Ephesians 6:10–20 (NRSV)
The Whole Armor of God
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 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. 13 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. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. 19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
When we began this series in Ephesians I am sure we learned many new things. The first being that the letter was not written to a Gentile majority but largely focused on Jewish people from an Essene perspective. But I hope that the main thing that we have learned is that there are always things that seemingly divide a group, but that in Christ we can come together and see the kingdom of God built around us.
As I have studied this letter the past few weeks it has been as if I have read it for the first time again. For the first time in a long time it is as if the words Paul wrote so long ago have spoken directly to my heart, causing me to look at things from a different perspective. The Ephesian Church is a church that is on the verge of a complete and total split. The members are lining up along one side or the other, looking at those around them and casting judgement on things that have little to do with the church, but mainly focused on differing perspectives. One side is focused on a three hundred year heritage built on tradition, while the other seeks to open the doors up to an emerging future. The Ephesian church has found itself at a cross road of history, the ending on one age and the beginning of another.
This is why I find it so fresh and new as I have been studying it these past few weeks, because I can imagine myself in the midst of the conflict. I can see myself on either side of the issues holding fast to the ancient traditions or embracing the exciting future. I can imagine myself from the perspective of either faction within this ancient church because there are aspects of these very struggles that we face today. The future is often cloaked in a fog, we only get a glimpse of it through the misty waves as the Spirit moves like the wind. But Paul tells them that we are not at war with one another because we are all the same, he reminds both Jew and Gentile that we are all born into the same condition and remain in that place until the community seeks to bring us in. Paul reminds them that the struggle should not be between Jew and Gentile but instead we should be laboring to bring people into the community through the power of God that has been given to us by the Spirit through Christ.
I want us to consider this struggle as we reflect upon this passage. I want us to remember just how tense and raw the emotions can be when a church is on the brink of splitting in two. I want us to remember this because Friends we have been there, I may very likely say that we are there right now. We can identify with this ancient church because we too are struggling to find our way into this cloudy future, a future that so many people throughout our society claim is post Christian. Paul knows that this ancient church is in the middle of a fight and that is why he writes the way that he does. Put of the armor of God!
I want us to stop for a moment right there because I want us to just consider how out of place this passage really seems. For the past five chapters Paul has encouraged this church to live in the love of God with each other because we are all members of one another, because we have all been joined together through Christ, he has urged us to sacrifice ourselves, give ourselves for the sake of the Gospel, and then he speaks about putting on armor for a fight? We have all read this passage out of context for probably our entire lives. Many of us have grown up coloring pictures of the armor of God thinking it is just wonderful, maybe we have even made costumes and dressed up in the armor claiming to be soldiers for God going out to do battle in the world. But I really think if we read this passage in light of the rest of the letter we would see it for what it truly is, a literary play on words that should cause us to think.
I say this because Paul begins this segment by saying, “Be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” Many, if not all of us, totally forget the first sentence of the passage, because we are too busy arming ourselves to fight. We are too busy and too focused on the struggle before us to actually listen to the words being said. We are so busy trying to demonize those that might have a differing view, or we might think has a different view that we totally miss the most important statement of this entire passage. Be strong in the Lord. This passage has very little to do with battle. It in fact is telling us to be clothed in Christ.
When we look at this passage from this perspective, we can begin to see things a bit differently. But why would Paul use such imagery if he is merely speaking about putting on Christ and not gearing up for battle, you might ask? For the very same reason most children stand amazed when they see a convoy of military vehicles driving down interstate or see a formation of jets pass overhead. The image of power and strength is great. But he again reminds us that this struggle is not between us, it is not between flesh and blood. We are not at war against our fellow human beings, the battle is more abstract. He says put of the armor of God because our struggle is against rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers.
It is very easy to misunderstand what these three things are, especially when two of the three are pretty much synonyms in our language. The word that is translated rulers is actually a term in the Greek that means the supernatural forces that are behind the unexplainable. The word authorities is the governing systems that can be just or unjust, systems of human behavior that encourage or exploit. And cosmic powers refers to the forces of nature. When we understand what these forces are it basically proves that the armor of God has very little to do with warfare and everything to do with our ability to survive in a seemingly crazy world.
Back to the armor. I mentioned that imagery of the military power is striking. It catches our attention and leaves us standing in awe. I remember attending an airshow at the air force base in Wichita as a child, being able to climb up and look into the cockpit of a jet, to touch a round that would be fired from one of the massive machine guns, and hearing the sound of the engines after I saw the plane pass quickly before my eyes. There are very few things that can show the strength more than these weapons of war. But Paul is telling us to put on Christ, which is an armor that is far more powerful than these.
If you want to move beyond these petty struggle and stand firm against the evil forces at battle all around us we must clothe ourselves in Christ. And it begins with a belt of truth. This idea of truth is not just facts. It is a lifestyle of truthfulness, a lifestyle of integrity. We should be centered on reality and authenticity, not playing games and putting on a show. If we want to see the kingdom of God being expanded throughout our community it begins with each of us being honest, humble, and vulnerable with one another. This is one of the foundational aspects of the Christian life, and one of the most important pillars in the Society of Friends.
Next comes the breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate is one of the most visible and largest of all the pieces of armor in ancient days. But what is righteousness? In past generations we understood this to be holiness, and holiness can quickly morph into legalism. But righteousness is loving justice. The most visible aspect or the Christian life should be focused on the most visible aspect of the life of Christ. Jesus was all about justice. He was all about loving those around him and encouraging them to enter into a better lifestyle. The breastplate of righteousness is living a lifestyle of encouraging those around us to live the love of Christ with others. It is standing up in the defense of the exploited and helping those in need. It has more to do with right actions than right answers. And those outside of the community should be able to see this in all that we do.
Shoes to proclaim the gospel of peace. There are several things wrapped up in this aspect of armor. Simplicity so that we are able to move freely and readily. As well as a testimony of peace, meaning that we value the life of all people and seek unity instead of conflict. But most of all the gospel, the good news which is the message of reconciliation and access to God. To put on the shoes of Christ we position ourselves to hear the voice of the Spirit and move to act upon His leading.
A shield of Faith. Is more than just protection, but the assurance that though we may face trail we are on the right path. It is the ability to believe, trust and entrust our lives fully to God, moving forward into the valley of shadows and doubt without fear. Coupled with this shield is the helmet of salvation which like faith points to deliverance. Placing our trust not in ourselves but entrusting every aspect of our lives into the hands of God carry us though.
And the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. I want us to think of this for a moment. Paul is telling us to put on Christ, to reflect Christ. All of these aspects of armor are visions of protective strength. Absolutely none of it is from ourselves but is the Lord, and His strength. Then we come to the sword the only actual weapon. Friends this is not our sword we do not wield this sword, just as we are not the armor but all of which is God. We do not convict, we do not judge, we only go where God calls us and bear witness of him as we reflect his life though ours. The Spirit is the one that wields the knife.
We are struggling but it is not against each other and it is not against other human beings either. The battle is against things beyond our control, so we cannot wield the weapon because we do not know how to use it. We only bear the armor. Living lives of integrity and truth, showing and being the love of Christ to others as we stand against injustice and stand for righteousness. Living lives of simplicity so that we can freely and quickly move into action as we share the gospel of the kingdom and promote unity and the sanctity of all life. And walking forward with our lives fully entrusted in the hands of God. If we bear the armor in the world of darkness the Spirit will do its work, God himself will take down the rulers, authorities and tame the cosmic powers that threaten humanity. And we bear this armor if we live the lifestyle that Christ taught us. A lifestyle where we withdraw often to the isolated places to pray, where we make it our customer to join together to worship and encourage one another, and go out into the world to minister to the needs of our community.
Putting on the armor of God is nothing more than living the lifestyle of Christ. It is loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. As we enter this time of open worship and holy expectancy I pray that we will realize that the battle is not ours to fight, that we are not enemies but members of one another, that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and that if we are willing to live wearing and reflecting the life of Christ in all we do we will see His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.