Defeated but not yet destroyed, Satan is still working to spoil the relationships and the righteousness of God’s children. Writing to the Ephesians, Paul gave two imperatives for Christians as we engage in conflict against the devil: be strong and stand fast. Alistair Begg helps listeners understand that our strength comes from the grace of God through the promises of the Gospel. Resting in the knowledge of Christ’s victory over Satan, we can stand firm in the faith God has given us as we face the attacks of the enemy.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to the Acts of the Apostles and chapter 19. And as we continue our studies in the book of Ephesians, we read this this morning as something of a context for us. Acts chapter 19, and we’ll read from verse 1 to verse 20:
“And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ And they said, ‘No, we[’ve] not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They said, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ And Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all.
“And he entered the synagogue and for three months spoke boldly, reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God. But when some became stubborn and continued in unbelief, speaking evil of the Way before the congregation, he withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus. This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.
“And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.’ Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?’ And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices. And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”
Let me invite you to turn back to Ephesians and to chapter 6, and I’ll just read the three verses beginning at verse 10:
“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.”
Father, we pray now for your help both in speaking and listening, and understanding, in trusting and in believing the Bible. We pray that beyond the voice of a mere man we may hear from you, that Christ may be our preacher through the Word. To this end we seek you. In his name. Amen.
Well, we are back again here. We’ve parked here, and I recognize that, purposefully so, and I hope that the message is dawning. I hope it’s dawning upon me, first of all. And I want, this morning, to just recognize that there are imperatives in this, and two in particular: first of all, “be strong,” and then “stand fast.” That really would be the title for this morning, although, having gone through this once, I realize that it’s much more about the first than about the second. Nevertheless, here we are.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones years ago, in preaching on this passage to his congregation, made this acknowledgement: he said, “We tend to be always feeling our own pulses and talking about ourselves and our moods.” Which I think is true. So he says, “Forget yourself and your temporary troubles and ills. Forget them for the moment and fight in the army.” Forget them and fight. It’s quite an exhortation, and it is the exhortation of this passage. That is what Paul is saying.
It’s important that we remind ourselves of the obvious: that he is writing; he’s writing from jail in about the middle of the first century. He’s writing to real people who live in a real place at a real point in time. And the Ephesus to which he writes is the Ephesus to which he had come as described in the passage in Acts chapter 19. He had gone there from Corinth, and he had begun his teaching ministry in the synagogue, as was his pattern. That lasted three months, Luke tells us, before he was essentially kicked out. And when he was moving on from there, he moved to this lecture hall of Tyrannus, and we’re told that for two years he taught the Bible faithfully. He was explaining the Old Testament, because that was the Bible they had, explaining that the Messiah had to suffer and to die. And then he would say, “And this Messiah is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ,” the Jesus who had made himself known to him and transformed his life and who was now transforming the lives of others.
Now, the people who were living at that time in Ephesus were living in a really nice place. Ephesus in the first century was a significant city. Jew and gentile rubbed shoulders with one another in the everyday events of life. It was cosmopolitan; it was wealthy; it was, in every sense, luxurious. It was at the same time, though, a very superstitious place, and a place that was marked by all kinds of pagan and magical potions and notions, and this largely represented in the Temple of Artemis, or the Temple of Diana. And if you’ve visited Ephesus, you’ll have seen evidences of this, along with the large open-air arena, which had a capacity of somewhere between twenty and fifty thousand.
So it wasn’t some little backwater place with a few strange individuals just kicking about; it was a significant spot. And the temple bedazzled people by its marble splendor as the sun shone on it, and it also cast a large shadow over the city itself, because everyone in the city was aware of these dark forces, and many of the people were afraid of them. They were magical. They were demonic powers. And when, in certain cases, their lives were impacted by the gospel, there was a radical shift from that.
And that’s why I read this morning from Acts chapter 19. It’s just one little verse, but it says a lot, doesn’t it? And Luke says, “And [many] of those who had [been practicing these] magic[al] arts brought their books”—books that were significant books and sold for significant money—and they brought these books, Luke tells us, and they burned them, and they “burned them in the sight of all,” so that the community of Ephesus realized, “Something radical has happened to these individuals. There is no reason why they would do such a thing.” Fifty thousand drachmas. A drachma—or fifty thousand silver coins—a drachma was essentially one day’s wage. So, let’s say that they had a fifteen-dollar-an-hour minimum wage for eight hours a day; a hundred and twenty dollars a day, times fifty thousand: that was a six-million-dollar bonfire! Nobody was in any doubt that they had now moved from where they once were to where they are now. And Paul is pointing that out earlier when he says to them, “At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.” And they lit up Ephesus with this great bonfire, a beautiful picture of the change that had happened, that they had been brought from the domain of darkness, transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son.
Well then, what did that mean? Did that mean that they now were going to live a tranquil kind of life? That they would just be transported to the skies, as the hymn writer puts it, “on flow’ry beds of ease”? No! If they’d ever thought that was the case, they found out quickly that that was not the case. Because far from them being moved from the realm of a battle, they were placed at the very center of a conflict zone. And everyone who is transferred by grace from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, everyone who becomes a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, is caught up in a cosmic conflict of eternal significance. Now, we know what it is to be involved in arguments and discussions and conflicts that will eventually peter out, most. But the battleground that we’re considering here in Ephesians 6 is a battleground of eternal matters. And these eternal matters are being worked out in everyday life.
That’s why we’ve tried to make sure, as we have moved into this final section of 6, that we do not disengage it in our minds from what he has been saying in the second half of 5 and into the beginning of 6—which, if you don’t know, if you look down at your Bible, you will see that he’s been addressing the area of marriage, husband and wife; of family life, parent and child; and of the workplace, employer and employee. And so, what he’s actually saying is, “You will have noticed, I’m sure, that this scheme of the Evil One to disrupt is not taking place in some peculiar category, but you will find it’s taking place in the warp and woof of your daily existence.” So, for the believer, he may say to himself or to herself, “Why is it so hard to be married? Why is it that our children do not turn out exactly the way we had planned? Why is it that work can be such a raging area of discord? Why is it so hard to be the church in a contemporary world such as our own?”
And this is not the entire answer, but the answer is not complete without this element—namely, that we are up against “the schemes of the devil,” that we are up against the Evil One himself. The Evil One has been unable to prevent us from becoming the children of God, but given that that is the case, he is now seeking to do everything in his power to prevent us from living as the children of God. That’s important. That’s worth the price of admission right there, if you get that sentence—that he has been unable to prevent us from becoming God’s children, but he is totally committed to try and disrupt and to destroy what it means for us to go out into the bonfire of our world and say, “No, I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I am no longer what I once was.” And all hell is let loose against that.
Now, it’s for that reason that we’ve tried to take time to make sure that we understand what we’re up against. And last Sunday we recognized the fact that Satan is a real and a vicious enemy, that he does not act alone, that he trades in doubt and in division and in destruction. He comes at us both morally and intellectually. He seeks to rob us of our assurance, of our purity. In doing so, he possesses supernatural power; it is not unlimited, but it is supernatural, and it is ultimately under the control of the fact that Jesus came to destroy his works. First John 3:8: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
So, the powers of darkness are defeated; they are not yet finally destroyed. The reason that Christ came was to destroy the works of the devil. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. It is clearly not destroyed, because people keep dying. The victory is absolutely assured, like checkmate in a chess game, although the Evil One and his minions still want to keep playing the game, still want do “pawn to king four” and so on, move the rooks and their castles around, and their bishops and so on—do what all they want to do. But they cannot affect the outcome. That is the position of the believer. And it’s a wonderful thing when that dawns on us.
I’m very grateful for the fact that from my earliest years I was given songs that reinforced this for me. I was thinking this week of being, you know, like a nine- or a ten-year-old boy singing at the Bible class on a Sunday afternoon, “On the vict’ry side, on the vict’ry side!” I wasn’t sure what that was, but I liked the song.
No foe can daunt me, no fear can haunt me,
For with Christ within, the fight we’ll win,
On the vict’ry side!
And my voice was substantially higher than it is now, and so it carried all the force and impact of that, you know: “On the vict’ry side, on the vict’ry side!” Yeah? And I said, “I don’t know what that is.” But I know what it is today. And thank God that I had my own vacation Bible camp, where my parents were crazy enough to think, “It’d be good for you to get in there.” “I don’t want to go in there.” “Like I said, it would be good for you to get in there.” Don’t give up, young parents.
Now, given that that is the fact, it is imperative, then, that we heed the exhortations that Paul provides. And the first of these is straightforward: “Be strong.” “Be strong.” Verse 10: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” This is routine for Paul. You remember when he says, “Being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might.” In the same way, as he writes to these Ephesians, he’s not giving them a sort of ethical list to try their best with, but he is reminding them that they have been placed in Christ, and therefore, this is available to them.
This is something vastly different from a kind of pale reflection that you find when you read different books. For example, if I had a class that I was teaching, I might give them this quote and ask them if this was in keeping with Ephesians 6:10. It goes like this: “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble [and] reasonable confidence in your own [abilities and] powers you cannot be successful or happy.” That’s actually Norman Vincent Peale. Okay? That is The Power of Positive Thinking. That passes for Christianity in many places—that you come in, and it’s an encouragement for you to feel better about yourself, to engage with yourself, to find your real self, and so on. Have you ever found your real self? How did you feel about that, on that rainy Tuesday afternoon when you found your real self? Exactly. Do you feel amazingly powerful? No. It really is a crock, isn’t it?
But that’s not what Paul is saying. You see, Paul has already laid the foundations. That’s why he wrote at the beginning, in chapter 1, and prayed for them, and when he prayed for them, one of the reasons that he prayed was that their eyes of their understanding might be enlightened so that they might understand something of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. That’s Ephesians 1:19: “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us,” who are in Christ, “who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” So in other words, he’s writing now to them, he’s saying, “Earlier in my letter, you remember, I was praying for you, that you would have an understanding of what is yours in Jesus—in other words, that you would understand the indicatives, that you would understand the what-is-ness of it. Now, in relationship to what is true of you, my exhortation is simply this: make sure that you find your strength in God alone.”
Now, you take that, and you think of it in terms of what it means to apply. First of all, think of what it meant for these Ephesian believers to receive this exhortation. Now they are no longer part of the mainstream. If we create two fictitious characters that were very, very good friends, Benjamin and Levi—and Benjamin and Levi used to do everything together, not least of all read the magic books together. They used to go together to the Temple of Artemis. And now, as they make their way down a familiar pathway, they come to a crossroads, and Benjamin, he moves off to go into the temple. And Levi, he does not go into the temple. And Benjamin says, “Well, what are you doing now?” “Well,” says Levi, “I’ve become a follower of Jesus.” And he said, “Well, that’s okay. You can be a follower of Jesus and a follower… There are a number of gods. There are a number of things you can do.”
I was just thinking this morning about one of our missionary folks in Bloemfontein, in South Africa, where one of the biggest things they’re up against is ancestor worship and the idea that it doesn’t really matter, you can both worship Jesus and worship your ancestors. So, it wouldn’t be uncommon for this fellow to say, “Well, you don’t have to separate because of that.” “Oh, yes,” he said, “I have to separate because of that.”
And then his friend says to him, “Well, how many… How many come to your little thing?”
“Well, there’s a group.”
“As many as come to the temple?”
“And what do you do in your little group?”
“Well, we read the Old Testament Scriptures, we have a service, and we sing.”
“Oh,” he says, “that doesn’t sound very exciting to me. Certainly not exciting like what we do over here at the Temple of Artemis!”
It’s shades of the prophets of Baal, isn’t it? Elijah and the prophets of Baal. On the one side you’ve got all these prophets, exciting and dramatic and making a great hullabaloo, and over on the other side you’ve just got this one character, you know, with a bucket of water. And the world looks on and says, “It’s gotta be on this side that the impact lies. It’s gotta be the Temple of Artemis. What are you doing?” Isn’t that what your friends say to you?
I can imagine that Levi would have said, “And how many of the significant citizens of Ephesus come to your little thing? How many of the intellectuals come to your little thing?”
“Well, we’ve got a few.”
“Yeah, but not like over here!”
You say, “Well, you weren’t in Ephesus. You’re just… It’s conjecture.” Well, it is conjecture. But we’ve got to apply it now.
Are you following the press in the last couple of days with the interment of Stephen Hawking, the great cosmologist and physicist? A remarkable man by any standards, both in terms of his ability to overcome his physical impairments and to make advances in the realm of physics that took him to a place that basically nobody else really understood. They carved onto a piece of Caithness slate that was laid over his mortal remains, next to Sir Isaac Newton’s grave and along the road from Darwin, they carved one of his formulae that nobody understood really except himself. And they were very quick to point out in the press that some of the nation’s greatest minds were present. I read it and I said, “This is remarkable.” The established Church of England rings the bells and inters a professed atheist. A man of great wisdom, a man of great intellect, no question.
And I went to my book; I knew I’d written it down some years ago, and I found it again. This is Stephen: “If there is no God, and we have evolved by chance”—and incidentally, when he says “If there is no God,” it might just as well said “Since there is no God,” because he believed there is no God—“If there is no God, and we have evolved by chance through millions of years, then everything that happens, good or bad, must be viewed as simply the result of random pitiless indifference. From this perspective, to ask why is not only meaningless it is irrelevant.” He also said that belief in the afterlife was a fairy story for people afraid of death. But the society looks on and says, “My, my! Look at these great minds.”
At his actual funeral in April, when Eddie Redmayne, who played his part in the movie, read from the Scriptures, he read from Ecclesiastes 3. The press described it as a “tear-jerking reading.” I wonder if some people didn’t cry because the Spirit of God penetrated their stony hearts as Redmayne read, “He has … set eternity in the hearts of men.” “Set eternity in the hearts of men.” Isn’t it a strange thing that they had Stephen Hawking’s voice then sent via a French satellite towards one of the nearest black holes that he had found in his intellectual pursuits? What is this?
You see, the whole world says, “This must be right. And what are these people doing here, these people in [Ephesus]?”
Now, some of you are involved in science. Many of you deal with this on a daily basis. Your friends must say to you, “But you’re so jolly clever! Are you telling me that you believe that stuff?” What is this? This is a battleground. What are we to do? “Be strong.”
“I’m not strong.” That’s right! “Joshua, you’re taking over for Moses. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous!” He doesn’t say, “Be strong and courageous.” He says, “I will never leave you or forsake you; be strong and courageous.” Same thing is picked up in Hebrews 13: “I will never leave you [or] forsake you.” The writer quotes it. “So we can confidently say,” he says, “‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what [man can] do to me.’”
You see, we’re strengthened “in the strength of his might,” strengthened in his grace—the grace that is made clear to us in the gospel: knowing that God loves me, forgives me, helps me, comforts me, enables me, secures me, and not on account of my merit, but all on account of his mercy. There is strength in the grace of the Lord.
So, “be strong.”
And in a word or two, “stand firm.” This picture of standing is straightforward: “Put on the … armor of God, that you may be able to stand,” verse 11; “that you may be able to withstand,” verse 13; that when you’ve done everything, you’ll be standing firm.
Some of you will remember the book by the very, very effective Chinese Christian Watchman Nee. Came out in the ’60s, I think. I remember reading it. It was his reflections on the book of Ephesians. It was called Sit, Walk, Stand. In the first section on “Sit,” he was describing the believer’s position in Christ: raised with him to the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. In the second section, under the heading “Walk,” he was tackling the ongoing experience of life in the world—Ephesians 4: “Walk, then, and not according to the way that you previously did.” And then “Stand,” his section on our attitude towards the enemy.
How are we going to stand? How are we going to make sure that we can withstand these attacks? Now, this is eternal in its significance. The answer is by putting on the whole armor of God—by “taking up” the armor of God, as he puts it in verse 13.
You say, “What’s the balance here?” Well, the balance is always good in the Bible: resting in what is provided and yet doing what is required; resting in the provision that is ours, and then doing what we’re asked. It’s Philippians, isn’t it? “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”—that’s what we’re to do—“for it is God who [is at work] in you, both to will and to [do of] his good pleasure.” Working out what he is working in.
Well, our time has gone, so let me conclude with just a couple of comments.
First of all, it is important that we realize that Paul is writing in the plural here. He’s writing in the plural. In other words, he is picturing a united army. He has written to them in chapter 4 that he doesn’t want them to be like children anymore, “tossed to and fro by the waves” and the “deceitful schemes” of the Evil One. But instead, they are to put on the complete armor of God.
The full armor of God, incidentally, is simply faith in the gospel. I’m going to show that to you in our subsequent studies. But to put on the full armor of God is not to sort of try and do things to ourselves or make things happen in order that we might be more acceptable and more effective. No, it is actually to take hold of that which has been given to us. Satan, you see—what does Satan want us to abandon? He wants us to abandon righteousness. He wants us to abandon faith. He wants us to abandon the shoes of peace. He wants us to abandon the belt of truth. He wants us to abandon the gospel.
You think about the great designs of his minions in churches throughout the whole Western world, where countless people are sitting listening to a gospel that is no gospel at all. They’re being told week after week after week, “You’re a good person. You’re a fine person. All you really need to do is just get your act together and do a little better. God rewards nice people if they do their best, and you are nice people, and you can be sure that he’ll reward you. After all, it’s Father’s Day, and you’re a great dad, and the sun is shining, and let’s have a hot dog, and let’s get on with life.” Well, it’s a wonderful message, isn’t it? But the trouble is, it isn’t true! ’Cause the average dad is saying, “But I’m harsh with my children. And what am I to do now?”
You see, the gospel is what the Evil One challenges. And it is the gospel, if you like, with which we’re to clothe ourselves. He’s not asking us, you see, to take on a new battle against the enemy. He’s saying to the readers of his letter, “You can stand safe and secure in the victory that has already been accomplished at the cross.”
If you think about it in these terms: Remember when David goes against Goliath? And he chops his head off, and the Philistine armies all go running for their lives, and right behind David come all the soldiers of Israel shouting, “We won! We won! We won!” Someone says, “What do you mean, ‘We won’? He won!” “Yeah, but he won for us. We share in his victory.” Exactly.
What do you mean, “We won”? Christ won. Now in Christ we share in his victory. Therefore, the exhortation to “be strong” or to “stand firm” is not an exhortation that induces despair in us—doesn’t make us say, “Oh, but it’s not possible to do this.”
The hymn writers always get it helpful for us, don’t they?
Stand then in his great might,
With all his strength endued;
[And] take, to arm you for the fight,
The panoply of God,
or the whole shooting match that he’s provided in Jesus. Or in a hymn that is left alone for the longest time:
Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
Ye soldiers of the cross; …
Stand up, stand up for Jesus,
Stand in his strength alone;
The arm of flesh will fail you,
[You] dare not trust your own;
Put on the gospel armor,
Each piece put on with prayer;
Where duty calls or danger,
Be never wanting there.
“We tend to be always feeling our own pulses, talking about ourselves and our moods. Forget yourself and your temporary troubles and ills for the moment; fight in the army.”
D. E. Hoste, who followed Hudson Taylor as the director of the China Inland Mission, said on one occasion, “I would not appoint a man or a woman to the mission field unless they had learned first to wrestle with the devil, because if they do not wrestle with the devil they will wrestle with each other.” And you show me a disunited church, I’ll show you a church that has lost sight of the enemy. You tell me that your biggest battle in your house is with your husband or your wife? You’re wrong. It’s with your dad or your children? You’re wrong. It’s all your boss’s fault? You’re wrong. You’re fighting the wrong enemy. And when we lose sight of the enemy—which is part of the strategy of the devil, to make us say, “That is so much nonsense!” “I don’t exist,” says the devil. “Don’t let him tell you I’m real.”
Well, you’re sensible people. You can work this out.
Lord God, we thank you that your Word is fixed in the heavens, and that even as we speak and listen now, we realize how completely countercultural and counterintuitive it is to say these things, how hard it is for us to go against the mainstream, not because we want to be antagonistic or disruptive but just because we’re no longer caught up in these things. Some of us can look to the fact that you have saved us from ever getting into them, others because you have dramatically got us out of them. But the thing that really matters is that now we find our strength in Christ alone. So, enable us and help us to this end, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 See Acts 17:3.
 Ephesians 5:8 (ESV).
 See Colossians 1:13.
 Isaac Watts, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” (1724).
 Colossians 1:11 (ESV).
 Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952; repr., New York: Touchstone, 2015), 1.
 See 1 Kings 18:20–40.
 Charlotte Neal, “Eddie Redmayne’s Poignant Bible Reading about Time at Professor Stephen Hawking’s Funeral Couldn’t Have Been More Perfect,” Mirror, March 31, 2018, https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/eddie-redmaynes-poignant-bible-reading-12283301.
 Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NIV 1984).
 Joshua 1:5–6 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 13:5–6 (ESV).
 See Ephesians 2:6.
 Ephesians 4:17–24 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 2:12–13 (ESV).
 Ephesians 4:14 (ESV).
 See 1 Samuel 17:51.
 Charles Wesley, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (1749).
 George Duffield Jr., “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (1858).
 See Psalm 119:89.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.