Paul the Pugilist

A pugilist is a fighter, and the apostle Paul was a battler. But he perceived a different battle, he was empowered for the battle in a new way, and he had a different strategy for his battling.

These are the contentions of Rodney Reeves in his book Spirituality according to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ. I want to look at each, but notice these words of Reeves: “… sickness and death do not scare us anymore because we’ve already seen the end of the world” (205).

Do you have a cosmology that includes the powers, demons, the supernatural? Does your gospel reveal victory over the powers?

Whether or not you believe today in demons and cosmic powers and forces, Paul did — and so did his churches, and such a cosmology was deep in the worldview at Ephesus where the goddess Diana was the answer. They wanted security and Paul was telling them that their way of getting security was like riding a stationary bike: you get nowhere.

So when Paul preached there — you can read about it in Acts 19 — the Ephesian converts got all excited and burned amulets and began to tear down the idolatries and cosmology at work in Ephesus. Which got Paul in trouble with the Ephesian authorities, from whom he escaped. But the whole letter to the Ephesians is infused with this cosmology and that such a worldview has been deconstructed. Here’s a really good verse that expresses Paul’s battle warriors:

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 (Eph 6:12).

Paul’s strategy is also gospel-drenched and it expresses itself with a new way of living and this expresses itself in two ways. It begins with seeing new attire.

13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

In essence, the conversion of the imagination was for the Ephesians to see themselves attired — dressed up — in gospel clothing: truth, righteousness, gospel of peace, faith, salvation, Spirit, and the word of God. Each of these could be developed, but that can’t be done here. The way to convert the imagination is to develop a new identity of seeing ourselves protected by Christ himself and what he provides.

How is this done? The second strategy for Paul is to pray. Prayer is an act of defiance against the powers that be and against the worldview. Reeves points us to a number of passages: 1 Cor 7:5; Eph 3:8-21; Phil 1:3-5; Eph 6:18-20. Prayer converts the imagination from fear of the cosmic powers to confidence in the power of the resurrection. Prayer doesn’t end suffering or death, but instead provides a way of standing firm — notice how often Paul focuses on learning to stand our ground. Here it is:

Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.

"In general terms, I think the solution is something along the lines of recognizing the ..."

Death of the Church 3
"A few years back Florida was hit by a number of hurricanes, one right after ..."

Death of the Church 3
"The Internet creates community - of a sort. Like Salvatore said, you connect with all ..."

Death of the Church 3
"Here is the problem with one considering the Bible as infallible: one only has one's ..."

Bloesch on The Primacy of Scripture ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’d be interested in your opinion, Scot. The gospel was radically opposed to the way of life that honored various deities and sought fertility and blessing from elemental powers. Is there a comparable issue in secular life today? Is the gospel equally sodium to secular life’s water today? Or did Christendom so change society that the contrast is no longer as stark as it was?

  • scotmcknight

    Derek, in the realm of religion there is, of course, much change. We don’t very often encounter worship of Diana or Zeus or propitiation of the gods with sacrifices like that. Not to say this doesn’t exist in parts of the world.

    In the realm of power itself, yes, the gospel is as confrontational as ever to the power of humans to dominate and to oppress. If the “principalities and powers” are understood to be forces at work in systemic exploitation, in empire, etc, then we’ve got it all.

  • Should Christians imitate the Ephesians and go through public places destroying the pagan imagery that still haunts our culture. Should TV studios be destroyed that send Oriental mysticism to our children via cartoons.

    Or should Christians just continue to drink their post-service lattes on the church lawn, have quiet prayer meetings/socials and ride their bible-study stationary bikes.

    Are you calling for a rival of Christians to dress themselves in their imaginations with swords and armor and then to tear down all they hate?

    Did Paul ever regret how the Ephesians took his message?

  • Paul W

    Way way back in the day I had read through some Walter Wink’s trilogy on the powers. I remember being impressed with the linking of corrupt power systems to the demonic along with the emphasis on nonviolence response. I also found the writing was thick and difficult to follow at the time.

    I like how Reeves connects the language of the powers to prayer and the imagination. In our family prayer life and space we feature icons of our Lord which in part helps us in the convertion of how our family imagines the work of Christ over the powers.

  • Cal

    #3 Sabio:

    The things destroyed in Ephesus were the peoples own. They didn’t go around as a marauding horde ransacking temples, though one of the chief idolmakers was afraid of such an even occurring.

    To a follower of Jesus, idols are nothing but the power that lay beneath of worshiping the created is dangerous and demonic.

  • Great discussion! It seems to me that Paul employed pugilistic language in terms of the converted imagination so that Christians battle the temptation to behave toward the world (and one another) like the world.

  • John W Frye

    Klyne Snodgrass in his NIV Application Commentary on Ephesians offers a sobering thought in quoting Hienrich Schlier. Schlier wrote, “Christ has left the devil only what power unbelief allows him.” Snodgrass comments, ” Powers rule to the extent that people let them rule. They do not deserve attention; they deserve avoidance. They may be real, but they do not determine life” (350).

  • MatthewS

    We are tempted to extremes. I have seen many extremes in the “spiritual warfare” conversation. One person blames every stubbed toe on spiritual warfare, another douses any talk whatsoever of demons and cosmic forces with cold water.

    I’ve heard an analogy to germs: germs are everywhere and left unchecked they have power to do real damage. So we wash our hands and obey certain sanitation guidelines and we go about our day. It is not mentally healthy to be consumed with thoughts of germs, neither does ignoring them make them go away. But we have the power to defeat them and we do so daily. It’s not perfect but I like how it frames the issue.

  • Sherman Nobles

    “Do you have a cosmology that includes the powers, demons, the supernatural? Does your gospel reveal victory over the powers?”

    In short, yes. Yes I do believe in angels, demons, and the supernatural. Not only are people delivered from demons in scripture, but I’ve experienced such personally, being personally delieverd from demonic bondage and later being empowered by the Spirit to break demonic influence over others with visible and lasting changes in the person.

    And I believe that ultimately every principality and power of darkness shall be overcome, overwhelmed by the Light. Ultimately all enemies of God shall be overcome and become friends reconciled to Him. All shall be reconciled to God through Christ. The kingdom of darkness shall come to an end, being overrun by the kingdom of light.

  • Luke Allison

    I’m somewhere between Greg Boyd’s “God at War” and Walter Wink’s “Naming the Powers” on this issue. David Bentley Hart’s “The Doors of the Sea” engages this topic pretty beautifully as well.

    I have two core convictions about spiritual warfare:

    1. Jesus never assumed that sickness, death, accidents or disease were a part of God’s “master plan” for the world
    2. It seems as if the Apostles assumed that evil was a normal and active part of the world

    I’m still working this stuff out, but I definitely believe that Satan has far more power than John Frye just stated. He’s referred to as “the god of this world”, and “the prince of the power of the air”. That sounds fairly lofty. I think they may determine far more of life in this fallen and battle-scarred world than we may think. Ultimately, we have the victory, but casualties are an obvious part of war.

    The question becomes: if we believe a war is going on, how can we attribute these casualties to the God who has sworn to fight for us and who has defeated the powers through His sacrificial death on the cross? This is one of the ways in which Calvinism became absolutely untenable to me as an actual life-system. I appreciate many of the thinkers, but I could never live that way.

  • Luke Allison

    Dr McKnight,

    In light of your King Jesus Gospel insights (I’m attempting to teach them to middle schoolers and high-schoolers right now!)
    I thought you’d be interested in this:

    This is likely the next “big thing” in the Gospel discussion among younger folks. Chandler is one of the more interesting of the Neo-Reformed crowd, but I have a feeling his exposition will be very “soterian”. Is this something you would ever engage with on the blog?

  • Jon G

    In regards to Luke’s post (#11), from Chandler’s website (written by an associate pastor)

    “The gospel is the historical narrative of the triune God orchestrating the reconciliation and redemption of a broken creation and fallen creatures from Satan, sin and its effects to the Father and each other thru the life, death, resurrection and future return of the substitutionary Son by the power of the Spirit for God’s glory and the Church’s joy.”

  • Luke Allison

    Jon G,

    Yeah, but he doesn’t really preach that. He preaches psa and “Christian hedonism”. I’ve listened to him for about three years regularly because he’s a pretty engaging preacher with some great application.

    He calls it the “ground-level” gospel and the “30,000 foot” gospel. But his primary emphasis is on justification by faith, with special attention given to Christ’s death specifically as a “wrath-absorbing” sacrifice. Here’s the talk that’s wrapped up with the book:

    Anyway, this is off topic to the original post, but I figured gospel-talk is always relevant to Scot McKnight’s online kingdom.

    The Resurgence and the Gospel Coalition are given this one a big push, and it’s got some heavy-hitters blurbing it: Stetzer, Carson, Driscoll, James Macdonald, the executive director of Catalyst, Mark Dever, and Rick Warren!!

  • As a church planter in a Seattle context where 4% of my neighbors attend church, I need these things: “truth, righteousness, gospel of peace, faith, salvation, Spirit, and the word of God.” Truth: I have to always be honest and pure. Righteousness: I try to mirror God in my life. Peace: I have to live without aggression or violence. Faith: I have to have passionate hope for Gods kingdom coming now and later in Christ’s return. Salvation: I have to hold my identity fully in Christ. Spirit: I have to partner with God’s presence. Word: As Paul said, my Salvation and the Spirit are God’s word in my life. With these things, I am able to *endure* in an environment that is often quite hostile to God.

  • John W Frye

    Luke Allison #10,
    All I did in comment #7 is quote Schlier and Snodgrass. I made no personal comment of the power of Satan.

    I think James and Peter say it best as far as the Christian and Satan/powers are concerned: “Resist him…he will flee from you.”

  • Luke Allison

    John W Frye # 15

    Too true, too true. I should have said: “What John Frye quoted from Snodgrass quoting Schlier”. I gave you a quote, dawg, so you can quote while you quote!

    I do believe that the position espoused by Schlier is extremely common and potentially wrong-headed, though.

    One of the first things I learned as a young person was how Jesus resisted Satan using the Scriptures. That’s served me well throughout the my life.

  • Jon G


    I too have been following Chandler for the last 3-4 years. I’ve listened to everything he’s done. You’re right about your assessment of him. I was just saying that the portion I quoted was interesting because it mentions that the narrative was the driving force in the Gospel. Still, he makes it a narrative about Justification.

    I find Chandler to be very interesting. He is incredible when it comes to breaking down “Religion” and I love his depiction of Christian Hedonism, but I get so angry at his inability to look at the Bible from differing viewpoints and his throwing under the bus of Rob Bell, who CLEARLY was influential to Chandler early on in ministry.

    I’m totally convinced by Scot’s King Jesus Gospel (although I say King YHWH) but still listen to Chandler each week…although my interest is waning.

  • Jon G

    Here’s another one of Chandler on making the Gospel Explicit…this one’s a video

  • Jon G

    About 18 minutes into that video, Chandler pits the individualistic Gospel vs the Justice Gospel and concludes that you need both. Not exactly the Justification Gospel against the Justice Gospel, but close. I’m wondering if he’s really as far off as I originally thought…

  • Luke Allison

    “I’m wondering if he’s really as far off as I originally thought…”

    I don’t think he’s necessarily far off. He deals with the Bible belt, and it sounds like his biggest challenge is deconstructing mainstream Christianity. But it does sound like he’s put a great deal more thought into the justification side (he gets a kick out of telling people they’re nothing and objects of God’s wrath, and idiots, etc), in terms of the practical working-out of his teaching.

  • Jon G

    I agree. If you look at the percentage of his sermons that deal with Justification over and above Justice, you will find quite a disparity. However, I’m encouraged that it isn’t totally onesided and that there is some regard for the OT story as important to the NT occurances.

  • james

    I think i do have a cosmology vs. powers but find that it is not well received in established evangelical contexts. Can we critique the powers of consumer capitalism? Or militarism? We anachronistic in our gospel when we only pit it against personal sinfulness. But we are resisted when we pit it against collective sins.