This subject on leading captivity captive is a very interesting one and there are many different views concerning it. Here is my view on the subject.
In Ephesians 4 it says,
“8 Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.”
The phrase, “…led captivity captive…” is also mentioned in two other places in the bible. Once in Psalm 68:18 which says,
“18 Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them.”
And again in Judges 5:12, which says,
“12 Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song: arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam.”
Now there are several ideas bouncing around about what Paul was referring to in the passage in Ephesians. I have heard some views that state that all the people that were in Abraham’s Bosom ascended into heaven when Christ ascended into heaven. These people were set free. This was leading captivity captive.
Other views declare that the saints were delivered from sin and the law. These people were set free. This was leading captivity captive.
But to me the word captive is the opposite of being set free. If someone is being led captive how can they be set free?
So basically the views come down to this: leading captivity captive either means setting someone free or it means leading them into captivity. It has to be one or the other but it can’t mean both because they are opposites.
Question: How would you lead someone captive that is already in captivity?
Easy. Let’s put it this way. Let’s say that you have a prisoner that is captive in a prison. He can’t get out, he’s captive. He is with the general assembly in the prison and he has his few freedoms that he is allowed to do.
But what if he gets into trouble? What if he does something real bad as attacking a guard or killing an inmate? What they will do to this person is take him, which is already captive, and lead him into captivity. They will put him in solitary confinement where he will not be able to associate with the other inmates. The other inmates are captive but his captivity will be different, he is put in the lowest of the low.
Now let’s look at the situation with the nation of Israel. They once had a kingdom and they controlled it. When David and Solomon were king, it was in its prime. But Israel sinned against the Lord and the kingdom fell. The Lord had Nebuchadnezzar King of Babylon come in and take control over the nation of Israel and Israel was led captive. The kingdom had fallen but Israel was still God’s chosen people.
God was still dealing with Israel at this time, and he was still talking with them and sending them prophets. Let’s look at this chart .
This chart shows us when the kingdom was in power. The green time line represents Israel's condition. You can see on the chart that Israel lost their kingdom unto the King of Babylon. This started the Times of the Gentiles where the Gentiles would rule over Israel. The green time line steps down to indicate that the kingdom had fallen. Israel is captive at this time.
As we go into the future the Lord comes on the scene, in the beginning of his ministry he came to Nazareth. He went into the synagogue and stood up to read and said,
“18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
20 And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
21 And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.”
Now Jesus was reading out of Isaiah 61 verses 1 & 2 which say,
“1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
2 To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
Please notice that in verse 1 it says,
“…to preach deliverance to the captives,…”
But why didn’t he finish the sentence? He stopped at, ”… To preach the acceptable year of the Lord… ”, but he did not read,
“…and the day of vengeance of our God…”
Why? Because it wasn’t time to preach the day of vengeance yet. He does this later in his ministry.
So what we have here is Jesus quoting scripture that he is going to preach deliverance to the captives. This surely indicates that there are captives at this time, but he is not teaching the day of vengeance yet.
A few years later before his death at Calvary, he rides into Jerusalem on the ass’ colt and in Luke 19 it says,
“41 And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it,
42 Saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.
43 For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side,
44 And shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.”
Now the Lord says here that because they knewest not the time of their visitation, that the city would be destroyed. Shortly after this event he says in Luke 21,
“20 And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.
21 Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto.
22 For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.
23 But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people.
24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the
Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.”
Please notice in verse 22 that the Lord is now teaching about, “the days of vengeance”. And in verse 24 he says,
“…and shall be led away captive into all nations…”
So what we have here is Jesus prophesying about Israel how they will be led captive unto all nations and Jerusalem will be trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
So in the beginning of his ministry he preached deliverance to the captives, and toward the end of his ministry he is preaching captivity to the captives.
Israel is already captive, their kingdom is fallen, and now the Lord is preaching captivity to the captives.
After the Lord’s resurrection the apostles asked him a question in Acts 1, which says,
“6 When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?
7 And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.”
So the apostles knowing that the kingdom was already fallen and that Jesus was going to be the King, asked him if he was going to restore the kingdom at this present time.
He didn’t say yes, and he didn’t say no, but rather it was not for them to know.
Jesus knew what was going to happen, but the time wasn’t quite there yet. Jesus ascended into heaven and shortly thereafter in Acts 7 Jesus stood up and judged the nation of Israel in unbelief and Israel fell.
When Israel fell, they became Loammi: not my people and God hid his face from the nation of Israel. Instead of the nation of Israel getting their kingdom restored, they went into the opposite direction and became even worse off than they were before. The Lord led captivity captive.
Before they fell, they were still God’s people and he spoke with them through the prophets, but now, even today, God is hiding his face from them and is not talking with them through any prophets. They are not God’s people. They are in captivity. They are blinded. They have fallen.
Back on our chart. the green time line once again shows a dip to indicate Israel’s fallen state. Not only is their kingdom fallen, but they have fallen also. They went from their captive state to where they did not have a kingdom but they still had a God into a worse state of captivity where they do not have a kingdom or a God. You could say they went into solitary confinement.
During this time of Israel’s fallen state, the Gentiles have been granted salvation by grace through faith and God gave them the dispensation of the grace of God. During this time the Lord has given the Gentiles gifts, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. (The prophets and the apostles died out.)
During this time, Paul tells us about how things happen when he gives us the teaching of the two olive trees in Romans 11. The Jews (except the remnant) were broken off of the olive tree and the Gentiles were graffed in.
Israel will be in this fallen state until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. In Romans 11 it says,
“25 For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.”
When the dispensation of grace is over, the Gentiles will be broken off of the good olive tree and the Jews will once again be graffed back into their good olive tree and Israel will be restored and they will be God’s people once again. The tribulation will start and at the end of that tribulation the Lord Jesus Christ will come back and set up his kingdom and Israel’s kingdom will finally be restored.
When the dispensation of grace comes to a close, then the prophecy of Ezekiel 39 will be fulfilled. There will be a battle, Russia in alliance with Persia, and they will attack Israel from the north and the Lord will win this battle for Israel. From this time, Israel will once again be God’s people. In Ezekiel 39 it says,
“22 So the house of Israel shall know that I am the LORD their God from that day and forward.
23 And the heathen shall know that the house of Israel went into captivity for their iniquity: because they trespassed against me, therefore hid I my face from them, and gave them into the hand of their enemies: so fell they all by the sword.
24 According to their uncleanness and according to their transgressions have I done unto them, and hid my face from them.
25 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Now will I bring again the captivity of Jacob, and have mercy upon the whole house of Israel, and will be jealous for my holy name;
26 After that they have borne their shame, and all their trespasses whereby they have trespassed against me, when they dwelt safely in their land, and none made them afraid.
27 When I have brought them again from the people, and gathered them out of their enemies' lands, and am sanctified in them in the sight of many nations;
28 Then shall they know that I am the LORD their God, which caused them to be led into captivity among the heathen: but I have gathered them unto their own land, and have left none of them any more there.
29 Neither will I hide my face any more from them: for I have poured out my spirit upon the house of Israel, saith the Lord GOD.
In verse 22 without a shadow of a doubt the Lord will be their God again forevermore. In verse 23 he tells us that the heathen will know that Israel went into captivity because of their iniquity, therefore he hid his face from them. In verse 28 it says,
“28 Then shall they know that I am the LORD their God, which caused them to be led into captivity among the heathen:…”
Once again, the Lord will be their God, which caused them to be led into captivity. And once again in verse 29 the Lord will never hide his face from them ever again.
This blinding, captivity, fall, being without God was a very terrible thing that happened unto Israel, but they brought it among themselves, but through their fall, salvation is come unto the Gentiles, so thanks be to God.
So what we have here in Ephesians is when Paul refers to being led captivity captive, if he is talking about some people that are already captive being led into a deeper captivity then more than likely he is talking about Israel being blinded when Christ ascended up into heaven.
Now if he is referring to someone being set free from something, then another view might be more appropriate, but I just can’t see it.