Did Jesus Descend to Hell? (Ephesians 4)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

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7But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8Therefore it says,“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
—Ephesians 4:7–16

Diversity within Unity

Ephesians 4:7 marks a transition in Paul’s thought from the theme of unity to the theme of diversity within unity. In particular, the focus is on Christ’s role in sovereignly gifting individual believers for the greater good of the church. Paul notes that “grace was given to each one of us.” This “grace” (charis) is not saving or sanctifying grace, but ministry grace. Elsewhere Paul uses “gift” (charisma) to refer to that which is given to believers for corporate service and edification (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:4). This grace is specifically given “to each one of us” (Eph. 4:7; cf. Rom. 12:3; 1 Cor. 12:7, 11; 1 Pet. 4:10). In Ephesians 4:4–6 “one” was used in reference to the sevenfold unity, and here it underscores that each member ought to be a contributor and participant in that unity through his use of the gifts given to him. These gifts are based not on the believers’ works or merit but “according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Christ graciously and sovereignly distributes gifts to every member of his body.

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Paul now cites the OT (Ps. 68:18) to provide the support or grounds for the claim made in Ephesians 4:7 (cf. James 4:6). By using the present tense (“Therefore it says”), Paul is indicating that the Scriptures, although spoken (or written) in the past, still speak today and are therefore relevant and binding on believers. Paul’s citation, however, is different from both the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Septuagint:

You ascended to the high places, you captured captives, you received gifts from mankind. (Ps. 68:18 LXX)

When he ascended to the high places, he captured captives, he gave gifts to men. (Eph. 4:8)1

Paul is true to the original meaning of the Psalm while also adding a Christological interpretation. In the original context, God is the Divine Warrior who ascends to his throne after defeating his enemies. Here, Christ is the victorious conqueror who ascends to his throne in heaven after defeating the spiritual forces. Instead of receiving gifts (i.e., the spoils of war) from those vanquished, Christ (having conquered his enemies by defeating death) sovereignly gives gifts to his followers.

The Goal of Ascension

Ephesians 4:9–10 provide an explanation or inspired commentary on Psalm 68:18 (cf. Eph. 4:8) and thus function as a parenthetical comment. Paul begins by repeating part of the citation (“He ascended”; v. 9) in order to draw attention to the meaning and implication of the phrase. In particular, he infers from Christ’s ascension a previous descent. The expression that Christ has “descended into the lower regions, the earth” has been the center of much debate. There are three main interpretations: (1) Jesus’ descent to Hades: After his death but before his resurrection, Jesus went to Hades to liberate OT saints or to offer the dead a chance to hear the gospel, repent, and be set free (1 Pet. 3:19 is cited in support of this view). (2) Jesus’ incarnation (and death): The “lower regions” refer to the earth (as opposed to the heavens). Thus, Jesus’ descent to the earth is another way of referring to the incarnation. (3) Jesus’ Spirit at Pentecost: Christ’s descent occurred through his Spirit at Pentecost. Of these three views, the second is the most likely, primarily because it has the fewest difficulties and best fits the context of Ephesians. It should be noted, however, that Paul’s primary concern is not with Christ’s descent but with his ascension. The very one “who descended is the one who also ascended” (Eph. 4:10). Specifically, he ascended “far above all the heavens,” a sign of his exalted status (Ephesians 1:21). Finally, the stated goal of Christ’s ascension is “that he might fill all things” (cf. Ephesians 1:23). Christ fills the entire universe through the exercise of his divine lordship over all things.

The Purpose of Gifts

Paul expands upon his comments in Ephesians 4:7–8 concerning the conquering and sovereign Christ’s gracious gifts to each believer. Interestingly, the gifts given by Christ here are not spiritual gifts but the persons themselves, given for the unity and maturity of the church: “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers.” Other NT lists containing spiritual gifts are found in Romans 12:6–8, 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, 28–30, and 1 Peter 4:10–11. The gifts listed across the NT total more than 20, and each list is different and therefore incomplete. Each list simply illustrates certain gifts relevant to the particular context.

Paul lists four different types of individuals who are gifted by Christ and given to the church. First, the Lord has given apostles (cf. comment on Ephesians 1:1). Next, prophets—not OT prophets but those alive during Paul’s time who spoke God’s truth to the church (Eph. 3:5; Acts 11:27–28; 15:32; 21:10–11; 1 Cor. 14:24–25; cf. comment on Eph. 2:20). Third, he has given evangelists. “Evangelist” occurs only two other times in the NT, describing Philip in Acts 21:8 and Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5. Thielman maintains that evangelists “are probably those whom God has especially equipped to travel from place to place with the good news of peace through Christ.”2 This description would apply to both Philip (who traveled around preaching the gospel; Acts 8:4–5, 35, 40) and Timothy (who was only temporarily in Ephesus and would soon be traveling again; 2 Tim. 4:9, 21). The final two terms, “shepherds” (or “pastors”) and “teachers,” are best seen not as two distinct groups but as overlapping. “Pastors” should be seen as a subset of “teachers,” because all pastors teach but not all teachers are also pastors. Thus Paul is referring to those who teach but who also have the added duty of shepherding God’s people. This is the only place in the NT where “pastor” is applied to someone who holds a ministry position in the church.

Church Leadership

Paul now explains why Christ has given leaders to the church. This verse has been the center of considerable debate, as there is some ambiguity concerning how to punctuate the three prepositional phrases. For example, the KJV places a comma after each phrase so that they are viewed as coordinate or parallel. In this reading, Christ gave various ministers to the church in order to accomplish three things: “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (KJV). The problem with this rendering is that it could support the misunderstanding that the leaders, not the saints, do the ministry. Nearly all modern English versions and commentators, however, interpret the second phrase as dependent on the first and the third phrase as dependent on the first two. Consequently, Christ gives leaders who equip the saints, and it is the saints who do the work of the ministry (and not merely the leaders). Such a reading is supported by the Greek text, which uses two different prepositions to mark this distinction,3 as well as the context, with its emphasis on gifts given “to each one” (v. 7) so that “each part” (v. 16) does its work.

This interpretation has important ramifications for the function of church leadership and the nature of ministry. The ministry is not just for a select few who are paid to work by and for everyone else. Instead, God gifts leaders for the task of equipping all the saints to do the work of service. Next, Paul adds that the goal of the saints’ being equipped for service is for “building up the body of Christ.” Because “building up” refers figuratively to the spiritual strengthening of believers, and also because of the following context of spiritual maturity, this term is best understood primarily in a qualitative (growth in maturity) and not quantitative (growth in numbers) sense. The ultimate goal of Christ’s gifting the church with leaders is for his body, the church, to become spiritually mature.

Biblical Unity

After clearly stating the purpose of church leaders, Paul then affirms that the building up of Christ’s church is needed “until we all attain” a certain maturity, which is spelled out with parallel statements:

to [eis] the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,
to [eis] mature manhood,
to [eis] the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,

First, God’s people should attain to “the unity of the faith” and “[the unity] of the knowledge of the Son of God” (cf. Eph. 4:3). “Faith” in this context refers to the objective content of what is believed (cf. Eph. 4:5). That is, believers should be in agreement concerning the apostolic teaching found in the Bible (Jude 3). Similarly, the “knowledge” of God’s Son refers to those truths about Jesus that are essential for all believers to affirm. Biblical unity must be founded on the objective truth-claims of Jesus. Second, God’s people should attain to “mature manhood.” Although this phrase could refer to individual believers, more likely it carries the corporate idea of the church (Eph. 2:15). Third, God’s desire is for his people to attain to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” The goal for believers is to reach the maturity that Christ himself attained.

Paul now states negatively the intended results of Christ’s gifts of leadership to the church. Specifically, it is “so that we may no longer be children.” In the NT, “children/infants” (nēpioi ) can denote physical children or, as in the present context, a childlike gullibility and lack of experiential knowledge. Thus “children” is used metaphorically to refer to spiritually immature believers, starkly contrasting with the mature man of verse 13. Paul then moves from imagery of human development to a storm at sea. Those who are immature are “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about.” This seafaring imagery again highlights lack of maturity, as such people have little ability to defend themselves against wind and waves.

Paul next mentions three ways in which immature believers are tossed and blown. First, they are tossed and blown “by every wind of doctrine,” most likely a reference to false doctrine. Second, they are tossed and blown “by human cunning,” which probably involves trickery. Third, they are tossed and blown “by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” In light of these dangers, believers are encouraged to be firmly grounded in the apostolic teaching so that they may develop and grow into mature followers of Christ.

Christ is the one who leads the church and nourishes it by supplying everything needed for growth.

Lifeblood of the Body

In contrast to those who cause harm to immature believers through cunning and deceitful schemes, believers are to speak “the truth,” which includes honest speech in general and also speaking or confessing the truth of the gospel. Such speaking must be done not with callousness or cold-heartedness but “in love.” The desired goal of such action is for believers “to grow up in every way into him.” Christians are called to maturity and are not to remain children in their faith (Heb. 5:12–6:1). Their goal is to become more like their Savior. At the same time, however, there must always be a distinction between Christ and his people. He is “the head.” Therefore, Christ is the one who leads the church and nourishes it by supplying everything needed for growth.

In Ephesians 4:16 Paul further clarifies the fact that Christ is the source of the church’s growth (“from whom” = from Christ). He describes the “whole body” as being “joined and held together by every joint.” The last phrase (“every joint”) most likely serves as a metaphor for all believers, not just the gifted leaders referenced in Ephesians 4:11. God gifts believers so that they, having been empowered, may use their gifts for the benefit of others and the common good. The end result is that the body will grow—not just numerically but also in maturity. Finally, Paul adds that this growth must be closely related to “love,” the essential lifeblood of the body.

Notes:

  1. Translations of both the LXX and the Greek NT are the author’s.
  2. Thielman, Ephesians, 274.
  3. The ESV accurately reflects this distinction in English: “to [pros] equip the saints for [eis] the work of ministry, for [eis] building up the body of Christ.”

This article is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11 edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., Jay Sklar.



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