Usually, the “domain of darkness” conjures of images from Dante’s Inferno. It’s an invisible realm where demons carry out their nefarious deeds and torments of the saints. This view was popularized a few decades ago by Frank Peretti in his book This Present Darkness where, unseen by the human characters of the novel, angels and demons fought against each other in a bid to gain dominance in the real world.
This would certainly pick at our imaginations as we ponder there may be a host of unseen devils around us, whispering in our ears and inserting rebellious and vulgar thoughts into our minds. Many teachers and preachers cultivate this paranoia in spite of the clear teaching in this verse that declares that Christians are no longer in that realm.
Is this – an unseen realm of demons and spiritual rulers – the idea that Paul has when he speaks of our rescue from this “domain of darkness?” Let’s take a closer look and see.
First, the Greek word for “domain” is exousia and is more literally translated "the authority" of darkness. The word has connotations of unrestrained or arbitrary power, perhaps even "tyranny." We actually find the phrase “power (Gr. exousia) of darkness” in one other passage of scripture.
“Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come against Him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as you would against a robber? While I was with you daily in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me; but this hour and the power (Gr. exousia) of darkness are yours’” (Luke 22:52-53).
Notice here to whom Jesus is speaking and notice to whom he attributes “power of darkness.” He is not speaking to invisible beings. He is not speaking to demons. He is speaking to – and this is clearly stated – “the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders who had come against Him.”
This is powerfully significant! These were the leaders of the temple religion of that day. They were the authorities that ruled over the ritual ceremonies under which all in that day were enslaved. So the “domain of darkness” from which people need rescue is not some invisible, demonic dimension, but it is the tyranny of ritual religion.
As we’ve already seen in our previous studies, it is the worst kind of religion that insists that the love of God can only be known through a mechanical, ritual system – one that says the love of God can be known only after the proper sacrifices and washings, only after faithful observance of days and seasons, only after one has faithfully abstained from certain foods, and then only after repetitive practice of these rituals.
This type of religion is pure tyranny! It keeps its practitioners in a prison of guilt and condemnation, never able to believe that the Almighty God could ever love them. It breeds inmates who are either torn inside by remorse or who are puffed up by their own deluded self-righteousness. It is from this prison that God mounted a rescue operation through his son!
The word for "transferred" was often used to signify deportation of a body of men or the removal of them to form a colony. New Testament scholar J.B. Lightfoot paraphrases Colossians 1:13 like this:
"We were slaves in the land of darkness. God rescued us from this thralldom. He transplanted us and settled us as free colonists and citizens in the kingdom of his Son, in the realm of light."
In other words, the work of Christ was not to deliver us from some invisible, torturous realm of demons, but from a useless system of religion that could deliver no assurance that God loved us. We became citizens of a spiritual realm where, through faith in Jesus Christ alone, we could know the boundless treasures of the love of the Father for us!
One final illustration of this from 2 Corinthians 2: In this chapter, Paul is historically contrasting the two covenants unfolded by God in Israel’s history. The first – the Old Covenant delivered by Moses on Mt. Sinai – is called written “on tablets of stone,” it is a letter that kills, it is a “ministry of death,” and a “ministry of condemnation.” Paul acknowledges that this religion has a “glory” to it, though that glory is fading.
With this he contrasts the New Covenant in Christ – it is written “with the Spirit of God” on the “tablets of the human heart,” it is from the Spirit that gives life, it is a “ministry of righteousness” that has a glory far surpassing the glory of the Old Covenant. Under this Old Covenant, there is a veil that lies over the eyes of those under it. Paul concludes the chapter like this:
“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 2: 18).
Many teachers have interpreted the idea here, “being transformed into the same image from glory to glory,” as meaning that we are growing up daily in our Christian walk. We are going from one level of glory to a better level of glory day after day. However, this perspective ignores the context and misses the real power of what Paul is saying.
In the context, the contrast is between two glories: the glory of the fading Old Covenant and the surpassing glory of the New Covenant. Paul is expressing that the real transformation that God is doing is not some daily self-improvement, but a leaving of the fading, Old Covenant glory (ministry of death, condemnation, etc.) to the New Covenant glory (the Spirit of life, the ministry of righteousness).
It’s the same message as in Colossians, being “…rescued … from the domain of darkness, and transferred … to the kingdom of His beloved Son,” being delivered from the ministry of death and condemnation, a life of ritual, legalistic religion to Christ, who is the ministry of righteousness and life, in whom we can know all the bounty of the Father’s love by faith.
Grand Junction, Colorado