‘Though opposed by many a foe,
Christian soldiers, onward go!’
Lord God, you know full well that there are times when we find the Christian life hard. It is a struggle. And there are times when we should be struggling hard, but we are lazy. We thank you for your strengthening Word and the encouraging presence of your Spirit. And we pray that you will speak to us now, and equip us so that we will not retreat, but keep going onward, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Fight the good fight. That’s my title this evening in our series on Living Life to the Full. And the main passage I’d like us to focus on is Ephesians 6.10-20. That’s on p 1177 in the Bibles in the pews, and it would be good if you would have that open in front of you, though I’ll be jumping around the New Testament a bit so we’ll come to it in a while.
When I was a boy – and that now seems a long time ago – I had a dream. It was a dream of a great battlefield. I was with my sister in the midst of this vast battle, and somehow we knew that we had to fight our way across the battlefield until we got out the other side into the peaceful land beyond. It felt like we’d never make it through, but eventually we did.
Now I realise that telling other people about your dreams has a double danger. One, you can bore them; and two, you invite interpretations. Since I don’t want to do either of those things, I’ll say no more, except that I was reminded of that dream as I prepared for this evening and this topic.
Because when we come to Christ, we enter a battlefield. And this side of heaven, there’s no escaping it. The Christian life is a fight. It is much more than that, and there are many other dimensions to Christian living, as we’ve been considering through this series. But it’s not less than that. And we need to make sure that we take on board this aspect of the Christian life: it is a battle, and we have to fight.
Now you might immediately say that doesn’t sound much like ‘living life to the full’. But a full life is not an easy life. Satisfaction follows struggle. Victory follows conflict. Three weeks ago I spoke at our Remembrance Sunday services in the morning, and I mentioned the experience of one young British soldier who took part in the liberation of France after the Normandy landings towards the end of World War II. He described his experience in this way:
... we found villagers and townspeople who clustered beside the road, waving and throwing flowers, and shouting words of encouragement as we sped by. If we paused for a moment’s respite, amidst our own sweat and dust, they would run to greet us, arms outstretched, with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks.
Without the sweat and struggle, there would not have been the tears of joy. Part of living life to the full is getting fully engaged in the spiritual battle in which we find ourselves as believers. The apostle Paul writes to his apprentice Timothy in 1 Timothy 1.18:
I give you this instruction… so that… you may fight the good fight.
Later in the same letter, in 6.12 he urges Timothy:
Fight the good fight of the faith.
And in 2 Timothy 2.3 he says:
Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.
In other words, being involved in Christian ministry is like being on active service. And when he looks back on his own life, expecting to be executed any time, he says:
… the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight…
So what is the nature of this good fight that we’re to fight throughout our lives? I want to take a look at the answers the Bible gives to two questions – and these are my main headings. First, Who do we fight against? Secondly, How do we fight? So:
First, WHO DO WE FIGHT AGAINST?
Of course, the simple answer is that, as in any war, we fight against our enemy who is seeking to destroy us. But who is our enemy who we must oppose? Well the Bible is clear that we have three enemies – what you might call the axis of evil: the world, the flesh and the devil. That is, Satan; our own sinful nature (what the Bible calls ‘the flesh’); and the world, in the sense of humanity in rebellion against Christ and in opposition to his rule.
Satan is our deadly enemy. 1 Peter 5.8, warns:
Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
And Satan has allies in all the supernatural, unseen, but very real forces of evil. So the apostle Paul in our passage, in Ephesians 6.12, puts it like this:
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 realms.
That is the massive supernatural battle that we find ourselves in. But thank God it is not evenly matched, and there is no doubt as to the outcome. Christ has won the decisive victory at the cross. The resurrection made that clear. D-Day is over and the advance through enemy territory is under way. But the devil, though his cause is lost, is fighting a rearguard action. If we lower our guard, he’s waiting to pounce.
Then, in alliance with Satan, our sinful nature is also our deadly enemy. 1 Peter 2.11:
Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.
And Paul in Galatians 5.17 puts it like this:
For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other…
So one of the major front lines in the spiritual war runs right through our own lives. Our hearts belong to Christ, but our sinful nature is still there fighting to regain the control it has lost to the Holy Spirit. There can be no compromise. This is a fight to the death, and it’s our sinful nature that must die.
Then the other element in the axis of evil, in alliance with Satan and our sinful natures, is what the Bible calls ‘the world’ that lives in opposition to Christ. James 4.4 puts in forcefully:
Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.
Now the world attacks the church, its deadly enemy, in two ways. It attacks the church from outside. And it attacks from within.
From outside, it uses persecution or pressure to try to get rid of the church. So an article in Foreign Policy magazine this month is titled:
The end of Christianity in the Middle East? The brutal bombing of a church in Baghdad may be the final straw…
And it continues:
Screaming "kill, kill, kill," suicide bombers … stormed a Chaldean church in Baghdad on Sunday. A spokesman for the group subsequently claimed they did so “to light the fuse of a campaign against Iraqi Christians”…
But the massacre in Baghdad is only the most spectacular example of mounting discrimination and persecution of the native Christian communities of Iraq and Iran, which are now in the middle of a massive exodus unprecedented in modern times as they confront a rising tide of Islamic militancy and religious chauvinism sweeping the region.
In this country the attacks come not from bombs and bullets but from the pressures of godless and unrepresentative domination of the media, politics and education. But the underlying intent of the axis of evil in both cases is the same: the destruction of faith in Christ and the elimination of the church – or at least its transformation into a cultural museum of interest to historians but disarmed and enfeebled in the spiritual war.
So the world attacks the church from outside. But it also attacks from inside, and those attacks can be even more destructive, because if we’re not alert, if we drop our spiritual guard, like a cancer they can take hold and grow unseen until they threaten the very life of the church as a spiritual force, just as surely as would bombs and bullets.
The apostle Paul’s moving last meeting with the elders of the church in Ephesus, to which he later writes, is recorded in Acts 20. Pouring out his heart to them face to face for the final time, he warns:
I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!
And in saying that he is reflecting the teaching of Jesus himself who warned:
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
That is, these false teachers look friendly and harmless, but actually their effect is spiritually deadly.
Who, then, do we fight against in this spiritual war? We fight against Satan, our own sinful natures, and the world. Next question:
Secondly, HOW DO WE FIGHT?
Well, there are three things to say about how we are to fight. First, not with the world’s weapons. Secondly, with the armour of God. And thirdly, with strength from God. Let’s take those in turn.
First, we are not to use the weapons of the world. Paul is quite clear in 2 Corinthians 10.4:
The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.
What are the weapons of the world? They come into pretty sharp focus, for instance, in that recent brutal attack on the Baghdad church that killed so many. The weapons of the world are: hatred; collaboration with evil; and physical violence. In John 15.18-21 Jesus tells his disciples:
18If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first… 20…If they persecuted me, they will persecute your also… 22…they have no excuse for their sin.
It is true that we can and should hate evil, including Satan and all his forces, and long for their promised destruction. But we are never to hate people, however much they might hate us, or whatever they might say or do to us. “Love your enemies” says Jesus to us. That is not the way of the world. But it is the way of Christ and it is how to fight the good fight.
We should not try to use evil methods even with a good end in mind. So Paul says (in 2 Corinthians 4.2):
… we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.
And we should never use physical violence or coercion in or efforts to win people for Christ. That might seem obvious to us, but it isn’t always and we need to get that quite clear in our minds lest our situation changes. So, we must not use the weapons of the world.
The second answer to the question, How do we fight? Is that we should put on and use the armour of God – and the spiritual weapons he gives us. Ephesians 6.11:
Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.
And again in verse 13:
Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
That armour is first of all defensive and protective, and can be summed up as: our salvation in Christ. You can see it there from verse 14 to be beginning of 17 – the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation. When we’re confident of our relationship with Christ, and sure of his presence and power, then we won’t be vulnerable to what Paul calls in verse 16 “the flaming arrows of the evil one” – all the different ways that the devil tries to probe our weaknesses to inflict a fatal wound.
But as soldiers of Christ we are to do more than to defend ourselves. We are to go on the spiritual offensive for the sake of others. And there are two offensive spiritual weapons that Paul talks about here: Biblical truth, and prayer. Verses 17-18:
17Take … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
Prayer changes the world because God listens to our prayers and acts. That’s what he’s promised to do. And of course one of Satan’s most effective strategies is to deploy all kinds of different tactics to keep us from praying. In this, as in everything else, we need to resist him, and get on with praying – comprehensively, specifically and persistently.
And the truth of God’s word defeats lies. So we need more and more to be clear what the Bible’s teaching is in the areas of our lives where we know we may face a challenge. We need to be thinking more carefully about where we have opportunities to further the growth of God’s Kingdom, at work, in school or university, at home, in political and social life. We need to ask for God’s guidance about how we can go on the offensive. And then we need to act on it.
Of course, we don’t only fight alone and in isolation from one another. We need to learn better how to support and encourage one another, and how we can fight together. But surely, after a century or more of spiritual retreat in this country, it is time for us to stop going backwards, and start taking the battle to the enemy.
Then the third answer to the question, How do we fight? Is that we should fight with strength from God. That’s how Paul starts this section about spiritual warfare. Ephesians 6.10:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.
In ourselves, we’re not strong. We’re weak and vulnerable. No threat to any spiritual enemy. But in the Lord, we can be strong. And that’ll mean being unyeilding and courageous.
Four times in four verses – 11-14 – Paul urges us to ‘stand’. “Take your stand”; “stand your ground”; “stand firm”. In other words, don’t give way. Don’t give ground. Be unyielding.
And twice at the end of this section he asks them to pray that he’ll be fearless – in other words that he’ll be courageous in potentially fear-inducing situations. And that’s generally when he has to speak the word of God where the reception would be hostile. Which for Paul was most of the time.
Courage is needed to fight where the battle is hot. But of course that’s exactly where we need to fight – where the enemy is attacking. I quote:
If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christianity. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point. [attributed to Martin Luther].
So that’s how we’re to fight: not with the weapons of the world, but with the armour of God and the spiritual weapons that God has given us, not just defensively but offensively. And we are to fight not in our own strength because that will get us nowhere, but with strength from God. Then we can be what we need to be – unyielding and courageous.
We fight for the victor’s crown of righteousness which the Lord will award. We fight for the sake of those we love (and remember, we are to love our enemies as well as our friends). We fight for the gospel. Above all, we fight to the glory of God. But fight we must. Fight the good fight of the faith.
Lord Jesus, you have fought and won for us – with no thought for yourself and at unimaginable cost. Strengthen us and equip us with your armour, that we might fight faithfully as your foot soldiers, for the extension of your Kingdom and the glory of your name. Amen.