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What Ephesians 6 Says about Spiritual Warfare

This post is adapted from Clinton E. Arnold’s commentary on Ephesians in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament and his new video lecture series on Ephesians.

Paul’s teaching on “spiritual warfare” here has been a well-known and often cited passage of Scripture by Christians throughout the centuries. His frightening glimpse into the realm of darkness, the elaborate image of a well-armed soldier, and the practical insights on how to overcome spiritual opposition has made this passage popular in the church.

A question that is not often asked by readers of this text is, “Why?”

In other words, why has Paul chosen this readership and occasion to communicate his thoughts about the church’s warfare with the dominion of the devil and his forces? Those who see this letter as some form of general theological exposition by Paul are hard-pressed to answer this question. Nowhere else in any of his letters does Paul give so much attention to this issue. So why here?

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I see Ephesians as a genuine letter addressing real-life issues in the extensive network of house churches in Ephesus and the outlying villages and cities. I also regard Luke’s account of several key incidents that occurred in Paul’s Ephesian ministry as authentic and as conveying important information about the background and worldview assumptions of the people from that area who came to Christ (see esp. Acts 19:8 – 41). This account highlights the fact that many people became Christians from a background of devotion to the famed goddess of the city (Artemis/Diana) and that there were also numerous people who had engaged in various forms of magical practices.

Given the fact that idolatry was widely perceived by Jews to be animated by evil spirits and that magic explicitly represented a form of trafficking in the work of spirits, there is every reason to see why Paul would have felt the need to address the issue of spiritual warfare in an intensive way in this letter. The readers of this letter came from backgrounds of involvement with spirits. They could benefit from additional perspectives from the apostle on how to live in a way pleasing to the one living and true God, to whom they have now given their allegiance.

This passage reaffirms that the spirit powers are real, but that they are aligned with the devil in opposition to God’s people. This is why the readers need to know how to depend on the power of God to withstand their attacks and to be able to advance the kingdom into enemy territory.

If you have not come from a background of worshiping other gods and goddesses or an involvement in some form of shamanistic practices—which is true of most Western Christians—the passage is no less relevant to you.

In fact, the passage may take on even more relevance because it strongly affirms that there is a uniquely spiritual dimension of life that needs to be taken seriously if you want to “walk worthily of God” and share the gospel of peace with nonbelievers.

The following is a brief discussion of some of the primary theological themes that this passage teaches.

Spirit Beings Are Real

There are powerful, invisible, spirit beings that attack believers with the intent of hurting them, causing them to lapse into sin, or making them ineffectual for God’s kingdom purposes.

“The devil,” “the evil one,” “rulers,” “authorities,” “world powers of this darkness,” and “evil spiritual beings” represent the language Paul uses in this passage to describe this reality.

The first two terms are alternative ways that Jews and the early Christians referred to Satan, a being Paul has earlier described as “the ruler of the realm of the air” (2:2). Satan appears to be the leader of a vast army of spirits that are part of a stratified command and control structure. The terminology he uses here for these spirits is suggestive of hierarchy in the demonic realm since some of these terms were commonly used to refer to various ranks of human leaders in governmental positions of authority. There does not appear to be any way for us to determine what the relative ranks and abilities of these spirits are, but it is probably not important for us to know this anyway.

The language Paul uses for the powers would have been understandable, especially to Jews, since the words were a part of the extensive collection of terms they used for demonic spirits. But many of the terms would also have been comprehensible by Gentiles, who shared many of the words, but would have easily recognized that they referred to various kinds of spirits. The new idea for many Gentiles would have been that the spiritual phenomena in their local religions was animated by demonic spirits under the leadership of the devil and that there were no so-called gods or goddesses that in any way rivaled the one true God (see 1 Corinthians 8:4 – 5; 10:19 – 21; see also Deuteronomy 32:16 – 17). It is possible that Paul may make allusion to this in his usage of the term “world powers” in 6:12.

None of this, however, may be of any relevance to us if Paul was simply reflecting a primitive, prescientific worldview, as many contemporary scholars believe. Ernest Best, for instance, has noted:

“How should those who no longer accept the idea of supernatural evil powers as affecting human life understand what AE [the author of Ephesians] is saying? . . . Such forces still exist, though we may not term them supernatural. They are the pressures of society, which if not wholly evil are not wholly good.”

The German scholar Hans Hübner goes even further:

“A belief in the devil has lost its plausibility. Whoever today still feels threatened by the devil or believes in his fangs is probably himself in the fangs of a fanatical sect.”

A belief in the devil or in spirits has never lost its plausibility outside of the West, however, where such beliefs have persisted in spite of Western influences. In many places, a belief in evil spirits continues to be an integral part of the worldview of many people groups. This alone should cause us to reflect and wonder if Western cultures have been right regarding their skepticism about the real existence of spirits.

There is a distinct danger for Western Christians to discount or minimize the reality of the supernatural opponents. To do so makes us more vulnerable to their attacks by causing us to be less vigilant, less reliant on prayer, less dependent on God, and less dependent on spiritually gifted fellow believers.

It is also important here to realize that Paul does not attribute all forms of evil to demons. Earlier in this letter, Paul spoke of the role played by “the flesh” as well as “this present evil age” or “the world” (see 2:1 – 3).

Believers need to keep in mind all three forms of evil influence for understanding the constraints to spiritual growth.

Dependence on God’s Power

The goal of depending on the power of God is to resist the varied attacks of the evil one and to advance the kingdom of God into the world. Paul’s overt emphasis in this passage is on “standing”—a metaphor that he repeats four different times.

The image of fiery arrows launched by the bow of the evil one targeting believers clearly underlines the defensive character of the struggle that Paul portrays. The goal is to repel the attacks and not get knocked down or severely wounded.

The armor thus has a protective role to play. What this collection of imagery means is that Satan strategizes with his demonic cohorts to identify effective ways to hurt believers or cause them to fall into sin.

But how does he go about doing this?

We know from the larger testimony of Scripture that the evil one has a wide variety of possibilities (and the range should not be limited to these):

  • interjecting an image into our minds of something enticing but sinful (Matt 4:8 – 10; Luke 4:5 – 8)
  • exploiting a sinful tendency, such as anger, and causing it to flare out of control (Eph 4:27)
  • inspiring others to create a principle, teaching, or idea that sounds plausible, but is wrong and dangerous to our souls (2 Cor 11:3, 15)
  • afflicting us with a physical illness or condition (2 Cor 12:7)
  • sending a horrible dream or demonic manifestation during the night that produces fear (Job 4:13 – 16; Ps 91:5)
  • enticing us to lie (Acts 5:3)
  • instigating a series of horrible “natural” calamities, e.g., the death of a loved one, loss of one’s home, or destruction or loss of property (Job 1 – 2)

Any of these kinds of assaults or a combination of them can create fear, hopelessness, depression, or a heart that turns hard toward God.

The good news of this passage is that in spite of what happens, God is near and willing to impart his power to help us and protect us.

But the passage also makes it clear that believers are not in a holding pattern until Christ returns. We have a mission to engage in that Paul has stressed earlier in the letter through his “filling” language. Christ is head over his body so that through the church he might “fill everything in all places” (1:23). Similarly, the ascended Christ has gifted the church so that through it, “he might fill all things” (4:10). “Standing” should not be understood simply in the sense of “standing still,” but of “standing up against” the kingdom of darkness in an offensive manner.

Thus, Christian soldiers do not stay in the camp but move out into enemy territory. This is the point of the “preparation of the gospel of peace” (6:15). Believers are called to prepare themselves to share the gospel wherever the commander (the Lord) calls them to go. Likewise, each of the weapons should be seen with this offensive aspect of the battle in mind. Paul himself models this at the end of the passage when he twice asks the readers to pray for him so that he can share the gospel “with boldness” (6:19 – 20).

God’s power is truly available to his people. Paul’s admonition to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty strength” is the culmination of an emphasis on the availability of divine power for all those who are in Christ. The introductory praise prefigured this theme by declaring that God “powerfully works everything out on the basis of the counsel of his will” (1:11). Paul then prays that his readers will gain an expanded awareness of the vastness of God’s power that is available for them (1:19 – 23). He concludes the first half of the letter with another intercessory prayer in which he prays that these believers will be “strengthened with power through his Spirit” in their innermost beings (3:16). God is then extolled as “the one who has the power to do exceedingly more than all we ask or think according to the power which mightily works in us” (3:20).

Believers need the power of God because we cannot live the Christian life on our own. Not only do we struggle with the influence of sin as felt through “the flesh” and “the world,” but also we must remember that Satan is real and makes careful plans to attack and to bring about our fall.

Many of the original readers of this letter may have been tempted to rely on traditional means of protection from spirit attacks by reverting to shamanistic practices, utilizing folk medicine rituals, invoking helper spirits, and applying an assortment of magical practices. The fact that Christians (“those who believed,” Acts 19:18) were the ones who burned the magical texts in the early history of the church demonstrates the attraction of this syncretistic impulse.

Although many believers in the non-Western world intuitively understand this, those of us from the West are tempted to rely on our own fortitude and efforts to live according to God’s calling. Dependence on the Lord and receiving his power is, ironically, sometimes difficult.

The emphasis in this passage is that spiritual power comes through relationship and not through techniques or invocations. The source of power is solely through the true and living God.

The Role of Prayer

Prayer is the essence of spiritual warfare and the most important means by which believers are strengthened by God.

Paul concludes his presentation of the armor of God by commending prayer, but he does so in a way that makes prayer foundational to the entire passage. “Praying in the Spirit” (6:18)—that is, praying in a way that is led, guided, and empowered by the Spirit—is one of the most important ways that we maintain a present, dynamic relationship with the living God. Prayer also represents a manifestation of faith (see 6:16), because it involves a recognition of our helplessness and need for God to fight for us.

What Paul envisions here is expansive—expressed in his comments that one should pray “at all times” and “with every kind of prayer and request” (6:18). This includes, but is not limited to, a regular time of private devotional prayer with God on a daily basis. But it also involves a readiness to pray for and with others at any time. Whenever the opportunity arises, we should be quick to pray with other people.

Since soldiers typically need help in putting on their armor, prayer can be seen as a way that we can help “arm” fellow believers for the struggle. Paul modeled this with his regular intercessory prayers for the people and even gives us an insight into how to pray for others. Since many Christians have a tendency to spend most of their small group prayer times praying for those who are sick or facing a crisis, Paul models here a different approach that stresses ongoing prayer in a way that prepares people to face inevitable struggles. It is therefore important for us to pray regularly for one another that God will so strengthen our fellow believers that they will be able to stand “on the evil day,” that is, when a crisis or attack of some sort hits.

Our New Identity

It is vital to understand our new identity in Christ at a deep level and to live out of that new identity as a means of overcoming the impact of various forms of demonic assault.

One of Paul’s primary concerns in this letter has been to establish these believers firmly in an understanding of their new identity in Christ. Because of the redemptive work of Christ, our adoption as God’s children, his sealing of us with his Holy Spirit, and our future as God’s inheritance, we are entirely new people. We are no longer dead in our sins and alienated from God. We have also been brought into a new community (or new society) and form a spiritual temple that God indwells by his Spirit.

Each of the pieces of armor unpacks some aspect of this new identity and should be interpreted by what Paul says earlier in the letter (and in his other correspondence) on that theme. This is true of each implement—truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, and the Word of God.

Appropriating this new identity is done over time as we apply ourselves to hearing and understanding the Word of God, experience the work of the Spirit in revealing to us these truths (i.e., opening the eyes of our hearts to them; see 1:18), pray for ourselves and receive intercessory prayer from others, and are deeply connected to the Christian community, where we receive the regular ministry of people Christ has gifted to touch our lives.

Learn more about Ephesians in Clinton E. Arnold’s video lectures. Get the DVD, or stream on MasterLectures or Amazon Prime Video. You can also watch the first lecture FREE on MasterLectures.

Ephesians, A Video Study Clinton E. Arnold
In Ephesians, A Video Study, Clinton Arnold presents Paul's epistle to the Ephesians with precision and accuracy. Focusing on the textual structure of the Scrip...
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Who wrote Ephesians? Today’s post is by Clinton E. Arnold and is excerpted from Ephesians in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New T...
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