Take … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. Ephesians 6.17-18.
This morning’s reading was suggested to me as I thought through yesterday’s reading in 2 Corinthians 10.4 about demolishing strongholds. As I said there, Paul is clear that only spiritual weapons can bring down strongholds whether those strongholds are in the world, the church … or in my own heart and mind. And here, in Ephesians 6, I see what those weapons are.
The first is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”, and that is often taken to mean nothing more than the quotation of Bible verses at the unseen enemy. The justification for reading Ephesians 6.17 in that way is that Jesus quoted Bible verses at the devil during his time of temptation in the wilderness. “The tempter came to him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”‘ … ” (Matthew 4.1-11). Surely that must be what it means to use this particular spiritual weapon?
Well, yes, it might be … or it might include that. But to my mind, if all I am seeing in the encounter between Jesus and the devil in Matthew 4 is Jesus quoting Bible verses, I think I am rather missing the point. As I understand it, the sword in Ephesians 6.17 is not my sword at all; it is quite specifically described as the sword of the Spirit. It is the sword that the Holy Spirit wields from within me. I can “take” it — indeed Paul says I must take it — but another — the Holy Spirit — will, as it were, direct its operation … govern the cut and thrust and direction and timing of its use. It is his sword, not mine. That was surely so in the wilderness when Jesus took up this sword against the devil. At his baptism, Jesus had seen “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him” (Matthew 3.16) and immediately afterwards Jesus had been “led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4.1). Luke tells us he was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4.1); and what I am seeing in the conflict with the devil is the Holy Spirit wielding his sword as Jesus takes it up and faces the enemy.
And the Spirit’s sword is not merely Bible verses, it is the “word” of God. Now the word of God (as that expression is used in this verse) includes the Scriptures but is more than the Scriptures; and where it is the Scriptures it is not just any Scriptures. “Word” here is not logos but rema; and rema has a special use in Scripture. It denotes a definitive divine utterance … a specific word given in a specific situation to accomplish a specific purpose; and that is really important.
What this all means is that, as I recognise a stronghold of the devil in my life or elsewhere and agree to its demolition, my first need is to be filled with the Spirit because I need him to wield his sword as I take it up. I need him to speak that precise, specific word with all the authority of God behind it that will make the walls come tumbling down. Whether that rema takes the form of a verse of Scripture or a prophetic word, it will do what nothing else can do. Small wonder then that Ephesians 6.17 with its injunction to take up the sword of the Spirit is preceded by the injunction in Ephesians 5.18 to “be filled with the Spirit”. The two go together.
And how am I filled with the Spirit? As I pray in the Spirit. Is “prayer in the Spirit” part of the armour that Paul is describing? It is not clear whether or not the armour ends with the sword in Ephesians 6.17. But the “pray in the Spirit” of Ephesians 6.18 is certainly the activity that must accompany all the “putting on” and “taking” of the earlier verses. It is, indeed, what enables all that putting on and taking up to take place.
And what is prayer in the Spirit? Prayer in the Spirit is, as I understand it, the kind of prayer where we yield to the Spirit within us and let him do the praying. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” says Paul. “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8.26). If I have the gift of tongues, I must use it, for it is a great means of praying in the Spirit; but I can pray in the Spirit without the use of tongues. It is all a matter of letting go and letting God. It is God’s power alone that can demolish strongholds.