We’re continuing to consider materials from the book God’s Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? Insights from the Bible and the Early Church, by Gerald R. McDermott.
We’re not presently concerned with his principal argument, that is, the significance of rival religions. Rather, it’s the points he makes about the “powers” and “authorities” that are intriguing because they bear on the atonement. (Yes, we’re still talking about the atonement.)
And we have to begin in 1 Corinthians.
(1Co 8:4-6 ESV) 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”– 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
Paul is careful in his language: “there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth.” He’s not quite willing to concede the presence of “gods,” but only of things called “gods.” And yet he acknowledges, that as the Old Testament says, we can speak truly of “gods” and “lords.”
(1Co 8:7 ESV) 7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.
In v. 7, Paul seems to plainly deny the existence of “idols.” But then —
(1Co 10:19-22 ESV) 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
— Paul seems to change course, speaking as though “demons” truly exist, so that there are no “gods” and no “lords” but there are “demons”! There are spiritual beings other than the Holy Trinity and angels — and some of these are enemies of God.
Paul is likely influenced by —
(Deu 32:16-17 ESV) 16 They stirred [YHWH] to jealousy with strange gods; with abominations they provoked him to anger. 17 They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded.
(Psa 106:36-38 ESV) 36 They served their idols, which became a snare to them. 37 They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; 38 they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.
Thus, Paul ascribes “god” only to the Trinity and refers to all beings in rebellion to him as “demons,” not true gods at all but wicked and in rebellion.
(Eph 6:12 ESV) 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.
Thus, Paul sees sinister, anti-God, spiritual powers behind much of human society. Resistance to the gospel isn’t purely a matter of human weakness and flaws. There’s a war going on that is often invisible to human eyes.
(1Co 2:6-8 ESV) 6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Who are these rulers? Well, “ruler” translates archon, meaning prince — the very same word used in Daniel 10 of the spiritual princes of Persia and Greece and of Michael as archon of Israel.
Compare 1 Cor 15:24, where “rule” translates arche (same root) — “Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he has brought to an end all rule and all authority and power.” — which certainly seems to be a reference to spiritual rulers.
As McDermott argues, there was never any doubt but that Pilate and the chief priest would die, and so Paul is surely referring to those things not inherently mortal — the spiritual powers behind Rome, for example. As declared in Psalm 82, God will kill those “gods” who stand against him. This is why Paul declares these “rulers” doomed to death.
The neo-Anabaptist position would not so much deny this position as argue that the “rulers” and “powers” include such earthly powers as the lust for power and empire, the warrior state, greed, and other “powers” that pushed Rome into conquering and subjugating Judea and greed, faithlessness, and power lust that pushed the Jewish authorities into preferring the favor of Rome over honoring God’s Messiah. These are also doomed to perish because of the crucifixion.
The prince of the air
I don’t think that’s wrong, but I’m not sure it’s complete. For example, the New Testament repeatedly speaks of Satan as real and at war with God — but constrained by the power of God through Jesus.
(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.
Paul speaks of a “prince” (archon) as being at work in those who disobey the will of God. This is obviously Satan — the chief of the demons.
(John 12:31 ESV) 31 “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”
(John 14:30-31 ESV) 30 I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, 31 but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here.
(John 16:8-11 ESV) 8 And when [the Helper] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
Jesus himself refers to Satan as the “ruler of this world” who has been judged and will soon be cast out.
(Rom 16:20 ESV) 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
(2Co 11:14-15 ESV) 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.
The New Testament certainly recognizes the concept of a “prince” or “ruler” (both are translations of archon) that is a spiritual being opposed to God, which may be a mere demon or Satan himself.
Paul exults at the end of Romans 8 —
(Rom 8:38-39 NET) For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We see why he exults over the defeat of “heavenly rulers” (translates archē, having the same root at archon). Moreover, given that Michael was an angel and is also called a “prince” battling the princes of Greece and Persia in Daniel 10, and given that Satan disguises himself as an angel (2 Cor 11:14), it makes sense that Paul might speak of angels in this context. But why “powers”?
In the Septuagint, “Lord of hosts” is routinely translated “Lord of powers.” And as we’ve seen in the previous post, the “hosts” are sometimes pictured as gods who are not necessarily subordinate to God himself (1Ki 22:19-23; Compare Job 1:6).
Jesus seems to agree with Paul’s interpretation —
(Mar 13:24-26 ESV) 24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”