The apostle’s final exhortation is both a stirring appeal and a solemn warning. Though it is found in verses 10-20 of the sixth chapter, at the very end of this epistle, it is probably the most well-known of all the verses in this short letter. John Bunyan almost certainly was strongly influenced by the imagery of the apostle here when he wrote his famous book, Pilgrim’s Progress. William Gurnall, the Puritan, wrote over 1000 pages on these verses alone, in a book with an equally long title: The Christian in Complete Armour; A Treatise of the Saints’ War against the Devil: Wherein a Discovery in made of that grand Enemy of God and his People, in his Policies, Power, Seat of his Empire, Wickedness, and chief design he hath against the Saints. A Magazine Opened, From whence the Christian is furnished with Spiritual Arms for the Battle, helped on with his Armour, and taught the use of his Weapon: together with the happy issue of the whole War. When D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached through the book of Ephesians, he preached 26 sermons (of the 232 total!) on these verses. So history has shown that even the most experienced believers have found the instructions in these verses a rich treasure of spiritual refreshment. Throughout the ages, Christians have found spiritual encouragement and strength again and again in this inspired call to arms.
But as we approach these verses, we must begin by asking some fundamental questions. First of all, what is the function of this appeal in the epistle? Where does it find its place in the overall argument of the epistle? Secondly, why the military metaphor? Up to this point, the apostle hasn’t invoked war and combat as a way to illustrate the spiritual struggle. Why now? And thirdly, why frame this combat entirely in terms of a struggle with spiritual forces? We live in a brick and mortar world; why tell believers to fight against beings who inhabit the “heavenly places”? And then, finally, what does this imply about the Christian life and the struggles that we face and how we face them? These are the questions that we want to consider this morning.
First question: What is the function of this appeal in this epistle? It clearly functions as a closing appeal. We see this in the opening word, “Finally, my brethren . . .” (10). But why put it here? There are exhortations all over the epistle; why end on this note?
I think the clue is in the opening exhortation: “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might” (10). From the beginning of this letter, the apostle has several times pointed the believers at Ephesus to the power of God for them. Not just the power of God, mind you, but the power of God which is appropriated for the day-to-day life of faith. Think back to chapter 1; there the apostle encourages them to know “what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places” (1:19-20). In fact, the apostle uses the same words here and in chapter 6 to describe the power of God. And then you have the mention of heavenly places which also shows up in 6:12. So you might think of these two passages as sorts of bookends for the epistle.
And then, right in the middle of the epistle, there it is again: Paul prays that God “would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man” (3:16). Again, we have this prayer for spiritual strength, and the source of this strength is the power of God.
Now this is tied to the overall theme of the epistle, because I think if you could sum up the overall theme of this epistle, it would be in the two words, “in Christ.” The apostle is reminding us of the spiritual blessings that we have in him (cf. 1:3). Everything we have that will bring us to heaven in the end comes in and through the person and work of the Son of God. We do not have eternal life because of who we are or what we have done. We have eternal life because of who Christ is and what he has done. It is an astonishing reality: we have union with God through Christ. And this means that the power of God is now available for every believer. It is not only available, we wouldn’t even be believers apart from the power of God raising us from spiritual death. But the point is that that same power is available to every believer, no matter where they are on the sanctification ladder. We may (and rightly so) feel our weakness and inability, but in Christ we are no longer alone. Yes, without him we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5), but through him we can do all things (Phil. 4:13).
So when the apostle ends this epistle, it should not surprise us that he comes once again to the issue of union with Christ and the result of this union in being empowered with the power of God for daily victory over sin. “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.” Union with Christ is not just an abstract doctrine to be believed and defended and admired. It is to be appropriated in our daily life through faith in Christ. What the apostle is essentially saying is this, that if we really believe the truths of this epistle, if we really believe that we have union with Christ, we are not going to sit down in defeat and gloom and despair. No, rather we are going to stand against all our foes. This epistle has reminded them of what God is doing for them and in them and through them. They are not alone. The grace of God has gone before them in election, was there at the beginning of their spiritual walk in regeneration, and is a constant aid in Christ. He is still able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or think.
In summary, the apostle ends with these words because in doing so he is showing them how to take the great theme of this epistle, the wonderful truth of union with Christ, and put shoe leather on it, how to put it into practice. We live out the reality of being “in Christ” when we are strong in the Lord and in the power of his might, when he face down our spiritual enemies without running or giving up. Show me a Christian who really believes the truths of Ephesians, and I will show you a courageous man or woman. Theology matters, because theology, properly appropriated by faith with humility, puts fire in the bones and courage in the step. So this exhortation is a fitting conclusion to this epistle.
But that brings us to the next question: why the military metaphor? Well, one answer to that question is that this is one of the Prison Epistles, and no doubt as the apostle was under house arrest, he had a lot of opportunity to converse with Roman military personnel. This probably led to a lot of thought on the apostle’s part about how the military and warfare illustrate key realities in the Christian life. Certainly, the apostle uses the metaphor of warfare a lot in his epistles. For example, in writing to Timothy, he says, “Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:3-4). And then, referring to himself, he writes, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
I think next to theology, I enjoy reading military history most. And I think one of the reasons it is so appealing to me is because of this connection between military life and the life of faith. There are so many.
But the question is, exactly how does this military metaphor tie in to the message of this epistle? I think it does so in the following way. In this epistle, the apostle Paul is telling us, in not so many words, that God is building an army. Think back to chapter 2. How are we described? We were dead in sin, unable to take one step toward God, prisoners of lust, of the world, and of the devil. “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved)” (2:4-5). And then, he not only gives us life, but he begins to equip us for battle. First of all, he gives us a new nature, makes us new men and women in Christ (4:20-24). Our allegiance has changed. Once we were the willing servants of Satan and of sin, but now we willingly follow our new Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. Then he equips us, gives us spiritual gifts and builds us up as part of the one body of Christ (4:1-16). Yes, Christ is building a new society, but he is also building an army.
I don’t know about you, but this reminds me of the vision of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37). God takes these dry bones which were scattered all over the place, puts them together, brings sinews and skin upon them, and then breathes life into them. The result? “So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and the lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army” (37:10). That is what the apostle says has happened to the Ephesians. They were once no different, spiritually speaking, from a collection of dry bones. But God has brought live to them and they are now part of “an exceeding great army.”
That is one reason. But there is another reason I think the apostle uses military language in addressing the believer. When we think about the glorious privileges that are ours as men and women who are united to Christ, it is easy sometimes to forget that we are not in heaven yet. It is easy to think that once we are believers that our life should no longer be hard anymore. In particular, it was easy for them to faint at the tribulations the apostle had to experience for the sake of the Ephesians and other believers (cf. Eph. 3:13).
But the reality is that union with Christ, though it is a reality right now, does not make the road to heaven any less hard or any less narrow. It is a road beset with enemies who are determined to bring you down. And that is why the apostle ends on this note. It is a reminder that our salvation does not take away the fact that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We are opposed by an enemy who will fire upon you, fix your position, and being maneuvering on you. And if you are not prepared, you are going to be brought down. You are not going to stand if you are not ready.
And it is hand-to-hand combat that the apostle is preparing them for. That idea is embedded in the word “wrestle” in verse 12. Some commentators have wondered why the apostle didn’t use the word “war” or “battle” instead of “wrestle” there. But the reason is that in the first century, you didn’t defeat your foe unless you engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. The apostle is talking about soldiers who are fully engaged here; they are not sitting back firing missiles from miles away. This is up close and personal. And if you are not prepared, you are not going to come out of that unscathed. So you need to be ready.
In verse 13, the apostle says that we need to “be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” That expression, “the evil day,” is an interesting one. It refers to a specific event in the believer’s life when their faith is under siege and they are on the verge of breaking spiritually. We don’t experience this every day, but we have all experienced times in our life when it is far more difficult than others to keep following Christ, to say no to sin, to push back against the bitterness and unbelief. The apostle is saying that you need to be prepared for that. It will come, if it hasn’t already.
And evil days come even when we have successfully weathered previous evil days. Think about how the devil attacked the Lord. He didn’t come at him at all times. We are told that after the wilderness temptation, “when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season” (Luke 4:13). He attacks, and if he is not successful, he will try again. He may depart, but it will only be for a season. The evil day will return. So we shouldn’t become complacent. You haven’t “done all” (13) just by winning one battle. The devil isn’t finished with you. So you need to be constantly on your guard. You need to be like the builders on the wall of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day, who worked with a tool in one hand and a sword in the other.
So the military metaphor is here to remind us who we are (we are the army of the Lord, and he is our Captain) and what we are doing (we are fighting a war that can be brutal and difficult). Now the difficulty doesn’t mean we should despair, because our Lord has already defeated the forces of evil on the cross. The final victory is sure. And we can stand as long as we are strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. There is no reason for despair, for defeatism. But there is still every reason for caution and preparedness.
But who are we fighting? That brings us to the third question, which was: why frame this combat in terms of fighting spiritual forces? For 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.” Or, I think of what Paul says to the Corinthians: “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves in to the apostles of Christ. And no marvel: for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works” (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 about 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 you 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.
Or think of what Peter said: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9). Here, the idea is that the devil is behind the persecutions God’s people often have to endure. Again, the purpose of this is to overthrow their faith, which is why the apostle exhorts them to resist the devil “steadfast in the faith,” because it was precisely at that point that the battle was engaged.
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? Here I want to come back to the first point we started with; namely, the fact 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.
And it is very important to keep these two things together. For there are some who teach that the essence of the Christian is to “let go and let God.” Now, I agree that we are desperately in need of God and that without him we can do nothing. But you have gone beyond Scripture if you take that to mean that spiritual victory is only won when we simply do nothing and commit the whole battle to God. That is simply not what text teaches! God is not one fighting here; the believer is. It is the believer who is to take the armor and put it on. Why? Because they are going to have to fight! Hand-to-hand! There is no passivity here. If we are going to stand in the evil day, we are going to have to fight, to wrestle with demons!
Now, on the other hand, there are those who give the impression that God is simply waiting for you to do something for him. In other words, it really is up to you. But this mindset is also contradicted by the passage. The overall command here is to be strong in the Lord. Yes, you are to fight, but not in your own strength, but in the strength that God gives.
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 live 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, that 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.