Christians have a dangerous enemy.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul spares no effort in describing the seriousness of our opposition. We don’t wrestle with flesh and blood but against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness (Eph. 6:12). If that sounds scary, it is because it is meant to. The devil is a very real, very powerful opponent, far too powerful for us to take on in our own strength. This is a salutary reminder to people in our Western context, who are inclined to ridicule the idea of a literal devil.
Many find the idea of a cosmic being whom we can’t see, feel, or touch and who promotes evil in this world unthinkable. Of course, the devil in whom they don’t believe is, in their minds, often not the biblical figure but a rather ridiculous image with hooves and horns. Who could seriously believe in that creature? It is convenient for the devil when people don’t believe in his existence. Then he can pursue his nefarious schemes unsuspected and undetected.
Yet who doubts the reality of evil in this universe? Almost everyone agrees that some things are not merely tragic but genuinely evil. Gassing millions of Jews in the death camps of Poland is evil. Press-ganging young African children into an army, getting them high on drugs, and then sending them into battle is evil. Trafficking women in the sex industry is evil. Where does all this evil in the world come from? Man’s natural inhumanity to man hardly seems a sufficient explanation for evil on this scale. Is it possible that there is another factor, a supernatural spiritual dimension, to all of this moral depravity?
If you believe that the universe you see around you is all there is, then you have no rational basis on which to be shocked and outraged at evil. What we call “evil” must then be interpreted simply as an emotional response within us to dangerous things, triggered by evolutionary biology. But the Bible has a richer and deeper explanation for the sad world we find ourselves in, an explanation that allows us to recognize the profound reality of evil and the invisible spiritual forces that lie behind its constant reappearance in different shapes and forms.
The Ephesians to whom Paul was writing were not modern materialists. They were very well aware of the spiritual forces around them, as people in other parts of the world continue to be. Yet even to them, Paul makes a point of highlighting the power of the opposition we face: "We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness" (Eph. 6:12).
Some of the terms that Paul uses here may have been in use in Ephesus as titles for various spiritual beings; Ephesus was a hotbed of occult interest, as Acts 19:18–19 makes clear. To these people, already convinced of Satan’s reality, Paul strongly underlines the power of the opposition that faced them—the same power that faces us. To use Peter’s language, Satan “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).
Christians fight a spiritual battle.
Of course, adding to the imbalance in this wrestling match is the fact that although our opponents are not flesh and blood, we are. We are not principalities and powers or cosmic rulers but ordinary flawed, fallen, flesh-and-blood mortals. You might think that we have no business engaging in this combat; in the language of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it is hobbits against orcs, an unequal contest. Yet this is exactly the battle in which we are engaged. Serving in the Lord’s army is not an option reserved for those particularly devoted to God. The choice is not whether you will be a Christian soldier or a Christian civilian but whether you will be a prepared Christian soldier or an unprepared one. And an unprepared soldier of flesh and blood will not be able to stand against the scale of the spiritual forces ranged against him or her.
What is more, this conflict takes place in the midst of “this darkness.” In many respects, the dark world in which we live is Satan’s playground. There are tempting sights, sounds, and tastes in this world that dazzle and allure us into sin. There is much around us that seems desirable and many powerful temptations that find a ready ally in our flesh. Earthly objects are very real to us, while heavenly realities seem ethereal and intangible. Satan also has centuries of experience as a tempter, knowing exactly which temptations are most likely to draw our individual human nature into sin, whether giving ourselves to a particular form of excess or to a subtle self-exalting pride that flows from a belief in our own righteousness. The powerful combination of the world, the flesh, and the devil is inevitably overwhelming, left to ourselves.
This is why Paul doesn’t merely say, “Bring the armor of God along with you on the off chance that you might need it.” Rather, he says, “You will need it; so put it on.” As a skilled tempter, Satan also knows how to use the difficulty of the combat to his own advantage. As a child, I used to watch the science fiction program Dr. Who. Some of the doctor’s opponents I particularly remember from those early days were the Cybermen. These terrifying bionic creatures loudly proclaimed, “Resistance is useless,” sending me scurrying behind the sofa week after week. In the same way, the devil often seeks to frighten us into submission, shouting at us, “Resistance is useless!” He pretends to even greater power than he has, presenting a particular temptation to us as utterly irresistible. He says to you: “You can’t help yourself. It’s the way you were made. You need this sin to be happy. What is the point of resisting? You know you are going to lose in the end, so you might as well just give in now.”
God arms Christians for the battle.
To combat this strategy, we need to understand the scale of the provision God has given us. Paul’s desire is that we should be able to stand against the schemes of the devil, and to that end he begins by outlining God’s far greater power. Even before he introduces the opposition forces, Paul tells us that we are to be strong in God’s awesome, magnificent power, a power that is beyond compare. The words Paul uses here in Ephesians 6:10 are an echo of the same Greek words that he used in Ephesians 1:19 to describe the power of God that raised up Christ. In other words, the power with which we have been equipped for our struggle against sin and Satan is the very same power that brought Christ back from the dead.
This is not just the power that would be required to raise someone like Lazarus from the dead (see John 11:1–44). Raising the physically dead is no big deal, comparatively speaking. Yet the power of God is great enough to raise Christ from the dead, Jesus Christ who was buried in death under the full weight of God’s wrath against sin—the sin of every one of his people throughout all ages, including you and me. This power of God not only raised Jesus Christ back to life but lifted him to the heavenly realms, so that he is now seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. There is real power, far greater even than the terrifying power ranged against us! The one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world (1 John 4:4).