“Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might, put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:10,11).
Here then is the controlling concept: a battle in which the believer is necessarily engaged. In order to face the conflict, he is instructed to put on the armor which the LORD God has made available. This has provided the theme of the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers”; Paul encouraged Timothy to suffer hardship as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2Ti 2:3,4).
Principalities and powers in the heavenly places
Putting aside the subject of the armor for the moment, we take note that the contest is against the wiles of the devil. This thought is emphasized in verse 12:
“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.”
The NIV reads:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world, and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
First, we note that this is not a literal battle, for the whole context is metaphorical: the believer is not going to put on any literal armor, nor will he wield any literal sword (v 11).
In our endeavor to understand the apostle’s thought, we must consider the expression “in the heavenly places” (RV), or “in the heavenly realms” (NIV). Here, surely, we must allow Paul to be our guide, for we have already encountered the expression two times in the letter, and at an earlier stage we can note the Lord Jesus himself used the precise expression: “Our Father which art in heaven (literally, ‘in the heavenlies’)” (Matt 6:9). It is the dwelling place of the Almighty God; there His will is sovereign: it is inconceivable there could be any power in heaven to challenge His authority.
With regard to Ephesians, the expression is first found in 1:10, where the apostle speaks of what we may term “God’s cosmic purpose” in Christ: to achieve unity in all parts of God’s dominion. In the case of 1:20,21 the interpretation seems quite straightforward: after raising His Son from the dead, He elevated him to His right hand in heaven and conferred on him supreme authority in His dominion. In 2:6, we the believers have been elevated, with Christ, to sit in the heavenlies (cf Col 3:1-4). If then our new life is secure in the Lord, what demonic force have we to fear in the heavenly places?
Paul himself provides a previous clue, which can all too easily be overlooked. In Ephesians 4:14, Paul warns his readers against becoming a prey to every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error. Now the very word used in 4:14 for “wiles” is precisely that in 6:11. We need therefore look no further to identify the devil. He is none other than those propounding false and subversive doctrine, a theme with which we have been so much concerned in these studies and which is especially prominent in Colossians 2.
If we turn to the Gospels and the Book of Acts, we can better understand this matter. In Matthew 10, the Lord is warning his apostles of the consequences of their allegiance to him: “Be on your guard against men” (v 17). There is no mention of the devil. Throughout the ministry, the Lord made enemies, especially among the Jewish leaders, who at a relatively early stage were plotting his death (see John 5:18). The folk in his own village of Nazareth tried to kill him because he called their attention to God’s goodness to Gentiles (Luke 4:16-29). Particularly with “the wiles of the devil” in mind, we do well to take note of the following passages:
- The Lord issues a special warning, declaring his followers will be brought before rulers and authorities, obviously all human (Luke 21:12).
- Then in Titus 3:1: “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates…” (AV). The Greek is here identical with that in Ephesians 6:12.
All this makes it clear what was the origin of the wiles.
Considering now “the wiles of the devil”, in Matthew 22:15 we learn of the attempt of the Pharisees to “ensnare him”, or “to trap him” (NIV). In the course of the altercation, the Lord said: “Why tempt ye me, you hypocrites?” With what they thought was an unanswerable question, the Sadducees tried to best the Lord (vv 23-28). Undeterred, the Pharisees returned to the attack, with a lawyer “tempting him” (vv 34,35). In all this we can see the devilish mind of men at work.
There is an interesting passage in Acts 4, which echoes the Lord’s words in Luke 21:12 quoted above. Peter and John were arraigned before the highest powers in Jewry (Acts 4:5-7). When they were finally released and they reported to the church, Psalm 2 was spontaneously quoted: “The kings of the earth set themselves in array, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord, and against his Anointed” (v 26).
All this gives us insight into the twisted minds of the Jewish principalities and powers who were attempting to frustrate God’s purpose in the Lord Jesus. That the Jewish orthodox world felt itself threatened, and in a sense dispossessed, is illustrated in Colossians 2. There the context is clear: there were Judaizers in the Lycus valley requiring the practice of the Mosaic law and the worship of angels. Colossians 2:14,15 is not without its difficulties for the expositor.1 However, the subject is manifestly the Lord’s triumph on the cross (note especially v 14). The principalities and powers here were obviously the leaders in the Jewish world and, as we have seen, they fought by all means to frustrate the divine purpose of making eternal salvation accessible to all men who have faith.
Their efforts, however, were in vain, and the great irony lay in the fact that those responsible for the Lord’s crucifixion were unwittingly furthering the divine will. On the occasion of the Lord’s death, the veil of the Temple was rent (Matt 27:51) and the Levitical priesthood was rendered redundant, being superseded by the priesthood of the Lord Jesus (cf Psa 110:4). Subsequently, the Temple was destroyed in AD 70.
To summarize: The wiles against which Paul was warning his readers were particularly the wiles of the Judaizers in the Lycus valley. As for the Colossians and others who knew the Letters to the Colossians and the Ephesians, the battle each had to fight was in his own mind and soul. The chapter, 2 Corinthians 10, is relevant to this view, in that the demonic forces threatening the Colossians were human:
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but mighty before God to the casting down of strong holds” (vv 3,4).
The armor of God
We return now to Ephesians 6, where disciples are told to put on the armor God has provided (v 11). Thus prepared, the disciple can stand his ground and not retreat. The exhortation to stand firm is repeated in verse 14; there we find an indication of the items of armor to be worn by the believer. These include the loins girt with truth (a token of readiness) and the breastplate of righteousness. Unquestionably Paul was thoroughly familiar with the accessories of a Roman soldier, but it does appear he is here drawing on the Old Testament. Apparently, Polybius (vi. 25) gives a full description of Roman armor but, as already suggested, Paul is thinking more in Old Testament terms.
In Isaiah 59 the atmosphere is gloomy: “We look for light, but behold darkness” (v 9). It is in this situation that the LORD provides a warrior, “who puts on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation upon his head” (v 17). Paul’s readers can thus share the armor of their leader, who is the authentic Arm of the LORD.
In verse 15, the disciple’s footwear is indicated: “the preparation of the gospel of peace”. Here, once more, we must go to Isaiah who describes the beauty of the feet of the one who publishes the news of salvation (Isa 52:7).
The same disciple takes into his hand the shield of faith (v 16), affording his whole person protection against all the fiery darts of the wicked. In the present context, we have discovered abundant evidence of the activities of the wicked, who would subvert truth and would seek to seduce the believer. The figure is prominent in the Psalms; we now take note of Psalm 57:4:
“My soul is among lions; I lie among them that are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.”
The Lord Jesus is prophetically portrayed as the supreme bowman in Psalm 45:
“Thine arrows are sharp; the peoples fall under thee; they are in the heart of the king’s enemies” (v 5).
The helmet of salvation (v 17) protects the head, and the sword of the spirit is defined as the word of God. None wielded this sword more effectively, to the chagrin of his enemies, than the Lord Jesus. We have only to think of the exchanges the Lord had with his adversaries during his ministry, especially when they sought to embarrass him, as we have already seen.
The word of God is accessible to each disciple, and it can be an effective weapon in theological discussions. However, any superiority in Bible knowledge should not be a matter of vanity. It is to be used prayerfully, as Paul indicates: “praying always with all prayer and supplication for all saints” (v 18). Prayer is indeed a very important aspect of fellowship, and the prayer life of the apostle, which appears in his letters, is worthy of study in itself. He calls on the recipients of his letter to pray on his behalf, so that he may be a worthy ambassador.
There was much in the apostle’s circumstances to bring discouragement. In any case, he knew prayer could bind disciples together.
In verse 21, Paul mentions his trusted emissary Tychicus who, coming from Rome, would be able to tell others of the latest developments in Paul’s life. Tychicus was one of a band of brothers, whose loving devotion and service to the Lord Jesus was held in the highest esteem by the apostle. He traveled to Jerusalem with Paul and the proceeds of the “Great Collection” (Acts 20:4; cf Tit 3:12; 2Ti 4:12). In connection with Titus, and the tribute given to other fellow-workers, Paul expresses his heartfelt sentiments in these words: “They are the messengers of the churches, and the glory of Christ” (2Co 8:23).
Peace, faith, and grace
The closing words of this fine letter are typical of the apostle: “Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith [cf Gal 5:6], from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v 23). “Peace” (shalom) was the Hebrew salutation. To this Paul adds faith, for it is in total acceptance of the gospel of salvation that God’s purpose of salvation becomes meaningful to a disciple.
Then the final words: “Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in uncorruptness” (v 24). Thus the entire letter to the Ephesians is bracketed by grace (cp 1:2), God’s goodness and love towards men and women. As we often remind ourselves, Paul never ceased to marvel at the grace of the Lord Jesus (cf 1Ti 1:1216). Christ’s love for Paul compelled him throughout his life (2Co 5:14).
We have seen in Ephesians 3:18,19 how the apostle tries to convey the wonder of Christ’s love. “Uncorruptness” is a word associated with God’s gift of immortality, freedom from the corruption to which our present bodies are subject. It is, therefore, something we seek (cf Rom 2:7), and it is to be bestowed on the faithful by the Lord at his Second Coming (1Co 15:53,54). Strikingly, Paul associates the reward of the righteous with our present love for the Lord Jesus. Then we recall that elsewhere the apostle declares, “If anyone does not love the Lord — a curse be on him” (1Co 16:22, NIV). Our love for our Lord must be free from any corruption or taint.
Thus this precious document of the apostolic age reminds us, here and now, that all depends upon our response to God’s grace in Christ Jesus, our Lord.