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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 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 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 of 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 >>>

Powers and Principalities: The Bible’s Most Overlooked Storyline

Maurice Sendak’s parents were poor Jewish immigrants to the United States from Poland. Their family that stayed behind were all killed in the Holocaust. The weekly Sunday afternoon gatherings of his extended family in Brooklyn brought in aunts and uncles that Maurice would later describe as “all crazy—crazy faces and wild eyes.”

These visits inspired Sendak to write the famous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are—the story of Max and his adventures in a faraway and fantastical land. In the story, Max’s mother calls him “WILD THING!”—a phrase derived from the Yiddish “vilde chaya” (or “wild animals”) to describe rambunctious children. Max is drawn to the wild side of life, but in the end he rediscovers the appeal of home, calmness, and a still-warm supper.

My contention in this series of articles is that the Bible itself 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

Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers

The Bible is enchanted. That is, the Bible is literally words with power. It tells us how we’ve come to be enslaved. It tells us of the coming of the Word that can break the spell that lies over the human race, indeed, over the entire creation.

Unfortunately, many of our interactions with the Bible end up treating it as a very tame book. We’ve worked pretty hard to make the Bible into a nice, tidy, even rationalistic collection of true, but very calm religious propositions.

We’ve missed the enchanted part and mostly just embraced the tame part. In a world like ours, it’s very easy to live as functional deists—we believe there is a God, but we often end up acting like he’s essentially abandoned things and left us to run the world ourselves. We may believe, vaguely, that there are other spiritual beings around, but again, we act like they don’t really matter much. When we do this, we practice a naturalistic worldview. Christians often identify the 18th-century Enlightenment as the cause of much of the anti-religious bias in the world, but then we ourselves too often live our lives as if the Enlightenment view of the world is the operative one.

In a world like ours, it’s very easy to live as functional deists

There are, of course, some expressions of the Christian faith that are very much alive to the existence of the spiritual realm. These communities will talk about demons and spirits and their devastating and destructive role. But even here the way these spirits function within this worldview doesn’t always seem to line up with the story of the powers we encounter in the Bible.

We need to take another, closer look at the biblical story, and particularly the story about the powers and principalities. For they play a decisive role in the Bible’s life-or-death drama.

As always here at the Institute for Bible Reading, I begin by advocating that we read the Bible as a collection, not of verses, but of unique and quite literary books. Once books are taken seriously as the basic building blocks of the Bible, then we can look for the narrative thread that ties them together into a coherent whole.

Our job in this series is to understand and incorporate into our own biblical worldview the kind of story the Bible actually weaves. That story is not what we normally take it to be. For the Bible is not only the story of God and humanity. It is the story of God, humanity, and the powers.


In the Bible, the powers are seemingly sometimes personal, sometimes impersonal, but they are always big. They are most often forces of evil on a grand scale, typically interacting with human beings in rebellion to God. There is no systematic theology of the powers in the Bible, and it’s probably not a good use of time to try and create one. The topic is complex, and as it moves along with the storyline of the Bible, things change (as they tend to do in stories).

We begin at the very beginning, which I have on reliable authority is a very good place to start. Are the powers there at the creation of the world?

Speaking of the beloved Son of God, Paul writes to the Colossians:

For in him all things were created,
In the heavens and here on earth.
Things we can see and things we cannot—
Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers—
All things were created both through him and for him.

He is ahead, prior to all else,
And in him all things hold together . . .
– the song of the Son from The Kingdom New Testament

So the first thing to be said of the powers is that they were meant to be, and meant to have a positive function within God’s world. Whatever wrong turn they have taken, Paul goes out of his way to mention them as part of the creation intended to serve the Messiah and his purposes in the world.

How their role was meant to relate to that of God’s image-bearers—the humans—is not entirely clear. As I said, there’s no systematic theology here. We have to coherently piece together the parts of the story as best as we can. But as we follow the narrative trail, we will learn more about how the rule of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve connects with that of the spiritual principalities and powers.

Paul goes on in his Colossian song concerning the Son to include the powers in the wide scope of Christ’s redemption:

He is the start of it all
. . . So in all things he might be the chief.
For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell
And through him to reconcile all to himself,
Making peace through the blood of his cross,
Through him—yes, things on the earth,
And also the things in the heavens.

The positive, saving work of Christ is as big and wide as the destructive havoc wreaked in the cosmos from top to bottom. All earthly things and all heavenly things are brought back to God through the Messiah.

By the time we start encountering these hard-to-define beings in the flow of the story, they seem to have already taken up a negative role, and it only gets worse as the story progresses. We will look at how this plays out in more detail for different parties in the narrative: the nations, God’s own people, and even the rest of creation, what is often called nature.


So the major parameters of the story of the powers are set. These powers were created by and for Jesus the Messiah. They have fallen and have been actively working against God’s good intentions for his creation, including humanity. They are included in God’s redemptive plan through Christ to restore all things. This is the basic framework we’ll be working with throughout the series.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that what we are calling the powers are referred to in a wide variety of ways in the Scriptures. It seems that the authors of the Bible didn’t always have the full backstory and weren’t always entirely sure how to go about naming these . . . things.

Here are some of the names we will encounter (treated differently in various translations, of course): the gods, or the sons of God, the heavenly council or the hosts of heaven, the princes of the nations, the unclean spirits, demons, the beasts that rise out of the sea, principalities, thrones, dominions, authorities, the basic elements of the world, the god of this age, the prince of this world, the ruler of the air, the world-rulers of this darkness, and ha satan—the great Accuser.

There they are, right in the middle of the story, and from its beginning to its end. And yet they’ve been neglected. It’s a shortcoming we must start to correct lest we misconstrue the story God is telling us.

If you think the overall story of the Bible has anything at all to do with life in our world today, you have to give the story of the powers its due. We must all pay attention to where the wild things are.

* 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). Most studies on the powers seem to jump straight to Paul’s theology, but Caird helpfully takes the time to look at the powers in the larger biblical story.

Continue to Part 2: The World-Rulers of this Darkness >>>