We live in a fast-paced world where unless you are constantly moving, it feels like you are falling behind. This world has trained us to think this way even about our Christian lives. “Fast-paced” isn’t typically what should come to our mind when we think about prayer. Prayer feels slow, dare we say it, unproductive. But it is prayer that Paul emphasizes so much here at the end of this letter.
As Paul makes the final turn in his letter to the Epehesians, he suddenly drops the military imagery and instead exhorts the Ephesians church (and us) on the importance of prayer. He spends quite a bit of time on this here, highlighting its importance to the spiritual fight. He also breaks out the word “all” four times in this brief section before finally requesting that this gift of prayer be applied to him and his calling.
Prayer should be a continual, Bible directed, others-focused way of life
Let’s begin by talking about Paul’s exhortation to be praying “at all times.” This is our first “all” that Paul applies to our prayer life. It should be done at all times. Now obviously, Paul isn’t calling us to have heads bowed, eyes closed, knees bent, deep in prayer 24 hours a day. But what he is calling us to is a heart that is always on a hair-trigger to pray. I came across one guy who put it this way, “I’ve never prayed for more than twenty minutes, but I have never gone twenty minutes without praying.” I think that is what Paul is getting at here. Prayer is just the natural part of your day where you are constantly interacting with God. It should be something that we are familiar with, it is how we treat our phones, isn’t it? We do this with our phones all the time. Whenever we see something interesting, what do we do? We whip out our phones to capture it. Whenever we see nothing interesting, what do we do? We whip out our phones to distract us from being bored. When we are sad and need a numbing, we take it out, when we are celebrating the end of a day, we whip it out, when we wake up, it is often the first thing we see and often the last thing we put it down before we go to sleep. This isn’t an anti-phone statement, but it does illustrate our capacity to do this. We can be connected to something every twenty minutes, even if it isn’t for a very long time. All those pick-ups add up. Even if you change your background on your phone to “Pray” that could help!
If we were to pray every twenty minutes (3 times an hour) for just two minutes at a time, over the course of a day (assuming 15 hours of consciousness), that would be over an hour and a half of prayer every day! Spending just one minute in prayer over that length of time, would be 45 minutes of prayer a day. Now, imagine how many different life situations you would bring into prayer? How might your prayer improve in terms of variety? If you were to talk to God about the things that have happened over the last 20 minutes, you would have a much greater variety of things that you would bring to God in your life.
So it is pretty clear when we are supposed to pray, but how are we supposed to pray? Specifically, what does Paul mean when he talks about prayer “in the Spirit”? Some have thought that praying in the Spirit has meant praying in some sort of unknown, spiritual language that even the prayer doesn’t really know. That isn’t what Paul is talking about here, I don’t think. Contrary to popular conceptions of Him, the Holy Spirit isn’t actually known for being unclear. He is quite clear; He’s the One who wrote the Bible. He has no trouble getting His message across; just look at the book of Acts. What I think Paul is referring to here is something that he wrote back in Romans 8:26-27. If you don’t know what to pray for or how to pray for something, pray that. The Holy Spirit will fix the prayers to what they should have been.
But there is another way that the Holy Spirit guides your prayers: through the Bible. If you want to know what your prayers should be, become familiar with the Book the Holy Spirit wrote. Study the Psalms as the example of prayers for nearly any situation in life. It’s not just the Psalms either. By studying Paul’s letters you can learn what the Christian life should be like and fit everything through that grid. For example, it is perfectly fine to pray for someone’s health (James 5:14), but there is so much more that we could be praying for them. Have you prayed through the fruit of the Spirit and asked the Lord to cultivate those in yourself and in others as well? Do we pray for people’s spiritual health as much as or at least as well as their physical health? That’s what the Holy Spirit prays for us as it says in Romans 8:27 “And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” What is the will of God? 1 Thess 4:3 “your sanctification.” Again, do we pray that people would be healed? Yes, but there is much more that we can also pray for, and that is what praying in the Spirit will bring us. He guides us in His Word how to pray, and then fixes our broken prayers when we get them wrong.
Paul encourages us to pray this way in all of our prayers and petitions to God (two ways of saying the same thing, basically). All of our prayers should be directed by the Holy Spirit, especially those that we offer up for others.
As we get to the latter half of verse 18, we are told to keep alert. The word Paul uses for “alert” means “lie awake, pass sleepless nights.” (Thielman, 434). This is such a powerful image. For those of you who have had to deal with insomnia, when are you ever more alert than that? For whatever reason you are awake, you are intensely aware of yourself and your situation. That’s part of what is so maddening about it! But when it comes to prayer, it is this level of alertness, readiness to pray, especially for others, is what Paul wants us to develop. What does that look like? I think this is getting at a first instinct to an issue is to pray about it. John Piper has an illustration I’ve thought about a lot over the years. He mentions that we often think about prayer as being more like a domestic intercom trying to reach the front desk for more pillows rather than a war radio asking for supplies. When we treat prayer more like the domestic intercom, when a real situation hits us, we don’t reach for it. If we thought about it more like it actually is, a line of communication for a battle, our first instinct is to reach out to the Commander when something shows up on the battlefield.
Paul mentions more about prayer, specifically that we are to persevere in our prayers. This may actually be the hardest part of Paul’s instruction on prayer. We are to keep praying, calling into Command, even when we don’t get the answer right away. Anyone who has been in the Christian life for any length of time has experienced this. You find yourself smacking the side of the radio, as it were, asking God, “Is this thing on?” Maybe you have been praying for a good thing like a spouse or a child, or the growth of the church, or a revival of the gospel and it just continues to be radio silence, or so it seems. It is hard enough when you are praying for something for weeks and months, but it is an entirely different thing when you have been praying for something for decades. One of the commentaries that I read in preparation for this talked about how he prayed for his brother’s salvation for thirty years. Thankfully, that had a happy ending, but I can only imagine what that was like. Perhaps he was encouraged by these words by George Muller: “When asked if he really believed that two men for whose salvation he had prayed for over ﬁfty years would be converted, George Müller of Bristol replied, “Do you think God would have kept me praying all these years if He did not intend to save them?” Both men were converted, one shortly before, the other after Müller’s death. (Kent Hughes).” Obviously, it isn’t a promise from God that whatever you pray for (even good things) will be granted (otherwise there would be a lot more lottery winners), but I think that there is something to Muller’s words that I have seen a number of times even in my own life.
I remember when I was a teenager, there was an adult video store featured prominently on the road on the way to our church at the time. Every time we passed it for three or so years, we prayed that such a place would go out of business. Of all the things to pray for, that was something that the Lord laid on our hearts. After three years, a hurricane came through and damaged it so badly it had to be torn down and never was rebuilt. Now things haven’t always worked that way for me, either. Right out of seminary, I was praying for a specific job that I was pretty deep into the interview process with that didn’t work out. But that put me on a different path that has led right to this moment right here. Someday I’ll have to tell the whole story, but suffice it to say that God brought us through a lot of unexpected things that were perfect for the time (even if we didn’t see it that way).
All this to say, we must never divorce persistence in prayer from the goodness of God. If He is going to, from my perspective, deny me a good thing, it is because ultimately it is for my good and that if I had all the information He had, I would agree 100%. I can’t remember where I saw this, but someone gave the illustration of a parent and child. The parent has found out that there is a recall on their child’s favorite toy due to a dangerous chemical within it. The parent has to, out of love, take away the toy. The child doesn’t understand, and there is really no way to make a young child understand that. It is the same with God and us. We can ask for something that God doesn’t give to us. We don’t understand why, and perhaps in our humanity on this side of heaven, we couldn’t understand it if it were explained to us. But we must be reminded that while we continue to pray for that thing, we worship God by saying, “I know you are good. I know that you have placed this desire in my heart. I’ve searched your Word and know this is something you want me to pray for, so I am going to keep going.” That is a testimony that glorifies God.
That is prayer that remembers that Christ has died for them. Jesus isn’t being a meanie, withholding something you want as a power trip like we might do. Jesus has already given you Himself. When you were a sinner, Jesus died for you anyway and rose again from the dead. He invites you to follow Him, yes down a narrow, hard road into the shadow of valley of death, but also promises to lead you to His house to dwell forever. That’s where that shield of faith and helmet of salvation come in. You aren’t praying for a losing battle. You are marching to Zion.
Prayer should be offered for the gospel to go forward.
As we come to the end of the letter Paul shares a prayer request. It is worth noting here that Paul, the Apostle, needs and asks for prayer. We should not feel that we are above the Apostle Paul in that way. So when Paul, writing from prison, asks for prayer, what does pray for? That he would boldly preach the gospel. He has done this already, which is why he is in chains right now! Paul’s main focus in life is that the gospel would go forward boldly as he knows that he has been called to speak it.
That should be our focus as well. Do you pray for yourself as you begin the day, “Let me speak the gospel boldly today?” Are you perhaps a little afraid to? Well, then, all the more reason to pray it! We pray for revival, yes, but we need to pray that we will be a part of that!
So what is our takeaway from this passage? Prayer is so important to Paul that we break from our military metaphor emphasize. This is something that we offer up constantly because we are in a battle for the souls of people. Paul needed prayer, Jesus Himself needed prayer, you need prayer. It can be something as simple as a minute every twenty minutes or a scheduled time to pray. Now you may say, “You have no idea how hectic my life is!” You’re right I don’t, but I can quote from my wife, whom I have on very good authority is a very busy person. One morning, I offered for myself to watch the kids who were unusually demanding that morning, so that Abby could go into her room and do her devotions in the peace and quiet. She looked at me and said, “If I don’t learn how to spend time with Jesus in the midst of chaos, then I’ll never spend time with God.” She’s right! Your life is hectic! But you must figure out how to make it work.
“We close with these ﬁtting words from Dr. John Piper’s book Desiring God: Unless I’m badly mistaken, one of the main reasons so many of God’s children don’t have a signiﬁcant life of prayer is not so much that we don’t want to, but that we don’t plan to. If you want to take a four-week vacation, you don’t just get up one summer morning and say, “Hey, let’s go today!” You won’t have anything ready. You won’t know where to go. Nothing has been planned. But that is how many of us treat prayer. We get up day after day and realize that signiﬁcant times of prayer should be part of our life, but nothing’s ever ready. We don’t know where to go. Nothing has been planned. No time. No place. No procedure. And we all know that the opposite of planning is not a wonderful ﬂow of deep, spontaneous experiences in prayer. The opposite of planning is the rut. If you don’t plan a vacation you will probably stay home and watch TV! The natural unplanned ﬂow of spiritual life sinks to the lowest ebb of vitality. There is a race to be run and a ﬁght to be fought. If you want renewal in your life of prayer you must plan to see it. Therefore, my simple exhortation is this: Let us take time this very day to rethink our priorities and how prayer ﬁts in. Make some new resolve. Try some new venture with God. Set a time. Set a place. Choose a portion of Scripture to guide you. Don’t be tyrannized by the press of busy days. We all need mid-course corrections. Make this a day of turning to prayer — for the glory of God and for the fullness of your joy.” (Hughes).
Image by Himsan
Ah, Father’s Day, the holiday that only exists because Mother’s Day was established first. It only took about 58 years before it was recognized as a national holiday, but who’s counting? A dad was put in charge of getting it to holiday status, and he said he’d get to it. Now, I’m nor are any of the other dads here complaining. It is our joy to be the ones to provide for our families. That is what we have signed up to do. However, if that is all that we end up doing for our families than we have missed a big portion of our job. Yes, we want to fix things around the house, yes, we want to be able to pay the utility bills, and, yes, it would be nice to leave an inheritance to our children, but the most valuable thing that fathers can pass down to their families is wisdom.
When we look into the book of Proverbs, we see a father (Solomon wrote a lot of this book) who is obsessed with passing down wisdom to his son. What is fascinating is what we don’t see in a book written by a wise king to a future heir to the throne. We don’t see Solomon giving his son investment advice (other than to say riches fly away). We don’t even really see Solomon giving a whole lot of ruling or political advice. Instead, what Solomon emphasizes is finding wisdom.
If you were to do a search for wisdom on the internet, you would come up with a lot of different answers. I asked Google, and I got a mix of things like, “work smarter and not harder,” “put effort into whatever you are doing” “don’t care so much about what other people think of you.” I even asked ChatGPT, and it told me that the best piece of advice I could give to my son would be for him “to be true to himself and his values.” Those can sound profound, I guess, but there is no authority behind those statements. Most of those answers are different ways of saying the same thing: you have to figure out life on your own. We have something far better here, as one scholar put it: “The father's teachings in Proverbs constantly echo Deuteronomy, whose message flows from Yahweh in the heavens, through Moses on Mount Sinai, to parents at the city gates, and into the lives of children in the home. The allusions to Yahweh and Moses here in Proverbs endow the father’s sayings with a sense of tradition and authority” (O’Dowd, 735).
The Proverbs offer a real foundation for wisdom because it is wisdom given by our Father in heaven. There are so many places we could go, but for this sermon, I was led to Proverbs 3:1-12, with three pieces of advice from a father to a son. Dads, these are a few things that we can pass down to our families that will be the most valuable things for them (and of course we ourselves) to know and do: Remember what God says, Replace your wisdom with God’s, and Return when God Corrects.
Remember what God says
Forgetting what God says is easier to do than you think because it happens so very slowly, and it happens very naturally. Kevin DeYoung once described our lives as being on a slope towards disobedience. In order to keep God’s commands, you are going to have to put forward actual effort to make it happen. You are going to need to remember, act on, and have it as a conviction of your heart.
Far from this being a burden to remember, it is the path of blessing, as we see in verses 2 and 4. Following these commands will add years to your life (see commandment number 5), and it will bring wholeness to you, as it says in verse 2. The word translated “peace” is a Hebrew word that you have probably all heard before: Shalom. This word means more than just the absence of war. One source describes shalom as “wholeness” or “fulfillment” and went on to say, “Implicit in shalom is the idea of unimpaired relationships with others and fulfillment in one’s undertakings” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol 2, 931). Verse 4 continues this thought by promising success with God and man. One scholar explained it this way: “The reward for a life set on wisdom is “favor and good success in the sight of God and man” (Prov. 3:4). This phrase is a hendiadys, a figure of speech that uses two extreme ends to represent a larger hole (e.g., "head to toe").” He went on to point out that this is how Jesus is described in Luke 2:52 (O’Dowd, 737).
In order for this to be true, though, we must submit at the heart level, which we see at verse 3. These commandments have to be our everyday carry. They have to become a part of who we are, down to the very heart. The heart, in the Bible, is the center of who you are. One scholar put it this way, “What is true for the heart is true for man as a whole” (O’Dowd, 737). Your whole person must be united to God’s wisdom.
As we get to verse 5, we see what it will look like to put God’s commands on our hearts. We tend to have a limited view of knowledge to be just data download. O’Dowd has a more beautiful way to looking at it, ““To "acknowledge" God is to "know" — we are not simply to tip our hat to God throughout our lives but to connect each and every moment to our sense both of God’s immediate presence and of his moral designs for the world” (737). Making those connections with our life to God is what shows us that God is ceaselessly relevant to our lives. Thinking about God this way leads to a deep knowledge which O’Dowd beautifully phrases it: “Rather, knowledge in the OT is a matter of participation, like knowing good food, a favorite clearing in the forest, or a close friend…Such knowledge is also multidimensional, without borders or limits. It might be most helpful to picture knowing God in all our ways as a poetic, artistic, and open–ended endeavor. It is a work of continuous imagination disciplined into our experience of God and his world” (O’Dowd, 739). It is that constant time spent with it, that day and night meditation on it is what writes in on the tablets of your hearts and binds it to your neck. There is no substitute for time in God’s Word.
Replace your wisdom with God’s
As we get on to verses 7 and 8, we are warned not to trust in our own wisdom but stay with God’s. “Let your conscience be your guide” is actually terrible advice. Your eyes can deceive you, and so much more your instincts and even your conscience. Your only guide is the Word of God. That is the only thing that won’t lead you astray.
Your own wisdom will always lead you astray. Always. This doesn’t mean that every unwise decision will have the same level of impact on your life, but rest assured that anytime you go off of God’s reservation, there will be bad consequences. What’s more, those consequences may be years later. I’m sure many of you, if you can’t draw from your own life experiences can think of public figures who have gotten what they have by underhanded means and have it suddenly stripped away when those means came to light. There is a reason why the names Enron or Bernie Madoff are so well known.
So if this is true, then why do we still fall prey to it? Well, some of that is because we are sinners who will do things that we know are wrong simply because we are sinners. We know it is wrong, but we just want to do it. Other times we can fall to our own wisdom because we haven’t spent enough time in God’s Word to know that we have gone astray! Have you heard the line “God helps those who help themselves”? According to the internet, about half of America thinks that is in the Bible (link)! I remember once in Sunday School, our teacher did an exercise where he quoted from various sources, and we the class had to answer whether it was from the Bible or not. The one I thought was in the Bible was “cleanliness is next to godliness.” I know, it’s so embarrassing! People grow! Following our own wisdom never leads anywhere good.
Sometimes we fall prey to this because living a wise life can be complicated. Sometimes there are multiple good and Biblical ways to deal with a situation. One commentator put it this way, “If it were only a matter of choosing to follow clear rules or what seems most clear to our conscience, life would be easy. True wisdom turns out to be a complex skill learned over the course of one's life that allows man to discern the Lord's will in the foggiest times of life (CF. Proverbs 30; Job 28)” (O’Dowd, 737). Again, this takes time and practice. Become as familiar as you can with God’s wisdom. Don’t deny yourself the blessing of familiarity with God’s Word.
As we get into verses 9-10, we see something that seems to come out of nowhere! Honestly, I wasn’t totally sure what to do with these verses, but I think O’Dowd is onto something: These verses are a specific application of what is called for in general terms in verses 1–8. How can one be wise and trust, know, and fear the Lord? With the fruit of one's labor – and not only the fruit but the first income from a season of work (or the first part of the paycheck, before other bills or hunger have been served). Wealth and income may be the prime example for actions and thought patterns that must be submitted to the knowledge and fear of the Lord.” (O’Dowd, 738). That’s how we show what we really believe, don’t we? The way we spend our time and especially the way we spend our money. Those things show us where our hearts are.
For a lot of us, I think how we spend our money is the best gauge of our values because many don’t value time. Parting with resources as God leads is the test of how much you trust and know God. This isn’t to say that we all live in cardboard boxes on the side of the road having given away all our possessions. It isn’t a one time act of radical action, but a lifelong offering back to God what He has given. It is a regular, deliberate, unpanicked evaluation of our lives simply asking, “How could I honor God with this gift that He has given to me?” Did you just get a raise? How can you honor God with that? It might be by helping a family member or a ministry. It could be getting out of debt you got into because of greedy spending choices and learning how to manage God’s money better. The habit to get into is a relentless asking, “How can I use this for God?”
Return when God Corrects
Finally, don’t despair when God corrects you. It is inevitable that you will follow your own wisdom. And sometimes God will bring suffering into your life for reasons known only to Him, but still for your good (O’Dowd, 738). This is the way God chastens, corrects, and crafts His children. We aren’t perfect, so we need correction. God doesn’t hate those whom He corrects, far from it. He wants you on the correct path, so He will do whatever it takes to put you on the right path. Any parent who has had to do this with a child understands how hard that is. I am a father, but I am the faintest shadow of what the Fatherhood of God is like. I know how much I love to bless my children and how hard it is to correct them or take something away from them that is bad for them but they want. How much more so must it be for God?
Even if you have never raised children, you can get a glimpse of that when you have to force yourself to do that which you don’t want to because you know you need to do it or if you have ever had to confront a friend over something that they were doing to hurt themselves or others. It isn’t easy. Now, you may say, “Well, God knows the outcome of those things. He knows that it is for that person’s good. He has infinite wisdom, so it is easy for Him to do!” Well, look at Jesus’ reaction to Lazarus at the tomb. Jesus knew that He was about to give the family the greatest news they wouldn’t have even dared to hope for, and yet He still wept. God has infinite wisdom, yes, but He also has infinite love, too.
But you have something far more than just someone correcting you. You have Christ who is crafting you. To borrow one last time from O’Dowd, “Just as God first spoke light into the creation, so he has spoken again in Jesus to make his glory fully apparent to us. For Paul, to know Jesus means to be transformed into his very likeness (2 Cor. 3:18). And in this likeness we come to walk in the ways of wisdom and righteousness. We could say that what proverbial wisdom imagined by knowing God in the ways of wise living, Jesus has multiplied 1000 times. What Lady Wisdom could not do with our fallen state, Jesus has done for us and in us and through us” (O’Dowd, 740). We have a hope that the writer of Proverbs looked forward to that we have seen with crystal clear vision. We aren’t able to be wise like we want to be. To perfectly obey these Proverbs is impossible, but we have a Savior who did live those perfectly and offers you His record by grace through faith in Him. Once you’ve put your trust in Him, He promises to indwell you and change you bit by bit. Soon, you’ll start to act like Him.
People say that I am a lot like my dad, and that’s not much of a surprise because my father regularly spent time with me. Yes, those quality times of fishing, going to a ball game, teaching me about God, taking me to conferences, those were and are all important. But what has made me like him is the quantity time I spent with him. I notice the cadence of speech that I have when I am explaining something is his. The way I rub my face when I’m tired is his. The way I hold my head, the way I think about the world is largely shaped by him. There are other things that are shaped by my mother that again quantity time was necessary to put in to get out those habits.
The same thing is true of Jesus. The more time you spend with Him, getting to know Him like we talked about earlier, the more you will be like Him. Wisdom is found in likeness to Jesus, and if you are like Jesus, that is the most valuable thing you can give to your family. I get it, I like being the dad that can repair things, is ready for things, and provides for things, but having a deep relationship with Jesus is the most important thing that I can have for my family.
O’Dowd, Ryan Patrick, Proverbs, ESV Expository Commentary, Vol. 5, Crossway, 2022.
Image by Manfred Antranias Zimmer
Have you ever gotten a letter from someone you loved? It was a great gift wasn’t it? With each sentence that goes by, they are sharing more of themselves with you. It tells you how they think, what they value, and all of that reveals how you can love them better. Wouldn’t it be great if God did something like that for you? Well, it turns out that He has! Not only has He revealed Himself in this letter called the Bible, He has also revealed how your life is supposed to work. In here, He will teach you where real truth is found, how to fight sin, how to detect error, and so much more. Our two points today are: The Bible is a precious gift from God and Training is required to use the Bible rightly
The Bible is a precious gift from God
The Bible is a precious gift from God. God didn’t have to give us this. He could have written down His words on some rock way up in the mountains that only the dedicated would have been able to even see. He could have written it as a series of mysterious riddles that people would need to think about for ages only to come to the wrong answer. These are the ways that almost all other religions work. It’s how we would set up a religion if we could. Instead God is gracious to write us this book.
If you have been in Christian circles for any length of time, you have probably heard the Bible described as a love letter. I think this is actually a good way of thinking about the Bible because it helps us keep the context of who this is from and why God has written it. It is because He loves you.
I think keeping this in mind helps us approach this book rightly. When we have a love letter in front of us we investigate every little word that is sent to us. We try hard to discover every nuance, try to notice every connection, and if there is anything that doesn’t make sense on first reading, we look at it closer and closer, not satisfied to leave any part of the letter not understood. Heaven help you if there is a typo! If there is a missing “not,” the whole relationship can change! Imagine reading, “I can wait to see you again.”
Thankfully the Word of God as originally given doesn’t have mistakes! The Bible is a letter given in love that tells us what is absolutely true because it comes from God. It is inspired by God and is thus without error or contradiction (2 Timothy 3:16; Psalm 19). An infallible source is something that should be more precious to us than ever. Our world has grown so complicated and information so unreliable finding anything that is authoritative is more needed than ever. The only way that this is possible is because God Himself has written it.
But this does more for us than an assurance that we are believing the right things. This is the only tool that we can use to fight error. Fighting evil with anything less than the Word of God is only going to end in failure. Trying to fight the advance of sexual perversity in homosexuality and transgenderism isn’t through citing scientific literature. It isn’t through appealing to the latest book that has been written.
This applies to our own personal sins as well. Ian Duguid points out that when Jesus was tempted, He quoted from God’s Word. But what typically happens with us when we are tempted? We tend to give reasons why we shouldn’t sin like, “I’ll get caught” or “I’ll feel bad about it.” He points out that Satan is really good at debate, and he’ll eventually talk you out of your reasons and into what you really want to do. Instead, by going straight to God’s Word, the argument is over. There is nothing else to say (The Whole Armor of God, 91-93). Scientific literature or our own personal reasons can feel helpful in the moment. Those sources may even be correct, but only God’s word is the truth. The Bible tells you why something is correct. It brings not only sanity into the world but brings significance into the world.
This attitude of awe is something that we should bring to the Bible. When we approach any text we do it with expectations. When you approach an instruction manual you expect to learn how to do something. When you approach a novel you expect to be entertained. What expectations are you bringing to the Bible? Do you approach this like an inconsistent exercise habit? It’s something you know you should do; it’s something you know you have failed to do over and over, but you know you are supposed to do it, so you try yet again. Sometimes you will discover something wonderful despite that attitude, but oftentimes you won’t. If you come to the Bible knowing that this book is without mistakes, the only guiding truth for life written by someone who loves you deeply, coming at it like you would a love letter, you will find what you need for spiritual warfare.
Beyond just the revelation of knowledge, this letter is a gift because it gives us what we need to oppose evil and reveal error. As many commentators noted, this sword is our only weapon that is used for attack in this suit of armor that we have been given. It is one thing to say that the Bible contains truth. It is another thing to say that this truth has power. This is where we often stop short of giving the Bible the credit it deserves. As one commentator put it: “The Word of God draws the blood of Satan himself!” (Preaching the Word Commentary) This is what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 10:3-6. Arguments and lofty opinions are no match for the Word of God, but we get so scared of those things, don’t we? Someone comes along with a plausible sounding argument, and we suddenly start questioning God, don’t we? Or someone or some group decides which beliefs are fashionable, and we don’t want to be left out.
That’s what happens with Eve. Satan presents a plausible sounding argument, namely, God isn’t good to you because He withholds things from you. The verse that Eve probably should have quoted was, “‘All of these trees I give to you for food’ how could a God be mean who does all of that for us?” The same thing can be said of Israel when they wanted a king. Why do they want a king? Because everyone else had a king!
We need to be quicker to bring the gospel to bear on the situations that we encounter in our lives. We are too quick to believe the lies and doubt God’s goodness and put down the sword of the gospel message. When you have a firm grasp of the gospel any lies that question the goodness of God are answered by that weapon. That’s what we clung to when we saw shootings and unexpected deaths. We clung to the sword and said, “I hear what the world around me is saying, but this I know, that Jesus will make it right.”
I’m quick to pick up the feather duster of distraction. That does nothing against Satan’s lies. But when I grab the razor sharp blade of the Word of God, evil goes running.
So before we jump into point two, let’s remember what we have covered. We have been given the ultimate weapon against Satan, and it is a Divine love letter. It is absolutely true in everything that it says and is our only weapon that will actually defeat evil because it has Divine power in it. It is not working like some sort of magic words (Hoehner,853), but God is using it in such a way that it will always have an effect.
Training is required to use the Bible rightly
We need training to understand what we have been given (2 Timothy 2:15 “rightly dividing” implies “wrongly dividing.”). To properly use this gift that we have been given, we need instruction and training, but why? Isn’t the Bible intuitive?
Some things (but certainly not all or even most) in the Bible are hard to understand. Even Peter himself admits this (2 Peter 3:16)! He was talking about the letters of Paul! He doesn’t say in particular what it was that confused him, but there are a number of things that can go in that category! Some things are difficult to understand. A big part of this is our sinful tendencies pull us away from a proper understanding of God’s Word and the gospel. We have to make a very careful study of the book in front of us, knowing this limitation, if we are going arrive at the right meaning. This doesn’t mean that we give up on our personal study to let the professionals take care of it. The Word of God will sink deepest into the person who is working on it.
Having knowledge of a diverse number of subjects can be very helpful. If you know about car engines, you can save yourself a fortune in repairs. If you know computers, you can save yourself hours of work both on the computer or with tech support. The problem with those things is for the most part, knowing how to work on an engine doesn’t carry over very much to computer knowledge. Knowing how to knit doesn’t help you very much with cooking dinner.
Knowing about the Bible, however, changes how you know everything else. If you remember a few weeks ago, I mentioned a concept I had heard from somewhere that knowledge and facts always need to be interpreted. The Bible is the only accurate foundation for interpreting the world around you. The Bible doesn’t have recipes in it, but it will give you a foundation to understand why you are cooking or how gracious God is to give you food in the first place. The Bible doesn’t explain how to change your oil, but it does give us a grid to be amazed that everything in that car came from some element of God’s creation and how good God is to allow us to know these things (idea from Tony Reinke’s book on Technology). This is of course to say nothing of the immensely practical information that the Bible gives you on marriage, children, and you know, how to get to heaven forever after you die!
I hope at this point it is very obvious that this book is worth studying, but I can understand it being intimidating. The Bible is a big book after all. I want to encourage you that just because you are studying yourself, doesn’t mean that you are studying alone. I’ve been preaching and studying the Bible for years, but I never give a sermon unless I’ve looked at other people’s comments on the passage. I know that I have biases and blindspots that other men don’t, so it is a very important step to consult with those who have studied and walked with Jesus longer and deeper than I have. We are in an age where there are so many good resources out there, it’s a shame we don’t know our Bibles better than any previous generation. Just about every pastor puts their sermons out for free (we used to have to pay for a cassette to be produced and shipped!). Ministries like Ligonier put out stellar teaching for extremely low cost in multiple formats of magazines, books, videos, and podcasts. There are study Bibles in multiple versions from Ligonier and Crossway that take practically every verse and provide a short commentary on it. If you REALLY want to go deep, there are commentaries from some of the brightest minds that ever lived, and they sit right on my shelves in my office (you are always welcome to borrow!). A quick glance at our screen time statistics tell us we have time (with the possible exception of young, new moms. Even Dr. Martin Loyd Jones gave y’all a pass).
You need to be ready because if you don’t know it, there will be those who will sow false teaching to their own advantage (1 Timothy 4:1-16). Any area of knowledge that requires a lot of time and effort will be used by the immoral to their advantage. We see many of them on the TV taking advantage of people by proclaiming a false gospel of prosperity to enrich themselves. The counter is learning true teaching, of course, but you can’t learn true teaching if you just don’t put in the time.
I remember being told of Grandpa’s training to be a policeman. One of the exercises was to put him in a room for hours with only a pile of money to familiarize himself with. He would sort, count, feel, smell, get to know every aspect of what a real dollar is made of. The next day, they would slip in a counterfeit bill for him to find. After spending several hours with the real deal, the fake was found out immediately. Knowledge of the Bible is not automatically granted. You simply have to put in the time to become familiar with it. There is no shortcut to this.
Because of false teaching, our own sin, and the difficulty of (some) of the Scriptures, we are called to be workman to rightly divide the word of truth, so as we draw to a close, let me encourage you to take up this book for the sake of your joy. Yes, this book will keep you from error, sin, and futile living, but this is a book for your joy. Take up and read to discover the source of all comfort and peace. Be familiar with it, memorize it, meditate on it. When I say “meditate” I don’t mean sitting in a room with an empty mind. That’s Eastern meditation of emptying your mind to hear your own internal truth. Biblical meditation is to fill your mind with God’s Word to drown out your internal lies! Any encounter with God’s Word will bring a blessing, but if you want to really get the most benefit out of your Bible reading, don’t just read it and put it down. Instead, take some time, sit back and turn it over in your mind. Think about how the verse that just struck you applies to your life. Try not to let it go before you can write down something that this verse will make different about your life. It doesn’t have to transform every aspect of your life. Even if it just gives you a reason to keep doing what you are doing, that will benefit you.
Above all, dive into this word to know the one who loves your soul so much. Jesus knows every hair on your head. Why not get to know Him a little better?
Image by Vasily Sukovatitsyn
Have you ever heard the term “beginner's luck?” It refers to this uncanny ability people often have when they are attempting something new for the first time. Whether that is baking a macaroon or building a wooden bench, there seems to be some strange phenomenon where people can nail it the first time they try it. If I had to guess where something like that comes from it is that beginners know that they are beginners. They understand that they are weak in this and need to listen carefully to instruction. They assume that everything that they are told is important and needs to be followed to the letter. And what do you know, when you follow expert guidance to the letter, you often find that you complete the task with surprising skill. However, as you go for additional attempts, beginner's luck begins to wear off. You stop paying as close attention as you used to, or as you have started to refine your craft with those little extra techniques, you’ve begun to ignore the basics.
What we have here today is a very easily forgotten basic in the Christian life: Faith. After we have been walking with Jesus for a while, there can be (not always) a tendency to forget how dependant we are on Him. This is particularly true if you have spent a lot of time reading and studying without prayer . When you do that you can quickly turn Jesus into a philosophical interest rather than your Savior. Perhaps this is why Paul talks about the shield of faith in such prominent terms. We will also be looking at the helmet of salvation today, but as you will see, these two pieces of armor function in very similar ways. We are going to be answering two questions today: What is faith and How does it work?
Paul notably begins by saying that “in all circumstances” we should take up the shield of faith. This is explicitly defined as a defensive weapon with which we will extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one. The helmet of salvation also is a defensive part of the armor. With the helmet, you protect the most vital (and vulnerable) part of your body, and with the shield, you protect everything else.
The shield that is in Paul’s mind here would have been a roughly body-length shield. It would have been made of wood or metal and often wrapped in a water-soaked piece of leather. With this shield, you would be able to place yourself behind it and any flaming arrows flung at you would simply stick into the soaked shield and extinguish. This would allow you to either hold your ground or advance on the enemy without fear of their arrows. This would mean the enemy could basically do nothing to you until you got much closer. This means it is important to keep your shield up! Every part of your body is going to have to be stuffed behind that shield at all times! Even the smallest part of the exposed body can lower your effectiveness in the field. An arrow to the foot is not going to kill you, but it is going to hobble you.
So how does faith really work? In our culture, faith is often seen as a power in and of itself. People talk about the power of faith or the power of believing as if the power to get through your life comes from the fact that you believe you can. It makes for a great coffee mug but a terrible way to live life. That’s just whistling in the dark, pretending. The power of belief doesn’t work on your credit card bill (trust me, I’ve tried). You can believe all you want that it’ll just go away, but that doesn’t change anything.
Faith doesn’t get its power from believing but whom you are believing in. Look at Luke 7:1-10. The Centurion wasn’t putting faith in faith. He was putting faith in Jesus. The same is said for the woman in Matthew 9:21. She knew that even the smallest faith in Jesus’ hands is a faith with the firmest foundation. It is not trust in trust. It is trust in Jesus. Putting your faith in yourself is going to fail, but putting your faith in Christ never will ultimately. Will you still suffer? Yes, but trusting in Jesus will keep you going in the battle.
This is the picture that Paul has of faith. It is a supreme trust in God Who keeps the flaming arrows from landing. That’s an important distinction. It isn’t your faith that keeps these arrows from landing, but rather it is faith that connects you to the One who keeps the arrows from landing (Duguid, 66-7).
So what does this look like, practically? This is something that the Bible answers for us: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." - Hebrews 11:1. Let’s break these things down.
“Assurance of things hoped for.” How do you know that something is going to happen? Well, the future is always uncertain in our lives, isn’t it? I had originally planned to deliver this sermon last week, only to get the stomach bug the night before! The only way that we can be sure that something will happen is if we can look back on it. You will be sure that you will make the team only after you make the team. You will be sure you will ace the test only after you get your grade back. You will only know that you will work at the same job until you retire if you retire from that job. That is how everything in our lives work! That’s why we have the saying “hindsight is 20/20” meaning that we only see things clearly once they are past. We who are now post 2020 know this more personally than ever.
However, faith operates completely differently. Faith, Biblically defined, is the exact opposite of “hindsight is 20/20.” Faith looks forward to the future with hope and is absolutely assured that it is going to be good. It sounds counter-intuitive, but faith allows a person to look forward to the future and see the whole picture, the entire context of the universe and one’s place in it. Faith views the future with God’s perspective—a much clearer vision. With God’s perspective on things, the saying becomes, “foresight is 20/20.” Faith looks forward and sees what Paul says in Romans 8:18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” That is faith that looks at things in context, an eternal context. I am able to endure a surgery if I know that on the other side of it, I will be healthier. Even if it means weeks of recovery, I am willing to endure the suffering because I know (or at least think that I know) I will feel better in the end. Faith is able to do that with the rest of our lives! Instead of a statistical likelihood that I will be healed after a surgery, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I will be healed of all maladies in heaven because I am trusting God, not what has typically happened to people. And I know that that suffering is preparing me for more: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
The conviction of things not seen. This is another way of talking about faith but in slightly different terms. If you are going to pull out of your driveway to head to a week-long vacation, and someone says, “Are you sure you locked the back door?” What are you going to do? If you’re like me, you’re going to think about it for a second, huff, get out of the car and go—what?--look at it! I need to see that the lock is engaged for me to know that it is locked and not have to think about it the entire time I am on vacation!
Once again, faith doesn’t work like that. Faith works without seeing. Going back to the door lock example, let’s imagine that Jesus is going with us on vacation, and I say, “Did I lock the back door?” and Jesus responds, “Don’t worry about it; I’ve got it all under control.” My functional response is often, “Lord, that wasn’t the question I asked. I asked if I locked the door.” I want to see the lock. I can understand a lock. But what I don’t see is Jesus has secured the door with something way more powerful.
That’s how it often works in our lives, isn’t it? We know that Jesus provides for us. But we feel better when we can see the bank account numbers reflecting that. We know that Jesus is watching over our children. But we feel better when we can see that they are behaving themselves. We know that God works all things together for our good, but we would sure like to see exactly how that is going to shake out. When Granger was even younger, he, for whatever reason, never trusted us to feed him. We fed him constantly, but he would not stop squalling until the food was in front of him on a plate! He could see us preparing the food, getting the bowl out, grabbing the spoon, but no matter what, he would not be assured until he was holding the food in his hands. I’m like that. That is not the response of faith. Faith looks to a future we can’t see and is completely comfortable.
Satan’s whole goal in this is to get you to doubt God. Either God hasn’t been good to you, or God could have been better to you. Those are his two messages. It is only when we put our faith in Christ, our trust, down do those arrows land. You aren’t going to fight very well for a general whom you think doesn’t have your best in mind. If you trust in Christ’s love for you and His power to accomplish the purposes of His love, then you are pretty well impervious to Satan’s arrows.
Now, this works as long as you keep that shield up over every area of your body, your life. Sometimes we try to apply our faith just to Sunday morning or only what we think in our heads without it changing how we live. This we must not do. This is why we have to take up the shield of faith in “all circumstances.” There is not a moment in your life in which you do not need to take up your shield. In fact, it is precisely when you think you don’t need to take it is when you need to take it up the most.
Maybe you’ve heard the story of the Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick from the Civil War. He was warned not to go near the road as Confederate sharpshooters had been racking up Union casualties all morning. However, he soon forgot about the warning, and went out into the road to do something. When his soldiers shouted their warnings about the sharpshooters, he responded, “They couldn’t shoot an elephant at this distance,” at which point he was immediately shot in the face and killed instantly by those sharpshooters, forever cementing his reputation as speaking the most ironic words ever uttered in battle (link).We always need to be ready, and with God’s armor on, we are.
As we come to a close, let’s look at the helmet of salvation. This one is a distinct piece of armor, but it serves a similar purpose. In 1 Thessalonians 5:8, Paul calls this piece of armor the hope of salvation, and this would work similarly here. Ian Duguid gives us an illustration of how this would work. Let’s suppose that you receive two pieces of mail one day. The first envelope contains the true news that an uncle you didn’t know you had has passed away and left you ten million dollars as an inheritance. It is official, correct, and assured that this money is yours.Then, after a deep breath, and once your hands stop shaking, you open the next envelope which is a parking ticket—costing you the grand sum of fifty dollars. Now, in light of the first letter informing you of your new multi-millionaire status, how much is that second letter going to impact your day? Probably not all that much. It would seem very silly to be bent out of shape over something so little in comparison to so much. The same is true of our salvation (The Whole Armor of God, 83). As we said earlier, Paul points out in Romans that our present trials are not worth comparing to the glory that awaits us, and it is that knowledge, that certainty of heaven is what gives us protection from discouragement. This is one effect of this piece of armor similar to the shield of faith.
But there is something else that the helmet of salvation does: gives us motivation for obedience. Ian Duguid again points out that the helmet of salvation, the knowledge that we get to heaven by Jesus’ work and not our own, also gives us the boldness to do risky (or repetitive) things for the Lord (84-85). It is hard to be a bold witness to your coworkers when you think you have a lot to lose. But when you know that you have the smile of God even as Man frowns, you can be bold. The same is true for the mundane grinding faithfulness. Both take great courage! There is one amount of courage that it takes to pack a backpack and walk into the jungles looking for a tribe who has never heard the gospel before! But there is another kind of courage that gives up a career, gives up everything that one has worked for to raise children, battling for their obedience, raising them to love Jesus, working for decades with no clear indication for how it is going to turn out. The helmet of salvation allows both of those Christians in their respective callings to stick it out.
So how do we apply this to our lives? How do we strengthen the effects of the shield and helmet? To borrow one last time from Duguid, he illustrates a young lady dreaming of her wedding day. She surrounds herself with all of the beautiful things, flowers, table settings, dresses, and just loses herself in the beauty of that day imagining what it will be like. It is fun to prepare a wedding in your mind you don’t have to budget for. You can just let the joy of the possible wash over you. That’s what we need to do with our salvation (87). Spend time thinking about what your life is going to be like in heaven, and then strive to live that kind of life now (86)! You can enjoy heaven today! You can start imagining that wedding of the lamb! Think about this, dream about this, surround yourself with things that remind you and educate you about heaven, and you will enjoy those benefits (87).
And when all else fails, when it seems impossible to lift up your shield or take comfort from your helmet, remember the Old Testament words from Psalm 28:7. Ultimately, God is your shield (67). He will not let you fall away completely. Yes, you can make life harder on yourself with that shield down. Yes, you can make yourself less effective on the battlefield, but God is not going to let you fall away completely, just like Jesus did for Peter (75).
You are His, and He will never let you go.