It is written:
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore He says: “WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVITY CAPTIVE, AND GAVE GIFTS TO MEN.” 9 (Now this, “HE ASCENDED”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.). (Ephesians 4:7-10).
This statement by Paul to the Ephesians is one of the most instructive regarding the descent of Christ to Hades.
In order to understand it, we must first look at the context of this statement.
When Paul wrote the Epistle to the Ephesians, the main theme that he deals with is the importance of the church. Paul wants us to understand that the church is extremely important. He points out that all spiritual blessings are found “in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3), including the blessings of being adopted into the church as children of God (Ephesians 1:4-5), forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7), the gift of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14), etc.
The church is very important!
In chapters 1-3 of the Book of Ephesians, Paul elaborates upon many of the blessings of God found in the church. Then, in chapters 4-6, he discusses how we as Christians must live in recognition of these blessings.
“‘Like all of Paul’s letters, Ephesians is a combination fo doctrine and practical instructions’ (Oster, Overview, 32). The doctrinal discussion is not just a collection of unrelated truths but it specifically serves as a foundation and support for the practical instructions, In other words, the letter is ‘applied doctrine.’ Dispute the lack of personal details in the letter and a lack of information about the situation of the church in Ephesus, the occasion of the letter is seen in the ‘hinge’ verse linking the doctrinal and practical sections of the epistle. Often, writers in the ancient world would reveal their purpose in writing by their use of the Greek verb….’I beg, urge; request, ask’ (Oster, Ephesus, 373). This construction is a common feature in Paul’s letters (Lincoln, 226). In Ephesians 4:1, Paul reveals his purpose of writing: ‘I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech yo to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called.’ The connecting verse emphasizes the importance of living a life that appropriately reflects the calling received from God! As is evident in Paul’s instructions (Eph. 4:25-31), the Ephesian Christians were having moral and ethical problems (Oster, Overview, 32). ‘Walk worthy of your calling’ was to remind the Ephesians of their covenant relationship with Christ and its consequent responsibilities. Paul’s strategy for accomplishing the life change he seeks is to remind the Ephesians in chapters 1-3 of their blessings in Christ. In these chapters, Paul indicates what God has done for the Ephesians. To walk worthy of their calling, the Ephesians must know their calling! Chapters four through six contain the responsibilities that flow to the recipients of God’s grace. These responsibilities are given in the imperatives or commands to the Ephesians Christians. Of the 41 imperatives in the book, 40 occur in chapters 4-6 (Oster, Studies).” (Bruce Daughtery, ‘Overview Of Ephesians,’ Ephesians: The Glorious Church Of The Christ-13th Annual West Virginia School Of Preaching Lectures, 18 (pdf edition); Moundsville, WV)
Paul’s discussion of the Descent of Christ in Ephesians 4:8-10 is in the context of how Christians must use the gifts which they have been freely given in order to glorify Christ by using those gifts to help build up and establish His body (i.e., the church). This work is seen in an overall picture of Christ’s work in the world through the church, in preaching the Gospel to all of Creation:
Ephesians 1:10-that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.
This work of proclaiming God’s Word includes the preaching of the Gospel, even to the principalities and powers in the Earth and the world of the dead (Sheol or Hades):
Ephesians 3:8-12-To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; 10 to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, 11 according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.
What are the “principalities and powers,” and where are the “heavenly places” in which they are located?
These phrases had reference to the various forces of evil in the Earth and the Hadean realm:
“The first two categories of spiritual powers—the “rulers” () and “the authorities” ()—are Paul’s most common expression for demonic spirits, which he has used twice earlier in the letter (1: 21; 3: 10; see comments there). The third expression, “world powers” (), is unique, never appearing elsewhere in the NT or LXX. This is, in fact, the earliest appearance of the term in Greek writings. Although it is possible that Paul has coined the term on the analogy of “all powerful” (), which is a common title for God in the LXX (see, e.g., 2 Sam 5: 10; 1 Kings 19: 10; Job 8: 5; Zech 1: 3), it is far more likely that Paul drew on a word for spirits that was current both in Graeco-Roman and Jewish folk belief and astrology. 20 The word appears in second-century AD Anthologies of Vettius Valens, which is a compilation of more ancient works. This text gives evidence of its use by Pseudo-Petosiris in the second-century BC in reference to the planets (thought of as animated by spirits). 21 This same term was also used to magnify the omnipotence and universal power of various deities. An inscription found in a bathhouse in Rome reads, “One Zeus, Serapis, Helios, world power (), unconquerable.” 22 In pagan folk belief, the word appears seven times in the corpus of Greek magical papyri as an epithet for various deities invoked in magical incantations. 23 The following text illustrates the use of the title in a set of instructions for the ritual empowerment of a magical amulet: Spell to Helios: I invoke you, the greatest god, eternal lord, world ruler (), who are over the world and under the world, mighty ruler of the sea ()…. Come to me … I call upon your holy and great and hidden names which you rejoice to hear…. Give glory and honor and favor and fortune and power to this stone which I consecrate today (or to the phylactery being consecrated) for [insert name]. I invoke you, the greatest in heaven [three dozen magical names follow], the shining Helios, giving light throughout the whole world. You are the great Serpent, leader of all the gods…. Give glory and favor to this phylactery. (PGM IV. 1599–1650) In Jewish folk belief, the term is found twice in the Testament of Solomon, 24 where it is used of demonic spirits associated with the planets (T. Sol. 8: 2) and with thirty-six demonic rulers of the heavenly sphere (T. Sol. 18: 3). These texts also represent the spirits as directly attacking and influencing people on earth, as illustrated by T. Sol. 8: 1–3: I commanded another demon to appear before me. There came seven spirits () bound up together hand and foot…. When I, Solomon, saw them, I was amazed and asked them, “Who are you?” They replied, “We are heavenly bodies (), rulers of this world of darkness (). The first said, “I am Deception.” The second said, “I am Strife….” This text demonstrates the interchangeability of the language for the powers within folk Judaism, where the expressions “demons,” “spirits,” stoicheia (see Gal 4: 3, 9; Col 2: 8, 20), and “world powers” could be used of the same phenomena. It is likely that Paul’s use of the term here is reflective of the language of Jewish demonology, although Gentile readers also would be familiar with the term as an epithet for their gods. Paul, of course, would not understand the term as referring to an actual deity, but he may have seen this term as expressive of the spiritual realities that stood behind the gods (see 1 Cor 10: 20–21). In other words, this could be an expression for the spirits that animated Artemis, Cybele, Isis, Serapis, and the fifty other gods and goddesses worshiped in Ephesus and western Asia Minor. In line with Jewish tradition, Paul saw pagan idolatry animated by demonic spirits (1 Cor 8: 4; 10: 19–21; cf. Deut 32: 16–17; Jub. 11: 4–5; T. Jud. 23: 1; T. Naph. 3: 1). The possessive genitive “of this darkness” () casts these so-called “world powers” as thoroughly evil, for they belong to the realm of darkness. “Darkness” is the sphere in which these believers formerly belonged (5: 8)—a realm that constituted a dominion of authority over their lives and from which they were rescued by the Lord (Col 1: 13). Insofar as “world powers of this darkness” alludes to the local deities, Paul presents a serious warning about the dangers of the syncretistic impulse many believers faced of dividing their loyalties between Christ and their traditional deities. These “world powers” were in league with the devil and presented a serious threat to their growth and development as Christians. The fourth and final expression Paul uses in this series, “evil spiritual beings” (), should be understood as a comprehensive designation for all classes of hostile spirits. The phrase can also be translated “the spirit-forces of evil.” 25 The attributive genitive “of evil” () characterizes these spirits as harmful. This expression “evil spiritual beings” is best seen as summarizing all of these previously mentioned spirits (“ the rulers, the authorities, the world powers”) and encompassing all other forms of wicked spirits and denouncing them as evil. 26 Dwelling in “the heavenly places” (), these spirits inhabit the unseen world of spiritual reality (see comments on 1: 3).” (Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary On The New Testament: Ephesians, 12351-12397 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan)
By the time Paul wrote of Christ’s Descent into Hades in Ephesians 4:8-10, he had already begun “setting the stage” for the important work of Christ and the church in this regard throughout the Epistle.
In our next study, we will see the many evidences which show that Paul was describing the Descent of Christ into Hades in Ephesians 4:8-10.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.