For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).
As Paul concludes the Ephesian letter, he encourages the brethren to resist the powers of evil through the use of the image of war. This passage has been used and abused ever since!
Paul does well at making clear that our conflict is not against “flesh and blood.” Some of the greatest travesties in human history involve men declaring that they were going out and fighting human wars in the name of Christ. Jesus and the Apostles never validated such conduct. We do not see any command or example that would justify any Christian taking up arms in the name of his faith in order to fight with his fellow man.
When believers in Christ start believing that their conflict is with flesh and blood (and this is by no means limited to actual physical war– it can also refer to conflict with governments, human institutions, and the like), the Enemy wins a double victory. First, since the believers are fighting against the wrong “enemy,” the real enemy– the spiritual forces of darkness– have the upper hand in keeping the souls they’ve won along with gaining a few believers’ souls along the way. Furthermore, by alienating souls from Christ or by killing them, potential recruits for the Lord’s cause are lost. This is a sad state indeed!
Nevertheless, despite the abuse of the image, the idea that we are at war with the spiritual forces of darkness in the heavenly realm is a potent one indeed. When we consider the vast power of our true Enemy, we recognize that we are not going to be able to stand against him alone (cf. Jeremiah 10:23). We are going to need all the help we can get, and that is why Paul encourages believers to be “strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” (Ephesians 6:10). It is only through Christ that we will be able to overcome.
We also recognize that a state of war demands certain perspectives and attitudes. Just as soldiers must be properly trained and equipped for battle, we also must have a proper understanding of God’s word and must wear the armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18). Just as soldiers fighting alongside each other develop bonds that endure for as long as life continues and are far deeper than most can understand in order to stay alive and keep one another alive, so also Christians are to have tight bonds in the faith, working together in order to stay spiritually alive and to keep each other spiritually alive (Hebrews 10:24-25, Galatians 6:1-3). Just as soldiers on the front lines must be constantly vigilant and singlemindedly devoted to the task before them, so Christians are to be vigilant against the schemes of the devil and devoted to God’s purposes (Ephesians 6:10-18, 1 Peter 4:7).
Yet, in the end, this is no ordinary war. We have not been instructed to make some great forward advance against the enemy. Instead, we are charged to “stand firm” (Ephesians 6:11, 13-14). We are to hold our ground– perhaps not to advance, but certainly not to run away!
We see this situation illustrated in the book of Revelation. Jesus encourages the brethren of the seven churches of Asia, providing understanding of the rewards waiting for those who “conquer” (Revelation 2-3). We are allowed to see that a great and mighty beast has arisen to stand against the believers and to persecute them– the Roman Empire (cf. Revelation 13-18). John does not leave us in doubt as to who stands behind this beast, inspiring and empowering him– it is the dragon, Satan, our enemy (Revelation 13:3-5). What were the Christians to do?
Notice that there is no scene in which the believers take up arms and fight the beast. In fact, we do not even see the brethren protesting the beast! Instead, the believers are more concerned to fight the power behind the beast– Satan, the great dragon– and they fight him and overcome him “because because of the blood of the Lamb, and because of the word of their testimony; and they loved not their life even unto death” (Revelation 12:11)! Believers stand firm, trusting in Jesus Christ, holding fast to the message of God, even to the point of death. That is how they fought the spiritual war with the evil one!
Jesus is the one who will come and cast the beast and the dragon into the lake of fire; sure, great armies follow Him, but they follow without weapons, and are spectators for the event (Revelation 19:11-20:10). Jesus will advance and destroy the power of evil; we must stand firm.
Let no one be deceived: we are in the midst of a great and terrible spiritual conflict. It is not a conflict in which we asked to participate, nor would we ever desire to have such a conflict. Nevertheless, the conflict has gone on long before our time and very well may continue long after we have passed on. Let us arise and fight the good fight of faith, keeping in mind with whom we are to fight and with whom we are not to fight (cf. 2 Timothy 4:7). Let us stand firm against the spiritual forces of darkness while doing all that we can to persuade those deceived by those powers to come out and join the Lord’s side. Let us stand firm, holding fast to the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony, doing all things, so that we may have the victory!
Ethan R. Longhenry