Leading Captivity Captive


Leading Captivity Captive

January 31st, 1971 @ 8:15 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

1-31-1971    8:15 a.m.


Yes sir, we are going to expound one of the most unusual passages of Scripture in all the Word of God today.  On the radio you are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the message entitled Leading Captivity Captive.  We are preaching through the Book of Ephesians, and we are in the fourth chapter.  And the reading of the text—and this will be an exposition, an exegesis, an expounding of the text—is verses 8 through 10 of the fourth chapter of Ephesians.

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.)

[Ephesians 4:8-10]


When you read and study, you will find some of the most diverse interpretations of this unusual passage.  It is a passage concerning our Lord’s ascension into heaven, and the phrase “leading captivity captive” [Ephesians 4:8], and then from heaven bestowing grace gifts upon His church and upon men [Ephesians 4:8, 11-12].  Now next Sunday we shall speak of those grace gifts that the Lord Jesus from heaven bestows upon men.  But this Lord’s Day we are speaking of that unusual phrase:  “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive” [Ephesians 4:8].  I shall present two interpretations of that passage, and then the third shall be my own.

First, it is thought by many who are reverently, deeply committed to the love of and interpretation of the Word of God, it is thought by many of those devout men that this refers to the liberation of the Old Testament saints from sheol, from hades; that when the Lord entered heaven, when He was raised from the dead and ascended up into heaven, that He carried with Him all of the Old Testament saints who heretofore had been waiting in sheol, in hades, for the atonement of Christ.  And they say that’s what this means, “When He ascended up on high, when He went up to glory, He led captivity captive” [Ephesians 4:8].  Now I present what they mean by that interpretation.  The passage is a quotation from Psalm 68:18:  “Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive.”  And they say that this psalm written by David refers to some unknown victory of David when he liberated the captives that the enemies had taken from Israel and brought them back in triumph to their homes.  And they refer to this, “Thou hast led captivity,” they refer to that word “captivity” as referring to a multitude of captives.  They were captive, a multitude of them, and David liberated them and brought them back in triumph to Israel [Psalm 68:18].

Then they quote also the passage in Judges 5:12, in the song of Deborah and Barak:  “Arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive”; that is, the Israelites were captives of the Midianites—and Barak liberated the Israelites—who were the captors of Israel, and he led the multitude that was captive, he led them in freedom, in captivity back to Israel and to freedom.  So looking upon this passage, they interpret that word “captivity” to refer to a multitude of captives that Jesus freed [Ephesians 4:8].

Now, they say that those captives that Jesus freed and took up with Him into glory when He ascended, those captives were the Old Testament saints—those who had died before the atonement of Christ [Ephesians 4:8].  Now look at their reasoning.  One: there is no doubt but that now, when a saved man dies, his spirit, his soul goes directly to Paradise, to God.  That is very plainly presented in the New Testament.  One, when Jesus died He said to the malefactor on the cross, “Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise” [Luke 23:43]; not in sheol, and not in hades, but up there where God is, where I am going.  Second, in the twelfth chapter of the second Corinthian letter, Paul says that he went up to the third heaven, that he went up to Paradise [2 Corinthians 12:2-4]; he did not go to sheol, he did not go to the grave, he did not go to hades, he went up to Paradise, up to the third heaven in the presence of God [2 Corinthians 12:2, 4].  So we know that when a saved man dies today, he goes directly to God, to Paradise, where Jesus is [Luke 23:43].

That is seen in the fifth chapter of the second Corinthian letter, when Paul says, “If we are absent from the body, we are present with the Lord” [2 Corinthians 5:8].  It’s also seen in the first chapter of the Philippian letter, where Paul says, “For I would choose to depart and to be with Christ; which is far better” [Philippians 1:23].  Now there’s no doubt—I am repeating—but that now when a saved person dies, he goes directly to God; he goes directly to heaven; he goes directly to Paradise.

But when you turn to the Old Covenant, the Old Testament, these scholars say, it was not so:  they went to sheol, they went to hades, they went to a waiting place for the atonement of Christ.  And they point out these passages.  When Joseph supposedly was killed, and his evil brothers took his coat of many colors and bathed it in the blood of a goat, and then brought it to his father, to Israel, and said, “Your son apparently is dead” [Genesis 37:26-34], Jacob said, “I will go down to sheol, unto my son, mourning for him” [Genesis 37:35].  It is found again—now these are just typical passages I’m citing—it is found again in Job, who because of his misery, Job cried, “O that God would hide me in sheol”  [Job 14:13]. It is found again in these passages—and they are multiplied:

  • when Abraham died, the Old Testament said he was “gathered unto his fathers” [Genesis 25:8].
  • When Ishmael died he was “gathered unto his fathers” [Genesis 25:17].
  • When Jacob died he was “gathered unto his fathers” [Genesis 49:33].
  • When Joseph died he was gathered unto his fathers [Genesis 50:25-26; Joshua 24:32]. 
  • When David died he “slept with his fathers,” with his people [1 Kings 2:10].
  • And when Solomon died he slept with his people [1 Kings 11:43].

So they say in the Old Testament that the Old Testament saints, when they died, they went to a waiting place, in sheol, in hades, awaiting for the great atonement of our Lord.

Now these interpreters say the great change from sheol, from hades, from that waiting place, to Paradise, to God in heaven, occurred here, here in this passage [Ephesians 4:8]:  when the Lord Jesus ascended up on high, He led these captives who were waiting in sheol, He led them, His triumph, He led them up to glory; He entered glory at the head of a great multitude of Old Testament saints who were waiting for His atoning grace and for His expiation of their sins, and He led them up into glory.

Somebody could also say that when Moses and Elijah spoke to the Lord Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration they spoke to Him about His death, which He should accomplish in Jerusalem [Luke 9:30-31].  And I can imagine their saying to Jesus, “O Lord Jesus, however the cost, and whatever the burden, and the agony, and the sacrifice, and the cross, You must die for our sins; for our only hope of entering into heaven is in Your expiation, in Your sacrifice, in Your pouring out of blood for our sins.”  So that is one interpretation of this passage:  that it refers to the translation of the Old Testament saints up to heaven [Ephesians 4:8].

Now I notice this:  the first edition, the old edition of the Scofield Bible, presents that view.  I notice that the second, the new edition of the Scofield Bible does not present it.  They have changed their minds concerning it, but I wanted you to know that interpretation.

All right, second: there is an interpretation which believes that this refers to the triumph of Christ over Satan and the demons; demonology—“He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” [Ephesians 4:8]—that it refers to the ascension of our Lord when He triumphed over the kingdom of darkness, the demonic kingdom of Satan [Colossians 2:15].  And here is their interpretation of that: what they’re saying here is that our Lord Jesus filled, fulfilled in perfection—and I believe this, of course—that our Lord fulfilled in perfection the Old Testament type of the high priest who went into the Holy of Holies to sprinkle blood of expiation and atonement [Leviticus 16:3-19].  Do you remember the Day of Atonement, when an animal, an innocent animal was brought, and the hands of the high priest were laid on the head of the animal [Leviticus 16:21], and he confessed all the sins of the nation over the head of the animal; then the innocent animal was slain, and its blood was caught in a basin, and the high priest went through the court and then through the Holy Place and into the Holy of Holies, and there on the mercy seat he sprinkled the blood of expiation? [Leviticus 16:14-19].  Now these interpreters say that was a picture and a type of what Christ has done for the expiation, the forgiveness, the atonement of our sins.  He died on the cross, and His blood was poured out on the ground [John 19:34].  And then He arose and went through the heavens [Acts 1:1-11]; He went through all of the creation, and up there to God, He appeared in the sanctuary, our High Priest in heaven, bloodless, a body bloodless—His blood had been poured out [Matthew 26:28]—as a sign, and as the consummation, the perfection of our atonement.  He presented Himself before God, He presented His bloodless body before the Lord in keeping with the type that our sins had been paid for and atoned.

All right, second in that view—the view is that the Lord ascended up into heaven in keeping with that type of the great High Priest, offering blood for the expiation, the taking away of sin: now they say, when the Lord went up into heaven, when He ascended up into heaven [Ephesians 4:8], He went through the kingdom of Satan, for the Bible expressly says that this fallen creation, the world and its glory, is a part of Satan’s domain [2 Corinthians 4:4; Matthew 4:8-9].  So when the Lord went through this creation, from this earth through the air, through the heavens, when He went through [Hebrews 4:14], He went through the kingdom of the demons, the kingdom of Satan; and they tried to impede His progress, that He might not present Himself and fulfill His work as the great High Priest of His people [Hebrews 4:14].  They point out that Satan tried to kill Jesus when He was born [Matthew 2:16]; Satan tried to kill the Lord when He preached at Nazareth [Luke 4:29]; Satan tried to kill the Lord in Gethsemane [Luke 22:3; John 18:3].  Then they point out that when He was buried, Satan tried to keep Him buried, rolling a great stone over the grave, putting a Roman seal on the stone, and setting a guard there to watch it [Matthew 27:66].  So they say when the Lord ascended up through this domain of Satan, the fallen creation over which Satan presides, that when the Lord ascended [Ephesians 4:8], the demons tried to impede His progress and to keep Him from appearing as the great High Priest and consummating our salvation in heaven [Hebrews 4:14].

Now in support of that, they exegete a passage here in Colossians 2:15:  “And having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”  Now they follow this:  principalities and powers, in Ephesians 6:12, those archēs and exousias, they refer to orders of demons.  “Having spoiled, apekdusamenos, apekdusamenos,” literally that means “wholly to strip off from oneself”; and that’s the key to their interpretation of this.  Apekdusamenos is a Greek word, it’s a passive word, reflective, something that a man does to himself, “wholly to strip off from oneself”; “And having wholly stripped off from Himself the archēs and exousias,” the orders of angelic demons, “He made a show of them openly, deigmatizō,” He exhibited them openly [Colossians 2:15]—usually that word is used in disgrace.  You’ll find it in the first chapter of Matthew, where Joseph said, when he saw that his virgin girl that he was going to marry, Mary of Nazareth, was already pregnant, she was already heavy with child, “He deigmatizō,” he thought to, not to expose her, not publicly to disgrace her [Matthew 1:19].  All right, now that’s what that word means, translated here “made a show of them openly [Colossians 2:15]; He exposed them publicly, openly, boldly, triumphing over them in it, thriambeuō, thriambeuō, thriambeuō.”  Thriambeuō is a Greek word that comes from thriambos, thriambos; and thriambos is the “Hallelujah Chorus,” it’s the festive song of glory in the great procession up to the Parthenon in Athens.  And the Greeks, using the word thriambos, the song of exultation, the Romans took the idea and called it the “triumphus,” the “triumphus,” that is, the shout of the Roman soldiers and the populous when the general came by in the great procession after some great victory, the triumphus.  And we get our English word “triumph” from it.  So these expositors say that the Lord Jesus in His ascent into heaven  was impeded by all of these demonic orders, but He wholly stripped Himself from them, He wholly stripped Himself from them, and He took them captive, and they became a part of His glorious triumphant entrance into heaven [Ephesians 4:8].  The kingdom of Satan and all of his demonic angels are defeated and conquered and tied to His chariot wheels as He enters into the glory of heaven [Colossians 2:15].  That’s what they say that means, “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive” [Ephesians 4:8]: He took the multitude of that demonic orders, and He led them captive as He entered glory [Ephesians 4:8].

Now we must hasten.  Third: “Now pastor, what do you think that means?”  Well, as with everything else I study in the Book, I’ve got my ideas.  Oh, I can’t help but be that way.  When I study the Bible and read and pore over it, there are things that just come to me with such deep persuasion and conviction.  And that does not mean these other expositors are not correct, nor does it mean that they’re not more saintly than I and more deeply committed to the Word of God than I.  But when I study the Bible there are things that come to my heart, and so I’m going to present now what I think that means.  “Wherefore He saith, When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men” [Ephesians 4:8].  Then, now that He descended, that means that He came down, entered into that world of death and the grave, and He ascended from it in triumph, and presented Himself in heaven, as in triumph, as the word here is used [Ephesians 4:9-10], as a Roman general in the great procession of victory through the streets of the Eternal City.

All right, first of all, there is no doubt but that it refers to the marvelous entrance of our Savior into heaven when He was raised from the dead [Luke 24:1-7], and when He ascended back to the Father [Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-10], when He ascended up on high; and it was a triumphal entrance [Colossians 2:15].  And the Scriptures describe that in all of its glory and wonder. For example, in this psalm, in the sixty-eighth Psalm that the apostle Paul is quoting here [Ephesians 4:8], he says, “The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels [Psalm 68:17]:  the Lord is among them . . . Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive, Thou hast received gifts for men” [Psalm 68:18].  This is a prophecy, it is a picture, and a glorious one, of the Lord’s ascension into heaven with the angelic host [Psalm 68:17]—the Revelation calls them “thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands” [Revelation 5:11]—when He entered into heaven, there was the great acclamation of all of the angels in glory and all of the saints of all time.  And I think this beautiful passage, so familiar to us in the twenty-fourth Psalm, is also a prefiguration and a prophecy of that glorious entrance into heaven:  “Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory will come in?  Who is He?  He is the Lord strong and mighty.  Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.  Who is He?  Who is the King of glory?  The Lord of hosts, Jesus, Jehovah God, He is the King of glory” [Psalm 24:7-10].  And He enters in amid the acclaim and the adoration and the love of all of the Old Testament saints and of all of the angels of God.  The cherubim, the seraphim, the archangels, oh glory, glory, what a day!  What a day, when the Lord, after His atonement here in this earth [Colossians 2:13-14], ascended back up to heaven! [Ephesians 4:8].  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.

When He shall appear with trumpet sound, to head the conquering line

The whole world will bow at His dear feet—

and think of it—

He’s a Friend of mine.

[author unknown]

When He ascended up on high, when the Lord entered into glory, raised from the dead [Luke 24:26], having made atonement for our sins [Hebrews 2:17], now what does that mean, “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive”? [Ephesians 4:8].  I think it refers, He led captive those who had tried to make Him captive.  He led captivity captive.  He led captive, He tied to His chariot wheels in that triumph those who had sought to make Him captive.

“Well, pastor, what are you referring to?”  I’m referring first to sin.  Sin sought to defile Him, and failed.  Sin sought to besmirch Him and ruin Him, and failed.  Sin in evil and fallen men blasphemed Him, and cursed Him, and spat upon Him, and pulled out His beard [Isaiah 50:6], and finally nailed Him to a tree and crucified Him [Matthew 27:28-50].  But He triumphed.  When He died, the sins of the world were laden upon Him, all of our sins [1 John 2:2].  And they crushed Him down into the grave [Matthew 27:57-61].  But He rose victorious [Matthew 28:5-7], clean and pure and undefiled [1 Peter 2:21-23]; and all of our sins laid upon Him He buried in the grave, and they are buried [1 Peter 2:24].  That’s why baptism is so beautiful:  we are buried with the Lord in the likeness of His death, and dead to sin, buried [Romans 6:3-6]; and He rose triumphant from the grave, leading captivity captive [Ephesians 4:5].  He triumphed over our sins.

Second, what tried to capture Him and to hold Him?  Death and the grave.  Death sought to bind Him, and so certainly was He dead that they did not break His bones as they did the malefactors on either side.  They just took a spear and ran it through His heart [John 19:31-34].  Death tried to bind Him.  And the grave tried to hold Him.  And so certainly did the grave try to hold Him that they placed on the stone a Roman seal and set there a guard before it [Matthew 27:66].  But He triumphed over death and the grave [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]; He broke their bands asunder like Samson the withies and the ropes [Judges 16:12].  And up from the grave triumphant He arose.

Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,

Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!

Then up from the grave He arose;

With a mighty triumphus o’er His foes;

He arose a victor from the dark domain,

And He lives forever with His saints to reign.

He arose!  He arose!  Hallelujah!  Christ arose!

[“Up from the Grave He Arose,” Robert Lowry]

Leading captivity captive [Ephesians 4:8], leading captive those that would captive Him:  death and the grave, tied to His chariot wheel in His triumphant entrance into heaven [Colossians 2:15].

What does that mean:  “He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive”? [Ephesians 4:8].  It refers to Satan and all of his hosts, all of them.  Satan tried to destroy Him by trial, by temptation [Matthew 4:1-10], by death [Matthew 27:26-50], by accusation; Satan tried to crush Him.  Satan did bruise His heel; but the Lord Jesus Christ broke Satan’s head and crushed him [Genesis 3:15].  “For the children,” we, “are partakers of flesh and blood, He also took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, even the devil” [Hebrews 2:14].  Wherefore, wherefore, therefore, all of us who have through fear of death been subject to the bondage of death all our lives are now free; we are liberated [Hebrews 2:15].  He destroyed Satan and all of his kingdom, and tied Satan to His chariot wheels [Colossians 2:15].  And when He entered heaven, He was triumphant over our adversary and archenemy [Genesis 3:15].

And to summarize and to close:  triumphant over everything that is against us, everything.  Whether it’s in heaven, or whether it’s in earth, or whether it’s in hell, we’ve been liberated and freed from it all in this triumph of Jesus our Lord.  We are free.  The law has been fulfilled [Romans 10:4]. The curse has been removed [Galatians 3:13].  The ordinances of the handwriting against us, has been nailed to the cross [Colossians 2:14].  And our foes are utterly and completely demolished and overcome!  And when the Lord entered glory, it was a thriambos, a thriambos, it was with a hymn of glory!  And when the Lord entered heaven, it was with a triumphus, it was with a shout of the Roman soldiers when the victor came back!  And today we’re still in the glory of that exaltation.  I am saved!  Why, last Sunday the choir sang it:

Glory, I’m saved! 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]

Our thriambos, our triumphus, our praise to Jesus for what He has done for us.  Isn’t that something?

I think that’s what it means when He saith, “When He ascended up on high, He carried captivity captive” [Ephesians 4:8]; those that would make us captive, send us down in sin and death and grave and hell, those that would capture us, He captured them and made a show of them openly, triumphing over them [Colossians 2:15].

O Lord, hold my hand while I shout!  What a glory and what a blessing.

And that’s what Jesus has done for us, what our blessed Lord has done for you.  And to love the Savior, to give Him your life, to share your home and family with us in this dear church, to come forward as God should press any appeal upon your heart, would you do it now?  In the balcony round, on this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, as God would speak to your heart, and we wait upon Him, would you come?  A family you, a couple you, a one somebody you, while we make this appeal, on the first note of that first stanza, come.  Make the decision now in your heart, and when you stand up, stand up coming down one of these stairways or into the aisle and down to the front: “Here I come, pastor, I make it now.”  Do it.  Do it, and God bless you in the way as you come, and as we stand and sing.