Therefore it says: “Having ascended to the height, he captured prisoners-of-war; he gave gifts to people” [Psalm 68:18]. Now, what is the point of saying he “ascended”, except to imply that he also descended into the lower places, the earth? The very same one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fulfil all things. (Ephesians 4:8–10)
In late August 2005, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history ravaged the southern coast of the nation. Hurricane Katrina brought about destruction on a vast scale. Winds of up to 280 km/h and a 9-metre storm surge caused flooding and evacuations across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. More than 1,800 people died. The property damage was estimated at $125 billion dollars.
At the time, US President George W. Bush was on holidays at his 1,600 acre Texas ranch. He was having a break from the stress of office, so his advisers decided not to bother him with the news straight away. After the enormity of the incident finally became obvious to him—three days after Katrina reached its peak strength—Bush decided to fly back to his office in Washington DC. The flight path from holiday ranch to Oval Office went over the devastation. And as he looked out of the plane, his advisers allowed a photo to be taken.
This photo became famous. It captured what many Americans thought about Bush at the time. Here was a distant, detached president: a president who waited, a president who didn’t care what his people were going through. I don’t know what Bush himself was actually thinking or feeling at the time—I suspect he himself was devastated. But in PR terms, it was a disaster. He became the president who didn’t care: powerful, but slow to do anything that really mattered. Bush was ‘up there’ in the sky, not ‘down here’ with his people.
Christ up There
In the earlier sections of his letter to the Ephesians, Paul has made a big deal of the fact that Christ is ‘up there’. Paul has emphasised Christ’s power and control over the universe. Christ, says Paul, has ascended to the heights. Here’s how he describes it in Ephesians 1:
[God] enacted his mighty strength in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and lordship, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:20–21)
God has raised Christ from the dead and seated him in heaven. That means he’s in charge. He’s above all the powers and authorities of the universe. He’s up there in the heavenly places, ruling everything. And in one important sense, we’re up there with him. “God raised us together with Christ, and seated us together with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he could demonstrate the outstanding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6–7). This should be a source of great comfort and security for us. Christ is up there over it all, and we’re up there with him.
But the thing is, when it comes to our daily lives and struggles, we’re not actually up there, are we? We’re down here, on the ground, trying to walk in a way that’s worthy of our great calling, step by step, day by day (see Ephesians 4:1). We’re trying to love and endure and hope. We’re trying to live out the gospel and share the gospel. And it’s hard, because world is a mess—and we’re part of it. We have to deal with the weakness and sin of the people around us, as well as our own personal weakness and sin. Sometimes we don’t even feel like trying. And as for sharing the gospel: well, who wants to hear it? People don’t care. Not only that, but the powers that be in our own world are often indifferent.
Where is Christ in all of this? Yes, he’s up there, in charge. And one day he’s going to come back from heaven make it all right. But in the meantime, does he have anything to do with us down here? Does he really understand our situation? Is he going to give us what we need as we struggle to live for the gospel and share the gospel in this world?
So where is Christ in all of this? Yes, he’s up there, in charge. And one day he’s going to come back from heaven make it all right. But in the meantime, does he have anything to do with us down here? Does he really understand our situation? Is he going to give us what we need as we struggle to live for the gospel and share the gospel in this world? This is what these verses, Ephesians 4:8–10, are about.
Christ the Giver
Paul here quotes a line from an Old Testament Psalm (Psalm 68:18): “Having ascended to the height, he captured prisoners-of-war; he gave gifts to people” (Psalm 68:18). The Psalm is a song of praise to God for his power and rule. It describes God as a king who is victorious over his enemies and who saves his people. Here, the Psalmist is singing about how God, as a victorious king, has “ascended” to the heights of his stronghold (which in the Psalm is Mount Sinai).
Paul takes this Psalm and applies it to Christ. This makes sense, because Christ is the one whom God has raised from the dead and seated in heaven, victorious above all the powers of the world (see Ephesians 1:20–22). But as Paul applies this Psalm to Christ, he also makes another change. In the Psalm, God as a victorious king received gifts from people. But Paul says that Christ gave gifts to people. Why the change? Paul is drawing out the logic of the situation. A good king shares the spoils of his victory with his people. He gives his people what they need to live for him and achieve his purposes.
Paul is speaking here about “Pentecost” (see Acts 2)—that critical stage in the mission of the gospel among the early believers, where the ascended Christ visibly poured out his Spirit on his people in Israel, and through his Spirit gave them power and spiritual gifts to be his witnesses to the world (see Acts 1:8). Through that same Spirit, Christ himself is present with us (what Paul means by speaking of his ‘descending’ in v10).
Christ in Heaven; Christ with Us
So the ascended Christ—the Christ who calls us to believe in him and live for his cosmic glorious purposes—hasn’t just left us on our own to do it all. Christ has come down, to be with us. Yet, at the very same time, this ascended king, who is supremely powerful and in control of it all. He’s up there, and he’s down here. This gives us great encouragement for our Christian lives and for mission, doesn’t it? The supremely powerful Christ is also, by his Spirit, with us. He’s working to bring about his purposes in the world, and he’s doing it through the Spirit-empowered preaching of the gospel. Paul wants us here to lift our eyes to the heavens, even as we look down to our daily walk on the ground. And as we live down here, speaking, living, loving, and hoping, we do it knowing that the Christ who is with us is the Christ who is up there, risen and ascended, reigning at God’s right hand, and fulfilling all his glorious purposes.
- As you struggle to live for Christ, how does it help to know that he’s ‘up there’, victorious in heaven?
- As you struggle to live for Christ, how does it help to know that he’s ‘down here’ with us by his Spirit?
Taken from Lift Your Eyes – a blog and pocast on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians