Author: Ron Graham
The passage you'll study in this lesson is Ephesians 4:7-10.
"But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Therefore he says, “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” Now this, “He ascended” — what does it imply but that he also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things" (Eph 4:7-10 quoting Psa 68:18).
Paul regards the statement in the Psalm (Psa 68:18) as a prediction of the ascension of Christ. Paul adds that this ascent to the highest heaven implies a prior equal and opposite descent into the lower parts of the earth. This lines up with Paul's teaching that Christ "was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures" (1Co 15:4). Notice that Paul does not teach that Christ “descended into hell”. He says Christ descended into the lower parts of the earth.
Peter interprets another Psalm in the same way (Acts 2:31-36 quoting Psa 16:8-11). Here, however, we find the added information that when Christ died and his body was buried in the earth, his soul descended into Sheol or Hades. This is not eternal hell, Gehenna. (The word “hell” is not used in these passages in the New King James Version and other modern translations.)
There is a common belief that Christ “descended into hell” where he preached to the damned. Many in hell took this opportunity to be saved and Christ led them out of hell at his resurrection, and into heaven at his ascension. (This host is sometimes identified as those resurrected in Matthew 27:51-53.) The “proof” that Christ preached to people in hell, is thought to be Peter's statement that Christ "went and preached to the spirits in prison" (1Pe 3:19). However this is an anachronism, because the time of this preaching is clearly stated as "in the days of Noah". Peter is referring to Christ preaching through Noah to a sinful world (1Pe 3:19).
The simplest explanation of "he led captivity captive" (Eph 4:8) is to think of captivity as slavery. Paul thinks of the new birth as an enslavement to Christ when he releases us from enslavement to sin (Rom 6:6,16-18). When Christ died, was buried, arose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of God, he set a host of captives free from sin and took them captive to himself. He continues to do so even today and until he comes again, "that he might fill all things" (Eph 4:10).
The statement "he led captivity captive" (Eph 4:8) is a prophecy of redemption. "All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom 3:23-24). Jesus said, "For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mrk 10:45). He paid the price to release people from captivity in sin, and to purchase them as his own slaves to righteousness. Thus "he led captivity captive".
So Christ "led captivity captive" (Eph 4:8) in that God "rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Col 1:12-14).
The statement "When he ascended on high he led captivity captive" (Eph 4:8) could mean that when Jesus ascended into heaven he led a host of captives in train who ascended into heaven with him.
However, it does not have to mean this, and there is no such event recorded in scripture. The record portrays Jesus as ascending into heaven alone (Acts 1:9-11).
Some point to Matthew 27:52-53 as providing the host who ascended with Jesus. "Many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many". If they did ascend to heaven, the scripture does not record it. Paul for example did not mention it (1Co 15:20-23). Again, Peter, some days after the ascension, preached that David was still in his grave and did not ascend to heaven (Acts 2:29,34). On the other hand, perhaps many saints did ascend following Jesus.
It may be better to consider the prophecy (Eph 4:7-10 quoting Psalm 68:18) as referring to something much plainer in scripture, something fundamental, namely Christ's leadership of his church "that he might fill all things" (Eph 4:10, Col 1:18-19). This interpretation certainly reflects the context in which Paul mentions the prophecy. Paul is discussing Christ's leadership of his body the church (Eph 4:1-16).
This leadership of Christ includes the work Christ has done through the agency of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he was exalted to God's right hand. Peter says, "Having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured forth this which you both see and hear" (Acts 2:33). Christ ruling in heaven as Head of his church, King of his kingdom, "gave gifts unto men" (Eph 4:8) through the power of the Holy Spirit, "and he gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as shepherds and teachers" (Eph 4:11). Christ led a host of captives (his church) through the agency of the Holy Spirit who gifted certain men with divine inspiration. Thus empowered, they could preach to all slaves of sin the true message of liberty, and lead them for Christ into light and liberty as captives of Christ. It was Christ who exercised this leadership from his throne in heaven, and he continues to do so through the inspired writings of those whom he gifted.
I think we can take this a step further. Since we are viewing the words "he led" (Eph 4:8) as an act of Christ begun at his ascension, but continuing throughout the gospel age, then we should see those words as including even his final act of leadership on earth, shouldn't we? That final act is one that he will perform personally at his second coming to earth. He will gather up the ransomed from the earth, both living and dead, and they will ascend with him into heaven to partake in all its gifts (Jhn 14:3, 1Th 4:14-18). In his resurrection and ascension, Christ was the "firstfruits" (1Co 15:20-23), and the "forerunner" (Heb 6:19-20), for an ingathering of all his ransomed and redeemed from the beginning to the end of creation.