"For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" - Ephesians 6:12.
Are you a super-naturalist?
Or have you been inculcated by our naturalist society to the point that anything else sounds, in a word, absurd?
This oft quoted verse is a needful reminder for the western church in our modern era. Enlightenment thinking, the worship of reason, and modern scient-ism have created a society steeped in philosophical materialism.
When the mystery of the human mind has been reduced to chemistry in the brain, and physics offers an explanation for everything that occurs, there is little room left for the categories of spiritual warfare. How is modern man supposed to believe in demonic oppression, cosmic spiritual rebellion, or global satanic deception? Indeed, this part of the biblical worldview is foreign to many today, even in the church.
Paul's instruction could not be more relevant for the church in the west. Western culture is secular and ever secularizing. While many evangelicals subscribe to orthodox belief regarding demonology and the spiritual realm, most of us are actually mere products of our culture; we simply do not think about spirits. Indeed, why would we, when a middle-school student can look at a germ under the microscope? Why should we suspect demonic influence when we psychology and science tell us our behavioral problems are simply brain chemistry? Surely the world's global problems are the result of poor education, or maybe greed, or perhaps apathy? Whatever it is, our problem cannot be Satanic influence over world leaders and institutional structures. Economics, math, sociology, science! These will solve all.
Paul's words fly in the face of our culture, even our worldview: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against . . . the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” This is not to say there is a demon behind every bush. Rather, Paul is naming the locus of the battle. The battle is not against governments, human institutions, bad people, etc. The battle of the church and her Lord, the battle of the universe, is against Satan and his demons. The battle is a siege against the gates of Hades. It is for this battle that Paul wants his readers to be equipped. This requires a major paradigm shift for modern western readers. There are demons, and they are armed for war. There is a real struggle between the church and demonic forces. It is a battle for the souls of men.
One of the themes
in Ephesians could be called the theme of location. Paul deals with two opposing loci: the heavenly places, and the world. They are spiritual realities more than physical locations. In chapter Paul says Christians have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. Further, Christ is now seated in the heavenly places (1:21). In chapter 2 Paul contrasts the walk of spiritual death, common to the world, led by Satan, with the walk of spiritual life, common to the Christian, led by Christ. The Christian has gone from walking according to the course of the world to being seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Gentiles were once without God in the world, but now in Christ they can become fellow citizens of God's household, indeed his dwelling. In chapter three Paul says that at least one of the reasons for the church, indeed for the Gospel is so that God's wisdom may be made known to entities in the heavenly places. The theme continues throughout the last three chapters as well.
In chapters four and five Paul lays out a number of specific examples of how the gospel affects daily life. In 6:10 he seems to conclude his examples, and to resume his theological explanation. He now blends the two ideas, the heavenly places and the world. He writes: “our struggle [is] against the world forces of this darkness . . . in the heavenly places.” Somehow there are enemies in the spiritual realm who influence men in the worldly realm. This is reminiscent of 2:1-3, where Paul writes: “. . . in which you formerly walked according to . . . the prince of the power of the air . . . that is now working in the sons of disobedience.” Whatever and whoever these spiritual enemies are, it is clear from Ephesians that they have some kind of hold on unregenerate people, and indeed the world order.
With this paradigm as a foundation, Paul gives some instruction for the Christian's preparation. How can one prepare to walk out of the church building and into the battlefield? If Paul has persuaded the modern Christian that there are demonic forces at work, he also explains what to do about it. In a word, “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” (Eph. 6:10). In 6:13-20 he gives some legs to this concept. 6:13 says: Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” Paul's goal seems to be that the Christian will be able to stand firm in the midst of a demonized world. I believe John Stott's simple explanation is exactly right:
Paul gives a brief list of the 'armor of God' in 6:14-17. Much has been made of this little section – perhaps more than Paul intended, and certainly more than he explained. I do not believe Paul intended the analogy to be taken as far as many commentators would like it to go. The temptation to let one's imagination run free is perhaps overwhelming in this passage, especially for the more exciting commentators. Exegetes would like to explain just how the protection offered by truth is analogous to the protection offered by girding one's loins, or how feet shod with boots are like men prepared by the Gospel, etc. Well and good. The trouble is there is no stopping it. If Paul intended there to be a direct analogy, where does it end? Or, perhaps more troubling, where does it begin? With the shoe laces, or the nature of the leather used for the boot sole? There were numerous purposes for these pieces of equipment – which purpose(s) did Paul have in mind? Regardless of what the commentaries may say about Roman armor, Scripture has much to say about the theological categories Paul names. That is where we will focus.
Paul says the armor of God consists of truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer. Each of these categories can be seen as descriptive and christological, as well as prescriptive and practice-able.
It is possible to view these categories as simply different facets of the diamond we call the Gospel. We are reminded that Jesus did not claim only to know and speak about the truth, as if he had seen Plato's forms; rather he claimed to be the truth. To be in Christ is, in some sense to know, love, and participate in truth. Truth must be so much more (not less!) than the correspondence theory suggests. We love the truth because we have met him. We speak the truth because we love him and his people. We walk in truth because we walk according to the reality he created and sustains. What a contrast to the strategies of the enemy, who is a liar from the beginning (4:17-23).
Jesus was also the perfect man – he lived the perfectly righteous life. The doctrine of imputed righteousness says that Christians enjoy the merits of Christ's perfect life. This is born out in Ephesians, especially chapter one. Christians are blessed to be counted as God's children in Christ. Knowing that Satan, whose very name means accuser, is eager to call on God's justice in regards man's sin, there is no greater protection than the alien righteousness of Christ. If Satan's greatest weapon against the church is guilt, the church's greatest armor must be her imputed righteousness in Christ.
The gospel of peace . . . there is probably no better description of the gospel according to Ephesians. Paul has gone to great pains to explain how the gospel brings peace, shalom, right-ness. The Gospel begins by creating a right relationship between man and God, then Jew and Gentile, and then it permeates into every relationship in the human experience. Christians, because of the Gospel, are ever growing in their experience of right-ness in their relationships. If the satan's forces have any strategy, it must include discord, disunity, and enmity amongst God's people, and between the church and the world. What a wonderful counter the Gospel brings to such discord.
Faith, or belief, or trust, is the choice to trust God and believe what he has said. As the enemy tries to convince people of lies about everything, there is perhaps nothing more critical than to trust God and what he has said. It is hard to believe God truly loves his church, even when she fails. It is hard to believe God is really in control, even when things are wretched. It is hard to believe God is really good in the face of reprehensible evil. It is hard to believe in God's fatherly kindness, when one contemplates his own wickedness. Faith believes God in the face of satanic lies. Faith believes all of God's self-revelation, which culminates in the revelation of himself through his son, Jesus. Faith believes that God really is as good as he looks in Christ – that he really means what he said and did in Christ.
Salvation is not a new concept at this point in Ephesians. In 2:8-9 Paul penned some of the most famous words about salvation: “For by grace you have been saved through faith . . .” Indeed, saved from hell, from God's justice, from the kingdom of darkness, from a wasted life, and so much more. To trust God is to be saved from Satan's hold. Paul reminded Timothy of this in 2 Timothy 2 that God's gift of repentance frees people from bondage to Satan's will. The Christian must walk in faith and embrace his liberty, or he will find himself going back to the satanic shackles from whence Christ bought him.
I believe the sword of the spirit is textually connected to prayer in verses 17-18, and I am not convinced that Paul has our canon of Scripture in mind. I do not have a firm opinion of what he is talking about, and this is something I intend to study more and learn about. For now, I will simply say that I believe the protection offered by God's word and prayer is bound up in the practice of faith, or trust, in God.
Whatever one wants to make of the Roman soldier's panoply, or the various theological aspects of the armor of God, it is obvious that Paul has at least simple Gospel truths in mind, if not more. When the Christian wakes up in the morning, and engages with the world as he lives his life, he must keep Paul's words in mind:
“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.”
Therefore, the challenge is not to strengthen our bodies or prepare ourselves for physical battle. The challenge is not even to defeat political opponents to gain control of government. We are not exhorted to crush humanistic philosophies through rational argumentation. We are instructed to understand, believe, be transformed by and walk according to the Gospel as revealed and performed by Christ.
And remember, when it comes to Christ's church, even the gates of hell cannot hold us back.