Our purpose in this lesson is to discover what, exactly, the Apostle Paul meant in the phrase, “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive. . . " (Eph. 4:8).
Whom did our Lord lead “captive"?
The reason this text has been chosen is that much confusion has been generated amongst God's people as to the events and details of this aspect of our Saviour's ascension. Was it those in “Paradise, " or some “principalities and powers" that were “led captive"?
We believe that it was “Paradise" that our Lord “led captive. " The word “paradise" is found but three times in our Bibles—Luke 23:43; II Corinthians 12:4; Revelation 2:7.
Genesis Two describes what was a Paradise existing in the days of Adam in what the Bible calls, the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:4-9). Did this paradise still exist during our Lord's earthly ministry? When He spoke to the thief on the cross, "Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43), what did He mean? Genesis Three reports that Adam and Eve were “driven" (Vers. 23,24) out of the garden, or paradise. Certainly Jerusalem was no paradise in our Lord's day, nor does the earth contain any paradise today, for the world is definitely not a paradise regardless of the efforts that man puts forth to make it so.
"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Rom. 5:12).
"VERILY I SAY UNTO THEE, TODAY SHALT THOU BE WITH ME IN PARADISE"
Obviously our Lord spoke these words to the dying thief from His cross that before the day was out he would be with Him in paradise.
"And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
Paradise could not have been the Garden of Eden, for it had long since been protected from Adam by “a flaming sword, which turned every way" (Gen. 3:24) and later, evidently, by drought (Isa. 1:30). Where then was the paradise that Christ promised the dying thief?
We know that only our Lord's body was buried in Joseph's tomb—that tomb was surely not paradise. Matthew 12:40, however, may shed some light upon this subject:
"For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. "
Wouldn't three days and three nights in “the belly of a whale" be more or less “hell" on earth!?! Well, the people of Nineveh must have thought it was! Now Jonas was not actually in “Hades, " but this does not mean that the whale's belly did not typify “the heart of the earth"!
Let's discover, with God's help, where Abraham's Bosom was. Of Abraham it is written:
"Then [he] gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people" (Gen. 25:8).
Surely his grave was not paradise nor did it contain his people. Moses and Aaron were also both "gathered unto their people, " but it is clear that neither of them were buried in the same cemetery. See Numbers 20:23-29; 27:12-14; Deuteronomy 32:48-52.
Thus we see that these Old Testament saints were "gathered" to a particular place that sheltered them, just as the blood of the sacrificial lamb "covered" their sins from God's wrath until such time as He could welcome them into His presence.
"And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: SO CHRIST WAS ONCE OFFERED TO BEAR THE SINS OF MANY. . . " (Heb. 9:27,28).
But where were those saints “gathered"? Luke 16:19-31 speaks of Abraham's bosom, and Abraham was there!
"And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom" (Luke 16:22,23).
The word "bosom" is found six times in our New Testaments and is translated "creek" in Acts 27:39. (Twice it is used figuratively—Luke 16:22,23; thrice it is used literally—Luke 6:38; John 1:18; 13:23). Just as that "creek" into which they "thrust" Paul's ship was a shelter from a raging storm for the Apostle Paul, so Abraham's bosom sheltered those kingdom saints until the sacrificial blood of Christ was shed. Interesting! Is it not?
IS ABRAHAM'S BOSOM PARADISE?
Now the question must be asked, “Was the thief `gathered’ to Abraham's bosom?" Abraham himself, like Moses and Aaron, was “gathered unto his people, " not unto the Lord. Luke 16 confirms that the place to which their souls were gathered was called Abraham's bosom, the place to which all Old Testament saints were “gathered. " The dying “thief" would also have been “gathered" unto that same place which our Lord called “PARADISE" in Luke 23:43.
Now if "TODAY" the thief was to be with Christ in “Paradise, " Luke 23:43, then it was at the time of His death that he went to "Paradise. " Since Christ had "not yet ascended to [His] Father" (John 20:17) and could therefore not be “touched, " it is more than logical that "Paradise" was “IN THE HEART OF THE EARTH"1 where "the Son of man" spent “three days and three nights" (Matt. 12:40).
We know from I Peter 3:19 that after His crucifixion, our Lord, “. . . by the Spirit. . . went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
"Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water" (I Pet. 3:19,20).
The Greek word for “spirit, " here, is used of the Holy Spirit of God in Matthew 3:16 and many other places as well. It is also used of demons in Matthew 8:16. Paul uses it of “the spirit of man" in I Corinthians 2:11, and of his own “spirit" in Acts 19:21 and 20:22. Furthermore, God is “the Father of spirits, " the Justifier of “the spirits of just men made perfect" and His Word “divideth asunder soul and spirit" (Heb. 12:9,23; 4:12). It is also used of the angels of God, “Who maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire" (Heb. 1:7).
"Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?" (Heb. 1:14).
There are three Greek words for our English word “hell"—Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus, none of which are rendered by the word prison. Hades had a section commonly known as “hell" and a compartment known as “paradise, " separated by “a great gulf fixed" (Luke 16:26). Gehenna is used of our Lord in the warnings and “danger of hell fire" that the “whole body should [not] be cast into hell" (Matt. 5:22,29,30; etc. ). While “tartarus" is found only one time, in II Peter 2:4, to describe the intended purpose for this “hell":
"For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell [tartarus], and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment; And spared not the old world, but saved Noah the eighth person, a preacher of righteousness, bringing in the flood upon the world of the ungodly; And turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrha into ashes condemned them with an overthrow, making them an ensample unto those that after should live ungodly" (II Pet. 2:4-6).
The context of I Peter 3:18-22, however, tells us that Christ preached to those “disobedient" in the days of Noah. Did our Lord only preach to those antediluvians and demons in the prison? Or did He, like Abraham, have some good news also, a message of deliverance for the captives in “paradise" on that Resurrection morn? No doubt His sermon incorporated glorious victory to the saints, “many" of whom “arose" and “appeared unto many" (Matt. 27:52,53). But what horrible agony and torment must have been the scene in “Hell" that morning! If those poor hopeless souls had no hope before our Lord descended, what hopelessness now existed at His ascension! Their deluded and despairing thoughts were completely shattered now!
"Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth [against the truth], shall descend into it" (Isa. 5:14).
WHAT A TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE PLACE HELL MUST BE (Rev. 20:11-15).
God wants to save you from hell, my friend, if you will simply trust the Lord Jesus as your Saviour. Ask Him just now to save you from your sins.
"But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, WHILE WE WERE YET SINNERS, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8).
"Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
"To declare, I say, AT THIS TIME His righteousness: that He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Rom. 3:25,26).
CHRIST'S GREAT VICTORY OVER THE DEVIL
The Lord Jesus Christ went down "into the lower parts of the earth" (Eph. 4:9) or “Sheol, " called “Hades" in the New Testament (Acts 2:27,31).
"Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth" (Eph. 4:9).
And on that Resurrection morning as He came out of “Hades" He led these Old Testament saints in "Abraham's bosom" triumphantly to heaven.
The Apostle Paul further states in Verse 8 that, “When [Christ] ascended up on high, He led captivity captive. . . . " And who were “captive" if He came out of where He descended, but those in Abraham's bosom!
Indeed, "that Great Shepherd of the sheep" (Heb. 13:20) led a multitude of captives, a triumphal procession, in celebration of His victory over sin, death, the grave and hell, even “triumphing" over Satan himself “in the cross" (Col. 2:15).
". . . THAT THROUGH DEATH HE MIGHT DESTROY HIM THAT HAD THE POWER OF DEATH, THAT IS, THE DEVIL: AND DELIVER THEM WHO THROUGH FEAR OF DEATH WERE ALL THEIR LIFETIME SUBJECT TO BONDAGE" (Heb. 2:14,15).
"HOW THAT PAUL WAS CAUGHT UP INTO PARADISE"
"It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.
"I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
"And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
"How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter" (II Cor. 12:1-4).
Of the three references to “paradise" in the New Testament, not one of them refers to the same location. Our Lord spoke to the dying thief of going "down" into paradise (Luke 23:43). Here, Paul speaks about being “caught UP into paradise" (II Cor. 12:4). But John reveals that paradise is coming “DOWN from God out of heaven" (Rev. 2:7; 21:1,2; 22:1-7).
A question seems to linger, Was Paul actually “caught up into paradise"? He, himself, informs us that he, in fact, was "caught up to the third heaven"2 and this event evidently occurred when Paul was stoned at Lystra in Acts 14:19:
"And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead. "
Acts 14 informs us that “as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derby" (14:20). This is consistent with Paul's words in II Corinthians 12:1-4. Paul was caught up into paradise.
And furthermore it is consistent with what we have seen regarding Christ having "led captivity captive, " a surprise of grace for those Old Testament saints, for the Kingdom of Heaven ON EARTH is promised them (Matt. 8:11), not Heaven above!3
THE PARADISE OF GOD
In Revelation 3:12, the Lord Jesus Christ inspired and revealed to the Apostle John these words concerning Himself and the New Jerusalem:
"Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, which is New Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from My God: and I will write upon him My new name" (Rev. 3:12).
We next read of this great “city of God" in Revelation 21:2 which, during all that time, from Revelation 3:12 to Revelation 21:2, has still not arrived upon planet earth:
"And I John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev. 21:2).
It is during this time of Great Tribulation that all the terrible plagues and judgments of the Book of Revelation shall be poured out upon this earth for its rejection of Jesus Christ. It was concerning this period of time that Jesus warned His disciples of “false Christs" and “false prophets" that “shall deceive many" (Matt. 24:4-14).
"But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved" (Matt. 24:13).
Again, it is the Apostle John who writes by divine inspiration:
"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life4 which is in the midst of the paradise of God" (Rev. 2:7).
THAT BLESSED HOPE
The Apostle Paul, unlike Joel and Peter and John, does not exhort believers to “endure unto the end, " nor to “overcome, " in order to be saved in this dispensation of the grace of God. His words are words of "love" and "grace" and "peace. "
"For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Thes. 5:9).
". . . Wherefore comfort one another with these words" (I Thes. 4:13-18).
And this is why he exhorts believers to be: "LOOKING FOR THAT BLESSED HOPE, AND THE GLORIOUS APPEARING OF THE GREAT GOD AND OUR SAVIOUR JESUS CHRIST" (Titus 2:13).
But if you're not saved, my friend, you have only "hell" and "the lake of fire" to look forward to without Jesus Christ. For now, however, God still has good news for you. Won't you ask Jesus to save you from your sins? Trust Jesus Christ today as your Saviour.
"God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, CHRIST DIED FOR US" (Rom. 5:8).
"In whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace" (Eph. 1:7).
Don't delay another moment, because time IS running out. “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (II Cor. 6:2). God wants you to enjoy Heaven with Jesus for all eternity but you must believe in Jesus.
"BELIEVE ON THE LORD JESUS CHRIST, AND THOU SHALT BE SAVED, AND THY HOUSE" (Acts 16:31).
1. One writer has decreed there to be not one shred of Scripture to substantiate these thoughts. But what is this that I read in Matthew 12:40; in Acts 2:27,31; in Romans 10:7; in I Peter 3:18-20. Dr. C. I. Scofield's center column reference on Acts 2:25-31 refers the reader to Luke 16:23 and his note on “Hades" before and after the ascension of Christ. But most importantly is the record of Scripture itself. Consequently the Apostle Peter at Pentecost in Acts 2:25-31, and after coming to see the grace message through Paul's influence (Gal. 2:7-9; Acts 15:7-11), declares in I Peter 3:19 that the Lord did, in fact, preach to those in Hades. And the Apostle Paul makes it very clear in his declarations that the Lord Jesus Christ not only “descended into the deep" (Rom. 10:7), but he also declares this “deep" to be “the lower parts of the earth" in Ephesians 4:9. Furthermore, brethren, “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men" (Eph. 4:8). So it would be systematic deception for a man “to think of himself more highly than he ought to think" (Rom. 12:3)! Or, as Paul's words to the Corinthians express it—"to think above that which is written" (I Cor. 4:6). This, of course, would therefore lead to wrongly dividing the Word of truth and handling God's Word deceitfully: “For we are not as many, which corrupt the Word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ" (II Cor. 2:17).
2. Did Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob hear those “unspeakable" and “unlawful" words that Paul heard in II Corinthians 12:4? Imagine being “caught up" into the now place of Old Testament saints to receive another installment of “this Mystery among the Gentiles!" Just a thought!
3. Now we see how Paul's words in Ephesians 4:8-10 do not contradict Psalm 68:18, but rather complement the Psalmist. So what is the conclusion of Ephesians 4:(not 7-16 but) 8-10? It is true that Paul quotes a Messianic Psalm (68:10), however he did not minister to the Messianic Church. Nevertheless he did confirm the events that occurred in the ascension of Christ. But the “gifts" that were given, in the context here, are very obviously not those of Mark 16:15-18, nor Acts 2:38, nor those chapters subsequent. Even the office of apostles and prophets were temporary, since only evangelists, pastors, and teachers remain!
4. See the writer's article, titled: "The Lamb's Book of Life. "
This article originally appeared in the Berean Searchlight, the FREE monthly magazine of the Berean Bible Society . The Berean Bible Society was founded over sixty years ago for the sole purpose of helping believers understand and enjoy the Word of God. Our Organization holds without apology to all the fundamentals of the Christian faith and is evangelical, that is, we believe that salvation is by grace through faith alone on the basis of the shed blood of Christ.