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Archive for the ‘Spiritual warfare’ Category

sword1

We all love the armour of God. It’s such a great visual aid. Perfect for Sunday School sessions and all age services. Just Google a Roman soldier, find a worksheet to colour in, dress someone up. Perfect.

The armour of God is also a delight to commentators, whether scholarly or devotional. Each piece of armour invites pages of extrapolation on how the particularities of first century Roman armour help us to understand the spiritual point that Paul was driving at.

But what if the armour of God isn’t really about Roman soldiers?

  1. The armour of God is the Old Testament armour of God. As most commentators observe, the clearest allusion made by Ephesians 6 is to Isaiah 59:17 where the LORD God himself puts on his battle garments including righteousness as a breastplate and a helmet of salvation. The LORD has a sword (Isaiah 34:5-6; 66:16). Also in Isaiah the Coming Christ has faithfulness (truth) as a belt around his waist (Isaiah 11:5) and a mouth like a sharpened sword (Isaiah 49:2). Looking at the wider OT we find that the LORD is often found giving himself to his people as their shield (Gen. 15:1; 20x in the Psalms), even as their shield and sword together (Deut. 33:29).
  2. The armour of God is Christ the LORD. William Gurnall who wrote 1700 pages on the armour of God put the matter very succinctly when he commented: “By armour is meant Christ.” Paul’s whole letter to the Ephesians, as all his letters, has been dominated by Christ. Christ is the truth (John 14:6). Christ is our righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ is our peace (Eph. 2:14). Christ is our salvation (Luke 2:30). This is in continuity with the OT where we find that the LORD is our salvation and our righteousness (Ex. 15:2; Jer. 23:6) and it is perfectly consistent with Paul’s thought that we should put on Christ and clothe ourselves in him (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27).
  3. The words for the pieces of armour in Ephesians 6 are not technical terms for pieces of Roman armour. The word ‘belt’ is not actually there in verse 14. The phrase ‘girding round your loins’ has a Hebraic flavour and suggests getting ready for action. Breastplate (v14) and Helmet (v17) use common Greek words found 10 and 9 times respectively in the LXX (the Greek OT), including where they both appear together in the key passage Isaiah 59:17. Commentators are confident that the shoe Paul has in mind in verse 15 is the caliga, the Roman soldier’s battle boot, but Paul doesn’t actually mention boots. He says simply, ‘feet shod with readiness’ – the word readiness calling to mind the ministry of John the Baptist (Isaiah 40:3-4; Luke 1:17,76; 3:4-6). The shield might make us think of the famous rectangular red scutum of the Romans, used in their famous tortoise formation, but Paul uses a common word for shield found 19 times in the LXX (e.g. the shield of King Saul – 1 Sam. 1:21). The word for sword is one of two common Greek words for sword, both of which are used extremely frequently and often interchangeably in the NT and LXX. Sometimes a distinction is made between the short stabbing battle sword (machaira) of Eph. 6:17 and the long sword of justice but it is the machaira which appears in Rom. 13:4 as the sword of justice and in Isaiah 27:1 (LXX) as the sword of the LORD himself.
  4. Paul was probably not chained to a Roman soldier in battle armour. While it might be tempting to imagine Paul dictating his letter to the Ephesians while looking at the different pieces of Roman armour, Stott comments, “…it would be unlikely that such a bodyguard would wear the full uniform of an infantryman on the battlefield.” Certainly battle boots and a huge shield would have been strange for a prison guard. If Ephesians is written from Paul’s house arrest in Rome described at the end of Acts then it seems it was not a deep dark dungeon confinement. It may be that the chains are more a way of expressing his legal status and restriction of his freedom and liberty than literal iron chains (cf. 2 Tim. 2:9). There is a danger that we read the situation of Peter in Acts 12:6 into Paul’s references to his chains.

This is not to say that it is impossible that Paul was not thinking at least partly of the Roman soldier or that his first readers might not have thought of a Roman soldier. But it is to say that the most important background to Ephesians 6:10-20 is not the first century imperial legionary or centurion but the Old Testament and also Pauline and NT thought.

So what?

  1. Scripture Alone. Scripture interprets Scripture. You don’t need to be an expert in first century Roman warfare to understand Ephesians 6. Certainly the Bible was written by humans in particular cultures at particular times but again and again we find that all the background we need to know is in the Bible itself. We know what we need to know about Ephesus from Acts 19. We know what we need to know about the armour of God from the OT. Even the flaming arrows of the Deceiver are there (Prov. 26:18-19). The approach that leans heavily on external sources and historical reconstructions a) takes us into uncertain territory (Which expert do you believe? Which rank of Roman soldier are we talking about? Did they all have plumes in their helmets? What if another historical source turns up that changes our understanding of the context?); and b) takes authority away from the text and the reader and gives a dangerous amount of power to the ‘expert’ as he tells me what I could never have known on my own. This has even more important implications in other parts of the NT where the historical reconstructions of liberal scholars tell us, “I know that it looks like the Bible is saying this but if you really know the culture and politics in first century Ephesus then you would know that it actually means the opposite of what it looks like it means.” Scripture is our guide to Scripture.
  2. Grace Alone. The Roman Soldier analogy tends slightly towards seeing the pieces of armour as passive instruments with the soldier (me) as the active fighter. In contrast, if we see the armour of God as the OT armour of God – The LORD himself, Christ the Lord – then it is closer to the mark to see us as the passive ones and God as the active one. He is giving us his armour, he is giving us himself. He is surrounding us as a wall of fire and a fortress and shield. Yes there are imperatives to ‘Put on’ and ‘Take up’ and ‘Stand’ – we need to walk in the calling we have received (Eph. 4:1) but it is first and foremost something received, gift. So let us not turn Ephesians 6 in to a series of things for us to do. That is fig leaf armour. We need the armour of God. We need to put on Christ and glory in his sovereign grace. “According to Ephesians 6 believers need to be armed with God’s own righteousness if they are to be protected against the blows and arrows of their spiritual enemies… The position of power and authority with Christ to which they have been raised is greater ‘than that possessed by their mighty supernatural enemies’. As they appropriate this salvation more fully and live in the light of their status in Christ, they have every reason to be confident of the outcome of the battle.” (Peter O’Brien)
  3. The Church of God. The Roman soldier analogy tends towards making us think of an individual centurion or an army of individuals each putting on their own armour. But the letter of Ephesians has been about the church. In Ephesians 6, as throughout the letter, the address is second person plural (it comes out better in Kiswahili than in English). It’s not addressed to the Lone Ranger solo Christian. It’s not little me being called to stand firm and put on my armour and fight. It is the whole church being called to clothe themselves in the gospel armour. The song, O Church Arise gets it just right. The one new man (Eph. 2:15) – the Church – must put the armour on. The armour of God himself. So that, as the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD will surround his people, both now and for evermore (Psalm 125:2).

Much of what has been written and taught from the illustration of the Roman soldier is spiritually true and edifying. But let’s say the right things from the right texts. And let’s rejoice in what Ephesians 6 is clearly saying about the divine armour that we the church have been given and let us put on Christ.

 

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First day of the Ministry Training Course with the 2013/2014 apprentices. Great to hear stories from their different placements and see how God has really been growing them over the last seven months. A highlight for me was the first of a series of expositions of Job from Fidel:

Job

Job 1:1-2:10:

  • Big question is, ‘Does God have real worshippers?’ (1:9). I’d never thought of it like this before but when Satan says, “Natoka kuzunguka pote duniani, nikitembea huku na huko humo” (1:7) he is basically saying that he hasn’t seen anything worth mentioning, nothing to worry him, no-one breaking the pattern of self-interest, no-one worshipping God for who he is. Then verse 8 is God giving the exception that Satan has missed. Then verse 9 is Satan’s rationalisation – this isn’t a genuine exception to his observation – Job is just a religious form of self-interest. Then come the tests that prove who is right – is there a real worshipper who genuinely seeks God?
  • The reality of the spiritual realm, reality of Satan, his limited knowledge, the LORD’s restraining, but also the extreme permissions granted.
  • We love this verse: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Well in Job’s case there is something prepared for him (1:12; 2:6) but this plan for his life isn’t revealed to him and he probably wouldn’t want to know it anyway.
  • Every time you read it it is utterly amazing that Job loses everything and worships (1:20). He really is the true worshipper. He wasn’t worshipping God for the stuff. He wasn’t worshipping the stuff itself. He was, and continues to, worship God himself.
  • Three times in 25 verses we are told Job was blameless and upright. What comes next has absolutely zero to do with some personal sin.
  • What are the 2 things emphasised in prosperity preaching? Health and Wealth. What does Job have taken away? His Wealth and then his Health.
  • His life is spared (2:6) because it’d very important for us that we listen to the next 40 chapters, see the innocent sufferer, wrestle with the theological arguments.
  • The big question for us: Shall we receive good from God and shall we not receive evil?

Also today:

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C.S Lewis dedicates Screwtape Letters to his friend J.R.R Tolkien. It’s basically a sly and ironic portrayal of human life from the vantage point of the demon Screwtape.

In this book, C.S Lewis presents in a comical and captivating manner the Christian’s battle with the devil which rages on and how the devil uses every means at his disposal to destract the Christian from doing what he is called to do; loving and worshiping God and using the gifts God has given him to serve Him and other human beings.

I think this book is relevant in the 21st century where it’s so rare to talk about devils (!) Even the famous ‘the devil made me do it’ is no longer there because we’ve in a way really forgotten about what goes on in the spiritual realms as Christians, we are in warfare, the battle rages on from within and without.

Of course in dealing with this issue, there are two extremes that we can go to;

(a) Disbelieve in the existence of the devil

(b) Believe in their existence and feel an unhealthy and excessive interest in them.

We must guard against such extremes.

There are a number of pieces of advice that Screwtape gives to Wormwood for him to be effective in distracting and dissuading humans from their duty to God:

  1. Materialism– It’s so strong, it’s the way to go… it’s a thing of the future. They (human beings) need to embrace it. And don’t forget about the worship of sex, it’s a huge asset. Remember ‘Once you’ve made the world an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.
  2. The Power Within– Keep reminding them that they have to draw strength from the inner self. Bring them to the point where they can constantly and routinely be shutting themselves from the outside world so as to draw strength from the inside. Could you try a bit more emphasis on Motivational preaching?!
  3. Relationships– Let them break up. Let it be easy for them to express themselves in offending yet find grievance when offended. After all, it’s all about ‘my good’ and not about the other person!
  4. Prayerless-ness– Make it hard for them to pray. Of course there are moods- easy for them not to pray when they aren’t in the mood of doing so. And oh, let them pray about feelings instead of the real fruit itself. I mean, pray about the feeling to give instead of praying about the grace to give!
  5. Moderation– Talk to man about moderation in his religion. The buzzword for the 21st century is ‘Tolerance’. But know that a moderated religion is as good as no religion at all.
  6. The Cumulative Effect– Use the ‘small’ sins. The safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
  7. Pain and Pleasure– Keep humans from knowing the reality of these things. Let them always live in a dream-world of self-pity and vanity. Never ever let them know that there are realities!
  8. The Future and the Present– Keep them from the future, not necessarily by focussing on the present but by making them imagine a soon future that will be more agreeable. You see, you just managed to keep them away from the eternal and the present. Oh, in the 21st Century, it’s called YOLO (You Only Live Once) so blow up all you’ve got now, for after-all you’ll die!!
  9. Possessive-ness– Teach them to say ‘my God’ in the same way they’ll say ‘my shoes’ meaning ‘the God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit—the God I have put in a corner/box’
  10. Christ and His work– Just make Christ solely a teacher. Instead of being the Creator worshiped by his creature let Him be a leader acclaimed by a partisan.
  11. Christianity And/Plus– Disturb them with the horror of the same old thing. Let them think of how they can ‘improve’ Christianity by having add-ons! And also keep them from a devotional life- it’s a boring thing for them to do!
  12. Perseverance (Lack of)– You see, it’s had for humans to persevere. ‘Make them believe that earth can be turned into heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or science or psychology.’

Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a shortcut to the nearest chemist shop.

The here and now is all that matters- Prosperity preaching does this trick very well!

This is of course comical but presents the realities of the dangers that we can fall into if we fail to realise that we’ve got enemies and that we are in a battle. With this then the thing for us Christians is ‘Beware and Keep watch’ – this is a genuine warning! And remembering the words of Ephesians 6:12:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

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I gave a youth talk this morning on Daniel 1-6. Never tried either of those before – speaking to Kenyan young people or preaching six chapters in one go! I don’t know how it was for them but it was good for me to work on it over the last few days. A few things that were new and fresh to me from Daniel:

  • Nebuchadnezzar is not the real enemy. He’s the enemy of God’s people and he rules over Babylon, Shinar, the ancient city against God (Genesis 11) and he drags God’s people off into Exile, but I was really struck how the first few chapters of the book are really all about God saving Nebuchadnezzar – preaching to him, revealing himself to him, humbling him, bringing him to chapter 4 which is (extraordinarily) written by Nebuchadnezzar himself as a conversion testimony. In many ways Daniel has just as much a missionary theme as Jonah. We’re behind enemy lines but the battle is not against flesh and blood, it’s against the spiritual forces of evil – the useless Bablyonian gods and the demonic forces behind them – forces that have the power to enslave and enrage a king and a nation but who ultimately turn out to be powerless in the face of the true, sovereign, revealing, saving God.
  • There’s a mirror-image structure to chapters 2-7. I learnt later that this has been noticed since at least the 1970s but encouragingly it did seem to jump out of the text for me. Chapter 2 goes with chapter 7 – both about dreams of 4 kingdoms; chapter 3 goes with chapter 6 – both about state persecution, resistance, jealousy, being bound and thrown into fire/lions, the Angel of the Lord / Son of God coming in and delivering, kings praising the saving God; chapter 4 goes with chapter 5 – both about pride and humbling. Which makes the centre of the first half of Daniel chapter 4v37 – Nebuchadnezzar’s Moses-like confession of faith (underlining the first point above).
  • It’s full of Jesus. He’s there all through the book as promise, pattern, and presence – the promise of the rock (2:44-45) and the lowly king (4:17); the pattern of Daniel and his friends fearlessly praying and preaching and walking towards suffering; the presence of the one walking around in the fire (3:25), writing on the wall (5:5), shutting lions’ mouths (6:22). Let’s hold on to the promises, follow the pattern and enjoy the presence. That is spiritual warfare.

You can download the talk here. And the Powerpoint is here.

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For a church under attack 2 Kings 6:8-23 is a great passage. It doesn’t get much worse than verse 15: “behold, an army with horses and chariots was all round the city.” How does the church react to threats and grenades? Certainly an outpouring of grief and of compassion for those who have been bereaved or wounded. Understandably anger, fear and confusion. Two other common responses are a) ramp up the military/security option, guards on the doors, police sweeps, KDF surge; and b) spiritual warfare, by which we mean offensive and defensive prayer, hedging believers and binding demonic forces, praying frustration and confusion on enemies.  Surely these is a place for all this. Once we have grieved with and comforted the afflicted we do need to take sensible measures to protect ourselves, seek justice and the rule of law at home and abroad, and we do need to pray offensively and defensively. But 2 Kings 6 brings us something deeper about the living God and points us to another way. It’s a chapter all about seeing…

  1. See the knowledge of God (v8-14) – Here is an all-seeing God. No terrorist attack takes him by surprise. He knows every plan being whispered in a bunker deep in Somalia or Yemen. In contrast to sovereign omniscience, the sovereign of Syria is a ridiculous picture of foolishness and blindness. You can hear the laughter of heaven as the king demands to know the double agent (v11), is told that his bedroom talk might as well be broadcast on Al Jazeera (v12), and bizarrely sends forces to capture the one who knows all his plans – and to arrest him for that very reason (v13)!! His foolishness is that he thinks that Yahweh is a limited, weak god like the gods he knows. “Sure, he knows a lot but maybe this time I can outwit him.” Do we really believe God knows absolutely everything or do we sometimes slip into Syrian theology? And the king of Israel is also foolish in a more subtle way. If you look at the surrounding chapters (if it’s the same king) he’s not a great example of godliness but here he is receiving the undeserved blessing of early warnings of enemy attack (v9). He’s not convinced of God’s Word until he checks it out himself but at least he does heed it and is saved (v10). The great sadness and irony is that, while he is very happy to have early warnings of physical threats in the very near future, he is at the same time, like almost all the kings of Israel, ignoring the threats of God’s judgment on the idolatry and violence of his kingdom (e.g. Deut. 28:15-68; 1 Kings 14:15-16; 2 Chron. 21:12-15). Which are we more keen to hear and heed, a contemporary prophetic early warning of a terrorist attack or the longer term warnings from the Scriptures of eternal judment?
  2. See the power of God (v15-17) – Here is a passage often turned to in relation to spiritual warfare. But what exactly happens here? There is Word (v16) and Prayer (v17). What the trembling servant needs first is the Word of God – the assurance from God’s mouth (Elisha is God’s mouth as the Scriptures are for us) that, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave himself up for us all” (Rom. 8:31-32). The besieged church needs the Word of God preached – that’s where we find comfort, courage, Christ. And the besieged church also needs Prayer (v17). But what sort of prayer? For fire to fall on our enemies? Verse 17: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” Open eyes to see the reality of the Word that has just been preached – the word that those who are with us are more than those who are with them, that if God is for us, who can be against us. Compare that with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – another classic place to turn when we’re thinking about spiritual warfare. And what do we find in Paul’s model prayers-in-the-Spirit? “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,and his incomparably great power for us who believe” (Eph. 1:18-19). There’s a similar thrust to Paul’s prayer in the third chapter – that the Ephesians would grasp, know, see, experience the love of Christ that has been preached to them. That they would see what they already have in Christ. What our country needs, surely, is not just prayer against demonic strongholds but God’s Word preached (cf. Eph. 6:18-19), and God simultaneously, mercifully, miraculously opening eyes to see the reality of those things.
  3. See the grace of God (v18-23) – What a fantastic twist to the story? What a massive surprise? We expect the fiery horses and chariots of the Lord of Hosts to descend on the Syrian army and burn them up. But that doesn’t happen. Interestingly the Greater Elisha didn’t call down the angelic defence force when he was under attack either (Matt. 26:53). Instead the enemy army is blinded (they’re spiritually blind already) and led like sheep (again there is laughter in heaven) into the capital city of their enemy, the lions’ den and then (massive surprise) they’re not devoured but fed (v22)!  In fact they get “a great feast” (v23). What a fantastic picture of sovereign grace, of how we have experienced grace? Did the soldiers make a decision to come to the banquet? No they were chosen, drawn, led there like dumb animals. They were enemies (and we were all born enemies of God) taken captive by the Lord. They were blind people whose eyes were opened (v20). It’s pure grace and they go away changed, humbled (v23). The enemies of God’s people are defeated by grace. Won by grace. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons [i.e. ‘like’] your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44). He then does that very thing on the Cross and his executioner is won – “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matt 27:54). I know a Pakistani man who wandered into a church and heard those verses and realised there was nothing like that in his religion in which you love your brothers but hate your enemies, where you have a God who hates his enemies. He was won and we will feast with him at the banquet table of grace for eternity. I have heard stories of amazing forgiveness and peace coming out of the church in Garissa after the terrible atrocity there. Surely that is the most impressive and powerful spiritual warfare of all.

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