Originating in the 20th Century, Pentecostalism (i.e., Charismatic Christianity) quickly spread throughout the globe, becoming one of the fastest-growing Christian denominations in the 21st century.1 As of 2008, at least 23% of Protestant churches identified as a charismatic congregation, and at least 36% of Catholics in the US fit the charismatic classification, with no sign of the movement slowing down.2 Subsequently, the rise of Pentecostal influence has left numerous Christians perplexed regarding certain supernatural aspects of reality, including the theological significance, teleology, normative operation, and orthodox biblical doctrines relating to spiritual gifts, demonology, and spiritual warfare.3 This article will partially address the issue of spiritual warfare by conducting an exegetical analysis of Ephesians 6:10-204 to specifically examine the armor of God and infer the nature of the battle. Examining the passage intentionally, the careful reader recognizes that spiritual warfare primarily consists of common external and internal impediments to accepting Christian orthodoxy and consistently practicing orthopraxy. Ultimately, such considerations inhibit the Christian’s ability to become imitators of Christ and effectively propagate the Christian message to an unbelieving and hostile world.
Determining the Context
Exercising proper hermeneutical techniques to study Scripture requires us to identify and consider the context of the writing before determining the excerpt’s significance and deriving practical application principles. Scholars generally recognize Ephesians as an authentic Pauline epistle, penned circa AD 61, while imprisoned in Rome.5 Apparently, Paul writes to gentile believers in/around Ephesus—an affluent metropolis representing one of the largest commercial centers in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which is often considered the most important city of the Roman province of Asia.6 Since Paul’s intended audience appears to be large and diverse, it is unsurprising the letter is the most general of all Pauline epistles. While the letter bears no internal unanimity regarding its purpose, it parallels Paul’s previous letter to the Colossians by promulgating a Cosmic Reconciliation in Christ theme.7 Summarizing Ephesians, theologian Peter O’Brien remarks,
Having addressed a specific problem in Colossians, Paul has remodeled his letter for a more general Christian readership. He writes Ephesians to his mainly Gentile Christian readers, for whom he has apostolic responsibilities, with the intention of informing, strengthening, and encouraging them by assuring them of their place within the gracious, saving purpose of God, and urging them to bring their lives into conformity with this divine plan of summing up all things in Christ ([v.]1:10). . . . In other words, the main purpose of his letter is ‘identity formation.’8
Bearing a similar structure to the other Pauline epistles, Ephesians begins with an epistolary salutation (vv. 1:1-2), followed by theological exposition (vv. 1:3-3:19), a doxology (vv. 3:20-21), and doctrinal exhortation (vv. 4:1-6:20), before ending with an epistolary benediction (vv. 6:21-24).9 Accordingly, the passage in question (Ephesians 6:10-20) appears as the concluding segment in Paul’s doctrinal exhortation, representing the final takeaway of his letter before transitioning to his benediction and closing remarks. Having “spoken of the greatness of the purpose of God in Christ, of the glory of his high calling, and the life that should follow from it, the standards have been set. The standards for personal life, for life in the fellowship of the Christian community, and in the more intimate circle of the home.”10 However, Paul still wants “to remind his readers that such a life cannot be lived without a spiritual battle, of whose intensity he has become more and more conscious in his own experience,”11 and this sets the backdrop for the subsequent passage.
Analyzing the Passage
Examining the target passage reveals all Christians find themselves entangled in emblematic warfare, which requires passive assistance from God, in addition to active individual engagement, to attain victory. Masterfully employing this metaphor and leveraging strong military terminology to accentuate the necessity of Christian preparation, Paul writes,
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 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. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
Paul’s first imperative (v. 10) underscores the importance of receiving passive empowerment through one’s union with Christ, requiring the believer to accept such divine strengthening rather than attempting to accomplish the task in isolation.12 Reading Paul’s discourse, it quickly becomes evident that we are intimately (albeit involuntarily) involved in the cosmic hostilities resulting from Satan’s rebellion, thereby becoming targets of demonic attack (v. 11). Accordingly, Paul’s second imperative (v. 11) begins explaining how Christians are to leverage divine empowerment (mainly by equipping themselves with the whole armor of God) to actively participate in offensive and defensive military operations, with the sole intent of overcoming the enemy—Satan.13
Recognizing Satan as our primary opposition, Christians can systematically examine Scripture to identify his modus operandi and deduce enemy tactics, techniques, and procedures we can expect to encounter in our daily spiritual battles.14 Throughout Scripture, Satan exhibits characteristics antithetical to God, being described as the evil (1 John 3:8) Father of Lies (John 8:44) who has managed to deceive the entire world (Revelation 12:9) by blinding people from the truth (2 Corinthians 4:4), portraying depravity as a virtue (2 Corinthians 11:13–15), tempting us to embody unrighteousness (Genesis 3:1; Acts 5:3; John 13:2), alienating us from God (Revelation 12:10), and ultimately taking us captive (2 Timothy 2:25-26) as slaves to sin (John 8:34).15 Consequently, Satan actively seeks to hinder the advancement of Christianity (1 Thessalonians 2:17–18), desiring to render Christians ineffective and revert them to the hopeless state they found themselves before voluntarily accepting Christ’s substitutionary atonement—and subsequently receiving divine spiritual regeneration—a state where the Christian remained a salve to decadent and debaucherous lifestyles (1 Peter 5:8; Ephesians 2:2; Matthew 24:24; Romans 6:15-23). Congruently, Paul’s instruction to don the armor of God parallels his previous directive to discard one’s old humanity and sinful lifestyle in exchange for her new self, created in the likeness of God and exhibiting authentic righteousness and holiness (cf. 4:17-24). Considering the symbolic nature behind each piece of this Christian uniform (vv. 14-17), it becomes apparent that Paul intends to stress our personal identification with God and the resulting harmony between our decisions and His purposes, actively encouraging Christians to embody specific divine characteristics, in the pursuit of becoming God’s imitators (cf. 5:1).16
Having summarized the means of attaining victory, Paul elucidates the battlefield itself, specifying the metaphysical nature of the war requires Christians to compete against rulers, authorities/powers, world/cosmic forces of darkness, and spiritual forces of evil, rather than against human adversaries (v. 12). Moreover, Paul’s use of the word πάλη (translated ‘wrestle’ or ‘struggle’) indicates the battle is entirely dissimilar to contemporary warfare, which utilizes technological innovation to increase standoff distance and lethality, while simultaneously limiting exposure to enemy attack; instead, this spiritual battle requires close quarters engagement and hand-to-hand combat. Metaphorically, Paul gracefully conveys the reality that the Christian’s life involves profound “spiritual warfare of cosmic proportions in which the ultimate opposition to the [advancement] of the gospel and [the consistent embodiment of] moral integrity springs from evil, supernatural powers under the control of the god of this world, [Satan].”17 Considering this battle within the context of Ephesians, Theologian Peter Thomas O’Brien remarks,
Satan tries to gain a foothold and exert his influence over the lives of Christians through uncontrolled anger (v. 4:26) as well as falsehood (v. 4:25), stealing (v. 4:28), unwholesome talk (v. 4:29), indeed any conduct that is characteristic of the ‘old way of life’ (v. 4:22). Further, the evil one is committed to hindering the progress of the gospel and the fulfillment of the divine plan of summing up all things in Christ (v. 1:10). He will attempt by his ‘insidious wiles’ to turn believers aside from pursuing the cause of Christ and achieving this goal.18 Additionally, theologian Klyne Snodgrass astutely recognizes the covert and deceptive nature of such attacks, commenting, “Mention of the ‘schemes’ [v. 11] of the devil reminds us of the trickery and subterfuge by which evil and temptation present themselves in our lives. Evil rarely looks evil until it accomplishes its goal; it gains entrance by appearing attractive, desirable, and perfectly legitimate. It is a baited and camouflaged trap.”19
Maintaining these considerations at the forefront of his mind, Paul reminds us of the importance of passively accepting God’s supernatural assistance and actively donning His armor (v. 13) before comprehensively explaining the metaphor by evoking the image of a well-equipped Roman soldier (vv. 14-17). Here, Paul reinforces the importance of both orthodoxy (signified by truth, salvation, and [knowledge of] the gospel) and orthopraxy (exhibited through righteousness, faith, and [proclamation of]20 the word of God), indicating both are vital aspects in overcoming satanic attacks and furthering the Christian cause.21 Having equipped herself with God’s armor, the Christian is to remain on guard against spiritual attack while simultaneously engaging the enemy through prayer and supplication, as God’s Holy Spirit guides and empowers her prayers (v. 18). Paul uses the word ‘all’ four times within this one verse, indicating prayer is an all-encompassing aspect of the Christian lifestyle that remains at the core of spiritual warfare. Therefore, Paul requests intercessory prayer from his readers, seeking divine empowerment to pronounce the Christian message throughout the ancient world.
Examining Ephesians 6:10-20 by employing sound hermeneutical methodologies allows the reader to recognize that spiritual warfare primarily consists of common external and internal impediments to accepting Christian orthodoxy and consistently practicing orthopraxy. Ultimately, such considerations inhibit the Christian’s ability to become imitators of Christ and effectively propagate the Christian message to an unbelieving and hostile world. Nevertheless, Christians passively receive divine empowerment, allowing them to actively engage in spiritual warfare through prayer and supplication, by maintaining an orthodox worldview, and through consistent orthopraxy—striving to emulate Christ in every aspect of their lives. Although God equips individuals to accomplish these tasks, we must recognize the process does not occur automatically via unconscious assimilation, thereby requiring Christians to study the Scriptures consistently and intentionally, actively participate in prayer, and strive to harmonize our actions and decisions with God’s character and purposes.
- Todd M. Johnson and Gina A. Zurlo, World Christian Encyclopedia, third ed. (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).
- “Is American Christianity Turning Charismatic?” The Barna Group, January 7, 2008, https://www.barna.com/research/is-american-christianity-turning-charismatic/.
- For additional context regarding Spiritual Gifts controversies, see James F. Stitzinger, “Spiritual Gifts: Definitions and Kinds,” The Master's Seminary Journal 14, no. 2 (Fall 2003): 143-176.
- All Scriptural references are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted.
- Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 57.
- Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Ephesus,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 709.
- O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 51-57.
- Ibid., 57.
- Ethelbert W. Bullinger, The Companion Bible: Being the Authorized Version of 1611 with the Structures and Notes, Critical, Explanatory and Suggestive and with 198 Appendixes, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2018), 1759; O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 69; and Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1993), 2.
- Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 175.
- The word, “ἐνδυναμοῦσθε,” translated, “be strong,” means to be enabled or to become rendered more capable or able to complete a task. The context also seems to indicate a continual process of strengthening or a continued reliance on God’s empowerment rather than a one-time event. Cf. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 460–461.
- Interestingly, this verbiage (πανοπλίαν τοῦ θεοῦ) might envision a suit of armor worn by God (since Scripture regularly reveals God as a warrior king and Isaiah 59:17 depicts such armor) or a protective uniform God provides to Christians. Alternatively, the armor might be representative of God Himself. In any event, the context reinforces the notion that God supplies the armor and weaponry, and it remains possible that Paul retained all three images simultaneously in his mind. Nevertheless, Cf. Francis Foulkes, Ephesians: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 176; O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 463.
- One must note, Satan is a finite/contingent being without the benefit of omnipresence, omniscience, or omnipotence. Accordingly, one must recognize the coordinated efforts conducted by multitudes of personal demonic beings working through historical events, human traditions, conventions, legislation, sociopolitical structures, philosophies, and religious institutions to achieve their goal. For example, Matthew 16:21-23 describes an interaction between Jesus and Peter, in which Peter attempts to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem, attempting to save Jesus’ life. Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Peter’s well-indented suggestion comes in the context of an everyday conversation, without any indication of supernatural intervention or mystical occurrence; nevertheless, Jesus attributes the recommendation to Satan since it fundamentally conflicts with God’s plan. In other words, Peter’s thinking (or theological understanding) was errant (i.e., unorthodox), failing to correspond with God’s purposes. Consequently, many references to “Satan” apply to Christian opposition in a general sense (i.e., people, organizations, or circumstances operating under Satan’s command or influence), rather than explicitly adverting to Satan himself.
- It seems that besides overcoming Satan, freeing his captives remains a primary objective in spiritual warfare—a concept that will receive further consideration in subsequent exegetical examinations.
- Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 338–339; O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 462–464.
- O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 466.
- Ibid., 463–464.
- Snodgrass, Ephesians, 339.
- Proclamation of God's word occurs through verbal expression or proclamation (word) and personal conduct or physical action (deed; cf. James 2:14-26).
- For additional details on the doctrinal tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxy, see “Legalism or Cheap Grace? An Exegetical Examination of Romans 7:7-25.”