Friday, January 30, 2015

On the Mat

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood . . . (Eph. 6:12)


Throughout middle school and early High School I watched and cheered as my son participated in a sport that I didn’t understand. At all.


Wrestling is not for the faint of heart, neither the student competitors nor their parents. For one thing a wrestler steps onto a mat alone. Yes, there’s a team, guys wearing the same colors from the same school. But when it’s really time to play there is no team. Just a wrestler and his opponent. When one of those happens to be your kid you can feel something happening inside your skin. Your stomach knots up and maybe your temples throb. This could go on for minutes. It could be over in seconds.


Another factor that makes wrestling tough on the average parent spectator who never donned a singlet is simply the scoring. Crossing a goal line or throwing a ball through a basket are easily grasped ways of winning. With wrestling, things are not quite as clear. Beyond basics such as a ‘take-down,’ ‘reversal,’ and ‘pin’ I never really understood what was going on. The competitors looked like a tangled writhing mess. Over time I came to understand that there was much more going on than my untrained eye could sort out.          


Done right, every move on the mat is designed to seize an advantage and exploit a weakness.


Mixing Metaphors

Paul’s coaching in Ephesians 6 is designed to encourage us to fight spiritual battles. Paul wants us to understand that these battles are real and the opponent we face is deliberate in his tactics. His every move is calculated to seize an advantage over you and exploit your weaknesses.


In the course of his admonition Paul mixes his metaphors. Most of his language is militaristic. He tells us to put on armor. He speaks of shields and breastplates and swords and helmets. We might say that he spends most of his time talking to us about our gear and our weapons.


But at verse 12 Paul switches to a different word picture, mixing his metaphors to make sure we know what we’re getting into. The NIV Bible gives a rather weak translation with “our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” A better rendering is found in the ESV’s “we wrestle not against flesh and blood.”


Paul uses a Greek word from the world of athletics. He wants us to know that we are wrestling, grappling with our adversary in close combat. John Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians 6:12 includes a footnote that cites Plutarch’s explanation that

Wrestling was the most artful and subtle of the ancient games, and the name of it was derived from a word which means to throw a man down by deceit and craft. And it is certain that persons who understand this exercise have many fetches, and turns, and changes of posture which they make use of . . .  to trip up their adversary.  


In Your Face

As strange as wrestling may seem to the uninitiated spectator, a suit of Roman armor is even more alien to us. Thankfully Paul blended a picture from sport with his guiding image of a soldier. If nothing else, the truth that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood” tells us that this fight is close and that the opponent is deliberate in his moves.   


Don’t miss the implications of this. You are wrestling today, not flying a drone.


The fight is close up, even in your face. Spiritual battles are neither abstract nor distant. They don’t happen to someone else while you stand afar. And your adversary is working with the details of your life to get a hold of you, to immobilize you, to throw you down.


By God’s grace every move has a counter-move. You are not defenseless. Maybe you’ve never set foot on a mat. But you are a wrestler.


Where are the vulnerable places in your life? What will you do to engage the adversary?


Grant us wisdom, O God, to see and to know how our opponent moves against us. And make us ready to engage the fight, staying on our feet and standing firm by the gift of your mighty strength, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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