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.