Howard Coles, Coleford, England
What does the scripture mean, ‘He led captivity captive’? Eph. 4. 8.
Who are the captives?
The language used in Ephesians chapter 4 was first written concerning Deborah and Barak, who led the foes of Israel into captivity, foes that had previously held Israel captive. ‘Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam’, Judg. 5. 12.
The same language is used consistently in Psalm 68 where the joy of Israel at the defeat of their enemies is the context, ‘Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them’, Psa. 68. 18. This is directly quoted in Ephesians chapter 4 and speaks of Christ’s ascension into heaven.
He had triumphed over the gates of hell. He led captivity captive; that is, He led His captives in triumph, as the great conquerors of the ancient world did to display their victories. This corresponds with the triumph of Calvary as described by the apostle Paul in Colossians chapter 2. Christ was there ‘blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it’, Col. 2. 14-15.
He led those captive who had held men captive, and who, if He had not interposed, would have held men captive forever. He had broken the power of sin, all the wicked spiritual beings and Satan himself. As He was the death of death, so He was the captivity of captivity. Through Him we have a complete victory, obtained over our spiritual enemies and therefore ‘we are more than conquerors through him that loved us’, Rom. 8. 37.
Ephesians chapter 4 verse 8 then states that He gave ‘gifts’ to men and that these were apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc. This means that the gifts are the men themselves. Following on from this verse 9 refers to His ascension as being again consequent to His descending to the lower parts (consisting) of the earth. It was here on earth that He gained the great victory over His and our foes!
There is another view popularly held with regard to these verses. It is that they mean Christ descended into Hades to release those supposedly held in some form of captivity, and these are said to be Old Testament saints. However, this would be inconsistent with the Old Testament quotations in Judges chapter 5 and Psalm 68, which refer to the ‘enemies of Israel’ being led into captivity. Also there is no other mention of Christ visiting Hades and in fact the opposite is true. Peter quotes Psalm 16 verse 10 as referring to the Lord, ‘Because thou wilt not leave (lit. ‘abandon’) my soul in (Gk. ‘unto’) hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption’, Acts. 2. 27. It would also be difficult to see what kind of captivity Old Testament saints could possibly be in having been saved by God.