How to endure the coming persecution.

I've been hearing a lot lately about the coming persecution, and you can't listen to the news for long without realizing that we are in the last of the Last Days. For those who aren't aware, the Last Days, or End Times, will include a hefty amount of persecution. (Yes, Charlotte - persecution in the United States of America.) But are Christians in this country ready for that?

Given their understanding of the two most important scriptures in the Bible for Christians, I would say, not.

The first most important scripture in the Bible for Christians - I know I'm sticking my neck out on this - is "Walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16). For those who like "How To" stuff, that's how to have a relationship with God.

The second most important scripture in the Bible for Christians - here I go again - is the section in Ephesians 6 on the Armor of God, because it tells you how to walk by the spirit. It also tells you how to stand against the world and its systems.

As Christians, we only have three real enemies: our own flesh, the world and the devil. Since very, very few of us - if any - will ever have direct dealings with the devil, these two scriptures tell us how to handle the two enemies we deal with every day. All three of our enemies have one goal: to destroy our relationship with Jesus Christ. So, when we are dealing effectively with our enemies, we are automatically maintaining our relationship with Christ, which is why we're here.

I know, there are those who are saying, "What about the first and great commandment, as well as the second?" I think these two scriptures tell us how to fulfill those commandments; so, from a practical standpoint, I think they trump them. But, I'm okay with these two scriptures being three and four on the list.

I'm going to jump right into the Armor of God because I believe it explains the concept of walking by the Spirit. The reason I think most Christians don't understand this section of scripture is because I don't think they understand armor of any kind or what a warrior does. They look at this section in the same way they view I Corinthians 13: nice to recite at funerals or decoupage as a gift, but of no practical value - when the exact opposite is true. This is one of the most practical, "How To" scriptures in the Bible.

The description of the Armor of God begins in v. 14 with the Belt of Truth. It is used to gird the loins - obviously the loins of the mind, since we're dealing with Truth, not leather. Loins refer to the center of the body: the hips, groin and lower abdomen (stomach). You know where a belt goes, so I don't need to describe that. But I would like to remind you of what a belt does. It doesn't just hold up your pants. It girds your waist. You tighten it. If you were a lumberjack, you would realize that when you tighten your belt, you are reinforcing your back. Weight lifters wear weight belts for the same purpose. People who do manual labor, like warehouse workers, wear special belts to protect their backs.

Throughout history, the first item of clothing a warrior put on, after his loin cloth (boxers or briefs, today) was his belt - not to hold his britches up, which weren't invented until relatively modern times, but to reinforce his back. It was a way of making a strong man stronger. That's what the Truth does for us: it makes us strong - not in ourselves, but in Him. The way we do that is simple: first thing in the morning (the first item), we open our Bible and we read and pray. We have Quiet Time. That's how we put on the Truth. That's what girding our loins with Truth means.

The next item listed in v. 14 is the Breastplate of Righteousness. What does a breastplate cover? The chest cavity, which holds the vital organs, specifically the heart. Again, we're not talking about flesh and blood, since that is not what we battle against (v. 12). And, since it is the Breastplate of Righteousness, rather than of metal or leather, it is protecting something spiritual: our heart. How does righteousness protect the heart? Or, better yet, what does righteousness protect the heart against?

Righteousness is a spiritual quality we get from God as a gift (Romans 5:17), and it means, basically, "not guilty." So, it protects us from guilt. What guilt? The Bible says that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God's glory (Romans 3:23) and that no one is righteous (Romans 3:10). So we're all guilty as sin and unrighteous as h---. But when God makes us righteous, our guilt is taken away (Romans 8:1). If our heart continues to condemn us after that, our prayers will be hindered, according to I John 3:20,21. So, it's important to guard our hearts, as Proverbs 4:23 says.

We're going to sin - it's inevitable. But when we sin, it's important to be quick to confess. To deny our sin is a big mistake. God can't (or won't) take care of unconfessed sin (James 5:16). So, we want to protect our hearts against thoughts of guilt, but we also want to eliminate the reasons for guilt, which means we want to stop sinning.

There is no way under heaven that you or I can stop sinning through our own efforts. Period. We're too weak - even with the Belt of Truth tightly girded. But through God's efforts, we can. That is where walking by the Spirit comes in. Since God's Spirit is Holy, when we walk by His Spirit, we will be holy. I Peter 1:15,16 says that since God is Holy, we're to be holy. Holiness doesn't mean perfect - it means "set apart." We've been set apart for God's purpose, and when we walk according to that purpose, we will manifest His righteousness, His holiness. That will protect our heart.

I think a big part of strapping on the Breastplate of Righteousness is cleaning house. We need to get rid of everything in our lives that isn't pleasing to God. When we do that, the temptations to sin will be greatly reduced and it will be easier to walk by the Spirit. But when we fail to walk by the Spirit, we need to confess quickly and get back on track. Unconfessed sin leaves a heart unprotected.

The third piece of equipment we need to put on, as mentioned in Ephesians 6:15, are the Boots of Peace - literally "the Preparation of the Gospel of Peace." Every warrior has to have something on his feet or he's not going to go very far. The Boots of Peace are all about going. Just before Christ ascended, He said, "Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15). So, after we've had our Quiet Time with God, and after we've done what we can to clean up our lives according to what He has taught us, our next responsibility is to share the Good News with others.

Going into the world and preaching the Gospel isn't just about mission trips and evangelism. It's really about connecting with everyone God puts in our path. Remember whom Christ said was our neighbor? We all have gifts and callings, talents and interests, that we can use for God's Kingdom. And we all know people. Put the two together. Be creative in how you go. Don't feel like you have to have a tract in your hand or a badge on your chest. ("Hi. My name is Bill. I am witnessing today for Happy Friends Church. May I come in?")

Witnessing is really about making friends. That's not so hard, is it? But, to be a real friend, you have to be willing to go wherever and whenever you're needed, not just when you feel like it. It's also about more than just speaking the Gospel - it's about living it. Our friendship and love towards people who cannot repay our kindness will speak volumes about who our Lord is, whereas our words may fall on deaf ears.

Next is probably the most misunderstood piece in the Armor of God: the Shield of Faith - that and the Sword. What does a shield do? Most people would probably say it fends off another warrior's blows. That's true, but that is not its primary purpose. As a matter of fact, many warriors will throw away their shield in a sword fight to give them greater maneuverability. The other words in the verse tell you: "with which you will be able to to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one." Did you know that there is no defense against an arrow except a shield? That is its main purpose.

I can't tell you how many preachers I've heard talk about the Greek word for shield used here, that it is referring to the tall shield used by the Romans in their tortoise formation, and how God is saying that we need to protect the brother on our right and the sister on our left, etc. A shield is a shield and has one primary purpose: to protect from arrows. Every warrior who has ever lived has used it for that. Just the fact that God mentions the evil one's arrows should have told us what He had in mind.

When we put on the Belt, strap on the Breastplate and step into the Boots, we can expect persecution. That is the flaming arrows. It's not talking about the everyday hassles of life. It's talking about the fact that you and I are going to be targeted by the enemy once we start doing what God wants us to do. And there's only one way to protect ourselves: our faith. Remember what faith is? It's "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). You need that when you're being persecuted. And, yes, the Shield does stop the arrows. There's no reason to develop a victim mentality. But, once in a while, an arrow does slip through. So, once in a while, a warrior falls, as Hebrews 11 explains. But that's just part of warfare, even the spiritual kind.

It's interesting that the Helmet of Salvation is the fifth piece of armor, rather than the fourth. I would have thought the warrior would have put that on before using his shield. But a lot of warriors preferred fighting without a helmet as they were hot - especially in close combat. Okay, what does a helmet protect? The head?! You sure? You're right, and, in this case, not the physical head but the mental one: our thoughts. God tells us to "take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (II Corinthians 10:5). As a matter of fact, that whole context is wonderfully relevant to this subject, so I'd like to quote the whole thing:

"For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete." (II Corinthians 10:3-6)

If that doesn't give you a mind picture of what we're involved in, I don't know what will. We're destroying fortresses, tearing down speculations, knocking down lofty things and taking thoughts captive - and it's all happening inside our own heads, because that's where the majority of the warfare takes place. You can never be a warrior for Christ if you can't discipline your own mind; yet, how many of us know Christians that we would call "air heads?" It would be an oxymoron if it wasn't so common. That's the tragedy of our present culture: Christians are turning themselves into jello-heads with television, video games and the internet. Anything to keep from using the old gray matter. But that's what God requires.

The last of the pieces of armor - many Christians miscall them "weapons" - is the Sword of the Spirit, the only weapon in the bunch and certainly the only offensive weapon. Another thing Christians miscall it is "the Bible." It doesn't say "the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Bible," it says "which is the Word of God." There's a difference. Every place in the Bible where the idea of a spiritual sword is mentioned, it's always in relationship to the mouth, which means it's the spoken Word of God, not the written or fleshly Word (meaning Christ). When Christ appears in the book of Revelation, He's got a sword coming out of his mouth (Revelation 1:16, 19:15). What else would that represent except the spoken Word of God? In Isaiah, the prophet says, "He has made my mouth like a sharp sword..." (Isaiah 49:2).

Words are weapons, or instruments. The word translated sword could just as easily be translated scalpel. Depending upon the purpose of the speaker, words can either destroy or heal. Gossip is an example of words that destroy. Encouragement is an example of words that heal. Both often come out of the same mouth. That is why we need to guard our lips, as Psalm 141:3 says. Words are the most powerful of weapons, and the Word of God is the most powerful of all words. According to Hebrews 4:12, the Word of God is "sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."

Since the Sword is the only weapon in the Armor, I think it is safe to say that the purpose for all the Armor is the Sword. The reason we gird our loins with Truth is so we can speak Truth. The reason we guard our heart is so we can speak Righteousness. The reason we go forth is to speak Peace. The reason we protect ourselves from the enemy's attacks is to speak Faithfully. The reason we control our thoughts is to speak words of Salvation. God put us here to speak. That's why He calls us ambassadors, messengers, (II Corinthians 5:20, 8:23), witnesses (I Corinthians 15:15), etc. If we're not speaking, we're not living.

If there is a persecution coming - and there is, according to Scripture, and I would say it is at our doorstep - there is only one thing that will see us through: the Armor of God. I hope all of us will take it seriously and realize that God has given us a "How To" model in that armor. The armor is how to stand in the midst of persecution. As Ephesians puts it,

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm."

This is the evil day. May God stand with us as we stand together against the Enemy.


Waitsel Smith, August 4, 2007

Text © 2007 Waitsel Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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