Question: "What are principalities and powers?"
Answer: The phrase principalities and powers occurs six times in the Bible, always in the King James Version and its derivatives (NKJV, MKJV). Other versions translate it variously as “rulers and authorities,” “forces and authorities,” and “rulers and powers.” In most places where the phrase appears, the contexts make it clear that it refers to the vast array of evil and malicious spirits who make war against the people of God. The principalities and powers of Satan are usually in view here, beings that wield power in the unseen realms to oppose everything and everyone that is of God.
The first mention of principalities and powers is in Romans 8:37–39: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” These verses are about the victory Christ has won over all the forces ranged against us. We are “more than conquerors” because no force—not life, not death, not angels, not demons, indeed nothing—can separate us from the love of God. The “powers” referred to here are those with miraculous powers, whether false teachers and prophets or the very demonic entities that empower them. What is clear is that, whoever they are, they cannot separate us from the love of God. Victory is assured. It would be unfortunate to dwell on identifying the powers and miss the main thrust of the verse, which is assurance about what God has done to save us.
Another mention of principalities and powers is in Colossians 1:16, “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” Here is the clear statement that God is the Creator and Ruler over all authorities, whether they submit to Him or rebel against Him. Whatever power the evil forces possess, they are not out of the ultimate control of our sovereign God, who uses even the wicked for bringing about His perfect plan and purpose (Daniel 4:35; Isaiah 46:10–11).
In the next chapter of Colossians, we read about Jesus’ ultimate power over all other powers: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). In keeping with all things, the powers are created by Christ and therefore under His control. They are not to be feared, for they have been disarmed by the cross. The Savior, by His death, took dominion from them, and took back what they had captured. Satan and his legions had invaded the earth and drawn mankind into captivity, subjecting them to their evil reign. But Christ, by His death, subdued the invaders and recaptured those who had been vanquished. Colossians 2:14 speaks of Jesus being nailed to the cross along with the written charges against us. The record of our wrongdoing, with which Satan accuses us before God, is nailed with Christ to the cross. It is thereby destroyed, and the powers can no longer accuse us; we are innocent in the eyes of God. Hence, they are disarmed.
Ephesians 3:10–11 presents different principalities and powers—those of the heavenly realms: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Here we see the angelic hosts being shown the wisdom and purpose of God in the plan of salvation through Christ. Angels, both holy and unholy, witness the glory of God and the preeminence of Christ above all creatures in the church, those who are saved and preserved by His power (Ephesians 1:20–21).
Ephesians 6:12 declares the warfare in which we are engaged as we battle throughout our lives “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” So, having been saved, we must continue to struggle to do good things in light of the sure victory promised in Romans 8. It is as though we are facing an army of dark powers who have been disarmed from real power and against whom we have been promised victory. It is our job to demonstrate and depend upon the wisdom and power of God in defeating them in our lives. We can do this by trusting in God’s victory.
The final reference to principalities and powers is Titus 3:1. Here they refer to those governmental authorities whom God has placed over us for our protection and welfare. They are God’s representatives on earth, and submission to Him involves submission to His duly constituted authorities. Those who rebel against earthly authorities are “rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Romans 13:2).