Q223 : Leading Captivity Captive

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Q223 : Leading Captivity Captive

Dear brethren in the Lord,

Please throw more light on those who came out of grave and appeared to people in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:53). Did they still eventually die? If so, who are the captives that Christ led captive when he ascended above the heavens (Ephesians 4:8)?

A223 : by Tony Garland

Regarding the saints who were raised after Christ’s crucifixion, there are various views as to when they were raised and whether they received glorified bodies or were merely raised from the dead only to subsequently die again.

The NIV suggests that these saints were resurrected when Jesus died and then went into Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection. A number of commentators agree with this view. Many others, however, say that since Christ is the firstfruits of the dead (1Cor. 15:23), their resurrection did not occur till He was raised. In this view, the phrase “after Jesus’ resurrection” goes with the words were raised to life and came out of the tombs. This is possible in the Greek, and is suggested in the KJV and the NASB. The tombs, then, broke open at Christ’s death, probably by the earthquake, thus heralding Christ’s triumph in death over sin, but the bodies were not raised till Christ was raised. These people returned to Jerusalem, (the Holy City) where they were recognized by friends and family. Like Lazarus (John 11:43–44), Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:52–56), and the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:13–15), they too passed through physical death again. Or some say they may have been raised with glorified bodies like the Lord’s. Walvoord suggests this event was “a fulfillment of the Feast of the Firstfruits of harvest mentioned in Leviticus 23:10–14. On that occasion, as a token of the coming harvest, the people would bring a handful of grain to the priest. The resurrection of these saints, occurring after Jesus Himself was raised, is a token of the coming harvest when all the saints will be raised” (Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come, p. 236).1

Although their graves were opened at the time of the crucifixion, other passages imply—Christ being the firstborn from among the dead—that they were not raised until after Christ Himself rose from the dead (e.g., Acts 26:23; 1Cor. 15:20-23; Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). In Acts 3:15, Christ is referred to as τὸν ἀρχηγὸν τῆς ζωῆς [ton archēgon tēs zōēs]: “the Prince of Life” (KJV, NKJV, NASB95), “the Author of life” (ESV, NIV), “the Originator of life” (NET). The root term, ἀρχή [archē] is sometimes used to denote “beginning” or “first cause” such that ἀρχηγὸν [archēgon] may include the idea of Christ, in His resurrection, as the “pioneer leader”2: leading and demonstrating by example what can be expected by those who follow later.

If these saints whose graves were opened are to truly serve as firstfruits (examples) of the ultimate victory of all the saints over death, they would have received glorified bodies and would not have subsequently died. Yet scripture is silent on how or when they departed after having been seen in Jerusalem, unless, as your question infers, Ephesians 4:8 is an oblique reference to their departure with Christ. Others suggest that these saints did not ascend to heaven, but were simply raised to die again—like other individuals raised prior to the cross.4 If so, they could have risen at the crucifixion without interfering with Christ’s status as glorified firstborn from the dead—never to die again.5

The interpretation of Ephesians 4:8 is quite difficult. One question concerns the identity of the captivity which was led captive by Christ. Does this refer to forces which previously held others captive: the devil, sin, and death (Rom. 7:3; Col. 2:15; 2Ti. 2:26)?7 Or does it refer to those who were held in captivity against their will? If the latter, does it refer to people in general, held captive under the sway of the devil, sin, and death? Or might it refer to specific individuals held captive by death—such as the saints who came forth from their graves following the crucifixion (Mat. 27:53)? Another question concerns the gifts which were given to men (Eph. 4:8). The passage links the gifts which were given with individuals which “He Himself gave . . . to be apostles . . . prophets . . . evangelists . . . and pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints” and “edification of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). Is the leading of captivity captive and the giving of gifts to men two separate actions or are the gifts to be understood as being given from among that which was previously taken captive? If the former, there could be room for understanding that which was led captive as the saints who came forth at the crucifixion or the forces over which Christ had victory (the devil, sin, death). If the latter, it could refer to believers in general from which individuals are given as gifts to men.11 Yet another popular view is that the captives which Christ led refers to saved individuals who, having previously died, were in Abraham’s bosom until Christ’s crosswork made it possible for them to enter heaven (Luke 16:22).12

There are many passages which refer to God leading (“bringing back”) those who were previously held captive by the enemies of God (Ps. 14:7; 53:6; 85:1; 126:1; Isa. 14:2; 49:24-25; 61:1; Jer. 28:4,6; 29:14; 30:10,18; 31:23; 32:44; etc.). Yet in Ephesians 4:8, Paul seems to be alluding primarily to Psalm 68 (see especially Ps. 68:18) where that which was led captive refers to forces opposed to God—His enemies rather than those held captive by them: “He has led the adversary captive. In ascending to heaven He has placed victorious Man above all things, and has led captive all the power that previously had dominion over man.”13 This would argue against interpreting that which was captive as believers, whether previously held in Abraham’s bosom or held by the grave until raised in association with the earthquake at the crucifixion.16

My own view is that those whose graves were opened at the crucifixion were not raised simply to die again like those miraculously raised prior to the cross. It seems more likely they are intended to serve as firstfruits (exemplars) of the experience awaiting all those who “sleep in Christ:” resurrection and glorification never to be subject to death again. Although Ephesians 4:8 could conceivably refer to the subsequent ascension of those same individuals or the relocation of the believing dead from Abraham’s bosom to heaven, the context and allusion to Psalm 68 argue for understanding the captivity which became captive as forces opposed to God, which men were held captive by until the work of Christ on the cross (e.g., Isa. 61:1).


1.Ref-0038, Mat. 27:51-53
2.Ref-0617, #795
3.Ref-1304, 528
4.“There are six resurrections mentioned in the Scriptures as preceding that of Christ, but all of them are only restorations to the present earthly life, viz.: (1) The son of the widow of Sarepta, 1 Kings 17 (2) The Shunamite’s son, 2 Kings 4 (3) The resurrection caused by the bones of Elisha, 2 Kings 13 (4) The daughter of Jairus, Matt. 9 (5) The son of the widow at Nain, Luke 7 (6) Lazarus, John 11.” Ref-1304, 528
5.“Augustine, Theophylact, and others, supposed that these saints died again, while Origen, Jerome, Alford, Owen, Nast, and others, assume that they ascended with Christ to glory.”3.
6.Ref-0132, Eph. 4:8
7.“He conquered Satan and all his demonic horde (“he led captivity captive”)”6
8.Ref-0038, 634
9.Ref-0309, 2416
10.Ref-0465, Eph. 4:8
11.“Whereas Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 speak of gifts given to believers, Ephesians 4:7 speaks more of gifted believers given to the church (cf. v. 11).”8
12.“The captives are most probably the Old Testament saints in sheol (hades).”9 “He led captivity captive, which refers, I believe, to the redeemed of the Old Testament who went to paradise when they died. Christ took these believers with Him out of paradise into the very presence of God when He ascended.”10
13.Ref-0543, Eph. 4:8
14.Ref-0159, 138
15.Ref-0815, Eph. 4:8
16.MacArthur believes the victor’s parade could include those taken captive: “After a king won such a victory he would bring home the spoils and enemy prisoners to parade before his people. An Israelite king would take his retinue through the holy city of Jerusalem and up Mount Zion. Another feature of the victory parade, however, would be the display of the king’s own soldiers who had been freed after being held prisoner by the enemy. These were often referred to as recaptured captives—prisoners who had been taken prisoner again, so to speak, by their own king and given freedom.”14 Wuest offers a seemingly bizarre interpretation: “Our Lord, in going through the kingdom of Satan in the air, was opposed by the demons who attempted to keep Him from completing the atonement by presenting Himself as High Priest in Heaven. He stripped off and away from Himself, the demons who in attempting to impede His progress, would cling to His Person. . . . “Triumphing” (Col. 2:15) . . . was used among the Romans of a triumphal procession, such as that of a victorious general home from the wars, leading his captives and booty in a procession through the streets of Rome. Here our Lord leads the demons whom He has stripped off and away from Himself, in a triumphal procession through the air.”15


Ref-0038John Walvoord and Roy. B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: SP Publications, 1983).
Ref-0132King James Version Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1988).
Ref-0159John MacArthur, Ephesians: MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1996, c1986).
Ref-0309KJV Bible commentary. 1997, c1994. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Ref-0465McGee, J. V. (1997, c1981). Thru the Bible commentary (electronic ed.). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Ref-0543Roberts, A., Donaldson, J., & Coxe, A. C. (1997). The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. VII : Translations of the writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885).
Ref-0617James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains : Greek (New Testament), electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
Ref-0815Kenneth Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies in the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997, c1984).
Ref-1304John Peter Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008).

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