Every New Testament author references the topic of opposition from a spiritual enemy. The Apostle Paul, in particular, develops the subject. Of his thirteen letters, Ephesians and 2 Corinthians most pointedly address the matter. Of those two, Ephesians lays out the most pervasive treatment.
The epistles of the New Testament, as is the case with all of God’s Word, are not given by God as theological treatises. Certainly, they are rich in theology. But they bring doctrine and the wisdom of God to real life situations encountered by His people. All of God’s Word is pastoral. It is truth applied.
With that in mind, it is appropriate to ask the reason for Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Why does he deal so pointedly with the subject of spiritual opposition?
We could take note of the unique situation of ancient Ephesus. The city was a center of idolatry. It hosted the temple of the goddess Artemis. Though all Asia and the world worshipped (Acts 19:27) Acts 19:28 speaks of Artemis “of the Ephesians,” so conjoined was this false god with the city.
Evidently the people of Ephesus were captivated with the occult. Luke records in Acts a number who “practiced magic arts” (Acts 19:19) and had books related to the subject.
But the area of occult and idolatry does not seem to be the driving concern in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, despite his pervasive treatment of the subject. Rather, Ephesians addresses the Christian life in a more general way. It speaks of sanctification of the individual believer and the role of the church in that sanctification and mission for the sake of Christ’s kingdom.
This suggests that concern for spiritual opposition does not belong to one particular church, in one particular location or one particular era. It is not an isolated, temporary crisis that prompted Paul’s treatment of the subject. Rather, spiritual conflict with a spiritual enemy is normative for Christian life and service. It is something with which we all have to deal, on guard at all times.
The corpus of teaching on the subject of spiritual warfare is spread throughout the New Testament. Insights can be found in the Old Testament as well, beginning with the case study of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 that demonstrates what life on this side of the fall would look like. A full-orbed treatment of the subject must account for all the relevant data.
For our purposes, however, we are going to limit ourselves to the book of Ephesians. We will trace the theme of spiritual warfare as it runs throughout the epistle, concluding in the classic treatment of the subject in Ephesians 6. We will see that the subject in Ephesians 6 does not arise out of the blue, but culminates as a basin into which a growing river of thought empties in practical application. We can divide our handling under seven headings.
Note: Those interested in a more general study of spiritual warfare will find an brief overview in What is Spiritual Warfare? (Basics of the Faith Series). My book, Warfare Witness: Contending With Spiritual Opposition in Everyday Evangelism, addresses evangelism from the perspective of spiritual warfare. A study guide to the book is available under CHOP resources.