Several times in Ephesians Paul mentions rulers and authorities, powers and dominions. Most commentators observe Paul has spiritual forces in view when he uses this kind of language. By the first century, Judaism had developed a complicated view of angelic and demonic forces which operated “behind the scenes.” Sometimes these dark forces were responsible for persecution or troubles for God’s people. In Daniel, for example, an angel tells Daniel he was delayed by the “prince of Persia” (10:21) and did not escape until Michael (the prince of Israel) came to assist him. 1 Enoch 1-36 (The Book of the Watchers) offers a detailed description of demonic activity before the flood.
Timothy Gombis develops this view of powers and dominions as the main thesis of his book The Drama of Ephesians. This book argues 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,” although most of his staff just kept on working as if nothing had happened!
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.