At any given point in time, I have several members of the United States Marine Corps under my care as pastor. Their strength never ceases to amaze me. They carry the equivalent of a large child on their backs. They join up for a job that pays little, takes them away from their families for long periods of time, and puts them in the most intense situations you can imagine. They are able to bear up this physical and emotional weight because they’re soldiers, they’re Marines.
Christian, you are a soldier. And Paul prepares you for the war in Ephesians 6. Like a Marine Paul has preached being strong against Satan in verse 10, to heed the call to arms in verse 11, and that we must wake up to the reality of whom we fight in verse 12. He’s told you to put on your defensive armor in verses 14–17 to withstand any assault. Finally, he calls you to utilize your two offensive weapons in this spiritual fight: your sword, which is God’s Word, and your prayers to God.
Look at how the Word of God is described with a similitude: “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” All armies used the sword because it was the most devastating piece of weaponry in the ancient world. In the ancient world there were all kinds of swords: long swords, short swords, straight swords, and curved swords. The sword that was the central piece of offensive armor a Roman legionnaire soldier had was called a gladius. What made it so effective was that it was short and double-edged, allowing the Roman to fight at close quarters, jabbing, slashing, and hacking at his enemy.
So why does Paul describe the Word of God as such a devastating weapon like the gladius? Like a sword, the Word of God slays its enemies. The ancient prophet Hosea even described the Lord’s using the sword of his Word against his own people: “I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth” (6:5). Are you using God’s Word to slay your enemies outside of you: the world and the devil? In Ephesians 6 Paul especially focuses on the devil because he too knows the Word of God. And if he tempted our first father (Gen. 3) and the Word-made-flesh with the Word (Matt. 4), know he certainly will tempt you with it. He does so by twisting it. This means like our Lord’s example you are called to know the Word so well that you can detect its false use! As well, Paul uses the image of a sword to describe the Word because like a sword the Word of God penetrates the outer man: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Are you using this sword to slay the enemy within you: your own fallen and sinful flesh? Are you mortifying your thought life? Are you mortifying what you allow into your eyes? Are you mortifying what you allow into your ears?
In meditating on Ephesians 6:17 and the sword of the Word, notice how Paul also describes its source. The Word is “the sword of the Spirit.” All Scripture has been breathed out or spoken by God himself (2 Tim. 3:16). But why is it called the sword of the Spirit? Because from the very beginning of human history the Holy Spirit has been the powerful agent of the Word of God. When God spoke in the beginning, that speech was mysteriously the eternal Word (John 1). And the means of that Word executing the work of creation was the Spirit, who hovered over the face of the deep (Gen. 1:2). He also hovered over the womb of the Virgin, causing the Son of God to come into our world (Luke 1). And this same Spirit powerfully works in and through the written Word of God today. So if the Word is the Word of the Spirit, this means that for us to be more spiritual in our spiritual warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil, we must be more and more saturated by the Spirit’s Word. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16).
Since we are engaged in a spiritual war, our weapons are spiritual: the Word of God and our prayers to God. Paul says more about prayer in Ephesians 6:18–20 than he did about the devastating weapon of the Word in just verse 17!
What is prayer? We can continue to think of it simplistically as we teach children that it is “talking with God,” or we can grow deeper in our understanding. One example of this is the Westminster Larger Catechism, which says “prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit; with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies” (Q&A 178). In the context of our spiritual battle in Ephesians 6, this means we need to expand our understanding of prayer to mean the means by which we petition God to strengthen us in Christ by the Spirit to fight and win against the devil.
He speaks here of the timing of prayer. We are to pray “at all times” (v. 18). Why? Because the devil is relentless! First Peter 5:8 says he “prowls around,” and the story of Job says he goes “to and fro on the earth” (Job 1:7). We have to pray at all times because the battle is relentless. All the spiritual hosts of wickedness assail us at all times (v. 12). We have to pray at all times because of our own nature: the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. To state the obvious, you can’t pray “at all times” unless you’re actually praying! Pray, beloved!
Paul also speaks of the location of this persevering prayer: it is to be done “in the Spirit.” This is not a proof text for praying in tongues in our day or having some emotional experience in prayer. Instead, the language of the Larger Catechism explains it best: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of his Spirit.” You are not praying against armies of this world. Because you’re praying against the armies of darkness you need to pray for strength from the world to come. This means that you must rely on the Spirit and seek his help often. But is it legitimate to pray so directly to the Holy Spirit for his help? Is he God? Then yes, you can cultivate a relationship with the Holy Spirit in prayer.
Finally, look also here at how Paul speaks of the subjects of persevering prayer: “for all the saints” (v. 18). If you need to pray for the help of the Spirit against your enemies, know that your brothers and sisters in Christ need prayer for his help too. One particular saint Paul asks prayer for in verse 19 is himself: “and also for me.” Why? He was imprisoned and needed boldness in proclaiming the gospel (vv. 19–20). Do you realize how much your prayers are needed for your minister and the ministry of the Word in your place of worship? There’s an old story of a visitor to the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London back in the days of C. H. Spurgeon. This visitor came to find out the secret of his ministry success. Spurgeon took this visitor down into the boiler room basement, opened a door, and showed him the women’s prayer group, active at prayer. Prayer for the Spirit help was the secret to success: nothing else! It still is in all our skirmishes against our ancient foe. May God help us to use his armor in the battle!
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA.