John 2: 13-22
May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Here we are nearly two thousand years from the time when Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians and defence is still one of our main concerns – it’s especially relevant as the crisis in Libya deepens and our involvement in it escalates. Warfare has changed out of all recognition since the time that Paul wrote the letter, but of course Paul isn’t talking about physical, earthly warfare, he’s talking about spiritual warfare and it’s a sobering fact that the war he talks about is still raging on to this day. It is the war of good against evil and we Christians are in the front line, and Paul’s message is as relevant to us as it was to the Ephesians – we need to know how to defend ourselves against the onslaughts of Satan and his armies of evil.
How then should we as Christians defend ourselves from spiritual attack? I mean the temptation to do wrong, to drop away from church attendance, to stop believing, to go along with the crowd. Fortunately, St Paul gives us a Christian spiritual defence strategy in his letter to the Ephesians.
When he wrote this letter, Paul was a prisoner. During his life he had endured many physical hardships, from shipwreck to stoning, but with stoic fortitude he’d come through them and kept going. He knew that the attacks on his faith were far more dangerous than attacks on his physical person. Now, nearing the end of a long and arduous ministry, he was probably a prisoner in Rome, waiting for his case to be heard by the Emperor Nero himself. He was under house arrest; some sources say he was chained to a Roman soldier at all times; others say that he was free as long as he didn’t leave his house, but there was always a Roman soldier in full armour on guard over him. In either case he had plenty of opportunity to study the soldier’s armour, and perhaps to discuss with the man what each piece was for and how it kept him safe. So he used the Roman armour to explain to the Christians in far-away Ephesus what their spiritual defence strategy should be.
But there was another influence on the Apostle’s mind and that was from the Old Testament. In the book of the prophet Isaiah there is an imaginative description of the armour which God wears when he goes into battle against the evil of the world: ‘He puts on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he puts on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as a mantle.’ Perhaps it was this which gave Paul, the prisoner, the idea of identifying each piece of the Roman armour with a spiritual grace. So lets take a look at them one by one:
‘Stand therefore. and fasten the belt of truth around your waist,’
If you are to stand firm against temptation, the first thing you must do is make sure you are utterly true in what you think, say or do, so that nobody can throw against you the accusation of being a deceitful liar.
‘and put on the breastplate of righteousness.’
Righteous behaviour is the other prerequisite. Without it you are always vulnerable to attack from those who whisper, ‘Well, you compromised in the past, why not compromise now?’
‘As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.’
This seems a puzzling sentence, until you remember that Isaiah wrote of the dust kicked up by the feet of the messenger who brought news of the returning exiles: ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to the Jews “Your God reigns.”’ We must be ready to proclaim anytime and anywhere that Jesus brings us salvation from the grip of sin and the terror of death.
‘With all of these, take the shield of faith, which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.’
Roman soldiers feared most the ancient equivalent of the Molotov cocktail: an arrow with a rag tied to it, dipped in oil and set alight as it was shot from the bow. The devil, says St. Paul, has just as deadly weapons for setting ablaze our plans and hopes; the only sure defence is a strong faith in God and his power to save – so trust him!
‘Take the helmet of salvation’
The Roman helmet carried a plume, showing what legion the soldier was proud to belong to; we should wear with pride our status as forgiven sinners.
‘and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.’
St. Paul is shown in stained glass windows holding a sword and an open Bible. God’s power is available to us through his Holy Spirit at work within us, and through the knowledge of his promises in the Bible. Notice that this is the only offensive weapon in the list: if we are to attack unbelief and false belief, it can only be verbally, and must be based on the Word of God as written in the Bible.
Finally, Paul emphasizes the need for prayer in our daily lives. We shall never defend ourselves from temptation and attack unless we are in daily contact with our loving heavenly Father.
So it falls upon us to take up the banner of St Paul, to put on the ‘Armour of God’; and carry the fight to our enemy, have faith in our Saviour, and poke Satan in the eye!