Praying when evil is near

A sermon by Rod Benson

Ephesians 6:10-17

Satan and his demon sidekick were walking down the street, watching a man 20 yards ahead who was on the verge of realizing the supreme truth of the universe. The demon grew worried, and began to nudge Satan, but Satan looked calm. Sure enough, the man suddenly realized the deepest spiritual truth. Yet Satan still did nothing.

The demon nudged Satan harder and said, “Satan! That man has realized the truth! And you are doing nothing to stop him!”

Satan smiled and said, “Yes, he has realized the truth. And now I will help him organize the truth!”

That’s a caution to those of us who like to systematize biblical truth, or arrange Bible verses to fit our theology. As Jesus said, if we hold to his teaching, we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free (Jn 8:31-32). That is what truth does.

But we can be too clever, seeing things that aren’t there, and overlooking precious gems. And we can be distracted by the world, the flesh and the devil (not to mention misguided pastors and theologians) in our search for the truth, and in its application.

Sometimes Scripture is hard to understand. Sometimes Paul’s writings especially are difficult to comprehend. Ephesians 1 can be like that, and passages in Romans. But not so Ephesians 6, which provides good clear practical advice on prayer. Paul is drawing his letter to a close as he writes chapter 6, verse 10. Ephesians is one of the finest gems in the New Testament, whether we judge the letter by its profound theological reflection, or its crisp evocative language of worship and prayer, or its practical pastoral guidance.

The letter continues to speak with great power across time, space and culture to our contemporary situation. As Peter T. O’Brien observes:

To a world that seems to have lost all sense of direction, and a society that for all its great achievements is in a mess, the divine analysis of the human predicament along with God’s gracious and comprehensive salvation … ultimately provides the only hope for a world that stands under divine judgment.[1]

One of the most exciting yet challenging aspects of the truth we discover in the letter to the Ephesians is that, while our salvation is entirely by God’s grace through faith (Eph 2:1-7), and there is absolutely nothing we can do to merit or attain our salvation, after we see the light – after we are united with Christ, after we enter the fold, after we join the new community – we discover that there is much we can do, and should do, to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:25) and walk in partnership with Jesus as we trust and obey and honour the God who has saved us by his grace.

Part of this work is the work of prayer, and an important aspect of Christian prayer is intercession for others before the “throne of grace” (Heb 4:16), in the field of spiritual warfare, taking our stand “against the devil’s schemes” (Eph 6:11), so that “when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (v. 13b).

Many years ago, just after I moved to Sydney to take up the pastorate at Blakehurst Baptist Church, we spent an afternoon at Palm Beach on Sydney’s northern beaches. I was walking along the beach, above the water line, with Michael in one arm (he was just eight months old when we arrived in Sydney), when a freak wave hit the beach and knocked me off my feet.

Fortunately I cradled Michael as I fell, and he was shaken but not harmed, although my prized SLR camera was less fortunate and had to have grains of sand and salt removed by an expert at enormous cost. The problem was that I was unaware of the danger, and unprepared for what might happen.

You’ve probably stood facing the waves near the shore, feet apart, with or without an infant in your arms, and let the waves surge round your legs, and felt the current dragging, and felt your feet slowly sinking into a depression as the water draws away the sand beneath you, but you stood firm.

You were aware of the danger, and you were prepared, and experienced. We’ve probably all done that many times. The same principle applies in spiritual warfare, in defensive prayer. Such prayer is an essential practice for Christians and for the church. Without it we sink. Without it we collapse and drown.

Here Paul pulls back the veil to show us the darkness fighting against the light, the unspeakable evil that lurks just beneath the surface of our comfortable rational 21st-century lives (v. 12):

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

By “powers” Paul does not mean Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, or the “gummint” or the cops, but elemental spiritual forces.

There are three contrasting ways of explaining the meaning of verse 12: these forces may be territorial spirits, or social and cultural structures (what some theologians call “demythologized powers”), or they may be demons who tempt people to sin, just as the devil famously tempted Jesus in the desert at the beginning of his public ministry (Mt 4:1-11).

Let’s look at each of these suggestions. First, territorial spirits are said to be fallen angels (demons) who are restricted by God to particular regions or cities, and who seek to control people and organisations, increasing sinful behaviour and frustrating efforts to extend the kingdom of God. Christians should pray strategically against these forces of evil, defying their authority and claiming areas, institutions and churches in the name of Jesus.

I attended some conferences promoting this way of thinking in the 1990s. Typically advocates identify spirits by name, and engage in “spiritual mapping” and “prayer walks,” and speak of “taking a city for God.” It’s very exciting, and daunting, and exhausting.

The second approach imagines the powers to be “social structures, cultural traditions, human rulers and forces that maintain or legitimize their power.”[2] Where such structures and forces usurp or subvert the reign of God and mission of the church, they should be challenged in the name of Jesus.

The third approach is to understand the powers as demonic forces tempting individuals to sin and to reject the truth. That is, they are part of our struggle against “the world, the flesh and the devil.”

My view is that option one relies too much on speculation and folk religion, and too little on Scripture. God reigns supreme. His sovereignty is absolute. This world and everything in it belongs to God, not to the devil and his angels. Warfare prayer against territorial spirits may be conscientious and well-intentioned, but it can also be an exhausting distraction from simply sharing the gospel with your neighbour or workmate, and taking practical actions to promote mercy and uphold justice.

On the other hand, as Craig Keener notes in his commentary on Revelation 20,

While I find many practices currently countenanced in the name of “spiritual warfare,” they may be less disconcerting than the more prevalent attitudes in much of Christendom that virtually acts as if powers hostile to our mission do not exist![3]

As to the second approach, I believe there is some truth to the claim, but it does not account for Paul’s insistence that such forces operate “in heavenly realms” (v 12; cf 3:10). Scripture teaches that evil is prevalent not only in institutional structures and cultural power but in the form of real invisible spiritual forces – Satan and his fallen angels, whom we call demons, all of whom were definitively defeated at the cross and stand under God’s final judgment, and of whom Scripture declares that their destiny is eternal punishment in the lake of fire (Rev 20:7-10).

The third approach seems to me to fit best with biblical teaching and personal experience, although I would not want to rule out the notion of territorially-bound spirits (see Dan 10:12-14), or indeed the concept that evil finds a home in social structures and cultural practices – just look at the environmental degradation caused by mining, or the exploitation of low-wage apprentices and hospitality industry workers, or spend an hour watching Rage or Orange is the New Black.

You don’t have to give up your well-placed confidence in modern scientific rational thought in order to believe in personal spiritual forces working against God, blinding us to the truth, encouraging people to disobey God, and generally seeking to undermine and destroy all that is good and godly in the world. Paul and the Christians at Ephesus were well acquainted with such forces. On Paul’s first visit to Ephesus, he encountered strong opposition from the demonic (Ac 19:11-20).

The battle against evil is an important responsibility for all Christians. That is one of the reasons why we pray. Paul challenges us: “do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph 4:27).

How do we do this? By taking our stand, united, confident, aware, prepared for battle, expecting opposition, and expecting victory; by wearing “the full armour of God” (vv. 13-17).

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Eph 6:10).

Sermon 660 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 13 March 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Leicester: Apollos, 1999), p. 2.

[2] Tim Chester, The Message of Prayer (Leicester: IVP, 2003), p. 223.

[3] Craig S. Keener, Revelation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 482.

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