10 March 2022

Waging War in the Spirit

Christians wage spiritual “warfare” through right conduct, acts of love, and by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ

Sword - Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash
“Spiritual warfare” is a topic that features prominently in popular preaching. The basic idea is derived from a passage Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus - “Our
wrestling is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powersagainst the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” - [Photo by Ricardo Cruz on Unsplash].

But what exactly did he mean by “spiritual warfare,” and more importantly, how do we war against these spiritual forces? Unfortunately, too often we read his words with little regard to their larger context, and all too easily this results in assumptions that are read into the text. But the passage is NOT disconnected from what has preceded it.

By “wrestling against the principalities and powers,” Paul is not introducing new mystical experiences that Christians must practice so that they may resist the Devil more effectively. Rather, he is concluding all that he has written in the letter to this point before launching into his final salutations and instructions to the church - “Finally…put on the whole armor of God...”

And in his conclusion, he has provided 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 item in the list is described as the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

The structure of the Greek sentence makes it clear that “word of God” refers to the term “sword” rather than “spirit”; that is, the sword wielded by the Spirit is the “word of God.” And in the list of weapons, the “sword” is the only one that can be used offensively when confronting an enemy soldier.

But this description is more accurately translated 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 as a general reference to the “word of God,” in this passage, the distinction is important.

Paul has already listed the “preparation of the gospel of peace.” And by “utterance,” he does not mean words spoken by God Himself or words spoken through the gift of prophecy. Rather, the reference is to the preaching of the gospel. That is, 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 mean “freedom of speech.”

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.” That 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 perceive our fallen state!

But in the church, God has drawn 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 has made both Jews and Gentiles “one new man,” having “dismantled the middle wall of partition between them.” And through Jesus, both now “have access in one Spirit to the Father,” and 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 has now 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 that God has bestowed on His people, Paul then gave a series of exhortations summoning believers to right conduct, interspersed with real-life examples of how they do so. His description of “warfare” with spiritual powers at the end of the letter concludes this section by informing the Ephesians about the true nature of their struggles in everyday life. In other words, his instructions on how Christians should “walk” demonstrated how “spiritual warfare” was to be waged; that is to say, how one resists the Devil.

Thus, we 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, we must “no longer walk as the Gentiles walk in the vanity of their mind.” Truth is “in Jesus,” and if we have been taught by him, we must discard the “old man” and be “renewed in the spirit of our minds.”

And that “new man” has been created “in righteousness and holiness” for good works. Therefore, we must eschew falsehood and only speak truth one with another. We ought to be angry but not sin or otherwise “give place to the devil.” And herein is a clear statement on how we opposed and prevail over satanic forces, the “powers and principalities,” by NOT sinning against one another.

And we succeed at not “giving place to the Devil” by doing positive acts for others. Rather than steal, we ought to “work with our hands that we may have whereof to give to him that is needy.” Satan works to impoverish our brothers and sisters. Resist him by feeding and clothing those who are hungry and naked. Rather than profane speech, speak to one another that which is “good for edifying.” Put away all wrath and bitterness, and instead be “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,” and 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, uncleanness, and covetousness should not even be named among the saints. Instead, let us be “giving thanks” to God for all His graciousness. It is our positive acts for others that defeat the spiritual powers that are arrayed against us. But when we surrender to lust, anger, and greed, those same powers are victorious over us.

We now “live in the light” and must “walk” accordingly by having no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness.” And proper Christian conduct and “spiritual warfare” extend even to the more mundane areas of our lives. 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.” Children should obey their parents, “for this is right” in the Lord. And fathers must not provoke their children, but instead, nurture them “in the chastening and admonition of the Lord.

Rather than get “drunk with wine” as the Gentiles do, Christians are called to be “filled with the Spirit,” and 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 we apply “the whole armor of God,” and in the process, we recognize that the source behind the temptations in our daily 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.

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