What is spiritual warfare? Spiritual warfare is what the apostle Paul calls “our struggle…against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm” (Eph. 6:12). When we say spiritual, Americans often merely mean emotional. When the Bible uses the term, however, it refers to the personal, real beings who are beyond physics but who interact with physics night and day, non-stop, in every corner of the universe.
When the Bible uses the term “spiritual,” it is talking about angels and demons, the Holy Spirit and Satan, the archangels, and the beast. The following is an excerpt from David Young’s book Resilient: Standing Firm in a Hostile World.
Who’s the Real Enemy?
The book of Revelation was written for Christians who were facing increasing amounts of persecution. In Western Asia Minor, the persecution was severe enough that there were already martyrs for the faith when John wrote down his visions in the book.
The sources of the persecution were pretty much the same as in our day: places of employment, family members, social networks of previous friends, the media that existed in those times—all of it under the auspices of the Roman government led by pagans who had come to hate Christians for their values, especially in the areas of sexuality, religious commitment, and the exclusivity of Christ. Rome was determined to silence Christians, even if it meant killing them all.
What’s fascinating about Revelation is that the words “Rome” and “Roman” never appear in the book. It is true that Revelation 17:9 mentions the seven hills of Rome, but that’s pretty much it. Instead, the book of Revelation teaches Christians about demons, Satan, compromised Christians, the beast, the dragon, Armageddon, heaven, hell, and all things spiritual.
“What’s fascinating about Revelation is that the words “Rome” and “Roman” never appear in the book.”
Indeed, Rome and the Romans are hardly mentioned in any of the letters written to suffering Christians in the New Testament. That’s not because the New Testament writers were afraid of naming their persecutors. The New Testament writers understood who their real enemy was: Satan, not Rome. Peter mentions Rome—under the spiritually bankrupt term “Babylon”—in 1 Peter 5:13, but only after warning the Christians a few verses before who the real enemy is:
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. (1 Peter 5:8–9)
Rome’s institutions and government were actively harassing and even persecuting Christians, but Peter kept the focus on the real enemy: Satan.
“Peter kept the focus on the real enemy: Satan.”
Recovering a Spiritual Worldview
Revelation 12–13 demonstrates this spiritual worldview. Revelation 12 tells the story of a huge red dragon, who is almost certainly Satan in this text—and if not, is another kind of demon. In the story, the dragon tries to stop the work of Christ but is thwarted by God through the Archangel Michael. Enraged that he could not stop the work of Christ, the dragon turns his fury against the people of God, sending forth the evil beast of Revelation—who is almost certainly Rome and its institutions. Here is the text:
Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus. The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. (Revelation 12:17–13:1)
The beast then persecutes Christians ferociously. And note how the beast seduces humanity: “People worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast” (Revelation 13:4). The persecution the Christians faced at the hands of Rome was motivated by people who had enslaved themselves to Satan.
Spiritual Warfare: “The persecution the Christians faced at the hands of Rome was motivated by people who had enslaved themselves to Satan.”
Rome was not really the problem. The problem was that the people of the Roman Empire were in bondage to Satan. They had believed Satan’s lies. They shared in Satan’s rage against righteousness. They had surrendered to Satan’s power. Our real enemy is Satan.
Deciphering between Symptom and Disease
The battle will have tremendous political, cultural, and social dimensions to it, but at the end of the day, our battle is spiritual—not political, cultural, or social. Paul the apostle says it clearly: “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” (Ephesians 6:12).
Understand this, and you’ll be able to fight faithfully. Misunderstand this, and you’ll squander all your ammunition on the wrong enemy: “get out the vote,” “flip the courts,” “retake the streets,” and the like. These issues matter, of course, and I don’t want to sound as though I am denying that. Politics get people killed. Culture can corrupt millions of people. Politics matter, and the culture wars are fought over very important issues.
But bad politics and corrupt culture are symptoms of the real disease. And though symptoms must be treated, the real disease is the spiritual rebellion of humans against God, and the real enemy is Satan, who holds much of humanity in bondage. We absolutely must understand this, or we’ll lose the battle.
Spiritual Warfare: “Misunderstand this, and you’ll squander all your ammunition on the wrong enemy.”
So how does understanding the spiritual war behind our struggles change things?
It shifts our fight away from mere physical strategies toward spiritual strategies. It means that we fight, not merely with votes, tweets, coalitions, and the like. It means, rather, that we fight with truth, with the gospel, with hope, and above all with the love of Christ.
Understanding Spiritual Bondage
Our opponents are in bondage to the real enemy, Satan. So our battle plan is to set our opponents free from bondage. We don’t fight against our opponents. We fight for them—for their souls and against the demons who have their souls in bondage.
To understand this better, remember that those who persecute us have been blinded by the evil one. Their motives have been shaped by their belief in his lies. As Satan has arrogantly and pridefully lifted himself up against the one true God, he has convinced our opponents to do the same. And their actions make sense to them because they follow the devil—“the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2).
Look at what the apostle Paul wrote to the church of Corinth: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Spiritual Warfare: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers.”
Throughout his ministry, Jesus had to battle against demonic possession—demons actually taking control of people and possessing them. They still do this, of course, but much more commonly, demons today act through deceit. They lie, perverting every good and true gift from God into a curse and source of destruction. Deceit is the primary tool the evil one uses.
When facing challenges from the Pharisees, Jesus said, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
Spiritual Warfare: “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
We give the devil power over us when we believe his lies. The problem with our enemies is their acceptance of the evil one’s lies. They are in bondage to deceit. Satan has convinced the world that either there is no God or that, if God exists, he is primarily concerned with granting us our desires. Like he did in the Garden of Eden, he has convinced the world they have the capacity to build their own paradise here on earth without God.
He has schemed to persuade the world there is no real truth, only power. He has swayed the world to believe that unborn babies are not human and come between the world and its desire for autonomy. He has brainwashed the world that achieving pleasure is the highest good and that sexual sin is a healthy expression of this pleasure. In every case, the evil one has convinced the world that we Christians stand in their way.
The devil lies. The world believes.
Spiritual Warfare: “The devil lies. The world believes.”
Acknowledging God, Rejecting Lies
In this long passage, the apostle Paul describes how the world falls for such lies. It is a description that sounds as though it could have been written this morning in a national newspaper:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another.
They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men and received the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. (Romans 1:21–31, NIV)
“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”
Unbelievers have the same access to God as do believers, but they neither glorified him as God, nor gave thanks to him. Rather, they darkened their hearts and exchanged the glory of God for their idols. They followed their sinful desires down the hole into ever increasing decadence. As the prophet Jeremiah says, “Truth has perished; it has vanished from their lips” (Jeremiah 7:28).
Why does understanding this matter? Because we can easily waste our time fighting the wrong battles and using the wrong weapons. We could easily believe that we should fight against the dark powers of the world using worldly weapons. But we would fail. We can only fight the powers of this dark world with the power of the Spirit.
Spiritual Warfare: “We can only fight the powers of this dark world with the power of the Spirit.”
Rediscovering the Power of the Holy Spirit
Recovering a robust relationship with the Holy Spirit is central to fighting the spiritual war we find ourselves in. The Spirit equips us for the fight, working signs and wonders and powers, giving us power over the demonic, and, eventually transforming us into the image of Christ.
I have written elsewhere about how the Holy Spirit does this. Here, I will only say that a rich relationship with the Holy Spirit has always been central to standing strong in a hostile world.
- It is the Holy Spirit who will teach us what we need to survive this world (John 14:26).
- It is the Holy Spirit who will fill our hearts with the love of God for the fight (Romans 5:5).
- When we are unable to pray, it is the Holy Spirit who will groan in our behalf (Romans 8:26–27).
- It is the Holy Spirit who will give us the words we need when facing hostility (Matthew 10:20).
Spiritual Warfare: “It is the Holy Spirit who will teach us what we need to survive this world.”
- It is the Holy Spirit who will help us put to death our own sin, which debilitates our fight (Romans 8:13).
- It is the Holy Spirit who will give strength to our inner being (Ephesians 3:16).
- It is the Holy Spirit who will give us the gifts we need for the fight (1 Corinthians 12:4).
- It is the Holy Spirit who will unite us with other believers so we can stand together (1 Corinthians 12:13).
- And it is the Holy Spirit who will raise us from the dead after the battle is over (Romans 8:11).
The battle is spiritual. Walk in the Spirit.
 David Young, The Holy Spirit: Filled, Empowered, and Led (Nashville: Renew, 2021).
Excerpted from David Young’s book Resilient: Standing Firm in a Hostile World.