Demons: Disarmed, Displayed, Defeated Part II (2:15)
What an incredibly encouraging passage this is! "He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him" (Colossians 2:15). Let's unpack it, word by word.
We should begin by determining who the "He" is of v. 15 that is responsible for this remarkable triumph? Is the subject of this "disarming" God the Father or our Lord Jesus Christ or perhaps, in some sense, both of them? In vv. 13-14 God the Father was clearly the subject of the saving action described and it is most likely that such is the case here again in v. 15.
However, many years ago J. B. Lightfoot proposed an interpretation of this text that is not only fascinating and instructive but would also suggest that we view Jesus himself as the one who performed or achieved this "disarming" or "disrobing" of the rulers and authorities. But before we look at Lightfoot's theory, we need to be clear on who Paul has in mind when he refers to "rulers and authorities."
Some have argued that by "rulers and authorities" Paul is referring to holy, elect angels who in the Old Testament were portrayed as mediators of the Mosaic Law. Thus by means of the cross God has stripped himself of the mediatorial ministry of angels, making a public display of them as inferior to Christ who alone is the mediator between God and man.
This is highly unlikely, though, given the violent terms employed: "disarm" or "strip away," "publicly display," as well as "triumph over." Most are agreed, therefore, that the "rulers and authorities" are fallen angelic hosts, whom we know as the devil and his demons. In fact, the terms Paul uses to describe them ("rulers and authorities") are standard vocabulary in the New Testament for demonic beings (see Eph. 1:20-21; 3:10; 6:10ff.; Romans 8:38).
What precisely, then, is meant in saying that God "disarmed" the demonic hosts. The only other place in the New Testament where this verb is used is in Colossians 3:9 where Paul describes Christians as those who have "put off" the old self, which is to say, they have "laid aside" or "stripped themselves" of the old self as if it were a garment to be discarded.
Lightfoot contended that Paul's point is that whereas the powers of evil constantly attacked our Lord, assailing him throughout the course of his earthly ministry, by means of his atoning death Jesus "stripped" them from himself much as one would disrobe and cast aside an old and filthy garment.
Perhaps an illustration will help. In ancient mythology, Hercules once permitted his wife Deianira to be carried across a flooded stream by a centaur named Nessus. The centaur provoked Hercules by his rudeness and was subsequently shot with a poison arrow. As Nessus lay dying, he told Deianira to save his blood as a love charm. Later, when Hercules fell in love with Iole, Deianira dipped a robe in the blood of Nessus and sent it to her husband. When Hercules put it on, the poison began to eat away his flesh. In agony, he begged his friends to burn his body to end the ordeal.
Thus wrote Bishop Lightfoot: "The powers of evil which had clung like a Nessus robe about His [Christ's] humanity, were torn off and cast aside forever" (150). The demonic powers beset our Lord at every turn of his life and shrouded, as it were, his person with their poisonous hostility, much as the Nessus robe did the body of Hercules. But whereas the mythological hero was defeated by death, our Lord was victorious by means of it. In his crucifixion he stripped the forces of evil from himself as one would a tattered and ragged robe.
Lightfoot's is a vivid and instructive interpretation, but an unlikely one. Whereas the translation "disrobed" is a better rendering of this word than "disarmed," it is God the Father who, in effect, "stripped" the demons of their power and authority. So, yes, in a sense they have indeed been "disarmed" (ESV) and defeated and are unworthy of either our honor or fear.
More than that, God has "put them to open shame" or "made a public spectacle" of them. This is a bit unusual, insofar as we humans cannot "see" or "witness" such an exposure of these spiritual beings. In what sense, then, were they put to "open shame" or made a "public spectacle" of?
There are two ways of answering this question. On the one hand, Paul may be referring to a display or spectacle "visible" only to the spiritual realm itself. In other words, it is before both the holy angels as well as the unholy, fallen hosts that this triumph was made known. In Ephesians 3:10 Paul says that it is through the church that the wisdom of God is being "made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places." Clearly, it is important to God's purposes that the demonic realm "see" or be aware of his wisdom as it is revealed in the salvation and ministry of the church on earth. Perhaps, then, the disrobing or disarming of the demonic hosts is made "public" to the unseen world of angels and demons alike as part of God's design to glorify himself in the salvation of sinners.
On the other hand, we may be guilty of pressing Paul's language beyond its proper bounds. It would seem he is making use of a common image in his day to make a theological point. In other words, our problem may be that we are expecting some literal manifestation of a truth that is described in obviously metaphorical terms. Let me explain.
The verse actually says that he "put them to open shame, BY TRIUMPHING OVER THEM in him." In other words, the way in which the rulers and authorities were put to open shame was by being subject to the "triumphal procession" of God in Christ. The word translated "triumphing" (used elsewhere in the New Testament only in 2 Corinthians 2:14) was descriptive of a Roman general parading his captives behind him as the spoil and booty of war, all of which was designed to humiliate them and bring public attention to their subjugation.
Thus, Paul's point here may simply be that God's defeat of the demonic hosts is like that of an earthly military commander's triumph over and public display of his enemies. We are not to look for some specific time or event or way in which this "open shame" of the demonic hosts was made known or visible. Rather, we are to rest assured and rejoice in the promise that our spiritual enemies were as thoroughly defeated and stripped of their dignity and power as were those physical enemies who unsuccessfully opposed and were eventually conquered by a Roman general and his army.
But surely the most stunning statement of all is the final phrase of v. 15. It was "in" or "through" or "by" the cross that this victory was achieved. The ESV renders it, "in him," as if referring to Christ. This is certainly possible, but I think it more likely that the antecedent in view is the "cross" of v. 14, to which God is said to have nailed our sins.
Amazing! The very instrument which to all eyes appeared to seal Christ's doom was his tool of triumph! In a marvelous twist of divine irony, the cross, the emblem of disgrace and death by which the demonic hosts thought they had defeated Christ, is turned on them and becomes the instrument of their humiliating demise.
As our Lord "was suspended there," wrote F. F. Bruce, "bound hand and foot to the wood in apparent weakness, [the rulers and authorities] imagined they had Him at their mercy, and flung themselves upon Him with hostile intent. But, far from suffering their assault without resistance, He grappled with them and mastered them, stripping them of all the armor in which they trusted, and held them aloft in His mighty, outstretched hands, displaying to the universe their helplessness and his own unvanquished strength. . . . Now they are disabled and dethroned, and the shameful tree has become the victor's triumphal chariot, before which His captives are driven in humiliating procession, the involuntary and impotent confessors of their overcomer's superiority" (239-40).
John Calvin put it best: "For there is no tribunal so magnificent, no throne so stately, no show of triumph so distinguished, no chariot so elevated, as is the gibbet on which Christ has subdued death and the devil, nay more, has utterly trodden them under His feet" (Commentary on Colossians, 336).
The bottom line is this: spiritual authority is in the name of Christ, the balance of power rests with us, and the ultimate outcome has been settled in our favor. We do not fear those who've suffered a decisive defeat, but our faith is in God. Therefore, we stand firm, resisting the enemy with the assurance that he will flee.
Triumphant over them in Him!