In the modern materialistic Western world, it’s easy to ignore the spiritual realities of life. There are just so many things to get on with and worry about: relationships, health, family, work, leisure, career, reputation, and so on. With all these concerns, it’s hard to find the time, let alone the motivation, to consider spiritual things. Of course, this isn’t true for everyone in the world. There are many who live their lives conscious of the spiritual realm—but not always in a beneficial way. In fact, there is a lot of fear and anxiety associated with spiritual practices, as people seek to access special transcendent powers or to ward off demonic influences to try to achieve control and peace in their earthly lives. And so, whether we ignore spiritual realities or are deeply conscious of them, anxiety and fear for the future is an ever-present threat.
In the final part of his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul turns to talk directly about spiritual realities. If you’ve been reading Ephesians up to this point, this topic might feel like an awkward gear shift. Just before this point, Paul has been talking about very practical realities of living the Christian life on the ground: how to live as wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters. It might seem odd, then, that Paul suddenly turns to talk about battling spiritual powers. But when we look more closely at what Paul says here, especially in light of what he’s been saying in the rest of his letter, we can see that it makes perfect sense. Paul isn’t saying we should ignore the concerns of everyday life, nor is he suddenly trying to make us curious about special angelic powers or fearful of demons. Rather, Paul is talking here about living our common, ordinary, everyday lives in light of the spiritual reality that is behind it all—the spiritual reality he has already been talking about earlier in his letter. Rather than producing fear and anxiety, what Paul says here gives us a great reason for confidence and joy as we seek to stand in God’s grace:
Finally, be empowered in the Lord and in his mighty strength. Put on the full armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the devil’s schemes: because our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armour of God, so that you may be able to stand your ground in the evil day, and having accomplished everything, to stand.
Do you notice the word “finally”? This spiritual call to arms here is not some new topic. Rather, Paul is here concluding his letter, summing up what he’s said so far, and showing its spiritual significance. He’s reminding his readers of the cosmic dimension of God’s multidimensional wisdom (see Ephesians 3:10). And he’s motivating and inspiring us to live our lives confidently and boldly, knowing our struggles matter to God.
Living as a Christian can be very hard. We need power to do it. That’s why Paul says to “be empowered in the Lord and in his mighty strength”. We need power, but we need to seek this power not in ourselves. Instead, we need to seek it in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul’s encouragement to “be empowered in the Lord” is not a new thought. It’s a reminder of his prayer in Ephesians 3:14–19 that his readers would “be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Ephesians 3:16). Furthermore, the phrase “in his mighty strength” is a direct reference back to Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:15–23 that his readers would “know what is the outstanding greatness of his power towards us believers, according to the activity of his mighty strength” (Ephesians 1:19). Where does this mighty strength come from? Paul goes on: “he enacted this in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:20). Christ is alive and is now in that powerful position of victory at God’s right hand. And for believers in Christ, that power is ours. Paul has assured his readers that “God raised us together with Christ, and seated us together with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” and so we share in Christ’s victory, “so that in the coming ages he could demonstrate the outstanding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6–7). We don’t need to look within ourselves for this power; we simply need to come before the Father in prayer, to remember that this power is ours, and to receive it from his hand. Fundamentally, then, Paul’s words here are an encouragement for us to pray.
And as we pray, we are to use the resources that God has already given us and promises to keep giving us. Paul says: “Put on the full armour of God”. This is a picture of a soldier strapping on the battle armour provided to him by his superiors, so that he might be fully equipped. Paul is encouraging his readers to take up and use the resources we’ve been given through the gospel of Jesus Christ: the truth of the gospel, the righteous life that flows from the gospel, the message of the gospel that brings peace and reconciliation, faith in the gospel that shields us, salvation and the word of God and prayer (see verses 14–18). Paul has already described these resources in many places in Ephesians. And Paul’s point here is that we need not just to understand these things intellectually, but to strap them on, like armour. That’s because they directly help us in our struggle to live for the Lord Jesus Christ day by day.
The struggle is real—and big
This matters, because our daily struggle on the ground has cosmic significance. We are to put on the full armour of God:
so that you may be able to stand against the devil’s schemes: because our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Our earthly struggles are significant because they are actually part of God’s spiritual warfare. As I mentioned above, Paul is not introducing a completely new topic here. Rather, he’s recalling the kinds of issues and struggles in the Christian life that he raised earlier in his letter, and he’s helping his readers to take a cosmic perspective on these struggles. For example, Paul’s phrase “the devil’s schemes” is a reminder of his previous description of the devastating effects of false teaching, making us “sea-tossed and carried around by every wind of teaching by human trickery, by craftiness in lying schemes” (Ephesians 4:14).
When Paul speaks about the true nature of our struggle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world-rulers”, he is pointing back to his description of Christ’s victory over the spiritual powers, “far above all rule and authority and power and lordship, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:21). Paul doesn’t go into detail about who or what kind of spiritual powers he’s talking about. That’s because he’s not interested in making us obsessed with the details of angels and demons. Yes, there really are spiritual powers that are bad, and real, and in league with the devil. But Paul has a much more important point to make here: Christ has triumphed over these spiritual powers. So we too can be confident that Christ’s power will enable us to stand against these powers. When Paul mentions “this darkness”, he is talking about “this age” that occurs before the “one to come” (Ephesians 1:21). In this age, people are living in the “darkness” of rebellion against God and so living lives of futility (see Ephesians 4:18). Christians should not participate in this darkness, but rather expose it through living lives that are good and right and true (see Ephesians 5:8–9; 5:11). As we do this, says Paul, we are actually participating in God’s battle against the spiritual powers of this world.
The mention of “the heavenly places” is also a reminder of Paul’s opening blessing: “Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, in Christ!” (Ephesians 1:3). This should give us great confidence. Even though there are spiritual powers in the “heavenly places”, we who are in Christ have all his blessings and share his triumph over the powers. In Christ, there is no reason at all to be afraid of the spiritual powers. We simply need to strap on the armour he’s provided us with and stand our ground in the blessing Christ has given us.
In other words, as we hear the gospel, as we respond to the gospel by trusting in Jesus Christ, as we seek to live for him in our daily lives, as we struggle against the deceptive teaching that lures us away from Christ, as we struggle to speak the truth in love even though we really want to speak and act for ourselves, as we struggle to remain sexually pure in a dark world, as we struggle against malice and rage, as we struggle to love our spouses in the face of our own selfishness and sin, as we struggle as children to obey our parents or as parents to nourish and teach our children in the Lord in the midst of tiredness and apathy and sickness, as we struggle to be a good worker or a fair boss—as we struggle, these struggles are not just earthly struggles. They are spiritual struggles against spiritual powers. But even though those struggles are hard, and real, Christ is victorious. And we have the strength that comes from prayer and the resources that God has given us in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Stand your ground
So Paul says: “Therefore, take up the full armour of God, so that you may be able to stand your ground on the evil day”. The struggle is, fundamentally, a struggle to stand our ground. It’s not about using our own resources to gain new territory for ourselves. Rather, it’s about using the resources God has already given us, so we can stand firm in the ground that God has already won for us. Christ is risen, and victorious, and has defeated death (Ephesians 1:19–21). Christ will return, in fulfilment of God’s great plan “to sum up all things in Christ: things in heaven and things on earth, in him” (Ephesians 1:10). When he does, it will be glorious, and he will be seen as the victor that he already is. In the meantime, there is a struggle. “The evil day” Paul mentions is the current time we live in, as Paul has already said: “Watch carefully, then, how you walk, not as unwise but as wise people, reclaiming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15–16). In these evil days, when the struggle is particularly hard and the temptation to give in is strong, we should turn to God in prayer, and stand firm in the confidence and security that Christ has won for us.
So, says Paul, even in the daily struggles of life, we need to keep our eyes ahead to the goal: “having accomplished everything, to stand.” Paul is telling us to consider the future, that time when the struggle will be over, and Christ’s victory will be seen for what it truly is. Looking to that future helps us to live in the present. God has given “good works” to his saved people to do: “For we are his product, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God pre-prepared for us to walk in” (Ephesians 2:10). These “works” include both “the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12) and other good works of love and service of others, (e.g. generosity, in Ephesians 4:28). They include the many things that Paul has been spelling out in his letter. As we do these good works, it’s not easy. That’s why we need to remember the goal and keep our eyes ahead, even as we walk and live and struggle day by day.
Paul, in other words, is encouraging his readers to lift our eyes even as we walk on the ground. He wants his readers to remember that our everyday lives and daily struggles have cosmic significance. When we’re tempted to give in or give up, we have this truth to keep us going. As we struggle, we are taking part in God’s great battle—the battle he has, ultimately, already won. This gives us a great reason to be confident and joyful as we stand our ground in God’s grace through Jesus Christ.