Text: Ephesians 6:10-18
On 6th June 1944 – ‘D Day’ – the Allied forces landed hundreds of thousands of troops in Normandy in France. More Allied troops had crossed from North Africa to southern Italy and were making their way northwards. At the same time the Russians were closing in on the eastern borders of Germany. The war in Europe was effectively decided. Hitler had lost too many men. He had run out of resources. There was no way he could win. But did Hitler concede victory at that time? No: it wasn’t until nearly a year later – 8th May 1945 – that the Nazi forces surrendered and ‘VE’ (Victory in Europe) Day was declared. And between ‘D Day’ and ‘VE Day’ some of the fiercest and bloodiest fighting of the entire war took place.
At this season of Advent, we are mindful of two episodes that are absolutely critical for our understanding of God’s dealings with the human race. We look back to the coming of Jesus Christ as a baby in a manger, to his sinless life, his atoning death, his glorious resurrection, and his victorious ascension. That, if you like, is ‘D Day’. But we also look forward to that great day when he will return, to heal all wounds, wipe away every tear, and usher in a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. That, if you like, will be ‘VE Day’.
And, for the time being, we live between these two great comings; we occupy the interval between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’.
And there is fighting yet to be done. Our enemy, though already vanquished, has not yet left the battle-field, he has not yet conceded defeat. The victory is assured, but the soldiers of Christ must defend the ground that their captain has won for them.
They are to ‘take a stand’, says Paul in v11, to ‘stand their ground’, v13, to ‘stand firm’, v14.
Our commission is summed up v10: ‘be strong in the Lord.’
Two questions arise: Why? and How?
1. Why are we to be strong in the Lord? Answer: because our enemy is scheming and powerful, 10-13
V11 refers to ‘the devil’s schemes’. Scripture has much to say about the Devil’s cunning. He can transform himself into an angel of light. He can appear as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He can be as subtle as a serpent. His trump card is to convince people that he does not exist.
V12 speaks of the superhuman power of the devil and his evil forces. ‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.’
Our enemies are not human, but super-human. We are not called to fight the heathen, or heretics, still less one another. Our quarrel is with the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
I don’t think Paul is thinking primarily about the occult here, or demon-possession. The apostle has in mind devilish activity at a yet more alarming level: at the level of ordinary, everyday life.
Glance back for a moment to Eph 4:27. When he says, ‘do not give the devil a foothold’, is he referring to exorcism? No: anger management.
To be sure, human beings are responsible for their own attitudes and acts of anger, greed, unbelief, pride, greed, discord, and so on. But they are aided and abetted by the suggestions, the inducements, the threats and the false promises of the evil one.
As far as Christians are concerned, however, Satan can advise, but he cannot compel. We can and should defend ourselves against his onslaughts.
That is why Paul says, ‘Be strong in the Lord’.
2. How are we to be strong in the Lord? Answer: by putting on the full armour of God, vv14-17
One baby in every 400,000 born with a condition called Severe Combined Immunodeficiency Disease. This is a disease that leaves the child with no defence against infection. For such children, life is filled with danger. Similarly, the Christian who is not protected by the armour of God is defenceless against the attacks of the evil one.
I can only offer the briefest outline of the six items of armour:-
(a) The belt of truth – The Roman soldier would tuck his lower garments into his belt, and thus be ready for action.
As far as truth is concerned, Paul has already written about it. ‘Each of you,’ writes Paul in 4:25, ‘must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour.’
To wear the belt of truth is to speak and act with inner truthfulness, or integrity. I fear that many Christians are unprepared for serious action, because we lack integrity. This stunts our prayer life (in our untruthfulness we place ourselves at a moral distance from God). It also impedes our Christian work and witness (for how can we speak plainly about other people’s need for forgiveness when our own lives are knowingly tainted with unforgiven thoughts and actions?)
(b) The breastplate of righteousness – The soldier’s breastplate protected his vital organs.
In 4:24 Paul says, ‘put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.’ There is, of course, a righteousness that comes as a free gift from God, in which we stand where Christ stands before the Father, justified, because he stood where we stood before God, condemned. But there is also a righteousness which flows from this in gratitude and loving obedience. Christians are not only counted righteous; they are called to be righteous. Potiphar’s wife put grave temptation in Joseph’s way: “Come to bed with me, Joseph”. But Joseph had his breastplate of righteousness in place – ‘how can I do this great evil and sin against God?’
Let Christian soldiers leave no chink in our armour by neglecting what we know to be a right action.
(c) Feet fitted with the readiness that comes from gospel of peace. Have your boots got a good grip? The gospel is the absolute foundation of our faith, and so we must have a firm foothold in it. If we do, we will be able to stand firm when the enemy assails us with doubts and fears. The devil may try to throw you off balance by whispering in your ear, “You’re not good enough for God”. But you can stand firm: “I know I’m not. But according to the terms of the gospel I have peace with God not because of who I am or what I have done, but because of who Christ is and what he has done.”
(d) Shield of faith – A particularly nasty weapon in those days was the arrow that was tipped with bitumen, set alight, and then fired at the enemy troops. Now the Roman soldier had a shield that was large enough to protect pretty much his entire body. But it was made of wood. So, before battle he would soak his shield in water. Then, when those fiery arrows rained down, he would be protected.
Let’s see how the shield of faith can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one.
Does the devil whisper to you that God has deserted you? Faith quotes God’s promise, Heb 13:5 “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
Does Satan accuse you of being a weak and ineffective Christian? Faith remembers the words of Jesus, Mt 12:20, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.”
Do you feel tempted almost to breaking point? Faith says, 1 Cor 10:13, ‘God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.’
Does evil seem utterly overwhelming? Faith says, Rom 16:20, ‘The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.’
Are you prone to doubt the power of Jesus to save? Faith appropriates the words of Jesus, Jn 10:29, “ I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand.”
(e) The helmet of salvation –This is the helmet of victory. In Isa 59:17 this is one of the pieces of armour worn by God himself. ‘[The Lord] put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head.’ In 1 Thess 5:8 Paul refers to ‘the hope of salvation’ as a helmet. It means that the decisive battle has already been fought and won. You cannot be truly a child of God one day, and lost the next. God has saved you; Satan cannot harm you. In this life, we are immortal till our work is done. In the life to come, we shall live with Christ, love and serving him, for ever.
(f) The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Gospel truths, and scriptural arguments, will be found to have ‘divine power to demolish strongholds’, to use Paul’s expression in 2 Cor 10:4. Did not Christ himself, when tempted by the devil, repel him time and again with rapier-like thrusts, “It is written…”; “Again, it is written…”
To be a Christian, then, is to be a soldier. Chances are that when you were baptised, no sooner had you been signed with the sign of the Cross, than you were given the following charge, ‘Fight valiantly under the banner of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and continue his faithful soldier and servant to the end of your life.’ That was the moment you put your armour on, and you will not take it off again until you take your last breath.
But there is still one thing missing. Even a soldier who is fully-armed will be completely ineffective if he either lacks courage or is out of contact with his commander.
And that, for the Christian soldier, is where prayer comes in. You will see in v18 a remarkably comprehensive call to prayer.
‘And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.’
Prayer is God’s chosen means of carrying on his work in the world. Prayer connects us with God’s almighty power. Prayer makes effective each and every item of the Christian’s armour.
And can we trust God to give his people victory? Yes, because ‘D Day’ is already over. Jesus has come into the world and has defeated the devil. “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven,” Lk 10:18. Yes, because ‘VE Day’ is nearer now than when we first believed. Our Saviour will return, this time not as a lamb to the slaughter, but as King of kings and Lord of lords. What better motivation can we have, to be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory.
[Credits: the ‘D Day’/’VE Day’ illustration is quite widely used; I was reminded of its relevance to the present passage by the spoken ministry of D.A. Carson. The ‘Immunodeficiency’ illustration is adapted from ‘Illustrations for Biblical Preaching’.]