One of the most basic issues people faced in New Testament times was the disturbing problem of how to go about life in a world dominated by evil spiritual powers. In that environment, people believed that the universe was filled with vengeful and capricious deities who had the power to interfere in people’s day-to-day affairs and even determine their fate. Human existence was marked by a deep feeling of fear and anxiety in face of the divine. The Romans called this feeling deisidaimonia, or fear of the supernatural.
Scholars have noticed the importance of deisidaimonia for understanding how some false teachers were able to distress the believers in the city of Colossae with their teaching on evil spiritual powers. These are most naturally interpreted as personal spiritual beings, and we can see how important they were in Colossians by the number of references Paul makes to them in such a short letter (see Colossians 1.13, 16; 2.8, 10, 15, 18, 20). The apostle dubs the false teaching a ‘hollow and deceptive philosophy’ (Colossians 2.8, NIV). It had the potential to mislead the Colossians and cause serious harm to their faith.
But how were the powers troubling the Colossians? Several clues in the letter point to their fear of, or fascination for, them. Paul affirms that Christ is superior to the powers (Colossians 1.16; 2.9), that Christ has defeated them on the cross (Colossians 2.15), and that believers share in Christ’s victory by means of their identification with him (Colossians 2.20). Paul also mentions some issues involving ‘worship of angels’ (Colossians 2.18). In his response to the threat posed by these spiritual beings, Paul reassured the Colossians of Christ’s supremacy over the entire cosmos, including the powers, and his sufficiency for the believer’s faith and life.
But before we look into that, we should first step back and address a preliminary question: what does Paul really mean by all this talk about spiritual powers? For people living in Paul’s day, this would have been a question with an obvious answer. In some parts of today’s world though, the answer is not so obvious. People in the modern west are often predisposed to reject anything which cannot be scientifically proven. There is no room for the supernatural in the age of reason. It is not the same in my home country of Brazil, though, where the worldview allows plenty of room for the supernatural.
Be that as it may, what really matters is how Paul himself viewed the spiritual world. So, did he think of the powers as just myths or actual personal spiritual entities?
Are they for real?
Paul did not spend much time articulating his view on the angelic world. But we can rightly conclude from his letters that he certainly believed in the existence of personal spiritual beings. He also believed that some of them are hostile to God and, despite being ultimately subjected to God and his Son Jesus Christ, are still active in the world (e.g., Romans 8.38–39; 1 Corinthians 15.24; Ephesians 1.20–21; 6.12).
Paul’s belief in the angelic world is in keeping with both the Old Testament tradition and the wider Jewish tradition. Yet his perception of the powers was fundamentally changed by Christ, who dealt a death blow to the powers at his crucifixion (Colossians 2.15). In many aspects the worldview of the ’hollow and deceptive philosophy’ was close to that of Paul and the Bible as a whole. Paul’s main concern, however, was not to detail his understanding of the angelic world, but to proclaim the supremacy of Christ over the realm of darkness, and show how the believers should view themselves in relation to the powers.
As we noted above, many people in contemporary western societies tend to dismiss the existence of a spiritual dimension of existence. So, to make sense of this aspect of the Bible, some have demythologised the references to the supernatural in Scripture, seeing them merely as examples of ancient superstition. This approach can miss the source of this reaction to the supernatural, namely the reading of the text through the lenses of rationalism—an ideology prevalent in the west since the Enlightenment in which there is no space for the supernatural. However, if we submit our beliefs to the scrutiny of Scripture, and allow it to shape our understanding, the picture we get is quite different.
On the other hand, Paul’s message to the Colossians finds agreement in many parts of the world—such as Brazil—where the spiritual realm is seen as an integral part of life. There is even something similar to the Roman deisidaimonia in Brazil. We are a superstitious country in which fear of, and fascination for, personal spiritual beings are an intrinsic feature of our worldview. Like the community in Colossae, Brazilians have no trouble believing in the existence of evil spiritual powers and their influence over events and people’s lives. In this aspect, Brazil’s worldview is more closely aligned with the concerns of the Colossians than many of the views of reality we find in the west.
Christ’s Cosmic Supremacy
The supremacy of Christ is wonderfully presented in Colossians 1.15–20, a poem-like text in which Paul sets forth one of the most profound reflections on the nature and work of Jesus Christ in the entire New Testament. In it, he celebrates Christ as the divine Sovereign over both creation (vv. 15–17) and the reconciled creation, or re-creation (vv. 18–20).
The ’poem’ is a crucial theological unit in the letter on which Paul builds much of his theological reflection and exhortation. He introduces it by reminding the believers that God has rescued his people in a similar way to the exodus (cf. Exodus 12), which resulted in both victory over the ‘realm of darkness’ (cf. Acts 26.18) and forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1.12–14). As Paul expands on the believers’ redemption in the poem itself (vv. 15–20), he first establishes Christ’s supremacy over the dominion of darkness by pointing out his agency in the creation of ’all things.’ The powers themselves had been created in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ (Colossians 1.16, cf. v. 17).
The apostle picks up the relation between the Son of God and the powers again in verse 20. Now he declares the supremacy of Christ over the universe in his work of reconciliation, or new creation. Paul says that ‘in him [Christ], all the fullness [of God] was pleased to dwell,’ and through Christ, God reconciled ‘all things’ to Christ, whether on earth or in heaven, ‘making peace through the blood of his cross.’ The scope of God’s reconciliation is ‘all things,’ which Paul makes clear by adding the all-embracing expression ’whether on earth or in heaven’ (harking back to the idea of ‘all things . . . in heaven and on earth’ meaning ‘all creation,’ in verse 16).
What Paul says is that God’s reconciliation embraces the entire created universe, including those spiritual powers hostile to Christ (cf. v. 16). In other words, the entire creation has been brought into its proper relationship with God and his Christ through God’s work of reconciliation of all things through Christ. This means different things for the world of humankind and for the world of the powers. For human beings, reconciliation means the restoration of friendship with God for those who respond with faith to the gospel (cf. Colossians 1.21–23). For the powers, it means pacification through conquering them, as hinted at by Christ’s work of ‘peacemaking through the blood of his cross’ (v. 20a) and made explicit in Colossians 2.15.
Paul develops the idea of ‘peacemaking through the blood of his cross’ using the vivid colours of the Roman ‘triumph’ imagery. Roman victories were usually followed by a public parade through the streets of Rome called a ‘triumph.’ In it, the triumphator, the victorious Roman leader, would lead his war captives before the eyes of an ecstatic crowd gathered to watch the spectacle. The purpose of the ritual was twofold: on the one hand, it displayed the glory of the triumphator and, on the other, the total humiliation of the captives. Writing about the humiliation of those led in triumphal processions, Mary Beard says: ‘it is not hard to imagine what the victim’s experience might have amounted to, as the noisy crowd of spectators took pleasure in feeling that they had at last the upper hand over (in Cicero’s words) “those whom they had feared”’ (The Roman Triumph [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007]). This is just what Paul says has happened in Christ’s crucifixion. Bringing God’s victory to a climax, Paul says that ‘God made a bold public display of the powers by disarming them and by leading them in triumphal procession in Christ on the cross.’ (Colossians 2.15, my translation).
Colossians 2.15 reveals the total powerlessness of the powers by depicting them as conquered captives led in triumphal procession in Christ by the victorious God, the military triumphator. They have been pacified through conquering, a familiar concept to those living under the Pax Romana (an imperial ideal and propaganda that promised peace and stability across the empire), which was attained through the pacification of Roman enemies by means of military victories. Likewise, God has pacified the powers through conquering them in Christ on the cross.
Why then should the Colossians fear such pitiable and helpless beings?
The Impact of the Triumph’s Imagery
The way Paul used Roman triumph imagery to portray the definitive victory of God in Christ over the powers challenged the Colossians’ perception of reality in at least three ways:
1. God’s triumph challenged their view of the powers: from rulers and authorities to prisoners of war. The Colossians must have perceived the irony behind it all. For the cross, the very instrument used by the rulers of this world to humiliate Jesus Christ, was ironically co-opted by God to humiliate and defeat the powers once for all. Not the streets of Rome, but the cross was the street through which God led the humiliated powers. On the cross, God paraded them in shame before the eyes of the entire world—since the gospel of God’s triumph has been proclaimed ’in all creation under heaven’ (Colossians 1.23). Rather than fear them, the Colossians, as well as modern readers of this letter, are invited to watch the joyful parade of God’s powerless prisoners.
2. God’s triumph challenges their view of themselves: from ‘carried off as captives of war’ to conquerors. Paul warns the believers about the risk of becoming ’captives’ themselves by the deceitful false teaching, which was ’according to the elemental spirits of the world’ (Colossians 2.8). The irony of the cross goes on. For God’s triumph in Christ means that the elemental spirits are actually the ones made captives (Colossians 2.15). By their identification with Christ, believers also share the victory’s spoils (cf. e.g., 2.10, 20; 3.1). Thus, first-century believers in Colossae and modern readers alike are challenged to picture themselves in God’s parade not only as spectators, but also as conquerors. We who are in Christ are invited to come down from the stands and enjoy the ride in the triumphator’s chariot.
3. God’s triumph challenges their view of the Bringer of Peace: from Caesar’s sword to Christ’s cross. Non-Romans living under the Pax Romana were used to the idea of the empire imposing ‘peace’ through the crushing and pacification of their enemies. Now Paul says that God, the all-powerful triumphator, has brought peace to the entire universe through the blood of Christ’s cross (Colossians 1.20). Like the Pax Romana, this is also peace through violence: it is peace made on a Roman cross, after all. However, the violence which we human beings, God’s enemies (cf. Colossians 1.21), were supposed to bear, God took upon himself in the person of his beloved Son on the cross (Colossians 1.20). The only ‘divine violence’ involved in the process was directed towards those evil spiritual powers, God’s conquered enemies. The Colossians, as well as we modern readers of this letter, can now enjoy real peace, Christ’s peace (or Pax Christi, if you will). This peace is available to all who respond with faith to the gospel of the Reconciler and Conqueror God (cf. Colossians 1.21–23).
We Christian Brazilians welcome Paul’s message with a deep sigh of relief: it proclaims freedom from both the power of sin and the realm of darkness (Colossians 1.13–14). We no longer need to fear spirits when we rightly see they are ultimately powerless against God’s people. Nevertheless, we need to be wary of unduly emphasising the threat posed by spiritual powers, which can be the source of ideas about spiritual warfare, such as ‘territorial spirits.’ Christ has conquered them. And in a way, this is all that matters. In our fascination with the supernatural, we face the risk of going ‘beyond what is written’ (1 Corinthians 4.6).
On the other hand, modern western readers of Scripture need to be wary of quickly dismissing the all-too-real ongoing spiritual battle lest they fail to stand against it (Ephesians 6.11–20). Though we cannot test the spiritual world in a lab, Scripture testifies that there is more to reality than meets the eye.
It is true that the powers are still at work. However, they are but dying powers carrying out desperate assaults against God’s people while waiting the inescapable final blow (cf. Romans 16.20).