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?

14 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.

  5. Darkness filled the earth after the fall when sin entered the world. Darkness can be seen through people who are in authoritative positions such as people in the government. Paul being aware of the darkness that filled the Roman empire and the destruction that was to come to it influenced his anti-imperialism. Paul did not take this belief as far as the anti-government protests and social actions that are negative and wrong, but rather he knew that Rome had already fallen. Paul makes it clear that Jesus is Lord and that is the important concept that imperialists were missing, but the fact that Jesus is Lord is not based on Paul stating that Jesus is Lord. Paul is just the messenger who shares the information with the world.
    The Lord will reward those who are faithful to him even through suffering. He will punish those who oppress His children. In 1 Thessalonians 4:6, this idea is mentioned that the Lord warned us against wronging our brothers because the Lord avenges for those who have been wronged. Paul is not necessarily ignoring the Roman government in my opinion. I think that he is just faithful in the Lord’s word that Jesus came to sacrifice death, the burial, the resurrection, and the ascension in order to regain His power over the earth. Paul refers the Jesus as the Son of Man which is important because it comes from Daniel 7:14 and can also connect to the image of the statue in Daniel 2. The biggest takeaway is that God will restore his people in order to rebuild his kingdom.

  6. It is hard sometimes to understand how powerful God is. For anyone to say that they are going to wipe out the Roman Empire, and the whole world. As the Bible states, Jesus is going to return again. The second coming of Christ is coming to judge the living and the dead. This is important because a lot of people don’t really believe that are think that he is real. He will come back one day as us Christians believe. This is a testament to God, the fact that he wiped the whole Roman Empire given the vastness of the whole Roman kingdom. This is another testament to God that he always wins, he will forever come out on top. No matter how much evenly there is in world.

  7. Obviously, these verses are about Jesus and God, and their divine power over the earth, everything on the earth (including humanity), and the devil and the devil’s army of demons. First things first, God raised Jesus from the dead (v. 20). There are only a few recorded instances in the Bible where people got raised from the dead. The most common one that people remember besides the obvious one of Jesus, is Zacchaeus. I am fully confident that there were other instances of people being raised form the dead in the Bible times that were not recorded in the Bible. Even in today’s day and age, there are instances where people are presumed dead, and then come back to life. Like someone’s heart stops beating and then paramedics preform CPR to revive the individual from dead to life. That sort of a thing. This shows that not even death could bind Jesus to the grave, but that God also had and has and will always have power over death. God has power over anyone that ever lived in that present age, God has power over everyone alive today, and God will have power over everyone that will live (v. 21). There is not much more that needs to be said about that. It is about as simple as you can get it. God is more powerful, above, and stronger than anything or anyone that you could imagine. god appointed Jesus to be the head over everything for the church, which is the body of believers (v. 22-23). As Jesus is fully God, there was no sin in him, so everything that he said, thought, and did, was good. Jesus is the perfect example that we need to live our lives by. He is the embodiment of all that is good, and he is the role model for our lives. Jesus is the only one who is going to fill up our lives. I have seen on the news channels and heard of people’s stories who feel as though their lives have a hole in them, and they do not know what is missing. They have successful lives, wealth, happiness, and all the rest, but they feel unfulfilled. That is because they are missing Jesus in their lives. Jesus is what fills us up; Jesus is who gives us rest; Jesus is the one who saves; Jesus is the one who fills the hole in our lives. Without Jesus, we succumb to death. We need Jesus.

  8. As some have read an anti-imperial perspective onto some of Paul’s epistles, the temptation to apply these arguments to Ephesians is highly intriguing. Those who wish to teach an anti-imperialist message into Ephesians often will claim that Paul’s proclamation of Jesus being “Lord” is a plight or offense against the Roman authorities, specifically Caesar. However, while Paul’s theology is often contrary to Roman practices and culture, the use of the term “Lord” is not greatly influential in favor of an anti-imperialist perspective since this term was previously used within the Septuagint to describe God as “Lord”. Therefore, it is unlikely this phrase would have been seen as an indirect subversive offense against Caesar when read by the ancient audience. As Long notes, it seems that Paul believes that to a certain degree Rome can be ignored since Jesus, who is the “son of man” spoken of in Daniel 7:14, would defeat the kingdoms of the nations.
    When Paul references the “powers of darkness”, he is most likely not even referring to earthly or human powers. It would seem much more likely he is referring to spiritual beings who are rebellious against God, who desire to pervert God’s plan for humanity and the world. It’s possible these are the divine beings who opposed God in Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and the divine figures he judges in Psalms 82. These divine figures would be seen as possessing the nations, as God disinherited the nations following the Tower of Babel narrative, leading into the creation and election of Israel through Abraham in Genesis 12. The question then must be asked, “how does this apply to Jesus defeating the powers of Darkness?” This is answered through Jesus’s death and resurrection on the cross, which was an act that given this context meant that God was reclaiming these nations, rescuing them from these powers of darkness. This proclamation allows us to approach this text with a deeper understanding of the spiritual realm and its implication upon Pauline theology and the text itself.

Leave a Reply