“Therefore, it says: ‘In ascending on high, he led many captives; He gave gifts to men.’”
Curiously, we have arrived at one of the most contested verses in the book of Ephesians and many have sought to make this verse teach that which it does not…namely that Jesus descended into Hell after his death on the cross to lead the Old Testament Saints into Heaven. That interpretation is not supported by the context of Jesus on the cross (for he promised to the thief would join him in paradise on that day) nor does it fit the context of the rest of Paul’s teaching (which speaks of being absent from the body and present with the Lord). Finally, it does not fit the immediate context and explanation Paul offers in this very text. So, if it is not a reference to Jesus descending to Hades, what then does it mean?
To begin with, the citation itself is taken from Psalm 68:18 (verse 19 in the Hebrew text), which reads:
“You ascended to the heights; You took many captives, receiving gifts by men and also from the rebellious, that Yahweh God may dwell there.”
It should be noted that the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, translates this Hebrew fairly closely, so differences are not to be found in the Hebrew versus the Greek in the psalm, but in the inspired Apostle’s application of the psalm itself.
In context, Psalm 68 is a psalm about God delivering his people by his great and almighty hand. Specifically, verse 18 is a picture of God leading his people out of captivity in Egypt and to the mountain of Sinai for worship (and the Law!). Of course, God will lead them from that mountain to another one (Mount Zion), which once again becomes a place of worship for God’s own. What about the gifts? In Psalm 68, it speaks of God receiving gifts both from those captives he has delivered and from the rebellious ones — the implication being the pagans will offer honor to God (remember that God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3 is that the nations of the earth will find their blessings in the people of God thus it is right for them to give God praise and blessing — see psalm 117 and Isaiah 60). Psalm 68:28 mirrors this idea as well.
Yet, we see a change in the way that Paul quotes this text with respect to these gifts. The psalmist speaks of God receiving gifts from the people; Paul speaks of God giving gifts to the people. Of course, there is a reminder here that God is the owner of all things and thus before we give a gift, we need to have received that good thing from God in the first place. Yet, is there something more going on here? I think that there is.
In the context of Ephesians 4, Paul is speaking of the church and how God is building the church up to his glory. This, he does through gifts to the church, much as he teaches the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and of which he will speak in verse 11. The context is also addressing how the church is built up to maturity through the use of such gifts.
If we put these pieces together, I think that we see both a parallel here as well as a heightening of what is being addressed (the basis for what theologians call “typology”). Psalm 68 speaks about the ascending of Moses on Sinai and the ascending of the High Priests on to Mount Zion. Christ, at his resurrection, ascended to the right hand of God the Father on High — higher than any earthly mountain might ever stand and more glorious by infinite degree. In the type, or the shadow, that takes place in the Old Testament, the focus of worship is on the sacrifices that the people bring into the Temple. In Christ, we do not bring the gift of the sacrifice, for He has made that sacrifice on our part. We have empty hands because the gift to God has been fully satisfied in the work of the Son. Yet, God gives gifts downward for the purpose of building His Church. All we can offer is a sacrifice of praise and a life of obedience. The gift has been given by Christ.