Because the evil one desires to undermine the spiritual stability of all who follow Christ, Paul exhorted the believers in Ephesus to take up the shield of faith. The darts that Satan aims at Christians are subtle, varied, and deadly, so Alistair Begg urges us to follow Paul’s instruction by trusting in the Gospel personally, consistently, and corporately. The enemy is fierce and relentless, but Christ has triumphed and His victory is ours.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I encourage you to read with me from Ephesians chapter 6, if you’ll follow along as I read, and beginning at the tenth verse:
“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts ofthe evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought.”
Well, I invite you to bow with me in prayer once again:
Our gracious God, thank you that one of the means employed to hold us fast is in your Word itself. And so, as we turn to it now, we pray that you will bring it home to our minds and to our hearts in such a way that we trust and believe and follow Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Well, I invite you to turn again to Ephesians 6, where our text for today is the sixteenth verse: “In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.” When Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message, tackles this and gives to us his rendering of it, I find it quite helpful. He says of this spiritual warfare, this struggle, this wrestling, “This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget … in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the [spiritual forces of evil. So] be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own.” I found that very helpful. “You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own.”
Well, of course, the flipside of that is—or, if you like, the good news in relationship to that—is what the gospel tells us: namely, that the devil has been defeated in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And it is as we trust in his triumph that we actually put on the armor of the gospel—to put on the armor of the gospel, which Satan would very, very much like for us to abandon, both as individuals and then certainly, too, as a church. And we remind ourselves that Jesus has disarmed the rulers and the authorities and has triumphed over them in his cross, as Paul says to the Colossians; that in Ephesians 1, he has said the very same thing, that he is triumphing over all of these principalities and these powers; that, in one of the old Easter hymns that we seldom sing, “Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes,” so that we stand in Christ on the side of victory. And as we clothe ourselves in the gospel armor, we realize that we are under the attack of the Evil One.
Now, in order to trace a way through this verse, I want us to do as follows. I want us to think first of all about the identity of the individuals that Paul is addressing here.
In other words, the call to arms which he has issued is a call that he issues to the salvation army, if we might put it that way—not the Salvation Army of the red buckets and the bells, although many of them were in this army, but rather to those who are included in Christ through the gospel. I’ve tried to make this distinction all the way along, because it is possible that some, in listening to the Bible being taught, are applying it without an understanding of this important distinction. He is not issuing a general call to the population of Ephesus to try and be good or brave or self-reliant, to have faith in oneself or to have faith in faith itself. He is addressing specifically those who, he says, have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. So, for example, turn back a couple of pages in your Bible, and there you’ll see it, 1:15: “For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus [Christ]…” So it is the object of their faith that is the issue. Their faith is now placed in Jesus.
My faith has found a resting place,
Not in device or creed;
I trust the ever-living one,
His wounds for me [must] plead,
as the hymn writer puts it.
Now, in verse 13 of the same chapter, he has reminded them of the way in which this gospel has come to them: “You heard the word of truth,” i.e., “the gospel of your salvation, and [you] believed in him, [and you] were sealed [by] the promised Holy Spirit.” And this is the way in which it happens: a man or a woman hears the truth of the gospel, believes it, and is brought from death to life. When he goes into chapter 2, that is exactly what he is pointing out: he says, “And if you ponder this, you realize that you who were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” and he goes on from there, and he says, gloriously, “but God, being rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he has loved us, has made us alive.” He’s made us alive. So the distinction is between life and death. They were previously spiritually dead. They had no spiritual pulse. They were not kind of alive or kind of dead, any more than a lady is kind of pregnant; she is either pregnant or she is not pregnant. And in the same way, the Bible is clear in defining the terms: by nature we are dead; in Christ we are made alive. And in the classic verses of chapter 2, he points out, “It is by grace you have been saved through faith. And that’s not your own doing; it’s the gift of God.” If it were your own doing, then you would have something to boast about. He says, “But we have nothing to boast about, since God has done this.” So, in other words, grace flows through the conduit of faith. And that conduit itself is actually of God’s own making. It is his gift to us.
And when a man or a woman comes to rest in this, to trust Jesus, they put on the armor of the gospel. It’s very important to realize this. It’s possible for this passage to be taught along the lines of “Try and be as much like Jesus as you possibly can, because it will be good for you, and others will benefit also.” It’s not an attempt to try and become something. It is the reality that in Christ we have been made something, and that when we came to trust in Christ, he clothed us with the gospel armor. He clothed us with his righteousness. He died in our place. We came to understand that. And, if you like, the theme of the salvation army, if they had had it available to them then, they probably would have chosen “In Christ Alone” as their anthem, for that is the testimony of the members of this spiritual force.
Enough said on that. We need to be clear as to the identity of the members of this army.
It of course raises the question, and purposefully so, and necessarily so, “Am I, in Christ, a member of this army? Have I heard the Word of Truth, the gospel of my salvation, and have I come to believe?”—to believe in terms of believing in it entirely, restingly, savingly. For when the Bible speaks in those terms, it’s not speaking simply about intellectual assent, to an awareness of certain things that are true of an individual who has lived and died, but it is rather that which comes to rest entirely upon it: “I have nothing else in my defense. I have no possible way of making me alive. Only if he shines into my heart and stirs me up in this way, then I may be able to testify to these things.”
Now, you see, this is why it is so important that the Bible is taught to us. This is why what we do here at Parkside centers on the Bible. Wherever anybody is in this building right now, I guarantee you they are there with open Bibles. Because “faith come[s] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” The ordinary means whereby a man or a woman comes to trust in Christ is a result of having the Bible taught to them. And you say, “Well, can’t you just read the Bible? Can’t you watch it on your iPad?” Yes, of course you can. Are those things good and helpful? Yes, undoubtedly, they are. Well, why would we then have such an emphasis on preaching? Is this the best method? Not necessarily the best method, but it is God’s method. That’s why we do it: because God has decided that through this strange means—even in the twenty-first century—men and women sitting, listening to the teaching of the Bible will have their hearts awakened and their eyes opened and their ears pierced and their sins dealt with and their lives changed.
William Gouge, who was one of… William Greenhill—I’m sorry—who was one of the Westminster divines in the creation of the Westminster Confession in 1649, he said, “Where the word of God is not expounded, preached, and applied … the people … perish.” “The people perish.” And if you want to just do a check on this, just check on all the dead churches all around the whole nation of America, and I guarantee you that the missing link in every one is a believing proclamation of the Scriptures themselves. There’s no reason for anybody to attend. There is no reason, for there is nothing to believe. And this, you see, is at the heart of it all. So, you should be thankful for these things; I’m sure you are.
That’s enough said concerning identity. Now let’s look at the hostility that this army faces.
Now, you will notice—and we have tried to emphasize this all the way through—that the source of this hostility is not abstract evil. It’s not abstract evil. If you look at the verse: “all the flaming darts of the evil one,” not “all the flaming darts of evil.” So, you have the definite article, “evil” is an adjective, and “one” is the noun. He is “the evil one.” Who is he? Well, he’s the devil. He’s already been identified: “the schemes of the devil.” “You are wrestling here in this way.” In other words, the devil himself, who came and seduced and deceived Adam and Eve in the garden, who then came and tempted the Lord Jesus in the wilderness—he, along with his allies, mentioned further up your text, attacks the followers of Jesus. That’s what Paul is pointing out.
Now, every follower of Jesus will know this not only because they have read it in the Bible but because they have experienced it. It’s regarded by many as a kind of superstitious folklore. In fact, as you think about going out into tomorrow, back to your workplace, and you talk about these things, it takes great bravery on the part of the Christian to say, “Well, you know, what we’re really up against is spiritual wickedness in the heavenly places.” People say, “You kidding me?”
No, there’s two groups that actually believe in the devil: Bible-believing Christians and Satanists. This is the New York Times on my anniversary. I’m not trying to tell you what my anniversary is, but I remembered it because it was my anniversary; it’s the sixteenth of August. New York Times article: “Witchcraft in the #MeToo Era.” And here’s the opening paragraph: “In a secluded nook of Central Park, 13 witches stood in a circle on a cloudless Saturday.” See how nice this sounds? See it? There’s no pitchfork. There’s no hell here. There’s no devastation, there’s no terror, there’s no disruption, there’s no chaos. “13 witches stood in a circle on a cloudless Saturday, eyes closed, chanting. A makeshift altar on the forest floor bore a lantern, a silver chalice, a bowl of water, a jar of salt, a sunflower and a wand.” And then it went on to highlight how difficult it is to trace this activity to its source and to fully identify the extent to which it is making inroads in a secular culture, so that the truly secular mind says, “It’s irrelevant. There is no spiritual world, there is no Holy Spirit, there are no evil spirits.” The Bible says, “Sorry, there are.” And these people know there are.
You see, the record of the temptation of Jesus by Satan in the wilderness, the record of his temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden and the fall of man into sin—for “as by one man came sin and so death through sin”—you see, this is not some kind of special little idea for people who are into this stuff to hold on to. This is actually foundational to our understanding of not only biblical history but human history. How do we explain human history? How do we explain the manifold evil? How do we explain the disruption, the chaos, all that has gone on despite all the length of time of human history—all of the advances in arts and science and everything else, and yet the same amazing fountain of animosity and pain and horror and darkness? Well, the people may oppose what the Bible says, but the Bible is clear in what it says: that we’re dealing with something that is not only cosmically true—you will notice that in your text: “against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”—it is not only cosmically true, but it is also personally true.
And that’s the point that Paul is making here. That’s why he says “in all circumstances” the believers are to be alert to “all the flaming darts of the evil one.” Now, he’s picking up a picture from contemporary warfare. It’s not contemporary to us, but we’ve seen pictures and we’ve seen movies whereby the arrows are then wrapped with some kind of material, which is then set alight, and then it is positioned in such a way as to be fired as an onslaught against the enemy, hoping to penetrate and to destroy. Oftentimes it’s not the picture of an individual archer with one little arrow, but it is a picture of a whole troop of individuals all launching their arrows at one time, coming from here and there and everywhere, so as, if possible, to soften up their opponents so that others may then come along with them and through them and penetrate their defenses and come in for the kill, as it were—come in for the hand-to-hand combat, which we noted back in verse 12: “For we do not wrestle,” and if you remember that, we said this is a word here that speaks of hand-to-hand combat.
Now, obviously we’re not talking here about the physical presence of a devil in the context of my car or wherever else it is. But nevertheless, the extent to which his devilish impact is almost tangible should not be set aside. Martin Luther on one occasion felt that the devil had invaded his study at Wartburg so radically that—he was so aware of his presence—that he took up his inkwell, and he threw it at this creature, and it smashed, and the ink went all over the wall. And it was there as a testimony to what had been happening to him in terms of this evil onslaught. In the same way, Bunyan in his great allegory points out that Christian engaged this foe in a way that was unmistakable. I quote just briefly: “Christian,” writes Bunyan, “had gone but a little way, before he spied a foul fiend coming over the [hill] to meet him,” and “his name [was] Apollyon.” I remember as a boy reading this for the first time, going, “Man, ‘a foul fiend coming over the way, and his name was Apollyon.’ Oh, I’ve met this man. I meet this Apollyon.” And so do you if you’re in Christ.
That’s the significance of “all the flaming darts.” The Evil One has an almost unlimited arsenal into which he can reach and from which he can fire. One of his favorite arrows is in a simple question: “Did God really say…?” “Did God really say…?” Well, of course, no, he didn’t actually really say what he asked. He said, “You can enjoy everything here, but don’t touch this.” The Evil One came and said, “Did he really say that you can’t eat any of the fruit of the garden?” No. Don’t put words in his mouth! He still does it. Have you noticed Jehovah’s Witnesses on the street? Diligent people. They love the word “really.” Here’s their pitch: “Find out what the Bible really says. Find out what it really says. You may have heard that it says this, but we’ll tell you what it really says.”
The flaming darts of the Evil One are subtle, trying to get us to doubt his Word, trying to get us to question his love, trying to get us to resist his will. And the picture is not of thoughts that are self-generated or cultivated from within, but the picture is that which is by way of accusation or insinuation that comes out of nowhere! Out of nowhere. Or as they say in a baseball analogy, out of left field. I don’t really know about what that means, and so I had to look it up. And then I realized that it’s not actually a very good analogy, because the definition of “out of left field” is “something which is unexpected, odd, or strange.” So it doesn’t fit this. Only in part it fits it. Because the attacks and the arrival of the arrows of the Evil One come unexpectedly, but they’re not strange. In fact, what would be strange would be the absence of the attack. Hence Peter, when he writes to his readers in his first letter, says, “Do not regard it as strange, this fiery trial through which you’re going.” Don’t regard it “as though something strange were happening to you.”
Now, Christian biography lines up with human experience, making it clear to us that some of the choicest servants of the Lord Jesus have battled with all kinds of flaming arrows: doubt, depression, unholy, unworthy, unbidden thoughts. Surely there is a measure of this in what we refer to as panic attacks. Surely there is a measure of this in the awareness that comes to us of deep-seated feelings of guilt that drag us from the sixteenth of September back through a decade, or two decades, or three decades, or as far back as you can go; and out of nowhere, on a beautiful sunny day, when everything is fine and we’re singing together, here it comes. “Where did this come from?” It was a flaming dart. The Evil One says, “You call yourself a believer? Don’t you remember?” Well, the sad part is, yes, I do remember. God, however, does not remember. That’s why we sang what we sang:
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end to all my sin.
So the response to the Evil One is as we’re about to discover.
Flaming darts, whether imaginations, desires, passions, jealousies, lust, temptations—the Evil One will employ everything and anything that seeks to undermine our identity in Jesus and our unity in Jesus. Our identity in Jesus and our unity in Jesus. Remember, he’s writing to the church. He’s already written to them and encouraged them to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” And he recognizes that one of the ways in which the Evil One would score a great victory in Ephesus would be if he could get them first to doubt their identity in Jesus, and then, secondly, to disrupt their unity in Jesus.
If I might just say in passing: God has been very good to us as a church in this regard. But we don’t take it for granted, and we don’t presume upon it. I was with a minister just in the last few days from down south, and it was very clear to me that the sorry tale of the last five or six years of his life could not ultimately be explained in terms of kind of corporate disruption or in any superficial way. The church in which he had served had clearly been under a sustained spiritual barrage. And from what I could tell, they had responded to it in a way that was naive and really unhelpful, and as a result it had led to chaos and disruption and sadness.
Well, that brings us, then, if the hostility is there, to determine what then is the activity that is called for? How is the hostility to be handled?
Well, as he’s already pointed out, the first thing is, it’s not to be handled in our own strength. As Luther in his great hymn puts it,
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing.
In other words, the only way in which we can deal with this hostility is to find our strength, our spiritual resources, in the Lord Jesus, reminding ourselves that Christ has won the victory, that the Evil One is a defeated foe. Newton, in a seldom-sung hymn, has one verse which goes like this:
When Satan appears to stop up our path,
And fills us with fears, we triumph by faith;
He cannot take from us, though oft he has tried,
The heart-cheering promise, “The Lord will provide.”
He has provided us with the armor, and here is what we’re to do: we are to “take up”—notice the verb—to “take up” this “shield of faith.” “Having fastened on the belt … having put on the breastplate … having put on the readiness” of the gospel shoes, “take up”! So, the breastplate is fastened to you, the belt is foundational to you, and the shoes are on you. Any soldier who is now enlisted and engaged in warfare, even if he is otherwise engaged, if we might put it discreetly, or if he is having a cup of tea, he is: breastplate, belt, shoes on. When the alarm sounds, he reaches for the shield. And that’s the point: “Take up” this “shield of faith.”
Now, this is not a little shield, like a little Frisbee kind of shield. This shield is four feet long by two and a half feet wide. It’s like walking around with a door. In fact, in warfare in the Roman times, a wife might say to her husband, “Make sure you come back with your shield and not on your shield,” because they would use the warrior’s shield as a mechanism for carrying him dead off the field of battle. “Make sure you come back with it, not on it.”
Now, what does this mean in essence? Let me give it to you in a sentence: we are taking up the shield of faith when we are trusting the gospel to shield us from Satan’s lies. We’re taking up the shield of faith when we are trusting the gospel to shield us from Satan’s lies.
Trusting individually and initially—Proverbs 30:5: “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to [all] who take refuge in him.” Question: Am I taking refuge in him? “Other refuge have I none; hangs my [weary] soul on thee.” He’s a shield to all who take refuge in him.
Trusting in the gospel, at the same time, consistently and corporately. The Bible makes it very, very clear that there are times when our faith falters; that’s why we sang as we did. That there are degrees of faith, even between us as we sit side by side in the seats. And when our faith falters, we may well be tested to introspection, to look inside of ourselves and try and scramble for an answer. But Paul is saying here, “No, don’t do that. Take up the shield, looking to Jesus. He is both the author and the finisher of your faith.”
William Gouge—who I mistakenly was going attribute the quote to earlier, but they were both together at the Westminster Assembly—Gouge writes in his diary, “When I look upon myself, I see nothing but emptiness and weakness; but when I look upon Christ, I see nothing but fullness and sufficiency.” It’s wonderful. The Bible actually refers to those who are “weak in faith,” refers to those who are “strong in faith.” Jesus comforted those who were “of little faith.” He commended “great faith” when he found it. Jesus said to Peter on one occasion, “[Peter], I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail”—and in his pride he collapsed. He had been given the warning, “Watch and pray [so] that you [do] not enter into temptation.” He neither watched nor prayed—and collapsed. It wasn’t the absence of the warning. It wasn’t the absence of the provision. It was the reaction of Peter.
And some of us, I think, may be tempted to say of some of the flaming darts that come our way, “Well, you know, I think I can absorb one or two of these. I don’t have to get too concerned about it. It doesn’t seem to be harming anything. I can let it burn for a bit.” That was Augustine when he said, “Lord, make me pure, but not yet.” “I’ll just let this one burn for a little bit. I kind of like it. It’s cozy.” No. “When troubles assail and dangers affright, though friends should all fail and foes all unite,” we raise the shield and we rouse the troops.
This is the importance, loved ones, of being in a family, as well. Families can gather together as nuclear families, but a church family’s so important too. Because when we find ourselves under unbelievable attack, we can say to our brothers and sisters, “Hey, would you bring your shield over here and help me, so that together we can just create this huge…?” Remember Reagan? He was going to have that thing that got the Russians really ticked off. It was a great idea. His shield was up there. I don’t know if it works or doesn’t work, but I like the idea. But this one does work. Raise the shield. Rouse the troops.
Sunday school songs help me always:
Rouse, then, soldiers, rally round the banner,
Ready, steady, pass the word along;
Onward, forward, shout [the loud] hosanna!
Christ is captain of the mighty throng.
When Jim Elliot and the rest of them were down there in Ecuador, before they came to meet their demise at the hands of the cannibal savages, you remember what they sang:
We rest on thee, our Shield and our Defender!
We go not forth alone against the foe;
Strong in thy strength, safe in thy keeping tender,
We rest on thee, and in [your strength] we go.
We go in faith, our own great weakness feeling,
And needing more each day [your] grace to know.
Well, I think that is the honest testimony of a member of the salvation army. And I trust it’s your testimony today. I want it to be mine.
 See Colossians 2:15.
 See Ephesians 1:21.
 Robert Lowry, “Low in the Grave He Lay” (1874).
 Eliza E. Hewitt, “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place” (1890).
 Ephesians 2:1–5 (paraphrased).
 Ephesians 2:8–9 (paraphrased).
 Romans 10:17 (KJV).
 William Greenhill, An Exposition of the Prophet Ezekiel, with Useful Observations Thereupon (London, 1837), v.
 Sanam Yar, “Witchcraft in the #MeToo Era,” New York Times, August 16, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/16/nyregion/witchcraft-in-the-metoo-era.html.
 Romans 5:12 (paraphrased).
 John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
 See Genesis 2:16–17.
 See Genesis 3:1.
 1 Peter 4:12 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 4:12 (ESV).
 Charitie Lees Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
 Ephesians 4:3 (ESV).
 Martin Luther, trans. Frederick H. Hedge, “A Mighty Fortress” (1529, 1852).
 John Newton, “The Lord Will Provide” (1775).
 Charles Wesley, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” (1740).
 See Hebrews 12:2.
 William Gouge, quoted in James Reid, Memoirs of the Lives and Writings of those Eminent Divines, Who Convened in the Famous Assembly at Westminster, in the Seventeenth Century (Paisley: Stephen and Andrew Young, 1811), 357.
 Romans 14:1 (ESV).
 Romans 4:20 (KJV).
 Matthew 6:30 (ESV).
 Luke 7:9 (KJV).
 Luke 22:32 (ESV).
 Matthew 26:41 (ESV).
 Augustine, Confessions 8.7.17. Paraphrased.
 John Newton, “Though Troubles Assail Us” (1775). Paraphrased.
 William F. Sherwin, “Sound the Battle Cry!” (1869).
 Edith G. Cherry, “We Rest on Thee” (1895).