Disarming the Powers

Colossians 2:5-15 is wonderfully rich.  Let me quickly mention three important facets of the text.  We will spend time on the third.

First, this passage is the text that Moravians and other paedobaptists use to justify the baptism of our children. In verses 11 and 12 the apostle identifies baptism with circumcision which, in Jewish communities,  was always performed on the 8th day!  Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant, and the promise is to us and to our children.

Second, this text is one of the most powerful descriptions of what Christ accomplished on the cross on behalf of sinners. In verses 13 and 14 the apostle writes that God “erased the record that stood against us with its legal demands.This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”  One scholar suggest a more up-to-date translation. He writes that God “took the rap sheet which listed all of our crimes against God, against one another, and against ourselves, folded it over so that it cannot be read, and then nailed it to the cross.” I love that image! It makes me feel innocent.

Third—and this is what I want to talk about at length, the apostle writes that God “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it,” meaning  “in the cross of Jesus Christ.”

The NRSV translates that God “disarmed the rulers and authorities,” which makes sense, since the rulers Herod and Pilate worked in concert with the authorities, Jerusalem and Rome, to crucify Jesus. However, I prefer the RSV which translates the same texts as “principalities and powers,” because this brings this passage from Colossians into alignment with other New Testament texts which address the two-fold nature of these powers. Let me explain. In the New Testament, the principalities and powers take two forms. On the one hand the powers are “spirits” that dwell in the “heaven-lies,” that is in the airy space between God’s heaven and our earth. On the other hand the powers take the concrete this worldly form of world rulers and authorities, like Jerusalem and Rome and their representatives.

Wittingly or unwittingly, this two-fold nature of the powers reflects the philosophy of Plato.  Plato said that the “idea” or “archetype” or “type” of anything and everything existed in “heaven” before it was given concrete expression in the world. In other words, God had the idea pollywogs and frogs, and dogs and cats, and cattle and human beings, and boats and trains and automobiles and anything else you can think of before real examples of those things appeared in the world.  Human beings don’t really create anything—we discover it in the context of God’s natural laws.

Now in the New Testament, the principalities and powers form one-third of an Evil Trinity. Bear with me on this—and I think you will find it interesting.

The first third by this evil trinity is Satan, or the Devil. In Ephesians he is called “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the children of disobedience.” In the gospels he is also called “Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” The devil is a mysterious character. St. Peter warns that he goes about like a raging lion, seeking whom he may devour.” That is scary. St. Paul warns that he masquerades as an angel of light. That is scarier still. For that which we call the devil often presents himself as attractive, and beautiful, and desirable. Then when we unwittingly invite him into our lives, he sucks the life out of us, like an evil woman who consciously sets out to seduce another woman’s husband, or an evil man who seduces an innocent, under-age girl. In either case, lives are seriously damaged.

Now don’t get caught up in the mythological language that the New Testament uses to describe the devil. The great Oxford theologian, C.S. Lewis, said that to believe in the devil is to believe that evil is greater than the sum total of its parts. I believe that. Likewise, the great Neo-orthodox theologian, Emil Brunner, said that to believe in the devil is to believe that the possibilities of evil are not exhausted by purely human evil. I believe that, too. C.S. Lewis says there are two mistakes we can make with regard to the devil. One is to disbelieve in his existence altogether. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in him. Evil is equally pleased by both errors.  I would add only that the nature of satan is ignorance, anarchy and confusion; do not credit satan with too much intelligence, he posses only what we lend him.

The second third of the evil trinity is made up of the demons which we often encounter in the texts of the gospels. In the gospels demons are said to be the cause of all kinds of mental and physical diseases. In the case of the Gerasene demoniac, we are told that he displayed multiple personalities—Legion, and was a threat to his community. His demons combined with his natural strength to make him so strong that not even chains could prevent him from harming himself. Elsewhere in the gospels, demons are also said to be the cause of epilepsy, the inability to hear, the inability to speak, and several other  physical diseases. According to the story of the Gerasene Demoniac, the comforting thing about demons is that they seem to have no power apart from the human host in which they live and do their evil work. According to Jesus, the disturbing thing about demons is that when they have gone out of a person, they pass through waterless places seeking rest, and find none. So they go back to find their “house” empty, swept and put in order, gather seven other evil spirits and go back to their “house,” making the last state of the person worse than the first. Only the Holy Spirit can keep our “house” pest free. St. Paul compares demons to Idols which have no real existence. However, elsewhere he warns in so many words, that if someone believes something is real, it is real to them, and it exercises power and control over them whether it is real to anybody else or not. This is an oversimplification, but if you believe there is a boogyman in your bedroom, you don’t go to bed because of it, that boogyman is real for you.

The third and final third of the trinity of evil is made up of the principalities and the powers. Demons seems to operate in a single host. The principalities and powers  are transpersonal in nature and operate in many people at once. If Hitler had a demon, it died with him. But Naziism is a power and that power lives on to hate, murder, rape and intimidate long after Hitler and the generation that created it. The New Testament has a lot to say about about the principalities and powers. I want to highlight just two things this morning:

First, the New Testament describes the principalities and powers as more terrible than we can easily imagine and describes our struggle against them as warfare. Perhaps you have noted that, in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, the people of God are often called to go out to war against some physical enemy, like the Egyptians or Philistines.In the New Testament book of Ephesians we are told that our Christian warfare is not against flesh and blood.Our warfare cannot be against flesh and blood for Christ died for the sins of the whole world. Therefore, Ephesians says that we are contending against “the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Here the two-fold nature of the powers is obvious. They are seen both as “the world rulers of this present darkness”—like Jerusalem, Babylon and Rome; but also as “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The archetype of the evil powers existed long before they manifested themselves in this world.

Second, according to Colossians 1, the principalities and powers were “created in Christ;” and, in Colossians 2, Christ is said to be the head of every “rule and authority.” At the very least, this means that the principalities and powers were created with vast potential for good—and Christ still rules over them. I believe that God created benevolent powers like the family, the clan, the tribe and the church, to make our lives better. God created cooperatives like craft guilds, and banks, and schools and corporations for the same reason. Likewise God created the nation-states to give order to the lives of whole peoples, and to nations themselves. 

Unfortunately, the powers are a part of our fallen world. Though God can still sometimes turns them back to his service, God seems to have no intention of ultimately redeeming the worldly powers. God redeems the individuals of this world, not the powers of this world. For example, in the book of Revelation, people of every nation are saved; but no nation or other power is saved. You might say—“Yes, but according to St. Paul, “all Israel will be saved! “ Remember that Israel was a theocracy until they asked for a king, therefore Israel is different. In Colossians 2, God disarms the principalities and powers by “the cross of Christ,” making a public example of the them even as he triumphs over them in it.  The risen Christ disarmed and shamed the powers that crucified him!

Now what does it mean for us that the powers have been disarmed?  I do not think it means we can assume an easy victory. Jesus said that God has bound Satan. Oscar Cullman God says that he must be bound with a long rope. The author of 1st Peter seems to agree with Cullman, since he says Satan still “goes about like a raging lion, seeking whom he may devour.” Likewise, Jesus cast out demons—but he warned that, if we do not take care, the same evil spirits that are driven out with come back and bring their friends. In the same way, God has disarmed the powers in the cross of Christ, but the powers are always working, trying to make a comeback.

How do we insure that the powers stay disarmed.  I am going to suggest three things:

First we must name them, and expand our definition. In his book, “An Ethic for Christians and Other Sojourners Living in a Strange Land,” the Washington lawyer, William Stringfellow defined the principalities and powers as:

“…all authorities, governments, corporations, institutions, traditions, processes, structures, bureaucracies, ideologies, systems, sciences, and the like.”

This means that the United States Government is a power, and so is every other government. Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Apple, IBM and Reynolds American are powers, and so is every other corporation. The Moravian Church is a power, so is every other denomination, church and tradition. All political parties in all nations are powers—but so are all ideologies, systems, sciences, traditions and the like. We foolishly believe that we use ideas, and systems, and traditions. The truth is, they use us, generation after generation. This may seem odd, but when it comes to disarming the powers, churches and traditions are often a part of the problem not a part of the solution.  That is why the hymnist wrote, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth; we must onward still and upward, who would keep abreast of truth.”

Second, to understand a power we must understand the thing that makes them work. Take the corporation as an example. In his book, “Whatever Became of Sin?” Dr. Karl Menninger describes a corporation.  He writes:

Individuals are  created individually by God; the corporation is an individual created by man. Like a man the corporation has a body.  It has arms and legs; it has not four but thousands of members.  It has a mind and purpose.  It has eyes and ears and a kind of brain; it thinks and plans and remembers.  And it can grow to be huge and strong.  But it has no conscience!

The Supreme Court should have read Menninger back in 2010 before giving the corporation the rights of an individual. But there is hope. Henry David Thoreau would argue that a corporation has no conscience, but the members of its board, and its stockholders do, and the members of its board and its stockholders must work to see that the corporation does the right thing.

In the 1980’s many corporations were trying to become what Alvin Toffler called “Third Wave.” They wanted to accomplish three things: 1) they wanted to provide employment for their workers  2) they wanted to be good citizens of the community or communities in which they were located.  3) they wanted to give their customers a good product and then support it with good service. Of course, to do all this, they had to make a profit. This used to be a real balancing act for executives. Jesus said “You can’t serve God and Mammon!” Many officers of many corporations believed that, and when Mammon can into conflict with God, they took the side of God and right.  Ironically, the Third Wave died out because stockholders wanted our profit right now.  And members of the boards of various companies wanted our profit right now—especially after executive salaries soared in comparison to the salaries of regular employees. That is why several automobile manufacturing companies—including Ford and GM both, found it easier and easier and cheaper to pay off the families of those who died in their poorly designed automobiles than the recall the affected vehicles and correct them. That is why Volkswagen falsified the numbers on their diesel vehicles—knowing that the solid pollutants would kill tens of thousands of additional people. Likewise, quite recently, it is the very reason that the pharmaceutical industry found it easier to justify the sale of opioids of the sake of expanding their market share and profit than to warn those who used them against their abuse.  After I preached this sermon other approached me about the Boeing, and several other companies who have put their customers and employees at risk by flying the 737 Max airplane, despite its problems.  There are many other examples. 

Some people are afraid of Big Government.  At least with Government, we get to vote.  Unless we sit on the board or own stock in a multi-national company, we don’t get a vote.

Third, and finally, God disarms the powers by the cross of Christ by bringing individuals into his camp. God disarms the powers through those who have been redeemed by Christ.  God wants those of us who follow Christ to put Him and His rule above Mammon, and every other power.  He wants us to take the Spirit of Christ into the board room and into the stock holders meetings, and into the voting booth. He wants us to take Him out of the church and into our offices and workplaces and schools and where-ever we find ourselves. He wants us to be His people in the world, armed—with knowledge, and aware, so we can continue to disarm the powers.  Our warfare is not against flesh and blood; but it is very real, and the welfare of many depends upon us.


Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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