For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.Ephesians 6:12
“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” which is to say, against human beings who move about in the same way that we do, but “against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness,” that is, against the organized, powerful, closely-knit kingdom of the prince of darkness.
The “we” in whose name the apostle speaks are the brothers in Ephesus, the church to which he directs his word.
He had just admonished them to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might” that they might be able to withstand “the schemes of the devil.” In our text, he reminds them of the power that opposes them. He wishes to convince them that they not only need to seek an ally in this struggle, but also need to be outfitted with armor that protects head and breast, keeps their feet from stumbling, and enables them to “extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”
It is self-evident that all of this is applicable to the contemporary church.
Why did we hesitate to lay this word at the foundation of our meditation?
Not because the church no longer needs the admonition.
Not because anyone among us would be inclined to cast into doubt what the apostle here expresses.
But because he sees something that lies outside our field of vision, and with an eye to what he saw, recommends something for which we feel no immediate need.
After all, it does not say, “the prince of darkness struggles against you”; that may be true even if we do not know it, even if we do not believe it. What it does say is, “our struggle is… against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness,” and this is something that does not take place outside of our consciousness.
For if someone were to tell you that you struggle against something, in such and such a manner, you should be the first to know that.
But we have here to do with a power that keeps itself hidden, a danger to which our attention needs to be directed.
You see, we lived and live in days of struggle. Struggle with all sorts of origins, all manner of forms, struggle in ecclesiastical, societal, and political terrain, struggle for existence, for the majority, for power and influence. But in our eyes it was and always has been a struggle against flesh and blood, against notions, orientations, temporal powers and trends, in a word, against everything that proceeds from man and is limited to man.
Many Christians seem to have noticed nothing of a power of darkness, even less of a kingdom of darkness.
When the apostle Paul arrived in Ephesus for the first time, and found a few disciples there, he asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”, to which they responded, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2).
Should we take this to mean that, up until then, the Holy Spirit had acted outside of them, that they were not brought to faith through His power? They certainly later learned to understand that this was not the case. It only means that to that point He had operated outside of their conscious experience.
The same thing is true here of the work of the devil.
Many of whom we consider to be believers would answer the question, “do you know that we struggle against rulers of this age, powers of darkness, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places?”, may not have responded in precisely the same way as the Ephesians with regard to the Holy Spirit, for they have all heard that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8); but nevertheless, they still have to recognize what amounts to the same thing: “in our own lives, and in the midst of our struggle, we have noticed nothing of the working of those spiritual forces of evil.”
There are all sorts of reasons for this, which I do not need to go into now. But the most obvious is the shallowness of our spiritual life.
We are like children playing in the surf or running around on the sand, without any idea of what lies hidden in the depths of the sea. Not even when the storm hits and the waters are stirred up; not even when the waves break against the shore.
For this reason, it is so necessary to make clear to ourselves what the expression “the kingdom of darkness” signifies, and what the admonition of the apostle wishes to impart with respect to that kingdom.
How can we properly struggle against a power the existence of which we do not suspect, and against which we are powerless with our ordinary weapons?
We usually speak of Satan as if this was the inclusive name of all hellish power. But according to Scripture, Satan is the prince of the kingdom of darkness. Often the head of state is named when we wish to speak of the entire people. Satan, as far as Scripture makes known to us, appeared only twice in this world. The first time was in Paradise before the first Adam, the second time in the wilderness before the second Adam. But the apostle describes for us the kingdom of darkness in the words of my text: “the rulers of this world, the darkness of this age,” the entire hierarchy of the Evil One. He speaks here of an ascent of power and indicates the contiguous organization of that kingdom, of which the Evil One is the head.
Our Catechism says that a child of God has three main enemies, the devil, the world, and the flesh.
We know this.
And we understand, even if not entirely from our own experience, what it is from which God preserves us! What are the temptations and combats of the devil; what are the fiery darts which must strike the soul if the shield of faith did not ward them off. But now that we, in response to our text, speak of the kingdom of darkness, we have in mind no specific experience of spiritual life indicated by the word “temptation,” but that which in the history of the world is seen of the action of the powers of destruction, even where we had not discovered it before.
I will show you:
1. the two powers which rule history, namely, the power of God and the power of Satan;
2. the resources and aids available to the prince of darkness;
3. what of this struggle can be seen in our days; but most importantly
4. what, with this in mind, we have to hope and to fear, to do and to learn.
I speak thus over this struggle, which the apostle observes, the struggle not against flesh and blood but against rulers, powers, the world forces of this world, the darkness of this age, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
This world is a stage displaying the tremendous struggle between two powers, God and Satan, a struggle which survives the ages and which will not end as long as the kingdoms of this world have not been subjected to the Christ, who must reign from sea to sea and from the rivers to the ends of the earth.
The start of this struggle lies outside our field of vision. The conflict between God and Satan was already fought and settled before man appeared on earth. The prince of darkness has already “been cast out of heaven.” But here below he has managed to get a foothold. It is the continuation of the struggle to which we have to draw attention.
It is foretold in the promise in Paradise: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel” [Genesis 3:15]. We owe that battle to God’s grace, which prevented us from descending into the depths and lamentation of misery into which Satan has brought his followers. That word of promise is a brief summary of the entire history of the world.
If you ask whether that battle was not already settled at Golgotha, when Christ bruised the head of Satan, I answer no, certainly not! There the king of the Kingdom of God, Jesus Christ, bought Himself a people with His own blood, a people who will be willing in the day of God’s power (Psalm 110:3).
There He fought the good fight and gained the victory. There, in the words of the hymn we just sang, He “received the Kingdom of God as reward for His struggle.” There He in principle accepted the rulership, so that He might soon say: “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth.” He proceeded from there to receive a Kingdom in the place where the word is spoken: “Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet” (Psalm 110:1).
Or do Da Costa’s beautiful words:
And the snake’s head crushed”
contain no truth?
Doubtless, if we only pay attention to the principle and overlook what the apostle Paul calls “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).
“It is finished!” But the end is not yet!
There is a difference between what we see in faith, and what we perceive in reality.
For faith, time and distance do not exist. It sees the things that are not as though they were. It boasts where unbelief would have every right to complain. In the promise, it receives the fulfillment; in the bud, the blossom and the fruit.
In hope we have been saved, Romans 8:24. For us, faith here still exists in the form of hope, the Christian’s hope. But the Word will soon be fulfilled: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20).
That was spoken to the church, and through the church to you and me.
Not only is there a revelation of God which culminated in the ascension of Christ, but there is also a revelation of Satan. The Lord God manifested Himself from out of the mystery of His being, but there is also a mystery of iniquity already being wrought (2 Thess. 2: 7), and this satanic revelation shall be realized when the apostasy of Christendom allows him to bring about the man of sin, in whom we will be able to worship man, genius, the man who will be girded with all the gifts and powers that art and science impart and who will possess everything that makes one great and mighty, as may be expected of a satanic genius (2 Thess. 2:3). Lying signs and miracles still have to be done in the midst of a society that had been taught that miracles were impossible (2 Thess. 2:9).
But before that, the nations’ boundaries have to be erased.
What path will this take? God is busy teaching us.
For, as has become apparent in the battle being fought in our city, there is a struggle which cannot be confined to a city or a country, but extends over the whole world. When all the world will be a republic, and this republic established on new foundations, when violence is recognized as the redeemer of the oppressed, then the moment will have come, the fulness of time, in which he can appear, who takes the reins of government and reigns with a lordship that demands not only tribute but also enslaves souls – as long as God permits!
Holy Scripture again and again shows us the evil one in the background of things, the power that sets itself up against God and His anointed one.
When David counts the people (1 Chron. 21:1), when Job has so much to suffer (Job 2:1ff.), when Israel returns from Babylon and Joshua the high priest is lacking his robe, so that the letter of the law condemns him (Zechariah 3), when Christ is led into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil (Matt. 4), when Judas betrays his Savior (Luke 22:3), when Peter is sifted like wheat (Luke 22:31), when the demon-possessed fight against their Redeemer (Matt. 8:29).
But Scripture goes even farther and speaks of the kingdom of Satan as a kingdom established in opposition to the Kingdom of God.
So, we must in the second place indicate the aids and the resources Satan possesses. It is precisely this aspect of the matter that we have so little awareness of. Our text speaks of “rulers, powers, and forces” and hereby gives us a sign that there are things in heaven and earth of which man, as Hamlet says, has no idea.
There is an invisible world that is not so far away. In that world, a struggle is under way, apart from man, which influences the course of events here below.
We cannot and may not say more about this. Except:
If what happened with the servant of Elisha in Dothan were to happen to us, we would also see the powers that surround us, and then we would see what he saw and – praise God! – we would also see that those who are with us are more than those who are against us.
“The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear Him, and rescues them” (Psalm 34:7).
To penetrate into this mystery would only serve to satisfy curiosity.
Scripture is very sober in this.
Even so, it is not entirely silent.
In the Revelation of John, a scene on earth always follows after a scene in heaven has been sketched, so that it is not difficult to discover the connection that turns out to exist between the realm there and here.
Something similar is shown to us in the vision of Daniel by the river Tigris (ch. 10). There was opposition to be overcome in the spirit realm before the blessing for which the prophet had begged for his people could descend (ch. 9:3ff).
All this, however, lies outside the field of vision in which the text places us. Here is talk of a battle on this earth fought by the church of God against the principalities and the powers that the kingdom of Satan is attempting to establish here on earth.
The struggle would not be so dangerous, however, if the Evil One did not possess resources and aids in this world.
We color our map of missions black where Christ’s church has not been established and the gospel has not penetrated, and in so doing we say that the kingdom of darkness exercises unlimited rule there.
There is certainly a truth in this.
But Scripture takes a different point of view and teaches us a more humbling truth. If Peter wants nothing to do with Jesus’ suffering and death, and exclaims, “Lord! That will by no means happen to you!”, Jesus responds to him: “Get behind me, Satan! ”
Because he is thinking not of the things of God, but of the things of man (Matthew 16:22ff.).
And if the church of Corinth was to conceive of discipline in such a way that it no longer would accept the apostate even if he were to repent, even if the Lord were to grant him forgiveness, then Paul comes and says, know that you are an instrument of Satan! (2 Cor. 2:11).
When Paul speaks of the battle “against principalities and powers” he actually means a battle waged against the persecutors, a battle also against brethren, against Demas who loved the present world, against Peter, who let himself be coaxed by the Jewish-minded in a way that leads to great sadness. The struggle to which the apostle Paul points would not be so frightful and would not pose so much danger if we only faced the Evil One. The kingdom of Satan could then be demarcated with a certain color, and the boundaries of that kingdom would certainly not be crossed. In that case the soldiers of King Jesus could be identified by a band around the cap or a sign on the arm.
Unfortunately, Eve’s experience is also ours. She called her first-born Cain and clearly indicated both in the name (weapon, gain) and in the cry, “I have acquired a man from the Lord” (Gen. 4:1), that in him she thought she saw the promised seed of the woman.
But in the name of her second son Abel (vanity, disappointment) she proclaimed no less loudly that she had already discovered the seed of the serpent in the firstborn of her generation.
It is indeed deeply disturbing to discover the influence of the Evil One most often where one least expects it.
In these days we have become acquainted with a power hitherto underestimated, the power of an organization so entirely obedient that the individuals are joined into one body, and that body animated by a spirit, a purpose, a plan, a will. This many-headed unity, however, was brought about by the voluntary accession of members individually, and thus distinguishes itself from that other organization of which the apostle speaks in our text.
No earthly power has such aids as Satan.
Where sin dwells, where error reigns, self-seeking, worldly motives, where even when we have the best intentions we do not submit to God’s Word alone in the choice of means, there Satan discovers a point of contact, an aid, an ally, an instrument which he can use when the time comes.
He takes possession of Judas, for he belongs to him; but he sifts Peter as wheat and discovers, in that which in him proceeds apart from grace, an opened door and a weak spot.
While the Savior exercises His prophetic, His redeeming activity in the circle of souls seeking salvation, so that the crowds flock to Him impressed by His Word and work, he has at his disposal none other than the mother of the Lord, who with His brothers, the spirit of whom evidently animates her this time, seeks a means of causing Him to cease His work (Matthew 12:47).
There is a reverent man at Bethel, an old prophet, who lends himself to the unenviable work of defeating the witness of God standing up to the altar of Jeroboam in the center of the apostasy (1 Kings 13).
And if there be no sin and no error enabling him to enslave a man, there will be some one-sidedness in that man that can be put to effective use with any policy. There will be some truth which, when misapplied, performs the same operation as the lie it replaces. The first lie was, in a sense, a truth (Gen. 3:5).
These things are not entirely unknown to us, although the existing division into ecclesiastical and political parties as well as into social groups gives too much reason to forget them.
And because of this, be it said in passing, faction shows itself to be from the evil one. It is a master deception of Satan by which he leads us to call good what comes from one particular side, while neglecting what in it must be reckoned to the account of the prince of darkness. No, Johan Huss had a more correct view when, at the stake, a woman of the commonality came with exemplary zeal with a branch, adding to the stack of wood where she saw a heretic not worthy to behold the light: her enthusiasm caused him to exclaim “Sancta simplicitas!” Holy simplicity.
For the apostle, what we have here indicated as separate facts stand, according to our text, in the service of a plan, something of which one occasionally discerns but which serves a mighty purpose as part of an interlocking wheelwork, i.e., is made subservient to the establishment and expansion of the kingdom of darkness.
As children we shuddered when we were told of the Jesuits who penetrated everywhere, with and without their cassock, who from the living room, the study, the council room, the office, everywhere and in all kinds of ways, would take hold of the strings held in the hand of a man, the general of the order, who could lead the movement that was to paralyze the power of truth in the religious sphere and every other.
And one might well shudder, for what can be seen in the Counter-reformation is only a faint picture of what the Apostle Paul perceived when he spoke of the battle against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
God is these days graphically teaching us the meaning of such an organization.
We see an imperium in imperio being formed.
We see a power in the hands of the masses, but in fact of a few, soon perhaps of a single one, which will gradually spread over the city, the region, the country, the world, a power from which soon no one will be able to withdraw, and which decides the fate of all, a power that will only gradually emerge as the initial outcome of the ideas which found their first initial expression in the upheaval of more than a century ago.
Seeing, we must be blind if we limited our attention to Jesuitism or socialism, let alone the present strike, and did not discover in the background of things the power which holds the threads of the whole fabric in hand and competes for the rulership of the world.
Our struggle is not against concepts and opinions but against a goal to which they are made serviceable.
Finally, let me say to you what it is we have to hope or fear from this, what we have to do or to learn.
Without forgetting that I am speaking here officially, from the pulpit, to the congregation, I must then briefly mention the circumstances of the times, because here they both ask for and provide the necessary explanation.
The struggle between workers and employers, which involves the public and of which many have been and will become victims, does not concern the interests of individuals or groups, but of the entire citizenry.
It is now a question of authority.
Of authority and freedom.
Not today or yesterday but almost a century ago, the power which we call the Revolution tore apart the nation and, along with the nation, the body of the state and of the church.
This took place under the motto, “liberty, equality, fraternity.”
This was done under the pretense that faith is a purely private affair.
We reap what we sow!
We are only at the beginning of the things which are coming.
But already now, anyone can know that freedom means coercion, intolerable coercion in the name of the common good, exercised by a few; that equality signifies a revolution, whereby that which lies below comes to the surface; that brotherhood is hard to find when not grounded in self-interest.
And one can also clearly see that authority has shifted. Instead of the authority with which God has vested the government, the authority of the Committees takes its place, as in the French Revolution; a power that is emerging, from the people, from the majority: an authority before which the government will eventually also have to yield, for the simple reason that even the army eventually ceases to support that which may not profess any faith, and without faith can neither rule nor find obedience.
Be that as it may.
In the light of God’s Word, we see deeper and further. It is the prince of darkness who is establishing his kingdom, and is to this end that he makes use, under a variety of names, of the error, the one-sidedness, the sloth, the self-interest, the often well-meaning deviations from the only rule by which government and subject should walk.
On every battlefield, in every struggle, there is great activity. There are troop movements here, there, everywhere, baffling the uninitiated. But the general whose eye is on everything knows very well that what matters, after all is said and done, is the key position.
I spoke of a plan that Satan is busy executing, and say with Paul that “we are not ignorant of his schemes” [2 Cor. 2:11], not because it does not take so much discernment to see through that plan, but because God has made known His plan and established His kingdom. The antithesis is made known by the thesis.
And what is the thesis?
In this world where sin dwells and selfishness reigns, God has established two powers to expound the truth, to teach the fear of God, to maintain justice, and to restrain the license of men.
While He has entrusted no earthly power to the church, He has given her a mouth with which to confess and a hand to hold high the torch of the truth.
Satan has used all manner of people and means and still uses them to silence that mouth and to rob this power of influence, as it is this day.
Every error, every deficiency hands him a means to achieve his goal. The outposts he establishes do not have bad intentions and in most cases have no idea of the system they are serving.
With many it is the same as with the 200 men whom Absalom carried away in his rebellion. They went in their simplicity, for they knew nothing of the affair (2 Sam. 15:11).
What he cannot use directly for his purpose, he occupies with the care of the poor, with the ministry of mercy, with some form of education and so on, good things, useful things all, but applied so that the one thing that is needful remains invisible; applied as a surrogate.
To the government, God gave the vocation to rule in accordance with His will, in His name, as His viceroy.
And Satan has made use of all sorts of things in order to get even the Christian people to understand that the government can and may not have any fixed rule by which it is to rule; that it is much better if sovereignty is transferred to various spheres in the life of the nation, so that we no longer have a nation at all, but all manner of spheres with their own resources and aids in the struggle for existence.
We see before our eyes what this results in. Society must be established on new foundations, which these days are clearly being exposed.
God’s Word has been or will be fulfilled.
The two witnesses are put to death, for the court is given to the Gentiles. And their dead bodies lie in the streets of the great city, “where also our Lord was crucified” (Rev. 11:2, 7–10).
What do we have to fear, you ask? The movement, which seemed confined to Amsterdam, must sooner or later expand all over the world; it ends up in the world republic. And that Republic is what it already is in the very essence of the matter, the single-headed government girded with the Satanic power, turning, when the nations find not what they seek, against God and His Anointed One, even against all who confess Him.
What do we hope for?
What God promised when He comes to judge.
What to do?
To do and to learn.
To open our eyes for what history has to tell us, and our eyes for what God has said in His Word.
Furthermore, to organize, not in the sense in which interested, like-minded people have been doing since time immemorial.
Every organization is weak when confronted with the close-knit power of self-interest.
God has organized. He anointed His Son as King over Zion.
He is the king of justice.
The prince of peace.
But His kingdom must be established in heart and home, in society and state.
Established in this manner, that we ever more subject ourselves to Him. “Because He is your King, bow before Him!”
In that case, what is important to you is His honor.
You then ask, in accordance with His Word.
You will then look differently at life and at persons.
David refused to have Shimei killed, because God had said to him: curse David (2 Sam. 16:10).
You will go very easy on another if you know that when you act against him most zealously, perhaps Satan has already laid his hand on you.
But it will also let you know that you and your work are not so isolated as you had suspected.
And if you ask, How shall we be able to stand against this power that both presses on us and resides within us, then I can tell you that Satan needs double permission, first God’s, then our own.
When we pray, Lord, keep us from evil, and seek to learn the wiles of the Evil One from God’s Word, then we need not fear.
The last word in the history of the world will be: the kingdoms of this earth have become of the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ!
Delivered Sunday morning, February 1st, 1903, in the Westerkerk, Amsterdam, by Dr. P. J. Hoedemaker.
Recorded during the sermon and checked by the speaker.
 Hymn 166 of the Oude Hervormde Bundel [Old Reformed Bundle].
 A reference to the railroad strike of 1903. A good description of this event can be found here; a Marxist interpretation can be found here. The sermon was delivered in the midst of this event, before it had been settled, forcibly, by the government led by Abraham Kuyper.