Who are the “rulers of this age” in 1 Cor 2?
The Rulers of This Age
Yesterday, I had an interesting question put to me on Facebook about a phrase in 1 Corinthians 2. Below is the question, and my answer…
[Paul] uses “rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:8) which is another way of saying demons, and even says if ‘they’ knew who he was, they would not have crucified him. That is a very strange thing to write – why would Paul write about demons crucifying Christ when the gospels say it was the Romans who did it, and the gospels mention nothing about demons crucifying Christ?
What does Paul mean by “ruler”?
I totally agree that it would be a very strange thing for Paul to write if “rulers of this age” meant “demons” in 1 Cor 2. But it doesn’t. It just means the human rulers of that age.
I can understand why you might think (or have heard) that Paul was referring to demons here. Sometimes “rulers” are referring to spiritual rulers and demons. But not often.
If you look up the times in Paul’s epistles where the word “ruler” is used, you find it in three epistles – Romans, 1 Corinthians & Ephesians.
In Ephesians, he is clearly using it to refer to demons. Here are the four references:
“he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” (Eph 1:20-21)
“the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” (Eph 2:2)
“the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10)
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12)
As you can see, Paul always surrounds the term “rulers” with other spiritual language so that the reader can clearly understand that he is talking about demonic rulers rather than human ones.
In no other Pauline epistle, does he use the term “ruler” in this way.
In Romans, he uses the term several times. Have a read of Romans 13:1-6…
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.”
If you’re wondering why I included such a long passage, it’s because the Greek word for “governing authorities” in 13:1 is “ἄρχων”. This is exactly the same Greek word that is translated as “rulers” in 1 Corinthians 2:6 & 8.
As a side note, Acts also records Paul as talking about rulers in an earthly rather than spiritual sense. See Acts 13:26-29 and Acts 23:5. (Incidentally, in Acts 13:26-29, Paul specifically says that these earthly rulers had Jesus crucified and put in a tomb.)
So clearly Paul doesn’t only use the word “rulers” to refer to demons. In fact, he rarely does so and always makes it explicit.
What does Paul mean by “of this age”?
But the question may arise: Why does Paul use the phrase “of this age”? Doesn’t that point to a more spiritual concept or ruler? Like in Ephesians 1:21 where he says: “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”?
Well, you just have to look at how Paul uses the phrase “of this age” in the rest of 1 Corinthians, to see what he means by that term.
He actually uses it several times:
“philosopher of this age” (1 Cor 1:20)
“wisdom of this age” (1 Cor 2:6)
“rulers of this age” (1 Cor 2:6 & 8)
“standards of this age” (1 Cor 3:18)
If Paul talks about the “philosopher of this age” in chapter 1 and then talks about the “rulers of this age” in chapter 2, why would the first be talking about people and the second be talking about demons? Clearly the phrase “of this age” isn’t being used to refer to a spiritual reality.
If you actually go through all of 1 Corinthians 1:18-29, you can see that “of this age” is paralleled with “of this world”. The philosopher, the wise and the ruler are all those people who are powerful and impressive to human society, but whose strength is passing away. Although they seem strong, they are weak in comparison to God.
What does Paul say about the “rulers of this age”?
Lastly, even if you were unsure whether Paul was talking about “rulers” in the earthly way he does in Acts and Romans or the demonic way he does in Ephesians, the clincher is the fact that he says that these rulers “crucified the Lord”.
So who did Paul think killed Jesus? Demons? Not according to Acts 13:26-29.
Paul also makes it clear in his epistle to the Thessalonians:
“You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out.” (1 Thess 2:14-15)
So if there was any doubt, then what Paul says about the actions of the “rulers of this age”, should clarify that he is talking about the human rulers of the first century and not demons.
Phew! Exhausting! But thanks for tracking with me.
Hopefully it’s been helpful!