The Armor of God
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By Richard Niell Donovan
This book of Ephesians is one of the most finely crafted books of the New Testament, and has been called the “Queen of the Epistles.” There is some question about its authorship. Paul is traditionally considered the author, but the vocabulary and style of Ephesians is different from his other letters. William Barclay explains the reason. Paul had always written his letters “on the run.” He was a busy man. However, when he wrote Ephesians, he was in prison. He had all the time in the world. Therefore, he took many of the ideas from his previous epistles—particularly from Colossians—and crafted them into a fine theological treatise to circulate among the many churches that he had started. For the purpose of this sermon, I will assume that Paul is the author.
This book of Ephesians has two primary emphases:
(1) First is the reality of evil and strife in the world and the healing and harmony that come through Jesus Christ.
(2) Christ uses us, his church, as his chief instrument for establishing this healing and harmony.
We certainly see the evidence of Paul’s concern for evil in our text for today. He tells us to:
“Put on the whole armor of God,
that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood,
but against the principalities, against the powers,
against the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age,
and against the spiritual forces of wickedness
in the heavenly places” (6:11-12).
Paul was writing to his churches (and to us) to prepare us to face great powers of evil. He envisioned a spiritual warfare between Christians and very personal forces of evil. As we read early church history, with Christians being crucified along the roads to Rome and thrown to the lions in the Coliseum, it isn’t difficult to imagine what Paul was preparing these new Christians to face. The forces of evil would be arrayed against them, and would have very human faces—from the face of the emperor to the faces of the gladiators to the faces of crowds crying for blood.
But those days are over. Is there a message in this book for us? Do we face the same quality of evil in our day?
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Earlier in this century, many people seriously questioned if we weren’t on the verge of overcoming evil. Technology promised “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” Education promised to transform us into rational, happy people who would shed our primitive tendency to sin and put on a new, enlightened exterior. The slogan was “Day by day, better and better in every way.” But then came the Depression, two world wars, the Holocaust, and Stalin, and people began to realize that public education hadn’t solved the problem of evil in our world.
You certainly don’t have to look far these days to find evidence of spiritual warfare. Drug dealers and gang members not only endanger our lives; they compete for the souls of our children. Washington DC, the capital of our nation, has become the murder capital of the world. Family disintegration, children having children, and “Crack babies” are rife. If you think the problem of evil has been solved, have a talk with a policeman—or a social worker.
There is no shortage of evil in our poor neighborhoods, but our rich neighborhoods aren’t much better. Look at Wall Street. Ivan Boesky has completed his jail sentence; Michael Milliken is serving his; John Gutfreund has resigned in disgrace from Saloman Brothers. Or consider the Savings and Loan scandal, which will consume every dollar saved by our military cutbacks. I remember asking a very bright management prof twenty years ago where I could invest some money. He responded with a furrowed brow and the comment, “There are lots of sharks out there.” Now I know what he meant.
Henri Nouwen, a priest who served for a time in Lima, Peru, spoke of walking downtown in Lima and seeing:
“Bookstores stacked with magazines
about violence, sex and gossip;
endless advertisements for unnecessary items
imported mostly from Germany and the U. S….
I had the feeling of being surrounded
by powers much greater than myself.”
I have the same reaction on the rare occasion that I turn on the television—or see a movie marquee—or hear rock music. Our entertainment industry today is dominated by people who are waging spiritual warfare—warfare against the family, against the church, against love of nation—warfare in behalf of obscenity, profanity, drugs, violence, and promiscuity. They spend—and take home profits of billions of dollars each year—in a very powerful bid for the hearts and minds of our young people. We have tended to treat them as a minor annoyance; we need to learn that we are at war for the hearts and minds of our children.
We are all too ready to say, “The First Amendment protects free expression. There is nothing we can do.” But the First Amendment protects free expression from abridgment by Congress; there is no law against the church mobilizing for battle. At the very least, we can make Christians aware of the stakes. We can spend our dollars on appropriate entertainment. We can write letters to sponsors of television programs, good and bad. We can boycott sponsors of inappropriate entertainment. We can make our concerns known. We can raise our children to know the difference between right and wrong.
The battle against evil is not just “out there” somewhere. It takes place within our own hearts on a daily basis. We battle temptations daily to be less than Christ calls us to be. Alexander Solzhenitsyn understands evil. He survived the Soviet gulags where evil was ever-present. He says:
“The line dividing good and evil
cuts through the heart of every human being.
And who is willing to destroy a part of our own heart.”
While Paul was writing these early Christians about the cosmic forces that they faced, he was imprisoned—probably chained to a soldier who was charged with guarding him. He took his images from the guard’s military uniform:
• Paul saw the belt around the soldier’s waist. The soldier’s sword hung from the belt, providing him quick access to his weapon. Even in the dark, he knew just where to reach for his weapon. Paul tells us, Fasten the belt of truth around your waist. Other people may guess and grope, but Christians live confidently, because we know the truth.
• Paul saw the breastplate protecting the soldier’s heart and said, Put on the breastplate of righteousness. Righteousness is an excellent defense; our critics might clamor, but they have trouble wounding us if we have done nothing wrong.
• Paul saw the soldier’s shoes, and tells us to put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. Shoes on our feet are a sign of readiness to perform our mission. The soldier with his boots off is at a serious disadvantage when the action starts. He can’t perform his mission very well. Our mission as Christians is to proclaim the gospel. We need to be ready on the spur of the moment to do that.
• Paul saw the soldier’s shield. The word that he uses here is not the small round shield, but was the tall oblong shield that was designed for maximum defense. It was made of thick wood. When flaming arrows hit it, they sank deeply enough that the flame was extinguished. Paul tells us to take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.
• Paul saw the soldier’s helmet, and said Take the helmet of salvation. The helmet is one of the soldier’s most important pieces of equipment. Even a small splinter of shrapnel can do terrible damage if it strikes a soldier in the head. A serious wound to a leg may require amputation, but a serious wound to the head destroys who we are. The salvation afforded by Christ protects “who we are,” through every experience—even in death.
• Finally, Paul saw the soldier’s sword and called us to take the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. The Bible is our sword—the weapon that allows us to go on the offensive against the enemy. Note that when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert, he used words from the scriptures to defend himself against each of Satan’s temptations. We can do the same, but we must train with the Bible now if we are to be able to use it in the heat of battle.
And then Paul tells us to pray at all times in the spirit. He then told the Ephesian Christians to pray on his behalf (6:19). He was better prepared than most to resist temptation—but he understood that the forces of evil would single him out for special treatment. He understood that he could stand strong only through the power of God—so he asked the Ephesian Christians to pray on his behalf.
Prayer is our logistical lifeline. God re-supplies us with everything we need for spiritual battle through prayer.
In this passage from Ephesians, Paul tells us that we need constantly to be ready for battle against spiritual powers. That ought to be a message that soldiers can understand. Evil exists all around us. It doesn’t go away just because we close our eyes to it.
Facing the evil forces of our world can be a frightening experience alone, but we are not alone. God is with us, and gives us the means not only to defend ourselves but to take the battle to the enemy. Furthermore, we can win. If God is for us, who can be against us. Thanks be to God for the victory which he gives us through the Lord Jesus Christ.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan