Ephesians 4:8

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Paul, Paul


Recently I read in Ephesians 4:8, "Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men." What does "captivity captive" mean?


This is actually a quote from Psalm 68:18, which reads, "Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them." This is a Psalm that defies easy interpretation. Most scholars think it is comprised of various independent units. This one might have to do with the spoils of war, when captives are taken and gifts are offered to God in homage. In that context, it refers to God being triumphant, taking captives, and receiving gifts from people. The words suggest that God is returning triumphantly, either to the Temple or up to the heavens, after overcoming Israel's enemies. He has taken many captives and they are marching in his procession of triumph. 

Paul, of course, is using this Psalm in a different way. First of all, he applies it to Christ. Christ, too, has returned triumphantly, has ascended on high, and gives gifts to his children. Paul's focus is on the last line having to do with giving gifts and basically confirms that, in the ascended Christ, gifts were given to people. The biggest difference is that in the Psalm gifts are received, whereas with Christ, they are given.

Some people think this is a simple mistake, that Paul remembered it incorrectly. That is, of course, possible, but if Paul's whole point is that Christ gives gifts, he might have done it purposefully. In Paul's mind, the ascension of Christ made the "giving" of gifts possible. He goes on to describe the given gifts in ministry terms – apostles, prophets, and evangelists.

The NIV and NRSV both translate the phrase "captivity captive" as leading "captives in his train." This would be his victory parade. It is not clear who these people are – believers, principalities, or powers. The message, however, is pretty clear. Christ is leading and giving gifts. 

If you have any questions related to the Bible, please feel free to email us.