Fight the good fight

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Good evening! Let’s pray:

Lord God, your know that there are times when we find the Christian life hard. It is a struggle. Thank you for your strengthening Word. 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 as we get to the end of this series on the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which we’ve called ‘How to be church’. We’re focusing on Ephesians 6.10-20, 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 as well.

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. But it’s not less than that. It is a battle, and we have to fight. The celebration of victory follows conflict. One young British soldier who took part in the liberation of France after the D-Day Normandy landings towards the end of World War II 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. We need to get fully engaged in the spiritual battle in which we find ourselves as believers. The apostle Paul writes to his apprentice Timothy in 2 Timothy 2.3:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.

In other words, being involved in Christian ministry is like being on active service. And as Paul looks back on his own life, expecting to be executed any time, he says (2 Timothy 4.6-7):

…the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight…

So what’s the nature of this good fight? I want to take a look at the answers the Bible gives to two questions. First, Who do we fight against? Secondly, How do we fight? So:

1. Who do we fight against?

Of course, the simple answer is that we fight against our enemy who is seeking to destroy us. But who is our enemy? Well the Bible’s 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 adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking 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 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.

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:

…the passions of the flesh,…wage war against your soul.

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 fighting 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 is clear that:

…a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Now, the world attacks the church in two ways. It attacks from outside. And it attacks from within. From outside, it uses persecution or pressure to try to get rid of the church. So, for example, Barnabas Fund reports that on the 6th September, Nigerian pastor Alubara heard voices outside his home at 2 a.m. Realising it was militants about to attack, he tried to warn the other residents of his mainly Christian village. But as he ran out shouting to warn the sleeping villagers, the gunmen shot him. He stumbled on and then fell to the ground, still yelling his warning. The gunmen shot him dead. Two other Christian men died in the attack and two Christians were abducted. We’re asked to pray for the Lord’s consolation and provision for the widows and children of the martyred men.

In this country the attacks come not from bombs and bullets but from the pressures of godless 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, as we’ve seen earlier in this series. And those attacks can be even more destructive, like a cancer within. Who, then, do we fight against in this spiritual war? We fight against Satan, our own sinful natures, and the world. Next question:

2. 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:

i. We are not to use the weapons of the world. What are the weapons of the world? They are: hatred; collaboration with evil; and physical violence. 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. So we should never use physical violence or coercion in our 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.

ii. We should put on and use the armour of God – and the spiritual weapons he gives us. Ephesians 6.11:

Put on the whole armour of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.

And again in Ephesians 6.13:

Therefore take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.

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 Ephesians 6.14-17:

Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation…

The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the readiness given by 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 Ephesians 6.16 “the flaming darts 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. Ephesians 6.17-18:

take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…

Prayer turns the battle 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, which are Satan’s great weapon. So we need to work at getting clear in our minds what the Bible’s teaching is in the areas where we face a challenge. We need to be thinking more carefully about where we have opportunities to further the growth of God’s Kingdom by speaking God’s truth, at work, in school or university, at home, in political and social life.

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 take the battle to the enemy. Then the third answer to the question, How do we fight is:

iii. 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 the strength of his might.

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 unyielding and courageous. Four times in four verses (Ephesians 6.11-14) Paul urges us to ‘stand’, ‘withstand’, ‘stand firm’, ‘stand’. 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 bold. This is Ephesians 6.19-20:

and [pray] also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

In other words, pray 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 – with the armour of God and the spiritual weapons of the Word and prayer. Both in defensive and offence. Not in our own strength, but with strength from God. Then we can be what we need to be – unyielding and courageous. We fight evil for the sake of those we love (and remember, we are to love our enemies as well as our friends). Above all, we fight to the glory of God. But fight we must. Fight the good fight of the faith. Let’s pray:

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 the good fight faithfully as your foot soldiers, for the extension of your Kingdom and the glory of your name. Amen.

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