New Testament Words and Verses
Ephesians 4:7-10, A Prelude to Gifts
In Ephesians 4 the Apostle Paul or, more likely, a disciple of Paul, is most interested in describing the gifts with which God has equipped the Church for its work. He actually gets to some of them in 4:11, with their purpose further explained in 4:12-16. Yet he needs to get a “running start” so that he can “vault” onto this subject appropriately, and that “running start” is provided by a listing of some virtues he wants people to adopt (4:2). Then, there is probably a fragment of an early Christian hymn or affirmation celebrating the unity of the body of Christ (4:3-6) before he launches into his biblical support for the concept of the gifts of the Spirit.
He says in Eph. 4:7-10, by way of his prelude to listing the gifts:
7 Ἑνὶ δὲ ἑκάστῳ ἡμῶν ἐδόθη ἡ χάρις κατὰ τὸ μέτρον τῆς δωρεᾶς τοῦ Χριστοῦ. 8 διὸ λέγει·ἀναβὰς εἰς ὕψος ᾐχμαλώτευσεν αἰχμαλωσίαν, ἔδωκεν δόματα τοῖς ἀνθρώποις. 9 τὸ δὲ ἀνέβη τί ἐστιν, εἰ μὴ ὅτι καὶ κατέβη εἰς τὰ κατώτερα [μέρη] τῆς γῆς; 10 ὁ καταβὰς αὐτός ἐστιν καὶ ὁ ἀναβὰς ὑπεράνω πάντων τῶν οὐρανῶν, ἵνα πληρώσῃ τὰ πάντα.
“In each of you grace has been given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Thus, it (the Scripture) says, ‘Having gone up into the high place, he took captivity captive, and gave gifts to people.’ What is this act of going up (i.e., what can it mean?) unless that he also descended into the lower regions of the earth? For he himself is the one who has descended and has gone up above all the heavens, so that he might absolutely fill up all things.”
The author here is making an argument from Scripture for the existence of spiritual gifts. Verse 7 tells us his basic point: the bestowal of gifts by virtue of the “measure” of Christ’s gift. That is, something about Christ’s self-sacrifice imparted gifts, a wide spectrum and a plethora of them. But to support his case our author selects an unexpected verse from Psalm 68:18 and exegetes it (v 8). That verse has three parts to it. Our author only is interested in parts one and three (part two is likely too confusing). Interestingly, it seems that part one is most interesting to him, though the theological heft only comes from the third part.
Let’s look at these three parts in reverse order to see what I mean. The third part of the sentence is: “He gave gifts to people.” The Scripture talks about God's giving gifts; the author interprets this as referring to Christ’s giving gifts to the church. Bingo. Scriptural support. Got it. But in order to get there, the Scripture had to go through the difficult concept of “taking captivity captive” or “taking a bundle of people captive.” It really isn’t clear what it means, and, from the perspective of our author, it isn’t that important, and he ignores it.
But what seems to captivate him are the first three words: ἀναβὰς εἰς ὕψος, “having gone up into the high location/height/summit.” This “going up” stimulates his creative imagination because one of the central doctrines of Christian faith is the “going up” or ascension of Christ after death. But, in order for him to “go up” he first had to “come down.” In a real sense these verses might be seen as an exposition of the same concept in the more famous Christ Hymn of Phil. 2. There we have a descent, a humbling, and a super-high ascent. Here were have an ascent, which presupposes a descent, that then leads to a super-high ascent.
Taking it one phrase at a time in verses 9-10, we have:
9 “What is the meaning of “he went up” unless also he went down?” Note here that Christ not only went down, but he went down into the lower regions (κατώτερα) of the earth. It doesn’t give any explanation of these lower regions—whether it just implicates the incarnation or some kind of post-death visit to the “spirits in prison.” He keeps it simple, because his point will be the gifts given by Christ (v 11). But the prefix κατ (“down/low”) appears three times in eight words in vv 9-10. Down, down, down came Christ. The one who rose up is the one who came down, down, down. But the last words of verse 10 capture it best. He came down, down, down, but he is the one who has gone “high above” (ὑπεράνω) all things. And, not just high above all things but above “all the heavens.” This guy then was, as it were, shot out of the depths of the earth to soar into the highest heavens. One of the results of this soaring into the highest of all the heavens was that he might “fill up” or “fulfill” all things (πληρώσῃ). The word elected here is the identical one chosen in Col. 1 and 2 to describe the “fulness” of Christ in the universe. So, we have a dual motion of movement upward and a movement to fill all things. That is what is implicated for the author of Ephesians in Psalm 68:18.
Some may find most interesting and compelling the listing of the spiritual gifts apportioned by Christ to the Church in 4:12-16. What is most striking to me, however is the method our author used to get to those gifts. First, he found (or likely was given) a biblical citation; then he showed us how the gifts emerged from that text. But, more than anything for me is the way that the downward and upward movement of Christ was so captivating to the author. This “movement” of Christ, from the heavens to the earth and its lowest part, and then back to the super-high-heights of the heavens, where he fills everything, gave the author, as well as many other early Christians, an imaginative canvas on which then to paint other aspects of the Christological journey. It all starts with the Scriptures and their interpretation.