The Powers are Defeated (Ephesians 1:20-23)

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. In most apocalyptic literature, the people of God are an oppressed minority looking forward to the time when God will break into history with some sort of decisive victory of his enemies. The people of God can have confidence that their oppression is going to be reversed in the near future. God will vindicate them, reward them for their suffering and punish the oppressors.  For most of apocalyptic, the evil empire can be safely ignored since the time of its final judgment is near.

Does Paul think the Roman government can be safely ignored?  This seems to be the case since Rome 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. With the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the power of the empire has already been broken.

The “son of man” language comes from 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.

If this is on target, Paul describes the death of Jesus as victory of apocalyptic proportions! Are there other hints of Paul’s apocalyptic worldview in Ephesians?

11 thoughts on “The Powers are Defeated (Ephesians 1:20-23)

  1. There are instances in Ephesians that are looking apocalyptic to me. Just when Paul talks about the armor of God, in chapter 6, that to me looks to the future. The devil will come with his evil schemes, and people, we as Christians, need to be ready and have the armor of God on us to make it through (Eph. 6). Another part of Ephesians can seem apocalyptic when it talks about unity. There are going to be many different kinds of people in heaven one day, so why not starting living in harmony now? “Ephesians enjoins believers to speak to one another ‘with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit’ (TTP 254; Eph. 5). Live as you would in the kingdom of God, is basically what this is saying. One other thing that stuck out to me in chapter 5 of Ephesians was when it talks about God’s future judgment and his wrath. There is a list of things that Christian’s should not do, such as, “sexual immorality, or any kind of impurity, or greed’…etc. (Eph. 5:3), and it goes on to say that God’s wrath will come on to those who are disobedient (Eph 5:6).

    • It seems like in light of the apocalyptic ideas you mentioned, the unity Paul discusses is instrumental for the survival of the Church. It seems that Paul doesn’t write about this specifically for the individual reader but for the group as a whole, and with intentionality. “For OUR struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (6:12) Not unlike the movie with all odds against them, this small bunch of people have to learn to stand together against these forces. The unity in this way could also be perceived as being united against a cause, rather than simple quarrels and bickering like we often think.

  2. The Paul may be making gestures towards the idea that the Roman empire was the one spoken of in Daniel, but else where in Ephesians he still gives the reader a means of “defense” against the evil of the world in Ephesians 6. When you said, “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”, Im not sure I see how the rule of the ancient days has been established since the going by of the Roman empire, newer “empires” or groups of power, have came up and the world is still in need of God’s true reign. Longenecker says that “they are now engaged in ongoing conflict against rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world, and spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms.” (TTP, 257). Given this statement, it still seems to me that we are in a struggle against these things today.

  3. Throughout Ephesians there are verses that indicate Paul’s apocalyptic worldview. For example in Ephesians 1:21 Paul writes “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come”. Here Paul speak of the “age to come”, which hints towards an apocalypse. Also in the next chapter verse 7, Paul once again takes about the coming age. Here he speaks of the future and recognizes that things are not yet what they will be. In my opinion, when reading Paul’s thoughts in Ephesians I am not frightened by what he says, instead I am encouraged. Paul doesn’t want to scar us by saying the world is coming to end. He instead wants us to be prepared for when the world does indeed come to an end. Although God’s is the only one who knows the time, Paul recognizes that the end is near. He doesn’t hesitate to let the believers know that it’s time to prepare for a new life.

  4. I believe Paul gives a hint of his apocalyptic worldview when he starts talking about how Christ is seated at God’s right hand, far above all rule, authority, power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:20-21). And then Paul concludes the thought on the explanation of the whole armor of God.
    I don’t think Paul would put this two sections in this letter just as a coincidence. I believe it was him giving his apocalyptic view to his church. When he says “not only in this age, but also in the one to come”, I can only picture nowadays as the ‘age to come’. We face a moment in our history of terror and fear, but Paul already knowing that times like these would come, he prepared the church with those words. Later he kept with this apocalyptic thought giving instructions of how to overcome fear by putting the whole armor of God, where salvation, righteousness, truth, peace and faith. (Ephesians 6:14-17).

  5. There are many different cases throughout Ephesians that shows Paul’s apocalyptic worldview. As I Eph. 1:21 Paul talks about a certain age to come. Which could be hint of some sort of apocalypse that is yet to come. Then again soon after he says something again about a day to come. This is something that we should look at more and really start thinking about more, although there is a day that will come it isn’t something that we should be scared of. We aren’t being told that the world is going to end to be scared but to be ready and prepared. Even though it will never be clear when it will happen we should just know that we should be prepared for when it does happen.

  6. Paul has an already, not yet mentality that would have been common with the Pharisees. So in light of the powers and principalities they have already been defeated because of what Jesus did on the cross. Yet, Paul in Ephesians 6 tells the people of God that they should arm themselves for war, with the armor of God. In the apocalyptic sense this war has already been won, yet in the now it is a fight in which we find ourselves embroiled. Ephesians 1:21 does imply a look at a day yet coming that hasn’t yet been realized. This attitude of the already, not yet is laced throughout all of Paul’s writings, and while he is not the first one that I jump to for apocalyptic literature, his work is definitely a good source for it.

  7. Even though Paul was a Roman citizen, he was anti-imperial.That is why he tells the Ephesians to “be made new in the attitude of [their] minds” (4:23) and to “put off [their] former way of life, to put off [their] old self… corrupted by sinful desires” (4:22) instead of thinking and doing like the Romans. He also tells them to live lives that aren’t sexually immoral or have any kind of impurity (5:3) which goes against the Roman ways.They are to “exhibit as Christ-followers coalesces with and reinforces the new identity that is theirs in Christ Jesus” (TTP 255). This “new identity” means throwing away their rights a Roman citizens. “[T]rue righteousness and holiness [will] be displayed in household relations, grounded in mutual submission (TTP 255), which Paul explains in chapters 5 and 6, which was unlike how the Romans household typically was. Paul explained it as more relational and loving involvement by the parents than a typical Roman household.

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