[K:NWTS 1/1 (May 1986) 23-29]
The unity of the context in which we find this verse may be grasped at a glance if we compare the cross of Jesus Christ to a knife and then to a sword. As a knife, the cross is God's instrument for dealing with the crucial problem of man's fallen nature. This is why Paul may compare the cross to the rite of circumcision. That rite was a cutting away of the flesh; as such, it was God's own illustration of his remedy for sin. Contrary to what the "philosophers" in Paul's day taught, sin could not be conquered by more education drawn from the source of man's wisdom. Instead, sin had to be radically removed by something like a surgical process and the cross was the knife God used. In that cross, the sinful nature of man, which Paul calls "the body of flesh," was cut off and that operation was a total and complete success.
But the cross of Christ may also be compared to a sword by which God in Christ has conquered and disarmed his enemies. This second use of the cross is actually introduced in verse 10 when Paul says that Christ is the head over all rule and authority. It is the same rule and authority which he declares in verse 15 have been disarmed. The question is: who are these rulers and authorities and why is it necessary for us to know that they have been conquered?
Sometimes Paul adds other expressions when discussing these rulers. His full list includes "rule and authority and power and dominion." What he means by these titles is summed up in Ephesians 6:12: "We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places." They are the forces of evil which rule this fallen world.
But when we put it this way, we tend to think of demonic or angelic powers and this seems removed from our modern way of thinking. In Paul's day, demons or angels may have been his primary reference. Perhaps he was "plugging into" the language of the gnostic philosophers and their beliefs about the powers which ruled the world. They may have believed that Christ was only one such power in a whole hierarchy of powers and they needed to understand the uniqueness of the Son of God as the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, the one in whom the fullness of deity dwelt in bodily form. Whether that was their position or not, Paul is not bound by their philosophy and uses "rulers and authorities" in a way which is applicable for every generation of believers. For him, the rulers may be identified with the consequences of man's fall into sin. In other words, fallen man in a fallen world is under the rule of evil and the consequences of that evil.
To understand his point, we may begin with Romans 8:20 where the apostle says that God subjected the world to vanity. The meaning here is that the world seems useless and worthless because it is characterized by suffering and decay (vv. 18,21). This was not the way the world was created. It is the result of man's rebellion and sin. It is, in fact, the result of God's curse upon man and the world. Contrary to what some people may think, God is not surprised by the presence of disease, distress and death in the world, as if these things entered the world when he was not looking. Stated quite bluntly: death was God's idea. It was his idea in the sense that death was the covenant curse upon sin. It was God who warned man he would die if he disobeyed. It was God who sentenced man to return to the dust. It was God who subjected the world to vanity, to suffering and to decay because of man's sin.
Another way to say the same thing is that God sentenced man and his world to the rule and dominion of sin and death. In Romans, Paul alludes to sin as a ruler when he says "sin reigned in death" (5:21). He also says, "Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey" (Rom. 6:16)? His point is that sin and death have rule and authority and power and dominion over the fallen world. In I Corinthians 15:24,25, after stating that Christ will abolish all rule and authority, the apostle then identifies death as the last of those enemy powers.
When we hear this, we must not think that the rule of sin was simply imposed upon man against his will. Man, we remember, "presents" himself to this ruler. Having chosen sin, man's punishment from God was to receive exactly what he wanted. Here many may object and say they did not deliberately choose a world of sin, but what they really mean is that they did not choose to have others sin against them. No one wants his own property taken or his own wife seduced, but we justify our own thefts and adultery. We do not want a world in which others are free to sin against us, but we do want a world in which we are free to sin. We have not realized that our neighbors feel the same way and serve the same powers that we do.
All this is the same point Paul made in Colossians 1:13 when he said we were in the domain of darkness. We were ruled by the forces of wickedness. To be exact, we were ruled by Satan himself. Having chosen Satan as our god-like ruler, it ought not to surprise us that he exercises his rule through the forces of wickedness. These forces have one chief characteristic or chief work to perform and we see that work spelled out in Romans 8:31-39. As the consequences of sin, they work suffering in order to separate us from God. Satan has always worked to separate. This was his work in the Garden of Eden and it has remained his work ever since. He who worked to separate man from God and consequently man from woman, man from his work and man from the earth itself, seeks to continue that separation. His forces of separation, his rulers and authorities and powers, manifest themselves as these: tribulation, distress, persecution, oppression, poverty, famine, nakedness, pain, tears, conflict, fear and ultimately death. Under these powers in a fallen world, Satan wants you to suffer and therefore shake your fist at God and feel alienated and separated from his holy love.
How shall these powers and authorities, these works of wickedness, be conquered? With what weapon does God overthrow them? The answer is in the cross of Jesus Christ. In the cross, we see the Son of God enduring the onslaught of the powers, doing battle with them by suffering under them and then triumphing over them. His cross is his sword by which he defeated them and hitched them to his royal chariot. This he did by enduring the full fury of their attempts to separate him from God the Father. He was oppressed and persecuted by the religious rulers and civil authorities. He suffered the distresses of nakedness, thirst and pain. He was even brought to the very brink of crying out, "Why have you forsaken me?" But then in faithfulness he gave up his spirit to the Father in death. And because he remained faithful to the Father even unto the end, the Father raised him from the dead, raised him from the pain and the oppression and all of the forces of separation.
In Christ, these forces have been stripped of their ability to separate us from God. Christ met Satan on Satan's own ground, as he always had, but nothing could break him. Deprived of the things we hold dear–wealth, family, health and finally human life itself–his theme continued to be, "I live by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God." "Thy will be done." He gave up everything to God the Father so that the powers had no power over him. How different it would have been if he had said, "I have come to be ministered unto, not to minister." Then the powers could have stripped him of glory and reputation against his will and made him question the love of God. But he had no such weakness. Everything had already been given to the Father.
And now by faith in Jesus Christ we die to those powers in his cross. We too crucify wealth, family, health and even life itself. Satan has nothing left in his arsenal to use against us. We have died to the forces of this age and have been raised up to new life in Christ. In that new life of resurrection strength, we too say, "Man shall not live on bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God" (Mt. 4:4). This is the conquest of the cross for all who believe: those things which Satan intended to separate us from God now only draw us closer to him. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not distress, not disease, not even death itself. In Christ, death, which is the judgment of God against us all, now only draws us closer to him. The rulers and authorities of this age have been disarmed.
This triumph in Christ was part of Paul's experience as recorded in II Corinthians 12. He suffered from a "thorn in the flesh" which he called a messenger from Satan (not God). Satan meant to defeat him. Three times Paul prayed for deliverance, but God had already conquered all the messengers of Satan in the cross. Instead of being discouraged and defeated, Paul became even more aware of the grace of God perfected in weakness, the very weakness with which Satan sought to crush him.
This triumph is to be the experience of Christians in all their sufferings. In our congregation, a thirteen year old boy was recently told he had bone cancer and would lose his right leg. This disease which reigns with power and authority over our flesh in this fallen world was intended by Satan to separate the boy and his family from the love of God. They were supposed to shake the fist at God and ask, "Why him? Where is your power and justice?" Satan wanted them to ignore the fact that they lived in a world broken by the sin of man himself. Instead, the boy and his family were only drawn closer to their God. Even before the doctors changed their diagnosis and said it was not cancer after all, the family had learned anew that Christ had conquered all the powers which seek to separate us from God. All pain, all tears, all oppression, even death itself is disarmed of its ability to separate. The conquest is not that suffering is removed from our lives, but that the suffering has lost its power over us. In the cross, everything which we would cling to has been put to death. The world may say with Nietzsche, "What does not kill me only makes me stronger"; but the believer says with Paul, "To live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21). What I suffer only draws me closer to him.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. The rulers and authorities have been subjected to God's rule in the cross of Christ. Or is it that you still feel separated from God? Are you aware of what this means? If you feel separated from God's love in Christ, then the powers of this evil age are still your gods. Are you ruled by your pain and sorrow so that it shapes and controls your life? Do conflict and fear tell you what to do? Are you ruled by poverty so that need forces you to compromise your principles? The only way you can conquer them is through the cross of Christ. It is not only a knife to treat your sin, it is a sword to subdue all the consequences of sin you may face.
Covenant Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA)
Asheville, North Carolina