Within this passage of Scripture, Paul is conveying a connection with the kingdom of darkness and the “elements” that has already been defined as law. Notice where this passage comes. We’ve been noticing how Galatians 3 is Paul’s excursus on Genesis 12-17, and we’ve noticed that the conclusion of that exegesis is our adoption as sons and daughters through faith in Christ Jesus. Now Paul turns focus again upon the law and the notion of salvation through works, and identifies such a notion with demons.
It seems harsh, but is there something to this? For the sake of not putting forth too many words in this blog post, let me just put up some key passages for you to read at your leisure. Notice the theme here. All of them revolve around “law”, and all of them are letters of Paul:
Romans 6:8 (out of order on purpose)
1 Corinthians 15:25-26
1 Corinthians 15:51-56
Galatians 4:4-9 (out of order on purpose)
Aside from the list being rather large, it is neither thorough nor exhaustive. You’ll notice that not all of the passages use the word “law”, but there does seem to be a common interweaving of themes throughout all of these passages. It doesn’t take long before you begin to realize that Paul sees the law and the principalities and powers side-by-side. For Paul, the law is not simply about letters and commands written on stone at Sinai, but instead an entire system of religion that has been established in order to “do for God” what we think He requires. The law is about righteousness through our own ambition and ability; because we have zeal to memorize what the Law says, and because we have the gumption to attempt to live accordingly to it, we feel as though we’ve attained a certain righteousness through observance of the law.
Now, what Paul is not saying is that the law is the work of the devil. Nor is Paul saying that the law is not to be observed. Rather, the point is pressed that righteousness comes through faith, and through faith alone. To be under the law is to use the wisdom of the principalities and powers, which is to say, to use our own strength and endurance, in order to attain unto righteousness. However, it is a false righteousness. This is why Paul tells the Galatians not to submit again under the law, because the law is not simply the written words of the Old Testament, but a wisdom that promotes self-righteousness according to deeds and accomplishment. Through the wisdom of the principalities and powers, we formulate a conception of righteousness, and we thus pursue that end through our own strength, but the Law of Christ is freedom in the Holy Spirit – to walk according to the fruits of the Spirit.
This is why Jesus tells us that our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees. That sentence should strike fear into our hearts. Yet, we don’t fear because we don’t realize the absolute righteousness that the Pharisees had. If you wanted to know who to model your life after, you modeled it after the Pharisees. They were the ultimate example of godliness. Only the most elite and the most learned could possibly be considered a Pharisee. Then Jesus tells those He is speaking to – most likely common folk – that their righteousness needs to exceed that. It isn’t humanly possible, and that is the point. Our righteousness is not according to the works of the Law, but rather according to the Spirit.
How it is that the law is the wisdom of principalities and powers? What do I mean to imply?
We can look to passages like Isaiah 14 or Ezekiel 28 to find the fall of “Lucifer” (which is Latin for morning star). In both places, what is acknowledged is the pride of this ‘angel’s’ heart. The reason that law and self-righteousness through the law is the very mindset and pattern of demons is because it formulates a pride in the heart. It is thinking outside of the command of God; it is concluding that what I believe to be true and good must indeed be that which is true and good. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents this fully. It isn’t that God doesn’t want us to have knowledge, nor that He doesn’t want us to discern (such things are commanded of us even in the New Testament), but that this kind of knowledge is a humanly contrived knowledge rather than revelation.
In Colossians, the Greek word used representing these “basic principles” is stoicheia. It is a neuter plural from the root, which means “first principles”. When Paul uses this word, he seems to be drawing a parallel between the principalities and the basic principles of nature. Here we have “principalities” and “powers”. The prinipalities are the very demonic forces demanding worship through the medium of these unseen “forces” (powers) that dictate nature. Now, for the Hebrew, the forces that dictate nature are not simply contained to nature. The Hebrew mind sees emotion, societal culture, and aspects of daily life all under the same kind of “powers”. For the true Hebrew, it is God who is in control, who gives and takes away. For the idolatrous Hebrew of the Old Testament, they attribute such things to beings that are not god.
Ultimately, when we attempt to plunge into the depths of understanding the law in the mouth of Paul, we end up finding difficulty because it so heavily depends upon the principalities and powers, and the power of sin. Often Paul mentions the law and sin right next to one another. Sin and death are also mentioned side-by-side. The mystery being expressed is that the bondage of the law does not come from the law per se, but from the law of sin at work within the person. We are enslaved by these powers, whether powers of morality, powers of nature, or powers of religion. The powers demand worship, and many are still worshiping the powers that be. It is upon the freedom found in Christ Jesus that we find liberty from the oppression of these powers.
In the question of what it means that the law is the power of sin, we need to understand the problem. What is it about the law that binds us to sin? We don’t simply define sin as an action, but instead a condition that we cannot be made pure apart from Christ. If we say that the Law in itself binds us to sin, then we lie, because the Law is holy and righteous. Yet, if we claim that there is something at work behind the Law, what exactly is it that is at work? If we say that the law is the power of sin, and that the law is defined as a self-righteous system of religion that desires to perform certain religious acts and functions to “be right” before God, then we see quickly how this is binding. We are constantly enslaved to a system of performance. For example, if the gods are pleased with our sacrifices, and we end up with more wealth next year, then we cannot simply offer the same offering because it pleased them last year. We must show our gratitude by offering more. But what if the gods are angry and our crop is devastated? In order to please the gods, we then need to offer more.
Thus, whether we please the gods or whether we upset the gods, we must offer more – more to either keep them pleased or to stay their wrath. In this, we find what the power of sin is. It is that false mindset that tells us we are entrapped in a system of constantly offering more and more until we’re cutting ourselves and offering our children on altars. The Law actually tells us opposite of this – once you have offered the required sacrifices, you are considered right before God. Our sacrifices are fulfilled in Christ. This is our freedom.
But for those outside of Christ, they are entrapped in a system of continuing to offer more and more. Law is a tricky word, because on the one hand it means the true and holy words of God in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which are indeed freedom and life to those who are justified through faith. Yet, there is another law, which is aimed solely at the oppression and endless cycle of never appeasing the gods. The people who continue to work hours that lead to death are enslaved to that system. Work is their god. The people who continue to find their fulfillment in relationships with others, sex and relations are their gods. Of course, when you find fulfillment in something that does not give satisfaction, you find yourself giving more and more and more until there is nothing left to give – thus resulting in death. Whether our gods are drugs, work, sex, education, religion, or the State, we are entrapped in systems of bondage through that law.