Here's a draft of a message I'm bringing tomorrow to Chester CU. Any thoughts or comments would be most welcome as I've struggled a bit putting it together!
There’s probably no-one here that has been involved in a war time situation. But we all know that the realities of war make people behave very differently. A friend of mine, Jonny, has a brother currently serving in Afghanistan. And that makes Jonny behave differently. He talks about his brother regularly. He emails him and prays for him with gut-wrenching concern for his safety. He’s terrified he might get hurt.
Everything must get ratcheted up a further level when you are in a country that is being ravaged by war. The newspapers there daily carry headlines about how the troops are doing. I spoke once to a person who’d been caught up as war erupted in Kosovo. He said you’d have to be on the alert all the time. You might have to be armed. You’d certainly have to be vigilant. A war touches everybody.
We mustn’t miss the wood from the trees when we come to what, for many of us, is a familiar passage. Paul’s headline is: if you are a Christian, life is a war for you. And the stakes are very high. The war is much worse even than what’s going on in Afghanistan. Verse 12 describes the enemy: ‘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.’ In other words, the enemy being spoken about is Satan (that is, the devil) and his demonic powers. That’s why the spiritual war we are in is more serious even than the most awful physical war we can imagine. Satan is a much worse enemy than any earthly enemy. In war, the worst that can happen in physical death – but in the war Paul is talking about the danger is eternal death. And the war is not restricted just to one part of the world, but is in every town and city in the world where there are Christians. The stakes are very high.
Now this passage is written to Christians. What is written is for you if you have turned back to God and personally trusted in Jesus for yourself. There are probably some here tonight that have not yet turned to Jesus. Well, you need to know that Paul – the writer of the passage – holds the conviction that those who are not trusting in Jesus are in serious trouble. Jesus himself said that it’s better to lose an arm or an eye than to enter the hell of everlasting torment, where a person loses everything, including their very soul. It’s because Paul doesn’t want Christians to fall into hell that he writes this section of Ephesians, encouraging Christians to stand firm. As you hear the war that Christians are in described, and as you realise how terrifying the prospect of being without Jesus is, I hope that those of you that aren’t Christians will realise the seriousness of your current situation without him.
For the rest of the evening, I want to look at this amazing passage by thinking about four questions.
Firstly, who is our enemy and why he is so intent on waging war against Christians?
We’ve already seen that the enemy is the devil. Now I think most Christians aren’t very balanced when it comes to thinking about the devil. The Christian author CS Lewis once wrote: ‘There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about demons and the demonic. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.’
Both of these extremes find expression amongst Christians today. There are those who seem to be unhealthily interested the world of the demonic and appear to see a demon hiding around just about every street corner. Here Satan seems to receive as much attention as Jesus does – sometimes even more so. A person loses their car keys or gets a cold and they attribute it to the work of a demon.
On the other hand, some Christians have effectively airbrushed out anything supernatural from their beliefs, and so end up more or less ignoring the spiritual dimension altogether. When their evangelism is ineffective these Christians immediately blame lack of training or inadequate techniques rather than recognising the work of the devil blinding people's minds. When Christians slip up, it’s easier to blame society rather than the one who is working through that society: the devil.
Satan is, of course, quite happy with Christians at either extreme. Whether we give him sensational attention or effectively ignore him, he is able to get away with his work in the world – through creating fear or through creating apathy. What we need is the balanced perspective which the Bible gives. And the place where this is laid out most clearly for us is in Ephesians 6. Here we learn about true spiritual warfare.
The Bible teaches us that the essential character of the devil is wicked and evil. He stands against God – and therefore against God’s people – with an icy hatred that is much greater than any earthly metaphor. The devil is the arch enemy of the Lord Jesus. There are several words given in Scripture to describe the devil’s personality – proud, powerful, evil, clever, deceitful, fierce and cruel. He feels extreme contempt for Christians. You should never feel sorry for the devil or under-estimate his dedication to destroy you.
Now God has made it clear that we will have trouble and difficulty as we work our lives out in spiritual warfare with an enemy that seeks to destroy us, but he has also reminded us that Satan is a defeated foe. 1 John 3:8 says that Jesus came to defeat the works of the devil. At the cross, Jesus defeated Satan and gained all authority in heaven and on earth. At the cross, what Satan thought was his greatest victory in taking crucifying Christ was his greatest defeat. The cross shows us that all of Satan’s work in setting human hearts against God, and all of the ways in which this shows itself in the world, will one day be wiped away. The whole of the Universe will one day be reconciled to God and put right. In that respect, Satan is defeated. Jesus’ death and resurrection means that Satan’s downfall is assured and his doom is certain when Jesus returns. But, in the meantime, Satan exists to do all the damage he can possibly do to thwart God’s purpose and work. He wants to prevent non-believers from trusting Jesus, he wants to lead Christians into sin and even to the point where they abandon trust in Jesus. He wants to blunt the witness of your church and your CU. Above all, Satan hates God getting the glory he deserves.
In verse 12 Paul employs a vivid image to depict this war. He describes it as a ‘struggle’: ‘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.’
Paul probably has the wrestling matches of his day in mind when he speaks of struggle (not WWE but Roman wrestling). It’s as if Paul says, “You can go to the games and see how in a wrestling bout men get to grips with each other. It’s all close contact, it is painful, it uses every muscle, and they do not let go until they have won. They struggle. And that is what it is like wrestling with the devil. This warfare is deadly serious. It is hand to hand combat. And there is a danger of being knocked out and falling into the eternal death of hell, which the devil longs for you.”
This struggle is unrelenting and constant. In verse 13, when Paul speaks of standing ‘when the day of evil comes’, he is talking about the period between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming, when he will return to judge and restore the Universe. In other words, it has been ‘the evil day’ for the last two thousands years and it is the ‘evil day’ today. When we think of demonic opposition, we tend to think of supernatural experiences and demonic possession. And the devil certainly can use these things. But these things are just the tip of the iceberg when we think about the devil’s opposition.
The devil’s opposition tends to be much more subtle. He tempts us: he longs for us deny the Lordship of Jesus in our life; he plays into our own weaknesses to discredit our witness or to make us doubt God’s goodness. The Bible tells us that Satan uses false teaching amongst Christians to get his way, and can even quote Scripture. We also know that Satan tries to destroy those human relationships that God has designed to bring glory to him. Satan likes nothing more than destroying a God-glorifying marriage or dividing a gospel-centred church so that it can’t witness to the Lord Jesus. Satan is very subtle. He knows us much better than we know ourselves – and he uses this knowledge to try and cause us to fall, to abandon our hope in Jesus and so that the gospel about Jesus is not preached and lived.
Now, I’ve spent quite a while on the first question, because I wanted you to see how serious the situation is for Christian. And it brings us to our second question: how on earth can we going to meet this attack of Satan?
Look at verse 13: ‘Therefore, put on the full armour of God...’ The picture Paul gives us is of a Roman soldier carefully putting on his armour to be ready for battle. If even one item is missing then it could spell disaster. Your life depends on getting it right. In other words, despite the very real threat of Satan and his evil powers, God is able to keep Christians from falling and the way he keeps Christians from falling is by fitting us for successful spiritual combat. So if your aim is to keep going in the Christian life and not be defeated by the schemes of the devil, then you must put on the armour described in these verses. This is how God means to keep Christians safe until Jesus returns.
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.
Firstly, Paul says, use the pieces of armour that cause you to saturate yourself in the gospel. This is what Paul is getting at when he tells Christians to ‘put on the breastplate of righteousness’ in verse 14. Embrace the gospel. Keep preaching to yourself what Christ has done for you. Keep telling yourself that, if you are a Christian, your status before God is one where you are accepted completely. You are righteous – that is you are right with God – in God’s 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. As God looks at you, it’s as if he sees Jesus. One of Satan’s tactics is to ‘tempt us to despair’ as the song puts it. He makes us think we’re too bad to come back to God when we’ve slipped up. Well, listen to the words of the song: ‘When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see him there who made an end to all my sin. Because the sinless Saviour died, my sinful soul is counted free. For God the Just is satisfied to look at him and pardon me.’ Don’t believe Satan’s lie. Jesus’ sacrifice is completely sufficient. Remember: you are never too bad to come back to him.
A Christian friend of mine, Andy, once slipped up massively. He felt so guilty that he wondered whether God could ever take him back. One morning, Andy emailed another friend of ours saying he felt he was such a wretch and that felt he couldn’t go on as a Christian as he’d blown it for ever with God. Andy’s friend emailed him back just once sentence: “Amazing grace, how sweet a sound, that saves a wretch like me.” Andy was reminded of everything he had in Jesus. When the devil tried to knock Andy out, he could respond with the breastplate of righteousness.
I think this is linked to wearing the helmet of salvation and the shield of faith. A helmet is a piece of armour that protects the head, the brain. And what is the most important thing we can know? It is the fact that you are saved by grace alone in Jesus. So putting on the helmet of salvation means embracing the gospel as it really is. If we’ve put on the helmet of salvation, we’ll know that we have everything we need – complete salvation – in Jesus. Likewise, if you have the shield of faith, you’ll commit yourself to holding on and treasuring the truths of the gospel, even when it is hard to hold onto them. In short, putting on the helmet of salvation and holding onto the shield of faith means putting the gospel first and treasuring it. If you’ve done so, you won’t go off on theological tangents, majoring on minors or plugging your own hobby horse, but you’ll want to sink roots into Jesus as he really is. We put the gospel first.
Secondly, we’re to use the pieces of armour that cause us to live the gospel. Paul talks about wearing a ‘belt of truth’ in verse 14. In Ephesians, truth normally refers to integrity, a kind of goodness that permeates everything. So when we’re called to put on the belt of truth, we’re called to examine ourselves and check that we have an integrity that runs all the way through every area of our life.
One of the blights upon Christianity is when Christians are different people in different situations. I’m one person to one group of friends, and another person to a different group. Or I’m one person in public at CU on Tuesday, and a very different person on my own when the door is closed. We’re disciples of Jesus in only certain areas of our lives. Satan loves this kind of Jekyll and Hyde Christianity. For one thing, it causes Christians to con themselves that everything is fine when it isn’t. Many Christians are much closer to being knocked out by Satan than they think. For another thing, it means that this kind of Christian discipleship is half-hearted. You’ll never make brave decisions for Jesus that last in public if in private your heart is somewhere else. Perhaps above all Satan loves this kind of Christianity because it means that, in this atmosphere amongst Christians, under-handed motives thrive. Tensions amongst Christians, false teaching and power games start in this way.
Some of you will have watched the film Chariots of Fire, the true story about the runner Eric Liddell. Well, after the 1924 Olympics, Liddell went as a missionary to China where he travelled from village to village on foot and by bicycle sharing the gospel. During World War II the Japanese invaded China. Liddell was branded, along with many others Westerners, as an ‘enemy national.’ In 1943 he was confined in a prison camp with thousands of other so-called nationalist enemies. While there he had an impact on the prison camp: he organized athletics events, conducted worship services, preached the gospel, counselled people, and comforted the sick and the dying. Liddell’s commitment to Jesus permeated every area of his life.
A man called David Michell was a child in the camp during that time. He later wrote of Liddell: "None of us will ever forget this man who was totally committed to putting God first, a man whose humble life combined muscular Christianity with radiant godliness in every area.” That is a description of someone with integrity, someone who evidently had put on the belt of truth. Can the same be said of us?
Thirdly, we come to the only offensive piece of armour: ‘the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God’. It’s this piece of armour, which will cause us to hold out the gospel. What is it that cuts into Satan's territory? What is it that causes him to shudder? It is when the gospel is proclaimed within a context where the gospel is lived out. That is when God's power is unleashed, for then through Word and Spirit people are liberated from Satan's snare, lives are changed and society is transformed, when God's truth is promoted and the devil's lies are dethroned.
A sociologist called Rodney Stark has written addressing why only Christianity amongst all the other religions of the day turned the 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’. And, he says, Christianity alone provided a solution to these problems. Where people were gripped with the fear of death, the gospel of Jesus gave hope. Where self-centredness reigned, amongst the disciples of Jesus self-sacrifice became the order of the day. Instead of babies being left on the hill tops to die, Christians were moved by the gospel of Jesus to take them in and give them life. That is what the gospel of Jesus does when it is proclaimed and lived. As Paul writes in chapter 1, ‘You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of God, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed in him, you were marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.’ People are freed from slavery to the devil as they hear and believe the gospel. And so if you are serious about making headway in the battle against the devil, then you must be a group that is committed to living out and proclaiming the word of God.
Fourthly, says Paul, if you are serious about spiritual warfare, you will pray. Look at verses 18-20: '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 presented as something a bit like air-power that can cover us and others when we’re in a situation when fighting ourselves is by overwhelming. 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? I think for two reasons. Firstly, because as we have seen it’s this which causes the demons to shake as they lose their power, and second because gospel proclamation is not easy.
I’ve got to say that when I’m involved in some evangelistic ministry, like giving a talk to non-believers at a CU meeting or speaking at a mission week, that is when I will feel particularly under spiritual attack. Often while I am preparing there will be interruptions and distractions. As I bring the message, the battle goes right on. There are doubts (‘no one is listening’). I feel inadequate. A mobile phone goes off in the room at a crucial point in my message. It’s then when I feel the spiritual attack – I can almost smell the sulphur! And that is when I am also praying away at the same time as I am speaking: ‘Lord Jesus, please help me, give me everything I need’. And it’s when I’m aware I need the prayers of others. And so, says Paul, pray for all Christians everywhere all the time. But pray especially for each other’s witness to non-believers. It’s as we do this that the devil is going to target us especially. As we pray, let’s get serious about wrestling with these evil powers.
And so we come to our final question: what is the aim of the spiritual battle?
Quite simply, it’s ‘to stand’. Paul says this is explicitly in verses 13-14: ‘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 Christians stand together. This command is written to a group of Christians; the ‘you’ here is plural. One of the reasons that the Roman army was so effective was because of their tactic of creating a phalanx. As the barbarian hordes rushed at the Roman army with screams and swords, the Romans stood together, shoulder to shoulder, shields overlapping, swords drawn, acting as one man, steadfast and immovable, forming what in effect was a human fort. There was strength in numbers. And it’s the same in the Christian fight. The New Testament writers assume that if you’re a Christian, you’ll be active in a local church. When my shield of faith begins to slip, I need the Christians around me to cover me with theirs. When the trust of Christians around me is waning, I need to uphold them with mine. Christians need each other.
Make no mistake. We’re in a war. Our foe is mighty and frightening; he hates us and would, given the power, destroy us and cast us into hell. But our Saviour, Jesus, is mightier still and he loves us. He has given us everything we need. And that is the heart of the gospel message.
Let us pray.
Monday, 23 March 2009
Here's a draft of a message I'm bringing tomorrow to Chester CU. Any thoughts or comments would be most welcome as I've struggled a bit putting it together!