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Bible Q

What does “he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive” mean? (Ephesians 4:8)

This verse in Ephesians prompts a number of questions. Other answers on BibleQ which may be of interest include:
What does it mean that Jesus preached to the “spirits in prison” 1 Peter 3:19
Why does Ephesians 4:8 apply Psalm 68:18 “ascended on high”, which is about God, to Christ?

An answer taken from Ron Abel’s Wrested Scriptures:

Ephesians 4:8-10

  • “Wherefore he saith, when he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men…”
  • Problem:
  • This verse is connected with 1 Peter 3:18-20 in an attempt to prove that when Christ died the “divine” part survived the death of the body, and preached to disobedient spirits and took “a host of captives on high” R.S.V. (alleged to be Old Testament worthies) to Paradise. If Jesus were able to preach and release these individuals, then it is argued, he must have been conscious when dead, and hence “Very God”.
  • Solution:
  1. At his resurrection, Jesus did not take Old Testament worthies to “paradise”, since David, who is commended as “having obtained a good report through faith” (Heb. 11:39 cf. vs. 32), did not go there. Peter, on Pentecost (about 7 weeks after Christ’s resurrection), said explicitly: “Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day . . . For David is not ascended into the heavens . . .” (Acts 2:29, 34).
  2. The interpretation outlined in the problem nullifies the power of the resurrection of Christ. Jesus said: “. . . I lay down my life, that I might take it again.” (John 10:17). But according to the above interpretation, the real Jesus Christ never did die. Jesus said plainly: “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen . . .” (Rev. 1:18). To die, in the Biblical sense, means to go to one place – the grave (Eccl. 3:20), and to be without consciousness (Ecc. 9:5, 6; Psa. 146:4). At death Jesus was therefore, without life and dependent upon resurrection for life.
  3. Scripture never refers to Jesus as a “God part” and a “body” – the “human part”. The personal pronouns in Acts of the Apostles indicated that Jesus – the person was dead, and that he became alive by resurrection when God raised him by His Holy Spirit power. Note the following:”And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre. But God raised him up from the dead . . . But he whom God raised again, saw no corruption.” (Acts 13:29, 30, 34, 37). Who would be so bold as to assert that the pronoun “him” refers, in the former, to the body, and in the latter to the “God part”? 
  4. Ephesians 4:8 quotes Psalm 68:18, and an understanding of this passage requires an examination of the Psalm. The following attempts to show the significance of the Psalm in the context of Ephesians 4:
    1. “When he ascended up on high” – When God exercised His power for the deliverance of His people, it is said in Scripture, to be God “coming down”. Note the following:
      1. “And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people . . . and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians . . .” (Exod. 3:7, 8)
      2. “And be ready against the third day for . . . the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai”. (Exod. 19:11).
      3. “And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire . . . And the LORD came down upon mount Sinai, on the top of the mount. . .” (Exod. 19:18, 20).
      4. See also Exod. 33:9; 34:5; Neh. 9:13 cf. Acts 7:34; Psa. 47:5.

      At the conclusion of the deliverance, it is said in Scripture, to be God “going up”. Cf. Psalm 47:5. God “descended” on Sinai to deliver natural Israel from Egyptian bondage and captivity (Psalm 68:17, 31-35). He descended by His Holy Spirit power (Luke 1:35) to effect the miraculous birth of His Son (Luke 1:35), and to instruct his Son in the things which he spoke (John 7:16) and the works which he performed (John 10:36, 37). The work of redemption was effected by which bond-slaves of sin (Rom. 6:16-20) could come out of that which is “spiritually called Egypt” (Rev. 11:8), and become spiritual Israelites. (Gal. 3:27, 29 cf. Gal. 6:16). God then “ascended”, in the language of theophany, when Christ was “received up into glory”. (1 Tim. 3:16).

    2. “He led captivity captive” – The R.S.V. translates this, “he led a host of captives”. Assuming this is the correct translation, the host of captives are those who respond to the invitation to come out of the captivity and bondage of spiritual Egypt. Christ “led” the host of captives since he was the first to destroy the devil and become the firstfruits of them that slept. (Heb. 2:14; 4:15; 1 Cor. 15:20 cf. Col. 1:18).
    3. “And gave gifts unto men” – It is apparent that there is a difference in the wording of the Psalm (“hast received1 gifts) and its quotation in Ephesians (“gave gifts”). The difference is significant. The Levites were a gift from God to the nation of Israel (“the rebellious also” – cf. 1 Cor. 10:5-10), but they were also a gift to God. (Num. 8:9-19 cf. 3:5-10). It is likely that the Levites are the “gifts” alluded to in Psa. 68:18 – “that the LORD God might dwell among them”.) The Apostle Paul in his inspired comment brings out what the Psalm does not. Just as the Levites were a gift by God to Aaron and his sons, so God provided for his spiritual Israel by the gift of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, (as distinct from the gifts of the Spirit e.g., tongues, administrations, etc.).

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