And so that is why it says [to us from Scripture]: having ascended on high [in triumph to His place reserved for His subsequent rule] leading captivity captive [in the chains of His peace a multitude of captives], He gave gifts to men!
     This “his going on up" reminds us [at the same time] of “his coming on down” to the Earth's lower parts. And he that thereby “descended” is also the one having “ascended” far above all the heavens above, that He [by His rule] might complete all things.
     And [the gifts] He gave were [none other than] the following: some apostles [commissioned messengers], some others prophets, others evangelists, others shepherds and teachers for the outfitting of the consecrated ones for deaconate ministry, for the housekeeping of the body of Christ, until [eventually] we [each and everyone of us] find our place united in the faith, and with full acquaintance of the Son of God, [that is] to the completed human person measured according to the full stature of Christ in all of His completeness. - Ephesians 4:8- 13/transliteration by Bruce C Wearne

Three crosses

Christ's death on a cross was not the end of His story. PICTURE: Bobbie Wallace/Unsplash

Here Paul continues to explain Christ’s exaltation, His acension to glory, which is the sure ground of their own integrity in their God-given callings. How is this to be understood and acted upon? We talk in terms of Christ’s “Lordship” which He has now taken on for us, but it is a Lordship that is fully with us – after all He, in descending, to walk on this Earth with us, in obedience to His Father’s will, also meant He was willing to “descend” to the grave. In having come as Messiah to be “despised and rejected”, He went all the way to share with us our human situation - from the dust we have come forth and from the dust we shall return - and was thereby commended for His obedience and was raised and so has led captivity captive. 

The translation which reads, “he led captive a multitude of captives”, may not be completely wrong; the beneficiaries after all were people held captive. But such a translation should not cause us to miss the persistence of Paul’s metaphor, based upon his reference to himself as “prisoner of the Lord". Even his prison has now become a place from where Christ calls forth His prisoner(s) to serve Him. The grave is not the end. It is the place to where Christ has gone and from which, having being called back to life, His victory over death is announced.

He died, not to be resuscitated by a divine miracle; He was obedient to His Father to the utmost, being willing to die, His earthly body to be laid to rest in a tomb. The whole lot, including death, is now subjected to His rule. He has conquered death and He has done so for us. He has also ascended for us. And He has, in His ascension to the highest place of honour, bequeathed His gifts; gifts that unmistakably bear the marks of the “Christ mystery”. Paul is claiming that in this “descent” and “ascent” of God’s own Son, he (Paul) has been made captive. He now is a trophy of the Lord’s victory, a victory that overcame death, a victory that turned him completely around and onto a new path.

Paul is referring to the integrity of his calling; having been confronted by the ascended Christ, Paul’s status among “the captives” has been established and confirmed and his calling, his apostolic commission, has therefore become part of the bequest distributed by Christ Himself to those who believe. These gifts, and we are therefore able to presume that this letter is part of it as well, are fully part of the distribution of grace that follows Christ’s ascension.

There are ongoing and remarkable consequences of this teaching for how we are to appreciate the place of Christian discipleship in this world, this world redeemed by God’s own direct intervention to restore the integrity of His image-bearers.