Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Eph. 6:12a “For we wrestle. . .”
Thinking of Satan’s “wiles” (6:11) brought another fighting metaphor to Paul’s mind. Wrestling is a 5000-year-old sport which entails the use of deceit and subtlety in an attempt to throw down, and to pin to the floor, an opponent.
Wrestling is nasty, stinky, hand to hand, toe to toe, agony–sweat against sweat, breath against breath. I hated wrestling in gym class. I had to take my glasses off, which left me unable to see clearly the eyes and hands of my rival. We fought in alphabetical order. My opponent, though a nice guy, smelled bad. He would grip me in a headlock and his underarm odor was terrible. Blind and overwhelmed by stench, I lost every match every day. I finally started falling to the mat as quickly as I could just to end the match as fast as possible.
Maybe better than any other metaphor, wrestling describes the severity and intensity of our struggle against evil. Wrestling is a mean, intense, contact sport in which combatants struggle for the mastery up-close. People do not “wrestle” a mile, ten feet, or even six inches, apart. They interlock arms and legs, tug back and forth, and grapple with one another, seeking a weakness. This is Satan’s fighting style. Conventional, straightforward tactics of warfare are not his method of operation. With no holds barred, he attacks up-close.
The wrestling metaphor individualizes the conflict involved in our spiritual warfare. When a huge army marches into battle, a lone armored soldier may be able to hide, to get lost in the shuffle, but in a wrestling match, each combatant has to take up their own individual conflict. It is never enough to watch the battles of, or to try to hide behind, fellow Christians. Others can help us up to a point, but ultimately we each have a load we alone can carry. We all must, with God’s help, bear our own heat of the battle. There is no way for a Christian to avoid a lifetime of individualized conflict against Satan.
Eph. 6:12b “. . .not against flesh and blood,. . .”
Usually, two wrestling opponents are fairly equally matched. Otherwise, there is no “sport” in the match. In our spiritual wrestling, though, we are not afforded the luxury of being pitted against our equals. We wrestle not against “flesh and blood,” against feeble and weak mortals like ourselves.
Paul is not saying we never have trouble with people. We all deal with obnoxious and wicked people. Paul is rather saying our warfare is fought neither solely nor ultimately on the human level. People are the visible, immediate obstacles, but behind them are driving evil forces in the spirit world. Our most dangerous enemies are not ones we see, but ones always invisible to us.
As humans, we relate to the world around us through five senses–sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Christians are given a sixth sense, faith, which opens to us a whole new realm. This spiritual dimension, though invisible, is more important than, and the driving force behind what happens in, this world.
Most people spend too much time focusing on what they can see, hear, touch, taste, and feel. Even many Christians are guilty of letting our five physical senses overwhelm and drown out our one spiritual sense. Believers, be careful not to adopt our culture’s obsession with this present, material world. The fact our word “immaterial” has taken on the connotation of “unimportant” proves our society’s obsession with earthly mindedness. Christians must ward off this insidious influence and spend more time focused on the spiritual realm.
Fellow saints, concentrate on the spiritual to discourage bitterness. Our text is one reason we are forbidden to seek revenge. “Our natural disposition would lead us to direct all our exertions against the men themselves; but this foolish desire will be restrained by the consideration that the men who annoy us are nothing more than darts thrown by the hand of Satan” (Calvin). We are never to hate our human enemies. Love and pity them. View them with eyes of compassion. Evil forces have gained ascendancy in their lives.
Paul saw past the raging human antagonists who opposed him. If anyone ever had reason to become bitter and cynical toward people, he did, yet he never let his heart go sour. He “fought with wild beasts at Ephesus” (1 C 15:32 NAS), received 39 lashes five times, was stoned once, thrice beaten with rods, and imprisoned often (2 C 11:24ff). Despite this cruelty from human beings, Paul assessed the data, and looked beyond the physical, realizing the problem was elsewhere. Paul never forgot who his real foe was. He realized people were merely vehicles through which invisible evil forces reveal themselves.
When we hate others, or strike back with vengeance, we deny the spiritual realm’s importance, and thereby allow ourselves to become bitter toward people. Remembering our text will help keep us from much inner sadness.
Fellow saints, concentrate on the spiritual to encourage betterment. We often spend eight hours in a work-day busily dealing with the visible, and yet deem it a burden to deal with the unseen for even as much as an hour. Dear workers and students, since the spiritual realm is the propelling force behind the physical, need we seek any farther to find why we have so many troubles?
A hyper-materialist, one obsessed with this world, is in serious trouble. Believers with narrow focus face a lifetime of repeated spiritual defeats for they refuse to emphasize adequately the only realm where ultimate solutions are found. Seeking answers only in this world and in what it offers is futile.
James Boice wisely asks, if this world’s problems are merely material and visible, why were they not solved long ago? For instance, governments have for ages struggled with same problems over and over again (eg. crime, greed, housing, poverty, war). The same social problems which plagued the ancients vex us today. Why? Because governments, forced to deal only with the outward and tangible, cannot deal with ultimate, root problems. Thus, government at best can only offer temporary solutions to never-ending problems.
It is perfectly evident to anyone who will honestly and objectively look at the human scene that there are forces at work in societies and in individual human lives which lie beyond the scope of the physical. Forces stronger than governments and human beings lurk behind what is visible.
Our struggle is not against “flesh and blood.” The spiritual world is the most significant realm of power. Believers guilty of one-dimensional thinking, living on one plane, tunnel vision, in essence deny this fundamental principle.
It is foolish to try to face the difficulties, and fight the battles, of life solely in the realm of the material and visible. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood.” Satan our enemy is spirit, and must be defeated by our God, who is spirit (JN 4:24). As John MacArthur notes, a guard who sees an enemy army approaching does not run out and start fighting. He rather reports the attack to his commanding officer, who then determines what will happen next.