31. Captives & Gifts

Ephesians Meditations No.31

Eph  4:7-10 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”  (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

We have another link word to note – “but” which ties us in with what Paul had been saying earlier. See – Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Eph 3:20-4:1) Now back there at the end of the 3rd chapter Paul was speaking about the power God used to bring change within us, and then went on to challenge us to live accordingly, with that power. In verse 2 he called us to a life of humility, then in verse 3 to a life of unity and in verses 4 to 6 grounds why we should live in unity. So, now when we come to verse 7 he picks up again the idea of the work of Christ in us but now he refers to it as ‘grace’, which is the enabling of God by the power of His Spirit in us.

Note what he says about this grace: to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it”. This grace has been given to every one of us who is now a Christian, and we have it because Christ in his role as ruler at the Father’s right hand has apportioned or handed it out to us. This is the same picture that Paul used when writing to the Romans: “think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you…We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” (Rom 12:3,6). The gifts, Paul will go on to describe here, are the ministries he gives to us by supernatural enabling. Grace is supernatural enabling, enabling by the Spirit.

At that point Paul picks up on Old Testament scriptures to justify or explain why that is. In Psa 68 we find the following: “Why gaze in envy, O rugged mountains, at the mountain where God chooses to reign, where the LORD himself will dwell forever? ….. the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary. When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious– that you, O LORD God, might dwell there.” (Psa 68:16-18).

The ‘mountain where God chooses to reign’ was clearly in that day Jerusalem, or more specifically the Temple in Jerusalem, “his sanctuary.” Now in that prophetic picture David, the psalmist, uses the language of a conquering king coming home from battle bringing captives to show off. That conquering king received gifts or tribute from those he conquered, those who had rebelled against him but who he had now conquered. Now Paul might have applied that specifically to us, seeing us as those who have surrendered to God after having been in rebellion against Him. That would have been a legitimate picture of what has in fact happened, and the gifts we brought would be our submission, our bowing down, our honouring Him, but that’s not what Paul says when he writes it.

Paul took certain rabbinic interpretations of his day and changed the word after ‘gifts’, so instead of ‘from’ it became ‘for‘ which apparently in some places it was legitimate to do. So instead of receiving from us, our God who is a giver, gives to us. We surrender to him and become his captives (or prisoners as Paul has been saying) but what does He do? He doesn’t put us in chains but in fact does exactly the opposite; He frees us and gives to us. He gifts us with His grace so that, we will see later, we find we have supernatural spiritual gifts that enable us to operate in particular roles of His choosing.

Before we finish we need to deal with Paul’s aside, within the brackets: “What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?” This is Paul referring back to the Psa 68 quote, When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train;” The ‘ascended on high’ back then referred to God coming to Jerusalem and filling the Temple with His glory, ‘ascended’ over the ark. Paul is now applying that quote to Jesus and he contrasts ‘ascended’ and ‘descended’. Now at first sight the descended might appear to refer to Jesus coming down from heaven to earth, which is what some commentators say. But there is a problem with that. It is that the language of ‘lower earthly regions’ is more the Jewish language of the underworld rather than the earth itself. The ascended would probably refer to a) Jesus rising from the dead and then b) subsequently ascending back to heaven to rule at his Father’s right hand. The ‘descended’ may possibly refer to Jesus coming to earth, but my own preference is that he descended to hell, first because ‘hell’ and the ‘lower earthly regions’ were similar in Jewish thought of that day and second, if hell is the ultimate punishment for sin, then if Jesus totally took our punishment for sin, then it would have to have included going down into hell.

His final words in this aside in verse 10 are: “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” Paul thus contrasts the wonder of Christ going down to the incredible wonder of him now ruling far about all else, which Paul referred to in chapter one when he spoke of God and “his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come, (1:20,21) an even more powerful description of Christ’s triumph and position now! Wow!

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