- Dr. Timothy X. Merritt
Evil Spirits in Heavenly Places Explained
The Apostle Paul saw Evil Spirits as manifesting in the religious and political structures of the Ephesian society. He saw the convergence of spiritual and political organizations as the literal breaking in of demonic forces from the second heaven into our worldly first heaven. The full context of Paul’s message is that spiritual warfare must be coupled with social harmony.
The Apostle Paul’s Message is Still Relevant
I’ve been getting a lot of questions about Evil Spirits in the Heavenly Places, so I decided to take a closer look at Ephesians 6. This passage is famous for its “full armor of God” language that is to be used against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:11-12, NIV). However, once the full context of the passage is explored, it becomes clear that the Apostle Paul is showing us that spiritual warfare has two distinct aspects; the spiritual and the worldly. We must engage on both levels if we are to be victorious.
Social and Cultural Background
The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians was written to the “holy people” who were “faithful to Christ” living in that city (Eph 1:1, NIV). At the time of the writing, Ephesus (located close to the modern-day city of Selçuk in Turkey) was one of the greatest port cities of the ancient world, located on the Aegean Sea, with a major road leading eastward into Asia and Syria.
Ancient Ephesus was a cosmopolitan city with an extremely diverse community of over 250,000 people. Predominantly Greek but occupied and administered by the Roman Empire, Ephesus also had a significant Jewish community. The Apostle Paul traveled there on his in the spring of 52 A.D. with friends Priscilla and Aquila. On his first visit to Ephesus, he only stayed a few days.
The following year, Paul returned to Ephesus and continued living there for the next three years. The Book of Acts tells us that Paul baptized disciples in the name of Jesus, preached in the synagogues, healed the sick, and cast out evil spirits. Other Ephesians also attempted to cast out evil spirits in Jesus’ name; however, they were unsuccessful and caused a demon-possessed man to beat the imposters severely.
Photo Credit: heemskerck_temple_artemis_1572… | Flickr
Ephesus was famous for its vast assortment of magical practices. It was the home of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. On the temple were carved symbolic characters believed to possess magical powers. The Ephesians had many scrolls, called the Ephesian Letters, that described the meaning of the symbols and their use in occult practices. The spells contained in these letters were what the imposters used when they attempted to cast out demons.
This event frightened the Jewish and Greek believers in Christ and caused some of them to confess that they practiced sorcery in their attempt to cast out demons. To atone for this, they publicly burned a large number of the magical scrolls. The social impact of this act was enormous, and Jesus’ fame grew rapidly (Acts 19: 1-20). This event contributed significantly to Paul’s establishment of the Christian church at Ephesus.
Diversity of Religions
Ephesus was renowned for its great diversity of religious beliefs. Throughout the city were numerous temples to other deities, and a vast assortment of cults flourished. Of particular significance to our knowledge of the Heavenly Realms was the Imperial Cult of Rome, which featured a temple dedicated to Julius Caesar. There were two temples dedicated to Caesar Augustus, along with statues representing patriarchs from the households of Augustus, Claudius, and Nero. Eventually, a twenty-foot statue of Domitian would be erected in Ephesus, and the city would earn the title of "Neokoros" or Temple Warden of the Imperial Cult.
Photo Credit: Artemis (Diana) of Ephesus, National Archeological Museum.… | Flickr
However, dominating the landscape in Apostle Paul's time was the temple of Artemis, known as the Goddess Diana to the Romans.
In Ephesus she was worshipped as the Eastern mother-goddess rather than the chaste hunter goddess. The statues of this Asian Artemis, sporting multiple rows of breasts, covering the region from her neck to her waist, suggest connections with fertility, fecundity, and family. Her cult was practiced throughout the region. (DeSilva, 2004, pg. 714).
It was to this spiritually and politically supercharged city that Paul spoke famously “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12, NIV). This gives us an important clue about the nature of the evil spirits. Paul saw them as manifesting in the religious and political structures of the Ephesian society.
Crisis and Conflict
In the years before the Apostle Paul arrived in Ephesus, there were already a number of tensions building between the city’s administrative officials and the Jewish population that lived there. Among these troublesome issues was the Jews keeping the Sabbath day and disrupting trade (and also avoiding the draft). The Roman institution of a temple tax prevented the Jews from sending their gold to Jerusalem. An additional dispute involving the ongoing care of tombs caused friction between the Jewish community and the Roman government (Trebilco, 2018, pp. 95-99). Paul began preaching about Christ to the people living in this explosive political mix, first in the synagogues and then in the Lecture Hall of Tyrannus.
Photo credit: jordaens_apostles_st_paul_st_barnabas_lystr_1645 | Discover … | Flickr
One of Paul’s consistent themes was against the practice of idolatry. As his influence grew, the massive numbers of Christian converts began to purchase fewer and fewer of the silver idols depicting Artemis. This development threatened the silver trade until a silversmith named Demetrius finally incited a mob to violence, claiming that Paul had discredited the Temple of Artemis. The mob grabbed Paul and his companions, rushed them to the theater. The disaster was narrowly averted by a city clerk who warned the mob that the Romans would punish them for rioting and that they should take their case to the courts (Acts 19:23-41). Paul left Ephesus shortly afterward.
Strategy 1: Conduct Your Lives for Social Harmony
The Letter to the Ephesians was probably written from Rome during Paul’s first imprisonment in 62 A.D. In his final greetings, he addresses the Ephesian converts to Christianity and sends them:
Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you (Eph 6:21-22).
With this letter, Paul explained to the people of Ephesus how to conduct their lives. However, he did so in a way that seemed geared more toward social harmony than spiritual warfare. Remember to judge Paul's advice based in the context of the ancient society he lived in as you consider the inner-textural analysis from Ephesians 6:1-9:
Obey your parents in the Lord
For this is right
Honor your mother and father
So that it may go well with you and you enjoy a long life
Do not exasperate your children
Bring them up (children) in the training and instruction of the Lord.
Obey your masters with respect and fear.
Obey them (masters) with sincerity of heart
Just as you would obey Christ
But as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart
As if you were serving the Lord, not people
Because you know that the Lord will reward each one (slave or free) for whatever good they do
Treat your slaves the same way (as the slaves were encouraged to treat you)
Do not threaten them (the slaves)
Since you know that he (God) who is both their Master and yours in heaven – will show no favoritism
How are we to understand these admonitions for harmonious behavior in contrast with the very next passage that exhorts believers to put on “the whole armor of God” and “struggle against the “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:11-12)? Understanding this is especially difficult considering the volatile mix of spiritual and political forces that Paul engages in, leading to angry public outcry and a riot.
A clue to the underlying message can be found through inter-textual analysis focusing on the armor of God-language found in Ephesians, but also in other Old and New Testament passages:
Whole Armor of God (Eph 6:13)
And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother (Ex 28:2)
Garments of vengeance for clothing and clad in zeal as with a cloak ((Isa 59:17)
Let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light (Rom 13:12)
But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regards to its lusts (Rom 13:14)
Belt of Truth
Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist (Isa 11:5)
Breastplate of Righteousness (Eph 6:14)
They shall make a breastplate (Ex 28:4)
You shall make a breastplate of judgment (Ex 28:15)
Righteousness as his breastplate (Isa 59:17)
Having put on the breastplate of faith and love (1 Thess 5:8)
Feet with Gospel of Peace
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news (Isa 52:7)
How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the good news of good things! (Rom 10:15)
Shield of Faith (Eph 6:16)
I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward (Gen 15:1)
But you, oh Lord, are a shield for me (Psa 3:3)
Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him (Prov 30:5)
Helmet of Salvation (Eph 6:17)
They shall make… a turban (Ex 28:4)
Helmet of Salvation (Isa 59:17)
And as a helmet, the hope of salvation (1 Thess 5:8)
Sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17)
He has made my mouth like a sharp sword (Isa 49:2)
For the Word of God is living and powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb 4:12)
Out of his mouth went a two-edged sword (Rev 1:16)
Strategy 2: The Armor of God as an Eternal Duty
As you can see, Paul's Letter to the Ephesians gives us the most complete picture of the armor of God language that is used extensively throughout the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. Before he became known as the Apostle Paul, Saul of Tarsus was a Pharisee – a person exceptionally well trained and educated in the Old Testament texts. The Armor of God language is most commonly associated with Roman armor of the time, but an equally compelling case can be made that it actually refers to the rabbinical attire of Moses' brother Aaron and the Levitical priesthood.
When Paul admonished the Ephesians to put on the whole armor of God, he was doing so in Hebrew tradition that stretched all the way back to Exodus. It was a theme he would repeat in Romans, Thessalonians, and Hebrews. The Apostle John also picked up on the armor of God theme in Revelations. By using this language, Paul seems to be conveying a sense that putting on the armor of God is an eternal duty demanded by the enduring nature of humanity’s fallen state and the perpetual need to struggle against "the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph 6:12).
Stand Against Evil Spirits
As I have written at length here, the Christian supernatural worldview contains three distinct realms, or "heavens." The first heaven is the ordinary earthly world that we live in. The second heaven is the spiritual realm, populated by both angels and demons. The third heaven is God's ultimate realm, where he dwells eternally with the saints. Both angels and demons can move freely between the first and second heavens.
In Ephesus, Paul saw the convergence of spiritual and political organizations as the literal breaking in of demonic forces from the second heaven into our worldly first heaven. Demonic forces are not imaginary. Paul encountered demons and cast them out from possessed people. Paul preached against the practice of idolatry because he viewed idols as gateways for demonic forces to enter the world. The Apostle even compelled believers to confess to practices of sorcery and burn occultic scrolls in an effort to defeat evil forces. Perhaps most importantly, we get the impression that demonic forces are hidden behind and directing the earthly political structures represented by the Roman government and religious cults.
As a consequence of his activities, Paul and his followers caused a dangerous uproar in the Ephesian community that could have led to the persecution and death of many. Yet, in the final analysis, because of their commitment to harmonious living, Paul and his disciples avoided punishment and retribution by demon-possessed tyrannical forces that ruled the city. Paul did not exhort the Christian believers to rise up and attempt to overthrow their mortal overlords with violence because the "struggle is not against flesh and blood" (Eph 6:12). Instead, he advised them to "put on the full armor of God, so that you can stand against the devil's schemes." (Eph 6:11). That is the full context of Paul's message; spiritual warfare must be coupled with social harmony.
Paul’s message is still relevant today. Our post-modern society shares many similarities with Ephesus. Christians are still engaged in an eternal battle against evil emanating from the second heaven. While we may not always avoid crisis and conflict, two effective strategies are still to practice harmonious living while putting on the full armor of God.
Desilva, D. A. (2004). An introduction to the New Testament: contexts, methods and ministry formation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Robbins, V. K. (1996). Exploring the texture of texts: A guide to socio-rhetorical interpretation. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.
Trebilco, P. (2018). The Jewish community in Ephesus and its interaction with Christ-believers in the first century C.E. and beyond. In James R. Harrison, & L. L. Welborn (Eds.), (pp. 93). SBL Press.