And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience… - Ephesians 2:1-2 (NET)
Before we embark on an attempt to understand Paul’s communications here in the second chapter of Ephesians, it is imperative that we find its context. To do so, we revert to the first chapter of Ephesians, where we find Paul in presentation of the establishment of God’s kingdom in and through Christ. He writes: “…He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (1:20b-21). Those “heavenly realms” can be thought of in terms of both Christ’s throne in heaven, as well as Christ’s throne of dominion in the kingdom of heaven that was inaugurated on earth in the power of His Resurrection. To aid us in this, we can think of Jesus’ statement of the Father’s will being done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10b).
Additionally, we must make note of Paul’s statement in regards to “this age” and “the one to come.” Paul wants his readers to avoid any possibility of thinking that Christ’s reign as something limited only to the future, but that it is very much present in this age, owing to history’s climactic events of cross and Resurrection. His talk of the age to come, in which all things will be renewed, of which we are given a taste in this age in the power of His eternal life in union with Him as we preach the Gospel and experience its power, points us to the hope of our faith. To drive home the point that Christ reigns in this age, with His kingdom very much present, Paul writes, “And God put all things under His feet, and He gave Him to the church as head over all things” (1:22). Yes, all things are under His feet. There, that “all” means “all,” as in “Jesus is Lord of all;” and His Lordship is extended through His people of this confession.
Having established that Paul is referencing Christ’s kingdom, Paul engages in the presentation of a contrast. We can sense both a subversive counter-imperialism to be understood by all of his readers, along with a polemic directed at those of his readers that would have been Jewish, and therefore steeped in a Jewish, nationalistic mindset as it relates to the kingdom of God. We can know that his audience consisted of both Jews and Gentiles, because in the eleventh verse of the second chapter, he directs his words specifically to “you, the Gentiles in the flesh.”
When it came to the establishment of kingdoms, what was this world’s present path? The path was war. The path was violence for overthrow. Specifically, Caesar’s path for the expansion of his kingdom was “war, victory, peace.” Jesus’ path was far different. Of course, we can all well understand that peace attained through the constant threat of violent death is a shaky and transient peace indeed. It is in this light that Paul addresses the Jews in his audience, when he says that “you were dead in transgressions and sins, in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path.” These were the transgressions and sins of seeking to violently expunge their pagan oppressors from their land, and in that way to establish the promised kingdom of God, with national Israel as its exalted nation and its people as its supreme rulers. These were the transgressions and sins, based upon hatred and spite, from which John the Baptist, and Jesus in His first recorded proclamations in Mark’s Gospel, urged the people to repent.
This was not God’s method, as clearly revealed in Christ. This was the method of “the ruler of the kingdom of the air,” the rulers and authorities and powers and dominions (earthly and spiritual), of which we read in the first chapter. This was the continuing spirit that was energizing those of Paul’s fellow countrymen, in ongoing disobedience to God’s plans and purposes and intentions for His people to be a light to the Gentiles, who were refusing to embrace Jesus’ kingdom message, and instead, were persisting in their headlong rush towards revolutionary activity that was eventually going to result in the destruction of Jerusalem and its people.
In this message, Paul does not stand separate, merely throwing accusations, but hearkening back to his former days as a Pharisee of Pharisees, he lumps himself in with those that were on the same path. Bearing in mind the kingdom of God context, he wrote that “all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind” (2:3a). Here, he confesses that he too had a desire to pursue the violent route to national independence and the violent ushering in of God’s kingdom through a Davidic messiah that would run roughshod over the enemies of Israel. Indeed, in his violent persecution of the church, Paul was actively attempting to eliminate those that were saying that the kingdom had been ushered in through Jesus and who were encouraging their brothers and sisters to drop their nationalistic desires. It is quite possible that, in Paul’s thinking, this acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, along with its recognition of God’s entering into history to establish His kingdom through a renewed Israel that preached the Gospel of Christ, would merely lead to fewer people being willing to take up arms when the time for rebellion against Rome presented itself. Now though, Paul looks upon such cravings and desires of the flesh and mind as serving to create a generation of his fellow Jews that were going to be “children of wrath” (2:3b), who would eventually be utterly conquered by Rome.