Ephesians 4:8-10: “Therefore it says, ‘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.)”
Here we get a glimpse into the mysterious workings of Christ on our behalf in His descension and His ascension. Before we can understand our Lord’s ascension fully, we need to look at His descension. What does it mean that Christ “descended into the lower regions, the earth?” And why is this relevant for us to understand? It’s vital for us to make an effort as we consider Paul’s reason in explaining Christ’s descension and ascension. Why does he go here? What is the basis for his elaboration?
First, we need to understand that without Christ’s earthly descension there would never have been his victorious ascension. Christ descended from His rightful place of glory into obscurity, namely His incarnation where He took on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:6). Some have concluded that His descension also entails His burial, as the same language of “he also descended into the lower regions, the earth” (Ephesians 4:9) is found in Psalm 63:9, where David says, “But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth”
Christ’s descension was just as necessary for us as His ascension. You cannot have one without the other. When Christ descended, He descended from majesty, subjecting Himself to complete dependence and obedience to His Father. This same God-Man who descended into humiliation rose with shouts of celebration over His accomplished, finished victory over sin and death. Describing His ascension scripture mentions two particular actions of Christ.
First, Christ our Might Warrior led a host of prisoners as He ascended on high. (Ephesians 4:8) “When he ascended on high, he led a host of captives.”
Matthew Henry points out:
“As great conquerors, when they rode in their triumphal chariots, used to be attended with the most illustrious of their captives led in chains, and were wont to scatter their largesses and bounty among the soldiers and other spectators of their triumphs, so Christ, when he ascended into heaven, as a triumphant conqueror, led captivity captive.”
What held His people captive He now took captive–Satan, death, and sin–triumphing over them through the cross.
Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
Were it not for Christ’s ascension, victory would remain incomplete. His ascension was necessary that He might “fill all things”(Ephesians 4:10), be seated at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20), exalted to rule and reign over all things (Ephesians 1:22) because He had defeated all things.
Secondly, Christ shared the spoil of His success, giving gifts to those united to Him in victory; “and he gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:8b).
Suppose, two of your dearest friends give you each a gift. One is quite small, say a card with your favorite candy attached, but the other gift is quite the opposite—a flamboyant, shiny new car. The friend who gifted you the car was known for his or her wealthy wallet, yet the friend who blessed you with the not-so-shiny card and candy had just lost their house to a recent fire and were struggling to get back on their feet. To you, which friend sacrificed more so that you might obtain a gift? A gift means so much more when we understand the sacrifice of the Giver. Our Lord sacrificed, and our Lord conquered, yet we receive all the benefits. Remind yourselves of this glorious grace today! Paul says that the gifts He distributed to those enjoined with Him were in measurement (Ephesians 4:7). Each of God’s children have been given a gift according to God’s purposed allotment. Warren Wiersbe reminds us, “Gifts are not toys to play with. They are tools to build with. And if they are not used in love, they become weapons to fight with”.
Each gift God has given to us has a specific purpose for the mutual upbuilding of His body, and the encouragement of the saints. Often, we view our gifts as our own, and when we do this, we take upon ourselves the mantle of victory that belongs to Christ alone. Not only do we glory in ourselves, but we miss out on the joyous opportunity of seeing the purpose of our giftings carried out in the lives of our brothers and sisters within a local community of believers.
Weaponizing our gifts displays a self-serving agenda, a prideful disposition, and a misunderstanding of the grace given to us through Jesus Christ. Using the kindness of our God to our own advantage distorts the pure function of God’s goodness to those around us, showing that we possess the same attitude of the world, masking it under the disguise of “Christian.”
Remember that Paul writes verses 8-10 within the context of unity, peace, and love. We exist as members of Christ’s body. We are members of one another meant to function in a way that spreads the aroma of a victorious Lord over all things, “filling all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Christ welcomes us to partake in the victory of his resurrection and ascension as if we accomplished it ourselves. But do not mistake the privileges He has given you in Him as rightful entitlements. Every gift you have received is from His manifold hand of grace, and it is undeserved, yet fully granted to each of His children. Jesus has not been stingy with us by any means, and we are to steward the gift He has given to us in like manner.
Ephesians 4:8 is a reference from Psalm 68, where David sings of God’s victory over his enemies. As we consider the lowly descension of our humiliated Savior and the heavenly ascension of our Victorious Warrior, we should sing along with David today:
“Sing to God! Sing praises to his name. Exalt him who rides on the clouds—his name is the Lord—and celebrate before him. God in his holy dwelling is a father of the fatherless and a champion of widows. God provides homes for those who are deserted. He leads out the prisoners to prosperity, but the rebellious live in a scorched land.”