Yesterday we saw Paul introduce Christ’s distribution of gifts to His people, helping us realize the diversity that remains true of His body as it ever strives toward unity (Eph. 4:7). Certainly, as the incarnate Son of God Himself, Jesus has the sovereign right to allocate specific giftings as He sees fit (John 1:1–18; 20:19–23). Yet in order to provide us further confidence that our Savior has the ability and authority to apportion various graces to His people, the apostle in Ephesians 4:8–10 emphasizes the victory Christ accomplished in His first advent as one reason why we can be sure Jesus has given grace “to each one of us” (v. 7).
Today’s passage is not easy to interpret due to theological and textual issues. Theologically, many in church history have read Ephesians 4:9–10 to affirm that Jesus descended into hell and preached to the spirits there in the time between His death and resurrection (see also 1 Peter 3:18–19). In fact, many framers of the Apostles’ Creed probably embraced this interpretation, hence the inclusion of “he descended into hell” in that ancient confession. Still, the entire canon of Scripture makes this view unlikely. Our Lord said, “It is finished,” as He breathed His last breath on the cross (John 19:30), indicating that He had nothing left to fulfill between His death and resurrection except to enjoy His Father in heaven. With Calvin, we should understand that Jesus descended to hell while on the cross insofar as He suffered the wrath of God poured out upon hell-deserving sinners while He hung on the tree. The descent of Ephesians 4:8–10 must be the Son of God’s descent from heaven when He took on a human nature and became incarnate in Christ Jesus.
The second issue with this passage is textual in nature. Paul quotes Psalm 68:18, which says the Lord was “receiving” gifts in His victory over His enemies, yet the apostle quotes the text as saying He “gave” gifts (Eph. 4:8). Paul’s change, however, is in harmony with the meaning of Psalm 68, which alludes to God’s taking of the Levites for Himself, only to give them back to Israel for the nation’s wellbeing (Num. 8). Just as God took the priests for Himself but later gave them back to the Israelites, so too did our sovereign Savior take gifts for Himself but gave them back to the church upon His victorious ascent into heaven.