This morning I want to talk to you about spiritual warfare. To which some of you are saying, “Yes! Finally!” And others of you are saying, “Oh I knew we shouldn’t have called a Pentecostal pastor!” When I say “spiritual warfare” almost all of you already have strong opinions about it, either positive or negative. And those opinions are entirely conditioned by the type of church you grew up in, if you grew up in church. If you grew up in theologically conservative churches, you are probably happy that I am finally going to take on the devil. And if you grew up in theologically liberal churches, you are probably afraid that I have finally gone over the edge.
But what I hope is that, because all of you know me pretty well by now, you’re also feeling open and curious and anticipating that I may wind up giving you a different way to think about spiritual warfare. And that is exactly what I’m going to try to do as we wrap up our journey through the book of Ephesians.
Just as a reminder, Ephesus was a powerful center of culture, economics, and religion in the ancient world. It was a stronghold of the Roman empire and the Christians in that city were comprised both of Jesus-following Jews and also Gentiles who formerly followed Roman religion and worshipped the emperor as a god. This hodgepodge of race, sex, and class knew they were citizens of God’s empire but residents of the Roman empire and they were trying to learn how to live in a distinctly Christian way. The book of Ephesians is a letter to that church, full of theology and practical wisdom, written either by the apostle Paul or by one of Paul’s students who was tasked with continuing Paul’s teaching.
There are four big themes in this book.
1. By grace, we belong to God. By God’s free gift, we are adopted into God’s family. Everything we do is in response to what God has already done for us.
2. God plans to unify all people (and everything else) under Christ. Christ demolishes every barrier that we use to keep us separate from people who are different.
3. Resurrection power is at work in us. The very same exact identical power that raised Christ from the dead is also at work in us as individuals and among us as a church.
4. Christ is over all: the head of the church and more powerful than the “powers and principalities.” Christ holds us together, and Christ has authority over every other authority in existence.
The letter begins with big cosmic theological ideas, then narrows down to how we treat our Christian siblings, then how we relate to our own family members. And in the final chapter, it zooms back out to some big issues. Because the chapter labels in our English Bibles are arbitrary and not in the original Greek texts, chapter 6 starts with more household codes, this time addressed to children and slaves. We’re going to skip those this morning, but I will tell you that they also include revolutionary guidelines to fathers and masters.
The good stuff about spiritual warfare begins in verse 10. The author says,
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand.Ephesians 6:10-13
For me, these are the most powerful verses in this whole letter. This is where everything comes together. After we have heard about how to treat one another, how to avoid the temptations of the dark world, but instead expose the darkness, after we have been instructed on how to relate to our own family members, the author reminds us, “Our battle is not against flesh and blood.” If you hear nothing else this morning, my friends, hear this. Because in our world right now, this will change everything.
Our battle is not against other people. It is against the principalities and powers. Let me remind you what that means. For some people, it means literal angels and demons and that’s great. If your brain can’t accept that, this text is still for you. Some really incredible theologians have unpacked these verses in ways that give us other options.
In the ancient world, every earthly institution, or power, or authority, had a corresponding spiritual power. And while some of us may not believe that there are personal spirits in our institutions, we can definitely see that the authority structures in our world have a spiritual energy. Our insitutions, systems, ideologies, corporations, bureaucracies, they have an energy, a spiritual essence, that transcends the individuals who are technically in charge. The structure can drive the choices of the individual in negative ways, even when that person has the best intentions. I know many of you have been in situations where you felt forced to make a choice you didn’t want to make because that’s the way things work.
The problems humans face, the evils in our world have a spiritual energy to them. Racism, consumerism, violence, environmental destruction — these are spiritual problems. And we can’t simply blame them on the moral weakness of individuals. They have a larger and more complicated energy that goes beyond individual choices. There is a deep evil infecting God’s good world.
Which means that if we try to fight individuals, we will lose. People fighting with people is yet another way that the powers have deceived us. If we can be distracted by fighting with each other, blaming each other, sharing memes about the other political party, we will make no progress at all against the deep evil. What is needed is spiritual warfare.
Conservative Christians are very on board with the concept of spiritual warfare, except they don’t aim that energy at structural problems. They aim it at personal problems or group problems. And liberal Christians are on board for battling structural problems, but they don’t connect it with the spiritual framework of the New Testament. The powers are winning again by keeping us from connecting these two perspectives. Spiritual warfare is for tearing down the principalities and powers of evil. We are called and equipped to cast out the devils of injustice. Our conservative siblings can teach us how to tap into God’s enlivening and sustaining power. And our liberal siblings can prophetically declare where we need to direct it. Spiritual warfare is for everyone. In Second Corinthians 10:4 the apostle Paul says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly but powerful through God for the tearing down of strongholds.”
Another way that we are distracted by religious divisions is when we argue whether we should be focused on the social or the personal. In these verses the author blows that apart as well. We have just seen that we are called all together to do battle against the structural evil in our world. But the author goes on to encourage us how to do that as individuals.
Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist when the times are evil, and after you have done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm then! Buckle the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. Strap up your feet in readiness with the Good News of peace. Above all, take up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Receive the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.Ephesians 6:13-17
What are our weapons for this spiritual warfare? First of all remember, that this is written to a community. But since armor is for individuals, I think it’s fine for us to to think about this section each of us for ourselves personally. Often when we look at this section, we focus on the pieces of armor. But I want you to pay attention not just to what type of armor it is or what part of your body is covers. I want you to see what that armor is made of. What are our weapons and what do we use to defend ourselves?
The first thing mentioned is truth. This word means reality as opposed to illusion. We must see things as they really are, being discerning enough to look past the distractions and illusions. We can only be victorious if we are fighting the real problem, and if we are being real about ourselves. Truth.
Next is righteousness. This word also means justice. Our hearts are protected by the knowledge that we have been justified by God and that we are called to do justice in the world. Righteousness.
Then peace. This is the same as the Hebrew word shalom, which means wholeness. The gospel, the good news, God’s message and ours is that all things are being reconciled. For each thing that feels broken inside us and around us, God offers wholeness. Wholeness in us. Wholeness between us. Wholeness around us. Peace.
Then faith. As I am always reminding you, this word means trust. The author says, “Above all these, take the shield of trust.” As the enemy, however you think of the enemy, flings flaming arrows into your life, your trust in God will shield you. It will surround your life and quench those flaming arrows. Faith.
Then salvation. This idea is rooted in Old Testament stories of rescue and healing and victory. We ARE saved. We are already rescued, healed and victorious, and we must guard our minds with this. Many English translations say to “take” the helmet of salvation. That means “take what someone is offering,” so we could more clearly say, “receive” the helmet of salvation. Receive the protection for your mind of the assurance of your rescue, healing, and victory. Salvation.
Finally, the word of God. This is the sword, the only clearly weapon of offense in the armor. When we fight, we fight with God’s words, not ours. We do spiritual battle using God’s message, not our own. This is why our fight can’t be against other people, because God is not speaking a word against people. God is destroying spiritual evil, not humans. And therefore we also cannot destroy humans with our words. We must use God’s words to tear down strongholds. The word of God.
Do you see how the personal gospel and the social gospel fit together? They are not in competition with each other. And if we ignore either one of them, our power to fight is neutralized. We must not disregard structural evil in the quest to present the gospel to individuals. But we also must not overlook individual redemption as we do battle against structural evil. Spiritual warfare is for everyone. We are called and equipped by God to tear down the spiritual strongholds of poverty, of sex trafficking, of systemic racism, of nuclear warfare, of environmental destruction. We are defended by reality, justice, wholeness, trust, rescue, healing and victory. And we have the weapon of the words of God, already spoken against the power of evil. Jesus has brought us together as his community, and the gates of hell will not stand against us. Amen.