Confidence in ourselves can lead to some pretty ridiculous results. A survey was done asking around 1,000 Americans what animal do they think they could beat in unarmed combat. Around 70% believed that they could beat a rat in unarmed combat. 61% believed that they could successfully go toe-to-toe with a goose. Confidence slips when we get to a medium sized dog (49%). The truly interesting insight, however, comes from the number of people who believed that they could, again, unarmed, beat a grizzly bear. A full 6% of the respondents believed that they could win hand-to-hand combat with a bear. What this shows is a terrible misunderstanding of the power of a bear. A bear’s paw could cover most of your chest, and according to the internet, lift around 1,000 pounds or both of these pianos on the stage. Misunderstanding your enemy is a critical error in combat, but this is exactly what we do in our fight against spiritual forces every single day.
Most of what we do is not preparing for the real battle we will face in our lives. Most of the time, we prepare for the things that will likely never happen. I’m not against preparing for those things (I have a savings account and life insurance), but when we do those things and exclude what we are actually going to face, like, tomorrow, that’s where we get into trouble. If you are prepared for a tornado but your family doesn’t know why they believe what they believe, they are in far greater danger! A tornado is not likely to show up tomorrow, but Satan and his minions sure will. How much energy do we put into making sure that our children (or ourselves, for that matter) have a proper understanding of math and sports ability as opposed to how much energy we put into their spiritual development? I know for me with my kids, I’m always pointing out letters and numbers as we see them in public, but how often am I pointing to God’s working in all of those things? I ask Granger what color that rose is to work on colors, but I often don’t ask him Who made the rose to work on theology. What does that say about my priorities?
This passage is going to show us the war we aren’t watching for and tell us where to look. Further, it will even tell us what to do about it. We’ve all wished to have a guide telling us where things in life will go wrong so we could avoid them. Most of life’s problems you could have seen coming if only you knew where to look. Well, folks, here it is! Here is where the real problems in your life are coming from, and here is what to do about it. Our two points: You are in the midst of the spiritual war, and You are commanded to stand in the strength that Jesus provides.
You are in the midst of a spiritual war
Our passage begins with Paul rounding the final corner with a last exhortation to us all. Paul tells us to be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. He really pounds the drum of being strengthened in God’s strong strength. Are you getting the message that God is the strong one? Good! Because that is Whom we are called on to rely on. The passive – sounding word "be strengthened" also has an active nuance to it. While the Lord is the one providing all the strength, there is an element of work that we should do in preparing ourselves for a spiritual fight (Thielman, 417). Though “[t]his certainly does not mean that they ‘grow strong’ by their own efforts alone: as 3:16 makes clear, believers are ‘strengthened in power’ by God, as a free gift” (Thielman, 418).
So how do we grow strong in the Lord? Well, “Syntactically, the imperative put on the full armor of God explains how the admonition of v. 10, be strong in the Lord, is to be carried out. It is only by donning the divine panoply that believers can be properly equipped against the devil’s attacks.… Essentially, then, to ‘put on the new self’ is the same as donning the full armor of God” (O’Brien, 462). What this commentator is getting at is everything that we looked at from chapter 4 onwards is a part of what it means to be strengthened in the Lord. It means putting away our old ways of thinking and living and embracing what the Lord is doing in our lives.
It is worth pausing here to stare at the reason God is calling us to put on this armor: there is a threat out there that we must be convinced of! We will only take something seriously if we are convinced it is serious. We’ve all had the experience of learning about a new fear or new health condition that we have, and suddenly we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to deal with it. Suddenly, we find the motivation to research all kinds of things that previously, we didn’t give a second thought towards. I’ll say, I don’t think I had so much as thought about mold prior to my experience with my crawlspace!
What, or more accurately, who is that threat in our Christian lives? The devil. Verse 12 goes on to assure us that the main threat to our lives actually does not inhabit flesh and blood. The primary threat in our lives is spiritual. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t evil people in the world as one commentator puts it: “To reject the identification of the powers with human traditions and sociopolitical structures, however, is not to deny that the supernatural intelligences work through such agencies; after all, the New Testament speaks of the whole world lying in the power of the evil one. Satan and his hosts exist for the purpose of bringing their evil and destructive influences to bear on the world and humanity at every level” (O’Brien, 469). So what we are saying here is that yes, there are institutions in the world that need to be stopped in practical ways when we can via political or practical action. When evil forces use a madman with a gun to commit the evil of murder, you are allowed to stop him with physical force including a gun of your own. However, we don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that ALL or even MOST of our problems can be stopped with a bullet or a vote (O’Brien, 470). The main evils of this world are resisted by putting on the full armor of God.
Paul also uses an interesting word to describe this conflict: wrestling. He uses the image of hand-to-hand combat rather than long-range fighting. This fight is personal and constant. I will occasionally work on a martial art that is similar to wrestling, and if you don’t put forward the best effort against a motivated opponent, you will lose. If you flail around without purpose. You will still lose and also be super tired! If we are going to wrestle against spiritual forces, then that fight needs to be smart and relentless. "Jerome has captured Paul's meaning precisely: ‘Just as wise leaders of armies are accustomed to assault especially those places of a city which are least protected so that, when they have broken in through those places, the protected areas may be easily captured, so also the devil seeks to break in and reach the very citadel of our heart and soul through those places which he sees lying open or perhaps not shut up firmly’" (Thielman, 419). Your enemy is motivated. He wants you, your family, your church, anything that could be used for building the kingdom of God. The only sin that Satan doesn’t commit is laziness. He is happy to do anything else, but he will not be lazy. He will continue every single day. And He has a lot at his disposal. As O’Brien reminds us, “According to 4:27, Satan tries to gain a foothold and exert his influence over the lives of Christians through uncontrolled anger (V. 26) as well as falsehood (4:25), steeling (V. 28), unwholesome talk (V. 29), indeed any conduct that is characteristic of the ‘old way of life’ (V. 22)” (463-4).
Do you see how serious this is? The biggest threat to your children is not physical danger. It is deception by Satan. The biggest threat to you is not financial mismanagement or too much cholesterol. The biggest threat to you is evil forces that will relentlessly work towards you sinning. They’re at work right now, and they’ll be right back tomorrow. What are you doing to prepare for that? What did you do today to prepare for that? What can you do?
You are commanded to stand in the strength that Jesus provides.
Well, let’s look at verse 13! While God wants us to be sober about this, we don’t need to be scared. As one commentator put it: “Mention of the schemes of the devil remind us of the trickery and subterfuge by which evil and temptation present themselves in our lives. Evil rarely looks evil until it accomplishes its goal; it gains entrance by appearing attractive, desirable, and perfectly legitimate. It is a baited and camouflaged trap…but this paragraph ‘does not foster an attitude of fear. The entire passage is suffused with a spirit of confidence and hope and the reader is left, not with the feeling of despair, but with the sense that Satan can be defeated’” (qtd in O’Brien, 464). In other words, yes, Satan is very powerful, but God is more so! The resources that God gives to you are able to meet with these forces. The opposing forces are fighting a losing battle. “In the spiritual dimension, Christ has already won the victory over the rebellious and demonic powers (1:20–22a), but the victory has not yet been fully implemented. Demonic powers are still active in the world, influencing the "Course" it takes and working within human beings who continue to rebel against the Creator (2:2–3). It is necessary, then, for believers to put on God's full armor, to take their stand on the ground the Christ has won, and resist the final, ultimately futile attacks of the devil.” (Thielman, 422).
So practically, what does it look like to be strengthened in the Lord? Well, we have to remember that Christ is the Victor. In Christ is where you will find strength. So how do you get strengthened in Christ? Well, Christ begins that process by showing you that you are not strong enough. That’s what happens with the disciples, isn’t it? They literally walked with Jesus Himself for three years, but when it came down to it, they fled in the moment of trouble.
We are the same way! You can do devotionals with your kids or for yourself all day, but that alone won’t change their hearts or yours. Yes, it rightly puts them in a great environment that the Lord has commanded you to put them in and promises to use in His timing, but it isn’t a math formula.
It is so easy to not believe that we are the one’s running this ship. Relying on your strength can even look like obedience to God. The critical difference comes when your obedience is conditioned on God’s coming through for you, whatever that means. That looks like saying, “Ok, step 1, step 2, step 3 equals my life turning out right, and if that doesn’t happen, I will be angry with God.” It is fine to grieve the death of a dream. You wanted that dream job but didn’t get it. You wanted him to love you back, but he just wants to be friends. You wanted this idea to come to fruition but it just didn’t happen. Those things can be grieved. But if we turn that allowable emotion into anger against God because He supposedly didn’t hold up His end of the bargain is both lying and slandering God. You’re saying God doesn’t uphold His promises, and He isn’t good. As one seminary professor said, that really yanks God’s chain. The tricky part is, we often don’t know that this is exactly the deal we’ve made with God until it doesn’t turn out. That can even be part of the reason God doesn’t let it work out. If you were only obeying God because you thought that was the path to the life you wanted, then it was very kind of God to reveal that to you. The disciples were with Jesus until it got hard. This sets them up for the next step.
This is where Jesus takes the next step, and shows you that He will uphold you. It is one thing to know you aren’t strong enough, but it is another thing to know that God will hold you up anyway. This is what we see with Peter, isn’t it? Jesus gives Peter the assurance that He loves Him and has something for Him to do. It ain’t steps; it is Christ. It is throwing in your lot with Him, and letting Him take you wherever He wants to go. Your path won’t be exactly like mine. We will share a lot of similarities, but not everyone does the same things or has all the same experiences. There were 12 (13, if you count Judas) disciples, but only three of them wrote books of the New Testament, and the guys who wrote most of the New Testament by number of books and word count (Paul and Luke respectively) weren’t in that group!
Finally, Jesus gives you the grace to fall back into His arms (again and again) where the strength is. Rest feels like strength. When can a child go the farthest on a hike? When he is on his father’s shoulders! Let Him carry you. Take advantage of the good and enjoyable graces He gives to you in His Word and prayer, and then leave the results up to Him. Don’t climb onto His shoulders and then be petrified of falling off. You’ll still make it to the end of the hike, but boy, will be unnecessarily stressed and tired the whole time!
Don’t panic in this spiritual war! Don’t use the excuse of fear of messing up to stay out the fight. The fight is won! Now participate in the final mopping up of Satan’s forces!
As we conclude, let’s hear from Peter, as he writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and as one transformed from denier to defender of the faith,
1 Peter 5:5b-11
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”
Image by Samuele Schirò