7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
8 Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.”
9 (Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth?
10 He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)
grace (v.7) — What is given is not the charisma (extraordinary powers such as special gifts) but the charis (grace), the subjective grace that works within and shows itself in its result — the charism, the gracious faculty or quality. The emphasis is on the hekastoi (to each one), and the de (but) is rather the adversative particle than the transitional. It does not merely mark a change from one subject to another, but sets the each over against the all [v.6], and this in connection with the injunction to keep the unity of the Spirit. God’s gracious relation to all is a relation also to each individual. Not one of them was left unregarded by Him who is the God and Father of all, but each was made partaker of Christ’s gift of grace, and each, therefore stands pledged to do his part toward maintenance of unity and peace. — Wuest, page 97
according to the measure (v.7) — Each gets the grace which Christ has to give, and each gets it in the proportion in which the Giver is pleased to bestow it; one having it in larger measure and another in smaller, but each getting it from the same Hand, and with the same purpose. We must be careful to note that this grace has to do with the exercise of special gifts for service, not the grace for daily living. The former is limited, and is adjusted to the kind of gift and the extent to which the Holy Spirit desires to use that gift in the believer’s service. The latter is unlimited and subject only to the limitations which the believer puts upon it by a lack of yieldedness to the Spirit. — Wuest, pages 97-98
gifts (v.8) = doma = a general term for that which is given. Not charisma, or special gifts of grace
The biblical record clearly supports that Christ ascended twice to His Father’s throne near the close of His earthly ministry. Our Lord’s ascension from the Mount of Olives, following His post-resurrection ministry, is perhaps the most universally acknowledged. Of course, here Christ is portrayed as being seated at His Father’s right hand until His enemies are made His footstool, at which time He will visibly return in glory to execute judgment upon all those who obey not the gospel of the kingdom (Acts 1:9-11; 2:32-36 cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). But forty days prior to this glorious event He had ascended to the Father for an entirely different purpose. This ascension took place at the time of His resurrection — the first day of the week.
After the initial flurry of activity that fateful day, our Lord appeared to Mary Magdalene, who was yet troubled by His disappearance. “Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto Him, Raboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch Me not; [or, do not detain Me] for I am not yet ascended to My Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto My Father, and your Father; and to My God, and your God” (John 20:16-17). We believe this ascension is in harmony with the activities of the High Priest on the day of atonement.
Every year on the day of atonement, the High Priest would shed the blood of a goat to atone for the sins of the chosen nation. He alone was permitted to pass through the holy place and enter into the holy of holies. The High Priest always entered the holiest of all on the right side of the veil — God’s position of favor. Once in the presence of the Almighty, he sprinkled the goat’s blood seven times upon the mercy seat before the Lord. Then he was instructed to return to the congregation, but not before sprinkling the blood upon the brazen altar, thus cleansing it for the ensuing year (Leviticus 16:15-19).
If we put all these pieces of the puzzle together, the following image begins to gradually emerge. The day Christ died, He descended into the lower parts of the earth to the unseen world known as Hades. He remained there for three days and three nights in a disembodied state. According to Luke’s gospel, Hades was divided into two compartments, paradise and torment, with a great gulf fixed between.
Peter informs us that during this period He “preached unto the spirits in prison [torment]; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah” (I Peter 3:19-20). Wuest makes the interesting observation that the verb “preach” here is not “to preach the gospel,” but “to make a proclamation.” Undoubtedly, the Lord declared unto them the hopelessness of their plight.
The Master’s words to the thief on the cross substantiates that He also spent time in paradise during His three day absence from the earth. “And Jesus saith unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
After His resurrection and brief appearance to Mary, Christ led captivity captive. But what is the significance of this phrase? In the Old Testament this terminology is closely associated with liberation. In Judges 5, a song of victory as they marched through the camp displaying those of their own kindred who had been recovered from bondage.
Although the sins of those in paradise had been atoned for, the blood of bulls and goats could never remove those sins. Consequently, these sins past, though covered, hindered them from residing in the presence of a holy and righteous God. Therefore, it was needful for these righteous dead to remain in the lower parts of the earth until the shadow became a reality through Christ’s shed blood. Upon the completion of His finished work, He ascended on High to present Himself to the Father as proof of the fact He had offered the once-for-all sacrifice. This was in fulfillment of the above type (Hebrews 9:11-14, 23-28) — Sadler, pages 181-183.
This isn’t an easy passage. My take on it is that Paul is introducing the topic of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to the Body of Christ. He begins by explaining where the gifts come from — from Christ who has the authority because of His death, resurrection and ascension into heaven as fulfillment of the prophecy in Psalm 68. The Holy Spirit (through Paul) then uses this moment to fill in a few more details about what happened during Christ’s descent into Hades (just before His first ascension to the Father right after His resurrection) and to help us connect the reference to other places in Scripture where this descent and ascension is mentioned.