Q. Ephesians 4:8 says Christ ascended on high. The next verse, Ephesians 4:9, says He first descended. What does this descending mean?
A. First, let’s establish the context, which is found in all of chapter 4. The apostle Paul was writing that Christ has given spiritual gifts, that is, gifted believers, to the church for building up and unifying one another spiritually in the local body during this period of time we’re living in, known as the Church Age dispensation. And Paul told us by what authority Christ has done this giving: He descended and ascended. So you ask where and when Christ did this. (Apostles and prophets mentioned in verse 11, by the way, are no longer needed today, since their function of authenticating Christ’s ministry as His eyewitnesses or writing and speaking God’s Word ended after the church was well established and the canon of Scripture was completed.)
Students of the Word have wrestled with the two specific verses you cite, so you’re not alone. At least three possible views must be considered. The first is that the phrase “first descended into the lower parts of the earth” refers to the Lord’s incarnation, His coming to earth as a baby in Bethlehem.
A second view is that it means “parts lower than the earth,” a reference to the Lord’s visit to Hades, the abiding place of the dead, between His death and resurrection. There He made a victory proclamation to the fallen ones who had rebelled against Noah’s message during the one hundred or more years Noah was faithfully building the ark and who are awaiting final judgment (1 Peter 3:19, 20).
Still another view is that the phrase should be taken literally as “the lower parts which belong to the earth.” In other words, it refers to Christ’s being in the grave.
Now considering the context, was it Jesus’ incarnation in Bethlehem that enabled Him to give spiritual gifts? Was it His descent into Hades? Or was it His death (being in the grave) and what naturally followed for Him as the supernatural Son of God in His subsequent rising and ascending? The third view would appear to be most true to the context. Jesus’ birth and life were vital. But the Scriptures teach that it was through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection that Christ had victory over sin and thus could redeem those who would be given as gifts to the church (1 Corinthians 15). You’ll note that in Ephesians 4:8 Paul used a passage from the book of Psalms to illustrate this truth: “ ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.’ ” Paul referred to a battle of David’s as king over Israel in which David led as captives those who had attacked his people. The giving of gifts was a part of celebrations after such battles. Paul noticed a similarity to Christ’s having the victory over Satan through His being in and conquering the grave, then ascending to Heaven, and thus being able to give gifts to believers in our present dispensation of the church.