NOTE: There is an updated and revised version of this study here: The Battle Foe (Ephesians 6:12)
I. Wrestling (Ephesians 6:12a)
II. Wicked Forces (Ephesians 6:12b)
A. Their Titles
B. Their Origin
C. Their Work
E. Their End
E. Their Rights
What would have happened if, when America went to war with Iraq, we went in completely ignorant about the people and foes that we would face? What if President Bush got his military generals together and said, “Ok, who are their leaders?”
“Uhhh…we don’t know exactly,” they respond. “But we’re pretty sure they’re not very good leaders.”
“Okay…” George W. Bush would say, “How about their army? How many are there? What are their strengths and weaknesses?”
“Ummm…we’re not really sure about that either,” another general might reply. “But if the leaders aren’t very good, the army must be weak too. Don’t worry about it.”
“How about their weapons? Do they have any weapons we should know of?”
“Well, of course,” replies another general. “The last we heard, they had some guns and grenades, but that shouldn’t pose a problem.”
“What do you mean, ‘The last you heard’?” President Bush would ask.
“Well, we don’t really have any up to date information,” the general would answer. “We’ve been pretty busy, you know. But we know we are stronger and more powerful, so we can just go on in and fight them. It won’t be a problem.”
Now, you can imagine how much worse this war with Iraq could have been if that is what happened in the planning stages. Even with all the planning and preparing that did go on, thing have not been going as well as hoped for in Iraq. But that is in large part because there are lots of other factors involved which probably do reflect some poor planning on the part of American military leaders. They knew a lot about the Iraqi leaders, and military, and weapons, and tactics, but they didn’t give as much attention as they should have to age-old Sunni-Shiite blood feud, which is keeping Iraq in disarray and keeping people from trusting each other. So that is one area where the military could have planned better.
Yet, when it comes to the spiritual warfare that all of us are involved in, most of us do almost no planning and preparing for the enemy forces that are arrayed against us. Most of us don’t even know we are in a war. And so it is no surprise that most of us are so easily defeated. Yet it does not have to be that way. The Bible clearly lays out of us what kind of war we are in, what resources God has given to us as Christians to properly fight in this war, and what kind of enemy we are facing.
As we work our way through Ephesians 6:10-20, we see from Ephesians 6:12 the enemy we are facing. It is here that Paul tells us we are wrestling against wicked forces.
Ephesians 6:12. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
So that we can be properly prepared for battle, we are going to first look at what it means to wrestle, and then learn what we can about the wicked enemy forces we are wrestling against.
I. Wrestling (Ephesians 6:12a)
What does Paul mean when he uses this word wrestle? If you have the NAS or NIV, it says struggle. Both are fine translations. But the word itself is a bit confusing when you consider what we have already learned in Ephesians 6:10-13. As you may remember, there is a major emphasis in these verses on standing, standing strong, withstanding, standing your ground, having done all, to stand.
But here, Paul says, wrestle. And the question we have for Paul is “How are we supposed to both stand and wrestle?” To us, when we think of wrestling, we think of two boys or two men spending a lot of time trying to pin one another on a mat, doing a lot of grappling and rolling on the ground. But whatever is going on, they don’t do a whole lot of standing, do they?
So how can we make sense of this? Ephesians 6:11, 13 tell us over and over to stand, but Ephesians 6:12 says that we are wrestling. Well, remember, this is Paul who is writing, and he lived about 2000 years ago during the peak of the Roman civilization. So when he refers to wrestling, he has in mind Greco-Roman wrestling as it was in his day.
We have Greco-Roman wrestling today, but it has evolved a bit over the centuries, and so to understand what Paul was talking about here, we need to learn the rules for wrestling as they were in his day. In Paul’s day, there was only one rule to winning in Greco-Roman wrestling. The only way to win in ancient wrestling was to stay on your feet. There weren’t all the elaborate rules of points and pins. The goal was to stay on your feet and throw your opponent to the ground three times.
If you end up getting thrown on the ground once or twice, that’s okay. Get back up on your feet, and stay on your feet. Stay standing. Don’t get knocked over again. Learn from your mistakes and attempt to throw your opponent to the ground.
When we understand this, what Paul is talking about makes a whole lot more sense, doesn’t it? We are to stand our ground in this battle, because we are wrestling, and in ancient wrestling, the only way to win was to stay on your feet.
Another thing I discovered was that most of the time, the contestants would wrestle completely naked and often, they would oil themselves down. The reason for both was to make it more difficult for their foe to get a good handle or a good grasp on them. Just as they stripped down, so we too, are told in Scripture to not give the devil a foothold, or a handle in our lives (Ephesians 4:27), and to take off or throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles (Heb 12:1). And regarding the oil, Psalm 45:7 says that the oil that helps us elude the devil’s grasp is the love that we have for God and His ways. If you love God and seek to serve Him only, this will be a great help to you in staying on your feet.
That was what wrestling looked like back then. Now, as wrestling rules evolved over the years, they added a rule which is used in competition today to make sure there are not passive wrestlers. It was discovered over time, that sometimes, one of the wrestlers only had a strategy of running away from his opponent. So it is a new rule that both wrestlers must remain active throughout the match. This is called the rule of “passivity” and a wrestler can lose the match because he is too passive. In is unacceptable to avoid wrestling.
So in keeping with this rule, the wrestler must develop great strength and stamina. For professional wrestlers, training begins when they are very young. Sometimes, the best wrestlers can struggle against one another for hours without either one gaining the upper hand. Back in the Olympics of 1912, held in Stockholm, Sweden, the silver medal wrestling bout lasted for 10 hours and 15 minutes.
This is not WWF wrestling, either. It is closer to Ultimate Fighting Championship, but even more brutal. I Roman wrestling, every hold was legal. It ended when one person gave up. Pausanias, an ancient Roman historian who wrote about the feats of strength and skill that the athletes of his day accomplished—I guess this makes him the worlds first sports writer—tells the story of a statue that is in the Phigalian marketplace of a famous wrestler named Arrachion. Arrachion won the Olympics wrestling competition three times, but the last time, his opponent was able to get his legs wrapped around Arrachion in a vice-like scissor grip and began to squeeze the life out of Arrachion. Arrachion tried to break free by breaking his opponent’s toes. Eventually, the opponent surrendered the bout, but not before doing so much internal damage to Arrachion, that he died soon after. Nevertheless, since his opponent surrendered before Arrachion died, Arrachion won the Olympic wrestling bout that year.
Paul is calling us in Ephesians 6:12 to this kind of wrestling match. To stay on our feet and not get thrown to the mat. To stand our ground and wrestle for as long as is necessary.
Are you ready to do whatever it takes? Have you been learning the defensive moves to stand against the enemy that is trying to knock you down? Do you have the strength and the stamina to stay standing? Have you thrown off all sin that gives the devil something to grasp at? Have you oiled your body with love for God? This is what wrestling involved in Paul’s day, and so it helps us understand spiritual wrestling as well.
Look next at what we are wrestling against. We are wrestling against wicked forces.
II. Wicked Forces (Ephesians 6:12b)
A. Their Titles
Before Paul tells us the titles of the foe we wrestle against, he first reminds us who are struggle is NOT against. He says we wrestle not against flesh and blood. Obviously, this is a reference to other humans like ourselves. Throughout Scripture the term flesh and blood is used as a way of referring to other members of the human race (Gal 1:16; Heb 2:14).
Though at times we may fight against other people in the family room, or in the break room at work, or in the court room with our lawyers, or in the political arena with various issues, or even in deadly combat against other nations, these are all insignificant battles when compared to the struggle against spiritual forces.
This is because our struggle, our wrestling is against a much more fearsome and sinister foe. And the outcome of this battle has much more dire consequences than any of those others. Though families and work policies and governments and even history may change with the physical battles, this spiritual battle is a battle for eternal souls.
Instead, this struggle is against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
We shouldn’t conclude from this—as some do—that there are seven categories of spiritual forces. Paul, in 1:21 and here in Ephesians 6:12, is just piling up terms for impact and emphasis. While in no way do I want to associate George W. Bush with wicked forces, if I wanted to emphasize who he was, I could refer to him as “the president, the man in the White House, the ruler of the free world, the head of our country.” That is what Paul is doing here. He’s not necessarily trying to give us different categories of spiritual forces; he’s just giving us numerous titles for the same enemy force which we struggle against.
The first two titles, principalities and powers, were listed in Ephesians 1:21 and 3:10 as under the authority of God. The two terms indicate authority and the way that authority is carried out. In fact, over in Titus 3:1, these terms describe earthly rulers and magistrates, whom we are to obey.
So it seems that God has his principalities and powers, the earth has its principalities and powers, and Satan has his own principalities and powers. Obviously, they cannot all be the same, and so what we must understand is that these titles are just describing those who have authority given to them for a specific purpose.
God gives authority to his angels to do his bidding, earthly rulers and magistrates are given their authority to do God’s bidding, or to do the King’s or Emperor’s bidding, or to do Satan’s bidding—depending on who is controlling them—and then Satan has his own angels and minions to whom he gives authority to do his bidding. So that’s what these first two words imply. They are types of rulers who owe allegiance to some other ruler and who do this other rulers bidding, whether it is God, Satan, or an earthly king.
Now, like I said, Paul basically repeats himself with the third title, because this third title is the rulers of the darkness of this age. This might specifically refer to those earthly rulers who are controlled by wicked forces. The term rulers as used here also refers to earthly kings and presidents and dictators who are being used by wicked forces to accomplish Satan’s goals. And it is specifically used of rulers who want to gain control of the whole world.
We can think of Daniel 10:13, 20 which tells us that in Daniel’s day, the Persian and Greek empires were controlled by two fallen angels who were attempting to prevent God from carrying out His plans. Both the Persian and Greek empires wanted to control the world. Hitler and Napoleon both wanted to control the world, so they possibly could fall under this category. And we know that in the last days, the Anti-Christ will want to control the world, and we definitely know that he falls into this category.
And in Ephesians 6:12, Paul describes them as the rulers of the darkness of this age. This age is described as darkness because of the spiritual blindness and ignorance that is upon all who follow the ways of this world. We saw this back in Ephesians 4:17 where the understanding of the unsaved has been darkened. In Ephesians 5:8 we read that before we were Christians, we were in darkness. So that is the state of the unbelieving world, since they are under the influence of the god of this age, Satan, who blinds their eyes so that they cannot see or understand the truth.
The fourth and final term, spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places, reminds us that there are scores upon scores of these wicked enemies out there. In light of the Spiritual Warfare theme, rather than call these hosts, we could call them cohorts, or legions, or battalions.
And note from Ephesians 6:12 that this struggle takes place in the heavenly places. Some people take this and point to Job 1–2, or Revelation 12:7-17 and say that this struggle is taking place in heaven itself. But this is not what this phrase means.
This similar phrase is used several times already in the letter to the Ephesians, and every time, it refers to the spiritual reality that consists of life with God, and our riches and responsibilities in Christ. Let me explain. There are two realities in which we operate—the earthly reality, and the spiritual reality. There is heaven and earth. So the phrase, in the heavenly places refers to the spiritual reality, which is the more important of the two.
Which is what we saw already by Paul telling us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against wicked forces. In other words, our primary wrestling arena is not in the earthly realm, but in the spiritual. It doesn’t really matter what kind of battles you win or lose in your job, or in your neighborhood, or in politics, or against other countries, if you are losing the battle in the heavenly places.
So ask yourself this morning, “What kind of battles are you expending most of you energies on? Are they on battles that will only matter for a few days, or months or years? Or are they battles that will matter for an eternity? Think about it, and then set your priorities accordingly.
So we’ve looked at the titles which Paul mentions here in verse 12. Now lets move on to talk about the origin of these spiritual forces. Where did they come from?
B. Their Origin
Did you know that the Bible doesn’t really tell us where the Devil came from or how he became the devil? To be sure, there are some hints, but it all depends on how you interpret certain passages. We have passages which hint that God created the angels, and he created them all good. But one of them, the greatest and most beautiful of all, became proud and wanted to become like God (Isa 14:12-14; Ezek 28:12-15), and so led a rebellion against God in which a third of the angels joined him (Rev 12:4).
But every passage that seems to talk about Satan’s fall and the fall of a third of the angels, also has numerous other possible interpretations, and in fact, the interpretations that lead us to think of them as referring to the fall of Satan and a third of the angels break the many Bible study rules. Both the Isaiah and Ezekiel passage are talking about human kings—not necessarily Satan.
And the passage in Revelation 12 is anything but clear. But as you all know from reading Revelation, it is a very difficult book to understand. And chapters 12 and 13 are among the hardest. There obviously is a war in heaven between God and Satan, but it is unclear when exactly this war takes place—whether it was in the past, or is going on in the present, or is a war which will take place during the coming tribulation.
The long and short of it is that the Bible is very vague about the origin of Satan, the angels that rebelled with him, and demons. The Bible tells us just enough so that we know what we are facing, but not so much that we have all the information about them. This is intentional, of course. If the Bible was packed with information about Satan, fallen angels, and demons, we might be tempted to spend all our time talking and thinking about them, rather than talking and thinking about God.
God doesn’t want us to get all wrapped up in thinking and speaking and talking about Satan and demons. It is unhealthy, which is why the Bible doesn’t contain much information about them.
Let’s look next at their Work.
C. Their Work
Ultimately, as I indicated previously, the work of Satan and his minions all boils down to casting doubt on God’s Word in three primary areas: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Even then, we must recognize that the work they do, they do only by the permission of God. In 1 Kings 22, we see a lying spirit being sent into the mouth of the kings advisors in order to deceive the king, but only by the permission of God. Over in the book of Job, we see Satan given permission by God to attack Job, his family, his health and his wealth.
In the New Testament, Satan has to ask permission to sift Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31). And God knows what we can bear and what we cannot, so he will not give the enemy permission to tempt us in ways that we cannot bear (1 Cor 10:13). So although they are against God’s work, they cannot really do anything to stop Him, because He will not allow it. Which moves us on to the fourth point. The fact that God is in control, and wicked forces have to get permission from God to do anything, tells us that their end will come just as God has promised.
The fourth point is Their End.
D. Their End
I am not sure why Satan and his angels ever thought they could defeat God by rebelling against him, but we must believe that they know God at least as well—if not better—than we do, and so the lack of understanding must be ours. Satan and his minions must know something about God which we don’t. Either that, or they are just completely stupid in ever thinking they could thwart God’s will.
But either way, there has been a war in the heavenly realm, and as humans we are right in the middle of that war. And every move the devil makes is met with a countermove by God. I hate to put it this way, but the heavenly realm is caught up in a divine chess match. And from the beginning, the devil’s only chance at victory was if he could stop the coming of the Messiah, or if he could somehow get Christ to sin.
The Old Testament is all about Satan’s efforts to stop Christ from coming. And time and time again, it looks like he succeeds, only to have God, in His creative sovereignty, find some grand solution or loophole which Satan missed. It is amazing to watch this all work out. But Satan could not stop the coming of the Messiah, so when Christ came, Satan tried to get him killed at a young age, and tried to get Him to sin before he started his ministry. And it appears from Scripture that maybe Satan thought he had won when Jesus died on the cross, but we know that the nails on the cross were actually the nails in Satan’s coffin. This was where victory was won as Colossians 2:15 tells us. And therefore, Satan’s end is assured, along with all wicked forces. In 2 Peter 2, we learn that hell was created for the Devil and his angels, and we learn in the book of Revelation that this is where they will all ultimately end up.
However much victory, and however much power it seems Satan has now, his end, his demise, his defeat is sure. At the end of the Millennium, Revelation 20:10 says that the devil will be thrown into the lake of fire, where he will be tormented day and night for ever and ever, his angels and the demons with him. Which means then, in our final point today, that we know something about the rights of the wicked forces against which we wrestle.
E. Their Rights
The rights of the wicked forces can be easily summarized in four words: They have no rights!
They are a defeated foe. They are a vanquished enemy. Although in manmade rules of war, we give the enemy certain rights and sometimes we even go in and spend billions of dollars to rebuild their nation, in this spiritual war, we offer no quarter to the defeated foe. They have no rights.
You do not have to give in to temptation. You do not have to listen to the lies. You do not have to stay in bondage to that secret sin. If you are a Christian, you are on the winning side. You have been delivered from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the kingdom of light.
The enemy has no hold on you. He has no rights over you. You are free! You are more than a conqueror through Jesus Christ. He came that you might have life, and might have it abundantly (John 10:10).
 Gurnal, The Christian in Complete Armour, 12a, p. 82.
 If you think our athletes are tough today, just read a few pages from Pausanias, Guide to Greece, Vol. 2, 471.
 Lloyd-Jones, The Christian Soldier: An Exposition of Ephesians 6:10-20, 57-64.