10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:10-12 (NRSV)
Many Bible readers have been captivated by the imagery of the “armor of God” in Ephesians 6. However, many of us struggle with the context of the armor imagery in verses 10-12 noted above. Our tendency is to identify enemies in our lives with certain “flesh and blood” people. Yet the real enemies are the powers. The big question is “What are these powers?” I found a very helpful 5-minute answer in this video clip by English Biblical scholar N.T. Wright. What I want to share are some further comments in a broader context.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament recognize the existence of powers or spiritual forces that are not of God. These powers are unleashed in the world precisely because God gives human beings free will and choices. In the first few chapters of Genesis, it becomes obvious that humans quickly start using those choices to exert their own will which is opposed to God.
Having free will or power causes humans to want more power, even the greatest power. This brings humans into rebellion against God who does have the final power. We are part of a people that says, “I want to have my own power. I want that power to benefit myself.” Yet, it doesn’t take long for all of these individual human power centers to realize that when they don’t recognize God in their lives, each of them is struggling with the other to be “number one.” It results in death as we see in the story of Cain killing Abel.
So then, human beings start linking up with others who are most like them in their families, clans, and nations. “My people” are more powerful than “your people,” so you better do what I say. In the ancient world, we see nations being formed. Each nation has a “god” who represents the spiritual power of that group of people. This becomes a form of the playground taunt of children: “My daddy will beat up your daddy.” In this case, it is “My god is more powerful than your god.” And practically speaking, it translates into “Our army is bigger and more powerful and has better weapons than your army.”
So, if you are little tiny rag-tag Israel in the midst of all these nations with their powerful armies, the temptation is great to give a little recognition to their gods. In the ancient world, that generally meant some sort of sacrifice or other worship practice to that nation’s god. It was a way of appeasing a greater power so one could at least have some power. Another way for Israel to cope was taking their smaller army and linking it to another larger army to fight against another even larger and more hostile army. The prophets keep saying that both of these practices are essentially a betrayal, a distrust of Israel’s God, the one true God. Yet, the powers are seductive, and all of them are essentially in rebellion against God.
By the time of the New Testament, those rebellious powers are described in more complex and sophisticated terms. In not recognizing God’s power and God’s will, human beings have given over their individual powers to “rulers…authorities…cosmic powers…spiritual forces of evil… Unpacking the meaning of all of these terms is a large study in itself. Yet, the bottom line is this. We are all under the influence of these powers. Indeed, they are called “powers” because they have power over us. But as children of God in Jesus Christ we are called to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.”
And what is that power? The imagery of military might that follows is turned upside down. We are not to lash out in enforcing our will, but rather withstand the attack and stand firm (Eph. 6:13) Our “weapons” are truth and righteousness, and proclamation of the good news of peace. They are weapons of faith and the ultimate assurance of our salvation. None of these things involve attacking other human beings. Instead, they are about standing firm against the worldly powers to which all of us have a tendency to give in.
The spiritual powers of this world, unleashed by human rebellion (sin) want to sow confusion, chaos, conflict, divisions, and discord into our world. When we align ourselves to these powers whether they be religious or racial, economic or political, ideological or nationalistic, we simply add to their power to destroy us all.
However, if we stand firm in the power of God, bringing Christ’s peace and unity in the midst of the chaos, we will be participating in the true power of God’s love which overcomes all of the rebellious powers.
In my next column, we will discover more about how that happens. N.T. Wright’s video clip will give you a preview.