A sermon based on Ephesians 6:10-20.
I remember back about twenty-five years ago when I was deep into my spiritual journey. I had recently moved from atheism to a generic belief in God. I was then working for some Christians and they were eager to get me to convert to Christianity. They spoke to me about Jesus every day and I endured it because I was paid to listen. I had started to read the Bible and to reflect on who Jesus was and what he had done for us. I had actually gotten to the point where I was seriously considering becoming a Christian.
Then one day as I was cleaning my boss’s pool, his wife began to talk to me about demons and evil spirits. At first I thought she was joking but she was serious. She really believed in demons and thought they were active in corrupting and oppressing people. This actually put the brakes on my willingness to become a Christian because it sounded more like mythology than truth.
Fast forward a number of years. I had finally become a Christian and had discovered C.S. Lewis. In addition to his apologetics books like Mere Christianity, I also read his fiction like the Screwtape Letters. The Screwtape Letters are written as a series of letters from a senior demon to a junior demon, giving advice on how to corrupt a man and to keep him away from God. As I read it, even though it is full of humour and fantasy, I was struck at how it rang true. But how was it true? Was it true in that Lewis had discovered aspects of human psychology and nature? Or was it true in the sense that there are spiritual forces that affect how we act and respond to temptation? Those are good questions.
As I have mentioned many times, I am a skeptic by nature. I do not apologize for that. But I’m left with biblical and experiential evidence about the spiritual aspect of life and I need to sort through it. Our passage in Ephesians 6 is a great place to start.
The Spiritual Realm Exists
Is there an actual Satan? Are there demons and evil spirits? Depending on what part of the world we come from, it may be harder or easier to believe in. What we have to acknowledge is that Satan and his demons are mentioned throughout the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments, in the Gospels and in Paul. Their existence is just assumed by the biblical writers.
So why is it so difficult for us to believe in them? A big part of it is how they are portrayed in literature and popular culture. We picture a kingdom of flaming hell ruled by a devil dressed in red with pointy horns, leading armies of winged demons who systematically torture all the poor souls who are damned to hell. The problem is that none of that is found in the Bible.
Hell is not a kingdom ruled by Satan. In fact there is no reason to believe that Satan has ever been to hell. Hell was created as a place of punishment for Satan and he will not go there until the day of judgment. This gets rid of the whole idea of demons involved in torture as well. In terms of what the devil looks like, the idea of the horns and the pitchfork are all made up as well. The closest the Bible gets to a description is saying that Satan can appear as an angel of light.
But even with an accurate biblical description of Satan and demons, can modern people of the twenty-first century really believe that there is a personal manifestation of evil rather than just people choosing to do bad things for psychological reasons?
There was a time in history called the Enlightenment when people felt they could reject the supernatural and explain everything in human terms. The assumption was that with enough thought and determination, humanity could create a heaven on earth. This dream began to die during World War One when all of our best technology was used to kill people by the thousands. Since that time, we have seen too many attempts at genocide and ethnic cleansing. The stories that have come out of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda point to an evil that is beyond our minds to comprehend. Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian general, was in Rwanda during the genocide. Dallaire makes this amazing statement: “I know there is a God because in Rwanda I shook hands with the devil. I have seen him, I have smelled him and I have touched him. I know the devil exists, and therefore I know there is a God.”
If you have ever taken time to study the holocaust and the things that took place, even beyond the mass executions and burning of bodies, there seems to be an evil present that goes beyond what humans can normally accomplish on their own.
But I don’t want to suggest that evil forces are only active in cases of terrorism and ethnic cleansing. There have been times in our life when we have felt like something really strange was going on. Just over a year ago, Amanda and I felt that God had something for us, that there was a plan for us and ministry. I was not a pastor at the time, so we did not know what that was going to look like. At that same time it seemed like we got hit by Murphy’s Law on steroids. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. Every day there was new crisis. Everything that happened seemed to try and push us into giving up on what God had for us. Neither Amanda and I are the type to look for a demon under every rock, but we both felt like there was something spiritual going on. It takes a lot to get us to think in those terms, but that is what we felt.
So is there a Satan and demons? I would say that there is indeed some sort of personalized evil that opposes us in our journey to love and serve God. It does not look like any of the Hollywood portrayals, but there is something that is real out there.
We Are Distracted By People
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of my favourite letters. What I love about it is that Paul is able to make the connection between the spiritual and the practical. If you look at the first chapter, Paul gives a wonderful and worshipful description of how great God is and then goes on to describe how we should then live the Christian life. Spiritual and practical.
In Paul’s description of spiritual warfare, he makes the following statement:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)
We read this and immediately want to get into speculation about all these spiritual forces. But Paul wants us to read the first part as well. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” Paul would not say this unless there was a temptation to actually believe that our struggle was against flesh and blood.
I have heard many horror stories about things that have happened at churches. I have been blessed to have had only good experiences with the churches where I have pastored. But this is not the case everywhere. There have been painful church splits. There have been hateful divisions. There have been families in churches that seem determined to drive out the new pastor before they even have their first Sunday. There seems to be some people in some churches determined, not just to have their own way, but to destroy the church. I hear these stories and wonder what is really going on. Is it that there is just a bunch of jerks in the church? I do think there are jerks. But sometimes the level of spitefulness that we see goes beyond just an unhealthy personality.
What if that person we are having conflict with is not just trying to be difficult? What if there is some evil force that does not want the unity in the church that God designed us to have?
We have a choice. We can put all our energy into being angry on a human level with this individual. Or we can consider that something else is going on, something that can not be explained away by human conflict.
What if our struggle is not against flesh and blood?
Prayer is the Key
When many people look at this passage, they look forward to discussions of the various parts of the armour of God. I’m not going to do that. Paul is using imagery that was familiar to the Ephesians to make his point. What Paul is getting at, and the point that we need to get, is that we need to be prepared spiritually. There are no noncombatants when it comes to spiritual warfare. We are all targets, whether we believe in spiritual warfare or not. By telling the Ephesians to put on the armour, he is reminding them that victory does not come by accident. What are we doing to prepare spiritually? What is our worship life like? How much are we studying God’s Word?
In all of this, I see Paul pointing to prayer as the key. Paul says,
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:18)
We don’t need to study demonology or understand everything that goes on in the spiritual realm. What we need to do is take prayer seriously. Prayer matters. Not just during our prayer time in church. Not just during our morning devotions. Not just when we are looking for a parking spot when we are running late.
Paul tells us to pray on all occasions. We need to be praying always. This does not mean with your eyes closed and your hands folded. Rather being in a constant attitude of prayer. We should be praying for ourselves, but we should also be praying for others. There are plenty of people who are going through difficult times. There are people whose lives are falling part. There are people who are being oppressed spiritually. Paul urges us to pray for such people, not with a casual or uncaring attitude, but to really intercede for them. Prayer is the key for being victorious in spiritual warfare.
You may be here and thinking that all this talk of Satan and spiritual warfare is just really strange. I think it is really strange as well. But I also believe it is true. I believe it is true, based on what I read in the Bible but also by what see happening in our world. There is an evil in our world that is more than accidental immorality, it is an evil with intelligence and malice toward God’s people. Call that evil what you will, but it must be taken seriously. We need to take our eyes off of the people that we think are the problem and get focused on praying in strategic and intentional ways. Let us lift up our brothers and sisters, in this congregation and around the world, and pray that God would come in his strength and truth.