This is a complex question in that the theme of ‘principalities and powers’ is more than the just the one best known verse in Ephesians 6:12, but runs through the New Testament, from the Beelzebub theme in the synoptic gospels, the prince of this world in John, through to Paul’s view of evil in the “heavenly places”.
Although the simplest explanation is that part of this refers to evil in politics, or evil and corruption in the church, it is a larger theme where coming out with a simple A = B explanation that fits one passage is likely to distort the view of the subject as a whole. So rather than attempt a specific analysis of Ephesians 6, the reader is referred to the complete chapter 11 of Peter Watkins’ book The Devil the Great Deceiver, entitled ‘Satan’s Kingdom’
CHAPTER 11 :
THE parable of Satan is an elaborate one. Although we have traversed the scriptures widely, especially the New Testament, a vast area of unexplored territory still lies before us.
In discussing “The Devil and His Angels” (Chapter 10) we noted that the key passage was Matthew 12:26-28, and the theme suggested by this scripture was: the kingdom of Satan versus the kingdom of God. Here are the actual words:
“If Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.”
The Prince of this World
John tells us that all that is in the world is “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life”. The world is controlled by human lust. In the language of the parable, the world is Satan’s kingdom. Satan is the prince of this world.
In John 12:31 the Lord Jesus announces that the judgement of the world and the casting out of the prince of the world are imminent: “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” John adds this explanation: “This he said, signifying what death he should die.” We must therefore enquire how the death of Christ is a judgement of the world and a casting out of the prince of this world. The context provides the explanation. The Lord has been speaking about the necessity for self-denial, by reference to the “corn of wheat” that must die before it can bring forth fruit. Having exhorted others to deny themselves, the Lord intimates that he will shortly complete his own programme of self-repudiation by crucifixion. This is his judgement of the world of human desires, as it affects him personally. It is the final, decisive extinction of the human spirit that rebels against God. Basically, the thought is the same as that of Hebrew 2:14, where the Lord Jesus is represented as destroying the devil by coming in weak human nature and dying on a cross.
An extension of this thought is found in Revelation 12:11. We have seen that Jesus, the man, destroyed the devil, as it affected him personally, by his death. Now we note that those who have identified themselves with him overcome the devil in their day by the association with the death of the Lord Jesus, and by their own dying. “And they overcame him (the devil) by the blood of the Lamb … and they loved not their lives unto the death.”
The Accuser Accused
In John 16:7-11 the Lord Jesus links the judgement of the prince of this world with the coming of the Comforter. This is especially interesting. We noted earlier that the devil and the Holy Spirit were antithetical. Now we observe that both powers are personified in this context. The Comforter, or Advocate, accuses the Prince of this world, who is himself the devil, or accuser. Thus the accuser is accused; the counsel for the prosecution is convicted by the counsel for the defence!
Satan’s kingdom is powerful and well organized. He has servants and angels; he controls principalities and powers. As befits a reigning monarch, he has a throne: “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; you hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells” (Revelation 2:13, RSV). Satan has also a religion, twice referred to in the letters to the churches of Asia as “the synagogue of Satan” (2:9 and 3:9). Satan’s religion is a counterfeit Christianity that is often mistaken for the true.
Judas and Peter
There is an impressive thought-sequence woven into the narrative of Luke 22. First we are told that Satan entered into Judas. Indwelling of this kind is always mutual. If Satan enters into a man’s heart, that man also enters into Satan’s kingdom. As far as Judas was concerned, any struggle against sin was over. His heart was not even divided – Satan was in full possession.
Peter was different. Although he did not recognize the fact, there was a conflict of loyalties in his heart. With the others he had been instructed to watch and pray lest he entered into temptation. The word watch really means keep awake. He had been urged to be alert to the possibility of a situation developing that would make him surrender to the enemy. So far gone was Peter, however, that even the bluntest warning was lost on him. He did not feel the need for God’s help: he felt quite capable of looking after himself. Satan had taken possession of Judas, and was trying to win Peter. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you … but I have prayed for thee …” (verses 31,32). The Lord prayed for Peter because, as yet, Peter had not completely surrendered to the enemy. When there is complete surrender, not even the prayer of the Son of God would be effectual.
Like Judas, the chief priests had made their decision, finally and irrevocably, and God had given them over to Satan. Hence the words: “This is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53).
Satan and Darkness
The connection between Satan and darkness is an interesting study. Without pursuing this theme in detail now, it can be stated that a good starting point is Acts 26. Here Paul explains to King Agrippa that the Lord Jesus, who confronted him on the road to Damascus, had made him a minister to turn men “from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (verse 18). Paul refers to this commission in his letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians. Verbal links with Acts 26 are found in Ephesians 1 and 2, and then Paul carries the Satan/ darkness theme on to the famous “whole armour of God” passage of Ephesians 6, which is worth quoting in full:
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (verses 10-17)
Because this passage is often referred to by those who believe in a personal devil, a few comments may be called for. The fact that this warfare is not a wrestling against flesh and blood is not to be taken as an indication that it involves a celestial host under the leadership of a monstrous spirit-creature. The point is, rather, that this is not a physical combat, but a struggle to maintain divine principles in the face of strong opposition from those in authority. The expression principalities and powers seems to be almost a technical expression for those in authority. It is not always used in a bad sense; and in Titus 3:1 Paul actually instructs Titus to ensure that those under his charge are “subject to principalities and powers”. Especially relevant are the words of Ephesians 3:10, where Paul prays that “unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God”. Paul foresaw the possibility of principalities and powers being influenced in the direction of wisdom by the church. This would be difficult to understand as would the injunction in Titus to be subject, if principalities and powers were evil spirit-beings under the leadership of a supernatural devil.
The principalities and powers – those in authority – in Ephesians 3 and 6 are described as occupying high, or heavenly places. It is suggested here that this implies not just elevation, but spiritual, or ecclesiastical, elevation, such as that of the Jewish leaders who tried to withstand the progress of Christianity. When anticipating the onslaught of the power of darkness before the crucifixion, the Lord exhorted his disciples to watch and pray. It is interesting to note that immediately after the “whole armour of God” passage of Ephesians 6, Paul says:
“Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.” (verse 18)
Delivering unto Satan
The suggestion has been made that the prayer, “Lead us not into temptation” means, ‘Do not place us in circumstances in which our desires will draw us away and entice us’. The words that follow in the Lord’s prayer are: “but deliver us from evil”. This is a prayer that God will do even more for us than this: that He will take us in the opposite direction, removing us from the scene of temptation. It is not enough that God does not put us in circumstances where our desires will cause us to stumble. We want Him to take us away from circumstances where our ungodly desires will assert themselves.
A more literal translation of the Greek would be: ‘Deliver us from the evil’. The word evil is an adjective here: the noun must be inferred. Grammatically, it could be a prayer for deliverance from the evil act, or from the evil one. Passages can be found to support both applications, and it seems likely that both thoughts are intended. We want God to save us from the evil act that the evil one is tempting us to commit.
God does not always deliver men from the evil. Though He never tempts men to commit ungodly acts (man’s own desires do this), He sometimes abandons men in temptation, and sometimes even puts them into circumstances in which their own ungodly desires tempt them, and cause them to stumble. This is not delivery from the evil: it is delivery to the evil, or delivery unto Satan. Two passages, both dealing with the treatment of transgressors in the community of believers, are relevant here:
“For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 5:3-5)
“Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1 Timothy 1:19,20)
Some claim to see in the expression, “delivering unto Satan”, a link with the story of Job. This is an intriguing suggestion that will not be pursued here. In the New Testament, delivering unto Satan means the giving over of a man to the consequences of his own godless desires. This theme is expounded in Romans 1. The following brief quotations will serve as a reminder:
“Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves.” (verse 24)
“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections.” (verse 26)
“And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient.” (verse 28)
God removes His beneficent protection and lets men reap the consequences of their own ungodly desires. Because sin looks attractive, people are attracted by it. They refuse to be warned against its bitter fruits, so they must learn the hard way. Sometimes the “giving over” is irrevocable, and its terrible finality is a warning to others who are tempted. Sometimes it is the only sort of treatment that will shock a wavering disciple into a new sense of responsibility.
from Peter Watkins ‘The Devil the Great Deceiver’ CMPA 1971