Fighting A Spiritual Battle
Read Text. When I was in high school, our church rented an unused church building in our town. During my childhood, we had gone from meeting in a house to meeting in a union hall, and now, for the very first time, we had a real church building. It was actually on the campus of what, in my hometown, would be like our Career Tech Center here. And because it was a real church building, but hadn’t been used as a church in quite a while (it housed a pre-school for many years), there was quite a bit of work that needed to be done inside. Wood finishes needed to be stripped and stained. Carpets needed to be cleaned. Sloppy paint jobs around windows needed to be scraped and repainted. So we had several work bees and we all jumped in and got to work.
Like our sanctuary here, like a lot of church sanctuaries, the sanctuary in this church had some really, really high windows. So to reach them, we had to use scaffolding. But we didn’t use the kind of scaffolding you’re thinking of. Those cost lots of money to rent. We used the kind that are really just brackets you put on the upper rungs of long extension ladders that you can put a 2×8 board across to stand on. It’s a step up from being on a ladder only in that you don’t have to move the ladder quite as often, because you can move side to side on the board that’s suspended between the two ladders if you’re stupid enough to try it. And of course, you have to work your way up and over the board while climbing the ladder to even get up there. So who do you think they sent up there to scrape and paint those window trim pieces? The youth.
So “the youth” were sent up to the top of the sanctuary on rickety ladders to scrape and paint all of this window trim. And it was terrifying. I’m not a big fan of heights anyway, and I can tell you that when my feet finally hit the floor again, my sphincter was so clenched that I couldn’t go to the bathroom for days. Well, near the end of the project, when the building was almost ready to be a church again, someone realized that a small section of window trim around some stained glass windows had been scraped but not painted. Only this small spot was on an end wall, not a side wall, and it was way up in the peak. So we had to bring in an extra long extension ladder and run it all the way up, as tall as it would go. And who do you think was nominated to go up that ladder, no safety equipment, carrying a brush and bucket of paint to get that last, highest spot in the entire sanctuary? You guessed it, the youth. Fortunately, it was a friend of mine, an all-star wrestler named Kelly, who “got” to go up that ladder. And while he was climbing, he was muttering to himself. I thought he was cursing under his breath, because that’s probably what I would have been doing, but he wasn’t. When he was half way up, our Sunday School teacher, a farmer named Larry, called up, “Kelly, what are you saying up there?” And from the top of the sanctuary, Kelly called down, “I forgot to put my armor on this morning, so I was putting it on.” See, our Sunday School teacher had all of us memorize Ephesians 6:10-18, usually headed “The Armor of God” along with Psalm 91, and he encouraged us to “put our armor on” every day by reading these two passages and eventually quoting them from memory every day.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t memorize scripture or that it’s a bad thing to be mindful of the protection that we have in Christ. Those are really, really good spiritual habits that we all need to develop. But friends, simply reading that passage wasn’t going to help Kelly if he slipped. Is the Bible the Sword of the Spirit, the living Word of God that divides soul and spirit and discerns the hidden thoughts and intentions of the heart? (Heb. 4:12). Yes!! Is the word of God living and powerful and will it accomplish all that God wants it to accomplish? Yes!! But it isn’t a magic book. It isn’t the kind of thing where if you just quote the right passages in the right time and in the right way, everything will turn out all right, no matter what. It is God’s revelation of himself to us. Kelly quoted both Ephesians 6 and Psalm 91 from memory on his way up that ladder, but if he slipped and fell, he wouldn’t have suddenly become as light as a feather and floated to the ground. He wouldn’t have suddenly been made out of nerf so that he would have bounced harmlessly to his feet. He would have plummeted to the sanctuary floor at the speed at which God ordained and a physicist could calculate that the combination of his weight and the pull of gravity would decide. Does God sometimes miraculously protect his people when they are in danger? Yes! Do he always? No! That isn’t Paul’s point here. That isn’t the point of this passage.
Paul began his letter to the Ephesians by unfolding God’s purpose, conceived in a past eternity before this world and the universe that contains it was made – a purpose to create a single new human race through the death and resurrection of Christ and ultimately to unite the whole church and the whole creation under Christ’s headship. And he emphasized that a distinctive shape has been given to this divine plan by the inclusion in God’s new society, on entirely equal footing, of Jews and Gentiles. The old days of division and discrimination are gone. A brand new oneness has emerged, in which through union with Christ Jews and Gentiles are equal members of the same body and equal sharers in the same promise. So now the one Father has one family, the one Messiah one people, and the one Spirit one body. And then Paul appeals to us, because of this great truth, this great reality, to live lives that are worthy of our calling and fitting of our status as God’s new and reconciled society; God’s embassy and outpost on earth. It’s a magnificent vision of all that God has been doing and is continuing to do.
But now Paul’s perspective changes from God’s ideal and ultimate plan to the reality we face day to day as we live as God’s children in a fallen world. And the first thing he wants us to understand is the nature of the enemy we face. Look at Vv. 10-13. God wants us to understand the nature of the life he is calling us to live and the enemy we face. And we cannot take our enemy lightly. We must understand that our battle is against authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil. We must understand that they are dark, dark forces. We face a powerful, wicked, and cunning enemy, and Paul writes these words to jolt us out of passive natures as Christians. Christ himself believed in, spoke to, resisted, and rebuked Satan and the demonic. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a Welshman who was both a minister and a physician said “I am certain that one of the main causes of the ill state of the Church today is the fact that the devil is being forgotten. All is attributed to us; we have all become so psychological in our attitude and thinking. We are ignorant of this great objective fact, the being, the existence of the devil, the adversary, the accuser, and his ‘fiery darts.’”
We must understand and respect our enemy. Our real enemy. But we need not fear him. Paul isn’t painting a picture of two equal and opposite powers, God and his goodness and Satan and his evil, locked equal combat like two heavyweights. Satan is a fallen, created angelic being who can do nothing apart from God’s control or permission. He is not the counterpart of God, an uncreated, eternally present, omniscient and omnipotent being. He is the counterpart of the Archangel Michael (Rev. 12:7) a created being, and the enemy and accuser of human beings. But because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, we need not fear him. Paul wants us to be alert and ready, but not afraid. Like a football coach telling his offensive linemen, “They like to blitz from the weak side on third and long, be ready.” We have absolutely nothing to fear, because the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in all who follower Christ, and John tells us “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 Jn. 4:4).
We have to understand that our struggle in this life is never, ever, against flesh and blood. So often we view ourselves as being in a struggle with flesh and blood, because that’s what our opposition appears to be. But that isn’t the case. We are fighting a spiritual enemy in a spiritual battle. This doesn’t mean we never oppose any person or their stand, but we have to understand that even when we are in legitimate opposition to someone or some stand, we are really not fighting them. We are fighting a spiritual battle against the spiritual forces of evil in this world behind that stance. So we cannot allow our anger at whatever the situation is slop over and become a personal attack full of uncontrolled rage and anger.
But our human strength alone, not just our physical strength but our mental and emotional strength, will not withstand the onslaught, no matter how mentally, emotionally, or physically tough we are. We are not told to be strong. We are told to be strong “in the Lord.” In his strength. In his power. Using his armor. Not just the armor God has given us, but the armor of God himself.
You see, Paul is pulling imagery from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah here. In Isaiah 11:5, God is pictured tying the belt of righteousness and faithfulness around his waist, in Isaiah 59:7, his puts on his righteousness as a breastplate and the helmet of salvation on his head, and in Isaiah 52:7, he speaks of the beauty of the feet of those who proclaim the goodness and grace and love and power of God. God isn’t giving us armor made just for us. He is giving us his armor. God is our protection, sheltering us. All of this is his, and his protection is ours, because we belong to him. But we have to put it on.
Paul begins with the belt of truth. For a Roman soldier, and that is the image Paul is using here, this belt did a lot more than just hold up his pants. In fact, he wasn’t wearing pants. He was wearing a tunic. And the belt gathered his tunic tightly around his so that he could move quickly and with agility. It also held his sword at his side and ready. Our belt is truth. Jesus said of himself, “I am the Truth” (Jn. 14:6). The truth about God, the truth about Jesus Christ, and the truth about who we are in Christ. This is the truth that serves as the foundation for the rest of the armor. Use “Who I Am In Christ” painting.
Next we put on the breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate is the part of the armor that protects all of the vital organs – the heart and the lungs and the gut. Now, just as truth means both the truth of the Gospel and also our living as people of truth, so righteousness has a double layer of meaning. First, it is the righteousness of God, God’s grace, making us right with himself not through our own goodness but through Christ’s death on our behalf. It is the righteousness we have simply because we are forgiven in Christ. In Ephesians 2:8 Paul says “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” That is the righteousness of God given to us by grace. And so we stand before God not condemned for our sin but accepted because he died for us.
Next come the shoes. The Roman soldier wore a boot that was really several layers of heavy leather as a sole that kept the toes free, with straps tied to the ankles and shins to keep them on. And the soles had studs on them. They were suitable for long marches on foot and also for standing firm and not sliding backward when the enemy pushed forward against them in close combat. Kind of like what cleats do for football players today. They allowed the soldier to stand firm and steady with a solid base on all types of terrain. Our shoes are the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. This includes our life in Christ, and also our willingness to share our life in Christ with others. St. Peter tells us to “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Live your life in Christ, and when someone asks you why you live the way you do, be ready to give the reason for the hope that you have.
Then we have the shield. Roman soldiers used two kinds of shields. One was a smaller shield carried on the forearm and used during sword fighting. The other was a long shield that covered the whole person. These shields were usually made of wood rimmed with steel and then covered with layers of cloth and leather, and were then soaked in water, so that they would immediately extinguish arrows that had been dipped in pitch, lit in fire and then shot toward them. And our shield is a shield of faith. The shield of faith isn’t just about our ability to believe God, like I have to figure out how to have more faith in order for God to move in my life. This is both God’s faithfulness to us and our willingness to trust him because God is faithful. Proverbs 30:5 says “he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” He himself, his faithfulness, is our shield. And we are shielded when we place our faith in him and his grace, trusting our lives to him, taking our refuge in him.
The helmet of salvation is the final piece of our armor. God’s saving power is our only defense against the enemy of our souls. Charles Hodge said “That which adorns and protects the Christian, which enables him to hold up his head with confidence and joy, is the fact that he is saved.” And then comes the only weapon we have – the Sword of the Spirit, which Paul tells us is the word of God. It is both an offensive and defensive weapon. The Bible. Scripture. The written word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit. God uses it in our own lives to cut through our defenses, stab at our consciences, and jolt us awake spiritually. It is also available to us in resisting temptation and sharing the love of Christ. But it should never be used to bludgeon someone else to death. Remember, our real struggle is not against flesh and blood.
Paul closes by telling us to pray with alertness and perseverance. Some would say that this is another weapon in our spiritual arsenal, but it is so much more than that. It is the atmosphere in which we fight, our entire orientation toward life. It is the single most important thing that we as followers of Christ do. In prayer we not only talk TO God about what we are facing, we also learn to listen for God’s voice speaking to us. Prayer isn’t a one way conversation. And we’re to pray not just for ourselves when we get in a tight spot, but at all times, in all ways. Presenting our requests to God. That’s supplication. But also listening to God, asking him to speak to us through his Word, through our worship, through trusted friends, in the still small voice in our hearts. It’s speaking to God with our mouths, but also with our hearts and our minds, with our laughter and our tears. And we are to pray for “all the saints.” Dear Lois goes every Sunday night to a prayer meeting at Bayview Wesleyan where followers of Christ from all over town, who attend many different churches, gather to pray for persecuted Christians all over the world. The kind of prayer Paul is talking about here involves more than just our little spheres, our little worlds. It involves all followers of Christ everywhere.
Look at Vv. 19-20. Paul wants them to pray for him. Not necessarily that he would be set free, although I’m sure he would have accepted that gift if offered, but that he would have the courage to speak about Jesus Christ boldly even as he sits in chains. He isn’t praying that God will change his situation, but that God will strengthen him, armor him, to use his awful situation for the glory of God.
Paul didn’t write these words so that we would sit here and think: “Ok, I have to make sure that I am always living in the truth. I can’t have any wrong beliefs. And I have to make sure that I am always covered by God’s righteousness and am living rightly. And I have to make sure that I am always willing and ready to share my faith in Christ. So I guess I’ll knock on two doors and share my faith in Christ with complete strangers every day. And I have to make sure that my faith is always strong. Otherwise bad things will happen to me. And the Bible is the sword of the Spirit, and I need to dice up as many people as I can with it.” That isn’t what Paul is saying at all.
But God is trying to wake us up to the reality of the spiritual battle that is going on around us every day. He wants us to see with both our physical eyes and spiritual eyes, realizing that no matter what we face, we really aren’t fighting flesh and blood, we’re fighting a spiritual battle. So we aren’t supposed to go around looking for enemies in this world so we can blast them with Scripture. And we aren’t supposed to hole up somewhere away from society until Christ returns. We’re supposed to engage, living in this world but not of this world. Aware of Satan’s Kool-aide but not drinking his Kool-Aide. In this battle, we can only be protected by spiritual armor that is every bit as real as the spiritual battle we are fighting. But here’s the kicker. The thing we really have to understand: all of this armor, every bit of it, is already ours. It is ours, and it fits us perfectly, because in Christ we have been united with God, and we are his new society, his outpost, his embassy here on this earth, in this town, in this neighborhood, until he returns. But God wants his new society to spread. He wants new people to accept their citizenship in his kingdom. And so our eyes cannot be always facing inward. They must face out. And when they do, we will sometimes be attacked. Remember these two promises of Scripture: First the words of Jesus – “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). And then the words of St. Paul: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).