The Armor of God

We pause for a brief NT interlude…mostly because I had to speak at a fireside last night. The year-long theme of the group has been the armor of God pericope from Eph 6:10-20. My part of the operation was v. 17, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.

But as a Bible Dork, I simply cannot confine myself to one verse. Text without context is pretext, or something like that. So here, for what it might be worth, are my notes.

Ephesians is something of a paradox. It is pretty clearly deutero-Pauline but despite that status it comes in second only to Romans in its impact on Christianity. Everybody seems to love its ideal of united Christianity and its description of Christians as “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared beforehand” (2:10). And they don’t seem to miss all of Roman’s close argumentation at all.

Ephesians has two parts, often characterized by their distinctive grammar. The first section works on the idea of “prepared beforehand” to create the image of a plan. The verbs that under gird this description are in the indicative mood. The second section of Ephesians is characterized as parenetic. The implications of this great plan are worked out in imperatives – thirty-six of them, no less.

Two theological points in the first section are important for the armor pericope. First, Ephesian’s eschatology is realized:

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Eph 2:4-7)

You have salvation now, you are seated with God in heaven now, and you may look forward to an eternity of nice surprises. What a deal!

The second point is Ephesian’s interest in reconciliation, that is, a right relationship with God. In this letter, God is said to have reconciled both Israel and Gentiles to himself, thereby reconciling them to each other:

11 Therefore, remember that at one time you, Gentiles in the flesh… 12 were at that time without Christ, alienated from the community of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have become near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, 15 abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it.

17 He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Eph 2:11-19)

The “peace” that Christ preached to both those who were near (Israel) and those who were far (Gentiles), is not pacifism, but the peace that comes from a right relationship with God.

Now here is a translation of Eph 6:10-20:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the evil spirits in the heavens. 13 Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to withstand on the evil day and, having accomplished everything, to stand.

14 Stand, therefore,

having fastened the belt of truth around your waist and
having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and
having fitted your feet with the readiness of the gospel of peace. 16 Besides all these,
having taken up the shield of faith, to quench all (the) flaming arrows of the evil one.

17 And receive the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God

18 through every prayer and supplication, praying at every opportunity in the Spirit to this end, keeping alert with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints 19 and also for me, that speech may be given me to open my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, so that I may speak it boldly and openly as I ought.

This pericope falls rather naturally into three divisions. The most striking section is the center, with its initial and final imperatives (stand, receive) enclosing four aorist participles, one each for the belt, breastplate, shoes, and shield. These participles should be read with an imperative force.

The heart of the passage is really carried in the first sentence:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. (v.10)

The command to be strong is probably best read as a passive: be made strong in the Lord, that is, in the resurrected Christ. The news here is that the war is won, the outcome is known. As disciples of Christ, your position is “in the Lord” and your source of strength is “his mighty power.” Since his position and power are assured by God, yours are likewise. But to say the war is won is not to say that the battles are over. On the contrary, the next sentence makes it clear that while the outcome is known, there yet remains a serious struggle:

Put on the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.

The aorist middle imperative here points toward the idea of appropriating what has already been done for you in Christ Jesus. The striking part of this news is that it is couched in terms of the armor of God.

Although this armor is indubitably given by God, that is not its most striking feature. Instead, it is important to note this same idea of armor in Isaiah. First, from Is 11:4-5:

Is 11:4-5 4 But he shall judge the poor with justice,
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
5 Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.

and then from Is 59:15b-18

The LORD saw this,
and was aggrieved that right did not exist.
16 He saw that there was no one,
and was appalled that there was none to intervene;
So his own arm brought about the victory,
and his justice lent him its support.
17 He put on justice as his breastplate,
salvation, as the helmet on his head;

He clothed himself with garments of vengeance,
wrapped himself in a mantle of zeal.
18 He repays his enemies their deserts,
and requites his foes with wrath.

In Isaiah, we find God portrayed as an armored warrior, headed out to fix what ails the world. In Ephesians we find that God has already won the victory through Christ, and he is giving believers his own armor in preparation for their battles against evil! You may therefore take confidence; the battle is serious but you have the best there is in terms of armaments and armor.

And what an evil scene it is. The master of this evil is identified as the devil and he is scheming. Moreover, the principals, four of which are listed for as representative, are all supernatural:

12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the evil spirits in the heavens.

And what about that business of evil spirits in heaven? Hmmm. Fortunately, believers are themselves located in heaven, seated with Christ, in fact (2:6). So again, take confidence! Evil may have infiltrated even heaven, but believers are sitting with Christ and near God himself.

Now you might have noticed the word “stand” and its first cousin, “withstand.” This is the leitmotif. You are taking up this armor in order to resist, to stay firm, or to hold your position under attack. Every action should be calculated with this goal in mind:

13 Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to withstand on the evil day and, having accomplished everything, to stand.

This reference to “the evil day” brings to the fore the temporal complexity of the war in which believers find themselves. On one hand, the war is won. On another, each must prepare for battle. And finally, there remains something called “the evil day,” against which each must be especially prepared.

Against this complexity, the author of Ephesians has his own specific instructions. His first imperative is a repetition of “stand.” He follows this with four aorist participles, the import of which are imperatival. You want to take up this armor now, against a future need:

14 Stand, therefore,

having fastened the belt of truth around your waist and
having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and
having fitted your feet with the readiness of the gospel of peace. 16 Besides all these,
having taken up the shield of faith, to quench all (the) flaming arrows of the evil one. (Eph 6:14-17)

The first key point is that there is really no link between the pieces of armor and the virtues or characteristics with which they are linked. In other words, there is no reason that “truth” should be a belt, or that righteousness is a breastplate.

There are, however, two important things. First, the armor listed is not complete against a list of what Roman soldiers wore, but it is sufficient to cover the believer from head to foot. Second, the qualities listed are all something that believers either do or are:

*truth: this is probably something like a love of truth or loyalty to truth

*righteousness: this is probably an ethical quality rather than the justifying righteousness of Romans. Believers are to do the right thing and practice justice, just as Yahweh was said to have done in Isaiah.

*readiness of the gospel of peace: This is a readiness for spiritual combat that comes from living within the gospel of peace.The gospel of peace is the means by which God, Israel, and Gentiles are reconciled to each other. Believers who have this harmony close ranks with each other and God, no longer wasting time and effort with infighting and internal struggles. Over time, this will significantly ameliorate the effects of evil on the community.

(Yes, this is a translation and interpretive challenge. There are variety of readings, including the idea of firm footing, but no one has ever found another instance in which it has this meaning. I invite you to make your own study of the issues.)

*shield of faith: this is confident trust in Christ and in his power which produces a firm resolve to resist evil.

The end of the string of participles signals a change in the nature of the armor. The participles were all associated with something that a believer does or is. With the return of the finite verbs, here the imperative of “receive,” we move to things that are purely the gifts of God:

And receive the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God

The order of the last three pieces of armor is significant. A believer takes the shield in his left hand, receives and dons the helmet with his right hand, and then finally takes up the sword, also with the right hand.

The helmet – salvation – is a present reality. All you have to do is receive it. Believers have been delivered from evil and are seated with Christ. This is the basis for another dose of tremendous confidence, giving disciples the nerve to stand firm and resist.

Likewise, the believer has a sword which is further explained as the word of God. The word of God in this context is probably the gospel. The Spirit is the force that sharpens the edges and lends penetrating power. Here we find believers doing something like what Yahweh was said to do in Is 11:4, but with a significant difference. When believers wield the word of God, they spread the gospel rather than judgment. This gospel is the news that God has reconciled man to himself and that, among other things, the former enmity can and should be put aside in a common stance against evil.

And the point of the whole passage is this: The church is composed of the reconciled, with a mission to further this reconciliation. By putting on God’s own armor and then taking up God’s own mission, the believer is rendered personally safe and becomes effective in ensuring the safety of others. Only as we stand together, without breaking ranks and without dropping our armor and exposing ourselves and those around us, can we stand “on the evil day.”

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18 Comments

Filed under Marginalia, Speculation

18 responses to “The Armor of God

  1. Mogget the Long-winded

    And this how you know that you are a true Bible Dork: given the mission of explaining one sentence, you write five pages.

  2. If this is Bible dorkery, Mogget, then the world needs more Bible dorks. Well done.

  3. Mogget,

    Grace be upon you for not flailing us with modern readings on an ancient text. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.

  4. Jacob

    In Ephesians we find that God has already won the victory through Christ, and he is giving believers his own armor in preparation for their battles against evil!

    Great insight, thanks.

  5. Mogget, great post (and thanks for the linked article Kurt). Not that this isn’t already long enough, but you hardly touched on what I think is one of the most interesting parts: how the word of God as a sword is elaborated on in Heb 4:12 and many other LDS scriptures:

    For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

    I think this is crucial for understanding how the word of God can be used for both judgment (as in Isaiah) and proclaiming peace….

  6. Mogget

    Ah yes. Well, a piece on how the imagery of the sword / word of God thingie has been used and improved to fit the circumstances of each author over the millennia would be an interesting piece.

    That approach would be called diachronic, meaning a look at a specific image as it has changed and evolved over time. My intent here was strictly synchronic.

    But yes, you are right. Diachronic approaches do have their own interest and merit when each appearance is explained within its own unique historical context.

  7. Raising California

    I love that part about it being God’s own armor that he invites us to dress in.

  8. Raising California

    Uh, I guess we knew it was God’s armor–it’s the part about it being armor that God has worn himself that gets me.

  9. Is “couched” really a denominative verb? I mean, what’s up with that?

  10. Mogget the Brewmaster

    Well, a “couch” is a floor on which you spread barley in order to make malt. The barley so spread can also be called a couch.

    And the act of spreading the barley is called couching.

    But we’re not making beer at the moment, so where did you see this?

  11. I saw it here: The striking part of this news is that it is couched in terms of the armor of God.

    How do you know so much about making beer? I’m intrigued, naughty Mogget. One of these days I want to have a beer (I think the WoW allows it — “mild drinks… of barley”), and I want to do it right, with the right people around, the right conditions (like when [not “if”] the Colts win the Super Bowl, maybe), etc. etc. Or maybe at SBL or something. What do you think?

  12. Mogget

    It’s part of my Mysterious Moggethood.

    Yeah, we could do the beer thing when we’re all together at my house on Friday night before the SBL. Then I’ll get up, start my shift in the temple, and meet all of you at the convention center.

    Sounds like a plan.

    Now, back to this universe…my use of “couched” just means to express something in a certain way. In this case, to express appropriating the advantages of the Christ-event in terms of putting on armor.

    What do I not understand about denominative verbs? Cause it’s not a thought that ever crossed my mind.

    I thought “mild barley drinks” meant Postum, too. Was my gramma lying again?

  13. Postum — definite anachronism.

    Beer — not anachronism.

  14. J. Watkins

    Wait, wait, wait. At what point, measured in proof alcohol, does beer cease to be a “mild barley drink” and move into “clearly not mild” status? Fess up, we Pharisees want to know. 🙂

    The first key point is that there is really no link between the pieces of armor and the virtues or characteristics with which they are linked. In other words, there is no reason that “truth” should be a belt, or that righteousness is a breastplate.

    Is it coincidence then that the last three articles of armor seem to fit their respective adjoining virtues/characteristics? It seems to me that you don’t have to have much of an imagination to connect them together while the first three don’t fit at all. It breaks ranks with the sequence of verbs you pointed out but it seems kinda unusual to me. Could it just be that he left the best three of his pairings to the end because they fit better and were much cooler?

  15. J. Watkins

    Oh, and one more thing. For my benefit, and the benefit of those who read here and don’t know, what exactly is a Mogget? Besides you I mean. Where did you get this interesting word that can be described with such great variation like “lecherous” and “brewmaster”? We FPRlings deserve to know I think.

  16. Mark IV

    What exactly is a Mogget?

    J. Watkins, looky here.

  17. Mogget Speaks Truth to Power

    Seven Bright Shining Ones, my furry little fanny! Listen, Orannis may be something of a sociopath, but that Astarael ain’t no Mia Maid, either.

    And Garth Nix!

    Don’t get me started on a man with three major character groups, one of which has a thing for the dead, one of which spent most of the last two hundred years dead, and one of which is really a group of women living in an ice mountain! Aye, yi, yi!

    (Mysterious Moggethood is a parody of a book entitled Mysterious Womanhood. When I wanted to read it, my mother wouldn’t let me. When she wanted me to read it, I wouldn’t. I guess people change between third grade and college seniors, no?!)

  18. Maris

    I think you people are having a “love affair”
    with you own minds!