They have defeated their enemies. There are more battles to be fought, but they will not be battles for land. The Israelites are now a mighty nation. Everything is well with one major exception; the Ark is not in Jerusalem. God is not sitting in the center of His people. Because of this, David decides to move the Ark (this is his second attempt) to Jerusalem to place the Ark upon Mount Zion.
This Psalm is a celebration of the arrival of the Ark in Jerusalem signifying the conquest of the Promised Land. The Ark sitting on Mount Zion is the icing on the cake. The culmination of God’s work in establishing Israel is complete. God sits in the center of the Nation. God’s presence is manifest, and He fills the Kingdom with His glory.
God ascends on high.
Taking Enemies Captive
The second subject of Psalm 68:18 is
18 … You have led captive Your captives
This is a common theme of Psalm 68:
1 Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered, and let those who hate Him flee before Him.
2 As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, so let the wicked perish before God.
23 That your foot may shatter them in blood, the tongue of your dogs may have its portion from your enemies.”
30 Rebuke the beasts in the reeds, the herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples, trampling under foot the pieces of silver; He has scattered the peoples who delight in war.
God continually conquered those who opposed the Kingdom of Israel. There were seven different Canaanite tribes inhabiting the Promised Land. There were 31 fortified cities to be conquered. It took years for the Israelites to conquer the land. Joshua led the Israelites to conquer the enemies, but God is the one who gave the victory.
Here is how the victory is described in the book of Joshua:
So the LORD gave Israel all the land which He had sworn to give to their fathers, and they possessed it and lived in it. And the LORD gave them rest on every side, according to all that He had sworn to their fathers, and no one of all their enemies stood before them; the LORD gave all their enemies into their hand. Not one of the good promises which the LORD had made to the house of Israel failed; all came to pass. (Joshua 21:43-45)
Let God arise and let His enemies be scatted. He takes the captives captive.
God took the captives captive, but, think about this, who benefits from their captivity? The Israelites. God conquers His enemies and His people are the recipients of the Promised Land.
This leads us to the next subject:
Giving Gifts to Men
Let’s look at the last phrase of Psalm 68:18
18 You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men, even among the rebellious also, that the LORD God may dwell there.
The Lord God received gifts from men, even rebellious men. And, the phrase ends with the reason why He receives the gifts, “that the Lord God may dwell there.”
The third theme of the psalm is that of God receiving gifts from men. Sometimes they give them to God voluntarily and sometimes God takes them.
29 Because of Your temple at Jerusalem Kings will bring gifts to You.
31 Envoys will come out of Egypt; Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God.
Kings bring gifts. Envoys from Egypt and Ethiopia will arrive in Jerusalem with outstretched arms giving gifts to the God of Israel.
The giving continues well into Solomon’s day. Scripture tells us:
The weight of gold that came to Solomon in one year was six hundred sixty-six talents of gold, besides that which the traders and merchants brought; and all the kings of Arabia and the governors of the land brought gold and silver to Solomon. (2 Chron. 9:13-14)
This is over $1 billion dollars of gold.
Who benefits from all the gifts? The people of Israel! God gives to His people to build His Kingdom
The other nations funded the infrastructure growth and maintenance of Israel. The Israelites paid tithes to the Levites, but it is likely the Israelites didn’t have to pay government taxes because the other nations paid all the taxes necessary. God used the wealth of the other nations to bless His people. God built the Kingdom of Israel, and the other nations paid the price.
All the other nations fear the God of the Israelites. That is why they bring gifts. God is glorified because the other nations know the Israelites worship God. God is the power of Israel. Don’t mess with Israel.
In addition to the other nations giving to the Israelites, there are references in the Psalm which speak of God caring for His people. For example, verse 5 and 6 speaks of God caring for the orphans, widows, lonely, and the poor. And, verses 8-10 speak of God providing rain and goodness.
God gives to His people. God gives gifts to men.
These three points are the main teaching of Psalm 68. The Psalm commemorates the Ark of the Covenant arriving in Jerusalem as its final resting place signifying God’s work to bring His people to the Promised Land is complete. God is ascended on high in Jerusalem. The enemies are captive. God provides continual care for His people and builds His Kingdom with gifts.
Now, let’s see how this relates to Paul’s teaching in Ephesians. Turn back to Ephesians 4. Here, we will see the manifold wisdom of God being displayed.
Praise the Wisdom of God
How are we to understand Psalm 68 in the context of Ephesians 4? We will look at the subjects of the reference in reverse order. We will start with the phrase; God gives gifts to men.
Giving of Gifts
The first gift mentioned is grace.
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Eph. 4:7)
God has freely bestowed upon us His grace (Eph. 1:6). We have received the unfathomable riches of Christ. Ephesians 1:3 says, “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.“
Psalms are songs sung by the Israelites. It is very likely that when Paul thought about God gifting the church, the words to this song came to mind. The connection between Psalm 68 and this passage in Ephesians is the word gifts. In the middle of talking about gifts, Paul references the Psalm. Paul connects God’s giving of gifts to the Israelites with God giving gifts to the church.
The second mention of gifts are the gifts of service for the church.
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers,
Why are these gifts given?
for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. (Eph. 4:12-13)
The aim of the gifts is the building up the body of Christ. We are to reach maturity. Catch the last phrase, which is the most important, “to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
The measure of our stature is when we reach our maximum growth. Our maturity, as individuals and as members, is complete when we reach the fullness of Christ; when we reach full height and weight of spiritual maturity.
This phrase, the fullness of Christ is important. God’s aim in giving gifts is the same as what is described in Psalm 68. God gives gifts to His children, so His Kingdom prospers. God is glorified because His Kingdom does well by growing and maturing. God is gifting us for the building up of the body of Christ. We are being built up numerically through the preaching of the Gospel; God is adding to the church. And, we are being built up to maturity. God is giving gifts to fill us up with Jesus. God is summing up all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth (Eph. 1:10). Everything is being filled with His glory. When Jesus fills all things, all will be right with Creation.
God gives gifts to His people.
He led captive a host of captives
Now let’s look at the phrase, “He led captive a host of captives.”
Our passage in Ephesians doesn’t speak directly of the conquering of our enemies. However, we know it to be true. We give thanks to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:57). When Christ was on the cross, He canceled our enemy of our sin debt. He disarmed the rulers and authorities who were against us and made a public display of them, having triumphed over them in His death (Col. 2:13-15).
Jesus tells us that in the world we will have tribulation, “but take courage; He has overcome the world.” (John 16:33). In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us (Rom. 8:37).
In the same way, God conquered the enemies of the Israelites so they could enter the promised land, Christ conquers our enemies so He may bring us to the Promised Land of His Heavenly Kingdom.
Christ led captive a host of captives.
The Ascension on High
Paul provides commentary to help us understand further how we are to interpret the psalm reference with regards to “He ascended on high.”
In Psalm 68, the phrase “He ascended on high,” refers to God’s ascension upon Mount Zion, symbolized by the Ark. Paul expands that view by providing a parenthetical commentary in verses 9 and 10.
(Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.) (Eph. 4:9-10)
Before Christ could ascend to sit upon the throne, He first had to descend. Christ came down to earth in the form of a man. Christ conquered all the enemies, even descending to the deepest depth of the earth, filling up the lower parts with the glory of His wrath and justice. He stands over His enemies while filling the church with His grace, mercy, and lovingkindness.
He who descended is He who ascended above the heavens. Christ fills all things. All things are summed up in Him. He is King of all kings and Lord of all lords. There is no part of creation outside of His jurisdiction.
He is sovereign over all. Just as the procession of the Ark represented God filling Israel with His glory and being at the center of His people and the center of the nations, God is raising up Jesus to sit upon the Heavenly Mount Zion. Jesus is filling all.
It is astounding how God brings the events of Israel into focus as a picture of the future heavenly kingdom. After seeing this and understanding this, we should never read the Old Testament narrative of Israel the same.
King David sits upon the throne in Jerusalem. The Messiah sits eternally upon the throne of David in the Heavenly city of Jerusalem.
The enemies of the Israelites are defeated, and all our enemies are defeated.
The Israelites are provided for in God’s goodness, and we receive all the blessings of heaven and the unfathomable riches of Christ.
In God’s wisdom, He orchestrated the Exodus, the wilderness journey, the conquest of the Promised Land, the defeat of Israel’s enemies, King David upon the throne, and the procession of the Ark of the Covenant to Mount Zion
All of this is a picture, painted beforehand, to help us see what God is doing now. Right now, all this taking place with God gifting His people, building His Kingdom, the conquering of the enemy, and Christ ascending to the throne is a magnificent display of the manifold wisdom of God.
We, the church, along with all the principalities and powers in the heavenly places have eyes to see the manifold wisdom of God displayed. To God be the glory.