The uses of this biblical term fall into two major divisions: referring to "miraculous powers" and to angelic beings belonging to the hierarchy of heaven. "Powers" translates a number of biblical words. The background of the key Greek word (dynamis [duvnami"]) is found in the Old Testament. It translates the Hebrew word hayil [lIy;j] (over 150 times), often used as "host" or "power of a host." Dynamis [duvnami"] is first found in Jewish writings referring to angels, and indicates the power of angelic and demonic forces. There are frequent references in the intertestamental writings, most notably in 1 Enoch (61:10; 82:8) and Jubilee (2:2).
The New Testament references to miraculous works occur in relation to Jesus' miracles and the presence of such works in the life of the early church. The New International Version translates dynamis [duvnami"] as "miraculous powers" in the Gospels ( Matt 13:54 ; 14:2 ; Mark 6:14 ) and in Paul's writings ( 1 Cor 12:10 ), where it relates to spiritual gifts. In Hebrews 6:5, the reference to "the powers of the coming age" may allude to similar phenomena (cf. Acts 8:13 ). Rather than relating to magic or magical formulas, common in the ancient world, Jesus' powerful Word overcame demonic forces, and demonstrates "the invading dominion of God, " expelling Satan and the demons.
There are more frequent references to angels and demons, members of the hierarchy of heaven, including such titles as authorities, powers, dominions, principalities, and thrones. These supernatural beings are the dynameis ("powers"), linked with angels and demons ( Rom 8:38 ) and authorities ( 1 Peter 3:22 ). These forces are not able to defeat believers, or to separate them from the love of Christ, for Christ has subordinated them through the cross and his resurrection.
Paul also describes the rulers (archas), the authorities (exousias [ejxousiva]), the powers (kosmokratoras) of this dark world, the spiritual forces (pneumatika [pneumatikov"]) of evil in the heavenly realms ( Eph 6:12 ). The term kosmokratoras does not appear in the Old Testament (LXX), but does occur in the Jewish work T. Solomon, joined with the expression "the heavenly bodies" (stoicheia) ( 8:2 ; 18:2 ). Once these "rulers of this world of darkness" are made up of seven spirits; again, of thirty-six spirits. When queried by King Solomon the former reply, "Our stars in heaven look small, but we are named like gods" ( 8:4 ). Yet each of the seven are opposed and thwarted by one of God's chief angels. All of these creatures bring about certain types of maladies within human life, but are ultimately subject to God's judgment. Archas is variously translated as "powers" ( Col 2:15 ) or "rulers" ( Eph 3:10 ; Col 1:16 ). It denotes primacy, sometimes temporal and sometimes in rank, yet these beings are subject to Christ as the head ( Col 2:10 ), and they were created by him ( Col 1:16 ). In his death Christ triumphed over them, and made a spectacle of them. They are described as a train of captives behind a victorious general ( Col 2:15 ). Finally, "powers" translates kyriotemtes ( Col 1:16 ), also rendered "dominion" (sing., Eph 1:21 ). This word emphasizes the power or rule of a lord. In turn, these angelic beings are subordinated to the rule of Christ, for he is the ultimate kyrios or Lord, both in virtue of his role as Creator and as the risen Lord (cf. 1 Cor 15:23-24 ; Eph 1:21 ; Php 2:10 ).
The related word "authorities" is also used in two basic ways in the New Testament: of earthly rulers ( Luke 12:11 ; John 7:26 ; Acts 16:19 ; Rom 13:1 ; Titus 3:1 ); and of supernatural or supraterrestrial beings ( Eph 3:10 ; 6:12 ; Col 1:16 ; 2:15 ; 1 Peter 3:22 ). The singular, "authority, " is used in 1 Corinthians 15:24; Ephesians 1:21; and Colossians 2:10. While John and Acts use the word archon, all the other texts have the word exousia [ejxousiva].
In the Pauline writings the context is frequently apologetic in nature; Paul is countering various heresies. With the possible exception of Ephesians 3:10, the "authorities" appear to be beings of an evil nature, opposing the rule of God, the supremacy of the Lord Christ, and the life of the church.
Finally, the word "thrones" means the royal seat, or the symbol of rule, first of human rulers, then of heavenly beings. It appears ten times in the Old Testament (NIV), most commonly as a translation of the Hebrew kisse [aeSiK]. An unusual use, and the only one in the New Testament, occurs in the listing "thrones or powers or rulers or authorities" ( Col 1:16 ). While no real distinction is possible among these terms, the references taken together may well be to the highest classes of angelic/demonic beings. And all, being created in, through, and for Christ, are subject to him.
Walter M. Dunnett
Bibliography. W. Foerster, TDNT, 2:562-73; W. Grundman, TDNT, 2:284-317; R. C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Powers'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".