The Lord's Day Evening
October 8, 2006
Our Struggle is Not Against Flesh and Blood
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. Please be seated. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Ephesians 6, and as you do so I would remind you that we've come to a new section — the final section of this book as we study it together.
We've recently worked through a section that began in Ephesians 5:22 and stretched all the way to Ephesians 6:9, dealing with God's household rules pertaining to the relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, even householders and servants. And now in this final section, the Apostle Paul gives a stirring exhortation to the Ephesian Christians and to us, and it has to do with setting in context all that he has asked us to do from about Ephesians 4 on.
You know that in this great book the Apostle Paul has explained this enormous plan of which we are a part. Before the foundations of the world, God has purposed in His heart to create a people for Himself. He has sent His own Son, who has bled and died on their behalf, and He has called us out of the world from every tribe and tongue and people and nation — Jew and Gentile into one household, one family — to be a new society, a foretaste of the glory to come in the age to come. And having set forth this grand plan that God is working out in this world, the Apostle Paul has called us especially and increasingly in chapters four and five and the beginning of chapter six to live as worthy of that calling. If we've been called to be a part of God's family, if we've been called to be a part of God's household, if we've been called to be a part of this new community that God is creating in this world, if we've been called to be a part of God's new society, then we ought to be worthy of that calling, fit for that calling, suitable for that calling. We ought to live up to that calling, and so the Apostle Paul has given us a range of exhortations in calling us to live differently from the world, to live distinctively as Christians in this world.
But now the Apostle Paul is setting that particular call and challenge and exhortation in context. He knows that there are a variety of challenges in living out those directives that he has given to us as part of the Christian life. For instance, the Apostle Paul knows that our own sinfulness is one of the challenges or obstacles that we encounter when we try and live out these commands, these exhortations, these directions that he has given to us. He understands that we still struggle with sin as believers, and that sin sometimes checks us in our zeal to live distinctively as Christians.
The Apostle Paul also knows that the sinfulness of others has its own effect on us. Sometimes the things that others have done to us looms large in our minds and has a profound effect on the way that we live, and so our having not only sin but having been sinned against impacts the way that we are able to live out these exhortations.
Of course, another reality that the Apostle Paul is all too aware of, having ministered to the church in Corinth, is that the church is imperfect. The church is full of sinners, and though the church is designed to help you live the Christian life, sometimes your heart is broken precisely in the context of the church. Sometimes you’re failed in the context of the church, even betrayed in the context of the church. In the church in Corinth, the place where these Christians ought to have found security and meaning, and family, and oneness and unity and harmony in the midst of a world in opposition to them and to Christ, there they found discord and strife, and selfishness and mistrust, and broken relationships and all manner of other problems. And so the Apostle Paul is wide-eyed to the challenges that we face as Christians in living out these calls that he's issuing to a distinct Christian life.
And of course he's also very aware of the challenge that we face in terms of both the opposition and the allurement of the world. On the one hand, the world does not want you as Christians to live distinctively as Christians in the world. In fact, much of the world considers that a threat. If you think distinctively as a Christian in this world, if you attempt to live distinctively as a Christian in this world, it is entirely possible that someone will lump you into the same category as a jihadist follower of Islam, as some sort of an Islamo-facist terrorist, because the kind of totalizing thinking that you have, the kind of narrow-minded thinking that you have (that there's one God and there's one truth, and there's one way of salvation)–why, isn't that the root of all the world's problems today? And so the world doesn't like you to think distinctively as a Christian, to live distinctively as a Christian, and you will face opposition from the world if you do it.
But on the other hand, the way the world most often infects us is by alluring us, not so much by (at this point, at least, in our culture) a frontal assault or a persecution; it's by alluring us to adopt its own standards, its own way of thinking, its own way of living. We begin to look at sin as if it's normal, and to look at righteousness as if it's abnormal…to begin to feel apologetic for holding to the things that you have held to because the Scripture teaches them, because you've learned them from Christ. That's the way the world works. It allures us. It infects our thinking. It woos us over to its side, and it calls on us to abandon our Christian commitment.
Well, the Apostle Paul is aware of all those obstacles for a Christian, and more, to living the Christian life, but the obstacle that he holds up before our eyes in this passage from Ephesians 6:10 to verses 19 or 20, is for the Apostle Paul the ????? obstacle. It is an obstacle about which we are often unaware, but it is a hidden, prime reality about which no Christian can afford to be ignorant. It is an obstacle which especially in the wake of enlightenment, scientism, and naturalism has more and more faded into the background of the minds of Christians, but it is a real obstacle, and the Apostle Paul is deadly serious as he calls our attention to it. So tonight I want to look at this passage, and we're going to focus just on verses 10-12.
You will be relieved to know that I only have a few sermons planned for this particular section of Ephesians, in spite of the fact that Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached 21 sermons on this passage from verses 10-19, and William Gurnall, the famous Puritan, in his book, The Christian in Complete Armor, wrote about a thousand pages on these ten verses. But we will do our best to overview the main concerns of the Apostle Paul in this larger passage, but tonight we’ll focus on verses 10-12. Let's look to God in prayer.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. We ask tonight that You would open our eyes by Your word, so that we may see the context of our Christian discipleship; so that we may see the setting in which we are called to be faithful Christians in Your church as we are in the world, but not of it. Lord, we ask that You would not only give us wisdom and insight, self-awareness and awareness of our surroundings, a knowledge of You and of the obstacles that we face, but that we would realize as well the seriousness and the significance of this — the importance of understanding what we will study tonight. We ask, O Lord, that You would give us the mind of Christ as we think about these things, and we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God in Ephesians 6, beginning in verse 10:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world-forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Some 300 years ago, Thomas Brooks, in meditating on a passage in the book of Corinthians on the wiles of Satan, a parallel passage to the one that we're studying tonight, began to write a book called Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices. In the introduction to that book he said this:
“Christ, the Scripture, your own hearts, and Satan's devices are the four prime things that should be first and most studied and searched. If any cast off the study of these, they cannot be safe here, or happy hereafter. It is my work as a Christian, but much more as I am a watchman, to do my best to discover the fullness of Christ, the emptiness of the creature, and the snares of the great deceiver.”
Brooks’ words ring immediately true to us as Christians as we hear them, and yet I think we would also be ready to confess that in our time among our most mature friends in Christ, while there has been much focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, and rightly so, in our teaching and our discipleship and our learning; while there has been much focus on the Scriptures so that there is a healthy esteem for God's word, a desire to read it more, to learn it more, to know it more, to live it more; while there has certainly been an appropriate searching of our own hearts from time to time to discover the types of temptation to which we are particularly vulnerable, the types of discouragement to which we are particularly prone, there has perhaps been a lack of emphasis on the wiles of the evil one and the devices of Satan. And it is that concern which prompts the Apostle Paul to say, before he is finished with this book, that believers need to be aware of the context of the struggle that they are in, for their struggle, he says, is not against flesh and blood.
And if there is anything that evangelical Christianity in America at the dawn of the twenty-first century is prone to, it is thinking that our struggle is against flesh and blood. We've got a method or a program, we've got some sort of a pre-fab human answer to every problem that we face. There's a pill, there's a program, there's a plan for everything. That's your problem? Problem “A”? Here's Answer “A”. This is your struggle? Just follow these four steps. Do these things. Whatever else, we have an answer for it. And the Apostle Paul's words to us are very important here because he reminds us that it's just not that way in the Christian life, because the context of our struggle is one that transcends human horizons. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.
There's a real sense, then, in which this passage is a one-point sermon, and that my message tonight will simply be a one-point sermon. And the one-point sermon is simply this: You are in a war zone. That's the context of your discipleship. You are in a war zone, and it's not a cold war, it's a hot war, and it's being fought ought in your dens and living rooms and bedrooms, in your schoolrooms, in your church, in your neighborhoods, in your businesses, and there are casualties every day. And behind that war that is being fought are principalities and powers, rulers of this present dark age, and ultimately, the evil one.
But as we unpack that one-point message tonight, I'd like to draw your attention to four things in particular: First of all, the war; second of all, the strength that is needed in order to win this war; third, the need for divine armor for protection in this war; and, fourth and finally, the call to never underestimate your enemy.
1. You are in a war zone.
Here's the first and the main thing that I want to say and that is this: You are in a war zone. I think that if there is anything that is undermining our witness to the world right now as evangelicals, it is the failure to realize that we are now at war. I think there is a sense in all of us that thinks that there is a dйtente possible right now with the world — that we can negotiate a peace treaty with the world right now, and the Apostle Paul is reminding us in this passage that the whole of our lives between now and the coming of Christ is a war. He uses this metaphor over and over, but look in the passage that we're studying tonight. Look at verses 10, 11, and 12. First of all, the Apostle Paul says “Be strong.” Now, be afraid when the Apostle Paul tells you to be strong, because he's telling you to be strong for a reason. What's coming is scary, and so when he stops and tells you to be strong, think ‘Uh-oh. Something's coming just like when Moses told us to be strong. Some great challenge is coming.’ And so what is that challenge? Look in verse 11.
Then Paul tells you to put your armor on. Something's coming. And then in verse 12, he tells you what? You are in a struggle. You are at war. The Apostle Paul elsewhere will speak about fighting the good fight, and this is not distinctive to the Apostle Paul. Paul is simply echoing the words of Jesus Christ, who in Matthew 10:34 said to His disciples, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This is precisely what the Lord Jesus Christ is speaking of. We, as Christian disciples, until His coming are situated in a war zone. We are at war. And the failure to realize that has a crippling impact upon Christian discipleship.
I need to say very quickly that this war that we're talking about is utterly different from the jihad which is being spoken of almost daily on the radio and televisions of our land; and in fact, when Christians use this kind of language, they are typically lumped in with Islamic fundamentalists who are waging a jihad.
Notice, however, in this very passage we recognize one of the fundamental distinctions between the Christian language of warfare and the language of jihad, and it's seen in simply these words: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” and that is precisely what the struggle of Islamic fascism is against. The struggle of Islamic fascism is to make every flesh and blood knee in this world bow to Islam one way or another — coercion or not; by gun, by knife, by bomb, by terror — it is precisely a struggle against flesh and blood.
But in this passage the Apostle Paul says that you need to understand that your ultimate enemy is not flesh and blood, that the warfare that you are going to carry out is not the warfare of taking up arms against your neighbor. No, it's a very different kind of warfare.
My friends, we need to recognize that we're in a war zone. You know, if I were to uproot you from your homes and drop you down into certain parts of Jackson, you would know you’re in a war zone. But the sad thing is, sometimes in the comfort of our own homes and relationships and jobs and habits, and patterns and lifestyles, we have no idea that we're in a war.
What if I were to take a group of well-trained soldiers without armament, without weaponry, and to drop them down into a hot war zone and never tell them that a war was going on there? I would do many of them to death, no doubt. That is the same thing when Christians drop our young people, or walk in ourselves, into this war zone that we're living in without recognition that there is a war going on. The Apostle Paul wants us to understand that our Christian discipleship is lived out not distant from the battle lines, but right on the front lines of a hot war. You are in a war zone, and that reality ought to change everything. That's the first thing I want you to see.
The second thing is this. Notice Paul's first exhortation in verse 10: “Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might.” The Apostle Paul is telling you that your strength is inadequate for the waging of this war, that you do not have the power to wage this war.
Now this is a very interesting thing, because the Apostle Paul has spent much time in this book telling you what you are in Jesus Christ – telling you of the enormous resources of the Holy Spirit that are in you – and it's somewhat surprising to hear the Apostle Paul suddenly exhort you not to pay attention to those realities which he has been speaking about, especially in chapters 2 and 3. “Be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might,” is his emphasis here. He's asking you if you realize that you need the Lord's strength to win this war; if you realize that you are not in and of yourself up to this particular battle. The secular version of this, I suppose, we could borrow from the lips of Dirty Harry, the cop made famous by Clint Eastwood in the movies. You remember what he said? “A man's got to know his limitations!” That's exactly what the Apostle Paul is saying to Christians here. You need to know your limitations. You are not up for the context of discipleship that I am about to unveil to you. And again, this ought to cause a certain amount of fear and trembling. The apostle has just told us that we're in a war zone.
Now he tells us that our strength must be in the Lord because of what he's about to tell us. What he is about to tell us must be frightening, indeed, and it is. He begins to tell us in verse 11, and this is the third thing I want you to see tonight. He says, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.” Here the Apostle Paul is saying that you need protection from the enemy which you are called to engage. You are going to need God's armor in order to stand against this enemy. And who is this enemy? This enemy is Satan himself, the evil one, the one who first tempted Eve in the garden; the one who accuses every believer; the one who will stand hurling accusations against you at the end of time; the one who has opposed all believers in all ages. He is active, and he is the one who is in opposition against you, and he is the one who causes you to need the armor of God in order to stand firm against him, because there is nothing in God's plan that the Apostle Paul has already unveiled in the Book of Ephesians which Satan — the devil, the evil one — does not want to undo. Is God going about creating a new society of His people from men and women and boys and girls from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and causing them to live as an outpost of glory in this present passing age? Yes. He is. And Satan is doing his dead level best to destroy that work. So if you are a part of that new society, if you have gathered to the people of God to live and serve and worship, then you are in the bull's eye of Satan's attack, because he desires to destroy that new society that God is building.
Has God broken down the dividing walls between His ancient people and the Gentiles and brought them together on the same basis to live in harmony and holiness in this world as a witness to the fact that if God can bring them together in one family, God can reconcile anyone to Himself? Yes, that's what God is doing. And Satan, where God has broken down the dividing walls, will attempt to rebuild them. And so if you are a part of that new community that God is building, God is telling you that Satan is going to do his best to undo what the Lord is doing.
Is God working so that the reconciled and the redeemed will live together in harmony and in purity in His church? Yes. He is. And where He is, you can be assured that Satan — the devil — is scattering the seeds of discord and sin.
Are you trying to live out the call that the Apostle Paul has issued in Ephesians 5 as husbands and wives, as parents and children, in your home? Good. But be aware that the devil — Satan, the evil one — will be doing his best to destroy you there.
Are you seeking to be a faithful Christian in the world, in the marketplace, acting with integrity, showing love and compassion, being a person of righteousness and justice? Good. And you can be certain that Satan will do anything he can to ruin you, to destroy you, to corrupt you, to turn you, to break you.
The apostle is telling us here that against this kind of opposition we need the full armor of God. It's no wonder that the Apostle Paul is going to spend so much time in this passage talking about prayer, because what is prayer but an acknowledgement that we do not have in and of ourselves what we need in order to live the Christian life? We must hold our hands out and receive it from God. And so also the Apostle Paul tells us that we need the Lord's strength and we need the Lord's armor if we are going to be able to stand against the devil, because we need protection from this enemy.
And so, those three things we've already seen: We’re at war; our strength is inadequate; we need protection from the enemy.
But one last thing: The Apostle Paul wants to remind us that we need to understand that our opposition is not ultimately human, and therefore we are never to underestimate our enemy. Notice again his words:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world-forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
In verses 11 and 12, the Apostle Paul tells you three things in particular about the enemy who is arrayed against you. The first thing that he tells you is that he's powerful. He stresses the power of this enemy even with the words, the terms, that he uses to name the enemy: rulers; powers; world-forces of darkness; spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenlies.
This is a powerful enemy that is arrayed against us, and it's so important for us to bear two things in mind simultaneously: The schemes and wiles and power and cunning of the evil one are not an excuse for us to say ‘the devil made me do it.’ They’re not an excuse for us to blame-shift. They’re not an excuse for us to take no responsibility for the daily discipline of growth in grace, but at the same time, while they’re not an excuse, we live at peril if we do not acknowledge the reality that there are things afoot bigger than at just the human level in all of our lives. They manifest themselves in our conversations, in our relationships. Perhaps those things are afoot in estrangements that exist in families, amongst friends. Perhaps these things are afoot in the temptations which are facing our children, even in our own time. We dare not underestimate the power of the forces that we're up against…the power of the evil one.
And that leads right to the second thing that the Apostle Paul tells us about these forces. They’re not only powerful, they are wicked. Notice again how the Apostle Paul defines them as “spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places.” They are not righteous; they are not God-glorifying; they are not Christ-exalting; they are not upright; they are not in accord with all those things which are good and beautiful and right. No, they are forces of wickedness. They desire to spread wickedness. They desire to break down goodness. They desire to oppose righteousness. Their business is immorality. Their business is rebellion.
Young people, it's so important that when you feel the tug, when you feel the urge to do that which is wrong, that in and with that urge is always the intent of the evil one to undo you. When Eve encountered the evil one in the garden, he told her that the way of blessing was the way of disobedience. Now that is the way of wickedness, the idea that in order to have satisfaction and fullness and meaning and blessing in life, I am going to disobey God. I am not going to go God's way. I'm going to go my own way. I'm going to find my own path. I'm going to do it my way. That is precisely the message of the evil one to Eve, and that kind of wickedness is still spread today by these world-forces of darkness.
But notice also a third thing. The Apostle Paul says they’re not only powerful, they’re not only wicked, but they’re cunning. It's the language that he uses in verse 11: “Stand firm against the schemes of the devil.” In that passage the apostle is reminding us that the devil is an extremely ingenuous enemy.
One of the things that Thomas Brooks says, and he says it so well, is that Satan loves to sail with the wind. He knows your virtues, he knows your vices. If he can turn your virtues against you and into vices, he will. If he can take your vices and turn them into your ruin, he will. He is a very cunning and ingenuous opponent, and the Apostle Paul wants you to understand who your enemy is so that you do not underestimate your enemy.
The Christian life is not easy. We have our own sinful tendencies to deal with. We have the baggage of having to deal with other people's sins against us, and being amongst a people with unclean lips. We have the problems and challenges of a church that sometimes lets us down, that's imperfect, that's filled with sinners, and sometimes disappoints us. We have the opposition and the allurements of the world. But underneath all these things, the Apostle Paul says, there is Satan — there is the devil. Against him there is no earthly resistance. There is no armor that can protect us but the armor of God.
That is why what we are going to do in the next few weeks that we have together in this passage is so important, because when the Apostle Paul tells you to be strong in the Lord, in His strength, and to put on His armor, he means it. The Apostle Paul himself knew the opposition of Satan in his own life.
These Ephesians had seen the power of the evil one. Do you remember when the Jewish exorcists in Ephesus had attempted to cast out demons using Jesus' name, even though they didn't understand the significance of that name? And the demons came from the demons that they were attempting to exorcise, and they drove those exorcists out of the city of Ephesus naked and battered. These Ephesian Christians had seen the power of the evil one at work, and the Apostle Paul still had to tell them to remember the wiles and schemes and power and cunning and wickedness of the evil one. How much more do you and I need to remember the power and the wickedness and the cunning of the evil one, and the war in which we find ourselves?
It's a jungle out there, the Apostle Paul is saying. It's a jungle in here, the Apostle Paul is saying. Why are we always surprised about that? Why does it always catch us by surprise? We need to live with Ephesians 6:10-19 for a few weeks together. And so we will, if God is willing.
Our heavenly Father, there are so many hymns that we sing about the fight and about being soldiers. Even as children we sing about being in the Lord's army. Somehow that message doesn't get through like it should. We pray that You would get Your message through to our hearts as we study this passage because we recognize, O Lord, however dimly, that we are at war. We see it in the lives of friends whom we love dearly who are struggling in their marriages; we see it in things that are happening to young people; we see it in the conduct of Christians in public. Sometimes we see it, O Lord, worked out only in secret where few eyes see and few ears hear, but we do recognize, O God, that we are in a war. Lord God, teach us of Christ and of the Scriptures, of our own hearts. Teach us also of Satan's devices, and give us the grace to put on the full armor of God against him, for we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Please stand for God's blessing.
Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith through Jesus Christ our Lord, until the day break and the shadows flee away. Amen.