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The section of the epistle in which Ephesians 4:9-10 is located makes clear that the subject of the action referred to is Christ. But what does the language of "ascending" and "descending" refer to? What are the "lower earthly regions"? Are there various "heavens"? With what does he "fill the whole universe"?
These questions literally tumble out of the text at us. That is particularly remarkable because the thrust of Paul's thought in the total context of this passage is crystal clear. The obscurity of this hard saying is at least partially due to the fact that the question in Ephesians 4:10 ("What does `he ascended' mean?") is in reference to an Old Testament text cited in Ephesians 4:8. Hoping to get a clue to Paul's purpose in citing the text of Psalm 68:18, we read the text in its own setting. That, rather than helping, confuses even more when we realize that Paul cites the text with a significant alteration, apparently to make it fit his own purpose.
The central theological theme in the first four chapters of Ephesians is that the church of Jesus Christ is a creation of God in which a divided, fragmented humanity can be reconciled into one unified organism (Eph 1:22-23). The dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been broken down (Eph 2:14-16). Those who were once "far away" (that is, Gentiles) have become part of God's "household," which is being shaped into a "holy temple" in which God is present by his Spirit (Eph 2:17-22).
It is the unity and life and ministry of this "temple," this body of Christ, which is the subject matter of Ephesians 4. After expressing the unity of the church in eloquent terms, grounding that unity in the fact that there is one Spirit, one Lord, one God and Father of all (Eph 4:1-6), Paul moves on to acknowledge the body's diversity. Christ has given grace to the members of this body (Eph 4:7) for one purpose: that there would be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11) who would prepare all of God's people for service, so that the whole body would grow toward maturity, expressing in this world "the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:12-13). It is the gifting of the church for its task which is the context for understanding Paul's reference to Psalm 68:18 and its application to Christ.
Paul moves from consideration of the unity of the church toward its diversity by stating that "to each one of us grace has been given as Christ has apportioned it" (or, more literally, "according to the measure of Christ's gift," Eph 4:7 RSV, emphasis mine). Paul knew that the ascended, exalted Christ had poured out the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:32-38) and that by this Spirit the church had been endowed with a variety of gifts (1 Cor 12:4-11).
As often in Paul's writings, a word or phrase or concept he is using recalls for him a word from Scripture, which he then proceeds to quote: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men." It is apparent that the point of contact between what he has just written and the text from Psalm 68:18 is that this text speaks of an exalted, victorious one who gave gifts to his people. However, when we read the Psalm verse in the Old Testament, we note that the victorious one "received gifts from men." What is at first either disturbing or puzzling is the impression that Paul alters the Old Testament text to suit his purpose.
The Psalm quoted celebrates the victory of God over Israel's enemies and pictures that victory in terms of a triumphal procession to the sanctuary on Mount Zion, where the vanquished bring their gifts of tribute to the victorious king, who receives their gifts (Ps 68:17-18). This depiction of the triumph of God may have struck Paul as expressing well the triumph of the messianic king in cross, resurrection and exaltation. But since he thought about the gifting of the church by the exalted Christ, and the Psalm speaks of the exalted One receiving gifts from men, does Paul simply alter the text? One answer has been that Paul may neither have intended to quote exactly nor to interpret, "but in familiar Jewish fashion adapts the passage to his own use, knowing that his readers . . . would recognize the alteration and see the purpose of it." That is possible. But there is another, and likely better, explanation.
In Paul's time most Jews no longer understood Hebrew, Aramaic being their everyday language. In the synagogue, when the Hebrew text was read, a translator would freely render the text in a paraphrased form, often clarifying difficulties and making contemporary applications. These "interpretative translations" were handed down in oral form and later written down in what were called Targums. Now the Aramaic Targum text of Psalm 68:18 has precisely the change from "receiving gifts" to "giving gifts" that we find in Paul's quotation. It is quite possible that Paul simply makes use of the rabbinic interpretation of the Psalm passage. That interpretation may have arisen from the recognition that though the Psalm celebrates God's victory in analogy to the victory procession of earthly monarchs who receive gifts of homage and tribute from their conquered subjects, the exalted God of Israel is the one who bestows salvation on his people.
Having quoted the Psalm text, in keeping with its Targumic restatement, Paul now continues in typical rabbinic fashion to explore an aspect of the Psalm text in relation to the action of Christ, the messianic king who came and triumphed over death and was exalted to lordship (Eph 1:20-21; see also Phil 2:5-11). Thus the words "he ascended" (from the Psalm), when applied to Christ, presuppose (or imply) "that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions" (Eph 4:9). What "descent" is in view here? And what are "the lower, earthly regions" (or, as in the NIV notes, "the depths of the earth")?
One view holds that Paul has in mind the Incarnation, the descent of the Son of Man from heaven to earth (see Jn 3:13). Within this view, there are two ways in which "the lower, earthly regions" can be understood: (1) It could be seen as a reference to the lowest parts of the earth, namely, the underworld--the world of the dead, Hades. That could refer simply to the fact that the descent of Christ climaxed in death and burial. Or it could be a reference to the idea found in the New Testament only in 1 Peter 3:18-20 that before his resurrection, Christ entered the world of the dead and preached to the departed spirits. (2) It could be taken to mean "the lower, that is, earthly regions," in contrast to the height of heaven to which the Christ ascended (Eph 4:10).
An alternate view holds that the "ascent" precedes the "descent." In light of everything said previously in this epistle, Paul had no need to prove the Incarnation; that could be presupposed. Since the immediate context (Eph 4:7, 11) speaks about the giving of gifts to the church by the ascended, triumphant Lord, what Paul needed to show was that a descent was necessary in order for the exalted one to give these gifts. That descent is identified with the coming of Christ in the Spirit.
Paul's concept of the indwelling Christ (Eph 3:17) and John's teaching about the coming of Christ to the believers in the Spirit, subsequent to Jesus' "exaltation" (Jn 14:23-24), would support the possibility of such an understanding of the text.
However, since Paul nowhere speaks of the gift of the Spirit or the indwelling presence of Christ as a result of a "descent," it seems more probable that the well-established Pauline concept of Christ's humiliation and exaltation (Phil 2:5-11), in that order, stands behind the sequence here. This would admirably fit the context of the giving of Christ's gifts to the church. The one who emptied himself of divine glory and humbled himself even to death has been highly exalted "in order to fill the whole universe. It was he who gave . . ."
With what does he, literally, "fill the whole"? The TEV interprets the text to mean "fill the whole universe with his presence." The RSV simply translates, "fill all things." Some have understood this "filling" in direct connection with the giving of the gifts, that is, he fills everything (or all) with his gifts.
Perhaps it is better to take the other common sense of the Greek word pleroo ("fill"), which is to "fulfill" or "bring to completion." That meaning would correspond well with a similar statement made earlier in the letter (Eph 1:23), where Paul speaks of the completion of the work of Christ. In that case, Paul speaks of Christ's descent (Incarnation) and ascent (ascension, exaltation) as having one purpose: to bring the mysterious purposes of God for humanity (Eph 1:8-10) to their completeness, to "fulfill" them. And the giving of gifts to the church is part of that "bringing all things to completion," since it is to lead to the church's perfection as expressing "the fullness of Christ" in the world.
T. K. Abbott, Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians, International Critical Commentary (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1897), p. 112.