Jesus Christ Has Defeated the Powers of Darkness – 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?

9 thoughts on “Jesus Christ Has Defeated the Powers of Darkness – Ephesians 1:20-23

  1. This “powers” subject is a vital one generally given way too little thought among Christians. I find the deeper thought on it to be from relatively “progressive” scholars and thinkers. The prime example may be Walter Wink. I don’t even know where to place him on a traditional to progressive scale, if such a thing could have any kind of accuracy or clarity anyway. But his trilogy on “The Powers” is loaded with insights. I’ve only read most of the first, “Naming the Powers”, which I believe is the title. But I hear great things about the others also, and can imagine why.

    One has to look at these things in a “depth” sort of way… which we can only grow into gradually. (Don’t ever stop studying, whatever age you are, but especially if only 20-some or 30-some… you’re just getting warmed up.) I’m not even recalling Wink’s exact view of atonement. But I doubt it’s standard “substitutionary atonement” (or “PSA”), as it is not for an increasing number of even Evangelicals, for good biblical reasons. Seems his work fits better with Christus Victor, tho, again, I don’t recall how he describes his view.

    If one wants to go deep on the personal level, the overlap of concepts of “original sin” or “total depravity” (misguided terms) with the depth psychology of Jung or “Integral Spirituality”, particularly on our “shadow side”, is significant. This is “the powers” in our individual lives. The WAYS in which Jesus’ death may provide liberation and be realized are complex and not reducible to simple formulas of “salvation” or “sanctification”. To me, they extend beyond professing Christians, and not all professing Christians access them.

    Another key current (and only middle-aged) theologian on anti-empire thinking and its application in practical action in the here-and-now is Joerg Rieger. Some of his work is detailed and some more accessible.

    • Hi Howard. As usual, great insights. I am of course aware of Walter Wink, although I think I am more in debt to Tim Gombis, The Drama of Ephesians and Clint Arnold’s two books on Ephesus and Colossians.

      I am currently at a conference in Zambia and taught this section not an hour ago. The Zambian pastors and elders had a much different view, since they are engaged in serious spiritual warfare. I expected more spiritism, but they were more concerned with radical Pentecostalism (and they told a few really strange stories!)

  2. Jesus death, in my thinking, ensured person redemption for His people. Christ fulfilled the shadows, symbols, and signs of the sacrificial system. In some ways it was already accomplished before the foundation of the world when He said He would do it (Gen. 3.15). God cannot lie assures us that He will reconcile creation some day also after the Day of The Lord. The Lord’s prayer contains an affirmation of assurance (not a petition since it is certain): “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” An O.T. counterpart to this assurance was: “stop striving and know I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” This was before Jesus ministry. God was, is, and always will be King.
    For this present time the ‘not yet’ aspect also functions in the reality that we are a corp of ambassadors. Emissaries do not serve at home. We are not home yet.

  3. Rachel Smith

    “Are there other hints of Paul’s apocalyptic worldview in Ephesians?” (P. Long, blog-Jesus Christ Has Defeated the Powers of Darkness – Ephesians 1:20-23). It seems to me that there is at least one other hint of Paul’s apocalyptic worldview in Ephesians. I think that Paul’s apocalyptic worldview can be seen in Eph 6:10-18 where Paul discusses the armor of God. It is here that Paul states that our struggle is not against flesh and blood; but rather, it is against the rulers, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil. Paul is describing this spiritual warfare as a reality we live in until Jesus comes back; yet, at the same time, Jesus has already won the victory. However, we still need to fight the battles in our lives. This is why Paul says: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Eph. 6:13.

  4. “To put on the divine armor enables believers to ‘stand against the devil’s schemes'” (TTP 257). Paul encouraged believers to put on the the full armor of God to stand in the test. Matthew 20:16 says, “So the first will be last, and the last will be first” (NIV Matthew 20:16). Paul’s apocalyptic worldview in Ephesians gives Christians peace in hopeless circumstances and to be able to stand firm in faith through the earthly sufferings.

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