Ephesians 6:16 “In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”
There are particular times when we feel we are very vulnerable, when we are tired and under pressure, when we are longing for a letter or a call and nothing has come through, when we are in the company of certain provocative people, when we get involved in arguments with our parents, and so on. We all have our own circumstances when sin seems to beset us easily. Saturday nights, for example, can be part of a weekly cycle when we experience flaming arrows being shot at us. Wouldn’t you want to know about a protection at such times? Let me tell you about another piece of Christian armour called the ‘shield of faith.’
1. WHAT IS THE SHIELD OF FAITH?
The first answer to that question is knowing that such a shield exists. Think of the raw recruit standing on the parade ground before the sergeant-major and he is telling them, “Now men let me tell you about your armour. This is a shield . . .” and he shows it to them. Some of the country boys have never seen a shield before. The Christian has a shield of faith. There have been civilizations which were ignorant of what we consider indispensable necessities. For example, the Inca civilization in South America was ignorant of the wheel. For us that seems an incredible weakness; how could they have made any progress without wheels? Yet there are multitudes of men and women today facing horrendous life-destructive times without the help of faith in the living God. To possess the shield of faith you must first know about God, that in the beginning he created the heavens and the earth. That he is the God who sustains and provides for all of us day by day; we don’t live by chance but we live and move and have our being in God. He is the God of providence who, for example, brings us to a place of worship, or introduces us to a Christian friend, who constrains us to begin to read the Bible or listen to the Bible being preached. This God is the God and Father of his Son the Lord Jesus Christ. “Jesus” is not a swear word; you must know that he is the eternal Son of God. He was a wonderful teacher and you can read his teaching in the first four books of the New Testament. To put on the shield of faith you must first understand about Jesus Christ, that he exists and lives. You need to know it before you can believe it. How shall they believe in him whom they have never heard? You must sit under biblical ministry each Sunday. You must have the information with which to plug into the Christian message.
That is why so much evangelism is faulty, because its whole focus is on the will of man to urge him to make a decision. Hence the appeals and the psychological pressure to decide today. The problem is that they are appealing to people to come to a Christ of whom they know practically nothing at all. They are being urged to make a decision to become his disciples when they know nothing about the nature of Christian discipleship. There must be knowledge and information given to our wills so that we can make an informed decision about following Christ. This is the reason various Christian courses have been set up with study guides. They are conscious that there is overwhelming ignorance of Christianity in the world, and so they gather people together to instruct them in knowledge of the historic faith. That is indispensable to putting on the shield of faith. You must know that such a shield exists. Don’t be like the Incas unaware that there is such an indispensable asset as a wheel! So there has to be knowledge.
The second answer to that question, “What is the shield of faith?”, is that you must see that the shield of faith is suitable for you, for your own condition and state. That it is useful, and desirable, and indeed essential. You must be persuaded of that or you will never pick it up. For example cricket pads are essential for a batsman standing at his wickets to whom a ball is being hurled at eighty miles an hour. But those pads are not essential for a fielder who is standing way out on a boundary, and it is certainly not essential for a housewife walking down to the town doing some shopping. The pads are beautifully made; they are strong and light and if a hard ball crashes against them they do their work and your leg is not injured, but cricket pads are only useful to a few people at a certain specialised time.
So men and women will look at us with our faith in Christ and they will say, “That is all right for you because you need it, but I don’t need it. It is no use to me.” In other words, “I never play cricket.” So we have to show them that this faith is not for a few specialists, certain psychological types, people whose families were believers before them and so on. It is not for people at certain crucial times in their lives, when they are dying or when their families are in trouble. This shield of faith is wonderfully helpful to all men and women without exception at all seasons in their lives. The Son of God came to this world to deal with the great human problem – mankind’s fatal condition that comes from our bias to evil, our wretched behaviour, our pride and selfishness, our cruelty and lust, our deception and self pity. Why is it that you never have to give lessons to children in behaving badly? Why is it that they never have to be taught to be unthankful and self-centred? We answer that we are a fallen race who need to be instructed and empowered in doing what is good and right. We are lawbreakers; there are the ten simple good commandments given to the world by its Creator and they search us and we are condemned by them. By the law of God comes the knowledge of our sin, and all of us are convicted by them. The most famous judge in Great Britain in the last century was Lord Denning, and in one famous judgment he said, “Be you ever so tall, the law is always above you,” and however righteous you are the law of God always stands over you and dwarfs you.
The Son of God came to deal with our condemnation for all of mankind, and he dealt with it in a remarkable way, by bearing the guilt of all such sin and shame in his own body on the cross. He chose to do that so voluntarily because he loved us – in spite of all we’ve done. He became the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, and on the third day he rose from the dead. He lives for ever at the right hand of God and he also meets with all who gather in his name. He is with us at this moment instructing and explaining these truths to us. He is inviting us to entrust ourselves to him. He is commanding us to believe upon him. He is calling us to come to him. “Have faith in me!” he says. He is the Saviour of all who believe in him. He will give us power to resist temptation, and to change, to achieve patience and self-control and humility. Isn’t that a wonderful shield to protect you as you walk through the wilderness of this world, as you face temptations on every side that will destroy not only your life but the life also of those who depend on you? How can you face the future without the shield of faith? See how beautiful and useful it is. It is essential for you today and for the week ahead and for the rest of your life. So this shield of faith is suitable for you.
The third answer to the question, “What is the shield of faith?” is that you must receive it for yourself. The first answer is that you must know that it exists, the second is that you must understand how perfectly suited it is for your own state, and now thirdly you have to take this shield of faith yourself in your arms. You must embrace it as your very own shield, and use it every day of your life. Think of a Roman soldier going into battle having been taught about the shield, and being told how useful it was to protect him against all the arrows and darts and spear thrusts of the enemies, but then ignoring all that he had heard. He walks into battle without a shield! How long would he last in a battle if he were the one without this wonderful protection? You must take this shield of faith for yourself.
This shield is God’s gift. Paul has told us earlier in this letter, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves it is the gift of God.” (Ephs. 2:8). Toplady says, “Faith to be healed I fain would have; O might it now be given.” You often meet people who say that they would “like to have faith but they are just unable to believe.” How earnest are they about knowing God? Have they cried mightily to him for faith? Have they read about Jesus Christ in the Bible and given themselves knowledge? Have they sat under biblical preaching? Have they prayed to God that he would have mercy on them and give them saving faith, and refused to stop praying until that prayer is answered? You don’t need to cry for a faith that can move mountains, but faith the size of a mustard seed. As long as it is lodged in Christ it is saving faith. Having faith is not the same as having freckles, which some people have while others don’t. To everyone who sincerely asks God for this faith he gives it. There has never been one person in the whole history of mankind who has asked God earnestly and persistently from his heart for saving faith who has been refused. Not one. Would a Roman soldier go to his commander and ask for armour, a sword and shield and breastplate for the battle ahead and the commander shake his head and refuse him? Not one. He would not send a man naked into the warfare. His commander will ensure that he is equipped for the fight. So is our loving Lord. You go just as you are to the Lord and you say, “Here I am Lord, a weak sinner who needs you and your protection and your salvation for the battle ahead. I want to receive you and your salvation into my life.” I assure you that God will hear you.
So the shield of faith is the knowledge God gives us about himself and his Son Jesus Christ. It is our awareness that this is exactly what we need, and it is our taking this shield of faith, possessing it and using it for the rest of our lives.
2. HOW DOES THE SHIELD OF FAITH HELP US?
At the time these words were written, the shield was a vital part of a soldier’s equipment. The shield was usually about four feet high and about two and a half feet wide and it covered the soldier’s body completely. It was called a scutum and consisted of two layers of wood glued together, covered first with linen and then with hide and finally bound in iron. So if the front line of the soldiers advanced with these shields which went all the way to the ground the whole platoon (though they called it a ‘phalanx’) would be armour-plated. The men behind this front line of soldiers carried long lances that stuck out six feet in front to the shielded men. The armies of barbarians facing them were terrified at the sight. If they fired their arrows from a distance they would bounce off the shields. They might fire flaming arrows that had been dipped in pitch and set alight, but these fireproof shields were too tough for arrows to penetrate.
See then what Paul says here, “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v.16). When Satan fires his flaming arrows, you need an impregnable shield, one that isn’t flammable, in fact a shield that can even put out fires. Faith is the shield that can do that. God promises that the shield of faith that he provides for every Christian “can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” and this isn’t just a possibility as far as the apostle is concerned it’s a certainty. You see what he is saying so affirmatively, not simply that this shield repels Satan’s flaming arrows and make them bounce off; it actually puts them out. The shield of faith is a fire extinguisher; it can put out the fires of hell. John Bunyan puts it like this; Christian meets Apollyon and he disdains little Christian, “Here will I spill thy soul,” he says to him. Then he throws a flaming dart at his breast, “but Christian had a shield in his hand with which he caught it, and so prevented the danger of that.” So God gives the Christian the shield of faith which has three immense attributes, it covers every part of the person, nothing is left exposed; it links up with the faith of other believers mutually strengthening and encouraging so that together you stand stronger; and finally no flaming arrows at all can get through and burn you up. Faith puts out not just some of Satan’s arrows but every single one of them. Faith protects us not only from little problems but also from the worst of attacks. Faith has power to deal not only with human opposition or the attacks of lesser demons but also from the fiercest attacks of the very evil one, Satan himself. Neither the deadliest arrow in Satan’s arsenal nor the fiercest volley he can fire is too much for faith to deal with. The shield can handle the worst attacks from the prince of darkness himself, so it can surely handle any lesser attacks as well. That is what Paul is teaching us.
Why is this shield so strong? Because God is so strong, and when faith is your shield, God is your shield. God told Abraham, the father of believers, “I am your shield” (Genesis 15:1). Moses told God’s people, “Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD? He is your shield” (Deuteronomy 33:29). David said, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped” (Psalm 28:7). The book of Proverbs declares, “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him” (Proverbs 30:5). So many Bible passages speak of God as a shield that I can’t quote them all here, but you get the point. The protection of faith doesn’t comes from the act of believing so much as from the one in whom we believe. The shield of faith is not faith in oneself, or faith in positive thinking, or faith in faith; the only faith that can shield you from Satan’s attacks is trusting in this great and merciful God whom you have received into your life as your very own Lord and Saviour. That faith gives you confidence; it strengthens your assurance in God’s promises. Saving faith is a connecting grace; it plugs us into omnipotence; it joins us to the power that made the universe, the force that raised Jesus Christ from the dead. By faith God’s power and protection are attached to us individually and personally. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
Let me explain to you more practically how this works. Let us consider the broad familiar picture of the devil’s activities in our lives trying to make us doubt our very Christianity. He usually does that by reminding us of how inconsistently we live. There are times when we experience great falls like Peter; there are occasions of utter moral failure in our lives so that we say to ourselves how is it possible that we can be true believers when we are behaving like this. We feel utterly dead within, besieged by doubts and overwhelmed by unbelief. So what do we do? We do what we did when we first believed; we go to Christ the Saviour. In the words of Charlotte Elliot;
“Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt
Fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come!
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
Because Thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God I come.”
We go to Jesus Christ without any excuses. We go believing in his invitations and promises that he will accept us and be our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days, not because we are worthy or good, but because we come to him and find salvation in him. He is all our hope. You remember the great words of John Newton;
“Be Thou my Shield and Hiding-place,
That sheltered near Thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face
And tell him Thou hast died.”
“You can’t be a Christian because of these sins.”
“The Lamb of God has taken them away.”
“You commit them again and again.”
“But Jesus has shed his blood for me.”
“You know that these sins are wrong.”
“Yes I do to my shame, but where my sins abounds God’s grace much more abounds.”
“You cannot be a Christian and commit the same sins over and over again.”
“But wherever in the Bible does it say that? If we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
“You are saying, ‘Let us continue in sin that grace may abound.’”
“God forbid that I should even think that. But I know that these sins such as not loving God with all my heart, and not loving my neighbour as myself, and prayerlessness, and vile imaginations will alas be with me all my life through, but so will the grace of God, and that grace is immeasurably more abundant than the sum total of my sins.”
That is the protection that the shield of faith gives me against the fiery darts. It saves me from black despair. God is able to keep the chief of sinners who has believed in Christ from falling back into the ditch of unbelief. He will present him faultless in his presence in the great day.
3. WE PARTICULARLY USE THE SHIELD OF FAITH ON THE EVIL DAY.
I have said this before, and so I won’t spend a long time on this, but it is important to remember this one point for our own peace. Of course, the flaming darts of the wicked one are continually being thrown at us, hour after hour. There is no relief from them; the devil will never call a truce, but there are occasions when we are subject to a particularly ferocious attacks. I believe that Paul is writing about such a time in this section, when he writes that “the day of evil comes” (v.13). You will remember that our Lord was subject to temptations every day but there came a time in his life which we refer to as “the temptations in the wilderness” when he was subject to a full frontal attack of Satan. The day of evil had dawned. Again, there was a time when the apostle Paul knew the coming of the messenger of Satan and he inserted a terribly painful thorn into Paul’s flesh. So I am saying that there are particular times of trial, days when evil powers lay siege to our lives and there is the terror by night, the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that walks in darkness. Not every day is like that. Most days are green pastures and still waters, and then suddenly such dark days come. One trouble seems to beckon to another to come into our lives, and we will survive them only by trusting in God with all our hearts. That is what the apostle is talking about when he speaks of the shield of faith.
When Sinclair Ferguson describes such a time he describes it as “a sinister and often profoundly distressing experience, well catalogued in the history of the church; a sudden, unexpected attack on the mind, thoughts and affections of the believer, weakening him, creating shame, spiritual paralysis and terror. Some of the spiritual masters (like Bunyan and Spurgeon) have described experiencing an onslaught of unworthy, even blasphemous thoughts coming to them unbidden, hated as well as feared. At other times the sudden memory of past sins seems to be like a match thrown on dry tinder. Panic and guilt overwhelm the believer; he loses his footing, doubts his salvation, and is overtaken by doubts that obscure the love of the Father” (Sinclair Ferguson, “Let’s Study Ephesians,” Banner of Truth, 2005, Edinburgh, p. 182). So the shield of faith is particularly helpful on the day of evil.
4. OVERCOMING BY THE SHIELD OF FAITH.
How do we overcome by faith – by the shield of faith – in the evil day? What I want to do in answering this question is to examine the experience of David in Psalm 13. Let us look at the whole psalm. There are only six verses, and it opens in this way, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” Let me ask you, do you see the shield of faith here in these opening verses? Do you see it? Look carefully and you will see it. What are you listening to? Aren’t you privy to a man talking to God, face-to face, even to the God who is hiding his face from him? Don’t you see David identifying what his difficulties are, a loss of God, wrestling with ugly thoughts, no joy in his heart, defeat is characterizing his life – “iniquities against me prevail from day to day”? Don’t you recognise that you are meeting a biblical mind here? In other words in the evil day, once we start talking to God about this trial, we are not at our lowest ebb at all. The tide has turned; we are believers who are on our way up again.
Listen to what Sinclair Ferguson says about this. “There are analogies to this in physical health. To know that you are ill is, generally speaking, to be nearer a cure than to be ill without knowing it. Furthermore, a patient who appears to us to be extremely ill may actually be on the road to recovery. I recall talking with a surgeon who had operated on my mother. She had suffered a stroke in the United States and shortly afterward was flown back to her native Scotland . But within a few days she was rushed into hospital and required lifesaving surgery for a hitherto undiagnosed condition.
“Such was my mother’s physical condition following the stroke that the surgeons were uncertain whether she would survive the operation; without surgery, however, she would certainly die. Some time later one of the surgeons spoke with me. He commented vaguely on my mother’s condition but then said: ‘Of course, in her general condition we do not know whether she can live for seven or eight. . .’ I had just seen her; I thought the last word in his sentence might be ‘days.’ To me she looked irrecoverably ill. My heart sank. The surgeon finished his sentence: ‘seven or eight years.’ I was overcome with both joy and amazement; she would live! To my untrained and inexperienced eye, her condition seemed fatal, but in actual fact she was ‘on the mend.’
“The same was true for David. To the untrained eye his condition seemed fatal; he thought so himself. But in fact he was already ‘on the mend.’ To tell God that he has deserted you; to know that you have been thinking with your emotions — these are marks of life, not of death, of hope and not of despair. Why, you are even speaking to God himself about them as though you know he cares!” (Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Deserted by God?”, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1993, pp. 26&27)
So what does David do? He pleads with God to be merciful to him in these words, “Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall” (vv. 3&4). He makes great requests to God. David believes that God rewards them that diligently seek him, so he asks for God to consider his needs – “look on me and answer, O Lord” – and he also asks for light on this dark place, he hates being in this darkness, but then he thinks far wider than his own feelings and experiences. He tells God that if he should fall away and give up following the Lord all his enemies will celebrate. They’ll have a party! They’ll give one another gifts! “The good Shepherd has lost one of his sheep; he’s been plucked out of God’s hand! Hooray!” David tells God, “I don’t want to sleep in death.” What is all this? He is holding high the shield of faith. He is conquering the enemy. He is coming through this testing time. He will be a stronger man as a result. See how his confidence in God is being restored as he ends the psalm with these words, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me” (vv. 5&6). That is the note on which the psalm ends, it is one of singing to the Lord. How did it begin? “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” but it ends in praise. How has he been delivered? By trusting in God. By taking his concerns and fears and the darkness to God.
Allen Gardiner was a missionary to South America and in 1851 his body was discovered on the coast of Terra del Fuego. He had been shipwrecked and he and his party slowly died of hunger. We know his thoughts during those dark days through the letters he wrote and left behind for his family and the entries he wrote in his journal. There came a time when he was desperate for water; his pangs of thirst were intolerable. There he died all alone, isolated, weak and physically broken and yet one of his last entries his journal were these words, “Psalm 34, verse 10, ‘The young lions do lack and suffer hunger, but they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing,’” and his last recorded words were, “I am overwhelmed with a sense of the goodness of God.”
It is by such trust in God that we are shielded from despair. When Satan fires flaming arrows of doubt, trust God’s power and love by taking up the shield of faith and put out those arrows. Don’t try to defeat doubt by clever reasoning or by gathering evidence. Satan “has sharper reasoning than you,” says William Gurnall. “There is more difference between you and Satan than between the weakest [minded person] and the greatest theologian in the world.” Satan is far smarter than you or me, and he is a master liar. Satan is an expert in twisting arguments, evidence, and statistics to support his lies. He can bring up one hard question after another until your mind spins. Don’t try to out-think or out-argue the devil. Don’t try to answer every question he brings to your mind. Take up the shield of faith! Extinguish those flaming arrows!
A friend once asked his godly mother, “How do we know the Bible is true?” She responded, “That’s from the devil!” That made a deep impact on the young man. From then on he believed the Bible, every passage of the Bible because his Saviour Jesus Christ by his example and his teaching taught him to do so. The Lord has given us an infallible Bible. It is the old serpent who says, “Did God really say?” Doubt of God’s Word isn’t an innocent question; it’s a flaming arrow from the devil. If we try to block doubt with a shield of our own thinking skills, we are using a shield of paper against a flaming arrow. Only the shield of faith can stop the arrow of doubt and put out its deadly fire.
If you believe Scripture only when it fits your standards of evidence and reasoning, then you rate human thinking higher than God’s. The Bible says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). This doesn’t mean God wants you to shut off your brain, or that reasoning is bad. Gurnall says, “Certainly God’s gift of reason can confirm his gift of truth. But faith must not depend on reason, but reason on faith. I am not to believe what the Word says merely because it agrees with my reason; but I must believe my reason because it aligns with the Word.”
Let me close by telling you something more about my friend Dr. Sinclair Ferguson. He was brought up in Scotland in a small family with his father, mother, and elder brother. His mother was almost forty when he was born – by no means ancient, but certainly older than most of his friends’ parents. Partly because of her age his greatest fear during childhood was the fear of losing his parents. His parents and his brother have all died. Each died in different circumstances, and Sinclair learned of their deaths in different ways: of his father’s death, moments afterward, as he arrived to visit him; of his brother’s death, by means of a midnight telephone call from one of his friends; of his mother’s death, as he called Scotland from a telephone in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, en route home in the hope of being with her as she died.
Every death is a shock; terminal illness, such as his father had, or progressive deterioration, such as his mother’s, are illnesses of the living, but in a vague sense ‘expected.’ Sinclair’s brother, however, died late one night without warning. Sinclair remembers lying in bed hours later, so overwhelmed by the shock that he wondered whether he could be sustained sufficiently to be able to visit his mother early the next morning to break her heart with the news. That sad journey, the words that passed between his mother and himself as they clung to each other in the valley of the shadow of death – these are the unforgettable secrets of the soul. But there is something else Sinclair cannot forget about those hours, something that sustained him then and has often done so in other circumstances since. As he lay awake, waiting for the dawn and the hour of the dreaded visit as a messenger of sorrow, some words of Scripture, lodged for many years in my memory, seemed to grow from a seed into a mighty tree under whose branches he found shelter from the storm, comfort in his sorrow, light in his darkness.
Sinclair says this, “I felt those words to be true as surely as if I had heard the voice of God speak them from heaven. Here they are: ‘What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? For I am convinced that neither death neither the present nor the future . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom. 8:31—32, 38—39). I cannot now imagine living the Christian life on any other basis than this. If the Father loves me so much that he did not spare his own Son but delivered him up to be crucified for me, no further guarantee is needed of his wholehearted and permanent commitment to me and to my blessing. Whatever happens to me must be seen in that light. Yes, my deepest fears may become realities. I may not be able to understand what God is doing in or to my life; he may seem to be hiding his face from me; my heart may be broken. But can I not trust the One who demonstrated his love for me? When I was helpless in my sin he sent Christ to die for me ( Rom. 5:8). If he has done that, won’t he work all things together for my good? Won’t he withhold any thing that is ultimately for the good of those who trust him?” (Sinclair Ferguson, “Deserted by God”, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1993, pp. 41-43)
In this way, the promises of God become the shield that protects us from those fears that are the enemies of my peace; his promises grasp us and rescue us from danger. Some years ago, a friend of Sinclair Ferguson had the harrowing experience of watching the life-support system, on which his teenage daughter was sustained, being turned off. He and his family walked through a valley of deep darkness that their friends could only observe from the higher, brighter lands. This man’s friends had rarely been so conscious of seeing someone almost visibly supported by the glory of God. After the funeral he said, “We know now we have nothing left to fear.” When the fear of death, the mother of all fears, is banished, other fears begin to recede.
Raise the shield of faith! Reject all the insidious lies that burst into flames in our minds. Trust in Christ. Trust him wholly. Trust him always. Trust him more and more. Trust him in life and trust him in death. Insist on the gospel. Nothing in you can save you. You can go in. You can go in and in. You can go in, and in, and in. You can go in, and in, and in, and in. You can go in, and in, and in, and in, and in. You won’t find a Saviour inside yourself. Only what Jesus Christ has done back there and then on Golgotha , utterly outside of ourselves with no contribution from us at all – that alone saves sinners. The only contribution you make is your great sin and need. Go to him today!
5th February 2006 GEOFF THOMAS