Remaining aware of all these aspects is demanding. Paul places an emphasis on constant prayer. He says to pray in the Spirit, which means praying according to the mind of the Spirit and in harmony with the Spirit. Our own sin causes us to not be in harmony with the Spirit of Christ and therefore confession and repentance in prayer ought to be part of regular prayer life. 1 John 1:8-10 It is possible that our prayer life concentrates on one type of prayer or one grouping of requests. We may ask but only infrequently give thanks and praise. We may read the bible regularly but not remain in his presence prayerfully allowing God to bring fresh and deeper understanding. Our requests may focus on our personal wants rather than God’s character and righteousness. Our prayers may concentrate on those who are already part of God’s family but prayer for others to receive Christ into their lives may be only an infrequent occurrence. We may pray repeatedly for missionary needs worldwide and forget the needs in our neighbourhood or the other way round. The Lord’s family needs our prayers and to pray for our immediate fellowship by name is praying in accordance with his will. However, Paul’s request to be prayed for, especially that he will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, vv19,20 shows that nobody is above needing prayer in this battle with the evil one. It also shows there is a special need to pray for those who are sharing the gospel.
Paul sees spiritual forces not just actions of people behind opposition to the gospel, the existence of the church, righteous and just behaviour and belief in Jesus. Paul is not alone in this view it is a view expressed by all the apostles and Jesus himself. It is a view that runs through the whole of the Old Testament from the Garden of Eden account, through Job, the Mosaic Law and the ministry of the prophets as they opposed spiritual evil. The powers against Christ and the church are frequently by means of human activity but Paul is saying look behind that and there is a spiritual dimension which he terms, ‘the powers of this dark world and … spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms.’ v12 The “powers of this dark world” take many forms but they include those things that trap people into sin. Such things may be those things that cause addiction, they can also be those things that cause people to be oppressed. We can imagine governments, companies and criminal organisations working in this way. However, individuals may also cause Christians to fail to stand and we have our own susceptibilities to sin which can feel like a repeated focus for attack. Within the church false teachers can lead people away from Christ and faith which is why the apostles wrote such strong letters that warned of such teaching and condemned the teachers. It takes great spiritual strength to oppose such force and frequently spiritual courage. We are not called to stand as lone individuals but as the collective body of Christ. A lone soldier is weak, a soldier who stands as part of a Roman legion is much stronger. However, we need to pursue spiritual discernment to identify the many subtle ways Jesus and his righteousness is opposed and its impact on our own lives.
It is possible to get too drawn in to the literal detail of the armour when reflecting on the passage. If the letter had been written in a different age the armour would have been different and so alternative items might have been selected to represent the true spiritual armour. What matters is the spiritual armour that enables both an individual and a church to stand on and hold the ground Christ has won. These are truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation and the word of God. It is a demanding list for the Christian to engage in. Being a Christian is not a passive activity it requires full engagement. If you are in a battle you can be certain that an enemy will target those areas of vulnerability. If for instance the heart or head are exposed then that will be the area targeted. The absence of any part of God’s provided spiritual protection will be where an individual or church will be liable to falter or fall. The interconnectedness of these spiritual defences is similar to the interconnectedness of the body of Christ. Where there is a weakness or an element of defence is missing the individual or body of Christ is more liable to suffer. We learn about and are empowered to apply all of these elements of spiritual defence through the last one mentioned, the word of God. A church needs to root itself in the word of God. The study and exposition of the word is an essential function of the church. It is not something that is done and then can be moved on from. It is to be part of the ongoing life of the church and each one of its members.
Paul concludes and summarizes his letter by drawing together aspects he has covered in his letter and making connections with wider scripture through the image of an armed soldier. This is perhaps the most well known section of Ephesians, it is often used in talks aimed at children because of the vivid illustration of a Roman soldier. Many a youth leader has relished dressing up with a cardboard shield and a plastic helmet. However, this is a passage for mature Christians facing up to the reality of Christian life in a hostile environment. Paul is not exaggerating for effect, what he describes is what all Christians will experience through a life of discipleship and the means by which they will be able to remain faithful. What the enemy would most desire is that Christians should not take this seriously and think the measures Paul describes are not really necessary. While a Roman soldier in full battle gear would have been a common and well understood image to his Gentile readers Paul is primarily drawing upon Old Testament passages that describe the armour of Yahweh (God, the absolute being, the “I Am Who I Am.” Exodus 3:14) Isaiah describes the Lord being displeased there was no justice and no one to intervene, ‘so his own arm achieved salvation …. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.’ Isaiah59:16-17 Paul also draws upon Isaiah’s prophesy about the forthcoming Messiah, ‘With righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked; Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.’ Isaiah 11:4-5
Paul changes his simile for Christian life from a walk, which he uses widely in his letters to the ability to stand. Behind this is the notion that Christiana are to be like a regiment of soldiers who hold or stand on the ground that has already been won. Christ has already won the victory over evil, death and sin through his death, resurrection and ascension. The Christian is not able to be victorious over sin and spiritual evil in his or her own strength but must rely and draw upon the strength of the Lord. ‘I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know …. his incomparably great power for us who believe. The power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.’ Ephesians 1:18-21