The War of the Worlds (Ephesians 6:10-22)

The prophet Isaiah lived about 700 years before Christ. He was there when the Assyrians came and conquered all the northern tribes of Israel, and took them away never to be seen again. His book is full of warnings to the south, to the city of Jerusalem, the last remaining tribe of Judah. He keeps telling them that, if they do not do their job, the same judgement will fall upon them.

And what is Jerusalem’s job? Well, Jerusalem was meant to be a shining city, a beacon of God’s justice and righteousness. The temple at the very crown of Jerusalem’s mountain was supposed to be the place where people could come and meet God. The people of Israel, by living according to God’s perfect law, were supposed to be a living example of God’s compassion on all mankind.

But they couldn’t do it. And even worse, Isaiah knew from the beginning that all his warnings would fall on deaf ears. He knew this because God told him, right at the start, “They aren’t going to listen to you! Jerusalem is going to fall.” Which has got to be discouraging! How would you like to be told at the beginning of your career that you will be a failure, but you have to do it anyway?

But Isaiah was faithful. And one of the great messages that emerges from his prophecy is this: prophets cannot turn the city of Jerusalem into what it should be. The people of Jerusalem cannot turn the city of Jerusalem into what it should be. But God can. God will.

And we read part of this promise together today in our worship, in our Prayer of Confession, and in our Promise of Forgiveness. From Isaiah, Chapter 59, “Surely the arm the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” And Isaiah goes on throughout that chapter to describe the results of Jerusalem’s sins: because they sow injustice, they reap injustice. Because they sow unrighteousness, they reap unrighteousness. They were supposed to be the light of the world, but they are lost themselves. They wish they could turn back to the light — but they can’t even find it anymore, much less lead other people to it.

And so, at the end of the chapter, God says, “Okay, so I’m going to have to do it myself!” The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. And then he says: “The Redeemer will come to Zion — that is, the mountain of Jerusalem — to those who repent of their sins.” And then he promises this everlasting covenant: he promises that he is going to pour out his Holy Spirit upon his people from this time on and forever.

And when was this prophecy fulfilled?

Seven hundred years later Jesus was born in a little kampung in the north, and grew up to be this prophesied warrior. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, salvation as his helmet, and he went out to war against mankind’s enemies: Satan, sin, and death. And he won. (If you are not familiar with the story you can listen to our online series entitled The Prince and the Dragon. It covers the entire epic, as it was written down in the Gospel of Luke.)

And after he won, he kept his promise: he poured out his Holy Spirit upon his people, and turned his people into the living temple of God. Before Jesus’ time the temple of the Holy Spirit was made of stone. It sat on top of a mountain in the Middle East. It was the only place on earth where mankind could enter into God’s presence. But after Jesus, God’s people no longer needed to enter into God’s presence; God’s presence entered into them. The church became the temple of the Holy Spirit. The church became the New Jerusalem, the shining city, the beacon of God’s justice and righteousness.

And that is what Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has been all about. He spent the first three chapters telling us this: “Jesus has won the battle! He has rescued you from zombie death, he has made you alive, he has bound you together in one Spirit. You are now a completely new race of people, and your united existence is God’s evidence to the universe that Satan has been defeated and humiliated!” And then, for the last three chapters, he has been saying: “Therefore, as a completely new race of humanity, this is how you should live.”

In Chapter 4 he talked about how true unity actually comes through diversity. We all have different gifts, and those gifts are designed to work together to build something beautiful. He talked about how unity through diversity can only be maintained if we live truthfully with one another, discussing our differences and figuring out how our gifts fit together.

In Chapter 5 he talked about how sexuality is one of those gifts, a gift we need to give thanks for. He talked about how the church is the bride of Christ, a beautiful body being made beautiful as each part learns how to live in submission within the structure of the body.

And now, Paul finishes his letter to his friends in Asia with a bit of a review of everything he has talked about:

[10] Finally, he says, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. [11] Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. [12] For 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.

Here, Paul is touching on the two main issues that the church was facing at that time.

First, remember that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were both trying to fit together into one temple. The Jews thought the Gentiles were uneducated and immoral; the Gentiles thought the Jews were over-educated and uptight; and they were both right. And so, for them, this felt like a struggle against other people, a struggle against flesh and blood.

And second, remember that the people of Asia Minor were famously superstitious. They were raised to live in fear of evil spirits, and they had this very complicated understanding of the spirit world, with rulers, authorities, powers, forces, all stacked up in their universe from lowest to highest.

So Paul is addressing both of these issues. He’s saying, “I know that as you try to figure out this whole ‘church’ thing, this whole ‘living in community’ thing, I know it feels like your biggest problem is other people. It’s not. Your biggest problem is the devil, and his schemes.”

And what are the devil’s schemes? What is Satan’s primary goal? Well, he wants to destroy the church. How does he do this? Does he lead little Christian boys and girls astray with Harry Potter? Does he possess innocent teenagers through the evils of rock music? Does he infiltrate Christian homes by sending a demon into an object that the Christian buys and takes home?

No. That is the sort of thing the Ephesians were afraid of, and that is the sort of thing Satan wants them to think — but Paul has already said, way back in Chapter 2, “No. Satan used to possess you like that, back when you were zombies. Now you are possessed by the Holy Spirit.” So…no, that’s not where our danger lies. Satan loves it when Christians think like because it distracts us from his real schemes.

What are his real schemes? How does Satan work to destroy the church?

By dividing us.

Just like the Ephesians, we all tend to think that our biggest problem in the church is somebody else. So it is easiest thing in the world for Satan to take that tendency turn it up a little bit, and turn it up a little bit, and turn it up a little bit…and then we break apart.

Friends, spiritual warfare means resisting division in the church, or, as Paul said back in Chapter 4: making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

It’s not sexy. I know that many Christian bookstores have a section called “Spiritual Warfare”, and if you look at the books in that section they’re all about how to cast out demons, how bind evil spirits, how to pray against principalities and powers, how to protect your family from witchcraft and Harry Potter and all that sort of thing. And don’t get me wrong: there is a place for exorcism in the Christian faith — but that is not where the main battle lies.

Paul reminds the Ephesians here that their struggle is against the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms — but that’s not because he wants to refocus their attention back onto their old pagan fears! He wants to refocus their attention back to the fact that Jesus has already walloped those powers! They are finished! They cannot possess you anymore! They cannot do violence against you anymore!

But they are still trying to deceive you. They are still trying to distract you. They are definitely trying to divide you.

[13] Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

The character of the battle has changed. Before Christ, Satan ruled mankind. He used to work from within us. He is still at work in those who are disobedient. But for those of us who are now in Christ, built into the walls of the city — now Satan can only attack us from without.

Therefore the armour that we wear has changed. Before Christ, pagans tried to protect themselves from evil spirits with bomoh who practiced magic (unfortunately, Satan has distracted some Christians with this idea that they need special healers or exorcists to protect them also). After Christ, Christ himself is our armour. He has fought the battle and won. He has cleared the ground, and laid the foundations of the church, the temple, the New Jerusalem. For two thousand years now the walls have been rising, as each generation of Christians is laid down in courses of living stones — which is why all we have to do now is stand our ground.

Here is the image Paul is painting for us: we are like people living in a heavenly city, with Christ seated at its center, at the right hand of the Father. Inside the city there is peace and fellowship and every spiritual blessing. Outside are all the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms, laying seige to Christ’s kingdom. That dark army was defeated the moment Christ laid himself down as the chief cornerstone, alongside the foundation of the apostles and prophets. Satan is defeated! His end is certain!

But still he fights to weaken us. He can no longer accuse us face to face because we are safe now behind walls that are founded upon Christ — but he can still shoot at us from a distance. He cannot climb over the walls and conquer the city of God — but he can try to turn us against one another.

So what is this armour that we are called to put on? [14] Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist

— because even though Satan cannot climb over the walls he can still try to persuade us to lie to one another, to hide our sins from the light. So let us commit to living truthfully and confessionally with one another as brothers and sisters!

Stand firm then, with the breastplate of righteousness in place

— because even though Satan cannot climb over the walls he can still try to persuade us to serve ourselves instead of someone else. He can still persuade us to practice injustice in our marriages, in our parenting, in our workplaces. So let us commit to practicing what is fair and just and compassionate!

Stand firm then [15] with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

Paul specifically mentions the gospel of peace here because he wants us to remember — from Chapter 2 — that Jesus himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one in order to create in himself one new humanity.

Jesus is taking all the races in the world and weaving them into one new race. Now, Satan cannot climb over the walls, but he is trying desperately to separate us out into our different races again. He wants us to focus on our racial and cultural differences instead of focusing on the unity we enjoy in Christ. So let us commit ourselves to one another, in readiness to lay down our lives for each other in large ways and small.

[16] In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

Satan cannot climb over the walls — but he can shoot arrows of doubt. He can try to make us forget who we really are. So let us commit to shielding ourselves and those around us with this faith: we are the children of God. We are the bride of Christ. Still blemished, still soiled, still being washed and prepared for our wedding day, yes! and yet already holy in his sight.

[17] Take the helmet of salvation

— which is the same helmet of salvation that the Lord wears in Isaiah, Chapter 59, a reminder to us that the victory has already been won. So let us commit to reminding one another that Jesus is our champion. No one else can do what he has done for us!

And — last of all — take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

The only weapons Satan has left are deceitfulness, division, doubt. And the only weapon we have is the word of God, the sword of the Spirit. He will try to get us to believe lies about God, about ourselves and about each other. The word of God cuts through all that. So let us commit to using it!

But…how are we supposed to use it? Are bible verses supposed to be magical? We know that, for many of our Muslim friends, certain verses from the Quran are supposed to scare away evil spirits. Is that what Paul means here?

Well, no. In fact, the very next verse is Paul’s instructions on how to use the word of God. In the original Greek this is actually one sentence: take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.

I do realize that for some Christians today, when you read this phrase “praying in the Spirit,” you have this idea that prayer is supposed to be an ecstatic spiritual-emotional experience, and that this kind of prayer is what makes for really effective spiritual warfare.

Now, to be clear, prayer can be very ecstatic, very emotional! But that’s not quite what Paul means here. For Paul, “praying in the Spirit” means using the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. So for Paul, effective spiritual warfare means taking up the word of God in prayer on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.

We have a lot of scripture to choose from! Verses that will be appropriate for every occasions, every possible kind of attack. So let us commit to learning this weapon!

And let us commit to praying in the Spirit, praying in the word of God, for one another. Satan wants to cast us into division and doubt. He wants us to hate one another. But it’s hard to hate someone that you’re praying for, isn’t it! With this in mind, Paul says, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

[19] Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, [20] for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Paul closes here with a reminder that he is in prison as he writes this. He is prison because he refuses to give up this idea that Gentiles and Jews, Chinese and Indians and Ibans and Malay and Africans and Europeans can all be made one race in Christ. He is in prison for preaching unity. And it seems funny to us, perhaps, because we’re used to thinking of the Apostle Paul as this aggressive lion of the faith — but here he asks his Asian brothers and sisters to pray to God for boldness for him.

What must it have been like, facing potential execution, and all you have to do to escape that fate is say, “Yeah, you’re right. I’m a Jew, those people are Gentiles, we have no connection…?”

But Paul, knowing that Christ has made one new humanity out of the two, knowing that Christ has already won the war, sits there as an ambassador captured by the enemy, and all he asks for…are the words to keep on preaching.

[21] Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. [22] I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you.

So, that is how Paul finished his letter to Ephesus and the other Asian churches: with a review. In Chapter 3 he revealed that the church has a far greater reason for existing than simply saving lost souls. The reason the church exists is as a monument to God’s character. The church exists to proclaim Satan’s defeat to every created being in the universe.

So no wonder Satan wants to destroy the church! No wonder he wants to divide us! He cannot tear down the walls, he cannot storm the gates, Jesus made that promise in the gospels. But he can turn us against one another. He cannot destroy us. But he can destroy our witness before the universe. We are supposed to be proof that Jesus has the power to bring opposites together into one beautiful whole — Jew and Gentile, male and female, master and slave — and every time a Christian marriage gets turned upside-down, every time a church splits up because of racial or ethinic differences…that is Satan at work, trying to distract us from the reality that we belong together, that we have been structured and called to do beautiful things together.

This idea, this danger was so important to Paul that he felt he had to come back to it again here at the end. He knew that his Asian friends have a tendency to be obsessed with magic. He knew that they liked to think of themselves as really gifted in spiritual warfare. So he is telling them, “Hey, friends, you wanna fight against evil spirits and principalities and powers? Here’s how you do it: live honestly with each other. Practice what is just and right. Always be ready to protect those who are different from you. Remember who you are. Remember that Jesus has already won. And remember to pray God’s word for each other all the time. That is how we defeat Satan: by making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

And here we are, two thousand years later. Is what Paul wrote then still relevant to us?

I would say yes, it is! The church still struggles with these questions of race and culture. The church still struggles with the question of what a healthy marriage looks like, what healthy parenting looks like, what it looks like to live and work in a world that is still in darkness. And over the last few chapters Paul has given us a lot of practical answers to those questions. And he has instructed us to take his words, take God’s words, and figure out how they apply to our situations. So he has given us two great gifts. First, he has given us fixed principles to live by. Second, he has given us freedom in the Holy Spirit to adapt those principles.

And this is delicate work. It cannot be done lightly, or in a hurry. Looking into God’s Word and applying it to our lives is community work. It is impossible for one person, working by themselves, to properly understand what God’s will is. We need one another.

And that is why Satan attacks us right there, at those points of tension and disagreement. If he can drive us apart and keep us from talking to one another, he can slow down the process of studying God’s Word, discerning God’s will.

So Paul is not telling us that we cannot disagree. Chapter 4 is all about what to do when we disagree. Paul is not telling us that it is always wrong to part ways, and have exclusive relationships. Chapter 5 is all about how to form healthy exclusive relationships.

But Paul is telling us that even in the midst of the diversity of gifts and cultures and genders and callings that is the body of Christ — even in the midst of all this gloriously confusing diversity we must remember that our struggle is never against one another. It is against the spiritual armies of darkness outside the walls.

So, practically speaking then, what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to fight this fight to keep the unity of the Spirit?

Well, Paul was a Doctor of Theology, but he loved to keep things simple. We ask him: What are we supposed to do? and he says, You wanna fight Satan? You wanna resist the devil? Do this:

Live honestly with one another. Do what is fair for one another. Protect and honour the diversity within your church. Remember that you are children of God now. Remember that Jesus is your champion and the champion of that brother you are disagreeing with. Above all, remember to pray God’s words for one another.

Okay. That does sound simple. But…when I look around at the world, all these billions of people — oh! I don’t know about you, but for me it’s overwhelming! How can I, how can we make any kind of difference even in KL, much less the rest of the world? We are tiny!

Well, Paul was a Doctor of Theology, but he also loved to keep things small. We ask him, How can we even get started? and he says, You wanna make a difference? You wanna win the world for Jesus? Do this:

Start small, and work outward from there. Do you have a mom and dad? Learn how to honor them. Do you have children? Teach them to serve God, not you. Do you have a husband? Learn how to work alongside him. Do you have a wife? Learn to be faithful to her needs, not just your own. Are there people in the world that you must serve for one reason or another? Serve them as if they are Jesus Christ. Are there people in the world that you rule over for one reason or another? Rule them as if you are Jesus Christ.

Jesus once told his disciples that before God is gonna trust us with the big responsibilities, we’ve gotta be faithful with the little ones. Paul, of course, holds the same philosophy. Don’t focus on the war going on outside the walls; just focus on not having a war inside the walls! The war outside the walls is Jesus’ problem. He is the one who started it; he is the one who is going to end it. We do have a part to play in this war, but it is a defensive part. Jesus is the striker; we are the defenders. Jesus pushes the walls forward, conquering more and more ground. We just hold the ground he has taken.

And that always starts with the person on your left and the person on your right. You wanna teach the world to be faithful to Christ? Then you’d better start by learning to be faithful to your wife. You wanna be a great evangelist? Then you better start with your children. You wanna be a great servant of God? Then you better start by serving in the job you have now. And if you are faithful, then — who knows? — God may call you to something greater.

This is Paul’s advice: start small, and work outward from there. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. We are the children of light. So let us live as children of light. This is how we are called to take our stand against the devil’s schemes — and after we have done everything, to stand.

As a bit of an epilogue here, I want to point something out. In Isaiah, Chapter 59, we saw this promise that one day the Lord would come in his armour and save his people from themselves, and from the enemy. If we were to keep reading into Chapter 60, we would see a prophecy of this age, this age that we are living in. Isaiah promises that after the warrior Messiah comes, God’s people from all over the world are going to be drawn to him. He talks about how foreigners are going to come and build God’s temple.

That is us! That is what Paul has been talking about from the very beginning of his letter to the Ephesians: how we are all the nations, how we are the temple, how we are the City of God.

But that’s not where the story ends. If we kept reading Chapter 60, we would come to this promise that one day, the war will be over. The gates of the city are opened, and it says they will never be shut, day or night. Because there is no more danger:

No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise. The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and God will be your glory.

Then all your people will be righteous and they will possess the land forever. They are shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.

The least of you will become a thousand, and smallest a mighty nation.

I am the Lord; in its time I will do this swiftly.

What a promise!

What a hope.

Stand firm, then, brothers and sisters. Stand firm.

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