Leading Captivity Captive


Leading Captivity Captive

January 31st, 1971 @ 10:50 AM

Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)
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Dr. W.A. Criswell

Ephesians 4:8-10

1-31-71    10:50 a.m.


On television and on radio you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Leading Captivity Captive.  It is an exposition and an exegesis of a passage in Ephesians and Colossians.  In our preaching through the Book of Ephesians, we are in the fourth chapter and the passage which is the text is verses 8 through 10:

Wherefore He saith, When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.

(Now that He ascended, what is that but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?

He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.)

[Ephesians 4:8-10]


When you study it, this becomes one of the most unusual and potentially one of the most fraught with meaning, significance, of any passage in all the Bible.  And as scholars study it, and as interpreters write of it, and as I read what they write, I am both enlightened in their elucidations, and differing so; I cannot help but be intrigued by the scholars who read that passage and make it refer to such unusually different things.

Now in the message this morning, I am going to take two of the interpretations of that passage in which devout reverent scholars believe, and then I am going to speak in the third place of what I think that it means.  And when I speak of what I think that it means, I do it humbly and reverently, not as though other men were incorrect or did not understand the passage or misinterpreted it.  But as I study and read, a passage will mean something to me whether I’m correct in its interpretation or not, yet humbly devoutly, it speaks this to me.  Then when it means something to some other man, some other preacher, I pray God’s blessings upon him as he presents the truth of God as he sees and understands it.

All right, let’s begin.  The first interpretation of the passage is by those reverent and devout and scholarly men who believe it refers to the liberation of the Old Testament saints from sheol or Hades up to glory; that they were captive in a waiting place called sheol until the atonement of Christ [Matthew 27:32-50], and upon the resurrection [Matthew 28:1-7], and ascension of our Lord [Acts 1:9-10], that the Lord took them with Him up to heaven.  Now this is their explanation of that, “When He ascended up on high, He took captivity captive” [Ephesians 4:8-10].  And they understand that word captivity to refer to a great host of captives [Ephesians 4:8].  They base that, it is a quotation from the sixty-eighth Psalm and the eighteenth verse, “Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive” [Psalm 68:18].  And they say that this psalm, a psalm of David, refers to an unknown victory that David was given by the Lord in which he liberated a great many captives who had been taken out of Israel, and he brought them back in triumph and in victory to reunite them to their people and their homeland; that the word “captivity” refers to a great host of captives.

They also use another passage to substantiate that.  In the fifth chapter of the Book of Judges which recounts, is a record of the song of Deborah and Barak over the Midianites, in the twelfth verse: “Arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive” [Judges 5:12].  And here they say that refers to all the captive Israelites who were subject to the Midianites.  And Barak liberated them, he overcame the Midianites and brought those captives back, now captives of liberty, and freedom, and victory in Israel.  So they make that word refer to a great number of captives, a great throng of captives whom the Lord liberated and took up with Him into glory.  The captives, they say, are these Old Testament saints—God’s people who died before Jesus’ atonement—and they went down to Sheol and they waited there until the liberation of the Lord, until their sins were atoned for, and the Lord took them up to glory.

Now they speak of that like this.  First, there is no doubt but that now and since the death of Christ, the soul that believes in Jesus at death goes directly to God, to Paradise, to heaven [Luke 23:39-43].  That is most explicitly avowed and presented, delineated and explained in the New Testament.  For example, when the Lord was dying, He turned to the malefactor who was dying with Him and said, “Today, sēmeron, today, this day, shalt thou be with Me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43].  In the twelfth chapter of the second Corinthian letter, the apostle Paul says that he was lifted up, whether in the body or out of the body he did not know, but he was raised up, even up to the third heaven that he calls Paradise, and there God revealed to him things that he was not even allowed to write, to reveal to us [2 Corinthians 12: 2-4].  You see, Paul did not go to sheol, he did not go to the grave, he did not go to Hades, he went to Paradise [2 Corinthians 12:4].  He went to the third heaven [2 Corinthians 12:2].  He went where God is, at the throne of the Lord; and where Jesus is [Hebrews 12:2], where the saints go now when they die [Luke 23:43].

Another passage would be the fifth chapter of the second Corinthian letter where Paul says, “Absent from the body, present with the Lord” [2 Corinthians 5:8].  When you die, you go immediately to be with Jesus who is in heaven, who is in Paradise [Luke 23:43].  Another passage is in the first chapter of the Philippian letter where Paul says, “It is far better to be, to depart this life that I might be with the Lord” [Philippians 1:23].  So there’s no doubt but that now, right now, this minute and this whole Christian era in which we live, that when a soul dies, that soul goes directly to God, to Paradise, to the third heaven where the Lord is [2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23].

But these interpreters say, in the Old Covenant, in the Old Testament, when one of the Old Testament saints died, he went to sheol.  He went to Hades.  He went to a waiting place until the Lord made atonement for his sins.  Now they quote passages; of course, there are any number of them—I point just a few.  When Joseph, apparently had been slain by a wild beast, when his brothers took the coat of many colors and dipped it in blood and brought it to Israel and said, “Your son is apparently slain,” Jacob in his lamentation said, “I will go down to sheol unto him, mourning for my son.  I will go down to sheol.  I will go down to my death grave.  I will go to sheol mourning for my boy Joseph” [Genesis 37:32-35].

Another instance is in Job.  When Job was so afflicted he said, “Oh that the Lord would hide me in sheol[Job 14:13].  Then you have those endless passages like this: when Abraham died, the Old Covenant says, “And he was gathered to his people” [Genesis 25:8].  When Ishmael died, he was “gathered to his people” [Genesis 25:17].  When Isaac died, he was “gathered to his people” [Genesis 35:29].  When Jacob died, he was “gathered to his people” [Genesis 49:33]  When Joseph died, he was gathered to his people.

And then in the list of kings, when David died, “And David slept with his fathers” [1 Kings 2:10].  And when Solomon died, he slept with his fathers [1 Kings 11:43].  So all of those passages in the Old Testament, when an Old Testament saint died in the Old Testament, he went to sheol.  He went to Hades.  He went to be with his people, with his fathers, there to wait until the great translation up to heaven.

Now they say, “Where did that occur?  Where were all of those Old Testament saints lifted out of sheol, out of Hades, out of their waiting place and transferred to glory?”  These interpreters say that was done in this passage here, “When He ascended up on high” [Ephesians 4:8].  When the Lord went up to heaven, He took with Him all of those captives and He carried them with Him up to heaven.  They would say that when the Lord was transfigured and Moses and Elijah were talking to Him, the Bible says they were talking to Him about His death which He should accomplish in Jerusalem [Luke 9:30-31].  That is, Moses and Elijah were saying to Jesus, “You must die for our sins and the sins of all of us who died before You, because our hope of heaven, our liberation, the end of our waiting, our captivity, lies in Your atonement for our sins [Matthew 27:32-50; Romans 5:11; Hebrews 2:17], and in Your ascension into glory, when we rise into heaven with You” [Luke 9:30-31].

Now that’s what they say that means.  I notice that the Scofield Bible, the first Scofield Bible presented that view.  I notice also that the new revised Scofield Bible does not present it.  They have changed their minds.  But in any event, that is a view that many holy, reverent, devout scholars have of the interpretation of that passage [Ephesians 4:8-9].  When He went up to glory, when He ascended up on high, He took these captives, this multitude of Old Testament saints, and He took them with Him and they entered Paradise, into heaven with God, with our Lord [Ephesians 4:8-9].

All right, a second interpretation.  There are those who believe that this passage presents the triumph of our Lord over the kingdom, the orders of demons, Satan and the kingdom of darkness.  “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” [Ephesians 4:8].  And the captivity there is the attempt of those who sought to make Jesus and us captives—demons, the kingdom of Satan—and He captured them and they were a part of His triumphal train.  They were tied to His chariot wheels when the Lord entered the glory of heaven [Ephesians 4:8].

All right, now let’s see why they say that.  First of all, they remind us that the high priest on the Day of Atonement went into the Holy of Holies to offer blood and expiation [Leviticus 16:1-34].  And you remember that type and that symbol in the Old Covenant, in the Old Testament.  On the Day of Atonement an animal, an innocent animal was brought before the high priest [Leviticus 16:9].  He laid his hands on the head of that innocent animal and confessed all the sins of the people [Leviticus 16:21].  Then the animal was slain and his blood was caught in a basin [Leviticus 16:15].  Then the high priest, on this one Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the high priest went through the court of the temple, through the Holy Place in the temple into the Holy of Holies, and there on the mercy seat, he sprinkled blood of expiation, the blood of atonement [Leviticus 16:14-16].

Now these interpreters say, and they say it correctly according to the ninth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, our Lord did that [Hebrews 9:12].  Our Lord is our great and faithful High Priest [Hebrews 4:14].  He died for our sins on the cross [1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21].  And He was raised for our justification [Romans 4:25].  He ascended up into heaven and there in the sanctuary of God, He offered Himself, His blood [Hebrews 9:14]—now a bloodless body and token of the fact that He had paid our debt [Hebrews 9:12]—He offered Himself, our High Priest, in expiation for our sins [Hebrews 9:15], and that consummated the great atonement when the Lord died [Matthew 27:32-50], when He was raised [Matthew 28:5-7]; then when He ascended up into heaven [Acts 1:9-10], and there in the sanctuary of God, in the Holy of Holies, He offered blood of expiation for the sins of His people [Hebrews 9:24-26].

Now what these interpreters point out to us is this: that when the Lord ascended into heaven, He was impeded by this kingdom of darkness and demons [Colossians 2:15].  You see, Satan tried to keep the Lord from being our Savior.  He tried to kill Him in Bethlehem [Matthew 2:13, 16].  He tried to kill Him in Nazareth [Luke 4:28-29].  He tried to slay Him in Gethsemane [Matthew 26:47], and when the Lord finally died for our sins on the cross and His blood was spilled out on the ground [Matthew 27:32-50], then Satan tried to keep Him in the tomb [Matthew 27:57-60].  He put a great stone over the sepulcher and sealed it with a Roman seal, and he set a guard there to watch it to see that He did not rise [Matthew 27:63-66].  Thus Satan and his demons—the kingdom of darkness—have always sought to impede the high priestly work of our Savior.

So they did it here [Colossians 2:15].  As our Lord was raised from the dead, the kingdom of Satan which is this fallen creation, the earth, and the air, and the whole fallen creation, he is the lord over it [2 Corinthians 4:4].  That’s his dominion.  He said so.  He offered it to Christ, the glory of it, whatever it is [Matthew 4:8-9].  When the Lord tried to ascend back up to heaven to complete the offering of His blood for expiation of our sins [Hebrews 9:14], to enter the Holy of Holies [Hebrews 9:11-12], as He left the earth and sought to go through the heavens [Hebrews 4:14], the dominion of Satan and his demons [Ephesians 2:2], they sought to impede His progress [Colossians 2:15].  And that contest, that confrontation, they find in this passage in the second chapter of Colossians and the fifteenth verse.  “And having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” [Colossians 2:15].

And here’s their exegesis of that passage: “principalities and powers,” archas and exousias [Colossians 2:15].  Now in Ephesians 6:12, you will find them as here, that refers to orders of demons: archas exousias, orders of demons.  There are orders of demonic spirits just as there are orders of angels.  You have cherubim, you have seraphim, you have archangels [Genesis 3:24; Isaiah 6:2, Jude 1:9], you have also orders in the demonic world, and two of those orders are named here, the archas and the exousias.  Paul lists them as orders of demons [Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:15].  Then he says when Jesus was raised from the dead, He apekdusamenos.  He apekdusamenos: that is—if I could just translate that participle, it’s a passive participle—that means He wholly, absolutely, completely stripped Himself, stripped Himself [Colossians 2:15].  So the passage here says, the archas and the exousias [Colossians 2:15], these orders of demons, the Lord Jesus Christ, and you have it, “He spoiled them,” apekdusamenos, He completely wholly stripped Himself of them [Colossians 2:15].

Then the next word is deigmatisai, deigmatisai, translated here, “He made a show of them openly” [Colossians 2:15]Deigmatisai, now you have that word in the first chapter in Matthew when Joseph was going to marry the virgin Mary in Nazareth.  Behold, she was pregnant.  His promised bride was with child, and he thought upon it.  And he decided not to deigmatisai, to make a show of her publicly [Matthew 1:19].  But what he was going to do was to put her away privately.  Now you see the meaning of that word, deigmatisai; it means to publicly to display, to exhibit, and usually in a disgraceful way.  So these archē and exousia, these orders of demons, He apekdusamenos, He stripped Himself of them deigmatisai, made of the show of them openly, and then the last word, translated here, triumphing over them in it [Colossians 2:15], thriambeusas, thriambeusas, thriambeusas, thriambeusas.  That’s the Greek word for the name of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” the name of the exalted festal hymn when they had their procession in honor of Bacchus, the thriambeusas.

And the Romans caught the spirit of that and they called it the thriambeusas.  When the Roman General came back with, laden with spoils and had conquered his enemies, and he was accorded a procession through the Eternal City, why, the thriambeusas was the shout of the soldiery and the shout of the citizenry when the general appeared riding in his chariot.  So they say that’s what happened to the Lord Jesus.  “He, when He ascended up into heaven” [Ephesians 4:8]. He was opposed by these archē and exousia, the kingdom of Satan; but He wholly stripped Himself of them [Colossians 2:15].  They were not able to bind Him to make Him captive, but rather He bound them to His chariot wheels, and when He entered into heaven, He came with these archē and exousia, and the whole kingdom of Satan chained to His chariot wheels, and entered in triumph into heaven [Colossians 2:15].  Now that’s what they say this means, “When He ascended up on high, He carried captivity captive” [Ephesians 4:8].  He took all of that kingdom of darkness, and the demons, and chaining them to His chariot wheel in triumph, He entered into glory [Colossians 2:15].  That’s the second interpretation.

Now what I think it means: there is no doubt but that, “When He ascended up on high” [Ephesians 4:8], refers to His ascension into heaven, because Paul explains it very carefully.  “He that ascended is He that descended into the lower parts of the earth” [Ephesians 4:9].  He came down and died [Matthew 27:32-50], and was buried and went into sheol, went into Hades, went into the grave and into the netherworld [Matthew 27:57-60; Acts 2:22-27], and He that did that, “He that descended is He that ascended far above all heavens” [Ephesians 4:9-10].  The heaven of the clouds and the birds, the heaven of the stars, into the third heaven where God is, “that He might fill all things” [Ephesians 4:9-10], so, there’s no doubt but that that passage refers, “When He ascended up on high” [Ephesians 4:8], it refers to the ascension of our Lord into heaven [Acts 1:9-10].

Now, sometimes you’ll find in the Bible the most glorious depiction of that marvelous entrée, when the Lord in triumph returned to heaven, having died for our sins and raised for our justification [Romans 4:25].  For example, in this passage that the apostle quotes in the Psalm 68:18 let me quote the verse above it, verse 17:

The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels:

the Lord is among them.

Thou hast ascended up on high, Thou hast led captivity captive:

Thou hast received gifts for men.

[Psalm 68:17-18; Ephesians 4:8]

There is a picture of our Lord ascending up into heaven, and the angels, the Book of the Revelation says, “They are myriads, myriads times myriads, ten thousand times ten thousands and thousands of thousands” [Revelation 5:11].  When the Lord returned to heaven, the thousands and the thousands of the angels lined all glory to welcome Him back home.

And there’s no doubt also, but that this glorious passage in the twenty-fourth Psalm refers to the same thing:

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.  Who is He?  Who is this King of glory?  The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.  Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.  Who is He?  Who is the King of glory?  The Lord God Jehovah, Jesus the Christ, He is the King of glory.

[Psalm 24: 7-10] 

And that passage refers to the triumphal entry of our Lord into heaven [Acts 1:9-10], after He had died for our sins [Matthew 27:32-50; 1 Corinthians 15:3], and was raised from the dead [Matthew 28:5-7].

Ah, that I had the eloquence of an angel.  That I had the tongue of a Demosthenes, or a Chrysostom, or a George Whitfield, that I might describe the glorious entrance, the triumphant entrance of our Lord into Glory when He ascended from this earth [Acts 1:9-10], having died for us [1 Corinthians 15:3], and then raised for our salvation [Romans 4:25].  Oh, oh, can you imagine it, the throngs of angels?  Can you imagine the host of saints and all the heavens astir with the return of the Prince of glory?  Think of it.  Think of it.  Think of it.

The golden sun and the silvery moon.

And all the stars that shine,

Were made by His omnipotent hand—

And think of it!—

And He’s a friend of mine.

And when He shall come with trumpets sound

To head the conquering line,

The whole creation shall bow at His feet,

And He is a friend of mine.

[author unknown]

Think of it!  How they must have gloried when the Lord returned, the exaltation and the praise of the blessed Lord.  Well, He did not come just alone.  “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive.”  He came in, whatever that means, “He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” [Ephesians 4:8].

Next Sunday I shall preach on the grace gifts He pours out upon us from heaven [Ephesians 4:7-12].  But that, “He led captivity captive” [Ephesians 4:8], what is that?  To me that refers, He took captive what had tried to make Him captive.  “He led captivity captive,” what had tried to capture Him, and hold Him, and bind Him, He took captive when He went up to glory; victor triumphant [Ephesians 4:8].

Well, what is what tried to hold Him captive?  One: sin and the world [Hebrews 4:15].  Sin tried to defile Him, and in the person of evil men—degenerate, fallen sons of old man Adam—He was cursed and reviled and blasphemed! [Matthew 27:39-43].  They spat upon Him!  They spat upon Him [Matthew 27:30].  They plucked out His beard! [Isaiah 50:6]  They beat Him, and finally they nailed Him to a tree [Matthew 27:30-35].  But He was still undefiled, pure, sinless, as spotless when He went back [Hebrews 4:14-15], as He was when He was incarnate in Bethlehem [Matthew 1:20-2:1].  And on Him, in His death heaped all of the sins of the world, your sins and mine [1 John 2:2], and He carried them with Him into the tomb [2 Corinthians 5:21].  And when He rose, He rose triumphant! [Matthew 28:5-7].  He left them there in the grave, our sins are buried!  And He arose triumphant, pure, the victor, and returned back to glory [Colossians 2:15].  That’s the picture you have in the baptismal scene you saw this morning.  We are buried with Christ, dead to our sins, washed in the grave, and we have risen to a new life in Christ [Romans 6:3-6].  We must hasten.

Who are these that tried to capture Christ? [Acts 2:24].  Who are this captivity that He took captive?  Bless you, death and the grave [Revelation 1:18].  Death tried to hold Him and to bind Him, and the grave tried to keep Him and to seal Him [Matthew 27:57-66].  Death, so certainly was He dead they did not break His bones.  They just took a Roman spear and thrust it into His heart, and the blood followed it to the ground, so certainly did He die [John 19:30-34].  And the grave, the grave was sealed—a great stone and a guard to watch [Matthew 27:66]—but He broke the fetters like Samson broke the webs and the ropes [Judges 16:9], He broke the withes of death and He destroyed the grave and rose triumphant [Acts 2:24; Revelation 1:18].

Low in the grave He lay,

Jesus my Savior,

Waiting the coming day,

Jesus my Lord!

Up from the grave He arose;

With a mighty triumph o’er His foes;

Carrying captivity captive [Ephesians 4:8], these that would make Him captive are now captive in Christ:

He arose a victor from the dark domain,

And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.

He arose!  Hallelujah!  Christ arose!

[“Low In The Grave He Lay,” Robert Lowry, 1874]

He ascended into heaven, carrying captivity captive [Ephesians 4:8].  Who are those that would have captured Him?  Satan and the kingdom of darkness [Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 1:13].  Look at us.  All of us children are partakers of flesh and blood [Hebrews 2:14].  He also took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, and liberated us, brought us freedom who all our lives were subject, in bondage, to the fear of death [Hebrews 2:14-15].  Satan, Satan—the Lord took him and chained him to His chariot wheels and entered heaven triumphant and victorious; carrying, leading captivity captive [Ephesians 4:8].

Last: may I put it all together?  “He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive” [Ephesians 4:8], that refers to everything in heaven above, in earth beneath, in hell below that would capture us and make us captive.  All things that are against us He has taken away, and forever we’re free.  We’re liberated.  Our great Conqueror has won the victory for us.  There’s a law; He has fulfilled it [Matthew 5:17-18].  There’s a curse He has taken away [Galatians 3:13].  There are ordinances contrary to us; He has nailed them to the cross [Colossians 2:14].  Our foes are utterly defeated.  Christ has triumphed, and to His great triumphal train, these He has conquered.  Grace, His victory—ah, what a glory!  We’re free.  We’ve been liberated.  We’re saved.  All things are ours in Christ [1 Corinthians 3:22].  That’s the thriambeusas, that’s the song and the hymn of praise!  That’s the thriambeusas, that’s the shout of victory of the Roman soldiery and the Roman populace, praising God for what He has done for us. That’s why I love songs that praise the Lord.

We’re saved [Ephesians 2:8].  We’re redeemed [1 Peter 1:18-19].  We’re washed [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5].  We’re free [Romans 8:2].  Like the song you sang last Sunday morning:

Saved by the blood of the Crucified One,

All praise to the Father, All praise to the Son.

All praise to the Spirit, the great Three in One,

Saved by the blood of the Crucified One.

Glory, I’m saved.  Glory, I’m saved.

My sins are all pardoned,

My guilt is all gone.

Glory, I’m saved, Saved by the blood of the Crucified One!.

[“Saved By the Blood,” S. J. Henderson, 1902]


The thriambeusas: the thriambeusas, the shout of glory and victory as we follow the Lord’s train into heaven.  You want to come up here and hold my hand on either side while we shout together?  Anybody want to do that?  Anybody?  That’s what it is to be a Christian, to exalt, to exalt, to glorify, to praise God [Ephesians 1:12].  Live it in the last hour of our death, in the grave when the Lord wafts us up to glory, O Lord [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17].  I call that real preaching!  Even Bill Cannon said so, yes, sir.  That’s the Book.  That’s the Lord.  That’s the glory.  That’s the shekinah.  That’s the light.  That’s the presence.  That’s the Spirit.  That’s God among us.  Ah, that we could learn more and more to be happy in the Lord, to be encouraged in the faith, to love Jesus more and thank Him more, to rejoice in His train as He leads His people into heaven [Hebrews 2:10].

Our time’s long gone.  To give your heart to the Lord [Romans 10:9-10], to love Jesus, to put your life with us in the fellowship of the church, you, would you come and stand by me?  In that balcony round, on that farthest row in the last seat, there’s time and to spare, and a stairway on either side at front and back, you come.  Come.  On the lower floor, into that aisle and down here to the front, a family you, a couple you, or just one somebody you, while we sing this hymn of appeal, come now.  Make the decision now.  And in a moment when you stand up, stand up coming.  God attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.