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Satan, the ‘Prince of the Air’ — What Does That Mean? Ask Pastor John

“Don’t let speculations about what you don’t know control or dominate the things that are clear in the Bible.” John Piper



Video from Desiring God


Satan, the ‘Prince of the Air’ — What Does That Mean? Ask Pastor John

"Ask Pastor John Episode 2051' from the video introduction


Audio Transcript

Welcome back to the podcast as we begin this June together. Pastor John, today in our Bible reading we arrive at Ephesians 2:1–10 — an incredibly important text, and one you have mentioned in your works over 1,400 times over the decades. It is a mega-text in your legacy, I would call it, one you could talk about for hours and hours on end. But it includes a curious little line that you rarely talk about, especially compared to the other glorious points Paul makes here. I’m talking about the singular title he gives to the devil — that the devil is “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2).

All sorts of interpretations have been suggested for this over the decades. Historically, back in the 1920s and 1930s, as gospel programming was first introduced to broadcast radio, one critique said that any attempt to preach over the airwaves was “doomed to fail” because such ministry “operates in the very realm in which Satan is supreme. Is he not ‘the prince of the power of the air’?” So, there’s like a cosmological dimension to his reign.

That argument is basically dead today, but questions remain. APJ listeners want to know what that means that Satan is the “power of the air”? One of our listeners, named Emon, wants to know “if this implies that Satan is omnipresent or all-seeing.” Other listeners want to know how Satan influences “the air” and how it is that his reign as “the prince of the power of the air” leads him to coerce disobedience from sinners, as Paul implies here in the broader context of Ephesians 2:1–3. What kind of power, Pastor John, is Paul ascribing to the devil in this verse?


Well, first, let me suggest a principle of interpretation that I think is really important, especially for a certain mindset that is constantly fascinated with marginal, uncertain things in the Bible instead of being thrilled with central, sure, glorious things in the Bible. The principle is this: don’t let speculations about what you don’t know control or dominate the things that are clear in the Bible that you do know. That’s the principle. We know many clear, true things about Satan and his work in the world that are stated plainly in the Bible, and it would not be wise to start speculating about what we are unsure of — namely, the meaning of air in “the prince of the power of the air” — in a way that would contradict or dominate those clear, true things.

“Don’t let speculations about what you don’t know control or dominate the things that are clear in the Bible.”

Scholars and commentators, including me, are not generally confident or certain about why Satan is called “the prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2:2. There are pointers — I won’t stop here; I have something to say; we’re not left in the dark about what this probably signifies — but it would be unwise to put too much emphasis on what I’m about to say, because even though it’s important (it’s in the Bible), it’s not nearly as important as other clear things, I think, even in these verses and elsewhere in the New Testament. So, that’s the first thing, a principle.

Clearing the Air

The second thing we need to do, just by way of preparation, is to clear away some confusion. To say that Satan is “the prince of the power of the air” does not mean we should stop living and breathing and speaking and looking through the air. Air is what exists between the page of the Bible and your eye. Air is what exists between the preacher’s mouth and your ear. To say that we shouldn’t broadcast the truth through airwaves would also mean you shouldn’t preach into the air or look at the Bible through the air. That’s nonsense.

There’s a battle to be fought with the prince of the air, but you don’t fight it by stopping hearing through the air or seeing through the air or moving through the air. Okay, let’s just get that out of the way. To claim that you shouldn’t do radio or Wi-Fi or something like that is to over-prove what you’re trying to do, because it’s going to cancel out all preaching and all Bible reading, which happen through the air.

And we can add this: the fact that Satan has some measure of authority in the air does not imply that he’s omnipresent or omniscient. We are not told in the Bible the extent of Satan’s knowledge or how a non-spatial reality like a spirit — which he’s called in this very verse, “the spirit” that is dominating “the sons of disobedience” — with no up, down, or sideways reality, positions himself in the world. But he’s not God. He does not share God’s omniscience and omnipresence, but we do know that he has many unclean spirits, demons, at his disposal, and they are deployed all over the world in the air. The air is where his flaming arrows fly, according to Ephesians 6:16.

Evaluating the Enemy

Here’s what Paul said; let’s get the text in front of us:

You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the [age, sometimes translated “the course”] of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. (Ephesians 2:1–2)

So, here are some pointers that collectively bring some clarity, I think, to this term “prince of the power of the air.”

1. AIR ABOVE US

First, the air is simply what Paul and people in his time called the space above the earth, and they had no scientific awareness of how high the air went. As far as they knew, it just went on and on, so human life takes place in the lower part of this air where it meets the earth. That’s where we live. That’s point number one. It’s just a general statement about the sphere of our life.

2. LAYERS OF AIR

Second, in Matthew 6:26, Jesus says, “[Consider] the birds of the air.” Now, the reason that’s significant is because the word translated air is heaven. It’s translated heaven almost everywhere. The term heaven in the New Testament was very broad in its usage, referring to layers that are above the earth, sometimes called the sky. Nehemiah 9:6 refers to “heaven [and] the heaven of heavens,” where the stars are. And Psalm 148:4 refers to the “highest heavens.” In 2 Corinthians 12:2, Paul refers to “the third heaven.”

“We have the victory over this one with whom we are contending in the air.”

Since Jesus uses the word heaven interchangeably with air, where the birds fly, we can think of various layers of air or heaven. There are these heavens. In fact, the word heaven is regularly used in the plural, I think probably because it’s thought of in terms of these various layers. This is probably why Paul refers so often, like in chapter 6, to heavens where the battle with Satan happens, he says (Ephesians 6:12). So, that’s number two.

3. SEATED IN HEAVEN

Third, the term “prince of the power.” Just take those two words. “Prince of the power,” “ruler of authority” — archonta tēs exousias — is exactly the same as those two terms four verses earlier in Ephesians 1:20–21, where it says God raised Christ “and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places [the heavens], far above all rule and authority.” Now, that’s the phrase that describes the devil, “rule and authority” — “far above all rule and authority.” Far above the devil. Far above the prince of the power, the ruler of the authority, of the air.

So Satan, though he has a measure of rule and authority in the air or the heavens, is not God. He’s vastly under God. Christ is vastly superior to, over, has authority over him — so Satan’s rule in the power of the air, or in the lower air of the heavens, is not supreme. He is decisively defeated. Colossians 2:15 says, “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities,” and that’s exactly the same phrase as “the prince of the power.” Ephesians 2:2: “The prince of the power of the air” is “the rulers of the authority of the air,” and that has been decisively disarmed at the cross.

So, he’s mortally wounded. A decisive battle has been fought, and we in Christ have a victory over him. And when it comes to Ephesians 6:12, where it says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities” — same phrase as back in Ephesians 2:2 — “in the heavenly places,” those heavenly places are evidently layers of heavens, the layers of the air above the earth but below the highest heaven, where Christ sits supreme, governing all things. And we have the victory over this one with whom we are contending in the air.

4. ‘GOD OF THIS WORLD’

Fourth, Paul calls Satan “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4. I think “god of this world” and “ruler of the authority of the air” are virtually interchangeable terms, with the world being the sphere in which we live and the air being the sphere in which we live. They refer to the same thing.

Live with Boldness

So, here are four implications I draw from Paul’s calling Satan the prince of the power of the air:

Satan is a spirit who is invisible like air, not like flesh and blood, according to Ephesians 6:12.

There’s no place to go while we breathe air where the flaming arrows of Satan will not fly through the air at us (Ephesians 6:16).

Any place we go where there’s air, heaven, sky, space, we will need to wear the armor of God and do battle with the word of God and the shield of faith.

Christ is exalted as King to the highest heaven, above all rule and authority. The prince of the power of the air is not sovereign. He is on a leash.

John says, “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), but those who are born of God he cannot touch; he cannot destroy (1 John 5:18). We should believe that; we should take up the armor of God and live with that kind of boldness.


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