April 10, 2020

Christ and the Powers

Fridays in Ephesus (2)
Christ and the Powers

During Eastertide on Fridays, we are reflecting on insights from Timothy Gombis’s recent book, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God.

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All is not as it appears. We who live in the wake of quantum physics have learned that there are entire worlds, invisible to us, that function by their own laws and yet provide insights for understanding our world of sight and sense. In a similar fashion, Timothy Gombis says, Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians calls us to think about our lives in terms of the heavenly realms.

Ephesians serves an apocalyptic function. “It gives us a heavenly interpretation of reality.” Like Elisha’s servant, whose eyes were opened to see a mountain “full of horses and chariots of fire all around” (2Kings 6:17), Paul prays that we will view our lives from the standpoint of Christ’s cosmic victory over the powers that threaten us in the drama of redemption.

Ephesians has a cosmic scope. “There are more actors on the cosmic stage than we typically imagine.” Paul maintained a perspective on life and reality that involved an “open heaven” — where earthly events had heavenly parallels. Heavenly actors have an intimate relationship to what happens in our lives in this world.

Ephesians tells us we live at the crossover of the ages. Jewish expectation looked for God’s dramatic intervention in history to save his people and establish his Kingdom. Paul insists that God has acted decisively in Christ to accomplish our salvation. The Kingdom has been inaugurated. However, it has not been consummated. We live in the tension between the already and the not yet. The rulers of this present evil age have been defeated but they have not yet been destroyed.

Ephesians is driven by the polemic of divine warfare. As in such OT victory songs as Exodus 15 and many of the Psalms, in Ephesians “Paul asserts the triumph of Christ over the powers that rule the present evil age and explains the manner in which the people of God are to inhabit this victorious drama, letting it orient and shape their lives together as a community.” It is through his redeemed people in Christ that God aims to assert, defend, and display his victory over the forces that threaten his creation.

The Good and Evil Angels, Wm. Blake

In the second chapter of The Drama of Ephesians, Timothy Gombis gives a fascinating, balanced overview and perspective on the Jewish background and worldview concerning the “powers and authorities in heavenly places” that Paul writes about in Ephesians. In sum, here is what he says about them:

  • God not only chose to mediate his rule over creation through humans in this world, but also through archangelic rulers to whom he designated authority over aspects of creation.
  • Many of these cosmic ruler figures rebelled against God, perverting the role God had assigned to them, and now stand behind the idolatry, corruption, and unrighteousness practiced by pagan nations.
  • They function under the ultimate control of a chief agent of evil — the Satan.
  • Though it is unclear specifically how they corrupt life in this world, it chiefly happens through idolatrous practices, ideologies, and patterns of life and relating that enslave people, preventing them from worshiping the true and living God and hindering the flourishing of human communities and of creation itself.

For Paul, therefore, the powers and authorities were originally created to play a legitimate role within creation, overseeing the social, cultural and political aspects of national life. They have rebelled, however, and now foster the enslaving character of the present evil age, cultivating all the (self-) destructive patterns inherent in it. They no longer function so that the nations come to fear and worship the Most High God, but now they enslave the nations. They pursue a strategy that prevents humanity from carrying out its mission to be the image of God on earth. The powers orient the cultures of the world so that humanity will develop patterns of sin, enslaving them in spiritual death. Their aim is destruction and the enslavement of humanity. When Paul talks about the powers and authorities in Ephesians, therefore, he has in mind these suprahuman cosmic rulers.

Starting with this background, Gombis then asks how we in the 21st century should think about these “powers.” When we read Ephesians and think of ourselves in Christ, caught up in this cosmic drama, living between “D-Day” and “VE-Day” and seeking to stand firm against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12), how should we envision this?

The Fall of the Rebel Angels, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

First, we should be careful how we talk about this. There is a lot of wild speculation that gets thrown around about heavenly beings and spiritual activities, and Gombis rightly warns: “Much of this comes at the expense of distraction from real issues of genuine Christian faithfulness.” Paul is not a sensationalist and he does not advocate seeing demons behind every bush nor in every bad thing that happens to me or every foolish decision I make. We must not “overread” our lives as arenas of spiritual conflict nor overestimate the role of the powers in our experiences.

Second, we do not engage directly with the powers. We should be more concerned with their effects on human life than with trying to understand the powers in and of themselves. They are known by the destructive patterns of life and relating that they encourage, the systemic dynamics of evil, exploitation, corruption, and violence that they promote.

Third, the Church’s task is to name the powers and resist the powers. Naming them must go beyond the simplistic, sweeping condemnation of “the world” that fundamentalists preach. It often takes deep discernment to separate out the brokenness from the beauty of God’s good creation. Likewise, resisting them is not a purely negative matter but involves “imagining new and renewed patterns of life that are redemptive and life-giving.” Even as we stand against patterns that exploit others and lead to corruption and death, so by the Spirit we create new patterns that foster human dignity, enable us to enjoy God’s good world, bring healing to the oppressed and broken, and promote human flourishing in our relationships. The fruit of the Spirit takes root and grows in soil once polluted by the works of the flesh energized by the powers of this age. In Christ, a world in shambles becomes shalom.

Comments

  1. “Even as we stand against patterns that exploit others and lead to corruption and death, so by the Spirit we create new patterns that foster human dignity, enable us to enjoy God’s good world, bring healing to the oppressed and broken, and promote human flourishing in our relationships. The fruit of the Spirit takes root and grows in soil once polluted by the works of the flesh that are energized by the powers of this age. In Christ, a world in shambles becomes shalom.” I’m sorry to recopy the last few lines! However they are the very power of Christ in me/you that brings victory over my flesh, the influences of “the world’s practises and my pride. I am reading a suggested book by Nouen about the heart and the surgery that the Spirit can do if we obey. Thank you for this powerful post – I think it from the source of wisdom, our Lord.

  2. David Cornwell says

    “Ephesians tells us we live at the crossover of the ages. ”

    If we as followers of the King could just catch a real vision of this, it has potency that we can only barely imagine. I’m so tired of talking to Christians who can only view the world through the eyes of doom and fire. And it seems they cannot wait to fly away to another world, as this one explodes.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I’m so tired of talking to Christians who can only view the world through the eyes of doom and fire. And it seems they cannot wait to fly away to another world, as this one explodes.

    The legacy of John Nelson Darby and Hal Lindsay —
    “Beam Me Up, Jesus. It’s All Gonna Burn.”

    Or as one commenter back in 2005 (who soon after got banned from IMonk) put it: “And I will be laughing as the world burns…”