Know Your Enemy

Evil Rulers in a Holy War

John Bunyan, a 17th-century pastor, is best known today as author of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Allegory is used to tell the story of a person’s conversion to Christ. “Christian,” the main character, leaves the city of his birth, the City of Destruction, and sets out for the Celestial City where he will live forever. With keen insight into the Word of God and brilliant imagination, Bunyan describes that dangerous journey of seeking the right path and avoiding by-paths. This allegorical story tells what happens when a person, becoming aware of his sin and his just condemnation under God, is transferred from that condition to a place where he will live forever with God.

What is not very well known about Bunyan is that he wrote several other allegorical works. He wrote stories about what takes place in heaven and another about what happens to a person who lives and dies in his sin. The best of these is his book entitled The Holy War. It is a story about one individual’s life. The whole story takes place in the heart and soul of an individual. Bunyan allegorizes it by describing this holy war as taking place in the reclaiming of the town named Mansoul. Mansoul, in its original founding, belonged to King Shaddai–belonged to God. But, Diabolus (Satan, or the Devil) and his armies captured Mansoul. So the holy war begins when the forces of Shaddai attack Mansoul, overcome Diabolus, cast him out, placing Lord Emmanuel (the son, the prince, the vice-regent of Shaddai) on the throne of Mansoul, heart castle. As you might expect, Diabolus, though he has been conquered and cast out, doesn’t just take it lying down; he begins to attack again. He figures out ways to get back into this town of Mansoul and reclaim it. What Bunyan describes in The Holy War is a very insightful, biblically-accurate description of what happens in the life of any individual who is converted to faith in Jesus Christ. All of this is a picture of a Christian–as one whose heart and life have been captured by the gracious power of God. A Christian is set free from the enslavement of Satan (Diabolus) and has Jesus Christ enthroned in his heartland life.

However, as Bunyan so aptly illustrates, when a sinner becomes converted in this manner, it is the beginning of a war–a holy war which is waged by Satan and his forces against the soul of the Christian.

Through various schemes, the devil tries repeatedly to enter once again into the life of a believer with delusions and methodologies to direct him off of the pathway of following Christ–trying to recapture Mansoul and dethrone Emmanuel. The result is a war–a holy war which is carried out in the theater of every Christian’s soul. If you are in Christ you are called to take on the armor that he provides you and to gird yourself up for battle–for a spiritual conflict.

We continue on the theme of knowing our enemy. Who is our enemy? Who is it that the Christian is called upon to fight in this holy war? Verse 12 warns us as Christians not to confuse people with our real enemies. “We do not wrestle with flesh and blood.” Rather, our real spiritual enemies are the devil and his forces. We began looking at what the Bible teaches us about Satan by considering first of all where he came from and secondly, what he is like. He is powerful, wicked, cunning, and tricky. He is a formidable opponent and, therefore, we cannot take him on in our own strength. You don’t have the resources in and of yourself, nor do I, to go toe-to-toe with Satan and his spiritual forces. The apostle says, “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God…. ” Without the resources provided from above, we will never be able to fight successfully. The more I study the Word of God regarding Satan–his activities, his attitudes, his demeanor–the more I am convinced that you cannot understand human history, you cannot make sense of the present world scene, and you cannot understand your own life without a clear understanding of what the Bible says about Satan and his forces.

Notice in verse 12 that Paul gives us a four-fold description of the evil forces against which we must fight. He introduces each category with the word “against.” “Paul is not to be understood as enumerating four different classes of demonic beings. Each term simply views the forces arrayed against God and His people in a different manner.”1 We are to fight against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Following the apostle’s order, let’s continue our consideration of Satan and his forces by thinking about each of these four descriptions. What are we up against as Christians? How are we to understand our enemy? The four phrases in verse 12 give us much insight into these issues. Before looking at each one of them individually, note that they are plural. It is “principalities,” “powers,” “rulers,” and “hosts.” These are collective references to Satan and his forces. We could say “demons,” or “devils.” We usually talk about our spiritual warfare as being against Satan or against the Devil (singular); the Bible does talk like that but the Bible also speaks in terms of a whole conglomerate or a whole army of evil forces. Satan is the leader of a spiritual army. And it is he and all of his forces which are in view in these verses.

“Principalities” (“rules”)

Satan has a kingdom. This is taught elsewhere in the Scriptures. In Matthew 12 when Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, he said that if he were to do that we would have a kingdom divided against itself. If Satan were casting out Satan by the power of Satan, his kingdom could not stand. Jesus refers to Satan in categories and terms just like the apostle Paul is referring to here as the head of a kingdom (“his kingdom”–Matthew 12:25-26; “prince of this world”–John 14:30).

So Satan is a ruler. Unlike human rulers (who may govern only the bodies and purses of subjects), Satan rules the hearts and minds of his subjects. We see this depicted in Revelation 13:4–the world is described as bowing down in worship to the dragon [Satan]. It is a photograph of what is spiritually taking place in the hearts and lives of those who are the subjects of the kingdom of Satan. His subjects will serve him–either wittingly or unwittingly–they will inevitably serve Him.

There are two kingdoms and everyone is a subject of one kingdom or the other: You are either under the rule of Christ or of Satan. Many people today love to think of themselves as in a kind of “spiritual neutral zone” saying “I know I’m not like you and I’m not religious and probably not a Christian but I’m not a bad person either It’s not like I love and serve Satan.” In the Bible, Jesus Christ says, “If you are not for Me, you are against Me” (Matthew 12:30). There is no neutral ground Either you are a subject of the kingdom of Satan or you are a subject of the kingdom of Christ. Many of those who are in Satan’s kingdom are there unwittingly and without a full awareness of what it is they are doing and what their actual condition is. That is precisely the way Satan loves to have it.

The Scripture teaches that those of us who have found the Lord Jesus Christ and have come to faith in Him are people who have been rescued from Satan’s kingdom and restored to our rightful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In Colossians 1:13 Paul says, “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, … ” In Ephesians 2:1-2 Paul describes what we once were, “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, …” In other words, you used to walk and line up according the pattern of Satan. You were under his authority, his influence, and under his power. It is a very sobering thought to recognize that Satan rules over unbelievers; it is a grim irony when we stop and reflect upon it for a moment. What is the essence of human sin? What is it that keeps people from being what God would have them to be? Is it not rebellion against God’s rule? At the very heart is this sense of “I will be the master of my own fate I will not have anyone rule over me and I will be a law unto myself I will be the Captain of my own soul I will not submit to anyone I want to be free” Yet, far from being free, such people are in bondage to Satan. What a tragic irony that is.

It is not only those whom the Bible describes as “demon possessed” who are the subjects of Satan’s kingdom, though certainly, that is true, but is anyone who is outside of the Lord Jesus–every unbeliever Christian, do you recognize your unconverted friends this way? Wouldn’t this effect the way you think about them and pray for them and try to speak the gospel to them? All those barriers would suddenly begin to seem insignificant because here is someone being held hostage by Satan in his evil kingdom. Unbeliever: do you see yourself this way? Do you understand that, according to the Bible, you are under the rule of Satan? Do you understand that you are walking according to the pattern that Satan has laid out for you?

How Did Satan Acquire His Kingdom?

He did so in three ways:

1. Through an immoral conquest. In one sense, he conquered mankind. In the garden, through his subtlety, charm and deceit, he entrapped and conquered Adam and Eve. He turned them away from God–the first hostile takeover in history He stole Adam’s heart; he took what was not lawfully his.

2. Through a rebellious human choice. No one held a gun to Eve’s head; no one forced Adam to run along and fall into the sin that his wife had committed. They willingly chose to follow Satan’s advice and counsel to sin. So, today, the sons and daughters of Adam willingly continue to follow Satan’s sin against the Lord Jesus Christ.

3. Through divine permission. There is no escaping this point: God allows Satan to have a kingdom. One of the most difficult questions for those who take the Bible seriously, or those who even think of life seriously, is this: Why is there evil in the world? If God is good, merciful, gracious and loving in the way that we know Him to be in the Scripture; if He is powerful, almighty, omnipotent, and sovereign over every last molecule in the universe; then why is there evil in the world? No matter how you try to peel that question back, you will never get beyond the fact that God in His wisdom, goodness, and sovereignty has allowed evil. The Bible doesn’t give us detailed answers; we must be careful not to speculate beyond what is revealed in the Scriptures; but we can observe and recognize how God has used, and is using, Satan. That helps us to see why He has allowed Satan to have a kingdom.

God uses Satan as an act of judgment against human sin and as a means of testing His own people. In one sense, God uses Satan as His unwitting executioner–to bring about a judicial punishment upon sin. The Old Testament experiences reveal how God would send a deceiving spirit and use Satan’s temptations to bring about judgment against sin. God also uses Satan as a means of testing and strengthening His own people. Think of Job. Why did God let Satan try Job? Whatever else might enter into that answer, certainly it worked for Job’s own strengthening. Job learned things and grew in faith and in humility. He grew in those wonderful graces that ought to mark a child of God. Satan was the instrument God used to provoke that growth in Job’s life.

God also uses Satan to get greater glory through Christ’s redemption. When Jesus came into the world, He came as the regent of the eternal God: the kingdom of God intervening and invading this world system. He came to the very threshold and very heart of Satan’s kingdom and routed the enemy forces. He conquered Satan. On the cross, when it looked like He was failing and was victim of the world, He was, in reality, the Victor over sin and Satan. He was conquering Satan He held Satan and all of his empire up to public spectacle, and those who are in Christ today can see it. If you don’t see it yet, the day will come when you will–when the Lord Jesus returns once again in all of His glory, victorious with all of His empire with Him; when Satan is fully and finally exposed for what he is; when he is cast into the eternal lake of fire. Then, every eye will see that this wicked empire was overthrown at the cross and through the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Christ is the great conqueror of Satan; God has used Satan to get great glory in Christ’s redemption.

As a ruler, Satan has an empire and a kingdom, and thus, he and his army are called “principalities” in the Bible. Not only are they called “principalities,” but they are also called “powers.”


The devils’ position as principalities is meaningless without the power to enforce their rule. And, according to our text, such power they do indeed have. Now, they do not have absolute power–they are not in any sense equal to God. Satan and his angels are servants of God to the degree that they are God’s creatures and under His authority. It is not absolute power but it is significant power. Remember that he is an angel (a wicked angel, to be sure) but as an angelic being he is specially endowed. In Psalm 103:20 we read, “Bless the Lord, you angels who excel in strength.” They are not limited by physical bodies; they have swiftness and great intelligence. The biblical images that we have of Satan help to underscore his power and strength. He is called by the Lord Jesus a “strong man” who is able to keep his house (Luke 11:21). The only way that a strong man can ever be defeated in his own house is by a stronger man so the clear implication is that only God in Christ can overthrow Satan and his empire. He is described by Peter as a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). One who is looking for something and someone in anyway to devour and rip to shreds. He is described as the great dragon (Revelation 12:9). He is the one who with the power of his tail is able to reek havoc upon the world. Paul calls him the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Not the true God, but a god who has power and attributes similar to, though far less than, the true God. We have previously considered some of the activities of Satan which display his power but suffice it to say that he, indeed, has the power to rule in his wicked kingdom. It is not absolute power but it is significant. William Gurnall, a 17th-century Puritan and Anglican who wrote 1200 pages in very small print on verses 10-18 of Ephesians says, “Satan’s power is limited, and that in two ways–he cannot do what he will, and he shall not do what he can.”2 He can’t do what he would like to do because if God gave him a free hand, he would destroy everyone and everything. He can’t do what he will, and not only that, he shall not do what he can–God will not give him reign to exercise all of the authority that he would love to exercise. His power is significant, but it is not absolute.

“Rulers of the darkness of this age”

This phrase tells us two very important things about Satan and his forces. First, his kingdom is limited to this present life–this age–not the age to come. Unlike Christ’s kingdom, Satan’s kingdom is not eternal. A time is coming when Satan and his forces will be thrown into hell forever and they themselves know it When Jesus was confronting some demons in Matthew 9:29 “have You come to torment us before the time?” They know their time is short and not eternal. Unlike Christ’s kingdom, Satan’s kingdom is limited to this world–he’s already been expelled from heaven. So once we, as Christians and as saints, enter into our reward and our rest in the eternal kingdom of heaven forever, we will no more be harassed by Satan. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? His kingdom is limited to here and now.

Secondly, His kingdom is limited to those who are “in darkness.”–those who live in a state of sin and spiritual ignorance. What is meant by “darkness”? The Bible often speaks of darkness as a way of thinking or acting that is contrary to the ways of God and in rebellion to His rule and authority. We see it even here in this letter: “This I say, therefore and testify in the LORD, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened,…” (Ephesians 4:17-18). These are those who are aliens from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them and the hardening of their hearts and the darkening of their mind. They have no clear spiritual understanding; they have been deceived–they believe a lie and reject the truth. They are in darkness. Paul says that is the way we used to be, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light…” (Ephesians 5:8). Notice that he does not say that you were in darkness but that darkness was in you. In Colossians 1:13, Paul says that we have been delivered from the “power of darkness.” What does it mean to be in darkness? It means to be separated from God. It means to be blinded by spiritual ignorance. When God commissioned the apostle Paul, he said that God called him to go and to preach deliverance to those who were in their sin, “to turn them from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18). Satan rules over those who are in a state of darkness and darkness is a perfect description of our world today: darkened; blinded by the god of this world to the eternal realities all around us; ignorant of God, of themselves, of heaven, of hell etc.

Have you listened to the fretful laments coming across the airways and in the places of public conversation about crime and immorality in our day? Have you watched the pundits and experts wring their hands and observe their futile solutions. They miss it They are clueless I do not mean this disrespectfully, but listen to our President talk about what we need to do about children committing violence to one another in our public schools. His answer: Let’s require uniforms to be worn. We have too many people killing one another says the Surgeon General–what we need is safer bullets Too many of our children are getting pregnant–let’s pass out condoms in our schools. Listen to the language of the supposed cultural experts in our day addressing the ills, and trying to prescribe remedies–if it were not so serious it would be laughable. It is no longer an adultery; it is an affair. It is no longer homosexuality; it is an alternate lifestyle. It is no longer abortion; it is a choice. Our world is in darkness. Ignorant of God, ignorant of sin, ignorant of what man is and ignorant of the dignity that belongs to every man, woman and child created in the image of almighty God. Listen to the philosophers, educators, and government officials scoff at God, scoff at His law, ridicule His gospel, disdain His people. And all the while, Satan and his demons laugh with devilish delight–ruling and watching their empire, continuing to march on. If we fail to recognize what is taking place in our day in terms of Satan’s activities then we will become a part of the problem, and the solution from God’s Word will not be prescribed.

Bunyan perfectly illustrates the plight of so many in our day with his character called Ignorance in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Ignorance is a man who doesn’t enter the narrow path through the narrow gate. He jumps over the wall saying, “I’ll get there my way, you get there your way. We are all going to the same place.” He travels through life convinced all is well, blissfully ignorant of his own doom, never concerned about any sin, never concerned about doing things according the Word of God until it is too late. Christian and Hopeful try to warn him and explain the truth as opposed to the ignorant lies he has believed and is living on the basis of now, but he just rejects them and shuns them until he comes to the place of knocking on the door of the Celestial City. Emissaries are sent from God on high to take Ignorance and to cast him into the pit because he lived, and so he must die, in darkness–ignorant of God and Jesus Christ. He was enslaved and in bondage to Satan and his empire, never having been translated from that kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light that is in Jesus Christ. So many in our day typify this type of spiritual ignorance and darkness.

What is the cure for darkness? Light What dispels darkness? Light Where do we have spiritual light? In the Word of God that tells us of Jesus Christ. If you and I really believe what the Bible has to say about Satan and his minions being the rulers of the darkness of this age then we ought to take seriously the call to take the light of God’s Word and the light of the gospel and go into the world and begin trying to turn on the lights. Tell men, women, and children the truth–that they are serving a wicked king. And yet, there is a good, glorious and merciful King who offers them salvation. He came into the world to conquer this kingdom and through Him there is life eternal and there is real freedom, real joy. There is the knowledge of God and the forgiveness of sin. Light is what the world needs; if we believe this then those of us who have the light must take the light, the knowledge of God and His Word, into the world. This is why we need God’s Word; we must spread God’s Word; why you must believe God’s Word

“Spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places”

What these words mean is that Satan and his minions are evil spirits. They are the essence of wickedness, beyond which we cannot fully comprehend because there is no goodness or kindness whatsoever in them. Because they are spirits they never die, they do not grow tired; they continually gain experience. It is an older, wiser Satan that has set himself against you and against the kingdom of Christ today than entered the garden of Eden years ago. They live in “heavenly places” –not in the heaven where God dwells, and not in the heavenly places Paul referred to in chapter three speaking of the good principalities and powers that surround the throne of God in heaven. Yet, these wicked spirits are not restricted to “earthly places” either; they are not earth-bound creatures; they are wicked beings who dwell in the spiritual realms.

Once again we are faced with the grim reality of our adversary. He is powerful, organized, numerous, wicked, and tricky. He is our spiritual enemy. Because these things are true of Satan and his forces, they are precisely why we must “be strong in the Lord and the power of His might” and why we must “put on the whole armor of God.” Otherwise, we will never be able to stand. Christian brothers and sisters, do recognize this to be true of yourself: we are in enemy territory We once were a part of this wicked kingdom, but God has rescued us; He has ransomed us; He has redeemed us; He has made us now to be sons and daughters of His kingdom. But, we are still here in this world and we are still called upon to represent the true and living King in a fallen and wicked world. We have been commissioned to hold the ground that has been recovered by our Captain, the Lord Jesus. We are to hold the ground in our own soul–not to give up, not to go backward, not to let the enemy forces throw us off the path. We are not only to hold ground but to advance against the enemy, to capture new ground. We are to go into this wicked kingdom seeking to release those who are enslaved to Satan and to his minions. Satan rules over darkness. We have the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And by that light we are to guard our own souls and to move into this spiritually, morally benighted age to rescue many more souls for Christ.

Our friends and loved ones outside of Christ are slaves to Satan–he has blinded them. They are darkened and cannot see, and they need the light of God’s truth. It ought to make us weep; it ought to make us pray; and it ought to make us diligent in trying to bear the light of the gospel to them. Do not let them go on in their blindness. Do not leave them without a clear gospel witness. Plead with them to be reconciled to their God.

Unbeliever, do you see what God says about you? Maybe you were in spiritual ignorance and did not know the truth and you did not see yourself as a servant of Satan, but now the word of God has come to you in the spirit and has taught you. Yes, you need to turn from your sin, you need to confess what you are to God, acknowledge your need of mercy, help, and strength and go to this great conqueror and Savior. Jesus Christ came into the world to destroy the works of the Devil, and if you will flee to Him today, He will save you and bring you into His kingdom. He will secure you forever into his eternal state of blessing. Do not stay under Satan’s dominion Come to Christ He will save you. Believe the gospel and find freedom, forgiveness, and a new life. Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Commit yourself to Him today!

1 Curtis Vaughan, Founders Study Guide Commentary: Ephesians (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2002), 126.
2 William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, 2 vols. (1655-1662; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986), 1:146.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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