I grew up in a Mexican family with lots of cousins who were about my age. It seemed like every month, one of my cousins was celebrating a birthday, and we’d get the whole family together for the occasion. I loved those parties, especially the piñata! An uncle would climb on the roof of the house, tie the piñata to the end of a rope, and dangle it down while all the kids took turns beating up on a papier-mâché Mickey Mouse. It was awesome.
Of course, the best part wasn’t showing off your piñata stick skills (as fun as that was). The highlight of a piñata party is when it breaks open! After the small kids had their turn, the older children stepped in line. Around this point Mickey is missing a limb, and one of the bigger cousins is preparing to bring Mickey’s suffering to an end. Every child is on edge, ready to dive forward and lay hold of the treasures about to spill out of the broken piñata. I remember rushing in, grabbing fistfuls of Mexican candy, and stuffing them in a hollow limb (piñata debris always make good candy holders on the fly). Great memories!
With a wooden stick (the cross), Jesus Christ beat death by dying and rising again from the dead. When he ascended into heaven he caused the treasures of his victory to rain down upon his church. The ascension of Christ is an important part of Jesus’ exaltation, and without it the application of redemption becomes impossible. When he ascended, he poured his Spirit upon the church and gave gifts to his people.
When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers (Eph. 4:8-11)
The text begins with a modified quotation of Psalm 68:18, which says, “You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious.” Did you catch the discrepancy? In Psalm 68:18, the ascended King receivesgifts from men, and in Ephesians 4:8, he gives gifts to men. This isn’t a contradiction, actually; I believe the apostle Paul is giving us an apostolic interpretation of Psalm 68:18. He’s suggesting that the same gifts Jesus plundered from his enemies he now bestows upon his church. Amazingly, the spoils of war are described a little earlier in Psalm 68:11-13, “The Lord gives the word; the women who announce the news are a great host: ‘The kings of the armies—they flee, they flee!’ The women at home divide the spoil—though the men lie among the sheepfolds—the wings of a dove covered with silver, its pinions with shimmering gold.”
Picture the scene: Psalm 68 tells us that the King has conquered his enemies, and the women at home are announcing the victory. He comes back with the spoils of war, and they divide the treasures amongst themselves. What are these treasures pictured as? An ornate dove! Now, if you’re familiar with the New Testament, you know that the image of a dove is significant. The Holy Spirit is pictured as a dove at Jesus’ baptism (Lk. 3:22). Right before his ascension, Jesus promised he would send the Spirit upon the church (Ac. 1:8), and this was accomplished at Pentecost as the result of Jesus’ exaltation according to St. Peter (Ac. 2:33). This is the fulfillment of Psalm 68:11-13, as God’s people lay hold of the treasures of Christ’s victory, and he marches through the cosmos raining those gifts upon us.
In Ephesians 4, Paul specifies that part of this gift-giving includes the various offices ordained by God for the upbuilding of the church. There were extraordinary offices like apostles and prophets used for the foundation laying of the church (Eph. 2:20), and perpetual offices like pastors and teachers that Jesus continues to bless his church with today. These wonderful gifts are a direct result of Christ’s victorious ascension.
When the piñata was finally broken at the childhood parties I attended, there was inevitably some candy that spilled out that no one wanted. For me it was the Tootsie Rolls. That isn’t how it is with these treasures. When it comes to Christ’s gifts, they’re all good, and we should rejoice in them. Let’s remember that Jesus not only rose from the dead, but he rose up into the heavens from which he continues to bless us with the grace of the Holy Spirit and with godly leaders to help us in our walk with the Lord. Let’s not shun these gifts by quenching the Spirit or rejecting the authority structure of the local church. Instead, let’s marvel that while we were lying around the sheepfold (Ps. 68:13) Jesus was going to war for us, and now he gives us the spoils of victory, the wings of a dove covered with silver, its pinions with shimmering gold.