Understanding what it means to identify with Jesus’ death is so critical for our transformation process that Paul explained exactly what Jesus was doing between the time He died on the cross and was resurrected from the grave. He uses some ancient warfare language no longer familiar to us to describe Jesus’ victory over death, sin, and the devil. The historical background is fascinating, but the main point is clear. Understanding Jesus’ mission between the time He died on the cross and His resurrection helps us grasp with our hearts, minds, and souls how His death applies to our new life in Him.
When we understand that, we can appropriate the grace already available to us to face the same opponents Jesus faced: death, sin, and Satan. We begin to see sin and temptation not as unbeatable foes but as humiliated, defeated enemies. By grace through faith, we can overcome their power and walk in freedom. We can experience the resurrected life He promised.
Paul’s words in this passage are obscure to most modern minds, yet they are powerful in their implications.
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) (Eph. 4:7–10)
The first few words base the rest of the passage on the generosity of Christ’s grace. Paul introduces a quote from Psalm 68:18 about God ascending, taking captives, and giving gifts and applies these words to Jesus, specifically to the events between His crucifixion and resurrection.
If Jesus ascended, Paul argues, then He must have also descended into the lower parts of the earth. This seems to be a reference to Hades or Sheol, Greek and Hebrew terms for the place of the dead. And if He ascended, He did so in order “to fill the whole universe.” Without any background, those are mystifying words. But a dramatic picture emerges when we unpack the historical and cultural context, and it gives us a whole new perspective on what Jesus actually accomplished for us. So let’s break this down by its key phrases.
He took many captives. About fifty years before Jesus, Julius Caesar spent years in Gaul trying to bring it under complete Roman control. Many of the locals resisted, and Caesar ruthlessly put down many rebellions. The climactic battle involved an attack against Roman forces by massive numbers of Gauls led by their chieftain, Vercingetorix. The Gauls almost broke through Roman lines, but Caesar prevailed. Vercingetorix is said to have surrendered the next day by dismounting his horse in front of Caesar, stripping himself of armor, laying down his weapons, and submitting to captivity along with many of his men. The defeated chieftain was taken to Rome and later, with Caesar’s chariot leading the way in a spectacular triumph, paraded in humiliating fashion to symbolize Rome’s invincibility before being killed.
This stripping and humiliation of enemies was a common practice in ancient warfare, and winning commanders usually distributed the spoils of war to their armies. Every Jew who had lived in the previous centuries and every Greek or Roman reading Paul’s words would have understood the picture he presents in this passage. Long city sieges often ended with such a spectacle of victory (see 2 Sam. 12:26–31 and 2 Kings 25 for biblical examples). Roman triumphs (victory parades) were well-known spectacles featuring the conquering general and his troops in shining armor dragging defeated foes behind. This is Paul’s picture of Jesus. Our conquering King not only defeated the enemy. He stripped him of power, humiliated him in triumph, led captives away, and gave His people all the enemy’s possessions—in this case, spiritual power.
Paul’s purpose in this portrayal is to help us understand the reason for our spiritual gifts. Jesus won the battle over sin, death, and the devil and gives the same victory to His followers. Between the cross and the resurrection, Jesus defeated Satan’s kingdom and is turning it over to His people.
He descended to the lower, earthly regions. The grammar here is ambiguous, referring either to the lower parts (which are) the earth or the lower parts (of) the earth. But the latter seems to better fit Paul’s purpose here. In Jewish belief, the place of the dead was Sheol (Greek Hades), which contained a compartment for the wicked dead and another for the righteous. We see this division in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19–31, in which a self-centered rich man went to the abode of the wicked and Lazarus went to paradise, or “Abraham’s bosom.” A great chasm separated the two, but they could see each other.
Jesus entered into this abode of the dead between His crucifixion and resurrection. According to Peter, He first went to the punishment side to preach to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19). He was not inviting demonic forces to repent and be saved. He was declaring the victory of the cross: The work of salvation is finished. Sin’s power has been broken. The sting of death is gone. You are a defeated foe.
Jesus also visited the paradise section of the afterlife and preached to those who are now dead—Old Testament believers—so they could live in the spirit (1 Peter 4:6). This word for “preach” is different from the one Peter used for Jesus’ words in the abode of the wicked. It’s the good news. Jesus visited paradise to inform and confirm the faith of Old Testament saints.
Every believer from every time period is saved on the same basis: the work of Christ on the cross as the substitutionary payment for sin. Old Testament believers looked forward to it; we look back to it. Everyone can look to Jesus and see that God has done what He promised to do.
In order to fill the whole universe. Jesus came to demonstrate what has always been true—that He is Lord. He visited the most God-forsaken place in creation to claim His sovereignty as ruler and deliverer of the universe over all that can and cannot be seen. The song of the redeemed in Revelation captures this fullness beautifully:
They sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”
Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:9–13)
That takes us back to our original question in this section. What was Jesus doing between the time of His death on the cross and the moment of His resurrection? He was establishing His right to reclaim all of creation. He was declaring that He had defeated sin, death, and Satan. In space-time, objective history, He was providing the basis for your spiritual freedom and transformation.
Ingram, Chip. 2021. Yes! You Really Can Change: What to Do When You’re Spiritually Stuck. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
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