Last week we looked at what some people may consider the biggest struggle in life, marriage. But of course I say that tongue-in-cheek because this morning as we close the book of Ephesians we will look at the greatest struggle of Christianity. And fortunately we will not only look at the source of our struggle but we will also look at the solution to our problem.
As a bit of review but also to set the context of our passage this morning, remember that Paul is in prison as he pens this letter to the Ephesians. It would be easy to mistakenly believe that Paul’s problem is with the Romans and if the people would rise up and overthrow the government, Christianity would be free to spread without fear of persecution.
There’s a couple of problems with this thinking however. The main issue is that the Romans are not the problem. Beyond that, even though we wouldn’t say that persecution is good, the absence of persecution has actually been harmful to Christianity. For the first few centuries, Christianity was practiced not necessarily in fear but not in the open per se either. There were atrocities such as Christians being lit on fire as torches along the road or being thrown to lions as entertainment in the coliseum. All of that changed in 312 with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity. The Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire. And while there were undoubtedly more people who called themselves Christians during this era there were less who actually lived as Christians because it became watered down. Before you would only call yourself a Christian if you truly believed it and lived it. Even though Paul was in prison for his beliefs, he was calling for people to rise up and break him out or to try to stop the persecution.
The third issue is similar to what Jesus dealt with in His ministry. He had many who thought that he had come to overthrow the Romans and to establish an earthly kingdom. Even some of His closest followers thought that was the plan. But Jesus wasn’t looking to establish an earthly kingdom yet and Paul is not calling for an overthrow of the government in favor of a Christian establish either. As we’ll see in a moment, our struggles are not with people or earthly governments. Let’s look at Ephesians 6:10-12
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Let’s make no mistake about who and what we are up against. We are in a battle with the devil. Most of the time we don’t recognize this battle as such however. It is people who hurt us. People are the ones so gossip about us, say hateful things to us, are violent toward us, etc. And it’s easy to identify certain people who obviously belong to the devil. They are so consumed by a sinful lifestyle that they want nothing to do with Christianity or anyone who advocates a Christian lifestyle. These people are doing the devil’s bidding and we’ve got plenty of them against us.
I’ve encountered these people before and I assume all of you have as well. I once had a boss who was such a miserable human being that she almost made me cry in the middle of the store. And this wasn’t my first job as a teenager, this came in my mid twenties. The thing is, we all know to be on the lookout for these people. The real problem are the people who you aren’t watching out for. Jesus tells us watch out for them and gives us the only clue to guard ourselves against them in Matthew 7:15-20.
15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
We’re all familiar with the expression of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is where it comes from. It references someone who puts on a front in order to fool others but eventually their true nature is revealed. If you are a good person, you are going to bear good fruit. But if you’re a bad person, you can’t help but bear bad fruit. That’s not saying that a good person doesn’t occasionally make a bad decision or do something to hurt someone. But overall, you can tell which people are Christians in name only and which people have a genuine relationship with God.
Now unfortunately I also have to admit that I’m occasionally wrong about someone. And this is what hurts more in life than probably anything else. I’ve had a number of jobs in and around the church and I’ve had numerous secular jobs. And I’ve never been hurt worse in a secular job than I have by people in the church. It’s not even close. Probably my five worst experiences in life comes at the hands of people in the church.
And that brings my back to my original point. There are wolves in sheep’s clothing within the church. Eventually you’ll discover their true nature but it might not be after they hurt you. But there are also genuine Christians who make a bad decision or ultimately just unintentionally hurt someone. We are not at war with other Christians who might hurt us. We are not even at war with non-Christians who are intentionally trying to harm us. Instead, our battle is against the devil who is causing all kinds of chaos in prompting people to do sinful things.
There are a lot of people who believe in guardian angels. I’m personally not sure what I believe in that regard but I think that you could make a case from scripture for it. The opposite is also taking place though. There are demons at work who are tempting us and tricking us into doing harmful things. And the bigger the target, you better believe the bigger and badder the force that is trying to corrupt it.
Now you may have to yourself before, why do all of these priests end up as child molesters. Why are our politicians so corrupt? I honestly believe that most of these people enter into their professions with noble intentions. But the more authority they are given, the larger a target is placed on their backs and the harder the devil is going to go after them. Why take down a “normal” person when you can take down an authority figure and watch the dominoes fall with them. When a high profile preacher is caught in sin, it isn’t just their life that is destroyed but it also wrecks the faith of a number of their followers.
With this in mind, I have two things to say. Don’t put your faith in me. I am going to disappoint you. I am going to fail you. I am not incorruptible and I am not sinless. You are not here to follow me, you are here to follow Christ and I beg you to only follow me so much as I follow Christ.
My second point is that I need your prayers. If the devil is after you as we just saw, he is after me twice as hard because of my position. I have personally felt it this year. We’re only two thirds of the way through and already this has been a long and depressing year. And I can honestly say that I haven’t felt personally under attack, just everything around me that I hold important. And in many ways that’s worse because it’s not just affecting me.
Before you get too depressed by all of this however, we are not defenseless. We have not been thrown to the wolves as the saying goes. Instead, Paul gives us instructions on what to do in light of the fact that we are in this battle with the devil.
13 Therefore put on the full armor 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.14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And 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.
The first thing that we’re told is that we are to stand. Christianity is not a religion for cowards. It is not for the weak. There will be struggles in life as Satan will try to do us harm. But we are not to run away from these things but to stand firm against them.
The first piece of armor that we’re given is the belt of truth. A belt is a seemingly insignificant piece of equipment compared to the other ones but you know the value of one if you’ve ever had your pants fall down in public. Without truth, the rest of this ensemble doesn’t matter. Without truth to hold it together, we’re left exposed to attack.
It is appropriate that truth is represented by a belt. Truth is circular as far as we’re concerned. We’re supposed to speak the truth in love – we looked at that recently. But we can’t know what truth is without first been given the truth. God is the source of our truth. Without God, we are left with nothing but what feels right as the source of our truth.
Let’s take a current issue of debate for an example. Now let’s throw out everything that you’ve been taught to believe is right or wrong about it. We’ll start from a blank slate on the topic of gay marriage. The arguments for it are that two people love each other and that we are a society of equality. The argument against it is that it has never been accepted by society before. Without an absolute truth, we can’t make a real decision on this issue. If we speak against it, it is only because of tradition but if we speak for it, we declare that everything we have believed about it before is wrong. And if that’s wrong, what else is wrong?
You can take the same arguments used for gay marriage, which is obviously a popular cause, and apply it to an unpopular cause such as bigamy. If a man can love another man, certainly a man can love two women equally. If we are to be a society of equality, we must recognize the rights of someone who wants to marry multiple women. Once again, the argument against it is only tradition if we have removed the absolutes of God’s truth from the equation. And that’s the point. Without God’s truth as the centerpiece, we’re simply going to do what we want to do regardless whether it actually makes sense because truth is what we make of it.
We are covered with the breastplate of righteousness. Righteousness has always been the covering of the Christian. We have traded in our filthy rags for the clean white linen of righteousness. It is not a coincidence that not only is this the largest piece of armor but it is also the one that covers our heart.
Psalm 51:7-10 says
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Similarly, the New Covenant is prophesied regarding the heart. Ezekiel 36:25-26 says
25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
We are clean when righteousness covers our heart as it does with the armor of God.
Next up is our feet which are fitted with the gospel of peace. The gospel of peace is nothing other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. As you may know, the word gospel means nothing other than good news. Part of the armor of God is that our feet are covered by the good news of Jesus.
Good news and feet are connected elsewhere in scripture. Paul wrote in Romans 10:15
And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
When we walk, we travel with the opportunity to spread the good news. You may have been on vacation somewhere were there was a sign that said something like “leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but memories.” We should be leaving footprints wherever we go and those footprints should look like the gospel of Jesus Christ that all can see.
The shield of faith is next. All of the armor in the world isn’t going to do you any good without faith. You have to actually get out into the battle in order for the armor to do any good and if you’re going to do that it’s going to require faith.
The shield of faith is an acknowledgement that if you’re in battle, things are going to come your way. We have many soldiers who serve their time and don’t spend an hour of their service in an active combat zone. That is not to take anything away from their service as I’m glad that many aren’t put into harm’s way. As a Christian however, you are in a combat zone at all times.
Just as a matter of reference, Roman shields of this time were often wooden and covered in leather. They would then soak the leather in water so that they really would extinguish flaming arrows. As should be no surprise, Paul’s depiction is accurate to his time.
Next is the helmet of salvation. As important of a piece of armor as this is, I don’t actually have much to say about it. We can obviously argue that all of these pieces of armor are important but this is probably the most important because it covers the most important part. Without salvation, the rest of the armor doesn’t do much.
The final piece of equipment that we’re given is the sword of the spirit which is the Word of God. This has the distinction of being both a defensive weapon as well as the only offensive weapon that we have been given. When Jesus was tempted in the desert, He gave us the key to fighting temptation. He fought back by quoting scripture.
I could obviously go on for a while more regarding the armor of God but I’m going to bring this to a close with one more point. We are not called to simply stand and take everything that the devil can throw at us. We are called to go and storm the gates of the castle so to speak.
Matthew 16 is an iconic passage in the middle of the gospel but one verse in particular gets misinterpreted. Matthew 16:18 says
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
A lot of people read this as an assurance that hell will not overcome the church, that we will stand strong against it. There’s only one problem though, gates do not move. The gates of Hades are not marching against the church. Instead, we are to be storming the gates of Hades and busting them down to steal people away from the devil’s grasp.
We need to take hold of the armor of God and make sure that we are not just out to protect ourselves. Instead we need to be on the offensive and telling Satan that this domain is not his for the taking.