What are the Powers of this Age? (Ephesians 1:20)

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.

PAradise LostTimothy 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.


16 thoughts on “What are the Powers of this Age? (Ephesians 1:20)

  1. There is a book on my to-read list that explores passages like this and the identity of these powers: Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm. I was wondering if you’ve read or have any thoughts on it? It has gotten some pretty good reviews.

  2. I think Paul’s eschatology plays in importantly re. Rome/Empire, etc. I see him as in the basic stream of Jewish apocalypticism of his time, with revelatory updates unique to him re. a “cosmic Christ” and the very things you’re discussing…. Significantly, all his writing was BEFORE the destruction of the center of Judaism and early Christianity. This development and the aftermath forced modification of Paul’s eschatology.

    I do think we see signs of this in Eph. and Col. which push toward greater acceptance of the “household codes” of both Rome and the broader regional culture. (Thus I lean to later authorship than Paul for the two, tho I don’t see the case as real obvious as I do with the Pastoral Epistles.)

    Given that Paul’s worldview and some of his instructions were so oriented around Christ’s “appearing” in years, not decades and certainly not centuries nor millennia, he did not properly foresee what would soon begin happening to Christian faith, in its institutional development. Very soon, there began a complex and fluctuating relationship with “civil gov’t” (or Empire)… sometimes in direct opposition/defiance (ala Ignatius, etc.); but fairly quickly, by 3rd to 4th century particularly, the Church (via its leadership) was seduced by the secular power of the “state”. The stage was set for the close linkage begun under Constantine.

    My point relevant to the post: Eph. takes the accommodation of Paul to civil power in Romans (which he saw as very temporary) a bit further. And it wasn’t long before only ascetic Christians were able to largely ignore or resist Imperial influences and power… to the great detriment of the principles taught by Jesus, as I see it.

  3. A lot of this is portrayed in the discussion about whether or not Paul is anti-imperial. To those who were believers, that fact that Jesus died and rose again was a big deal to them. Not that Paul was totally against the Roman Empire, but living like Christ meant doing many thing opposite to the way that Rome said to do it. Paul talks about how when they are saved, they are to put off their old self and put on the new. “Therefore, you must put off falsehood and peak truthfully to your neighbor” (Eph 4:22-25).They are to be unified and trust in the Lord and not in Caesar as Lord. The people were still to respect the authority of their government and submit to it, but live a life that revealed Christ (Romans 13). You are right in saying that the position that Jesus is in at the right hand of the Father is “This is a place of authority which is far above every ruler, authority, power and dominion.” Paul wants people to turn from their old ways, which could include idolatry, and make sure that people are focusing on Jesus and not on the leaders of Rome. They should be following in the footsteps of Jesus, not other men.

    • Throughout reading this blog post, I too thought of the imperial/ anti-imperial discussion we had in class the other day. I do not think Paul was against the Roman empire per-say, but like Alyssa Stated, the Romans did things that Christ taught to do the opposite, such as sexual immorality. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, nor any other king for that matter (Philippians 2: 5-11), and our citizenship is in heaven not here on earth (Philippians 3: 20-21). The powers of God are stronger then any other power, and Christ being to the right hand of God (as mentioned in blog post) is a place of authority and power.

  4. Defining the powers of this age is a seemingly easy task without any prior guidance or context, however- Paul’s mission and situation wrapped up in the Roman world made for an interesting perspective on spiritual warfare. Rather than seeing these “powers” as purely ethereal or demonic presences it would appear based on his own language that these are evil spirits embodying those who are in authority whether that be political or otherwise. In this way we can shed off the child-like view of evil that looks like pitch forks and cartoon characters and more like beings wrapped up in what Barth refers to as “nothingness.” These powers seem to choose reject the gospel and as such are “..subject to sinister powers and forces that hold sway over those who disobey” (2:2). Longenecker writes that the last chapter of Ephesians is less about the Roman empire and more about a sort of spiritual struggle in general. (TTP 257) I see that much more clearly than a strong subversive agenda specifically towards the Roman empire.

  5. I think that the powers mentioned in Ephesians 1:20 referred to heavenly forces, but that it is important to remember verses 21-23 following that verse. The following verses talk about Christ’s dominion over powers here on earth. Longenecker points out that , “In Ephesians, God’s transformative work through Christ is cosmic in sweep and scope,” hinting how Christ’s power is beyond those of the heavenly realm, and that also His glory is acknowledged from everything, everywhere (TTP, 246). However, in Eph. 1:21-23 it says, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all,” implying that the powers Paul describes are referring to earthly powers and authorities in power too, not just focusing on spiritual warfare and heavenly powers. The importance of that passage was to show that Christ s dominant over everything, since He is the Son of God, and at the same time He is on the same level as God since they are both separate yet one.

  6. I feel that Paul throughout Ephesians explains the need to be unity among believers to fight the evil spiritual realm. He calls the church in Ephesians 4:1-3 to, “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In unity they can conquer all things, and this is what much of Ephesians rests on. The Roman empire was at large in the time, but Paul didn’t really take them as a threat, as he writes these letters while in a prison, most likely regarded to be in Rome. Unity in Christ can overcome the obstacle of overbearing, “evil forces”.

  7. I think this is very applicable to the United States today and what our view should be on government involvement. In Ethics we’ve touched on this a bit, and it makes far more sense to me than trying to fight the system. I believe that we should be involved in the government to a certain extent. We should use our right to vote and attempt to put into power leaders that will help guide the nation in the right direction. In the same token, however, it is not our place or job to constantly be at odds with the government and fighting it. I believe many Christians fight the government out of fear for our nation and what it is to become, but I believe when Paul says that Jesus is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Eph. 1:21), it is so believers would not be fearful of anything–including the government. The government of the United States has no power in comparison to the overwhelming power of God through Jesus Christ. Just as Paul later goes on to tell the Ephesians “to embrace and exhibit a new morality for Christ” (TTP 247), I believe our responsibility as the church today is to live in a way that will lead others to Christ, not by trying to force it upon them. As Jesus entire life demonstrates, love and peace are far more powerful than coercion or force.

  8. The analogy of the Soviet Union makes a lot of sense. Sometimes in the midst of what is happening we do not see the impact that the event is really having. We must be careful to try and read the material through the eyes of those who would be reading it. The savior had come but not in a way they had expected. We sometimes look at those people who missed it and cannot understand but it is important to recognize that false messiahs were part of the culture in Acts it is though that perhaps Peter and John could be preaching a false messiah. This was expected for people to preach different messiahs. Even today there are people claiming to be the messiah. It should be assumed that some people would not have seen it or recognized the ramifications of the crucifixion of Jesus. Paul’s focus was on presenting Christ to these people and to explain that God is more powerful than those other things.
    In this passage Christ is described as being “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named…” (Eph 1:21). Paul is not concerned about the power of Satan or of Rome. Paul recognizes Christ’s power over these things. Instead Paul focuses and their preparedness against such things. Paul wants them to guard themselves by putting on the armor of God. Longenecker and Still explain that Paul wants them to guard themselves “by embracing and exhibiting truth, righteousness, peace, and faith and by leaning into and living out salvation and God’s word” (TTP 258). Paul made a point to explain that the powers of darkness exist while recognizing the sovereignty of God and the fact that Christ enables the believer to stand against the powers of darkness. It is important in the church today that we make a point to not only explain the power of darkness but to do so in light of the fact that Christ has power above these things and that we have power to withstand those attacks because of Christ.

  9. When I read Ephesians 1:20-23, I am moved by encouragement. I believe that in this chapter Paul wants us to see the majesty of the Lord Jesus Christ. Once again Paul wants us to see that Christ is the ruler of the universe and all who live in it. Verse 20 says “which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places.” There is a lot of observation to be made about this verse. First, when Paul says the right hand of God. To me the right hand is significant and should be emphasized because it declares the honor of Christ. During the culture when one was put at the right hand, it was a sign for honor and sovereignty. So when Paul says that Christ was raised in heaved and was seated at the right hand of God, it means that Christ had honor and power. Christ has power to do things which we cannot do. Longenecker says “Christ’s power is beyond those of the heavenly realm, and that also His glory is acknowledged from everything, everywhere” (TTP, 246).

  10. Paul had the conviction of the victory that happened on the cross. Even though we are all under the dominion of this world, it does not mean that we are under the dominion of the enemy. On Ephesians 6:10-18, Paul talks about the whole armor of God, and he explains that our battle is not against blood and flesh, but against the spiritual evil forces. Unfortunately our world is suffering a tremendous attack from those evil forces that dominate, but the victory has already happened in the spiritual world. For us, the only action is to exhibit our new morality in Christ (TTP 247), and put on the whole armor of God that will give us discernment against the distractions of the powers of this age.

  11. There is a lot of evidence that shows Paul trying to tell us that there needs to be a form of unity among everyone that believes, this is in order to fight the evil and temptations in the world. We should be living our lives and acting things out in our live as we are called to do, not in the ways that we think will make us the happiest. We should be willing to do this as a congregation and a group, because together things can be conquered. Any type of unity that we have can take back control, unity in our Lord can overcome anything. That is what we should unify in, Jesus.

  12. Frank Peretti uses a great deal of spiritual behind the scenes spiritual warfare, which since reading “This Present Darkness” in my youth, have been the images that pop into my mind when I read through Ephesians. Jesus said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. The forces and powers are united in their hatred against the children of God how can then the church stand against the onslaught if we are divided among ourselves? Paul argues throughout Ephesians that believers should be unified in this fight against the powers, especially in the metaphors drawn from a centurions armor in chapter 6. The thing that made the Roman war machine so deadly was the solidarity with which the engaged the enemy. The whole army moved and fought as one. This has a huge impact on the church, if we aren’t united like a Roman legion, we cannot hope to stand for very long.

  13. The victory Christ won on the cross is definitely underrated by Christians. Realizing that the cross was the victory, and that we have been “freed from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8) needs to be realized and utilized. The story you told made it easy to understand. Perhaps Christians don’t realize that the rule of Satan was broken at the cross, or that we can participate in Christ’s victory, and live victorious lives. For the recipients of the letter of ‘Ephesians’, Rome was in power and Paul was in fact trying to help them realize that Christ is the ultimate authority. Rome could not hold a candle to the authority Christ possesses. “Stated differently, the apostle is prayerful that the letter’s Gentile recipients will realize and actualize God’s enabling power made manifest in Christ and Christ’s church” (Longenecker, 249). The Christian should realize the true meaning of the cross, and that it renders the powers of this age powerless, even today. God has the ultimate authority.

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