Working at DG comes with a wonderful fringe benefit. I get to take in a lot of devotionals led by you, Pastor John. These are off-air, private devotionals created as preludes to DG staff meetings and leadership team meetings. A lot of these devotional times together are overflow from your huge investment in Look at the Book — your video series doodling on Bible texts. And one of those recent DG devotionals struck me. You were leading us on spiritual warfare and taking us through the armor of God in Ephesians chapter 6. And you stopped at Ephesians 6:12, where Paul reminds us that our enemies are not flesh and blood. Our enemy is a spiritual being, the devil and his forces. That’s our true enemy. And yet, our enemy strikes at us through flesh and blood, a point you made from Ephesians 4:14. Can you walk us through the logical connections you made? Our enemy is not flesh and blood. But he works through flesh and blood. Explain that.
I was working my way through Ephesians 6 in Look at the Book, and I got to Ephesians 6:10–12. And what stopped me, puzzled me, at least at first, was not the affirmation that we have supernatural adversaries, but the apparent denial that we have human adversaries. That was the What?
Demonic Schemes and Human Cunning
Here’s what he says:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.
And then comes the denial. And note that “blood and flesh” is the right word order. It’s usually translated in English versions “flesh and blood,” but there are two places, one in Hebrews 2:14 and one here, where it’s reversed: blood and flesh. I’ll come back to that. I think it’s significant.
For we do not wrestle against [blood and flesh], but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)
So, for me, the question is not whether we have a supernatural demonic adversary; we certainly do. But the question is, What does Paul mean when he says, “We do not wrestle against blood and flesh”? And ordinarily, those two words, “blood and flesh” or “flesh and blood,” simply mean human — just human reality considered apart from any special work of God’s saving grace, just what we are by fallen nature. That’s “flesh and blood” or “blood and flesh.”
“The warfare for the souls of men is fought with truth and gospel and word of God.”
It sounds like Paul is saying, “We don’t wrestle against ordinary fallen humans.” And the problem is that Paul himself, even in the same book, describes such human adversaries. In Ephesians 4:14, he tells us, “[Don’t be] children, tossed to and fro . . . by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” So, you almost have the exact same words: demonic schemes and this human cunning in the craftiness of deceitful schemes.
Influenced, but Still Accountable
And so, what in the world is going on? In Ephesians 6:12, he says, “We don’t wrestle against blood and flesh, but against the schemes of the devil.” And in Ephesians 4:14, he says, “Don’t be carried about by human cunning or deceitful schemes.”
Now, Paul is a lot smarter than I am. That’s an understatement. And he is inspired by the Holy Spirit in what he says, and so I am getting low here and assuming that these two texts from the inspired apostle do not contradict each other. And he means for us to figure out how they fit together. So, here are some relevant texts that inform my solution:
You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1–3)
All fallen, unregenerate humans walk or live according to, in step with, the prince of the power of the air, Satan. But that reality of being in step with the devil, being in sync with or on the frequency of the devil as sons of disobedience — all of us before we’re set free by the gospel — does not mean we are pawns who have no accountability. Because he says we are walking in sins and trespasses that we are committing and that we are children of wrath. In other words, we are blameworthy; we deserve judgment — God’s holy wrath.
So, I take this to mean that the devil taps into our natural sinfulness in a way that influences us profoundly, but he does so in a way that does not take away our accountability or our guilt before God.
Addressing Mind, Heart, Will
Paul describes human sinfulness in Ephesians 4:18 like this:
They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.
In other words, he traces the problem of our guilt and our sin down to the hardness of our own heart, with no mention of the devil — none. We are our own condemning problem. Then, when you watch Paul seek to save and sanctify sinful people in Ephesians, you don’t see any exorcisms, no power encounters. What you see is that he speaks straight to us with gospel implications.
- “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28).
- “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths” (Ephesians 4:29).
- “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30).
- “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you” (Ephesians 4:31).
And he goes on and on, just speaking directly to us, to our minds, to our hearts, to our wills. In fact, he says, the great challenge for Christians is that we are new creatures in Christ by faith, and we need to put off the old self and put on the new self (Ephesians 4:22–24).
“Our warfare is always fought at a level that includes the supernatural.”
So, Paul’s whole approach to helping Christians fight for holiness almost never mentions the devil. That’s not surprising, since three of the six pieces of spiritual armor are truth (Ephesians 6:14), gospel (Ephesians 6:15), and the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). And those are all things that Paul speaks directly into the human mind and the human heart. He doesn’t speak those things to the devil; he speaks them to people.
Blind Eyes Opened
In 2 Corinthians 5:11, Paul says, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.” That’s what he did: he went around the world persuading human beings. He didn’t have this excessive demon orientation. He didn’t walk into synagogues and cast out demons. He walked into synagogues and argued about the Old Testament. We speak directly to men. We don’t do an end run around the human mind or human heart to try to attack the devil. The warfare for the souls of men is fought with truth and gospel and word of God, speaking directly to men not Satan, all the while praying in the Spirit for supernatural power.
Now, even though Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers”; nevertheless, Paul’s response to satanic blinding is not to speak to Satan but to speak directly to responsible, guilty, blinded human beings with the gospel, while praying down the power of God.
For example, in Acts 26:17–18, Jesus says to Paul, “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins.” Paul preaches the gospel straight to humans, and God uses the gospel, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to set people free from satanic blindness.
You see the same thing in 2 Timothy 2:24–26. Paul teaches the truth to people, and then it says, “God may perhaps grant them repentance . . . and they may . . . escape from the snare of the devil.”
So, here’s my conclusion about what Paul means when he says, “We don’t wrestle with blood and flesh.”
First, he means that there is no such thing as a merely human adversary of the gospel; they don’t exist. While this world is under the sway of the evil one — “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19) — unbelieving humans are always influenced by and in step with the devil. We don’t wrestle against mere human forces because there aren’t any.
Second, I think he mentions blood first in the pair — “we don’t wrestle against blood and flesh” — because he’s drawing our attention to the fact that this warfare is not like the ordinary battlefield warfare among people, marked by blood and gore. That’s not what he’s talking about, in other words. We don’t fight like that. It’s not a matter of chopping off arms or heads and blood and flesh. Our warfare is always fought at a level that includes the supernatural.