Moving forward by standing still - Ephesians 6:10-24
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
In his famous book, 'The Screwtape Letters' in which a senior devil writes to a junior devil on how to dupe a man showing interest in Christianity, C.S. Lewis says this in his preface: 'There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.' And I think that both of these extremes find expression within today's church. So there are those who do seem to be unhealthily interested the world of the demonic and appear to see a devil hiding just around every street corner. A few years ago now, Heather and I went to a church with some friends of ours which was very much caught up in deliverance ministries, territorial spirits and the like. In the service Satan received as much attention as did Jesus, in fact more so. At one point the minister's wife stood up and said she had lost her car keys and this was the work of a demon. I must confess that it was quite disturbing, to say the least, to see how these Christians were in constant fear, they couldn't have an ordinary cold in peace without it being seen as some demonic attack. However, on the other hand, perhaps some of us have been so imbibed with post-Enlightenment ideas which have effectively vacated the universe of anything supernatural ,that we have gone to the other extreme, by more or less ignoring the spiritual dimension altogether. So when evangelism seems to be ineffective we immediately blame lack of training or inadequate techniques rather than recognising the work of the god of this world blinding people's minds. If there is moral failure amongst Christians, especially in the area of sexual misconduct, it is much easier to attribute it to the moulding power of society rather than the one who is working through that society-the devil. Of course Satan would be quite happy pushing us to either extreme; effectively ignoring him altogether or becoming fixated with him- either way he outsmarts us. What we need is the wholesome, balanced perspective which the Bible gives. And perhaps nowhere is that laid out for us so clearly than in this well known, but often misunderstood, passage we are looking at together this morning- Ephesians chapter 6. So do turn with me to that passage to see what it teaches us about this spiritual warfare and we are to respond.
In chapter 6 and verse 10 Paul writes: 'Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.' Now this is not a preacher's 'finally'; you know that when he says 'finally' he still has another fifteen minutes to go! Actually the word could be translated, 'for the rest of your life' rather than, 'I am finally finishing.' In other words, the whole of the Christian life is one continued spiritual battle. I gather that during World War 2 when food and luxury items were scarce and someone was found squandering such things, they were normally rebuked with the words: 'Don't you know there's a war on?' Well, Christians need to hear that too- don't you know there is a war on? And so this is not a time for putting down your guard, but a time for getting to know your enemy. Shear ease and happiness may well be alright during peace time, but hardship and sacrifice, 'blood toil, sweat and tears' is the stuff of battle.
Now the earlier part of this letter has been gradually building up to this important section about being strong in the Lord and putting on his armour. As we saw in chapter 2, men and women outside Christ are 'dead in their trespasses and sins' and are deeply affected by all sorts of evil influences: their secular environment- what Paul calls, 'the age of this world', their inner inclinations, what the Bible describes as 'the flesh' and a supernatural power which if we were able to see him for an instance would cause the blood to freeze in our veins- 'the prince of the power of the air.' All three influences are important and are at work in unbelievers and should call from us the most earnest concern and compassion, because the results Paul tells us are dire: spiritual death, separation from God and no hope. But that precisely the situation from which a Christian has been delivered by the Gospel. That is how powerful it is.
However, such influences continue to make themselves felt in the Christian. Indeed, in some ways because the Christian is now aware of the 'terrible Trinity' of the world, the flesh and the devil, his sensitivity is heightened. But, he is not alone, now he has at his disposal a power that was alien to him before his conversion and which explains how it was that no matter how much he wanted to change as a non-Christian by his own efforts, he couldn't change. Now it is different for now he has God's power residing within, the power of the resurrection, according to chapter 1:19. And it is in this power that the believer is exhorted to stand.
However, this ongoing spiritual battle is not simply an individual affair, as now no war is. It was Hitler who coined the phrase 'total war', meaning that no longer is the war restricted to soldiers, civilians are caught up in it as well, there are no non combatants in modern warfare. And similarly there are no non combatants in spiritual warfare. When you think about it what this amounts to is the fact that it is the church, the gathering of God's people that is going to find itself in the thick of the battle. And we can see why. Earlier in chapter 3:10 Paul says of that 'God's intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers, and authorities in the heavenly realms.' So the local church is, if you like, an advertisement to the world and these evil powers of where God's plan is heading, namely, to unite all things under the headship of Jesus Christ. Now tell me, do you think for a moment that the devil will be happy with that thought? Do you not think that he will do everything within his power to make that advertisement a mockery, a denial of the very thing God wants? Of course he will. Satan and His cohorts will go to any length to destroy the church, tossing it to and fro by every wind of false doctrine, fanning the flame of backbiting and dissension which shatters that God-given unity, themes Paul has already been dealing with. This is the main focus of the spiritual war friends, right here. So we had better be prepared.
Well to help us do that let's first take a look at the nature of the spiritual battle. In verse 12 Paul employs a vivid image to depict this warfare. He describes it as a 'struggle', 'we do not struggle against flesh and blood (although that is often the way we perceive it, our problems are all her fault so if only she was out of the fellowship all would be well), but we do struggle against, rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.' Now the word Paul uses here translated 'struggle' (pale) is found nowhere else in the Bible. But it was a very common word in the society to which Paul was writing, for it appeared on their sports page of the Ephesus Daily Mail. It is a word used to describe a wrestling match. Do you remember the days of Saturday afternoon wrestling on the telly? In fact my Granddad used to take me to the wrestling match at the local baths every Saturday night. Then you had the greats like Les Kellet, Jackie Pallo, Billy Two Rivers- that was real wrestling not the wussy American stuff you see now. Well, the blue ribbon event in the ancient games held at Ephesus was awarded for wrestling. Right says Paul, you go to the games, you see how those men get to grips with each other, its all close contact, it is painful, it taxes every muscle fibre in their body, and they do not let go until they have won- they struggle. That is what it is like wrestling with the devil. This warfare is deadly serious. It is hand to hand combat.
What is more, it is unrelenting and constant. In verse 13 when Paul speaks of withstanding 'on that evil day' he is talking about the period between Jesus first coming and his second coming. Now is the 'evil day' and it has been the evil day for the last 2,000 years. And as you look back on the history of the church you can see how busy the devil has been in this evil day. There has been persecution. So those who followed the teaching of John Wycliffe in the 15th century who spearheaded a movement to enable ordinary people to read the Bible were sought out by the Bishop of Lincoln. Parents were forced to inform on their children and children on their parents. And if the parents were caught then the children were obliged to set alight the faggots around the stakes to which their Mums and Dad's were tied. Do you not see the hand of the devil in that? Then there is deception. Not only can the devil appear as a roaring lion in attacking Christians, he can appear as a serpent deceiving them. Of course the most effective lies are those which are closest to the truth. So there is the 'truth plus' 'Of course you are saved by trusting in Christ's death for you on the cross, but to be a 'real Christian' you need a second blessing, a new spirituality, a certain technique.' Then there is the 'truth minus' 'God loves us unconditionally, he accepts us as we are' and so only half the truth is taught, there is no mention of repentance, killing off old bad habits and cultivating new ones- and so you end up with only half Christians which are no Christians at all. In both cases the result is the same- a denuded Christianity which is an ineffective Christianity. But then there is dissension. This is the principle of 'divide and conquer.' If you can get an army turned in on itself, squabbling, then they will be doing the enemy's work for him. So, get people in a church arguing about the colour of the curtains, which hymnbook they should use, whether I can work with that person because he believes in adult baptism and I believe in infant baptism and the devil can sit back and laugh. That is why the words of the great preacher Richard Baxter need to be heard again and again, 'On things essential (the Gospel truths)- unity, on things indifferent- liberty, on all things-charity.'
So how are we going to meet this Satanic attack? That brings us to the means of the spiritual battle- v13, 'Therefore, put on the full armour of God.' The picture is of a Roman soldier carefully and methodically putting on his armour to be ready for battle. If even one item is missing then it could well spell disaster. There is no room for being shoddy; your life depends on getting it right.
Since the Gospel shapes and undergirds the whole of Paul's thinking and action, it should come as no surprise that it does so at this point as he goes through the items of a Christian's spiritual armoury.
First, we are to embrace the gospel. That means realising what Christ has done for you. So you 'put on the breastplate of righteousness'. Your status before God is one of complete acceptance- countered 'righteous' in his sight because Christ has taken the filthy rags of your sin on himself on the cross and has placed around your shoulders the gleaming robe of his righteousness. So that as God looks upon you, he, as it were, sees his Son. The 'helmet of salvation' is the fact that you are saved by grace alone, so you don't have to go swaning off looking for some new spirituality, adding a bit here, taking off something else there- you have complete salvation if you are following the Lord Jesus. This also means that as a fellowship we keep the Gospel central, we don't go off on theological tangents, majoring on minors or plugging our own hobby horses- we teach the whole Word of God, nothing more and nothing less.
In the second place we are to share the Gospel putting on the boots of 'the gospel of peace' buckling the 'belt of truth' and wielding 'the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God'. Tell me, what is it that cuts into Satan's territory? What is it that causes him to shudder? It is when the Gospel is preached. That is when God's power is unleashed, for then people are liberated from Satan's snare, when lives are changed and society's are transformed, when God's truth is promoted and the devil's lies are dethroned. Let me tell you something. A sociologist and historian called Rodney Stark, carried out an in-depth study as to why only Christianity amongst all the other religions of the day, turned the Greco- Roman world upside down. He describes the cities of the time as places filled with 'urban disorder, social dislocation, filth, disease, misery, fear and cultural chaos.' Does that sound familiar? He says that compared to paganism, Christianity provided a solution to these problems. And it did. Where people were gripped with the fear of death, the Gospel gave hope. Were self-centredness reigned, when people were converted self-sacrifice became the order of the day. Instead of babies being left on the hill tops to die, Christian took them in and gave them life. That is what the Gospel does. And of course a church which is turned outwards towards the world seeking to win it will not be turned inwards seeking to devour each other. The devil hates the Gospel being spread- for it reminds him that his days are numbered.
But thirdly, we are to live the Gospel. This links in with the need for power and the need for prayer. Paul says we are to take up 'the shield of faith', believing that God has and will give us the power we need to overcome. Of course it will not be without a struggle as we have seen, but it will be possible. Once the 19th century Baptist preacher Spurgeon was approached by a young preacher who was complaining that he saw very few conversions through his sermons, no matter how hard he tried. Spurgeon challenged the young man,' Tell me, you don't expect to see people converted every time you preach do you?' To which he replied, 'I suppose not.' 'Well,' said Spurgeon, ' that's your problem!'
And if this power is to be accessed then it will be through prayer v18- 20. 'Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.'
Now prayer is not presented as part of the spiritual armour, rather it is something which undergirds and holds everything else in place. And notice what it is that Paul asks these Christians to pray for with regards to himself; not that God will enable him to get out of the prison in which he is rotting, or provide him with an extra blanket, but that he will proclaim that Gospel. Why? For two reasons: First, because as we have seen it is this which causes the demons to shake as they lose their power, and second because Gospel proclamation is not easy. Let me tell you, when I am involved in some specific teaching/evangelistic ministry- like a mission or a guest service, that is when I will feel particularly under spiritually attack. While I am busy preparing there will be interruptions and distractions- maybe an illness in the family or a pastoral crisis which has to be dealt with. In the delivery of the talk the battle will be going on right through the service- the doubts- 'no one is listening', the inadequacy- 'it feels like I am stirring cold porridge today Lord'- or the mobile phone goes off in the congregation at a crucial point in the sermon- you can smell the sulphur when those things happen. And that is when I am also praying away at the same time as I am proclaiming- 'Lord help me', 'Lord provide'. We are to pray for all the saints, says Paul, but pray especially for those getting on with Gospel work. The devil is going to target them especially. So please, pray-at home, in the home groups and do get to those central meetings if we are going to be serious about wrestling with these evil powers.
So what is the aim of this spiritual battle? Quite simply- 'to stand'. Four times Paul says this is our aim-v 13 'Therefore put on the full armour 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. Stand firm then.'
The important thing here is that we stand together. This is a corporate command of Paul-the 'you' is plural. The Roman army was so effective because of this tactic creating the phalanx which was the thing that enabled them to stand the onslaught of the barbarian hordes as they came rushing at them with their blood curdling cries. They stood together, shoulder to shoulder, shields overlapping, swords drawn, acting as one man, steadfast and immovable, forming what in effect was a human fort. That is what we as a fellowship are meant to be. When my shield of faith begins to slip, I need you to cover me with yours. When your trust is waning, I need to uphold you with mine. Friends we need each other.
Make no mistake. Our foe is mighty and frightening; he hates us and would, given the power, destroy us. But our Saviour is mightier still and he loves us- and at the end of the day is that not the heart of the Gospel message? Let us pray.
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