When was the last time you prayed against the devil? Or, attributed your physical pain or emotional vexations to a demonic spirit?
If it has been some time (or never), it’s probably because you live in the 21st Century America, where the evils of the world—moral and natural—are explained by biological factors and scientific calculation. But if you lived in 16th Century Europe, it would be a different story.
In the Medieval period, ghosts and goblins, spirits and demons were regularly blamed for spiritual and physical tribulations. In that world, God and the angelic realm were not excluded from visible world. Sovereign over all spirits, God ruled the world and nearly every struggle in life could be connected to spiritual realities. Today, faith in God, especially Christian faith has demystified. Religion is a private affair. And God, in the public square and in the halls of learning, is an unwelcome guest.
As a result, Bible-believing Christians must fight against the prevailing, scientific worldview handed to them by television and education. Whereas leading scientists once gazed into the heavens to worship God, now scientifically-minded man is blind to the enchanted world in which we live. This is not to say we should go back to pre-scientific age of vain superstitions, but as Scripture testifies, we should see that the event on earth are part of God’s cosmic conflict with evil.
This fall, as we remember the Protestant Reformation, the supernatural makeup of the world and the spiritual warfare that the God’s Word invites is but one unified truth we need to recover. As John Calvin commented in his words to King Francis, “When the light shining from on high in a measure shattered his darkness, . . . [Satan] began to shake off his accustomed drowsiness and to take up arms.” Indeed, faithful preaching of God’s Word will be met with spiritual opposition, and thus we who seek to make Christ known must be steeled by the word of God, which is the sword of the Spirit.
For that reason, we come to the book of Ephesians and the faithful examples of the Protestant Reformers.
Martin Luther and the Devil
It was 500 years ago that Martin Luther, an Augustinian Monk with an earned doctorate in theology, nailed 95 theses to the Wittenburg Castle Door. Much like presenting a theological paper at a society of academics, he intended to start an academic discussion about the sale of indulgences. What resulted, however, was the formation of the Protestant Church—a people who recovered a biblical understanding of the gospel and who committed themselves solely to what Scripture taught about Christ, grace, and faith.
At the front of this Reformation, as it would come to be known, was Martin Luther. As every biographer notes, Luther’s conscience was tormented by his sin. He would sometimes confess his sins for hours, literally exhausting the confessors who heard him. And what drove him to such madness? It was the holiness of God and the active presence of the devil in the world.
Indeed, to read Luther’s own works, he was regularly speaking of the devil and speaking to the devil—cursing him, taunting him, and profaning his name. For Luther, spiritual warfare was hardly a symbolic application of Ephesians 6. It was for him, like everyone else in his day, a daily battle. Satan, for the Medieval Christian, was not distant foe. He and his hordes were present throughout the world, and aggressive against the church.
Thus, one of the factors impelling Luther to (re)discover the doctrine of justification by faith alone was the threat of spiritual evil. A threat that perhaps he overestimated in his colorful speech, but clearly something we underestimate in our technological world.
Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians
Enter Ephesians. If any book captures our attention today concerning spiritual warfare, it’s Paul’s prison epistle to the Ephesians. Ephesians 6 is the classic text on spiritual warfare, and one we often remind ourselves when we can’t make sense of troubles in church: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (v. 12).
Indeed, Ephesians 6 is a key passage on spiritual warfare. But in the book of Ephesians, it is only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, if we read the whole book through, we find that spiritual warfare, in the form of Christ’s victory and evil’s attack, is present in every chapter. And thus, as we prepare ourselves to study Ephesians this fall and to see all the glorious Reformation truths it contains, it is worth noticing the cosmic conflict that Ephesians identifies and the way in which Christ, who is seated in the heavenly places, has won and is now winning the battle on earth.
So, by order of the chapters, here are a few evidences of spiritual warfare in Ephesians.
In verse 3, Paul begins with Christ in heavenly places. This will be an important locale for Jesus as Paul moves through the letter (esp. in 1:20–22 and 2:5). In Ephesians, we cannot think of Jesus on the cross, or even on the earth, he is reigning in glory, seated at God’s right hand, with all powers placed under his feet, just like Psalm 110 foretold.
Next, after Paul gives glorious praise to the triune God (vv. 3–14), he prays for the eyes of the Ephesians to be enlightened to see the greatness of the power of God unto those who believe. And where does the believer see this greatness? In the resurrection and heavenly session of Jesus Christ. In other words, when Jesus ascended to the throne in heaven, God placed all “rule and authority and power and dominion . . . in this age and the age to come . . . under his feet.” In short, what verses 1:20–22 teach is that Christ has been exalted over all the spiritual powers and now is bringing his reign into the world. Thus, the first place we see spiritual warfare is in Christ’s enthronement over all creation—seen and unseen (cf. Colossians 1:15–20).
Next, Ephesians 2 speaks of the salvation of sinners, who once were dead in sin and “followed the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (v. 2). This description clearly identifies Satan as the one who once enslaved the Ephesian church (just like all the other sons of disobedience). But now through the gospel of Jesus Christ, these dead man have been made alive in Christ. And as the rest of the chapter unfolds, these dead men have been united to Christ by faith, and united to one another by the same Holy Spirit.
In fact, Ephesians 2 goes so far as to say that from the spiritual graveyards of the world, God is quarrying living stones to fabricate a holy temple where his Spirit will dwell. This temple is founded on Christ as the cornerstone (v. 20), and is growing into the whole world as the gospel is proclaimed (vv. 17, 21).
Clearly, the presence of Satan in this context highlights the warfare of salvation. But so does the temple. In the ancient Near East, temples were what kings constructed after they won great battles. To honor the god or gods who fought for them, they made a temple for them. Often the spoils of war would be employed to make such temples. In fact, in Exodus, that is exactly the pattern we find: After Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt (see Exodus 12:12), he plundered that nation (12:36), and from the silver, gold, and fine clothing of the Egyptians, the people of Israel constructed a tabernacle (see Exodus 25:1–9). Thus, in Ephesians 2 both the presence of Satan and his subsequent defeat identify the warfare theme in this glorious chapter on salvation. (You can read more on this exodus-to-temple pattern here.)
The presence of angelic beings continues in Ephesians 3. In verses 1–13, Paul identifies the wisdom of God in building a temple from Jew and Gentile. In other words, this gathering (= church) is meant to display the wisdom of God. And to whom does it display?—“to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places” (v. 10).
We’ll have to consider whether these are angels of light or angels of darkness, but clearly the church is more than a earthly institution. It is God’s redeemed people, who are presented in the angels, in order to display his heavenly glory.
Ephesians 4 turns the corner from theological foundations to spiritual occupations, namely how a Christian community should conduct itself on the earth, such that it rightly displays the God it serves. But such a turn doesn’t leave Satan behind. In fact, chapter 4 speaks of his defeat, when Psalm 68 is quoted. In verse 8, Paul speaks of Jesus victory over over his enemies: he has plundered their camp (as Psalm 68 describes); he has received gifts from the nations (Psalm 68:18), so that now he can give gift to the church (notice the way Paul changes “receive” to “give” in his quotation).
Thus, in context, Christ’s death has given him the right to plunder every nation (see Ephesians 1:20–22), and give men and women to the church for its upbuilding. This Paul describes in verses 11–16. And then, more specifically, he describes how the church is conduct itself. Now set free from the ways of the Gentiles (4:17), they are not to submit themselves to the ways of Satan. In fact, Paul even identifies the devil again in verse 27, urging fellow believers to walk in the light and not let the devil has an opportunity to deceive Christ’s children.
In this sense, Satan still roams the earth looking for some church or some member(s) of a church to deceive. However, as Ephesians 1–3 assert, he is a defeated foe, who must submit to the Lordship of Christ. Therefore, the church that is filled with the Spirit is armed against his schemes. But the one who persists to walk like the world can easily be destroyed. This is the impetus behind Paul’s instructions in this chapter and the next.
Ephesians 5 continues to give instructions to Christ’s living temple. Paul urges God’s people to walk in holiness, to avoid the darkness, and to make the best use of the time. Importantly, Paul reminds them again of “evil” of this age (v. 16). Though Christ is seated in heavenly places (Ephesians 1:20–22), and his people are seated with him (Ephesians 2:5), on earth the battle yet rages. And therefore, the way of victory is not in self-reliance, but in Spirit-filled worship and mutual submission.
Ephesians 5:22–6:9 explain how to submit to one another and list three separate relationships found in the church. Nothing is said explicitly in this context about Satan, but with the quotation of Genesis 2:24 (Ephesians 5:31), it doesn’t take much to remember who brought division in the first marriage and what tempted Cain to slay his brother. Indeed, nothing in the world has done more to discredit the church of Jesus Christ than sexual sin, brotherly hatred, and the combination unjust authority and disobedient submission. Truly, Satan is not mentioned here. But if Christians do not rightly order their homes and vocations, Satan will have an opportunity for maligning Christ through disobedient or false Christians.
Finally, we come to Ephesians 6, where the famous passage about spiritual warfare is found. In these verses, Paul calls the church to stand against the enemy and to realize the enemy is not flesh and blood. Indeed, it never has been. While Satan uses creation to tempt God’s children, it is spirit of the world, Satan and his demons who are at work to destroy what God loves—namely, the people made in his image.
Praise be to God that Satan cannot succeed. The whole book of Ephesians speaks to the work Christ has done to defeat him. It is finished, Jesus said (John 19:30). And what we experience now, in this evil age, is but the birth pangs of the new creation coming into the world. While Satan continues to work against Christ and his church, he cannot prevail. He may gain minor victories, even many minor victories when local churches fail to understand who they are and what God is calling them to do, but ultimately he cannot unseat Christ or those children of God seated with Christ in heavenly places.
From Ephesus to Us to the World
As Acts 18–19 report, magic arts and spiritual oppression were well known in Ephesus. Thus, when Paul wrote Ephesians, he paid great attention to the spiritual battle engulfing the church. In the days of Martin Luther, the battle was just as fierce. As the light of the gospel broke into Europe, the armies of Satan raged against it. And the same battle continues today. Wherever gospel light shines brightest, Satan and his forces will fight hardest.
Praise be to God, in 1st C. Ephesus, and 16th Century Germany, and 21st C. America, the Spirit of Christ continues to uphold his church and empower his saints. While the clouds of darkness threaten, the risen Christ will not fail. As Martin Luther teaches us to sing,
And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
Therefore, as we remember the gospel recovered in the Reformation, let us remember the spiritual warfare that Luther knew so well. Let us, like him, plant ourselves in the word, and pray for God to grant light to eyes blinded by Satan, so that Christ would redeem his people and build his church. In that way, may Ephesians (and the rest of Scripture) open our eyes to not only see the grace of God, but also the forces of darkness that fight against us.
We do not read Scripture in a demilitarized zone. We read Scripture in the heat of battle. May we not forget that and may we come to Scripture with earnest attention to its message, so that we would be equipped to take its message to the world.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds