A Populated Spiritual Realm?

‘The devil is notoriously a liar, and one of his most successful lies is the lie that he does not exist – a lie which peculiarly seduces the sophisticated.’ (Eric L. Mascall: in a letter to the Church Times, 16 May 1975, quoted in Robert Paterson’s Book of Christian Wisdom)

Even among Christians today there is a sense of embarrassment, even ridicule at the idea of a populated spiritual realm, messengers from God, fallen angels, forces of good and evil. Evil is considered a quality, not anything personified in an individual. The devil is what we call all the bad stuff in the world; wars, crime, disease. What does the Bible say about what many today are pleased, in the name of reason, to deny?

The Bible tells us,‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ (Genesis 1:1)Whatever there is, in the heavens and on the earth, exists because God made it. The New Testament leader John adds to our knowledge and understanding (and if you think this is a good text on which to build an apologetic for the Trinity you are not wrong…but we are not going there now. Just allow the truth of the Bible to open up to you and you will see it for yourself.)

In the Beginning

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him and without him not anything was made that was made.’ (John 1:1)

‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14)

This Word is Jesus, the one to whom John the Baptist testified (John 1:15) to whom the apostles were called to testify (Acts 1:8). It was a journey of discovery for those first disciples. When Jesus calmed the storm (Mt.8:23-27) they were left asking themselves, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?’ (v.27)

Something supernatural was here. The one who brought order from chaos ‘in the beginning’ doing the same in a boat on the sea of Galilee. Paul draws all this together in answer to their question:

‘He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.’ (Col.1:15-19)

Paul describes Jesus as:

‘the image of the invisible God…’ (cf Hebrews 1:3) If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

the firstborn of all creation…’ This is not saying Jesus had a physical origin but describes his rightful place of honour as Jews would have understood a firstborn son to have (cf Psalm 89:27)

‘in everything pre-eminent’; and having, ‘the fullness of God’ dwell in him.

It is by this Jesus, Paul writes, ‘all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together’

There is a completeness in Paul’s description. He doesn’t look something like God but is ‘the image of the invisible God’; he doesn’t share some of God’s communicable qualities and attributes, as did Adam (Gen.1:27) but, ‘The fullness of God’ dwelt in him; He didn’t simply predate creation by dint of being created before everything else, but is described as ‘before all things.’

There is a completeness in Paul’s description of creation. ‘All things’ are said to have been created by God, through Jesus. As John puts it, ‘ All things were made through him and without him not anything was made that was made.’ (John 1:1) John further describes Jesus, the Word, as having life in himself (1:4). Whatever enjoys life, in heaven or on earth, has that life from the author of life (Acts 3:15), ‘ and in him all things hold together’

The creator stepped down into his creation, the author of life himself walked among those to whom he gave life, the supernatural stepped into the natural world, and he had come to do a work.

All Things in Him

In the opening chapter of his letter to believers in Ephesus Paul describes God’s purpose in Christ, the reconciliation of all creation with the Creator:

‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’ (Ephesians 1:7-10)

God has now made known the mystery of his will (literally a revelation of what was previously hidden) which is ‘to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.’ There is a populated heavenly realm and there are yet those rulers and authorities that seek to thwart God’s purposes. As citizens of his kingdom, we are actively involved in opposing all who oppose our God and King. Paul explains further:

‘For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your heart enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named,not only in this age but also in the one to come.’ (Ephesians 1:15-21)

This great mystery can now be revealed since Christ has triumphed over all who would oppose, and has been raised to a place at the right hand of God, the place of honour, the place he knew before (John 17:5; Philippians 2:5-11) far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named…’ Further, all who trust in him are, ‘seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ.’ (Ephesians 2:6)

Rulers and Authorities

Yet, just as in this world there are those that continue to oppose, so in the spiritual realm there are those who still contend against him. They will do so until the final consummation of all things. Several heresies threatened the church at Colossae, including Ceremonialism, an emphasis on dietary rules and religious festivals (2:16-17), Gnosticism, a belief insecret knowledge (2:2-3), and Angel worship, intermediate intermediaries(2:18)

All these things, and more, we have with us in our world today. This is a letter full of correctives from which we can learn, and it is notable Paul doesn’t deny the spiritual realm. The terms Paul uses in this text, ‘ visible and invisible, thrones or dominions, rulers or authorities,’ all reflect Jewish terms of that day to describe angels, their hierarchy and rankings.

Paul doesn’t deny them, but puts them in their rightful place as creatures in God’s overall plan and purpose in creation. He almost certainly had in mind specifically evil angels misleading the saints of God in the church. This doesn’t mean God created evil angels, only that angels rebelled against God. Peter, in his second letter, describes this:

‘God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgement…’ (see 2 Pet.2:4)

Jude writes, ‘angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgement of the great day…’ (Jude 6)

N T Wright, in the Tyndale New Testament commentary on Colossians, writes, ‘Wherever you look, or whatever realities you think of, you discover entities which, even if they don’t acknowledge the fact, owe their very existence to Christ. They are his handiwork. Paul has chosen to mention what we today call power structures of the universe.’

Paul cautions the Colossians, ‘See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.’ (Colossians 2:8)

As he warns of philosophy and empty deceit, and human tradition, we may identify the ‘elemental spirits’ (ESV) as simply the basic principles (NIV) of those philosophies. However, Paul here uses the word stoicheia, which may mean the basic principles of human teaching, but is also widely used in the ancient world to speak of the ‘principalities and powers’ we have already identified. This interpretation makes sense in light of what follows:

For in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him who is the head of all rule and authority.’ (vv 9-10)

The powers and authorities, elemental spirits, stand in sharp contrast to Christ’s exaltation, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named…’ The key to Colossians is understanding that, in him, believers have everything they need. They needn’t fall for the deception brought by Christ’s enemies, in this world, or from the spiritual realm. With tears, Paul warns:

‘…many live as enemies of the cross of Christ,’ reminds us that the armour of God is vital, ‘that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness (the powers of this dark world NIV), against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ (Eph.6:11-12)

Finally, we are counselled and assured by Peter, ‘Humble yourselves…under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be dominion forever and ever. Amen.’ (1 Peter 5:8-10)

Firm in Your Faith

We have an enemy who seeks to devour, but James tells us, ‘Submit yourselves to God. Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’ (James 4:7-8) The key to our resisting the Devil is our submission to God, our drawing close to him. Jesus has shown us what this looks like when, tempted by the Devil, he replied, ‘Be gone, Satan! For it is written…’ (Matthew 4:10)

It is written, ‘We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness (the powers of this dark world NIV), against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’

It is written, Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.. Resist him, firm in your faith…’

But it is written, ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’

It is written, Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.’

Because it is written: [‘Christ] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, triumphing over them in the cross.’ (Colossians 1:15)

There is a spiritual realm where, as in our world, there are those who work for the furtherance of the kingdom, and those who oppose. But a victory was won at Calvary that cannot be overturned and it is written, ‘It is finished.’

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look, and see Him there
Who made an end to all my sin.

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