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.”