The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Exegetical Compilation: Ephesians 4:8-10

This is part of my Exegetical Compilation series which can be found here.

If Ephesians 4:8-10 refers to post mortem salvation to even some degree, that would lend subsequent contextual weight to Eph 4:6 referring to God being both God and Father of all not only in the sense of being authoritatively over all persons (including those currently rebelling) but also authoritatively through all and in all persons (including those currently rebelling), with the parallel implication from the ontological importance of God as unique self-existent Creator of all that God can and will potently bring about reconciliation with those sinners whom He is Father through and in. (There are however some other contextual issues which might weigh toward a more limited application of verse 6 to only current Christians, or neutrally to all eventual Christians which might be a final selection out of all sinners. Please see my extensive comments on that verse and its preceding contexts here.)

Since analysis of these latter verses will have to proceed along several complicated lines, I will be breaking my comments into separate posts for this thread.

Some opponents argue that since “lower” in “lower parts of the earth” is in the comparative and not the superlative, and since the word “of” (for “of the earth”) is not in the original Greek, then Paul must have only been referring to the Incarnation, with the ascent being the Ascension.

First (and this is going to take a while), it’s true that the word “of” doesn’t appear in the Greek, but Greek has no word corresponding to “of” (in this sense) and instead signals that meaning by genitive grammar–and {tês gês} is genitive. “…of the earth” is an entirely standard and uncontentious translation. So this doesn’t read that Christ descended to the “lower earth”, i.e. compared to heaven, but to the “lower parts of” the earth. Which implies a descriptive comparison (if not a contrast) between lower and higher parts of the earth. For which there would be no need, and which wouldn’t make sense, if Paul was only talking about the Incarnation. But it makes good sense if Paul is at least talking about Christ being buried. But then, which captives is Christ leading out from among the dead ones where He was buried?

Granted, a descent in Incarnation fits with the theme of a descent/ascent or humiliation/exaltation Christology which first describes Jesus coming to earth, then ascending to heaven, but so does a descent in Incarnation and then suffering in the Passion to the grave–a theme which no Christian of any stripe denies. By the same token, so would descent into spiritual hades (not merely a physical pit/sheol/grave) fit that theme (much moreso to save His own condemned enemies there!), as an ultimate humiliation in which Christ paradoxically exalts. Why we should stop with such a theme only at the Incarnation and not include at least the Passion and Burial?! But if the burial is included then the concept of Christ rising not merely “from the dead” in a general sense but “out of the dead ones” (which is the sense of the Greek) becomes more important.

In attempting to argue that the phrase “in[to] the lower [parts] of the earth” refers only to the earth as a lower place compared to heaven, opponents may try to claim that the genitive fits a rare situation, of which there are at least two others in Ephesians, where in English translation it switches place with another noun. The intended effect would be that Christ descended to the earth of the lower(s), or to the earth of the lower parts, suggesting that the Earth was the portion of the lower parts Christ descended to.

However, the fairly clear example of this effect at Eph 2:14 doesn’t feature a prepositional phrase followed modified by a genitive phrase. That makes a difference because the debated phrase at 4:9 reads pretty straightforwardly {eis ta katôtera [merê] tês gês} “in(to) the lower [parts] of the earth”, not simply “the lower [parts] of the earth”. If it was the latter, Paul might (but not certainly would) mean “the earth of the lower [parts]”, although that would be an odd way for Paul to talk about earth under heaven (though to be fair Ephesians is stylistically unique in any case!)–but grammatically it’s harder to switch the noun of the genitive phrase with the noun of a full accusative prepositional phrase: “in(to) the earth of the lower parts”. It’s true that 2:14 involves an accusative noun switching place (in English meaning) with a genitive noun, but not from within its own prepositional phrase: “the midwall” is simply the object of the verb, not an object of a preposition as at 4:9.

The same is true at 2:15, which reads literally “nullifying the law of the commandments”: it could read instead “nullifying the commandments of the law” (and probably was intended to mean that, where “the Law” means “the Torah”), but {ton nomon} ‘the law’ is simply a direct object to the verb, not the object-noun of a prepositional phrase.

Much less do instances where English translators move around phrases and terms from their printed order to synchronize with English word-meaning orders, count as examples of this concept. 6:16, for example, puts the verbs, the direct objects, and the genitive description of one of the direct objects, in very clunky places by English grammatic standards, requiring that the phrases and terms be moved around from their printed order to make sense in English: literally “you-shall-be-able all the darts of the evil-one the ones being-firery [or those having-been-set-on-fire] to-extinguish”, but in English grammar “you shall be able to extinguish all the set-afire darts of the evil one”. But unentangling the goofy Greek word order doesn’t require a genitive noun to switch grammatic functions even with a direct object, much less with the object of an accusative or dative preposition.

6:17 again involves untangling weird Greek order in the words and phrases, although not nearly as crazed (by English standards) as in verse 16: literally “and the helmet of the salvation receive, and the sword of the spirit which is a declaration of God”, which doesn’t need much shuffling to fit English grammar construction “and receive the helmet of salvation and [receive] the sword of the spirit which is a declaration of God”. Where does a genitive noun switch places in grammatic function with any noun there in the translation??

But: even if legitimate parallels could be found in Ephesians for switching a genitive noun with an object of an explicit but different kind of prepositional phrase, that wouldn’t mean this verse features that sort of intended meaning. Various levels of context indicate the genitive noun should (maybe) be switched (in English) with the direct object in two verses; otherwise we would read those verses the way the grammar indicates! The contextual argument would have to be solidly established first here, too.

Second, while it is true that the adjective there is the comparative version of “low” (with grammatic modifications to make it fit the accusative noun “the parts” for the prepositional phrase “in the parts” {eis ta merê}), the only other time this adjective is used in the NT is at GosMatt’s account of Herod’s slaying of the children two years and lower. Which is obviously an example of the term referring inclusively to all portions below a level: the point to Herod’s slaughter was to pre-emptively kill every boy two years old and under.

Third, there are some early respectable Greek and other language transmissions of the text (including its only known papyrus} which do not include the {merê}, leaving the direct article “the” (in plural and accusative form) to be the object of the preposition “in”; thus “in the [things]”. With the comparative adjective this would be translated “in the lowers” or “in the lower-things”. Or putting the whole phrase set together: “in the lowers / the lower-things of the earth”. Whether copyists added “parts” to clarify, or omitted it as being redundant to the meaning is unclear; but either way it distinguishes some “lower” location or extent relative to “the earth” more generally. In fact, using the comparative adjective as a noun in such a way was one way to talk colloquially about hades!–a colloquialism still retained in the Greek speaking Eastern church over the centuries.

Fourth, the prepositional phase for “the lowers” or “the lower parts” (depending on whether the noun there was original to the text) is “{eis} the lower [parts]”. {eis} usually means “in” or “into”, or by extrapolation from “into” it could mean “to”. But any translation departing from the basic meaning of “in” ought to be justified by context. Unless there is a good contextual reason for thinking otherwise, the phrase would indicate a meaning of Christ descending in or into the lower parts of the earth. That sounds like burial at least; and of course that would open up the possibility of applying the phrase as a standard Jewish euphamism for where spirits of those who died (especially rebel spirits) reside. Which also happens to be how the early church routinely read the phrase, even by people who denied post-mortem evangelism for anyone other than righteous OT heroes.

Fifth, comparison of 4:8-10 with Eph 1:21-2, to try to argue that Christ was only taking evildoers prisoner, not freeing prisoners, should include more of the surrounding context, at least as far as Eph 1:18-23. This explicitly talks about Christ descending to rise from out of the dead ones, not merely descending to Earth to rise in the Ascension. (That portion of Ephesians is far more famous for being a Christian universalism main text anyway; see comments on it elsewhere.) Even if the reference to the dead ones (plural) is discounted as mere style, or only as referring to dead bodies instead of actual dead persons (although then the parallel contrast reference to “heavenly ones” wouldn’t seem to refer to actual persons either!), this is still by any reckoning a reference to Christ descending not merely to Earth in the Incarnation but descending to lower parts of the earth where the dead are. Which fits a translation of Christ descending “in(to) the lowers” or “into the lower parts” “of the earth” in the verse under dispute, 4:9.

Paul goes on to say in verses 1:22-23, that the Father under-sets all {panta hypetaxen} under the feet of Christ and gives Christ to the out-called (probably meaning the church here) as head over all {kephalên huper panta}. Headship always implies (later if not sooner!) a proper coherent relationship to those under the head, and the relationship in this case is not merely to the ecclesia but to {panta}, all. It is as the head of all that Christ, Who (very emphatically) fills complete the completion of the all in all (verse 23), is given to the Church (over which Christ is also head of course) by the Father.

And who is also included under this headship that shall complete the completion of the all in all? Every {archês} and {exousias} and {dunameôs} and {kuriotêtos} (every original leader and authority and power and lordship) and every name that is named not only in this age but in the age to come. No doubt since these spiritual powers are still rebelling and so are not yet under the headship of Christ in proper subjection to Him, much less completed to the emphatic extent of completion by Christ, such promises would be an example of assurance by prophetic promise: the fulfillment is as certain as if it was already fulfilled.

And not incidentally, Paul’s point back at the end of chapter 1 was to reassure Christians and teach them to understand (what they had apparently not understood yet but which would be revealed to them eventually) the total extent of the hope of God’s calling, the total extent of the glory of His inheritance to the saints, and the total extent of the surpassing greatness of His power into us {eis hêmas} the ones who believe in accord with the energy of the might of the strength of Him! Just as the Father had the strength to raise Christ out of the dead ones, so He shall have the strength to do all those other things, too.

But those other things explicitly include bringing the rebel powers under the headship of the Son so that God may fully complete them, too.

If Ephesians 1:21-22 is supposed to be conceptually related to 4:8-10 (which I strongly agree it is), then we are told in more detail what the goal of the campaign was, that it shall certainly be accomplished, and that (not incidentally) the descent of Christ wasn’t merely to the earth but to the grave, even to the place of the dead ones, just as His subsequent ascent was to the place of the heavenly ones.

Sixth, an opponent may argue that the Psalms source (Psalms 68:18) that forms the background of 4:8-10, indicates that Christ has taken prisoners after some sort of campaign, not freed those who once were prisoners.

But Psalm 68 does very explicitly feature God freeing prisoners in the Day of the Lord to come (which Paul is comparing in principle to the original descent of Christ): the Psalm starts out with hope of the day to come when YHWH shall destroy the wicked and lead out the prisoners into prosperity leaving the rebellious to dwell in a parched land! (verses 1-6) That is exactly the context of verse 18, where God ascends on high leading captive His captives!–which shall result (as verse 18 also says) not only in God receiving gifts among men from those who are His followers at His coming, but even also from the rebellious so that “YaH God” may dwell with them!

It would also be worth observing that in extended context (indicated elsewhere in the OT), those people who are being saved by God from imprisonment by the rebellious were put into that situation by God in the first place as punishment for their own rebellion.

I certainly allow that the specific events in view by David are most likely the institution of the millennial reign before the general resurrection (of which the OT has a lot to talk about), and so the rebels who repent (despite being left in the parched places deprived of their prisoners) could be survivors of God’s militant wrath against them (with Egypt sending envoys, although other prophecies indicate she will hold out a while due to faith in her river against punitive drought for continuing to rebel, and with Ethiopia–pagan at the time of the Psalm’s composition of course–quickly stretching out her hands to God, 68:31).

Even so, “God is to us a God of deliverances, and to YH God belong escapes for death” (verse 20, difficult to interpret or even to translate). And while God shall bring back someone from Bashan (historically a land not only of super-pagans and enemies of Israel but also ruled by Og last of the Rephaim, one of the descendents of the Nephilim, at the time of its conquest and total slaughter by the armies of Israel) and from the depths of the sea–the latter of which is certainly one of the poetic ways of describing places where rebel spirits are imprisoned, and given the ancient context of Bashan in connection with rebel spirits slain and imprisoned by God, namely the Nephilim, so would “Bashan” in this case–in order to shatter them in blood and feed them to dogs (which must refer to a continuation of their punishment)…

…nevertheless, there are indications even in Psalm 68 (vv.15-16) that the mountain of Basham shall become the dwelling place of God, despite Basham being also the mountain of many peaks which is envious of the mountain of God.

(The physical territory of Bashan is somewhere in what became Gilead and eventually Samaria; which matches with Ezekiel’s prophecy that in the coming millennial reign of YHWH on earth a new city and sanctuary complex will be built, along with the restoration of Jerusalem, 30 miles north of Jerusalem for YHWH to reside and for many of the sacrifices to be reinstated. In any case, even though the territory of Bashan shall be desolated by God’s wrath, especially in the Day of the Lord to come, it shall eventually be made fruitful again by God, as its name itself implies.)

And if the rulers of Bashan/the depths of the sea are the same rebels who were imprisoning the people God rescues from imprisonment–where God Himself had sent them as punishment for their own sins–then even Psalm 68 indicates that those rebels shall give gifts to God eventually in order for Him to live with them. Which may be why Psalm 68, after mentioning God bringing them back from the depths of the sea to harshly punish further, states that “they”, same pronoun referent, have seen the procession of God into the sanctuary: which is at least related to (if not exactly the same as) the temple at Jerusalem for which kings will bring gifts to God (v.29).

Seventh and finally, an opponent may draw attention to an Aramaic Targum commentary (probably contemporary with and even prior to the epistle’s composition) on Psalm 18. The Aramaic commentator interprets the Psalm as applying to Moses the prophet (instead of to the Messiah, much less to YHWH) suggesting that the Psalm describes when Moses ascended into the skies at Sinai to learn the words of the Torah and give it as gifts to men, “tak[ing] captivity captive” while doing so. (This phrase and ascending to heaven do not appear in Psalm 18, but there are other things in it which could amount to those concepts, and other parallels to Eph 4:8-10 as well as to the end of Eph 1 for that matter are not lacking.)

The argument would be that since there is obviously nothing in the Targum’s use of the phrase (“taking captivity captive”) to suggest that Moses went to Hades and freed a load of prisoners, that means has taken over this language to express Christ’s own fulfillment of Psalm 18, with equally no parallel idea of a descent into Hades.

That, I answer, might depend on whether any of his readers ever heard Paul teach that the righteousness out from faith regards Deuteronomy 30:12-14 as referring, not to Moses bringing the Torah from Sinai (much less bringing the Torah from across the sea), but to Christ descending from heaven and coming up out of the swirling depths (i.e. the Abyss) from among the dead! (Rom 10:6-8) But admittedly, even if they had heard Paul teach that before, they might not recall it, and so might not connect Paul’s teaching on this to Christ’s descent in the lowers of the earth here in this epistle.

In conclusion, regarding Ephesians 4:8-10: there are some curious things to be said in favor of why the early Church often interpreted those verses to refer to Christ’s descent into hades to defeat Satan in what he regards as his most secure fortress, and even to raiding hades to bring out penitent prisoners (with some conceptual variations for what that should mean).

However, despite my counter-criticism above, I am actually willing to grant that a raid into hades was not what Paul was primarily focusing on here, but rather was trying to talk about the propriety of gifts to be used by Christians for the work of service to the building up of the body of Christ; so that, holding to or walking in or speaking the truth in love, we may grow up into Him Who is the head (namely Christ) from Whom the whole body, being fitted and held together through every supplying joint, according to the working-measure of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

But if (as I think) Paul was alluding (though not directly referring here) to the salvation of sinners by Christ from even hades at 4:8-10, then while I would have to agree this wasn’t what he was mainly talking about, I would also think it still makes a strong topical contribution to what the building up of the body in love involves: total scope and persistence in saving sinners from sin; the gift of hope even for those in hades; the promise and assurance that Christ shall save sinners, wherever they are, as surely as He Himself rose from the grave out of the ones who are dead.

This ought to have been an important part of what we were proclaiming and heralding all along, some as apostles, some as prophets, some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints of the work of service to the building up of the body of Christ–until we shall be attaining “the all”, in the unity of the faith and of a mature man’s true knowledge {epignôseôs} of the Son of God, in measure of the importance (or stature or primacy) of Christ’s complete fulfillment!

Anything less than such a total victory, can only be a lesser hope, a lesser assurance, a lesser proclamation: a lesser gift from God.

Members are encourage to add more discussion and analysis below, and/or links to other discussion of these verses on or off site.

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I tagged off from the discussion about Salvation preached to evil spirits? as per your reference to this exegetical analysis.

I’m glad you acknowledged and detailed Psalm 68 in relation to this passage. My question stems from the relative reference to Mount Bashan in the psalm in relation to when, “Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive”. Couldn’t the lower depths of the earth just mean the valley or lower ground below the mountains or Mount of Bashan? Psalm 68:15 tell us, “The hill of God is as the hill of Bashan; an high hill as the hill of Bashan”, which conveys a sense that this hill was a very high mountain. Tactically speaking, Bashan was in region of what is now the Golan Heights, rising with an average altitude of 3,300 ft on the plateau, and peaking at 9,232 ft at Mount Hermon in the far north, and is of course today a strategic boundary between syria and Israel (though the highest elevation in the immediate vicinity in question is 6,400 ft, and may be the “Hill of Bashan”. Wiki is your friend :smiley: ).

My point is that the Psalm shows the victory of God’s salvation to His captive people being brought from the lower to higher ground, vs 22, “The Lord said, I will bring again from Bashan, I will bring my people again from the depths of the sea:” (Sea of Galilee?). All I’m saying is that the scope of Jesus’ descent in Eph 4 is not necessarily as deep as say, Hades.

Not to say that it couldn’t, but from the context of the Psalm as a reference, I don’t see it that far down.

Update: figured out your BBCode problem. You had an extra space in the first bracketed part like this (substituting fancy brackets for square so the code will show up for illustration):


with the underscore at the end showing where the space silently was. The url command didn’t know what to do with that final space, so just printed the whole thing as text.

Because of the way your text wrapped around the text-entry window, I didn’t “see” the extra space either until I (accidentally) shifted its perspective a bit and saw the new line starting like there had been a carriage return. Then I knew what had happened. :slight_smile:

Thanks, Jason.

Okay, back to the topic. :mrgreen:

I’ll have to double-check whether I got Bashan wrong, or if there are two Bashans (the other being in Samaria); but that was a parenthetical sidenote anyway: its physical identification isn’t important to the argument, and the range up in Golan which includes Mount Hermon would certainly make sense (being the highest mountain in the region) as the peaks which compete against the mountain of God (i.e. Jerusalem, which physically speaking is hardly a hill by comparison). I don’t know anywhere offhand where Hermon was to become the dwelling place of God, though, whereas there are prophecies about that in regard to Samaria, which is one reason why the Samaritan Temple came to be (and still sort-of is) a disputed place for proper sacrifice to God. (The Samaritan/Jewish woman at the well refers to this dispute in that scene from GosJohn: the Messiah should settle the dispute, and she wants to know which way Jesus is going to go on that issue since He seems to be a legitimate possibility.)

Anyway, I never claimed Bashan physically represented a descent into hades (which as you noted would be kind of weird since it’s a mountain). I said the depths of the sea did, and pointed out its thematic connections to Bashan along the way (since the Psalm itself calls attention to the comparison) as the dwelling place of rebel spirits.

Hi Jason

Excellent work here, mate. Just one, pretty obvious, observation from me. Which is that the NIV translates verse 9 as “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions.”

A case of the translators putting their theological views ahead of accuracy, perhaps?



They’re probably trying the theory I mentioned near the top, where a rare application of the genitive form switches the nouns around, so that the meaning would be something like “to the earthy regions of the lowers”. And as I acknowledged, this rare grammatic flipflop does in fact occur twice elsewhere in Ephesians, so it’s admittedly a demonstrable stylism of the epistle (possibly of Paul’s secretary or whoever was taking diction, or it might have even been Paul’s own normal way of talking in Greek, because Ephesians has these uniquely huge run-on sentences! :laughing: )

But there are grammatic reasons why the theory doesn’t hold up for this example in practice, using those other two examples as comparisons, and I went into detail about that, too, although I don’t recall what they are at the moment and even I can’t be bothered to read back all the way up there for the details. :wink:

Anyway, to be fair to the NIV translators they probably aren’t merely pulling something out of their butts to try to read in their own theological views. There is a theory worth trying which, if it worked, would arrive at something like their translation.

If, y’know, it worked. :mrgreen:

Actually, Mount Bashan represented the bringing up of captivity on high (not the descent into Hades), up from the lowest points of the earth (ie, valleys, Sea of Galilee, etc., surrounding Bashan). If I gave the impression otherwise, that was opposite of my intention. I was merely suggesting that is where the lower points of the earth is, at elevations lower (sea level, maybe) than the Hill of Bashan (Hill of God), rather than subterranian earth.

And incidentally, vs 23 of the Psalm suggests a bloody exchange toward the rebel enemies. Quite the contrast of the meek Jesus during His first visit. It is possible that Eph. 4:9-10 might hint of his future coming when “he might fill all things”, though in the past tense?

Also, do you think Proverb 30:4 had any bearing in Paul’s mind when he wrote this?

Oh, okay I see what you were suggesting now. :slight_smile: There are “lower” lowers than that in the Psalm, though. (And supernatural rebels on Mount Bashan being compared with the ones dragged out from the deep waters.)

Yes, I think you’ve tagged a good point: Christ’s first coming wasn’t much like the bloody butt-kicking Paul is referring to in the Psalm! But it resembles the more militant second coming expected in the NT (apparently with multiple phases which kinda resemble each other, thus adding to confusion over what a prophet is talking about: event A, B, or both, or mostly A with a further flashforward comparison to B eventually?)