The focus of Ephesians 2.1-10 is on how God has lovingly included us in the salvation plan enacted through Jesus of Nazareth. But before we get to that message, the first three verses describe our ‘natural’ state of affairs ‘outside of’ Christ, which he describes as ‘death in sin’, subject to the influence of spiritual forces opposed to God — and us. In this supplementary post, I’d like to think more on these influences and how they connect to the thought worlds of the first century and twenty-first century alike.
We’ve already seen how Paul addressed the religious climate of Asia Minor, which put a lot of stock in spiritual beings and in rituals and charms to protect against them. Namely, as far as Paul is concerned, Christ is in authority over all of these powers, and so we don’t really need to worry about them. As he put it in another letter:
[I]n all these things we are more than victorious through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.37b-39)
And yet, from Ephesians 2.1-3 it’s clear that these powers can still inflict a lot of damage. Paul doesn’t mince words in describing this damage, which is nothing less than a universal tendency towards doing the wrong thing, which eventually leads to spiritual death. While the strands of Christian thought descending from Augustine (and especially from Calvin’s interpretation of Augustine) have made big claims about this tendency — Calvin went so far as to insist that humanity is incapable of doing the right thing, ever, what his followers have come to call ‘total depravity’ — there are less extreme ways of understanding our universal tendency to sin. It is not impossible for us to do right by one another — our own experiences suggest this, as well as the witness of Scripture (for example, in Romans 2.14, where Paul insists that there were Gentiles who did what was right even though they didn’t have the Law of Moses). But I do think it’s hard for us to do the right thing without a lot of intention and effort; the path of least resistance will always cause us to break faith.
No matter how we interpret this state of affairs, Paul ascribes our tendency to sin to the continued influence of three types of spiritual force: 1. “the age of this world”; 2. “the ruler of the dominion of the air”; and 3. “the flesh.” None of these expressions is exactly clear, so all require some further consideration.
The Age of This World
The first influence Paul notes is “the age of this world,” that is, the world as we know it now, as contrasted by the way of life of God’s Kingdom. This is a very common contrast in the New Testament, and I’ll direct you to a previous post I’ve written on this topic, but for our purposes today, this is the force of the status quo — it’s the way the world works, and that way runs contrary to the way God made us to work. If we set up our world right now as a kind of experiment or simulation, what we’d see is authority slipping into authoritarianism, the wealthy insisting they get even wealthier at the expense of those already poor, a natural desire for safety and security morphing into hatred of others, and so on. This is the power of inertia in our world. While the Christian West came to understand all of this through the lens of ‘Original Sin’, the idea that Adam’s sin marred us from the inside out, the more common interpretation in the Christian East — which I think is more helpful — is generational sin, the idea that we sin because we have been sinned against, which becomes an unending cycle from which we cannot escape. Our basic human nature is to build relationships, to trust one another, and to share resources, but that gets distorted once we learn that the world is not a safe place: when our relationships are broken, when our trust is betrayed, when we receive less than others. Faced with this reality, we turn in on ourselves and live out of fear, which manifests itself in sin against others. And so the cycle continues. So this influence is what we might call the force of spiritual momentum and inertia. An object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force; likewise, a person who sins will continue to sin until acted upon by an outside force. What we need is an outside force to act to break the cycle and reveal it for the sham that it is. And, in Paul’s mind, that is exactly what God did in the person of Jesus.
The Ruler of the Dominion of the Air
The second influence is what Paul calls “the ruler of the dominion of the air.” This is a very strange expression — unique in the Bible — and deserves some comment. The “ruler of the dominion of the air” without question refers to the figure we’ve come to call ‘the devil’ or ‘Satan’. But, we have to be careful when we say this, since most ideas about the devil today come not from the Scriptures, but from Early Modern literature — Dante, Faust, Milton, and Blake — and the witch hunts and ‘Satanic Panic’ (to use an anachronistic phrase) of that period. The devil certainly appears in the Old Testament and Gospels, but only as a bit player with a limited standing and authority. Far from the idea of the Prince of Demons or Lord of Hell, who represents a legitimate rival for God, that we see in so many depictions today, the devil in the Scriptural narratives is more like a Trickster figure from world mythology. He twists truths, makes misleading accusations, sows chaos, and tricks people into acting out of character. (In Job, he even successfully manipulates God!) But he always remains a minor player. Outside of these narratives, the devil appears as the “ruler of this world” (John 12.31, 14.30, 16.11) and “ruler of demons” (Matthew 9.34, Luke 11.15, etc.). He takes on a more significant role in Revelation, but, as we always need to point out with apocalyptic writings, Revelation uses heightened and highly symbolic language that spoke to the immediate circumstances of its first readers, and we therefore have to exercise a lot of caution in how we interpret and appropriate this imagery today. Here in Ephesians 2.2, Paul calls him the “ruler of the dominion of the air,” a turn of phrase borrowed from the pop cultural images about the devil and demons of his own time, which imagined them as inhabiting the space between the earth and heaven. (See Arnold for examples from both Judaism and Hellenistic magical texts.*) At any rate, this second spiritual power that influences humanity to sin is this personal figure that traffics in half-truths, manipulation, and alternative facts.
What ought we to make of this idea today? The thought world of the Bible has no question that there are spiritual beings, both friend and foe, that exist as a unique part of God’s creation. As far as I’m concerned, there are without a doubt forces at work in the world that draw us away from God; I don’t really care whether those forces are envisioned as personal or impersonal. Evil exists, and we would do well to be on guard against its workings in the world, and especially in ourselves. But, as Paul made clear in just the last section we looked at, evil does not have the last word and it is ultimately powerless against God, so we would also do well not to be too interested in it. At any rate, as Klyne Snodgrass puts it, “In the end, the blame is not placed on the ruler, but on us.” Evil forces may try their best to distort facts and confuse us into doing the wrong thing, but we are free to respond with the truth and remain faithful, just as Jesus did when tempted by Satan in the desert.
The third influence that leads us towards sin is what Paul calls “the appetites of the flesh.” ‘Flesh’ is a typically Pauline word (see especially Romans 7.5-25, 8.3-23; Galatians 5.13-24). While he often contrasts it with ‘spirit’, this is not a metaphysical dualism, in which spirit is good and matter is bad. In the Hebrew Bible, ‘flesh’ refers to “humanity in its inherent weakness, frailty, and dependency” (Arnold). Paul pushes this idea a bit further, using this weakness as a symbol for the ways we can easily confuse our body’s passing whims and wants for legitimate needs, and thereby be led astray. It’s important when talking about the ‘sins of the flesh’ that in English, this has taken on an almost exclusively sexual connotation. This says far more about our cultural hangups than it does Paul. While sex is certainly in view when he talks about the appetites of the flesh, it is not exclusively or even primarily so. There are a lot of things our body craves — food and drink, rest, sex, physical and psychological safety and security — these are all good and important things, but once we confuse what we need and what we want, we can easily turn them into ends in themselves instead of means of communion with life, with God, and each other. And so, a natural sexual urge — the reproductive urge certainly, but also a longing for communion with another person — can easily turn into a quest for pleasure for pleasure’s sake; likewise, hunger can turn into gluttony, a need for rest can turn into laziness and apathy, and so on. This is what Paul means by ‘appetites of the flesh’ leading us towards sin.
Assessment and Final Thoughts
Ephesians 2.1-3 lists three types of influence that can easily lead us into sin. We might paraphrase these as the influence of the status quo and autopilot; the influence of voices twisting truth; and the influence of a confusion of bodily needs and bodily wants. While these likely do not represent an exhaustive list, they are helpful to think about. If we keep them in mind — as with any sort of shadow work, if we keep them where we can see them — we are better able to resist their influence. Thus they can helpfully expand our awareness of what’s happening around us and to us, and thereby put is in a better position to right by those around us, and of course, by God.
Of course, the larger section, 2.1-10, insists that we have more at our disposal to manage these influences than just awareness. God has acted to offer us new opportunities for life. The more we come to live the way Jesus lived, the more ‘conformed we are’ to his likeness, or in the language of Ephesians the more we truly are living ‘in him’, the more we will be able to live out our human calling to bear in the image of God in and for the world in all of our relationships, and perhaps paradoxically, the more we will be truly ourselves in all our individual uniqueness. And in so doing, the better able we will be to manage the influences Paul is talking about here: against the ‘way the world works’, we will have the sanctified imagination to envision a different kind of world; against the twisted half-truths and alternative facts of all those internal and external voices warring against us, we will have the unvarnished reality of things; and against the distortions of want vs. need, we will have healthy relationships with our body and all of its appetites and pleasures.
* See the bibliography for the series for details.