(Eph 4:7-10 ESV) 7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
Paul quotes Psa 68 —
(Psa 68:18-20 ESV) 18 You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men, even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there. 19 Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Selah 20 Our God is a God of salvation, and to GOD, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.
It’s not entirely obvious why Paul decides to insert a reference to this Psalm here. The first point has to be that in v. 7 Paul speaks of God’s gifts to each of us (as further explained in 4:11ff), that is, to gifts received through the Spirit. But the translations uniformly say in Psa 68:18 “receive gifts” rather than “give gifts.” Lenski explains,
The reception for men includes the giving to men. If Christ received gifts for men, i.e., intended for them, how could he withhold them from men and not give them to those for whom the gifts were intended?
Remember, the quotation marks in many translations are added by the translators. Greek has no such punctuation. Paul was paraphrasing, which is any author’s right, so long as he gives the sense, which Paul did.
V. 9 refers, of course, to Christ’s burial following his crucifixion and perhaps also to his time in Hades (not hell), among the dead, which the Greeks envisioned as being in the “lower regions” of the earth. It would be a mistake to speculate beyond what is said. Paul’s point isn’t about what Jesus did while dead. It’s that his ascension is necessarily the result of his death and burial.
(Phi 2:8 ESV) 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Christ received the ability to bestow gifts by the power of his death, burial, and resurrection, leading to his ascension and exaltation. And his exaltation leads to Christ “filling all things.” Now, we considered “filling” in an earlier post in this series. It’s a recurring theme of Ephesians —
(Eph 1:22-23 ESV) 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
(Eph 3:14-19 ESV) 4 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith–that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
(Eph 4:11-14 ESV) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
(Eph 5:18-21 ESV) 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
It’s interesting that Paul speaks of the fullness of or being filled with God, Christ, and the Spirit. The universe (“all in all”) will be filled with the presence of Christ by the filling of the Christians and the church with God through the Spirit. We are called individually to be filled with the Spirit, but this is to the end that the universe be filled with Christ.
In other words, the mission of Christ won’t be fulfilled — won’t be completed — until the Kingdom comes and God will is done on earth as it is in heaven. But this is natural outworking of Christ through the church.
(Eph 3:10 ESV) 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
God is working to bring all things under the feet of Christ, but the essential part of his plan is the church. The church will do its part by being united (4:1-6), by receiving gifts given by Christ (4:7-10), and by using those gifts to equip one another for ministry as he’ll describe in the balance of the chapter.