A Commentary by John Stott

Ephesians 6:10-12   2). Principalities and powers (continued).

Take the three main references to the principalities and powers in Ephesians. The natural interpretation of 1:20-21 is not that God has exalted Jesus far above all earthly rulers and institutions, thus making him ‘King of kings and Lord of lords (though he is that, and this thought may be included), since the realm in which he has been supremely exalted is specifically said to be ‘in the heavenlies’ at God’s right hand. Next, it is to me extremely far-fetched to suggest that in 3:10 Paul is really saying that it is to the power structures on earth that God’s manifold wisdom is made known through the church. For those who interpret it in this way, the allusion to ‘heavenly places’ is again an awkward addition. And thirdly, the Christian’s spiritual warfare is specifically stated to be ‘not with flesh and blood but with principalities and powers’, which has till recent days been universally understood as meaning ‘not with human but with demonic forces’. The allusion to ‘the world rulers of this present darkness’ and ‘the spiritual hosts of wickedness’, together with the armour and weapons needed to withstand them, fit supernatural powers much more naturally, especially in a context which twice mentions the devil (verses 11 and 16), while again there is the awkward addition of ‘in the heavenly places’.

In fact, I have not come across a new theorist who takes into adequate account the fact that all three references to the principalities and powers in Ephesians also contain a reference to the heavenly places, that is, the unseen world of spiritual reality. It is a stubborn fact, as if Paul were deliberately explaining who the principalities and powers are, and where they operate. Indeed, the six stages in the developing drama of the principalities and powers – their original creation, their subsequent fall, their decisive conquest by Christ, their learning through the church, their continued hostility and their final destruction (For their creation see Col.1:16; their fall is assumed since Christ has needed to conquer them; for their conquest see Eph.1:20-22; Col.2:15; Rom.8:38 and 1 Pet.3:22; for their learning, Eph.3:10; for their hostility, Eph.6:12 and for their final destruction, 1 Cor.15:24) – all seem to apply more naturally to supernatural beings than to structures, institutions and traditions.

Turning now from exegetical to theological considerations, nobody can deny that the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels believed in both demons and angels. It was not inevitable that he should have done so, because the Sadducees did not. But exorcism was an integral part of his ministry of compassion and one of the chief signs of the kingdom. It is also recorded that he spoke without inhibition about angels (E.g. Mt.26:53; Mk.12:25; Lk.15:10; 16:22). So if Jesus Christ our Lord believed in them and spoke of them. it ill becomes us to be too embarrassed to do so. His apostles took this belief over from Jesus. Quite apart from the references to principalities and powers there are numerous other allusions to angels by Paul, Peter and the author of Hebrews (E.g. Rom.8:38; 1 Cor.4:9; 11:10; 1 Tim.5:21; 1 Pet.1:12; 3:22; Heb.1:4-2:9; 12:18-24). Now commentators are free, if their theology permits them, to disagree with Jesus and his apostles, to dismiss their beliefs about supernatural intelligences as ‘mythical’ or ‘superstitious’, and to attempt to ‘demythologize; their teaching. But this is a different exercise from the attempt to argue that our Lord and his apostles were not teaching what for centuries it has appeared to virtually all commentators they were teaching. Very strong exegetical reasons, and not just the appeal of the relevant, would be necessary to overthrow such an almost universal tradition of biblical understanding.

Finally, in reaffirming that the principalities and powers are personal supernatural agencies, I am not at all denying that they can use structures , traditions, institutions, etc. for good or ill; I am only wishing to avoid the confusion which comes from identifying them. That social, political, judicial and economic structures can become demonic is evident to anybody who has considered that the state, which in Romans 13 is the minister of God, in Revelation 13 has become an ally of the devil. Similarly, the moral law which God gave for human good led to human bondage and was exploited by ‘the elemental spirits of the universe’ (Gal.3:19-4:11). Every good gift of God can be perverted to evil use. But if we identify ‘the powers’ with human structures of one kind and another, serious consequences follow. First, we lack an adequate explanation why structures so regularly, but not always, become tyrannical. Secondly, we unjustifiably restrict our understanding of the malevolent activity of the devil, whereas he is too versatile to be limited to the structural. Thirdly we become too negative towards society and its structures. For the Powers are evil, dethroned and to be fought. So if the powers are structures, this becomes our attitude to structures. We find it hard to believe or say anything good about them, so corrupt do they appear. Advocates of the new theory warn us against deifying structures; I want to warn them against demonizing them. Both are extremes to avoid. By all means let the church as God’s new society question the standards and values of contemporary society, challenge them, and demonstrate a viable alternative. But if God blesses her witness, some structures may become changed for the good; then what will happen to the new theology of the Powers?