Wednesday, May 22, 2019

THE SPIRIT OF THIS WORLD

The Apostle Paul writes of the Ephesians: “You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to walk when you conformed to the ways of this world, and to the ruler of the power of the airthe spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:1-2).

What does the apostle mean when he speaks of the “ways of this world” and “the prince of the power of the air?”

The Ways of this World

Concerning the phrase “the ways of this world,” we once again do well to see what Paul wrote in some of his other letters concerning this same topic. We have done this before as we have studied Ephesians. When I earlier wrote about the meaning of the eyes of the heart, I made reference to something Paul told the Corinthian church.

Reading a bit more of that same text in the book of Corinthians will help us also to understand what he means when he talks about the course of this world: 

We have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. And this is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.

The natural man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God. For they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:12-14 BSB) 

As we see, the first thing to understand about the course of this world is that it originates from a spirit that is in the world, and that this spirit is not the Spirit who is from God. It is a different spirit, and it is the spirit which had formerly kept the Ephesians dead in their trespasses and sins.

The person who is ruled by the spirit of this world cannot understand the things taught by the Spirit of God. The “natural man,” or the man who is ruled by the spirit of this world, sees the things of God as “foolishness.” He believes that only a fool would believe the things of God.

However, God takes issue with the notion of the world as to what is and what is not wise: 

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  (1 Corinthians 1:20-21 BSB) 

The Spirit of the World in Opposition to God

In addition, the spirit of the world is more than just a passive bystander in the battle for our souls. This spirit is not merely indifferent to our condition. Rather than this, we see that the world has put itself in a place of open resistance to God.

When Paul speaks of his ministry as announcing the gospel, he realizes that not all who hear would understand. Indeed, some of the ways of God involve matters of eternity and are difficult for anyone to understand. But the inability to comprehend that Paul is speaking about is not merely because people personally are not capable. It is more than that. There is something blocking their vision.

Paul says that, “Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world (Greek aion [age]) has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4 NAS emphasis added).

There is an intentional effort on the part of the world to deceive the people that are in the world.

So we see that when Paul speaks of the course of this world to the Ephesians, he is speaking of something that is not merely indifferent to the message of Christ, but is in open opposition to it. The world is at war with the Spirit and message of Christ.

That is why Paul also tells the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8 NAS).

Why such hostility against the things of God?

The apostle John actually gives us more insight into this conflict of the spirit of the world against the Spirit of God. The reason for this antagonism against God, John writes, is because of the fact that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). That is why he advises his readers:  

Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. (I John 2:15-16 NAS) 

The Prince of the Power of the Air

With this background, we now look at what Paul calls “the prince of the power of the air.”

This quote from Ephesians is the only time that Paul uses this particular phrase. Indeed, it is the only time that it is found in Scripture. However, Paul does speak of this same power of the air in a more general sense later in this book of Ephesians when he is instructing the believers to put on the armor of God.

He tells the people of the church that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world (aion) forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NAS).

Whether we are aware of it or not, there are forces in this world that are trying to lead us away from God. Because of this, we need to understand this spiritual conflict better. We should look especially at the phrase, the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places, since it gives us another perspective on the subject of the prince of the power of the air.
Although stated in different terms, both of what Paul calls the “heavenly places,” and the power of the “air” are referring to the same realm where the malevolent power of Satan is active.
 
As we have just read from the apostle John, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). This is precisely why Paul told the church at Galatia that Christ had given himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age (Galatians 1:4). That which he here calls the “evil age” is another way of referring to the present world.


This is also why Paul now tells the Ephesians that this same spirit of the world is at work in the “sons of disobedience.” Later in the letter to the Ephesians, Paul will tell them of the eventual fate of these sons of disobedience, which will be to see the wrath of God (Ephesians 5:6).

The phrase sons of disobedience is reminiscent of when Jesus called Judas the “son of destruction” (John 17:12), and when the apostle John contrasted the children of the devil with the children of God (1 John 3:10). Paul is also making that contrast here, but more than merely contrasting the two, he goes on to explain how the saints have been delivered out of the influence of this evil.

All of these are references to the present spiritual struggle that is taking place. We may be unaware of it, but we should know that it is a reality. It is because of this reality that Paul prays that the “eyes of the hearts” of the believers will be opened so that they are able to realize these things. 

Children of Wrath

As we remember from the first chapter of Ephesians, one of the first things that Paul mentions in the letter is the fact of God’s choice of his children in Christ before the foundation of the world. He spoke as well about the concept of predestination.

However, for those who would conclude from these choices by God that our own actions do not matter, Paul now has something interesting to say in response. Following the comments concerning the sons of disobedience, Paul now adds: 

Among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:3 ESV) 

This is a significant statement, for it shows that not only did we, in our natural state and before we were justified by Christ, not only live among the sons of disobedience, but that we also were ruled by the same desires. Additionally, in this natural state Paul says that we also were “children of wrath.”

Despite the teaching of predestination, this statement would seem to take away any thoughts of determinism, for Paul puts the natural state of all mankind into the same category. Calling everyone in this state “children of wrath” gives what seems to be an indisputable picture of judgment. Paul soon writes that in our natural state, all of humankind is “dead in our transgressions.” It is clear that this is the destiny of all people apart from some involvement on the part of God. 

The Intervention of God

But God does involve himself. He intervenes on our behalf. Our natural state was death, and something that is dead cannot give life to itself. If we are dead, we have no power to help ourselves. Life, if it is to come, must be given to it by another. We cannot give life to ourselves.

Thus we have one of the most astounding statements of all of Scripture: 

But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in our trespasses. It is by grace you have been saved! (Ephesians 2:4-5 BSB) 

Actually, this is only about half of the astounding statement, but it is enough for us to consider as we pause here for a moment.
In this part of the statement we can see clearly the reasons that God decided to give us life. We see that it was not because any merit on our part. There is not even a mention of any positive aspect of our nature with which we can contribute to our new relationship with God. The only initiative comes from God, and in these verses, Paul lists three: God’s mercy, God’s love, and God’s grace.

First of all, any possibility of life for us depends upon the mercy of God. There is no appeal that we could make, no presentation of our own merit, no promise that we can and will do better. Without the mercy of God, we are without any hope of any kind.

Second, God’s mercy originates from his love. Certainly God could look at us in our contemptible situation and allow us to have what we deserve. But his great love instead gave rise to the riches of his mercy. God took pity upon us because of our situation and our helplessness. He reached down to give us life.

Third, the means by which God gives us life is by his grace. “By grace you have been saved.” Again, there was nothing that we were able to contribute to give assistance to our own salvation. Like a drowning man helpless in the water, any effort that we try to contribute only hinders the rescue. We must depend totally upon the abilities of the One who intervenes on our behalf. This demonstration of his grace is explained in the second part of the astounding statement.

We shall look at this in the next installment.

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