Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

Powers and Principalities Then and Now

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Jesus encountered constant opposition and criticism for breaking sabbath rules and the taboos of society. In the healing of the woman in Luke 10:10-17, the synagogue leader could not tolerate Jesus healing on the sabbath. He was following the biblical rules that clearly prohibited work on the sabbath. Jesus responded that healing was not a work but a grace. If it was permissible to untie animals and let them drink, certainly it should be permissible to untie a woman from her bondage. The leader could not see that mercy might be more important than rigid rules or that God might work in new ways that open wide the flow of grace. Jesus was opening wide the curtain to reveal the truth about God.

Jesus actually broke more than the Sabbath rule by touching her! Both her illness and her gender forbade such an act. By touching her, Jesus himself became unclean according to the rules that governed people’s lives. Imagine that! But Jesus was only concerned to restore her identity as a “daughter of Abraham”. He brought her from the margins back into the center of the community, and he did it on the Sabbath. The choice was between law and grace, between rules and healing, between tradition and newness. What if God is working in new ways?

Note however that Jesus did not call this an act of healing; rather, he spoke of being in bondage and being set free. The language of being in bondage and being set free is the language of the exodus. One of the main reasons that keeping Sabbath is so important for Jews is that it serves as a reminder that God has brought them out of bondage. Jesus is reminding his listeners that Sabbath keeping is freedom to be God’s people, just as when they were set free from slavery in Egypt.

But what does it mean for Christians? We were not set free from slavery in Egypt. We are not under obligation to keep the Sabbath. Tell that to people who want to install the Ten Commandments in public buildings! Note especially Exodus 20:2 & 8.

But are we free? We are not in bondage in Egypt or to Satan. But are we in bondage nevertheless?

Ephesians 4:11-13:

Put on the whole armour (πανοπλίαν) of God,

that you may be able to stand firm

against the stratagems of the devil (μεθοδείας τοῦ διαβόλου). 

For we are not contending against flesh and blood,

but against the principalities (ἀρχάς),

against the powers (ἐξουσίας),

against the cosmic masters of this darkness (κοσμοκράτορας τοῦ σκότους),

against the spiritual powers of wickedness in the heavenly places (τὰ πνευματικὰ τῆς πονηρίας ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις).

Therefore buckle on the whole armour of God

that you may be able to offer resistance in the evil day

and be prepared in every respect to stand firm.

Statue of Artemis of Ephesus

Christians in Ephesus would have been under pressure to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of Domitian. Ephesus was also a thriving commercial city and the cultic center of goddess Artemis. They’re a little closer to us than the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. They could understand the language Paul uses of powers and principalities.

Temple of Artemis of Ephesus

William Stringfellow spoke of the time when he lectured on the biblical idea of “powers and principalities” to divinity students at Harvard. They found the terminology outdated; their theology was too sophisticated to accept such mythological language. But when he addressed students in the business school, who had done time serving at the church of realism, they recognised the language immediately.

Paul’s language is not outdated, it is very modern. It is the language of money, sex, fashion, sports, politics, consumerism, and religion. It is language that exposes our bondage to the powers: racism and segregation, organized crime and corruption in high places, addiction, depersonalization and loss of identity, economic and political authoritarianism, pornography, the celebrity culture of glamorized Bad Girls and Boys, and genocide.

Paul even exposes powers in the heavenly places – a passage that caused much trouble for the early Fathers of the church. In our more cynical age, it is less difficult to imagine evil in the heavily places – or the places that we think are heavenly!

Paul does not call us to make war on the devil or any of the powers – but to be prepared to defend ourselves – through prayer, faith, thoughtful living, through knowledge of scripture, and above all, through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our churches.

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