Jesus “Led Captivity Captive”

June 17, 2010

Last week I got the awesome opportunity to sub in at TbarM Camp Travis as a coach for Session 2. Each summer we have campers study through a book of the Bible, and this summer it is Ephesians. I was much edified by reading and studying through it with my First Fruits group each morning, but the chapter that really stuck out to me was chapter 4. In particular, I love the phrase that Paul quotes from Psalm 68 in verse 8 (of Eph 4).

Most translations have something like:

“When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train…” (NIV)
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives…” (ESV)

But in the Greek that last phrase is ᾐχμαλώτευσεν αἰχμαλωσίαν (hxamloteusen aixamlosian). If you can tell by looking, the two words are cognates. The first is an aorist verbal form of the second word, so a literal translation of the two words would be “He led captivity captive.” This is the translation the ASV and KJV take. I think this is a better translation, and I love the image it gives.

Jesus didn’t just lead a bunch of captives captive, he led captivity itself captive! Jesus uses their own weapons against themselves. I think this is a beautiful portrayal of the great principle that God doesn’t just conquer in spite of sin, he conquers through sin. He uses the enemy itself for his glory. He doesn’t just defeat evil, he uses it for his glory. This is not to say that God is the originator of sin (he most certainly is not! We are…), but that he is not powerless to turn even evil and sin to his glory.

The best picture of this is clearly the cross of Christ. There has never before, nor ever will be a more sinful and evil thing than to crucify God incarnate. And yet what has come from this great evil? Nothing short of the reconciliation and salvation of thousands, the love of God manifested in the flesh, and ultimately, the glory of God through his Son. In what appeared to be the greatest moment of despair for God’s glory, the serpent’s head was crushed, death was defeated, and new life and the first fruits of resurrection were displayed in Christ Jesus. How glorious is that!?!

What a God we serve, who is not hindered by our sin, suffering, or evil, but can (and does!) use it for his glory. What a God who “leads captivity captive“! What a God who causes “all things to work together for our good” (Rom 8:28) and will one day receive praise from “every tongue,”and every knee will bow “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil 2:10-11).

I would serve no other God who was unable to “lead captivity captive.” It is a beautiful image and picture that I was reminded of last week as we studied Ephesians. It encourages me to know that is the God I worship, that is the God who “works for those who wait for him” (Isa 64:4) and the God who is sovereign over all. May his name be praised!

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  • Reply Victoria June 19, 2019 at 6:00 am

    Thank you so much for this clarification of the Greek! Our Bible study was just puzzling over this yesterday, wondering “Who are the captives that Jesus is leading?” Only one translation had “He led captivity captive,” which made much more sense to me, but on what basis could I choose that one? You have provided the answer, and also connected it to the cross. Thank you1All that could hold us captive has been conquered by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Great news indeed!

    • Reply Jason Custer June 20, 2019 at 1:31 pm

      You’re most welcome, Victoria. Glad the post could help! I love the image of God leading captivity captive (so much that I named my blog after it).

  • Reply TIM CATCHIM July 23, 2019 at 8:25 pm

    Great point here. So many commentators evoke the “procession” scenario here. But Psalm 68 is referring to the conquest narrative in Deuteronomy and Numbers against King Og of Bashan, and according to those narratives, it no one from Bashan was left alive after the battle – total destruction. So a procession of captives was not possible.

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