Ephesians 4:8 – Therefore he says, “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.”
Ephesians 4:9 – Now this, “He ascended,” what is it but that he also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?
Ephesians 4:10 – He who descended is the same also who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might [ful]fill all things. — World English.
Some, through fanciful imagination based on heathen philosophy, read more into these verses than what they say. According to some the verses indicate that Christ went to “paradise” (Luke 16:20; 23:43) and took to heaven all those who had believed in him prior to his death. Luke 16:20; 23:43 are usually cited to support this claim. It is claimed that hades, before Christ descended there, was made up of two (or more) compartments, one for the righteous, and another for the wicked.
Actually, what Paul said is that Jesus descended into hades (the Bible hell, the realm of death, the state of not being alive — the condemnation inherited from Adam — Romans 5:17-19; 1 Corinthians 15:21,22) in order to pay the price to release all who are there. “As in Adam all are dying, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21,22). “Christ died for our sins.” — 1 Corinthians 15:3.
The idea that paradise was at one time a part of hades comes from adapting Greek mythology and reading such adaptations into the Bible, not from the Bible itself. If the righteous went to paradise when they died, why would David say to his God, when contemplating his own death, resulting in his going to sheol: “In Sheol, who shall give you thanks?” (Psalm 6:5) It should be evident that the righteous man David was not expecting to go to paradise when he died, but that he did expect to be in the condition of non-sentiency in sheol, as described in Ecclesiastes 9:10. Likewise, when Hezekiah was contemplating his own death, stating what he expected concerning sheol: “Sheol can’t praise you.” (Isaiah 38:18) If Hezekiah was expecting to be in paradise in sheol, wouldn’t he have thought that he could praise Yahweh there?
There was no resurrection of those in hades when Jesus died, when he arose (except for his own), or when he ascended. Paul dissuades one from this belief in 2 Timothy 2:18. Likewise, Jesus plainly tells us that both resurrections, both of those who are raised to life, and those who are raised to judgment, occurs at the “last day”, in the future. (John 5:28,29; 6:39,40,44,54; 12:47,48)
The gifts that were given, mentioned in the passage, were those conferred upon the church at Pentecost, the gifts of the holy spirit, and which as fruits of the spirit still continue with Jehovah’s consecrated people. But more particularly in this discussion we want look at the captivity which Jesus led captive. What does this expression signify? Some have suggested that it means that He led his own captivity captive; that is to say, that He had been a captive in death and that His Ascension implied his victory over death. Others say that “captivity” represents the devil and Jesus had gained victory over the devil, thus by doing so had led captivity captive. Jesus certainly did in this sense lead captivity captive.
But some prefer the thought as it is as expressed by Revised Standard Version, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives.” Accepting this as the translation, we ask: Who are these “host”, or “multitude” (Geneva Study Bible), of captives, and how did Jesus lead them?
In answering the question we are reminded of our Master’s teachings, which are summed up in the statement of the prophet Isaiah, who likens the human family to prisoners and compares the tomb to a great prison house. Twice does the prophet declare the deliverance of these prisoners: He represents our Lord as saying, “Yahweh has anointed me to preach good news to the humble; he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening [of the prison] to those who are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1) And again the prophet declares that Jehovah God gave Christ “to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and those who sit in darkness out of the prison-house.” (Isaiah 42:7) Moreover, we find that Jesus quoted at least one of these prophecies and applied it to himself and his own preaching, saying, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21) The essence of his preaching was the opening of the prison doors and setting at liberty the captives of sin and death. He repeatedly told that he had come into the world to seek and save that which was lost to give his life a ransom for the prisoners. (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; Luke 19:10) He repeatedly emphasized the resurrection hope, the hope for release of the prisoners from the dungeon of death. He declared: “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) He also stated: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) There could be no reconciliation to the Father and no recovery from death except through the Redeemer.
Thus Jesus said: “Marvel not at this; for the hour is coming in which all that are in their graves shall hear the voice of the Son of Man and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the life resurrection; they that have done evil unto the resurrection by judgments.” (John 5:28,29) Here then we have the testimony of Jesus and the prophets respecting the great work he came into the world to accomplish the release of mankind from the bondage of sin and death. But the power to release could only be accomplished by Jesus’ own death, only by becoming our Redeemer could he become our Deliverer. In his own words the keys to hades, the right or power to open the prison house of death and to bring forth the prisoners, came into his possession by reason of his death. (Revelation 1:18) The scriptures tell us that he bought his church with a price — his life. (1 Corinthians 6:20; Mark 10:45) His life, the scriptures tell us, is a propiation, an atoning sacrifice for the believer’s sin, but not only this, but also for the whole world. (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2) Jesus Christ by the grace of God tasted death for every man (Hebrews 2:9), and the assurance of the scriptures is that in due time every human will profit by this redemptive work each and all will be set free from the bondage of sin and death and have opportunity to return unto the Lord and demonstrate their loyalty to him and his righteousness, and to attain again to all that was lost in Adam. — Romans 8:21.
TIMES OF RESTORATION
We are not to get the thought, however, that Jesus at his ascension led up to heaven a multitude of captives who previously had been in death. The captives are still dead, they are still in the prison house. The time has not yet come for the Great Redeemer to fulfill toward the race the promised work of calling them from the tomb, an example, an illustration of his power to do which was given in the case of Lazarus and others. Not only do the Scriptures teach that the resurrection is to be accomplished at the second coming of Christ and that meantime our friends in general ‘sleep in Jesus,’ waiting for the time when he shall call the prisoners forth from the tomb in the Millennial morning. If corroborative testimony on this point is desired by any, it is found in our Lord’s own words, “No one has ascended into heaven, but he who descended out of heaven.” (John 3:13) But still more, if possible, to the point is the testimony of Peter respecting the prophet David, whom the apostle Paul mentions as one of the ancient faithful who had God’s approval. Peter says, “David didn’t ascend into the heavens,” and he uses these words after our Lord had ascended up on high and after he had received the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. — Acts 2:34.
The entire testimony of the Scriptures agrees that the resurrection of the dead the resurrection of mankind from the power of sin and death to the original perfection lost in Eden does not belong to the present time, but to a future age following Jesus’ second advent. Mark the apostle’s words explanatory of these, uttered after our Lord had ascended on high. He says that there is to come “times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send Christ Jesus, who was ordained for you before, whom the heaven must receive [retain] until the times of restoration of all things, whereof God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets that have been from ancient times.” (Acts 3:19-21) Since, then, we see that Jesus did not take with him a multitude of captives of sin and death when he ascended on high, when we see that the time for their deliverance is still future, when we see that before their deliverance the church must be gathered and taught and chiseled and polished and refined and made ready for the first resurrection to be the bride, the lamb’s wife and associate in his Millennial kingdom and in its work of blessing the world when we see these clear teachings of the Scripture, we inquire what then is meant by the statement that “he led a multitude of captives.”
Jesus certainly was the first to come forth from the captivity of death. He was the “firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18); “the firstborn of the dead.” (Revelation 1:5) He was the first to come forth from death never to be held captive again by death. (Romans 6:9; Hebrews 7:16; 10:12; Revelation 1:18) Being the firstborn thereof he leads a multitude who are to follow him in the last day, when first the church will come forth from death to the resurrection of life (John 5:28,29; 6:39,40,44,54; Revelation 20:4,6) followed by the resurrection of the world in the resurrection of judgment. — John 5:28,29; 12:47,48; Revelation 20:11-15.
The captives in hades who follow Jesus out of hades will be set free in the last day for the day of judgment, when they will be enlightened by the Kingdom’s educational opening of the books at that time without any hinderance from Satanic deceptions. — Isaiah 2:2-4; 25:6-8; 29:18; John 12:47,48; Revelation 20:1-3, 12,13.