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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 US 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, away from phone calls and the media. So when the storm hit, his advisers decided not to bother him with the news straight away. However, 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 aides 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 for him. In the public eye, he became the president who didn’t care. Yes, he was powerful. But his power didn’t translate into anything that mattered. He was just flying above it all, looking down from the heights of power on the struggles of the masses. The picture told a story: Bush was ‘up there’ in the sky, not ‘down here’ with his people, seeking to understand their true situation and giving them what they really needed to help them in their efforts to rescue and recover from the devastation.
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. We’re 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. It’s a struggle. That’s because our 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, it’s so hard. 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 world are often indifferent and can even be hostile (after all, Paul himself is writing Ephesians from prison, where he’s been chained up for preaching the gospel).
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 and make it all right. But in the meantime, does he have anything to do with us down here? Does he understand our actual 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. They’re about Christ ascended and Christ descended. Christ is up there, and Christ is down here. Paul is saying that we need to come to grips with both of these facts, together.
Therefore it says: “Having ascended to the height, he captured prisoners-of-war; he gave gifts to people”. 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
Christ the giver
Paul here quotes a line from an Old Testament Psalm (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 doesn’t say that Christ received gifts from people; he says that Christ gave gifts to people. Why the change? Paul is drawing out the logic of the situation. A king who is victorious in battle and receives the spoils of war, if he’s any good, doesn’t just take the gifts to keep for himself. A good king receives gifts so he can use them for the sake of his people, to rule wisely, reign justly, and give his subjects what they need. So here, Paul is making the point that Christ hasn’t just ascended to his heavenly stronghold, taken the spoils of war, and shut the door to leave his people to fend for themselves. Christ, having ascended, now reigns in victory. And as he reigns, as a good and generous ruler, he gives his people what they need to live for him and achieve his purposes.
How does he do that?
Christ down here
Paul continues to draw out the logic of the Psalm and how it applies to Christ. Here’s Paul’s reasoning:
Now, what is the point of saying he ‘ascended,’ if not to imply that he also descended into the lower places, the earth?Ephesians 4:9
Christ hasn’t just ascended to the heights of the heavenly places and left us all alone down here on earth. No: he’s descended too. He’s actually come to where we’re at, in the lower places, the earth, to give us what we need to do his will.
How has Christ “descended” to give these gifts to his people? Well, Paul describes Christ’s descent as an event that came after his ascension. This might remind you of something that is described in more detail in the New Testament book of Acts. There are many connections between Paul’s description of the gospel-preaching mission in Ephesians and Luke’s description of the mission from Israel to the nations in Acts (e.g. you can compare Ephesians 1:11–14 and Acts 10–11). In Acts, there was a particular event that followed Christ’s ascension to heaven. It was an event where Christ came to his people and gave them what they needed to live for him and share the gospel with the world. It’s the event we call “Pentecost” (see Acts 2). Pentecost was a critical stage in the mission of the gospel among the early believers. It’s the event where the ascended Christ visibly poured out his Spirit on his people in Israel, and through his Spirit gave them power to be his witnesses, not just to Israel, but to all the world (see Acts 1:8). This is what Paul is talking about here, too, when he says that Christ “descended”.
The very same one: down here and up there
But if Paul is talking about Pentecost here, then why doesn’t he mention the Holy Spirit by name (as he did back in Ephesians 1:13–14, or in 4:3–4)? Because here, Paul wants to focus on Christ. He has a very important point to make about Christ:
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 4:10
God is one God in three persons (see Ephesians 4:4–6, which implies this). And all three persons of the Trinity are united in their activity. That means the work of the Spirit amongst his people at Pentecost is at the very same time the work of Christ, who in the person of the Spirit has come to be with us on earth. Christ is active on earth, in the work of his Spirit, empowering his people to preach the gospel, believe the gospel, and live for the gospel. In fact, Paul has already made this same point earlier in his letter where he described Christ as the one who “came and preached the gospel” (Ephesians 2:17). Here, Paul draws out the logic even further: this Christ who has descended to empower the ministry and mission of the gospel is the very same Christ who is risen and ascended and reigns and is powerful over all things. It’s not as if Christ is just up there, distant, passive, and uncaring about the things on earth. He’s also come to be with us, and to give us gifts. And these gifts are precious and effective, because they are the gifts of a powerful, victorious king who is ‘up there’ ruling all things.
What are these gifts for? They are there to fulfil God’s great purposes to sum up all things in Christ (see Ephesians 1:10). Paul says here that Christ’s purpose in ascending is “so that he might fulfil all things”. A key way in which he fulfils all things is through the church, which Paul has already described as “his body, the fulfilment of the one who is being fulfilled in all things in every way” (Ephesians 1:23). In other words, the gifts that Christ gives are to help us to serve his purposes, so that through the preaching of the gospel, the church, the “body” might be built and grow and so bring glory to him. This is what Paul goes on to talk about in the following verses.
The ups and downs of life and mission
So what’s the point of all this talk of Christ going up and down? It’s to encourage us as we face all the ups and downs of living for Christ. 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 he is also, at the very same time, the 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. So Paul wants us here to lift our eyes to the heavens, even as we look down to our daily walk on the ground. So 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?
This post is part of a series of 70 reflections covering every sentence in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. It’s also available in audio podcast format. You can see all the posts in the series, and connect to the audio podcast using the platform of your choice, by following this link.
The academic details behind these reflections
In this series, I don’t go into detail justifying every statement I make about the background and meaning of Ephesians. I’ve done that elsewhere. If you’re interested in the reasons I say what I say here, and want to chase it up further with lots of ancient Greek, technical stuff, and footnotes, check out my book Reading Ephesians and Colossians After Supersessionism: Christ’s Mission through Israel to the Nations.