He Did Not Leave Us Empty-Handed
Though we have one Father, one Lord Jesus Christ, and one Holy Spirit, that is, one God who has called us to the one hope through one faith in which we are baptized into the one Church, we have still been given much more. Our Lord has ascended on high, but he has not left us orphans. Of course, the greatest gift our Lord has given us is His Spirit—the Holy Spirit—who came on the day of Pentecost, just as Jesus said he would (John 16:7-8). But if the Spirit weren’t enough (which he is), Christ has endowed us through the Spirit with gifts for the building up of his Church. So indeed, our Lord has ascended unto the right hand of the Father, but to rule and guide his Church from that lofty throne through the gifts given her in the power of the Spirit.
We are told that grace is given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift; that is, each believer in Christ has been given some measure of grace through gift-giving. The primary gift is the Holy Spirit and the grace we receive from him. Beyond this is the spiritual gift we each receive which Paul speaks so much about in 1 Corinthians 12 & 14, Romans 12:3-8, and here in Ephesians. That they are given “according to the measure of Christ’s gift” indicates that we not only have different gifts but that we receive those gifts in different measure; some will surpass others and this is to be expected and, far from envy, is to be a source of rejoicing.
We are told that these gifts came to us “when he ascended,” not literally that day but as a result of his taking his rightful place by the Father inaugurating his royal and high priestly “session” in heaven, and in fulfillment of Psalm 68:18, only there he received gifts from men as ancient kings did and as our Lord no doubt will upon his return. But Paul must also remind us that he who is so glorious as to ascend “far above all the heavens,” first descended (“came down from heaven…and was made man”); that is, Paul never lets us forget our Lord’s humiliation on our behalf.
So intertwined in our Lord’s descending and ascending (his coming down from heaven and going back up far above all heavens) is his dispensing of grace in the way of gifts unto his Church. I find it humbling that in our Lord’s humiliation and exaltation and throughout his ministry, his concern (which must first always be the magnifying of God’s glory) is that he may impart his grace unto us, save us, and deliver us from the clutches of this world to finally bring us home to the hope unto which we are called. He never loses sight of us. He is ever dispensing grace unto us.
Who are the “captives?” I must say that I do not know for sure, nor am I convinced that any New Testament scholar does. It seems that some scholarship believes the captives to be demons after Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” The historical reference here would be the “triumphs” in which the Romans would march captives through the streets of Rome which they had taken in war. Our Lord certainly triumphed over the principalities and powers through his death and resurrection, and I have no problem with such an interpretation. An older interpretation sees in this a cryptic reference to our Lord’s leading out of Sheol (the holding place of the dead) those righteous saints who died before his coming. In the former interpretation, our Lord is leading away wicked captives; in the latter, he is freeing righteous captives. Though the older interpretation is less affirmed today among contemporary scholars, I confess to having some sympathy for it. In the end, it is not a matter of salvation and sincere Christians may disagree over this short clause. We rejoice that one day we shall know even as we are known (1 Corinthians 13:12).