Sunday Morning Greek Blog

October 12, 2011

Spiritual Warfare in Ephesians

Filed under: Biblical Studies,Ecclesiology,Ephesians,Greek,New Testament,Spiritual Warfare — Scott Stocking @ 7:11 pm

Paul’s letter to the Ephesian believers is a goldmine of theological truth and practical living. Paul writes about our standing in Christ in the first three chapters, and then makes an obvious switch in tone in the final three chapters to speak about how we should live in Christ (there are 40+ imperative verbs in the last three chapters of Ephesians, as opposed to 1 imperative verb in the first three chapters). As I will show in this post, this letter has a very nice overall chiastic structure, numerous patterns of three, and definite subtheme of spiritual warfare. Ephesians is so eminently practical that I used to joke I couldn’t preach a sermon without referencing Ephesians at some point. I have had the NIV text of Ephesians memorized for almost 20 years now, but with the release of the new NIV this year, I guess I’ll have to upgrade my memory!

The Overall Structure of Ephesians

Many scholars and study Bibles have presented various outlines of Ephesians. Watchman Nee, a prominent Brethren preacher in China in the mid 20th century, wrote an excellent treatise on Ephesians called Sit, Walk, Stand. His rough outline is that we have to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn who we are in Christ before we can walk in faith and stand against the powers of darkness. The irony of walking before standing does not escape his treatise either. Several years ago, I discerned the following outline, and this has been my schema for approaching Ephesians.

I.    1:1–14        Introduction and Blessing

II.    1:15–18a    Opening Prayer for Enlightenment

A.    1:18b        The Hope to which he has called you

B.    1:18c        The Riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints

C.    1:19a        His incomparably great Power

III.    1:19b-6:24    The Enlightenment Offered

C.    1:19b–2:10    The Resurrection

B.    2:11–3:21    Coheirs with Israel (2:12, 19; 3:6)

A.    4:1–6:24    Hopeful Living

1.    4:1–16        Life empowered by God’s blessing and grace

2.    4:17–5:21    Life among the pagans

3.    5:22–6:9    Life in your own household

4.    6:10–20    “Life” in the heavenly realms

IV.    6:21–24    Conclusion

Power, Riches, and Hope.

What more could a Christ-follower ask out of one epistle? Power, riches, and hope. But the power of the resurrection actually pervades the epistle in Paul’s characterization of the Christ-follower’s life “in the heavenly realms.” Paul uses that phrase (ἐν τοῖς
ἐπουράνιοις en tois epouraniois, \en toyss eh-pooh-RAH-nee-oyss\) five times in Ephesians (1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; and 6:12). In the opening verses, Paul assures the believers that they, corporately, have the fullness of God’s spiritual blessing for carrying out his will “on earth as it is in heaven.” We know from the next two verses (1:20; 2:6) that the heavenly realms are where we are “seated together” with Christ. Up through chapter 2, then, it appears that “the heavenly realms” is just another expression for heaven itself; but as we will see in chapters 3 and 6, the concept is much broader.

In chapter 3, there are those in the heavenly realms, identified as rulers (ἀρχή archē, \ar KHAY\; you have to clear your throat a bit to say the KH) and authorities (ἐξουσία exousia, \eks ooh SEE ah\), to whom the “church” (ἐκκλησία ekklēsia, \ek klay SEE ah\, God’s “congregation” on earth) is responsible to reveal the mystery of the gospel. This statement makes it rather obvious that the phrase ἐν τοῖς ἐπουράνιοις does not refer to “heaven” (οὐρανός ouranos, \ooh rah NAWSS\) proper, the eternal dwelling place of God’s holy ones. We know everyone in heaven knows about the gospel, but who are those “in the heavenly realms” that need to know about it? Chapter 6 broadens the scope even more: “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.” So the heavenly realms encompass the entire spectrum from good to evil. But again, who are the inhabitants?

Walter Wink and Language of Power in the New Testament

For the answer to that question, I turn to the man who is probably the world’s leading scholar on the language of power in the New Testament, Walter Wink. If you’re not a pacifist, you might have a little trouble swallowing some of his liberal theology, but if you read his works, keep an open mind, because I believe he has profound insight into the concept of spiritual warfare. (I’m becoming more of a pacifist myself as I get older, but I’m not necessarily opposed to all wars.) His Powers trilogy (Naming the Powers, Unmasking the Powers, Engaging the Powers) is nicely condensed into a very readable volume entitled The Powers That Be (from which I will derive most of the material I present here). To put it simply, the powers and authorities of which the Bible speaks are entities created by God as stewards of various institutions in life (material or abstract), but they are also influenced by the people who inhabit those institutions. The powers are in the same boat as we humans, but on a much larger stage. They are, according to Wink (p. 31):

  • Created good;
  • Fallen; and
  • In need of redemption.

I cannot go into the details of Wink’s description of the powers, but in a nutshell they are the spiritual entities that, in a pure state, watch over human institutions for the common good they were designed to fulfill. Families are one example of an institution. Your own immediate family may have one power (akin to a guardian angel in my own thinking, but I’m not sure Wink would agree), but your extended family has another power that “governs” (or perhaps is governed by) the individual family powers. Do you behave differently at home than you do around your grown brothers and sisters? That may be the powers at work.

Businesses and corporations are also institutions influencing and influenced by powers. If you read the mission statements or core values of most corporations, you will see that they ideally exist to further the common good. However, when corrupt individuals begin to exercise wicked influence within a corporate setting, powers begin to take on the nature of the “corporate culture” and may even be or become the culture itself. If an individual bucks or rebels against the prevailing corporate culture, for good or evil, the corporate culture will generally disenfranchise the rebel. Just look at Enron, for example. Much of what happened there perpetuated itself after a while. Whistleblowers are not well liked when calling a corporation to accountability.

On the other hand, when a corporation does something right, it becomes a win-win situation. The Tylenol scare back in the 80s is a perfect example of this. Tylenol was forced to recall millions of dollars worth of product because of some isolated tampering incidents. Even though the incidents were local, Tylenol’s maker recognized the gravity of the safety issues involved and took the loss. Tylenol is still around today, 30 years later, along with its generic competitors. In doing the right thing, they not only set an example for the employees and their families that they care about integrity, but they also sent a powerful message resounding through the corporate world: “Do the right thing no matter the cost.”

Violence and the Powers

Violence also has a powerful influence on the powers, according to Wink. Violence can include anything from yelling and screaming to bribery to the use of deception and deadly force to obtain one’s ends. Violence breeds more violence and establishes a culture of violence. Wink distinguishes between the legitimate use of force to restrain evildoers and violence, which is the “morally illegitimate or excessive use of force” (p. 159). The ultimate goal, in Wink’s view, is nonviolent conflict resolution regardless of the nature or intensity of the conflict. By extension, you can say the same things about sexuality and pornography, gambling, alcohol abuse, and drug abuse. When any of those abuses of the created order become inappropriately prominent in an institutional culture, the culture becomes corrupt and in need of redemption.

Prayer, the Church, and the Powers

So what does all this have to do with you and me? I return to Ephesians 3:10 and 6:12. The body of Christ has the responsibility to work redemptively in the face of corrupt institutions and corrupt culture. Every time Christ-followers share the gospel with unbelievers, they speak not only to the unbelievers but to the powers and authorities that have influence on the unbeliever. Whenever Christ-followers speak out and act peaceably and redemptively against corporate and societal injustices, they send a powerful message to the powers and authorities behind those institutions. In some respects, it may be a numbers game: the more Christ-followers show they care about justice, peace, and redemption, the more influence that has on the powers.

But Wink takes the whole concept one step further by invoking prayer. Regardless of what you think about his general theology, I think Wink hits the nail on the head when it comes to prayer. A couple quotes from his chapter on “Prayer and the Powers” (p. 180ff) make the point: “Prayer is never a private inner act disconnected from day-to-day realities. It is, rather, the interior battlefield where the decisive victory is won before any engagement in the outer world is even possible….Unprotected by prayer, our social activism runs the danger of becoming self-justifying good works” (p. 181). A little later he writes, “The profound truth of this worldview is that everything visible has an invisible or heavenly dimension. Prayer in this worldview is a matter of reversing the flow of fated events from on high to earth, and initiating a new flow from earth to heaven that causes God’s will to be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’…What happens next happens because people pray” (pp. 182–3). So prayer combined with action is at the heart of spiritual warfare. Neither one is sufficient by itself, but of the two, I would argue that prayer is eminently more powerful in opening the doors of opportunity.

Some Examples, Positive and Negative

My brother (who will be back on American soil this week) spent the last year in Afghanistan with his construction unit building infrastructure for the Afghani army. That, in my mind, is a nonviolent means to support the legitimate defense of a sovereign nation. (I’m proud of him and his crew and what they accomplished, and the whole family is anxiously awaiting his return to Omaha.) I taught a course last year in Las Vegas and have a few former students who are working redemptively in the gambling industry. It’s not a concession to the gambling industry, but an opportunity to fight the good fight in the heavenly realms.

On the flip side, Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, has the wrong attitude about spiritual warfare. Whatever one may think about their sincerity, their protests against homosexuality and the military only serve to fuel the violence of the powers. The hate that spews forth from their actions and words comes nowhere close to bringing redemption to the powers in my opinion. In fact, one of the best ways to confront evil is to promote an attitude of love. This doesn’t mean tolerance of sin, but a respect for each person as uniquely human and worthy of respect as a special creation of God. As individual behaviors change, the powers respond. But individual behaviors change not from protests and words of condemnation, but from individual acts of love and service toward one another. If God’s kindness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4), shouldn’t we expect our own kindness to do the same for those within our sphere of influence?

I myself have had experience on both sides. At one time in my ministry, I wrote passionately against homosexuality. But I also came to realize that if I didn’t get out and actually meet and interact with homosexuals, my words would fall on deaf ears, and I’d only be preaching to the choir. When I began to develop some social relationships with homosexuals, I began to see the impact I could have in making a positive presentation of Christianity. It wasn’t that every homosexual with whom I came in contact became a heterosexual, but some did begin to have a positive attitude toward Christianity where there had only been hatred and vitriol before.

The same can be said for a Christian response to abortion. We have a more powerful impact against abortion by supporting a woman through an unplanned pregnancy, helping her to bring the baby to term, than we ever will with all of our protests and (even worse) the vandalism and bombing of abortion clinics or the murder of abortion doctors.

This is why Paul is able to speak so highly of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Love is the ultimate tool (I refuse to call it a weapon) in the fight against sin, evil, and corruption, and at a minimum, it has to happen one person at a time. Love is superior to all other actions, and when we “live a life of love” (Ephesians 5:2), we speak to the redemption of the spiritual forces at work in the heavenly realms.


Spiritual warfare is a topic that has a lot of craziness around it, as well as a lot of well-intentioned but sadly misguided theology. I hope this post has enlightened you on the concept, and I pray that you will recognize the power that you have to speak and act redemptively as warriors in the battle in the heavenly realms. Put on the whole armor of God, and you will be ready to fight the good fight boldly and victoriously.


Scott Stocking


  1. Couple of things, Scott. I think Christians have to be prepared, as Christ was, for love to “seemingly” fail. So, we need to have that ultimate faith to pursue love even when it does bring about the end we hoped for.

    Second, so much is about the attitude of the heart, which only God can judge. If one is using non-violent means to gain the upper hand in some kind of political struggle, isn’t that a kind of manipulation that is faithless? Or, is it possible for “love” to be a weapon? I guess in those circumstances, love is actually some kind of self-righteousness.

    I gotta take a look at that Wink trilogy. Keep up the good thinking!

    Comment by Kristine Christlieb — October 13, 2011 @ 6:51 am | Reply

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Kristine. I agree that nonviolence can be a sort of manipulation, especially when someone wants to boast about it or use it as an “I’m-better-than-you” attitude. Peace to you.

      Comment by Scott Stocking — October 13, 2011 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

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