Sermon series: The Measure of Our Maturity
Scriptures: Ephesians 6:10-12
Military experts say that there was a point in time when the Soviet Union had developed and positioned the most effective antiaircraft system in the world. Powerful radars sniffed the air above major Soviet cities. Missiles were poised for any altitude. None of the cities was more heavily defended in that system as was Moscow and its famous Red Square just outside the Kremlin, the seat of the Communist government. Surrounded by what was called the "Ring of Steel," Moscow had belts of missile placements located at about 10, 25, and 45 nautical miles out. They could not imagine a scenario for which they had not prepared. Everyone everywhere believed Moscow to be impenetrably safe - until May 28, 1987, that is.
That was the day when a 19-year old German named Mathias Rust piloted a single-engine Cessna airplane from Helsinki, Finland, across Soviet territory, buzzed the Kremlin, and then landed in Red Square within spitting distance of Lenin's tomb.
(Photos available at Google Images.) That's Rust leaning against his rented plane. Before he was taken away by the KGB, he managed to draw a crowd of admirers who even asked for autographs. When the incident was over, the daring young German was elated, the Russian government was embarrassed, and the world was very amused.
What was interesting about this is that Rust made no attempt to evade radar. His intrusion into Soviet airspace was detected 100s of miles before he landed. MiG fighter jets had done "fly bys," marking the Cessna long before it approached the capital city. But it was deemed harmless, nothing worth getting excited about. In fact, in the handoff report between the Leningrad commander and his Moscow counterpart, there was no mention of the Cessna.
So at about 6 p.m., when Rust reached the outskirts of Moscow, military leadership had a huge problem. The city's airspace was completely restricted. No overflights, either military or civilian, were allowed. Radar controllers that picked up the Cessna's approach realized that something was terribly wrong, but it was too late for them to act. And, 43 minutes later, Mathias Rust put his plane down in the very heart of the Soviet Union.
In the aftermath of this defensive collapse, enormous effort was given to identify how this was even possible. It was not just so their minds could have an answer for why this happened, but they wanted to apply what could be learned from this failure so that it could never happen again.
The final report called for procedures to be rewritten, radar stations to be recalibrated, and hundreds of replacements along command lines. Officers ranging from revered war heroes down to the lowest ranks were discharged or replaced in what was the biggest turnover in the Soviet military command since Stalin's bloody purge of the 1930s.
Stories like this fascinate me on many levels, but there are two things that stand forward for you and me this morning.
1. We are more vulnerable than we think
I'm not talking about our nation, though America has had a far more lethal lesson on vulnerability than the one I just recounted. No, I'm talking about our personal lives.
We've all seen that couple whose marriage, from all outward appearances, was inviolable, yet they're calling it quits. We've all come to expect the surprise, when the private choices of public figures force themselves into the light of day and we must redraw the image we had of them. The tales are far too common and the tragedies far too painful. How many strong, vibrant reputations and relationships and careers and ministries have been shipwrecked?
Political figures, celebrities, sports personalities, religious leaders, CEOs, and the guy next door - they let something into their airspace that at the time seemed controllable and harmless. It was no big deal, they reasoned. Every scenario is covered. No real threat exists. And suddenly it's too late. Here's the first lesson I learn from a guy who landed in Red Square: We're not as strong as we think we are. First Cor. 10:12 makes this plain enough: Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.
2. We are careless
First Cor. 10:6 points to the spiritual disintegration of Israel, and then tells us these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Wise is the man, the woman, the teenager who turns from the wreckage of someone else's sin only to look for similar cracks in their own defenses.
The Russians sifted every detail and restructured entire systems in order to prevent future intrusions. But so, so many who profess to be Christians see no reason to examine their defenses or make any real changes in their behavior, surrounded though we are by those whose lives have been invaded. We just resolve to be more careful, cross our fingers, and continue on - same attitudes, same friends, same choices, same worldliness.
Here's the critical question I want to pose this morning: If Satan were to blow you out of the water, how do you think he would do it? If he could ruin your reputation, silencing your testimony; if he could lethally poison your marriage and foster bitterness in your family; if he was able to end your career or ministry - what would be his approach? Where is the critical weakness?
In the care of souls - yours and mine - I want us to assess ourselves in the light of Scripture. I don't want another person, not another couple or family in this fellowship to become a casualty in this spiritual war. With defensive failures all around us, it's time to take THE MEASURE OF OUR MATURITY.
What does spiritual maturity have to do with fighting off temptation? Let me take you to the single most important passage on battle tactics in the Bible: Ephesians 6. As God uses Paul to write this letter, the apostle has been in Roman prison for almost five years. He is a political hostage, locked away from the Jews who want to get rid of him by the Romans who don't know what to do with him.
It's obvious that Paul is no stranger to frontline combat in the spiritual realm. He knows how easy it is for a defensive failure to take place in lives and churches, so he writes Eph. 6:10-20. For our purposes, we're concentrating on v. 10-12. And if you like an outline of what is written, there is the call to arms, the command to stand, and the contender to defeat.
3. The call to arms
v. 10. "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might."
This is an imperative, a call to arms, a command. As a Christian, you have a mandate from God Himself. Compliance is not optional. You are in a war zone. There are no qualifiers to unflinching obedience, no leave of absence from the battle, and no tolerance for AWOLs.
The core command is be strong. This ought to make us stop and pay attention. When Paul tells you to be strong, he's telling you that something's coming. What's coming isn't a 19-year old amateur pilot. He's scary and powerful and knows how to invade your life. Every word from Paul matters here, so let's notice three important truths that are packed into this verb be strong.
a) You are NOT the source of this power.
Be strong can sound like a pep talk from the coach before the game. But the language of the New Testament is very precise: the power doesn't come from within you and me. You are a channel, not the source. And that's really good news because of what we're up against. You and I will be overpowered, outmaneuvered, and outsmarted on your own. Our strength is inadequate for this fight.
If we were to update this in a secular way, we could borrow from the lips of Dirty Harry, the cop made famous by Clint Eastwood. In one of his movies, he said, "A man's gotta know his limitations." Well Paul said it first. But greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world (1 John 4:4). The resurrected Christ is the dynamo. Be strong (or more accurately, be strengthened) in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Phil. 4:13 echoes this. Read it aloud with me: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
b) You ought to be getting stronger.
What Paul is talking about in Eph. 6:10 is not a one-time show of power. It is an increasing, building kind of strength. In other words, the longer you are a Christian, the stronger you ought to be spiritually. The reality is there are believers who have walked with Christ for decades that seem weaker than new Christians of just a few years. Their spiritual growth and strength hit a plateau long ago. Instead of being the go-to people in the body of Christ, they are instead known for patterns of sin - for fear, gossip, cynicism, pride, and a love of power.
Listen, the book of Hebrews is talking to some of us this morning when it says by this time you ought to be teachers, but have need for someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:12-13). You don't grow strong by attending committee meetings, critiquing ministries, and coasting. You get stronger when you personally join the sometimes messy front lines of ministry. Which brings me to the third truth.
c) You are to put this strength to the test.
The word the Holy Spirit inspires Paul to use means proven strength, battle-tested ability. This is not body-builder strength, where you pump iron so you can flex in front of the mirror. This is not theoretical strength for armchair Christians who talk a big game in the boardroom and throw their weight around behind the scenes, but are always conspicuously absent when actual ministry with people takes place. No, Jesus equips you for the kind of hand-to-hand battles that come up when you take risks in the Kingdom of God.
Acts 1:8 makes this connection clear: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." This is power to fulfill the Great Commission. Do a study through Acts. You will find that the apostles were filled with the Spirit as they were given opportunity to speak.
His power flows through me when I bear witness to Christ. No witness, no risk, no wrestling with people's sinfulness, no getting involved with people's lives with a Gospel intention - then no power. The muzzle gets hot when it's fired. When you open your mouth, He will fill it! When you roll up your sleeves in Jesus' name, you see Him working through you.
Here are your orders: Get fortified in the Lord so that you are prepared for anything as you risk yourself in the cause of Christ. Allow Him to give you His strength. Why? Because something's coming! This is the call to arms. So what are we up against?
4. The contender to defeat
v. 11-12. "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."
The worst enemy you have is this one, whom Paul calls the devil, who is Satan himself, the evil one, the one who first tempted Eve in the garden; the one who accuses every believer; the one who stands before God to hurl accusations against you now and at the end of time; the one who has opposed all believers in all ages. He is active and personal and intensely focused on how to ruin you, corrupt you, turn you, break you.
Paul warns us about the schemes of the devil. The word is "methodeia," which is always used in the NT in a bad sense. In fact, in the second century A.D., the church used the word "methodeia" to describe the systematic torture of Christian martyrs. The word refers to an orderly, logical, effective plan that involves deceit and cunning to entice and ensnare. Think of a carefully orchestrated plan of attack with a specific target, and you have the gist of what Paul is describing. Highly organized; very determined! When you stir in the ranks of demonic spiritual forces in v. 12, you get the picture.
There is a malevolent evil being who is set against you. If you've ever wondered why you find worship boring, ever questioned why it's so hard to get up in the morning and spend time with the Lord, ever thought about why every time you want to share your faith, fear crops up - look no further!
Satan hates you and has a terrible plan for your life. He hates your marriage and wants to kill it. He hates your children and wants to trap them. He despises this church and wants to neutralize it. He has your picture and your vital information on a table in his war room, strategizing how best to invade your life. This is why we need the strength of the Lord, which becomes ours as we put on the full armor of God.
5. The command to stand
v. 11a. Verse 11 gives us a second command: "Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil."
Look carefully at this order and what it requires.
a) You are to dress out immediately.
Put on means "clothe yourself, dress out, get this equipment on." And the emphasis is, do it now! Move it! Hurry! There is urgency here. Why? Because something's coming and you can't handle it in your own strength! Suit up!
b) You are issued the armor of God.
Many believe that Paul is drawing his analogy from the Roman soldiers to whom he was chained (6:20). But Paul also knew the OT. In Isaiah 59:15-17, we read about God Himself as a warrior, fighting to deliver His people. Notice the description of what God is wearing: "[The Lord] saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then His own arm brought Him salvation, and His righteousness upheld Him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; He put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped Himself in zeal as a cloak." So this is the armor of God not just because He supplies it, but because He wears it! God's Messiah wore the same armor. The same armor available to you!
Now listen carefully, because along with these orders Paul is about to reveal the secret weapon in the war of souls. This is the weapon that holds back the darkness and advances the Kingdom of God in His power. In v. 14-17, we read the description of the 6 pieces of armor, with prayer as our connection to Command Headquarters in v. 18-20.
What is the nature of this armor? The various pieces are about truth and obedience, about remembering your place of peace before God, about exercising faith in God and His promises, about salvation that governs our choices, and about learning to wield the Word of God like the Spirit-empowered sword it is.
All these aspects are about your Christian life. What is more, notice the purpose, the goal of being fully covered in the armor of God? So that you may be able to stand against the devil. The word stand means "to dig in, to hold your ground, to not give an inch." No territory lost. I won't be knocked off course. I will stay steady, fixed, immovable!
Put these together and you begin to realize what Paul was talking about. The great supernatural weapon of which Paul writes is you. You and I fend off the schemes of the devil and stand our ground by our consistent, serious devotion to Christ, by a life fixed in the truth of God, a life that is holy as He is holy. I am armed against Satan when I witness, when I trust the promises of God's Word. I am made strong in the Lord through knowing and practicing His battle manual, the Bible. Spiritual warfare is a matter of personal spiritual growth and maturity. You are God's secret weapon in the war of souls.
Which brings out several questions as we think about measuring our maturity.
Is God's secret weapon in the wrong hands this morning?
Is my life a righteous weapon, empowered by Christ? Or would it be more honest to say that my choices, my actions, my attitudes make me a weapon of unrighteousness through a worldly lifestyle?
Am I presenting my body as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God? Or are your body parts given up in service to fleshly interests (Rom. 12:1; 6:13-14)?
Am I growing stronger as I grow older in the Lord, or has my spiritual progress stalled?
You are either a channel of God's power and purpose in the unfolding of His plan, or you are an obstacle that hinders His will. There is no middle ground. More than once Jesus made this clear. "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Matt. 6:24). "Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters" (Matt. 12:30).
Jesus' half-brother, James, echoes the same thing: "Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4).
As we search ourselves before God's Word this morning, I think all of us need to be asking, "Oh God, does the way I treat my wife, raise my children, do my work, give my tithe, serve others - does it open doors for You, advance Your Kingdom, raise up Christ? Or am I winking at intrusive temptations, assuming that I can manage the consequences, and allowing something in that can mess up everything?"
Hear the Word of our King: "The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light" (Rom. 13:12).