On Spiritual Warfare: An Exegesis of Ephesians 6:10-20

Main Idea and Outline

In Ephesians 6:10-20, Paul affirms an enduring spiritual struggle, or war, between Christians and the treachery and deceit of Satan, as well as presents a worthy defense and offense through the armor of God and prayer, respectively. First, Paul issues a proclamation, or call-to- arms, to his Christian brothers and sisters to cling to God’s strength and power by putting on His provided armor, thus enabling them to stand against Satan (vv. 10-11). Second, Paul describes the conditions of the battlefield and the multi-faceted enemy that Christians face. He is also quite explicit in the supernatural capability of this enemy and its avenues of approach (v. 12). Third, Paul restates the mission of all Christians to put on the whole armor of God to ultimately stand against the enemy (v. 13). Fourth, Paul immediately renders a detailed description of each critical piece of armor by using Roman soldier as a metaphor.[1]  He also describes key spiritual aspects that each piece represents, thus implying their intended purpose in spiritual warfare (vv. 14-17). Fifth, Paul reveals a key spiritual element that binds the armor together, as well as serves as a weapon for spiritual warfare—prayer (v. 18). Finally, Paul provides a personal example of the many purposes of prayer, and describes how it will embolden him to proclaim the Gospel and serve as Christ’s ambassador (vv. 19-20).


Over the course of his ministry, Paul authored various letters from differing circumstances addressing multiple issues within the early Christian church. Most of his letters are situational or occasional, and address specific issues or circumstances related to a particular church or individual. However, Ephesians is neither situational nor occasional, and addresses somewhat general circumstances and situations that affect the church as a whole.

Despite this stark difference from his other letters, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians provides an overarching glimpse into the faith and beliefs of the greatest Christian missionary of the early church, as well as solidifies the foundational beliefs of the early church. According to John H. Walton, Mark L. Strauss, and Ted Cooper, Jr., “the letter to the Ephesians concisely summarizes the essence of Paul’s faith and theology.”[2]  In turn, this essence of faith and theology helps formulate the theological principles of the church, and one such principle lies in one of the final passages in his letter to the Ephesians.

In the passage of Ephesians 6:10-20, Paul affirms the enduring spiritual onslaught of
Satan on Christians, and issues a proclamation, or a call-to-arms, to all Christians to withstand this onslaught. As stated by Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, “Christians are engaged in an unending struggle against Satan’s deceit and treachery.”[3]  In turn, Paul issues guidance to all Christians on how to achieve total victory in this spiritual war.

Paul issues his guidance on achieving total victory in the form of a metaphor that is akin to the armor of a Roman soldier. He links each critical piece of armor to theological principles that should comprise a spiritual warrior’s arsenal.[4]  Each critical piece serves its unique purpose for the total defense, and, at times, offense, of the warrior. A weak or compromised piece significantly reduces the effectiveness of the whole suit of armor.

Given its underlying military connotations, a military-minded interpreter would naturally make certain connections between warfare and the Christian life. Paul explicitly describes the relationship between Christians and Satan as a constant spiritual war, as well as the role that the spiritual warrior plays in this supernatural war. With this in mind, Paul issues a call-to-arms for all Christians, and provides an operations order consisting of both offensive and defensive lines of operation for achieving total victory in spiritual warfare.

Historical Context

However, to develop this particular aspect of Ephesians 6:10-20, one must first explore both the historical-cultural and literary contexts. Certain key aspects of the historical-cultural context of this passage provide the interpreter with valuable background information on both the author and the biblical audience. In turn, these aspects fit together to form the broader landscape that surrounds this particular passage.

First, certain characteristics and circumstances surrounding the author helped shape the writing of Ephesians. Paul’s informative years involved an intense academic regimen which included such disciplines as Jewish theology and Greek philosophy, and both contributed greatly to his literature. “The Greek world in which Paul was raised contributed philosophical understandings and linguistic distinctives to his writings; his own Jewish background also influenced his viewpoint and outlook.”[5]  On the other hand, his Jewish roots initially led him down a different path in life.

Early in Paul’s life, he spearheaded a Jewish campaign against the early Christian church, and was renowned for his fervent persecution of Christians. According to William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., “Paul persecuted the church out of a misdirected zeal to serve God.”[6]  However, through the direct intervention of God, Paul redirected this zeal and passion towards a new goal, and eventually became the greatest missionary for Christ the world has ever known. “Paul was the most significant missionary in the history of the Christian church; he brought to the missionary task an intense, driving personality with a commitment to and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.”[7]  At times, however, his personality, coupled with his zeal for Christ, landed him in prison on multiple occasions.

While in prison, Paul penned four letters to various churches, including one to the church in Ephesus. In these letters, he identifies himself “as a prisoner in bonds” and, at times, reveals the circumstances that brought him there.[8]  Although he wrote these letters at different times, many scholars affirm that Paul wrote Ephesians around AD 60-62 while imprisoned in Rome.[9]  In light of this, Paul felt a pressing desire to communicate with the church at Ephesus, and the letter itself implies that he had a close association with it.

The gospel writer, Luke, provides a glimpse of this close association between Paul and the Ephesian Christians. He states in Acts 20:31 that Paul spent approximately three years in Ephesus, and played an integral role in establishing the church there.[10]  The geographical location of Ephesus played an integral role in spreading the Gospel, and was used by Paul as a base of operations for his missionary work. “Paul had chosen Ephesus as his base because of the facility it offered him in keeping touch with his previous foundations.”[11]  Even Luke affirms the strategic location and purpose of Ephesus in Acts 19:8-10. However, its geographical location also contributed to many of the issues faced by the Ephesian church.

Second, the conditions and issues surrounding the Ephesian church also helped shape the writing of Ephesians. As discussed above, its geographical location made Ephesus “the most important commercial center in the Roman province of Asia.”[12]  The vast amounts of global traffic passing through Ephesus exposed the people, including Christians, to many different cultures and religions. In addition, Ephesus was home to the temple of Artemis and served as the base for her global cult. “The temple of Artemis outside Ephesus, the largest and most lavishly decorated temple in the Hellenistic Age, also served as a missionary base for the cult of the goddess throughout the world.”[13]

Naturally, Paul and his fellow Christians in Ephesus struggled against an overwhelming onslaught of opposing beliefs and business practices, including cultic magicians, Jewish
exorcists, and silversmiths producing statues of Artemis.[14]  On the one hand, the undertones of opposing beliefs associated with the various cults within the city attacked Christians on the spiritual front. On the other, the economic domination of these cults in daily business practices was merely one attack on the physical front. According to Everett Ferguson, “the economic and religious interests of the worshippers of Artemis were intertwined.”[15]

While these attacks may have prompted Paul to write this letter, scholars disagree on its purpose. Due to its lack of specificity and general theological principles, some scholars believe Paul intended this particular letter to be circulated throughout all of the churches. “Determining the precise purpose for which Paul wrote Ephesians is difficult; however, it is a general statement of Christian truth concerning the church, Christian unity, and the Christian walk.”[16]  The particular passage of Ephesians 6:10-20 may specifically address the spiritual onslaught brought on by the cultic practices of Ephesian society, but there is no way of knowing this for certain. However, the literary content of the passage lends some credibility to this idea.

Literary Context

The literary context of Ephesians 6:10-20 also reveal key aspects of Paul’s theology and is indicative of his style of writing. First, his grammar and use of metaphors, especially those with a military nature, fall in line with this style of literary genre. In addition, his extensive knowledge of and experience in Greek philosophy flows from the text. According to James S. Jeffers, “Paul’s language is analogous to the language of the moral philosophers who use military metaphors to urge life in accordance with their philosophic positions.”[17]  Throughout his letters, Paul consistently uses both military and athletic metaphors to emphasize the moral truth
of Christianity, and this particular passage is no exception.

Second, the overall content of Ephesians, in conjunction with its general nature and lack of specificity, speaks volumes on Paul’s theological principles for the church. Lea and Black divide Ephesians into two sections: “chapters 1-3 discuss the spiritual privileges of the church, and chapters 4-6 present the responsibilities of believers for the Christian walk.”[18]  Duvall and J. Daniel Hays further generalize these two sections, in which the first three chapters focus on doctrine while the final three chapters deal with practical living.[19] The characterizations given to these two sections further lend to the assertion that Paul intended this letter to be circulatory for the entire church.

Paul concludes this letter with the passage being discussed, Ephesians 6:10-20, by outlining the key aspects of victorious Christian living. He clearly explains a Christian’s mission concerning spiritual warfare, and lays out a detailed battle plan that leads to spiritual annihilation of the enemy and total victory for the believer. In doing so, Paul issues a call-to-arms for all Christians, and provides an operations order consisting of both offensive and defensive lines of operation for achieving total victory in spiritual warfare.


To fully understand the military undertones used by Paul in this passage, one must first be familiar with the definition of war. According to Carl von Clausewitz, “war therefore is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.”[20]  When applied to spiritual warfare, this definition differs slightly, in that the act of violence is supernatural in nature most of the time. However, the ultimate goal of Satan is to compel believers to fulfill his will versus the will of God. According to Russell Sharrock, spiritual warfare can be defined as “the battle for the mind” and “is Satan’s deceptions against God’s truth (the Bible)”; the battle is waged in one’s mind (Romans 7:23), one’s flesh (1 Peter 2:11), and one’s emotions (Ephesians 6:16).[21]

When applied to the passage, Paul addresses this multiple-front spiritual war with a detailed plan-of-attack that closely resembles an operations order used by modern militaries. All military leaders know that the key to any successful operation lies within a well-structured operations order that covers key aspects of the operation, including the mission, the enemy and friendly situations, the concept of the operation, and an endstate. This order provides all of the vital information needed to successfully execute an operation, as well as aligns the missions of each subordinate unit with the overarching mission of the operation. Paul’s structure of Ephesians 6:10-20 serves the same purpose for all Christians, and loosely follows a similar format.

The first element of an operations order is the mission, which defines the overall mission of the operation, and identifies the ‘who, what, when, where, and why’. Paul identifies the ‘who’ in verse 10 through his use of the term ‘brethren’, thus implying that this mission not only applies to the original audience, but to all fellow brothers and sisters in Christ thereafter. According to Lea and Black, Paul declares that “Christians were engaged in an unending struggle against Satan’s deceit and treachery.”[22]  In turn, this solidifies the belief that all Christians share this continuous struggle together as fellow believers in Christ.

Also in verse 10, Paul identifies that ‘what’ of the mission, which is to “be strong in the
Lord” and “in the power of His might.” In other words, he charges all believers to be strong in God’s power, which ultimately enables believers to “stand against the wiles of the devil” (v. 11).  As John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck states, “Paul exhorted believers to be strong in the Lord and in the might of God’s inherent strength.”[23]  On the other hand, the ‘when’ of the mission is not as explicit in this letter, as indicative of Paul’s other letters since this letter is neither occasional nor situational. Even though the letter, as well as this passage, is not explicit in terms of timeframe, the theological principles communicated through the text is timeless for all Christians.

The final element of the mission, the ‘why’, states the purpose of the mission, and is
directly linked to the ‘how’ provided in the concept of the operation discussed below. Paul is very clear on the purpose of putting on God’s armor, which is, above all else, to stand as an unwavering spiritual warrior for Christ. Walvoord and Zuck states that “the purpose of putting on God’s armor is to be able to stand against the schemes or stratagems of the devil.”[24]

Paul also solidifies the spiritual warrior’s mission and role in key verses within this
passage by using certain imperative verbs throughout the text. According to Duvall and Hays, “the imperative verb in ‘put on the full armor of God’ dominates this passage.”[25] This imperative verb spurns multiple nested imperatives that also contribute to the spiritual warrior’s mission, such as “take unto you” and “stand”. From these imperative verbs, the spiritual warrior’s mission reveals itself plainly to the reader. In addition to these imperatives, Paul renders an explicit description of the enemy that each warrior faces.

The second element of an operations order is a description of the enemy situation, and provides as much detail as possible about its composition, array of forces, and types of weapons. Throughout this passage, Paul explicitly details the situation of the enemy that Christians face on a daily basis. He provides a composition and array of forces the spiritual warrior will face, such as “principalities”, “rulers of darkness”, and “spiritual wickedness in heavenly places” (v. 12), which leaves little doubt about the identity of these enemies. He also offers a description of strategies and weapons used by the enemy, including “wiles” (v. 11) and “fiery darts” (v. 16).

Paul also produces mission-critical intelligence pertaining to the enemy by revealing its supernatural qualities. Walvoord and Zuck state that “the struggle is not physical (against ‘flesh and blood’); it is a spiritual conflict, and the sphere of activity of these forces is in the ‘heavenly realms’.”[26]  In so doing, Paul leaves little room for error in positively identifying the enemy, and sets the conditions for total victory for the spiritual warrior. As Matthew Henry states, “our danger is the greater from our enemies because they are unseen, and assaults us ere we are aware of them.”[27]

The third element of an operations order is the friendly situation, which outlines the friendly array of forces and weapons. The Christian, or spiritual warrior, is the basis of friendly forces in this spiritual war. In verses 14-17, Paul describes the essential gear for the spiritual warrior, as well as the uses and benefits of each piece. To Paul and his original audience, the epitome of a warrior of the era is the Roman soldier, and both were very familiar with them due to living in various Roman provinces.

Paul begins his description with the warrior’s “loins girt with truth”, which equates to the belt worn underneath the armor (v. 14). According to Walvoord and Zuck, “before a Roman soldier put on his armor, he put a belt around his waist; this held the garments together as a place on which to hang his armor.”[28]  The belt, symbolized by truth, is the piece of armor that is put on first and holds all the other pieces together; it is the anchor point for the suit of armor. Through this symbolization, Paul equates truth to the anchor point of the spiritual warrior’s armor. John MacArthur states that “the belt that girded it all securely together and demonstrates the believer’s readiness for war is truth.”[29]  Truth provides the confidence needed for the spiritual warrior to stand on the battlefield, knowing that this truth is well worth the fight.

The second piece of essential gear is the breastplate of righteousness (v. 14). The
breastplate protected a soldier’s vital organs, especially the heart and lungs. For the spiritual warrior, the breastplate serves the same purpose in a righteous life through Christ. According to Henry, “the righteousness of Christ implanted in us is our breastplate to fortify the heart against the attacks which Satan makes against us.”[30]

Certain vital spiritual organs, or vulnerabilities, that are prone to Satan’s attacks are the mind and emotions. However, righteousness provides the needed protection to thwart off any spiritual bombardments on these two areas. MacArthur affirms that “righteousness is to be taken and wrapped around [one’s] whole being, just as ancient soldiers covered themselves with breastplates of armor.”[31]  As such, living a righteous life in the eyes of God is the only way to guard one’s mind and emotions from these constant attacks.

The third piece of essential gear is the “shod feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (v. 15). Sturdy footwear worn by soldiers protected their feet on the battlefield, and provided surefootedness and stability during battle. Shoes defended against obstacles placed on the battlefield to limit movement and wound foot soldiers.[32]  As such, the peace from knowing the truth of the gospel provides the spiritual warrior with steady feet on the battlefield, thus allowing him to stand more firmly for Christ.

The fourth piece of essential gear is the “shield of faith” (v. 16). Roman soldiers used the shield as a supplemental form of protection, especially against fiery arrows, and Paul indicates this by prefacing verse 16 with “in addition to all”. In like fashion, faith solidifies trust in God concerning His promises, and this faith protects the warrior when attacked by doubt and uncertainty. According to Walvoord and Zuck, “a Christian’s resolute faith in the Lord can stop and extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”[33]

The fifth piece of essential gear, and final piece of protective armor, is the “helmet of
salvation” (v. 17). The helmet protects the warrior’s head in battle and renders a sense of safety for the warrior. Walvoord and Zuck propose that “the helmet of salvation refers either to the present safety from the devil’s attacks or to a future deliverance, as referred to in 1 Thessalonians 5:8.”[34]  In either instance, the hope that comes from one’s salvation provides a secondary means of reassurance during the heat of spiritual battle.

The final piece of essential gear, and the only one designed for the offense, is the “sword of the Spirit” (v. 17). Despite the different translations of this phrase, the preferred one points to the “Holy Spirit as the origin of the sword”, thus equating the Spirit to the spiritual warrior’s offensive weapon against evil attacks.[35]  While the previous pieces of armor are primarily used to protect the warrior, the sword allows the warrior to assume the offense when necessary. Also in verse 17, Paul identifies the sword as the “Word of God”, and Walvoord and Zuck state that “the Greek translation of ‘word’ refers to the preached Word or an utterance of God occasioned by the Holy Spirit in the heart.”[36] This means that, by preaching or uttering the Word of God while under attack, the spiritual warrior can assume the offense against the enemy, thus imitating Jesus when tempted in the wilderness.


The final two elements of an operations order, the concept of the operation and endstate, provide an order of battle and details on the method of executing the operation. For this
exegesis, they will also serve as a practical application of this particular passage. In verses 19-20, Paul issues the concept of operation for conducting spiritual warfare, and includes both offensive and defensive lines of operation. By definition, a line of operation “is a line that defines the directional orientation of a force in time and space in relation to the enemy and links the force with its base of operations and objectives.”[37]  Therefore, multiples lines of operation flow in parallel sequence toward the accomplishment of the operational mission.

Along the defensive line of operation, the “whole armor of God”, including the sword,
serves as the first line of defense for the spiritual warrior. All characteristics of this armor, including faith, salvation, righteousness, truth, peace, and the Spirit, function in unison to protect the warrior. In addition, Paul urges his fellow believers to pray for each other, including himself, so that the mystery of the gospel can be made known (vv. 18-19). Therefore, along the defensive line of operation, “Christians…are to stand or hold the territory Christ and his body, the church, have conquered.”[38]  The warrior’s armor, coupled with “prayer and supplication in the Spirit” (v.18) achieves the defensive endstate of standing “in the evil day” (v. 13).

Along the offensive line of operation, prayer and the “sword of the Spirit” (v. 17) enables
the spiritual warrior to “make known the mystery of the gospel” (v. 19) with bold utterance, thus achieving the offensive endstate. According to Gordon D. Fee, “there is every good reason to believe that Paul intended his readers to hear ‘praying in the Spirit’ as the final expression of Christian weaponry in spiritual warfare.”[39]  In addition, the operational and strategic uses of Spirit-filled prayer truly make it a formidable weapon in spiritual warfare.

In conclusion, Paul’s call-to-arms, as well as his operations order and lines of operation, are still in effect. The applicability of these lines of operation, as well as this operations order, is still relevant to the 21st century spiritual warrior and the modern spiritual battlefield. Even though conditions on the battlefield and enemy tactics may have changed, the operations order issued by Paul in this passage is an enduring mission. This means that the war still rages for the Christian’s heart, mind, and soul, and Satan will continue to attack any areas of vulnerability. As the enemy continues to adapt its tactics to fit the current environment, so must Christians adapt
as well. Every warrior must continue to stand with fellow warriors, and hold the line for Christ until God issues His final change of mission.


1. John H. Walton, Mark L. Strauss, and Ted Cooper, Jr., The Essential Bible Companion: Key Insights for Reading God’s Word (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 97.

2. Ibid., 96.

3. Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message (Nashville: B&H Publishing Company, 2003), 441.

4. Walton, Strauss, and Cooper, 97.

5. Lea and Black, 336.

6. William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2004), 118.

7 Lea and Black, 333.

8. Ibid., 431.

9. Walton, Strauss, and Cooper, 96.

10. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Ephesus (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2008), 201.

11. Ibid., 210.

12. Walton, Strauss, and Cooper, 96.

13. James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 268.

14. Ibid., 269.

15. Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 40.

16. Lea and Black, 439.

17. Jeffers, 354-355.

18. Lea and Black, 439.

19. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 98.

20. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Frederic Natusch Maude (Stanford: Stanford University, 1969), 2.

21. Russell Sharrock, Spiritual Warfare: A Struggle for Truth (Morrisville: Lulu Enterprises, Inc., 2007), 270-271.

22. Lea and Black, 441.

23. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old and New Testament (Dallas: David C. Cook, 2002), 642.

24. Ibid., 643.

25. Duvall and Hays, 98.

26. Walvoord and Zuck, 643.

27. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 1858.

28. Walvoord and Zuck, 643.

29. John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Ephesians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute, 1986), 349.

30. Henry, 1858.

31. MacArthur, 351-352.

32. Henry, 1858.

33. Walvoord and Zuck, 644.

34. Ibid.

35. MacArthur, 368.

36. Walvoord and Zuck, 644.

37. Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0: Operations (Washington, DC: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 2008), 173.

38. Walvoord and Zuck, 643.

39. Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009), 730.

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