We’ve taken this detour through the “powers” to better understand why the early church fathers would imagine that the atonement is all about God’s defeat of the powers, authorities, princes, etc. — especially Satan. That seems foreign to modern ears, but it obviously would have made a lot of sense to Jesus, Paul, and Peter.
The ancients saw the world as having both a physical and spiritual existence, and the physical world often reflected what was a truer reality in the spiritual world.
This is not Grecian Platonism but the Jewish perception that the spiritual world is real. After all, God is spirit, and there is more to reality than what we can perceive.
This worldview lives in the Gospels in the frequent references to Satan as well as references to demons. The worldview continues in Paul and Peter by explicit references to spiritual beings — demons, powers, authorities, princes, etc. — that are weaker than God but often in rebellion to God.
The Scriptures declare that the fate of such beings has already been determined, but that they remain in existence and in rebellion, although greatly weakened and limited by the power of the cross.
Ephesians is filled with such references —
(Eph 1:18-23 ESV) hat you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Jesus is pictured as having been put over all such spiritual beings — as well as their earthly equivalents: kings and rulers. This is done by God’s immeasurably great power — the play on words is, of course, quite intentional. God’s power overwhelms the so-called powers.
(Eph 2:1-3 ESV) And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
Those who are now saved were once following the “prince of the power of the air,” that is, Satan — the ruler of rebellious spiritual beings.
(Eph 3:7-10 ESV) 7 Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. 8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
God used his immeasurable power to equip Paul to preach the gospel so that the “manifold wisdom of God” would be known even among these spiritual beings. God’s power is so supreme that God uses it to announce the gospel to rebellious spiritual beings.
Paul prays for his readers that they may have power —
(Eph 3:14-21 ESV) 14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith–that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
God’s power — the same power that defeats the powers in heaven — is available to Christians through the Spirit.
(Eph 6:11-12 ESV) 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
But the powers will fight back, and so we need the full armor of God to defeat them.
Colossians presents a similar line of thought —
(Col 1:11-14 ESV) 11 May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain [authority] of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Having freed us from the “domain” of darkness, Paul prays that we’ll be strengthened with the power of God. “Domain” translates the same word usually translated “authority” and often used in conjunction with “powers.”
(Col 1:16 ESV) For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions [kuriotes] or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him.
But we should not fear the authorities, because they were created through and for the Christ. (The rebellious ones, too, it would appear.) That Christ created them means he will ultimately prevail over them because he is superior to them.
(Col 2:9-10 ESV) 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.
Again, Jesus reigns over these beings.
(Col 2:13-15 ESV) 13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Jesus defeated these authorities by the cross. They were in rebellion, but by the cross, the proper order was restored — or, at least, their defeat was sealed and their power limited as they are opposed by the overwhelming, immeasurable power of God.
The Colossians actually worshiped these lesser beings (Col 2:18), and so Paul emphasizes and re-emphasizes their inferiority to Jesus. But in so doing, we learn how Paul sees the geography of the spiritual world.
God, through his Word, created these powers, they rebelled, and they are now defeated so that their fate is sealed by the power of the cross.
And this tells us some very important things.
The powers are condemned in Psalm 82 because —
(Psa 82:2-4 ESV) 2 “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah 3 Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. 4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Therefore, how are they to be defeated? With heavenly arrows and Blackhawk helicopters? No, by God learning obedience on the cross through his Son. By God taking human form and becoming the weak, the destitute, the needy, and the victim of injustice.
This is not merely taking on human form, but rather becoming the victim of the powers, the authorities, and even Satan. And he took their best shot, arose victorious, and so demonstrated his ultimate power and sealed their fate.
How does God rescue the damned from the domain (authority) of darkness? By the cross. By the cross, he not only proves that the weak, the destitute, the needy, and the victim will prevail (sounds like the Beatitudes, doesn’t it?), but also those with faith join him on the cross and so join him in his victory by the resurrection.
Indeed, the resurrection promised us by the resurrection of Jesus will be the ultimate defeat of the powers. Because Jesus could die at the hands of the powers and be resurrected, we know that God can and will do the same for us. We have nothing to fear. God has proved that he is the One True God, Lord of lords, King of kings, Lord of hosts.