The Greek term methodeia only occurs twice in the New Testament and both are found in Ephesians (4:14; 6:11). As well, no occurrences of this word are known in Greek literature prior to Paul’s use of it in this letter. In both cases the context indicates that methodeia, as Paul used it, describes something negative, associated with error and the devices of Satan.
The cognate verb methodeuō does appear in earlier literature. For example in 2 Samuel 19:27 (Septuagint – 2 Kingdoms 19:28) Mephibosheth tells David of the treachery that Ziba perpetrated so that Mephibosheth could not go to meet David after the rebellion of Absalom. Mephibosheth complains that Ziba (not named in the Greek translation) “played a trick (methōdeusen) on your slave against my lord the king.” This person in the previous verse “deceived” Mephibosheth. The verb then can define schemes to deceive and trick so that harm occurs. The Alexandrian Jewish interpreter Philo, contemporary of Jesus, also used this verb in this negative sense. In De Vita Mosis (The Life of Moses) 212 he argues that the proper use of the Sabbath is the pursuit of wisdom, but “the wisdom must not be that of the systems hatched (methodeuousin) by the word-catchers and sophists….” It must be devoted to the consideration of true philosophy. However, all of Philo’s other uses of this verb are positive, referring to skillful management or practice.1 Spicq notes that “in the papyri, the verb appears for the first time in AD 102, with the same nuance, ‘trick’ or ‘dupe’ the strategos [i.e. local governor] (POxy. 2342.27).”2
The cognate noun methodos3 describes the pursuit of knowledge or careful inquiry. Only occasionally does it have a negative connotation. For example, in 2 Maccabees 13:18 the writer describes the unsuccessful efforts by Antiochus Eupator to conquer Jerusalem. When his initial attempts failed, “the king, having had a taste of the daring of the Judeans, made an attempt on their positions through tricks (dia methodōn).”4 One of these strategies was using the information provided by a Jewish traitor. Thus the strategy included crafty and devious means. We find a similar sense in its use in one of the sections added to the story of Esther in the Greek translation (Esther 8:12Addition E13). Haman is described as the person who “by the crafty deceit of ruses (methodōn) asked to destroy Mardochias [i.e. Mordecai], our savior and constant benefactor, and Esther, innocent companion of our kingdom, together with their whole nation.”
So even though we have no examples of the use of methodeia prior to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, cognate terms were certainly used in the sense of crafty, deceitful trickery. Thus, when we discover Paul used the noun methodeia in this same, negative sense, it is not a surprise. I am not sure whether this is significant or not, but all the uses of the cognate terms in the Greek scriptures have this negative connotation of deceitful craftiness, particularly in the context of military or political activities such as plots, conspiracies, and strategems of war.
A key theme in Paul’s letter to the Ephesian Christians is the empowerment of the believers to live fully into their new position in Christ. He balances this, however, with sober reflection upon the strong and devious abilities of Satan, who is bent on the believers’ destruction. So he argues in Ephesians 4 that believers must energetically equip themselves and pursue holy maturity. If they remain immature, like a child, then they will be subject to those who teach diverse things, using trickery, craftiness, and devious means (4:14 “by their craftiness in deceitful scheming (methodeian).” Paul used three separate nouns in this one verse, all describing different kinds of sly plotting, intended to leave the immature believer swamped in error. He strongly argues that a believer’s consistent involvement in the community of faith for teaching and encouragement is the best protection.
The second occurrence comes in Ephesians 6:11. Using military metaphors Paul describes the struggle that a believer has with Satan and he urges believers to “put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles (methodeias) of the devil.” Satan has a significant array of strategies that he uses to destroy the testimony of believers. Like a persistent general, he keeps probing our defenses to discern our weak points. Only God’s armour is sufficient to empower us to oppose successfully these diabolical devices. Without this divine protection, we will succumb to these persistent attacks.5
Paul use of methodeia in these contexts contributes to our understanding of the spiritual struggle that we personally and corporately engage with Satan and his workers in this present age. The deviousness of it and its power should not be dismissed. The spiritual wreckage in believers’ lives is too prevalent to doubt its active existence. What must be embraced, however, is God’s assurance that Satan’s ploys and strategems can be resisted successfully. We are not left on our own to fend off his attacks. God arms us so that we can defend ourselves well. The question is whether we have put the armour on, become proficient in its use, and availed ourselves of its benefits.
- we are often challenged today to discern where God is at work and celebrate his achievements. But how often are we challenged to discern where Satan is at work and prepare ourselves to resist his wily schemes to destroy us? What are the weak points Satan is seeking to exploit in your life? What divine armour are you putting on so you can resist his attacks?
- can you identify a time recently when God has enabled you to resist Satan? What did you learn from that experience?
- what are you doing to help other believers discern Satan’s work and to encourage them to keep their armour on and in good working order?
- 1 Quod Deterius 109. “But in the case of the worthy man,…everything that comes under his hands is managed (methodeuetai) with skill and as reason requires.”
De Agricultura 25. “They have made the objects dear to the flesh their business and these they pursue methodically (methodeuontes).” (Speaking about soul-husbandry and those who only live for personal pleasure)
De Aeternitate Mundi 149 “Science too is lost to sight, without someone to put it in practice (methodeuontos).”
De Providentia 2:60 “…the venomous animals co-operate in many medical practices, and that those who practice (methodeuontas) the art scientifically by using them with knowledge, are well provided with antidotes….”
- 2C. Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Volume 2 ( Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 462.
- 3Cf. Plutarch, Moralia 176A.
- 4New English Translation of the Septuagint, 518.
- 5Papyrus 46, a third century AD text of Ephesians, in 6:12 reads “because your battle is not against blood and flesh, but against the wiles (methodias), against the cosmic forces of this present darkness,…” instead of “because our battle is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic forces of this present darkness.” However, it is singular in this reading and so probably does not represent Paul’s original intent.