Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Church in Battle - Ephesians 6:13-18

Audio available here (click to stream, right-click to download)

History has shown us time and time again the importance of being prepared for battle. One of the most poignant (albeit lesser known) examples was the Battle of Buna-Gona during World War II. Although advisors had said that the troops were unprepared, General MacArthur ordered a significant deployment of Allied forces to pursue what he believed was a retreating and frail force of a thousand or so Japanese soldiers on the island of New Guinea in the late fall of 1942. Most of the soldiers had only a couple of weeks in jungle combat training, and after a month-long trek through treacherous conditions, more than two-thirds had acquired malaria, dengue fever, and dysentery. Medicine and food were in short supply, and there was no air support or heavy artillery available to assist in the battle. When the orders to begin attacking were given, Allied forces found not 1,000 weak Japanese soldiers in retreat, but 6,000 entrenched soldiers well armed, well seasoned, and ready to fight. In a short time, Allied weapons and ammunition were running out, and casualties were piling up. By percentages, this was a more deadly battle than that at Guadalcanal. Finally, after three months of battle, the Allied forces had garnered enough reinforcement to achieve victory, but not before significant casualties were sustained. But the situation could have been far different if the Allies had been prepared for battle.

In Ephesians 6:10-12, Paul reminded his readers that there is a spiritual battle going on, and we are not spectators in it. We are participants; as he says in verse 12, this is our struggle or conflict. The war is being waged by the forces of Satan, his demonic spiritual mafia that is described in v12, against God. But since Satan could never overpower God, he is out to destroy us in the battle. Peter tells us that he is prowling around like a lion seeking someone to devour. Jesus told Peter that Satan desired to sift him like wheat. He is eager to destroy all those who call upon the name of Jesus because we are God’s most beloved creation, human beings who bear His divine image, and redeemed sons and daughters who bear His name and represent Him in the earth. We take great comfort and confidence in the fact that the war is, for all intents and purposes, over. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Satan is a defeated enemy. But he has not surrendered or retreated. He is still waging battles in a war that he has already lost. And these attacks are dangerous, destructive and deadly. Therefore, we must be prepared. When we discussed verses 10-12, we spoke of the need to know our enemy and his tactics, and the need to make use of the provisions that God supplies. The verses before us today overlap somewhat with those ideas. Our provisions are further described, and our assignment is defined.

I. God has supplied us with the necessary armor. (vv 13a, 14-18a)

For the second time in three verses, we are admonished here to take up “the full armor of God.” This simple phrase tells us that the armor is complete: it is full armor, not partial, sufficient for the battle we find ourselves in. And it tells us that the nature of this armor is divine: it is the full armor of God. He made the armor, He owns the armor, He has used the armor, He supplies the armor, and He is the armor. Therefore, our task is to put it on (v11) or take it up (v13).

You recall how David came to the battle lines when Israel was cowering before the giant Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. And when David offered to fight the Philistine warrior, Saul and others tried to discourage him, saying essentially that he was too young and too weak to survive. David protested, saying that the Lord had protected him against a lion and a bear, and he was confident that God would protect him against Goliath as well. So Saul relented and gave David his armor to wear, but David said, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them.” David did not know what he could accomplish in Saul’s armor, but he had full confidence in what he could do when he was covered in God’s armor. God’s power and protection had already been proven in his life. So David went out against Goliath armed with a stick and a sling and five smooth stones. But more important than the stones or the stick or the sling was the faith David had in the Lord. When Goliath taunted him, he said, “I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts!”

Over in my office, I have five small white stones on my bookshelf that were given to me by Tillie Rice before she died. She had picked them up in the Valley of Elah where David slew Goliath. She said, “You will face a lot of giants as you serve the Lord here, but the Lord will give you victory if you trust in Him.” See, our trust is not in the rocks, not in the weapons, not in the armor, but in the Lord. Psalm 20:7 says, “Some boast in chariots and some in horses, but we will boast in the name of the Lord, our God.” And this is Paul’s point here: it isn’t the armor so much as what the armor represents, and the armor represents the Lord. The language is methaphorical, and each element is paired with a divine attribute or a divine gift which must be appropriated in our lives if we will have victory in the spiritual battle against our enemy.

First, he names the belt of truth which girds our loins. To gird up one’s loins is a repeated statement in Scripture which indicates to get ready for action. The soldier would pull his robe up from around his ankles and cinch it tight around his waist with a belt and the rest of the armor would be affixed to and held together by the belt. Paul says that our belt that prepares us for action and secures the rest of our spiritual armor in place is TRUTH. Pilate asked the question that so many in our own day seem unable to answer, “What is truth?” Though today people seem unwilling to believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth, Jesus acknowledged and defined it for us. In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am … the truth.” And in John 17:17, He said as He prayed to His Father, “Thy Word is truth.” So we find truth in the person of Jesus and in the Word of God. In Isaiah 11:5, the prophet saw a vision of the Messiah rising up to judge the nations, and in that vision he indicates that “righteousness will be the belt about His loins, and faithfulness the belt about His waist.” The righteousness and faithfulness of our Lord Jesus is part of His identity as TRUTH, and the assurance that His Word is Truth. These attributes are His belt, and He has now offered us to wear this belt as we do battle. So, this is at the center of our being, the piece of the armor that holds all else together – Christ and His Word are our TRUTH, and we go out girded up by Him.

Then he mentions the breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate is that piece of armor that covered the most vital internal organs. It covers the heart, the lungs, the stomach, and the entrails. A blow to these areas is deadly, but the breastplate provides protection. And Paul says that righteousness is our breastplate. But remember, that this is the armor of God, not our own. So we are not to enter battle covered by our own righteousness. The best we can do on our own is not enough. Our righteousness, the Bible says in Isa 64:6, is just filthy rags. We must have a perfect righteousness as a covering in the spiritual battle, and God offers this to us in Jesus Christ. Through the saving work of Jesus, not only have our sins been taken away by His death on the cross, but we are also given the very righteousness of Jesus in exchange. The theological term for this is “justification,” and refers to God removing our sins, declaring us to be not guilty, and then bestowing upon us the righteousness of Christ. This is what Paul speaks of, among other places, in Philippians 3:9, when he says that he desires to be “found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” This righteousness, that the theologians have referred to as an “alien righteousness” demonstrates itself through us as we grow in righteousness, but we are always imperfect. Christ’s righteousness is perfect. In Isaiah 59:17, the prophet saw the Lord coming forth to save His people and bring judgment, and he said, “He put on righteousness like a breastplate.” Now that breastplate has been given to us, that we might be covered in Christ’s righteousness as we face the attacks of the enemy. He is unable to accuse us before the Father, because the Father looks upon us and sees the righteousness of His very Son if we are in Him by faith.

In addition to truth which God has given us as a belt to gird us, and righteousness He has given as a breastplate, Paul next names the covering of the feet. “Having shod your feet.” Soldiers in Paul’s day wore shoes or boots called caliga. These were held together and reinforced by iron nails that protruded from the sole like cleats that served for better traction. Athletes wear cleats so that their feet will grip the ground beneath them, and so that they can push off with more power as they run. The same was true for the Roman soldier, and the same is true for us when our feet are shod with the shoes God has provided. These shoes are described as “the preparation of the gospel of peace.” Having heard and accepted the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, we are prepared for the battle, and prepared to carry that message to others. This is a gospel of peace; because of what Christ has done for us, we have peace with God. Isaiah 52:7 says, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” So, with the Gospel as our shoes, our feet are beautiful as we bring the gospel of peace to our neighbors and to the nations, and we are immovable in the spiritual battle that rages around us.

Now Paul mentions the shield. Roman soldiers carried two kinds of shields. One was small, strapped to one arm, and used in hand-to-hand combat. This is not the shield Paul is describing. He’s referring to the large shield, about the size of a door that covered the length of one’s body, and when joined together with others, formed an impenetrable wall known as a phalanx that protected the army as they advanced. As they approached a walled city, they men on the inside of the formation would raise their shields up forming a “turtle-shell” type of protection over the entire unit. Paul says here that faith is our shield. This includes both our faith that we place in Christ as Lord and Savior, and our confident trust in God’s presence and protection. He provides us with this faith as His Spirit works in our lives. He imparts saving faith to us that we may believe on Christ and He demonstrates His trustworthiness to us as we walk with Him. Therefore, we like Abraham are able to live confidently knowing that God is a shield to us. Proverbs 30:5 says that He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. But having a shield doesn’t mean that we will not be attacked. If there was no danger of attack, we would not need a shield. Satan will attack with many evil schemes, here likened to flaming arrows. But the ancient soldiers would cover their shields in leather and soak them in water so that flaming projectiles fired by their enemies would hit and quickly fizzle out. So, Paul says that the shield of faith will extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. He will attack but as we stand in confident faith behind God as our shield, those attacks will not harm us. And like those ancient soldiers, we need each other to stand strong with us. We need to lock our shields of faith together with one another, so that when one’s faith is weak, the strong faith of another standing guard on his or her behalf will protect us.

We have God’s truth as our belt, His righteousness as our breastplate, His gospel as our shoes, faith in Him as a shield, and now we are told that we have also been given a helmet. The head is the most vulnerable place of attack, and the soldiers of ancient times wore helmets of bronze with pieces that came down and covered the sides of the face to protect them against the most fatal blows of the enemy. Our enemy the devil never gives up the fight, and though are armor is strong, he will continue to unleash fury upon us in various trials, temptations, and spiritual attacks. Finally, he sets his sights upon our destruction with the fatal blow of death, but even when this weapon is launched against us, we are protected with a great covering – our helmet is salvation. This helmet was described as part of the armor worn by God Himself in Isaiah 59, and now He has given us this salvation to serve as our helmet as well. Having been saved from sin, with our salvation as a helmet, we can face even the worst that the enemy can throw at us and know that we are protected by our God. He has saved us so that even if this life should end, we enter into His presence forever. We can endure the battle knowing that we will endure the worst the enemy can throw at us, even if it is death because of the salvation that is ours in Christ.

Now we come to the only piece of offensive armor described here – the sword. The type of sword indicated by the word Paul uses here is a short sword that would be used in close, hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. This type of sword could be wielded defensively to block an attack, and offensively to strike the enemy. But our sword is not forged of metal – it is a spiritual sword, the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Hebrews 4:12 says, “the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” In Isaiah 11, the Messiah is said to strike the earth with the “rod of His mouth,” and when John sees the victorious risen Lord Jesus in Revelation, he said He has a “sharp, two-edged sword” that came out of His mouth. And when He brings destruction upon the wicked in Revelation 19, it is said that He strikes the nations with that sharp sword that comes from His mouth. God’s Word is a powerful weapon in our battle. It is the weapon Jesus will use when He accomplishes ultimate and final victory on the last day, but it has also been given to us for use in our spiritual battle. David wrote in Psalm 119, “Thy word I have hidden in my heart that I might not sin against Thee.” Jesus showed us in His own temptations how He used the Scriptures to ward off the enemy and His temptations. Therefore, we must be prepared to wage war with the Bible as our sword as well. When we set out to rescue others from the enemy’s bondage, we proclaim the Word of God to them. When Satan attacks us, we stand on the promises of God’s Word. When the battle is heated and intense, close and hand-to-hand, as it were, we must depend upon our sword – the Bible, the Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit.

But there is also one final piece of equipment that we must not ignore. We would not be able to stand in the battle for long, even with such mighty armor, without some means of communication back to headquarters. We must stay in touch with the commander, and for this reason, we have the gift of prayer. After enumerating all of this heavenly armor, Paul says in v18, “With all prayer and petition, pray at all times.” John Piper has said that “Prayer is primarily a wartime walkie-talkie for the mission of the church as it advances against the powers of darkness and unbelief. … God has given us prayer as a wartime walkie-talkie so that we can call headquarters for everything we need as the kingdom of Christ advances in the world.” But, Piper warns us that “prayer malfunctions when we try to make it a domestic intercom to call upstairs for more comforts in the den.” He writes, “It is as though the field commander (Jesus) called in the troops, gave them a crucial mission …, handed them a personal transmitter coded to the frequency of the General’s headquarters, and said, ‘Comrades, the General has a mission for you. … He has authorized me to give each of you personal access to Him through these transmitters. If you stay true to His mission and seek His victory first, He will always be as close as your transmitter, to give tactical advice and to send air cover when you need it.”

The oldest surviving work of French literature is the Song of Roland which tells the story of the defeat of the knights of Charlemagne. Roland was the commander of the rearguard, and when his men were attacked, his pride kept him from sounding a horn to call in support from the rest of the army. As a result, Roland’s forces were massacred. How often are we like Roland in the spiritual battle … confident in our own strength, too proud to call out to the Lord in prayer or to rely on the strength of our brothers and sisters, and therefore suffering defeat! We must always be armed with what God has supplied, connected with one another in the battle, and depending on the Lord in prayer.

II. God has given us our strategic assignment.

A soldier is trained for battle. One of my dearest friends is an officer in the United States Marines. After sustaining some severe injuries in Iraq several years ago, he was reassigned to what he referred to as “desk duty.” But every time we talk, he talks about wanting to get back to the frontlines. In his words, “Marines are trained to fight, not to push pencils.” So, likewise, we as the people of God have not been armed for desk duty. We are not so powerfully equipped for leisure and recreation. We have a mission, a strategic assignment that is laid out for us in the imperative words in this passage.

The first of these is to “take up the full armor of God.” The armor does us no good unless we take it up and put it on. Of course, this is metaphorical, and it speaks of us making a personal appropriation of the divine gifts of truth, righteousness, the gospel, faith, salvation, and the Word of God. It is not enough to simply know about these things, we have to apply them in our lives. And this begins by coming to Christ by faith as Lord and Savior, and then growing in our relationship with Him and living in the daily realities of His presence, His provision, His power, and His protection over us.

The second imperative in the text is to resist. Once we have taken up the armor of God, we have the ability to resist the enemy as he seeks to destroy us by luring us into sin. The armor enables us to “resist in the evil day,” a phrase that points to those critical moments when Satan’s attacks seem to be especially intense. This is where we have to be careful to base our beliefs and practices on Scripture and not folklore. You will hear people say, “The devil made me do it.” That is a foolish thing for a Christian to say when he or she sins. The devil wanted them to do it, but cannot make a Christian do anything when that Christian is wearing the armor of God and walking in faith. He is powerful, but God is more powerful and He dwells with the Christian in the person of the Holy Spirit. Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world, 1 John 4:4 says. The devil can be resisted and overcome. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” James 4:7 says, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” So, if we are equipped with the armor God has supplied, we can resist him – we must resist him. This is part of our assignment – put on the armor and resist.

Third, we find the order to stand firm. Perhaps you have noticed the difference in how a society looks differently upon those who fall in battle and those who flee from battle. Those who fall while in the midst of the fight are often viewed as heroes, while those who flee are viewed as cowards. We have to be careful applying the analogy to the spiritual battle. It is certainly not heroic to fall, if that means being overcome by the enemy and yielding to temptation. But it is heroic to stand firm and withstand the attack and accept whatever suffering comes as a result of standing firm and faithful. Surrender and flight however amount to failure in the battle. It is one thing to be strong in the faith here in the sanctuary on Sunday when it is relatively safe and secure, but how firmly do we stand when the battle rages? When Satan unleashes the full fury of his attack, are we willing to stand firm then? That is our assignment – to stand firm in the battle, without surrender or flight. Armed with the power that God supplies, we can stand firm when the fight rages—even beyond what we think we can bear. His strength is perfect, and is perfected in our weakness, enabling us to do what we normally could not. So when we feel like giving up and giving in, we need to remember our armor and our assignment and stand firm.

Then coming to verse 18, we find another aspect of our assignment: be on the alert. Like a watchman on guard duty, we are to keep our eyes peeled on the lookout, knowing that the battle will go on, and that an attack is likely to occur when we least expect it. How are we to be alert? Paul says here “with all perseverance and petition.” This means, first, that we must not be lulled into slumber while on duty. We must persevere as we stand guard and never forget that an attack may be imminent. Surely our enemy, the devil, knows when the opportune moments for attack are. When Jesus resisted his temptations in the wilderness, Luke 4:13 says that devil left Him until an opportune time. He knew when those moments were in Jesus’ life, and he knows when they are in our lives as well. Certainly one of the most opportune moments is when we let down the guard and think we are most safe from his attack.

Secondly, we must be alert in petition, that is, in prayer. When Jesus taught us to pray, He said that we should pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” That means we must always be prayerfully alert concerning our need for divine protection from satanic assaults. We must never get to the point that we think we will be OK on our own without the support of God. And prayer is one way we acknowledge our dependence upon Him. But Paul also says here that our prayers are not only for ourselves. As we stand guard, we are also on the lookout for one another – for all the saints. Our brother or sister’s armor may have gaps that they do not recognize. They may have dropped their guard of alertness unaware. They may be undergoing an attack that we don’t realize, or maybe we do. And in that moment when my brother’s shield of faith is too heavy to bear, or when my sister’s sword is sheathed, I have a responsibility to them to be diligent in prayer for them – to cover them with my shield, to fight for them with my sword, to place my breastplate of righteousness before them in the line of fire. And I can do this in my petitions for them. But how do we know when a brother or sister in Christ needs prayer? It’s easy – the answer is always. As we stand guard with perseverance, every fellow Christian in the body of Christ needs prayer. That is why Paul says that we are to be alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints.

So the marching orders for the church in battle are spelled out in the imperatives of this passage: Resist, stand firm, be alert with perseverance and prayer for one another. But this would be a suicide mission if not for the armor God has provided. So we must envelop ourselves by faith in His truth, His righteousness, His Gospel, His faith, His salvation, and His Word. We will not escape the battle by so doing, but we will endure the battle and overcome. We will become recipients and participants in the victory that Christ has secured for us in His death and resurrection. He has already won the war – handing Satan the ultimate defeat in His victory over sin and death. But Satan still fights and will until the day of sentencing, when he will be cast in to hell forever and ever. We don’t stand a chance against him unless we stand in Christ by faith. If you have never accepted Christ as Lord and Savior of your life, then you are in bondage to the enemy. Christ has come to liberate you by taking your sins upon Himself in His death and defeating sin and its penalty through His blood and through His victorious resurrection. We would invite you to call upon Him to save you. And for those who have done so, we are in the crosshairs of the enemy’s sights. We will be attacked with frequency and intensity. I would go so far as to say that if you are not under attack, you should see that as a warning that something is not right in your relationship with Jesus. But where we walk in faithfulness to Jesus, the attacks will come, but God has given us our armor, and our assignment, and our victory is in Him through Christ our Lord.

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