Withstand the Devil’s Darts
with the Shield of Faith
Text: Ephesians 6:16
Sermon by Rev. Alan Camarigg
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington, 2003
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 19, No. 5
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Congregation, beloved of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Today we come to yet another piece of the “whole armor of God” which the Spirit, through Paul, commands us to take up, namely, the shield of faith. As a young boy, whenever I heard about the shield of faith, I always tended to think of a rather small shield that a soldier could easily hold with one hand while swinging his sword with the other. And perhaps there were shields like that as well, but it’s interesting that the word Paul uses here, translated “shield,” is related to the word “door.” It is generally agreed, on this basis, that Paul was probably referring to a long shield which actually resembled a door in shape and size. And if you’ve ever seen a re-enactment of ancient warfare, then you know that these shields were deployed on the battlefield in the form of a moving wall, which protected the front lines of an advancing army.
But it’s also known that these shields were covered with a thin layer of metal to protect the soldiers from flaming arrows. These arrows were constructed by saturating material of some kind with a flammable substance; and then wrapping it tightly and securely around the arrow close to the tip. On the battlefield, these arrows would be set on fire, and then shot in great numbers and from every possible direction into the midst of the advancing army. We sometimes underestimate just how devastating this weapon might have been on the battle field if they were not stopped from making their way into the ranks of the soldiers. Even if the arrow itself didn’t hit a soldier directly, the ground would soon be littered with these flaming arrows. You can well imagine the chaos and confusion this created among the soldiers, who were not only trying to dodge the arrows coming in from every direction, but having to watch their step lest they burn their feet and legs on the arrows scattered all over the ground.
But the problem of the flaming arrows was dramatically reduced if the advancing army were protected by these large shields forming a moving wall. If the arrow struck one of these shields, it was often extinguished and fell harmlessly to the ground. And it’s that image of the flaming arrows striking a shield and falling harmlessly to the ground which struck the apostle Paul as a very fitting image of the employment of faith as a shield against the wiles of the devil. Our enemy loves nothing more than to throw us into a state of confusion and disarray by shooting his fiery darts or arrows at us; and let’s be honest to admit that sometimes they cause us a lot of grief. These flaming arrows are not always the easiest to defend against; and sometimes they come very close to their mark and cause us no small amount of trouble. But in this verse, the apostle Paul shows us how we are to defend ourselves against this menace — the flaming arrows which our enemy delights to shot at us. What is that defense; and why is it so effective for the extinguishing these arrows?
It’s with these questions in mind, I proclaim the Word of God to you where we are reminded to “Withstand the devil’s darts with the shield of faith.”
1. What are the devil’s fiery darts?
2. How does faith extinguish them?
Before we can handle this shield of faith, it is absolutely necessary that we understand these fiery darts, which are launched at us not only by the devil, but also by the principalities and powers of darkness. That Paul would describe them as fiery darts alerts us to the fact that they are very troublesome and dangerous. Again, we underestimate the serious threat posed by these flaming darts or arrows on the ancient battlefield, but imagine a soldier who is seriously burned by one of these arrows. There are few injuries as painful and incapacitating as a burn injury; and you can be sure that the ancient soldier both respected and feared these flaming arrows. And if we’re at all serious about the command to stand against the wiles of the devil, we too will have a healthy respect and fear for his flaming arrows. We will not fool around with them or behave as though they are of no real threat or danger to us.
And perhaps the first thing that should be said about these arrows is that they, like those flaming arrows used by ancient soldiers, come at us from all different directions and at the most unexpected of times! The devil doesn’t, in a manner of speaking, stand in one place and shoot a steady stream of arrows all in exactly the same direction at exactly the same intervals of time. These darts will be coming at us at random intervals of time and from every conceivable angle. And that’s precisely how it is, isn’t it? If you stop to think back over the years and your own struggle against the schemes of the devil, isn’t it true that his tactics are really quite varied? There are days when he entices to sin, and days when he tries to discourage us. Some days are relatively calm; and then there are days when we are acutely aware that we are under attack.
But what are these arrows like? Of what do they consist? The puritan William Gurnall suggests that these flaming arrows can be easily divided into two main categories, namely, those temptations which are very appealing to us and those temptations which frighten us. Now at first glance, we may wonder why temptations which appeal to our flesh would be described as “flaming arrows.” In this connection, William Gurnall writes, “We shall show you that Satan’s enticing temptations have a fiery quality in them. They have an inflaming quality. There is a secret disposition in the heart of all to all sin. Temptation doth not fall on us as a ball of fire on ice or snow, but as a spark on tinder, or [as] lightning on a thatched roof, which presently is on a flame.”
The image is vivid and striking. Temptation does not fall on us as a ball of fire on ice and snow, but a spark on tinder, or lightning on a thatched roof. There are times, of course, when a certain temptation does fall on us as a ball of fire on ice and snow. We simply do not respond to the temptation. But there are times when our hearts are like dry tinder that flares up the instant the dart of temptation strikes! The heart is aflame with the passion of sin. Think of David. Committing adultery and murder was probably the last thing on his mind that terrible evening when he left his bedroom to walk on the palace roof. Had you talked to him a half hour earlier that evening, I’m quite certain that he would have denounced adultery and murder as terrible sins which he had no intentions of committing. But as he was walking on the palace roof, he was struck by one of the devil’s fiery darts. He saw a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful to behold; and David’s heart was instantly ablaze with the fire of lust and passion —- like a pile of tinder instantly engulfed in the flame.
And absolutely every one of us knows what this is like, don’t we? Every one of us has been hit on more than one occasion with these fiery darts of temptation. We were minding our own business not realizing or paying attention to the fact that our hearts were like a pile of dry tinder just waiting to be set ablaze by some fiery dart of temptation. The arrow strikes and immediately the heart is engulfed in the flames of greed, or lust, or the sinful desire to bend someone’s ear with a juicy piece of gossip. And we’re certainly not immune to the arrows while we’re young. Boys and girls, you know what these arrows are like, don’t you? What about the time that your brother or sister got a toy for Christmas or a birthday that you really wish you had. You know that it belongs to them; and that you shouldn’t play with it without permission. And you’re not even thinking about it, but all of a sudden there it is and no one’s around, and just like that, the fiery dart slams into your heart. Suddenly, your heart is engulfed in the flames of desire to play with the toy even though you know you shouldn’t.
And we could easily multiply the examples. They are almost endless. But what about those temptations that frighten us? At first that may strike us as a little odd. It’s not very often that we think of temptations which frighten us. So what are we talking about here? Just as a summary statement: we could say that the temptations which frighten us are those temptations which would lead us to doubt whether or not we are Christians who are genuinely born again of the Spirit of God and grafted into Jesus Christ by a true and living faith. That being said, let’s examine a couple of these fiery darts a bit more carefully, beginning with the temptation to doubt God’s existence.
Now it’s quite likely that we recoil from this a bit because the very thought of doubting God’s existence is so utterly abhorrent to us, but bear in mind that what we’re talking about is Satan’s fiery darts. Let me ask you a question. Has it ever happened to you, while you were struggling under some heavy burden or deep sorrow, that you were suddenly, out of the blue, tempted to question God’s existence — troubled by the thought that His existence might have been made up by men? Now as I said, we recoil from the thought because this sin of atheism is so abhorrent to us, but we must never forget that fallen man is certainly capable of this sin. The fool, after all, has said in his heart that there is no God! Sinful man is certainly capable, therefore, of the sin of denying God’s existence, and what makes us think that Satan would not make at least some attempt to propagate that lie in our hearts?
And the point that I want to emphasize here is that we must recognize this temptation to atheism as a fiery dart from the devil. It is fiery because it troubles us. The very fact that the thought even crossed our minds frightens us. It causes us to question whether or not we’re even a true Christian, because surely a true Christian would never have such a thought, right? And matters are even worse if we don’t stop to think that it’s the devil who is shooting his arrows at us. If we ignore the devil or fail to take seriously the fact that he does actually operate in this fashion, we’re going to have a very hard time shaking the concerns or doubts raised in our minds by the fact that such a thought even occurred to us.
Another fiery dart that frightens us, and one that I’ve mentioned before, is the temptation to blasphemy. Again, we recoil from this because the sin of blasphemy is so abhorrent to us, but we must not pretend that we are somehow immune to this temptation when so many of God’s dear children have been subjected to it. Perhaps the most obvious case of a man tempted to blaspheme God is that of Job. In this case, of course, the devil used Job’s wife as the instrument of temptation, but that, in some respects, made the temptation all the more difficult for Job to resist. It is one thing if a stranger tempts us to sin, but quite another if our most intimate partner in life tempts us. “Curse God and die,” she said to Job at the moment of his greatest suffering. By the grace of God, Job resisted, but it doesn’t always go that way. Peter, accused of being a disciple by a servant girl, fell terribly, and blasphemed when he denied, with cursing, that he had never known Jesus.
If I may ask you a question in this regard, and let us all be honest with ourselves: have you ever had a hard thought about God just pop into your head? And let me clarify that I’m not necessarily talking about the overt sin of blasphemy where someone curses God with clenched fist. That is one form of blasphemy, to be sure, but there are other more subtle ways that the devil may tempt us to blaspheme God. When struggling under the conviction of sin, for example, are we tempted to question the certainty of God’s promise to forgive? This is really blasphemy because, in essence, we’re calling the very character of God into question. Have you ever, in a time of intense suffering, been tempted to question God’s love or faithfulness towards you? And again, it’s important to recognize that these are fiery darts — darts designed to frighten us — flaming arrows the devil shoots at us in order to confuse us and vex our souls with doubts about whether or not we are a child of God at all.
And add to these fiery darts the temptation to despair. How the devil loves to vex our souls with the thought that our sins are simply too many and too great to be forgiven — that it is too late for us and there is simply no point in looking to God for mercy and salvation. These arrows do burn sometimes, don’t they? And what we want to keep in mind now, is that Satan, just like those ancient warriors, loves nothing more than to fire these arrows at us from every conceivable direction and at the most unexpected of moments in order to catch us off guard and to throw us into a state of complete confusion. It may come as we’re waking up in the morning, or while we’re on our way to work, cooking supper, while we’re sitting in our easy chair, or just before we drop off to sleep at night. Suddenly, out of nowhere comes the temptation — the flaming arrow that entices us to sin, to doubt the promise of God’s mercy, or the certainty of our salvation. Sometimes we’re hit by one lonely arrow, and sometimes by a barrage of arrows in rapid sequence, but the purpose is always the same — to set our souls ablaze with sin, doubt, confusion and despair. But thank God, in Jesus Christ, there is a sure defense against these flaming arrows — the shield of faith.
So what is the purpose of this shield of faith of which we are commanded to take? It is, simply, to extinguish the devil’s fiery darts. As I said earlier, the shield Paul had in mind was lined with non-flammable metal, and when the fiery arrows struck them, they were extinguished and fell harmlessly to the ground. And that, by way of analogy, is what happens to the devil’s fiery darts when we put up the shield of faith; and I believe that all of us are more skilled in the use of this shield than we may even realize.
We can’t begin to remember, of course, every instance when the devil has shot one of his flaming arrows at us, but isn’t it true, when you think back over your life, that many of the devil’s darts have been extinguished and fallen harmlessly to the ground? Again, you may not be able to come up with a long list of specific examples, but isn’t it true that in many cases, the temptations to sinful pleasures have been almost immediately extinguished and forgotten? You didn’t act on that temptation. And what of the temptations which tend to frighten us? If you really stop to think about it, you realize that the temptation to doubt God’s existence has always been snuffed out immediately. And the same is true of certain blasphemous thoughts that have suddenly come to mind. They were like flaming arrows which were immediately snuffed out and fell by the wayside. And even though we may sometimes struggle, for a time, with feelings of doubt, eventually these flaming darts have also been extinguished.
How does this happen? How are these flaming darts put out? The answer is that we were extinguished, by the grace of God, as we held up the shield of faith, even if we weren’t all that self-conscious about what we were doing! And now consider this: if the shield of faith can be that effective when we’re not even aware of the fact that we’re holding it up, imagine how much more effective it might be if we are very self-conscious in its use. Let’s take a closer look then, at the power of faith to extinguish these fiery darts beginning with the flaming arrows designed to set our hearts ablaze with sinful passion. How, specifically, does faith extinguish this flaming arrow?
The first thing that faith does is give us the ability to look beyond the transitory pleasures of sin to see the consequences. Faith, in a manner of speaking, pulls the mask off of sin, and allows us to see the true face behind it; and what we see serves as a deterrence to sin. By faith, we understand that sin is, first and foremost, a matter of rebellion against God; and that the person who makes friends with the world is at enmity with God. By faith, we also understand that those who revolt against God will be judged by Him; and will fall eternally under His intense wrath and anger. But faith enables us to see so much more than that. By faith, we understand the corruptive power of sin — that giving in to sin once just makes it all the easier the next time around. We know, by faith, that God is not mocked; and that the one who sows to the flesh will reap corruption from the flesh.
But the power of faith to extinguish these darts goes even beyond the consequences that we suffer. The power of faith to extinguish these darts lies in God Himself and in His Son, Jesus Christ. By faith, which we acknowledge as a gift from God, we understand the lengths to which God has gone to redeem us — that Jesus shouldered our sins and bore them away to the cross; and mindful of this, we learn more and more to hate our sins. But even more than that, by faith we come to love God and our Savior, Jesus Christ, and when tempted with sin, we say with Joseph, “How can I do this thing and sin against God?” We must all confess, of course, that there have been many times when we’ve failed to lift this shield of faith, and the fiery darts of temptation have hit their mark. With that flaming arrow lodged in our hearts and minds, we fell into sin; but the fact remains, nevertheless, that we are no strangers to the right employment of this shield. We know how it is used; and have, in fact, used it many times to extinguish these flaming arrows of temptation.
And what about those temptations designed to frighten us or throw us into a state of confusion? The power of faith to extinguish these fiery darts ought to be very apparent to us. In the first place, it is by faith, that true and living faith which is a gift from God, that God is, as it were, always set before our eyes. We know, by the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, that God does exist. That is among the deepest and most secure convictions of our soul; and the moment the flaming arrow hits that shield of faith, it is extinguished. And if we once realize that, even the purpose of the arrow, namely, to frighten us with the thought that perhaps we’re not a Christian at all, is thwarted. The fact that the arrow is so quickly extinguished with the shield of faith by which we not only acknowledge God, but sincerely seek Him alone for our salvation in Jesus Christ confirms that we are, in fact, God’s true children.
And what of those other flaming arrows — the temptations to curse God or to wallow in the pit of despair? How are these arrows extinguished by faith? I remember a co-worker, once, who said that she was angry with God when her infant child was sick. The fiery dart had succeeded in setting her heart on fire with reproach against God. How sad and frightening when that happens, but this can be avoided when we hold up the shield of faith. By faith, we say with Job, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.” But more than that, faith looks beyond all the circumstances of life to see the Father in heaven who not only exists, but is faithful to every promise. Faith holds for true all that God has revealed in His Word, but is also a deep-rooted assurance created in us by the Holy Spirit through the gospel, that out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ, not only others but I too have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation.
Here, indeed, is the ultimate protection granted by the shield of faith, namely, that our eyes are fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. And in Him, we have our eyes fixed upon our heavenly Father who has made His eternal covenant of grace with us, promising to avert all evil or turn it to our good. And with eyes fixed on God, we can say, “You, O Lord, are a shield for me. Your favor surrounds me as with a shield. You are my strength, in whom I will trust; my shield and the horn of my salvation. You are a shield to all who trust in You; and You have given to me the shield of Your salvation.” And when God Himself is our shield, not one of the devil’s fiery darts can harm us. They may be a menace. They may perplex us at times. But ultimately — all his attempts to tempt us, to frustrate us, to confuse us, to turn us against God and to drive us to despair fall harmlessly to the ground.
That is the shield of faith by which the fiery darts of the devil are to be extinguished; and the great thing about it is that they will be extinguished if we will only make it a point to raise this shield as a defense against these arrows. May we do that more self-consciously now that we understand something of the nature of this shield. I will even go so far as to say that we should make it a point to practice in our use of this shield. It may be beneficial, the next time we realize Satan has shot one of his flaming arrows of temptation at us, to think very concretely to ourselves, “This is one of Satan’s flaming arrows, and what I’m supposed to do is put up the shield of faith. I do that now! I look to You, Lord, for deliverance and protection. Help me now. Be Thou my shield. Help me to remember Your love and faithfulness in Jesus Christ; and help me to believe all Your promises by which this flaming arrow of temptation will be extinguished and rendered harmless.”
Let us do this until the arrow is, by faith, completely extinguished. And let us do this until it becomes second nature to us. And when we see the arrows leaving only a trail of smoke as they fall to the ground, let us thank God for giving us this wonderful shield — the gift of faith by which these flaming arrows are extinguished. Indeed, let us fight the good fight of faith as soldiers of Christ until that day when we enjoy the fullness of that victory which He has already obtained for us. To His name be the glory. Amen.