The letter to the Ephesians arrived in a land where magical practices were prevalent. Although the letter may have been intended ultimately as a circular letter, the contents of it held particular power for those who were presumably the original recipients of it, the people of Ephesus and Western Asia Minor. People in these regions well understood the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12), for they lived in a world immersed with such beings whose reality few would deny. The continual threat posed by these powers, and the need to effect some sort of control over them through sorcery, made the words written by Paul in the first chapter of Ephesians-“And God placed all things under his feet”- all the more potent. For those of us studying its contents today, the letter to the Ephesians represents “one of the most concentrated doctrinal epistles that Paul wrote” (Study Guide, p. 4), but the epistle also arrived to a particular people at a specific time and with a purpose beyond just furthering theological doctrine. Although the letter may not have addressed a particular heresy in the church at Ephesus, it spoke to a problem the new Christians in that region faced with language they could well understand. In the western world of the 21st century, that language may be difficult to comprehend; properly grasped, though, it holds a truth and potency for our daily living that can enable Christians to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Eph 4:1)
In Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians, the author, Clinton E. Arnold, attempts to elucidate this potentially confounding language on the basis of the ‘life setting’ of the churches that received the epistle. Arnold contends that the people of this region needed help in developing a Christian perspective on spiritual powers. Many new churches likely came into being in the region surrounding Ephesus following Paul’s two and a half year ministry there. The new converts who populated these churches existed in an environment famous for “magical practices, the renowned Artemis cult, and a variety of other Phrygian mysteries and astrological beliefs.” (Arnold, p. 167) Sorcery and other magical practices flourished primarily as a means of dealing with the demonic powers that surrounded these cults and mystery religions. Luke (Acts 19) records the burning of magical papyri by new converts in Ephesus in response to the demonic encounter with the seven son of Sceva as a measure of their new devotion and the high regard in which the name of Jesus was held. The value of the scrolls, fifty thousand drachma, testifies to the proliferation of magical practices in the city and gives a hint at the fear that characterized people in the region with regard to the demonic powers.
While many converts may have parted ways with magic as a means to control demonic forces, it seems likely, as Arnold contends, that some new Christians would have attempted to conflate their new beliefs with the old. Without a solid understanding of the demonic realm and how their position as followers of Christ related to that realm, it seems all too reasonable that Christians would have been confused in knowing how to respond to the spiritual forces that assailed them. Questions that believers in Western Asia Minor assuredly asked include: How does Christ relate to these powers and does my position as his follower have any impact on the demonic realm? If the reading of the situation in Ephesus and the surrounding area given by Arnold is correct, then it makes perfect sense for Paul to address a letter to them that relates Christ’s power juxtaposed to the powers of this dark world and the accessibility of that power to the believer, as well as instruction in how those two matters effect one’s everyday life.
As Arnold explains, the power-motif is particularly prominent in Ephesians. According to him, there are six main points made with regard to power and ‘the powers’ in the epistle. First, the author of Ephesians asserts the superiority of the power of God and the supremacy of Christ. For those who lived in dread of evil powers whom they had previously tried to manipulate through sorcery, the awareness that Christ sits “far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named” (Eph 1:21) would be particularly reassuring, especially given that this power is now accessible to the believer-Arnold’s second main point. The fact that this power is now made available to the believer is made plain in Ephesians 1:19, where the letter proclaims “the exceeding greatness of his power to usward who believe.” If God held power over all dominions, authorities, and every name that is named, but did not share this power with those who believed in his name, then that would avail the new converts little. Yet, the author of Ephesians confirms to these new believers that they need not fear the spiritual forces working against them because Christ both held authority over them and made that power accessible to those who followed him.
However, the author of Ephesians also makes clear that this power is not available through the same means as the magical power they had used to control the spirits previously. Union with Christ, the one who sits above all power and authority, occurred to such an extent that He could be said to dwell in the believers’ hearts, yet that union occurred through faith (Eph 3:17). Prior means for controlling the powers did not require faith. Magical practices depended on some sort of “prescribed formula” (Arnold, pg. 169) that guaranteed results. Faith provides both the means through which salvation occurs (Eph 2:8) and one of the primary means for resisting the continuing attacks of the dark powers (Eph 6:16).
Furthermore, the epistle highlights a change in perspective toward the “powers” that continued to haunt them. He affirms the existence of an “evil spiritual order” (Arnold, p. 170) headed by “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2). This head of the forces of darkness works among those in the pagan world, leading them into disobedience and sin. All of the powers the new believers in Ephesus had contact with previously actually belong to this evil spiritual order, even those seen previously as helpful. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God” (1 Cor 10:20), he also makes clear in this epistle through the particular terminology employed in Eph 6:12 (Arnold, p 67). The new believers, then, had clear instruction on how to regard the “powers” they had formally held in relatively high esteem, such as Artemis of the Ephesians; they were among the dark forces of the spiritual world.
In addition to shedding new light on these “powers”, the epistle also teaches the believer how to respond to them. Eph 6:10-20 confirms that the forces of this dark world are attempting to reassert their control over believers, but it does not leave them defenseless against the onslaught. Rather, it shows them the weapons of warfare they can employ to combat these attacks. Thus, the epistle shows the superior might of God, explains that it is accessible to believers, and teaches how to appropriate that power to take a stand against the forces of evil that they well knew assailed them. Arnold contends that this stand is both static and dynamic. Believers should both repel assaults when they come and aggressively gain new ground held currently by the enemy. Still, “victory over the ‘powers’ is not assured apart from the appropriation of the power of God” (Arnold, p. 121). In making this implicit contention, the author of Ephesians both emphasizes the seriousness of the battle they face while highlighting their dependence on the power of God, as well as its sufficiency for the task.
However, while the power at their disposal is sufficient for the warfare in which they are engaged, the purpose of this power differs from that of the magical power they had previously employed. According to Arnold, whereas the supernatural power available through magical practices had the individual in view, God’s power had others in view. Paul’s prayer that the believer might be “strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man” (Eph 3:16) had as its purpose his injunction to “walk in love” (Eph 5:2). Not only are we commanded to walk in love, but to love “as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). As Arnold rightly contends, this kind of loves requires divine strengthening for its fulfillment. That same love also serves as the basis for the ethical instruction of the epistle, chapters 4-6. “Rooted and grounded in love” (Eph 3:17), the believer will be able to speak the truth in love (4:15), speak only words of edification (4:19), give to those in need (4:28), and submit to one another in fear of God (5:21). Thus, the divine strength at their disposal served not solely to benefit the individual in his battle against the demonic forces arrayed against him, but to love others after the manner of Christ and to proclaim the gospel boldly (6:20) and in love.
Based on the argument above, it appears that the letter to Ephesians addressed a general situation present in Western Asia Minor at the time of its writing. The discussion of powers and the contrast of these “powers” to the might and love of God held particular importance for the original recipients of the epistle who lived of fear of demonic powers.
However, it would be remiss of us to think that the teaching contained in Ephesians applies solely to the life setting of those living in Western Asian Minor in the 1st century A.D. While nearly all would agree that many of the ethical and moral imperatives contained in chapters 4-6 apply universally, much of the discussion of “powers” and spiritual forces of darkness loses some of its impact in the western world of the 21st century. To the people living in Ephesus at the time of the epistle’s writing, the demonic forces were very real beings and not some sort of “spiritual atmosphere” that, according to Arnold, some commentators have contended. For contemporary Christians, the temptation may exist to similarly demythologize the demonic forces discussed in Ephesians as mere symbolic representations of sin and flesh. To many of us, the spiritual world is difficult to comprehend in light of the materialist philosophy that invades modern thinking, but Scriptures contains truths that we need to grasp and confront despite the habits of thought that have been ingrained in us.
The Bondage Breaker by Neil T. Anderson provides insight into, as well as instruction about, the spiritual conflicts that Christians today undergo. As the author argues, “God’s people wrestling against dark spiritual forces is not a first-century phenomenon, nor is it an option for the Christian today; it’s unavoidable” (Anderson, p. 19). Some today believe that demonic activity as described in Scripture can be more accurately described as ‘mental illness’, but such conclusions ignore the spiritual world described in Scripture and cling to secular opinion as if that held more weight.
Even among those who do believe in demonic activity, some in the Christian community think that believers are not subject to demonic oppression. Sadly, such a belief disregards Ephesians 6:10-20, which describes the battles Christians fight with the evil forces of the spiritual world. Anderson also argues that modern day Christians too often see demonic activity only in extreme behavior and gross sin, whereas he contends that Satanic influence occurs in more subtle ways, particularly with regard to deception. As he says, “It is not the few raving demoniacs which are causing the church to be ineffective, but Satan’s subtle deception and intrusion into the lives of ‘normal’ believers” (Anderson, p. 22). If we ignore this very active and real role of Satan in our lives and in the lives of other Christians today, we open ourselves up to the deception the devil seeks to instill in us.
Unfortunately, many Christians do not understand how Satan wages war against Christians, nor do they know how to fight it. The primary means the devil uses to fight against Christians is deception, according to Anderson. He adapts his biblically stated role as the accuser of the brethren (Rev 12:10) and as the father of lies (John 8:44) to incapacitate the Christian. Thus, the loinbelt of truth, which holds the other pieces of armor and weaponry in place, becomes centrally important. Indeed, the other weapons at our disposal for fighting against the enemy can be seen as elements of truth, including the breastplate of righteousness, which assures us that we are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus, the helmet of salvation, which tells us that we need not fear falling from God’s grace simply because we lost a spiritual battle, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the very word of God. When Satan comes us at us with the lie that “we’re not good enough to be Christians”, we can deflect that deception with the truth that our righteousness comes not from ourselves but from God. If we speak that truth aloud, then we have successfully employed the sword of the Spirit against the enemy. Should Satan come at us with the notion that because we have sinned God has erased our names from the book of life, we can repel that attack with the truth that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) Such a defense uses both the shield of faith, which involves trusting God’s word, and the helmet of salvation, which assures us that God actively seeks to forgive us our sins. As Anderson argues, it is not physical strength that gives us success in spiritual warfare, but the Lord’s strength, given to us through His Spirit and in His Word.
Many Christians are not trained in how to fight these types of battles. Whether it comes from lack of adequate training in the Word or from confusion regarding the spiritual world, many believers succumb to the enemy in spiritual battles. When thoughts of inadequacy, fear of losing salvation over individual sins, or doubts about the love of God creep into our minds, we often do not consider that these may be spiritual attacks of the enemy. If we consider assaults from Satan at all, we may think of bizarre behavior and obviously mental disorders. Likewise, we tend to think that an outside agent is necessary in such cases, someone who rebukes the demon and sets the person free from bondage. Yet, as Anderson argues, and as Ephesians itself implies, it is not specially appointed representatives of God who are empowered to set the captives free but the individual believer. Though many Christians in the western world may not know that the spiritual world is active and impacts our daily lives, Scriptures clearly indicates that it does and that we are empowered to wage war against the evil side of the spiritual realm.
While some Christians may debate the influence of the spiritual world in everyday events or ignore its existence completely, others in the western world are actively dabbling in it. For example, Anderson reports that a New Age conference near the university at which he teaches a New Age leader asked his listeners to envision a spirit guide next to them and to invite the spirit guide in. As he puts it, “the devil [was] giving altar calls two blocks from Biola University” (p. 28) by asking people to invite demons into their lives. Other evidence of this increasing incursion into the spiritual world by those without Christian teaching in the matter include the growing acceptance of channeling, astrology, Tarot cards, and witchcraft. Most of these are associated to some extent with the New Age movement, which one writer claims “became popular during the 1970's as a reaction against what some perceived as the failure of Christianity and the failure of Secular Humanism to provide spiritual and ethical guidance for the future.” (New) It would be remiss of us to consider the New Age the only movement toward spirituality outside the bounds of Christianity, but it seems that if Christians neglect the spiritual world described so clearly in Scripture, it misses its calling and runs the risk of inadvertently driving people to seek other sources of spiritual nourishment that in fact come not from heaven but from hell. The instruction so evident in Ephesians has an increasing degree of importance as people continue to dabble with the same spiritual powers of darkness with which the people in Western Asia Minor struggled.
In this context, though, it must be noted that an awareness of the spiritual realm does not constitute an in-depth knowledge of its function. Arnold asserts that the discussion of the dark powers of the spiritual world present in Ephesians does not involve detailed description of the origin, hierarchical order, or specific functions of the “powers” as is present in the Jewish apocalyptic literature. Instead it has “the pastoral intention of explaining (a) where Christ stands in relation to the powers and (b) where the believer stands in relation to the “powers”, both in terms of the past life and the life now experienced in Christ.” (Arnold, p. 69) As Anderson argues, the people who must know how to distinguish between counterfeit and real bills do not study the counterfeit bills but the real ones. In that way, they know the true bills so well a counterfeit becomes readily apparent. Similarly, we are not to concern ourselves with thoroughly knowing the dark powers, but with knowing the true power, God Himself, and the truth contained in His Word.
In conclusion, the letter to the Ephesians was not written in response to cosmic speculation, but had a very practical purpose. It contained instruction on the spiritual forces of darkness, particularly on the relation of Christ to these powers and the consequent relation of the believer to these demonic forces, that proved relevant to a region immersed in magical practices. Yet, while the epistle did address a specific situation, the teaching contained therein applies to the modern world every bit as much as it did to the region of Western Asia Minor in the first century A.D. despite the difficulties those of us immersed in a secular mind-set may have in understanding its language.
Arnold, Clinton E. Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1989.
Anderson, Neil T. The Bondage Breaker. Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1993.
Unknown Author. “New Age Spirituality: a.ka: Self-spirituality, new spirituality, mind-body-spirit.” New Age Spirituality. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (OCRT). 12 August 2005.