There are several things important to note as we begin our analysis of this passage:
· In vv. 1-6 the adjective “one” had been used to emphasize unity. Now, in vv. 7-16, it refers to the many individuals who make up that unity.
· Note also that Paul shifts from his use of the second person plural “you” to the first person plural “we” in order to identify himself with his readers.
· There is a repeated emphasis on “giving”: in v. 7 Christ “gives” according to the measure of his “gift”; in v. 8 he “gave gifts” to men; and again in v. 11 he “gave” gifted people to the church.
· Previously Paul referred to the “grace” that had been given him for his ministry to the Gentiles (3:2,7,8). Now, however, “grace” is given to every believer for the good of the whole body.
Paul finds support for this ministry of giving gifts in Psalm 68:18, which in its original context describes God’s triumphant ascent of Mt. Zion after he had delivered his people. Here he seems to apply it to the triumphal ascension of Christ described earlier in Eph. 1:20-23, “because he saw in Jesus’ exaltation a further fulfillment of this triumph of God” (O’Brien, 289). The “host of captives” whom he led captive refers either to the principalities and powers (i.e., demonic spirits) who were placed in subjection to his rule (1:20-22; see also Col. 2:15) or to believers (cf. 2 Cor. 2:14). The former is more likely true.
There are two major interpretive problems in this text.
(1) The Hebrew text of Ps. 68:18 reads: “You ascended to the heights, you led captive captives, you received gifts among men.” Yet Paul renders this: “you gave gifts to men.” What has happened? It would almost seem that Paul has turned the psalm on its head! Here are the possibilities:
· Some believe Paul was quoting the OT text from memory and unintentionally made a mistake. Others simply insist he deliberately altered the text to make a theological point. However, our understanding of divine inspiration renders this impossible.
· Others say that Paul was drawing on an ancient oral tradition reflected in the Aramaic Targum on the Psalms and the Syriac version of the OT (the Peshitta), both of which read: “Thou hast given gifts to men.”
· Ellicott writes: “We admit, then, frankly and freely, the verbal difference, but remembering that the Apostle wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, we recognize here neither imperfect memory, precipitation . . . arbitrary change . . . accommodation . . . nor Rabbinical interpretation . . . , but simply the fact that the Psalm, and especially ver. 18, had a Messianic reference, and bore within it a further, fuller, and deeper meaning. This meaning the inspired Apostle, by a slight change of language, . . . succinctly, suggestively and authoritatively unfolds” (90).
· A somewhat elaborate view is that Psalm 68:18 is echoing or alluding to Num. 8:6-19 and 18:6 in which the Levites are “taken” by the Lord from among the people (8:6,14) who then “gives” them back so they might serve the congregation.
· Most point to the prevailing custom in the ancient world in which the victor not only received tribute but also distributed it among his own people. In other words, what conquerors took from their captives they then gave away to their own. “The spoils were divided, the booty was shared” (Stott, 157). Thus there is an anticipated “giving” implied in the Hebrew verb “receiving”: one receives in order to give. “The giving [of Ephesians 4],” says Hengstenberg, “presupposes the taking [of Psalm 68]; the taking is succeeded by the giving as its consequence.” Thus the relation between receiving and giving, i.e., the idea that the latter is implicit in the former, is simply made explicit by Paul, similar to what we see in Acts 2:33 – “Therefore, having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.”
(2) The second major issue concerns the meaning of Christ’s “descent” in v. 9. What does Paul mean when he says Christ descended “into the lower parts of the earth”? Again, here are the options:
· A few have argued that it refers to the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary (see Ps. 139:15).
· Others have said it refers to his burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
· A long-standing view is that this describes Christ’s descent or journey into Hades some time between his burial and resurrection. But the contrast in the verse is between an ascent to heaven and a descent from heaven, not a descent from earth to the underworld or the realm of the dead. Andrew Lincoln also points out that if Paul “had had three levels in mind and meant that Christ descended to the deepest level just as he ascended to the greatest height, he would have been more likely to have used a superlative [lowest] than a comparative [lower]” (245). Also, Paul has consistently referred to a “two-story” cosmology in Ephesians: heaven and earth; not a “three-story” cosmology: heaven, earth, under the earth. Lincoln asks, how can a descent into Hades be logically deduced from Christ’s ascent to heaven, “which, after all, appears to be the force of the argument here” (245). Finally, this view is usually based on a similar interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18ff. But the latter, in my opinion, describes the triumphant proclamation of Christ to demonic spirits subsequent to his resurrection, at the time of his ascension, not prior to his resurrection while his body was yet in the grave.
· It is likely that the confusion surrounding this text is due to a mistranslation of the phrase “lower parts of the earth,” as if Paul had in mind a realm or something beneath or within the earth itself. A better translation is: “the lower parts which are the earth” (i.e., “of the earth” would be a genitive of apposition which further defines or explains the preceding noun). “On this view the lower regions are not the lower parts of the earth but rather the lower parts of the cosmos, that is, the earth, and the writer is speaking of a descent to the earth” (Lincoln, 245). In other words, Paul’s contrast is not between one part of the earth and another, lower, part, but between the whole earth and heaven. If that is the case, two options remain:
(a) Paul may be referring to the incarnation itself. This idea of the incarnation and exaltation of Christ in terms of descent and ascent is found in John’s gospel (see 3:13; 6:62). Others would focus specifically on the element of Christ’s humiliation and its contrast with his exaltation, as portrayed in Phil. 2:5-11.
(b) A more recent interpretation that is gaining a following says that the descent in view is that of Christ in the person and activity of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Thus the descent would be subsequent to the ascent (whereas in view (a) the descent precedes the ascent). Appeal is made to Psalm 68 itself which came to be associated with Pentecost (some saw in it a reference to Moses’ “giving” of the law). This view would certainly connect well with the emphasis in vv. 7 and 11 on the giving or distribution of spiritual gifts. The main objection, however, is that Pentecost is not typically thought of as a descent of Christ, but of the Spirit. Advocates respond by pointing to the numerous texts where Christ and the Spirit are closely related (cf. Rom. 8:9; 2 Cor. 3:18; etc.). Somewhat against this view is v. 10 (for the meaning of which, see 1:22-23) where the one who “descended” is explicitly said to be Jesus.