Sunday, February 10, 2019

All-Prayer – Eph. 6:18-20

In Bunyan’s classic allegory, The Pilgrims’ Progress, he describes a point at which Christian comes to the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  He is warned away from it by two men fleeing from its horrors in these words: “We saw there the hobgoblins, satyrs, and dragons of the pit; we heard also in that Valley a continual howling and yelling, as of a people under unutterable misery, who there sat bound in affliction and irons; and over that Valley hangs discouraging clouds of confusion.  Death also doth always spread his wings over it.  In a word, it is every whit dreadful, being utterly without order.”  Christian’s response is that this is the way to the Celestial City, and so he ventures forward cautiously, carefully, and, frankly, fearfully.  When he begins to approach the Valley, we are told that in “the midst of this valley, I perceived the mouth of hell to be, and it stood hard by the wayside.  Now, thought Christian, what shall I do?  And ever and anon the flame and smoke would come out in such abundance, with sparks and hideous noises, (things that cared not for Christian’s sword, as did Apollyon before), that he was forced to put up his sword, and betake himself to another weapon called All-prayer. [Eph. 6:18]  So he cried out in my hearing, ‘O Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul!’ [Ps. 116:4].”  Bunyan’s character, Christian, is not saved by the sword but by the weapon of All-prayer.  Bunyan, of course, took this from the words of Paul in our text: “Praying always with all prayer…” (Eph. 6:18).

Now I’m not sure that Paul actually intended prayer to be considered a weapon.  In any case, he does not liken prayer to any part of the soldier’s armor and weaponry.  Nevertheless, there is no doubt that prayer is to accompany the Christian soldier throughout our warfare.  This does not describe so much a particular weapon as it does the attitude with which a Christian is to do war with the enemy.  Prayer is to pervade every aspect of our combat.  We are to stand with the armor and take our weapons as we pray to the Lord for help and depend upon him for strength and guidance.

I think perhaps the best Biblical illustration of this comes from the reign of good king Jehoshaphat.  In 2 Chron. 20, we are told that the nations and Moab, Ammon, and their confederates united to attack the nation of Judah.  Against their numbers, the army of Judah was no match.  So what did Jehoshaphat do?  He “set himself to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.  And Judah gathered themselves together, to ask help of the LORD: even out of all the cities of Judah they came to seek the LORD” (20:3-4).  In the next few verses, you have this great prayer of the king to the Lord (ver. 5-12), which ends with these words: “O our God, wilt thou not judge them?  For we have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon thee.” 

God responds to their request through the words of the prophet Jahaziel (ver. 14-17).  The gist of it was this: you will not have to fight; God will fight for you.  And that is exactly what happened.  Judah believed the word of the Lord.  And so instead of going out to battle with swords flashing, they go into battle line with a line of priests singing praise to the Lord.  We read, “And they rose early in the morning, and went forth into the wilderness of Tekoa: and as they went forth, Jehoshaphat stood and said, Hear me, O Judah, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem; believe in the LORD your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper.  And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the LORD, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the LORD; for his mercy endureth forever” (ver. 20-21). 

In the end, Judah didn’t even have to fight.  Instead, God turned the enemies of Israel upon each other, and God’s people just watched as their enemies destroy themselves.  The key to the victory here was not the power of the sword, but the power of prayer.  Not that prayer is itself powerful, of course.  Prayer is only as powerful as the God to whom it addresses is powerful.  But since the God of Judah is the God of the universe, their enemies had no power over them.  They stood in the evil day through prayer.

Here is a NT illustration of the principle of the text before us.  In several of the gospels, we have this story of the father whose son is afflicted by demons.  He had asked the disciples to cast out the demon but they were unable.  At the time, Jesus and three of his apostles were gone (they were on the Mount of Transfiguration).  They returned just as things were getting pretty embarrassing for the disciples that had been left.  Our Lord then cast the demon out with no problem.  Flummoxed, the apostles asked the Lord why they were not able to do this themselves.  I want you to hear the Lord’s very interesting reply: he told them they were not able to cast this demon out “because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, ‘Remove hence to yonder place;’ and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.  Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer” (Mt. 17:20-21).

Our Lord’s response points to two realities that we would do well to take heed to.  First, that prayer is the response of faith and that the measure of our faith can be determined by our prayer life.  The words, “this kind goeth not out but by prayer” indicate that the disciples had not sought the exorcism of the demon through prayer.  In other words, they were relying on their own power and ability, as strange as that might seem.  I suppose that, after you’ve cast out a few demons, anyone could get cocky.  But our Lord says that it was their unbelief that was their undoing on this particular occasion, and then points to their prayer life.  Faith and prayer go together.  Sinful self-confidence and self-righteousness and prayerlessness go together too.  And whereas the Lord blesses the former, he will not bless the latter.

The second reality to which our Lord’s words point is that some situations require more conscious seeking and dependence upon the Lord than others.  They had cast out other demons, but this one wouldn’t budge.  Why?  “This kind” was different from the others.  I don’t know particularly much about demons, but apparently some are worse than others.  This points up to a general principle: there are some things in the spiritual realm you are not going to be able to accomplish apart from a life of faith and prayer.  Talents and ability and personality won’t do it.  These things may count for a lot in this world and its priorities, but not before God.  As the Psalm puts it, “He [God] delighteth not in the strength of the horse: he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.”  Rather, “the LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him, in those that hope in his mercy” (Ps. 147:10-11).  It’s when we are weak (in terms of our own personal strength) that we are truly strong (in terms of God’s grace and empowerment, 2 Cor. 12:9-10).

These two illustrations, one from the OT and one from NT, show us why the apostle would say what he does here.  Prayer is immensely important.  It is important, not as another box to check on our spiritual duties list, but as a way to express our dependence and faith in our Savior.  These illustrations show us that true spiritual victory is accomplished not so much by what we do, but by what God does by his grace for us and through us.  And the only way to truly live this reality out is through prayer.  If we really believe that it is not by might nor by power but by the Spirit of God (cf. Zech. 4:6) that we conquer, then this conviction will express itself in regular, real, believing prayer.

But the apostle does not focus so much on the why of prayer here.  He assumes it, more or less.  Rather, he focuses on the how of prayer.  How are we to pray?  Here is how: “always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints: and for me, that utterance may be given unto me, that I may open my mouth boldly, to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in bonds: that therein I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (Eph. 6:18-20).  In particular, there are four universals that are to characterize our prayer life: we are to pray with all prayer, at all times, with all perseverance, and for all the saints.

All Prayer

There are different kinds of prayer.  There are prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of deliverance, prayers of praise, prayers for direction, and so on.  Our prayers ought to be as varied as our needs.  In fact, the description of prayer by the term “supplication” points to prayer as that by which we address to God our needs.  It is a word which points in the direction of neediness, of lack, of want, and of entreating God to meet us at our point of need.  We come to him, not as one who is “rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing” but as those who are “wretched and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).  The Psalmist described himself as “poor and needy” (Ps. 40:17), a fit description for you and me as well!  The great thing is that, despite our poverty and emptiness, “yet the Lord thinketh upon me” and therefore we pray, “thou art my help and my deliverer; make no tarrying, O my God.”

We are to commit to God all our needs, both small and great.  We are not to think that there is anything too small for the notice of our God, who knows even the number of the hairs upon our heads.  He who cares for the grass of the field and the birds of the air certainly cares for our littlest needs.  There is nothing that escapes his notice, nothing beneath his dignity for which we cannot pray.  Isn’t this how the apostle exhorts us in his letter to the Philippians?  “Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil. 4:6). 

In doing so, we will learn to bring all our life under the sovereignty of God, which is where it should be.  This is what the apostle James is getting at, when he rebukes those who cavalierly make plans without consideration of God’s will in the matter.  “Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow.  For what is your life?  It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time and then vanisheth away.  For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this or that” (Jm. 4:13-15).  Approaching every situation with the prayer, “If the Lord will,” is the only way to submit our hearts to God’s sovereign will over our lives.

But prayers of supplication are not the only category of prayer.  Prayer is not just to be a litany of needs presented before God.  Thanksgiving ought to be a great part of our prayer life.  If we don’t make room for thanksgiving, we will end up forgetting just how blessed we already are in Christ.  Thanksgiving is a preventative to bitterness.  It also keeps us from developing an entitlement attitude.  Thanksgiving reminds us that God doesn’t owe us anything, that everything comes to us as a gift of grace.

Then there should be confession.  “If we confess our sins” is a necessary part of walking in the light as he is in the light (1 Jn. 1:9).  May God prevent us from ever taking on the attitude of the Pharisee who could only see the sins of others and not his own.  When we pray asking for God to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, we are acknowledging our dependence upon the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and our need of God’s righteousness which comes to us through him by faith.  It is also the first step to dealing with our sins.  If you cannot even bring up your sins in secret confession to God, how in the world are you going to even begin to think of mortifying them in our life?  So let confession be a part of your prayer life.

And then there ought to be the element of worship in our prayers.  What I mean by this is that our prayers ought to be characterized by a sense of awe and reverence and humility and joy.  It’s why when our Lord taught his disciples to pray, the very first words are, “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed by thy name” (Mt. 6:9).  We are so liable to pride that we need to constantly be humbling ourselves.  But we also need to be reminded just how small we are and how great God is.  It is the first step in true religion.  There is a book, written by Ed Welch, entitled, When People are Big and God is Small.  It’s a book intended to deal with all the problems that come from magnifying people and minimizing God.  And certainly a lot of problems start here. 

But ultimately the reason for the element of worship in our prayers is that God is worthy of our worship.  He is worthy in a way no one else is.  He is the only source of eternal joy and gladness.  At the end of the day, our greatest need is God himself, not the things he gives, but himself.  When we worship him, we are acknowledging that reality.  Let us pray with “all prayer and supplication.”

Before we address the next universal, notice that the apostle describes this praying and praying “in the Spirit.”  This points to the reality that prayer is not just a matter of turning prayer wheels.  It is real communion with the living God.  You are not going to really pray if you don’t believe that.  But the point of the apostle is that this is exactly what prayer is for the Christian.  Christ has provided a way into the very presence of God.  “Through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Eph. 2:18).  Prayer therefore is not something we do just to make ourselves feel better.  It is not something we do to lower our blood pressure.  No, it is talking to God in the most real and literal sense and knowing that God is listening to you. 

In fact, Paul says in his letter to the Romans, that even in the situation where we find ourselves unable to know what to pray, the Spirit of God himself steps in and prays for us: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.  And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26-27).  This being the case, why is it that we do not avail ourselves of this privilege more than we do?  Paul is saying that, apart from sin separating us from fellowship with God, there is literally no way you can go wrong in prayer.  Even when you don’t know how to pray, even then we can pray the most spiritual prayers!

All Times

In the KJV, the apostle opens by saying, “Praying always.  The text literally says, “on every occasion,” or, as some translate it, “at every opportunity.”[1]  As the apostle says in another place, we are to “pray without ceasing” (1Thess. 5:17).  I take this to mean that the Christian is to maintain an attitude of prayer throughout the day and throughout one’s life.  There is never a moment when we do not need God, and therefore there is not a moment when we should not be able to pray.  Theologian John Gill once described prayer as the breath of the regenerate man, and I think he is exactly right.  Prayer is not just something we do at discrete points in time; it is an attitude that we ought to carry with us throughout the day.

Again, this points to the privilege that belongs to the Christian.  The fact that we are to be continually engaged in prayer means that heaven’s gates are always open to the Christian.  If we do not avail ourselves of the privilege of prayer, it is not because God is not listening.  It is because we have become self-satisfied, like the apostles who couldn’t cast out the demon and didn’t even think to avail themselves of the power of prayer. 

All perseverance

Praying at every opportunity goes hand and hand with another part of Paul’s description of the how of prayer: “watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication.”  This points to maintaining an earnest purpose for preserving prayer as a part of our lives.  It means that we don’t give up when we don’t get what we pray for.  It means that we don’t stop praying because we feel neglected by God.  It means that we keep praying even when we don’t feel like it. 

The fact of the matter is that prayer is hard.  Anyone who tells you different must have a different experience from most of the saints throughout history.  Prayer is hard because it is part of a spiritual battle, and battle is hard.  The devil knows that God blesses prayer and it is to his advantage that he keep you from praying. 

This is why our Lord spoke the parable of the unjust judge in Luke 18.  Do you remember how this parable is introduced by Luke?  He says, “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Lk. 18:1).  Our Lord spoke this parable to encourage us to pray because he knew that it is easy for us to become discouraged and to stop praying.  Looking at the parable, it seems that our Lord’s point is that, like the widow, we have to keep coming to God, even we it doesn’t seem like God is listening to our requests.  God does not always answer our prayers on our time schedule.  God answered Isaac’s prayer for Rebekah twenty years later, it seems.  God answered Zachariah’s prayer for Elizabeth long after he had stopped praying for it and had completely given up on it.  But God had heard, he had listened, and he did answer their prayers.

Now this doesn’t mean that if we badger God long enough, he is eventually going to give in to our every request.  Thank God he doesn’t!  But it does mean that every prayer is heard and received with love, and is answered according to the counsels of infinite wisdom, power, and grace.

We don’t give up on prayer, because giving up on prayer means that we have given up on God.  But God is faithful, and he will never give up on us.  Therefore, let us pray with all perseverance.

All saints

Finally, Paul says we are to pray for “all saints.”  It has been pointed out many times over that the Lord’s Prayer is a communal prayer, not a prayer of the rugged individualist.  In the same way, Paul reminds us that when we pray, we are to pray for all the saints.  Of course this doesn’t mean every Christian in the world.  But it does mean that we are to pray for those believers that are in the sphere of our influence and notice.  Begin with your own home, and then work outward in increasing circles of people you are connected to.  Of course this doesn’t mean we don’t pray for our own needs.  But God doesn’t have us on this earth for ourselves; we are here to serve others.  And part of that service to others is to pray for them.

You see this illustrated in several delightful ways in the NT.  I think of Epaphras, who is described to the Colossian believers as “a servant of Christ . . . always laboring fervently for you in prayers, that ye may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12).  It is what James exhorts us to when he writes, “Pray one for another, that ye may be healed.  The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jm. 5:16).

And Paul himself wants to get in on this, as he does in other places as well (cf. Rom. 15:30).  In particular, he asks them to pray for him so that he will have boldness in proclaiming the gospel. 

It is well that we hear this.  Do we not often think, “Well, what’s the point?  Why pray when God is sovereign?”  Whereas we ought to say, “Why pray at all if God is not sovereign?”  If God’s hands are tied, if he has already done everything he can and now it’s up to us, then there really is no point in praying.  But if God is sovereign, then we can have confidence that our prayers will be answered.  We can have confidence because the Scriptures teach us that God has chosen to use prayer to further his purposes in the earth.  And having chosen prayer, we can be sure that God will use it.  God’s sovereign control over all things is no reason to sit on our hands and do nothing.  Prayer is God’s sovereignly chosen means to advance his kingdom, his glory, and our eternal good in this world and the next.

This being the case, we cannot expect God’s blessings apart from prayer.  There is very real danger lurking around the corner for those who do not pray.  The apostles found this out when they slept instead of praying.  We should hear our Lord’s words to them and appropriate them for ourselves: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt. 26:41).  They didn’t and entered into temptation.  Peter denied Christ, and the rest abandoned him.

So let us pray.  With all prayer, at all times, with all perseverance, for all the saints.  It’s an incredible privilege given to us through the redeeming work of God’s own Son.  Therefore let us take every advantage of this amazing blessing!

[1] Hoehner, Ephesians, p. 855.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Sword of the Spirit – Ephesians 6:17

The Bible, the written word of God, is the most precious commodity a Christian has.  The Bible is like food to the hungry soul: “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart” (Jer. 15:16).  “How sweet are thy words unto my taste!  Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103).  They are like streams of water to a huge oak tree, for the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord “shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Ps. 1:3).  God’s words are more valuable than gold and silver: “More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10).  “The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver” (Ps. 119:72).  It is a light in a dark place: “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple” (Ps. 119:130). 

It is therefore a terrible judgment when God’s words are withheld.  In the book of Amos, such a predicament is likened to a famine: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, than I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11).  Just as physical life cannot long endure without food and water, neither can our spiritual life be healthy and flourishing apart from the word of God.  Therefore in Eph. 4:15, we are told that it is as we speak the truth in love – truth which finds its origin in Scripture – that we grow. 

In light of these metaphors, it almost seems incongruous for the apostle to liken the Scripture – the word of God – to a sword.  A sword is not something that makes one rich, that nourishes the soul, or gives light in darkness.  A sword is something that destroys and wounds and kills.  However, as Ecclesiastes puts it, there is “a time to kill, and a time to heal . . . a time of war, and a time of peace” (Eccl. 3:3, 8).  It is the versatility of the word of God that it can kill and make alive, depending on the need of the moment. 

So, when we ask the question, “Why would the apostle Paul use the metaphor of a sword for the word of God?” we find the reason in the context of our verse.  The context is that of battle, spiritual battle, with Satan and his demonic armies.  The Christian is under constant attack by them and he must be able to stand and not give ground when he or she is attacked.  In such a context, a sword is what is needed, especially in close-quarters combat, which is what the apostle envisions here (cf. ver. 12).  The role of God’s word pictured here, then, is not so much its function in providing spiritual nourishment for the soul as it is its function in fending off the enemies of our souls.  So the question we must ask of this text is, how does the Bible function to enable us to fight off the enemies of our souls?  That would explain why the Bible is likened to a sword.  And then the second question would be, why is it called the sword of the Spirit.  What role does the Holy Spirit play in all this? This will be the focus of our study this morning.

However, before we proceed with this agenda, we need to address our assumption that Paul is talking about the Bible here.  There are plenty of people out there who refuse to say that the Bible is the written word of God.  They are in fact embarrassed by such a claim.  They might say that the Bible contains the word of God.  Or they might say that the Bible is a human attempt to reflect God’s word to us.  But at the end of the day, for them the Bible is just a book like any other book: a human creation from beginning to end.  It is not the word of God, it is the word of man about God.  There are many reasons why people think this way: some are embarrassed by how out of step the Bible is to the morals and sensitivities of our culture; others are embarrassed by how out of step the Bible is to certain current scientific claims; others are embarrassed by apparent discrepancies in the Bible itself.  But whatever the reason, this embarrassment has its roots in a previous surrender to the values of the culture over the values of the word of God.  For such people, the Bible can’t be the word of God because it doesn’t reflect their worldview.

But we do not believe that the Bible is the word of man about God.  Rather, we believe that the Bible is the word of God to man.  It is the testimony of the Bible about itself: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, ESV).  “No prophesy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophesy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21, ESV).  These verses clearly state that the Bible is the word of God; that the very words of Scripture (all of them!) are the words of God.  It is why the author of Hebrews, quoting Psalms, was able to say that these are the words of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 3:7).  This is true of both the OT and NT.  It is why the apostle Paul was able to say of his preaching, “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). 

It is also the testimony of our Lord.  It is utterly contradictory to call yourself a follower of Christ, to claim that you believe in the Lordship and sovereignty and divinity of Christ, and yet refuse to accept his own testimony to the Scriptures.  For him, Scripture spoke with authority, down to the very letter.  For him, “the Scripture cannot be broken” (Jn. 10:35).  Our Lord, in responding to the question about divorce, quotes Moses in Genesis 2:24 as the very word of God (Mt. 19:4-6).  The interesting thing about this is that Genesis 2:24 is not written as a report of something God said, but rather it is presented either as the words of Adam or Moses’ commentary on the words of Adam.  However, our Lord quotes these words as if God is speaking them.  The reason can only be because, in our Lord’s eyes, all of Scripture is the word of God to man.  When Moses spoke, God spoke, because God was speaking through him.

It is so important to see that the Bible is God’s word to us, and therefore utterly trustworthy and true.  If you don’t believe this, you are left with your own little light to find the way in impenetrable darkness.  I was talking to someone the other day – this man calls himself an agnostic – who was lamenting the fact that he couldn’t ever be certain of the truthfulness of any truth-claim.  Because ultimately from his perspective every truth-claim relies on an authority which itself is biased and, however good intentioned, fundamentally untrustworthy.  The only way you can get around this is if you have a word from God.  That’s the only way.  Replace this with anything else and you logically have to end up with ultimate uncertainty.  The problem is that you can’t live that way, and you end up having to pretend you have certainty when you don’t and end up living an illusion.

Moreover, it’s important for you to see this because if the Bible is the written word of God, then to reject the Bible is to reject God himself.  This is the way John argues: “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; that that is not of God heareth not us.  Hereby know we the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 Jn. 4:6).  If you reject the testimony of the apostles, you reject God; it’s as simple as that.

If the Bible is the word of God, and we have every reason to believe that it is, then to reject the Scriptures as the word of God is to lay your sword by as the enemy closes in for the kill.  It is spiritual suicide.  This sword is your only way to fight back in the evil day.  But unless you are absolutely convinced that this is God’s word you are not going to avail yourselves of its power and protection.  If you don’t completely believe that the Bible is fully God’s word, you are not going to experience what the saints have experienced in every age as they picked it up and used it to parry the sword thrusts of their enemy. 

The word of God here, then, is the Bible, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.  It is called the sword of the Spirit, primarily for two reasons, I think.  First, because the Spirit is the author and origin and source of the Scriptures.  Holy men of God spoke, Peter says, as they were carried along by the Spirit.  In Hebrews 3, as we have seen, it is the Holy Spirit who not only spoke through David, but who continues to speak through David.  Paul highlights the role the Spirit in the inspiration of Scripture, when he writes, “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory …. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:7, 10).  We should see the Bible as a product of human and divine cooperation; it was written down by men, yes; but they were so inspired by the Spirit of God that they were kept from error and wrote only truth.

Second, it is called the “sword of the Spirit” because the Spirit is not only the ultimate source of its truths, but also because it is the instrument the Spirit uses to carry on his work in the soul of man.  This is why Paul calls his gospel ministry a ministry of the Holy Spirit, because it was the Spirit that made it effective in the hearts of his hearers.  In this way, it is contrasted with the old covenant, because although the old covenant was given by God, it was written in tablets of stone not in hearts.  The way the new covenant people of God are formed is by the Holy Spirit taking God’s word and writing it in our hearts: “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit.  For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:3-6, ESV).

It is important to keep these two things in mind as we come to the application of the text to our lives.  For if we just take the Bible as the sword of the Spirit in the sense that the Spirit forged it for us and hands it to us for us to use entirely on our own, we are going to find ourselves in trouble.  However, if we use the word of the Spirit in a spiritual way, if we use the Bible relying on the Spirit to work its truth in us and through us, only then will we be truly wielding it as a sword of the Spirit.

How do we then fight back with this sword?  What are the attacks that it protects us from?  I am sure that there are many ways in which we can wield the Bible as a sword and turn back the attacks of the wicked one, but I want to mention one – which I think really summarizes all the ways the Bible may be used as a weapon in spiritual warfare.  And it is this: we primarily wield the Bible like a sword when we use it to uncover error and untruths about God and his will for us. 

We have to remember how Satan kills.  He does it primarily by convincing us to believe a lie.  Our Lord said of Satan, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own [according to his own nature]: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (Jn. 8:44).  What is interesting about this verse is how our Lord links the devil as a murderer to the devil as a liar.  It strongly implies that the devil murders with lies.  This is confirmed at the very beginning of the Bible in the record of the fall of mankind into sin.  Why did death come into the world?  Because man believed a lie, a lie that Satan told Eve and which she and Adam believed and acted on.  Satan killed Adam and Eve (and all their offspring) with lies and he continues to do this to this day.

The fact of the matter is that you are not going to live before God in a way that is pleasing to him (and therefore right) unless you believe the truth about God and what his will is for you.  So the aim of the devil is to get you to believe as many lies about God and his will as he possibly can.  He wants to introduce error and untruths in the way you think about God, yourself, the world he made, and the way you are supposed to live in this world he made.  Therefore, the goal is right living is inseparable from right thinking. 

What kind of lies does Satan try to get us to believe?  It would be impossible to list them all.  But we can summarize them like this: anything that is contrary to the teaching of Scripture is a lie the devil wants you to believe.  If Paul is right, and the Scripture (all of it) is what makes the man of God mature and complete, then the failure to embrace any of its teachings is going to make us immature and incomplete in some way.  And in that area of immaturity and incompleteness is where the devil finds a way into our thinking.  A gap in our understanding of truth is like a gap in the lines of an army surrounded by the enemy.  If the gap is not filled, the enemy can pore through it and defeat them.

This is why it is so important for you to take your Bibles seriously and the study of the Bible seriously.  Now I know that this does not mean you have to understand everything about the Bible in order to be a healthy Christian.  But it does mean that we are constantly searching the Scriptures for light on the way, we are constantly looking to the word of God for guidance and direction.  There is never a point in our lives where we will be able to do without it.

It also means that you take theology seriously.  It is a grave mistake to think that theology is not practical or important.  What you think about God is shaped by theology and therefore what you think about theology will shape the way you live toward him.  Theology is always practical and heresy is always destructive.  You see it in the way Paul shapes his letters.  He does not just write a bunch of moral essays made up solely of advice and techniques for godly living.  Rather, he frontends the theology as a way to motivate and make sense of the Christian ethic, as in Romans and Ephesians.  Or he weaves the theology throughout the ethical instructions, as in Titus.  Either way, the apostle would have been shocked to hear the way many modern Christians talk about theology.  It is not enough to say you’re on Jesus’ side, because you’re not on his side unless you embrace Jesus for who he really is, and that involves doing something with theology.  In fact, a lot of time when people decry theology, what they are really doing is providing cover for their heresy.  If they can just keep you from probing into what they really think about Christ, they can fool you into thinking they are one of you until it is too late and they have infected you with their heresy as well.

I don’t of course want to discount the role of the affections and will with our thinking.  You can’t dissociate your will from your thinking or your affections.  It’s a package deal.  And it complicates things.  Because the Bible teaches that our wills are warped and our affections are bent towards wrong things.  Therefore believing the truth is not simply a matter of working through the right arguments for the truth.  We are spiritually blind in the sense that we can see the truth and yet not believe it because we don’t want to.  This is what the apostle is referring to in Romans 1:18 when he describes sinful men as holding down or suppressing the truth.  You don’t suppress what you don’t know.  In fact, Paul explicitly says that even spiritual rebels know God (Rom. 1:21).  This is also what our Lord was talking about in John 3:19 when he says that men refuse to come to the light, not because they don’t see the light, but because they love darkness more than light.

This is where the ongoing role of the Spirit comes in.  He is the one who in the beginning brings the saints into truth, and in the end preserves the saints from error that might lead them away from the faith.  The Spirit’s role is not only to reveal truth in written form, but also to open our eyes to see its beauty and to give us taste buds to taste its sweetness and spiritual senses to feel its warmth in such a way that we know with certainty that this is the word of God.  This is what the apostle John is referring to when, after describing those that had abandoned the faith (“they went out from us . . . they were not all of us,” 1 Jn. 2:19), goes on to say, “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.  I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth” (1 Jn. 2:20-21).  It is the Spirit that opens our blind eyes to see the truth, that softens our hearts to receive it.  And so even if we cannot answer every argument the sceptic throws at us, yet we cannot evade the reality that penetrates our thoughts, affections, and will: that God is truly speaking to us in his word.  It is proof enough.  As Martin Luther put it to Erasmus, “The Spirit is no skeptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions, but assertions – surer and more certain than sense or life itself.”

Which is why it is so important to walk in step with the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:25), to not grieve the Holy Spirit of God (Eph. 4:30) through conscious and repeated sin.  Keep your hands and hearts clean and you will see with clear eyes the truth of the Scriptures.  I think this is at least partly what our Lord was getting at when he said, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (Jn. 5:17, ESV).

I love the way Charles Hodge describes the power of Scripture.  It really summarizes what we’ve been trying to say here, so I’m going to end with it.  In his exposition on this text, he describes the Bible as a sword that “is sharper than any two-edged sword.  It is the wisdom of God and the power of God.  It has a self-evidencing light.  It commends itself to the reason and conscience.  It has the power not only of truth, but of divine truth. … In opposition to error, to all false philosophy, to all false principles of morals, to all the sophistries of vice, to all the suggestions of the devil, the sole, simple, and sufficient answer is the word of God.  This puts to flight all the powers of darkness.  The Christian finds this to be true in his individual experience.  It dissipates his doubts; it drives away his fears; it delivers him from the power of Satan.  It is also the experience of the church collective.  All her triumphs over sin and error have been effected by the word of God.  So long as she uses this and relies on it alone, she goes on conquering; but when anything else, be it reason, science, tradition, or the commandments of men, is allowed to take its place or to share its office, then the church, or the Christian, is at the mercy of the adversary.”

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Helmet of Salvation – Eph. 6:17

So far the apostle has exhorted his readers to put on and take up the following items: the belt of integrity, the breastplate of righteousness, the boots of gospel peace which make us firm-footed in battle, and the shield of faith.  What else does a soldier need in combat?  Well, any solider would be incomplete without a helmet.  So the apostle goes on to say that the soldier of Christ is to take the helmet of salvation. 

Now, each of these items in the panoply of spiritual warfare stand for spiritual realities that are to characterize the believer in Christ.  The belt stands for the integrity of the Christian, the breastplate for his righteousness, and so on.  Here, in verse 17, the helmet stands for the salvation that we have in Christ.

There are a couple of questions we should ask of this text.  First, what exactly is the apostle referring to by “salvation”?  This might seem like an obvious question, but it does bear some reflection.  In the Bible, salvation has past, present, and future aspects.  The question then is to which of these aspects is the apostle referring.

Thus, when the apostle tells us that we are not saved by “works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5), he is referring to that aspect of our salvation that is past.  There is a sense in which every Christian can say he or she is already saved.  We are saved in the sense that “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  Forgiveness of sins is not something we have to wait for, but something which is granted immediately to everyone who believes in Christ as Lord and Savior.  We are “now justified by his blood” (Rom. 5:9).  Moreover, a new nature and new life is something which is already ours in Christ.

But there is also a present, ongoing aspect to salvation.  Salvation is not yet complete, and we have not only been saved, but we are also being saved.  This is how we are to understand a number of passages, such as Phil. 2:12, where the apostle tells us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.  In that verse, salvation is seen as a work in progress, something that is ongoing.  It is connected to past salvation in the sense that the beginnings of this ongoing work of salvation started when we first came to faith in Christ.  Paul also refers to this in Phil. 3, when, referring to himself, he says that he is not yet perfect, he has not yet attained to the resurrection of the dead (see verses 11-14).  No one can say that he or she is yet perfect.  We still sin while we are in these mortal bodies, and so we are always in need of sanctification.

But thank God, that is not all there is to it.  There is yet a future aspect of salvation, something which we all await.  In some sense, salvation will not be fully perfected until the Second Coming of our Lord, when he will raise the dead and judge all the nations.  So, for example, the apostle Peter writes that we are “kept by the power of God unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet. 1:5).  This is what the apostle is referring to in Rom. 13:11 when he says that “now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.”  When we look all around us, and we see the church divided and confused, sin abounding, and problems in every corner of our experience, we can be thankful that God has not finished the story of salvation.  The end of all this misery we live in will coincide with the beginning of an eternal rest of righteousness and peace.  It is only then that we will be finally and fully saved.  In the book of Revelation, it is when the enemy of God’s people, represented by Babylon, is overthrown, and God’s people finally delivered, that we read of a great multitude in heaven crying out, “Salvation, and glory, and honor, and power, unto the Lord our God” (Rev. 19:1). 

Again, the question is: to which aspect of salvation is the apostle here referring?  Well, since he doesn’t specify, I think it is best to take salvation here as referring to all aspects of it, past, present, and future.  A further reason for this is that you cannot take any of these in isolation.  What I mean is that if you have been truly saved by a work of the Spirit of God in your heart, then there will be an ongoing, present experience of that salvation in your life, and it will inevitably be consummated in the age to come.  There is no such thing as a saved person living with impunity in sin.  There is no such thing as a truly saved person living without the fruit of faith in their life.  And there is no such thing as a truly saved person who dies and goes to hell in the end.  All who belong to Christ will be fully and finally saved.  If you have been regenerated, you are being sanctified, and if you are being sanctified, you will persevere in holiness and be finally glorified.

These are important distinctions because there are all sorts of heresies that emerge from seeking to separate some aspect of salvation from the rest.  For example, those who want to separate past salvation from its present effects in the heart and life end up advocating for a form of easy-believism that discourages people from getting serious about the sin in their lives.  There are still folks around who claim that you can have Christ as your personal Savior, and yet reject him as your Lord.  There are others who claim you can be born again and yet bear no fruit in the life that might bear up such a claim.  Do you know what the Bible calls this kind of faith?  It calls it a dead faith, the faith of devils, a useless faith (see James 2).  True faith in Christ is a faith that works.  True faith overcomes the world; it doesn’t give in to it or imitate it (1 Jn. 5:4). 

Now it’s absolutely true that a believer can fall into sin, serious sin, and sometimes for long periods of time.  No one is immune.  If that were true, Paul would not have had to write what he is writing to the Ephesians here in chapter 6.  Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12).  Sin can come into our lives with serious and devastating effects, damaging our witness, destroying our relationships, and ending our ministries. 

However, I don’t think a true believer, someone who has been truly born again, will live their whole life in sin, bereft of the fruit of faith and holiness.  There are two reasons I believe this.  First, I believe it because the author of Hebrews notes that God knows how to discipline his children when they sin so that they bear the “peaceable fruit of holiness” (Heb. 12:11).  In other words, when a child of God sins, God disciplines them so that they will stop sinning and start obeying.  That is the clear implication of Hebrews 12.  The other reason I believe this is the fact that the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart is more powerful than the power of sin.  This is why the apostle John writes: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 Jn. 3:9, ESV).  Note the universality of that statement: “no one.  Note the power of the new birth: “he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God.”  It doesn’t say he will not sin at all, but that he won’t keep on sinning – the work of God’s Spirit has more staying power than the power of sin, thank God!

Our Lord said it like this: “Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.  A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.  Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.  Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Mt. 7:17-20).

Another false idea that has been bounced around in the church through the centuries is this idea that you can be truly born again and yet finally lost.  I appreciate the fact that those who advocate this can point to many passages that warn Christians of falling under God’s judgment in the age to come.  One thinks of the passages in Hebrews, for example.  However, the problem with this view is that it again separates what God has joined together: salvation is a unity and should not be torn into the disparate pieces. 

How then are the warnings of Scripture to be explained?  Well, those who think a true Christian can lose their faith and end up lost forever don’t distinguish between saving faith and false faith.  But we have to make that distinction.  It is a Biblical one.  It’s what the apostle James is getting at when he talks about dead faith.  He is obviously not talking about someone who doesn’t “believe” anymore; rather, he is talking about a person whose faith doesn’t do anything, doesn’t produce fruits of holiness in the life.  It’s like the faith of devils: they certainly believe in God and Christ, have correct theology and so on, but they are damned.  That’s what we mean by false faith.  Someone can have this and really think they are a Christian and going to heaven, but they are without the kind of faith that saves.  It is to these that the Biblical warnings are aimed.

On the other hand, those who are truly saved, who have saving faith, are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”  Our Lord tells us, “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.  And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:39-40).  He goes on to say, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:44).  Again, hear the note of certainty in these verses: “I will raise him up at the last day.”  It’s not, “I hope to raise him up,” but “I will raise him up.”  Those who have been drawn effectually by the Father to faith in the Son will be finally saved.  That’s what our Lord himself said.  This is backed up by numerous other passages, such as Jn. 10:27-29 and Romans 8:37-39.  The elect will be finally saved.

Now this is different from those who say, “Once saved, always saved,” but who really mean, “Once made a profession of faith in Jesus, necessarily saved in the end.”  That is not what we are saying.  Again, we cannot separate the work of Christ in the heart from the life of the Christian.  This is why older theologians preferred to say, the perseverance of the saints.  Yes, the saints must persevere in faith and holiness in order to be saved (cf. Mt. 24:13).  But the point here is that they will, and that this certainty does not ultimately depend upon our own fickle wills but upon the power and promises of God our Savior.

“But,” you might say, “What difference does this all make?  These just seem like theological niceties, clever distinctions, and so on, but I don’t see how they can make me a better person or prepare me for spiritual battle.”  Well, that’s really our second question that we need to ask of the text.  The first was: What is this salvation of which the apostle speaks?  The second is: How do we appropriate salvation for spiritual battle and put it on like a soldier wears his helmet for combat?

It means that above all, we need to understand what we have in Christ; we need to understand our riches in Christ.  This is very important.  You need to understand your resources.  You need to know that you can meet the enemy and defeat him.  And that’s where salvation comes in.  Charles Hodge wrote in his commentary on this passage, “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.”  We put on salvation like a helmet by understanding what it means to be saved in the first place.  It is because we are saved that we can meet the devil and his legions to begin with.  It is our salvation that has armed us, so to speak.  We need to know what weapons we have as saved people. 

The problem is that we can get discouraged in the battle, and begin to think we have far fewer resources at our disposal than we really do.  You can begin to get the Elijah syndrome.  That is, you can become paralyzed by the feeling that you are all alone in the battle and that you are having to do this completely in the power of your own strength and in the light of your own understanding.  And when you have made a few mistakes and when you come up short a few times, it’s easy to descend into this mindset.  And you become weary in the battle and you begin to think about giving up.  It’s a bad place to be: it’s incapacitating, debilitating, and paralyzing spiritually.

How do we get out of there?   First of all, you need to understand and really believe that when God saved you, he equipped you with everything you need to defeat the enemy.  That begins with his work in your heart.  It’s easy to look at our hearts and see them as the playgrounds of Satan and to forget that “greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).  You are never alone, nor are you ever out-gunned, because there is never a day that the Lord is not working in you and through you.  It is true that you may be small and insignificant, that your talents may be small, and your reach limited.  But know that if our Lord could take a few fish and loaves of bread from the hands of a boy and feed five thousand people with it, he can bless you no matter how small you are. 

In this connection, the apostle Paul wrote, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13).  God will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, and the reason for this is that he is there empowering you and equipping you.  How are we strengthened?  We are strengthened by the power of God (Eph. 3:16).  We are kept by the power of God (1 Pet. 1:5).  It was the power of God that saved you in the first place (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 2:5) and it is the power of God that keeps you there.  The apostle himself confessed that though he and his fellow workers were “weak” yet they were able to “live with [Christ] by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:4).  Paul prayed for the Thessalonians that God “would count you worthy of this calling, and fulfill all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power” (2 Thess. 1:11).  God does not give us the spirit of fear, but of power (1 Tim. 1:7).

Of course, God’s power does not look like the power of the world.  It is a power in smallness, strength in weakness, just like the Lord.  Nevertheless, it is the power of God, a power that will overcome all that opposes it in the end.

Then we need to remember that God never gives up on his children.  We are surrounded every day by false promises and false people.  Our world is full of false hopes.  At the beginning of WW2, our troops in the Philippines really believed that their government would rescue them.  Nevertheless, they were left at the mercy of the enemy – not because their government wanted to leave them there, but because at the time it just couldn’t intervene.  But God never gives up on us; he never leaves us or forsakes us.  This is why the apostle was able to write that he was “confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until [bring it to completion at, ESV] the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).  God did not start a work of grace in your heart only to let it rot and go to waste.  It took to blood of his Son to begin that work, and you can be sure that he will not despise the value of his blood.

In the same way, the psalmist was able to pray, “The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O LORD, endureth forever: forsake not the works of thine own hands” (Ps. 138:8).  Note the confidence with which the verse begins: the Lord will perfect, or fulfill, his purpose for us (cf. ESV).  The reason why we can be sure of this is because his mercy and steadfast love endure forever, are never failing.  And thus the prayer, which does not arise out of doubt, but out of hope: “Forsake not the works of thine own hands.”

Thus, fundamentally, I see in this verse a call to hope.  This is a call to hope in the sure fulfillment and completion of that salvation which God has already begun in us.  Heaven is in the heart of every believer.  This becomes especially clear when we compare our text with a similar text in 1 Thess. 5:8, where the apostle writes, “But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.”  Here the apostle makes it explicit: that which is our helmet is the hope of salvation.  Thus, the primary focus of the Christian is on what God has promised us in the future.  Though we are not to forget the realities that are already true in us, we are to be constantly looking forward to the fulfillment of salvation in the age to come.

We can focus on the blessings of the age to come because we can be sure of the blessings of the age to come.  All the pain we endure in this age is temporary at best.  The blessings of the age to come are eternal.  We are not “saved” in this world in the ultimate sense of what it means to be saved.  Our salvation is closer than when we first believed, but we have not embraced it yet.  Our full salvation is yet future.  So don’t put your hopes on this world and this age.  God does not intend for you to.  To do so is to sabotage your hope.  That does not mean he will leave you alone in this age.  It does not mean he will forsake you.  It does not mean that there is one moment when his grace is withdrawn from you.  But it does mean that the fullness of the blessings of our salvation are yet to come.  And by God’s strength and power we can endure to the end because it is worth it.

This is the point of Hebrews 10.  The audience of that letter was on the verge of quitting.  So the author reminds them of the hope of salvation: “But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions; partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used.  For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.  Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward” (Heb. 10:32-35).  How do you endure the hard things?  How do you stay strong in battle?  By not casting away your hope, the hope of our final salvation – that we have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.  Put on the helmet of salvation!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Shield of Faith – Eph. 6:16

If you were a soldier in the first century, you would be subject to flaming arrows raining down from above.  Like the initial bombardment in modern warfare, arrows were used as a way to prepare the way for the following frontal assault by the infantry.  And as suggested in our text, often these arrows would be dosed in a flammable substance, set on fire, and then shot with the potential of not only piercing an enemy soldier but also setting him on fire.  It was a ghastly business.

What then did a soldier need to defend himself against these flaming arrows?  He needed a shield.  And the bigger the better: the shield the apostle refers to here was almost as big as a door – four feet long and two and a half feet wide.  It consisted of two pieces of wood glued together and covered in hide.  The edges would be secured by a metal frame.  Sometimes before battle, soldiers would dip their shields in water for the specific purpose of reducing the effectiveness of an incendiary missile.  It was the perfect cover.

Just so, the apostle tells us that we too are exposed to our enemy’s fiery darts.  The enemy, remember, is Satan and his demonic hosts.  They are the ones firing these arrows at you.  The phrase “the wicked” in our text (KJV) should be translated “the wicked one,” and is a reference, not to people and certainly not to wickedness in the abstract, but to an evil, personal agency that desires nothing less than the ruin of every follower of Christ.  And his assault are every bit as fearful and deadly as a flaming arrow would have been to an exposed soldier in first century combat.

However, God has provided us with a shield.  I am so thankful that the Lord knows exactly what we need to withstand our spiritual enemy’s attacks in the evil day.  This shield is exactly what we need  You are to take it up.  It is not enough to have on the belt of truth, wear the breastplate of righteousness, and put on the shoes of gospel peace.  We are to put on the “whole armor of God” (13); we cannot decide which pieces we want to put on.  Unless we put on the whole armor of God we will be exposed.  This is why the apostle opens this verse with the words, “In addition to all these, take the shield of faith.”  The KJV, which reads, “above all,” is probably misreading what the apostle intended to say here.  It is of course true that faith is very important, perhaps even supremely important.  But the idea the apostle is seeking to get across here is that you must not stop with the aforementioned combat gear.  You must go on to take up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.  You must have everything God has provided if you expect to stand in victory over your foe.  God has not given you extraneous pieces of equipment; he has given you exactly precisely what you need to withstand your enemy. 

But what are these flaming arrows?  What form do they take in the experience of the Christian?  Well, they can take many forms.  First of all, they can come in the form of attacks directly upon the mind and soul of the Christian.  Throughout history, believers have testified to the reality that the devil has suggested thoughts to their minds, blasphemous thoughts, evil thoughts, that cannot be explained only in terms of the mental processes of their minds.  It has come from without, but it has come in the form of a thought.  If you don’t think the devil can operate here, think again.  One of the clearest examples of this comes to us in the betrayal of our Lord by Judas Iscariot, and in John 13 we read this: “And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (2).  Here you have the devil putting a thought into the mind of Judas so powerfully that he acted upon it.  Now that does not leave Judas guiltless; he acted upon the thought.  But it was the devil who put it there to begin with.  Even so, the devil can suggest things directly to our minds; we don’t know where they came from, and suddenly we are dealing with fear or lust or shame or some blasphemous thought.  Perhaps more often than not, it is the devil who put those thoughts or feelings there.  It is an assault.  He is launching his flaming arrows at you.

Now some might think that Judas is an exception, since after all he was the son of perdition.  Maybe this can’t happen to true believers?  Think again!  Do you remember what happened to the apostle Peter right after his wonderful confession in Matthew 16?  Just a few short moments after he said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16), Peter rebuked our Lord when he warned them of his upcoming death.  To which our Lord responded: “But he [Jesus] turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense to me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” (23).  What’s amazing about this passage is that our Lord addresses Peter and Satan at the same time.  Why?  Well, it seems to me that he did so because Peter was acting upon an impulse that was put there by Satan.  Again, this does not leave Peter unaccountable, but it does show that even true believers can act upon things suggested to them in their minds and hearts by the devil himself.  We are not immune from his attacks upon the mind.  This, after all, is spiritual warfare.

I think it is important to recognize our vulnerability in this area, because if we don’t, we are not likely to be as vigilant over our own hearts and minds.  That doesn’t mean that evil thoughts don’t originate in our hearts, or that every time an evil suggestion arises in our minds it comes from Satan.  But it does mean that he operates here, in the mind, and can attack us in our thoughts.  If we are aware of this, we are probably going to be more observant about what is going on in our hearts, guarding our hearts not only from the wickedness that is within, but also from the wicked one who is without and wanting in.  Christ knocks on the door, but so does Satan.  We want to let our Lord in; we want to keep Satan out.

But there are other ways.  The devil can get at us through outward afflictions as well.  He can attack us at the point of our health, at the point of our finances, or almost any other area where he thinks we might be vulnerable spiritually.  The devil knows that the soul and the body go together and that if you attack the one you effect the other.  I think of the woman our Lord healed in Luke 13, “a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years” (16).  Job is the clearest example of this.  Satan wanted to get Job to curse God, and the way he tried to get him to do this was to take away first his possessions, then his children, and finally his health.  Job never actually cursed God, but he came pretty close a few times!  In our day, we often never think of ascribing the work of Satan to a catastrophe that has interrupted our lives.  But if you are a believer, you should recognize that this is precisely the thing Satan does to get you to curse God and leave the faith.  All too often, we see tragically that this is exactly what happens.

And then if the devil can’t get at the saints through these avenues, he is not below stooping to persecution.  This is what the apostle Peter was getting at when he wrote, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).  Now, there is a broad application of this text to all the devil’s works against the saints.  But in the context, Peter is talking about persecution: “Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren in the world.  But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered awhile, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you” (9-10).  The devil is behind every martyr’s death that has ever taken place, he is behind the imprisonment of every Christian, and he is behind the belittling and mocking of every follower of Christ.

It is true that people can hurt us, and hurt us badly; but we must never forget that behind the people hurting us – often not knowing what they are doing – is the devil, who does understand what he is doing.  It’s the reason our Lord called the Pharisees sons of the devil (Jn. 8:44).  It’s why the apostle John calls Cain, who slew his righteous brother, the son “of that wicked one” (1 Jn. 3:12). 

But the goal in every case is the same: to drive you away from Christ and to undermine your faith.  When Paul was writing his second letter to the Corinthians, he wrote about his concern about the false teachers which had infiltrated into the church: “But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtlety, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).  To Peter our Lord gave a warning and an encouragement, both of which point to the goal of Satan to topple your faith: “Simon, Simon, Satan hath desired to have you, that he might sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Lk. 22:31-32). 

I think it’s important to have this perspective, because sometimes we look at the bad things in our lives and think of them almost as flaming arrows from God’s bow, as if God himself were the one shooting these painful missiles into our lives.  Now God certainly allows it.  And God certainly has a good purpose for allowing these things to happen.  Nothing happens to us that God has not already planned for.  We need to remember that.  But we must not think that God willingly afflicts us.  The devil does, however. We must not think that God is malicious, that he enjoys inflicting pain upon his people.  The devil does, however.  The bottom line is we must remember the reality of the devil when painful things happen to us, and that though the devil delights in bringing us harm, God does not, and permits it only because he is bringing something much better out of it that otherwise would not have happened.  In other words, if you are going to get angry, get angry at the devil, not at God.  The devil means it for evil, but God means it for good. 

Now why does God allow this?  What is the purpose of this?  We can’t say exactly what his specific purpose is in every case, but we can say that in light of Romans 8:28, God allows us to be attacked by Satan in order to bring us ultimate and everlasting good.  The sufferings of this present time are producing for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (Rom. 8:17; 2 Cor. 4:17).  It is the grace of God that the sufferings are only “for a moment,” but the weight of glory is “eternal.”  But it is also the grace of God that allows us to endure these sufferings so that we will also experience the weight of glory.  In other words, the Bible teaches that there are aspects of glory that we would never be able to experience in the age to come apart from the sufferings of this present age.  It’s why our Lord said about those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven” (Mt. 5:12).  That doesn’t make any sense unless the reward is somehow tied to the suffering.

But we don’t want to fall to the assaults of Satan.  The question then is, how do we wield the shield of faith?  It’s interesting that the purpose of the flaming darts of Satan is to destroy our faith – but our faith is the very thing that quenches the fiery darts of the wicked one!  How does it do this?

Well, first of all, we need to see clearly what the object of faith is.  As Martyn Lloyd-Jones points out in his sermon on this text, the cults will tell you to have faith in your faith, but this is not what Paul is exhorting us to do here.  What this really means is that they want you to work up to a feeling that something good is going to happen for you, whether it is healing or a new job or a new relationship.  It is blind faith in the ultimate sense, because there is no object for faith – it has been reduced to a psychological state of the mind.  But again, that is not what the apostle is telling us to do here – he is not saying that you are to have some unfounded confidence that everything is going to turn out for your best.

Nor is he saying that you should have faith in yourself.  That is the big lie our culture advocates these days.  “Have faith in yourself,” they say.  “You can do anything if you put your mind to it,” another blatantly false idea.  In any case, when confronted with a supernatural foe the last thing you should be thinking is how ready you are to meet Satan on your own.  The fact of the matter is that whoever you are or whatever you have experienced, you are no match for Satan.  He is in a different league altogether.  Putting you up against Satan is like putting a tee-ball kid in front of Nolan Ryan.  He’s going to smoke you every time.

The object of faith is not yourself nor a feeling; it is Jesus Christ.  True, biblical faith looks away from itself to Christ; away from our weakness and inadequacy to his strength and faithfulness.  And it is only when we recognize our need of him that he comes to deliver us from our enemy.  This is what our Lord was getting at when he told his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.  I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (Jn. 15:4-5). 

This does not mean, of course, that we are to “let go and let God.”  But it does mean that our every effort in the struggle for righteousness is to be effected in the conscious dependence upon our Lord and his grace.  It is living out Philippians 2:12-13 and 1 Corinthians 15:10. 

It is living upon the one who has already defeated the devil.  When our Lord was confronted and tempted by the devil in the wilderness, our Lord stood fast and did not give in.  He chased away the tempter.  And ultimately, our Lord defeated Satan at the cross.  It is because of what our Lord did on the cross, that he foresaw Satan falling as lightening from heaven (Lk. 10:18).  What the seventy experienced, we can experience in measure: “Lord, even the devils are subject to us through thy name” (17).  I think of the demoniac, who was known by the name Legion, because there were so many demons residing in him.  But it took only one word from our Lord and they left and he was made whole (cf. Mk. 5:1-20).

When we trust in God, in our Lord, it is not so much that faith is our shield as it is the God who is the object of our faith.  This is a common theme in the OT.  Do you remember what God said to Abraham?  There he was, probably discouraged from the lack of a son and seeing no earthly way God’s promise was ever going to be fulfilled.  Then God comes to him and says, “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward” (Gen. 15:1).  We do not have to ultimately worry about what the devil is trying to do to us, what arrows he lets fly at us, because we have the God of the universe as our shield.  Nothing can get through him!  Truly, as the Proverbs put it, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe” (18:10).  Or, as the Psalm expresses it, “For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly.  O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee” (Ps. 84:11-12).

The apostle John understood this well.  In his epistle, we read: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.  Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 Jn. 5:4-5).  The people who overcome the world and the ruler of the world, are not those who possess a lot of self-confidence.  The ones who overcome are those whose confidence rests in the Son of God who never fails those who put their trust in him.  The protection faith in Christ affords is complete.  It quenches all the fiery darts of the wicked one.  Not some of them, not most of them, but all of them. 

Why does God tie the victory to faith?  Certainly not because faith has any magical powers latent in itself.  Faith is not some potion you throw at the devil.  Nor is it because faith makes us worthy of God’s intervention.  No – rather, faith is the victory because by faith we consciously look away from ourselves and towards the grace and power and sufficiency of God.  It is by faith that God is consciously glorified as the one who is our deliverer.  He could do it without faith.  He could save us without us ever knowing.  But God wants us to experience the joy and delight of resting in him.  He wants us to know him and to know him is eternal life and joy; but the only way we can know him is by faith, by looking away from ourselves and our idols and to him and him alone.

I used to think that God made me to be somebody.  But the older I get, the more I realize that God didn’t make me to be somebody but to know Somebody – himself, the God of the universe, through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  And that’s why he created you: to know him and to know him not only as your creator, but as your Savior, as your provider, as your deliverer, as your delight.  Resting in him, we find him to be a perfect shield, and find complete protection from all the darts and missiles of the evil one.

All-Prayer – Eph. 6:18-20

In Bunyan’s classic allegory, The Pilgrims’ Progress , he describes a point at which Christian comes to the Valley of the Shadow of D...