Christians wage spiritual “warfare” through right conduct and by emulating the example of Jesus.
Today, “spiritual warfare” is a popular topic and features prominently in popular preaching. The basic idea is derived from a passage Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus – “Our wrestling is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers… against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
But what exactly did he mean by “spiritual warfare,” more important, how do we war against these spiritual forces? Unfortunately, too often we read his words with little regard to their literary context, and all too easily, this results in assumptions that we then read into the passage. But the passage is NOT disconnected from what precedes it.
By “wrestling against the principalities and powers,” Paul is not introducing some new mystical experience that Christians must learn to practice. Instead, he is concluding all that he has written in the letter to this point – “Finally…put on the whole armor of God.”
And in his conclusion, Paul provides a list of the “weapons” at our disposal for resisting Satan’s attacks, including truth, righteousness, the “preparation of the gospel of peace,” faith, salvation, prayer, and the “word of God.” Moreover, he ends the discussion with a relevant and practical example of how to wield our “weapons” – by praying that utterance be given to him to preach the “mystery of the gospel with boldness.”
Paul spends the first half of his letter highlighting the significance of what God has done for His church. In Christ, He has “blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies,” having chosen and summoned us to become “holy and without blemish before him in love.” And now, he is “unveiling to us the mystery of his will.”
And just what is this “mystery”? Paul asks God to grant us “wisdom and revelation” so we may understand fully “what is the hope of his calling… and the exceeding greatness of his power toward us who believe… which he wrought in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenlies,” where he now reigns over all “authority and dominions,” including the “principalities and powers” against which believers wage war.
And Paul does NOT concern himself with the names and hierarchies of demonic forces. Their specific ranks, powers, and “assignments” are irrelevant since all of them without exception have been “put in subjection beneath his feet.” And this same Jesus is now the “head over all things to the church, which is his body.”
But before our incorporation into “his body,” we walked “according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, the spirit that is working in the sons of disobedience.” That former miserable state was more than evident in how we “lived in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath.” One did not need supernatural powers to perceive our fallen state!
But now, in the church, God has drawn the Gentiles “nigh,” though previously they were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers from the covenants of the promise, and without God in the world.” He has made both believing Jews and Gentiles “one new man,” having “dismantled the middle wall of partition between them.” And through Jesus, both now “have access in one Spirit to the Father,” and all are “fellow-citizens with the saints, and members of the household of God… built together for a habitation of the Spirit of God.”
This is the “mystery of Christ” that was unknown in previous generations but has now been revealed through the “apostles and prophets,” that the “Gentiles are fellow-heirs and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Considering all the gracious blessings that God has bestowed on His people, Paul gives a series of exhortations summoning us to right conduct, interspersing them with real-life examples of how we do so. His description of “warfare” with spiritual powers at the end of the letter concludes this section by informing the Ephesians about the true nature of their struggles in everyday life. In other words, his instructions on how Christians are to “walk” demonstrate how “spiritual warfare” is waged, how one resists the Devil.
Thus, we ought to “walk worthily of the calling wherewith we were called in all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love.” No longer must we be “blown about by every wind of doctrine,” but instead, speaking truth in love, we ought to “grow up in all things into him who is the head, Christ.”
And to walk worthily of this calling, we must “no longer walk as the Gentiles walk in the vanity of their mind.” Truth is “in Jesus,” and if we have been taught by him, we must discard the “old man” and be “renewed in the spirit of our minds.”
And that “new man” has been created “in righteousness and holiness” for good works. Therefore, we must eschew falsehood and only speak truth one with another. We ought to be angry but not sin or otherwise “give place to the devil.” And herein is a clear statement on how we prevail against satanic forces, the “powers and principalities,” by NOT sinning against one another!
And we do not “give place to the Devil” by doing positive acts for others. Rather than steal, we ought to “work with our hands that we may have whereof to give to him that is needy.” Satan works to impoverish our brothers and sisters. Resist him by feeding and clothing those who are hungry and naked!
Rather than profane speech, speak to one another that which is “good for edifying.” Put away all wrath and bitterness, and instead be “kind to one to another, forgiving each other, even as God also forgave us in Christ.”
We are called to become “imitators of God,” therefore, we must walk in love just as Jesus did, the one who loved us and “gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God for a sweet odor.” It was by his self-sacrificial death that he defeated Satan and all the “powers and principalities”! Sexual impropriety, uncleanness, and covetousness should not even be named among the saints. Instead, let us be “giving thanks” to God for all His graciousness. It is our positive acts for others that defeat the spiritual powers that are arrayed against us. But when we give in to lust, anger and greed, those same powers are victorious over us.
We now “live in the light” and must “walk” accordingly by having no fellowship with the “unfruitful works of darkness.” And proper Christian conduct extends even to the more mundane areas of our lives. Wives, for example, must show reverence to their husbands. Husbands are called to love their wives, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it.” Children should obey their parents, “for this is right” in the Lord. And fathers must not provoke their children, but instead, nurture them “in the chastening and admonition of the Lord.”
As members of the household of God, even “slaves” are called to obey their “masters” and show them respect. But “masters” must also treat their servants with kindness and forbearance, always bearing in mind that “He who is both their Master and ours is in heaven, and there is no respect of persons with him.”
It is by “walking worthily of the Lord” that we apply “the whole armor of God,” and in the process, we recognize that the source behind the temptations and distractions in our daily lives is Satan and his forces. When we are tempted with anger, resist it with love and forbearance. Rather than respond to wrongs done to us with hatred and vengeance, we must show love and mercy to our persecutors.
As Paul wrote elsewhere, “Be not overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” And it is the Spirit of God that indwells us that enables the believer to walk in this manner.