August 17, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations:
But how does it all end? After plunking us down in John 6 for the whole of August in Year B, the Lectionary puts on the brakes before we can get to the end of the story where the REACTION of the crowds to all of this is recorded. So I would suggest to my preaching partners that you extend the reading to verse 69 to round out this series of reflections on Jesus’ at-times strange words in this chapter.
Because there we see that the ending to this chapter and all its teachings on bread and spiritual food is not the proverbial “happy ending.” This whole chapter has been about food, both literal and metaphorical, both physical and spiritual. It began with a great feast as Jesus fed a large crowd from almost nothing. It proceeded from there to talk a lot about food and drink.
Eating is the most common of activities. To live, each of us eats every day. That was just as true 2,000 years ago when Jesus spoke to the crowds. But our familiarity with eating should cause us to have sympathy for the people who listened to Jesus that day and who were quite put off by what he said. It did, after all, sound odd. We’ve all seen those TV ads that declare, “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner.” Well, here Jesus says, “Me: I’m What’s For Dinner.”
Well, we think, obviously he was speaking metaphorically, but even metaphors need to translate into something you can understand. If a poet writes, “My beloved is a tender flower in springtime,” we have a pretty easy time figuring out what he means. But what if a poet wrote, “My beloved is a loin of pork served with sour cherry chutney”? OK, that’s a metaphor, too, but it’s such a weird one, you’d find it simply unintelligible. (Or you would then REALLY want to know what he means by that!)
So also in John 6. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had spoken non-metaphorically about manna–the heavenly wonder bread that had kept the Israelites alive in their forty-year wilderness wanderings. Then Jesus did a little springboard off literal manna so as to slide into the more metaphorical idea that God’s true bread from heaven is his Word. The people responded, “Sir, give us this bread,” which prompted Jesus to say, “I am the bread of life.”
So far, so good. Metaphorically speaking it was not unusual to describe teaching in food terms. Paul did that, too, calling simple gospel teachings spiritual “milk” whereas deeper ideas were the “meat” of the gospel. People still talk this way. How many times haven’t we listened to TV commentators criticize a politician’s speech by asking, “Where’s the beef?” Others might say that someone’s presentation was “thin beer” or “poor soup.”
So for Jesus to say, “I am the bread of life,” wasn’t too scandalous. Jesus was known as a great teacher and so here appears to be comparing his words to bread, to a kind of spiritual cuisine that could feed your soul. Had Jesus stopped there, things may have gone better in John 6. But next thing you know, Jesus says that the bread in question is not his teaching but his own flesh. Getting a bit more graphic yet, Jesus says that what you needed to wash down his flesh was a cup brimming with some of his blood.
This is where Jesus lost a lot of the crowd. Jesus lost them because he was making them lose their lunch. It was disgusting! In fact, as noted in the previous set of sermon starters on the Center for Excellence in Preaching website, earlier in the passage Jesus switched his verb from the typical Greek word for eating, phagein, to trogein, which means “to eat” but in the sense of the way a cow chews its cud. This could be paraphrased as “chewing with your mouth open.”
It seems Jesus is being deliberately provocative. Of course, as he makes clear after most of the crowd had fled, he really was being metaphorical. But if the metaphor was strong, it was only because the reality behind the metaphor was stronger still. But the only way you are going to accept such a startling teaching is if Jesus’ Father reveals it to you. But lots of people did not want to stick with a man who talked that way and so they left.
Then, in a touching verse, Jesus turns to his disciples with moist eyes and with a quivering chin. “Are you going to leave me, too?” he quietly asks. Peter’s answer is even more moving than the question. “Lord, to whom else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It’s the gift of faith that shows you that. “No one can come to me,” Jesus says, “unless the Father enables him.”
Christians regularly gather together to eat what we (too casually) call “the body and blood of our Lord.” In the earliest days of the church, it seems that this sacramental meal was often incorporated into a larger feast in a kind of potluck supper to which all contributed. The church has long intermingled regular eating with sacramental eating. But if we too quickly chalk up the sacramental eating of Jesus’ body and blood as “just” a metaphor, we may miss the power of what happens at the Lord’s Supper. The Father brings his Son to us so that we can commune, really and truly, with the One who gave up his flesh and blood for us. “You are what you eat,” they say, and given what we eat each time we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are clearly to be Jesus. We are Jesus to one another, we are Jesus to our community, we are Jesus to the whole world.
Today as long ago, Jesus still asks, “Are you going to leave me, too?” As preachers, we want to help make it the case that the members of our congregations will always be able to say in reply to this question, “And just where would we go, Lord? You have the words of life!”
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
It’s sad to see people abandoning Jesus as John 6 concludes. But do you think that precisely such a winnowing out of the crowd was Jesus’ intention all along? Do you think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing in being so provocative in his language about eating and drinking his own flesh and blood? Surely he was not ignorant of the fact that people would find this gross and offensive. When in verse 61 Jesus asks, “Does this offend you?” you have the feeling that he knew full well that it was offensive, at least to those who were not being granted the gift of faith by the Holy Spirit and at the Father’s behest.
Still, what does this departure of so many people tell us about the fundamental nature of the gospel? It seems that in all four gospel accounts, including John’s, the more true to his message and purpose Jesus stuck, the thinner the crowds became. The more he spoke God’s own truth, the more people turned away from him. Everybody liked the free lunch at the beginning of John 6 even as people liked the free wine in John 2 and the miracles that followed in John 3-5. But when it comes to the harder truths of the gospel, when it comes to the message that salvation comes not by what we do, think, perform, or believe but only when the Father draws us in, people are less apt to get enthused.
As someone once observed, there is a difference between actively giving offense and someone’s taking offense. Sometimes through carelessness or through calculation, we offend someone by deliberately saying or doing something we know will rankle this other person. This kind of giving offense is the kind of activity that Paul and others in the New Testament warn us against. But sometimes people take offense simply because we spoke the truth. Maybe we even “spoke the truth in love” and yet still someone was offended insofar as it challenged some long-held belief that this person is loath to give up.
As preachers, we are not to be deliberately provocative so as to rattle people’s cages for the sake of rattling them and making a splash. But even if we know that some in the congregation won’t like to hear a certain idea, if we are convinced it springs directly from Scripture—if we’re sure this is God’s truth and not just some hobbyhorse idea of our own—then we must speak it even if people leave the church as a result.
None of us wants to have to say to those who remain, “Are you going to leave me, too?” But if the few who remain can answer by saying something along the lines of, “No, you are speaking the words of eternal life, and we know that this is exactly what we need to hear,” then we are being faithful even as Jesus was faithful.
Verse 62’s reference to Jesus’ “ascending” to where he was before seems an odd insertion into a passage that had otherwise not come anywhere near broaching such an image or idea of an ascension. Nor does Jesus do much with this himself in the subsequent verses. But as Donald Juel once pointed out, this does hang together with earlier references in John 6 of Jesus’ being the one who had “come down” from heaven. The offense people were feeling toward Jesus was all of one piece. If he really is the Son of God who came from the Father and who would return to the Father, then those who found Jesus offensive were proving themselves to be, quite simply, on the wrong side of history (salvation history in this case). But as Juel further points out, this fleeting reference to Jesus’ going away is a preview for the extensive material still to come in John 16 when Jesus talks so very much about his going away for a while but how this would prove advantageous for the disciples in that it would allow him to send them the Spirit, who would lead them into all truth.
Mark Salzman’s novel, Lying Awake, is set in a Carmelite monastery just outside of Los Angeles. The book details the lives of the nuns who live there and ultimately ponders the meaning of what constitutes a genuine religious experience of God’s presence. The nuns devote themselves to prayer and contemplation, allowing the rhythm of liturgy to set the cadence of their lives. All their thoughts are bent toward the Holy and the Divine and so they eschew anything that could distract them.
One of the perceived threats to a spiritual life is food and drink. And so when, three times a day, the nuns gather in the monastery’s refectory for meals, they are not allowed to speak a single word. The only one who does speak is that day’s appointed reader, who reads from Scripture and classic works of Christian devotions while the other nuns silently take in their sustenance.
The goal at mealtime was to do anything-but pay attention to the food. At the head table where the Mother Superior sits, there is a calvarium, a human skull, sitting in the center of the table, serving as a reminder to the nuns that everyone will die one day anyway and so food and drink were of only marginal significance. And so the nuns made as little noise as possible during the meal in the firm belief that maintaining a proper spiritual focus was never more threatened than when taking food into the body. It was, therefore, every bit as important to observe proper decorum in the dining hall as in church.
As some of you know, a monastery such as this one reflects a strain of asceticism and austerity that runs fairly deep in the Christian tradition. It is not, however, a particular hallmark of the Reformed tradition that tended to view the physical creation and all its bounties as profound gifts of God. Whereas the nuns in Salzman’s novel are convinced that pondering food would distract them from God, Reformed types are more apt to think that not celebrating food is a sign of ingratitude toward God. Because it is striking how frequently Scripture yokes the image of a feast with God’s salvation.
The nuns in the novel Lying Awake hoped incessantly for vivid experiences of God’s real presence among them. They were so focused on this goal that they ate their food as though not really eating lest they get pulled away from God. But every time we gather at Jesus’ dinner table—and indeed, every time we gather at any dinner table—we should see in food and drink not a distraction from all things holy but a connection to the truth of God’s creation care, to the reality of our salvation through Christ, and to the final truth that one day, what will be good news for us will be good news for also the rest of creation.
I Kings 8:(1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43
Author: Scott Hoezee
The last few verses of this lection strike me as much as anything. So much of the Old Testament is all-Israel all-the-time. There is warfare and defeat of other nations, dark warnings about inter-marriage with Canaanites, the threat of foreign religious practices wheedling their way into the faith of Israel. It’s easy at times to forget that when God kicked off the whole project that led to the nation of Israel, it came via the promise to Abram that through him and his descendants “all nations” would be blessed. Everyone would be in the picture eventually, even if for a long while just one nation would be in the center of the frame.
But a few years ago when I did a comprehensive study of the Bible for a study committee report on immigration for my denomination, I discovered that all through the Old Testament are more than a few texts that remind Israel to be open toward and embracing of “the stranger who is within your gates.” And the reason Israel was to be kind to foreigners was very consistently pointed out: the Israelites were to remember that once upon a time they were the strangers within Egypt’s gates and if it ultimately was true that the Egyptians massively mistreated the Israelites, that was only all-the-more reason to make sure the Israelites never did the same to others. Israel needed to hope, in fact, that more people rather than fewer would come their way (not that they really understood this: see, for instance, Jonah!).
In 1 Kings 8, as Solomon brings his very long prayer of dedication in for a landing, he makes sure to include a plea for God to hear the prayers of even foreigners if they, indeed, prayed to Yahweh, the God of Israel. It is a startling thing for Solomon to claim in some ways. After all, to most outside perspectives, all the other claims in this prayer are offensive in their religious particularity, keying as they do on the idea that there is indeed only one true God and you can access him by praying in only one direction; viz., the Temple in Jerusalem. Pluralistic this isn’t!
Of course, these days, even for Christians, this idea of praying toward a specific place seems odd. We see Muslims making pilgrimages to Mecca and also bowing down in prayer several times a day but only and always in the direction of Mecca, and it seems foreign to us. We can’t imagine feeling the need to pray in a certain geographical direction. Most of us don’t need a compass before we bow our heads in prayer. Even our fascination with “the Holy Land” and the memorable trips some of us have taken to Israel are not on a par with some kind of pilgrimage to a specific location that alone fulfills our faith.
Yet when you read I Kings 8, it becomes clear that Jerusalem and the Temple Solomon built there had just that effect on the ancient Israelites. Over and over again in this chapter, Solomon talks about the Israelites’ praying toward Jerusalem and its Temple. No matter how far away from the city they might be at any given moment, when they prayed, they, like Muslims today, beamed their petitions in a very definite direction. Jerusalem was the central, sacred site because that’s where God “lived” on the earth.
But even so, Solomon makes sure to include all people in his prayer and so sent a signal to all who heard him that day that although Israel may have been the singular dwelling place for the Most High God at that time, Israel could never quite claim ownership of that God any more than they had private access to him.
As people of Pentecost, this is in one sense easier for us to swallow today. But even so, it is striking how insular Christians can get. Maybe it’s because I have been born and raised in the United States, but as a pastor I can testify—as can many of you pastors reading this—that many church-going folks in this country have a pretty hard time wrapping their minds around the global picture of the church. “God and Country” can go together all-too-easily in ways that short-circuit an appreciation for the wide welter of peoples who call on the Name of the Lord today, some of whom come at that Lord from angles and experiences that may be vastly different from the average American but that are no less ardent and faithful. Solomon would have us remember that their prayers are heard, too.
“Will God really dwell on the earth?” Solomon asked long ago. The gospel gives us the ultimate answer to that question by showing Jesus of Nazareth dwelling among us, full of grace and truth—he was, as John also reminds us, the living, walking, talking, breathing Tabernacle/Temple of God among us. But if Solomon was right that the open eyes of God would always be upon his Temple in Jerusalem, then we can know for sure that those same open eyes are upon the people of God today, too—on all God’s people in all places. As the old hymn puts it, in Christ there is no east or west, no north or south. No one is denied access to the one true God in Christ. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter where you came from, when you pray to God, that God listens. He listens for his name alone really is great.
The Closing Ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics featured a massive celebration of British contributions to pop culture. But of all the songs that were sung, one was lingered over more than most and featured lots of choreography and even a clever way to have a large group of dancers bring together a number of huge “puzzle” pieces to reconstruct a 3-D likeness of the original singer’s face. It was, of course, John Lennon whose face the dancers formed and it was, of course, his best-known song “Imagine” that was being sung at the time. (Nevermind the irony of a song that imagined “no country” being sung in the middle of a massive celebration of a particular country . . .) You can see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgPRI6-8Efw
John Lennon had a noble goal: figuring out what could be done to bring about greater peace and harmony in our violent, factious world. In “Imagine” Lennon invited people to imagine how much better life might be if only we could get rid of the things that most often lead people to fight. So he asked us to imagine no country and so nothing to live or die for in terms of patriotic causes. He suggested we imagine having no possessions that we usually fight to keep. But he also suggested we imagine how much better this world would be if we got rid of religion. If there were no doctrines to squabble over, no God in whose name we would launch crusades or jihads or inquisitions, then perhaps global tranquility would follow.
Lennon had the right goal but the wrong way to get there. Because the fact is that as created in God’s image, humanity is irreducibly and irresistibly religious. In fact, someone recently noted the irony that if you were to go to New York City on an average Sunday, you probably would not find vast throngs of young people attending church. Many of our nation’s youth don’t walk through church doorways most weeks to sing hymns, light candles, say prayers, or assume the posture of being reverent and worshipful. But on most days in New York you could go to Central Park West near 72nd Street to a place called “Strawberry Fields.” And there you would find a number of young to middle-aged people lighting candles, laying down bouquets of flowers, sometimes also singing and taking on the kind of hushed tones of reverence most of us experience mainly when in church. What is this quasi-religious place where people seem rather worshipful? It’s a shrine to John Lennon where throngs of worshipers gather to commemorate, to remember, to believe Lennon’s vision.
The very man who wanted to rid the world of religion has become himself an object of a kind of worship (or at least worship-like devotion). Religion, like so much else in life, is susceptible to abuse and is too often turned in bad directions. Religion warrants careful handling and proper channeling, but what seems all-but certain is that we cannot “imagine” it away. To be human is to worship someone or something.
As in Central Park, our very human religious impulse often gets tied to a specific place. All through history shrines have been built at various sacred locations. For instance, in the Book of Genesis, Jacob had a dream of a ladder going up to heaven. When he awoke, he built a monument and called that special place “Bethel,” which is Hebrew for “the house of God.” If you discover God in a certain place, you mark it!
For the ancient Israelites, that place of God’s earthly dwelling was for a long time anchored to the Temple in Jerusalem and, more specifically, to that most holy place where the Ark of the Covenant rested. For believers in Christ Jesus the Lord, “Bethel” is now most anywhere we go, so long as we are true to and transparent to the Savior whom we serve and to whom we are supposed to witness in everything we do.
Author: Doug Bratt
In Psalm 84 the poet expresses her love for God’s “dwelling place.” In fact, her longing to be “in God’s courts” is so deep that she insists that it fills her soul, heart and flesh, in other words, her whole being.
While David had wanted to build a dwelling place for the Lord, God had said “no.” In fact, instead of letting David build that home for the Lord, God promised to build a “house” for David that’s an eternal royal dynasty. However, in 2 Samuel 7:13 God did promise David that his son Solomon would eventually build a dwelling place for God’s “Name.” I Kings 8 describes the Israelites’ pilgrimage to Jerusalem to witness that temple’s dedication. As Solomon dedicates that temple, he prays that God will hear and answer the prayers of those who worship the Lord in that dwelling place.
Yet Psalm 84’s language suggests that the poet is somehow unable to join others in praying to the Lord in God’s dwelling. He doesn’t, however, explain just why he can’t join other pilgrims in going up to Zion. Is he in exile far from home? Or is a foreign power making it impossible for the poet to make that pilgrimage? We simply know that while psalmists often express praise to God, this psalmist largely expresses his pain at being unable to worship in God’s dwelling place. In fact, the poet expresses no overt praise to God, only pleas for God to say “yes” to his prayer for a reunion with God’s presence in God’s house.
The psalmist describes God’s dwelling place as “lovely.” The Hebrew word for that adjective is yadid, a word the Old Testament typically uses to describe people. It often means “beloved.” So the psalmist views God’s dwelling much the way she’d view a dear family member or friend.
Because the psalmist loves God’s dwelling place, she expresses her, dare we say, jealousy of sparrows and swallows. After all, while she can’t go up to God’s dwelling, those tiny birds have a home near its altar. In fact, perhaps ironically, those tiny birds find nesting places close to the very spot where God’s fire consumes worshipers’ sacrifices. In that otherwise “dangerous” spot, even the sparrows and swallows for whom Jesus insists God cares find a protected home, while the poet can’t get anywhere near it.
The poet also expresses his jealousy of people who have relatively easy access to God’s dwelling. After all, while some make regular pilgrimages there and others serve as the temple’s doorkeepers, the psalmist finds himself on the outside looking in, perhaps with the look of a hungry child peering in through the window of a candy store. The poet considers those who are able to make pilgrimage to God’s dwelling to be “blessed,” or perhaps more accurately, “happy.”
Of course, the poet recognizes such pilgrimage is arduous. While we’re not sure to what exactly “Baca” refers, it’s clearly an extraordinarily dry place. Yet as pilgrims’ strength wanes there, the poet notes that God graciously provides for them, much as God provided for the Israelites on their way from Egyptian slavery through the wilderness to the land of promise. God somehow even causes springs to bubble up in the wilderness and autumnal rains to soak it so that pilgrims find all the strength they need to complete their journey to God’s dwelling.
The psalmist longs to join other worshipers in making such a pilgrimage to God’s dwelling place because though the journey is strenuous, even just one day in God’s house is better than a thousand days anywhere else. She asserts that it’s, in fact, better to be on the temple’s fringes than to be in the middle of the home of wicked people.
Interestingly, in the midst of expressing his longing to join other worshipers in God’s dwelling, the psalmist also prays that God will bless Israel’s king. Perhaps that’s because only as God the cosmic King blesses Israel’s earthly king will the psalmist ever be free to again make pilgrimage to the temple. Only as God the heavenly king makes Israel’s king prosper can all of God’s Israelite children make pilgrimage to God’s dwelling.
Of course, God’s dwelling place that was Jerusalem’s temple no longer exists. In fact, in a place that’s now hotly contested by three of the world’s major religions, only part of the last temple’s wall even exists. So how can Christian citizens of the 21st century appropriate this psalm in a way that honors both its original context and the Spirit’s longing to apply it to worshipers’ lives?
Some Christians have traditionally seen God’s “dwelling place” as both the heavenly realm and, someday, the new heaven and new earth. In that sense, the pilgrimage to God’s house is the Christian’s earthly pilgrimage from life to death, from now into the new creation. The longing the poet expresses to be in God’s dwelling place would then be the longing God gives God’s children to be with the Lord.
Others interpreters point to Psalm 84’s emphasis on God’s dwelling as a place where God’s sons and daughters worship the Lord. They suggest that worshipers should see this psalm as referring to the supreme good of experiencing God’s presence in corporate worship. God, after all, doesn’t just live in us, by God’s Spirit, making us in a real sense God’s dwelling places. God also promises in Christ to be wherever even just two of three of God’s children come together in Christ’s name.
Of course, those who preach and teach Psalm 84 want to be careful not to draw a straight line between God’s temple dwelling place and church buildings. While God graciously invites God’s children to worship the Lord in churches, among other places, it’s the gathered worshipers rather than buildings with which God primarily identifies himself and God’s presence.
Perhaps, however, we might “stretch the envelope” a bit to suggest that the psalmist’s longing to be in God’s dwelling parallels modern worshipers’ longing for a close relationship with the Lord. After all, Jesus Christ was God’s “tabernacle” among God’s children during his lifetime. So we might think of a longing to be in God’s dwelling as a longing to be “in Christ,” in an intimate, faithful relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Given those (and other possibilities), how might those who preach and teach Psalm 84 think about the psalmist’s longing in contemporary terms? We might see it as the expression of God’s children who are unable to join the Christian community for corporate worship. Illness, work and even persecution preclude some Christians from joining fellow Christians in experiencing God’s dwelling place that is corporate worship.
Yet we might be able to stretch that longing even farther? What about those who long to feel God’s presence but feel only absence and alienation? And what about those who long to believe but find themselves somehow unable to do so? Might we recognize that they too long for God’s dwelling with them? God, after all, created people for a faithful relationship with himself. Anything less than such a relationship precludes the complete blessedness or happiness to which the psalmist refers at the end of Psalm 84.
A few years ago my family and I visited China. Our visit stretched over Christmas Day. As we strolled around an ancient walled city among people on whose lives Christmas Day seemed to make little impact, it hardly felt to us like Christmas.
However, near the end of our visit, we glimpsed an ordinary brick building with a red cross on top of it. We quietly opened its door to peer inside. When Christmas Day worshipers saw us, they warmly welcomed us in, ushered us to seats near the front of the sanctuary and gave us hot tea to drink. There we joined them to worship Jesus Christ.
There was nothing particularly lovely about the church building. In fact, its Christmas decorations seemed to us almost garish. The congregation appeared to be made up of quite ordinary people. We didn’t understand even one word of the service. Yet it was the most “lovely” dwelling place of God I’ve ever visited. The Holy Spirit, after all, seemed to fill the place and its worshipers.
Perhaps those who preach and teach Psalm 84 might reflect on their own similar experiences. Maybe it was in an ordinary or even ugly building. Perhaps fellow worshipers were very unfamiliar. Yet you sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit that made it one of God’s lovely dwelling places.
Author: Stan Mast
This is now our eighth week in Paul’s magnificent letter to the Ephesians. We have moved from the heights to the depths, from Paul’s soaring revelation of the mystery of the Gospel to his down and dirty commands for everyday living, from the church’s witness to the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” to the church’s battle with those same “rulers and authorities.” Most of our secular contemporaries and even some fellow church members might say that we moved from the sublime to the ridiculous with this talk about “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” But Paul thought he could not end his letter without this final word. His outline of Christian morality is difficult to live by, not just because the directions are intrinsically difficult, but also because we encounter fierce opposition from these “spiritual forces of evil” at every turn.
Paul’s message here is counter-cultural in nearly every way. Right out of the gate, his core command to “be strong” smacks of the muscular Christianity that is now very much out of fashion. Such a command will strike some of our listeners as a regrettable return to the overly masculine, patriarchal Christianity that dominated the church for centuries. But Paul doesn’t tie this call to “be strong” to gender at all. Indeed, we are called to be strong quite beyond anything in ourselves; rather, we are to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” So, while there is definitely a place for sermons about gender equality or about the value of weakness (cf. Paul’s own words to that effect in II Corinthians 12), this text calls us to the strength necessary to stand against the attacks of “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Those last words point to the second way this text is counter cultural. Even though young people might enjoy being frightened by horror stories featuring demons and vampires and zombies, no serious sophisticated person actually believes that we are dealing with spiritual forces of evil in our everyday lives. And most self-respecting preachers in my tradition would rather preach about doctrinal disputes or social justice issues or evangelism efforts or personal piety, anything other than spiritual warfare. Indeed, some scholars are convinced that Paul is not talking about personal spiritual beings here at all. “Rulers and authorities and the powers of this dark world” are the impersonal forces that ruin human life, the structural powers that bend individuals in the direction of wickedness, things like racism, sexism, the military industrial complex, and the economic systems that impoverish many while making a few rich. If we define these powers in that impersonal way, we can avoid the embarrassment of having to talk about demons with horns and tails.
While it is undoubtedly true that there are impersonal forces that damage human life, Paul seems to be talking about something else here. Or at least he is saying that behind those impersonal powers there are very real spiritual beings that wage war against the human race, and especially against those who are trying to follow Christ. Paul explicitly mentions “the devil” in verse 11. And his contrast in verse 12 points in the same direction. We are not struggling against flesh and blood, against human beings, but against non-human beings. His point is that we tend to focus on those enemies we can see, while the real enemies are those we cannot see. The enemy is not the Empire or its leader, not the political and military and economic oppression that make life so difficult there in Ephesus. The real enemy is the devil and his legions of demons with their myriad functions and titles, “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” While it is true that we can make too much of spiritual warfare and see demons behind every bush, and while we can make too little of structural evil and neglect the social justice initiatives that change the world for the good, Paul wants us to open our eyes to the power of our spiritual opposition.
If we don’t see the struggle clearly, we will go down to defeat, because we will think that we can live the Christian life in our own strength. This is the third way in which Paul’s words are counter cultural. We live in a world that emphasizes self-help, digging down deep and finding the resources within, even the divine within. Paul knew that we are no match for the “rulers and authorities” that follow the devil, “who goes about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” In this respect, the horror movies that show evil winning are right.
Thus, Paul insists that the only way we can stand in this battle with personal evil is to be strong in the Lord. The verb there is a present imperative passive, which suggests not that we must be strong ourselves, but that we must be strengthened by someone else. That someone else is “the Lord,” by which Paul means Christ Jesus. We will be strengthened “in the Lord,” that is, in union with Christ. He has mighty power to give us; indeed, it is the strength of his might, the strength of his own personal might as the Almighty. In other words, Jesus has all the power we will ever need in our battle with evil. There is really no contest; Jesus has already defeated the enemy on the cross and led them in triumphal procession (Colossians 2:15). Now he sits far above all of them ruling all things for the church (Ephesians 1:20-23). But we won’t have access to all that power for our struggle unless we are “in the Lord,” in daily union and communion with Jesus.
But even the Lord’s infinite power will not be enough for us if we don’t “put on the whole armor of God.” A better way to put it is that God in his power and grace has given us the weapons we need to prevail in this spiritual struggle. But if we don’t “put on” or “take up” or “receive” that armor, we will be defeated again and again. Again, note how counter cultural this is. It is not our pedigree or our education or our bankroll or our health or any of our own resources that will enable us to prevail in the most important battle of our lives. We can only win if we believe Paul’s message and use the spiritual weapons God has already provided. This is a very important message for an accomplished and resourceful church. God has the resources and he has given them to us, but we are responsible to use them.
It’s easy to imagine Paul looking at a Roman soldier as he wrote this letter from prison, “an ambassador in chains.” (verse 20) As he looked from head to toe, he saw the various parts of the regulation armor of the Roman army, and he used that visual analogy to call us to arms. He saw the wide belt around the soldier’s waist on which hung his sword and by which he gathered up his clothes for battle (“gird up your loins”). The comparable spiritual belt, the thing that holds everything together and on which everything hangs, is truth. In verse 11, Paul talks about the “devil’s schemes,” using the word methodeias, which means methods or strategies. According to Jesus in John 8:44, the devil is the father of lies. He attacks not with brute force, but with clever lies, with slithering, whispering half truths (as in Genesis 3). Thus the most important weapon to combat his lies is the truth of God incarnate in and taught by Christ.
In addition, we must put on the “breastplate of righteousness.” To guard his trunk, his vital organs, the soldier wore a breastplate of solid metal. To guard our hearts, we must cover ourselves with the breastplate of righteousness, which might be a reference to the imputed righteousness of Christ or to the personal righteousness of the Christian, or to the latter based upon the former. By relying on the declared righteousness of justification and by practicing the personal righteousness of sanctification, we put on the Kevlar vest that will guard our hearts. By giving in to unrighteousness, we allow the devil to hurt us deeply.
The next article of armor is, like the first two, defensive in nature. To protect their feet, Roman soldiers wore special thick, hobnailed sandals that both protected and anchored their feet in battle. With a good solid foundation, they were ready to fight. Similarly, we must be grounded if we are to battle successfully. Ironically what prepares us for the fight is “the gospel of peace.” Our combat boots are the Good News of Christ’s victory over sin and death and the devil. We’re ready to fight when we know that Good News. It’s hard to fight when you know it’s a lost cause.
The previous weapons could be attached to the body, but the following must be taken in hand, thus Paul’s change of verb. “Take up the shield of faith….” Roman soldiers carried two kinds of shields, one fairly small and the other fairly large. Paul refers to the 2 and ½ foot by 4 foot shield that virtually covered the front of the soldier. It was made of nearly inch thick wood, was wrapped in leather, and was edged with metal. It could be soaked in water before battle, so that it would extinguish the flaming arrows shot by the enemy. The spiritual forces of evil will always be lobbing arrows at us. The defense against them is faith, both The Faith and, more likely, our own personal faith in The Faith. When lies come hissing through the air, our best defense is faith in the truth of God.
Finally, we must receive (dexasthe) two more weapons. God has already given them to us, and now we must receive them, take them in hand. More accurately, we must cover our heads, take shelter under the salvation that is already ours in Christ. The Romans helmet was heavy and hot, so the soldier would wait until the last minute before putting it on. But put it on he did, or his head was vulnerable to attack. Once his helmet was on, he reached for his sword, the only offensive weapon in this panoply. The only way we can take the battle to the enemy is with the Word of God in hand. That’s how Jesus defeated an attacking devil in the wilderness. Three times, he parried the devil’s thrust with the Word of God, “it is written.”
Paul ends his battle plan with a plea for prayer, for themselves and for each other and for him. We can’t stay in Christ and we won’t use the armor, unless we pray and pray and pray “on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” We can’t pray like that on our own. We must pray “in the Spirit.” Some charismatic friends think this refers to the ecstatic kind of prayer that uses other languages, but it is probably a reference to the idea that the Spirit prays with our spirit, even when we cannot find the words (Romans 8). When all is said and done, we can’t succeed in our efforts to defeat the devil unless we pray fervently in the Spirit.
I have one last countercultural note. For Paul, victory means simply standing—not strutting, not chest pounding, not bellowing, but simply standing. If you forget that you are battling the “spiritual forces of evil,” or if you try to fight them in your own strength, or if you don’t use all the armor of God, or if you don’t pray at all times, you will fall into temptation and evil and sin. But you can take your stand. When the evil day comes, when you find yourself under attack, you will be able to stand your ground. And after you have done everything as Paul has directed, you will be left standing, bloody but unbowed before the roaring lion who wanted to devour you. You won’t necessarily see glorious victory in your lifetime, but you can at least hold your ground.
Or to put it more accurately, we can hold Christ’s ground. He has already won the victory. After his resurrection and just before he ascended back to his throne far above all rule and authority, Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….” What the devil promised Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus has accomplished on the cross. He is indeed the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Our duty is to hold on to his territory by battling the evil one in our own lives and by bringing the Good News to other lives and thus making his Kingdom visible. Chafer captures the multiple ways of picturing the Christian life: “as pilgrims we walk, as witnesses we go, as contenders we run, as fighters we stand.” Our culture might not appreciate that last image, but it is essential to Christian living today. Stand firm. That’s the essential command here.
One way to picture our situation is to recall The Battle of the Bulge in World War II. The forces of Adolf Hitler had been decisively defeated on D-Day and were being beaten back to Germany. Their final defeat seemed imminent, but then Hitler launched a counter-offensive. He fiercely attacked the Allied lines and managed to push through in a big way. The battle lines resembled a big bulge, thus, the Battle of the Bulge. For a while it looked as though Hitler might succeed, but the Allies finally stiffened their defense. The line held. They stood firm, and the evil of the Third Reich was defeated. We are engaged in the Devil’s Battle of the Bulge. He can’t win, though it often looks as though he is. In the face of fierce opposition and apparent defeat, we must stand firm.
As we preach about spiritual warfare, we will have to deal with the kind of thing C.S. Lewis talked about in The Screwtape Letters. “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist and a magician with the same delight. This is certainly true about Satan. Some people totally dismiss him as an impersonal force or somebody in a red suit with a pitchfork. On the other end of the spectrum, many people attribute too much power and importance to Lucifer. They feel he is God’s equal.” Paul steers the true course down the middle.