Sunday, 24 April 2016
Everybody likes a happy ending. Yet we know that many episodes in life don’t seem to have such. Indeed, for many, the closure of some sets of circumstances indicates the opposite. No doubt, there were times in David’s life when he may have thought that there would not be a happy ending. For example, he was identified as a future king when Saul was still reigning, and for years it looked as if Saul would even kill David. Yet eventually David became king. If we know the story of his life, we can think of several stages when anything but a happy ending could be anticipated. Yet here he is, stressing that the story of his life on earth will have such a happy ending.
Sometimes we imagine if it is possible to summarise your life in a sentence. Or at other times we may comment on a sentence and say that a lot can be said in a few words. Maybe we may hear or read a sentence that challenges us about the grasp of reality that the speaker or the author possessed and we respond by saying that we wished we could be so sure of life and what it had involved for us.
Is it possible to have a sentence that looks to the four dimensions simultaneously – backwards, forwards, upwards and downwards – and speak about them with confidence? This closing statement of the psalmist does so. He looks back on the days he has lived, he looks ahead to a wonderful future, he looks up to God, and he looks down at circumstances that required mercy. And this fourfold look may surprise us when we recollect that in his life David had known problems, failures, and disappointments.
The days of life
What can we say about the days of our lives? Maybe we think that are fleeting, passing so quickly. Or maybe we think that they are few in comparison with the age of a mountain or a tree. Perhaps we admit that they are usually marked by failure, even according to our own standards, never mind the perfect standard of God.
There were the days of life in youth marked perhaps by optimism as we anticipated the future; then there the days of middle age marked by achievements in our home lives and in our work; and there are the days of old age marked by precious memories and perhaps anxieties about our health. I suspect that in all of our days, wherever we are in life, there are times of rejoicing and there are occasions of regret. There are days that we would like to live over again and there are days that we want to regret.
Of course there were days of momentous decisions, which leads us to ask about the most important decision we could have made. That decision concerns our response to the gospel. Some of us have heard the gospel on numerous days and have not yet trusted in Jesus. Even with regard to this psalm, this is the seventh in our series, and some of you have heard the previous six and are still not converted. Probably you have made several important decisions over those weeks, yet you have not chosen to embrace the Shepherd of the psalm. Maybe you don’t realise that you have been making a choice – the choice to say ‘no’ to the gentle, genuine call of the Shepherd to come into his flock.
Maybe those of us who are converted may have made wrong decisions since we commenced the series. The sheep of the good Shepherd are not perfect in this life. They will make many wrong choices, and some of them were deliberate choices. You chose your own will over his revealed will and you now find yourselves having to cope with the consequences of your choices. You may have said that it was only a little matter and would not have much effects. Yet you find yourself in a net that has entangled you and you wish you could find a way out.
In contrast to them, some of you may have made a decision to dedicate yourself to walking closer to the Shepherd. That desire still beats strongly in your heart, and yet you find yourself unable to follow as you aspire. You wonder if there is something wrong with you and are perplexed. What has happened? You are discovering again the spiritual conflict that Paul knew when he cried, ‘The good that I would I do not.’
So there are several types of days. And there is a great deal of variety about our days. Maybe as we look at them, we may ask if there is anything constant about them. The psalmist tells us that there is, that two divine attributes of God will mark the days that the sheep of Jesus will live.
Goodness and mercy
When we speak of the attributes of God, we are not speaking of things separate from him. We should not be surprised by this because this is how we speak of people. Sometime we say that someone is wise and kind, and when we say that about him we are not separating those two details from other aspects of his personality. Instead we may mean that everything about him shows itself through those two very visible features. So when the psalmist says here that God is marked by goodness and mercy, he is saying that it is through those attributes that we mainly see the Shepherd.
I don’t think David means that some things the Shepherd does are good and other things are expressions of mercy. Instead in all that he does for his sheep his goodness and mercy are displayed. I suppose we could say that the evidences of goodness and mercy have already been described in the psalm and all we need to do is remind ourselves of the various experiences the sheep of Jesus has received. He has received spiritual provision continually; he has been restored from trying circumstances including the consequences of sin; he has been led along beside calm waters depicting the spiritual rest of salvation; he has been guided through the valley of danger in which his spiritual enemies were active; and he has been comforted from the effects of a hostile environment.
The description of the heavenly activity of the Shepherd is one of constant activity. Moreover, it is described as being marked by immediacy – the idea behind ‘follow’ is that of pursuit, of rapid response by the Shepherd to the needs of his people. Why is this the case? One answer is that the divine activities of goodness and mercy are expressions of his covenant faithfulness. He has committed himself to deal with the spiritual needs of his people and they are all covered in his goodness and mercy.
As we look at this description, we should be amazed by two other aspects of the Shepherd’s response and that is the copious and the constant nature of his activity. We know that it is copious because of the number of times he has provided it – not only daily, but on numerous times every day. And it is constant because the sheep is not only describing his past experiences. In addition he is referring to all the future days he will have on earth. Whatever else they will bring, he knows that on each one he will know the goodness and mercy of his great and faithful Shepherd. And he is encouraging all his fellow sheep to appreciate this wonderful reality of their involvement day by day with the Good Shepherd.
The house of the Lord
The faith of the psalmist extends beyond the days he will spend in this world and anticipates where he will be after his time here is over. He is describing the heavenly fold to which he and all the people of God will be brought by the Shepherd. But what does he mean by the house of the Lord?
One suggestion comes from the fact that the author of the psalm was a king used to living in a special house. While his dwelling place would not have been quite like the palaces that we are accustomed to seeing, we know that his house would at that time been suitable for a king. In any case, all the palaces that we have seen are nothing in comparison with the glory of the dwelling place that will be given to the eternal kings, to those who have received royal status from Jesus. After all, it is said of the redeemed that they will reign on the earth, and where else should kings live but in a palace. So maybe the psalmist-king is looking forward to his Royal dwelling that will never disappear.
Another suggested of the meaning of this house concerns the desire that David had to build a house for the Lord, a desire that he was not allowed to accomplish. The house that he had wanted to build was a place for worshipping the great God he had come to know, the God who had given to him great promises. Moreover, we know that David was the sweet psalmist of Israel, the one who delighted to write songs of praise for other believers to use when they entered the presence of God. Maybe David wanted to hear volumes of praise that far excelled what he had heard when he joined the throngs who gathered together on the great festival days of Israel. And one day he will hear them when the heavenly choir is complete and the people of God gather in the heavenly temple to praise God, with the Good Shepherd himself leading the praise.
A third possible application comes from one of the sad circumstances in the life of David and that was the way that some members of his family behaved. Their behaviour marred the house of David and brought shame on the family name. So we would not be surprised if he was looking forward to gathering in a family home, where all would be pure and good. The place in this sense that he would be looking for would be the place where the family would gather together forever. We can enter into such an aspiration, of being there when all the family of God are safe in the Father’s house for ever.
When we think about the imagery of the house of the Lord we are reminded of the concept of sacred space. We get some idea of what that means by thinking of several incidents in the Bible where people found themselves in the special presence of the Lord and were reminded of the awesome privilege that they had been given. We can think of Moses at the burning bush, or Isaiah seeing the exalted Lord in the temple, or the apostle John in the presence of the exalted Christ in Patmos. They were very profound moments, yet they all faced a problem, which was that each of them were sinners, and their sinnership affected their enjoyment of being in sacred space. We are told what one of them did in sacred space when he was no longer sinful and that was Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration. John was there as well, but he was there as a sinner. We can see a difference in the way that Moses responded and the way that Peter, James and John responded to being in the presence of the glorified Shepherd. Moses appeared in glory and he with Elijah was able to speak coherently with Jesus whereas poor Peter could only speak out of ignorance, even although his ignorance expressed his love. In the house of the Lord, the ultimate sacred space for us, we will speak coherently with the Shepherd.
What words come to mind when we think of the house of the Lord? I would suggest anticipation, access and approval, although there is no doubt that many other words could have been used as well to describe it. It is a common experience in life to move house. One day, we will move to the heavenly residence promised to us. In this life, when we know we are moving house, we usually look forward to it. Maybe it happens because a couple have married and are commencing to make a home together. Perhaps several children have been born, and more space is needed. It may be when one gets older and has to downsize. Still, the prospect of a new home is usually very appealing. And the sheep of Jesus look forward to their eternal home. It fills their prospects as they look out on the future.
The basic feature of a home is access. If a building is permanently locked, it is more likely to be a prison rather than a home. Sadly, some buildings which should be homes are more like prisons. Yet normally we enjoy access to our own homes and sometimes to the homes of others. Connected to the access is freedom to move around. And that is the kind of access the sheep of Jesus will have once they reach the heavenly home. They will be able to go wherever they wish within and interact with all the other residents there, the number of whom is so incredibly large that their number cannot be calculated. And the sheep will be with the Shepherd.
Sometimes, after we have been in a new house for a while we discover things that are wrong with it and we may end up not being very happy with it. This will never be the case with regard to the house of the Lord. Our existence there will be one of constant approval, in which we experience the kindness of the Shepherd King for ever and ever. It is not always possible to even imagine what life there will be like, except that we know, from another picture the Bible gives us of heaven, that Jesus will shepherd his people and lead them to the fountains of the waters of life. That imagery points to endless satisfaction.
Of course, unless Jesus returns before them, the way of reaching the Lord’s house will be by the door of death. At that moment, each believer becomes a perfected spirit ready to live in a perfect environment with perfect company. He joins other sheep who have already reached the fold and waits there until the time comes for the Shepherd to resurrect their bodies. That may even be the happiest day in heaven’s story as the Shepherd brings his people into a state of full and complete salvation. Then all the sheep, fully conformed to the glorious likeness of their Saviour, will enjoy life in the Lord’s house for ever.
What lessons does the psalm urge us to take from it? I would mention two. The first is that we should always be looking at the Shepherd, at the Saviour who died at Calvary in the place of his sheep when he paid the penalty for their sins. His willingness to go through with that experience is a reminder of how much he loves his sheep.
The second lesson from the contents of the psalm is that each of God’s people should learn to look backwards and forwards at the same time. In the psalm, David as a sheep looks back at some of the ways in which the Lord had blessed him. Those recollections then led him to have confidence in the future, both with regard to this life and also with regard to the next. When we combine those two lessons we will understand what it means to say that the Lord is our shepherd.
Sunday, 17 April 2016
It is possible that verse 5 of the psalm explains something that a shepherd did for his sheep as he led them along the valley that took them to the higher summer pastures – we considered this possible interpretation of the valley when we looked at verse 4. Some commentators suggest that the shepherd would travel the route beforehand and store provisions at regular distances, so that food would be available when the sheep reached those locations. Whether that was the case or not, it is true that the heavenly Shepherd will ensure that adequate supplies are available wherever he takes his people.
Others suggest that the imagery of a shepherd does not exist in this verse or in the next, and that instead the author now uses the imagery of a host because he refers to a table with food on it, and a cup from which the psalmist drinks. Verse 6 further suggests that the psalmist is now inside a building called the house of the Lord. It is obvious that some details may not fit with the usual imagery of a shepherd outside in the countryside with his sheep. Yet we should remember that the Jewish imagery of a shepherd also referred to the way that a king would perform his duties, and it may be that here we have a description of royal bounty as well as shepherd care.
The first detail that verse 5 states is that God’s people have enemies. Indeed the psalmist is saying that each believer can have his own enemies. We can also see that they are more than one. David himself knew what it was like to have powerful enemies, both before he became king and subsequently as well. Even more importantly for each of the sheep is the fact that the Shepherd of their souls had enemies. The devil was his enemy, as were the leaders of Israel, whether political like the Herodians, traditional like the Pharisees, or anti-supernatural like the Sadducees. Indeed it is likely that the only occasion when they were united together was when they were attacking Jesus at the time of his arrest.
An important aspect of the experience of Jesus is that it has enabled him to empathise with his people when they encounter their enemies. Some people can express sympathy with us, but we know that they have not been through the experience personally. But it is very different when we meet someone who has gone through the same experience – that individual can empathise with us because he understands what it is like. So we as sheep get comfort from knowing that the Shepherd knows what it is like to have fierce enemies determined to harm him.
What enemies do they have? The Bible, as we know, says that they have three enemies – the world, the flesh and the devil. We can grasp who the last one is because he is a creature, although a fallen one. The flesh does not refer to our physical body, although sometimes our bodily desires can lead us into sin. Instead, the flesh is a way of describing remaining sin in a believer. And the world does not mean people, even although people can lead us into sin. Rather, the world refers to the outlooks of people, their hopes and ambitions, their interests and their goals, the ideas that prevent people putting God first in their lives and so replace him with things. The important details to note are that those enemies work together against believers and that the Lord does not remove them from the presence of believers.
There is a reminder here that a believer does not have to be sinless in order to be blessed by the Shepherd. Of course, if that was the case, then there would be no blessings experienced in this world. Sometimes we imagine that temptations take us out of God’s presence, but they do not. It is not a sin to be tempted, and often temptations come at moments of closeness, such as at the Lord’s Supper. The psalmist is describing one of the unusual features of the spiritual life which is that we can be in the presence of the Shepherd and in the presence of spiritual enemies simultaneously.
While it is possible that the psalmist is referring to a kind of literal table – perhaps a pile of stones elevated above the ground – I would suggest that what he has in mind is variety of provision. Whenever we see a table, we usually see more than one type of food on it. It is similar with the provision that Jesus makes.
Having said that is the case, we should also remember that the provision that Jesus gives is all connected to himself. Another way of saying this is to recognise that all our blessings come through our union with Jesus. There are many blessings that we can have and Jesus the Shepherd knows which one we should have at particular stages in our Christian experience.
The blessing that we are going to need most frequently is that of forgiveness. Yet we know that the reception of forgiveness is preceded by repentance for the particular sins for which we need forgiveness. Where did the repentance come from? It came from Jesus in heaven. At other times, we may desire peace in our souls. We may be disturbed for a variety of reasons, some because of difficult providences, some because of hostility shown against us, some because of wrong things we may have said. Where can we receive peace from? It comes from Jesus in heaven. We can go through a list of blessings that we need, but all of them will come from Jesus.
As we think of this reality, it is important to know that Jesus wants to give us as many blessings as we will need at any time. Our faith should anticipate a well-laden table. Moreover, we know that Jesus has the wisdom regarding which blessings can be the main course at such times. Since that is the case, it is our responsibility to trust him for the provision. It is like one of the sheep saying to another sheep, ‘I don’t know where the shepherd will take us today, but I know that he will provide suitable food for the circumstances I will go through. It is a fact that each expression of faith by one believer should strengthen the expectations of other believers. It would be wrong to say to another believer, ‘He will not provide any food today!’
Whenever a sheep made its way through a pasture or along a path, it was liable to have its face affected by the heat of the sun and its eyes affected by parasites. The sun would cause the skin on the face to crack and various sores would appear. The one thing that would be obvious from seeing such a sheep was that it was unable by itself to do anything about the needs it had. Of course, David would have been able to do something about physical problems that arose from being outside, but he was not able to do anything to cater for the needs of his soul. Anything he would have tried would not have solved the problems he had.
The way that the shepherd dealt with those problems was to use oil as a medicine. He is not referring to crude oil, but to oil in the sense of ointment. We see an example of such oil when Mary anointed the head of Jesus. This leads us to ask how the Shepherd gives us this oil and what does the oil signify. And in order to answer those questions we need to ask what the cracks on the skin and parasites could indicate?
One possibility is that a Christian is under attack and receives wounds in his heart because of strong opposition. Some opposition leaves external marks, but others leave internal scars. Maybe the opposition comes from family, from relatives, from friends, from colleagues who have treated the precious name of the Shepherd with contempt, and the sheep feels it in his or her soul. Who can deal with that heart apart from the Saviour? And the good thing is that he does deal with it.
Another possibility is that the affairs of life blind the sheep to spiritual realities. Those affairs may not be wrong in themselves, but they can cause us to be so busy with earthly things and we find that our spiritual vision is affected. It is good when that happens to know that the Shepherd is aware of it and has the means by which he can restore our perception of heavenly realities. Paul was aware of such dangers when he urged the Colossians to set their affections on things above.
There are many examples that could have been chosen to illustrate the blessings conveyed in the illustration of the oil. But we can ask ourselves what would the consequences of the anointing be. One outcome would be that the sheep would feel at ease, that the disturbances caused by the cracks and the parasites would no longer happen. Instead the sheep would have an incredible experience of peace brought into its experience by the wisdom and care of the shepherd. And it is inevitable, on the spiritual level, for such tenderness not to create anticipations within the heart of the sheep of Jesus for future applications whenever necessary.
Another consequence of experiencing the tender care of the shepherd would be the aroma that would permeate the place where the sheep was. The other sheep would know that it had received the kind attention of the shepherd. Something similar, but vastly greater, occurs in the spiritual life as well. Every believer gives out a smell, but sometimes it is not an aroma. At times, the smell can be one of jealousy, or of legalism, or of divisiveness. None of them are ever fragrant and the other sheep know it, unless they too are spreading the wrong smells. But when a Christian has received the gracious care of the Good Shepherd, there words are automatically fragrant and become a blessing to others. They don’t have to draw attention to themselves, but the aroma draws attention to the capabilities of the gracious Saviour.
It is not entirely clear what the cup refers to. If the imagery concerns a sheep, then it could be taken from the practice of the shepherd giving lots of refreshing water to the sheep. Or David could be using as an illustration what would happen in the King’s presence when he would pour wine for his guests. Either way, the illustration points to the copious nature of the blessings we can receive from the King. What are some of them? Here are a couple of experiences of the sheep of Jesus.
One experience is mentioned by Jesus in John 10:10 where he says that he had come to give abundant life. What did he include in his promise? We can suppose that he is speaking mainly about spiritual life, although from a long-term point of view there is no need to exclude the future life of the resurrection from within his meaning. After all, it is eternal life, and therefore it must include length as well as depth within its fullness.
Life needs space within which to live, and the space that is given to spiritual life is very large. The space that is given to the sheep of Jesus is as large as his blessings. Life also needs strength in order to appreciate what it has to offer, and the strength that is given to believers is the Holy Spirit. Further, for life to be life it has to be satisfying, and the life that Jesus gives satisfies the searching soul with peace and contentment. And we can say that real life must provide a sense of security, no matter what takes place, and Jesus assures his people that no one can remove them from his hand.
Another experience is receiving great answers to our prayers. Paul reminded the Ephesians of the possibilities that were connected to prayer: ‘Now unto him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.’ What can we say about our prayers? Have you ever tried to speculate how many of your prayers God has answered? Imagine a person who has been a Christian for twenty years and he makes twenty petitions a day (of course, he makes a lot more). In that example, he would have made about 150,000 prayers. Of course, if he were to make twenty petitions an hour, say for twelve hours of the day, he would have offered 1,800,000 petitions. And if he has been a Christian for forty years, the number of petitions gets very large. How many has the Lord answered? We tend to focus on the ones he has so far not answered rather than thanking him for the many he has answered far above what we expected.
The psalmist is not suggesting that having a full cup is an unusual experience. Instead he is saying that the sheep of Jesus are given a full cup from him. The cup pictures the spiritual blessings they are entitled to through his grace. He purchased those blessings for them by his death. I suppose the real question is whether or not we drink out of the overflowing cup. This cup can never empty, no matter how much we drink from it.
We can see that the sword of the Spirit is the weapon that a Christian soldier uses as he defends himself against the enemy’s schemes. The obvious implication is that the sword should only be used by someone who has the armour on. At the same time, we can see that the armour without the sword is not sufficient. Both the armour and the sword are necessary for a successful outcome. This is how we can be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.
What or who is the model that Paul has in mind when he refers to a soldier wearing armour. Two suggestions have been made. One is that he has in mind a Roman soldier because he would have seen many of them in his travels and he may even have been chained to one as he wrote this letter. The other suggestion is that he is thinking of Jesus because Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would come wearing armour (Isa. 59:17). Personally, I would suggest that we combine both suggestions, arguing that Paul wants us to imitate Jesus but uses the Roman armour to illustrate his points.
Paul’s description of the enemy forces indicates that each believer faces an organised, large and battle-experienced foe under the control of the devil. They are marked by wickedness and cunning, which means that Christian soldiers should be ready for surprise attacks. Paul mentions various levels of importance, which may be a reminder that they also recognise levels of importance of individuals in the Lord’s army.
We can imagine that they would pay more attention to the apostles than they would to those we can describe as ordinary Christians, that they would attack church leaders more than ordinary believers. With regard to the church in Ephesus, perhaps the leaders would be under special attack and we know that previously Paul had warned them of spiritual dangers ahead. The one thing that we can be certain of is that they definitely wish us harm and want to destroy our effectiveness.
Paul identifies the battlefield as ‘the heavenly realms’, which we may find surprising because many people interpret this phrase as describing heaven. The phrase is only found in this letter, so in order to understand where this location is, we need to look at the other references to it in this letter. In Ephesians 1:3, we find that the location is the place where Christians experience and enjoy spiritual blessings; in 1:20, it is the place where Jesus is exalted; in 2:6, it is the area that believers share with the risen, exalted Lord; in 3:10, Paul says that heavenly authorities are found there, and they could be good or bad Angels; and here it is the place of conflict. So we can deduce that the battle is concerned with believers receiving benefits connected to their God-given blessings. As Paul says later, the goal is for believers to stand their ground or the position they have received from God and prevent the devil and his hosts from causing them to move.
Paul mentions six pieces of armour and it looks as if three of them are always worn by a believer and three are used when a spiritual battle occurs, which is very frequently. The three are the belt, the breastplate and the sandals. Paul is following the order in which a Roman soldier would don the various pieces.
First, a soldier would have his undergarments tied by a belt so that they would not trip him up in a battle. The equivalent of the belt is truth, both objective truth and subjective truth, and such truth is to control our inner man (the parts below the armour). As far as objective truth is concerned, probably Paul means the truth of the gospel regarding how to be saved, although he also could mean the truth of God’s overall purpose of salvation, His point is obvious. If we do not know these details, and if we do not apply them to ourselves, then we will be tripped up very easily in the battle. With regard to subjective truth, Paul is saying that a Christian soldier must be truthful in character and in all his contact with other people. If lies are told, he will have no power, and will be defeated.
Second, Paul mentions the breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate protected the heart and lungs. It was essential for such organs to have ongoing protection in a battle. A wound here and the battle would soon be over, and it would be a defeat. The breastplate is righteousness, but we need to ask what kind of righteousness. Is it the righteousness of Jesus or is it the believer’s own obedience? The latter cannot give full protection, so we can deduce that Paul is referring to the former. And we should not be surprised because the reality is that none of the arrows of the enemy cannot get past the righteousness of Jesus imputed to every believer.
Third, Paul refers to the footwear of the soldier, an item that was very important because he had to stand his ground in the battle. If he had on sandals that did not fit exactly, he could easily fall or be toppled over. The standing of a Christian is connected to the fact that he is at peace with God, that he knows he has been reconciled to God for ever. Such an assurance gives great stability.
Those three great truths depicted in the first three pieces of armour describe the moment by moment experience of a Christian. He understands the plan of God, he has been given the righteousness of Jesus, and he know that he is reconciled to God. These are wonderful blessings, yet more are needed when under spiritual attack. So Paul mentions three more pieces of armour, with one being the sword of the Spirit.
Another is the shield of faith, which Paul says can extinguish the flaming arrows fired by the devil. The shield was a small one that a soldier used to prevent arrows penetrating. It had to be flexible, because the arrows could come from various directions, some aimed at the body and others at the head.. We can imagine a soldier having to deflect one temptation about this activity and another temptation about another activity, and those darts of temptation coming continually.
The shield depicts a faith that knows how to resist temptation, which means the soldier knows how to apply the contents of God’s Word by faith. It was the custom for soldiers to soak their shields in water in order that any arrows that stuck to them would be defused or extinguished. Faith is made wet by the ministry of the Spirit keeping our faith fresh. The Spirit works through his Word to help his people.
The other piece of armour is the helmet of salvation. A soldier put on a helmet to protect his mind, because if it was damaged he would not be able to fight, and his eyes, because if they were damaged he could see far ahead of him. The equivalent of the ordinary helmet is the hope of salvation. This is a reference to the future deliverance that Jesus will give to his soldiers when they march in the victory parade when he returns. The Christian soldier stands his ground by looking ahead to glory and by reminding himself to think constantly about the guaranteed victory he will enjoy. In the heat of the battle he must remain clear-headed and think about the glory to come.
The sword of the Spirit
Paul’s description of the sword reminds us who is the originator of the word of God. There are many human authors of the Bible, but they were guided by the Spirit to produce his book. Since that is the case, we can be assured that the Bible is the Word of God, inspired by the Spirit and infallible in its contents. Yet Paul means more than merely recognising that the Bible is the Word of God.
Paul’s description of the Bible as a sword is also a reminder of the purpose why God gave it to us – it is the only weapon we can use that will be effective against the enemy. The devil will not be moved by our displays of intelligence or by fine sounding words. He will not be affected by words of bravado, and they are quite common among believers. Instead a sword was a weapon that was used to defeat enemies soundly. So we need to use it in order to stand firm.
Connected to this point is the reality that the sword of the Spirit should be used by all believers as they stand together against the foe. This means that Paul thought that every believer should be using the Bible simultaneously. If I choose to use something else, I weaken the corporate campaign. For example, the Bible says that we should not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. If I choose not to obey that instruction, I deprive myself of blessing and also disturb others who become worried as to where I am.
Since that is the case, we need to ask ourselves which parts of the Bible are useful in spiritual warfare. In one sense, any part of it would be. For example, if I was being tempted by the devil, would I find any help in reading the genealogies? At first glance, we might say no. Yet what if we started to think about how the names in the list coped with temptations. If we did that, we would find a lot of spiritual help.
Having said that we can use all of the Word of God, we should also note that this may not be the particular emphasis that Paul is making here. After all, when he wrote the letter, most of the New Testament was not available. James Boice points out that there is something significant in the term used by Paul and translated as ‘word’. Paul could have used logos or rhema, both of which mean ‘word’. Logos refers to something big, such as a message, whereas rhema can refer to something shorter such as a verse or a sentence. Paul uses rhema, and Boice deduces from this choice that Paul is telling his readers that they should use short sentences or verses from the Bible when repelling attacks of the enemy. After all, this is what Jesus did when he resisted the devil’s temptations in the desert during the forty days after his baptism, when he cited three verses from the Book of Deuteronomy. In doing so, he defeated the devil in the most uncongenial of situations.
Since we need to use the Bible, it is important that we know what it says. The psalmist wrote, ‘I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you.’ He regarded the Word as treasure and his heart he likened to a vault for holding treasures. In Psalm 1, we read about the blessed man who mediated continually on the Word of God, with the outcome that he became a stable and fruitful believer. It is impossible to use the sword in a casual manner. Instead we have to be in earnest.
The fact that the Bible is the Word of God should cause us to have confidence in its efficacy. Do we have any examples in the Bible of a person using God’s Word properly and being denied its power? The answer is that God does what he has promised. Can the enemy resist the wounds of this sword when used properly? No, he cannot. Therefore, we should use it.
Another attitude that we should have is use it in a consecrated manner. Is it true that all we need to do is quote a Bible verse in order to defeat the enemy? The answer is no. If I am tolerating sin in my heart, whether in my attitudes or in my failure to acknowledge when I have done wrong, quoting the Bible will not work when we try and use it. We don’t need to be perfect in order to use this weapon, but we do need to be devoted.
A third attitude to have when wielding the sword is carefulness. After all, when the devil tempted the Saviour in the desert, he cited a Bible verse in his temptation. Not every verse that comes to our mind is suitable. Indeed the devil can misquote a verse in order to cause confusion. He did that to Jesus, so why should he not do it with us? We need to be very careful when handling the sword. Some people misapply verses to other Christians merely because they do not like comments or opinions that the other believers have expressed. Or we can try and use a verse to contradict a clear meaning of another verse merely to suit ourselves.
Then a fourth attitude we need to have is the determination to use the Word of God continually. It is possible that initially a use of the sword may not cause the enemy to flee. After all, when Jesus used the sword against the devil in the desert, the devil returned twice with another temptation until eventually he fled. So we need to persist and not give in to the danger of compromise and combine the sword with other ways.
The final aspect that we need to keep in mind is that using the sword means we fight the enemy at close quarters. After all, a sword is not a rifle. The closeness of the battle is also illustrated in Paul’s use of wrestling to describe our contact with the spiritual powers. So we should not be surprised if we get a blow in return. But that is why we should wear the armour God has arranged for us to wear and use the sword he has provided.