How do we stand firm when the evil day comes?
We come to these final verses in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus. He wrote this about 30 or 40 years after Jesus died and rose from the dead.
There is so much here.
William Gurnell was a vicar in Suffolk in the UK. He was pastor of a church not far from where I was vicar. In 1655 – just a year or two before me - he published a book about these verses. Well that is not quite true: he published three books about these verses, with 261 chapters and 1472 pages. But don’t worry, I will be briefer. Slightly briefer!
How do we stand firm when the ‘evil day’ (v13) comes?
How do we stand firm in our faith in Christ when we face those tragedies and disasters that life can and does throw at us?
We watched ‘The Theory of Everything’ last week. It tells the story of Stephen Hawkins, a young man with a brilliant mind. In the film he has a fall, is taken to hospital and is diagnosed with Motor Neurons Disease. In one moment, his life – his hopes, his assumptions, his future – is blown open. He was not a Christian, he was a fairly strident atheist for much of his life, and maybe that reinforced his non-belief in God. But things like that happen to Christians as well as non-Christians, and do we stand firm in our faith when we face one of the most terrifying death sentences that anyone can be given.
And how do we stand firm in our faith in Christ in the face of severe opposition or even persecution? Paul speaks of himself as ‘an ambassador for Christ in chains’ (v20). He knew about that. He has been falsely accused, spent several years in prison without having been charged specifically with anything, and is now probably in Rome awaiting trial on a capital charge.
But in this letter he urges the Christians in Ephesus, and he urges us to stand firm.
‘to stand against the wiles of the devil’ (v10)
‘to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm’ (v13)
And in v14, ‘Stand therefore’
So how do we stand firm?
1. We need to know our enemy
‘For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ (v12)
The enemy that we face are not the political authorities, or rulers – even when they are opposed to Christ, or people – even those most hostile, aggressive or evil. We are not fighting blind fate. We fight against an unseen enemy: ‘the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’.
We fight against Satan, the devil, the one who in his pride set himself up as god.
He is the tempter, the one who would make us question, doubt, the goodness of God, the purpose of God in order to draw us away from the love of God. When he speaks to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden he asks, ‘Did God say ..’? He suggests that God is a spoil sport. And he offers Adam and Eve the opportunity to become like God.
He is described as ‘the god of this world’ (2 Cor 4.4). He tells us that all that matters is this world. He blinds us to God and to that world.
When Satan came to tempt Jesus, it was all about him urging Jesus to use his power to take hold of satisfaction, glory and power here and now.
He is the destroyer. He hates God and everything that God has made. And he wants to destroy it.
We’re told in the bible about a man who was possessed by demons. He lived in a graveyard, and he was violent against others and himself. And when Jesus drove the demons out of him into pigs, the pigs went into self-destruct mode.
And don’t think of Satan as some rather cute child dressed in red with little horns. He wants to destroy everything that is good and true and beautiful.
He destroys relationships, he uses us to destroy others, he compels us to destroy ourselves. Sometimes he does it in spectacular ways. But more often he does it in ways that are gradual, but just as deadly. In our pride and self-centredness and anger and fear we cut ourselves off from other people, we shrink into ourselves and we become nothing.
So when the day of evil comes, know your enemy. It isn’t the person who is tempting or persecuting you. It isn’t the incompetent doctor or inadequate health system. It isn’t the political or business apparatchik who is carrying out their superiors’ orders. It isn’t even the person who gave the order. They have been deceived, blinded by the god of this world.
2. Put on the armour that God provides
We are to stand firm not in our own strength, but in God’s strength.
We are to put on the armour that God provides
It is very easy to be seduced into thinking that we need to put our trust in buildings, political power or wealth or fame or education or technology, in gifted or well-known individuals or even in religious rituals. But actually we need to put our trust in God, to take the armour that he gives us, to strap it on, and to live for him
We put on the belt of truth.
The belt for the Roman soldier was not something that was put over the armour, but under. It gathered the tunic together and was what held the sword. ‘You buckle it on and it gives you a sense of hidden strength and confidence’.
And the belt of truth could refer to the truth about God – the revelation of God in Jesus and in the scriptures. We buckle ourselves with the truth. That is how the early commentators understood it.
But probably it refers more to truth as integrity, sincerity in heart. Truth in the inward being.
John Stott writes about this passage, ‘The Christian must at all costs be honest and truthful. To be deceitful, to lapse into hypocrisy, to resort to intrigue and scheming, this is to play the devil’s game, and we shall not be able to beat him at his own game’. He is described as ‘the father of lies’. Stott continues, ‘What he abominates is transparent truth. He loves darkness; light causes him to fear. For spiritual as for mental health, honesty about oneself if indispensable’.
We dress ourselves in the breastplate of righteousness
The breastplate covered the front and the back and was the major piece of armour protecting all the vital organs.
Again, it can speak of two things: it speaks of being right.
We stand firm in the gift of the righteousness of God. We have been justified by faith in Jesus. We have been forgiven. We stand before God accepted and not condemned. We have been brought into God’s family as his adopted children. We are right, even though we are dreadfully wrong! And so when your conscience whispers to you that you are not fit or worthy to be a Christian, that God would never forgive you, let alone love you – well tap your chest and remind yourself that you have been given a breastplate of righteousness. Some Christians cross themselves. That is great if it is not just a ritual. It is Jesus’ breastplate. It bears the image of the one who made it, who crafted it so that it fits you perfectly. And when you put your trust in Jesus, you received this gift, you put it on, and you became right.
But the breastplate of righteousness also speaks of doing right.
We stand firm, we fight against the spiritual forces of evil, by doing what is right. So, for instance, Paul speaks of ‘the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left’ (2 Cor 6.7); or Peter writes, ‘For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish’ (1 Peter 2.15)
We put on the gospel boots
Literally the Greek says, ‘As shoes for your feet put on the ‘etoimasia’ of the gospel of peace’. Etoimasia could mean equipment or readiness. I think that equipment makes more sense in the context of this passage.
We are to stand firm, with our feet rooted in the boots of the gospel of peace.
How do I stand ‘on that evil day’?
I stand on the assurance that Jesus has brought peace. That I am at peace with God. That I have nothing to prove, nothing to merit. I simply rest in what he has done for me. And also that in Jesus I am one with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
But more than that. Peace is also a gift that God gives to the believer through his Holy Spirit. It is the peace that we can experience. It is a peace which does pass understanding. And when the crises swirl around us, we stand firm in this peace.
We take up the shield of faith
Faith – that childlike trust in Jesus. Again, Stott writes, ‘For faith lays hold of the promises of God in times of doubt and depression, and faith lays hold of the power of God in times of temptation’.
So, when the darts come – the temptations, the doubts, the lusts and the fears – I turn to him, I cry out to him, I throw myself on him and his power.
We put on the helmet of salvation
We take this helmet, the assurance of future and final salvation, not only for us but for all of creation – and we place it on our head.
We have already received salvation: forgiveness, peace, the Holy Spirit, freedom from Satan’s bondage, the tokens of his presence in communion and baptism, a new identity as children of God in the family of God, a new purpose and a new destiny.
But we have a confident expectation of full salvation on the last day – when we will share in Christ’s resurrection glory, in his likeness and when all of creation will become what it was made to be.
And finally, we take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
When Jesus was tempted by Satan he quoted verses from the bible
When Jesus was challenged he quoted verses from the bible
When Jesus was on trial he quoted verses from the bible
When Jesus was dying in agony he quoted a verse from the bible
Don’t be ashamed of the bible.
Of course, non-believers in our culture don’t accept the authority of the bible in the same way that they did in Jesus time. So you cannot use it as an authority with them.
But just because people do not accept its authority or power, does not mean that it does not have authority or power. It means that they have been blinded. And it means that when the Holy Spirit is at work in them, they will hear those words, and those words will come into them and transform them.
And ‘the forces of evil in the heavenly places’ really do know the authority and the power of the bible
So I urge you, get to know your bible. Read it, learn the story of the bible as well as the stories of the bible, study it on your own and together with others, learn the promises and the warnings and the encouragements and the challenges. Fight with those bits that you don’t understand or find difficult or don’t even like. One person comes to see me and brings with him a whole series of questions from a passage that he has read during the week – and together we try to understand what is going on, what is God saying.
And then, when the ‘evil day’ comes, use scripture. Use it as a sword to challenge the lies.
We know our enemy
We put on the armour of God
3. We pray for each other – for all the saints
Forgive me. I could say so much more here. But I will keep this brief.
Prayer is the living out of our faith and the expression of our dependence, our trust on God.
It is the way that we put on the armour and live each of the pieces:
We pray at all times, and with all kinds of prayer – with praise, thanksgiving, confession and supplication. We are attentive and alert. And we use words and tongues and music and meditation.
And we are to pray particularly for those who are facing the evil day: whether that is because of persecution or fierce temptation or disaster (we think of our brothers and sisters in Kerala).
That is why Paul urges the Christians in Ephesus to pray for him. He is facing ‘the evil day’ as he sits in prison. Maybe he thinks ahead to his trial, and he is gripped with fear. So he asks them to pray not that he will be released, not that he will be kept safe, but that he will remain faithful to Jesus. That he will know what to say and that he will have the courage to speak it.
Of course, we pray that we will be spared, but the reality is that each one of us, each of us, will face the evil day.
The prayer ‘lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’ is not a prayer that we will never face temptation. Rather it is a prayer that we will never face a temptation that is too big for us (which is what God has promised), and that we will not be overwhelmed by Satan, by the spiritual forces of evil.
And when that day comes, we have been given all that we need.
We know who our enemy is
We put on the armour of God
And we are part of a people. We pray – we pray for each other – we throw ourselves on the mercy and love of God.