After explaining that God has blessed believers in Jesus with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), Paul catalogs what those blessings are and how they came to be (Ephesians 1—3). After praying that the Ephesian believers would truly understand Christ and what they had been given in Him (Ephesians 1:14–23 and Ephesians 3:14–21), Paul exhorts believers to walk in a manner worthy of their incredible calling (Ephesians 4:1). Paul explains that Jesus led captivity captive and gave gifts to men (Ephesians 4:8) and that Jesus’ gifting was an expression of His grace toward those who have believed in Him.
As Paul encourages believers to walk in a manner worthy of their calling (Ephesians 4:1), he challenges them to show tolerance to one another in love (Ephesians 4:2), preserving the peace that they had been given (Ephesians 4:3). Reminding his readers of the basis for their peace with God and with one another, Paul adds that it is based on their oneness and God’s singular provision for them (Ephesians 4:3–4) and on the fact that there is one God and Lord over them (Ephesians 4:5–6). Even in unity, there were differences and different roles for believers. All had been given a measure of grace by God, as Christ had given of Himself (Ephesians 4:7). Paul elaborates on Jesus’ gift, alluding to Psalm 68:18 and noting that, when Jesus ascended on high, He led captivity (or captives) captive and gave gifts to men (Ephesians 4:8).
Psalm 68:18 records David speaking to God, saying that God had ascended on high, led captive captives, and received gifts among men. Paul observes that, similarly, Jesus also had ascended on high and led captivity (or captives) captive, so Paul quotes Psalm 68:18 and then adds that Jesus gave gifts to men. Paul explains that Jesus had first descended at His death and burial (Ephesians 4:9) and that He then ascended far above all (Ephesians 4:10). By leading captives out of captivity, He demonstrated His authority over death and His authority to give gifts.
It may be that Paul uses the phrase led captivity captive to refer to those who had died before and who awaited Jesus’ sacrifice for the forgiveness of their sin to have access to heaven. If that is Paul’s meaning, then, after Jesus descended to the grave (Sheol), Jesus would have led those who had been in captivity to death into the promised freedom of life with God. Because the text doesn’t specify this as Paul’s meaning, we can’t be dogmatic that this is what Paul is alluding to. Still, as Paul is certainly referencing (at least) Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, Paul is reminding his readers that Jesus is qualified to deliver and to give gifts.
Paul further explains that, when Jesus led captivity captive and gave gifts to men (Ephesians 4:8), those gifts were specifically the gifts (to the church) of 1) apostles, 2) prophets, 3) evangelists, and 4) pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). These four gifts were not gifts given to individuals; rather, they were people who filled these roles and were given to the church so that it might be built up properly as God designed (Ephesians 4:12). While the New Testament speaks of several other kinds of gifts (see Romans 12:6ff, 1 Corinthians 12:4ff, 1 Peter 4:10–11), the gifts in this context are given to the church. The gifts listed in the various lists are given to individuals (1 Corinthians 12:7). The gifts in Ephesians 4:8 are specifically described as being given by Christ, who led captivity captive and gave gifts to men (Ephesians 4:8).