The Powers and the People of Jesus Today (Powers and Principalities pt. 6)

The contention of this series of articles is that the Bible is set in the land of wild things. That is, the Bible is more fantastical—beautiful, dangerous, and strange—than we give it credit for. What we incorrectly call the natural and the supernatural, as if they are distinct and isolated realms, are actually part of a single, fascinating, and intertwined world. In the Bible, heaven and earth constantly interact and are alive with all kinds of creatures, forces, and powers—both seen and unseen.

What are these powers? What do they do in the world? How do they operate? How do they relate to God, to humans, and to the story of rescue and redemption the Bible tells? It’s past time we re-engage the Bible’s overlooked story of the powers. The six articles cover the following major biblical topics:

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers
  2. The World-Rulers of this Darkness
  3. The Satan and the Law that Enslaves
  4. The Bondage of Creation
  5. Jesus’ Victory Over the Powers
  6. The Powers and the People of Jesus Today

* I am especially indebted to G. B. Caird’s small book Principalities and Powers for the main outline of this series (based on his Chancellor’s Lectures in 1954 at Queen’s University).


Living as Jesus People

We are the people of Jesus living in an enchanted world.

Having been instructed by the Scriptures, we are aware of the kind of story we’re in.

Having been united with the Messiah, we’ve learned things, and we are now called to do things.

We are striving to live in the way of Jesus, to be his followers, not just his believers. We have transferred our allegiance to his kingdom, present and coming. We know that our Leader and Lord battled against the world-rulers of this darkness, and he prevailed against them. We know that like the enormous red dragon of John’s Apocalypse, the principalities and powers have been thrown down in a mighty defeat. They’ve lost their place in the heavenly council and they are aware of their approaching doom. They are servants of that vicious dragon, and now they prowl the earth looking for revenge. They are filled with fury, and have turned to unleash their hurtful rage on the community loyal to the Messiah.

On us.

We are not indifferent people gently passing our time in this world, merely awaiting our heavenly reward. We are children of the Divine Warrior, those called to take up the struggle against the darkness until the return of our King. As his chosen people, a holy nation, we are now on the front lines of the struggle against the dark lords. We have been called to take a stand against them.

But how? What are we supposed to actually do?

The answer, according to the New Testament, is for us to live into the victory the Messiah has already won. His path, as always, is our path. To give allegiance to Jesus is to accept his teaching. He has illumined the way for us, and if we are to win our contests against the darkness, we must approach them as our Leader did.

As we noted in the previous installment in this series, the Messiah’s conquest happened in three particular ways. Each of these directly shapes how we take up our own places in this long-running spiritual campaign:

1. We have a new standing in the Messiah.

Because the atoning death of Jesus took away the legal charges made against us by the powers, we are now people in good standing. Through the work of Christ, God declares us to be in the right. This has disarmed ha satan, the great accuser who has always been against us (see Colossians 2).

It also has another effect, often neglected in discussions of the atonement. The sacrificial death of Jesus diminishes the powers and simultaneously elevates humanity back to its proper role in the creation. That is, our fundamental human vocation in the world is restored: image-bearers of God made to manage the creation.

This is a key reversal of what human rebellion and misplaced allegiance had done. When we turned to worship and serve things other than our Creator, we handed power to malevolent principalities and spiritual dominions. They then took advantage of the situation to disrupt the life and flourishing of God’s good world.

The death of the Messiah on the cross turns this around and reinstates humanity to its rightful position of authority. As N. T. Wright explains:

What the Bible offers is not a “works contract,” but a covenant of vocation. The vocation in question is that of being a genuine human being, with genuine human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for the world. The main task of this vocation is “image bearing,” reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker. . . Humans are called not just to keep certain moral standards in the present and to enjoy God’s presence here and hereafter, but to celebrate, worship, procreate, and take responsibility with the rich, vivid developing life of creation.The Day the Revolution Began, pp. 76-77

So the first thing for followers of King Jesus to do in our spiritual battle is to take up our God-given position of those who create and shape culture to reflect the life and love of the Creator himself.

2. We have a new primary allegiance to the Messiah.

Humans are always looking for a group, a tribe, or a people to be a part of. We were made to be communal, and one way or another we will find a way to identify with others. What is the proper basis for this community?

The second thing Christ’s victory over the powers provides is a new foundation for corporate identity and action. Rather than giving our ultimate loyalty to any nation-state, any ethnic or racial group, any temporal institution, human philosophy, or economic system, our primary identification, name, and coherence as a group is now found in the Second Adam.

The renewal of humanity’s corporate existence is brought into effect by the appearance of a human pioneer, the Son of Man, who opens up a previously undiscovered route to human solidarity. Our adoption as children of God into the worldwide family of God provides us a new home and a deep unity with others.

In his short, powerful book Christ and the Powers (especially pp 47-54), Hendrikus Berkhof briefly outlines how this new identity in Christ works out in the public sphere. Once we stop absolutizing the powers, giving them our worship and highest fealty, we are free to manage the world more simply according to practical goals. If we quit acting as if countries, or economic systems, or money, or power, or technological tools, or any other thing in all of creation are gods, then we can begin to treat them as means, not as ends.

By not investing our identities in these things which are not worthy or capable of carrying them, we make their role in society more modest. We can de-escalate many human conflicts and have conversations about what works for the flourishing of human life – conversations that are less fraught with the ultimacy we’ve previously placed on them.

Berkhof notes that the powers will resist this by their usual means of propaganda, terror, and the ideologizing of all of life, trying to suck us all into life-or-death battles over our old idols. But those who are new creations in Christ have already transferred their core allegiance to the freshly revealed kingdom of light, which breaks the old thinking of the kingdom of darkness into pieces.

Historically (and very sadly) Christians have not always shown the ability to successfully follow through on this transfer of their highest devotion and obedience to King Jesus. Crucial spiritual battles have been lost to the powers precisely because those claiming Christ have continued to turn lesser things into idols.

Consider, as one example, the founding of the United States and the white supremacy and racism leading to slavery and the genocide of Native peoples, positions that were so often embraced by those who self-identified as Christians. These are classic tools of the powers to divide peoples, examples of which can be seen around the world and throughout history.

New ground can be taken back from the evil powers if believers would always make it perfectly clear, in word and in action, that they serve only one Lord and Master.

3. We have a new grounding in the truth of the Messiah

One of the Bible’s central claims is that the world-rulers of our darkness have blinded the minds of those who worship what is not God. In contrast, the true knowledge of God is made known through the Messiah. The wisdom of God, known and lived by the community of Christ, is therefore a powerful means of pushing back the murky and distorting darkness produced by the powers. The spiritual forces of evil have always lived and moved in lies. Deception is one of their primary weapons against us.

As Paul makes especially clear in 2 Corinthians, the light of the gospel is infused with God’s own power to successfully engage in spiritual warfare and push back the darkness. Gospel knowledge is power:

If our gospel still remains “veiled,” it is veiled for people who are perishing. What’s happening there is that the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they won’t see the light of the gospel of the glory of the Messiah, who is God’s image.

-from 2 Corinthians 4 (Kingdom New Testament)

Yes, we are mere humans, but we don’t fight the war in a merely human way. The weapons we use for the fight, you see, are not merely human; they carry a power from God that can tear down fortresses! We tear down clever arguments and every proud notion that sets itself up against the knowledge of God. We take every thought prisoner and make it obey the Messiah.

-from 2 Corinthians 10 (Kingdom New Testament)

The realm of ideas is thus one of the key arenas for our spiritual struggle in the present evil age. The wisdom of God is not a merely intellectual exercise, however. It is a full-bodied wisdom that must permeate the entire life and witness of the body of Christ in this world.


The turning point of the story of the Bible is the story of Jesus. The gospel narratives about Jesus are battle stories. In a central way, therefore, the drama of the Bible is spiritual conflict. When the kingdom of light comes to reclaim lost territory, of course the existing powers controlling the kingdom of darkness push back. Hard.

This ongoing struggle is now the story of our lives. The Scriptures introduce us to a world where the wild things are. If we don’t adopt the enchanted worldview of the Bible, we won’t understand the world as it actually is. We won’t know who we are or what we’re supposed to be doing.

The Son of Man has come into the world, showing us a new way to be human. He has already won the decisive battle, so the outcome of the war is not in doubt. Yet that struggle is not yet over, so we too must be spiritual warriors. We wear the full armor of God, so that the reign of God will advance and bring light and life to chaotic, unruly, and broken places. Like the Divine Warrior himself (see Isaiah 59), we stand up and intervene when injustice and wrongdoing wreak havoc on God’s good world. As the living body of the resurrected King of Israel, we too confront the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. As Christ’s new community:

  • we embrace the powerful, fortress-breaking truth of the gospel,
  • we reclaim our lost human vocation to manage God’s creation in love and service,
  • we find our true identity by giving our highest allegiance to the world’s true Lord.

The Bible is a collection of words with power—a living story that invites us in to take up our own places in the struggle against God’s enemies, sin and death. Both the powers and the humans have been in rebellion. But as followers of the Messiah, we’ve been invited to now share in his secret wisdom. The real power of God’s kingdom, the power that defeats evil, has nothing to do with the coercive and harmful weapons of the world. Rather, our triumph is found in the power of self-sacrificial love.

Jesus’ Victory Over the Powers (Powers and Principalities pt. 5)

The contention of this series of articles is that the Bible is set in the land of wild things. That is, the Bible is more fantastical—beautiful, dangerous, and strange—than we give it credit for. What we incorrectly call the natural and the supernatural, as if they are distinct and isolated realms, are actually part of a single, fascinating, and intertwined world. In the Bible, heaven and earth constantly interact and are alive with all kinds of creatures, forces, and powers—both seen and unseen.

What are these powers? What do they do in the world? How do they operate? How do they relate to God, to humans, and to the story of rescue and redemption the Bible tells? It’s past time we re-engage the Bible’s overlooked story of the powers. The six articles cover the following major biblical topics:

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers
  2. The World-Rulers of this Darkness
  3. The Satan and the Law that Enslaves
  4. The Bondage of Creation
  5. Jesus’ Victory Over the Powers
  6. The Powers and the People of Jesus Today

* I am especially indebted to G. B. Caird’s small book Principalities and Powers for the main outline of this series (based on his Chancellor’s Lectures in 1954 at Queen’s University).


Reclaiming the World

On the very first Sabbath day in the history of the world, God rested. In the ancient world, when a deity “rested” it meant they took up residence within their temple and began to rule:

For the LORD has chosen Zion,
   he has desired it for his dwelling, saying,
“This is my resting place for ever and ever;
   here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it.”
-from Psalm 132 (NIV)

But it wasn’t long before God had to start working again, for the fallen powers and principalities and even his own wayward image-bearers had immediately begun disrupting the life and flourishing of his cosmic temple.

God’s new work was to pursue re-creation — the restoration and renewal of all he’d intended from the beginning. But this labor proves to be harder and slower than the first time around, due to the recalcitrants now impeding his plans.

The world-rulers of this darkness seeking only to steal, kill, and destroy.

Divine image-bearers strangely refusing to image the divine.

So when the Father sends the Son into the world to redeem the world, the Son continues the divine striving. When Jesus is accused of healing a man (i.e. working) on the Sabbath he says, “Yes, of course I’m working on this day. I work every single day! And my Father is working too!” This is the creational endeavor of rebuilding and recovery. This is the storyline of the Bible: God working to undo the work of those seeking to undo his own good work in the creation.

The life and ministry of Jesus is the culmination of God’s great undertaking: to win back the world.

God at War

Read a Gospel, any Gospel. What do you find? A great battle between the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of God.

We need to rethink what we’ve supposed the good news of Jesus to be all about. Again, as with so many elements of the biblical story, we’ve minimized and narrowed (he came to save me) what is big and comprehensive (he came to defeat sin and death and reclaim the creationwhich includes me). Again and again in the stories about Jesus we find confrontation with evil and with evil ones. Jesus announces and is advancing a kingdom, a reign, a new authority.

As with so many elements of the biblical story, we’ve minimized and narrowed what is big and comprehensive.

Mark tells us that Jesus begins his entire ministry in the wilderness “with the wild animals” to be tested by the Accuser. Jesus immediately goes out to where the wild things are to face down the malicious spiritual forces that have been running the world. His initial victory here launches him into a public ministry in Israel that is both invitational and combative at the same time. His mission is a rescue operation, fighting spiritual oppressors and freeing slaves.

The authority of Satan as the ruler of this age is seen in physical disease (“a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years”), in demon possession, in false teaching, in moral failure, and preeminently in the murder of Jesus on the cross (“this is your hour, and the dominion of darkness”). Jesus exorcises and teaches and heals to overpower the Strong Man, with the goal of releasing and restoring those people who’ve been suffering under the Dark Lord.

This battle the Messiah is fighting is not the battle Israel was expecting. The reorientation is hard to understand, even for the Twelve:

Who is this that commands unclean spirits?
Who is this that can calm the wild, uncontrollable seas of chaos?
Who is this that can heal and restore with a touch, or even a word?
Who is this that is overpowering the powers?

Just as Palestine was a territory controlled by a Roman legion, so Jesus takes on the Legion of spiritual powers and authorities destroying the people of God. He is the Son of Man – that is, the truly human one come to reclaim the human vocation of image-bearing and ruling. Yes, it is the reign of God that he brings, but God has always wanted to rule in and through his designated agents. It is the seed of the woman that will crush the serpent (Genesis 3). It is the Son of Man that will put all things in subjection under his feet (Psalm 8, Daniel 7).

So Jesus teaches his disciples to pray a battle prayer, demanding that God bring victory in this contest. (Boldly, the verbs here are all imperatives, i.e., telling God what to do.) It is time for God to make his name known throughout the world, for God’s rule to extend to the earth. This prayer is about a new day coming and the bread of a New Exodus being given. Debtors must be released and the power of sin must be broken. It is an urgent appeal for God to protect his people from the Evil One and save them from the time of trial.

This clash comes to its climax when Jesus enters Jerusalem on a wild, unbroken colt, demonstrating that he really is king of the city and ruler over the powers. Jesus directly confronts the false and corrupt rulers of his people, both Jewish and Roman.

But then ha Satan enters one of the Twelve and drives him to betrayal. The powers intend the worst for Jesus, this disruptive human one that has been pushing them back and reclaiming creation for the Creator.

They know he is the Holy One of God, as we hear them shriek when he casts them out. But they also know he is vulnerable, flesh, able to die.

So the powers do what they know, do what they’ve always done. They steal, kill, and destroy once more.

The Secret Wisdom of God in Christ

The Gospels narrate the story. The letters of the apostles clarify the implications. Paul explains to us what has happened:

We do, however, speak wisdom among the mature. But this isn’t a wisdom of this present world, or of the rulers of this present world—those same rulers who are being done away with. No: we speak God’s hidden wisdom in a mystery. This is the wisdom God prepared ahead of time, before the world began, for our glory.

None of the rulers of this present age knew about this wisdom. If they had, you see, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory.

-from 1 Corinthians 2 (Kingdom New Testament)

The powers were blinded by their own lust for control, their thirst for destruction. They didn’t understand God’s deeper wisdom in Christ. Working through their human allies, they thought they could simply eliminate the Stronger One who had come into the world.

Though they couldn’t see it coming, the tables were being turned. What they thought was their moment of greatest triumph was precisely their moment of utter defeat.

The weakness of God in Christ was more powerful than the strength of the powers.

The paradox of God’s work in Christ—losing to win, dying to live—was incomprehensible to those obsessed with their own lust for dominance and carnage.

New Testament scholar G. B. Caird* identifies the specific threefold victory of the Messiah over the world-rulers of the darkness:

1. The powers had a hold over the human race because of their successful accusations of our own pervasive wrongdoing. But Christ decisively dealt with the charges against us:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

-from Colossians 2 (NIV)

2. The powers operate at a high level of organization. Their pernicious effects are nested into the structures of society: institutions, economic systems, and governments. They are intertwined with the essential frameworks of a fallen cosmos. Defeating them requires giving humans a new option for corporate identification and action. This is what Christ and the renewed family of God provide. The Messiah is a new or second Adam, affording humanity a new basis for unity and taking away a crucial tool of the powers.

3. Finally, Jesus destroys the deceptions and falsehoods at the heart of the kingdom of corruption. Paul writes that the god of this age has blinded the minds of all those who worship what is not God. This spiritual veil compels people to give their allegiance to imposters. Jesus has shown us the truth about the world and about who God is. The light of revelation that Christ brings evaporates the lies that empower so much of the success of the false rulers.

This definitive victory of Israel’s Messiah and world’s true Lord on the cross was confirmed and demonstrated by his powerful resurrection and ascension. Jesus came and did God’s work. He came and fought God’s fight. Therefore his death was reversed, his claim to be king was vindicated, and he was raised up to his rightful position over all things.

The powers have met their match. Their defeat is not yet final, but the decisive blow has been dealt.

The secret wisdom of God in Christ is the dawning of a new day for the world. People are being liberated. The creation itself will soon be set free.

So our final question must turn back to us. What do we do now? How do we take up our own roles in the ongoing defeat of the world-rulers of this darkness?

* cf. Principalities and Powers, pp. 84-101.

The Bondage of Creation (Powers and Principalities pt. 4)

The contention of this series of articles is that the Bible is set in the land of wild things. That is, the Bible is more fantastical—beautiful, dangerous, and strange—than we give it credit for. What we incorrectly call the natural and the supernatural, as if they are distinct and isolated realms, are actually part of a single, fascinating, and intertwined world. In the Bible, heaven and earth constantly interact and are alive with all kinds of creatures, forces, and powers—both seen and unseen.

What are these powers? What do they do in the world? How do they operate? How do they relate to God, to humans, and to the story of rescue and redemption the Bible tells? It’s past time we re-engage the Bible’s overlooked story of the powers. The six articles cover the following major biblical topics:

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers
  2. The World-Rulers of this Darkness
  3. The Satan and the Law that Enslaves
  4. The Bondage of Creation
  5. Jesus’ Victory Over the Powers
  6. The Powers and the People of Jesus Today

* I am especially indebted to G. B. Caird’s small book Principalities and Powers for the main outline of this series (based on his Chancellor’s Lectures in 1954 at Queen’s University).


The Bondage of Creation

YHWH is indeed the lord of creation. When we question him and try to make our own case for how things should be, he answers:

Have you ever commanded the morning,
   appointed the dawn to its place,
to seize the earth’s corners,
   that the wicked be shaken from it?
-from Job 38 (The Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter)

YHWH’s power is great, and we see vivid pictures throughout the First Testament both of God’s attentive care for all his creatures (cf. Psalm 104), but also his ability to raise up ferocious elements to execute his judgments (cf. Psalm 77). There is one and only one Creator, and there is nothing within the world that can ultimately overcome his rule.

But still.

We have not actually seen what will ultimately be. We live in the time of penultimate.

There is a way it was all was meant to be, but it’s not the way it’s ended up. Not at all. At least not yet.

The Lord created a world and then he made image-bearers, meant to echo, channel, reflect, and imitate God’s own good and gracious rule to support and enhance flourishing life everywhere. That’s what it means to bear God’s image. These human servants were intended to carry forward and implement God’s grace and peace to every thing in every way.

What is man that You should note him,
   and the human creature, that You pay him heed,
and You make him little less than the gods,
   with glory and grandeur You crown him?
You make him rule over the work of Your hands.
   All things You set under his feet.
-from Psalm 8 (The Hebrew Bible, Alter)

But the great rebellion changed everything. As we have already seen, the overreach of the human creatures was ironically an underperformance, leading to the rise of the world-rulers of our present darkness. In the biblical story, this has affected all people — Jew and Gentile alike. Everyone is in bondage to wrongdoing and mortality.

In a world we were meant to rule, we are now ruled. The powers have had their way with us.

And not only with us.

In a world we were meant to rule, we are now ruled. The powers have had their way with us.

If we read the narrative closely, we see that the disruption brought on by the principalities and powers extends throughout all of creation. We learn immediately at the very start of the story that the destiny of humanity and the rest of the world are tied intimately together. When image-bearers fell, the earth too was dragged down.

Evil is not merely a human problem. Evil is a cosmic disaster affecting everything.

In the Bible’s account of the powers, this is expressed in various ways. One very strange part of the picture is that elements of the creation itself seem to easily revert to a kind of rebelliousness against God’s good order. The demons and the powers of chaos have been forced back to the boundaries of the world, but they are not yet completely defeated. When things go wrong (mostly, when human beings are derelict in their moral duties) these powers can spring right back into disruptive action.

So in the prophet Isaiah, for instance, we find passages describing the effects of God’s judgment on wicked nations. When evil people are defeated, their land reverts to a wasteland where unruly plants and wild creatures take over:

Thorns shall spring up in her citadels,
   in her fortresses nettles and briars,
and it shall turn into an abode of jackals,
   a courtyard of ostriches.
And wildcats shall meet hyenas,
   and the satyr shall call to its mate.
There Lilith shall rest
   and find repose for herself.
-from Isaiah 34 (The Hebrew Bible, Alter)

Wait . . . what was that? Satyrs the demon goat-gods? Lilith the night hag? They are back in the land?

This is how the story communicates the dark side of the animal world, long known in folklore, in which unclean creatures consort with the evil spirits, eager to wreak their havoc. Nature red in tooth and claw indeed.

In the Bible’s story, there really are wildlands where the wild things really are in charge. With the world under the powers, the peaceable kingdom remains a prophetic vision, not a present reality.

Along the same line, the Scriptures speak of the continuing powers of chaos, usually housed in the great and riotous sea, ready at any time to undermine good order and reintroduce anarchy. The First Testament refers to Rahab, Leviathan, and Tehom Rabbah (the Great Deep). We can see the great and ongoing battle in the Creation and the Exodus stories. The Chaos King lives in the water, God first subdued him to shape and order the world, and then he cleft the sea again to rescue his people from slavery. As Psalm 74 has it:

Yet God is my king of old,
   worker of rescues in the midst of the earth.
You shattered the sea god with Your strength,
   You smashed the monsters’ heads on the waters.
You crushed the Leviathan’s heads,
   You gave him as food to the desert-folk.
– (The Hebrew Bible, Alter)

And in the Scriptures, the story works through recapitulation. As it has been, so it will be. The shape of the narrative is constantly replaying earlier patterns. In the future time of salvation and rescue, God will act with power again:

On that day the Lord shall punish
   with His fierce and great and mighty sword
Leviathan the slippery serpent,
   Leviathan the twisting serpent,
   and shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.
– from Isaiah 27 (The Hebrew Bible, Alter)

God’s stance vis-à-vis these powers of the natural world is that of a Divine Warrior. He clashes with them. The Bible is a battle story. The promise of the Bible is specifically about how the battle will go.

The Bible’s Lens on Our World

As good children of modernity, we have been taught for a long time that all such speculations about demons, nature gods, and powers are really nothing at all. I would submit that all too often even those of us who ostensibly accept the biblical storyline are functional materialists in our day-to-day outlook.

None of this talk of powers, demon-creatures, and mythical beasts comports well with our typically scientific, and let’s be honest, mostly naturalistic view of the world today. But this is precisely the point: the Bible is telling us that there is more to the world than meets the rationalistic eye.

So the world is not what it seems. Not all the powerful actors in this drama are human. There are great and mighty gods of this age, and while we may not use the ancient mythopoetic language of the Bible to describe them, we should not doubt their existence nor their ongoing role in the story.

In the end, the Bible’s view of the creation is therefore mixed. It is always first and foremost the good place God made for us. God cares for it, provides for it and all its creatures, and it has its own place in his coming redemption of all things. But just as the human drama has suffered a deadly disruption, so too has the story of the creation. The world rulers of this darkness have turned the world upside down—and the baneful ramifications run right through the cosmos, from top to bottom.

Bondage is the word that captures the essence of this story. Humans are in slavery to sin and death. The creation is captive to corruption, decay, and disaster. There are moral failures, and there are natural disasters. There are deliberate acts of evil, and there are pandemics.

Which brings us to the Apostle Paul, a man of two worlds—Hellenistic and Jewish. From the Greek side of the story, he knew all about the endless, repeating cycles of the natural world. He was aware of how ancient astrology had weighed down the hearts of so many with its sense of all-pervading futility. From the Jewish side he knew the Scriptures and the painful curse that had fallen on the land.

But Paul also believes this is not a permanent bondage, nor a story of endless cyclical affliction:

This is how I work it out. The sufferings we go through in the present time are not worth putting in the scale alongside the glory that is going to be unveiled for us. Yes: creation itself is on tiptoe with expectation, eagerly awaiting the moment when God’s children will be revealed. Creation, you see, was subjected to pointless futility, not of its own volition, but because of the one who placed it in this subjection, in the hope that creation itself would be freed from its slavery to decay, to enjoy the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified.

Let me explain. We know that the entire creation is groaning together, and going through labor pains together, up until the present time. Not only so: we too, we who have the first fruits of the spirit’s life within us, are groaning within ourselves, as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our body.

-from Romans 8 (Kingdom New Testament)

How did this dream of a New Exodus become possible? Where does this hope come from? Who brings this breaking of the chains that bind the creation?

We’ve explored the devastating effects wrought by the evil powers. Now it’s time to turn to the one who came to take them on.

Part 5: Jesus’ Victory Over the Powers >>>

The Satan and The Law That Enslaves (Powers & Principalities, Pt. 3)

The contention of this series of articles is that the Bible is set in the land of wild things. That is, the Bible is more fantastical—beautiful, dangerous, and strange—than we give it credit for. What we incorrectly call the natural and the supernatural, as if they are distinct and isolated realms, are actually part of a single, fascinating, and intertwined world. In the Bible, heaven and earth constantly interact and are alive with all kinds of creatures, forces, and powers—both seen and unseen.

What are these powers? What do they do in the world? How do they operate? How do they relate to God, to humans, and to the story of rescue and redemption the Bible tells? It’s past time we re-engage the Bible’s overlooked story of the powers. The six articles cover the following major biblical topics:

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers
  2. The World-Rulers of this Darkness
  3. The Satan and The Law That Enslaves
  4. The Bondage of Creation
  5. Jesus’ Victory Over the Powers
  6. The Powers and the People of Jesus Today

* I am especially indebted to G. B. Caird’s small book Principalities and Powers for the main outline of this series (based on his Chancellor’s Lectures in 1954 at Queen’s University).


The Satan and The Law That Enslaves

We’ve already seen that the Bible testifies to the enslaving rule of the world by spiritual powers who’ve turned false. Created by God and meant to serve his good purposes, they’ve instead become potent agents for evil. The First Testament clearly correlates the rule of the powers to the waywardness of the nations.

But what about Israel? Are God’s people exempt from the influence and misdirected rule of the powers that is so devastating for the Gentile nations? What does the story say?

To answer these questions we must first step back and take a brief look at one of the powers in particular: Ha satan, the Great Accuser, our legal adversary whose title eventually became his name.

He is portrayed in the opening of the book of Job as having full access to the heavenly council. He appears to be one of the “gods” or “sons of Elohim,” reporting on how God’s creatures are doing vis-á-vis God’s law.

But as always in the Bible, the story progresses and we learn more. The Accuser is not neutral. He takes pleasure in hauling sinners into the divine court, yet that is not enough for him.

Satan moves on from the role of prosecutor to that of tempter. He actively incites people toward sin which he can then use as charges against them. The author of Chronicles reports that it is Satan who prompts King David to take a census to measure the strength of his army. Satan aggressively confronts and tempts Jesus right at the launch of his kingdom ministry, attempting to derail it.

The growth of Satan’s job description continues. In the gospels we hear Jesus saying that a woman who was crippled had in fact been bound by Satan for eighteen years. Paul speaks of handing a man over to Satan “for the destruction of his flesh.” The book of Hebrews says that it is the Great Accuser who holds the power of death. And Revelation comes right out and names him “the Destroyer.” Tempting and accusing is not sufficient for him. Satan also seeks to carry out the punishment on the guilty.

Entrap. Bring charges. Destroy.

Sounds horrible, and it is, but what does it have to do with the story of Israel and the powers?

Slaves to the Law

The relationship to Israel’s story is one of a parallel development, and the connection in the first place lies with the angels and the role of Torah. The Torah originates with God, and Paul strongly affirms that it is holy, righteous, and good. The problem is not with the law itself.

According to the New Testament (though we don’t hear about it in the First Testament), it was the angels who mediated the giving of the law to Israel. Galatians and Hebrews both affirm that the law was put into effect through angels. They apparently were made to function as intermediaries and guardians of Torah.

Strangely, under this guardianship the law ends up being used in a way that doesn’t curb sin but rather aggravates it. Torah ends up stimulating the very thing it prohibits. We see the Apostle Paul wrestling with this paradox in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians.* Paul had been a Pharisee, zealous in his enforcement of Torah and convinced that a stricter adherence to it was the path to restoration for Israel.

But it didn’t happen.

Instead, Paul says that Torah was increasing the amount of pain and brokenness in the world. The law actually gives more power to the sin in us, so that when sin sees the prohibition, it jumps at the chance to do wrong. The law ends up tempting people to sin, then it empowers sin, and finally accuses and condemns them when they do sin.

Sound familiar? The law in Israel has become like ha satan, humanity’s great accuser before God. The law does not function with the power to heal or restore, only to condemn. Israel’s Torah, though given by God, is transformed into a destructive force, all because of the power of sin in us. The situation drives Paul to cry out in desperation: Who can save us from these bodies of death?

This is why Paul can say that Israel under Torah is actually in slavery to the elemental spiritual forces of the world. He ends up presenting the law, sin, and death as a trio of closely aligned powers working to oppose God’s saving purposes. This triumvirate of destruction has come to hold Israel in bondage.

We learn that even something holy and good, originating from God, can become a force for evil when isolated from God’s larger intentions for the life of his creation. If this can happen to Torah, it can happen to anything that we wrongly absolutize—nation, race, family, an economic system, or any other gift we find or fashion within the good creation.

If this can happen to Torah, it can happen to anything that we wrongly absolutize

Paul writes that Torah was always meant to be partial and temporary, governing the people of Israel like an underage child. But under the influence of the powers, Israel elevated it to something supreme and eternal.

A New Way

When we come to the gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus this is exactly how we see the law functioning, which is why Jesus opposes the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The law is operating in first-century Israel in a way that works against human flourishing. It divides, intimidates, condemns, and excludes people. Jesus is not working against Torah itself, but the way Torah is being used to interfere with God’s gracious and restorative purposes. Israel’s leaders are using the law like a weapon.

Jesus comes announcing the real intention of Israel’s God: For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

So here we are: the wild things—the powers who have overtaken the world—have led all of humanity, Jew and Gentile alike, into utter disaster. Both groups have come under the sway of fallen angelic guardians, and in both cases we find humanity in rebellion to the ways of the Creator. The nations worship idols of many types, ancient and modern. They are in league with sin and death. Israel has misused God’s gift of the law and so ends up in service to the same ruinous forces.

So God sends his Son to bring the divine reign and reestablish the real purpose for creation.

Then we watch in horror as the foremost world empire, along with God’s own people—Rome and Israel—conspire together in blindness and rebellion to crucify the Son of Man.

Who killed Jesus? Technically it was Roman soldiers, but Herod, Caiaphas and Pilate were directing this show. Paul tells us, however, that more deeply still it was the spiritual rulers of this age who made sure Jesus was executed. We can see here, as clearly as anywhere, how human authorities and the spiritual forces of evil can both be working at the same time and in the same events.

God sent Israel as his agent to bring the world from curse to blessing. God then sent his own Son to bring Israel back to its founding purpose. So what happens when the powers prevail upon both Israel and the nations to fight against God’s ultimate mission in the Messiah?

The secret wisdom of God working in Christ surprises everyone involved.

But before we unpack this decisive move of God within the story, we must turn to one more chapter on the devastating work of the powers. We’re not yet done unveiling all that the powers have done, for the damage goes deeper still.

Part 4: The Bondage of Creation >>>

*For Paul and his not-uncomplicated view of Torah, see especially Romans 2–7 and Galatians 3–4.

The World-Rulers of this Darkness (Powers and Principalities, Pt. 2)

This series of articles contends that the Bible is set in the land of wild things. That is, the Bible is more fantastical—beautiful, dangerous, and strange—than we give it credit for. What we incorrectly call the natural and the supernatural, as if they are distinct and isolated realms, are actually part of a single, fascinating, and intertwined world. In the Bible, heaven and earth are constantly interacting and alive with all kinds of creatures, forces, and powers—both seen and unseen.

What are these powers? What do they do in the world? How do they operate? How do they relate to God, to humans, and to the story of rescue and redemption the Bible tells? It’s past time we re-engage the Bible’s overlooked story of the powers. The six articles cover the following major biblical topics:

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers
  2. The World-Rulers of this Darkness
  3. The Satan and The Law That Enslaves
  4. The Bondage of Creation
  5. Jesus’ Victory Over the Powers
  6. The Powers and the People of Jesus Today

* I am especially indebted to G. B. Caird’s small book Principalities and Powers for the main outline of this series (based on his Chancellor’s Lectures in 1954 at Queen’s University).


What’s wrong with the world?

The biblical answer: it’s complicated.

Humans have certainly lost their way. The overt story of the Bible is about divine image-bearers refusing to fully step into their fundamental vocation. Humans, made to reflect God’s purposes for the world, have instead become agents of creation’s undoing. This is central.

But there’s more. Alongside the storyline of people behaving badly there is one about another group of powerful creatures who’ve gone wrong. These two storylines are deeply intertwined and overlapping, each one influencing the other.

Two passages from the Psalms help us get our bearings on these other creatures, the powers:

The heavens will acclaim Your wonder, O Lord,
   Your faithfulness, too, in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare to the Lord,
   who can be like the Lord among the sons of the gods?
A God held in awe in the council of the holy,
   mighty and fearsome above all his surroundings.
Lord, God of Armies, who is like You,
   powerful Yah, with your faithfulness round You?
-from Psalm 89 (The Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter)

These “sons of the gods,” these “armies” and “holy ones,” constitute the heavenly council or assembly. They are clearly powerful spiritual beings, yet they are not equal to the Lord who is mighty and wonderful above them.

The collection of psalms about God’s enthronement as High King (Psalms 95-99) regularly reference the one true God’s place above all other gods. The gods of the nations are but idols, falsely claiming that they are due worship. Yahweh alone is truly Lord Sabaoth, the Lord over the Hosts.

But then we learn another crucial piece of information:

God takes His stand in the divine assembly,
   in the midst of the gods He renders judgment.
“How long will you judge dishonestly,
   and show favor to the wicked?
Do justice to the poor and the orphan.
   Vindicate the lowly and the wretched.
Free the poor and the needy,
   from the hand of the wicked save them.
. . . As for Me, I had thought you were gods,
   and the sons of the Most High were you all.
Yet indeed like humans you shall die,
   and like one of the princes, fall.”
-from Psalm 82 (The Hebrew Bible, Alter)

Wait a minute. Aren’t humans the ones who judge dishonestly and neglect the poor? Isn’t it wicked human rulers who fail to care for the needy and in fact oppress them?

Again and again the prophets enter charges against people failing to do justice. Yet here we see God directly assigning blame to the world’s spiritual powers for the injustices that takes place on earth. He renders judgment against them, even saying these gods will die.

Fallen humans are responsible for the world’s evil.

Fallen spiritual powers are responsible for the world’s evil.

The Bible says “Yes” to both of these statements.

The Deep Connection Between Humans and Powers

It helps to put the biblical pieces together to understand how this works. In Daniel 10–12 we see an angel responding to Daniel’s fasting and mourning with a crucial message. “The prince of the kingdom of Persia” and “the prince of Greece” are in active warfare against this angel and also against “Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people.” Angelic powers and nations go together – indeed, they seem bound together in some essential way.

We know from the regular prophetic denunciations against injustice that human institutions and systems are implicated, including such things as the way the law courts work and how economic structures function to favor the rich and harm the poor. So the entire realm of human cultural power is now tied to dark spiritual powers.

This, in turn, leads the Lord of the heavenly council to combine his judgments against both parties. So in Isaiah we see Yahweh showing up with punishment on his mind:

On that day the Lord will punish
   the host of heaven, in heaven,
   and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
They will be gathered together
   as prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
   and after many days they will be punished.
-from Isaiah 24 (RSV)

Notice the strong emphasis on one party working in heaven, while the other operates on the earth. They are operating in different, but connected, realms. Destructive evil is their joint accomplishment.

The running of the world—the world in rebellion to God—is not merely in the hands of presidents, prime ministers, and kings. It is equally governed by the angelic rulers of the heavenly assembly, the world-rulers of this darkness.

The biblical evidence points toward created angelic beings who were given their authority by the Creator. They were meant to serve under God and facilitate his purposes for a well-ordered world. Their delegated rule was misdirected, however, particularly when they began to accept the idolatrous worship of humans. They became powerful forces for evil, for ruining God’s good creation.

Daniel has visions of wicked kings on earth who appear as terrible beasts coming up out of the sea (the regular home of chaos monsters in the Bible). These human kingdoms, working in concert with the powers, are represented as beasts precisely because they act in subhuman ways. This is another piece of biblical wisdom: when humans or angels seek to be more than they were created to be, they always end up being less.

When humans or angels seek to be more than they were created to be, they always end up being less.

It is perfectly appropriate, then, that the one who defeats these proud but false rulers is “one like a son of man.” A truly human one will appear, and as the representative of his now-restored people, he will be given “dominion and glory and kingdom” (Daniel 7).

Humans were made to rule as God’s deputies in the world. So God is determined that the powers be overcome and his people receive the gift of their own rule back again.

The First Testament testifies to spiritual powers which have turned false and enslaved the world. They disrupt God’s intentions for the functioning and flourishing of the world according to true justice. They interfere with the intended role of God’s image-bearers. The names and titles of these powers move straight from the First into the New Testament via the Greek translation of the ancient Scriptures, showing that these are exactly the same powers as before.

So the story awaits a new announcement, some major turning point within this narrative of God and his world. Those under the reign of the dark lords surely need some good news for a change. Something like the arrival of “one like a son of man.”

Part 3: The Satan and the Law that Enslaves >>>