Warfare in the Spirit
Disciples wage spiritual warfare through right conduct, acts of love, and proclaiming the gospel. “Spiritual warfare” is a common topic in popular preaching, an idea derived from Paul’s words to the church in 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 does he mean by “wrestling against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” and how do believers war against these forces?
Unfortunately, we tend to read the passage without paying attention to its literary context which leads to assumptions that we then read into the Apostle’s words. But his statement is NOT disconnected from what precedes it.
By “wrestling against the principalities and powers,” Paul is not introducing new mystical experiences that the disciple of Jesus must practice so he may resist the Devil more effectively.
Instead, he sums up what he has written to this point in the letter before he launches into his final salutations and instructions - “FINALLY… put on the whole armor of God...”
PREACHING THE WORD
And in his summary, he provides us with a list of the “weapons” at our disposal for resisting Satan, including truth, righteousness, the “preparation of the gospel of peace,” faith, salvation, prayer, and the “word of God.”
Moreover, the final, and arguably, the most important item in the list is the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
The structure of the Greek sentence makes clear that the term “word of God” refers to the “sword” rather than “spirit.” In other words, the “sword” wielded by the Spirit is the “word.” And in the list of weapons, it is the only one that can be used offensively when confronting an enemy soldier, metaphorically speaking.
The clause is translated more accurately as the “UTTERANCE of God.” It is the spoken word of God or rhéma rather than the written word or logos. While either Greek noun can be used synonymously for the “WORD of God,” in this passage, the distinction is important.
Paul already included the “preparation of the gospel of peace.” By “utterance,” he does not mean words spoken by God Himself or words spoken through the gift of prophecy, but the PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL.
The proclamation of the gospel is how the Spirit wields the “sword” - preaching the gospel is the Spirit in action and on the offensive against the works of the Devil.
This understanding is borne out by Paul’s request for prayer that he be given utterance and “boldness” to preach the “mystery of the gospel.” And the Greek term rendered “boldness” or parrésia more fully denotes “FREEDOM OF SPEECH.”
IN THE CHURCH
Before our inclusion in the church, we were walking “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.”
Our former miserable state was made evident by 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.” Our sinful lifestyles demonstrated that we were under the dominion of the Devil. One did not need supernatural powers to discern our fallen state!
But in the church, God draws us “nigh” though previously we were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers from the covenants of the promise, and without God in the world.” And He makes both Jews and Gentiles “one new man,” having “dismantled the middle wall of partition between them.”
And through Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles now “have access in one Spirit to the Father,” - 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 now has 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 God has bestowed on His people, Paul gives a series of exhortations summoning believers TO RIGHT CONDUCT, interspersed with real-life examples.
His description of “warfare” concludes this lengthy section by informing disciples about the true nature of their struggles in everyday life. His instructions on proper conduct demonstrate how “spiritual warfare” is waged - how one resists the Devil.
Thus, disciples 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, the disciple must “no longer walk as the Gentiles walk in the vanity of their mind.” Truth is “in Jesus,” and if he is taught by him, he must discard the “old man” and be “renewed in the spirit of our minds.”
And that “new man” is created “in righteousness and holiness” for good works. Therefore, the disciple must eschew falsehood and only speak the truth with others. He ought to be angry but not sin or “give place to the devil.”
And in this is a clear statement on how the church prevails over satanic forces, the “powers and principalities,” by its members NOT sinning against one another.
The disciple succeeds at not “giving place to the Devil” by doing positive acts for others. Rather than steal, he ought to “work with his hands that he may have whereof to give to him that is needy.”
Satan works to impoverish our brothers and sisters. Resist him by feeding and clothing the hungry and naked. Rather than profane speech, speak to one another that which is “good for edifying.” Put away all wrath and bitterness by being “kind to one to another, forgiving each other, even as God also forgave us in Christ.” It is our backbiting and expressions of anger towards our brethren that “grieves the Holy Spirit.”
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 and covetousness should not even be named among the saints. Instead, let them be “giving thanks” to God for His graciousness. Their positive acts for others defeat the hostile spiritual powers. But when they surrender to lust, anger, and greed, those same powers gain ground over them.
Disciples “live in the light” and must “walk” accordingly by having no fellowship with the “unfruitful works of darkness.” And “spiritual warfare” of this kind extends even to the more mundane areas of life.
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.” Rather than get “drunk with wine” as the Gentiles do, the disciple is called to be “filled with the Spirit.” This is achieved by “speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody o the Lord.”
It is by “walking worthily of the Lord” that disciples of Jesus apply “the whole armor of God.” In the process, they recognize that the source behind the temptations in their lives is Satan and his forces.
We “resist the Devil” by performing concrete acts of love and mercy for others. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “Be not overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” And it is the Spirit of God that enables the believer to “walk” in this manner, and to take the offensive by proclaiming the “word of God.”