Presented at the Symposium “Distinctively Christian, Distinctly Mongolian” in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, on March 12, 2003
By Dr. Gailyn Van Rheenen
What is the nature of spiritual powers in Scripture? What is the relationship of Satan to these powers? What is the difference between animistic and Christian understanding of power? These are some of the lessons that we will investigate in this lecture.
The Nature of the Powers
The Bible describes how God’s people struggled with animistic powers. In the Old Testament the Israelites, because of proximity, were forced to choose between the God of Israel and the gods of the nations. Baalism, an agricultural fertility cult of the Canaanites, was especially appealing to the Israelites. The Gospels describe a struggle between Jesus and the demonic world. In the Pauline epistles the Christian battle is against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12) and the elementary principles of the world (Col. 2:8, 20). The Bible student is forced to develop some rationale for explaining these various terminologies for the powers in Scripture.
The Bible depicts the powers as personal spiritual beings actively impacting the socio-economic and political structures of societies. These powers have established their own rules and regulations that pull cultures away from God. The “elementary principles” (stoicheia) of Pauline writings (Gal. 4:3; Col. 2:8, 20) are an example of this. Stoicheia are literally the rudimentary principles, the ABCs of culture. These are the directives through which the powers have established control of the customs, laws, and institutions of society. Thus in Colossians and Galatians the stoicheia are illustrated by legalistic observances of the law, worship of angels, and returning to pre-Christian animistic practices. Stoicheia within these contexts are the demonic contortions of human society. The powers have invaded the very fabric of society. Paradoxically the powers can even invade Christian religion and religious institutions. Richard Foster writes:
Power can be an extremely destructive thing in any context, but in the service of religion it is downright diabolical. Religious power can destroy in a way that no other power can. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and this is especially true of religion . . . . When we are convinced that what we are doing is identical with the kingdom of God, anyone who opposes us must be wrong.
(Foster 1985, 178)
I contend that that, although they take different forms and manifest themselves in different cultural ways, the essence of these powers is the same in all ages. They are not merely socio-economic systems that have rebelled against God, but personal spiritual powers opposed to the very being of God. Although the names of powers who oppose God vary in different biblical contexts, their origin and essence are one.
Powers: The Colossian Perspective
The book of Colossians describes the powers as created beings (Read Col. 1:15-20). They were created by Christ to be under his sovereignty: “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). The purpose of the passage is to show that all powers were created to be in a dependent relationship with Christ. As things created “by him and for him,” they were to be Christ’s servants–instruments of his sovereignty. “Fullness, completeness” dwells in Christ alone (Col. 1:19; 2:9). The passage implies that fullness does not dwell in powers that desire to be independent of their Creator. The supremacy of Christ is therefore declared in relation to the creation of the powers.
These powers did not originate as foes of God but were created to live under his sovereignty. In Colossians Paul infers that at some point there was a cosmic rebellion against Christ and his sovereignty. The powers forsook their allegiance to Christ and became independent. They broke with God’s sovereignty to establish their own. Their motivation seems to come from Satan, under whose dominion they had fallen. As part of Satan’s work, the lawless one seeks to exalt himself over God–to take “his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God” (2 Thess. 2:4). Instead of pointing to God, Satan and his powers accepted the idolatrous worship of humans, “which exalted them to a divine and absolute status” (Caird 1967, 48). When humans worshipped idols, they were exalting what was “secondary and derivative into a position of absolute worth” (Caird 1967, 9). The church father Origen wrote,
According to our belief, it is true of all demons that they were not demons originally, but they became so in departing from the true way; so that the name ‘demons’ is given to those beings who have fallen away from God. Accordingly those who worship God must not serve demons.
(Against Celsus VII. 69)
The issue at stake was one of glory. A created being saw the glory of God and desired to usurp that glory.
Paul in Colossians assumed that the reader understood that the powers have rebelled against God and therefore must be reconciled to Christ. He emphasized that “all things,” implying all powers, were “held together” in a system with Christ as their head (1:16-17). But the rebellion of the powers led God to send Christ in order to reconcile “all things to himself” (1:20), as in the beginning, so that all “fullness” dwells in him alone (1:19). God reconciled “all things” to himself through Jesus on the cross. In this event Christ disarmed the powers, made a public display of them, and triumphed over them (Col. 2:15). By defeating the powers in his death and accepting headship over those who believe, Jesus became “head over all rule and authority.”
The powers are now alienated from God and oppose him. They now desire to estrange believers from the love of God (Rom. 8:38). They hold the non-believer in bondage (Gal. 4:3). They bind people to their rules (Col. 2:20). They control the lives of the ungodly (Eph. 2:2).
Powers: Aligned with Satan
These powers who oppose God have become part of the dominion of the kingdom of Satan. O’Brien writes, “Despite the variety in nomenclature, the overall picture is the same: a variety of evil forces under a unified head” (1984, 137; Green 1981, 82). When demons were cast out, Jesus could say, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:17-18). The “devil’s schemes” are connected to the Christian’s struggle against the powers (Eph. 6:11-12). Jesus was accused of casting out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of demons (Matt. 12:22-28). Satan has become the god of this world (1 John 4:4; 5:19) working in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:2) with legions of spiritual powers following him.
The Bible assumes that the powers are personal spiritual entities. They are not merely non-personal, alienated structures of society. Many biblical names for the powers–lords, gods, princes, demons, devils, unclean spirits, evil spirits–have personal connotations. Names for Satan–the evil one, the accuser, the destroyer, the adversary, the enemy–also infer a personality.
The personal nature of spiritual beings is illustrated by Christ’s delivering those possessed by demons. When Jesus healed the demon-possessed man who was blind and dumb, he was confronting personal spiritual power (Matt. 12:22-29). The first miracle of Jesus recorded in Luke’s gospel was the cleansing of an unclean man in Capernaum (Read Luke 4:31-37). This spirit was also personal. First, the spirit cried out to Jesus, and he responded. This was not an institutional manifestation of the evils of the world, but a personal spirit speaking to Jesus. Second, the demon differentiated between himself and one he possessed by using the first person plural pronoun “us” when he cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The terminologies in this account suggest that the demons are evil spiritual beings. According to Ferguson,
[Their] spiritual nature . . . permits them to enter a human person. Once more we notice that the demon had his own distinct personality. He was different from the person in whom he dwelled and was able to control the person he possessed to the extent of throwing him down.
These powers are “beings of intellect and will, which can speak and be spoken to” and are “capable of purposeful activity” (Schlier 1964, 18).
Powers: Diffused into the Structures of Culture
While these powers are personal in nature they also diffuse into human cultures. They have the power to invade human beliefs systems, cultural institutions, and governmental structures and to obscure their origin. Consequently, people of God will fall away not only because of the overt working of “deceitful spirits” but also because of obscure “doctrines of demons” that radiate from their work and become a part of human strictures (1 Tim. 4:1). For example, when Jesus confronted the traditions of the Pharisees, he was confronting the power of Satan ingrained in Jewish tradition (Matt. 15:1-20). A most apparent example of this is the great dragon, called the devil and Satan (Rev. 12:9). This dragon gives authority to the beast, who represents earthly powers who carry out the will of the dragon (Rev. 13:2), for example, Emperor Domitian performing Satan’s desires by persecuting Christians in the Roman Empire. Even today the beasts of the great dragon perform his work in the world.
The stoicheia, the cultural building blocks of traditional society, were the regulations of the powers which bound those not in Christ (Gal. 4:3; Col. 2:8, 20). Schlier writes that the powers “conceal themselves in the world and in the everyday life of mankind. They withdraw from sight into the men, elements, and institutions through which they make their power felt” (1964, 29). This is the meaning of Paul’s statement “We . . . were held in bondage under the elementary things of the world” (Gal. 4:3). These rules which bound the non-believer might be those of the Jewish law or pagan beliefs prevalent in their various localities. The Colossian heresy was similar to that in Galatia. The Colossians were allowing the “elementary principles of the world” to displace Christ as the mediator between God and man (MacGregor 1954, 22). The Colossians should have escaped their control. Paul inquired, “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why do you submit” to their decrees? (Col. 2:8, 20). The Colossians were still tied to the old demonic system although they considered themselves to be in Christ. Personal spiritual powers had become systemic.
Apocryphal literature speaks of the powers as angels who have fallen away from God (2 Enoch 29:4; Jubilees 10). Jude likely builds on this tradition when he speaks of angels leaving their “proper abode” (vs. 6), alluding to their proper “domain” under the sovereignty of God. These angels fell away from God when they sinned, and some have already been cast into hell (2 Pet. 2:4). Thus Jesus could speak of the place “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
Caird does not differentiate between angels and the gods of the nations, which are spoken of throughout the Old Testament. He believes that they are angelic beings “to whom God had delegated some measure of his own authority” (Caird 1967, 48). Their worship became the source of idolatry in the Old Testament when the nations and even God’s elect people chose to serve such powers rather than Yahweh. A variant reading of Deuteronomy 32:8b-9 says that God “set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God, for the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.” According to this interpretation, angels were placed over all the nations, but Israel was God’s special inheritance over which he ruled without any intermediary. These angels were never to be worshipped but only to serve as messengers of God. The cosmic rebellion against God occurred when these “angels of the nations” desired to be worshipped rather than allow all praises to be directed to God. This cosmic rebellion is depicted in Daniel. The angel of God was delayed from coming to Daniel because he was fighting with the angelic prince of Persia and must return to continue the fight and also fight the prince of Greece (Dan.10:20-21). They are referred to as the “princes of the nations” in Isaiah 41-46 and 48 (Wink 1984, 26-35). The worship of these beings became the source of idolatry in the Old Testament when the nations and God’s own people chose to serve such powers rather than Creator God. The powers therefore are beings who forsook the sovereignty of God and accepted the worship of those whom they were sent to serve. Despite their original state, they have now aligned themselves with Satan and must be resisted by faithful Christians (Eph. 6:12).
Powers that were originally beneficent have become malevolent. Once they sang the praises of Creator God and existed under his sovereignty; they now desire control and power apart from God without giving him recognition as their Creator. They once were ministering servants of the people of God; they now desire to be their gods. Because they forsook the sovereignty of God, they have become participants of the kingdom of Satan.
Affirming Christian Identify in an Animistic Context
How do Christian evangelists respond when people of God revert to pagan ways while also desiring to follow the way of God? Such split-level allegiance is very common in contexts in which people are coming to God from non-Christian religions. For instance, children are sick, and mothers fear for their lives. A wedding is about to occur and parents of the bride and groom desire traditional blessings for the marriage. People fear because a man dies at an early age and the cause is unknown. Businessmen become concerned when all of their plans do not proceed as expected. In such situations Christians are tempted to return to the resources of their traditional religions.
The task of Christian ministers in these contexts is to find theological and ministry models, based upon Scripture yet fitting for these contexts. Stated differently, the doing of missions leads to the formation of theology. Some years ago systematic theologian Martin Kahler wrote the often-quoted statement that mission is “the mother of theology.” Theology, said Kahler, developed as “an accompanying manifestation of the Christian message.” Christian leaders, like Paul, put pen to paper in order to address tangible, contemporary issues in communities of faith. “They wrote in the context of an ’emergency situation’, of a church which, because of its missionary encounter with the world, was forced to theologize” ( 1971, 189-90; cf. Bosch 1991, 16). In other words, theology was done in missional contexts in response to missional questions as Christian ministers planted new churches and nurtured existing churches to maturity.
One example of such contextual theology is Paul’s writing to the Ephesians. Paul assumes in his letter that new Christians understand the nature of spiritual powers within their context but have not been completely freed from their control. Ephesus itself was a center of cultic activity where animistic practices and beliefs were flourishing. The city was known for the Ephesia Grammata, the “Ephesian letters” thought to be laden with magical power to ward off demons and employed “either as written amulets or spoken charms” (Arnold 1989, 15-16). Artemis was worshipped as a supreme deity of unsurpassed power–a god who descended directly from heaven (Acts 19:35). This goddess was called upon to protect followers from malevolent powers and “to raise the dead, heal the sick, and protect the city” (Arnold 1989, 20-22, 39). Magic was frequently used in the cult of Artemis: “In many instances there seems to be little or no difference between calling upon Artemis to accomplish a certain task and utilizing a `magical’ formula” (Arnold 1989, 24). Astrology was also intertwined with the worship of Artemis. In New Testament times the angels were typically associated with the planets and the stars, which were thought to control earthly fate. However, Artemis was pictured as the master of these astral forces because “the signs of the zodiac were prominently displayed around the neck of the cultic image” (Arnold 1989, 28). Demons were everywhere thought to exist and were immensely feared. The book of Ephesians, therefore, describes how Paul responds to converts who have questions and continuing fears about malevolent spiritual forces (Arnold 1989).
The Powers in Pauline Perspective
In the Pauline epistles the principalities and powers are described by terms heaped one upon another in a series. Paul writes, “Our struggle is . . . against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6:12; cf. Eph. 1:21; Col. 1:16; Rom. 8:38). These lists should not be regarded as precise descriptions of a hierarchy of spiritual beings but as interchangeable synonyms (Schlier 1964, 14-16). The series, moreover, indicates that spiritual powers cannot be described by one name. The powers of Satan have become diffused and appear in various manifestations (Wink 1984, 13-34).
Wink’s comprehensive study of the various terms shows that “75 per cent of the time terms such as archeand archon (organizational power), exousia (authority), dynamis (power), and thronos (thrones) refer to human institutions” (Hiebert 1987, 109). Such terms as arche and archon are used exclusively for power in human structures while dynamis is typically used in relation to personal spiritual powers. These powers are described as:
divine but human, not only personified but structural, not only demons and kings but the world atmosphere and power invested in institutions, laws, traditions and rituals as well, for it is the cumulative, totalizing effect of all these taken together that creates the sense of bondage to a “dominion of darkness.”
(Wink 1984, 85)
The purposes of these lists, therefore, is to be comprehensive. These terminologies are broader than “demons” or “gods” because they include the structural, institutional inroads made by personal spiritual powers as well as personal spiritual beings themselves
In the letters of Paul, as well as in the Gospels, the powers are pictured as functioning under the authority of Satan. Ephesians 6:11-12 describe the relationship between Satan and the powers: Christians are to “stand against the devil’s schemes” because they struggle against the powers. Satan is the “prince of the power of the air, the prince that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). Their purpose is to use the desires of the flesh and mind to alienate man from God (Eph. 2:1-3). These powers are under Satan and serve him in his realm.
“In the Heavenly Realms”
In Ephesians Paul employs the phrase “in the heavenly realms” (ta epourania) as a theological metaphor to describe the place of Christians in relation to spiritual powers. The phrase occurs five times in the book (Eph. 1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12). It serves as a unique formula for the book and has the same meaning throughout (Lincoln 1973, 469). While other books of the New Testament mention the heavenly father, the heavenly son, heavenly men and women, the heavenly Jerusalem, and the heavenly kingdom, the distinctive phrase ta epourania (“in the heavenly realms”) appears only in Ephesians (Barth 1974, 78).
Blessings in the Heavenly Realms. The Christians at Ephesus were told that they had been blessed “in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Read Eph. 1:3). This first use of the phrase “in the heavenly realms” (ta epourania) signifies a spiritual realm. Believers now have all spiritual blessings in the heavenly realms while still living on the earth. The heavenlies have invaded the earthlies in such a way that “the riches of God’s grace” have been “lavished on” those who believe while they are still in the earthly realm (Eph. 1:7-8).
Christ Exalted into the Heavenly Realms. The second use of the phrase “in the heavenly realms” refers to Christ’s exaltation and enthronement: God has raised Christ “from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (Read Eph. 1:20-21). This exaltation is a central theme of Ephesians. Christ is shown to be “not only a risen, living Savior, but an exalted, reigning Lord who is sovereign over all” (Penner 1983, 18). During Christ’s life the principalities and powers opposed him, even plotted his death (1 Cor. 2:8). Christ put himself under their power in order to break their control (Powell 1963, 168; MacGregor 1954, 23). He became human in order to break the power of death, which Satan had used to hold humanity in his grasp. He rendered “powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14).
Christ’s death exalted him to a place of sovereignty in the heavenly realms seated at the right hand of God “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given” (Eph. 1:20-21). “Far above” (Eph. 1:21) refers to the authority of Christ over the principalities and powers. Because Christ is seated in the heavenly realms “far above” the powers, the powers have no authority over him or over those “who believe” (1:19). Christ is sovereign because of his place in the heavenly realms!
The issue is authority. The exalted Christ is head over “every thing“(NIV) or “all things” (RSV) for the church, which is “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:22-23). Markus Barth rightly equates “all things” with the enemies of God, i.e., the powers who stand in opposition to him (1974, 179). Because Christ dwells in the heavenly realms and because these powers were created for him and by him (Col. 1:15-18), he is sovereign over them. The term “fullness” implies that Christ’s power cannot be assumed by any other power. Christ is the “fullness of Deity” and therefore must be given our full allegiance (Col. 1:19; 2:9).
The Believers’ Exaltation into the Heavenly Realms. The third use of the phrase “in the heavenly realms” refers to the believer’s exaltation and enthronement (Read Eph. 2:1-6). Believers previously subject to the powers (Eph. 2:1-3) have been raised by God and seated “with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6). Thus Christ’s own exaltation and enthronement into the heavenly realms (Eph. 1:20) is compared to the believer’s exaltation and enthronement (Eph. 2:6). Psalm 110:1, cited in Ephesians 1:20 regarding Christ’s exaltation to God’s right hand, is used in Ephesians 2:6 in relation to the believer’s exaltation. The verbs, which are in the past tense in this verse, show that believers now dwell in the heavenly realms because of Christ’s exaltation. Allen says, “What God, who is the principal actor in both passages, has accomplished in Christ, he has accomplished for believers” (1986, 104). Because Christians are raised with him, they share in his authority.
Christians must then live in the heavenly realms where homage and praise are given to God and to God alone. No longer are they to manipulate spirits by magic and ritual. Exalted with Christ into the heavenly realms, they live above the principalities and powers. By living above the powers, they will walk through life with peace, without fear. Their position of authority in the heavenly realms protects them from being overwhelmed by spiritual powers.
God’s Wisdom Made Known in the Heavenly Realms. The fourth use of “in the heavenly realms” concerns making known God’s manifold wisdom to the powers (Read Eph. 3:10). The context of this verse (Eph. 3:10) is concerned with the unity of the church (Eph. 3:4-13). When the powers saw the unified church, that both Jews and Gentiles were worshipping together, they realized that their dominion had been broken. The unified church, by being an “example to all creation,” by letting “God’s light shine” (Barth 1974, 365), makes known the wisdom of God to spiritual powers, who are looking on. The unity of the body of Christ is a “proclamation, a sign, a token to the Powers that their unbroken dominion has come to an end” (Berkhof 1977, 51). The church actively “preaches” (euangelisasthai) to “the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8), but the wisdom of God is only passively “made known” (gnoristhei) to the principalities and powers (Eph. 3:10). As created beings the principalities and powers do not have total understanding. They peer in amazement as they see God’s cosmic design being played out in the church.
Cosmic Warfare in the Heavenly Realms. Paul’s theological framework of spiritual power is completed with the comic warfare passage of Ephesians 6:10-18. This passage first provides encouragement to the Ephesian Christians to “stand” faithful despite the devil’s designs. The imperative command “stand” is used three times in the passage. Christians are told to “put on the full armor of God so that they can take their stand against the devil’s schemes” (v. 11). The Ephesians were also told to “put on the full armor of God” to that they “may be able to stand [their] ground” when times of immense temptations, or “the day of evil” comes (v. 13). Finally, Christians were commanded to “Stand firm” by arming themselves for spiritual warfare (v. 14). In each instance the word “stand” is in the plural and literally means to “stand shoulder to shoulder.” The term infers that the church as a community of faith must stand together to ward off the onslaughts of Satan and to march forward into battle.
Second, the passage identifies the enemy–Satan. Christians consequently must stand against ” the devil’s schemes” (v. 11). Satan’s power, however, is manifested in the principalities and powers (v. 12). Most of these are personal spiritual powers, Satan’s surrogates who carry on his work. Other powers represent the forces that have become ingrained in the cultural fabric, i.e., the infiltration of evil into laws, customs, and institutions of culture. This passage documents Satan’s relationship to the powers, that they were devised by him and are part of his schemes.
Third, the passage prepares Christians for spiritual warfare. Paul acknowledges the reality of spiritual warfare and calls on servants of God to recognize and prepare for it. The military metaphor enables contemporary Christians who have never perceived the spiritual realm to open their eyes to spiritual realities. The passage also encourages Christians from an animistic heritage not to forsake God during times of everyday problems and return to their traditional religions. Because of the temptations of Satan and struggles with his powers, all Christians must equip themselves for spiritual warfare. This concept may be troubling for nominal Christians, who possibly come to Christ for reasons of self-promotion or self-benefit and do not recognize the reality of the spiritual struggle.
Paul also lists the armaments needed for spiritual warfare. These are the belt of truth, the breastplate ofrighteousness, feet shod with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (vs. 14-16). Prayer, a communication with God that continually nurtures the soul, is also necessary (vs. 18-20).
These weapons should not be thought of as merely defensive. “Stand” in verses 11 and 14 has “the sense of drawing up a military formation for combat” (Wink 1984, 87). The words call to mind the Roman army, one of the most vicious killing machines in the history of the world. The equipment described was not merely for standing defensively in one place but for advancing against the enemy. Paul was most likely referring to the Roman wedge, “an effective V-shaped formation that made full use of a specially designed, elongated shield with which a soldier covered two-thirds of his own body and one-third of his comrade to the left. This ingenious arrangement forced soldiers to work together for mutual protection and attack” (Foster 1985, 192-193). It was “the most efficient and terrifying military formation known up to that time and for some thousand years after” (Wink 1984, 5).
In this offensive battle against the principalities and powers Christians are advised to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with “shields overlapping.” The plural is used throughout the paragraph because the whole church is called to take up arms and join the battle against spiritual powers aligned with Satan.
Using phrases from this passage, we can define spiritual warfare as “standing with God in prayer against the principalities and power to defeat Satan through truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, and the word of God.”
The military metaphor of this passage helps us to picture the reality that Satan and his forces are at war with the church. The church, therefore, is instructed to “put on the full armor of God” to resist the principalities and powers. The church, who dwells in “the heavenly realms,” has allowed Satan to invade its realm because of sin and reversion. The church is now called to displace the principalities and powers. Christ must be declared sovereign because he is “head over all things to the church, . . . the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). Christians, then, are called to come under the sovereignty of God and to give homage to him. Because they sit with Christ “in the heavenly realms”, they no longer use magic and ritual to manipulate spirits and gods.
A Theology of Power
The book of Ephesians also helps us define how we should view power. Because God is the creator of the world, he is all-powerful. The world is his, and we are merely sheep of his pasture (Ps. 100:3). He also listens to our prayers and is concerned about us. Thus God heard when the Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out to him. God then “looked upon the Israelites and was concerned about them” (Ex. 2:23-25). Moses praised God by saying, “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you–majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Ex. 15:11). God’s ultimate power in his world cannot be denied.
Paradoxically, God’s power is frequently manifest in weakness. For example, God was with Joseph despite the fact that he was sold into Egyptian captivity, was imprisoned unjustly, and was forgotten by those who promised help. Only in retrospect were God’s purposes and power evident. Joseph thus testified to his brothers that they “intended to harm” him, but “God intended it for good” (Gen. 45:6-7; 50:20). Likewise, Paul suffered a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment [him]” (2 Cor. 12:7). God allowed this so that Paul would not become overly conceited because of his many revelations (2 Cor. 12:1-7). Paul prayed that the thorn be removed. The answer, however, was not healing but the understanding that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). The ultimate example of strength in weakness is the incarnation of Jesus Christ, his response to Satan’s temptations for earthly power, and his sacrificial death for our sins.
God’s power is not always apparent in a world largely controlled by Satan (1 John 5:19). Followers of God ask, “Why do you hide your face?” (Ps. 44) or “God, my Rock, why have you forgotten me?” (Ps. 42). Christians participating in the sufferings of Christ (1 Peter. 4:13) cry out in anguish, pleading for God in intervene (Re. 6:9-11). During these times of suffering, however, Christians must stand in faith, acknowledging God’s ultimate sovereignty.
God’s power is greater than Satan’s in both quantity and quality. Satan’s power is debasing—contorting the disobedient who follow the cravings of their own sinful nature (Eph. 2:3). God’s power, based on his great love, raises believers above these earthly cravings into heavenly realms (Eph. 2:4-6). Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 3:14-21 interweaves God’s power with his great love. Arnold writes, “Christ… roots and establishes the believer in his own love and strengthens the believer to follow the pattern of that love (3:16-17).” He succinctly contrasts Christian perspectives of power and love with pagan Ephesian perspectives: “In magic, many of the recipes and spells were used for the purpose of gaining advantage over people—winning a chariot race, attracting a lover, winning at dice, etc. God’s power enables the believer to love after the pattern of Christ. The seemingly impossible demands of this kind of love require divine enablement in order for them to be fulfilled” (1989, 100).
Humans frequently misuse the power of God and contort it for their own selfish, egocentric purposes. The Willowbank Report says, “Power in human hands is always dangerous. We have to mind the recurring theme of Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians—that God’s power, seen in the cross of Christ, operates through human weakness (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5; 2 Cor. 4:7; 12:9, 10). Worldly people worship power; Christians who have it know its perils” (Stott and Coote, 1980, 327). The power of God must never be used to give glory to human personalities or human institutions. Ultimate power is of God, and its use in defeating Satan must give glory only to God.
Reducing Christianity to power significantly distorts the Christian message. God’s power must always be seen in a broad eschatological framework: God, who has already defeated Satan through the death and resurrection of Christ, will consummate his work at the end of time. Currently believers stand between the times: Christ has come and will return at the end of time.
These theological perspectives on power should guide the Christian’s understanding of both prayer and spiritual warfare. Prayer should not be viewed as a power tool but as relating to God, the source of all power. The difference between the two is significant. If prayer is understood as power, Christians will diligently seek power words or rituals rather than personally relating to a sovereign God and waiting for him to act in his own time. These understandings also help us comprehend the nature of spiritual warfare. Spiritual warfare is not about fighting Satan; he has been defeated by the sacrificial death and triumphal resurrection of Jesus Christ. Spiritual warfare is standing firm in Christ’s mighty power. It is accepting God’s victory through Christ by faith and allowing God’s redemptive power to work through Christ.
In this presentation I have affirmed the reality of spiritual power. Cosmic powers have rebelled against God and set up a dominion in opposition to him. Their spiritual power, although originally personal in nature, has developed systemic roots within the laws, customs, and institutions of our nations. Thus we continually pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
God’s power is guided by love. Paul wrote, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17-19).
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