A praise-song for Africa

praise singer
Praise singer for Jacob Zuma

A key figure in the Xhosa tradition is the imbongi or praise singer. The praise singers traditionally live close to the chief’s “great place” (the cultural and political focus of his activity); they accompany the chief on important occasions – a praise singer preceded Nelson Mandela at his Presidential inauguration in 1994. The praise songs generally give tribute to and acclaim to the actions and adventures of chiefs and ancestors. The apostle Paul ended his prayer in Ephesians chapter one with a kind of praise-song.
  

 

Praise to God for enthroning Jesus

(20) …which he exercised in Christ by raising him out of the dead and by seating him at his right hand in the heavenly realms (21) far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and any name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come; (22) and he subjected everything under his feet, and he gave him as head over everything to the church, (23) which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all things in every respect. (Ephesians 1:20-23)

The exceeding greatness of God’s power that was at work in the believers was manifested or demonstrated in three ways according to the Paul:

1. God’s power was demonstrated by raising and enthroning Jesus (1:20-21)

“Raising him out of the dead” in 1:20 literally means that God’s power was “exercised” by raising Jesus out of the dead. Christ Jesus was raised out of all those who had died and who remain buried in the earth. This demonstration of the power of God may have been especially significant for the Greco-Roman believers. In the magical papyri* there is an invocation to Apollos, Artemis’ brother and the son of Zeus, who is described as:

“you who rule heaven and earth and Chaos and Hades” (PGM 1.267-347)

Jesus vs. Apollos

Christ is presented as more powerful than Apollos who allegedly ruled over Hades. Perhaps even more significantly, the goddess Hekate Ereschigal, who is identified with Artemis, is seemingly named the “Lady of Tartaros” (PGM LXX.5-11). In classical Greek mythology Tartaros is a deep, gloomy place or an abyss used as a dungeon of torment or suffering for souls after death that resided beneath the underworld. God’s power was strong enough to raise Christ Jesus out of the place of the dead over which other “powers” allegedly ruled. First century people were terrified of Hades or Tartaros. In the magical papyri Apollos is able to “destroy even in Hades”.

PGM 1.149-196 is another spell to Selene/Artemis for acquiring an assistant (a spiritual guide):

“When you are dead, he will wrap up your body as befits a god, but he will take your spirit and carry it into the air with him. For no aerial spirit which is joined to a mighty assistant will go into Hades, for to him all things are subject.” (Lines 178-181)

The mighty assistant would assure that after death ones “spirit” was not taken [down] into Hades. The power of God as demonstrated by raising Christ Jesus out of the dead was highly symbolic to this Greco-Roman thought world where Hades was feared.

But God’s power was not only seen in raising Jesus out of the dead but also “by seating him at his right hand in the heavenly realm”. The writers of the New Testament often alluded to and quoted Psalm 110:1 which reads:

The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” (Psalm 110:1 NIV)

Psalm 110 is commonly used by the New Testament writers to interpret God’s enthronement of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 2:34-35, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3). This was clearly the case too in Paul’s realigned view of Jesus. To sit at the right hand of God was a symbol of divine power and a position of special honour and privilege and power. Christ Jesus was raised, but unlike the account of Lazarus, Jesus would not die again, indeed he now possesses the full authority of the Father. Christ was according to the author in the position of supreme power over the universe. Although the believers are said to be “seated with [Christ] in the heavenly realms” according to 2:6, significantly there is no mention of “at his right hand”! The “powers” in 1:21 should be seen as enemies in rebellion towards God’s Messiah as consistent with the allusion to Psalm 110:1. According to the Greco-Roman thought-world it was also in the “heavenly realms” or in the “kingdom of the air” that the hostile “powers” operated (cf. Ephesians 2:2, PGM IV.569). It is significant that it was “in the heavenly realms” (1:20) where Jesus is enthroned. Not only was Jesus raised and in the supreme position of power but that same power was at work in and for the believers in Ephesus and surrounds.

First-Throne

Not only is Christ Jesus enthroned “in the heavenly realms”, he is enthroned “far above” the other “powers”. The terms employed to denote the “powers” in 1:21 are introduced by the term “all” or “every” and thus refers to “every kind of” power that exists. These supernatural “powers” are below Christ Jesus on the power scale. As shown in a previous post, Artemis was considered to be a supremely powerful deity, even “πρωτοθρονια” or “first throne”. Paul here clarified the position of Christ Jesus in relation to Artemis or any other “power” in the Greco-Roman religious world by virtue of his resurrection and enthronement. The cultural echoes in this text would be hard to miss.

I know your name

In the magical papyri the “calling” or “naming” of the supernatural “powers” (such as listed in 1:21) was of extreme importance. In the magical papyri there is a spell of invocation to establish a relationship with Helios and the suppliant is to say:

“I know…what your name is”. (PGM III.496-611)

Already in 1974 Markus Barth observed that in pagan cults and magic formulae the mention of a superior power’s name allegedly caused the deity or demon to listen, to help, or to refrain from doing harm. Bearing in mind these magical and religious beliefs, practices and traditions, Paul claims that Jesus is “far above…any name that is named”. The phrase “not only in this age but also in the one to come” was the common Jewish apocalyptic outlook on the division of time and no doubt demonstrated Paul’s Old Testament background and Jewish influences. Paul understood himself to be living in the overlap of the ages. Paul maintained that the supremacy of Christ Jesus over the hostile “powers” included this age and the age to come when the kingdom of God would be established in all its fullness. The first demonstration of God’s power was therefore the raising and enthroning of Jesus.

2. God’s power was demonstrated by subjecting everything under Jesus’ feet (1:22a)

The supremacy of Christ Jesus and the all-exceeding power of God was further emphasized in v22a by the author’s allusion to Psalm 8:6, which reads:

“You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet” (Psalm 8:6 NIV)

Jesus Christ, now in the designated place of authority, is able to exercise that authority as “all things” are under his feet. (First century cultural echoes are also evident. The magical papyri has a spell to Selene [Artemis] for her to send an “assistant” or a “mighty angel” for protection. The “assistant” is able to provide protection because “to him all things are subject”.

Psalm 8:6 refers to human beings who were created as God’s vice regents to exercise rule over the creation (cf. Genesis 1:26-28). “Everything” in 1:22 corresponds to the “everything” in Psalm 8:6. In the Psalm “everything” refers to the natural (earthly) created order (cf. Psalm 8:7-8) but the “everything” in 1:22 seems to have the same cosmic scope as the “all things” in 1:10, 23 which implies that the entire universe, heaven and earth, cosmic powers and human beings, were subordinate to the enthroned Christ. Christ Jesus was seen by Paul as achieving and more the original cultural mandate given to human beings by the “the working of his [God’s] mighty strength” (1:19). The whole cosmos and everything in it, including the “powers” venerated and feared by the citizens of western Asia Minor, was and is under the authority of Christ by the power of God.

Now and not yet

Some scholars accuse the apostle Paul of having an (over-) realized eschatology at this point and believe the author viewed the destruction of the powers as accomplished at Christ’s enthronement as opposed to a future destruction at Christ’s second coming. This may be overstating the point as Paul elsewhere in the letter referred to the “powers” as still at work in the world (cf. Ephesians 3:10, 6:12). All things, including the hostile “powers” were indeed subjected to Christ but as the believers still lived in the overlap of the ages this fact was (and is) not obvious. At the full inauguration of the age to come, at the bringing of “all things in heaven and on earth together under one head” (1:10), when the “times will have reached their fulfilment” (1:10), Jesus Christ’s supremacy over all the “powers” would be very evident. Paul and the believers lived in the tension between the “now” and the “not yet”. Therefore the second demonstration of God’s power was in the subjecting of everything, particularly the “powers”, under Christ Jesus.

3.  God’s power was demonstrated by giving Jesus as head to the church (1:22b-23)

The church of God being the body of Christ highlights the notion of the personal presence of a powerful “head” who strengthens, guides, rules and sustains his body. Paul believed that Christ Jesus was given to the church as the head over “everything”, including the entire cosmos. Paul’s usage of this term elsewhere in the letter seems to indicate that the “universal” church was more in view here (cf. Ephesians 3:10, 5:23, 5:24). However, one must not dismiss altogether the notion of the local house churches in Ephesus and surrounds as “earthly manifestations” of the “universal church” that would no doubt also benefit from Christ’s headship over the universe. The power of God was demonstrated by God enthroning Jesus as Lord over the universe and also in giving this Jesus to the church as head. The Ephesian believers who feared the “powers” would have been greatly encouraged to know that, by God’s exceeding power, Christ Jesus was exercising his lordship on behalf of the church of which the believers were members.

As opposed to being an insignificant, powerless religious group on the periphery of the Greco-Roman religious world, the local house churches were closely aligned to the cosmic Christ who was ruling the universe for the benefit of the church. The third demonstration of God’s power was therefore God giving Christ Jesus as head to the church.

Cosmic Lord

Jesus Christ according to Paul in Ephesians is the cosmic Lord whose presence fills the entire universe and who wields his supreme power on behalf of the church. The believers in Ephesus and surrounds needed not to fear the “powers”, nor the influence of magic, as a far greater power was available to them by faith, not magical incantation. I have argued that the prayer in 1:15-23 was carefully crafted using particular terminology and semantic concepts that both the Jewish and Gentile believers would have been familiar with in order in order to communicate to the readers the greatness of their salvation and the supreme Lordship of Christ Jesus, with particular regards to the triumph of the power of God over any and all other “powers” including the Ephesian Artemis. Terms and concepts used and practiced in western Asia Minor were reformulated by Paul in his letter to demonstrate the exceeding greatness of the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Ephesian believers were not to live in fear of magic, demonic reprisals or the dreaded evil eye because Christ Jesus is superior to all “powers” and the power of God that is at work in Christ Jesus was now wielded for the benefit of the church. Paul assured his readers that the “powers” were not in control and the believers were not in any way in bondage to them or needed to placate them.

For African Christians this is of enormous importance and significance.

Here is the start of the prayer.

 

* The magical papyri (PGM) , which include incantations, rituals, formulas, spells, recipes, curse tablets, amulets, and so on, are a collection of documents from Greco-Roman antiquity that illustrate the beliefs and practises of the common people of the New Testament era.