Spiritual warfare is an important topic for any worker, overseas or at home. In order to stimulate a discussion on this topic, I will look at Paul’s famous passage in his Letter to the Ephesians. Here is the passage:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and having fitted your feet with the readiness of the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
Spiritual Warfare! Wrestling with demonic powers. This is quite the topic. I don’t think I will be able to do it justice in this post as I are not giving a seminar on spiritual warfare. Today’s post will only be a cursory look at the topic.
I have three points. First, I will define what Spiritual Warfare is in the context of the Letter to the Ephesians. Second, I will show how we can prepare ourselves for spiritual warfare before we encounter it. Third, I will show how we are to engage in it when we encounter it. May the Lord help us and protect us as we proceed.
To understand Paul’s perspective on spiritual warfare we have to tie this passage in with the rest of the book. Oftentimes we tend to take verses or even passages out of their larger context and look at the verses or passages in isolation. Ephesians 6:10-24 comes at the end of Paul’s letter. So, please allow me to quickly summarize the letter.
I summarize the letter to the Ephesians according to three primary themes: Love, Oneness, and Holiness. These three themes are intertwined like tightly woven woolen strands in an Afghan carpet.
The first passage, 1:1-14, speaks about the wonderful love of God and the blessings that he has poured out upon us. 2:1-10 speaks again of God’s love being richly lavished upon us. Then 2:11-22 and 3:1-8 Paul speaks of the oneness that we have together as the body of Christ. In 3:14-21 Paul recycles the love theme and prays that we would experience and understand this love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge. In 4:1-16 Paul speaks of the love and oneness that we all are to experience as we grow together as a body. Then Paul in 4:17-6:9 Paul asked the Ephesians to walk in holiness and love as they lived out their new lives, which are the result of God’s love for them.
So, Love, Oneness, and Holiness are the three primary themes of the letter. If we keep this in mind, then this places some important boundaries on the way we approach and begin to define spiritual warfare.
As we search for a definition of Spiritual Warfare, I think we first need to accept that for Paul the realm of the demonic exists. Paul was not an adherent of the contemporary materialistic model of the universe where people deny the existence of a spiritual realm. For Paul there clearly was a realm where demons walked the earth and harassed people. We know this because Paul had cast a demon out of a girl in Philippi in Acts 16. He had also seen many evil spirits come out of people in Ephesus in Acts 19:11-12. However, Paul in this letter is not just talking about the existence of evil spirits. Paul describes an upper-level order of evil spirits in the heavenly places. He describes this realm in verse 12: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
This is not the first time we encounter these upper-level spirits in this letter. Paul first mentioned them in 1:20-21:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.
Paul’s point in these verses is that we have nothing to fear from these powers because Jesus sits far above them all, and Jesus is the head of the church.
Paul continues to encourage us not to fear because in 2:4-6 Paul writes: But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
So, according to Paul, not only is Christ raised above these evil spirits, we are also over them as we are sitting with Christ.
In 3:7-10 Paul writes that we not only are above these spirits, they learn about God’s wisdom by the way we live:
Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
So, according to these verses, we are not only positioned above these evil powers with Jesus, we are to reveal to them the great wisdom of God as we live out our unity in Christ.
Now, in chapter 6 it appears that Paul is making a bit of a shift. He hasn’t changed his mind. He is just letting us know that even though we are sitting above these cosmic powers of darkness we have to engage in some ways with them.
So, what does this engagement look like in this chapter? Let’s read verses 11-13 again:
Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
Paul talks about putting on the armor of God and then he talks about standing in verse 11. He speaks of wrestling in verse 12. Then, in verse 13 Paul says we are to stand firm after having done all. Paul reiterates this standing position in verse 14: Stand therefore!
So what does this mean?
I suggest that spiritual warfare happens when these evil spirits, these cosmic powers of darkness seek to disrupt our experience of the love of God. It also happens when these spirits seek to disrupt the oneness and the holiness that we are supposed to live out in our daily lives and in our community.
This makes sense considering what the armor of God is that we are supposed to put on. What is the armor?
First, there is the belt of truth. I think that truth has two dimensions: Speaking the truth with and about our neighbor. The first dimension (speaking truth with our neighbor) has to do with personal integrity. If we are honest and transparent about our motives and our behavior, then we will be able to maintain the standards of holiness that Paul encouraged us to have in Chapters 4 and 5. The problem that interrupts our holiness is when we begin to have secrets. With secrets we can fall into all kinds of bondages. Oftentimes these bondages begin in our unrestrained fantasies. We can secretly begin longing for romance, or for sexual gratification. We might be longing for excitement through gambling, or for fun through some form of substance use which can grow into substance abuse. When we live transparently, we guard ourselves from allowing these cosmic forces to use these things against us.
The second dimension of truth is that we speak truth about our neighbors. Oftentimes we don’t know what our neighbors are thinking. If we value the others on our team, in our community, we will be circumspect not to accuse them of having wrong motives or malign them. We will not judge them but we will only speak good of them. We do not have access to people’s hearts but we are tempted to judge another’s motives. These accusing thoughts come from the Accuser, but many times we are not aware of our enemies’ schemes.
Second, there is the breastplate of righteousness. This also has two dimensions. The first is God’s acceptance of us due to our being in Christ. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We don’t have to worry about what we did when we are in Christ. God has accepted us. As John said so poignantly: If we confess our sins, he can always be trusted to forgive us our sins, and take our sins away. God is gracious and forgiving. When we fail, we can move on from the failure. The beauty of being in Christ is that we move forward, never backward.
Besides there being no condemnation, we don’t have to live up to anyone else’s standards but God’s. Oftentimes we feel the need to abide by others’ expectations of us. This also is something that the enemy of our souls can use to cripple us.
The second dimension is the righteous habits that we develop. What we sometimes fail to understand is that God uses our good habits to help defend us in times of temptation. It is when we give in to temptation that we are weakened. As we resist temptation we sometimes get to the place where it is difficult to be tempted. So, if we take up the shield of righteousness, we are able to stand in the evil day when we are being tempted to behave in unholy ways.
The way Paul wrote about the third piece of the armor is confusing. In Greek Paul writes: and having fitted your feet with the hetoimasia of the gospel of peace. Paul’s obscurity in the Greek has led to all kinds of speculation. The question is: What does the Greek word hetoimasia refer to? The word literally means readiness or preparedness. So, is Paul saying that we should be ever ready to preach the Gospel? John Stott would argue for this and this is the way the NRSV translates this phrase (As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace). Other have argued that since Paul is drawing an analogy to the Roman soldier’s sandals, and since these sandals helped the person stand firmly on the ground, then Paul was drawing our attention to the stable foundation that the Gospel brings to our lives.
To help us think reflectively about this part of the armor, let us remember the three themes of the Epistle. The themes are: Love, Oneness, and Holiness. In this phrase, Paul refers to the gospel as the gospel of peace. Peace is a relational word. Paul in chapter 2 wrote that Jesus is our peace and the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles has been removed. Thus, the gospel removes the separation caused by the law and the gospel removes the alienation and the conflict in human relationships caused by sin. Since this is the case, I think Paul is saying that we are to be ever ready to affirm and live out the peace and the oneness that have become ours in Christ due to the gospel. In my lifetime, this is the one dimension of spiritual warfare that people have so consistently missed. I have seen people talk a lot about spiritual warfare and then proceed to cause serious dissension and division as they seek to make everyone accept their interpretation of what God is doing or what God wants to do. And if anyone disagrees, then those who disagree are maligned and made to look unspiritual or like they are hindering the work of God.
Finally, Paul writes in verses 16-18: In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
Time is limited so I cannot speak to these aspects of our armor. But they are equally important. So, I encourage you to explode this discussion about spiritual warfare and the armor of God as you fellowship with others.
In this post I had three points. I defined what Spiritual Warfare is in the context of the Letter to the Ephesians. Spiritual warfare is when the cosmic powers of darkness seek to disrupt our experience of the love of God and when these spirits seek to disrupt the oneness and the holiness that we are supposed to live out in our daily lives and in our community. Second, we looked at how to prepare ourselves for spiritual warfare before we encounter it. And this is simple. It is just by putting on the armor of God. We put on the belt of truth which means we speak the truth with and about our neighbors. We are also to put on the breastplate of righteousness which refers to the acceptance God graciously gives us and it refers to the righteous habits we develop as seek to live holy lives. Then we are to have our feet appropriately fitted so we are ever ready to live out the oneness and harmony that we have due to the gospel of peace.
Now I want to show how we are to engage with these cosmic powers when we encounter them.
Paul writes three times that we are to put on this armor so we can stand. Why does Paul only refer to us as standing and not as aggressively fighting? I think it is because he has written so clearly in this epistle that we have already won. Remember, according to Paul we are already seated in the heavenly places with Christ. We are not to be worried or live in fear of these powers, as menacing as they seem. We are to continue to live out the victory Christ has won for us and not give up any ground to these powers when they seek to undermine us.
When we engage these powers we have to first stand in the power that Christ gives us. Second, we are to intentionally live out our commitments to live in oneness and unity and to live lives that are holy (that is, chaste, compassionate, pure, hard working, encouraging, etc.). We remind ourselves of the truth that comes to us through the Word of God. We extinguish the flaming darts of the enemy in this way. We remind ourselves of the love of God (how broad, how all encompassing it is). We stand in the fact and assurance of our salvation. We pray all kinds of prayers for ourselves and for others. And we always give thanks to our heavenly Father who is always present with us and whose love never fails.
By standing we affirm that we have won. We demonstrate this victory by our lives of love, oneness, and holiness. As we live out the victory of Christ we teach these attacking powers about the wisdom of God.
This perspective of warfare appears to me to align well with the contents of the letter, and it appears to me to align well with what I have experienced in the different Christian communities that I have lived.
What do you think?