Have you ever run across a Bible passage that is difficult to understand? I mean, one that you really can’t figure out, and haven’t heard anyone teaching about before?
“Therefore He says, ‘When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.’” (Ephesians 4:8)
This is a New Testament quote of Psalm 68:18. Of all Scripture, this is probably one of the more difficult passages to understand, yet even with it, as with other obscure passages, there are certain steps we can take to better understand its intended meaning.
As it should be any time we study the Bible, our first step is to ask for God’s help. Jesus said, “…when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth…” (John 16:13) Because He is its author, God is the One who knows what His Word means and is the One who can help us also understand.
First Corinthians 2:14 tells us that, “the natural [unregenerate; not born again, not submitted to God’s authority in Christ] man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” While this verse primarily teaches that those who are not Christians resist God’s teachings, we can also conclude that it makes sense to ask for God’s assistance because we are seeking to understand things of the Spirit.
The next step to comprehending difficult Bible passages is to re-read them in their proper context. Read the verses (or chapters, if necessary) immediately before and after the verse in question; many times they will give us a better understanding of what is being taught.
Verses 4-6: “4 I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, 2 with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, 3 endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
Verses 7-10: 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.)
Verses 11-13: And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:1-13)
If you examine this entire stretch of verses, you see that there seem to be three natural divisions. Verses 1-6 speak about the unity of the Christian faith—that there is one faith, one baptism, one Lord, etc. Verses 7-10 tell us we have gotten grace, and follow up with a quote of Psalm 68:13 showing that this was foretold. Verses 11-13 then pick up with the different kinds of gifts God gave and why. So we see that today’s verse is the proof text the writer of Ephesians is giving to substantiate that what follows was foretold in the Old Testament.
The next step in understanding a difficult passage is to pull it apart, piece by piece. In this case, we have:
1) “Therefore He says” – Paul is saying, “God foretold what follows in the Old Testament.”
2) “When He ascended on high” – The two things that follow happened when Jesus ascended to heaven (Scholars believe it was either during the time His body was in the tomb or after He bodily rose to heaven forty days after His resurrection.).
3) “He led captivity captive” – This is the first consequence of Jesus’ finished work on earth. Luke 4:16-21 details an interesting insight into this: “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed [doesn’t this sound a lot like “He led captivity captive”?]; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Hebrews 2:14-15 tells us, “Inasmuch then as the children [we; human beings] have partaken of flesh and blood [because we are human], He Himself [Jesus] likewise shared in the same [He also was born a human being], that through [His] death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”
We are the captives whom Jesus set free; we are no longer in bondage to sin—we have the Holy Spirit who gives us both the desire and the ability to do what is right.
4) “And gave gifts to men.” – Not only did Jesus set us free from slavery to sin, He also gave us spiritual gifts, which the next section, verses 11-13 and beyond, describe.
Another step to understanding difficult Bible passages is to look up individual words whose meanings might be less than clear in a Word Study Bible, such as the one by Spiros Zodhiates. Words such as “gifts” and “captivity” could be looked up to give a fuller understanding.
The last step to understanding difficult passages is to think on them over an extended period. Just as cows chew on their cud, then regurgitate and chew again, spending time mulling over difficult to understand passages sometimes helps the meaning really come together better for us. The most important thing to remember when we come across difficult to understand passages, however, is to not give up—it in the Bible for a reason. Follow the steps and give it time. God’s heart is for us to know what He says!
Thank You that Your heart is not to hide Your Word from us, but for everyone to come to a knowledge of You. Help us be faithful in our efforts! Amen.