Preparing for the Epic Battle
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Ephesians 6:10–20
The long-anticipated sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy hit the screens on the Friday before Christmas. Just twelve days after its release it had grossed over one billion dollars in box office receipts. By the time the initial furor subsides and the final figures are calculated, it seems certain that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will become the most successful money-making film of all time.
What is it that attracts millions of people to count down the days and literally rearrange their schedules to catch one of first showings of movies like Star Wars? I am sure that there are a number of answers to the question, and I have my own theory. I think it has something to do with the underlying conflict between “good” and “evil,” which seems to characterize these so-called “epic” films. By the end of their stories, there is an inevitable battle scene in which the “good” prevails over “evil,” and everyone goes home with the feeling that—no matter how dire circumstances seemed to appear—“evil” has been defeated and the world has been set back on its axis. All is “well” once again...at least until the next sequel premieres.
Those battle scenes at times leave us breathless, and feeling as if we ourselves have been involved in the conflict. Truth be known, Christians actually are engaged 24/7 in a battle of epic proportions. And unlike the computer-generated fantasies being played out on the widescreen, our battle is quite real and its outcome has cosmic ramifications.
The Apostle Paul writes about that conflict in chapter 6 of his letter to the Ephesians. We see it in verses 10 through 20. I invite you to follow along as I read:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
Nearing the conclusion of this epistle, Paul felt the need to leave one last important word of instruction for his readers. You may recall that there are two major sections to this letter. Chapters 1 through 3 explain the spiritual “wealth” that belongs to every follower of Christ by virtue of their identity with Him. And then in chapters 4 through 6, we are challenged as to our practical “walk” as Christians. In other words, our “behavior” should be consistent with what we “believe.” Our “duty” should match our “doctrine.” Our “practice” should demonstrate our “position.”
Some have added a third category to that outline when they come to the passage we have just read. In fact, several decades ago, there was a popular devotional commentary on Ephesians entitled, The Wealth, Walk, and Warfare of the Christian. And while that makes for a good book title, I don’t believe we can separate “warfare” from our “walk” as Christians. The spiritual conflicts that we face are part and parcel of the Christian life.
That being the case, what we find in these eleven verses is an extended exhortation intended to make us ready us for the epic battle we face—sometimes without our being aware of them—everyday. There are three phases to this process, which we will call preparation, protection, and prayer. In terms of preparation, you and I must be aware of...
The enemy we face (verses 10-13)
You will notice that verse 10 begins with the word, “Finally.” A better translation would be, “in the time that remains,” as if to suggest that the instructions the writer is about to give are to be applied immediately as well as for the foreseeable future.
If we are to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling” we have received in Christ (cf. Ephesians 4:1), then Christians must “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” The command to “be strong” is in the passive voice, which implies that the strength being called for is something we cannot supply for ourselves. We must allow ourselves to “be strengthened in the Lord.” Back in chapter 3, verse 16, we saw a similar thought. There Paul prayed, “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.”
But in order for us to be able to appropriate the Lord’s strength, we must “Put on the whole armor of God.” Please underscore that: “the whole armor”...not just part of it. A soldier would be foolhardy to enter the conflict without the full bodily protection afforded him by the army he served. But Paul is not talking about “body armor” here, as the next phrase in verse 11 indicates: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” Something even more needful is in view.
It should be noted that we are told to put on the armor not so that we may “fight,” but rather that we “may be able to stand.” When a soldier is told to “stand,” it means that he is to “hold his position” and “not surrender ground.” As we shall see, the battle is not ours to win—it has already been won! Instead, we are called upon to maintain our position in the conflict, and we can only do that as we don “the whole armor of God.”
The Scriptures make it clear that, by ourselves, we are no match for “the schemes of the devil.” That very title (“διαβολοs”) means “slanderer” and “adversary.” His methods are deceptive beyond our ability to fully comprehend. He looks for every unprotected area of vulnerability in our lives, and that is precisely where he will launch his attack against us. Here is the way that one commentator has put it:
“Mention of the ‘schemes’ of the devil reminds us of the trickery and subterfuge by which evil and temptation present themselves in our lives. Evil rarely looks evil until it accomplishes its goal; it gains entrance by appearing attractive, desirable, and perfectly legitimate. It is a baited and camouflaged trap.”
Paul fleshes this out for us by piling descriptor upon descriptor in order to explain our enemy. Beginning in verse 11 and encompassing all of verse 12, there are five phrases detailing for us just who it is we are to “stand against.” One writer has referred to these forces as “the spiritual mafia.” And while it may be helpful for us to spend time searching for distinctions between “rulers,” “authorities,” and “powers,” but it better serves our purpose this morning to view them collectively and to conclude that our opponent is a most formidable foe...one stronger than we are. A spiritual enemy is clearly in view, but that does not mean that the conflict is always an “invisible” one. The “evil” in our world always has a “face,” but the real power behind that “face” is what Paul refers to here.
We note that the battle is being waged “in the heavenly places.” This is the fifth time this location has been mentioned in this letter. In the event you may have forgotten, this is where believers are said to have been “blessed...in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Ephesians 1:3). It is also the place where Christ has been seated at the Father’s “right hand” (cf. Ephesians 1:20), and it is the place where we have positionally been seated as well (cf. Ephesians 2:6). No wonder that “the devil” has declared war there!
So what is our responsibility in light of such powerful opposition? Again we are told to “Take up the whole armor of God.” For what cause? So “that you many be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” Although some understand “the evil day” as a reference to the “end times,” I believe it refers instead to the times in which we live...every day...here and now. In other words, the battle is going on all around us.
Through His death and resurrection, Christ has pronounced the death sentence upon the devil and his minions. Knowing that “his time is short” (Revelation 12:12), Satan is in the process of doing everything he can to wreak havoc upon the Lord’s people. This is why we must “put on the whole armor of God.” We are no match for him in our own strength, which is why we are told to arm ourselves with God’s provision and “stand” our ground. Nowhere in Scripture are Christians told to “advance” or “press the battle” against our spiritual enemy. Rather we are instructed to “stand firm” and “resist” him (cf. James 4:7).
If we hope to be protected from the enemy we face, we next need to appropriate...
The equipment we have been given (verses 14-17)
For the third time in this passage, we are commanded to “stand.” As we look at verses 14 through 17, we observe that there are six pieces of the “armor of God” that we are instructed to “put on.” In order for us to better understand why Paul describes the “armor” in the manner that he does, we need to be reminded of two things.
First, this letter was written while Paul is being detained under house arrest in Rome, where he was awaiting trial before Caesar for preaching the Gospel. Although he had a certain degree of freedom, he was under the constant guard of a Roman soldier known as a centurion. It is a commonly held belief that by daily observing the armor worn by those who guarded him, Paul was able to draw spiritual parallels for communicating to his readers their need to appropriate God’s protection.
And while that was probably so, there is a second fact. While Paul was familiar with the centurion’s equipment, he was equally familiar with the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah, in which nearly all of these pieces of “armor” are described in language similar to what we find here. What is noteworthy in those prophetic passages, however, is that the “armor” described is said to be worn by the Lord Himself and His Messiah (cf. Isaiah 11:5, 49:2, 52:7, and 59:17). Now, here in Ephesians 6, that “armor”—that same “armor”—is made available to God’s people.
Therefore, I would like to suggest that when we are charged to “take up the whole armor of God,” we are in essence being told to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” In fact, that is precisely what this same Paul writes in Romans 13(:14). So, if you and I are to have any hope of “standing against” the enemy of our souls, we must be “clothed...with Christ” (cf. Galatians 3:27, NASV).
- The first piece of “armor” that is listed is “the belt of truth.” This probably referred to the leather strap that wrapped around the waist of the soldier and upon which the other items of protection were attached. The implication for the Christian is that we are to be “wrapped about” with truth. Of course, that truth is found in the Scriptures. You and I are to be absorbed in them so that they become the foundation for our every belief and behavior. It is with God’s “truth” where we must begin, and it is upon that “truth” we take our “stand.”
- The second piece is “the breastplate of righteousness.” For the Roman soldier, the breastplate was a piece of armor covering the chest to protect the vital organs from blows and arrows. The “righteousness” that guards and secures the heart of the believer is that which has been imputed to us through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21). Any claim to a “righteousness” of our own is never able to withstand the devil’s attacks.
- Next, we are told to put on our feet the “shoes...(of) the gospel of peace.” Every warrior must be outfitted with proper footwear. Roman soldiers frequently wore a half-boot that was specifically designed for long marches through rugged terrain. As you and I make our way through life’s journey, we are instructed to “put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.” The language and imagery are drawn from Isaiah 52:7 and quoted by Paul in Romans 10:15. Those passages depict a messenger who brings the “good news” of salvation to those in need of it. One of the most effective means of being protected from the spiritual onslaughts of the enemy is to be a consistent witness of the Gospel to others. Even though “shoes” may not seem like a “weapon,” we dare not enter the conflict without them.
- In verse 16, we are instructed “in all circumstances (to) take up the shield of faith.” The shield referred to is not the small hand-held one that a soldier used for protection in hand-to-hand combat, but the large curved one behind which he could take cover when the enemy attacked. The “faith” mentioned here is not the initial act of trust that we placed in Christ, but an ongoing life of “faith” that sustains us daily and moment-by-moment. It is only as we exercise “the shield of faith” that we are able to “extinguish all the faming darts of the evil one.” As the writer of Proverbs (30:5) has reminded us, “God...is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.” It must be appropriated.
- Fifth in the list of our equipment is “the helmet of salvation” in verse 17. The headgear of the Roman soldier was made of bronze and had flap-like pieces that covered the cheeks. A mortal wound could easily be inflicted if the head was left unprotected. Therefore, this was an essential piece of protective “armor.” In describing the action that the Christian is to take with regard to “the helmet of salvation,” the writer employs a different verb of command that actually means “to receive” (“δεχομαι”) rather than “to take.” What that suggests is that “salvation” is something that is given to us, and not something that we grasp for ourselves. In other words, for the believer, it is something that has already been given. Our responsibility, therefore, is to have our minds filled with the secure knowledge of our relationship with the Lord. Without the certainty of our salvation we become easy prey.
- The final item in the Christian’s arsenal is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Unlike the large and heavy sword that we picture in epic battle scenes, the “sword” being referred to here was a short-handled one used in close combat. You will note that it is the lone offensive weapon mentioned in the Christian’s armor. Just as the Roman soldier kept his weapon at the ready, so too must we be prepared to engage our spiritual battles with “the word of God.” It is the only weapon we have with which to press the battle. The supreme example of this is Jesus Himself who, when tempted repeatedly by the devil in Matthew 4(:1-11), responded each time by citing Scripture. “It is written,” He declared, at last causing the enemy to flee. “Thus saith the Lord!” must be our constant battle cry as well.
Keep in mind that we are instructed to “Take up the whole armor of God.” To leave off a single piece is to invite peril. The Lord has provided everything we need in the way of “armor” and weaponry to successfully overcome the enemy. But the devil is relentless in his pursuit of us. If he cannot have our souls, he will do everything he can to render our witness for the Savior ineffective. The equipment has been given to us, but we must avail ourselves of it.
Even after we have prepared to face the enemy and donned the necessary equipment for battle, there remains one more essential ingredient. It is found in verses 18 through 20, where the subject of prayer is addressed. Here Paul discusses...
The entreaties we offer (verses 18-20)
Sadly, for many of us, “prayer” has remained a “secret weapon,” meaning that we do not avail ourselves of it as we should. It is noteworthy that Paul gives greater prominence to “prayer” within the context of our battle with the powers of darkness than he did with any of the weapons listed in verses 14 through 17. That is because “prayer” supplies the energizing power that enables the Christian soldier to wear the “armor” and to wield the “sword.”
There are seven exhortations regarding prayer that we would do well to consider as we look at these last three verses. Pay attention to how many times we find the word “all.”
- Following Paul’s line of reasoning, we are first told to “pray...at all times.” 1 Thessalonians 5(:17) sounds a similar note when it says that we are to “pray without ceasing.” You and I are to pray continually. On every occasion and in every situation we are to be in communion with God. Like soldiers engaged in open conflict with the enemy, we must “at all times” keep the “lines of communication” open with our Commanding Officer.
- Next, we are told to “pray with all prayer and supplication.” More literally, we are being urged to “pray with all (kinds of) prayer.” Whether it is petition regarding a need, intercession on behalf of others, thanksgiving for what God has done, or confession of sin, we are to talk with the Lord about it. No prayer that is brought before our Heavenly Father is insignificant, especially on the field of battle. In all manner of “prayer and supplication,” we are encouraged to express ourselves to the Lord. He does hear and will respond.
- In addition, we are instructed to pray “in the Spirit.” What the apostle is referring to here is the enabling and empowering of the Holy Spirit. Even when we do not know how to pray, we are told in Romans 8:27 that “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Especially when the enemy is unseen and the outcome uncertain, we must rely upon the Spirit’s direction. Because He sees the situation more clearly than we can, He is better able to lead us in ways that we likely would not have chosen.
- The fourth exhortation that we find in these verses is that we are to pray with alertness. On the night before His execution, the Lord Jesus asked His disciples to “Watch and pray,” because He knew that even if the spirit of man was willing, “the flesh is weak.” Both Matthew (27:36-46) and Mark (14:32-42) record for us that the disciples failed that night. When we are charged by our Lord to pray, we are told do so with “eyes wide open” in a figurative sense. What that means is that we are to be “looking around,” surveying the situation and circumstances, while remaining focused on how and what we are praying. Meaningless repetitions and pious words have no power in the midst of spiritual conflict (cf. Matthew 6:7).
- Fifth, and closely aligned with alertness, believers are urged to pray “with all perseverance.” In other words, we are to keep on praying...not quitting, especially when the next move in God’s strategy appears slow in coming. One day Jesus called His disciples to Himself, and “told them that they ought always to pray and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). This is sometimes referred to as “prevailing prayer.” It is what the King James Version calls “importunity” (Luke 11:8) and in other translations as “persistence.” It has been rightly said that when we feel least like praying, that is probably the time we need most to pray. I sometimes wonder how often we give up the battle of prayer at just the time when the Lord is about to grant the victory.
- At the end of verse 18 we find the sixth exhortation regarding prayer. Here we are instructed to pray “for all the saints.” Because we are members one with another, we are to be praying for one another. This is what the Bible means when urges us to be “interceding” for one another. I have mentioned before that our church directory can also double as a “prayer guide.” For example, take a page each day and pray for the names on that page. Because ours is a small church, following that method will allow you to pray for each of your fellow members every couple of weeks...and then you can start over.
- The final exhortation that we see comes from verses 19 and 20. We are to pray specifically. Here Paul asks his readers to pray for him, especially in light of his present circumstances. But rather than just saying, “pray for me,” his requests for prayer are specific. He asks that they pray “that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.” It has been well said that “general prayers receive general answers, but specific prayers receive specific answers.” Many of our prayers are so general in nature that it is sometimes impossible to know if they have ever been answered! We must pinpoint our prayers if we hope to see God’s clear answers.
It is perhaps not accidental that there is no mention in the listing of armor to cover the knees. Perhaps that is a subtle reminder that the Christian is to be upon them while battling the enemy. To quote John Piper, “You will not know what prayer is for until you know that life is war.”
The verses we have looked at this morning remind us that Christians are involved in an epic battle. Although our Lord Jesus has already delivered a “death blow” to the devil and his demonic hosts, they remain a formidable foe to us as long as we wear these bodies of “flesh and blood.” Like a wounded wild animal, sensing that “his time is short” (cf. Revelation 12:12), our enemy seeks to devour whoever and whatever stands in his way. Thanks to God’s provision, he will fail and face his eternal doom.
Until then, however, we are charged to “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith...(and) be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13). In order to do that, we must be prepared by being aware of the enemy we face. What’s more, we must be protected by appropriating the equipment we have been given. And finally, we must be prayerful by offering entreaties to God at all times for all things.
As with the knees, the back of the Christian warrior appears to be left unprotected as well. I cannot help but believe that to be a subtle reminder that, as soldiers of the cross, we should never be retreating. At all times we are called upon to “stand firm.” The battle we are engaged in is epic, but the outcome has been assured. As Paul has declared elsewhere, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).