Many Bible teachers teach this passage as if Paul is talking about spiritual gifts in terms of an office or an ability that each person in the church is to receive. Under this view, Paul is discussing supernatural empowerment for Christian ministry that all believers are given. Being an apostle is one gift that Christ might give to an individual. Being a teacher or a pastor is another gift that Christ might give to an individual. According to this interpretation, Christ went up to heaven so that he might give each individual believer in the congregation a supernatural empowerment of some kind.
I think upon closer examination of the passage, we would discover that the gifts are not powers or offices given to individuals, but rather the gifts are men given to the church at large. For instance, Paul quotes a passage from the Old Testament, in which the Septuagint translation says, "He gave gifts OF men." This makes sense in terms of the activity being portrayed. The picture is this. A king or a general goes to battle with the enemy. And upon his return home he brings prisoners of war with him. The host of captives are the gifts he gives to his people.
The next thing to note is that many translations supply a verb in verse 4:11 that is not in the original text. For instance, the translation above says,
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers . . .
The Greek text doesn't have the words "to be". In other words, Paul isn't saying that Christ gave the gift of apostleship to men. He is saying that Christ gave apostles to the church. Christ went out and captured some men, and he gave these men to the church. Paul is a primary example. Christ captured Paul while Paul was on the road to Damascus, giving his church an apostle to the Gentiles. Take out the verb "to be" and it reads perfectly fine and conveys Paul's point.
And He Himself gave some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers . . .
Christ is giving us men, not spiritual powers as such. Some of these men have supernatural powers (such as apostles) but some of them don't have supernatural powers (such as teacher or pastor.) The main point is, Christ has captured these men and given them to the church. The men are the gifts to the church.
Why is Paul bringing this up?
To fully understand Paul's point it is helpful to read the rest of his writings with the question in mind. How did Paul understand his own ministry? How did he look at it? How did he describe it to us? Paul talks about his ministry as a "grace", in chapter 3 of Ephesians, that God has given to him for the church. And by that he doesn't mean that God gave him the spiritual gift of apostleship, he means that God made him an apostle to the Gentiles, and it was this role in life that was the grace that God gave him. His "grace" if you will, was to "preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ . . ." Therefore, Christians shouldn't ask, "what is my spiritual gift?", they should ask "what is the role God has given me?" I don't HAVE a spiritual gift, I AM a spiritual gift to you and to the rest of the church. As a saint, I have a role to play in the building up of the body. You have another role to play. We have have our assigned roles to play and that is Paul's point.
Let's go back to the beginning of chapter 4. Why does this matter? How does verse 8 and following contribute to his earlier exhortation to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel? The fact that Paul refers to his ministry as a "grace" should give us a clue. Paul understands that his role in the church is NOT something he gives to God, it is NOT something he gives to Christ. On the contrary, his role in the church is an assignment that God gave to him. And God gave him to the church. Rather than his ministry being a source of pride, the fact that God captured him and gave him this role has become a source of humility. Let's go back to the very first verse of this chapter and look at it again, and this time I will highlight a few things.
4:1 Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love . . .
When I finally understood verse 8, I finally understood verse 1. Paul sees himself as a captive of Christ (verse 8), a prisoner of Christ (verse 1.) And he is exhorting the Ephesians (and us through them) to walk in gentleness, patience, and humility as we perform our own calling. Paul was not merely called to be an apostle; he was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, which was a specific task unique to him, and he understood his role as that of a prisoner being given as a gift to the Gentile peoples. Being a prisoner isn't a source of pride, it's a source of humility. And seeing that our calling is a grace God has given to us, our grace, humility, gentleness, and patience is born of the fact that we too, are prisoners being given to the church. We need to come to the realization that our ministry is not something we give back to God, but some role, a Grace, that he has given to the church. We are the men (and women) God has given to Christ in order to build up his church. We don't have a gift; we are a gift.