I have taken as given, when tracing the biblical theology of kingdom, that 1 Corinthians 2:8 is referring to spiritual rulers—what Psalm 82 calls gods. Some people have asked how I can be so confident, so here I will explain.
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I decided not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling, 4 and my speech and my preaching were not with the persuasiveness of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and power, 5 in order that your faith would not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. 6 Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but wisdom not of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing, 7 but we speak the hidden wisdom of God, a revealed truth, which God predestined before the ages for our glory, 8 which none of the rulers of this age knew. For if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 1 Corinthians 2:1–13
This is the discussion in which these rulers appear: a discussion of God’s wisdom unto salvation, hidden from the rulers of this age, but now revealed through the Spirit. There are two related reasons to think the rulers are (primarily) spiritual:
1. They are of “this age”
Comparing how the phrase “this age” is used elsewhere suggests sinister spiritual overtones. It refers to the world, but especially to the world as a dominion; this is clear in Romans 12:2. Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul even parallels it with kosmos (1 Corinthians 1:20). But while this by no means excludes human rulers, it surely must encompass more than them, for a couple of reasons:
- The human rulers of the world did not crucify Jesus; the human rulers of Israel did, both Roman and Jewish. One could reply that Paul is using a synecdoche to illustrate that these rulers represented the opposition of the whole dominion of man to God. And I am indeed sympathetic to this argument, not least of all because it strengthens the point that it was spiritual rulers as much as human ones behind the crucifixion; we know from places like Psalm 82 and John 12:31 that the ultimate rulers of the world are spiritual beings. So if this is a synecdoche, then the rulers Paul has in mind here are first spiritual, and then subordinately human. That both are in view looks to be corroborated by verse 9’s “heart of man”—suggesting human rulers on Paul’s mind—and verse 12’s “spirit of this world”—suggesting Satan on his mind.
- To build on this point, when Paul uses the term “this age” he sets up an implicit contrast with the age to come, ruled by Jesus, as he does in 2 Corinthians 4:4 and Galatians 1:4. His language is calculated to point to the rulers of the entire age and the entire world, rather than merely to human beings ruling a fraction of it for a fraction of time. The broad scope surely points to the same rulers that are on his mind in Ephesians 3:10, which has close conceptual parallels with 1 Corinthians 2:8. In Ephesians 3:8–11, the mystery (“revealed truth”) of the gospel is hidden for the ages from the rulers in the heavenly places, before being unveiled through the church. In 1 Corinthians 2:6–10, the mystery of the gospel is hidden for the ages from the rulers (location unspecified)—who, had they known it, would never have crucified Jesus—and is now revealed through the Spirit. The connection of ideas is too obvious to doubt that Paul is describing basically the same thing, even if he also has human rulers in view in 1 Corinthians 2, as appropriate to its context of human wisdom and power.
2. What are the rulers’ motivations?
Had the rulers understood the wisdom imparted to the Corinthians—namely the hidden plan of God to redeem mankind through the cross—Paul says they would never have played a part in it. They would never have actually crucified Jesus. But why? There are two aspects to this: the negative and the positive. The negative is obvious; the positive less so.
Negatively, human motives don’t make sense of Paul’s comment
There’s no clear reason that human rulers wouldn’t have crucified Jesus if they had known God’s plan. Much of the point of the Bible’s language about the world as the dominion of man is how much it hates God and his representatives, and how much under God’s judgment it therefore is (John 3:19; 15:18–19 etc). On two separate levels, then, it makes no sense to imagine that human rulers would have refrained from executing Jesus:
- The plan of redemption which the rulers did not know trades on Jesus’ identity as Yahweh. The whole point of parables like that of the tenants is how the rulers of Israel did have some inkling of this (cf. Matthew 22:41–45); it was precisely because of their wicked pattern of killing God’s messengers that they escalated to killing his own son (Matthew 21:38–39—although compare “inheritance” here and in Psalm 82:8; the divine council is implicitly working in the background). Is there any reason to think they would have submitted to Jesus had they more fully understood his identity? Given their antipathy toward God, is it not more likely that they would have killed him sooner? After all, much of their motivation was the threat he presented to their own authority—but a rival who is actually the Messiah is certainly more of a threat than a rival who just claims to be.
- It would in fact be in their best interests to crucify Jesus, with apologies, since that is what makes salvation possible for them! Certainly the rulers who authorized the crucifixion were not interested in salvation—at least at the time—but would they have prevented it, knowing that it was the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin? Given their hatred of Jesus, why not eat their cake and have it too—kill him, and let God’s wrath fall on him as a backup plan?
Positively, angelic motives make perfect sense of Paul’s comment
While human rulers would have killed Jesus anyway, the gods most certainly would not have. This is because it was the cross that was their undoing. They thought they were wrecking God’s plan of establishing a human-ruled kingdom on earth; in fact they were abetting it. They thought they were wresting the world away from God; in fact they were giving it to him. Paul is plain in Colossians 2:15 that it was because of the cross that the “rulers and authorities” were disarmed and shamed. That statement comes in the context of the debt of sin against us (viz Satan—“accuser”); it cannot be speaking of human rulers, but is rather making the same point as John 12:31 and 1 Peter 3:22: that the cross broke the power of the gods over us by putting a human ruler over them.
This becomes extremely clear within the biblical theology of kingdom, if we simply follow the implications of Paul’s thought sequence in 1 Corinthians 2. Here’s how it works:
In verse 7, Paul explains that the gospel is a revealed truth (Gk. musterion), which God predestined before the ages for our glory—which, had the rulers of this age understood it, they would never have crucified the Lord of that glory. The point here is subtle because it is implicit, but Paul is referring to the glorification of believers that he discusses elsewhere:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:14–17
There’s nothing controversial or unexpected here; Christians all know that Jesus became like us so that we could become like him. They might not put it in that language, but anyone with even a basic grasp of the faith knows that the final stage of the chain of salvation is glorification:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Romans 8:29–30
As John puts it, Jesus has given his glory to us (John 17:22). So far, so good.
But what happens to the existing sons of God when believers are finally glorified?
Do you not know that someday we will judge angels? (1 Corinthians 6:2–3)
This is why Paul adds that he is so certain that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers can separate us from the love of God in Jesus. Their power to accuse us is broken (Romans 8:33–34), and we will someday judge them. God is replacing the wicked sons of God as the rulers of the nations, by establishing a perfect human king, and adopting a new family to rule with him (Revelation 2:26–27; 3:21).
All this happens only because Jesus satisfied God’s wrath against human sin on the cross, sanctified and renewed the human nature by rising again, and restored a human king to the human kingdom by receiving all power and authority from his father afterwards. The gods, in sending Jesus to the cross, thought they were eliminating the rival to their rule and seizing his inheritance (Matthew 21:38–39; cf. Psalm 82:8). But in fact, they were raising him up to receive that inheritance—and in so doing they sealed their own promised judgment (Psalm 82:7). If they had known that would happen, truly they would never have crucified the Lord of glory!