A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 4:7-10. a). The giver of spiritual gifts is the ascended Christ (continued).
After the quotation from Psalm 68:18 Paul adds in parenthesis that Christ having *ascended* into heaven implies that *he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth* (verse 9). Because of the immediate context, which concerns the gifts of Christ to his church following his ascension, G.B.Caird makes a novel suggestion that his ‘descent’ was his ‘return at Pentecost to give his Spirit to the church’. But, ingenious as this is, the natural interpretation of the words suggest that his descent preceded his ascent rather than followed it. The early fathers understood this as a reference to his descent into Hades (Acts 2:25ff. and Rom. 10:7). They associated it with 1 Peter 3:19 (‘he went and preached to the spirits in prison’) which they interpreted as his spoiling or ‘harrowing’ hell. But, whatever the 1 Peter text means, there is no obvious reference to hades or hell in Ephesians 4:9. Calvin (following the Reformed commentators like Charles Hodge) argued from the ‘ascended into heaven’ of John 3:13 that ‘the lower parts of the earth’ is a genitive of apposition or definition, that what it means is simply ‘the earth’, and that Christ’s descent refers to his incarnation. NEB takes it this way too, namely that he descended ‘to the lowest level, down to the very earth’. Perhaps, however, the reference is more general still, namely that Christ descended to the depths of humiliation when he came to earth. Or possibly the allusion is to the cross, and ‘to the experience of the nethermost depths, the very agonies of hell’ which Christ endured there.
Such an interpretation would fit well with Philippines 2:5-11, where ‘even death on the cross’ describes his deepest humiliation, which was followed by his supreme exaltation. This was ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named’ according to 1:21, and here ‘far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things’ (verse 10), or ‘so that he might fill the universe’ (NEB). What is in Paul’s mind, therefore, is not so much descent and ascent in spatial terms, but rather humiliation and exaltation, the latter bringing Christ universal authority and power, as a result of which he bestowed on the church he rules both the Spirit himself to indwell it and the gifts of the Spirit to edify it or bring it to maturity.
In the light of this emphasis on Christ, ascended, exalted, filling the universe, ruling the church, bestowing gifts, it would clearly be a mistake to think of *charismata* as being exclusively ‘gifts of the Spirit’ and to associate them too closely with the Holy Spirit or with experiences of the Holy Spirit. For here they are the gifts of Christ, while in Romans 12 they are the gifts of God the Father. It is always misleading to separate the three Persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Together they are involved in every aspect of the church’s wellbeing.