The Christian's real enemy
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Eph. 6:12
Who or what is the Christian fighting? In verse 11, Paul warns us against the “wiles [stratagems] of the devil,” and in verse 12 he goes on to say, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” These are just different ways of describing wicked spirits, demons, who operate under the command of the devil, Satan. Paul is saying that this spiritual warfare we are to prepare for is a warfare against this particular foe.
And this is in contrast to “flesh and blood.” In other words, the enemy of the Christian is not the atheist, not the persecutor, not progressive secularist. People are not our enemy. Non-Christians are not our enemy. People of other faiths, like Islam, are not our enemy. And we are not to be fighting them, we are to love them, serve them, and preach the gospel to them. Rather, our enemy, our opponent, our antagonist on the battlefield, are not people but evil spirits.
What does the apostle mean by this? Well, he of course doesn’t mean that people can’t be the source of great evil. There are false prophets, for example, who lead people astray. But what the NT teaches is that people are not the ultimate source of false teaching and false living. Behind every false prophet is a demon or demons, as in 1 Tim. 4:1 - “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils” (see also 2 Cor. 11:13-15). If people hurt us, it is because they are being used by Satan to do so. He is the real enemy. And no wonder, because before our conversion, we ourselves were also servants of the devil (Eph. 2:2). He works in the children of disobedience. That doesn’t take away the responsibility of sinners, but it does point us to our ultimate foe. The reason why the church suffers and is attacked is because there is a devil in this world. He is the accuser of the brethren. He is our enemy.
Which ought to tell us that the goal of standing is to stand against the devil. He wants, above all things, to destroy your faith (cf. Luke 22:31-32). Yes, he can attack you on a physical level, like Job. But the only reason he did that was to get at his faith and to cause him to blaspheme God. So to stand against the wiles of the devil, is to not give in to unbelief, to not give in to the sin that will separate you from God. Think about what the apostle says in 4:27 – “Neither give place to the devil.” In other words, don’t let anger dominate you, because then that becomes a means the devil can use to get a place in your heart and to start turning you against God. He did that with Judas: “the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (Jn. 13:2).
In other words, since the warfare is against spiritual beings, the warfare has as its aim spiritual goals. The goal is to stand against the attacks of the devil so that your faith is intact no matter how often or how hard he levels his assaults against you. The battle the church fights is not a political battle. It is not a battle to win elections. It is a battle to maintain the faith. It is a battle to maintain allegiance to Jesus Christ. It is a battle to win souls for Christ. It is a battle to be holy in an unholy world.
It is why James exhorted his readers this way: “Submit yourselves therefore unto God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (Jm. 4:7). The one who occupies the battlefield at the end of the day is the one who wins. The one who resists the devil is the one who will stand and occupy the battlefield. But it is important to remember that the context of that passage is the battle against worldliness (ver. 1-6). That is one of the ways the devil tries to get at you; by alluring you to be a friend of the world. Resist him, says the apostle. (Peter says something very similar in 1 Pet. 5:8-9). So the apostle draws our attention to a spiritual foe, because that is ultimately the source of our greatest danger. The stakes in this battle are matters of the soul; it is a spiritual battle in which we are engaged and in which we must stand.
Now what does all this imply about how we live out our lives as Christians? Remember that this appeal is grounded in the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ. The overall command here is to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might” (10). But that is not all that he says. We are not only told to be strong in the Lord, we are also told to “put on the whole armor of God” (11), to “take unto the whole armor of God” (12). It is only as we do this that we will be able to “stand” (11) and “withstand” (13).
Here you have two realities that are simultaneously true. One reality is that we can do nothing apart from the power of God. That is the basis of the exhortation to be strong in the Lord. All our power for defense or offense comes from the Lord. In ourselves, we have nothing, no power, and no strength. But on the other hand, we are told to do something. We have to put on the armor of God. We are to stand. These are things that we have to do.
The doctrine of union with Christ does not mean that daily victory over sin is automatic in virtue of our connection with the Lord. What it does mean is that we have been given spiritual life and power, and that it is in virtue of our connection to Jesus Christ that we are now able to fight and stand. So, it is not that God does everything and we do nothing. Nor is it that we do everything and God does nothing. Nor is it that we do some things and the Lord does other things. Rather, the Biblical teaching is that every act of faith is an act in which we act and God acts, simultaneously. So we can’t take credit at the end of the day for our victory over sin, because the power in which we fight and live out the life of faith is all from God, not from us. But neither can we sit back and be okay with doing nothing, for the power of God is operative in the acts of the believing Christian. This is confirmed in many, many texts (cf. Rom. 8:13; 1 Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:12-13).
Now it ought to encourage us that this is the case, for it implies that when we step out on faith, in obedience to our Lord, no matter how hard the task may be to which he is calling us, we can yet be sure that God will empower us to obey. Again, it is not our own strength that will bring us through but the power of God. If the Lord calls you to step out onto the raging sea, you can do so because you serve the one who walks on the waves. We so often falter and are ready to fall down in the evil day because we are focused on our own inabilities and inadequacies. And they are many! We need to be more like Abraham, who “being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah’s womb: he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able to perform” (Rom. 4:19-21). This is the perfect picture of what the apostle is calling us to do. You see, Abraham could not do the first thing to bring about God’s promises to him. Neither can we. And yet, God was calling him to live a life of faith and it was as he lived out that life of faith that God brought his promises to fruition.
This is all possible ultimately because of what Christ did on the cross. Are we called to fight principalities and powers? Very well, we can fight them because Christ has on one level already vanquished them: “blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to the cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:14-15). On the cross, he destroyed “him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver[ed] them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). Christ’s death and resurrection guaranteed the ultimate destruction of Satan. We are fighting him and his legions in the shadow of his defeat and in light of the final victory that we have in Christ. We have therefore every reason to be encouraged. We have every reason to be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. There is no reason why we should not take up the whole armor of God, for the battle is the Lord’s and he never loses. Let us therefore fear not and follow Christ, for he has defeated death, hell, and the grave.