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:
- Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers
- The World-Rulers of this Darkness
- The Satan and the Law that Enslaves
- The Bondage of Creation
- Jesus’ Victory Over the Powers
- 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 creation – which 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.