“In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?” (Eph 4:9).
If Christ ascended into heaven, returning to his Father as he promised he would, then he must have first descended from heaven to earth.
Having quoted Psalm 68 (or at least a version of it) in the previous verse, Paul feels it is appropriate to comment on the incarnation and ascension of Christ briefly. Let’s not forget that the manifestation of God in the flesh, his life on earth, his death, and, ultimately, his resurrection are the heart of the gospel message. Elsewhere, Paul defines the gospel this way: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1Co 15:3, 4).
In his first epistle, Peter takes this concept a bit further by saying:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison. (1 Peter 3:18, 19)
Not only did Christ descend to the earth, but he also descended even further into what Peter calls prison. What prison? Peter describes those in this prison as those who did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah (1Pe 3:20). Who disobeyed God in the days of Noah? Whether Peter refers to devils or just disobedient people, Christ descended as far as Sheol or Hades, the place of the dead.
Even so, Paul reminds us that he who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:10). Ultimately, Jesus is exalted. He humbled himself down to the lowest regions of the earth, but God raised him to the highest position above all the heavens.
What point is Paul trying to make? What does the ascension of Christ have to do with spiritual gifts and his enabling grace? The answer is authority. Perhaps we could say power. Look back at verse 8. The reason Jesus can give gifts to his church is that he was victorious. He conquered our enemies. Christ freed us from slavery. He ascended back to his position of authority in heaven. Therefore, he has every right to divide the spoils of war among us. He has the right to give us spiritual gifts and the grace to use them.