Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 26, 2018

Ephesians 6:10-20 Commentary

No matter when and where you read this, you are under attack.  After all, Ephesians 6:10-20 at least implies that those who read, study, consider, proclaim and hear it are under siege.  So Paul summons his readers to properly arm ourselves for that battle lest we go down to at least temporary defeat in the lengthiest, bloodiest and most important war ever fought.

Of course, Ephesians 6’s military imagery makes at least some Christians nervous.  We after all, continue to witness the affects of war on those who wage, lose and even win it.  We’ve also witnessed the abuses of Paul’s imagery that have been misguided wars like the Crusades.  What’s more, we’re committed to loving God above all and our neighbors, including our enemies, as much as we love ourselves.

On the other hand, as my colleague John Buchanan noted in a fine message on Ephesians 6 (Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, August 27, 2006), some Christians embrace military imagery.  We think of Christianity as a kind of warfare.  So some Christians essentially declare war on other religions, and even on other Christians.  On top of all that, it sometimes feels as if some Christians see spiritual warfare behind nearly every tree that’s a taken parking space, common cold or rainy day.

Both Christians’ suspicion and love of military imagery are reasons for those who proclaim Ephesians 6:10-20 to carefully identify just who has declared war on Jesus’ followers.  “Take your stand,” writes Paul there, “against the devil’s schemes.  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 realm . . . Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (italics added).

In other words, while at no time in human history have God’s people been immune from attack, the apostle insists our attackers don’t look or sound like any soldiers we’ve ever seen, read or heard about.  Those who have declared war on God’s adopted children aren’t, in fact, human.  They’re the evil one and his allies.  So while God’s peoples’ assailants may in fact look human, they at least in part attack us because Satan and his thugs motivate them.

That’s in some ways even worse news than if God’s people’s enemies were just people.  People, after all, can sometimes be controlled, defeated or, if necessary, eliminated.  The kind of spiritual warriors Paul describes are far more elusive and tenacious.  While they’re finite, they’re virtually unbeatable.  In fact, only One can defeat them.  That’s the living God in Jesus Christ.

We’re sometimes tempted to think of the evil one’s army as made up of people whose political allegiances, economic theories or lifestyles that differ from our own. Paul might at least suggest that far more dangerous enemies are systems, structures and habits that are racist, misogynist, hedonist and materialist, to name just a few.

Those who proclaim Ephesians 6 need to try to be very honest about just what’s at stake in this war.  Satan and his henchmen at least strongly suspect they’ve already lost the war to God in Jesus Christ.  Yet they’re determined to inflict as many casualties as they can.

In that way, the spiritual warfare Paul describes in the epistle the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is not unlike World War II’s Battle of the Bulge.  Most of Adolf Hitler’s advisers, if not Hitler himself, knew the war was essentially lost.  But they launched a desperate attack in the Ardennes in November, 1944 in an effort to kill enough Allied soldiers that the Allies would sue for a negotiated peace.

Quite bluntly, Satan and his thugs want nothing more than to drag those who proclaim Ephesians 6 as well as those who hear it into the eternal destruction those evil ones at least strongly suspect awaits them.  While Paul elsewhere insists nothing can separate God’s chosen people from God’s love, the evil one and his thugs are doing all they can to sever that bond.

So how do God’s adopted sons and daughters “arm” ourselves for this pitched battle?  By putting “on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, [we] may be able to stand [our] ground, and after [we] have done everything, to stand” (13).

While God arms God’s people, we also arm ourselves.  Those who proclaim Ephesians 6:10-20 will want to carefully balance as well as invite our hearers to balance those realities.  On the one hand, God both owns and provides our armor.  However, the apostle also summons us to “put on the full armor of God” (13) and “take up” various pieces of it.  Perhaps Paul’s point in mentioning both elements is to remind us that we arm ourselves against the devil’s attacks primarily with the things God furnishes us.

Yet Paul doesn’t call God’s people to arm ourselves so that we can defeat the principalities and powers aligned against us.  He, after all, understands that we can’t defeat those forces on our own.  What’s more, even more importantly, we don’t have to win the spiritual war because Christ Jesus has already defeated the evil one.  God’s people just have to stand our ground in the war it wages on us.

In order to stand our ground, however, Paul calls us to “arm” ourselves with the kind of armor with which his readers were familiar that he describes in Ephesians 6.  Roman soldiers wore things like helmets, breastplates, shields and swords as part of their effort to keep the Roman Empire and its citizens, including Paul and his Ephesian readers, under the Caesar’s bloody boot.  Roman armaments were among the instruments of terror that the Caesar and his forces used to intimidate and suppress people.

Yet Paul doesn’t invites his readers to arm ourselves so that we can terrorize and intimidate others.  We arm ourselves in order to defend ourselves.  In fact, all but one of the armaments the apostle calls Christians to put on is defensive rather than offensive in nature.  Even the one possible exception, the sword to which he refers in verse 17, was used to both ward off attackers and launch attacks.

After all, as Buchanan points out, “A man who put on all of that [armor] couldn’t move much . . . for jousting, for instance, an armor-clad knight had to be hoisted onto his horse.  Armor had its functions, but also its limitations.  It actually wasn’t much good for fighting.”  Paul’s weaponry, in other words, serves defenders better than attackers.

The defensive nature of the armor with which Paul invites his readers to clad ourselves may offer opportunities for modern preachers and teachers to think about Ephesians 6’s armaments in slightly new ways.  We sometimes think of the “truth” (14), for example, as something with which we can batter those we think of as our enemies.  Paul seems to invite us to instead think of “truth” as that by which we defend ourselves against the devil’s attacks.  The same would go for, then, the armor that is righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit and prayer.

Paul’s call to put on defensive armaments may also help those who proclaim Ephesians 6:10-20 better apply the passages that surround it.  Chapter 6:1-9, but especially verses 5-9, are among the most difficult to understand and especially obey.

We won’t solve some of the hardest exegetical questions about Paul’s view of slave-master relationships in this piece.

Yet we might note that because the apostle’s expectations about relationships are so counter-cultural that the only way we can be so mutually submissive is with the help of the Holy Spirit who “arms” us for such service.  The temptation toward various kinds of abuse of those with whom we’re in relationships is very strong.  In all of our relationships, including employee-employer ones, we can serve each other wholeheartedly only in the strength “of the Lord and in his mighty power” (10).

At the end of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday, Paul at least implies that he was sometimes tempted to stop sharing the gospel, especially in the face of incredible opposition.  He, however, longs to “fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel … [and] declare it fearlessly” (20).  Yet the apostle realizes he can’t do so unless he’s armed for defense against the evil one and his henchmen’s attacks.  That armament, he insists four times in just three verses, primarily consists of prayer.

Illustration Idea

In his Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis talked about the “two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils: One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.  They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist and a magician with the same delight.

“This is certainly true about Satan.  Some people totally dismiss him as an impersonal force or somebody in a red suit with a pitchfork.  On the other end of the spectrum, many people attribute too much power and importance to Lucifer. They feel he is God’s equal.”  Paul, comments my colleague Stan Mast, “steers the true course down the middle.”


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