Scripture: Ephesians 6:10-20
Last week, when I baptized Parker, I asked him the following question as part of our baptism liturgy: “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin.” Note those words: spiritual forces, evil powers. This is a reference to the very thing that Paul himself describes in today’s scripture when he speaks of rulers, authorities, “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces.”
These aren’t human opponents, because Paul prefaces these words by saying, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood”… Instead we wrestle against these invisible spiritual forces that are not flesh and blood.
But these words from our baptism liturgy reflect something that’s been part of baptism from the beginning of church history. In fact, if we had gotten baptized in the second or third century, it’s likely that, in addition to agreeing to renounce these spiritual forces and evil powers, we would have literally spit in the direction of the setting sun—that is, to the west—as a symbol of our complete renunciation of and disrespect for the many idols you used to worship—and the demonic forces that stood behind them. Can you imagine? Especially when there’s a global pandemic going around! Keep your germs to yourself! Don’t spit in church! But when these candidates for baptism did this, it was their way of telling these evil spiritual powers, “I hate you; you no longer hold sway in my life; I’m free of you.”
To say the least, it’s likely that both the apostle Paul and the ancient church took the devil and demonic forces more seriously than we modern day Christians do. And I realize there’s a lot skepticism about the devil in our modern world.
In his brilliant, depressingly funny book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes, “If any faint suspicion of [Satan’s existence] begins to arise in [a person’s mind], [the devil’s strategy is to merely] suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that… he therefore cannot believe in [Satan].”1
If you’re of my generation, you likely remember the series of sketches on Saturday Night Live back in the eighties in which Dana Carvey played “the Church Lady,” and “she” was always blaming “SATAN” for everything and seeing him everywhere. In one skit, broadcast during Christmastime, the Church Lady rearranges the magnetic letters of “Santa”—S-A-N-T-A—to reveal his true identity: S-A-T-A-N.
It’s funny, of course… but the problem is that these pop cultural depictions make Satan seem unreal. Again, as Lewis pointed out long ago, “We can’t believe in that cartoon version of Satan, therefore we have trouble believing in the real thing, too.”
So, if you struggle to believe in the devil, I sympathize. I’d love to talk with you offline about it, and I think I can help.
But in my experience, when you add the devil back into the equation, when you account for Satan’s activity in our lives and in the world, life begins to make more sense. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, a retired bishop in the Church of England, says that in his experience, whenever he writes about the subject of spiritual warfare—in one of his books or commentaries—he notices that things begin to go wrong in his life: He gets distracted from his work by a domestic problem; the computer on which he’s typing stops working; a worker outside his office accidentally cuts a power line. Bishop Wright boldly suggests that this is the work of demonic forces—who, according to scripture, can influence events in our physical world.
In my own experience, when I left my career, uprooted my family, and went to seminary in answer to God’s call into ministry, our budget was incredibly tight. It was hard to make ends meet. Yet Lisa and I began to notice the suspiciously large number of times we had major car trouble—and we owned Hondas, too, very reliable means of transportation! I would get so upset and so worried and second-guess answering God’s call into ministry, and Lisa would remind me, “Brent, this is the devil attacking.” She was far better than I was in spotting his handiwork.
And I’m like, “Oh, yeah! There’s something else going on here! There’s a deeper reason why life is so incredibly hard.” There are intelligent forces working against us in this world.
Anyway, when I talk about car trouble as a scheme of the devil, I hope you don’t find this example too trivial.
Because when it comes to the devil, we can make another mistake—in addition to not believing in him: we can imagine that he only works in dramatic, scary ways—you know, as with Linda Blair’s head spinning around in the movie The Exorcist—and then we will easily miss the small and often subtle harm that he’s working in our own lives.
So here’s what this sermon is about: First: What is the nature of this spiritual war? Second: Why do we have to fight in it? Third: How do we wage this war? Today’s sermon will answer the what, why, and how of spiritual warfare.
But first, the what?
Notice Paul’s words in verse 11: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood…”
When you think about it, it’s really strange for Paul to say that we “do not wrestle against flesh and blood.” After all, his entire apostolic ministry seems to be a series of wrestling matches with flesh and blood opponents. If you have your Bibles—and you should—please turn with me to 2 Corinthians 11, beginning with verse 23. Paul said that he experienced
far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned.
These were all things that flesh-and-blood human beings did to Paul. He goes on to say that he was in “danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city… danger from false brothers.”
You get the point, I hope: It seemed as if Paul were “wrestling against flesh and blood” human beings all the time, yet somehow he still says, in spite of this, that we Christians do not wrestle against flesh and blood. What does that mean?
It means that we have a more ultimate Enemy behind all human enemies… the devil, and he has an army of fellow demons at his disposal, all of whom—like Satan, their chief—were created by God as angels in the heavenly realms—to love, serve, and glorify God. Yet these angels chose to rebel against God—as Adam and Eve and the rest of mankind would later do; they chose to sin. And now, the Bible warns repeatedly, they oppose us. They are the ones against whom we ultimately wrestle…
Even when it seems as if we’re wrestling against mere flesh-and-blood people.
We saw this in last week’s scripture—remember? Jesus referred to Judas when he told his disciples, that “one of you is a devil.”2 As I said then, Jesus didn’t mean that Judas was possessed by the devil. No, Satan’s work is usually far more subtle. It’s one of influence. Judas was doing the devil’s bidding without even knowing it. And you say, “Well, of course Judas was being manipulated by the devil—he’s an evil guy!” But not so fast! What about Peter himself. Remember? Peter tries to stand in the way of Jesus’ going to the cross, and Jesus says, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”3
My point is, if Satan can manipulate and use Jesus’ closest disciple, then it goes without saying that Satan can manipulate and use even good people and faithful Christians—including people like you and me. We can all fall victim to his schemes… without knowing it.
I certainly have! Paul even identifies one of the schemes that the devil uses against yours truly earlier in this letter, in chapter 4, verses 26 and 27. Paul writes, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” Unchecked anger gives the devil a foothold. In our lives! My life bears witness to this danger. How many times has the devil had a foothold in my life, in my career, thanks to unchecked, often unnoticed, often unrepentant, anger? I used to never see the devil exploiting my anger in this way. It was as if he were whispering in my ear, “Brent, you’re right to be angry! You’ve been hurt by others! Your anger is good and justified. Anger is your friend. After all didn’t Jesus get angry?”
To which I say, “Yes, Jesus got angry—but he got righteously angry. I’m not Jesus. I’m not capable of righteous anger! I can’t get angry without sinning.” Anger eats me up inside and hurts people I love.
I have one dear Christian friend who was in the hospital recently. He said that God gave him three words—three messages or revelations—while he was under anesthesia, and one was this: “Get off Twitter!” There’s so much anger on Twitter. Twitter is just the online version of that old feature in the AJC—if y’all got the Atlanta paper. It was called “The Vent.” It allowed angry people to speak their minds. It was called “The Vent” because—so the theory went—if you didn’t give voice to your anger, then it would cause other bad things like high blood pressure or ulcers or depression or other bad problems.
I don’t think that’s true, psychologically… And it’s certainly not true biblically.
But when my friend said that God told him to get off Twitter, I promise my first thought was, “I hope God doesn’t tell me to do that!” But if Satan gets a foothold through Twitter or Facebook, or cable news or newspapers, or podcasts or talk radio or anything else… then we probably need to consider it!
But anger is just one of many of his schemes. He’s got schemes custom-tailored for you, too… schemes that he will use to exploit your own vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
And this brings us to Point Number 2: Why… Why is there spiritual warfare? Why do we all have to fight in it?
Well, it’s easy enough to understand why Paul does… consider Paul’s mission, which he describes in verses 18 through 20. Look at verse 19. He says to pray for him, “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.” At this point in his ministry, Paul is likely—we can’t say for sure—but likely in prison in Rome, awaiting his opportunity to offer a defense directly to Caesar himself. What an opportunity for the apostle to the Gentiles to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ directly to the most powerful man in the world at the time! Think about it!
Yet it’s comforting to me, perhaps—who is a big wimp when it comes to witnessing for Christ—it’s comforting to me that Paul—even Paul—is afraid that he might fail in his mission, that he’ll chicken out, that he’ll avoid talking so much about how Jesus is the world’s Lord and Savior, for example, when Caesar uses those exact same titles to describe himself… Caesar is the world’s Savior and Lord!
So will Paul have the courage to say what he needs to say… even if it means losing his head, literally, in the process?
The devil is trying to use the weapon of fear to silence Paul and prevent him from speaking boldly and fulfilling his mission.
So it makes sense that the devil is out to get Paul… But who are we compared to him? Why is he out to get us?
And the answer is simple: Because our mission in life is exactly the same as Paul’s!
Listen, when I say this, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Jesus calls any of us to do exactly what Jesus called Paul to do. Of course not! God has given each one of us different gifts, different skills, different talents… different temperaments… different personalities… He’s put us in different places in the world… But all of us—to whatever measure God has given us—all of us—share Paul’s same mission… Our United Methodist Book of Discipline tells us in two different places: Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Elsewhere in the same section it says that we’re supposed to “convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility. The church is either faithful as a witnessing… community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world” (¶ 129).
That’s our mission for each one of us, and we glorify God by living it out!
And I don’t say this to discourage anyone… make you feel guilty for not doing more… In fact, let’s take a moment to consider just a few of the ways in which we’re already living out our mission!
In June I saw dozens of volunteers from this church live out their mission through their willingness to dance and laugh and act silly in front of a bunch of little kids at Vacation Bible School. I’ve recently seen some men in our church live out their mission by renovating our playground, so that we can offer a free gift to the children and families of our community. A few weeks ago, I saw a dozen or so people from this church live out their mission by making sure little kids stayed safe going up and down an inflatable water slide at our Back-to-School Bash—and making sure visitors were both welcomed and well-fed. Last week, several of us lived out our mission by cooking pancakes and bacon, and handing out bottles of water—for free—for dozens of mostly young people and their parents who stopped by our table at the Red Rage festival downtown.
We saw looks of surprise—even disbelief—on the faces of these hungry and thirsty young people when they asked, “How much does it cost?” And we got to say, “It’s free!” One young person asked April, “Why are you doing this?” I’m glad you asked, let tell you…
Next Thursday, a group of us—and you’re invited—will live out this mission by delivering goodie bags to every visitor who attended either VBS or the Back to School Bash. The bag will include a Wal-Mart gift card, information about the church, and a gospel tract… Our volunteer’s job is simple: knock on a door, greet someone with a smile, shake a hand or bump a fist, and hand them a bag. Most of us already know how to do this!
All of these things are made possible, of course, not just by volunteers and manpower… but also by faithful and generous financial giving! And even people in our church who are physically unable to help, because of mobility or they’re home bound… These people are called by God to be prayer warriors for us as we seek to live out our mission!
We have a need right now for volunteers in children’s Sunday school to live out their mission—and help our children learn about Jesus and his love.
And then we also have an opportunity for men and women to live out their mission by becoming ushers in the 11:00 service. We’re having usher training a week from Saturday. And maybe you think, “What does being an usher have to do with living out this mission?” Are you kidding? Ushers get to be the face of this church for a visitor—the first person to make visitors feel welcome, the person who helps form a visitor’s first impression of this church… and it may very well be that the person you welcome is someone who doesn’t know Jesus! So yes, even volunteering to be an usher is living out this mission. And I could go on…
And of course we live out this same mission in our homes, in our marriages, with our kids or grandkids, where we work, where we go to school, where we enjoy leisure time… Do you know that the devil is at work right now to see to it that our own children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, our own friends and neighbors and co-workers, will spend an eternity separated from God? Do you see how high the stakes are when we talk about spiritual warfare? Does this spiritual war bother you? Does it anger you? Does it motivate you to want to fight? Because whether you enlisted in this war or not, you’re being called to fight—simply because you’re a Christian!
My point is, we’re fighting in this same war that Paul describes and for the exact same reason Paul is… Look at what he says in verse 20: he says he is an “ambassador in chains.”
None of us is in chains, thank God, but all of us are ambassadors for Jesus Christ. The Bible says so!4 We at Toccoa First United Methodist are ambassadors for Christ… We are people of purpose… We are people living out our mission… Before we are anything else at Toccoa First we are ambassadors for Christ! We are people who surrender our lives to God and say, “Use me, Lord! I don’t know what to do… I don’t have within myself the power, the wisdom, the insight necessary to fulfill this mission, so I need you to make it happen. But make it happen! Use me!”
Therefore we are under attack. So what do we do?
And this brings us to Point Number Three: How do we fight in this war?
By putting on what Paul calls the “full armor of God.”
There’s a lot of overlap in the functions of the different pieces—it’s hard to distinguish between truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, and the Word of God. They’re all related to one another, of course. But Paul is clear that the overarching way that we “put on” these different components is by continually hearing, believing, and being shaped by the gospel, by reading God’s Word and hearing it proclaimed, and most of all, by praying. Notice that prayer isn’t described as one particular piece of armor in verse 18. Rather, Paul seems to saying that you “put on” all the pieces he’s just described, in large part, through prayer. Prayer is the most important means by which to “put on the full armor of God.” It is the most important way to protect ourselves in this spiritual war in which we are called to fight!
In one of his sermons on today’s scripture, John Piper described the purpose of prayer as follows:
I have been impressed more than ever before that God has given us prayer not as an intercom for increased convenience in our secluded cottages, but as a walkie-talkie connecting the general’s headquarters with the transportation line and the field hospital and the front line artillery. Prayer is not a bell to call the servants to satisfy some desire we happen to feel, it is a battlefield transmitter for staying in touch with the general.5
If that makes prayer sound deadly serious—a matter of life and death—it’s only because that’s how the apostle Paul intends for it to sound!
Here’s what blows my mind about Paul’s appeal for prayer from these Ephesians. He’s asking the Ephesians to pray for him because their prayers for him will make a difference in his ability to live out his mission. He’s asking because he genuinely believes that without their prayers for him, and for his successful defense of the gospel before Caesar himself, he may very well fail in living out his mission!
If you don’t believe me, Paul wrote Philippians under similar circumstances. He was in prison, possibly facing execution. In chapter 1, verses 18 and 19, he writes, “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.”
Through your prayers this good thing will happen… He doesn’t believe, in other words, that God will give him the victory he seeks apart from his brothers and sisters praying for him. It simply doesn’t matter how big of a “prayer warrior” the apostle Paul was—and he was surely one of the biggest who ever lived! After all, he’s the one who tells us, in verse 18, “Pray at all times.” Elsewhere, he said, “Pray without ceasing.”6 He believes he will only succeed through the power of prayer… both his own prayers and the prayers of others on his behalf.
Do we believe that? Do we depend on prayer like that? Is prayer our “life line” the way it should be? Dear Lord, make us at Toccoa First not only “people of purpose,” a people living out our mission, but people of prayer! Because we can only live out our mission successfully through prayer. Without it we don’t stand a chance!
I’ll leave you with this… The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each include a report about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the devil. But only Luke includes this poignant detail, after Jesus uses “the sword of the Spirit,” God’s Word, to resist all the devil’s temptations. Luke says, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”7
Until an opportune time… One of those opportune times was in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of Jesus’ arrest, and another was the next day when Jesus was in agony on the cross. It’s as if Jesus were saying, “Satan, do your worst! Unleash against me the worst of your evil schemes—the lies, the slander, the unjust trials, the mocking, the beating, the crown of thorns, the nails in my wrists and feet. Do you worst.” And so the devil did… And Jesus allowed him do it. He let Satan win this last battle against him so that Jesus could win the war for us!
It’s as if Jesus said, “If this is what it takes in order to rescue [Leah] from Satan, then it’s completely worth it. If this is what it takes in order to make [Grey] a part of my family, it’s totally worth it! If this is what it takes to give [Charlie] eternal life, so that he’ll be with me forever, then that’s totally worth it… because I love them that much!”
- C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 203-4.
- John 6:70
- Matthew 16:23 KJV
- 2 Corinthians 5:20 ESV
- John Piper, “The Weapon Serves the Wielding Power,” desiringgod.com, 6 January 1985. Accessed 19 August 2021.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:17
- Luke 4:13 ESV