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395

ON THE APPROACHING CONFLICT.

Chapter vi. 10–20.

396

Ἰδοὺ ὁ Σατανᾶς ἐξῃτήσατο ὑμᾶς, τοῦ σινιάσαι ὡς τὸν σῖτον.

Luke xxii. 31.


397

CHAPTER XXVIII.

THE FOES OF THE CHURCH.

“From henceforth be strong in the Lord, and in the might of His strength. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness, in the heavenly places.”—Eph. vi. 10–12.

We follow the Revised reading of the opening word of this paragraph, and the preferable rendering given by the Revisers in their margin. The adverb is the same that is found in Galatians vi. 17 (“Henceforth let no man trouble me”); not that used in Philippians iii. 1 and elsewhere (“Finally, my brethren,” etc.). The copyists have conformed our text, seemingly, to the latter passage. We are recalled to the circumstances and occasion of the epistle. High as St Paul soars in meditation, he does not forget the situation of his readers. The words of chapter iv. 14 showed us how well aware he is of the dangers looming before the Asian Churches.

The epistle to the Colossians is altogether a letter of conflict (see ch. ii. 1 ff.). In writing that letter St Paul was wrestling with spiritual powers, mighty for evil, which had commenced their attack upon this outlying post of the Ephesian province. He sees in the sky the cloud portending a desolating storm. The clash of 398 hostile arms is heard approaching. This is no time for sloth or fear, for a faith half-hearted or half-equipped. “You have need of your best manhood and of all the weapons of the spiritual armoury, to hold your ground in the conflict that is coming upon you. Henceforth be strong in the Lord, and in the might of His strength.

It is the apostle’s call to arms!—“Be strengthened in the Lord,” he says (to render the imperative literally: so in 2 Timothy ii. I). Make His strength your own. The strength he bids them assume is power, ability, strength adequate to its end.154154   Ἐνδυναμοῦσθε [from δύναμις] ἐν Κυρίῳ καὶ ἐν τῷ κράτει τῆς ἰσχύος αὐτοῦ. See the note on these synonyms, on p. 76. Comp., for this verb, Col. i. II; 2 Tim. iv. 17; Phil. iv. 13: Πάντα ἰσχύω ἐν τῳ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με,—“I have strength for everything in Him that enables me.” “The might of His strength” repeats the combination of terms we found in chapter i. 19. That sovereign power of the Almighty which raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, belongs to the Lord Christ Himself. From its resources He will clothe and arm His people. “In the Lord,” says Israel evermore, “is righteousness and strength. The rock of my salvation and my refuge is in God.” The Church’s strength lies in the almightiness of her risen Lord, the Captain of her warfare.

“The panoply of God” (ver. II) reminds us of the saying of Jesus in reference to His casting out of demons, recorded in Luke xi. 21, 22—the only other instance in the New Testament of this somewhat rare Greek word. The Lord Jesus describes Himself in conflict with Satan, who as “the strong one armed keeps his possessions in peace,”—until there “come upon him the stronger than he,” who “conquers him and takes away his panoply wherein he trusted, and divides his spoils.” In this text the situation is reversed; 399 and the “full armour” belongs to Christ’s servants, who are equipped to meet the counter-attack of Satan and the powers of evil. There is a Divine and a Satanic panoply—arms tempered in heaven and in hell, to be wielded by the sons of light and of darkness respectively (comp. Rom. xiii. 12). The weapons of warfare on the two sides are even as the two leaders that furnish them—“the strong one armed” and the “Stronger than he.” Mightier are faith and love than unbelief and hate; “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.”

Let us review the forces marshalled against us,—their nature, their mode of assault, and the arena of the contest.

1. The Asian Christians had to “stand against the wiles [schemes, or methods155155   Comp. remark on μεθοδεία (iv. 14), p. 247.] of the devil.”

Unquestionably, the New Testament assumes the personality of Satan. This belief runs counter to modern thought, governed as it is by the tendency to depersonalize existence. The conception of evil spirits given us in the Bible is treated as an obsolete superstition; and the name of the Evil One with multitudes serves only to point a profane or careless jest. To Jesus Christ, it is very certain, Satan was no figure of speech; but a thinking and active being, of whose presence and influence He saw tokens everywhere in this evil world (comp. ii. 2). If the Lord Jesus “speaks what He knows, and testifies what He has seen” concerning the mysteries of the other world, there can be no question of the existence of a personal devil. If in any matter He was bound, as a teacher of spiritual truth, to disavow Jewish superstition, surely Christ was so bound in this matter. Yet instead of repudiating the current belief in Satan and the demons, He earnestly 400 accepts it; and it entered into His own deepest experiences. In the visible forms of sin Jesus saw the shadow of His great antagonist. “From the Evil One” He taught His disciples to pray that they might be delivered. The victims of disease and madness whom He healed, were so many captives rescued from the malignant power of Satan. And when Jesus went to meet His death, He viewed it as the supreme conflict with the usurper and oppressor who claimed to be “the prince of this world.”156156   John xii. 31, xiv. 30, xvi. 11: comp. Luke iv. 5–7; Heb. ii. 14.

Satan is the consummate form of depraved and untruthful intellect. We read of his “thoughts,” his “schemes,” his subtlety and deceit and impostures;157157   2 Cor. ii. 11, xi. 3; 2 Thess. ii. 9, 10; 2 Tim. ii. 26, etc. of his slanders against God and man,158158   Rev. xii, 7–10; Gen. iii. 4, 5; Zech. iii. 1; Job i. from which, indeed, the name devil (diabolus) is given him. Falsehood and hatred are his chief qualities. Hence Jesus called him “the manslayer” and “the father of falsehood” (John viii. 44). He was the first sinner, and the fountain of sin (1 John iii. 8). All who do unrighteousness or hate their brethren are, so far, his offspring (1 John iii. 10). With a realm so wide, Satan might well be called not only “the prince,” but the very “god of this world” (2 Cor. iv. 4). Plausibly he said to Jesus, in showing Him the kingdoms of the world, at the time when Tiberius Cæsar occupied the imperial throne: “All this authority and glory are delivered unto me. To whomsoever I will, I give it.” His power is exercised with an intelligence perhaps as great as any can be that is morally corrupt; but it is limited on all sides. In dealing with Jesus Christ he showed conspicuous ignorance.

401 Chief amongst the wiles of the devil at this time was the “scheme of error,” the cunningly woven net of the Gnostical delusion, in which the apostle feared that the Asian Churches would be entangled. Satan’s empire is ruled with a settled policy, and his warfare carried on with a system of strategy which takes advantage of every opening for attack.159159   Ch. iv. 27; 2 Cor. ii. 11; Luke xxii. 31. The manifold combinations of error, the various arts of seduction and temptation, the ten thousand forms of the deceit of unrighteousness constitute “the wiles of the devil.”

Such is the gigantic opponent with whom Christ and the Church have been in conflict through all ages. But Satan does not stand alone. In verse 12 there is called up before us an imposing array of spiritual powers. They are “the angels of the devil,” whom Jesus set in contrast with the angels of God that surround and serve the Son of man (Matt. xxv. 41). These unhappy beings are, again, identified with the “demons,” or “unclean spirits,” having Satan for their “prince,” whom our Lord expelled wherever He found them infesting the bodies of men.160160   Luke x. 17–20, xi. 14–26. They are represented in the New Testament as fallen beings, expelled from a “principality” and “habitation of their own” (Jude 6) which they once enjoyed, and reserved for the dreadful punishment which Christ calls “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” They are here entitled principalities and powers (or dominions), after the same style as the angels of God, to whose ranks, as we are almost compelled to suppose, these apostates once belonged.

In contrast with the “angels of light” (2 Cor. xi. 14) and “ministering spirits” of the kingdom of God 402 (Heb. i. 14), the angels of Satan have constituted themselves the world-rulers of this darkness. We find the compound expression cosmo-krator (world-ruler) in later rabbinical usage, borrowed from the Greek and applied to “the angel of death,” before whom all mortal things must bow. Possibly, St Paul brought the term with him from the school of Gamaliel. Satan being the god of this world and swaying “the dominion of darkness,”161161   Col. i. 13: comp. Acts xxvi. 18, etc. according to the same vocabulary his angels are “the rulers of the world’s darkness”; and the provinces of the empire of evil fall under their direction.

The darkness surrounding the apostle in Rome and the Churches in Asia—“this darkness,” he says—was dense and foul. With Nero and his satellites the masters of empire, the world seemed to be ruled by demons rather than by men. The frightful wish of one of the Psalmists was fulfilled for the heathen world: “Set a wicked man over him, and let Satan stand at his right hand.”

The last of St Paul’s synonyms for the satanic forces, “the spiritual [powers] of wickedness,” may have served to warn the Church against reading a political sense into the passage and regarding the civil constitution of society and the visible world-rulers as objects for their hatred. Pilate was a specimen, by no means amongst the worst, of the men in power. Jesus regarded him with pity. His real antagonist lurked behind these human instruments. The above phrase, “spirituals of wickedness,” is Hebraistic, like “judge” and “steward of unrighteousness,”162162   Luke xvi. 8, xviii. 6. and is equivalent to “wicked spirits.” The adjective “spiritual,” which does duty for a substantive—“the spiritual [forces, or 403 elements] of wickedness”163163   Τὰ πνευματικὰ tῆs πονηρίας.—brings out the collective character of these hostile powers.

St Paul’s demonology164164   Mr. Moule aptly observes, in his excellent and most useful Commentary on Ephesians in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges: St Paul’s “testimony to the real and objective existence” of evil spirits “gains in strength when it is remembered that the epistle was addressed (at least, among other designations) to Ephesus, and that Ephesus (see Acts xix.) was a peculiarly active scene of asserted magical and other dealings with the unseen darkness. Supposing that the right line to take in dealing with such beliefs and practices had been to say that the whole basis of them was a fiction of the human mind, not only would such a verse as this [vi. 12] not have been written, but, we may well assume, something would have been written strongly contradictory to the thought of it” (p. 176). is identical with that of Jesus Christ. The two doctrines stand or fall together. The advent of Christ appears to have stirred to extraordinary activity the satanic powers. They asserted themselves in Palestine at this particular time in the most open and terrifying manner. In an age of scepticism and science like our own, it belongs to “the wiles of the devil” to work obscurely. This is dictated by obvious policy. Moreover, his power is greatly reduced. Satan is no longer the god of this world, since Christianity rose to its ascendant. The manifestations of demonism are, at least in Christian lands, vastly less conspicuous than in the first age of the Church. But those are more bold than wise who deny their existence, and who profess to explain all occult phenomena and phrenetic moral aberrations by physical causes. The popular idolatries of his own day, with their horrible rites and inhuman orgies, St Paul ascribed to devilry. He declared that those who sat at the feast of the idol and gave sanction to its worship, were partaking of “the cup and the table of demons” (1 Cor. x. 20, 21). 404 Heathen idolatries at the present time are, in many instances, equally diabolical; and those who witness them cannot easily doubt the truth of the representations of Scripture upon this subject.

II. The conflict against these spiritual enemies is essentially a spiritual conflict. “Our struggle is not against blood and flesh.”

They are not human antagonists whom the Church has to fear,—mortal men whom we can look in the face and meet with equal courage, in the contest where hot blood and straining muscle do their part. The fight needs mettle of another kind. The foes of our faith are untouched by carnal weapons. They come upon us without sound or footfall. They assail the will and conscience; they follow us into the regions of spiritual thought, of prayer and meditation. Hence the weapons of our warfare, like those which the apostle wielded (2 Cor. x. 2–5), “are not carnal,” but spiritual and “mighty toward God.”

It is true that the Asian Churches had visible enemies arrayed against them. There were the “wild beasts” with whom St Paul “fought at Ephesus,” the heathen mob of the city, sworn foes of every despiser of their great goddess Artemis. There was Alexander the coppersmith, ready to do the apostle evil, and “the Jews from Asia,” a party of whom all but murdered him in Jerusalem (Acts xxi. 27–36); there was Demetrius the silversmith, instigator of the tumult which drove him from Ephesus, and “the craftsmen of like occupation,” whose trade was damaged by the progress of the new religion. These were formidable opponents, strong in everything that brings terror to flesh and blood. But after all, these were of small account in St Paul’s view; and the Church need never dread 405 material antagonism. The centre of the struggle lies elsewhere. The apostle looks beyond the ranks of his earthly foes to the power of Satan by which they are animated and directed,—“impotent pieces of the game he plays.” From this hidden region he sees impending an attack more perilous than all the violence of persecution, a conflict urged with weapons of finer proof than the sharp steel of sword and axe, and with darts tipped with a fiercer fire than that which burns the flesh or devours the goods.

Even in outward struggles against worldly power, our wrestling is not simply against blood and flesh. Calvin makes a bold application of the passage when he says: “This sentence we should remember so often as we are tempted to revengefulness, under the smart of injuries from men. For when nature prompts us to fling ourselves upon them with all our might, this unreasonable passion will be checked and reined in suddenly, when we consider that these men who trouble us are nothing more than darts cast by the hand of Satan; and that while we stoop to pick up these, we shall expose ourselves to the full force of his blows.” Vasa sunt, says Augustine of human troublers, alius utitur; organa sunt, alius tangit.

The crucial assaults of evil, in many instances, come in no outward and palpable guise. There are sinister influences that affect the spirit more directly, fires that search its inmost fibres, a darkness that sweeps down upon the very light that is in us threatening its extinction. “Doubts, the spectres of the mind,” haunt it; clouds brood over the interior sky and fierce storms sweep down on the soul, that rise from beyond the seen horizon. “Jesus was led of the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted of the devil.” Away from 406 the tracks of men and the seductions of flesh and blood the choicest spirits have been tested and schooled. So they are tempered in the spiritual furnace to a fineness which turns the edge of the sharpest weapons the world may use against them.

Some men are constitutionally more exposed than others to these interior assaults. There are conditions of the brain and nerves, tendencies lying deep in the organism, that give points of vantage to the enemy of souls. These are the opportunities of the tempter; they do not constitute the temptation itself, which comes from a hidden and objective source. Similarly in the trials of the Church, in the great assaults made upon her vital truths, historical conditions and the external movements of the age furnish the material for the conflicts through which it has to pass; but the spring and moving agent, the master will that dominates these hostile forces is that of Satan.

The Church was engaged in a double conflict—of the flesh and of the spirit. On the one hand, it was assailed by the material seductions of heathenism and the terrors of ruthless persecution. On the other hand, it underwent a severe intellectual conflict with the systems of error that were rooted in the mind of the age. These forces opposed the Christian truth from without; but they became much more dangerous when they found their way within the Church, vitiating her teaching and practice, and growing like tares among the wheat. It is of heresy more than persecution that the apostle is thinking, when he writes these ominous words. Not blood and flesh, but the mind and spirit of the Asian believers will bear the brunt of the attack that the craft of the devil is preparing for the apostolic Church.

407 III. The last clause of verse 12, in the heavenly places, refuses to combine with the above description of the powers hostile to the Church. The heavenly places are the abode of God and the blessed angels. This is the region where the Father has blessed us in Christ (i. 3); where He seated the Christ at His own right hand (i. 20), and has in some sense seated us with Christ (ii. 6); and where the angelic princedoms dwell who follow with keen and studious sympathy the Church’s fortunes (iii. 10). To locate the devil and his angels there seems to us highly incongruous; the juxtaposition is out of the question with St Paul. Chapter ii. 2 gives no real support to this view: supposing “the air” to be literally intended in that passage, it belongs to earth and not to heaven.165165   See p. 103. Nor do the parallels from other Scriptures adduced supply any but the most precarious basis for an interpretation against which the use of the exalted phrase in our epistle revolts.

No; Satan and his hosts do not dwell with Christ and the holy angels “in the heavenly places.” But the Church dwells there already, by her faith; and it is in the heavenly places of her faith and hope that she is assailed by the powers of hell. This final prepositional clause should be separated by a comma from the words immediately foregoing; it forms a distinct predicate to the sentence contained in verse 12. It specifies the locality of the struggle; it marks out the battle-field. “Our wrestling is ... in the heavenly places.”166166   The objection against the common rendering taken from the absence of the Greek article (τά) before the phrase ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις, required to link it to τὰ πνευματικὰ τῆς πονηρίας, is not decisive. So we construe the sentence, following the ancient Greek commentators.

408 The life of the Church “is hid with the Christ in God”; her treasure is laid up in heaven. She is assailed by a philosophy and vain deceit that perverts her highest doctrines, that clouds her vision of Christ and limits His glory, and threatens to drag her down from the high places where she sits with her ascended Lord.167167   Col. ii. 8–10, iii. 1–4; Phil. iii. 20, 21: comp. Eph. i. 3, ii. 6, 18, iv. 10, 15; Heb. vi. 19, 20, etc. Such was, in effect, the aim of the Colossian heresy, and of the great Gnostical movement to which this speculation was a prelude, that for a century and more entangled Christian faith in its metaphysical subtleties and false mysticism. The epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians strike the leading note of the controversies of the Church in this region during its first ages. Their character was thoroughly transcendental. “The heavenly things” were the subject-matter of the great conflicts of this epoch.

The questions of religious controversy characteristic of our own times, though not identical with those of Colossæ or Ephesus, concern matters equally high and vital. It is not this or that doctrine that is now at stake—the nature or extent of the atonement, the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son with the Father, the verbal or plenary inspiration of Scripture; but the personal being of God, the historical truth of Christianity, the reality of the supernatural,—these and the like questions, which formed the accepted basis and the common assumptions of former theological discussions, are now brought into dispute. Religion has to justify its very existence. Christianity must answer for its life, as at the beginning. God is denied. Worship is openly renounced. Our treasures in heaven 409 are proclaimed to be worthless and illusive. The entire spiritual and celestial order of things is relegated to the region of obsolete fable and fairy tales. The difficulties of modern religious thought lie at the foundation of things, and touch the core of the spiritual life. Unbelief appears, in some quarters, to be more serious and earnest than faith. While we quarrel over rubrics and ritual, thoughtful men are despairing of God and immortality. The Churches are engaged in trivial contentions with each other, while the enemy pushes his way through our broken ranks to seize the citadel.

“The apostle incites the readers,” says Chrysostom, “by the thought of the prize at stake. When he has said that our enemies are powerful, he adds thereto that these are great possessions which they seek to wrest from us. When he says in the heavenly places, this implies for the heavenly things. How it must rouse and sober us to know that the hazard is for great things, and great will be the prize of victory. Our foe strives to take heaven from us.” Let the Church be stripped of all her temporalities, and driven naked as at first into the wilderness. She carries with her the crown jewels; and her treasure is unimpaired, so long as faith in Christ and the hope of heaven remain firm in her heart. But let these be lost; let heaven and the Father in heaven fade with our childhood’s dreams; let Christ go back to His grave—then we are utterly undone. We have lost our all in all!


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