Christ’s Triumph over Earthly Powers

Posted: July 3, 2009 by Scott Kistler in Christology, History, Politics

Scholars have begun to think about the way that Jesus and Paul called the Roman Empire into question.  I think that it was this Christian Century article from 2005 that turned me on to the trend.  Peter Leithart’s article in First Things also explored the idea of Paul’s assertion of Christ’s triumph over earthly powers:

Paul taught Christians to expect a lot from the gospel, politically as well as personally. He taught that the crucifixion of Jesus had a direct impact on the powers-that-be. He told the Colossians that Jesus went to the cross as the firstborn—the only-begotten of the Father, the new Israel, the heir, the Passover sacrifice—to pacify the powers. The same Son who created the powers (Col. 1:16) has “made peace through the blood of His cross” by reconciling powers in heaven and earth to Himself (Col. 1:20).

Paul borrows from the propaganda of the Roman Empire to make his point. According to Roman imperial ideology, the emperor was a cosmic “peace-maker,” bringing to earth an image of heavenly peace. The apostle says, on the contrary, that God has his own peace-maker, another Lord who reconciles all things. As Paul says later in Colossians, Jesus renovates all things and unites Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, slave and free (Col. 3:10-11), extending his empire even to “barbarians” (Col. 3:10-11).

Scholars have debated inconclusively about whether the powers are angels or demons or social “forces” or human authorities, but in the end it doesn’t matter for Paul. If there are visible powers and authorities, the Son who made them subdues them (Col. 1:16). If there are invisible angelic or demonic powers, or more abstract forces in the human world, their fate is the same. The key thing for Paul is not to identify the powers, but to say that they have all been created and they have all been conquered. It’s a universal truth: Whatever rules over humanity has been tamed by the cross of Jesus.

Paul reiterates the same point in more extreme terms in the following chapter. Jesus, he claims, has “stripped” the rulers and authorities and made a public display of them (Col. 2:15). Paul is making an ironic reference to the actual event of Jesus’ crucifixion. If CNN had captured the crucifixion, the film clip would have shown Jesus Himself stripped, crucified naked and exposed. According to Paul, what actually happening was the opposite: Jesus stripped the powers. Paul again borrows from Roman imperial custom in saying that Jesus makes a “public display” of the powers, having triumphed over him in the cross.” By his death, Jesus leads the powers in a triumphal procession, displaying them as the trophies of his conquest, the plunder of Egypt.

Leithart believes that this has indeed happened, and discusses the Christian Church’s victory over Rome’s tyranny and the polytheistic religions of the ancient world.  At the same time, he writes that governments and cultures can be not only defeated, but reconciled to God’s rule, rejecting the Anabaptist idea that Christians must always be opposed to power.  Of the times where the Church has sinned in its triumph, he writes,

Paul also means that through the cross the Church is delivered from everything else that dominates and distorts human life. The true man Jesus redeems slaves to tradition, slaves to blood and nation, slaves to fashion, slaves to public opinion, and forms a community of free citizens, of truly human humans. If the Church has often bowed to the idols of nationalism, traditionalism, or trendiness, it is because we have too often forgotten our exodus and returned to Egypt.

Leithart believes (in my understanding) that the Church can bring Christ’s kingdom here on by baptizing nations and bringing the world under God’s rule, fulfilling the Great Commission.  I believe in the Great Commission, of course, but I’m not yet convinced of the Christendom model that he embraces.  I’m not sure that the Bible teaches that Christians are to set up an earthly kingdom, but I haven’t done a lot of study on the topic.  Nevertheless, I found his reflection on Christ’s victory edifying and the historical context in which he places Paul’s writings to be quite helpful.

Leithart also posted a couple of really deep reflections here and here on the meaning of worship within the last month, which I mostly want to link to so I can recall them.  I hope that you find them helpful as well.  Thanks, Joel, for putting me in touch with Leithart’s writings!

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