I failed as a collegiate athlete. For some years now, I’ve looked back with regret on wasted potential and childhood dreams that were so close to coming true but never did. Why didn’t I work harder? What if I had known what I do today? Why didn’t God allow me to utilize the gifts he gave me? It still bothers me from time to time.
Even if you’ve never spent time on a football field, you may relate. Your passions outpaced your progress; your gifting never realized its full potential. But as you grimace considering the success that never came, has it ever crossed your mind to actually thank God for your failure?
Thank God for Failure?
It hadn’t crossed my mind until recently. Lost in a daydream of what could have been, words from Spurgeon sent arrows deep into my fantasy:
There are very few men who can bear success — none can do so unless great grace is given to them! And if, after a little success, you begin to say, “There now, I am somebody. Did I not do that well? These poor old fogies do not know how to do it — I will teach them” — you will have to go into the back rank, brother, you are not yet able to endure success! It is clear that you cannot stand praise.
Without a moment’s hesitation, that success I pined after so long had soured in my mouth. Like Dr. Frankenstein, who obsessed for months over his creation only to shrink in horror the moment the monster animated, I saw my idol with sobriety. The “success” I longed to embrace — for me — was as much the celebrity I longed to embrace. I had a healthy love for the sport, but I had an unhealthy love for my own name, which meant that my budding faith in Christ may not have survived weeds of worldly acclaim without consequence. I’m doubtful that I could have endured the mere seeds of the second temptation Jesus overcame in the wilderness:
The devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory. . . . If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” (Luke 4:5–7)
I thanked God for sparing me from my dreams of greatness. In my mediocrity, he protected me. In allowing me to fail, he fathered me. In keeping me from success, he kept me for himself.
Children of Babel
Now, some mature souls indeed can bear what Calvin called “the fiery trial of popularity.” And while some can endure it without injury, it seems true enough that there are very few men who can bear success. The fulfillment of our earthly dreams, the praise we still secretly hope for, the recognition we’ve come to trust might make us into somebody, could, if we actually received it, arouse a nightmare. Success hides its price, and some of us live chasing the flame.
Many since Babel have been trying to “make a name for [themselves]” (Genesis 11:4). They harbor selfish ambition and live for what Paul termed “empty glory” (Philippians 2:3, my translation). This is dangerous because Jesus himself asked, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44).
Man cannot serve two glories. Some, John tells us, even believed in Jesus’s miracles but did not confess him, because “they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:42–43). They chose to sit comfortably in the synagogue rather than walk with God incarnate. To the hypocrites who advertised their fasting with disfigured faces, sounded trumpets when they gave, and prayed long prayers on street corners in order to be seen by others, Jesus said, “I do not receive glory from men” (John 5:41 NASB).
Now, this is not to confuse carnal success with spiritual fruitfulness. We pray to influence souls, fight sin, proclaim Christ, and live for God’s glory in our families, callings, and careers. He has promised those things. Rather, we renounce the visibility of success — the longing to not only achieve great things by God’s strength, but to ensure that everyone else knows we’ve achieved great things. The obsession to have our faults forgotten and our triumphs published. The temptation to pray blasphemously in our hearts, “I wish them all to be where I am to see my glory.”
You Cannot Bear Success Alone
God must fortify us against the sharp edges of success.
Paul teaches that he needed to be strengthened by Christ to endure the bad and the good. We need God to walk us through the valleys and guide us safely on the mountaintops. “I know how to be brought low,” he said, “and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13).
All things includes the good. The apostle needed Christ to stay content in Christ when life went horribly wrong, and when it went surprisingly well. Verse 13, as the Christian athlete’s favorite verse, speaks not as much to Christ strengthening him to hoist the trophy up in victory, but more to Christ strengthening him not to bring that trophy and applause down into his heart and make them his christ. We need divine strength to trudge through the wilderness, and also to eat our fill in Jerusalem. If we have not learned this, then our abounding — and the praise that comes with it — becomes unsafe.
Fed to Worms
Consider the contrast between Peter, Paul, and Barnabas — men who learned this secret — and Herod, who did not.
When Cornelius bent low to worship a mere human, Peter grabbed him, lifted him up immediately, and said, “Stand up; I too am a man” (Acts 10:24–26). When Paul and Barnabas healed a paralytic man in Lystra in Acts 14, the people proclaimed, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” (Acts 14:11). Once Paul and Barnabas heard this and discovered that they planned to offer sacrifices to them, the two men
tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” (Acts 14:14–15)
These esteemed men of God shunned Satan’s original temptation: to be like God — if only in the eyes of men.
Herod did otherwise.
On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. (Acts 12:21–23)
Three could bear to be used of God and not seek to rob him of glory. The other died of worms.
Not to Us
In college, I had not yet learned how to abound. The success I longed for endangered my soul.
I was not like William Wilberforce, who, upon the passing of his bill to abolish the British slave trade — which he spent his life on — marked the momentous victory by meditating on a single verse.
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness! (Psalm 115:1)
He was branded with this verse. God seared it onto his labor and calling. And in time, he knew how to abound. This verse is the banner over the man or woman who has learned Paul’s secret: “Not to me, O God, not to me, but to your name give glory!” And should we fail to get noticed while living for God’s glory, we count it joy that God sees us and spares us from the dangers of praise.
Lord, Spare Me Infectious Success
Consider afresh what we have in Christ. We are sons and daughters of God. What else do we need? Let that free you. Christ is yours. Heaven is yours. Eternal glory will soon be yours.
Rejoice not that you have done great things, and do not lose sleep that no trophies collect dust on your banister. Rather, rejoice that your name is written in heaven. Let us be content decreasing in this world that he might increase, content ourselves walking the path of the nameless donkey that carried the Son into Jerusalem. We are freed to be no-ones on earth because we are known in heaven.
May God make us bold enough to pray,
Lord, spare me from the success that would threaten to undo me. Not all victories are good victories; not all triumphs will lead me home. Keep me from those achievements that would puff me up, those accomplishments that would tempt me to forget you.
You’ve taught me to pray, “Lead me not into temptation” — how slow I’ve been to realize the wisdom in all that might mean. But now, seeing my goals and hopes in proper scope, I ask you to do what is best, even if that means the death of my dreams. Not to me, O God, not to me, but to your name give glory, that your steadfast love and faithfulness might be put on display.
Preaching, what I call expository exultation, is a unique kind of communication. It is something not brought from the world into the service of the church. Nor can the world take it from the church and use it for its own purposes. It is different, radically different, from anything in the world.
First, there is God. Then, there is his work and his way in the world — his creation and redemption and providence. Then, there is his book, his infallible book, the Bible, written by mere men, carried along by the Holy Spirit. Then, there is a divine calling, a mystery of providence, family, church, desire, delight, duty. A preacher comes into being.
Then, there is the sweat and prayer of preparation — the pounding on the closed door of the text, until it cracks, and beams of light shine out. Then, there is the seeing of truth and wisdom and power. And then, there is the laughter of joy and the tears of repentance, and in both, the savoring — oh, the savoring — of the glory. Then all day, and if necessary all night, the work of reason and imagination, praying, toiling, weaving dark and bright strands of truth into a fathomable fabric, a message to enfold the people.
Then, while praying (again and again), there is the opening of the mouth, the heralding of the horrors and the glories. There is the explaining, the clarifying, the showing, the amazement, the rejoicing, the exultation, the offering, the pleading, the looking in the eyes. And all the while, there is the utter self-engagement, and, please God, the utter self-forgetting in the brightness of the truth. And then, God knows, the everlasting fruit, and weariness and thankfulness.
And it all begins again. There is nothing comparable to this. Expository exultation is unique.
We Are Here for Him
For all its essential value in the service of evangelism, expository exultation is God’s design and gift for his people gathered in worship. No other form of speech is as beautifully fitting in this God-exalting wonder called “worship.”
God exists as one who knows himself perfectly in the eternal image of his Son. And he exists as one who is infinitely pleased by the one he thus knows. And we, the creatures of this glory-knowing, glory-loving God, are made in his image. We too exist to know God and to be pleased with God — to see and savor and show his glory. This is the essence of what it means to be human.
The gathering of God-seeing, God-savoring, God-showing human beings in one place to join their hearts and minds and voices in making much of this God is a miracle, and a miracle in the making. About to come into being is the miracle of corporate worship. And one indispensable flame that the Spirit uses to ignite that miracle, and make it burn, is the preaching of the word of God.
By grace, the light and heat of worship spread. The preacher has come burning and shining. In his preaching, he is worshiping and awakening worship. He has come seeing and savoring and showing the beauty and worth of God. He is overflowing with the truth of exposition and the warmth of exultation.
The preacher is aware, and his people are aware, that the miracle of Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting, God-treasuring worship is a God-pleasing end in itself. God is being enjoyed here not as a means of making the budget. We are trembling in God’s presence not as a means of political impact. We are exulting in God’s power not to impress visitors. God is an end in himself. And our delight in him is our end, or it is not in him.
Thousands of Good Effects
And yet the preacher knows, and the people know, that the ripple effect of this hour — this authentic, miracle hour of meeting God in worship — is unfathomable in its depth and extent.
Because of this encounter with God, and this Spirit-anointed expository exultation, a thousand problems that had not yet come into being are solved in people’s lives. A thousand decisions are shaped for good without any conscious forethought. A thousand relational corruptions are averted. And hundreds of hearts are softened in the presence of God so that impossible obedience suddenly seems possible — like saying, “I’m sorry; I was wrong.”
And yet we do not gather for this. We gather to see and savor God. He is the end. And where we try to make him a means, worship begins to die.
The preacher knows, and the people know, that preaching and worship services are not the totality of the life of the church. There are a hundred worthy ministries for the children and the young adults, the men and the women, the singles and the married, the grieving and the aged. There are untold possibilities of reaching out to the unbelieving world. There are countless good deeds to show the glory of our Father in heaven. There are more ways to meet in small groups than we can imagine, to encourage each other and pray for each other and care for each other. The preacher knows this, and makes no pretense that preaching is all people need.
All Replacements Will Fail
But the preacher also knows this: if he fails in his expository exultation, if corporate worship languishes in lifelessness because the word of God does not come with clarity and faithfulness and soul-satisfying power, all the ministries suffer.
Preaching is not everything, but it affects everything. It is the trumpet of truth in the church. And it echoes in every ministry and every household, for joy and strength and love and perseverance — or not. If every part of the engine is in working order but the spark plug fails to fire in its appointed rhythm, the whole car lurches or stops.
Nothing can replace preaching. Books are wonderful. Who has not been deeply affected by a great book? Lectures and discussions and drama and poetry and film and paintings are powerful. But any effort to replace preaching with anything else will — sooner or later — fail.
People have tried experiments that replace preaching. Marginal, disillusioned people flock to the experiment. It lasts a few years. And it dies. Meanwhile, preaching goes on from decade to decade and century to century. Why? Because God has created and appointed this unique, anointed embodiment of his word for the explanation and celebration of his glory and his worth.
God Will Stand by You
If God has called you to preach, the task, of course, is humanly impossible. Preaching is worship. And preaching aims to awaken worship. Both worshiping and awakening worship are miracles. They are not mere choices. You cannot worship at will any more than you can be thrilled at will. It is a work of God, opening our eyes to the ultimately thrilling.
But he who called you is faithful. He will do it. I testify from forty years in the ministry of the word, through the best and the worst of times, God loves to help the preacher who is desperate to make the word plain for the holy happiness of his people, by the blood of Jesus, for the glory of God. He will help you.
“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Psalm 25:14). If you accept this calling, and fear him and trust him, you will know an intimacy like no other. He will take you into his counsel and show you things you could not have seen any other way. He will work wonders for you.
After a full day’s “fruitless” labor over his word, distressed at the lateness of the hour, on your knees, through tears, in one five-second flash you will see the reality of the text. You will apprehend in an instant how the text works. It is a gift. He will make sure you know this. Again and again. Your labor for his glory, in the name of Jesus, for the good of his people, will never be in vain.
How many times have I trembled that I was not sufficient for this moment, or this great crowd, or this tiny gathering, or this painful topic, or this inscrutable text? And, as I have ventured on, trusting that his word never comes back empty, he has stood by me. He is faithful. “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed” (2 Timothy 4:17). He will do this for you, if you trust him and give yourself utterly to his word, confident in the cross, loving your people, and glorying in the worth and beauty of God.
Worth Every Cost
Every calling of God is good. To be sure, faithfulness in every calling — even in the smallest task — is greatness in heaven. “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). But some callings, because of their potential for helping and hurting so many, are dangerous and glorious in a special way. “Not many of you should become teachers [or preachers], my brothers, for you know that we who teach [and preach] will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
If you hear this call and accept, you will embark on a great and dangerous work. Ambassadors of the king are not safe in enemy territory — unless they are protected and empowered by the king himself. But safety is not our goal. Our King will keep us, and use us, as long as he pleases. That will be a perfect term of service. We are, as Henry Martyn, missionary to Persia, said, immortal till our work is done. And, of course, he would agree, we are immortal after our work is done and we are gone.
As I look back over four decades of preaching, I bear witness that it has been worth every effort and every cost.
The smell of the place is what I remember most. That nearly universal odor of old church buildings that simultaneously brings to mind old books and the polish on pews.
Anyone who has spent time in church — and especially old church buildings — knows what I’m talking about. For me, the odor is connected to a network of memories: Miss Ann teaching Bible stories as she played the autoharp. Doodling during the sermon as my legs dangled from the pews. These are good memories. Church memories.
The eyes of a child have the innate capacity to look past brokenness, perhaps because children haven’t yet been exposed to the cynical harshness of sin, their purity calling back the lost world of innocence. Or perhaps they simply don’t know what to see. My eyes certainly missed the problems of that church — which I later found out were legion. As a child, church was a place only of positive associations. Now that I’m an adult, I long for that lost ability to see with purer eyes — to love the church the way I did as a child.
Much modern writing exposes and excoriates the problems of the church. But I want to remind you why she is beautiful, even in her brokenness. Criticism can be darkly enjoyable to write and often darkly delicious to read. But here I offer none. Instead, I offer the sadly less-familiar language of praise for the church. And I pray God gives you a momentary dispensation of grace to silence your inner cynic, critic, and skeptic long enough to join me in praise of the church that Jesus loves so much.
People of the Living God
The author of Hebrews wrote that our Lord endured his cross and all its shame “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). But joy in what, exactly? Joy in his Father? Joy in obedience? Joy in defeating the works of his enemy? No doubt all of those things. But there is another joy too: the joy of rescuing his broken but still beautiful bride (Revelation 19:7–8).
The church — the seemingly ordinary, weak, and foolish church (1 Corinthians 1:26–28) — is the gathering of God’s elect on the earth (Romans 8:33). And if Jesus so loved her, and in joy died to rescue her, we also should love and honor her.
This gathering houses the very presence of God on earth (1 Corinthians 3:16–17). No longer does he dwell in a temple complex administrated by layers of priests and Levites. Now we — the people of God, the bride of Christ — are individually and corporately the temple of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), a truth profoundly better than we can yet imagine.
Living redeemed, Spirit-infused lives, together we stand as a new humanity (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are a holy priesthood and a newly formed body politic (1 Peter 2:9) who act as God’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), chosen for a missionary exile (1 Peter 1:1) in a world that is under renovation until the Bridegroom comes to claim his bride (Revelation 19:6–9).
What’s more, the church has a purpose beyond housing God’s presence and participating in the life of the Spirit. We have a mission to bring his name to our neighborhoods and the nations (Acts 1:8). These fellowships of Christ-followers surprisingly reveal God’s wisdom to powerful spiritual authorities (Ephesians 3:10) and become Christ’s means of destroying the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). They humbly wash the feet of the weary and faithfully witness to the hope of the gospel (1 Peter 3:15) in a world that sets its hopes in counterfeit gods, like wealth and entertainment.
For some members of Christ’s bride, the church’s mission will cost them their lives (Revelation 6:9–11). For others, it will mean a long life of faithfulness (Revelation 2:10). For all, it will mean presenting our bodies as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) — seeking to grow more alive to God and more dead to self and sin each day. What kind of God would be so good to give us not only the forgiveness of sin and new life, but a new family, a new purpose, and a whole new identity? The kind of God who gave birth to the church.
Just as Mary pushed the baby Jesus into the world, the church midwifes spiritual sons and daughters into a new world, the kingdom of God, which is already here (Luke 17:21) and yet still to come (Ephesians 1:21). In this overlapping time of old and new ages, the church, and the church alone, stands between these two worlds with the message of gospel hope, the mystery into which even the “angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12).
This faithful witness to the good news ends up building hospitals and schools, dismantling the scourge of structural racism, encouraging the adoption of orphans, sending missionaries overseas, standing up for the powerless, and, of course, starting new local expressions of the universal bride of Christ. Birthing praise from pain, the Father is using the imperfect and broken stones of his saints (1 Peter 2:5) to build a beautiful edifice upon the perfect cornerstone of his Son (Ephesians 2:19–22). It is an unspeakably gracious and glorious work God is doing.
No Greater Privilege
I’m older now. No matter how I might wish it, my childlike eyes aren’t coming back. And neither are yours. I see the people more clearly now. My inside view as a pastor to all their complexities, problems, failures, struggles, and tragedies has sobered me. The church is not old books, polished pews, and autoharps. It’s people, in all their weakness and frailties.
But if it’s true that God’s power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), what power we can see among his people! He has chosen me — chosen us (Colossians 3:12) — to be and become the beautiful bride that moved his Son for joy to endure the cross. If there is a greater privilege, I don’t know it. And this privilege means we can move beyond the smells and sounds of glossy memory to the hope and wholeness of our blood-bought destiny.
We are the church. We get to be the church. And the glory of our collective story is sufficient to cause us to love Jesus’s bride, however broken she may yet be. Because, by God’s grace, he is making her beautiful.
Every age builds a moral vision around the things it holds sacred. The Renaissance enthroned man and made him “the measure of all things.” Economic progress was the Industrial Revolution’s vision of the good. Post–World War II America built its morality around prosperity and growth.
Our age is defined by a kind of emotivism, which I have elsewhere called “feelism.” Feelism drives emotions to the center, distorting and amplifying them until “How does this make me feel?” becomes the measure of truth. When something causes me to feel bad, I judge it as “wrong for me.” We’ve all seen this logic play out in the lives of people around us and, at times, in our own hearts.
Feelism suggests that anything causing us anxiety, pain, or discomfort is wrong. But Jesus allowed himself to be wearied, slandered, mocked, beaten, and ultimately crucified for the sake of love. And, as he says in Matthew 10:24, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.” What should we, as followers of Jesus, expect life to feel like? What does the gospel say to our emotions?
Jesus’s dying and rising offers sanity and stability to our emotions in at least three ways.
1. The gospel normalizes suffering.
In Philippians 3:10, the apostle Paul acknowledges something we’d rather gloss over: Jesus’s life takes a downward path into death before moving upward into resurrection. The path to resurrection power and victory involves “[sharing] his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Visualize this pattern by tracing out the letter “J,” which takes us down into death, then up into resurrection. Paul describes this path as the normal Christian life — a reenacting of the death and resurrection of Jesus — but, under the influence of feelism, it doesn’t feel normal to most Christians.
If dying and rising with Christ is the normal rhythm of the Christian life, then when we encounter dying, we don’t have to collapse or withdraw into ourselves. We can be weak and sad, even depressed. This pattern frees us from our tendency to be depressed about our depression. It’s a relief to realize that dealing with hard things should influence our emotions. Jesus models how to walk through the deepest mental darkness as he felt the weight of his coming death (Matthew 26:36–46). Our modern obsession with creating a pain-free self lays a great burden on us. When we see that our life is shaped by Jesus’s narrative, dying no longer controls us.
2. The gospel helps us fight cynicism.
Living in Jesus’s path keeps us from becoming cynical. Many of us are fearful of good news because bad news awaits. We protect ourselves emotionally from being whipsawed back and forth between the two by shutting down on hope. Fear of hope disappointing us leads us to denigrate hope, which feeds a culture of cynicism — always doubting the good. But the story of Jesus has a distinct path — rising, not dying, has the last word. Easter follows Good Friday. If our lives take the shape of Jesus’s, our small deaths will always be followed by resurrections.
Plus, if God shaped the dying, then he controls the resurrection as well. Both are gifts. That enables us to enjoy joy! We don’t have to try to freeze the story in rising either; we can trust the Spirit to weave as he wills.
3. The gospel brings our emotions to life.
Jesus’s pattern of dying and rising not only balances our emotions but helps them come alive. Jesus does not deny emotions like sadness and grief, nor does he make joy absolute, as if the command to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) leaves no room for sorrow. It’s easy to gloss over this point, particularly in the West, where some segments of the church continue to be imprinted by the influence of Greek Stoicism and its distrust of the emotions. Jesus acknowledges his distress in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39), but his feelings are not the measure of truth. His Father is. He takes the cup of suffering.
In a similar way, the apostle Paul experiences anxiety on behalf of the churches he loves. Love feels. In the gospel culture, we’re eager to analyze our emotions, turning the microscope inside to find sin. I can imagine someone hearing about Paul’s anxiety in Philippians 2:28 and thinking he has made an idol out of his relationship with Epaphroditus and the Philippians. But Paul’s anxiety reflected his love for them. As C.S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken” (The Four Loves, 121).
Of course, Paul is attentive to the opposite danger: a life controlled by anxiety. Because of the resurrection, we can “not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). We do not have to heed the constant whispering to play it safe, which reflects the pseudo wisdom of this age, but misses the risk of love. We are free to sacrifice because of love. We are free to experience the full range of human emotions without being enslaved to them. When we suffer for the sake of love, we don’t have to be offended or confused. We can rejoice like “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
We expect suffering, but we aren’t cynics. We are alive to our emotions, but willing to put them to death in order to love others. In these ways and more, the gospel anchors us. If moving back and forth between dying and rising is God’s normal, that gives a certain feel to the Christian life, a mixing of joy and sadness, even an enmeshing of the two. Otherwise, we chase joy and recoil from sadness, which always yields a fragile, jittery self.
Instead, with this “J” shape in view, we can revel in even fleeting joy, knowing this is a down payment on future joy, and embrace sadness, knowing that dying with Christ is the launching pad for joy. Knowing the shape of the path anchors our emotions.
Over recent years, there have been many television shows aimed at helping people get properly dressed. Sometimes the premise revolves around experts helping people to pick the right outfit for a wedding. At other times, someone with a woefully poor fashion sense receives a total makeover with the help of fashion gurus and some serious spending. In a similar way, Christianity helps people become properly dressed, although not in the typical sense.
Paul advises the Ephesians that there are certain things Christians must put off and others they must put on. More specifically, he tells them (and us) to put on the Christian armor so we can be properly equipped to stand up to the assaults that inevitably come our way in this spiritually dangerous world.
According to the Bible, life is not a picnic but a battle, an armed struggle against a powerful adversary. To engage in that battle properly, we need a spiritual makeover in which our flimsy, inadequate natural attire is replaced by suitable armor and weaponry. So Paul concludes his magnificent, gospel-saturated letter to the Ephesians with a final charge to be prepared to engage with the battle of life in the right way, dressed in the armor of God.
the various pieces (the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit) are correlated to what Paul would have witnessed firsthand as the arms and armor of Roman legionaries during his life in the Roman Empire.
This assumption, however, misses the fact that each of the pieces of armor has a rich background in the Old Testament, where they describe God’s armor — the armor that God himself dons to rescue his people. The Old Testament, not the Roman legionary, provided Paul with his inspiration — and if we miss this background, we may misinterpret and misapply the various pieces of the armor.
Breastplate and Helmet
The most obvious examples are “the breastplate of righteousness” and “the helmet of salvation” (Ephesians 6:14, 17), both of which are drawn directly from Isaiah 59:17. There the prophet says of God, “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.” In the preceding chapters, Isaiah describes God’s promise to deal with the physical enemies of his people, especially Babylon. But now the prophet describes the divine warrior coming to deal with the far greater and more dangerous enemy of their souls: sin.
God’s people have no righteousness of their own to bring; their best righteousness, apart from divine help, is nothing more than filthy garments (Isaiah 64:6). If the Lord were to deal with his people according to their own deeds, there would be nothing to anticipate but fearful judgment. But Isaiah declares that the divine warrior would not come as a wrathful judge; instead, he would come as their Redeemer to bring them salvation.
Similarly, Paul’s image of “feet readied with the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15, my translation) does not stem from observing Roman sandals; rather, the picture draws directly on Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” Ephesians 6 and Isaiah 52 (together with Nahum 1) are the only passages in the Bible where the words feet, good news, and peace occur together.
This Old Testament background clarifies a potential ambiguity in Paul’s words. When Paul speaks of feet shod with “the readiness of the gospel of peace,” does he mean the readiness given by the gospel of peace or the readiness to spread the good news that brings peace? Many translations and commentaries opt for the former interpretation. But if Paul is thinking about Isaiah 52, then the readiness he has in mind is primarily the readiness to share the good news as heralds of the gospel. Heralds need good shoes to enable them to travel far and fast to bring their message to those hungry to hear good news.
Isaiah imagines the watchmen bursting into joyful song on the walls of Jerusalem (Isaiah 52:8). Those who had long strained their eyes with fearful anticipation of an approaching enemy now herald good news of deliverance to the beleaguered citizens of Zion. Paul applies this same image to our privilege of hastening to share the gospel of peace with believers and unbelievers alike.
Belt of Truth
The belt of truth also comes from Isaiah. In Isaiah 11, God’s people, Israel, had turned their back on the light and chosen to live in darkness, spurning the Lord’s revelation. Yet God promised he would send a messianic figure from the line of David to deliver them. This coming King would wear righteousness as a belt around his waist and “faithfulness” as a belt around his loins (Isaiah 11:5).
The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses the same Greek word (aletheia) for faithfulness in Isaiah 11 that Paul uses in Ephesians 6, where our English versions translate it as truth. This messianic King will save his people and bring in the final blessing of peace — a peace that extends throughout creation (Isaiah 11:6–9). The toxic effects of the fall, brought about by the first Adam listening to Satan’s lies, would be reversed by this second Adam and heir of the line of David, whose foundational qualities are truth and faithfulness.
Sword of the Spirit
The sword of the Spirit, the word of God, is drawn from Isaiah 49:2. There the promised servant of the Lord says, “[The Lord] made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away.” In other words, the Lord was preparing his servant to come as a warrior with sharp words of judgment. In the original context, the servant was Israel, who was supposed to be God’s faithful servant, equipped by him to bring light to the Gentiles. Yet in Isaiah’s time, there was much that needed to be judged and condemned in Israel and Judah themselves. They were not fit to be the Lord’s servant, so he had to send his servant to bring light to them as well as to the Gentiles.
This promised servant, the new Israel with a mission to historic Israel, is Jesus himself. Yet even though Jesus could have entered this world with sharp words of judgment, condemning all those who fall short of perfect righteousness, in his first coming he came to seek and to save the lost, both those from Israel and from the nations (Luke 19:10). In his second coming, Jesus will return as a warrior riding out on a white horse with a sharp sword coming from his mouth with which to judge all nations (Revelation 19:11–16).
Shield of Faith
The Old Testament background for the phrase shield of faith also clarifies an ambiguity in Paul’s imagery. When he says, “Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:16), Paul is not saying that faith in itself has remarkable defensive power against Satan. Rather, he is saying that faith protects us from Satan’s attacks because faith takes hold of the power and protection of God himself.
Throughout the Old Testament, it is God, not faith, that is repeatedly described as our shield. In Genesis 15:1 the Lord tells Abraham, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Proverbs 30:5 says, “[God] is a shield to those who take refuge in him.” God is our shield and refuge; he is our hiding place in the day of difficulty; his faithfulness will keep us safe when we are being shot at by arrows, flaming or otherwise (Psalm 91:4–5). Faith becomes our shield in Paul’s imagery because it is the means by which we flee to God for refuge.
Christ the Warrior
Most importantly, the Old Testament background challenges the common view that the Christian armor is primarily a set of disciplines we must perform to measure up as Christians. It is certainly true that God’s armor describes essential qualities for us to pursue passionately if we are to stand firm under Satan’s assault. Yet the armor is first and foremost God’s armor rather than ours. Through the gospel, the divine warrior gives us his equipment, which he wore first triumphantly in our place in his definitive struggle against the forces of evil.
Jesus Christ is the triumphant warrior over Satan, death, and sin through his faithfulness and righteousness, and his victory is now credited to us as if it were our own. Because he stood firm in his battle, we Christians — weak, fearful, and unprepared as we so often are — also will ultimately stand. By faith, his righteousness becomes ours, and in Christ we have a shield of refuge in God, who will never leave us nor forsake us.
This is the good news that we have been given the privilege of heralding far and wide throughout the world, as well as preaching to our own hearts on a daily basis. The armor of God speaks mercy and grace to broken sinners, and a salvation that the combined forces of hell itself can never steal from us, as we rest in him.
Overeating and laziness can be sensitive topics. For that reason, they are not raised often in the church. As far as I can tell, preachers do not preach on these vices as much as other sins. Yet ministers need to be conscious of dealing with these sins, not only in their preaching ministry, but also in their personal lives.
One way to get at these issues is to observe their relevance to the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). This commandment is not to be limited strictly to murder but also includes the need to lawfully preserve life, both our own and the lives of others. The faithful preservation of our own life includes, in some sense, and among other things, aiming to eat well (if possible), refraining from gluttony and drunkenness (Deuteronomy 21:20), and engaging in appropriate bodily exercise.
Good Gift of Exercise
The apostle Paul acknowledges, as we all should, that “bodily training is of some value” (1 Timothy 4:8). Naturally, like other divine gifts, exercise can be a form of idolatry, especially in our day, to the point that some people would rather Paul have said, “Bodily training is of the most value.” But clearly the apostle was not unaware that bodily training has certain advantages to our overall health and well-being. And countless modern studies have confirmed the positive effects that exercise can have on alleviating anxiety, stress, and depression.
Physical exertion is an important part of normal human life. Yet it is becoming rare to see kids playing together in neighborhoods, engaging in games of their own devising. Today our playdates typically occur in highly controlled environments. Often the kids are not allowed to climb trees, wrestle, or do anything with any moderate risk involved. Gone are the days of seeing our children walk around with multiple scrapes and cuts on their hands and knees due to imaginative exercise.
And the apparent lack of activity among kids, along with technological innovations and the digital revolution, seems to create lifelong patterns as they enter adulthood. Many children are addicted to video games and lack adequate exercise; they turn into zombies and develop intense emotional reactions to the wrong things. But of those children in that position, how many of them who go to church have a minister who could, in good conscience, tell them they need to exercise more?
Based on observation at various ministerial conventions and conferences, some ministers may be overweight because they do not eat healthily or exercise much. There are also some ministers who do not set a good example. Of all the people in the church who should be most conscious about exercise and healthy eating, should it not be ministers of the gospel? God calls pastors to be examples in our conduct — that is, in our overall lifestyle (1 Timothy 4:12; 1 Peter 5:1–3).
It amazes me that some ministers rail so strongly against the evils of alcohol from the pulpit, but they are overweight themselves due to what may well be a combination of physical laziness and immoderate use of food and drink (soda/pop). Imagine the minister being the type of person that Solomon warns us not to be among: “Be not among drunkards or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the drunkard and the glutton will come to poverty, and slumber will clothe them with rags” (Proverbs 23:20–21).
We know there are some people who have weight issues that are not simply a result of laziness and gluttony. Being large is not necessarily a sin. The human body is complex, and there may be other health factors at work that limit a person’s ability to exercise. We should be careful not to judge too quickly, especially since poor eating can actually be the result, in many instances, of socioeconomic factors.
Nonetheless, I’m persuaded that overeating, as the fruit of a generally indulgent lifestyle, has become a tragically acceptable sin among many Christians in North America. I’m also equally persuaded that a lot of pastors should jump on a bike, go for a run, walk, or build some modest muscle, and they’d likely get more work done. A lack of discipline in areas such as food, exercise, and drink typically reflects a lack of discipline in other areas of the Christian life.
Rules of the Good Life
As a minister, there are many reasons to eat well and exercise frequently. You may extend the duration of fruitful ministry, you will find yourself more energized for the vocational labor God has called you to, and you will set a good example to your flock. But if you’re lazy, and make a habit of eating too much bad food, then you’re effectively telling God’s people that they can do those things.
Often, I’ve found that exercise can be a unique way to enjoy God. We can enjoy his creation by walking, running, or biking. We can use this time to pray or meditate upon his goodness to us. Exercise is a friend of the Christian, and one that, unless prohibited by health reasons, should be part of the ordinary Christian life. Remember, the apostle Paul instructs Timothy to take an intentional physical step (“use a little wine,” 1 Timothy 5:23) in order to help with his ailments so that he may, one would think, be able to better serve the Lord and the church.
We all have particular sins that we struggle with and need to mortify (Romans 8:13). Some struggle with attraction to persons of the same sex; others struggle with pornography; many struggle with gossip; and, it seems, laziness and overeating are also prevalent among God’s people. Like all of these other sins, mortification by the Spirit in obedience to God’s commands is our calling, and leaders in the church should lead the way. God gives us his commands to help us, not hinder us. The sixth commandment offers us the good life — the life where we not only care about others but also ourselves.
So, do not kill: that is, preserve your life, within reason, as you are able. You’ll be happier in God, and he will be magnified in your life and church by your enriched joy in him.