In the Garden of Eden, the powers fell from service of the creation, to service of self. The gospel is God bringing these powers back to the right side up. This book looks at the fall of these powers and how Paul sets out in the gospel to describe the mission of the church in the world.
Paul has often been viewed as the champion of separation, where we construct fortresses against the world, from which we launch attacks against those things we see as false. I think in Paul’s own day he would have seen quite differently. He was the champion of inclusion, unifying the church, bringing in gentiles, the socially and economically marginalised and female believers in a way that was unthinkable then. Paul was revolutionary in his inclusion, in seeking to change what was wrong with the world through serving. The church that Paul envisioned was one that transformed the world through service and restoration of communities, rather than through separation. We are to separate ourselves from wrongdoing, but part of that wrongdoing is our failure to love and serve the lost with our own cross. The faith of the church is one of permeation, or uniting and serving the wider community, rather than separation, exclusion and protest. It is to mimic Jesus, who came to the lost and served. The purpose of this book is part one in looking at Paul’s view in the way the church would transform the nations, looking first at the transformation of the “principalities and powers.” We are seeking to understand this term in Paul’s mind and writings, but we must begin with the Old Testament view of these powers into which Paul was speaking.
In understanding Paul’s letters, two categories surface to the top in importance. One of these is the Hebrew basis of Paul’s thought. The Hebrew faith was founded in the God of creation, as Genesis so clearly roots their faith. It is also founded in the God of covenant, who made promises to the creation, which he carried forward in the Hebrew nation. Genesis shows God’s care and love for the creation, and the fall of creation, followed by God promising to put things right again, which he began to do through his promises to Abraham and his descendants.
So this creation/ covenant faith fills Paul’s letters and roots his letters in the Hebrew meaning of covenant, which is primarily about God putting the creation right. This is where we see the conservatism of Paul. Faith is conservative, in that it is pro-creational, pro-life. It honours life and the way life flourishes within creation. Faith is love orientated, meaning faith is geared towards love of others, towards what best fosters the wellbeing of the community and creation project of God. Faith is outward focused, toward care of the other and of the whole cosmos, rather than self-focused. This creation flourishment was the sense of the Torah law, which Paul saw carried through and fulfilled in the cross and resurrection of Christ.
This brings us to the second category of Paul’s letters, which concerns how God would fulfil his promises to Israel and to his creation. This is where Paul experienced his life changing shift. Paul earlier assumed that God would fulfil his promises through a Hebrew nationalism, in which the supremacy of the Hebrew people over other nations would enforce God’s conservative program upon the world. In this scenario, Paul saw a supremacy of Jerusalem, of the temple building, of the racial purity of the Jews and the purity of the Torah’s ceremonial laws, and the enforcement of these upon the world, as the means by which God’s promises to the creation would be fulfilled.
Paul didn’t see these ceremonial laws as a temporary custodian principle for God’s promises until the time came for them to be fulfilled in Christ and the church. Paul didn’t see these ceremonies as symbols, pointing the way to something greater, to the renewal of creation God was planning. Paul saw the ceremonies as the actual substance of the Jewish faith, rather than a sign of it for all people. Therefore, for Paul, the enforcement of this Jewish nationalism upon the world was the means by which God’s conservative program would be carried forward. We could call this “big C Conservatism,” political Conservatism. Paul didn’t see the nature of God, in that God’s conservationist/ flourishment desire for our lives wasn’t to be carried out by a Conservative enforcement, but by restorative compassion for the downtrodden.
So the biggest shift that happened in Paul’s life was that he was moved from his nationalist Conservatism, to the cross of service and suffering to restore his enemy and those rejected by the nationalist/ imperial agendas of our world. This way, Paul could move to true conservatism, by building on the true creational values of Genesis. Creation was founded upon care, love, community and mutual correspondence between each differing member. The meaning of conservatism is then found in self-giving, and the sabbath-restoration ideas we see in the creation narrative, and later in the Torah. Through serving, we nurture and restore the creation around us. The conservative values we see in marriage and family are the same values we see in enemy love, restoring the poor, saving children, bringing peace where there is war, restoring natural environment and agriculture. This is creational care, community service, is what the Jewish ceremonies pointed to, until the cross of Christ could lay them bare.
Paul’s gospel ideas were solidly Hebrew in their foundation, but they were not to be fulfilled through Hebrew nationalism, but through the cross, which Jesus bore for him, and which he also would bear for others. We have a Hebrew gospel that does not point us to Jewish nationalism, or even to some form of Christian nationalism, but to cross bearing for humanity as a whole, to bring God’s promises to the whole creation, as originally intended by God. Israel’s purpose was to bring God’s promises forward for the whole creation, not to become superior over the creation. The same goes for Christians today. Our faith is to be fulfilled through suffering and service to the world, not by the enforcement of our program upon others.
Recently, I was speaking with a friend who is writing a project on Paul’s letters, speaking about the way the church today has formed itself over against the world, often in pollical, even in supporting military, opposition to the world, rather than infiltrating the world as leaven, bringing transforming influences through permeating, self-giving service which reconciles. We often don’t see ourselves as reconciling leaven, but instead see ourselves more in line with the ancient Pharisees, whose role was to seek a strong hand for what they called moral change. Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees meant that morality isn’t morality without the incarnation, meaning humbling of ourselves to serve, to wash the feet of the sinner and the one broken by the world.
My friend and I were musing about why we interpret Paul’s vision in this Conservative way, seeing the role of the church as enforcing right through our sectarianism and punishment of others. This goes to the heart of what vision we think Paul was writing about in his letters. The questions arise: where was Paul coming from, and where was he going? Or, what vision was Paul meaning to implement in his letters, and how did he see this vision being implemented? This is where we have many sub-questions today. What was Paul’s vision about morality, sexuality, etc. How did Paul see that the church should live out this vision and bring transformation to the pagan world of his day? People read many of their own ideas into Paul, but what were his ideas, coming from the Hebrew faith of his day, and what was he trying to do with those ideas?
Why do we see Paul in a sectarian way and not his true mission, in which he was urging the unity of the church and even the unity of all things within creation? A false vision of Paul permeates to some extent through the entire Western evangelical tradition, even into its missions movements throughout the world, often even aligning church movements with our national political vision, like on democracy, capitalism or ethnic differences. The Reformation was aimed at securing many necessary things, but mixed as it has been with Western culture, it has also assigned many inclinations to Paul that were definitely not his own. Dominate among these has been the sectarianism of Protestantism, aligning with Western individualism, completely contrary to the purposes of the gospel.
So many times have I heard the clarion call to separate from those who “preach another gospel,” quoting Paul in Galatians 1:8-9. Here, Paul is seen as “divider in chief,” the champion of sectarianism and breakaways in Christian fellowship. The rational justifies our baser instincts that are opposed to the God given direction of church community, towards reconciliation, mending fellowship and our fallen brokenness in divisions. The text in Galatians has been blindly misinterpreted. Paul said this to Peter, when Peter separated from the gentile believers due to their differences. Peter was breaking the unity of the one-table in Christian fellowship, effectively denying Christ and his sufferings, by rejecting the enemies of his own “power group.” Peter was following nationalism and sectarianism. This is the “gospel” Paul denounced, showing that Christ destroyed our divisions on the cross, and when we build those divisions again, we undo Christ’s work. This puts Paul against the divisions of Protestantism, rather than makes him the excuse for them. Paul has been massively misrepresented here, with huge consequences for our Christian identity.
When you think of Paul as the one denying women a role in the church, or suspending others from fellowship, or refusing to allow John Mark to follow him for his earlier lapse, you can quickly put together a profile of Paul as someone who sought to change the world through the denouncement and sanction of those who are wrong. You can put together from this an idea of what you believe Paul thought about the church’s role in the world, on how the church would face opposition. You see a church that separates from the world and seeks to change it through an oppositional stance, which today involves sanctioning sermons, political aggression and economic and military sanction against the enemies of God. However, when we read Paul’s real purpose in the gospels, it is clearly one that calls the church to unite in Christ and to overcome sin in the world through service. Following Christ who served the enemy and the world is consistently Paul’s clarion call through all his letters.
When we start with a wrong “Paul,” it’s then very easy to move back to the Gospels (to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and to see “Jesus” in our false image of Paul. We no longer see Jesus primarily as speaking of service, but of the “individualistic faith that Paul spoke of,” which separates us from others with differing traditions, like from the Jews, or from the Catholics, or from any one we disagree with. Before we know it, we have concocted a very separatist gospel, and laid it at the feet of Jesus and Paul. What Jesus was primarily against was the privatisation of faith the Pharisees indulged in, which we often indulge in today as evangelicals. This, not Jewish ceremonies, was what Jesus was opposed to. He said we are called to serve the other, not allow them to be separated from us in their suffering, while we build our own barns. This understanding aligns Jesus’ and Paul’s message exactly.
It was the sanctioning part of the law that Jesus came to remove from our hearts as our preferred means of fixing the sinner. Jesus agreed with the law, in the sense that what it said about right and wrong was good, but he didn’t agree with our use of the law as a tool in punishing, rather than restoring our neighbour. If we continue to use the law today as a barrier between ourselves and the sinner, and as the church’s means of shaping the world we want, then we haven’t come far from the world Jesus came to transform. Jesus was looking for a new people, who would go into the world to serve, to correct the world through a prophetic voice of service, to show what sin means by denying self in service. It isn’t the pointed finger that reveals sin, but the hands stretched out to serve, and here sin is revealed positively, with a clear inspiration on how we can change, as we share and help each other.
When we read Paul correctly, we see an entirely different picture. Instead of a church that builds walls and seeks religious, political, or military armaments against the world around it, we see a church that pulls down its walls and moves out into the world to wash the feet of the wounded. This is how both Jesus and Paul meant for us to confront sin, to confront paganism, both within our own hearts and within the wider society. We see this in the earliest church, that though they were killed by the synagogue, and the synagogue killed Christ and rejected the doctrines of Christ, the church still lived within the synagogue and only met together in their homes to encourage themselves in their service of others. The church did not separate from the religious institution of Judaism. It didn’t initiate a new religion in opposition to others but sought to renew the worship of God already going on, renewed by the love of Christ as they served together, even in rejection and suffering.
The church wasn’t a new society, with their newly registered religious organisations, but a new people who followed Christ within their own worlds and who came together only to equip themselves to go back and transform the world’s cultures and marketplaces. “I will build my church,” wasn’t a reference to a newly formed religion, but to a new leaven within the existing institutions of worship and culture. They were incarnational, God going into the world in his people, not God building a religious bulwark over against the world, nor insisting that everyone imbibe the religious, ceremonial, ethnic, or political culture of a new “kosher.” The new kosher of his church was love, which was very much in the world, though not of it, adaptive to the variety of cultures, and transforming them.
When the church came to the Constantinian age, it occupied its buildings, and built a credal separation from other faiths, and went into military conquest against them. Before this time, the creeds served as a call to become leaven. The chief creed, like that Paul used in Philippians 2:5-11, showed the humility of Christ in his incarnation, in becoming a slave to our humanity to reveal the love of God. The creed was a way of life, a new heart which drew us towards our enemy, not a wall we built between us. It may have been our buildings that changed the character of the church more than anything else. These can separate us, designate us as different, call us out of the world around us, where our strategy for transformation of others would no longer be our serving permeation, but now our brick and mortar “safe place,” a strong-tower from which we would now seek to resist and maybe even overcome a hostile world.
The Origin of Evil
The opening creation chapters of Genesis do not include any evil powers striving against God. In the pagan creation narratives of ancient times, there was always a dualism of so called good and evil powers struggling against each other. Evil is absent from the biblical creation narrative. There is no dualism. Creation is entirely and only good. This includes “natural good” as well as moral good. Some people say that God can use “natural evil” in the creation process, like killing and “survival of the fittest,” seen today in the natural world, claiming this isn’t evil. It is distinguished from moral evil. I find it difficult to make this distinction. And the Genesis record seems to contradict this. There was not any meat eating, that is, no killing. Isaiah claims creation will be “restored” to this initial condition. This also seems to indicate that the gospel is about restoring an initial condition at the creation that has been lost.
I think we greatly devalue this initial condition of creation. We hear things like, “Adam didn’t have eternal life before the fall, but just a mortal body.” We depreciate the extent of the union between heaven and earth in the beginning state and the unfallen condition of creation as a whole. Creation only had life, which was resultant from the personal and full presence of God in Eden and in the earth as a whole. The “sabbath” on day 7 testifies to this. It means God taking up his rule, present within the creation, with his vice-rulers, Adam and Eve. This is a creation joined fully with heaven. There was no veil between heaven and earth. There was no evil present.
In the Western world today, creation is seen through the lens of Greek Epicureanism or Deism, which claims if there is a God, or gods, they are far away and not much involved in the material processes of our world. This view is the starting point for understanding the natural world in all today’s academic disciplines. However, the view seems irreconcilable with the biblical or Hebrew view of the heaven/ earth united cosmos, especially before the fall.
So, where did evil come from and how did it get into the Garden of Eden? This is a question that has bedevilled us all and there are many ideas around it. Evil is seen as a mysterious thing and to many this mystery even brings a sense of respect, or awe, almost like it has some kind of divine power, able to contend with God. The creation narrative denies this. “Elohim” is plural, meaning all divinity is summed up in God and there is no power apart from him. This was a foundational lesson to Israel when they came out of Egypt, out of the polytheism of the pagans.
Evil is introduced in Genesis 3 through the figure of the serpent, which is a poetic figure in the Genesis text. Some English translations show the poetic structure of these early chapters, which includes several poems in chapter 3. The nature of the text is history, written in poetry, or story form. It’s difficult to interpret the text through our wooden, modern rationalist exegetical method, which is a technique we impose on the text, which doesn’t fit. A serpent meant many things in the ancient world, and the sense employed in this chapter seems to be the serpent’s reputation for guile, danger, along with enlightenment and self-sustained eternal life, which it promised to Adam and Eve. In the creation narrative, a serpent, called in the Genesis text “a beast of the field,” also shows that Adam and Eve were not under its power and didn’t have to heed its voice.
The seraph (or seraphim) was also a word used for serpent, which in the ancient world often meant a heavenly attendant of the divine god. This seems to be the usage in Genesis 3, shown by the poetic parallelism in the chapter. The chapter (story of the fall) begins with the serpent (or seraph) and ends with the cherubim. This parallelism would have been noticed by early Hebrew people as significant to the story being told. The seraph was some kind of divine attendant present in Eden due to the nature of the heaven/ earth unified cosmos. But the seraph was not a fallen creature when the story of Genesis 3 is introduced.
Here we see another use of poetic parallelism. It begins by noting the goodness given to the angelic creature. It is wise. “Wise” here isn’t meant as a bad quality. It is the word often used for wisdom in scripture. This was a creature bestowed with honour by its creator. (It’s hard not to think of Absalom here, whose handsomeness became the stumbling block occasioning his fall.) Then the narrative ends with the fall of the creature. It now “licks dust,” which in ancient times was a metaphor for falling into dishonour. The Genesis text wasn’t describing a literal snake losing its legs. The parallelism shows the honoured creature falling into ruin. This was the fall of the satan creature, not before creation, but he fell with Adam and Eve in Eden. It is here that we see the “curse” (in Hebrew meaning the self-made consequences) upon the satan, just as we do upon humanity and upon the creation. The satan fell in Eden, and Adam and Eve fell with it, because of free will, given to us by our Creator, as part of the good creation he made.
The fall of the satan was probably motivated by jealousy, as we see was the case with Absalom, or pride. Since this angelic creature was so honoured and gifted by the creator, he thought that he should have been given rule over the creation, and not humanity given that rule. So pride motivated the rebellion and ruin of humanity. This jealousy was passed to humanity, making us jealous of God’s rule, which we then wanted for ourselves.
This all makes evil rather straight forward. It is self-centeredness, allowed into the creation, if we choose it, because God is not a dictator. And the gifted capacity the creature has for doing good, is the same capacity it has, if it chooses, for doing evil. Great evil is not a mystery but stems from the greatness of God’s original and good gifts he has made to us, turned to selfish ends.
This brings other biblical passages into focus, like Isaiah 14, where the subject is specifically the king of Babylon. All the titles and behaviours mentioned are those of the king. Whether this passage also relates to the satan in some way isn’t said. If it does, then the fall from heaven could have happened in Eden. Poetically the term fall from heaven to earth relates to the king’s former rule over the nations, and how he had fallen like any mere mortal into death. In poetry, death is personified, speaking to the king, showing his oppression of the poor (his riches) couldn’t help him in death. This “personification of death” was also used by Jesus in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
It’s the same with Ezekiel 28, where the text specifically states it is speaking of the King of Tyre. It speaks of his splendour in the garden, which refers to the garden courts of the king, his opulent palace. He is cast down to earth, which means to the dust in death. It could also be a reference to Adam, showing the king of Tyre fell in the same temptation as Adam. If this is also a reference to the satan in Genesis 3 (as the motivation for the king’s sin is also pride, and the judgment of being cast into the dust is the same), then the Ezekiel text says this fall happened in Eden. This is where the satan fell.
In Revelation 12 the satan falls from heaven, but this isn’t said to relate to a pre-historical time. It is said to relate to the gospel message, in which the cross defeats his power over humanity. Heaven in Hebrew literature often refers to rule, a place in authority over the earth, over people. The cross took this rule from the satan. His rule was broken by the cross and by the victory of the early church, “who overcame him.” This is the battle the war metaphor depicts. “A third of the stars fell with him,” refers to the kings of the Roman world destroyed by the Roman beast. These national rulers are often the metaphorical meaning of stars in Hebrew scripture. To claim that a third of the angels fell from heaven before creation is a tradition that does not appear to be stated in scripture.
“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Revelation 12:10-11) The context here is specific. It has nothing to do with a pre-creation fall of satan into evil.
If we ask, “where did all the demons come from,” the most likely tradition that attempts to answer this question is the “fall of the sons of God in Genesis 6.” It is possible that the satan led angels into rebellion, just like he tempted Adam and Eve. 2 Peter 2:4 seems to hold this position in regard to Genesis 6. My sense from reading Genesis 6 is that “the sons of God” were oppressive human rulers. I don’t believe fallen angels impregnated the women, but human tyrants, who multiplied to themselves many wives and did much worse in this vein. Peter was writing in a highly syncretised culture which grew in the intertestamental times. The book of Enoch, for example, claimed that its comments on Genesis 6 about the fall of the angels were made in a parabolic format, but they have often been taken literally. Peter may have just been appealing to this parabolic tradition to make a point about the coming judgement of Jeruslem in his day. Whatever the case, the discussion about the fall of angels is a discussion about a post-creation event.
Lastly, Isaiah 45:7 says God makes good and evil, light and darkness. This was referring to God deciding to allow Babylon to come against Jeruslem in judgement. God didn’t literally create the evil in Jerusalem, or in Babylon, but he lifted his hedge and allowed the judgment to come about. “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)
The law of sin and death…
If our enemy inspires us through pride and jealousy, it is then able to take charge within our conscience through the law. A closer look at the temptation in the Garden shows the tools that were used. Ancient pagan themes about the serpent hold that it leads humanity into enlightenment, freeing humanity to climb the heights of our potentials. It achieves this with an appeal to the law, charging God of some unrighteousness, arousing us against our heavenly parentage. Once this accusation is embraced, with the hope of liberty, we find instead that we have chosen law over against faith and love. This law is then our hope of righteousness, but it lodges in our hearts as a voice of condemnation. It accuses us, just as we used it to accuse God. Once we are in this state, we are eternally captive, because this law within our hearts drives us from God, who alone freely forgives and frees us.
We see this immediately in the story of Adam and Eve. They are ashamed and flee from God. Their “enlightenment” is one of self-awareness, in a shameful sense. This then becomes a burden too heavy to bear, so Adam attempted to pass the blame onto Eve, and then Eve onto the serpent. So, scapegoating is born, the passing of our guilt onto others, the turning of our inner accusation into the accusing of others. This would ravage our relationships and ravage societies with violence, all justified as “retributive justice.” We still largely see justice this way in our societies, and not in the sense that Jesus described it in the Sermon on the Mount, as personal suffering to show God’s love and forgiveness to the guilty, freeing them and us from our inner captivity. Violence is born through personal guilt, which came about through the false promise of liberty. The law of sin and death becomes the basis of human “civilization.”
We can see here how law entered our cultures. It wasn’t God’s choice for us. We chose it to become free but become bound by it. This law would govern our relationships with each other and with God, requiring sacrifice and blood shedding to appease wrath within our own hearts and our cultures, until Christ came to restore our hearts and bring us back to peace. Now we have a new culture, which passes on forgiveness and giving, in a cycle of love missions, moving forever outward to others, instead of inward to self.
The Origin of Demons
The Book of 1 Enoch, God`s judgement, enemy love and a warning to ourselves…
On the origin of demons there are many theories, but the one with the most credence comes from 1 Enoch, an apocryphal (pseudepigrapha) text from the intertestamental period. It was written in sections, each section having different dates, and some dates disputed. The section of the text that mainly concerns us here, the Book of the Watchers, was written before Christ and was part of the Jewish Essene collection found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this section it is claimed that angels fell and impregnated women and the offspring (the Nephilim) drowned in the Flood, leaving their spirits to roam the earth as demons.
Just to say also, the Book of Parables is the section of 1 Enoch that is most Christolological. This section was not found in the Dead Sea Scroll’s version of 1 Enoch, so it might not have been used or even known by the Essenes or other Jewish people in Jesus’ day. This brings the date of the Book of Parables into question, which is still being discussed. The point is, we evaluate the sections of 1 Enoch on their own merits.
The nature of the text is apocalyptic, which means it is not literal narrative. This means it uses images to describe spiritual truths. The truths being described in the Book of the Watchers include the wickedness of man, when being tempted by evil spirits, and God’s judgement upon that wickedness. This may be a good lesson from the text, however many people in the intertestamental period used such “fallen angel/ demon” narratives to explain Israel’s captivity. The biblical Prophets did not. They put the captivity of Israel down to Israel’s simple disobedience. This makes the canonical prophets very different to these apocryphal writings.
Many of the Jewish exiles, over a long period which included Roman occupation of Jerusalem in the days of Jesus, were zealots, meaning they had a violent revolutionary disposition towards their occupiers, which in their mind included the Herodian and priestly class of the Second Temple period. Many of the apocryphal books of this period saw these exiles as victims of the ungodly, whether of the spiritual powers, or of the pagan forces of wickedness. These apocryphal works would have been seen by many Jews of the day as denunciations against these others, while excusing the exiles of the biblical Prophets’ claims against them. Even Zechariah, Ezekiel and Daniel, with their angelic visions, which may have somewhat inspired later apocryphal literature, do not blame fallen angels for Israel’s disobedience.
Genesis 6 states that the sons of God took many wives, and in the intertestamental period, during times of Eastern syncretism, “sons of God” was a term that became associated with spiritual powers. It is not certain that it was so associated when Moses wrote the Genesis text. In more ancient times, the title was taken by oppressive rulers, as a claim to divinity, a habit which continued up until the time of the Roman Emperors. This is my view of the Genesis text, where oppression grew, creational ideals for marriage were fully abandoned, brutish rulers took all the women they pleased and their offspring received no nurture except in the art of greed, war and oppression, and became the “mighty men,” the terrorists of the world. This is in keeping with the large harems we see in all pagan empires.
Another feature of the apocryphal texts that existed in the days of Jesus was their apocalyptic descriptions of God’s judgment. This includes terms such as “cast down to earth,” “bound in chains,” “cast into darkness,” “cast into the abyss,” and others. These are not literal terms but describe things like we see with the “serpent” in Genesis 3. There is a fall from honour, from peace and goodness, into vanity, darkness of soul and eventual destruction. The terms are parabolic and were even used by Jesus in this way, in such stories like Lazarus and the Rich man. This was a parable about the destruction of Jerusalem, coming in Jesus’ generation, and not a literal technical description of the afterlife, as it may have been taken in some Greek or syncretised Jewish circles. See Isaiah 14, where death is poetically personified and speaks from the grave, to show that wealth fails as a fortress. These apocalyptic terms on judgement may be literalised in violent cultures, where they saw God like themselves, wanting the physical torment of their enemies in the worst possible conditions forever in the afterlife.
Genesis 6 speaks of the judgement of humanity, but makes no claim about a judgement of fallen angels at the time of the Flood, as does 1 Enoch. The scriptures do speak of the judgement of angels, but not in any detailed manner. The apocalyptic language of Revelation 12 and Matthew 25 may refer to the angels’ fall from authority over humanity due the the cross, a fall into darkness in their understanding and their final fall into destruction. Paul claims human believers will judge angels, but by this he likely means our role in the kingdom of God coming to this earth in our of co-ruling with Christ. That is, God gives grace to the humble and meek, which is Paul’s theme in his letters to the Corinthians.
There is also strong dualism in the intertestamental Jewish texts. The struggle between good and bad spiritual powers was adopted from pagan Greek sources, often with ascetic practices to overcome bad powers. While the gospel delivers the spiritually oppressed, an over focus on spiritual powers rather than on our own behaviour is a consequence of a non-biblical worldview. This dualism flowed over into human relationships. There were the “children of light” and the “children of darkness,” which were often designated on nationalist or tribal lines, or denominational, economic and gender lines. The question is, does this dualism carry over into our faith today? Paul spoke of light and darkness in terms of our behaviour, but said we show light by serving and loving our enemies. The Torah of the Old Testament is thoroughly non-dualist. Ruth, a Moabite, becomes a mother in the lineage of Christ, along with the gentile Rahab. To God we were all pagan needing his love. The dualism of the intertestamental period was a hinderance to God’s purposes and this was a major point in what Jesus taught them.
Paul’s use of spiritual power terminology in the New Testament isn’t in line with the intertestamental theme, where it was often about us being victims, but rather his emphasis is about how we allow these powers, as they operate through our cultures and relationships, to govern ourselves in our treatment of others. He called us to non-collusion with self-centredness. There is no dualism here. We don’t have to make the choices that fallen powers or fallen people make. We are free by the grace of Christ to love others.
One of the twists we see in the New Testament, where 1 Enoch was quoted by Jude and Peter, is that the enemies of God that where coming under God’s judgement, in the day the New Testament was written, were Israel and Jerusalem, not the others they wished torment upon. This twist runs all through the teaching of Jesus and was highlighted in all the later epistles of the New Testament, such as James, John’s and Peter’s epistles and Jude. See James, “Behold the Lord stands at the door, the coming of the Lord is near,” speaking to his own people in Jerusalem in his day. And John saying it was the last hour. And Peter, saying the end of all things was at hand. This was a statement about the end of the Old Testament era.
Peter and Jude, for example, quote 1 Enoch, showing the certainty and nearness of the judgment, using the apocalyptic texts of the Jews, but then claim that this was being fulfilled in the fiery downpour that was about to come upon the Judean world of their own day, and destroy the temple. They employ the religious traditions of the time, just like the Old Testament did in its time, but transform their popular understanding into a call to renewal. By quoting 1 Enoch just at the time of the fall of Jerusalem, Peter and Jude were sounding the judgement of the revolutionary Essenes against that whole generation.
The pattern of moving from the judgement of the angels, to Noah’s flood, to Sodom’s fall, was commonly used, not only in 1 Enoch, but in Jubilees and other intertestamental sources. Peter and Jude both followed this pattern, grouping the angels, Flood and Sodom together, but their purpose was to use this refrain against the people who were calling for judgment upon others. Jesus did the same. He also likened the judgement coming against Jeruslem in that generation to Sodom and to Noah’s day. His listeners would have known the “judgement refrain” in the literature Jesus was referring to, and they also would have known he was turning that refrain against his listeners. The only group Jesus left out was the fall of the angels. So, when Jude and Peter spoke of the fall of angels, they weren’t necessarily endorsing the view of the apocryphal literature but using the Jews’ own refrain to warn them that this judgment was actually coming upon themselves.
Jude’s quotation of 1 Enoch, saying the Lord comes with ten thousand of his saints, is very similar to the end of James’ epistle and 2 Peter, which all depict the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Jude ascribed this quote directly to Enoch, seventh from Adam. Moses used the quote in Deuteronomy 33:2, which, like many other passages recorded in the Old Testament, may have been from extant sayings of former patriarchs known at the time. In the previous chapter (Deuteronomy 32), Moses described the fall of Israel, when afterwards Israel would be made jealous by the gentiles, which Paul explained was happening in his own day through the gospel. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian in Paul’s day, said the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 was the fulfilment of this prophecy of Moses.
Jesus did mention the fall of angels in Matt 25, when he spoke of his reign and his judgement over the nations. He said eternal fire was prepared for the devil and his angels. This term “eternal fire” comes from texts like Isaiah 34, where it meant the everlasting destruction of a city and empire, which was Edom. It was poetic text. Isaiah 34 also says the stars fell from heaven, which then meant the rulers of Edom. In Joseph’s dream the stars also meant the tribal leaders of Israel. In 2 Peter 3, the stars are the leaders of Israel. In Revelation 12, the stars are kings of the Roman provinces. The message of Jesus in Matt 25 comes from texts like Daniel, where the Son of Man rises to rule the nations. Nations that don’t serve the least are judged, like Edom was, which means they are brought down to destruction by their own evil. When Jesus said this, it would have been taken as a warning against Jerusalem in those days, and against Rome. Today, any nation that turns away from serving those in need will bring itself into hardness of heart, and the consequential self-destruction. Daniel didn’t say anything about literal angels of the devil being thrown into a destroying fire, but his warnings were to Jeruslem and the Roman beast (Nero). These were the devil’s “angels,” his servants or messengers. Our cultures today are often very literalist, but in ancient times there was probably little difference in people’s minds between the demonic world and the human rulers of empires. Even the way the term “prince” is used in Daniel seems not to distinguish between them. It’s the same in Paul’s letters, where the term “principalities and powers” means human rulers and cultures, but with a spiritual self-centred force behind them that is not technically defined. (Titus 3:1,1 Corinthians 2:8)
Jesus’ use of parables shows the way the people understood through story. We see this all the way through from Genesis. The story of the bible, about the kingdom of God displacing the rule of the serpent in the human heart and culture, is our way of understanding the text, rather than imposing an overuse of literalism upon the text. The ministry of Jesus shows the breaking in of the kingdom of God into the world, which was fiercely contested by the demonic powers. The contest was fought against demons that ruled the sick, but the greater contest was through the powers of economics, ego, greed, government, religion, nationalism and racism, and culture. These are the powers that opposed Jesus and his message the most. Jesus claimed these powers ultimately fall, because they are divided against themselves. The satanic powers rule by dividing people, like nations divide and conquer, and it is this division that is their weakness, and which always finally dissolves ungodly nations. In joining the new kingdom, God’s people are called not to collude with darkness, either through moral depravity or occultism, but even more importantly, through our collusion with world powers, or with greed, division against others, hedonism, or the indifference of the middle class towards the suffering of others. Instead, we are to form a new community of care, as we see in the book of Acts, that even reaches out to reconcile with our enemies, bringing renewal to our lives and nations. This was the message of Jesus about the satan and Christ’s new rule in the world.
Some people fear seeing the story, the metaphor, the poetry and the symbol in the canonical text, because there is a danger of this leading us into relativism, reading whatever we like into the text. There is definitely a danger here, and the answer lies in coming to know the intention of the Hebrew narrative, rather than something in our own mind. Much of the biblical narrative, even in the Prophets, tells a story in poetry, through a grounded historical setting. The Exodus is a story of new creation, the story giving rich theological meaning to the actual historical event. Jonah is a story of the failure of Israel’s mission, which was supposed to exhibit God’s love to the world, but instead exhibited self-righteousness. It’s a story of the faithfulness of God, of the resurrection of Israel from the grave (the depths of the sea), through Christ and the church, to bring renewal to the gentiles. But Jonah actually happened, in concrete historical events, or it’s lessons are not real. That’s the difference between biblical stories and many of our pagan cultural stories, which may edify but don’t have a concrete reality, which can only come from an actual hope, of Christ’s historical resurrection. Even the symbolism in the book of Revelation has an historical referent in the first century church and fall of Jeruslem. Hebrew worldview joins heaven and earth, symbol with historical reality. So the story of the life, miracles and resurrection of Jesus is a real event, given meaning by his parables and apocalyptic teachings that were common currency in his day. It’s when we over literalise these teachings of Jesus, giving them a meaning of our own time, and take Jesus out of his own social and cultural context, that we read as a gnostic, interpreting Jesus by our private, non-grounded “reality.”
So when did the angels fall and what is the origin of demons? What we can say is that there is an apocalyptic tradition from the Jews of Jesus’ time, but apocalyptic tradition teaches lessons from history in parabolic terms. Taking these as literal is not the intention. These traditions do not serve as literal knowledge on the origin of fallen angels or demons. The bible also does not give such information. It just tells us not to be led astray by them. The main issue in 1 Enoch was God’s judgement coming upon the sinners, and the way the New Testament used this apologetic of the Jews was to show that the texts many used against others brought judgement upon themselves. A good warning to ourselves today.
Satan means the adversary and scripture never uses it as a proper name for the satan. Whether in the Hebrew or the Greek scriptures, when referring to our archenemy, the original language always says the satan. Another title used is the devil, which means the accuser or slanderer. This is how the satan works as our enemy, by accusing. It is through accusing that the satan gains access through the law to destroy. The law is seated in our human hearts, and this is where the satan really works, in which we bring accusations against our neighbour. By this we then act against our neighbour, as a form of punishment, to isolate, subjugate, or kill. We see this in the people who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery, when Jesus stood between the woman and her accusers. (John 8:1-11)
This is what the Passover means. It is Jesus standing between us and the accuser. We say the accuser is the satan, but it is the satan working in our own hearts by the law, accusing ourselves, and we also accusing our neighbours. On the cross, Jesus stood between us and the satan within our hearts. Jesus called it himself being made the ransom. (Matthew 20:28) He paid for the charges of the law we bring against ourselves and against each other. That is, when God came in Christ and forgave us for the evil that we did to him in rejecting and crucifying him, then this forgiveness takes the law from our hearts. And this forgiveness calls us to forgive our neighbour, just as God has forgiven us. This removes the rule of the law from our hearts, and calls us to grace, restoring our neighbour instead. Just as Christ stood between us and the accuser, by taking the wrath of satanic/ human accusation into himself, he calls us to follow him, to become ourselves a passover for the accused and poor of the world. The world would accuse the poor, the guilty and marginalise and walk over them, but we are to be “numbered among the transgressors,” to “make intercession on their behalf,” and to try to restore and raise them up to new life through the faith and grace God has given us. (Isaiah 53:12) People don’t often like this kind of intercession and association with the suffering and abused of the world, but this is the incarnation, Christ being born into our misery and taking on himself our shame by association and by coming into our camp of sin to rescue us.
This all works out in a complex manner in our human behaviour, when God is trying to build a society of peace. In Exodus, Pharaoh is the satan against Israel, and the satan works in Israel as they are set against each other in the Wilderness. In both cases the satan is seeking the destruction of the people, and God is stepping in as Passover to save and build community. He calls it satisfying his holiness, which was the sense of the law that rules the human heart in enmity. God must atone for this enmity in our cultures if he is to restructure our communities in peace and neighbourly restorative care. But the law/ sacrifice orientated people of old would not have understood this until we had the benefit of the Prophets and Jesus’ ministry to show us. (Hosea 6:6, Matthew 12:7, Psalm 40:6, Hebrews 10:8)
Having destroyed the law’s reign in our hearts, not nullifying it or setting it aside, but having fulfilled its demands in his human body, God demonstrates that grace through setting people free from demons and oppression. This grace, in rescuing us from our sin and from the effects of that sin, demonstrated our return to God’s favour, that God had paid the price to our captors, to set us free from their power. The law had been accounted for and paid in full by the exile and death of Christ. Healing the sick and mad demonstrated our return to the Garden of God, not because God demanded payment, but because he had broken the power of the chains that held us. The greatest chains, the greatest power of the satan that binds, are those things that rule in our hearts to hate and plunder others, and in breaking these kinds of chains God is setting the creation free from its bondage to darkness. Babylon held Israel in exile, as the law holds humanity’s conscience in an exile from God and from our neighbour. Healing the sick shows that exile is over, and a new community where there is neither this tribe nor that tribe, poor nor rich, slave nor free, male nor female, is the complete triumph over the satan that accuses, divides and destroys neighbourliness. This is the essence in which Paul is dealing with the powers in his letters, by bringing formerly opposing races, genders and social classes together in one new family, at one table, making peace through the blood of Christ, which removes boasting by taking away our mutual sin in free undeserved grace. Accusation gives way to service. This is the defeat of the powers.
Beginning a Discussion on the “Powers” in Paul
Coming now more to what Paul taught on demonic structures, we may choose of few of his phrases, like, “the prince of the power of the air,” or “the rulers, … the authorities, … the powers of this dark world and … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms,” and “strongholds.” (Eph 2:2, 6:12, 2 Cor 10:4-5) I believe these phrases point partly to the satan and the spiritual evil forces he constructs and partly to human powers. The terms Paul uses are metaphors, that don’t specify exact demonic structures, but the general interplay between spiritual and human powers in the world. “Heavenly places” denotes places of control over humanity. “Heavenly” is a metaphor for “above,” like stars rule over the seasons from above. But the place of rule, the seat of demonic power, is within the human heart. This is where his power resides. “Cast down from heaven,” means to lose this controlling power within the heart of humanity. “Heavenly powers” also points to human governments, which are places of authority above our nations and populations.
The “prince of the power of the air,” I think applies a lot to what controls individual and collective personal behaviour. There is an interplay between demonic forces and human behaviour that is referred to by phrases like this, but phrases like this aren’t meant to describe demonic structures, hierarchy or particular spiritual beings. There is a sense of mystery here, that Paul is comfortable to sit with, without speculating upon, and it’s always the reforming aspect of our hearts and relationships that is the issue Paul is striking at in these passages.
We know a little about how these powers interplay with our characters. Passages like the serpent in Eden draw this out in incredible accuracy, getting to the heart of human behaviour, in ways that our modern analyses still mostly fail to do. We have already seen our vulnerability to pride, to jealousy, the way the serpent used the law to accuse, to draw us away from our heavenly parentage and then how this law became a trap for ourselves, of self-accusation, of “passing the buck” onto our neighbour and the incrimination and subsequent violence that filled our cultures. This also shut us out from God, because the accusation within us we attributed to him, in hiding from him, as we still do in much of our theology today. This is a short analysis, but there is enough here alone to show major issues that have captured and tortured humanity and civilization to our present time. There are so many “strongholds” just in this small Genesis 3 vista: pride, ego, the law, covetousness, shame, guilt, depression, inferiority/ superiority complexes, self-righteousness, scapegoating, retribution, individualism, loss of personal identity, break down in unity, irreconcilable relationships between people, with nature, and with God, war and empire. We turn in the wrong directions in an attempt to heal our sense of brokenness, to fill our void, and this compounds our alienation from others. These powers are seated within our own natures. We have given up our godly image-bearing, our ruling-over commission, to become ruled over within by these usurping powers.
Our hiding from God contributed to the invention of pagan theology, in which the gods were angry and one needed sacrifice to approach them, and an elaborate priestly and temple system, which things were all accommodated and used by God to reach us, until the “consummation”, until Christ came. The illnesses of man, as listed above, show why sacrifice was made, as a way of transferring our illnesses onto another, as a way of taking away the law from within our hearts. God accommodated this theology in this way, like he did slavery, or divorce, like our use of kings, war and punishment, and many other human customs, “because of the hardness of the heart,” or, as Hebrews 8-10 says, while sin remained in our hearts. (Matthew 19:18) The temple that shuts God out, that people made, is different to the temple of God in creation and in the restoration, where God and humanity are one in fellowship. In God’s temple there is no alienation, and no classes between people. We serve one another in love. The law works as a separating “principality” or “power” that destroys cohesive and healing community, which, we will see below, Paul spoke on in his letters.
René Girard was an anthropologist and literary critic whose work brought him to faith in Christ and shed light on the kind of powers we are speaking about. He especially noted our group behaviour, how we desire to look good and therefore desire to be like others. This is how the commercial world operates, driving us to desire more things, resulting in the imbalances this brings to the poor, the misuse of the natural environment, and the way this drives us to scapegoating others and to war, in order to maintain our group interests. We see how this selfish division controlled the community into which Jesus came in the first century. This is what Jesus called “the satan,” which controlled the society with murder, “from the beginning,” and which led to the execution of Jesus, and so often leads to blood lust and “assassinations” of the politically incorrect, a modern form of sacrifice. (John 8:44) Jesus would replace this scapegoating division, with self-giving serving to bring healing, reconciliation and cohesion. This is what his cross would model in our renewing communities.
At the heart of our behaviour is our desire to mimic others. The satan tells us we are thinking for our self, but we are following the thoughts that are “desired” in our culture. We have opinions, not because they are true, but because these opinions are valued to make one look wise in the community. (Genesis 3:6) This rules our communities, rather than the values that lead to the restoration of the poor and the forgiveness and love of our enemies. While we put our self at the centre of what we desire and value, the world doesn’t have a future or hope. I think this accurately describes the world we live in and says a great deal about “the prince of the power of the air,” and how we usually are completely unaware of its control in our hearts and mob actions. We see this in Jeruslem, which in one week went from “Hosanna,” to “crucify him,” even Peter joining the mob. Communism works this way, and fascism, atheism and moral decline, and any number of “our own personal views” are adapted to our peers this way, and this is also common in Christian circles when they tend towards personality cults. This is universal human behviour, from politics, to science, to fashion, to religion, to academics, to racism, to generational groups (generation x or y), to gangs. The way we obtain cohesion within our special interest group is to nullify and pull down the other group. “One must die, that our group may live.” (Paraphrased from John 11:50) This way, we never listen to each other. It happens in all our social debates. The only way to overcome this is by the principle Jesus inserted as a dagger in the satan’s heart, Christ’s form of atonement: “The son of man has not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) He turns the table on division with foot-washing.
The crucifixion of Christ is a classic for showing how the powers of darkness work in this world, especially towards a weaker person. The stronger players claim the moral high ground for the crucifixion. Their evil and their motives are hidden, often by an appeal to group loyalty. The leaders are really doing it though to strengthen their own position of power, by uniting people behind themselves over a common “enemy.” Once the first play has been made, at the right political moment to carry the momentum, other people start to get behind the call against the scapegoat victim. Soon, this call gathers pace, and the whole mob then gets behind it, not wanting to look out of place, or not wanting the hatred of the crowd to turn against them also. Once this mob culture gets going, it results in a massive cover up of wrongdoing and a dictatorial culture. To go against this means the cross for us, just as it did for Jesus. This dynamic controls cultures to our present time. The Christ event is sometimes called the “scandal of the victim,” because in Christ’s unique innocence and resurrection the whole system of scapegoating is exposed, scandalising (bringing a stumbling block to) our fallen systems of power, calling us instead to Christ’s “new politics” of seeking to restore the weak and outcast.
The “prince of the power of the air” is basically our selfishness and our mimicking of others to impress people. Sin isn’t a legal fall that God demands be corrected by payment, the way we have often read Genesis 3, but it is the powers of idolatry, or self-worship, taking hold on our hearts, moving us away from our image-of-God-bearing commission into the community and creation. This brings about a self-destruction of the individual and the world, which is called the judgement of God, but it is the sad consequence of our choices and actions. The gospel unites anthropology, psychology and theology into one cohesive discipline that makes sense historically and in its plan for genuine restoration of the whole person, community and creation.
As already noted, the scriptures do not define the exact nature of demonic forces, nor do they give us a call to warfare against demonic structures in a direct sense. Deuteronomy 32:8 (“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God”) has been used at times to establish a doctrine that demons rule over certain geographical regions, and that these demons need to be pulled down in prayer. It is taught that Paul said we need to “pull down these strongholds.” Firstly, this verse in Deuteronomy is speaking about the tribes of Israel, and the borders being made according to their numbers. It is speaking about tribal inheritance areas within Israel. It does not say that God gave the rulership of these regions into the hands of demon powers over humanity. Secondly, when Paul told us to pull down strongholds, he did not mean to engage in direct warfare by rebuking “high level spirits,” but he meant we should live a counter-culture life as the church, transforming the popular cultural persuasions that are self-centred and self-promoting. This was the issue Paul was dealing with in the behaviour of the Corinthians. “Deal with the temptation of the serpent in our self-centred natures.”
“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” (Psalm 82:1) Again, this isn’t a text about the spiritual hierarchy in charge of our nations. This is about humanity, how we were created in God’s image to rule, but that we have pleased ourselves. Jesus referred to this passage, when he said God called them gods, to whom the word of God had come. This meant the people of Israel. The word “god” meant magistrate, ruling with God over a just and kind world. And what was the word of God that came to us? “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:3-4) This isn’t a passage about direct warfare against spiritual beings, but a passage about true warfare, throwing off the nature of the serpent by loving and serving the weak.
The concept of demonic structures has been taken from the book of Daniel, where Gabriel tells Daniel of his engagement with the prince of Persia, and of Daniel’s prince, the angel Michael. It is assumed from this that each pagan nation has a demonic prince over it and Israel has an angel of God over it. The text doesn’t say whether Gabriel was standing against a spiritual prince, or whether he was speaking about the human king of Persia. It is further assumed that as Daniel waited many days in prayer, this was spiritual warfare, that enabled Michael to prevail against the demonic forces. In Daniel 9-10 there is no mention of a spiritual battle Daniel was engaged in, other than prayer, confession, humility, praise and patience. He rebuked no spiritual powers and asked for no help to overthrow spiritual powers. He just waited upon God for God’s purposes. These concepts of spiritual warfare were taken up by the Jewish intertestamental literature, like the Wisdom of Solomon, where it was alleged that by naming the demons, Solomon was able to gain power over them and put them to work on building the old temple. Jesus also occasionally named a spirit, which he cast out, and from this Christians have also sometimes derived the idea that if we name spirits, we have power over them. None of this is intended by the scripture. Authority is given us by God, not by any procedure we may appeal to. So much play acting is done in this area, often geared to manipulating people, with no lasting change in people’s lives. We have been told spiritual forces rule over cities and by naming them we can cast them down and everyone in the city will be saved. We have never seen this work in a genuine lasting way. There are spiritual forces, but this isn’t how Paul told us to engage them. It’s ultimately by the cross and its renewal of our lives that satan in cast down, firstly in ourselves, and then in our communities. This takes a very distinctive and counter-cultural church.
Jesus showed us how evil is to be engaged and overcome. Firstly, in the wilderness he overcame evil by overcoming its temptation in his personal life. The fasting and prayer played a role in this, during the forty-day period, but scripture doesn’t anywhere claim that fasting is a procedure for gaining power over darkness. There is one verse in the Gospels that may suggest it, but not once did Jesus or the disciples fast to cast out demons. Moses brought Israel out of Egypt without a day of fasting. He fasted after that miracle was achieved, only because he was alone in the presence of God, which was not a natural fast. In the whole Torah, fasting was commanded only once, just for half of one day, once a year. The Prophets never commanded fasting, but instead stood against it. They claimed real fasting was providing justice for the poor. (Isaiah 58, Zechariah 8:19) This, they claimed, is how evil would be overcome. Nowhere do the apostles command fasting for the church. It may be used in church tradition, and that is fine, but it seems that the true fasting God is looking for us is our love for one another. He doesn’t want sacramental practices, religious exercises, or manipulations attempting to take control in the spiritual world. God just wants us to care for one another and by this satan is overcome in our lives and in our communities. Things go wrong among us, not because of demons, but because of our own bad behaviour, which we need to repent from, with God’s help.
Secondly, Jesus overcome evil by not resisting it. This is what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, and this is what he did on the cross. That is, not resisting evil with evil, but overcoming evil with good. This is how we cast our satan, darkness with light. This, not false spiritual warfare, is our key and the church’s commission. This takes self-giving, to forgive, to suffer, like Jesus did, and to expose evil by the good we do in return. This puts the light upon satan and that is all that is required to overcome him. The Jews in Jesus’ day took up “spiritual” and deadly weapons against their foes and the darkness they sought to defeat filled themselves instead. Jesus took up his towel and bowl to wash their feet and took up his cross to cast satan out by the light of heaven.
There is a spiritual warfare and it is daily, sometimes more intense than at others, especially because of the weaknesses we have in ourselves. Jesus said, “The Prince of this world comes, and he has nothing in me.” This is the key, what we have in ourselves that the enemy can use against us and against those around us. It is ourselves that we attend to, not the satan. He comes in the behaviour of others, but we don’t fight those others. God fights for us, just as he did for Daniel. Jesus put his own cause in the hands of his Father and trusted him with it. Satan can do nothing against us out of timing and purposes of God. So he has no victory.
Jesus overcame the satan in the Garden of Gethsemane, this Garden being contrasted with the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve fell. Jesus overcome the temptation to do his own will, what pleased him alone as a man, to do God’s will, to restore humanity and the creation. This was the second Garden, where what was lost in the first Garden was restored. If the first Garden was a great tragedy, this second Garden was a great miracle for us all. Jesus did it for us, he went through this temptation so that we would know the love of God and be restored by that love. Just like the serpent robbed Adam and Eve of the first Garden, the powers of this world, the chief rulers of Israel, came and took Christ away from this second Garden, to exile him in banishment on the cross. Christ went into exile for us, as a substitute, in our place, so we could have the Garden of God restored. When we are in spiritual warfare, in the temptation to leave God’s way, to give up, to lose faith, then prayer brings us through, strengthens our heart, like it did for Christ. Spiritual warfare means to keep going through tough times. It means keep going. Jesus didn’t fight these spiritual or human powers; he fought his own selfishness, refusing it the place of rule in him. This selfishness is “the powers.”
Jesus answered those who arrested him, “Now is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22:53) It was the time when the interests of self would reign. Darkness hides the truth behind scapegoating, behind the real interests of the controlling powers, the commercial powers of Jerusalem and Rome. But the cross, the self-giving of the cross, by the one who had all power, would forever bring these selfish powers into the light, breaking their reign of darkness. The church would go out in cross-cultural care and bring the new light to the world. It was likened in scripture (John 1, for example) as the light of new creation, driving back the darkness of chaos. Jesus responded to those who arrested him with swords, by helping them to their feet, and by healing the soldier whose ear had been cut off. This is the light, though he had the power to save himself. If this account is a true record, and there is every historical reason to believe it is, then no other historical person has more significance. Jesus is unique in all human history, both in the power he wielded, and in his complete non-submission to selfish power. The account of the Gospels is primarily about this shift from darkness to light, that is to transform the world through the cross-bearing nature of the church, the new “sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)
The “sons of God” who came before God with the satan in the book of Job are sometimes said to be ruling demonic powers over nations, as though God gave angels (who later fell) this commission. I may be wrong, but I don’t see this in scripture. I see only that this commission was given to humanity and restored through Christ, as in Psalm 8. Like Psalm 82, quoted above, this title “sons of God” described a human rule of goodness and justice, which pagan rulers perverted to greed, in harsh dominion over the weak. This is the fall the bible focuses on, which the gospel sets about to reconcile, namely the ruling powers, that is, mankind, who have been placed again in Christ over a rule of renewing care for the poor and feeble.
There are different theories about the date Job was written, but my knowledge of the dating of Old Testament books isn’t sufficient to cause me to re-evaluate normal biblical traditions on the dating. I don’t see any compelling evidence in other theories, which often date these books much later, theories which often seem established on the premise that scripture can’t be miraculous, that it can’t be allowed to predict events that occurred after the date of writing. The Old testament may have been edited and reordered in different periods, like in Solomon’s time, or in Ezra’s day, or even afterwards, but the original documents, I think it is reasonable to say, came from the period stated by the tradition. The linguistic, cultural and geographical evidence within the text ought to confirm to the period of writing. The tradition about Job is that it comes from a period sometime between Abraham and Moses, making it the oldest surviving biblical book we have.
I am saying this to try to place the “sons of God” in Job’s historical time, and the reason I am doing this may be seen as we look at Zechariah, a prophet who came much later. In Zechariah, Israel are being returned from captivity in Babylon, to rebuild Jerusalem. In chapter 3, the satan stands to oppose Joshua, the high priest, who represents Israel’s return as a nation. The satan represents the accuser, and this accusation is carried out in the minds\ propaganda and the warfare of the world powers, who challenged Israel’s entitlement to repossess the land. These are the powers represented in Daniel as the beasts, the human rulers of the kingdoms that would spoil Israel. In Zechariah, God stands for Israel through grace, and Israel would later come to know that God would expect them to stand with the gentiles also through the grace of the gospel, to serve. That is, through the cross, God shifts us all out of the satan, out of accusing and dispossessing of one another from the land, through arguments over entitlement, into foot washing and restoration of us all as neighbours. As Zechariah, said, “Everyone shall sit under his vine, under his fig and pomegranate tree with his neighbour.” (Zechariah 3:10, Micah 4:4) There is no more beautiful description of the cross, of our mutual service, and of the new condition in the world the gospel brings, once we evict the satan from our hearts.
In the Hebrew narrative of the Old Testament, we see the overarching story of the Garden of Eden and the satan coming to cast God’s people out of it. This could have been part of the idea we see in Job, or at least it may have been read that way by many Jews later. Does Israel have the right under the law to possess the land, or are they guilty and about to be dispossessed? Today, we focus on our own personal spirituality and right standing with God, as we read the book of Job, but in the Hebrew mind, their spirituality/ redemption/salvation was linked to their possession of the land. The “sons of God” may have been a parabolic representation of the powers of the land in Job’s day, who would have an excuse to spoil Job and bring him down in the land, that is, the tribal leaders/ rulers who were Job’s neighbours. This is how the powers are portrayed in Zechariah against Israel, and in the Gospels against Christ, as Christ stands in for Job, for us all, and takes the accusations. The satan puts it in the hearts of these powers to displace the meek, to cast them out of the land, and to take over with violence, greed and darkness. God is challenged to remove his hedge, to take away his justice/ protection from Christ. This goes on till today, against the church, but the issue for us is how we handle it. Jesus spoke about possessing the land through service, reconciling/ redemptive living towards these neighbouring powers, rather than through the traditional way of arguing for our own entitlement. These are the new “sons of God,” according to the Sermon on the Mount. This changes the bible story about the Garden, about how to overcome the satan who would accuse us and cast us out. It is to overcome the accuser within our own hearts and actions towards our neighbour, and build a Garden without the satan, who has been overcome by the grace and forgiveness of the cross that we bear. This is the Garden we see in Revelation 21-22.
This is how the Psalms, Jesus and Paul all use the term “sons of God,” as those called to rule the world in the Adamic commission, in the meekness of justice and care for others, rather than in self-entitlement. In Romans 8, these are the “sons of God” that renew the creation, that bring us back to the Garden of God. In the New Testament world, “sons of God” meant human kings, and this is what it meant in the New Testament also. It is those who reign with Christ, by “casting their crowns at his feet,” which was a symbolic representation of reigning through humility and the service of our neighbour. (Revelation 4:10)
This should also be applied to the Israel/ Palestinian situation today, a call for them to come together in service, to inherit the land as God’s children, not to accuse and destroy one another. We now conquer Christ’s way, by Jesus’ example, not by taking the image of Cyrus or Constantine.
“Whatever you disallow on earth is disallowed in heaven, whatever you allow on earth is allowed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18)
This text shows renewal of the Adamic commission, the coming together of heaven and earth in union, the co-regency of humanity with God in creation renewal, now and ultimately in the resurrection. When we read this statement by Jesus in the setting of the Hebrew story from Genesis through to the renewal of creation in Revelation 21-22, we see the purpose of the gospel being fulfilled through the coming of the Son of God/ Man. The purpose is to raise up humanity once again into his/ her Adamic vocation. We see the cooperation of heaven and earth, as it was in the Garden, restoring the creation, as we see in Romans 8. Humanity has an initiative in faith, which heaven backs, due to the uniting of our hearts in God’s image. Our restored image-bearing enables the flowing together of heaven and earth in our actions and communities. This is happening now and is fulfilled completely in the resurrection of our bodies when death is defeated.
Several particulars of the creation narrative were used in other literature as symbols of evil, like the waters of chaos in the opening verses of Genesis, or the darkness, or the beasts of the field. None of this suggest that evil existed in any sense within the original creation itself. On the contrary, creation was depicted in perfect harmony of goodness, without any struggle from opposing forces. The beasts ate grass and there was no killing. The creation narrative of Genesis is unlike that of any other ancient creation narrative, such as the stories told by the nations surrounding Israel. There is no dualism in the Genesis creation narrative, not even a hint of any contrary power struggling against the one sovereign God in the creation of the world and universe.
Yet as the Old Testament literature progressed, it sometimes used seas, darkness and beasts to represent evil powers of the world. This was only because of what these natural forces did. Water could bring destruction, darkness could bring confusion and the beasts of the field a self-centred aggression. The leviathan and monster of the sea spoken of in Job and Isaiah represented evil powers within the world. In pagan sources, these were literal evil spirits, but in biblical passages they represented the powers of human self-centredness, which manifested in pagan empires that destroyed other nations, people and the natural world. The sons of God that took wives in Genesis 6 were likely pagan rulers, though the book of Enoch would later spiritualise their being in a parable.
The biblical passages were poetic, like when Lucifer was a reference to the king of Babylon and death was personified to speak of the king’s demise. There is no explanation in the bible for the origin of evil or of any evil spirit being. Supposed references to the origin of evil in Isaiah 14 or Ezekiel 28 refer to human kings, and the fall of evil powers in Revelation 12 refers to the fallen kings in the Roman world. None of these passages make any direct claims about the origin of evil itself. In Isaiah, the wolf lying down with the lamb has literal reference to the renewal of creation, but also symbolic representation of the taming of human governments and empires, so that which is strong serves the weak. It’s the taming of human greed, ego and fallenness.
“Satan and the sons of God” in the book of Job was written in the dramatic narrative and may well depict the accusative nature of religion, which, beyond the scope of the Job story, escalates into international accusations and justifications for warfare. The powers contest the distribution of property and deny the poor hospitality and care. Ezekiel depicts these powers in Sodom, as people refusing to care for the displaced, taking luxury to themselves, and indulging in sexual aberrations. Injustice heightens violence in the world, and sexual deviations break down the creation’s caring arrangements in family. The powers are aimed at destroying God’s creation and Ezekiel well depicts the full scope of the pagan heart. The fall of Sodom, though a natural event, was somehow unleashed by human activity, as all the curses in Genesis 3 are brought about by human abuse. Humans destroy the ecology and bring upon themselves its devastating effects. Peter cautions us to beware, as satan is seeking whom he may devour, and Paul also claims it is we who devour one another in conflict. It is our own behaviour we are to beware of. The powers destroy our sexual/ family stability, our natural environment and our caring relationships that build wholesome community in the world. These powers of self-indulgence derive from our own natures. The purpose of the Torah was to lessen the overall devastating effect of these powers, not for us to judge one another.
The powers were in view in intertestamental literature, starting with the book of Daniel later in the Old Testament period. When Israel were in captivity in Babylon, and later under the oppression of the other pagan empires, the influence of the powers was a common thread in Israel’s prophetic literature. The Messiah would be the one who would come and defeat these powers. The powers are spoken of in Daniel as princes, but it is hard to know whether Daniel meant spiritual beings or the human princes that ruled the empires, like Alexandria the Great and the Roman Caesars. There seemed to be a blending of these human and spiritual powers. At least this blending was apparent in the mythology of the pagan world, which was the world into which books like Daniel were written. Whether Daniel used pagan ideas as a kind of parable for his message is also hard to determine. But clearly, in Daniel’s message, the beasts designated gentile nations, with the final beast being Rome, which would be overthrown when the Messiah’s kingdom would be launched.
In the ministry of Jesus we see him in clear conflict with a spiritual world. In his temptation and in his healing ministry, Jesus confronts and overcomes unseen spiritual forces that stand against the kingdom of God. These, in a measure, were also seen in the Old Testament, like the lying spirit that led Ahab astray, but the story there showed that the so-called spirit was actually the will of the people, and if the people wanted to do what was right the spirits were irrelevant. Ezekiel 14 supported this, saying that false spirits derive from the will of the human heart. In the ministry of Jesus the destructive work of these spirits in human lives and in their oversight of the world’s empires, is much more in focus. Though the powers brought about his death, at God’s appointed time, they could have no influence over Christ, because “they had nothing in him,” meaning in his character. When satan filled the heart of Judas, it was because Judas had set his own heart to that course of action. The dialogue throughout scripture, with many who were sick being “captive to satan,” seems to engage the question of whether humans are the victims of some power, or whether these “spiritual powers” are just scapegoats in our theology for our own characters, faults and actions; and yet Christ prays, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.” The scriptures seem to point to both of these answers merging together in life, somehow suggesting that humans are captive to themselves.
In Galatians, Paul notes the role of the powers in disturbing the fellowship of the church. He puts them down to the works of the flesh, which again are human activity. If we practice the fruits of the Spirit in our character and relationships, the law has no power over us, meaning condemnation cannot rule in our hearts and motivate destructive actions. In Paul’s exorcism ministry in Acts, he cast out a divining spirit, which brought upon him much persecution, for the possessed person brought her agents “much profit.” This human greed appears in scripture as the controlling force behind the powers against Jesus’ ministry, which controlled the people in ultimately killing Jesus, because he exposed their oppressive relationships with the poor. These cases point to the greater demons in human culture, which are much more difficult to exorcise, and they exist in all our cultures and pollical lives. When exorcising a boy, Jesus drew upon the exorcism as a lesson for how satan worked in Jeruslem, dividing the community through greed. (Luke 11) This community would be filled with offense and hatred (with every foul spirit, Rev 18:2) and would eventually fall in self-destruction. The powers that control our nations are largely economic, working through injustice and fill our communities with social divisions and human suffering. In all examples above, whether in Genesis 6, Ahab, the kings of Babylon and Tyre, the people of Jeruslem in Jesus’ day, in Judas, in Rome, against Paul’s ministry, human greed was the controlling power of deception and destruction.
Powers in Colossians
Moving now onto Paul, we start with his work as a Pharisee, rounding up the Christians to imprison and kill. He is totally under the deception of the religious powers, thinking he is doing good, but really defending the national, economic and racial interests of his own group. Powers can even infest churches in this way. Where churches are supposed to be places in which power is deconstructed into service of the least, they can easily become places where personal power is heavily invested and defended. To this degree, they are not churches of the true Christ. Paul’s crisis of conversion was in seeing the power of Christ over against the powers of the religion of Jeruslem and the powers of Rome. Christ’s power consists of being stripped naked upon the cross, dying as a slave before the power and pride of Rome, in which the powers themselves were stripped naked and forever defeated. The cross reaches into our hearts, unmasks our deception and eternal bondage to self-serving power, releasing us to heal each other in service and self-giving, and to heal the creation in genuine serving stewardship. Only the death of God in Christ, forgiving his enemies and showing his refusal to use power to serve and save self, can set the creation free from its blindness and death.
It is here that Paul is able to write to the church at Rome, in the head city of Roman power, and say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation…” Rome said the church could have their “weak crucified slave” and they would keep their army to break rebellion and save the creation. This contrast of hope, is, for Paul, at the centre of what he means by salvation. It is Jew and gentile coming together, to renounce their remembrance of sin, their pride and boasting against each other, to instead serve with grace at one table. This revolutionary/ renewed table is Paul’s crescendo in Romans 14. This is what renews the creation. It’s this transformation of fallen power into service of the other. This is the hope of “Christ in us.” Salvation comes to the creation through restoring the weak, not through crushing them.
This “reconciling the powers,” meaning reconciling power with the image and likeness of Christ (transforming power into this serving nature) is central to how Paul sees the gospel purpose in all his letters. In Colossians, Paul states that Christ who created all powers (and by this he means our governments, our cultural institutions, our family structures), has reconciled them to himself on the cross. The meaning is that the God of creation has come in Christ to fulfil his covenant to renew the creation, and the way he does that is by renewing our hearts in transforming the way we use power in serving one another. He reconciles these powers on the cross, where he forgives Jew and gentile, thus making us one, that is, all humanity is brought together as one to forgive and to serve, just like Christ forgave and served each one of us. And this work of “reconciling power to the image of Christ” continues through our own lives, as we transform power within our institutions to the image of God, his image that we see on the cross.
“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:16, 19-20)
We will speak about “reconciling things in heaven” below, but here it’s enough to state that this refers to our reconciliation with God through the cross and our reconciliation with the powers that rule over humanity. “Heavenly” means the things that are above us, that rule over us, and this includes mainly those things that work in our character and “flesh” Paul speaks about in his letters. These characters in our human communities are reconciled, being renewed back to God’s image.
In Colossians 2 Paul continues the theme, urging believers not to be caught up in the divisive control of the powers, which were especially prevalent around issues like circumcision. Rather, true circumcision is putting off the rule of the flesh, which means overcoming the selfishness of the powers which bring destruction rather than service. Paul raises water baptism in this context. This also is a common power of division among believers, regarding many different modes of water baptism that have separated whole denominations. This separation denies the intended family of service and creational transformation the gospel is to bring. Water baptism has become a “principality and power” ruling over our division and destruction of each other, with the root cause being our political and selfish goals. True baptism, Paul says, is the burial of self-service, to live out the cross of Christ in renewing relationships. True baptism reflects the faith of Christ, in which his death on the cross stripped naked the selfishness of power, breaking our blind obedience to it and to our nationalism and divisive groups.
“And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:15) He triumphed over the powers, in that God came in the flesh to expose our injustice, our selfishness, by the offering of himself in love. Now creation knows what true power is, and this knowledge, through the Holy Spirit’s presence, can now renew our hearts and the powers within our relationships and communities.
We often read Paul’s mention of “principalities and powers” as to do with spiritual powers in our lives as individuals, and this is the case, but Paul’s main vision here isn’t about just our personal lives, but our life together as one family in Christ, by which we serve rather than divide, and through which Paul’s Hebrew vision of renewed communities, land and creation is fulfilled. In all Paul’s letters, his concern about the “principalities and powers” is always about our unity of fellowship as one new body. It is this, not merely our personal/ private salvation, that is Paul’s primary motivation in all his writings. And it’s God’s intention that the church shares the gospel in the world through this reconciling posture, refusing to align ourselves with the principalities and powers that divide people and destroy lives for political advantage. Our reconciling posture with the whole community is our witness to God’s reconciling cross, which is meant to transform our minds and the whole creation.
Paul’s treatment of the powers in his letters stems from the witness of Christ in the Gospels. Jesus withstood satan’s temptation to employ the world’s powers for his kingdom purposes. Instead, Jesus would allow the powers to prevail against him, and he would overcome them in weakness. This couldn’t be understood by Peter, who urged Christ not to follow this path. Jesus exposed the lie we mostly aren’t aware of: we employ violence against evil, not for righteousness’ sake, but because we don’t want to share in the suffering of the weak. Jesus called this choice the path of satan and this is what he came to change in our lives. The message of Christ is that evil is overcome as we take solidarity with those who suffer in the world, rather than hide ourselves away from their suffering, or even try to overcome it with violence. This is central to the good news of new creation and is still largely rejected. New creation resurrection comes out of the fellowship of suffering.
“I want to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings…” (Philippians 3:10) We take our part with those suffering, in weakness, and God raises us up together in his power. In this way the idolatry of false strength is defeated in our hearts and in the world. This idolatry is the evil Christ came to destroy. Paul had to do this daily, as he stood with the enemies of his own countrymen and stood with those rejected by Rome. Paul died daily, standing with the “wrong people” in humiliation and abuse, so God’s true kingdom could be introduced. This was the way the church then would renew their world, and still is today.
Throughout the Gospels and Paul’s writings, “the powers” are characterised as the forces working within our characters, cultures, governments, religions and relationships that divide people and bring an idolatry of power/ destruction into those divisions, displacing the “weaknesses” of reconciliation, mutual service and healing. The task of the church is to reconcile these powers to the image and nature of Christ, and this is the good news of new creation within the world.
Powers in Ephesians
In Ephesians Paul lays out the gospel as an “end-times” reconciling mission that brings healing to the creation. We use the term “end-times” here to refer to the Hebrew vision, like that found in Isaiah, of God’s plan to bring the creation into his full renewal and fill it with his glory. There is no specification as to how long this will take and when it will be fulfilled. We do not use “end-times” to mean some destructive period God brings upon the world. For Paul, “end-times” means God’s reconciling and healing of the world. Paul did use terms like “the vengeance of Christ’s coming,” and these related to the destruction of Jeruslem in Paul’s own time. These statements don’t refer to God’s final program for the world, which he is carrying out through the church.
“Making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Ephesians 1:9-10) Paul goes on to claim that Christ is set far above all principalities and powers and we often think this is for the purpose of their judgment and destruction. No doubt God does bring judgment to the powers of the world, and this is carried out by the self-destructive nature of empire, but the chief end of Christ’s rule in Paul’s discourse is his reconciling and healing of these world powers. Paul is laying out the Hebrew vision of heaven and earth being united in one, and this is why Christ came. The term “heaven” here points not only to God, but also the fallen ruling powers that disturb the creation. In uniting heaven and earth, Christ reconciled the two in one by his cross, and he continues to reconcile the principalities and powers through the transforming sufferings of the church.
The concept of “reconciling principalities and powers” is not a vision of “ultimate reconciliation” where demonic spirit beings are saved and reconciled in the end. Rather it means reconciling the fallen demonic state of human and cultural rule back to our original human vocation, in which we rule over the creation in the image of God. It is restoring the image of God to our humanity, to our relationships, especially to our governance of the world over the weakest. Isaiah called it, “a little child shall lead them,” which I take to mean that the government of this world shall most resemble Christ when it is being led by the interests of the weakest and most vulnerable, and not by the interests of the powerful.
It’s in Ephesians 2 that Paul continues his pursuit of the powers. Whether we call it the destruction of the powers, or the reconciling of the powers, the object is the same: destroying the self-centredness of power. The first part of Ephesians 2 discusses God justifying each of us in Christ, by faith, as gift, not of our own doing. This, as in all Paul’s letters, is gearing up for what follows, the uniting of people from different backgrounds into one new family of care. The object here isn’t our personal, or individualistic faith, but the destruction of the power that separated us, which made us enemies of each other. Now that we are equally justified in one faith, we have nothing in our fallen cultures to boast of, to set us up as superior to any other. This is the point of Paul’s discussion on our faith. It is new creation, renewed service of each other, that he is aiming at.
This is what is often missed in Paul’s writings. We insist on taking Paul as the champion of our personal/ individualistic faith, in the sense we have inherited from the Reformation. But taking Paul in his own background, from his heritage in Isaiah, for example, we see he is speaking of something very different. It is this new community that brings the new creation, where the wolf no longer destroys the lamb, where “no one shall hurt nor destroy in all my creation.” (Isaiah 11:9). The purpose of our new faith is that it renews our power relationships. This is Paul’s mind, as he sets out to transform the legalistic beastliness of Jerusalem, in its destruction of the sinner and gentile; and transform imperial Roman in its crushing of the weak. These powers are addressed head-on in Ephesians 2, as boastful barriers that turn us away from caring for others. The cross of Christ removes these barriers, taking away the penalty of the law in Christ’s free forgiveness. Since Christ forgives us, we too are to forgive others. In this new setting of forgiving others, we begin to be transformed from the former rule of self-centredness and become a new family of service. To rebuild tribalism, nationalism or any form of cultural superiority, is to rebuild those powers that separate and destroy humanity, rather than promote our mutual healing.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:19-22)
This temple is the renewed creation we see in the book of Revelation and Isaiah. Daniel addresses this also, showing that the new temple fills the earth when the world powers are destroyed. The destruction of the gentile powers of separation, competition and greed, which Israel also had embraced in Paul’s day, was the Prophet’s vision of God’s new kingdom filling the earth. This is the vision Paul was writing about. God’s kingdom comes into the world through a new reconciling people, sharing healing and restoration with the broken community. This, not personal/ individualistic faith, is the vision in all Paul’s letters.
Ephesians 2 was written in a liturgical way, because that was the language of that day. Approaching God through a temple was the culture from early times, but we are supposed to understand the underlying message, cutting through the liturgical dressing. In new creation theology, the temple means the presence of God filling his creation, and this boils down, in natural/ human language, to relationships being put right. It means humanity is at home with the image of God, replacing our exploitative nature, and bringing mutual care into our relationships with other people, nations and cultures. Isaiah was written in symbolic terms, but it’s this “neighbourliness,” which is central to the Torah and the teachings of Jesus, that Isaiah was communicating. The creation becomes neighbourly, as our hearts are turned from stone to compassion. This happens now through our renewing lives, and fully comes to pass in this world in the resurrection. This is the gospel in plain language. It’s important that we communicate the gospel in today’s cultures, rather than simply pass on an ancient liturgy. Ancient terms don’t communicate the real message in today’s world.
In Ephesians 3, Paul continues his topic of revamping the powers, by showing that the purpose of his gospel is to reveal the mystery, that Jews and gentiles have been made into one new family. The relevance of this statement, in Paul’s own time, is very significant. Throughout the Old Testament period, there was an ongoing power conflict between these two groups. The Jews thought that relief would come through the violent overthrow of the gentile powers. But Paul reveals that the solution is the reconciliation of these two groups, by the renouncement of self-seeking power by those who choose to follow the peace-making ways of Christ. This, not violence, was the mystery that resolves the age-old conflict. This is the best way of understanding Paul’s writing in Ephesians 3, given the historical context into which Paul was then speaking. The Jews and gentiles then were on tender hooks, waiting to see how God would fulfil his promises to Israel, given their oppression over the years. The answer came through the gospel, that these groups would give up their tit-for-tat hatred of each other and take the way of the cross, in which Christ put enmity behind him, to forgive us all. God’s children walk in this same path.
Paul then invokes God, “who created all things,” moving into the same theme he spoke of in Colossians 1. It’s God’s plan to reconcile and renew his creation. Paul claimed this is done through the church, revealing the wisdom of God to the principalities and powers in heavenly places. This is a reference to those powers that controlled the conflict between Jewish and gentile nations, conquering, displacing and enslaving each other. “Heavenly places,” in Hebrew thought, wasn’t a reference to a place far away, like the Greek culture thought of it, but a reference to the controlling forces of life. “Heavenly” is a reference to rule. “Above” was a metaphor for dominion, and “heavenly powers” means those forces that have dominion over human nature and the behaviour of the nations in conflict. But the place these powers exercise their dominion in within the characters of humanity. This isn’t referring to spirt beings flying above us, but demonic forces that have their seat in human nature since the fall. This why Paul goes on in Ephesians 4-5, speaking of renewing these powers in our mind and behaviours towards others.
So, Paul says, God’s plan is that the church reveals God’s wisdom to these powers. This means the wisdom of reconciliation, as opposed to the human wisdom of conflict and subjugation of others. That is, it is God’s plan that the church brings a witness to the world of the reconciling ways of Christ, that Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount and lived out in his death and resurrection. The church is called to reveal the wisdom of servant-rule to the powers that have previously controlled our mindsets and relationships. Paul doesn’t indulge himself in speculations about the actual nature of demonic beings but speaks of these demonic forces only in relation to their rule within our natures and relationships, being overcome by the cross of Christ, and then overcome by our renewed love and acceptance of each other through Christ. This is the conquering of the powers, or their reconciliation and renewal within our cultures and nations.
“This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Ephesians 3:6) Here, a reference to “Christ Jesus,” isn’t a mere reference to believing something about Jesus, but the way in which Christ lived and overcome the powers through his death and resurrection. By invoking Christ Jesus, Paul is invoking this same walk between us and those of other cultures. “To bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 3:9-10)
Paul was willing to suffer in the pronouncement and living out of this gospel and his suffering was especially brought upon him by those who didn’t want these new relationships to emerge. They were the powers of Jerusalem and of Rome who wanted the divisions and inequalities within humanity to continue, for the sake of their own dominion and self-centred plans. In Romans 8, Paul spoke of these powers in the context of the church bringing the peace-making ways of God’s new children to the creation. These are the children of God Jesus spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount: the peacemakers. In Romans 8, Paul said this witness would take place in the midst of suffering, because these powers of the world would be opposed to God’s children and kingdom revelation. This means we become followers in Christ, suffering in loving the enemies of the powers, but being kept by the love of God in that suffering, to conquer the greed and death of this world.
I would like to revert momentarily to Ephesians 2:1-3 and pick up on what Paul said about the powers of the air: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 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— 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.” These powers are demonic, but when Paul refers to the powers of the air, he means pervasive fallen cultures that rule over human thinking and behaviour. These powers drive us towards self-centred living, as in the Gospels they persistently tried to direct Jesus in that direction. These powers filled the human relationships and politics of the day and brought about the events that eventually led to the fall of Jeruslem in AD 70. There is a meshing of demonic influence and the powers that existed with the cultures, politics and minds of people.
Paul speaks of these powers in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5. We will speak further on Corinthians below, where Paul confronts the powers of self, more directly than in any of his other letters. Just to quote this passage here: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” This shows many things about interpreting scripture. Firstly, the bible uses warfare as a metaphor. It uses warfare imagery to subvert human violence, with a “warfare” of peace. The metaphor is used to show the power of peace, as the only power that can overcome evil forces. Secondly, the passage shows what Paul means by demonic strongholds in high/heavenly places. They are the controlling arguments and persuasions of our cultures and self-driven violent relationships in the world. The powers in the air are the “me-first” postures that wreak havoc in our world.
Returning now to Ephesians, to chapter 6, we see the same language being used. A metaphor of warfare is employed to preach peace. Our warfare is not against flesh and blood but against the arguments of self-centredness. These arguments are what Paul calls the cosmic powers, the ruling spiritual forces, and by this Paul means those persuasions that control humanity and drive it towards destruction. The armour Paul lists, for us to fight this darkness, is that which Isaiah 59:17 said the Messiah would use in his cosmic battle against evil. In Isaiah, the Messiah is depicted as coming to bring justice to the world. This justice isn’t to come through the Messiah’s violent warfare, but by his lifting up the poor and meek of the earth: “The poor and the needy will be treated with fairness and with justice.” (Isaiah 11:4) Throughout his book, Isaiah depicts this justice to the poor, to the refugee and enemies of Israel, as the way of peace, in contrast to the brutal powers of gentile empire and of the fallen kings of Israel. So, when Paul enlists this same armour for the believers in Ephesians 6, he is enlisting us in a warfare of justice for the poor and meek of the earth, that is carried out by us employing the weapons of peace. That is, as we bring mutual faith, righteousness and peace into our own lives, we can overcome our boastful separations and destroy darkness in our communities.
To read Ephesians in isolation from the Old Testament Prophets, like Isaiah, and take it as addressing a private spirituality, and not as depicting our renewed community that shares justice with the weak of the earth, is to read Paul cut off from his own biblical world and vision. Paul is depicting a renovation of the fallen powers of human character and culture, so the church can be the leaven of a renewed earth; so the Lord’s Prayer can be fulfilled, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven;” so heaven and earth can come together in new creation. It is the way the church fulfils this renovation of the powers that Paul takes on in his two letters to the Corinthians.
Powers in Corinthians
First and Second Corinthians are the most blistering of Paul’s letters. He employs strong language to correct and rebuke the believers who had left the simplicity of Christ to follow worldly powers. The church, though strong in the gifts, has lost its transforming witness in the world. It’s this “simplicity” that is most at the centre of Paul’s message. The church had become embarrassed at the simple things, wanting a more self-honouring form of worship, which resulted in the simple/ weak people being forced out and left behind. This meant that the very mission of the Isaianic Messiah was irrelevant to this charismatic assembly.
Paul begins by noting the pride of members of the church, boasting of their support for one leader over another, creating division in the church. This boasting, this pride in strength, is, for Paul, at the centre of what it means to be caught up in the worldly powers. So Paul hits out at this boasting. I will quote Paul’s opening response to the Corinthian problem at length, as it is foundational for his two letters to the church. It also aligns with Paul’s other letters: he speaks of our faith being a gift, in order to demolish our pride and bring us together in unified service.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)
As we saw Paul noted in Romans, the weakness of Christ and his cross is foolishness to a world that worships power. But it is this foolishness that is the power of God, in transforming the powers of the world from self-focus to service-focus. Only this “foolishness” can save, or transform, the world. So, God must call the humble to show this wisdom to the world. If it is humility that the world needs, then God must reveal this in humble things for all to see. For me, the key in the above passage is the phrase, “God has chosen that which is not, to bring to nought that which is.” That “which is,” refers to the destructive powers of the world, like those of Rome and the elite of Jeruslem, oppressing and breaking down the weak people. God wants to demolish these self-centred powers, to bring them to zero in the world. This is new creation speech. By demolishing selfish powers, communities can be transformed, like Isaiah spoke of. It’s the wolf no longer harming the lamb.
So, God chose simple things, not powerful things, to bring this transformation about. The cross was his most simple humiliation, which he chose. Then it was the simple people who came to faith at the Corinthian church. Ultimately, God’s aim is that the simple/ loving/ caring relationships of these people with new faith, is what will renew the hardness of selfish life in the world around them, bringing the selfishness in the wider world to nought, bringing about ultimate transformation in our politics, governments and cultures. In this transformed world, the weakest members of the world are cared for, rather than trodden down. The world begins to see this it is this care that brings peace, rather than its brutal treatment of others. So transformation flows from the cross of Christ into our hearts, then into our relationships, then on into the hurting world around us. It’s a bottom-up transformation, from the grassroots. Salvation comes from the grassroots transformation. If we despise the grassroots, there can be no transformation of our lives or of the world.
The basic lesson of Paul is that we should not despise weak things. When we honour the mighty things, our care for the weak people disappears. When this happens, the witness of the cross disappears. It is Christ crucified in weakness, that is God’s witness to the world. The cross is God’s witness of our brutality, God’s witness of his forgiveness of that brutality, and God’s witness of his love for the despised one, in Christ’s case, by raising him from the dead. This is God’s witness against the powers of this world. The Corinthian believers had thrown off this witness and embraced the world’s love for self-aggrandisement. This meant they had failed in their mission in transforming the world’s powers. Instead they had embraced these powers in their worship of strength, which was really self-worship, not the worship of the true God.
We see here Paul’s view of how the world is saved, meaning how it is transformed into the kind of world Isaiah envisioned. It is as the church dismantles the powers of the world in our own lives, in our caring community of the weak among us, that the church bears witness to the destructive powers of the world. It isn’t by taking on the powers in revolt or protest, but by becoming a witness to them in taking up our own cross in the service of others. Our service is what transforms the world. For this service to be our life, the powers must first be rooted out of our hearts, minds and behaviours. This is the essential factor for us as believers in this fallen world. For the rest of First and Second Corinthians, Paul continues, noting one worldly power after another which the Corinthians must recognise in their faith community and destroy through new service of each other. Paul notes one lesson after another, in which selfishness in their lives must be replaced by the cross and the image of Christ.
A theme that goes through these two letters to the Corinthians is the “wisdom” of the believers in contrast the weakness of Paul. This is “wisdom” is the human egocentric sense. The saw the gospel like the Greek people saw spiritual issues, as the enrichment of their personal lives. They didn’t see the self-giving in which Paul laid everything on the line to be associated with the gentiles, the enemies of his own people, to treat then as equals, so he could bring the good news to them. They came to see Paul’s self-giving as weakness which they despised, wanting to hold onto their personal advancement. Paul said they reigned as kings, while he died daily and is despised by all people. They didn’t understand that in the new creation, to reign is to serve the least. When the least are served, the world changes for the good. This is the new wisdom, not the wisdom of self-betterment. The “rulers” don’t understand this wisdom, because if they did, they wouldn’t have crucified an innocent man for the sake of their own power. (1 Corinthians 2:6) The Corinthians were following these powers, like Pontus Pilate, but this wisdom was coming to the nothing in God’s eternal order. What the Corinthians take for wisdom is foolishness to God: God can see right through our self-love.
The rest of First Corinthians is a point by point rebuke of the Corinthian alignment with the world powers. One takes his mother-in-law to bed and is proud. Sexual immorality is a mark of the old creation, considering only our self and not the responsibilities and consequences for wider community. Sex has its place in family, where children are born and nurtured in a caring environment. Rome denied this and the weak children and women suffered the brutal consequences of their pagan values. Love is not free sex; it is commitment and serving the wellbeing of family and thus of wider community. It is not what I want that counts in the kingdom of God. This is basic to the renewal of the powers that controlled the brutal pagan world.
Then Paul speaks of the man who took his brother to court to recover his lost goods. This is a clear case of the powers of greed defeating worship. “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 7-11)
“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.” (Ephesians 5:3-7)
There was no dichotomy then in Paul’s thinking between “left” and “right”, with sexual immorality being a more leftist/ liberal lifestyle and privileged conservatism on the right. When Paul was writing, these two were the same, both factors of a paganism that corrupts community and destroys the creation. “Left” and “right” positions in recent times emerge out of a Western privatism, where the central “ethic” of our lives in individualism: “It’s my life and I can do what I please, as it doesn’t affect anyone else.” This view of life, where “meaning” emerges out of a self-defined identity, is nothing new. Paul argued against it even then: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 6:12) Such an individualism is contrary to the creation project, where identity is founded in community and environment. This community ethic was dominate in Hebrew culture, from Genesis onwards family is central. Splitting environmentalism and family into “left”/“right” opposing projects doesn’t make any sense of the scriptures.
Human rights mean all must be treated with love, but in Western civilization it has also come to mean that all have the right to define their own reality. In Genesis, all humans were made in the image of God, meaning love and justice must be applied to the entire human family. However, the skewed Western concept of rights appears to reflect the temptation of humanity in Genesis 3, for the world to revolve around the individual. Prior to that, our identity revolved around our part within the created community, especially where the family was the nurturer of the cosmos. This human identity was a levy-bank that kept back the tides of destruction. Once this family definition loses its place in community, then no definition of reality exists, and no levy-bank to protect human rights exists. Human rights are best expressed as “human obligations of care” and this best brings about the flourishing of all. Love means helping each other to fulfil our obligations of care, not helping each other to escape reality.
This morality Paul expressed wasn’t a mere preference of Paul, or something that can change through time and culture. It expresses creational reality, into which the Jews saw themselves strategically placed by God for its saving. The destroying factor was paganism, and God called Abraham and his seed to overthrow these “waters of chaos.” Saul thought he would do this by imposing the Torah. When he met Christ, he knew the church would instead achieve it through suffering and renewing, by reconciling image-of-God living towards her enemies. This is true Torah. Paul’s ethical vision of renewing the whole creation stems from the Prophets: “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.” (Ezekiel 16:49-50) There is no left/ right division here. Selfishness is one and the same thing on both sides, and it unleashes a hell upon the earth that ultimately brings its own destruction. This self-destruction is God’s judgement, so the creation may be saved and renewed again.
So, if Paul’s ethics can be understood in the Hebrew creational/ wholistic vision, how can we also reconcile his ethics with those of Jesus? Going through the Gospels, it seems Jesus’ predominate issue was with greed and injustice: the first part of what Ezekiel spoke of above, not caring for others and for the weak. This was the great idolatry then, as it often is today. Sexual/ family morality was largely assumed as accepted in the Jewish culture, but often in a biased, unjust way. It applied to the woman caught in adultery, but not to the man. Jesus pointed out the “clever way” sexual immorality was being indulged in by the elite: “serial polygamy,” finding fault with your current wife because you desire another. Jesus pointed out both that this was contrary to creational goodness and would therefore contribute to a creation going to hell, which then was “Gehenna,” destroying itself in hatred, suffering and grief. There is no dichotomy between Paul and Jesus. Once you get rid of the false left/ right distinction, you find Paul and Jesus are on the same page: overcoming selfism for serving.
Paul’s ethical system was inherited from his Hebrew past, one where the creation and the Torah spoke of a humanity which served the common good and not themselves. This love of God and love of neighbour was seen by Paul in a transforming way in Jesus Christ, whose cross brought it all together. Here is the love of God for his creation: laying down his life for others, not pleasing himself. For Paul, this was the church’s project of creation renewal, by overcoming the fallen pagan powers in our own lives first, and then this renewal spilling out from our fellowship into the whole world. This project of defeating the pagan powers, which was the Hebrew calling fulfilled in Christ, was the reason why Paul birthed the church at Corinth.
In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul strikes to the centre of the new Christian culture that is to completely revamp the world powers, which is to consider others before yourself. Paul lives in such a way that considers the weak. Rome trod the weak under foot, least the “evolutionary progress” of Rome be weakened by the weak. Paul “invents” a new culture at Corinth, in the heart of the Roman Empire, where the weak are thought about and put first in the new family. This matter is possibly at the centre of 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The world powers despise weakness; the church honours and cares for the weak, because Christ died for us in weakness. When the powers are reconciled in this way, the creation and environment are restored by power, rather than trodden under foot by power. This brings us back to a pre-Fall condition, where humanity cared for the world, rather than used the world to care for self alone.
So, Paul says though he is an apostle, he doesn’t use his power as an apostle for himself, but instead to serve those who need it more. Paul bases this new way of living on the cross, which he highlights in 2nd Corinthians, where he says Christ did not think of himself, but gave up his rights to serve us. This is possibly at the very heart of both Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians. This is the one thing Paul is bringing home to the believers, who had forgotten Christ and had run back to modelling themselves on the world powers. This matter of the simplicity of Christ, how he thought of others ahead of himself, is at the heart of every matter Paul discussed.
This brings all morality into one. There is no “left” or “right” here. Sexual morality, caring for the weak, caring for the environment, caring for humanity no matter their race, caring for the poor, all stem from the cross of Christ, in which we learn to put the interests of others ahead of our selfish interests. This was the witness of Christ to the world, this is what reconciles the powers, and this was to be at the heart of Corinthian worship and life. When we draw away from Christ, from how the cross shows his true person, then we draw away from God, and in the end we are left with death, whether as a community or on a personal level. To believe in Christ, which means to follow him, is to nurture life.
In 1st Corinthians 11, Paul deals with the church’s communion meal, which seems to have been a time of eating and sharing together, like they ate from house to house in the book of Acts. In this passage in Corinthians, we see the church’s role in renewing the powers. The meal and fellowship of the church was between people of all races, economic and social backgrounds, where they were equal, treated as one in Christ. There was nothing more revolutionary in the society in those days and it’s possibly the same today. These factors still divide society today, where one group has an advantage over another in keeping its distance. It was only in the church that people could genuinely become one and thereby bring sharing and healing to the factors that divided and destroyed the community at large.
It was at this very place where the powers were reconciled in fellowship, that the Corinthian believers were denying this reconciliation. Specifically, Paul said they went ahead and ate their meal without waiting for the poor. The poorer members may heave been slaves and unable to attend the fellowship times on schedule. Whatever the details were, the poor weren’t being considered, but were being left without. That is, the Corinthian worship was beginning to look like the world around them, there being no real difference in how power treated the weak and powerless. We have come to understand this passage on a merely personal level, assuming that our personal judgement Paul called us to is an inward introspection alone. But this judgment relates to how we treat our neighbour, those we fellowship with and our neighbour generally in the world. To eat our fill, while others in the world suffer and go without, is not the “Lord’s supper,” not the “Lord’s table,” isn’t the worship of Christ. It is because we do this that “many are sick and some die around us,” which I believe was referring to our lack of care for one another. The church was living as Rome, not renewing Rome. So many times today also, the church reflects the social and racial divisions of our time, rather than pulls the walls down that divide our fellowship and care. The communion of the church is a radical call to the world of social justice.
In the second part of 1st Corinthians 11, Paul speaks of the place of women in the church, which I believe was another place where the controlling powers had taken their selfish place. Powers were patriarchal in the religious and gentile world, and this was being followed in the church. This is another difficult passage to interpret, but I believe it is like other passages in Corinthians, where Paul quoted the Corinthian errors before correcting them. Like we saw above, “All things are lawful,” and in chapter 7 also, where Paul quotes the Corinthian call for abstinence in marriage, here in chapter 11 he is quoting their call for hierarchy in marriage. But the call doesn’t fit Genesis before the Fall, where both man and women were created in the image and glory of God, both called Adam, and both given dominion. The church had twisted the scriptures to suit their patriarchal culture, rather than transformed that culture. We still do this very easily with scripture today, making it conform to our worldly power structures. Paul and Peter did not preach hierarchy. They said we should honour it in our culture, but transform it, just as in suffering Christ honoured Pontus Pilate, but transformed the corrupt power in his obedience to it. Christ defeated the powers “without a word.” (1 Peter 3:1)
When the communion becomes sacramentalised, and it is supposed that God is judging us according to how we partake in a ritual, rather than we judging ourselves for how we share his creation and love with each other, then the communion can take on a dividing role among us as believers, especially from our different denominations. We hold to different views on the “bread” and “wine” and who is eligible to take it in our meetings, which all seem to miss the point of the supper itself, which is a symbol of our sharing lives together to restore the broken people around us. That is, the “communion” can become a principality and power, in that it serves to divide us and hinder our caring service towards each other. It can become an opportunity for war and destruction, as it often has in the past, rather than a sign of our giving of ourselves in love for each other. The communion meal is a sign of the cross and new life: when we deny ourselves, take up our cross to serve our neighbour, our creation is restored in new life. The sign (the sacrament) of the kingdom of God is our love for each other. “By this all men shall know you are my disciples (by this you shall bear witness to me till I come), through your love for each other.” This love is our communion.
1st Corinthians 12-14, dealing with the charismata, was another place where worldly powers had begun to dominate. Something of Greek Gnosticism had entered the church, where “gifts” were the result of one’s earned spirituality, through denying sex in marriage, and other forms of rigorous “spiritual living.” In 2nd Corinthians we see that these people called Paul weak, because he didn’t practice their higher-level spiritual disciplines. They preferred the fake “super-apostles” who abused the assembly (with a so-called authority based on their “superior spirituality”) and used the church for their own power needs. For some reason the flock likes to submit to such people, and this is sometimes still the case today. Spirituality had become a new ladder to climb, a new path to personal success, a new hierarchy for importance in leadership and dominance over people. The gifts of the Spirit were no longer “gifts” (totally of grace), and the effect of the “gifts” was no longer to serve and lift the weakest members of the church, but to elevate into position and reward those with the most boldness. “Gifts” had become the means of “vaunting” oneself in the assembly. The true character of Christ had become lost in a false charisma based on the force of human personality, not the true Spirit of God. Where the Spirit of God is working, the importance of self is overcome, replaced by the importance of the community. When we seek to lift someone up, it isn’t our self we seek to lift, but others and especially the weakest members, who may struggle with some form of disadvantage. This is how the real Spirit of God works. True charisma revamps the world powers by defeating the importance of self.
This view of how the Corinthians misused the charismata to divide rather than to heal is brought out very plainly in 1st and 2nd Corinthians. Though God has done many signs and wonders through Paul, Paul refuses to boast in these, but rather boasts in his weaknesses. He claims that the so called “super apostles” beat the Corinthian believers and they take it, while Paul lays down his life in weakness to serve them, and they despise it. Their value system has been highjacked by the world’s powers. The “super-apostles” are after financial advantage, so Paul refuses to take money from the church, so he might show the difference. But this, also, the people call weakness on Paul’s part. We see all these twisted values often played out in today’s congregations.
The church has a twisted eschatology, believing they have arrived already as kings of the new world, denying they are servants of the broken world to bring its healing. They “already reign as kings,” Paul said, “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honoured, we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.” (1 Corinthians 4:9-13)
It seems the most striking issue in these two letters to the Corinthians is around weakness and strength, just as we see in our own time. The Corinthians and afraid of weakness, and this is their true weakness. They feel weakness will bring them dishonour, though they claim to worship a King who was crucified in weakness. They fear weakness will leave them in lack, so they try to accumulate goods to make them strong, just like the Roman world around them does. They are afraid to trust God for their needs, so they must cheat other people out of their own honour, position and provisions. They don’t know what true strength is, how Paul shows strength in his own life: which is the ability to denounce the false praise and misuse of power that Rome trusts in, and instead to trust in the faithfulness and power of God to meet his needs and keep his life. And because the Corinthians cannot trust God in this way, in trying to become strong themselves, they must rob and cheat others, which means they make others around them weak. They continue to produce brokenness in the world, rather than bring healing to others. Because they are afraid of weakness and try to hide from it, they create more weakness in the world, and refuse to stretch out a hand of healing towards it. They are afraid to bring the poor in, least they become poor. Therefore, the cross is our only healing power: it points us to weakness and brokenness, so that we might not despise it and not cast it out, as we despised Christ in his weakness. The cross draws us back to remember the weak, to heal them, to see our misuse of power and change our ways. The cross is the power of new creation, of renewing the selfish world powers.
Therefore, our congregations must not worship power, as the world does. They must not honour the strong, as the world does. Paul spoke of the weaker members having the most honour. When we follow the world and honour the strong among us, the cool, the superstar, the charismatic person, we are training ourselves to forget the weak, to marginalise and relegate the ones of lower esteem in the world around us. We are then following the fallen powers of the world. This is common today. This then means we forget the weak, our focus turns to our own needs and our own futures of blessing. The creation continues to be destroyed by this kind of focus dominating our lives. But when our worship and congregations focus on the weak things of this world, then we are drawn towards the weak and broken people around us, to share healing with them. We must lift the weak in our congregations, giving them notice, opportunity, training, position, so we aren’t deceived by turning instead to the strong of this world. We then become the church healing our world, bringing about the reconciled powers God purposed for the creation. This is our task and we will never see it while we seek praise from the world.
Powers in Philippians
Turning now to Philippians, we need to know Paul’s life situation first, before we can understand the emphasis he is placing in his letter. We have traditionally seen these letters by Paul as arguing for the private faith of the believer, in the face of Jewish legalism, but this gives us quite a different reading from that Paul may have intended. If Paul, instead of arguing for our private faith, was arguing for humility (for the Jews to receive the gentiles), then this hospitality of care could be what Paul meant by “faith.” That is, seeing “private faith” as the goal of Paul’s letters overthrows Paul’s real intent: which was to build a community of service, which was first demonstrated by the way God acted in his incarnation in Christ.
Our modern viewpoint of letters like Philippians comes to us from the Reformation, where we see Paul helping us to argue against the traditions of the Catholic church, for a faith that justifies us without these Catholic traditions. As valid as this discussion may be, between faith and ceremonial practice, I suggest the purpose of Paul was more about bringing these two groups together (in his time, the Jews with their Hebrew ceremonies and the gentiles without those Hebrew ceremonies) than rejecting one of the groups in favour of the other. Paul’s purpose was uniting us both in acceptance of each other through Christ. And the basis of this mutual acceptance is our humility, and this humility is the “faith” that Paul wants us to have together.
Therefore, the focal-point for Paul in his letter to the Philippians is the passage in Philippians 2:5-11. This passage is about God’s humiliation in Christ, so that he could raise up humanity into newness of life. Prior to the incarnation of God in Christ, humanity thought that newness comes to the world by us assuming authority to execute some “divine punishment” upon others, but this only leads to arrogance and more destruction. That is the way we saw God. This was Paul, when he was Saul. But God reveals himself so differently in the incarnation, that now we see that it is the deconstruction of this presumed “divine power” into a life of service, even towards our enemies, that is the key to God raising our humanity into newness of life.
The passage in Philippians begins with Christ’s humility in his incarnation, not grasping his divine privileges, but emptying himself to serve the weaker and lesser. What a revolution and what a reformation/ reconciliation of world powers this could be, if this true nature of God could permeate our lives and cultures today. This passage in Philippians is considered by many to be a poem, that circulated in the early churches. The passage is structured similarly to poetic sections of the Old Testament Hebrew tradition. The poem may have been an early creed of the church, something that was referred to or recited/ sung at early baptisms. It seems this poem was known when Paul used it and possibly placed it within the centre of his letter to the Philippians, to draw out its significance for our love for each other.
Later, the Greek church fathers would read a divine hierarchy into this text, reading it as God the Father sending a pre-existing Son into the world. I am not sure this was Paul’s mind when he wrote. I think this restructuring of the passage as a hierarchy overthrows the point Paul was making. The point is the absolute humility of God himself: that in Christ, God humbles himself. This was the way incarnation was seen in Hebrew theology, even before Paul’s time. God came into the creation in his Spirit, Word and Light. He came into Israel, in his Shekinah in the temple. The incarnation of God in human flesh is the ultimate revelation of God’s person to the creation, his ultimate condescension so we might know him. But the trinity (in its Hebrew way of thinking, as the redemptive/ covenantal coming of God to his creation) was nothing new to Hebrew thought in Paul’s day. Our understanding of terms like “God sent forth his Son” needs to be in this Hebrew sense. It means God coming in his own appearing, coming to his creation in a human tabernacle. (John 1:14) This is how Isaiah depicts the incarnation, as YHWH (Yahweh) himself appearing. As Philippians says, “every knee shall bow to YHWH, in and through Christ.” The only hierarchy that existed was one under the law, where Christ fulfilled the demands of human obedience to redeem us from the law.
So, God comes in Christ, rather than sends someone else from heaven to suffer for him. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) This means the person at the top serves; he/ she is the one who bows down the most. This idea of God, rather than a hierarchical God who sends his punishment upon another, may have helped our Christian nations reflect the “God of humility” rather that the “God of divine punishment” to the world around us. If we had read this passage in Philippians as Paul intended, as a call to lower ourselves to serve our enemies, there may have been a very different pollical history in our Christian relationships with the world.
As we look through this poem/ passage in Philippians 2:5-11 we see the incarnation, the divinity of Christ, his sufferings and death, his resurrection and his lordship over the nations. And most of these truths have found their way into the church creeds, but none of these are the point that Paul was making in this passage. The central point of the poem was the humility of God in the incarnation and sufferings of Christ; that God would suffer like this for his enemies, without using his power against them, and that only this way of living can lead our nations to newness of life. Paul said he wrote this passage for the purpose of leading us on this same path, “to have the same mind,” so that we would exercise similar humility towards each other in our fellowship. This humility then was the most important point Paul was aiming at here, yet this humility did not find its way into the church creeds. Everything else in this passage, but the central point, is explicit in our creeds. The church has often gone to war in the past, and even today goes to a kind of war against each other, over the creeds, but God never went to war to defend his doctrine. He went to the cross to defend his truth and to defend his creation. The “mind” Paul told us to have, wasn’t a mind of exclusivity in our representation of orthodoxy, where we cut off other valid emphases in a disunified body, but it was the mind of humility of service that keeps us one. It might be good if the truths of our creeds were structured around their central point (the humility of God and our call to such discipleship), just as they were in this passage of Paul.
Let’s go back to how Philippians may have been structured in Paul’s mind in that day, rather than in the mind of the Reformation in more modern times. As stated above, in Reformation thinking, the debate is over faith verses religious ceremonies or traditions. A statement like this from Philippians 3:8-9, “I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith,” is a classic statement for us to use to pit our own kind of faith against the church traditions of others. But this isn’t what Paul meant by the statement. We will come back to this point later, but first, what kind of issue was Paul facing when he wrote? The poem/ passage we discussed above from Philippians 2:5-11 locates Paul’s thinking for us exactly. The themes of Philippians 2:5-11 come from Daniel, especially Daniel 7, where the Son of Man is said to be exalted aver the nations. The issue on Paul’s mind then had to do with how these eschatological (end-times) issues were to be fulfilled: how these promises about the exaltation of Israel would come to pass. This was always Paul’s mind, from the days he persecuted Christians, through to his new ministry of church planting. How would Israel bring God’s kingdom to rule over the world? This is the pivotal issue Paul was addressing Israel over, especially their false way of reading their faith, just like we often do, as a nationalistic, exclusive, privatised faith, in which others are not treated as equal, or invited with us to one economic table.
The huge surprise the gospel reveals, is that the way in which God brings every knee to bow, and in which his kingdom fills and renews the whole world, is through humility and service, and not through the strength of force, as Saul previously believed. The letter to the Philippians is like Paul’s commentary on the Old Testament book of Daniel. We might see Philippians as just as a general encouragement to the church, about their faith in Jesus Christ and their love for each other, and it is that, but the background from which Paul is clearly writing shows a thematic structure to the letter that makes the letter an eschatological writing showing God’s kingdom promises to Israel are now being fulfilled through our love toward each other. This is a letter on the unity of our faith, not a letter dividing us over our ceremonial differences. It is this unity of love that is God’s kingdom expression to renew the powers of our creation and bring about God’s promises. This overall theme would have been clearly visible to the Jewish reader in Paul’s day. They would have un-mistakenly seen Paul’s call to reject a privatised faith in the place of a community faithfulness. This faithfulness to our neighbour is what Paul means by faith, as we will see further below.
Quoting Isaiah in Philippians 2:10-11, saying that “To me every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that I am YHWH,” resonated very clearly with the people Paul was writing to. (Isaiah 45:23) To us today, the message isn’t as clear. Isaiah was speaking about Israel’s defeat of paganism in the world. The promise was given around the imagery of Israel returning to the land, from exile in Babylon. The land would flourish, the communities would live in peace, the raging waters of pagan powers would no longer trouble humanity. Ezekiel took this vision on further, depicting, by the symbolism of the new temple and the symbolism of Israel camped around the tabernacle in the Wilderness, in the presence of God, a new land, which in fulfilment in the gospel is a new world, for all humanity. (Ezekiel 47-48) Daniel took this vision still further, showing God’s kingdom coming into this world, smashing the pagan powers and grinding them to dust and then filling the earth with God’s presence and wholeness. (Daniel 2:31-35) These are God’s promises to Israel, and they are for all the word and all its people, and these are the promises that the gospel fulfils. This is the topic of Paul in Philippians.
Some of these metaphors look violent, like the pagans being ground to dust, and Messiah ruling with an iron rod, and many in Paul’s day (Maccabees, Essenes, Zealots) expected these to be fulfilled in violence, with an uprising from the Jews against the pagan powers. (Psalm 2:9) A closer reading of scripture, however, shows that these metaphors are designed to undermine human violence. It’s the poetic use of themes from human culture that are employed to drive home a point that humanity can easily understand. God’s “violence” is the cross, his own self-giving nature. It is violent because of its seemingly “unorthodox” or “unfair” approach, breaking the rules of the culture, not playing by the fallen terms of our power struggles. This new culture is found in the Sermon on the Mount and its peacefulness is designated as “violent,” because this depicts in human terms, first the shock, then the betrayal of expected norms, and then the certainty of the victory of Christ’s way. Christ’s kingdom of peace shall utterly vanquish its enemies, which are greed and hatred. His kingdom of peace shall destroy violence within the world and take complete victory over all self-centred powers. Coming to terms with this new culture was the essence of faith, of following Jesus, of being a believer, in the first century. Relearning life in terms of the Sermon on the Mount and reprogramming our initiatives and responses to Christ’s kingdom, in this violent, greedy world, was not an optional-extra in being a believer: it was what “believing” meant. Paul, depicting the cross of Christ as that which overthrew Caesar’s brutality (“triumphing” over the powers on his cross), shows his use of violent pagan metaphor to portray the utter conquest of peace in our hearts and relationships. (Colossians 2:15) This is how to read the “violence” in scripture, when it is speaking of God’s kingdom.
And this is the huge step Paul is taking as he writes his letter to the Philippians. He is showing that these violent visions of Daniel, of the kingdom of God conquering evil in the world, are to be fulfilled through the “violence” of service. He starts with Christ, showing how he conquered evil by the giving of himself, by the laying down of his life, not by fighting it with force. He fought evil with peace. As the world’s cultures looked at his sufferings, saying his sufferings were Christ’s shame, they really knew that the shame of the cross was ours, our greed, our injustice, that crucified him. It took the cross of Christ to show us ourselves. This is the fight that God, and Paul, calls the church to in Philippians: to show ourselves and the world the true nature of our fall, and the true way of our transformation, through our service of our neighbour, even serving our enemy. This “shaming of the darkness” is our fight, our weapon. God himself is the guarantee of our lives. The hope of our wellbeing isn’t any longer some advantage that we can gain over another, but God’s faithfulness to those who trust him. Just as he rose Jesus from the dead, he will also raise us up when we die with Christ, following the truth instead of following the culture of fallenness.
So, in Philippians, Paul employs all the major themes of Daniel, like the ascension of the Son of Man to rule over the nations, the demise of pagan rule in the world, the resurrection of humanity from the dead, giving us renewed bodies, and the last judgement. As said earlier, any reader in Paul’s day knew that Paul was invoking the book of Daniel and knew what Paul was doing with that book in his own commentary in Philippians. And the reader in Paul’s day didn’t see Paul speaking of the believer soon escaping to heaven, but saw the believer following the kingdom lifestyle of Christ in renewing the powers of this present creation, as God’s new heaven/ new earth promise for this world. The reader saw Paul explaining how this is the way that Daniel’s promises comes to pass, how this new heavenly Stone, cut out without hands, strikes the image of pagan rule in the earth and then fills the earth with newness. The way this happens is what Paul is explaining through his letter to the Philippians. This is what the letter is about: the new hope, which is simple, but revolutionary and the only genuine hope: service taking over in our hearts and actions, from selfishness. This is our eschatological hope, which Paul lays out chapter by chapter in his letter.
Paul begins his letter to the Philippians with his own example: “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (1:23-24) His main concern in his predicament in prison is not his own life, his own opportunities, but how he can serve others. His life doesn’t revolve around himself, but around the community of the kingdom of God, and the welfare of that community. This is building up to chapter three, as we will see below, where it is this community that defines Paul’s ethics. This kind of ethics is revolutionary in Rome, and in Jerusalem, in Paul’s day. Life there revolved around the interests of the elite. Philippians is making a deliberate contrast between the values of these elite, who together crucified Christ, and the values of Christ, where our interests are placed in the welfare of all. Paul then transfers his own example to the believers at Philippi, calling them to, “strive together as one for the faith of the gospel.” This isn’t to be read just to mean that we strive for the doctrines of Christ, but the “striving together as one for the faith,” is central to that gospel. The way we live to serve the interests of the other, to maintain our unity by our care for one another, is central to this striving. This love for another is the gospel, that we strive to make known in the world; the gospel Jesus revealed by giving himself for us all. This is to challenge, renew and reconcile the world powers, which take the opposite stance in self-centredness.
As stated above, the poem/ passage in Philippines 2:5-11, about Christ’s incarnation, humiliation and resurrection, was possibly recited or sung as a hymn at early baptisms. It was certainly definitive of early Christian faith. And, as also commented on above, this passage wasn’t to merely outline our beliefs about Jesus Christ, in opposition to those who didn’t hold the faith. The poem was to be a creed of our own living, not a creed against other faiths, as it became to some people in the Crusades. The point of the creed was this: just as God humbled himself in his incarnation in human flesh, condescending to our low estate, even to the point of death as a slave, then we shouldn’t complain if we are treated the same way by others. If God can travel this huge distance to forgive us our sin against him, when we crucified him, then we can travel the small distance to forgive those who have sinned against us. If we were mere ants compared to God’s transcendent glory, then who in the whole world is below the reach of our own love, or too wretched for our caring attitude? The answer is, nobody.
This is the point of the doctrine of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ, and this is why the doctrine is so important to protect. It isn’t because we are defending God, but we are defending the ultimate event in human history, when God humbled himself to show us to be humble. Without this event in human history, the whole of humity would still be lost. The cross, even the cross we bear to serve our enemies, is the place where sin and law is taken out of our hearts and relationships, where we are reconciled. Without this act from God, we would never know him. The cosmos would break down under law and human retribution. We wouldn’t know service, which is at the centre of the gospel and of what leadership means. We defend the true doctrine because it teaches us how to live, through a heart renewed by the Holy Spirit. This renewed heart is what changes our creation, by leading us to love and restore one another, instead of dealing with the world in a punitive manner. This is the “mind” Paul wants us to have, the mind that was in Christ.
Atonement vocabulary is another place where we like to break ranks due to our differences, but the church has always had a variety of ways of expressing it. God did punish sin on the cross, but this sin was in own hearts that were filled with law, and we demanded the punishment against ourselves and against others. So, the punishment for sin that God gave us in his incarnation and death was for us, and we were the ones who carried that punishment out by our own violence against Christ, only to find out in the midst of this great sin that we were freely forgiven. Atonement vocabulary in the scriptures shouldn’t be read rashly, or we will misconstrue the nature of God, and this matters when we are called to be transformed into his image. Our image of God (the way we see God’s character) matters, especially when we are dealing with sin and evil in the world today. We need to deal with sin the way God did, by giving himself to reconcile and restore his enemies.
Having noted his own example of service in Philippians 1, in the next chapter Paul places Christ’s example at the centre of his letter. We can see here that it is Christ’s life that inspired Paul to understand what Israel’s calling was and how to live it out to renew the gentile world. We have already looked at Christ’s example above. This humiliation and rising of Christ certainly puts Paul’s next instruction into perspective: “Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” (Philippians 2:14-16) Then Paul reverts to his own example: “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.” (Philippians 2:17) This translation from the NIV, means that Paul’s sacrifice of service is meant to draw out of the Philippian believers a new life of service from each of them towards others. This is Paul’s desire, that the sacrifice of Christ, and the sacrifice of the leaders of the church, bring about a similar transformation of service towards each other in the whole renewed community. So, the question for us is, if we are at all leaders in the church community, and we all are in some way, are our lives given for the church, or do we require that the believers instead give themselves for our comfort, wellbeing and honour?
Paul then uses some leaders of the church as further examples of service. Paul isn’t doing this merely to fill his letter with warm greetings from these leaders, but to portray the eschatological place of the church in a dead world that God is bringing to life through us. First, Timothy: “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.” (Philippians 2:20-22) Next, Epaphroditus: “But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad, and I may have less anxiety. So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honour people like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me.” (Philippians 2:25-30) Here is a beautiful symphony of care, a circle of care constantly in motion between Paul, the leaders and all the believers in the church. The church sent Epaphroditus to care for Paul, Epaphroditus is concerned the church will worry about his welfare, Paul wants to make sure the church is relieved. This circle of care, each one for each other, continuing daily in our communities, is the new creation, the apocalypse (the revealing) of the kingdom of God to a dead world. This is the church’s calling, and this is the point Paul is making through his letter. This circle of care must be our gospel witness in the world.
Now we are ready for the next chapter, where Paul writes about “having no confidence in his flesh.” In our Reformed view, we have put these comments within the world of our personal, or privatised faith. No doubt such matters do relate to each of us personally, but the overall meaning of what Paul is speaking of here is the mutual caring within the church community. Here, Paul turns to the relationships between Jewish and gentile believers, that had bedevilled all his churches. Paul has “no confidence in his Jewishness.” He is speaking of those boastings that divided the church community then, just as they can do today. The nationalist Jews of Paul’s day wanted Paul and the other Jewish believers to divide from the gentile believers. To Paul, this would defeat the entire gospel project. The kind of service that the cross displays would be impossible in a world where we are not one. The whole new creation project of restoring our neighbour would be defeated. Elitism, greed, segregation, would still rule the old world. Rome wants Paul to divide from the slave, to keep Rome’s social/ economic conditions intact, and Jeruslem wants Paul to divide from the gentiles, for the same reason. But Paul is stubborn. Now he knows Christ’s love, he can’t do what they want.
Instead of Paul’s racial righteousness, Paul wants a righteousness of faith, and by this Paul means a righteousness that is common to all in Christ, and that is worked out in loving community between us all. You know that the Greek word for faith is “pistis” and this covers the broad spectrum of what faith means. It means to believe, and it means to be faithful. So, faith means a believing way of life, in which the whole faith community show their faith by serving one another. This community living, where all are included and loved, is faith. As Paul said, elsewhere, “Faith works through love.” It’s either the faith of service, or the false righteousness of self. The righteousness of faith is a gift, and this gift is received by us as we acknowledge that our neighbour has also received this faith from God, and we accept that neighbour. To reject that neighbour is to reject that faith for our self, and then to be found in our own righteousness, which is wanting. Privatised justifying faith is a contraction of terms. Forgiveness and faith only work in us as we acknowledge the same work in others. If we don’t accept the gentile (or our brother/ sister in Christ), then we stand in our nationalism (or denominationalism) and here we stand in our sin, arrogance and blindness, which God won’t justify.
Paul continues, that in living in this common faith with the whole community, Paul suffers persecution, and here he meant especially from the nationalist Jews, who inspired most of his sufferings by employing Roman power. (We suffer the same today when we love those of other denominations, it being said we have “decamped.”) These nationalists were determined not to allow their exclusive prestige and the profit from it to be broken up by Paul’s ministry, which included all ethnicities on the basis of a mutual faith/ service into a new kingdom. Jerusalem made too much money from the temple to allow this to happen. So, for Paul to pursue his ministry of including the gentiles, he was throwing away, or giving up, his previous privilege in the Jewish community. He was not denying his Jewishness to accept Christ, not denying his ceremonial traditions, but he was enduring persecution and losing his privileges in his former life in order to embrace the gentile as his brother or sister. Paul would lose all the carefully earned rights he had as a leading Pharisee. By following the love of Jesus, by following the cross, Paul would lose the world. And the same would happen to his rights as a Roman citizen. By loving the salve, as his letter to Philemon said, calling a slave his brother, Paul was denying the Roman law of separation that held some citizens above others. Rome could not tolerate this. By pursuing the love of Christ, Paul was losing the love and respect of the world, and the profit that went with that. He could have wealth and ease in Rome, but instead he gladly suffered to eat with the slave. This is what Christ did for us all. So, Paul’s point in Philippians 3, is that he is following the Christ of Philippians 2, where he does not look at his high estate as something to be grasped but lays it aside in order to reach and reconcile with others. This is exactly the Christ-life, and if we are not living this life in the world, then we are not living Christian doctrine.
So, the faith Paul was speaking of in Philippians 3, wasn’t a private faith in opposition to the Jewish ceremonial traditions, like circumcision, or other practices. Similarly, Jesus wasn’t against these practices, but he was only against how these practices were used by the Pharisees as an excuse not to serve others who didn’t practice them. This wrong use of religion, which humanity has always indulged in, as a rationalisation for rejecting and not caring for others, has become a principality and power to us all, and this is what the gospel faith tears down in our lives and communities. So, Paul wasn’t writing about dropping these past traditions, for a new personal faith, which “faith alone” is to be the gospel we cling to, while condemning those in the ceremonies, or in other traditions different from our own. This Reformed view of the passage isn’t doing justice to what Paul was saying in his day. In setting forth his Hebrew eschatology, being fulfilled in the cross, Paul was speaking of a faith that called and allowed us to serve one another, and thereby defeat the principalities and powers. This is the topic Paul was speaking of when he spoke of our faith as a believing community.
In all Paul’s letter it is the same: he is speaking about faith in order to defeat personal boasting in tribe or tradition, so that we may share equal fellowship in a common/ united faith, which is God’s gift to us all through the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we personalise Paul’s message to an extent that goes beyond his main point, then we overthrow Paul’s purpose, which was that we share one faith in service of all. This is what our faith ultimately boils down to: just as Christ freely receives us on the basis of faith, so we are to freely receive and serve others, not boasting in ourselves. This is the Christian faith that saves and transforms us as God’s new people in the world.
Just to mention one other point, while we are on this subject of Israel’s eschatological mission being fulfilled through our mutual non-prejudicial service. Some forms of modern Zionism misconstrue the eschatological mission of Israel, just as many misconstrued it in Paul’s day. Paul fought against this racial/ nationalist path as the means by which God’s promises to the Jews would be fulfilled. Jesus showed in all his teachings that the good land, or promised land, is to come about through Israel’s love for their neighbour, not allowing creed or ethnicity to build a wall between themselves and suffering humanity. All humanity, according to Jesus, are our neighbour, and this is precisely the point Paul was making. And it is through living this mission in our daily lives, as believers grafted into Israel by faith, that the renewal of creation is to be advanced. Many today see God’s promises to Israel as being fulfilled by some political or military process. It seems to me that this is a colonial vision of God’s kingdom, which isn’t the vision of the cross. We hide behind this colonial vision because we choose this as our method of bringing about God’s promises, rather than by our own suffering. God has called believers to suffer and forgive and by this to reconcile and heal our divisions in the world, freeing the creation from its bondage to corruption. Romans 8 speaks of this in detail. Many in first century Israel rejected this call, just as many of us reject it today. If we don’t renew by participating and fellowshipping in the suffering of others, we are not transformed ourselves.