Editor’s note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers understand what spiritual warfare is, strategies to engage biblically in spiritual warfare, and how to walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Nick opened the series by looking at pastoral ministry and four strategies for spiritual warfare.
- Dave wrote on spiritual warfare and growing in the grace of God.
- Today Dave wrote on spiritual warfare and the power of Scripture.
- David Dunham wrote on spiritual warfare is routine.
- Mike Boling wrote on spiritual warfare and the full armor of God.
- Today Mike gives a deep dive into the background and meaning of Ephesians 6:10-20.
The pericope of Ephesians 6:10-20 is a battle cry from the Apostle Paul written originally to addresses spiritual issues at the Church at Ephesus. The principles inculcated within this passage of scripture are timeless and should be fully integrated into the life of the modern believer. Subsumed within Paul’s commentary is a comprehensive overview of spiritual warfare. According to Paul, the battle that rages is a spiritual confrontation with eternal consequences between the people of God and Satan’s minions. As noted by author Warren Wiersbe, “sooner or later every believer discovers that the Christian life is a battleground, not a playground, and that he faces an enemy who is much stronger than he is – apart from the Lord.” Thus, Paul’s discussion of spiritual warfare is replete with various modalities by which Christians can “fight the good fight of faith” as annotated in First Timothy 6:12.
The theological connotations contained in this passage must be interpreted as a unified peroration regarding the necessity for the believer to be cognizant of the spiritual battle that permeates our daily existence. Perhaps more importantly is the applicatory nature of this pericope and the urgency by which Paul endorses persistent engagement of the enemy through the panoply of God and through prayer. Paul admonishes believers to utilize the armor of God in order to effectively withstand the incessant spiritual barrage which they will daily confront. Without this armor, the Christian, both in the context of Paul’s era and the modern one, can easily fall prey to the wiles of the adversary.
HISTORICAL AND LITERARY ANALYSIS OF EPHESIANS
Pauline authorship of Ephesians was largely unchallenged by scholars until the 19th century when biblical criticism became vogue amongst the theological community and academia. Moreover, support for Pauline authorship was maintained as early as the second century by early church fathers such as Ignatius who ascribed Ephesians as being from “the hand of the apostle.” Further support in this area is attributed to the fact that numerous early church fathers denoted their belief in Pauline authorship evidenced by the Ephesians being listed as a Pauline letter in the Marcion canon circa 180 A.D. and inclusion in the Muratorian Fragment. Scholars typically hold to the assertion that the book of Ephesians was written by Paul during his imprisonment in Rome around the year A.D. 60. Additionally, Ephesians is regularly included among the other Pauline letters labeled as his “prison epistles.”
Biblical criticism concerning Ephesians is often attributed to issues such as the purported excessive exaltation of Paul and the apostles. The concern over the depiction of Paul and the apostles in Ephesians is tenable as discussion on this topic is centered on the role that Paul and the apostles had in the promulgation of the gospel amongst the early church. Additional criticism has been placed by liberal scholars on the nomenclature “the holy apostles.” As noted by theologian Klyne Snodgrass, such criticism overlooks the consistent reference by which “Paul refers to Christians as the holy ones (saints). The word means nothing more than those whom God has set apart.”
Further support for Pauline authorship can be obtained by evidence found within Ephesians. The letter begins with a greeting to the Church at Ephesus; a standard element of Pauline literature. In addition, there is a “substantial amount of material presented as a first-person address on the part of the apostle to the readers.” Perhaps most telling is the discussion of the nature of Paul’s apostolic ministry and the various prayers throughout the epistle which depict Paul commenting in the first-person.
While objections to Pauline authorship continue to exist, they do not bear sufficient inherent difficulty as to not be overcome. Donald Guthrie notes that “when all the objections are carefully considered it will be seen that the weight of evidence is inadequate to overthrow the overwhelming external attestation to Pauline authorship, and the Epistle’s own claims.”
Any attempts at debating Pauline authorship do little to discredit the fundamental theological import of Ephesians for the body of Christ. As noted by theologian Peter O’Brien,
“Early and consistent attestation to its apostolic authorship is highly significant, not only because Christians of the first centuries were closer than we are to the situation when it was written, but also because they were careful in weighing and evaluating their founding documents.”
HISTORICAL FRAMEWORK OF FIRST CENTURY EPHESUS
The City of Ephesus was a center of trade in the Roman Empire largely due to its geographical location on the Mediterranean Sea thus enabling the city to be a vital port in the region of Asia Minor. As a chief commercial center, Ephesus was a “melting pot of nations and ethnic groups.” Historians have noted that it was not uncommon to see various ethnic groups intermingling throughout the city environs.
In addition to being a major center of commerce, Ephesus also boasted the temple to the fertility goddess Artemis Diana; one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The Temple of Artemis also served as the “bank of Asia Minor, one of the few places where money could be safely deposited.” As connoted in Acts 18 and 19, Ephesus was a city centered largely on the worship of Diana and the resulting moral atmosphere was largely one of debauchery. This is evidenced by the confluence of temple prostitutes that permeated the temple complex and which were an integral part of the worship ceremonies of the goddess Diana. The spiritual climate of the city of Ephesus and its surrounding communities was one centered on the accumulation of wealth, sexual deviancy and most importantly the worship of Diana.
SPIRITUAL CLIMATE OF THE CHURCH AT EPHESUS
The Apostle Paul briefly visited Ephesus during his 2nd missionary journey while he journeyed from Corinth to Jerusalem; a fact noted in Acts 18. Upon his departure, Paul left behind his traveling companions Priscilla and Aquila to further the spread of the gospel in this region. Paul returned to Ephesus during his 3rd missionary journey and Acts 19 provides an overview of Paul’s two year ministry to the Ephesus believers. Not only did Paul minister to the Gentile believers in Ephesus, Acts 19:8 denotes that Paul spent three months preaching the gospel of Christ at a Jewish synagogue in Ephesus. His preaching was met with great consternation and hostility and he was eventually forced to depart the synagogue. Despite this hostility, numerous Jews and even some Gentiles received the saving message of Christ. Acts 19:9 describes Paul bringing these new converts to Christianity to a local lecture hall where he preached the gospel daily. This lecture hall formed the base of operations for Paul for the next two years as he continued to preach the gospel to the Ephesians. So effective was Paul’s teaching, that Acts 19:10 states that “all the inhabitants of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.”
God performed many supernatural acts to include healing of the sick and the exorcism of demonic spirits during Paul’s tenure at Ephesus. Following the tragic end of the sons of Sceva outlined in Acts 19:14-16, many Christians finally renounced their spiritual ties to the Cult of Diana and burned their books of magic estimated to have the value of 50,000 days’ wages. Spiritual revival had begun to take root in Ephesus and this revival eventually spread to the surrounding cities of Asia Minor.
As noted by theologian John Stott, Paul referred to the recipients of his letter as the saints, as faithful and as being in Christ Jesus. These descriptions are quite impressive especially considering the virulent spiritual environment and the inherent societal and economic risks involved with rejecting the idol worship and sexual depravity which so permeated their culture. Paul reminded the Christians at Ephesus of their position as called out ones by God, the need to keep the faith and the eternal perspective which the people of God should be continually focused upon. Theologian James Boice saliently notes that “in this city God was pleased to establish a faithful church. To the Christians of this city, attempting to live for God in the midst of utter paganism, the apostle directs this letter.”
THE BELIEVER’S ENGAGEMENT IN SPIRITUAL WARFARE
After spending a significant amount of time addressing issues of doctrinal particularly the need for unity among believers, Paul begins the pericope of Ephesians 6:10-20 with the word “finally.” This word indicates that the final section of Ephesians is built upon the preceding chapters where Paul presented a thorough outline for unity within the church. As noted by theologian A. Skevington Wood, “the body of Christ must be united and built up so as to be ready for the inevitable encounter with evil.” Now that Paul had provided the modality by which the body of Christ could be unified, he then provides an enchiridion of spiritual warfare complete with a depiction of the method and weaponry by which believers can engage the enemy. Such a discussion is relevant not to the church at Ephesus but in some respects, an astute comprehension of the nature of true nature of spiritual warfare is even more important for the modern believer.
The metaphor of the armor of God utilized by Paul in this passage connotes a sense of a fully armed, well-trained warrior. Of particular importance is the method by which Paul contrasts a typical Roman soldier to the average believer. Theologian Michael Gudorf avers that the Greek word πάλη (palē) that Paul utilizes in Ephesians 6:12 for struggle or wrestle as identified in some translations connotes more than resistance against an enemy. Gudorf avers that Paul is instead describing a
“heavily armored soldier who also happens to be an accomplished wrestler. As one might imagine, such an individual would be particularly formidable in the arena of close-quarter military combat, where only one is left standing. The picture of an individual such as this fits quite well with the extended metaphor in Ephesians 6:10-18 where the consistently prominent theme is to remain standing in the face of attack.”
Paul is clearly indicating the necessity for the believer to be spiritually fit as the battle in which they are engaged is not for the faint at heart or the spiritually weak. Our enemy is indeed formidable and his attacks should not be taken lightly. Paul urges the believer to exercise all aspect of spiritual discipline in order to be in constant battle with the enemy.
THE ARMOR OF GOD
The true source of strength for the believer is not physical weaponry or carnal ability. As Paul saliently notes, the armor of God is only effective if the believer places complete trust in God. Paul commands the believer to be “strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.” Despite the fact that God has provided the believer with the necessary apparatus by which to withstand the “wiles of the devil”, the Christian must not lose sight that every element of the armor of God is the creation of God and thus is His provision.
Another vital aspect of the armor of God is the mandate to put on the “full armor of God.” A soldier who goes into battle missing any element of his armor is in peril of being struck down by the enemy in the very area where the armor is either weak or absent. Additionally, the believer must properly don all aspects of the armor of God. As noted by Puritan theologian William Gurnall “the powers of the one and the senses of the other are divinely protected. No part is left exposed…God designs each part of the armor for a particular purpose; therefore, the saint must be properly attired…the saint is called to keep his armor ready for use and shining.”
This imagery, when combined with that of a soldier who is refined in the art of close-combat warfare, provides a complete illustration of the nature by which the believer is to engage the enemy. The elements of the armor of God, when combined with the visualization of a wrestler/soldier outlined by Paul in Ephesians 6:12 clearly identify the dangerous nature of the battle which believers face. More importantly, the armor was “forged on no earthly anvil, and tempered by no human skill.” The believer must be ever vigilant to depend on the strength of the Lord to combat evil in his time rejecting any methodology which encourages human efforts.
BELT OF TRUTH
After making all necessary preparations for battle, Paul exhorts the believer to gird their loins with the belt or girdle of truth. For the Roman solider, the belt was the aspect of his clothing which prevented his outer tunic from being an impediment in battle. As noted by author John MacArthur, “since the greatest part of ancient combat was hand-to-hand, a loose tunic was a potential hindrance and even a danger.” Early church father Chrysostom notes that Paul is “setting in contrast, by this metaphor, the soldier who is slack and dissipated in his appetites, who lets his thoughts creep on the ground…just like the keel of a ship the loins are the central balancing support of our whole body.” Essentially, without the girdle, the soldier would be veritably unable to successfully stand in battle.
The importance of the girdle to the Roman soldier was immense and the parallels for the believer are equally important. The spiritual application of this portion of the armor of God resides in the nature of the truth the believer is to depend on. We are commanded not to be dependent on our self-prescribed intellectual acumen, but rather a thorough comprehension of the truth that is outlined in God’s Word. As noted by theologian Jack Cottrell, “just knowing what the Bible teaches is not enough, however; we must also believe the truth and love the truth.”20 The Word of God is to be our sound foundation for the distinction between truth and falsehood. As the girdle served as the point of balance for the Roman soldier the Bible must serve as the underpinning of the believer.
Furthermore, just as the girdle took the slack out of the Roman soldier’s cloak enabling him to be ready at all times for battle, truth enables the believer to avoid being “slack in his dealings with God or with himself.” Christians should take inventory of their spiritual life in order to identify anything which has the potential of encumbering their ability to fight the enemy. Paul reminds believers in Second Corinthians 10:5 to bring into captivity “every thought to the obedience of Christ.” This concept is also explicated in Hebrews 12:1 where the author urges believers to “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us.”
BREASTPLATE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
The breastplate was a sleeveless piece of armor that covered the Roman soldier from the neck to the thighs and typically consisted of two parts – the front and the back. A soldier who went to battle without his breastplate would be exposed to “every thrust of his enemy and even to every random spear. In such a state flight or death is inevitable.” This essential piece of armor protected the soldier from attack at all angles though the greatest point of protection would have been allotted to the front of the soldier’s body.
The spiritual application of the breastplate is noteworthy. Paul urges believers to put on the “righteousness which is from God in faith” (Philippians 3:8-9). This type of righteousness cannot be attained by attempts at moral rectitude apart from faith in God. Isaiah 59:17 depicts God as putting on a “breastplate of righteousness” and “garments of vengeance” as He assailed His enemies and those who sought to attack His children. In many respects, to be clothed in righteousness and to stand before God “not condemned but accepted – is an essential defense against an accusing conscience and against the slanderous attacks of the evil one.”
A believer who wholeheartedly depends on God for righteousness and justification in their life will find that the “completeness of pardon for past offense and the integrity of character that belong to the justified life, are woven together into an impenetrable mail.” Paul exhorts the believer to be justified by faith donning the breastplate of righteousness in order to withstand the full “bodily” assault of the enemy.
FEET SHOD WITH THE GOSPEL OF PEACE
Roman soldiers typically wore what was known as a caligae; a half boot used especially for long marches. This type of sandal was normally constructed of tough material with hobnails to increase traction. Wood notes that the “military successes both of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were due in large measure to their armies’ being well shod and thus able to undertake long marches at incredible speed over rough terrain.”
Once again the Apostle Paul hearkens back to the Old Testament in applying the image of the Roman solder to the life of the believer. Isaiah 52:7 declares “how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace.” F. F. Bruce avers that “those who must at all costs stand their ground need to have a secure footing; in the spiritual conflict, this is supplied by the gospel, appropriated and proclaimed.” It is the kerygma of the salvific message of Christ which pushes back the advance of the enemy. The spread of the gospel in obedience to the command of the Great Commission will do the most damage to the plans of Satan. As noted by early church father Theodoret, “your footwear is not put on in order that you may walk about foolishly but to accomplish the course of the gospel.”
Paul also admonishes the believer to a state of “readiness” when donning their spiritual footwear. This denotes a constant stance of alertness to share the gospel signifying that those who are “properly equipped with God’s armor have their feet fitted, prepared and ready in their spiritual warfare.” Furthermore, Paul exhorts believers to stand firm. Typically a phrase denotes a defensive posture, particularly when couched in military language. In this pericope, however, Paul urges believers to press the battle into enemy territory “announcing the promise of divine rescue to captives in the realm of darkness.” An embodiment of this attitude can be observed in the Apostle Peter’s command in First Peter 3:15 to “be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to explain the hope you have.” This demands a constant commitment to the study of God’s word to effectively spread the message of the gospel of peace to a world that increasingly succumbs to the wiles of the devil.
SHIELD OF FAITH
A shield worn by a typical Roman soldier was constructed of wood covered with leather creating a flame retardant mode of protection. This type of shield, called the thereos, was utilized by soldiers who were positioned in the front lines of the battle. The thereos covered the soldier’s entire body and when a row of soldiers stood side by side in battle, they formed a protective phalanx against the flaming arrows that were the typical method of assault used by their enemies. Additionally, as noted by Snodgrass, this type of shield was not used purely for defensive measures “for a line of soldiers with interlocked shields and weapons poised could push right through enemy ranks.”
The importance of the shield of faith cannot be overstated. As with other elements of the armor of God, the metaphor of the shield is also depicted in the Old Testament. A shield is portrayed as the protection of God for His people (Gen. 15:1, Ps. 5:12). Proverbs 30:5 states that God is a “shield to those who take refuge in Him.” O’Brien avers that to take the shield of faith, is to “appropriate the promises of God on our behalf, confident that He will protect us in the midst of the battle.”
Taking up the shield of faith is essential if the believer expects to withstand the “flaming arrows of the evil one.” These flaming arrows represent the vicious attacks inflicted incessantly upon the people of God. The early church fathers believed the flaming arrows referred to “burning lusts and desires…the satanic assaults, sudden and terrible – such suggestions to evil, such unaccountable impulses to doubt or blaspheme…as often distract persons.” By taking up the shield of faith as part of the armor of God, the believer will not only be able to deflect the attack of the enemy, but they will also be able to extinguish to a large extent satanic attack. Of vital importance is for the believer to ensure their faith is not self-contrived. Faith instead must be rooted in God alone. Only by trusting in God’s sovereignty will the Christian be able to resist the enemy and to take up the shield up faith in an offensive rather than strictly defensive posture.
HELMET OF SALVATION
The next piece of equipment Paul refers to is the helmet of salvation. The function of the helmet was the protection of the soldier’s head. The perikephalaia was typically made of bronze with attachments often added to protect the side of the face. Stott notes that “helmets were decorative as well as protective, and some had magnificent plumes or crests.” Helmets often signified rank within the Roman army.
The concept of a helmet is replete throughout scripture. Isaiah 59:17 states that God wears the helmet of salvation thus referring to the bestowing of salvation to His people. In First Thessalonians 5:8 Paul discusses putting on the “hope of salvation as a helmet” that believers will receive at the Parousia while in Ephesians 6:17, the helmet of salvation is viewed as immediately available to the believers. The salvation provided by God has subsumed within it aspects of eternal and present security for the Christian as it is also the only true source of protection against attack both now and eternally. Hodge rightly avers that salvation enables the believer to “hold up his head with confidence and joy.” Perhaps no other element of the armor of God brings such peace to the believer when engaging the enemy. Having confidence in one’s eternal security enables the believer to enter the battle boldly as they “have every reason to be confident of the outcome of the battle.”
SWORD OF THE SPIRIT
The type of sword referred to by Paul is the sword commonly used in close quarter combat. The machaira was a “short two-edged cut-and-thrust sword wielded by the heavily armed legionary.” It was typically carried in a leather sheath attached to the soldiers’ belt and was always at hand ready to be used at a moments notice. MacArthur notes this type of sword was “carried by the soldiers who came to arrest Jesus in the Garden, wielded by Peter when he cut off the ear of the high priest’s salve, and used by Herod’s executioners to put James to death.”
The sword of the spirit is arguably the only strictly offensive weapon mentioned by Paul in his dialogue on the panoply of God. Paul clearly equates the sword of the spirit with the Word of God. The Word of God is the “gospel, or revealed will of God – and to us it is in effect Holy Scriptures, not in any restricted sense, as limited either to its commands or its threatenings.” Christ set the example for the believer on how to properly wield the sword of the spirit. When He was tempted by Satan, it was not an eloquent exposition of thought or keen intellect that enabled Christ to repel Satan’s attacks. Rather it was by utilizing God’s Word that Christ was able to defeat the enemy. Theologian John Allen saliently notes that “as Jesus used the words of Scripture to repulse the tempter, so must the Christian the words the Spirit has inspired to drive away Satan.”
In order to properly wield the sword of the spirit, the Christian must become acutely familiar with God’s Word. Only through knowledge of Scripture can the believer properly utilize this element to attack the enemy. As noted by MacArthur, the “Christian who does not know God’s Word well cannot use it well. Satan will invariably find out where we are ignorant or confused and attack us there. Scripture is not a broadsword to be waved indiscriminately, but a dagger to be used with great precision.” Hebrews 4:12 reveals that when appropriately used “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow.” When brought to bear on the enemy, God’s Word will decimate the enemies’ ranks.
PRAYER FOR THE SAINTS
The Apostle Paul concludes his pericope on spiritual warfare with a reminder to be in an attitude of alertness constantly praying for our fellow believers. Early church father Theodoret reminds Christians that “those who have wars continually pressing on them do not even sleep. Therefore the holy apostle tells them under conditions of battle to keep awake and pray constantly.” Prayer is a vital component of the armor of God and Paul uses the word “all” four times in Ephesians 6:18 to remind the believer of the need to make constant petitions for the saints. Prayer is often one of the most under utilized elements of the Christians’ spiritual repertoire despite the constant admonition in Scripture to pray. First Thessalonians 5:17commands us to “pray without ceasing.” Additionally, James 5:16 states that the “effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much.” Perhaps the most important example for the believer is the dependence which Christ had on prayer. The Gospels are replete with references to Christ spending a copious amount of time in communion with his Father through prayer.
Not only does Paul admonish believers to pray at all times, he also states that believers should pray “with all kinds of prayers and requests.” O’Brien comments that the type of request Paul is referring to is intercession serving to “underscore emphatically the importance in the Christian’s warfare of believing and expectant prayer.” Intercession is to be made not only for our fellow saints but for our spiritual leaders as well. Paul asked the church at Ephesus to keep him in prayer that “whenever I open my mouth, words may be given to me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for whose sake I am an ambassador in chains” (Ephesians 6:19-20). Christians should pray for those whom God has appointed as spiritual leaders so that these individuals may be attuned to the leading of the Holy Spirit as they proclaim the gospel.
Finally, Paul outlines the need for Christians to boldly proclaim the gospel of Christ. Hodge comments that it “becomes the man who is an ambassador of God to speak with boldness, being assured of the truth and importance of the message which he has to deliver.” A battle for the hearts of minds of mankind is being waged. A Christian who effectively wields the power of prayer will be able to not only effectively personally engage the enemy, but, through intercession for fellow soldiers in the faith, enable others through the power of the Holy Spirit to themselves engage the enemy camp.
The spiritual battle which Paul describes in Ephesians 6:10-12 is not meant to be fought from afar. Christians are commanded to be ever ready to put on the complete armor of God and to run to the battle. As noted by theologian Darrell Bock:
“Ephesians is ultimately about how God has powerfully equipped the church to experience blessing in Christ, by creating a new community that is able to honor God and resist the forces of the devil. No longer does one’s Jewish or Gentile identity dominate. They are part of a new, reconciled community, a reconciliation that involves not only God but also one another.”
As believers who are engaged in constant and fierce combat with the forces of evil in this world, we must daily put on the complete armor of God. Our Commander in Chief (God) has provided us with the tools by which we can effectively engage the enemy. As with all manner of weaponry, they are only effective when used properly. Snodgrass suggest that Paul’s words are akin to “speeches from generals motivating their troops for war.” Essentially Paul is motivating believers to do battle with evil through the power of God. This power should be a “continual and relational empowering that results from living in Christ.” It is this relational aspect of the Christian life that permeates the book of Ephesians and it is the foundation by which believers can have confidence that the battle is won.
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