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.


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?

Ephesians and Anti-Imperialism

I read an article by Denny Burk in JETS a few years ago which was a decent summary of anti-Imperial readings of Paul, although I think that he has lumped N. T. Wright along with Richard Horsely and Hal Taussig. To me, Wright is not doing the same sort of work as Horsely, even though there are some similarities.  Both make the same sorts of observations concerning Paul’s alleged use of imperial language, but Horsely and Taussig take the issue much further than Wright by applying Paul’s anti-Imperialism to the imperialism of the United States.

Pepper Spray BeatlesFirst I will lay out the basics of anti-Imperial readings of Paul and then I will make a few observations about why this is an important issue for reading Ephesians.

The increased interest in the impact of the Imperial cult in Asia Minor in the first century has driven anti-imperial readings of Paul.  In the first century, Caesar was described as Lord (κύριος) and god in art and coinage.  Since he was the one who brought peace (εἰρήνη) into the world, the emperor should be thought of as the savior (σωτήρ)  of the world.  News of the Emperor was announced as “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον).  This imperial propaganda was pervasive and could not be avoided, although most people in the first century would have simply accepted the equation of “Caesar as God” and moved on with life.

Paul preached the good news that Jesus was the Lord and savior of the world, the one who brings peace.  For those of us with Christian ears, these words are all quite familiar .  But to anyone who heard them in the first century Roman world they were just as familiar, but applied to Caesar, not Jesus!  By calling Jesus Lord, it is argued, Paul is setting up an implicit anti-Roman narrative.  Once words like gospel, Lord, savior, and peace are taken as anti-imperial, then other less common Pauline concepts are seen through this lens, such as the language used for the return of Christ in 1 Thess 4:13-18.

For the most part, the implications of these anti-Imperial readings of Paul for reading Ephesians is to confirm the non-Pauline nature of the book.  It is thought that Ephesians lacks the anti-Imperialism of Romans or other certain Pauline letters, This is evidence of a later, more pro-imperial writer.  This is a major factor for Crossan and Reed in their In Search of Paul.  Ephesians is not considered to be Pauline because of the reversal of the egalitarianism evident in Romans and Galatians.

But as Wright says early on in his Paul: A Fresh Perspective, “The argument recently advanced (in North America particularly) that Ephesians and Colossians are secondary because they move away from confrontation with the Empire to collaboration with it is frankly absurd.”  The reason for this “absurdity” is that Ephesians is just as anti-Imperial (according to Wright) as Romans 13 or any other certain Pauline text.  In fact, if there is actually an anti-empire subtext in the choice of terms Paul uses to describe Jesus and his mission, the Ephesians ought to be considered right at the heart of Pauline anti-Imperialism.   I suspect the section on submission of wives drives Ephesians out of the Pauline corpus for most of the anti-Imperialist scholars.

What elements of Ephesians might be considered “anti-imperialist”?   What benefit is there in reading Ephesians 1-2 in this way?


Burk, Denny.  “Is Paul’s Gospel Counterimperial? Evaluating The Prospects Of The Fresh Perspective” For Evangelical Theology,” JETS 51 (2009): 309-338.

Top Five Ephesians Commentaries

Introduction.  Ephesians is a small book which makes a very large contribution to Pauline Theology. Yet one of the first problems one encounters with commentaries on Ephesians is a discussion of authorship. For many contemporary scholars, Ephesians is post-Pauline, perhaps written as a summary of Paul’s theology by a disciple of Paul.  This unknown disciple may (or may not) have been authorized by Paul to write the letter.  Commentaries on Ephesians often have lengthy, complicated surveys of the various options for authorship before settling on either the traditional view that Paul wrote the letter or some form of pseudonymity.

While I do not use Pauline authorship as a litmus-test for a good commentary on Ephesians, it is interesting that three of my choices support the traditional authorship, two do not. Hoehner observes that the scholarship is fairly evenly divided on the issue, although some prefer to remain agnostic on the issue. Others have changed their views over the years, in Lincoln’s case from Pauline authorship to non-Pauline.

Sometimes commentary series will include Ephesians with the other Prison Epistles, usually Colossians, in a single volume. The parallels between Ephesians and Colossians make this a convenient combination. This obviously reduces exegetical details, but also obscures the unique contribution of the letter to the Ephesians. I have given preference to single-volumes on Ephesians here, but there are a few combined commentaries which are also good. Brevity is not necessarily a bad thing in a commentary.

Harold Hoehner. Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2002). Hohner’s commentary on Ephesians is magisterial, demonstrating a mastery of the massive secondary literature on Ephesians. At 930 pages, this is the one of the most detailed modern commentaries on Ephesians available. His detailed examination of the Greek text is excellent, yet not overly technical. He steps through the text of the book phrase-by-phrase, with the Greek text provided without transliteration. He makes occasional text-critical observations in footnotes. The commentary has 130 pages of introduction, half of which concerns authorship (including 16 pages of bibliography on authorship alone!) This includes a chart with virtually every major commentary on Ephesians and New Testament introduction indicating whether they are for or against Pauline authorship (up to 2001). He supplements the commentary with a number of excursuses on technical details, particularly good are his comments on “Mystery” (pages 42–34) and “Slavery” (pages 800-4). Both include extensive bibliographies in the notes.

Ernest Best, Ephesians (ICC; T&T Clark, 2004). Best’s commentary on Ephesians is an excellent replacement to the classic ICC volume by T. K. Abbot (Ephesians and Colossians, available free at Google Books). Best is more or less agnostic on authorship, called the author AE (author of Ephesians). This exegetical comments on the Greek text are excellent, perhaps the best example of how a Greek text commentary ought to work. Best does not stop at reading the Greek, however, his comments draw out implications for the theology of the letter. T&T Clark published a Shorter Commentary on Ephesians which reduces the exegetical detail, this version of the commentary would be more helpful for the busy pastor.

Frank Thielman, Ephesians (BENTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2010). Thielman is well-known for his book Paul and the Law and a New Testament theology from Zondervan, but this is his first exegetical commentary. He deals with the problem of authorship in only a few pages, finding pseudonymity too unusual in the early Christian community to be a viable option. The commentary follows the user-friendly design of the Baker series, offering exegetical comments on the Greek text with transliteration. Compared to other volumes in the BENTC, Thielman’s commentary has more syntactical detail. I particularly appreciate his use of Greco-Roman sources, especially in the “Household Code” section of the letter.

A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1990). It is perhaps strange to say, but this commentary is the ‘classic” on this list. Lincoln thinks that Ephesians is a reinterpretation of Colossians (page lv), but also that Ephesians draws on other authentic letters of Paul (page lvi). The book was written by a follower of Paul who attempted to summarize Pauline theology for his generation. His assumptions are worked out in the commentary. In his comments on Eph 2:11-22, for example, he points out several parallels to Colossians and argues that Ephesians is an expansion or commentary on the earlier (Pauline) material. This kind of argument is found in the “Form / Structure / Setting” sections standard to the WBC series. The exegesis sections are structured by longer phrases and is not overly technical in matters of syntax. That sort of material is found in the notes on the translation of each pericope. What is most helpful is Lincoln’s frequent comments on the use of the LXX or Hebrew Bible as foundational for understanding the text.

Peter T. O’Brien, Ephesians (PNTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999). O’Brien has written major commentaries on each of the Prison Epistles for different series (NIGTC, WBC) and has contributed much to the study of Paul in recent years. His introduction to Ephesians is more brief than others on this list, but it is quite efficient. He defends a traditional view of Pauline authorship, pointing out that the problems created by pseudonymity are quite difficult, perhaps more so than the problems associated with Pauline authorship. The body of the commentary is based on the English text with Greek commentary relegated to the footnotes, as is the style of the Pillar series. This makes for a readable commentary which will be very helpful for the busy pastor or student preparing to preach the text of Ephesians.

Conclusion. Once again, there are a few good commentaries I was forced to omit to keep it to five.  This give you (the reader) a chance to let me know what you have found useful in your preaching and teaching.  I left off Clint Arnold’s commentary (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) simply because I have not used it yet (see Nijay Gupta’s comments here). This list is “light” in the New Perspective on Paul (is there anything reflecting that view on Ephesians?), and the oldest commentary I list is from 1990 – what “classic” should the student of Ephesians have on their shelf?


Index for the Top Five Commentary Series


Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

Ephesians 3:1-13 – Paul’s Gospel

Paul describes himself in 3:1 as “Paul the Prisoner of Christ Jesus.”  Traditionally wrote Ephesians while he was under house arrest in Rome.  While house arrest was not exactly the same as being cast in the deepest dungeon in Rome, he was restricted from doing the kind of ministry he would have liked.  In addition, Paul’s appeal to Caesar may in fact go very badly and he could be executed.

The reader of Ephesians may have had some questions about Paul’s argument to this point.  If Jesus has in fact destroyed the authority of the principalities and powers, why is Paul in prison?  How could a “triumphant gospel” be reconciled with Paul’s current shame of house arrest?  If the power of Satan has indeed been broken, how could Paul, as God’s apostle to the Gentiles, find himself treated in this shameful way?

Paul’s answer is to simply point out that despite the fact that he is Rome’s prisoner, the gospel itself is not in prison.  He is in exactly the place where God wants him to be.  In fact, as Timothy Gombis points out in his Drama of Ephesians, God often uses the weak to accomplish his plan so as to highlight the fact that it is God’s victory, not ours (111-2).  Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians that God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.  If the gospel spreads throughout the Roman Empire, it will be by the power of God, not the power of Paul the Prisoner.

There are a number of words in this section which describe Paul’s Gospel in apocalyptic terms.  The fact that his gospel is a “mystery” which must be revealed may very well be allusions to apocalyptic literature like Daniel. There are several examples in that book of visions which need to be “unveiled” for the reader.  It is as if God is fulling a curtain back to in order to reveal what is going on behind the scenes.  In apocalyptic literature, the one who is reading the book cannot make sense of the vision until an interpreter makes the meaning of the vision clear.

Paul is describing himself as the one who is revealing the plan of God for the present age.  Specifically, God is creating a new person, a “body of Christ” which is made up of both Jew and Gentile without distinction.  There is no racial, class, or gender distinctions in this new body, nor does anyone have an advantage if they are Jewish, male, or free.  Even if a person is a Roman citizen with wealth and prestige, there is no advantage in the body of Christ.

Like the great apocalyptic texts of the Hebrew Bible, Ephesians 3:1-13 declares that God has a plan to redeem the world.  That plan was made in eternity past and God will most certainly bring that plan to completion.  Something as minor as the Roman Empire cannot possibly hope to hinder the Gospel!  I think that this is the sort of message which American Christians need to hear, since no modern “empire” can hope to hinder the gospel.