This post will be too detailed or technical for some. It is actually a brief paper I wrote several years ago for a class. For the paper, I had to look at Paul’s use of phrases such as “principalities and powers” in Ephesians. Maybe it will interest someone out there.
The spiritual warfare passage of Ephesians chapter six is well known, and we can tend to see it as standing alone at the end of the epistle. Yet the theme of an unseen spiritual reality permeates the entire epistle, although in a subtle way. Perhaps the unique phrases used by Paul can also make it easy to overlook this emphasis. This paper will carefully consider phrases such as “in the heavenly places”, “principalities and powers” and “prince of the power of the air” that direct us to the supernatural realm. Ultimately this should point us to Christ who is far exalted above these powers, and our position in Him.
In the Heavenly Places
Ephesians 1:3 is the first place Paul uses the unique phrase “in the heavenly places” which occurs four other times in Ephesians (1:20, 2:6, 3:10, 6:12) but nowhere else in his epistles. In 1:3, it states we as believers have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. Clearly, the heavenly places does not refer to the literal sky or other earthly location, but to a spiritual realm or reality. The phrase is used in a similar fashion in 1:20 and 2:6, where it is further indicated that the heavenly places is the dwelling of God. However, its use in 3:10 and 6:12 (and in the continuation of the sentence from 1:20 into 1:21) brings in another dimension when it refers to “principalities and powers” in the heavenly places. While 1:21 and 3:10 may be referring to both good and evil forces, in 6:12 it is clearly referring only to evil or hostile ones.
The heavenly places are a place of spiritual blessing, the dwelling of God, as well as the location of good and evil powers. Lincoln (as referenced by Murphy) summarizes these verses by stating that the heavenly places are “the spiritual world above…seen in the perspective of the age to come, which has been inaugurated by God by raising Christ from the dead and exalting Him to His right hand (1:20)…Yet, since heaven is also still involved in the present evil age, there remain hostile powers in the heavenly realms (3:10, 6:12) until this consummation of the age to come.”
While 1:3 initially appears to have no relationship to spiritual warfare, when we read it in light of the other aforementioned verses in Ephesians, we realize it does. It is revealing to note that after Paul’s opening greeting in 1:1-2, he immediately begins his entrance into the cosmic supernatural realm by hinting at it in verse three. Paul will continue to hint at and develop this theme throughout the epistle, culminating in the final chapter.
Principalities and Powers/Prince of the Power of the Air
Ephesians 1:21 is the first of three references to principalities and powers. From an initial look at this section of verses, one might conclude that earthly rulers are in mind. However, when considered in light of Ephesians as a whole, supernatural rulers must be in mind as well. In addition, Paul is using descriptive terminology from the ancient Judaic world. Apocalyptic texts such as 1 and 2 Enoch have similar lists associated with angels or Satan’s cohorts. Ryrie states that the words in verse 21 describe different orders of angels in rabbinic thought at that time. It can also be noted that Paul uses the phrase principalities and powers in Colossians 1:16 in reference to both the “visible and invisible.”
The word “principalities” is the translation of the Greek word arche which means leaders or first ones. While “power” is the translation of the Greek word exousia which means authorities. Contemporary versions of the Bible such as the NIV simply translate it as “rulers and authorities” which seems more straightforward in modern english than the traditional “principalities and powers.” The emphasis in this section of verses is that Christ is far above these rulers and authorities, whether human or supernatural, in both the present and future age.
Ephesians 2:2 has the first specific reference to evil powers in the spiritual realm. Before coming to Christ, they were dead in sin (2:1) and walked according to “the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air” (2:2). While the phrase “prince of the power of the air” is unique to Ephesians, other New Testament passages shed light on this phrase and on the verse as a whole. John 15:18 and 1 John 5:19 refer to the world as the satanically organized system that opposes God. Jesus himself called Satan the ruler of this world in John 12:31, 14:30, and 16:11. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul similarly refers to “the god of this age.” The “air” seems synonymous to the heavenly places, and Satan is the prince that rules in our present age. This section of verses again ultimately points us to the exalted Christ, as can be seen in the past tense emphasis that they were dead in sin before coming to Christ but now are alive in Christ (2:5) and seated in the heavenly places with Him (2:6).
The next reference is found in 3:10 which again refers to “principalities and powers in the heavenly places” but in regards to the manifold wisdom of God being made known to these powers by the church. Commentators have varying views on whether the principalities and powers in this verse refer to good angels, evil angels, or both. Hoehner, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, sees this verse as referring to both good and evil angels, and that the uniting of Jews and Gentiles into one body is a powerful witness to the unseen spiritual world of God’s wisdom. Another hint of angelic beings looking in on human events can be found in the writings of the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 1:12.
In the final chapter of Ephesians, Paul brings together all of his previous hints on the spiritual realm. Ephesians 6:12 may be the most specific and remarkable verse on spiritual warfare in the Bible. Verses 10-11 open the section, and state that we are standing against the schemes of the devil. If there were previous doubts about the supernatural nature of these powers, this section brings clarity. Verse 12 states that these forces are not “flesh and blood” and a distinct contrast is made between the human and supernatural aspect. We are dealing with spiritual, not physical, conflict. Paul also refers to the sphere of this activity as in “the heavenly places” using this phrase for the fifth and final time in verse 12. Paul refers to the principalities and powers, as in 1:21 and 3:10, but now adds on two additional phrases: “rulers of the darkness of this age” and “spiritual hosts of wickedness.”
The phrase “rulers of the darkness of this age” is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. Commentators such as Murphy and Perkins refer to the research of Clinton Arnold. Arnold did extensive research into this phrase and came to the conclusion that Paul did not create it, but borrowed it out of the first century world. This terminology was used in magical and astrological cults. Considering that some converts to Christianity may have formerly adhered to magical practices, Paul seems to be making it clear how they should now view these practices. Evil supernatural forces are ultimately behind it, and it requires the armor of God to stand against them.
Some commentators look at the terminology used for supernatural beings in Ephesians 6:12 (as well as in: Ephesians 1:21, 3:10, Colossians 1:16, 2:15, and Romans 8:38) and see a specific sequence of rank and title for them. However, it seems more likely that Paul is piling up terms for impact and emphasis, which is a technique he also uses elsewhere in Ephesians. Murphy states that “…Paul is not being technical. He is simply heaping up words to describe the massive and complex hierarchy of evil supernaturalism with which the believer is at war.” On a similar note, Perkins states that the additional descriptive phrases “…convey a sense that powers of evil pervade the cosmos.” As Paul brings his epistle to a close, he makes it clear that the Christian is not ultimately contending against human forces but against behind-the-scenes demonic ones.
Though we cannot see it, a very real supernatural realm exists. Yet, neither Ephesians nor other biblical references give us overly specific details on this unseen spiritual world. It is more like we are given hints or peeks into it. We need to be content with what God in his wisdom has chosen to reveal to us. Ephesians points us to Christ as the One who is exalted above the unseen principalities and powers, as well as reminding us of the position and blessings we have in Christ. In the present, we are people of both an earthly and heavenly kingdom. While we are positionally seated with Christ in the heavenly places, we still live in a world where supernatural evil powers exercise dominion. We need to be aware of this and stand against them.
Dickason, C. Fred. Angels, Elect & Evil. Chicago: Moody Press, 1975, 1995.
Hoehner, Harold W. “Ephesians.” In Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, New Testament vol., 613-645. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.
Lightner, Robert P. Angels, Satan, and Demons. Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998.
Murphy, Ed. The Handbook for Spiritual Warfare. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992.
Perkins, Pheme. “The Letter to the Ephesians.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol. XI, 351-466. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.
Ryrie, Charles C. The Ryrie Study Bible. Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1985.
Wuest, Kenneth S. Ephesians and Colossians in the Greek New Testament for the English Reader. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1953.