In Ephesians 4, the Apostle Paul provides a powerful perspective on the nature of Christian leadership. He writes as “a desmion (or shackled one) of Jesus Christ” (4:1), referring in an ironic way not just to the Roman prison he wrote from but also to the chains he wore spiritually that bound him to Christ. Having introduced that word, he repeats a similar one in reference to the “bond (desmon) of peace” that unifies believers in the Spirit. He goes on to describe believers as “captives” of Christ, alluding to a triumphal procession by means of his use of Psalm 68:18. (As you may know, in antiquity a conquering general was often rewarded with a triumphal procession on his return home.) Paul makes a similar reference in 2 Corinthians 2:14: “Thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession.”
Anyone who has studied triumphal processions in the ancient world knows that the last thing a person would ever want to experience is being led in triumphal procession as a captive. Such captives were often stripped naked, jeered at, spat upon, hit with clubs and stones, and otherwise abused as they were cruelly led along. But when Paul uses the image, he has a very different thing in mind.
Paul uses the words of Psalm 68 to declare that Christ “led captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8 KJV). In this very meaningful phrase, Paul declared that Christ had turned the tables on captivity itself, completely transforming its meaning. Rather than leading his captives to weakness and slavery and shame, he now leads them to power and freedom and honor. The shackles they wear are bonds of peace. Their “obliged labor” is service to God’s Kingdom. Their slavery is the ultimate freedom.
Paul plays an interesting language trick to indicate the transformation of captivity accomplished by Christ. Psalm 68: 18 states—in both Hebrew and the Greek translation used by early Christians—that he “received gifts,”a regular feature of the homage paid to a conquering hero. But Paul changes the quotation to state that Christ “gave gifts” to the captives! (Eph. 4:8). While a conqueror typically shared the spoils of battle with his army, no one would give gifts to the captives! Paul playfully changes the words of Old Testament scripture to indicate the transformation of bondage that Jesus effected in taking captivity itself captive.
And what were the gifts Christ gave? Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. In Romans 12, Paul expands the list of such gifts of grace to include deacons (servers), encouragers, generous givers, leaders and administrators, and mercy givers. In short, leaders were the gifts Christ gave to the captives with the role of equipping them for acts of service (Eph. 4:12), empowering and unifying the captives for their new roles as servants of God’s Kingdom. Whoever heard of a captor seeking to unite the captives in this world of divide and conquer?
With a captor like Jesus, who needs this world’s kind of freedom?