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For the last five Sundays, our Epistle readings have taken us on a tour through St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians. Some of Paul's letter address particular problems or troubles that a church has gotten into and Paul gives them instructions on how to set things right again. But that's not the case with this epistle. Ephesians is a very positive letter in which Paul lays out the case for the grace and the wisdom and the love of God for His people, and the high and lofty goals that He has in store for them.
So now as we come to the conclusion of this letter, what we expect to hear from Paul say is, "and they all lived happily ever after. Amen."
But no, Paul concludes with a stern warning that although God's work of uniting all things in heaven and on earth to Himself in Christ is 'finished,' there is still fierce opposition to God and His people at work in the world. There is an anti-god in the world. Even though he has been decapitated by Christ, he still runs around making a mess of things, and will continue to do so until he is finally locked up in hell and we are locked up in heaven.
I understand that in our sophisticated day and age we may feel a bit embarrassed talking about 'the devil,' and 'cosmic powers,' and 'spiritual forces of evil' as though they really existed. We're quite comfortable calling people and governments, organizations and movements 'evil.' But to suggest that there is an "evil one" behind all of this, sounds like an archaic world-view that we have certainly progressed beyond. Yet, to disbelieve in the reality of the devil may be the devil's most effective weapon of all.
Frankly, I don't like this, not one bit. I really wish I could just be left alone to live in the peaceful tranquility of my nice safe home with my loving family and the fellowship of my wonderful congregation. I would much prefer that as a child of God, God would surround me with a force field that blocked every assault and attack of the devil and all his evil schemes. I really wish that Paul concluded his letter to the Ephesians by telling them how to escape the trouble of the evil day, rather than how to face it.
But Paul closes off the way of escape that I would prefer to take. There is no escape. You can't escape. You are forced to cling to Christ and His power to deliver you from all evil. Make no mistake about it, as long as you still live on this side of heaven, there is always the danger that you can lose what you have been given and fall from the grace of God.
So, like it or not, Paul tells us to engage in spiritual warfare. He calls us to "stand." He repeats himself three times. "STAND against the schemes of the devil." "Take up the whole armor of God so that you may WITHSTAND in the evil day." "And having done all, STAND FIRM."
Let's be sure to understand here that Paul is not giving us the command to "charge" or "attack." He's not telling us to launch a crusade to win the world for Jesus. Jesus has already won the world by His cross and empty tomb. What Paul is describing for us here is 'guard duty.' It's as if Paul is applying Jesus' words to His disciples at the garden of Gethesemane. "Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation." (Mat.26:38,40). He says, "watch with me." He is inviting us to 'watch' with Him. Never on our own. Always with Christ. So Paul says, "be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might."
"We do not wrestle against flesh and blood," Paul says. The real enemy is spiritual and operates in the heavenly realms. As soldiers on guard duty, we need to be able to be able recognize the real enemy. I sometimes think that we imagine that the flesh and blood people who do evil in our world, even in the Church are our real enemies. They're not. Actually, Paul is saying that we have no real human enemies. The real enemy is the devil who tricks and misleads flesh and blood people to do his dirty work. So Jesus says that we are actually to love our enemies and pray for them.
As much as we'd all like to think that once we are baptized and Christ makes us His own, He takes us to the Island of Bliss where we live happily ever after, that's not the way it works. Paul warns that there is an "evil day" that we must be prepared for so that we may withstand it.
What is the "evil day?" The "evil day" is not some apocalyptic, thousand year period of time yet to come. The "evil day" is now and it comes in whatever period of world history a Christian happens to live. At times, your life may be rather calm and everything goes along just fine. But then comes a crisis, and your faith is severely tested. It may be a catastrophe or a great loss. Or it may be a temptation, an opportunity to satisfy a sinful passion or advance your position or possessions through dishonest means. That is your "evil day."
Job had his "evil day" when he was struck by a series of catastrophes that took his possessions, his family and then his own health. Joseph had his "evil day" when he was seduced by Potiphar's wife. David had his "evil day" when he saw Bathsheba bathing and Peter had his "evil day" in the High Priest's courtyard. Even among these saints, some withstood the evil day and stood firm. But some did not and they fell. If it can happen to them it can surely happen to us.
"Take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day." Like the good teacher he is, Paul uses something very familiar to explain something new and unfamiliar. Paul compares the armor of a Roman soldier to the armor of God. Keep in mind, Paul is writing to the Ephesians from prison. Let you mind wonder and you can almost picture Paul looking at the soldier standing guard of his cell as he writes this letter.
Paul lists six pieces of armor that a Roman soldier would wear and compares each to the armor of God. We'll just touch on the first three.
A. Belt of Truth
The first piece of armor is the "belt." The older translations of the bible used to call it a 'girdle'. It supports the whole frame. It's wrapped around you and pulled tight.
Paul compares the belt to the "truth." Jesus issued a warning to us all when He said that the devil is "a liar and the father of lies." (John 8:44). You've got to know the truth to know the lie. So much of the confusion over so many different issues of our day is due to the fact that so many don't know the truth so they fall for the lie.
But you have the truth and you know the truth. "When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth." "Father, sanctify them by your truth, Your Word is truth." "If you abide in my word…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31; 16:13; 17:17). Free from what? Free from the lie.
The only thing that can expose the lie for the lie that it is, is the truth, and God's Word is the truth. Jesus demonstrated that for us quite clearly in the desert when He exposed the devil's lies by the truth of His Word.
I must tell you that I am afraid that many of you wear that belt far too loosely. Your inattention to the Word of God leaves you vulnerable to the devil's lies. It's time for you to tighten your belts. Adult Bible Study begins here in two weeks. Just as you have had to do some belt tightening to protect yourself in a bad economy, I urge you to tighten the belt of truth that you have been given.
B. Breastplate of Righteousness
The second piece of armor is the "breastplate." The "breastplate" is the bulletproof vest. It keeps the arrows and the bullets from piercing to the heart and other internal organs.
One of the most common and lethal weapons that the devil uses against Christ's people is 'doubt.' Sometimes he launches a guided missile right at our weakest spot. Sometimes, it's just a tiny seed, planted in us just to see if something might grow from it.
When the "evil day" comes, he tempts us to think, "God has rejected me. He must hate me." Or, maybe it's some particular sin that we've committed that we believe God just could never forgive. Our doubts lead to despair and our despair leads to our downfall.
Judas, a disciple of Jesus, is a warning for us all. Convinced that God would never forgive him for his sin, he killed himself. Peter, another disciple of Jesus, is an example for us all. Having denied Jesus three times, and became a pillar of the church. All of the devil's accusations bounced off his breastplate and did not harm him.
Paul compares the soldier's breastplate to "righteousness." You have been fitted with the breastplate of righteousness. A righteousness that is not your own nor is it based on your worthiness or merits. It is the righteousness of Christ. When the devil attacks, we should respond just as St. Paul did. "Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is it who condemns? Christ Jesus, who died, more than that, was raised to life is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." (Romans 8:33,34).
We may stand against every arrow that the devil shoots at us and say, 'yes, I am a sinner and I have sinned against God in thought, word and deed. But Jesus Christ has taken my sin upon Himself and crucified it in His flesh on the cross. All of the arrows you have aimed at me have landed in Him, for He is my breastplate. He has taken all of you're your arrows and bullets aimed at me and has risen from the dead."
C. Shoes for the Gospel of Peace.
The third piece of armor is the "shoes" which a soldier wears. Paul compares these to "the readiness given by the gospel of peace." I'm going to take a preachers liberty here and offer a personal application of the meaning of "shoes" and "the gospel of peace." I like to do a lot of hiking and backpacking. Of all of the pieces of equipment that go into an enjoyable hike, none is more critical than a good pair of boots. Even if everything else works perfectly, if your boots aren't right, you're feet will become tired, blistered and painful and they will not allow you to enjoy any peace.
The devil loves to fit Christ's people with boots that will not give them any peace. There's a million different styles and they all look so comfortable or stylish. "Here" he says to you, "try on more possessions." Or, "more luxury," or "the latest thing," or "financial security," or "a different spouse." How many people have all of these things and their lives seem to be just perfect, and yet they have no peace with God and so have no peace with themselves and so no peace with others?
But you have been fitted with the shoes that bring peace. "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace…" (Isaiah 52:7). These are the feet of Jesus Christ. His feet have been pierced with nails so that your feet may be fitted with peace. "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5:1).
That's as far as we can go in one sermon on this text for today. Paul continues by comparing the Roman shield to faith, the helmet to salvation, the sword to the Word of God and binds them all together with prayer. "To that end, keep alert with all perseverance…"
Let's conclude by making just two points. First, like it or not, as Christians, we live in a war zone. But the war has already been fought and won by Jesus Christ, and we share in His victory over the devil. Even though we live in the last days, the final day has not yet come. And until it does, we must stand firm. Because Jesus would not have even one casualty, He has fitted us with "every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms" that we may withstand "the spiritual forces of evil." We need to "put on the whole armor of God." Don't just let it sit around in your closet. Put it on, "that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil."
Second, soldiers of Christ enlisted for guard duty are not responsible for the entire battlefield. We do not need to keep watch over the whole world. Each of us has been assigned a particular post to stand guard, your marriage, your family, this congregation, your community, and so forth. That's where we need to be faithful. That's where the battle is won or lost for us. So put on the whole armor of God, His truth, His righteousness, His peace and do not retreat or abandon your post. "Be strong in the Lord and stand firm."