A Biblical and Balanced Perspective
The following article is taken from the Introduction and Chapter One of the forthcoming book, Spiritual Warfare: A Biblical and Balanced Perspective, (Grand Rapids: MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014) and is printed here with permission from the publisher. For more information, see www.heritagebooks.org
One Side of the Horse or the Other
Living the Christian life is not merely about mastering one truth or even a set of principles. Living the Christian life is learning to think and act biblically. There are certain truths that we must be reminded of frequently, lest we become unbalanced or myopic in our view of the Christian life. One such truth is that we are in a war of the most serious nature and that war is not with flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of darkness. This vital truth is to shape and inform our worldview. Unfortunately, some almost completely ignore the reality of this war. Others, however, seem to give it far more attention than Scripture does. There is certainly a danger in both extremes. C. S. Lewis makes precisely this point in his famous work, The Screwtape Letters:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.1
Along these same lines, Martin Luther once noted that Christians are often like a drunk trying to get on his horse. First, he falls off one side, only to fall off the other the next time. Given the stakes in this war, we cannot afford to fall off either.
Since the 18th-century Enlightenment, the worldview of the West has grown increasingly closed to the supernatural. Consequently, many today deny a world that God governs and where the devil and his demons are our enemies. This worldview is called “naturalism.” In this view, everything has a natural cause and nothing exists beyond what we can see with our own eyes. The biblical worldview however, clashes with naturalism and sees not only a sovereign God who rules over His world and the events of our lives, but it also acknowledges Satan, and demons. As Christians, we might have a biblical worldview in certain areas, but perhaps our perspective is more naturalistic than we realize.
In contrast, the other extreme establishes spiritual warfare as the lens through which we perceive everything. In this view, virtually everything that happens is attributed to demonic activity and spiritual warfare. This worldview is built more upon fictional books and movies than the Bible. David Powlison notes, “A great deal of fiction, superstition, fantasy, nonsense, nuttiness, and downright heresy flourishes in the church under the guise of ‘spiritual warfare’ in our time.”2
Some false teachings in this regard may include demon-possessed Christians,3 formulas for exorcisms, binding the devil,4 rebuking demons, mapping their physical location, and the list could go on. Many of these emphases have little or no biblical foundation. What they all lack is solid scriptural footing, and while many throughout the ages have attempted to build doctrinal skyscrapers on such chicken coop foundations, these structures inevitably fall under their own weight. The end is like that of the man who builds his house upon the sand. The personal ramifications are tragic.
Doctrinal excesses like those just described often lead to an imbalance in the Christian life that magnifies one aspect of biblical truth to the minimization or exclusion of the rest of Scripture. Such biblical truths as the believer’s responsibility for his own actions, remaining sin in the Christian, the character-changing power of the Spirit, and the centrality of the Gospel are often eclipsed or ignored. The danger here is not a neglect of spiritual warfare, but a truncated view of the Christian life, in which Satan and demons are wrongly blamed for every problem we face. In light of these two extremes, if we would live sound and stable lives as believers, then we desperately need a biblically balanced understanding of spiritual realities and the spiritual warfare to which God calls us; anything else will be disastrous.
The Biblical History of Spiritual Warfare
From the beginning of human history, there has been spiritual warfare. What happened in the Garden was the inception of the battle.5 Satan twisted God’s Word, challenged His authority, and lied to our first parents. After the fall, God promised continued warfare and ultimate victory. In speaking to the serpent God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15).6
There would be a struggle between the serpent and the woman. That struggle would continue with the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Finally, the serpent would have a bruised head (a fatal blow) and the seed of the woman would be injured, but not permanently (bruised heel). Theologians call this the protoeuangelion, “the first gospel.” The seed of the woman is ultimately Jesus Christ. Although there would be a battle between those who follow Satan (e.g., Cain) and those who follow God (e.g., Abel, 1 John 3:10-12) and there would be a battle between Satan and those who follow Jesus (1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 12:6-17), the ultimate battle would be between Satan and Christ (Revelation 12:1-5). Part of Christ’s mission when he came to earth was to overthrow the work and kingdom of darkness.
But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house” (Matthew 12:25-29).
Every time Jesus cast out a demon, every time He healed the sick or raised the dead, He was assaulting the kingdom of darkness. Jesus was entering the strong man’s house, binding him with His superior strength and plundering his stolen property. This was seen for example when He freed the woman who had a demonically induced disability for eighteen years. The synagogue ruler objected to the healing since it was on the Sabbath, however Jesus responded by saying, “Ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound–think of it–for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?” (Luke 13:16).
Jesus’ ultimate overthrow of Satan, however, took place at the cross. Certainly, the work of Jesus on the cross is multifaceted. There are so many dimensions to His redemptive work that we cannot narrow it to one truth. However, one aspect that we cannot overlook is that Jesus at the cross was stripping Satan of his power and performing the ultimate rescue operation.
“Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to Him.” Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (John. 12:27-31).
The cross was an act of judgment evicting the ruler of this world. Years later, the apostle John would reflect on the incarnation and death of Jesus with these words, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). According to John, this means that part of our salvation experience is deliverance from Satan’s power and kingdom.
Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it (Colossians 2:15).
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Now, as followers of Jesus, we live in the tension of the “already” and the “not yet.”7 That is, we have been delivered from Satan’s dominion through the finished work of Christ, yet we still battle. Part of our struggle in this life is that we must fight against Satan and his forces in the world. One day our victory in Christ will be fully realized: “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly” (Romans 16:20). But until that time, we must keep in mind the following truths: We are wrestling not against human forces but spiritual powers (Ephesians 6:12). We need therefore, to be alert because our enemy the devil is seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8).
How we think about this battle is critical to how we fight it. The significance of Ephesians 6:10-20, which is the basis of this book, cannot be emphasized enough. This classic passage gives us a biblical framework for spiritual warfare. On the one hand, it frees us from the misconception of a closed, naturalistic worldview that understates our spiritual battle. On the other hand, it provides us with a sane approach that avoids overstating it as well. This text gives us a perspective on spiritual warfare that can dramatically shape our daily life, showing us how to rightly engage in this great war.
Our approach in this book is straightforward. We will present what Paul says about fighting this fight in Ephesians 6:10-20. While doing this we will explain each piece of the armor, and practically apply its truth to our lives. Our primary focus will not be Satan, but Christ, who is the Victor over all.
Chapter One: Be Strong in the Lord
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (Ephesians 6:10).
The first step in successfully waging spiritual warfare is to recognize our own weakness and the Lord’s great strength. Self-sufficiency is a killer in this battle; dependence on Christ is crucial. In Ephesians 6:10-20 we are repeatedly reminded of our insufficiency for this fight; we need strength (v. 10), weaponry (vv. 11; 14-17), and lines of communication with our Savior for aid (vv. 18-20). These means are external to us. Without them, we have inadequate strength to stand against principalities, powers, the rulers of the darkness, and spiritual hosts of wickedness. Left to ourselves we would soon crumble in the heat of battle. We are simply deficient for the task. But God loves His people and never leaves us defenseless.
As we now consider Ephesians 6:10, attempting to clarify its meaning and apply its truths, let’s see this verse in its overall context. The book of Ephesians divides nicely into two parts. The first is a doctrinal foundation, and the second builds on that foundation with practical application of those doctrines to the life of the church. This follows Paul’s typical pattern in his writings: the indicative (i.e., a declaration of what God has done in Christ) followed by the imperative (i.e., what we are to do in response). Paul’s practical application begins in Ephesians 4:1 and reaches its climax in 6:10-20, with a cosmic perspective on the Christian life with the believer engaged in spiritual warfare.
As Paul draws this letter to a close, he begins this new section with the word finally. We should find it interesting that the crowning section of the epistle, this grand finale, focuses on spiritual warfare. It is significant that the apostle cannot end this letter, which is filled with so many magnificent truths, without instructing his readers about the great ongoing threat that they face. In order for us to understand why he ends on this note, we need to know something about the Ephesians and their city, Ephesus.
Ephesus, the Spiritual City
Ephesus was a thriving metropolis on the west coast of Asia Minor, ranking alongside Rome and Alexandria as a major Roman city. According to legend, the city was founded by Amazons (i.e., giant female warriors). This legend was well known and influenced Ephesian culture religiously and socially. The population of Ephesus is estimated at over 250,000 in the first century, making it the third largest city in the Empire. It was an advanced city, boasting an amphitheater that held 24,000 people, baths, gymnasiums, and a medical training school. It also hosted the Koina Asias, the common games of Asia. Beyond its sophistication and technological development, it was also a spiritual city. The chief religion of Ephesus was the cult of Artemis Ephesia (its Greek name) or Diana of Ephesus (its Roman name).
The Artemis cult was predominant throughout Asia Minor. The Artemosian was the temple that housed the multi-breasted figure of Artemis. Constructed of marble, the building measured 93,500 square feet. It stood with 127 marble columns, which were each 60 feet high. The temple was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. “The worshipers of Artemis extolled their goddess as supreme in power, a ‘cosmic’ power that was believed to be superior to that of any other deity, astrological fate, and evil spirits.”8
But beyond this cult, Ephesus was the center for magical practices. Bruce Metzger once noted, “Of all ancient Greco-Roman cities, Ephesus was by far the most hospitable to magicians, sorcerers, and charlatans of all sorts.”9 The famous Ephesia Grammata, the “Ephesian letters” were words written on amulets, which the people used as charms believing that they brought protection from the powers (evil spirits) or gave them help in times of distress or need. Furthermore, Jewish involvement in power and magic was pervasive.10
When Paul arrived in Ephesus, an event recorded in Acts 19, he found a metropolis trafficking in the occult and the powers of darkness. The Ephesians lived with a worldview that was totally open to supernaturalism. Magic, demons and spiritual power were very real to them and many were involved in occult practices. Paul ministered there for three months in the synagogue and two years in the School of Tyrannus (Acts 19:8-10). During this time, the Word of the Lord was shining forth in Ephesian darkness. Many were coming to faith in Jesus and repenting of their sorceries.
And many who had believed came confessing and telling their deeds. Also, many of those who had practiced magic brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted up the value of them, and it totaled fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed (Acts 19:18-20).
The impact of the Gospel in Ephesus began to have a serious impact on the religious scene. Ephesus was so deeply committed to Diana, both religiously and commercially, that when people were converted and stopped buying idols, a riot broke out due to the loss of revenue (Acts 19:21-41). This riot happened just as Paul was planning to leave Ephesus. By this time he had ministered three years among these Ephesians believers (Acts 20:31). He knew them well and he knew their struggles. Since it is common for believers to deeply regret their wicked lives before Christ rescued them, it could be that some converted Ephesians were being haunted by their occultist past. Perhaps they even lived in fear of the spiritual powers with which they had been acquainted.
As we come to Ephesians 6:10-20, we see that the apostle does not dismiss the realities of the powers like a parent reassuring a child that there really is not a monster under his bed. Rather, he validates spiritual realities and equips them for the battle at hand.
Summary Exhortation: Be Strong in the Lord
The command is literally, “be strengthened, be made powerful.” There is good reason for Paul to begin this section of his letter this way. As soldiers in Jesus’ army, we will face many battles and hardships on our way to heaven. At times, we will feel besieged and utterly exhausted. We will keenly feel temptation and suffer battle wounds. Therefore, we must be provoked to pursue spiritual strength and power. A feeble or cowardly disposition in spiritual warfare will be detrimental to our success. It will cause us to regress. In light of this, Paul calls us to be mighty men. He wants us to enter this battle courageously and with great hope. This call to be strong is a constant one in Scripture. As Joshua was commanded to “be strong and of good courage” (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9), and David “strengthened himself in the Lord his God” (1 Samuel 30:6), we must do the same.11 If we would be triumphant in our walk with Christ as we engage in spiritual battle, we must seriously heed this exhortation.
Paul’s charge to “be strong” is in the passive voice, which means that this empowering is something that is done to us from an outside source. This tells us that we dare not look to ourselves for strength in this combat. Spiritual stamina for spiritual battle is not drawn from within or by flexing our muscles from without. Rather, we are specifically called to be “strong in the Lord.” Here is where our strength is to be found–in the Son of God Himself. What a glorious thought Paul points us to Christ as the all-sufficient source of our strength, who by His mighty power gives us all that we lack. As believers we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).
But there are other nuggets of truth in these words. The command “be strong” is also in the present tense indicating that in Christ we have constant, on-going supplies of all that we need for spiritual warfare. Jesus is our continual refuge and strength, our very present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). Yet what does it mean to be strong in the Lord? In summary, it means to maintain an ongoing awareness that the Lord Jesus has superabundant stores of strength for us, and in realizing this, we draw from that strength continuously. The idea is that by virtue of our union with Christ we utilize the strength that is inherent in Him. Our Lord has all that we need for warfare. Though we are weak, He is strong, and He perfects His strength in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Therefore, as the battle rages on, we are to look to Him for help; for His “divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
Paul consistently reminded the Ephesians that the power of God in Christ was available to them, so it should not be surprising that he now calls them to make good use of it. This power is nothing less than the power of Jesus Christ demonstrated in His resurrection and exaltation (Ephesians 1:19-20). Since we have been raised with Him and are seated with Him (Ephesians 2:6), that power is ours in Him.
We do well to pause and ask ourselves if we are persuaded of this fact concerning our Lord. How we view Him will be a major factor in our regularly going to Him to “obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Never forget that Jesus is no longer the suffering servant of Jehovah dying on the cross. Rather, He is the exalted king of heaven and earth reigning on high Jesus is the risen head of the church who fills “all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). He is the One in whom dwells “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9). These truths about Christ are not meant to be filed away in some dusty theological cabinet. Instead, they are to prod us to action. This knowledge concerning our Lord is to drive us to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think. So avail yourself of this power in Christ (Ephesians 3:20-21). Daily cast all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7).
The phrase in v. 10b “and in the power of His might” amplifies and expands what it means to be strong in Lord. The combination of these words takes us back to Ephesians 1:18-23.
…the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:18-23).
Here we see Christ’s unrivaled power in His resurrection, ascension, and exaltation. No other power compares with it, and Christ is its great focal point. This divine power was exerted by the Father, in raising Christ from the dead, thereby destroying the inferior power of death. This divine power was subsequently exerted in Christ’s enthronement (Ephesians 1:20), resulting in Christ being seated at the Father’s “right hand in the heavenly places.” The right hand is the place of honor, power, victory and authority. Christ Himself is far above “all principality and power and might and dominion.” These terms refer to evil spiritual powers, to which Paul refers in chapter 6:12. Christ is also surpassingly above “every name that is named.” Among other things, Paul’s mention of “every name that is named” includes those names found in the incantations invoked by the unsaved Ephesians to harness spiritual powers. The central message of the apostle here is clear: Christ is higher than and far superior to all powers that exist, including every demonic and spiritual power
Christ as the exalted and enthroned Lord rules over all. The entire spirit world is subject to Him, “not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” Jesus inaugurated the age to come at His first advent. He will consummate the age to come at His second advent. Christ will reign in the age to come. However, He presently reigns in this age. Murray Harris memorably says, “The resurrection proclaims ‘He lives–and that forever’; the exaltation proclaims ‘He reigns–and that forever.’”
Jesus’ resurrection, exaltation, and reign demonstrate the surpassing power vested in His person, and this power is already ours in Him. This is what the apostle says he wants us to be aware of in Ephesians 1:18-23. This omnipotent power conquers all the spiritual forces of every age. There is nothing lacking in it. This power alone will see us through our battles with the devil.
If we have been injured in spiritual battle, let us stop and ask ourselves if we have been relying on the power we possess in Christ. In and of ourselves, we are not fit for this great fight. We do not have the necessary strength or skill to oppose Satan and spiritual forces. We are not as strong as we think; sadly, our experience confirms this. Nevertheless, in spiritual union with the risen Lord, His infinite power and strength are ours by faith. Our passage calls us then to be humble, dependent warriors constantly going to Christ, the Captain of our salvation for this mighty power. It calls us to recognize our native deficiency and to see His great spiritual sufficiency. This is the essence of Paul’s opening exhortation. This is the heart of it. Charles Hodge put it this way,
He, therefore, who rushes into this conflict without thinking of Christ, without putting his trust in him, and without continually looking to him for strength, and regarding himself as a member of his body, deriving all life and vigour from him, is demented… When we are weak, then are we strong. When most empty of self, we are most full of God.12
1 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Uhrichville, OH: Barbour and Company, Inc. no date), in preface.
2 David Powlison, Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995), 13.
3 Appendix Two will address this issue, “Can a Christian be Demon Possessed?”
4 If we could bind the devil, why would the Apostle Paul call us to put on the whole armor of God that we may be able to stand against him?
5 The authors are fully aware that such passages as Isaiah 14:12-14, Ezekiel 28:12-19, Luke 10:18, Jude 6 and Revelation 12:9-12 seem to indicate that the devil was originally made a perfect angelic being who dwelt in heaven with God and yet was removed from this lofty estate with a third of his angels, because of their rebellion. For further discussion on this topic, we point the reader to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 412-414.
6 All Scripture references are from the New King James Version.
7 This topic will be discussed in more detail in chapter two.
8 Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians in Light of its Historical Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989, 1992), 39.
9 Quoted in Clinton E. Arnold’s, Ephesians Power and Magic, 14.
10 Dr. Clint Arnold, a leading New Testament scholar and expert on Ephesian spirituality, has detailed these practices. Arnold’s Ephesians Power and Magic is his academic work on the subject, Powers of Darkness (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992) is his popular level treatment of the subject.
11 In addition to these references also see 1 Corinthians 16:13 and 2 Timothy 2:1.
12 Charles Hodge, Ephesians (1856; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 275-276.