After spending some time reading in the so-called anti-Imperial texts in Paul, I would suggest that Paul does in fact envision the eventual destruction of the Roman empire. But Paul does not encourage the sorts of anti-government protests and social actions people in the West would recognize. The reason Paul is anti-Empire is because in reality Rome has already fallen and God’s kingdom has come in the person of Jesus.
I do not think that Paul is coded his letters with subtle anti-imperial language. He is in fact drawing upon the well-known (and not particularly subtle) language drawn from the Hebrew Bible, especially as it was translated in the Septuagint. Jesus is Lord, but not because Paul is encoding an anti-imperial message by using words with subversive meanings The Greek word κύριος was already used in the LXX to refer to the Lord, God of Israel. By calling Jesus “our Lord” in Ephesians 1:2 Paul is declaring that Jesus is the Lord of the Hebrew Bible.
As such, he evokes the image of Jesus as the God of the Bible, but especially in apocalyptic literature. Why is it that the Roman government can be safely ignored? It has already been defeated! God decreed long ago that the coming Son of Man would destroy the power of the kingdoms of men and establish the rule of the Ancient of Days. I am thinking here of Daniel 7:14, but I would include the image of the statue from Daniel 2 as well. The greatest of the kingdoms of men will be destroyed and turned to dust when God rises to defend his people. The grand conclusion to the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is that God will restore his people to Zion by dealing justly with the kingdoms of this world. Paul says that this apocalyptic event in many ways happened when Jesus died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the throne of God.
Timothy Gombis has taken this observation as the main thesis of his book The Drama of Ephesians. This little book argues that Paul is using imagery of spiritual warfare drawn form the Hebrew Bible to describe what Jesus has done on the cross. Using Ephesians 1:20-23, for example, Gombis points out that Paul says that Jesus was vindicated by being raised to the right hand of the father in heaven.
This is a place of authority which is far above every ruler, authority, power and dominion. These are spiritual forces at work in the world, the actors in the apocalyptic drama, as Gombis describes Ephesians. Jesus has an authority which is so high above every spiritual thing in creation that it does not even make sense that human rulers should be considered as competitors to Jesus’ rule and authority!
Rome, in Paul’s view of spiritual reality, does not really count for all that much. If the “rulers of this age” are the spiritual forces behind Rome, and if those spiritual forces have already been defeated, then the Empire itself is doomed to defeat. This situation reminds me somewhat of the end of the Soviet Union. The “union” dissolved so quickly that I imagine there were many people living in areas formerly controlled by the USSR that had no idea they were under a “new government.” I always wondered if Gorbachev went to work one morning and found his offices “under new management.”
This is what happened when Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of the Universe, died and rose again. The power of the spiritual forces of this dark age was broken – but it happened in such a way that the world did not really notice. But for Paul, the victory has already been won and Rome has no real power anymore.