Tomorrow (Jan. 6) is “Epiphany” on the liturgical Christian church calendar. Among other things, it is a celebration of the visit of the Magi to the Christ child. That “Visit of the Wise Men” is told in Matthew 2:1~12. Matthew continues with “The Escape to Egypt” (2:13~15) and then with “The Massacre of the Infants” (2:16~18).
The “War” against Christ
In recent years there has been much talk, especially by the Christian Right, about the “war on Christmas.” But Matthew’s Gospel tells about the war on the Christ-child.
Properly understood, the attempt of Herod to destroy Jesus was the beginning of “spiritual warfare” seeking to destroy the one born to be the Savior of the world. Or to use different words, this was the beginning of the attempt by the “principalities and powers” to destroy the Christ.
|"The Flight to Egypt" (c. 1650) by B. Murillo|
“Principalities and powers” are often interpreted as being “invisible” forces of evil that war against people of faith. But those words most likely refer to concrete, visible forces—such as King Herod.
The spiritual warfare that began soon after the Magi returned to their homes “by another road” was not just nebulous activities by unseen powers. No, it was the slaughter or massacre of the baby boys that was intended to include Jesus.
In my Nov. 15 blog article, I briefly introduced William Stringfellow and his book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (1973). A major theme of that impressive book is the author’s elucidation of the meaning of “principalities and powers.”
According to Stringfellow’s deep understanding of the Bible, the “principalities and powers” are not some esoteric spiritual forces of evil in a nonvisible realm. Rather, they are “all authorities, corporations, institutions, traditions, processes, structures, bureaucracies, ideologies, systems” and the like (p. 27).
Such principalities and powers inevitably reside in those, such as Herod, who have abundant possessions, power, and prestige – and, according to Stringfellow, they “are legion in species, number, variety, and name” (p. 77).
“Thus,” he avers, “the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are all principalities” – as are capitalism, humanism, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism etc., etc. (p. 78)
Stringfellow even suggests that we should “perceive the President as a victim and captive of the principalities and powers (p. 142). (This was written when Nixon was in the White House but is certainly applicable to the current occupant as well.)
The Victory of Christ
The New Testament later testifies to the victory of Christ over the principalities and powers by his resurrection. That important emphasis is found in 1 Corinthians 15, which prognosticates “the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he brings every form of rule, every authority [principality] and power to an end” (v. 24, CEB).
The eventual victory of Christ, however, began on the cross. As Brian Zahnd elucidates in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (2017), “Jesus was killed by the principalities and powers” (p. 100)—embodied in the religious and political leaders who colluded to put Jesus to death: Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate.
BZ goes on to state, “Paul says the cross heaps shame on the rulers and authorities that preside over structural sin. ‘In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities [principalities]. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross’” (pp. 106-7, citing Colossians 2:15, NLT).
The struggle against principalities and powers continues. In this new year let’s deliberately and definitely choose to be on the side of Christ, who will finally win through sacrificial love and unconquerable truth.