Summary: No matter what life throws at us, God has armed and prepared us to stand firm, and when we stand firm, God stands with us.
I’ll just go ahead and admit up front to you that this passage of Scripture has always made me a little nervous. War imagery bothers me. I don’t like fighting. I don’t like the thought of humans being engaged in fatal battle with other humans. The gospel is a gospel of peace, and that’s something I value very much. So when I come across a passage of Scripture where the underlying theme is related to fighting and war, it always makes me squirm in my seat. This is no less true here in the closing verses of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. But Paul is referring here to a battle of a different nature. As he says early on, “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh…but against darkness [and] the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” There’s a song by Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman that I think captures this idea well. It’s called “Bring it On,” and here’s part of the song:
I didn’t come lookin’ for trouble
And I don’t want to fight needlessly
But I’m not gonna hide in a bubble
If trouble comes for me
I can feel my heart beating faster
I can tell something’s coming down
But if it’s gonna make me grow stronger then…Bring it on
Now, I don’t want to sound like some hero
‘Cause it’s God alone that my hope is in
But I’m not gonna run from the very things
That would drive me closer to Him
So bring it on
I suppose I could preach a sermon today about the need for us to engage in spiritual warfare; to don God’s armor and strike out against the wickedness of this world. Certainly, that is the primary message of this passage. But I think there is a subtler message to this passage, one that spoke to me very deeply on several occasions throughout this week. The message is this: when things get tough, we have to stand firm. And armored by God, we can stand firm with confidence.
How many of you have had an encounter with a bully at some point in your life? In my observation, bullies work in much the same way as terrorists. They’ll do just enough to get you scared, and a lot of times that is what’s most satisfying to them. Most of the time it seems, bullies get their kicks out of making a threat and then laughing as you run away. So do you remember the instructions our parents gave us as kids about dealing with bullies? The instructions I always heard were something along the lines of, “Stand up to him!” or “Don’t let him get to you!” Of course, it’s never easy to keep someone from “getting your goat” or even to put up the appearance of apathy in the face of hurtful threats; but I believe that we all know that this really is the best defense against a bully.
You all have heard a bit about my basketball career now, but I’m sure it was just enough to whet your appetite for more! So here’s another story for you. I was playing basketball in gym class one day; it was the activity of the day and we were divided up into teams with about four halfcourt games going on in the gym. As we were playing, I pointed out what appeared to me to be a foul by a girl on the opposing team. She disagreed with me, and when I insisted that it was a foul, she “got up in my grill” so to speak and started pushing me around, trying to start a fight with me. I knew that if I responded, I would get kicked off the basketball team and I would be in a lot of trouble at home too. So I just stood there. I stayed facing the girl and I let her push me. I let her hurl insults at me and call me horrible names, but I did not open my mouth and I did not push back. I was very angry and very hurt, but I did not respond, and within a minute, she had stopped and walked away.
The bullies we face in our lives are much more difficult than any schoolyard bully we dealt with as kids, but we must be prepared to stand firm in the face of whatever life throws at us. We cannot turn tail and run. God has armed us, and in God we must remain strong. We can win battles simply by refusing to give in, or to admit defeat in the face of overwhelming circumstances. Paul’s description of the “armor of God,” is not a description of weapons used by warriors on the front lines, but rather weapons for those who were in a defensive battle, or maybe serving as “police” on security duty. These weapons may have been used to break up a fight on the streets; intended for keeping the peace rather than for waging war. This armor described by Paul would have been familiar to his readers, who encountered Roman soldiers daily. Certainly, such armor would have been associated with aggressive fighting, but Paul has taken the most common elements of the armor – belt, breastplate, shield, and helmet – and has reassigned them uncommon values: truth, righteousness, faith, and salvation. Armor, typically a symbol of strong aggression and self-reliance, has been transformed into the symbol of total reliance on the God of peace.