This Holy Fight: No Man's Land
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Ephesians chapter 6, verses 12 and 13
Do you have a bucket list? Maybe it's something like running with the bulls or visiting someplace monumental. Going to a really great concert, or event. The Super Bowl, maybe? A Stanley Cup game for me would be great. Considering I'm both a Blackhawks fan and a Bears fan, neither of those seems terribly likely considering how the teams are playing. Going simpler, maybe it's experiencing the sunrise and sunset. Going more complex, maybe it’s experiencing that on every continent. I gotta say would be a pretty cool item in a bucket list. So here's a really great question, and it's not, "what's stopping you?" It's this.
What causes a person to love someone else so much they would die for them? Another one of those hard left turns, I know, but bear with me. Let's go straight for the jugular on this one, no dancing around it. What would it take for you to give up any future breath you might breathe, and give it up willingly? What would cut in line in front of any experience you might have always wanted to have? What would make you forfeit every day that you could have had, so that someone else might live past this current moment? What could possibly cause someone to give away "all he's got and all he's ever gonna have," as Clint Eastwood's character said in the movie Unforgiven?
The Depths of Love
You know, personally, I try to fathom how Jesus could possibly love me enough to die for me. You might even ask yourself this when I tell you that He didn't have to. He didn't, really. Read the accounts. No arm twisting. No leverage. No "or else" moments. God never forced Jesus to choose the cross, because that's the whole point of a choice. You can't choose what you are being forced to accept, so a real decision has to be based on something else. Then there's this something else. If God wanted to forgive our sins, as NT Wright posed in a question, why couldn't He just forgive them? Why did Jesus have to die for them?
In all seriousness, have you ever stopped to wonder why God had to send Jesus to die for us? After all, He's all-powerful and can do anything He wants? I suppose that should also include that He could snap His fingers and obliterate us as well. Thanos eat your heart out.
When we believe the only reason Jesus came to earth was for the expiation of our sins, we miss the very heart of John 3:16. And as we go sailing past that, we wave goodbye to any motivation to engage in the fight we're called to in Ephesians 6.
If you ever needed a reason to fight, a purpose behind taking your spiritual disciplines seriously, the motivation of Jesus Christ's death and resurrection is the catalyst for it. Not the actual event, but the reason behind the event.
Miss that and we miss the real reason he showed up on the scene entirely.
This scripture talks about opposing forces. Greek words such as "stenai" and "antistenai" are used. Stenai means to stand, and when you put anti in front of it, well, you’re all very clever, so I’m sure you know what that word means. There is also language here that talks about the armor of God. Panoplian from the words "pas" and "hoplon," which together express "every weapon, defensive and offensive." The hoplon was a type of shield.
I believe Paul used the Greek word for armor instead of the proper Latin name because, while he was surrounded by armored Roman guards which might have given him the idea, he wanted to appeal the Greekness of his audience. He was drawing on the understanding that would have been very quickly grasped and embraced among Greek-speaking new believers of Ephesus. The word hoplon is where we get Hoplite. For those who didn't geek on ancient Greek culture as I did as a kid, a hoplite was a Greek citizen-soldier. They fought primarily with a shield and a spear and other armor, forming the "panoply" where we get the concept of God's armor. The armor they wore weighed right around 70 pounds and was as state-of-the-art as you could get. It was often passed down from generation to generation, often being upgraded as it went along. As the developments of this armor got better and better, they started to use linen in overlaid layers, as it was actually more sturdy than bronze. The ancient equivalent of kevlar bulletproof vests. Pretty cool, eh?
The impressive thing here is, this generational passing down of armor mirrors how we pass on to our children the armor God gave to us. We pass on our understanding of faith, salvation, love, sanctification in the same way, to the same people, and for the exact same reasons as the hoplites passed on their armor. Their offspring had a fight ahead of them, and so do ours. What protected us can protect our children. Even the ancient kevlar they developed holds a deeper meaning for us. As we become savvier about the word of God, it becomes layer after layer of defense when we encounter those barbs Paul spoke about later in this chapter. In light of that, the word of God today could be described as a bulletproof vest. Now, if someone were to try to shoot me, I would want a really big, thick Bible between me and them, but we’re not talking about protection from someone firing a gun at our flesh and blood self.
We’re talking about something far more sinister firing something far deadlier at us than a bullet. When we're called to combat of a spiritual nature, we need to be as bulletproof as possible if we're going to survive. Whether you’re a man or a woman doesn’t matter, because this fight doesn’t have gender boundaries.
We're supposed to go "against" something, but the word here doesn't mean taking a defensive position and just staying there. It's not that kind of stand. It literally means to advance towards something actively. The dictionary in Strong's Exhaustive Concordance uses phrases like, "extension toward a goal, with implied interaction or reciprocity," "with presumed contact and reaction." We read that the term "naturally suggests the cycle of initiation and response," "where the context indicates an active exchange done in opposition." Those rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers, the spiritual forces of evil in this present darkness are coming with hostile intent and we need to meet them with the same hostility and intensity.
Ladies and gents, this ain't no tea party, and it's certainly not a tango. This is being in the trenches, getting the call to approach the ladder, willingly climb it and head out into No Man's Land.
I don't know if I will ever fully understand why anyone wants to go to war. I know there are good reasons, sure. Things like injustice, oppression, and tyranny jump to mind. But putting yourself into harm's way isn't a decision anyone makes lightly. Why would anyone go into No Man's Land? For crying out loud, the name alone should tell you something remarkably unpleasant awaits there. World War I poet Wilfred Owen describes No Man's Land as being 'like the face of the moon, chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.' And Owen would know, as he died in World War I leading a combat raid a week before the armistice was signed. His poetry told a different story than the heroic tales that were used to get men to sign up to be a soldier. War, as men like Owen knew it, was the closest thing you could get to hell on earth.
What makes anyone willingly go there? One simple answer.
In our case, a Christ-modeled love.
A little secret
I'm going to let you in on a little secret here, and it's a secret I hope none of you keep. I want you to get as blabbermouthed as you can about this. You see, the real reason Jesus came isn't based on our not going to hell. The real reason wasn't transactional. It was relational. Salvation was a sidebar to the relationship Jesus modeled for us with God. Granted, it's a very important sidebar, but it's a sidebar nonetheless.
I read recently that we always focus on the answer to questions, even simple ones like 1+1=2. We focus on the two. The writer pointed out that in doing this, we often miss the beauty of the 1+1.
When we focus on the salvation of Jesus dying on the cross as his reason for being here, we blow past the real reason he came, which was to show us who God is in relation to who we are. We have a whole book that tells us, and we have experiences inside our church that can reveal even more of what that relationship looks like. But still, we have to go deeper or we won't see those things. Understanding what happened at the cross, the grave, and resurrection has to journey farther than the transaction of salvation.
If we start and stop our witness at just a transaction, we risk turning God into a monster to those who don’t know Him. One of the most significant objections I have heard to a witness of salvation was from someone that broke it down like this. "Who kills their son in such a horrific way? All He had to do was say 'I forgive you' and move on?" We're talking about God killing His own son, something He didn't even require Abraham to do. We're talking about saddling His only son with all the sins of the world thrown on his scourged, bloody, torn back. When we look at the situation and only see our benefit, we say God nailed an innocent man to a tree for no justifiable reason. He asphyxiated him on a cross for a gain we never requested, and that Jesus honestly wished he could avoid.
If salvation was the only reason, let alone the primary reason that happened, then that God is a monster, not a genuinely divine being we should follow.
But because we know that’s not the character of God, we need to widen the scope of our understanding here.
Salvation is never the start or the stop, the opening scene or the final curtain. It's the middle of the story. It comes after God loving us as He brought the house lights up on creation before we even existed. And it comes before God loving us into the men and women He meant for us to be all along. It's part of the story of God creating a better world for us here on this earth. Not with wings and harps and little diapers, but as fellow image-bearers of God. With us loving other fellow image-bearers of God. That's where the witness starts, and it can only end there. Stopping short doesn't get it done. The curtain isn’t even close to coming down.
Reread John 3:16. “For God so loved the world … “ Not Himself, not the plants, not the world as He created it to be, or how it could be in an infinite number of scenarios only He could fathom. He loved the world as it WAS, and right now as it IS. We are His creation, and He loves us. Salvation at the cross was His making a point of just how much He loved us, and Jesus telling us to love one another as he loves us.
Pay attention here. Love was what God sent Jesus to show to us. Love was the reason behind everything God ever did, the intention behind everything that He ever will do. Sometimes you have to look really closely for it, but you will always find it there. God’s love for us was the reason Jesus went into No Man's Land.
Over the top
Jesus was the first one out of the trench. He was the first one to charge into the desolate landscape of hell, go up to the enemy's door, kick it down and demand the keys to death, hell and the grave - and they gave them to him. On the very day Jesus died, the devil figured he had victory over God. But the story doesn't hinge on the fact that the devil got beat. It balances on the devil's discovery that the love Jesus carried in his heart for others overpowered the measly resistance he could muster.
Jesus was the first one to make the stand Paul speaks of matter. But he didn't make it matter just for our salvation, because he was sent on a suicide mission to appease his Father's unwillingness to forgive us any other way. He made it matter so that we could see definitively, down to the last penny of our repaid debt, just how much God truly loves us.
We also have to make this stand matter, and we have to do it for the exact same reasons. It's a shift of focus off shaming and back to where it should have been all along.
Take the mission of our church seriously. Love others powerfully by emptying your old self and letting God refill you with His love. Put on the armor we are called to put on. Pray hard. Fast often. Study the word and build it up inside you like scriptural kevlar. Worship regularly. Encounter God as often as you can in as many ways as you can. Just like that rabbi, the one I mentioned a while back, be as accident-prone as possible in your work to encounter God through your spiritual disciplines. Unlike wars on this earth, we need everyone fighting regardless of your age, gender or anything else. This fight has come to all of our doorsteps. The enemy is very real.
This is a reminder for you to believe in demons and principalities outside this flesh suit we wear. They are every bit as real as the God we serve and the son who came to show Him to us. Do not take this lightly; they want the housekeys back that Jesus took from them.
This isn't something we get to shrug off, staying in a cocoon. This is a fight we are called to fight in a place where we will be chewed up and spit out if we're not armed to the teeth. Remember those who took up this fight before us, who gave us the armor we wear, the weapons we use, who taught us how to use them. They provided their legacy for us to live into, armor for us to wear, weapons for this fight we face. Make the love that drove them, the love that was God's motivation behind the cross, the thing that inspires you.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell's upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world's verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence' brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?
From Wilfred Owen's poem, "Spring Offensive"
In this fight, we have to remember those who went into No Man's Land ahead of us. More importantly, we remember why they went and why it mattered, because that's the same reason why we're here. Then and only then, can we take up our crosses and follow Jesus over the top and into No Man's Land.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.