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.
16 thoughts on “Ephesians 1:20-23 – God’s Great Victory”
Very nice, it is of course the spiritual nature of the “apocalyptic drama”, I would myself still see something of “the commonwealth of Israel and… the covenants of promise..” (Eph. 2: 12), as too of Romans 9-11, etc. for both Jew and Gentile (Rom. 15: 8-9). Note Eph. 3: 14-21, seems to be towards the Gentiles (3:1-2 ; 6-7-8, etc.). But, we cannot overly press this in dispensational manner. For as you measure this is certainly spiritual and apocalyptic. And as you also mention some would make this Letter/Ephesians with Colossians a secondary aspect, to Romans and Galatians. But yet we can only measure these Captivity Epistles with Romans, and Galatians etc. But again, we also cannot leave out the Pastoral Letters either!
I am not sure myself we can ever get around Paul the Jew and Roman citizen, easily? Though certainly he does submit all to the doctrine of God, (Rom. 11:36). But anti-Imperial? I think that is a press myself.
Interesting. I hadn’t quite ever looked at the book of Ephesians and Jesus’ being high above all rule and authority as relating to Roman rule before. It makes sense, though. Just as we are not to set our minds on earthly things but on heavenly things (Colossians 3:2), so too we ought not to consider the rulers of this age as anything, for Christ has already triumphed over them (and their spiritual counterparts; Colossians 2:15). Even so, while we live on this earth, we know Paul admonishes us to submit to the governing authorities, for they have been put here by God (Romans 13:1).
It makes me wonder about voting. If God puts whoever He wants into office, what does that say about who I should vote for? But I guess it’s the same thing with the whole election vs. free will debate. Somehow I think both are true: God’s got His picks, but still we’ve got to do our part. After all, we are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20). It would be the same with voting then – I should vote for who I believe is really the best candidate and yet leave the decision to God. After all, I can sow a seed, and I can even water it, but it’s only God that makes it grow (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).
I liked the statement in this post: “Rome, in Paul’s view of spiritual reality, does not really count for all that much”. I would also agree that Paul epistles do not contain an explicitly anti-imperialist message. One of the largest indicators of this, in my opinion, is that Paul would have viewed fighting back against the Roman Government a waste of his time. His calling was to spread the good news of justification through grace which has come through the work of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24). Instead of rebelling against the powers that be, Paul uses the persecution of Rome to further his mission and make his testimony all the more powerful (2 Corinthians 11). The example found in the life of Jesus Christ can also be used as a model of how Christians are to view government affairs. Although Jewish persecution was rampant at the time, we can find no teachings from Jesus to rise up and overthrow governments. I think the biblical approach to how Christians are to live and operate within worldly governments is clear. Our fight is not against flesh and blood (or governments), but they are against the powers and principalities of the spiritual world (Eph 6:12). Paul knew that kingdoms would rise and fall and, therefore, he spent his time living under the power of the one true ruler, Jesus Christ.
This conversation reminds me so much of the passages in Matthew 6 about not worrying. This same principal is definitely being preached in Paul’s letter. I like that you pointed out how this letter was not at all about overthrowing the government, but rather the death and resurrection of Christ completely negates the need for there to be fear and worry about the governments enlisted by man. Yes, there are human stipulations determined by the governments and authorities set up by man, but ultimately God is in control. By showing his supremacy over death, Christ has also shown his supremacy over any human efforts. Jesus preached on the Sermon on the Mount for us to not worry about tomorrow or any of man’s issues. His death and resurrection then exemplified exactly why we have no need to worry about such things. I like what you had to say, Ryan, about being involved in voting and such. We should be involved in that process, but understand the supremacy of our God and not become obsessed with which leaders we are under, who we are voting for, or the policies that we disagree with. Regardless of man’s efforts, God is still in control. This is his creation, and nothing goes unnoticed by him.
I agree with Scott when he says that Paul really didn’t have an anti-imperialist message. There were things that could be viewed as that but that was not his intentions. That peace of knowing that Jesus was ruling over everything and in command, is what kept Paul calm against any persecution or the Roman empire. This same peace is still offered to us today. There is nothing that can stand against us because Christ has defeated death and anything created has an ultimate creator which stands up and in control. It is a humbling but amazing thought.
I never truly stopped and thought much on Eph. 1:20-23 before. It struck me odd that people would really consider Paul to be anti-government and such. I read over this text and I still cannot see how Ephesians could be anti-imperialistic. I agree with what Phil Long said in his opening statement “I would suggest that Paul does in fact envision the eventual destruction of the Roman empire…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 believe that Paul had hidden anti-imperialistic messages throughout Ephesians. In the first place, that is just not what Paul was all about, but also, if it were to be the case, would we not find these ‘hidden messages’ throughout all of the rest of his epistles? Clearly we do not see any of this anti-imperialistic mumble jumble in other writings, so why would we begin to see it now in Ephesians? I believe that what Paul was getting at here in Eph. 1:20-23 is that God sent His son to Earth (John 3:16) and through his death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven, God’s plan was finally fulfilled (also looking at the prophesy in Daniel) where the Son of Man (Jesus) would save and restore the world and deal rightly with the kingdoms of men. Paul is only speaking here the words of past profits and of God. We are not to worry about the government we are under because God, through Jesus, has already destroyed the law of Man! I really liked the point Ryan made, however. We talked about it in previous blog posts, and I think it to be relevant now as well. “Even so, while we live on this earth, we know Paul admonishes us to submit to the governing authorities, for they have been put here by God (Romans 13:1)” (Ryan). This is where I again can point out that Paul was not anti-government. He tells us and even leads by example that we are to adhere to those God appointed in charge. That means that He and everyone else in that time must submit to the Roman Empire. God is clearly “above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given not only in the present age, but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21). but He has appointed leaders on Earth that we must listen to. And until the day that Christ comes back, we should follow the example of Paul and listen to those in authority here on earth while still following the One who created and is above it all.
“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” P Long I think that was a greatly worded point, however could we also take into consideration the reason Paul is anti-Empire is because he worked in the Empire before coming into a relationship with Christ, and so he knew how twisted it was? Just a thought…I think the reason he draws so much fact and anti-Empire language is because of his background. I think I establish something along these lines in every post I make about Paul and the government or his background.
“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.” I do not know if I would agree with this statement, I do not think the spiritual forces will be broken until the second coming or even till the establishment of the Kingdom. With all of the information we have about the apocalypse in Revelation and Daniel, as well as some spots in Paul’s ministry I think it is very possible that the Empire will not come to an end until those days which I have stated. Though I could be way off in my thinking, it makes sense to me that the end of the spiritual darkness would not happen until God establishes the end of the rein of the wickedness on earth, with the great prostitute from Revelation 18 and 19, because though those who were in Christ were taken up into heaven in the coming of Christ, wickedness is allowed to run the earth and many dark and awful things are predicted in revelation about the end times. So once Babylon is overthrown and God establishes his reign I do not believe the dark age was broken. I believe we are still living in a dark age and we will continue until that day when God’s reign is upon us.
Again I may be completely off, but that is how I view this subject, to an extent… I think this is one view of the dark age, and I may be taking Ephesians 1 to a completely different view and place, but that’s what happens when I think critically.
I see so much of this passage simply as a matter of perspective. Paul’s perspective was clearly one that looked to the past and saw what Christ did on the cross, conquering sin and death, that he raised from the dead and was seated at the right hand of God, “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion” (Eph. 1:21). His perspective was also one that looked at the present in the midst of Roman rule and knew that it was temporary. And lastly, his perspective was that of the future hope, knowing that the ultimate authority, the “manifold wisdom of God”, would be “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph. 3:10-11). If we can grasp this perspective, it changes everything! For, “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!” (Long). In our minds, we know that this is truth, we’ve read it many times, but shifting our thought process to this kind of perspective is a different story. And yet, the freedom from worry and fear that this perspective gives us is so worth it! “The Spirit guarantees that in the final time God will take hold of us and possess us for his eternal kingdom” (Polhill, 363)
“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.” (P. Long) This is such a sweet statement. I love the idea of this, that God swooped in and saved His bride without her being fully aware that she was in His arms already. That she didn’t have to worry about the forces that surrounded her. I find that reflected in the lives of many of us. We walk though many fires and swim through rising waters and we are quick to forget that God has already won the victory. That we have a greater hope in Him (Eph. 1:18). That everything is under His rule and authority (Eph. 1:21) That we can be fulfilled in Him. (Eph. 1:23). How breathtaking would it be if we reminded ourselves of this so that when we come against these troubles we would find ourselves in the Groom’s arms rather than drowning in our tears.
The underlying message I gather here is that God is always in control. David makes a good observation about Jesus’ sermon on the mount where he tells his followers to not worry about tomorrow. Matthew 6:25 says“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes.” It was through the death of Christ that all fear was conquered I like how it was pointed out that Paul’s letter is not at all concerned with trying to overthrow the government. With the death of Christ, we are able to conquer any and all fear about who is in government. When we involve ourselves in the process of voting, we need to remember one thing and thatis that God is always in control and no matter what, he will remain in control.
Talking about voting and being involved with government David said, “We should be involved in that process, but understand the supremacy of our God and not become obsessed with which leaders we are under, who we are voting for, or the policies that we disagree with.” Too often our elected officials and our government can almost become our idol. Not that we worship them directly like we worship God, but the amount of time we spend worrying and obsessing over who is doing what can become distracting from the truth: God is supreme. Many people spend more time catching up on the political news than they do in devotion to the real Ruler, the Creator, our God.
As John said we tend to spend to much time worrying about who our next leader is. In all honesty, this can be said about anything. We worry about what we are going to get on “black Friday” or Christmas. We worry about what a girl is going to say when we ask her out. We worry about so many things and forget about what Christ did for us.
I can just imagine Paul’s thinking when He first started believing that he needed to tell the world about Christ’s death. I often wonder if he felt that he needed to save the entire world like we often think to or if he was always set on making disciples. I’m sure he struggled with this mightily as we all do!
This whole idea of God’s conquering victory sounds very much like some aspects of already/not yet that we have talked about in class and which Wright alludes to in some of his material. God’s victory is already secure and fully accomplished at the cross, but like PLong said, the world has not yet fully realized the effects of God’s conquering, and so we still have struggles, but when Christ comes and establishes the physical New Jerusalem and the Kingdom-insofar as it is similarly already established, but not yet realized-all the world will recognize and realize God’s victory and glory! It’s gonna be pretty phenomenal.
I really like what David said about how this has to do with Matthew 6 about not worrying. I know a few people– Christians even– who are honestly worried that Obama or Oprah or somebody else is going to take over the world. I am not saying that those ideas are absurd, I am just saying that God has told us time and time again that He alone is in control. We just have to trust Him. We get caught up in and stress over worldly events when there is even more spiritual warfare going on that we do not see. Whether we like it or not, spiritual warfare is real (Eph. 6:12). However, God tells us that Jesus has overtaken that as well! There is absolutely nothing that Christians should not trust God to be in control of. He has given us His armor that we may “Be strong in [Him] and in the strength of His might” (Eph. 6:10).
“We should be involved in that process, but understand the supremacy of our God and not become obsessed with which leaders we are under, who we are voting for, or the policies that we disagree with.” I liked when David said this and what John had to say about it, but I am unsure that Ephesians or any other scripture gives anything to the idea that “We should be involved in that process…” It seems more that we should be satisfied in knowing that Jesus is Lord and is “far above every ruler, authority, power, and dominion.” There is no call to be involved in the “process” that I know of, rather what we have is a statement saying that Jesus is Lord and he is in authority over everything. So as John and Chris said, we should not allow the government to become like idols or be obsessed with it or anything else.
The victory in Christ that can be found very evidently in this passage in Ephesians. The way that Paul presents this in an apocalyptic sounding way, and also presents the fact clearly that Jesus is the God of the Bible. “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:22-23). After touching on this in his letter, he talks about being made alive in Christ and God raising us up with Christ. The power of Christ above every ruler and empire was a powerful declaration, and it still is relevant today.