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.
Ephesians 6:12 ESV
With the word finally of verse 10, the Apostle Paul draws us into the concluding third part of our study through the book of Ephesians, Kingdom War. As I have noted previously, I am making these divisions for our benefit, and we must still remind ourselves that Ephesians stands as one unified whole with each new verse building upon the ones that came before it. We saw this pointedly in Ephesians 4:1, where Paul sought to bring the full force of the gospel from chapters 1-3 onto the exhortations of chapters 4-6. Likewise, as the apostle now peals the spiritual curtain slightly back to expose our present and ongoing conflict, he does so with all the doctrine and commands that he has already written. Or, to say it another way, as we enter Kingdom War, do not think that we have really left behind Kingdom Come or Kingdom Life, for the subjects of Kingdom Life (namely the church and our households) is the battleground for the warfare before us and the doctrines of Kingdom Come give us our strength, comfort, provisions, and equipment for the battle.
As we dive into these final verses, we will find three chief parts: verses 10-13 describe the overall conflict, verses 14-20 describe the various pieces of the armor of God, and verses 21-24 serve as the concluding remarks of the entire letter.
UNDERSTANDING OUR ENEMY
Within verses 10-13, Paul gives us three of commands, two being repeated. He tells us to be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might, to put on the whole armor of God, and to stand firm. Each carries the implication of a fight, conflict, or war within which we are involved, and while we will give great attention to those particular commands in the coming weeks, the apostle also explicitly identifies the enemies that we are to stand against in verses 11-12. Thus, before we before discuss how we are to stand firm and be strong in the Lord, we will strive to better understand the forces of evil in heavenly places that stand against us.
In verse 11, Paul states plainly that we require the strength of the Lord and the armor of God in order to stand against the schemes of the devil. He then explains our enemy further in verse 12, warning, 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 heavenly places. Thus, the questions before us today is simply: who is the devil, who are these rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil, and why must we be wary that they are against us?
The subject of the Satan and his fallen angels (also known as demons) is one ripe with danger. C. S. Lewis has warned of these dangers with great clarity in the preface of his book, The Screwtape Letters:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
Like most errors of extremes, the exposure to one often sends us into the other. For instance, because as I a child I seem to remember hearing of Satan more than sin (whether that is simply my memory or not, I do not know), I tend toward the danger of not giving much consideration of the schemes of the devil at all. Some share a similar experience, while others could say the exact opposite. However, regardless of our previous experiences or thoughts, let us be prepared to come before the Scriptures and submit to their teaching, their reproof, their correction, and their training in righteousness. They alone can properly instruct us on all things pertaining to life and godliness, and they will also teach us correctly about the angelic beings with whom we share the cosmos. Where Scripture speaks, let us hear, and where it is silent, let us also refrain from presumption.
Let us begin by addressing angels in general before we discuss Satan and demons particularly. The word angels literally mean messenger and is, therefore, used for both humans and angels in the Bible, yet what we typically mean by the word are the spiritual beings specifically. From the many glimpses that we see of them in Scripture, they are spirits rather than material (although they can at times be physically seen and take on some sort of physical body). They are also living, conscious, and personal. For comparison, as humans, we are also living, conscious, and personal, but we are material rather than spirits. Animals, however, are living, conscious, and material, but they are not personal creatures. Plants would then be living and material but not conscious or personal. Therefore, when we think of the different types of creatures that God made, we often consider the three classes of conscious creatures: animals, humans, and angels.
Although angels were not made in the image of God as we are, Psalm 8 places humans beneath angels on the creational hierarchy, while having dominion over the animals. Indeed, the glorious and other-worldly nature of angels has resulted in angel worship, which Paul warned the Colossians in 2:18. Even in Revelation 19:9-10, we read of the Apostle John’s encounter with an angel in his vision:
And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
Thus, even John was driven to worship in the presence of the angel, yet the angel quickly corrected the apostle, noting that he is a “fellow servant.” Indeed, probably the greatest reason why we do not know more about angels is because they are never the point themselves. As servants and messengers of the LORD, their appearance is never simply to teach us more about themselves; they come as instruments of God Himself. Consider Gabriel’s various visits and the angelic host before the shepherds from Luke 1-2. The frequency of the angelic activity was not the miracle itself; they were heralds of the marvelous incarnation of God the Son.
But unfortunately, not every angel proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul warned the Galatians that not all angelic messages are necessarily of God, saying, “But even if we [that is, the apostles] or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Because of this verse, I am very much willing to believe that both Mohammad and Joseph Smith receive their religions from angels, although they could only be accursed angels or, as is more commonly called, fallen angels. Revelation 12:7-9 gives the clearest description of this, though we will not get into the weeds of when exactly these events took (or will take?) place:
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
2 Peter and Jude also reference fallen angels, using their irrevocable judgment as an example of the judgment the God will also bring upon false teachers within the church. Furthermore, throughout the Gospels and Acts, we are given numerous examples of these angels’ demonic activity on earth. Liberating the demon-possessed was regular characteristic of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the apostles did the same. However, we should note that nowhere in the epistles are we similarly encouraged to carry out such exorcisms. Instead, the time of Jesus and the apostles should be seen as an occasion of particularly overt spiritual activity.
Yet less overt does not mean non-existent. The work of Satan and his demons is very much an ongoing threat. Consider some of what we are told in the New Testament epistles:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.1 Peter 5:8
Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.James 4:7
And give no opportunity to the devil.Ephesians 4:29
Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.1 Corinthians 7:5
Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.1 John 3:8
We would also do well to remember that Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer taught to pray that we might be delivered from the evil one, that is, Satan. Although this is only a sampling of texts, we should note three things. First, while Satan is not at all omnipotent, omnipresent, nor omniscient, he is powerful, and the work of his demons seems to often be attributed to him. Second, Satan and his demons are still very much active against Christ’s church, even to this day. Third, their workings are generally much less overt than they were in Jesus’ day. Nevertheless, his goal remains the same: sin. All of his efforts and might are bent toward tempting us to disobey God; thus, John noted, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” Indeed, when we refuse to yield to temptation, we will have resisted him and putting him to flight.
Yet similar to Lewis’ warning about belief in demons, we can also fall into opposite but equal dangers regarding their power and danger. We might easily be tempted to either fear or frivolity, and I believe that they are very pleased with either. As we will discuss in a moment, we do not need to fear Satan or his minions now that we are united to Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Even so, we must also not view the devils as if they were no threat at all. One trait of the false teachers that Jude warned against was that they blasphemed “the glorious ones” (Jude 8), which are apparently angelic beings. He then gives a powerful example of the archangel Michael’s behavior against Satan:
But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.” But these people blaspheme all that they do not understand, and they are destroyed by all that they, like unreasoning animals, understand instinctively.Jude 9-10
The point seems to be that these false teachers were speaking foolishly about things that are far greater than them. Unfortunately, it appears that most today do not wrestle with a terrible fear of the demonic but rather think very little about them. Indeed, the secularist climate all about us almost makes us materialists by default. Even as Christians, we may intellectually affirm the existence of angels and demons, yet we do not consider them to have much, if any, influence over our everyday lives. We certainly sing with Luther, “and though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,” but our hearts don’t believe it. In fact, we often take great comfort hiding behind one small word: superstitious. For, you see, that simple word gives us the ultimate power to explain away the uncanny and the supernatural. If we write off the occult as superstition or sorcery as merely drug use, then we can call those sins foolish rather than fiddling with darkness itself.
Please do not misunderstand me. Plenty of Christians certainly have a rather occultic view of the spiritual realm that must be dismantled. We will spend much of the coming weeks pointing out that waging spiritual warfare looks very little like what many would like for it to be. Yet I fear that in our more Reformed-leaning sector of Christianity, we frequently inhabit the opposite extreme. Although Paul explicitly tells us that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, we seem to think very little of this fact.
The enemy against us in this war is not human and not even physical, but they are powerful. Notice again the words that Paul uses to describe Satan and his domain of darkness: rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places. These are lofty descriptions. Powerful descriptions. Frightening descriptions. They do not paint demons as mostly harmless gremlins of mischief but as unseen, though very present, conductors of evil. In fact, I believe the great draw conspiracy theories in general is that we desperately want to believe that there is some sort of grand organization behind all of the evil in the world. We would almost feel relieved simply knowing that evil is not merely senseless but strategic. And Paul confirms that it is. Again, this isn’t to bypass an individual’s responsibility for sin; however, much sin is devised and served on a golden platter by the devils. There is an organization to it all. A concerted darkness stands opposed to the light.
In fact, Daniel 10 gives us a rare glimpse at this very thing. In the third year of King Cyrus of Persia’s reign, the prophet received an angelic visit after three weeks of fasting and mourning. Following his description of the glorious appearance of the angel, Daniel gives us this account:
And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come” (Daniel 10:10-14)
While we do not know if rulers and authorities refer to different ranks of angels, Daniel was given a momentary hint that the true prince of Persia was not Cyrus. We also simply do not know to what extent demons possess authority over nations of the earth, but 1 John 5:19 does tell us that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” Thus, there is truly a dark cabal in positions of power who are against Christ’s church and are actively seeking to mar God’s image upon each human until it is altogether unrecognizable.
Unfortunately, we must save discussing some of the various schemes of the devil for accomplishing this damnable task until next week. My goal, instead, for this sermon is very similar to slogan that preaching should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I pray that our discussion of Satan and his demons gives sobriety to both the skeptical materialist and the fearful or foolish magician. The first group requires a greater realization that our cosmos is not empty but inhabited with mighty spirits, many of whom want nothing less than our eternal damnation. The second group needs the knowledge that these spirits are not under the control of man, and as we read of the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19, even the name of Jesus is not a magical formula for commanding demons. In fact, we should each conclude after reading verse 12’s description of our enemy that (in the words of Gandalf) this foe is beyond any of us. All of our strength and wit is useless in the battle for the very desires of our flesh are their greatest instrument of war against us. What hope, therefore, do we have in this war?
Like when the fellowship met the fiery Balrog in The Lord of the Rings and Gandalf alone could stand between them and it, we too must place our confidence and faith in the strength and triumph of another, and thankfully Paul has already told in Whom our hope is found. Recall that in the final verses of Ephesians 1, the apostle prayed for us to know “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (vv. 19-21).
Notice the similar wording between this and our present passage. Through the immeasurable greatness of the Father’s power and according to His great might (do you see the repetitious emphasis of God’s power?), Christ has been exalted above every rule, authority, power, and dominion, even the cosmic powers over the present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places. They may be mighty, but He is almighty. And as William Gurnall said, “One Almighty is more than all mighties.”
As in Ephesians 1, Paul ties Christ’s triumph paradoxically to His crucifixion in Colossians 2:15, saying, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” What appeared to be the ultimate defeat proved to be the decisive victory of this war. Sin, the only weapon and possession of Satan and his minions, was conquered and the great lie told within the Garden to our father and mother has begun to unravel. Jesus is now fixing everything that we broke, including ourselves, and He has conquered the very one who tempted us into rebellion.
Our hope, therefore, is solely in Christ. He, not us, reigns above all forces, material or spiritual, and possesses the name above all names. He alone has all things placed under His feet. Even still, in the miracle of miracles, Jesus has now been given “as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (1:22-23). Indeed, after saving us from our sins, Paul declared that God has now “raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:6).
Let that reality sink in. Because we are in Christ (chosen, adopted, and forgiven in Him), we are now spiritually seated with Him above all rulers and authorities and cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil. True, they may still kill our bodies, but hear Jesus’ message to the church Smyrna:
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.Revelation 2:10
Because Christ has given us new life in Himself, our living is for the glory of Christ our Lord, and our death is now gain, for when we depart this life, we become fully freed from sin’s clutches. Being sealed with the Holy Spirit, we need no longer fear Satan’s mighty roar because we are securely in Christ. Yet again, none of this is our doing. If even Michael called on the Lord to rebuke Satan, how foolish would we be to stand on our own! Instead, we cling only to Christ, the One who has bound the strong man.
Indeed, perhaps the entire point of this sermon could best be summarized in the words of Luther:
Should we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing.
Were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He,
Lord Sabaoth, His name,
from age to age the same.
And He must win the battle.
 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, ix.
 These fourfold descriptions come from Graham A. Cole, Against the Darkness, 232.