The Armor of God: A Meditation on Ephesians 6:10–20
We must exercise power in spiritual warfare with great caution, making sure that we exercise it in the right manner and against the right enemy. Here is how.
By George O. Wood
Growing up as a missionary kid in northwestern China, near the Tibetan border, I heard my fair share of stories about the uncanny. One of the most memorable involved my mother, Elizabeth Weidman Wood, her sister, Ruth Weidman Plymire, and a frightening night in a Chinese inn.
Mom and Aunt Ruth had gone to China as single missionaries. Upon their arrival, they enrolled in language school and boarded at a nearby inn. Their room had a Buddhist idol in it. That first night they couldn’t fall asleep. They felt an enormous evil presence in the room. Their bed levitated. The evil presence was so oppressive they could barely speak. Indeed, all they could enunciate was Jesus’ name, but that was enough. The evil presence fled, and the Holy Spirit comforted them.
In modern parlance, Mom and Aunt Ruth experienced a power encounter. Through faith in Jesus Christ, they exorcized an oppressive spirit from their room. The ministries of Jesus (Mark 1:39), the Twelve Apostles (Mark 3:14,15; Acts 5:15,16), and the apostle Paul (Acts 16:16–18; 19:11,12) all included exorcism. And exorcism continues to be part of spiritual warfare today.
But while spiritual warfare involves power encounters, those encounters do not always take the form of exorcism. In Ephesians 6:10–20, the apostle Paul connects power, spiritual warfare, and the development of God dispositions and disciplines.
Ephesians 6:10–20 begins with the word finally. This word indicates that what follows is the culmination of Paul’s teaching so far, not just the last topic in his letter. To understand what he says about spiritual warfare, we need to keep in mind what he has said in the preceding chapters of his letter.
Years ago, Watchman Nee noticed that we can articulate the message of Ephesians in three key words: sit, walk, and stand.
Sit describes “our position in Christ”: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (2:6). Our being seated with Christ at God’s right hand is God’s action, arising out of His “love,” “mercy,” “grace,” and “kindness” (2:4,5,7,8). Just as when you sit on a chair, you place all your weight on it, so when God seats us with Christ, you place all the weight of your salvation on God’s grace.
Walk describes “our life in the world”: “I … urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1, ESV1). Christians are not throne potatoes. Grace does not promote passivity; it enables active obedience to God’s command: “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (2:10, ESV).
Finally, stand describes “our attitude to the enemy”: “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (6:11). The Christian walk is not a walk in the park. Ephesians 6:10–13 makes it clear that the Christian walk is the long, hard slog of battle against evil. And in a battle, the goal is to stand your ground: to fall is defeat, but to stand is victory.
Keeping this sit-walk-stand outline of Ephesians in mind, we see that spiritual warfare, far from being the extraordinary activity of a spiritual elite, is the ordinary life of every Christian whom God has saved by grace, sanctified in obedience, and sent to proclaim the gospel to a lost and dying world. To be a Christian, then, is to be at war.
His Mighty Power
Fighting that war, however — let alone winning it — is far beyond the capacity of human beings. Victory belongs to a power greater than us. This is why Paul exhorts us: “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (6:10). Only God can win this war. Victory belongs to Him — and to us — but only if we are in Him.
The language of divine power pervades Ephesians. Paul prays in Ephesians 1:19,20, that believers might experience God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe.” He says further, “That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.” This power is implicit in 2:6, where the words raised and seated describe our salvation by grace. In 6:10, the verb “be strong” and the phrase “mighty power” echo the words of 1:19,20. Also, Paul prays for believers that God might “strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith” (3:16,17); and that believers “may have power … to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know the love that surpasses knowledge” (3:18,19).
Lord Acton famously observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” His observation does not apply to God, obviously, who combines in himself both absolute power and absolute goodness. But it does apply to sinful human beings, even Christians. As sinners, we are apt to misuse and abuse power, even when we are ostensibly using it in God’s name and for His purposes.
This is why, like Paul, we must always connect the exercise of divine power to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Through His power, God vindicated the life, message, and atoning death of Jesus Christ by raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand in glory. And through His power, God saved us by grace and called us to live a holy life that attains “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). To engage in spiritual warfare, then, is to be filled with the power of love that animated Christ’s ministry. If we have not grasped and do not manifest the width and length and height and breadth of that love, then we have lost the battle.
Consequently, we must exercise power in spiritual warfare with great caution, making sure that we exercise it in the right manner and against the right enemy.
Powers of This Dark World
Ephesians 6:12 identifies the enemy in spiritual warfare: “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.”
There are two elements in this identification:
First, our enemies are not “flesh and blood.” In other words, our enemies are not people. We should never demonize those whom Christ came to save (1 Timothy 1:15; 2:4). No matter how anti-God their belief, no matter how immoral their behavior, no matter how deeply they despise and diligently they attack us, we are not fighting against people. We are fighting for people so that they might be “rescued … from the dominion of darkness and brought … into the kingdom of the Son” (Colossians 1:13), just as we have been.
Second, our enemies are “rulers,” “authorities,” “powers,” and “spiritual forces of evil.” Paul also speaks of “the devil’s schemes” (6:11) and “the evil one” (6:16). We are fighting against the demonic realm.
Demons have disordered personalities. Created to serve God, they instead willfully reject Him. In rejecting Him who is Ultimate Reality, they lose touch with all reality. Their minds are not ordered to truthfulness, and their actions are not ordered to godliness. Jesus teaches that the devil is “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). Peter writes, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Wherever the demonic is present, deception, disobedience, and destruction wreak havoc.
The demonic manifests itself in a number of ways. At the individual level, it manifests as possession, where the demonic controls an individual’s personality. Think of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1–10). Before his exorcism, he was alone, naked, and physically out of control. His name was the name of his possessing demons: “Legion.” After his exorcism, his neighbors saw him “sitting there, dressed and in his right mind.” A Spirit-filled Christian cannot be possessed in this way.
The demonic, however, can manifest in the lives of believers and unbelievers in other ways. Like Jesus himself, people may be “tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1; cf. 6:13; 1 Corinthians 7:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:5). Through unrighteous behavior, especially anger, they can “give the devil a foothold” in their lives (Ephesians 4:27). The demonic can manifest itself as, in Paul’s words, “a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12:7). The purpose here is to cause a person, especially a believer, to doubt the sufficiency of God’s grace for them (12:9).
At the social level, the demonic can manifest itself through institutional systems of deception, disobedience, and destruction. Revelation chapters 12 and 13 speak of three gruesome creatures: “an enormous red dragon” (12:3), “a beast coming out of the sea” (13:1), and “a second beast, coming out of the earth” (13:11). John identifies the dragon as “that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (12:9). The devil gives the first beast “power and his throne and great authority” (13:2). The second beast “made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast” (13:12). Many commentators interpret the beasts as the social institutions of politics and religion, respectively. God created these social institutions to promote human flourishing: “the one in authority is God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4). But just as the demonic brings disorder to the life of an individual, so the demonic brings disorder to the life of a society.
People are not our enemy — not atheists or Muslims, not abortionists or gays. Their unbelief and immorality are anti-God, but God is never antipeople. And neither should we be. Spiritual warfare is the mission God gives us in this age, a mission to disenthrall people from the deceiver and destroyer of their souls. We use God’s power on their behalf. We fight for them.
The Christian’s Armor
When we understand the nature of our enemy, we see why Paul exhorts us to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (6:10). The demonic realm is stronger than we are but not stronger than God. Therefore, Paul exhorts us to “put on the full armor of God” (6:11,13). Only thus arrayed will we be able to “take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (6:11). The armor of God describes the manner in which we are supposed to engage the enemy.
Scholars commonly say that Paul described the armor of God using a Roman soldier’s armor as his inspiration. This is not implausible, for Paul wrote Ephesians from jail (6:20) and was surrounded by Roman soldiers. Paul’s description of the armor, however, alludes to passages in the prophet Isaiah that describe God and His Messiah dressed in similar armor. For example, Isaiah 11:5 says of the Messiah: “Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.” Isaiah 52:7 speaks of the beauty of “the feet of those who bring good news.” And Isaiah 59:17 depicts God putting on “righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head.” In other words, the armor of God is first and foremost His own armor. It is the way He engages in spiritual warfare.
Consequently, as God fits us with His own armor, we engage in spiritual warfare the same way He does. The various pieces of armor Paul lists metaphorically describe moral virtues and missional practices. When we read about “the belt of truth” (6:14), for example, we should focus on “truth,” not “the belt,” which is only a metaphor. The way we fight the devil — the way God fights the devil — is through moral virtues such as truth-telling, righteousness, and faith and through missional practices such as gospel-readiness, salvation-focus, and proclamation of the Word of God.
In other words, the manner of spiritual warfare is as much about who we are (moral virtues) as what we do (missional practices). Fighting demonic powers is not merely a matter of exorcizing them. At best, exorcism is an opening skirmish in the war. To switch metaphors and borrow an image from one of Jesus’ parables (Luke 11:24–26), exorcism chases the devil out of our house, but the goal is not merely to have a house that is “swept clean and put in order.” Rather, the goal is to turn our house into a home where Jesus Christ dwells day in and day out. Christlikeness is the goal of spiritual warfare, the essence of victory, and it comes about only through the ordinary work of evangelism and discipleship.
In my opinion, too many Pentecostals and charismatics get hung up on the exorcism of demonic spirits, whether at the “ground level” of the possession of an individual or the “strategic level” of possession by a “territorial spirit.” They make the further mistake of reducing spiritual warfare to exorcizing, “binding,” and “rebuking” evil spirits. Exorcism is certainly a component of spiritual warfare, if only because some people are possessed by demons. But once they have been delivered, then what? That’s when the long hard slog of spiritual warfare really begins.
No person can grow into Christlikeness without evangelism and discipleship. This is true not only in the passive sense that we ourselves need to be evangelized and discipled. It is also true in the active sense: We need to evangelize and disciple others. To be clothed in God’s armor is to have “your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (6:15). It is to wield “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17). Evangelism and discipleship are the “cutting edge” of spiritual warfare.
Who we are and what we do — moral virtues and missional practices — are mutually dependent and reinforcing. We cannot evangelize someone else with good news that we ourselves have not experienced. We cannot proclaim deliverance from the devil to others if he still has a foothold in our own lives through unrighteous anger. Similarly, we cannot walk in obedience to God’s commandments if we ignore Christ’s final commandment to His followers: “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). As we become Christlike, we do what Christ did. And as we do what Christ did, we become Christlike.
Paul concludes his discussion of spiritual warfare with an exhortation to intercessory prayer: “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” (6:18). He asks for prayer for “all the Lord’s people” (6:18) as well as for “me” (6:19). Specifically, he asks the Ephesians to pray for his evangelistic endeavors: “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (6:19).
This call to prayer is a fitting end to any discussion of spiritual warfare, for three reasons.
First, prayer animates the implements of spiritual warfare. In and of ourselves, we cannot produce moral virtues or missional practices. They are God’s work in us. Prayer opens our hearts to God so He can both sanctify us for himself and empower us for mission.
Second, prayer is a call for God to act. Our power in spiritual warfare is God’s. The armor with which we are fitted out is God’s. To try to engage evil powers without invoking divine aid is a fool’s errand. “The battle is the Lord’s” (1 Samuel 17:47).
But, third, His battle is ours. Because He has given us power, because He has clothed us in His own armor, we can fight and do so fearlessly. In his soul-stirring hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” Martin Luther sized up the devil and wrote:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.”
As my mom and Aunt Ruth discovered one night so long ago, that little word is Jesus. Against the powers of hell, let us go forth fearlessly and conquer in His name (Romans 8:37).
1. I am using the ESV instead of the NIV 2011 in this paragraph because the ESV consistently translates peripatéō as “walk,” while the NIV 2011 inconsistently translates it as “live,” “do,” and “walk.”