What are the Powers of this Age in 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; see also this on Angelic Beings in 3 Enoch) 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 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!

This throne of power is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” The four terms Paul uses in this line can refer to human rulers, but in the context he has constantly used language similar to what a pagan Gentile might have used in a magical invocation of a god. These terms therefore describe spiritual rulers, authorities, powers and dominions. Since they are defeated by the power of God demonstrated in the resurrection, these are hostile, invisible powers working against God in this world (Arnold, Ephesians, 112).

This would be true in a Jewish context as well. In Daniel 10:12-14, the “prince of Persia” opposed the Gabriel when he was sent by God to deliver a message to Daniel. In the Second Temple Period, Jews developed an elaborate system of angels and demons using terms like rulers, authorities, powers and dominions to describe invisible forces at work in the world.

In fact, Jesus has been enthroned far above “every name that is named.” This is also consistent with the rest of Paul’s letters, Phil 2:9-11 makes the same point, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow in heaven, on earth and under the earth. Naming a hostile spiritual power was an important step in gaining mastery over it. (Jesus and Legion, for example, the sons of Sceva in Ephesus, Acts 19). Paul’s claim is that the name of Jesus is more powerful than any over so-called powerful name in all of reality!

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 the world did not really notice. But for Paul, the victory of sin, death, and the spiritual dark forces of this world has already been won.

If it is true the spiritual dark forces have already been defeated, how might that affect the way the Christian lives out their life?



Why Not Ephesians?

Ephesians is one of the books in the Pauline collection which is frequently assumed to be pseudonymous.  Despite the fact that Paul refers to himself four times in the letter (1:1, 3:1, 4:1, and 6:19-22), the majority of scholarship in the last 150 years denies the authenticity of the letter. Rather than written by the “historical Paul,” the letter was created in the late first century, perhaps as a companion to the book of Acts.

P49 Verso

While there are many variations on this argument, many introductions to Paul reject the letter as authentic on the basis of vocabulary, style, and theology.  For many, the letter does not sound enough like Romans, Galatians, or 1-2 Corinthians to be accepted as authentic.  Usually the letter of Ephesians is thought to be a post-Pauline compendium of Paul’s theology.  It was written by a disciple of Paul (“Paul’s best disciple,” Brown, 620).  Sometimes the reconstruction of the circumstances are quite complex. For example, Goodspeed suggested that Onesimus returned to Philemon, was released from his slavery and eventually became the bishop of Ephesus. After Acts was published, there was a great deal of interest in Paul, so Onesimus gathered all the various letters Paul sent to the churches of Ephesus as an introduction to Paul’s theology.  As Brown says, this is interesting but “totally a guess.”

There are some differences between Ephesians and the other Pauline letters.  For example, the common Pauline term brethren is missing (except 6:23), and the letter never calls the Jewish people “Jews” in the epistle, even though the Jews are an important part of his argument.  More surprising is the fact that the verb “to justify” is not used, even though while it is common in Galatians and Romans and might have been useful in the argument of 2:11-22.

Does it matter if Paul did not write the letter himself?  If the letter contains the actual “voice of Paul” then the letter can be considered Pauline.  By way of analogy, in the study of the Gospels there is a great deal of discussion over the words of Jesus.  When I read the words of Jesus in my ESV Bible, can I know that these are the real words of the historical Jesus?  The answer which satisfies me is that the words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels are true “voice of Jesus,” even though they are not the actual words Jesus’ words were originally spoken in Aramaic, translated to Greek and then to English for me to read!

In the same way, even if Ephesians was not written by Paul, the true “voice of Paul” can be found in the letter.  As it happens I think Paul did write Ephesians, albeit much later in his life during his Roman house arrest.  The letter was intended to go to all the house churches in Ephesus and there is no burning problem which Paul has to address (as in Galatians or Corinthians).  This explains why the letter is generic in terms of theology and practice.

Considering Ephesians to be an authentic Pauline letter may change the way we envision Paul’s  theology.  While Romans and Galatians are concerning with justification and the struggle to define the Church as something different than Judaism, Ephesians is a witness to the universal church which includes Jews and Gentiles in “one body.”  Unity of the church seems to be Paul’s main theme in the letter.  Rather than drawing lines, Paul is arguing for unity among those who are “in Christ.”

How might taking Ephesians seriously change the way we think about various elements of Pauline Theology?

Philemon and Slavery in the First Century

There is an obvious need for a clear understanding of slavery as we approach the book of Philemon. In this post I want to summarize a few points from John Byron on slavery. The article is dealing with Paul’s metaphor of a slave, but some of the information provides an excellent entry point into the difficulties of dealing with slavery in the first century. Be sure to scan through the comments below, John Byron has interacted with this post in the past. He recently published A Week in the Life of a Slave (IVP Academic, 2019). This short book uses a novel to present the life of a slave in first century Rome. It is in the same series as Gary Burge’s A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion or James L. Papandrea, A Week in the Life of Rome.

John Byron surveys recent attempts to deal with Paul’s slavery metaphors in New Testament studies. The bulk of the article deals with a shift from the work of Bartchy in 1973 which made extensive use of Greco-Roman and Jewish legal texts to more recent sociological studies by Patterson and others. Bartchy’s view was that slavery in the first century was “decidedly benign,” while Patterson argues that slavery was equivalent to a “death experience.” Bartchy’s views have been far more influential on New Testament commentaries than Patterson’s studies, perhaps skewing the point of Paul’s metaphor of slavery. Byron’s article is a challenge to the commonly taught idea of selling one’s self into slavery to pay debts and the possibility of a better life as a slave.

This debate highlights the problem of sources. Bartchy, for example, uses legal texts to show that there was a softening of attitudes toward slaves in the first century which made the slave into something more like “employee” rather than property. There are a number of problems with using legal, as Byron points out in his conclusion. The main source for Roman Law is dated to A.D. 533, well after the first century. In addition, there is a great difference between a law and actual social attitudes. Bartchy may cite laws protecting slaves, but there is no real evidence that society accepted those laws or that authorities always enforced them.

Even in America, we know that simply having a law does not guarantee everyone obeys the law, nor does the law tell us anything about society’s attitude toward the law. Traffic laws would be a good example here. Someone studying American law could say the maximum speed on the highway is no more than 70 M.P.H., but we know this is not the case at all. In some cases, authorities may choose not to enforce a strict speed limit. The same may have been true for slavery, therefore Roman law becomes less secure for reconstructing actual practice towards slaves in the first century. Consistency in application of laws is not a forgone conclusion in the case of slavery in the world of the first century.

There are other literary sources for slavery dating to the first century which may provide some data. Philosophers are often cited as indicating a shift in society’s attitude toward slavery. As Byron notes, there is no evidence these writings reflect public sentiment. In fact, one might argue there are very few times in history where the writings of a philosopher accurately reflected the views of society as a whole! It is possible to miss the point of a philosopher by not taking a saying in context of their system of thought. For example, the oft-cited view of Seneca that masters ought to not mistreat their slaves is not an example of a softening of attitudes toward slaves but rather an example of the Stoic ethic of self-control.

References to slaves also appear in Roman satirists and in novels. These references are also problematic since they do not really say anything about the status of a slave in the society. To take sayings of Marital, for example, as indicative of the general thinking of the populace is akin to taking Jerry Seinfeld as an example of how all Americans think. Novels which portray slaves as virtuous, socially mobile, etc. are poor evidence since the slave character is usually a prince who has wrongfully been enslaved and overcomes this setback and is restored to his proper status in the end. If a novel tried to accurately describe the life of a real slave, it would not be a very interesting novel at all! Novelists and satirists do not offer a sociological opinion of the status of the slave in the first century, therefore it would be dangerous to rely too heavily on this literature in research on first century slaves.

There is much to be learned from the sociological approaches to slavery as described by Byron. These studies seem to turn the accepted view of slavery one normally encounters in a commentary on Philemon around in a completely opposite direction. The law codes are a “legal fiction” and slavery was far from a pleasant experience. If one was forced into slavery it was as if one has died. This was no mere economic decision (selling yourself into seven years of slavery to pay off a debt, for example.) The slave, at the social level, was no longer a person but rather he has become property and is no longer his own. This “dying to self” and giving up personal ownership to a master is an appealing element when looking at Paul’s use of the metaphor, but it may be more influenced by American / western values of individuality and freedom rather than that of the Greco-Roman world. Was “freedom” more important than slavery? Perhaps not, sometimes it my have been better to be a slave to a powerful person than a freedman.

How does this “background” effect the way we look at Philemon and his slave, Onesimus?


Bibliography:  John Byron, “Paul And The Background Of Slavery: The Status Quaestionis In New Testament Scholarship,” CBR 3.1 (2004) 116-139.

Why Did Paul Write to Philemon?

The traditional “background” to Philemon posits Philemon as a wealthy man and slave owner (15-16) probably living in Colossae.  He is described as a “partner” in Paul’s ministry and his house appears to have been used for meetings of believers (2).  His wife and son appear to share in the ministry of this house church.  Paul considers Philemon an “old friend.” It is possible he was saved in Ephesus when Paul spent three years earlier in the city.

Philemon BibleOne of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus has escaped and fled to Rome. It is possible Onesimus stole something from Philemon when he left. Rome is an easy place to “get lost” since it was very large; he could easily find a place to lay-low for the rest of his life.  While in Rome Onesimus meets Paul and accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior.  He apparently is with Paul for a while, since he is described as “useful” in Paul’s ministry.

Onesimus returns to his former master to ask forgiveness and accept his punishment.  The letter to Philemon is something like a “letter of recommendation” from Paul to Philemon vouching for Onesimus’ conversion.  Paul also promises to pay any debt Onesimus has incurred as a result of his escape.

This traditional background makes for a great story but it is hard to make this short letter fit this complex story. The main problem with the traditional view Onesimus’s encounter with Paul. If Rome is such a large city, how does Onesimus just happen to meet Paul there, a good friend of his former master?

One attempt to answer this problem is to assume Onesimus fled to Rome in order to find Paul and ask him to intercede on his behalf. Perhaps Philemon was not treating him fairly “in Christ” and he wanted to Paul to adjudicate their dispute. Paul would function as an amicus domini, a “friend of the master,” who is called upon to mediate a dispute. The situation is not unusual. In fact, Pliny wrote a letter which is similar to the situation in Philemon. In this letter Pliny writes Sabinianus on behalf of a freedman who has “fallen at his feet.”  Pliny asks Sabinianus to forgive a man who has insulted him in a youthful indiscretion.

A second possibility is Onesimus was an unsaved slave sent to help Paul in his imprisonment, perhaps on the analogy of Epaphroditus in Philippians. While working with Paul Onesimus accepts Christ and becomes useful in Paul’s mission in Rome. The letter of Philemon is therefore Paul’s requests to Philemon allow Onesimus to join Paul’s ministry team and perhaps even grant Onesimus his freedom.

A third, less likely possibility is that Onesimus is not a slave, but the wayward brother of Philemon. Verse 16 could be read as saying Onesimus is Philemon’s literal brother. The point of the letter would be the same (reconciliation with Philemon).

Fourth, perhaps Philemon was not the owner at all, but rather Archippus, from Colossians 4:17.  In Col. 4:17 Paul tells this man to “complete the work you have in the Lord.”  John Knox takes this to mean, “Free Onesimus.”  Philemon is the local “partner in ministry” in Colossae who is asked to act as a go-between for Onesimus and Archippus.  While this is an intriguing theory, there are a number of un-provable assumptions standing behind it.



Bibliography: John Knox, Philemon among the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1959). L. Cope, “Rethinking the Philemon – Colossian Connection” Biblical Research 30 (1985): 45-50.  Knox is following his teacher E. R. Goodenough,  “Paul and Onesimus,” HTR 22 (1929): 181-83.

God has Reconciled Us – Colossians 1:22

Colossians 1:22 begins with “but now” (νυνὶ δὲ). These are two very important words in the Greek, indicating an important contrast. The contrast is between time when we were enemies of God and the present time when we have experienced reconciliation with God. Reconciliation means the relationship is fixed, walls that existed between the two parties are torn down, and that they can now go about the business of building that relationship.

God has reconciled us through the death of Jesus. The basic idea behind reconciliation (καταλλαγή, καταλλάσσω) is the restoration of friendship between two estranged parties. This assumes an offense has separated two parties (political, social, familial, or moral, TLNT 2:263). In non-biblical Greek the word is virtually never used in religious sense primarily because the relationship between the gods and men is not personal. For most of the Greco-Roman world, worship appeased the gods, so a form of ἱλαστήριον (propitiation) would be used.

Josephus reflects the same usage of reconciliation. He uses the related term διαλλάσσομαι for a political agreement between Archelaus and Alexander (the son of Aristobulus) and Herod the Great. After a political arrangement is made, including due honors and gifts, the estranged parties entered into a formal friendship and they “spent their time feasting and agreeable entertainments” (War 1.513, 514). In this example, Herod is in a far superior political position, but he honors Archelaus with great gifts in order to preserve the dignity of all parties.

Unlike secular Greek, Josephus uses καταλλάσσω in a religious sense. In the context of the story of the twelve spies, Moses sought to reconcile God and the people (Ant. 3:315, using the noun.) Similarly, when Saul offended God by sparing the Amalekites (Ant. 6:143), Samuel prays that God “be reconciled” to Saul (using a passive infinitive).

Returning to the earlier analogy of estrangement, the opposite of an estranged relationship is an reconciliation. Rather than a divorce, the married couple overcomes their differences and has decided to remain married, they have reconciled their differences. God saw that we would not turn to him, so he had to provide the method of reconciliation himself. Because the cause of the estrangement was our sin, and the fact that we could not pay for it ourselves.

God therefore provided a way for the debt of sin to be paid. He sent his own son to be killed as an atoning sacrifice so the problem of sin could be permanently solved, once for all.

Paul therefore describes a new state of being for the one who is in Christ. If this is the case and those who were once enemies have now been reconciled through the Cross, what are some implications for how we live out this in Christ life? Paul answers this in the second half of Colossians.

Colossians 1:15-20 – The Supremacy of Christ

The church at Colossae was not founded by Paul. It is likely sometime during Paul’s time in Ephesus (Acts 19) a man named Epaphras brought the Gospel to the small town of Colossae (for details, see Who was Epaphras?). Perhaps Epaphras reached out to Paul for advice on dealing with a growing problem in his small church and Paul responded with a short letter addressing what is often called (rather dramatically) the Colossian Heresy. Whatever the heresy was, it is quite different than other issues Paul dealt with in earlier letters.

The churches in Galatia struggled with Gentiles who wanted to keep the Law. The churches in Corinth struggled with Gentiles who did not sufficient “depaganize” and allow Christ to transform their moral behavior. In Colossae, it appears the problem was a Jewish mystic, possibly exorcist who advocated “secret knowledge” which only the spiritual, insiders could obtain. This teaching was possibly esoteric, secret knowledge about the true nature of Jesus Christ. It is also possible some in the church wanted to use Jesus’ name as a powerful tool for dealing with other spiritual beings. For more on the Colossian Heresy, see What Was the Problem in Colossae?

The false teaching Paul addresses in Colossians is a very pragmatic Christianity which attempts to hide knowledge of the real facts until the believer is sufficiently prepared to receive it.  While I am not sure the Colossian heresy was a mystery cult in the technical sense of the word, there seem to have been an initiation for the believer before they were shown the true state of things.

For Paul, Christianity is not at all an exclusive religion which hides doctrine from the outsiders.  In fact, everyone is welcome and the whole gospel is preached from the very beginning.  There are some deeper, more difficult doctrines, but there is nothing which is a secret.  This is one of the real differences between Christianity and many of the other “mystery cults”popular in the first century (and today!)  It really is easy to understand the basics of Christian claims and beliefs, whether you like them or not.

Paul therefore goes to the root of the problem and lays out in the introduction to the letter exactly who Jesus is.  All the “secrets” are laid out before the reader and there is no question who Jesus is by the end of 1:20.

  • Christ as the image of the invisible God.  By saying that Christ is in the image of God, he affirms that he is an accurate picture of what God is, and in fact, he is God. F. F. Bruce once said “To call Christ the image of God is to say that in Him the being and nature of God have been perfectly manifested—that in Him the invisible has become visible.”
  • Christ as the firstborn of creation.  This title for has been a very troublesome exegetical point since it appears that Jesus is a created thing, the first thing that God created.  But if this phrase is read against the background of the Hebrew Bible, the word “first born” is actually an expression of position – the son chosen to the the heir as opposed to the naturally born first son.  A bit later Paul calls Jesus the“firstborn from among the dead,” an obvious non-literal use of the word “firstborn.”

The point Paul is getting at is that Christ has made things, so it is pointless to give honor and worship to those things.  All honor and worship is due Christ, not anything created.  The command is therefore to worship Christ as God, something that would be idolatrous if Christ is a created thing himself. The centrality of Jesus is therefore the starting point for theology in Colossians, but also for ethical and moral teaching and proper worship.

Bibliography: F. F. Bruce, “Colossian Problems: Part 2: The “Christ Hymn” of Colossians 1:15–20″ BibSac 141 (1984): 99-111

Philippians 4:10-13 and Contentment

I had an interesting talk with a man at church recently. He shared with me that the first church he attended after accepting Christ was a “health and wealth” type church. If something “bad” happened in your life, there was an assumption that you had sinned and were being punished for it. On the other hand, if you had good health and a decent salary, you must be doing pretty well spiritually. I do not have much patience for this sort of theology since it is a bad application of a few texts from the blessing passages of the law mixed with some American optimism, and occasionally a greedy pastor or two.  In fact, I am not sure how anyone could believe that God will automatically bless you for proper behavior or curse you for your sins after reading Philippians 4:10-13.

I think that most people can agree that Paul the Apostle is a “model” Christian. If you can’t agree with this, go read 1 Thessalonians 2 where Paul himself tells his readers to follow his example as a “model” of Christ. Paul is in fact a man who was so led by the Spirit of God that he is virtually responsible for Christianity in the western world, 13 letters in the NT and a major influence on Luke and Acts.  One cannot discuss “Christian theology” without discussion Paul.

Yet in Philippians 4 he says he knows what it means to be in want, he knows what it means to be “brought low.”  At the writing of this letter Paul is in prison and it is entirely possible he will die as a result of this imprisonment.  I am not sure that it can get any lower than that!  Yet Paul does not connect his present suffering with any behavior, with any “curse” of God for something he has done or not done.  His suffering is exactly what God has planned and he could not be happier about it.  Rejoice! Paul says, and again, I say, Rejoice!

Mega ChurchWhat is remarkable is that Paul says he has learned the secret to being content in all circumstances, whether blessed with “health and wealth” or blessed with painful suffering physically. That secret is that any success he has is not his at all.  He can only be successful through Christ, who strengthens him.  The way Paul expresses this is interesting.  The verb μυέω is only found here in the NT, but it has the sense of being let in on a secret which is a dark mystery.  It is used of the mystery religions which had elaborate rituals are deep secrets that only the really advanced people understood.

Perhaps this is a hint from Paul that one does not learn the secret to contentment without a lengthy initiation, and that initiation is a road filled with suffering and heartbreak.  You do not learn the secret of contentment by being blessed with wealth, you learn in by making due with very little indeed.

Here is a lesson American Christianity needs to learn quickly. Perhaps it is not the church with money and power which has learned the secret of contentment after all, but the little country church will no money and only a few loyal believers.