Is Spiritual Conflict Real?: guidance from the Apostle Paul

This past weekend at Eastbrook I preached from Matthew 12:22-37, where Jesus is accused of exorcising demons by the power of Satan. You can watch or listen to my message, “The Messiah and Satan,” but the entire episode raises an important question: is spiritual conflict, or spiritual warfare, real?

The Apostle Paul addresses that pretty directly in the last chapter of the book of Ephesians, where he closes out the letter by writing these words:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 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.”(Ephesians 6:10-12)

Paul’s final word to the believers here is that there is a spiritual conflict, and the struggle is real.

So, do I believe in real spiritual forces that stand against God and His people? Absolutely, yes. The Scripture is replete with that idea, from Jesus’ encounters with demons to hints of demonic forces in the book of Daniel and Revelation.

Because of that, we must arm ourselves appropriately for such a struggle by relying upon the strength of the Lord and not our own strength. We all know that our human strength is limited, but that God’s strength is unlimited.

As it says in Psalm 73:26, “My strength and my heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forevermore.” Or as it says in Isaiah 40: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and the young stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”

If we want victory, we must rely on God’s strength.

Paul says that we do this by arming ourselves appropriately in what he terms “the armor of God.” Notice that this armor is made by God and has its source in God. The goal of relying on God’s power and arming ourselves with His armor is so that we can “take our stand.” This tells us something important here: the armor and our role in the conflict is primarily defensive. Paul helps us understand how to defend ourselves against the onslaught of the devil and his forces.

What are those forces? Well, Paul lists out several aspects of them:

  1. they are not flesh and blood
  2. they are rulers and authorities
  3. they are the powers of this dark world
  4. they are spiritual forces in the heavenly places

We are not talking about people here, but about forces running higher and deeper than mere human force. Certainly, we are talking about the devil and spiritual forces. Jesus faced them and the early apostles faced them and we too will we face such demonic powers.

The words of 1 Peter 5:8-9 are still true for us: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

Returning to Ephesians 6, we must also remember that along with the purely spiritual forces against us, Paul also speaks to the reality of other powers at play in the world.

There are kings and rulers of the world, there are social-cultural dynamics, there are hidden powers of sin and injustice that seem to have super-human power within societies and the world. The Ephesians believers lived in a context dominated by worldly living, idolatrous religion, and perverse customs and practices.[1] These, too, Paul says will often stand against us as believers. They are impersonal but often used by personal beings, whether human or demonic, to oppose God’s people.

Sometimes this evil is readily apparent, but at other times “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). This requires even more vigilance. Therefore, the attack comes in ways that might be appealing or enticing or just plain nice to be around. Yet, as Eugene Peterson writes, “Paul is calling us to be alert to the evil that, in fact, looks like the good.”[2]

“Believers,” Paul says, “this struggle is real. See it. Name it. Prepare yourself for it. And stand in the face of it.”


[1] John Henry Jowett, The Whole Armour of God (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1916), 13-15.

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection:  A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 257.

Standing Firm in the Lord: a reflection on Ephesians 6

mountaintop

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Ephesians 6:10-11)

What always captures my attention in these verses is the reality of our conflict and the source of our defense. Paul takes it for granted that the devil has schemes that work against the Christian community. The devil opposes  God and God’s people with efforts that are sometimes straightforward and at other times are wily schemes. As followers of Jesus, we do well to be on alert with watchfulness and ready at all times to take our stand against these attacks, regardless of what form they take.

The source of our defense, though, is not our own watchfulness or steadfastness. Instead, our strength is “in the Lord and in his mighty power.” We clothes ourselves not just with the greatest of human virtues but with “the full armor of God.” Our source is God Himself and the strength that He offers. Our defense is a God-birthed and God-like character of life: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvations, and the word of God. Armed by God to become more like God, we are well-equipped to stand firm in the face of attacks.

To take one’s stand in the face of attacks, particularly the schemes of the devil, is not easy. We all have encountered the power of gossip, falsehood, slander, distortions of truth, and more. These are the mere tip of the iceberg of the devil’s schemes. The moment you give attention to defusing one, another pops up unexpectedly.

It is in facing into these schemes with all their diverse nefariousness that standing firm is both so difficult and so powerful. It should come as no surprise that of all the exhortations Paul offers in Ephesians, this is one that he repeats several times. “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13, emphasis mine). Again, Paul offers a similar exhortation to the church in Corinth because of the power of Christ’s resurrection. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you” (1 Corinthians 15:58a). This is not the immovability of prideful stubbornness, but the persevering steadfastness of humble dependence upon God. When attacks come, and they will, the believer must stand firm in God.

Lord, give us grace today to stand firm in You. Help us not to be surprised by the attacks, but to turn to You for power to persevere. Save us from trust in fading hopes—”chariots or horses”—that often appear so powerful. Instead, we declare that we will “trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7).

A Crash Course in Spiritual Conflict (Ephesians 6:10-24)

Ephesians

This past weekend at Eastbrook, I concluded our series “Ephesians: A Crash Course in Basic Christianity.” I explored Ephesians 6:10-24 through the message: “A Crash Course in Spiritual Conflict.” This is the well-known “armor of God” passage, with a lot of attention to the principalities and powers that we as Christians face in our earthly sojourn.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities for involvement.

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Faith and the Final Vision [Daniel 10-11]

I continued our series on the book of Daniel this past weekend at Eastbrook Church by exploring the final vision Daniel has in the book, found in Daniel 10:1-12:4. In order to walk through this entire passage in one message, I had to pick and choose certain things to focus on, and I chose to give attention to the spiritual conflict that permeates all human conflict upon earth.

Four action steps I offered, which are not included in the outline below are:

  • Seelet God unveil our eyes to have a vision of the spiritual conflict around us
  • Run – knowing our inability and weakness, let us run to God for deliverance, and ultimately to Jesus as our Savior
  • Stand – as trials and difficulties arise, let us learn from the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:10-17 to stand form in God’s strength and armor
  • Pray – only in God’s presence and power will we endure, so may we pray our hearts out in the midst of the conflict

Late in the message, during the point about running to God, I shared a quote by H. C. G. Moule from his Ephesians Studies, which I’m sharing here:

If these revelations of an invisible host around us, bent upon our calamity, do nothing else for us, they may at least render the inestimable service of driving us home, as for our very life, to personal dealings with our Personal Deliverer. He can indeed face for us the dreadful personalities marshaled in the Shadows that surround our life.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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Praying Proactively for Unity [30 Days of Prayer]

Summer of Prayer Ads_Banner“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20-21)

Many of us tend to be reactive in prayer. We pray for provision when our finances get tight or we lose our job. We pray for healing when we arrive at the hospital or experience emotional trauma. We pray for wisdom when we find ourselves at the crossroads of decisions. We respond – or react – to the situations that come our way. This is an entirely appropriate and powerful way to pray. Throughout Scripture, from the early disciples’ prayers when facing arrest to Moses’ prayer before the burning bush, we see people respond to their circumstances with prayer.

But along with this reactive style of prayer we need to learn from Jesus’ approach to prayer in John 17. There, Jesus proactively prays for things that are yet to come. This forward-thinking approach to prayer arises from the fact that Jesus had both the most realistic view of human life and the most active engagement with the divine life of any person that has ever walked the face of the earth. Jesus prays for all who will come and, in this moment, brings the future people of God – even you and me – into God’s holy presence through prayer. Just pause for a moment to consider the reality that Jesus prayed for us. It is amazing.

The focus of Jesus’ prayer was unity among believers. I remember a time when I was on a short-term trip with a group of students and conflict broke out within the group. People were name-calling, tensions were rising, and the leaders on the trip were completely caught off-guard. Of course, our response in the moment was to pray and ask God to heal the rifts and bring us to unity. God did graciously answer our prayer, redirecting the team so that our disunity did not distract from our purpose for being there.

What I learned from that experience is that we should expect the threat of disunity to arise within our life and ministry as believers. Disunity descends because of our sin, human brokenness, past history, and spiritual attack from the evil one. The threat of disunity should not surprise us. Jesus knows this, and so He prays for unity before disunity even has the opportunity to exist.

If we want unity in our relationships – in our church – in churches around our city,  nation and world – then we must pray proactively for God to make us one. We should not wait for divisions to come upon us. Instead, knowing that the possibility of division is always around the corner, we should pray for unity ahead of time.

There is power in such proactive prayer. Jesus understood this and He shows us – even as He prays for us – the importance of bringing things to God ahead of time.

Lord, please make us one
as You are one.
Protect us from the divisions
that the evil one sows into our midst.
Save us from the walls we often raise up
between us and others.
We admit that divisions often come,
and have already come,
and may come in future days.
Forgive us, Lord, for the ways
we contribute to disunity.
Make us more like You:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
  who reign in glorious, Triune unity.

[This post is part of the “30 Days of Prayer” devotional. Read other posts here.]