Standing Firm

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As we consider our Founders' vision for the church, we see both a backward and a forward look implied in those two words, "maintain and promulgate". For this church to "maintain … sound scriptural and evangelical truth", means looking back to foundational Christian truth and to check that you are not drifting from it. To "promulgate" that truth is to look forward and to pray and plan ways and means of helping more people know that truth and live by it.

So this morning I want us to think about why that is not easy or we are tempted not to do that from our New Testament reading, Ephesians 6.10-20. And my headings this morning are, after a short introduction, first, Withstand in the Evil Day, secondly, Having Done All, and, thirdly, Stand Firm. So, by way of introduction, will you look at verses 12-13:

"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. 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."

Towards the end of 2015 Time magazine had a double issue with the cover line "World War ISIS". This "world war", of course, has been in the headlines throughout last year from its beginning to end. At the beginning of 2015, on 7th January, there was the attack on Charlie Hebdo staff and a French supermarket, leaving 17 dead. Then before Christmas there was the 13th November Paris attack with 129 dead. However, hard as it may seem, of more significance is what we could call "World War Satan". For that is something infinitely more evil than ISIS can ever be. But such is the secularisation of the West that it is hard even for Christians to believe that that is the case. Paul, however, is arguing that such a spiritual war is going on, and that is why you are, as verse 13 says, to ...

"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"

So spiritually it is not peace time but a time of war. It is always important to pay attention to the metaphors in the Bible. Yes, the Bible talks about the Christian life as a "walk" or pilgrimage. But never forget its talk about the Christian life as a "fight" or war. So you read that Paul tells Timothy to…

"fight the good fight of the faith" (1 Tim 6.12)

But notice that it is a good fight and a fight of the faith, not against people. Yes, in Old Testament times the people of God engaged in terrestrial warfare. But with the coming of Christ the people of God were taught that "all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Mat 26.52). The Bible teaches that the State alone now can use physical force. The people of God are only to use spiritual force as they engage in this supernatural conflict that is behind all human conflict. As our passage says (verse 12):

"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."

Well, so much by way of introduction. That brings us to our first heading and Withstand in the Evil Day. Look again at verse 13:

"Therefore [because of the spiritual war] 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"

We need to ask two questions. One is "what is the evil day"? And the second one is, "how do you withstand in the evil day"? First, then, "what is the evil day?" Answer – it is when the heat is really on – "in the evil day". Paul has just said, when using that other metaphor of walking or pilgrimage in Ephesians 5 verses 15-16:

"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil."

Paul is saying that the days are evil because of the evil one and his evil forces. They are still able to shape a world that refuses to follow Christ and refuses to live in the light of his victory at Calvary over those evil forces. Put that together with our verse and you can see Paul is saying that this side of heaven there is danger and evil all the time, but sometimes especially so. And so the days are evil but there is the evil day when the devil is especially active. I am sure you know that from your own experience.

Ian Garrett took a sad funeral last Wednesday of a young mother in her forties. She had suddenly died just before Christmas from an aneurysm leaving a husband and a young daughter. As a young student in one of my vacations, I experienced a similar situation. My own mother, in her 40s, had hardly ever been ill. She was alive and, seemingly, well in the morning, but dead in the evening, also through a sudden aneurysm. There were significant problems that followed. Yes, there are evil days and there is the evil day that comes upon us from time to time.

So then comes the second question, "how do you withstand in the evil day"? Five short things can be said. First, you need to realize that all suffering is ultimately the fruit of sin and the Fall. The Fall was when there was a co-operation between the devil and our first parents. And in varying degrees that co-operation has never ceased; and suffering was, and is, the ultimate result.

Secondly, realize that God can use your negative circumstances for good. So elsewhere classically Paul could write about his "thorn in the flesh" (whatever that was), as follows (2 Cor 12.7-9):

"to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'"

Thirdly, suffering can be used for good like that, because God is in control. Paul's thorn was not in itself good. It was a messenger of Satan. It was a weapon in his arsenal. But God could use what was Satanic for good as he is in control.

Fourthly, realise that how you react to "the evil day" is so important. A clergyman friend of mine once talked with two young fathers within a period of about four months. Both had tragically lost their children of four or five. One had died of leukaemia; the other had drowned in a swimming pool. One father had been a professing Christian but was now, through the experience, a militant atheist. The other father had been a humanist and was now, through the experience, almost a Christian. You see, your reactions are very important. If you become bitter and resentful, you still have your suffering plus having to cope with your bitterness and resentment. That may be worse for you and certainly for other people. But if you open yourself to the grace and love of Christ, this will completely transform your situation. Who needs to do that this morning?

If so, fifthly, you particularly need the three pieces of spiritual armour of verses 15, 16 and 17. You need the gospel of peace (which is your spiritual footwear), the shield of faith, and the helmet of salvation. In simple terms that means having faith in Christ. Then with forgiveness of sins through his cross and new life through his resurrection (that is salvation), you will have peace with God, with others and yourself.

Well, so much for "withstanding in the evil day". That brings us to our second heading, Having Done All.

This relates to the fact that Paul is emphasizing in verses 11 and 13 "the whole armour of God". All the armour is necessary in this spiritual war, not just some. However, "faith" seems highlighted because it is needed "in all circumstances" (verse 16). And the belt of "truth" (verse 14) coming first in the list is also highlighted. So we really need a series of sermons on each of these pieces of armour. With limited time, this morning I have to be selective. And because "truth" is the object of our Founders' vision, I will say three things more about "truth".

First, I need to say something about the truth of spiritual warfare. Perhaps you are asking, "Is it reasonable to believe in the reality of a personal devil and these supernatural evil powers?" Well, Jesus thought and taught so. In his Parable of the Sheep and the Goats he clearly refers to the "devil and his angels" (Mat 25.41). And modern man cannot dismiss these, the devil and his angels, as mythology. A perceptive commentator has said this: modern man …

"… may not think in terms of principalities and powers, and may consider himself emancipated from outmoded beliefs in angels and demons. But he is all too conscious of powerful and malignant forces operating against him, which he will not hesitate to describe as demonic."

Without doubt Jesus and the Bible teach that these are intelligent agencies. And, of course, because we are fighting on this spiritual plane we need not only spiritual armour but also spiritual power. So Paul says in verse 10 of chapter 6:

"be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might."

Also Paul knew, apart from the reality of exorcism, that the evil in the world is not accounted for by the sum total of humanity's individual sins of commission and omission. He knew, and common sense agrees, that there is a surplus of evil over and above that sum total. And it is not reasonable to say that this surplus is an impersonal force. No! It is more reasonable to say that it is personal as it accounts for more facts, let alone Jesus' teaching. So we are dealing in the case of the devil with an intelligent being and with what the ESV translates in verse 11 as "the schemes of the devil". The old King James' version translates them as the devil's "wiles".

That brings us to the second thing that needs to be said about truth, namely that these deceiving schemes relate to all of life. And that also is why we have to "do all" in the fight for truth. In our Home Groups this past week we studied Ephesians chapter 5.3-6.9, which warns of the following – I am simply listing from the text:

"sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talk, crude joking, the unfruitful works of darkness, things done in secret of which it is shameful to speak, drunkenness and debauchery"

and then by implication:

"husbands not self sacrificially loving their wives as their own bodies, and wives not submitting to or respecting their husbands; children disobeying parents and fathers provoking their children to anger and not bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, and servants disobeying masters and masters threatening servants."

The devil, of course, wants you to trip up over the modern counterparts of any or all of those. Then before that in Ephesians Paul was writing about the need for harmony in the more public life of the church. For chapter 4 says that you need Christ-like graces and virtues – in fact Christ-like love - for unity in the church. And to counter all those temptations (in your personal, home and church life) you need truth and for that, chapter 4 says, you need faithful Christian ministers (I quote)…

"…so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (4.14).

But cutting off the supply of truth seems to be the number one stratagem of the devil. It was the stratagem in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 and in the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4. The Bible gives the devil all sorts of names, from devil, meaning accuser; Apollyon, meaning destroyer; the tempter; the evil one; and there are others. But as important as any is one name in John 8.44. There Jesus says this of the Devil:

"He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies."

And this name of the devil is so important, namely "liar and the father of lies". No wonder Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4.4 that …

"… the god of this world [yet another name for the devil] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Cor 4.4).

And that brings me to the third thing that needs to be said about truth in this spiritual war. And that is that truth on its own is not enough. It must always go with the next piece of spiritual armour, (verse 14) "the breastplate of righteousness" which is so often the evidence for truth. In the light of 'salvation' being the helmet, this probably means moral righteousness and right behaviour in private and public, and a necessary consequence of obeying the truth. And how that combination of truth and righteousness is needed today as we look out on 2016 – truth about the uniqueness and finality of Christ; truth about the reality of heaven and hell; truth about the misery and billion pounds costs from the rejection of the Christian sex ethic; truth about the impossibility of neutral, value free education; and so on and on. But also truth requires the final piece of equipment listed here which is not armour but a weapon. And this is so vital. For as the devil seeks to destroy and undermine the truth, the believer is to go on the attack with the ultimate truth. Verse 17 describes this as …

"the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

And that apostolic word of God we now have supremely as "God's Word Written" (to quote the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England), the Bible. Well, so much for all the armour and especially truth.

That brings us to our third heading, Stand Firm

The thought here is of having withstood a great onslaught from the enemy – "in the evil day" – but then remaining to defend your position with the enemy having retreated. And this is a dangerous time. For the pressure is off, and so discipline can slip and you become vulnerable to unprepared attacks. So how do you stand firm? Well certainly, it involves verse 18 (and where Paul no longer uses picture language):

"… 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."

Notice four universals – that fourfold use of the word "all". We are to pray at all times (regularly and constantly), with all prayer and supplication (formally and informally), with all perseverance (so we need to be disciplined like good soldiers), making supplication for all the saints (we need to pray not only for ourselves and families but other Christians in the church and further afield). Yes, prayer is fundamental to standing firm.

Life is getting hard for Christian people in the West. We have nothing like the terrible experiences of many Christians in many parts of the world. But as we thank God for bringing us through 2015 with the completion of St Joseph's building, and as we face the future, let us face the reality that the days are evil and there is a spiritual war going on. So let's remember these lessons of Paul and his teaching in Ephesians 6 on spiritual warfare as we move on into 2016, and not least his teaching about prayer and prayer for standing firm.

I, therefore, conclude with verses 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, … that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak."

In the light of that Pauline request and because of the importance of truth and our Founders' vision "for the maintenance and promulgation of sound, scriptural and evangelical truth", can I ask for this? Namely, that throughout the year, with so much doctrinal confusion in the wider Western church, you, too, pray for all of us involved in the preaching and teaching ministry at this church for a similar clarity and courage.

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