Some Bible verses are simple to understand; some are not. For example, God is love (1 John 4:16) is simple, direct, and needs no explanation. We are promised eternal life with Him because of His great love and plan of redemption. He loves us unconditionally because He is love.
However, mysteries in the Bible and more difficult scriptures cause even the most learned Bible scholars to scratch their heads in puzzlement. The Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:9 (NLT) that, now, our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture!
One such area of mystery lies in a verse surrounding the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are saved by faith in God’s plan of redemption through this supernatural event. Mystery and intrigue are found, though, in Ephesians 4:8-10 which reads, Therefore, God says, “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” But this, “He ascended” —didn't he also first descend into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.
In a recent Bible study, my friends and I discussed this portion of scripture, and it seemed the most difficult parts to understand were the phrases, “He descended into the lower parts of the earth” and “He led captivity captive.” We know when Jesus died, He descended into the lower parts of the earth—the Greek word is Hades; the Hebrew word is Sheol. Both mean the unseen realm where departed souls go. There are righteous souls and unrighteous souls, according to their belief or unbelief in God. Abraham, for instance, was a righteous man because of his faith in God. Known as the father of faith, or the father of all who believe, Romans 4:3 says Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
Righteous souls like Abraham, Moses, Job, Ruth, and so on, who lived before the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, went to a part of lower earth referred to as “Abraham’s bosom.” Luke 16:22-26 describes the scene viewed by a wealthy man who died in unbelief, as his unrighteous soul was trapped in Hades. He saw Lazarus, a beggar who believed in God, being comforted by Abraham as he rested against the father of faith’s bosom. Hence the name “Abraham’s bosom” describes the place of comfort for the righteous dead, who died believing in God before Christ’s death. It is thought that Abraham most likely welcomed these righteous dead and comforted them there (Derek Prince, Resurrection of the Body, Laying the Foundation, Part 9, Derek Prince Ministries).
When Jesus descended to Hades, 1 Peter 3:18-19 says For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit [or in the Spirit] by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah.
This translation says He preached to spirits in prison, but the word is actually “to proclaim.” He proclaimed to the inhabitants of the lower earth something like this, as paraphrased by Derek Prince, “From now on, I’m the ruler in this place. I have the keys of death and of Hades. And you are answerable to me for everything that goes on from now on.” Christ’s death on the cross gave Him unquestionable victory over sin, death, and the devil.
But then Jesus did something else. He “led captivity captive” Ephesians 4:8 records. What captivity? What captives? Where did Jesus lead them? We know that sin and demonic beings enslave people and hold them prisoners as evil power controls their thoughts and deeds. The Gerasene demoniac in Luke 8:26-39 was an out-of-control individual because thousands of demons possessed him. Indeed, he was held captive by demons until Jesus set him free. Such tormented souls are not believed to be the ones Jesus led out of captivity as He entered Hades. Instead, the strongest held opinion is that “captivity” refers to the righteous dead who were “captives” in the part of lower earth known as Abraham’s bosom.
Jesus released the souls of the departed righteous and took them (“led” them) with Him up to heaven. They could not be released to heaven until the penalty for sin was paid through Christ’s death. Father God deemed them righteous because of their faith in Him. Until Christ’s death, Abraham and all believers in God were captives of death, but Jesus took captivity captive.
To quote Derek Prince, Jesus released the souls of the departed righteous and took them with Him up to heaven. You see, they could not be released until the penalty for sin had actually been paid. God accepted them as righteous because they had put their faith in a sacrifice that had not yet taken place. They were looking forward to the promised sacrifice. But until the sacrifice had actually been offered, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, they could not be released. But after He had sacrificed Himself He went down into Hades and at some point and some way He took them with Him...They had been the captives of death, but He took captivity captive. They became the captives of Jesus and of righteousness (Prince, Resurrection of the Body).
When we are born again to new life in Christ, we become enslaved to God instead of enslavement to sin. For you are free, yet you are God’s slaves, so don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do evil (1 Peter 2:16 NLT). We are joint heirs with Christ and His family, which includes the righteous dead—the “captivity” He victoriously and lovingly led into heaven upon His ascension. Can you imagine the joy we will encounter there when we meet them?
© 2023, Chris Werre