We left our watches at home. We set up our umbrella and our lawn chairs. The lawn chair was in the recline position. It was a beautiful day at the beach and the agenda was to relax and have fun. We spent time in the water, reading, eating ice cream and having enjoyable conversation. It was pleasant, easy and enjoyable.
But life isn't always like that.
They called me because their young son was having bad nightmares and they were afraid that it was caused by demonic influence. I went and prayed for their son and for God to be sovereign in his room. The nightmares stopped and we recognized that this had been an attack of the enemy.
Last fall when we were beginning to plan for our move, I experienced a serious bout of worry. It seemed greater than normal worry and because someone had indicated that I might experience a spiritual attack we began to pray that God would give peace. Peace came and we understood that this had been an attack of the enemy.
More than once I have spoken with people as they near the end of life. Several times people who have been solid, faithful followers of Jesus have expressed doubts about their assurance of faith. So we have read verses of assurance in Scripture and prayed that God would let them know that He loves them and that they would have peace about their eternal situation. I have realized that the enemy doesn't give up easily and continues to try to get people to lose faith.
God has called us to represent His kingdom in a hostile world. Sometimes that isn't easy and sometimes we act as if it is an optional activity. Satan will try to discourage us and tempt us to take it lightly, but Scripture makes it clear that this is what our life is about. Not taking God's mission seriously is also a spiritual attack.
In other words, life is not a day at the beach. How do we live life and build the kingdom of Jesus in the face of an enemy who continues to try to defeat God's kingdom? This is the question Paul answers in Ephesians 6:10-20.
The text begins with the word, "finally" and although these are the last things which Paul says in Ephesians, this translation does not give us the full thought of what the word means. A better translation would be, “from now on” or “for the rest of the time.” We are between the times. Jesus has come, has died and risen again and has defeated the enemy. But the final victory is still something that we are looking forward to. We are in the last days, but not on the last day. The message Paul has for the Ephesians and for us is a message which is relevant during this time. He is saying, for the remainder of the days until Jesus returns, this is the reality in which you live and these are the things which you must do.
The reality for Christ followers is that we “struggle” or “wrestle.” He uses sports imagery to indicate that the game is on. We are in a contest of epic proportions and the stakes are extremely high. Grey Cup, Stanley Cup or Super bowl have nothing on the stakes of this contest. He also uses military imagery to say that we are in a battle. Both images help us remember that life is not a day at the beach, but a difficult contest with much at stake, a conflict in which we need to be constantly alert. The Message translates it, "This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels."
The struggle we are in is not against an opponent whom we can see. Paul is very explicit and warns us that “…our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” The enemies we encounter sometimes seem to be the neighbor who creates problems, the business deal that we are trying to accomplish or the people we need to relate to. These can be difficult challenges in life, but the battle we are in is much more difficult and much more insidious than that. The battle we are in is a spiritual contest.
In verse 12, Paul describes this enemy by using the word “against” four times to identify different things about the enemy. The enemy has authority and is a ruler, but the realm of his reign is darkness and he is over the spiritual forces of evil. If we were wrestling against a human foe, we would have some hope that we could help them see reason. But when our enemy is evil to the core and his only intent is to bring us into darkness that is a scary thing. When we see that his opposition is in the whole world, we understand that we are in a battle that is very serious.
On the television program "Wipeout," people enter into a contest in which they are required to go through a series of obstacles. The person who is able to do it the quickest wins the contest. The point of the show is to watch people in the most awkward situations trying to stay upright, but wiping out all the time. They throw things at them, they place slippery obstacles in their way and make it as difficult as possible to get to the finish line. In the game it is all in fun and the people have a good time doing it.
The same cannot be said about our enemy Satan who is doing the same thing. He puts distractions and obstacles in our way but has the malicious intent of trying to cause us to stumble in any way he can. He wants to prevent us from making it to the finish line and to prevent us from being faithful to God in our ministry in the world. Penner says, "One great cause of spiritual failure among Christians is that we do not realize we are in a battle."
Sometimes the enemy shows himself in obvious ways, but often the attacks are much more subtle. When we doubt its not just doubt, it is the enemy. When illness or other struggles come, the enemy is behind it. We need to be aware that it is game day and we all play. The battle is on and it is serious and it is difficult.
And so the text encourages us to “be strong.” If we think of this from the metaphor of sports we might imagine that now is the time to put on our rally caps. That imagery implies that we dig deep in order to win the game. But Paul is definitely not saying try harder, dig deeper, do all you can. The call to be strong is a call to rely on the strength of the Lord. “In the Lord” is the important part of this sentence. We are to live in dependence on God. He is the one who gives us the power we need to win and to move forward!
The reason we have strength in the Lord is because of what He has already accomplished. In the resurrection of Jesus, God has demonstrated His power over death and it is that power on which we rely. In the death of Jesus on the cross, God defeated the enemy not by smashing him, but by taking away all power by defeating death. Through death, Jesus has conquered the enemy who now has no power left. It is in the victory which Jesus accomplished in His death that we have victory. Because Jesus died and rose again, God has sent the Holy Spirit to accompany everyone who belongs to Jesus and it is in the presence of the Holy Spirit that we are strong in the Lord.
Matthew Henry says, “We have no sufficient strength of our own. Our natural courage is as perfect cowardice, and our natural strength as perfect weakness; but all our sufficiency is of God. In his strength we must go forth and go on."
Watchman Nee was a Chinese pastor who wrote a book on Ephesians called Sit, Walk, Stand. Nee divides the book into three sections. First of all, he says that we need to learn to sit. The early part of Ephesians tells us that we need to sit in the presence of Jesus and recognize the wonder of all that He has done for us in redeeming us and making us His children. The next section of the book talks about walking with Christ. This is the ethical section of the book and reminds us that those who sit in the presence of Christ must also walk in obedience to Him. The last part of the book talks about standing and that brings us to this passage. Nee says, “We must know how to sit with Christ in the heavenly places and we must know how to walk worthy of Him down here, but we must also know how to stand before the foe.” All of these are important in order to be able to stand.
But we shouldn't think that standing is only protecting ourselves. Standing does not imply a fortress mentality. Often this passage has been interpreted as describing those things with which we can defend ourselves as believers and be protected. But that is too small an interpretation of this passage. The shoes of the gospel, and the sword of the Spirit tell us that we are in a battle not only to try to survive in this difficult time and quietly remain in a safe position. We are on the offensive. It is our purpose as followers of Jesus to press the claims of Christ into the kingdom of this world. Standing against the evil one means letting the world know about Jesus. It is being protected against his lies, but also making sure the truth of God is proclaimed in the world.
We also need to recognize that this passage is written to all of us as a faith community. The imperatives in this passage are all plural which means that they speak to the church and not only to us as individuals. Neufeld says, "It is much more in keeping with the gist of Ephesians to see this summons to battle directed to the church as a whole, to the body of Christ acting as a unified divine force."
To stand means both that we protect ourselves from the enemy and that we as the body of Christ must press the claims of the kingdom into the world. We cannot take these tasks lightly or treat them as optional.
How will we gain this victory? The armor we are to put on is the armor of God. Often people have looked at this passage and imagined that Paul, being in prison, saw before him a Roman soldier. The presence of the soldier made him think of how the armor fits with our spiritual armor. A much better background and more faithful to the actual words of the text is the understanding that the imagery in Paul's mind was that presented in Isaiah 59:17-19 where it says, "He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle. According to their deeds, so will he repay; wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies; to the coastlands he will render requital. So those in the west shall fear the name of the LORD, and those in the east, his glory; for he will come like a pent-up stream that the wind of the LORD drives on."
It is much more powerful to realize that the imagery which Paul had in his mind was of God as a warrior who wears this very armor in defeating His enemies. It makes much more sense for us to realize that it is God's armor we must put on. As I mentioned in the children's story, if you wear hockey equipment, you are protected against pucks and flying bodies, but that equipment won't do much against bullets and chemical warfare. For that you need military equipment. If you are in a battle, military equipment would give some protection against bullets and chemical warfare. But as sophisticated as military equipment is these days, it does nothing for us in a spiritual battle. We are in a spiritual battle, so we need spiritual weapons. The spiritual weapons are the armor of God.
Truth is God's armor for us. We know that Satan is a deceiver for that is one of his names. I doubt if we could think of one of the areas in which Satan tries to tempt us where some lie is not involved. If we are willing to recognize the truth then it can prevent us from getting into trouble. Truth is also the weapon we have for proclaiming the claims of Christ into the world. At all times we must seek truth and speak truth.
Righteousness is also God's armor. When Satan accuses us before God, it is the righteousness of Christ that God sees and so does not listen to him. It is the righteousness of Christ in us that prevents us from considering sin and entering into it. Sometimes when sinful thoughts come into my head, it is the thought that I belong to God and have been made righteous in Christ that reminds me who I am and helps me say `no.’
The readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace, is the armor of God with which He has sent us out. In Luke 10:18 we learn that it is the proclamation of the gospel which causes the fall of Satan. Gospel proclamation is also an important protection for us because when we make Jesus known, we put our reputation on the line that we belong to Christ and it helps us to walk in Christ.
It is never certain how the word which is usually translated "faith" should be translated. It can be translated faith, but it can also be translated "faithfulness." If translated as "faith" we are encouraged that our trust in God is a powerful weapon. As long as we remain in a position of trusting God, we are safe. But it is also good to recognize that we stand in the faithfulness of Christ. He was faithful and the only reason we have any hope of defeating the enemy is primarily because of the faithfulness of Jesus. II Thessalonians 3:3 reminds us that, "The Lord is faithful and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one."
When we recognize that in Christ we belong to God we know that although Satan can try he is never able to overcome us. I John 4:4 assures us that "the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world."
Once again, however, salvation is not only defensive, but also offensive. Neufeld says, "In the context of putting on the armor…the image of grasping the helmet of salvation is meant to place on the church the task of bringing liberation to those in bondage by imitating the God of Isaiah 59."
Since we are in a spiritual battle, it is the power of the Spirit of God which must be used to both defend us from the wiles of the evil one and also to give us power to engage in the battle for the lives of those who don't know Jesus. We cannot defend ourselves or win people to Jesus apart from the guidance, power and direction of the Spirit of God. His Word and His Spirit are the means of victory. Let us not try to fight this battle on our own, but do so in the power of the Spirit and with the Word of God.
The other way in which we will win the battle both defensively and offensively in the world is through prayer.
Paul calls us to pray in the Spirit. Prayer in the Spirit begins with the Spirit given ability to come to God with the words, "Abba" on our lips. We pray to our Father and the Spirit opens that possibility for us. Praying in the Spirit is also recognizing our weakness, as we read in Romans 8:26, 27. If we pray in our strength we come to God with what we can offer, but when we pray in the Spirit, we come to God knowing our weakness and relying on His strength. Prayer in the Spirit also means understanding that the Spirit of God guides our prayer and answers our prayer.
Prayer in the Spirit will lead us into the comprehensiveness of prayer. Notice the word “all” which appears numerous times in verse 18. We are called to pray on all occasions. When we are rejoicing, we should pray. When we are hurting, we should pray. When we are starting a new job, we should pray. When we are entering marriage, we should speak to God about it. When we send out a missionary or a Children's Church leader, we should intercede. Every aspect of life is an occasion for prayer. May we learn to pray on all occasions!
Prayer in the Spirit will also include all kinds of prayer. Prayer is not just asking and praise. We must pray intercessory prayers for others. We must pray for our needs, we must pray prayers of thanksgiving and prayers in which we simply declare God’s goodness. We must pray listening prayers. Each prayer is important and must be a part of how we pray.
It is such a joy for me to stand on Portage Avenue each Wednesday morning and pray. I have a sense when I am doing it that a great spiritual battle is being waged. I usually pray that this church can be a location from which the grace of God is seen in the city. I pray that all the people who drive by will come to understand the love of God for them. When we pray, we are engaged in the battle.
Paul concludes this section by asking the Ephesians to pray for him. His prayer has one direction. He asks that he would be able to open his mouth and effectively and boldly make Jesus known. His specific prayer is for words and for boldness. This request is particularly relevant and shows us something of what was going on in his heart at this time. He was a prisoner, which could have discouraged him and given him fear, yet his desire was that even in prison he would continue to be a bold witness and be able to say the right thing at the right time.
So we must pray. Neufeld points out that "Prayer plays a central role in the struggle of the communal divine warrior. Prayer is battle. Prayer is also, however, a way to keep alert. It is a form of vigilance, of keeping the senses honed to danger and to opportunities for victory."
At the end of the service as we part and leave the church, I often say, "Have a great week." As I was thinking about that I wondered if it was an adequate parting greeting. As we leave, we are going out to do battle, against a powerful enemy. What I should be, saying is something like: "Fight well! May what God has given you strengthen you when the enemy attacks. Allow your life to spill out with the love of God so that all will know His truth. May truth, righteousness, salvation, faithfulness, the readiness to proclaim the gospel, salvation and the Spirit of God and the Word of God give you strength to overcome and may you be strong as a representative of Jesus in your situation in life." That's kind of long, but if I say "Have a great week" perhaps you can understand that that is what I mean.
God is a warrior who is seeking to win the world. He has called us to battle with Him. May we use His armor to win. In the end He will win. Let's join Him as we battle today. May His strength encourage us and give us what we need!