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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

"Not against flesh and blood": the superhuman opponent of Ephesians 6

Ephesians 6:10-17 is one of the most well-known passages in the New Testament. It is also a passage that offers important insights into the early Christian understanding of ho diabolos, the devil, and for this reason it is a passage that demands careful study by Christadelphians.

Christadelphian doctrine defines the devil not as a supernatural, personal being, but rather as a personification of 'sin in the flesh'. As Christadelphian pioneer Robert Roberts put it, "Sin in the flesh, then, is the devil destroyed by Jesus in his death."1

Fred Pearce similarly defined the devil which tempted Jesus as "the personification of that human urge to gratify his own desires,"2 and Watkins defines the devil as "ungodly human desires"3 or "human lusts."4

The Christadelphian devil, then, is fundamentally a human phenomenon; an internal component of fleshly human nature. Some plausible arguments for this theological position can be made, and some have found them convincing, particularly if their worldview predisposed them against belief in an external, supernatural devil. I've written a number of articles explaining why I no longer think the Christadelphian understanding of the devil stands up under a close examination of the biblical testimony.5 Nowhere, however, is the discrepancy between the Bible and the Christadelphian view more stark than in Ephesians 6:11-12. This passage reads, in the ESV, as follows:
11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
A Semitic Idiom

Our primary focus here is on the first clause of v. 12: "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but..."

The significance of this clause for correctly interpreting the opponents in this passage seems to have been missed by Christadelphian writers. For this clause explicitly rules out the Christadelphian principle that the devil is fundamentally a human phenomenon, an aspect or consequence of human flesh-and-blood nature.

This is already apparent on a surface reading of the text, but becomes even clearer upon closer study. "Flesh and blood" is a Semitic idiom for a human being,6 or human nature. As Evans comments on its use in Matthew 16:17:
"The phrase ‘flesh and blood’ (= Hebr. basar we-dam is a Semitic idiom, meaning a human being, as opposed to an angel or to God. (This idiom occurs in rabbinic literature frequently and is usually translated ‘mortal. It also occurs in Gal. 1:16, ‘I did not consult with flesh and blood’; Ignatius, Philippians [sic] 7:2, ‘human flesh’; cv. 1 Cor. 15:50; Eph. 6:12; Heb. 2:14)."7
When we look at how this idiom is used elsewhere, including the Old Testament Apocrypha and pseudepigrapha, the rest of the New Testament, and rabbinic literature, some interesting details come to light. In some texts, the term 'flesh and blood' is used simply to emphasize the mortality of humans. Typical of this usage is Sirach 14:18: "Like flourishing leaves on a spreading tree which sheds some and puts forth others, so are the generations of flesh and blood: one dies and another is born" (cf. also Sirach 17:29-32; Genesis Rabbah 26.6).

More commonly, however, the idiom is used within a comparison (usually an antithesis) between human beings and supernatural beings. Most often (particularly in the rabbinic literature) the comparison is between human beings and God, such as in b. Niddah 31a: "Come and see the contrast between the potency of the Holy One, blessed be He, and that of mortal man [lit. flesh and blood]" (cf. b. Shabbath 30b; 74b; 88b; 152b; b. Berakoth 5a; 10a; 28b; 40a; b. Sanhedrin 89b; 103b; 110a; b. Baba Bathra 10a; 88b; b. Sotah 42a; Genesis Rabbah 1.1; 1.2; 4.4; Leviticus Rabbah 34.14). In a few cases, however, an antithesis is drawn between human beings and angels or spirits (1 Enoch 15:1-4; Testament of Abraham 13 [version 2]; b. Baba Bathra 25a; b. Shabbath 88b; Genesis Rabbah 8.10; 53.2). For example:
“For R. Oshaia said: What is the meaning of the verse, Thou art the Lord, even thou alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, etc.? Thy messengers are not like the messengers of flesh and blood. Messengers of flesh and blood report themselves [after performing their office] to the place from which they have been sent, but thy messengers report themselves to the place to which they are sent, as it says.” (b. Baba Bathra 25a)
In all four cases outside Ephesians 6:12 where this idiom is used in the New Testament, an antithesis between mortal human beings and supernatural beings is implied.

In Matthew 16:17, the antithesis is explicit as Jesus responds to Peter's confession by saying, "For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven."

The use of the idiom in Galatians 1:16 is similar. Here, Paul says that after God revealed His Son to him, he did not consult with "flesh and blood" but went away into Arabia. In context, Paul is making the point that he did not receive his gospel "from any man" but "through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (v. 12). Thus, in both of these passages there is a contrast between mortal human beings (denoted by 'flesh and blood') and supernatural beings (the Father and the exalted Christ).

In 1 Corinthians 15:50, in his discourse on resurrection, Paul declares, "I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." In the context, Paul has been making a contrast between a "natural body" and a "spiritual body." Flesh and blood refers to the natural body, and as Blomberg explains, "'Spiritual' is best taken as 'supernatural,' not 'noncorporeal,' while 'flesh and blood' (not ‘flesh and bones’ as in Luke 24:39) was a Semitic idiom for frail, fallen, mortal humanity.”8 (Blomberg 412) Thus, again, a contrast is made between mortal human beings and supernatural beings (in this case, human beings in the resurrected state).

Finally, in Hebrews 2:14, the writer says, "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil."9 Here, 'flesh and blood' refers to the human nature that Christ shared. There seems to be an implicit emphasis here that Christ did not take on an angelic nature; certainly the context contains antitheses between human beings and angels (Heb. 2:5-9, 16-17). More than one scholar has suggested that Hebrews was written partly to counter an angelomorphic view of Christ.10
Thus, as used in ancient Jewish literature including the New Testament, the idiom 'flesh and blood' denotes human beings or mortal humanity, as distinguished from supernatural beings.

Against this background, we have a compelling reason to take Ephesians 6:12a in the sense of, "For we do not wrestle against human beings, but..." The Good News Translation's paraphrase gets it right: "For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age."

Note that in Ephesians 6:12 and in some manuscripts in Hebrews 2:14 the Greek word order is literally 'blood and flesh', but this does not alter the idiomatic sense.11 Arnold suggests, following Percy, that Paul in Ephesians 6:12 reverses the word order of the idiom to reduce the emphasis on 'the flesh' to avoid misleading his readers into thinking he is minimizing the separate theological concept of 'the flesh', which they do need to oppose - cp. Galatians 5:17.)12

The Greek word hoti (translated "For" in most English versions) here is also important, because it links v. 12a back to "the schemes of the devil" in the previous verse. The clear implication is that "the devil", like the powers mentioned in v. 12, is not flesh and blood. Ephesians 2:2 describes the devil as "the ruler of the power of the air", spelling out his relation to the powers in 6:12: he is their leader and they are his minions.

In short, in Ephesians 6:11-12 the writer specifically describes the devil and associated powers as not human and, by implication (following the antithesis found elsewhere in usage of the 'flesh and blood' idiom), as supernatural. Put differently, what Paul says the devil and associated powers are not is precisely what Christadelphians say the devil and associated powers are.

Christadelphian Interpretations

How have Christadelphian writers attempted to overcome this difficulty? In some cases, by ignoring it. Christadelphian founder John Thomas remarkably used the word 'flesh' repeatedly to explain what the devil and powers are, apparently seeing no incongruity with the fact that Paul says they are not flesh and blood. He saw the sense of Ephesians 6:12a only as ruling out personal combat.13

Watkins follows Thomas' interpretation:
"The fact that this warfare is not a wrestling against flesh and blood is not to be taken as an indication that it involves a celestial host under the leadership of a monstrous spirit creature. The point is, rather, that this is not a physical combat, but a struggle to maintain divine principles in the face of strong opposition from those in authority."14
This explanation appears plausible in light of 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, where Paul also uses the analogy of combat and where he does emphasize that the combat is not fleshly, i.e. physical. However, Watkins fails to observe that whereas in 2 Corinthians 10:4 it is the weapons that Paul says are "not of the flesh," in Ephesians 6:12 it is the opponents who are said to be not "flesh and blood." Watkins then proceeds to identify the opponents as "those in authority," by which he means human authorities. Thus Thomas and Watkins interpret the opponents to be flesh and blood, which the text explicitly says they are not.

Other writers have ignored the problem altogether. The Christadelphian resource Wrested Scripture, which gives explanations of difficult passages, does not discuss this passage. Burke argues that the "internal spiritual qualities" listed in the armor of God analogy indicate "that the arena of the battle is within;"15 however he does not acknowledge or attempt to explain the "flesh and blood" language.

Heaster offers a lengthy and elaborate explanation of this passage which includes three distinct interpretations. His first suggested interpretations identifies the opponents as human beings including the Roman and Jewish persecuting authorities, as well as apostate Christians. To get around Ephesians 6:12a he states, "Verse 12 may be translated, 'For we wrestle not only against flesh and blood...' i.e., we do not only wrestle against individual men, but against organized systems."16 In the first place, the Greek word for "only" (monos) does not occur in the text and it is inexplicable that the writer would omit it. Had the writer intended a "not only ... but" construction, he surely would have used the common "ou monon ... alla" syntax which he used in Ephesians 1:21, rather than the "ouk ... alla" syntax used in 6:12. Furthermore, the contrast between individual men and organized [human] systems fails to account for the 'flesh and blood' idiom, which is nowhere else used to distinguish individuals from groups but rather to distinguish human beings from supernatural beings. And finally, in distinguishing the "rulers" and "authorities" (political) from the "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (apostate Christians), Heaster fails to account for the fact that in Ephesians 3:10 the rulers and authorities are located "in the heavenly places."

Further along, Heaster allows that Ephesians 6:12 may refer to angels, such as the angel of death or the "evil angels" of Psalm 78:49. He thus allows that "It could be possible to interpret the heavenly hosts of spirits [Angels] responsible for the situation on earth experienced by the believers."17 (The view that the powers are angels was apparently shared by at least one other Christadelphian writer, Whittaker).18 In this respect, he notes "that they wrestled pros these forces- and pros doesn't necessarily mean "against", but can carry the sense of 'alongside', 'relating to'." This would reduce the wrestling imagery to an absurdity, since one does not wrestle 'alongside' or 'in relation to' another but 'against' another. Furthermore, consistency would dictate that we apply the same sense of pros in the previous verse, which would then be exhorting the readers to "stand alongside the schemes of the devil"!

Heaster has made progress with this interpretation inasmuch as he has acknowledged that the powers referred to in Ephesians 6:12 are supernatural. However, it can only be due to theological bias that he has excluded the possibility that these beings might be sinful. They are linked by the word hoti to the devil of the previous verse, who is obviously a wicked power (as the lexical sense of diabolos, 'slanderer', implies). Furthermore, elsewhere in Paul's writings he uses the imagery of a Roman triumph to describe Christ putting the rulers and authorities to shame (Colossians 2:15). They, like the devil, are obviously enemies against whom the believers are to make spiritual war.

Finally, Heaster proposes a third possible interpretation, which he quotes at length from Pitt-Francis.19 This posits that the last two types of opponent mentioned in v. 12 refer in an ironic sense to the sun, moon and stars which were objects of idolatrous worship. Pitt-Francis does not marshal anything like a convincing case for taking these phrases as references to these heavenly bodies. Moreover, inasmuch as he still takes the first two types of opponents ("rulers" and "authorities") as referring to earthly kings, his interpretation too contradicts the writer's statement that the opponents are not flesh and blood.

Some Christadelphians have been more forthright in acknowledging the difficulties that Ephesians 6:11-12 presents for their position. In a passage of his book Christadelphian Redivivus quoted in the Christadelphian periodical Endeavour, George McHaffie writes:
"‘With regard to the Devil, our [Christadelphian] contention that the Bible teaches this to be flesh or human nature ‘in its various manifestations’ will simply not match up to Eph. 6:11,12 : “..stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood..but ...spiritual wickedness in high places.” The repeated references to the devil, the power of demons, and their being exorcised without any statement that there is no devil, or even an ‘as is supposed’ in reference to a demon, would carry conviction to most people that the Bible writers believed in the devil and demons."20
McHaffie's solution was that of many modern theologians: the devil's existence is to be denied on hermeneutical rather than exegetical grounds. In other words, the biblical writers believed in the devil, but incorrectly so; we are at liberty to re-conceptualize the devil for our own time. This view entails a challenge to the biblical inerrancy espoused in the foundational proposition of the Christadelphian Statement of Faith and so would not be acceptable to many Christadelphians. Nevertheless, McHaffie had the courage to admit that it is impossible to reconcile Ephesians 6:11-12 with the Christadelphian view of the devil.

Scholarly Interpretations

Moving from Christadelphian interpretation to mainstream biblical scholarship, one finds that a few scholars such as Forbes and Carr have argued that the writer of Ephesians did not view 'the powers' as supernatural, evil, personal beings21 (note that the Pauline authorship of Ephesians is disputed). However, these scholars still affirm that the writer of Ephesians understood the devil to be a supernatural personal being. In Carr's case he further acknowledges that his interpretation of the powers does not square with Ephesians 6:12 and so is forced to assert (without a shred of textual evidence) that this verse was not part of the original text but was a later interpolation. This view has been ably refuted by Arnold.22

The consensus that Paul believed in supernatural evil beings has grown with two recent studies by Williams23 and Becker.24 With regard to Ephesians specifically, scholarly commentaries have consistently upheld a supernatural interpretation of the devil and the powers.25


Ephesians 6:11-12 unambiguously affirms that the devil and associated evil powers are not human whereas the Christadelphian view of the devil affirms the opposite. Some Christadelphian writers have acknowledged that this text demands an angelic interpretation of the powers but have failed to follow through on the theological implications, since these powers are clearly evil and linked to the devil himself. At least one Christadelphian writer has admitted that this passage refers to a personal devil and argues that this devil's existence must be denied on grounds other than the biblical testimony.
If only Christadelphians would shed their outdated perceptions about how other Christians understand the biblical devil (i.e. not a red, pitchfork-wielding fellow) and read careful, biblically based treatments of the subject! Doing so might lead to the realization that there are intellectually responsible ways to affirm biblical teaching on supernatural evil and that there is consequently no need to stretch and strain the meaning of biblical passages on this subject.

1 Roberts, R. (1884). Christendom Astray (1969 edition). Birmingham: The Christadelphian, p. 118.
2 Pearce, F. (1986). Do you believe in the Devil? Birmingham: The Christadelphian. Retrieved from http://www.christadelphia.org/pamphlet/devil.htm
3 Watkins, P. (1971). The Devil – the Great Deceiver: Bible Teaching on Sin and Salvation (2008 edition). Birmingham: The Christadelphian, p. 32.
4 Watkins, P. op. cit., p. 54.
5 These can be found at http://www.dianoigo.com/publications.html#satan
6 Grintz, J.M. (1960). Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple. Journal of Biblical Literature 79(1), p. 36.
7 Evans, C.A. (2012). Matthew. Cambridge University Press, p. 313.
8 Blomberg, C.L. (2009). Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey. B&H Publishing Group, p. 412.
9 For a detailed discussion of this passage and its reference to the devil, see Farrar, T.J. (2014). The Devil in the General Epistles, Part 1: Hebrews. Retrieved from http://www.dianoigo.com/publications/The_Devil_in_the_General_Epistles_Part_1_Hebrews.pdf, pp. 7-17.
10 Goulder, M. (2003). Hebrews and the Ebionites. New Testament Studies 49(3): 393-406; Steyn, G.J. (2003). Addressing an angelomorphic christological myth in Hebrews? HTS Theological Studies 59(4): 1107-1128. Christadelphian writer Robert Roberts also recognized the antithesis between 'flesh and blood' in Hebrews 2:14 and 'the nature of angels' in Hebrews 2:16 (KJV). Roberts, R. op. cit., p. 117.
11 Hoehner, H. (2002). Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. Baker Academic, p. 824.
12 Arnold, C.E. (1989). Ephesians, Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians in Light of Its Historical Setting. Cambridge University Press, p. 205 n. 52.
13 Thomas, J. (1866). Elpis Israel (4th ed., 2000). Logos Publications, pp. 99-100.
14 Watkins, P. op. cit., p. 40.
15 Burke, J. (2007). Satan and Demons: A Reply to Anthony Buzzard. Retrieved from http://www.dianoigo.com/writings_by_others/Satan_And_Demons.pdf, p. 32.
16 Heaster, D. (2012). The Real Devil (3rd ed.). Carelinks Publishing, p. 448.
17 Heaster, D. op. cit., p. 452.
18 Whittaker, H. (1987). Bible Studies: An Anthology. Biblia, pp. 375-382. Cited in Cox, T. (2012). An Inquiry into the Origins of the ‘Internal Devil’ Dogma. Endeavour 128 (December 2012), p. 6.
19 Pitt-Francis, D. (1984). The Most Amazing Message Ever Written. Mark Saunders Books, chapter 4. Cited in Heaster. D. op. cit., pp. 453-455.
20 McHaffie, G. (1999). Christadelphian Redivivus. Published by R. McHaffie, pp. 26-27. Cited in Cox, T. (2013). ‘The Serpent in the Garden of Eden’ – A Response to Roy Boyd’s article. Endeavour 130 (December 2013), p. 25.
21 Carr, W. (2005). Angels and Principalities: The Background, Meaning and Development of the Pauline Phrase Hai Archai Kai Hai Exousiai, pp. 101-106; Cambridge University Press; Forbes, C. (2001). Paul's Principalities and Powers: Demythologizing Apocalyptic? Journal for the Study of the New Testament 23(82), pp. 62-68; Forbes, C. (2002). Pauline demonology and/or cosmology? Principalities, powers and the elements of the world in their hellenistic context. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 24(3): 51-73.
22 Arnold, C. E. (1987). The Exorcism of Ephesians 6.12 in Recent Research: A Critique of Wesley Carr's View of the Role of Evil Powers in First-Century AD Belief. Journal for the Study of the New Testament (30): 71-87.
23 Williams, G. (2009). The Spirit World in the Letters of Paul the Apostle: A Critical Examination of the Role of Spiritual Beings in the Authentic Pauline Epistles. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
24 Becker, M. (2013). Paul and the Evil One. In E. Koskenniemi & I. Frohlich (Eds.), Evil and the Devil (127-141). T&T Clark.
25 Schnackenburg, R. (2001). Epistle to the Ephesians: A Commentary. A&C Black, p. 268; Hoehner, H. op. cit., pp. 824-825; MacDonald, M.Y. (2008). Colossians and Ephesians. Liturgical Press, p. 225; Arnold, C.E. (2011). Ephesians. Zondervan, p. 132; Kitchen, M. (2013). Ephesians. Routledge, p. 115.


Sarah said...

Hi Tom,
Is there a place where you clearly describe and positively affirm what exactly you believe the "supernatural evil" or devil of the Bible to be? I.e. his origins, his habitation, his physical appearance, his relationship with God, etc...

If I've missed it on the blog or website, my apologies.

Thank you,

Tom said...

Hi Sarah,

Thanks for your question. I'm not sure there is a place where I clearly describe the devil in the terms you've indicated.

However, I hold to the interpretation of the biblical devil that has been espoused by church teaching throughout its history, and which remains the view of many biblical scholars today. You could get a good idea of this interpretation by consulting some Bible dictionaries.

Nevertheless, let me try to give you a more direct and personal answer.

The devil is a supernatural evil being. 'Supernatural' here means pertaining to the spiritual realm as opposed to the natural. Specifically the devil is an angelic being (Job 1-2; Matt. 25:41; 2 Cor. 11:14; Rev. 12:7-9). His nature and 'physical' appearance would thus be like those of angels.

'Evil' refers to the moral character of this being. 'Being' refers to his real personal existence as opposed to an abstract concept or a symbol.

The Bible is no more clear about the devil's origins than it is about angels' origins. Some interpret passages about evil human kings such as Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 to refer typologically to the devil's fall; however this is far from clear. We are told that the devil initially had access to God's presence in heaven but was cast out (Rev. 12:7-11). There is some debate over when this occurred, with some understanding it to be a primeval event; however my view is that he was cast out after the death of Christ (John 12:31; Heb. 2:14; Rev. 12:7-11), with Luke 10:18 referring to a prophetic vision of this event.

The devil's habitation is the lower heavens (the 'air', Eph. 2:2; 6:11-12) and the earth (Rev. 12:12; 1 Peter 5:8). He no longer has access to God's presence as he did previously (Job 1-2; Zechariah 3). He is the ruler of demons (Mark 3:22-30 par.; Eph. 2:2; 6:11-12). His destiny is to be thrown into the lake of fire (Matt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10).

His main functions are to seduce (1 Cor. 7:5; 2 Cor. 4:4; 2 Tim. 2:26), to accuse (Zech. 3:1-2; Luke 22:31; Rev. 12:10), and to oppress/destroy (Acts 10:38; 1 Pet. 5:8). Satan could be described as an overzealous prosecutor who seeks first to entrap victims, then accuse them before God, and obtain God's permission to punish them.

His relationship with God is one of rebellion and disobedience. However, while his antagonism toward God is only hinted at in the Old Testament (Job 1-2; Zechariah 3), it is made very clear in the New Testament that he was wicked from the beginning (John 8:44). Nevertheless, in spite of his wickedness, he can (like wicked human beings - Jer. 25:9; John 11:49-51; 19:11), be unwittingly used to accomplish God's purposes, such as testing the faithful (Job 1-2; Matthew 4:1; 2 Cor. 12:7), or spiritual discipline (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20).

I hope that will serve as a useful summary of my beliefs about the devil. Some of the above passages are discussed in detail in my blog posts and articles; others will be discussed in forthcoming blog posts and articles, God willing. I hope eventually to write a book-length biblical theology of Satan, perhaps as a dissertation.

Truth seeker said...

There was no rebellion in heaven. No sin was ever committed by a cosmic benign are you slandering the might y ones, Gods angels who do His bidding. If Satan is an angel.. then this Satan is still doing only God' bidding. To believe in a Satan Devil is believing that their are more than one God. There is only one God. He is ALL powerful. Even Jesus though Devine was nit ALL powerful.

Tom said...

Thank you for the comment. I agree with you that there is only one God and He is all-powerful. Moreover, the Church teaches that the devil cannot do anything other than what God permits (this is, however, different than Satan doing God's bidding). So we have important areas of agreement. However, your reasons for rejecting the existence of a personal devil are little more than dogma. You offered no insights on the passage discussed in my post, and do not appear to understand traditional Christian teaching concerning Satan. I would suggest that you research the topic further.