In 2 Kings 6:8-17 the prophet Elisha was visited by the entire army of the Aramean king. One of Elisha’s servants was very understandably concerned about this situation; Elisha told him that their side outnumbered the Arameans. The servant was confused. Elisha prayed to God that the servant might see; all of a sudden, the servant could see chariots of fire all around Elisha. It is not as if those chariots of fire did not exist beforehand; the only difference was that the servant now got a glimpse of the spiritual realm which he otherwise could not see.
In a very real way we are all very much like Elisha’s servant. The Scriptures provide some glimpses of the spiritual realm that is always around us and is beyond our perception and understanding. There is much more going on than what we can see. In this life we will never fully understand the spiritual realm, but we do well to consider those glimpses we are given “behind the curtain,” lest we delude ourselves into thinking that we can see or perceive all that transpires.
One persistent theme in many of these glimpses involves spiritual beings to whom God has given authority but who seem to use it often for evil purposes. The Apostle Paul spoke of such beings in Ephesians 6:12 as the “principalities,” the “powers,” the “world-rulers of this darkness,” and the “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” We might be tempted to understand “powers” and “principalities” in terms of humans ruling over peoples and nations (especially in light of Romans 13:1), but Paul contrasted them with “flesh and blood.” Some believe they are not beings but forces, yet God has Being and works through beings and similar glimpses presuppose their existence as sentient beings.
Paul declared that these spiritual beings are the ones with whom we are really wrestling, not our fellow humans (Ephesians 6:12). God has demonstrated His manifold wisdom in Christ in the church, according to His eternal plan in Jesus, before these powers and principalities (Ephesians 3:10-11). Paul also says that these beings have been humiliated and paraded in a triumph in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Colossians 2:15). These powers cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
But what can we know about these powers and principalities? Paul spoke of one who was the “aeon,” or “prince,” of the powers of the air, the spirit at work in the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 2:2). He also spoke similarly about the “god of this world” who had blinded unbelievers from perceiving the light of the Gospel of Jesus in 2 Corinthians 4:4. We naturally would associate such a one with Satan, the Adversary or the Devil, and we have good reason to do so. In Revelation 12:1-13:18 John sees Satan as a dragon who empowers the beast, the embodiment of Roman power in the form of its Emperor, and also the false prophet, referring to Roman religion, deceiving many through false signs, and inducing many to serve the beast and not God. When Satan claimed to be able to give Jesus authority over the kingdoms of this world, Jesus did not declare him to be presumptuous; He recognized that the kingdoms of this world were indeed following after the ways of the Evil One (Matthew 4:8-10, Luke 4:5-6). Satan or the Devil, therefore, would be the prince of these powers and principalities, and he thus exercises authority and influence over the kingdoms of this world.
We also may gain some insight regarding these powers from illustrations in the Hebrew Bible. In Daniel 10:1-21 a story is related that sounds strange to modern ears. Daniel had received a message from YHWH and prayed for understanding to properly interpret it. He prayed and fasted for three weeks. He then saw a vision of an angel. The angel assured Daniel that his prayer had been heard immediately and the angel had been sent immediately to him; the angel was opposed for twenty-one days by the “prince of the Kingdom of Persia.” It was only when Michael, “one of the chief princes,” came to assist this angel that he was able to come and interpret the message. We cannot imagine that the “prince of the Kingdom of Persia” was human, for when has a human been able to resist any among the angelic host? Furthermore, Michael, whom we know as an archangel, is also identified as a “prince”; thus, we best understand the “prince of the Kingdom of Persia” as the Power or Principality, the spiritual being who presided over the Kingdom of Persia, and who at that time would have been powerful. He was clearly powerful enough to resist an angel sent by YHWH on a divine mission, but not powerful enough to resist Michael the archangel. Thus these powers are not insignificant, can interfere with YHWH’s divine purposes, but ultimately cannot thwart YHWH’s great power.
The powers and principalities may also be in view in Psalm 82:1-8. Asaph there provided a glimpse of the “assembly of God” in which God rendered judgment on the elohim. God wanted to know how long they would perpetuate injustice and oppression. He wanted them to rescue the poor and oppressed from the hands of the wicked. These elohim were sons of the Most High, but would die like mortal humans. Asaph wanted God to rise up and execute justice on the earth and its nations. Many have considered these elohim to be some kind of human “judges,” but it would be no denunciation to say they would “die like humans” (Psalm 82:7). Instead, it might be best to understand the elohim as “gods”: these powers and principalities: spiritual beings God had made to rule over peoples and nations with free will and who would be judged by God for how they exercised that authority. In this way many early Christians understood the “gods” of the world which many served as these powers and principalities, and considered them demonic.
Not every portrayal of a power or principality is negative, though. In Asaph’s psalm YHWH expected the elohim to do what was right and just (Psalm 82:3-4). An angel spoke of Michael as a “prince” in Daniel 10:13; we know him as the archangel Michael in Jude 1:9. Many understandably speak of how John was instructed to write to the seven churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2:1-3:21; yet according to the text, each letter was written to the “angel” of the church, and the use of “you” and “your” in those passages are singular, not plural. We could countenance the possibility that the “angel” of each church as a human messenger if it were not for how the instruction given is written specifically to the angel. Thus Jesus in the Spirit intimated to John, and by extension to us, that each local congregation of the Lord’s people has an angel to which Jesus might give encouragement, exhortation, and/or rebuke.
Thus we can know that there are spiritual beings who have been given authority by God over churches and nations. They seem to have been given free will, just as we have been given. Some powers work to accomplish God’s purposes for His glory. Other powers and principalities have given themselves over to advance their own interests regardless of whether it advances God’s purposes in Christ or not. The powers and principalities over this present darkness have Satan as their prince; through them and his own work Satan has gained great influence over the nations of this world, and likely many other institutions and organizations of humans as well. On our own we stand relatively powerless against them; so many expend so much effort in empowering the powers and principalities, enslaved in their anxieties and fear of death to do their will. They exist and work even though we do not see them; if we would deny their existence, we grant them even more power in our delusion and pretense.
Yet as with Elisha and his servant, so with us: the spiritual forces for us are greater than the spiritual forces against us. The powers and principalities over this present darkness have been fundamentally broken and defeated by Jesus in His life, death, and resurrection; if we pursue the way of Jesus in His life, death, and resurrection, and stand firm in Him, we can overcome the powers and principalities and their worldly agents (Ephesians 6:10-13, Colossians 2:15). We can be set free to love one another and everyone, even our enemies, without fear, because perfect love casts out fear, and fear is the currency of the Evil One and the forces who align with him (1 John 4:17-21). We can participate in God’s Kingdom in Christ and demonstrate His manifold wisdom in the church by eschewing all worldly forms of division and proving diligent to preserve the unity God has given us in the Spirit despite our many differences in worldly terms. May we obtain victory over the powers and principalities over this present darkness through what God has accomplished in Jesus, and share in eternal life in Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry