Lesson Focus: The armor of God is a set of practices that God has given us so that we can remain steadfast in the Christian life against the attack of spiritual evil.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that our struggle against evil is defensive. Christ has already won the victory.
Understand that the armor of God is a set of practices meant to help the church remain steadfast in its faith.
Be encouraged to develop the habits and practices of truthfulness, righteousness, discernment, faith, Christian identity, and Spirit-filled scripture reading.
Catching Up… To this point, Paul’s main concern has been that we grow together in unity as we seek to imitate Christ. That there is sin among us is a given. None of us are or will be perfect as we seek to journey toward Christlikeness together. So, we must do everything we can to cultivate habits of grace and peace, love and mercy to maintain our God-given unity.
In the text directly preceding this week’s passage, Paul gives specific instructions for maintaining this unity. Paul understands that the surrounding pagan context will present challenges to his friends as they seek to live holy lives. Every relationship will be challenged, so Paul offers guidance for those relationships. Paul is beginning to round out his letter to the Ephesians. He does so by making explicit what has been latent throughout the letter, that we are engaged in an epic struggle.
To this point in the letter, the enemy has been disunity. Instead, the result of the defeat at the enemy’s hands is disunity. The enemy’s tools have been things like anger, lying, evil words, and the like. Every admonition Paul has given us thus far has been a strategy to help us stand firm in this cosmic conflict. Before we dive into the main text of this week’s passage, it needs to be said that Paul’s focus here is not on the individual.
We often read this passage about the armor of God in individualistic terms, but to do so wholly disregards the cooperate nature of the letter so far. While all of what Paul has said is applicable for the individual, he has primarily been concerned with the whole church, the body of Christ. Paul is not calling us to don the armor of God for individual protection against the forces of evil but to do so as a community of faith. The body of Christ, the church, is to put on the armor described.
Stand Strong…6:10-12 Paul issues the command to be strong in the strength of the Lord’s power.
At first glance, the language of the command makes it seem as though we can accomplish this on our own—the first phrase of this passage is passive. Standing in God’s strength is not something we do but something that God gives to us. If we seek to imitate God as Paul has previously admonished us, we will rest in God’s power. The history of Israel, however, is riddled with examples of not resting in God’s power. Unfortunately, this propensity is not something strange to us. We often seek strength and ability to live the life to which God has called us from some other place than God. If we are seeking God, then we will be strong in God’s strength.
Paul understands that how we are strong in the Lord is through putting on the whole armor of God. The armor is suited to help us withstand the battle in which we are currently engaged. This armor, which will be described shortly, is so that we might stand firm against the wiles and schemes of the devil.
Throughout Christian history, and significantly more recently in modern Christianity, there have been two approaches to talking about spiritual warfare. First, some overemphasize the nature of our conflict with satan or demons and evil spiritual forces. Doing so is often dangerous because it leads us to focus our imaginations on the virility of these forces, placing on them the blame for all that is bad in the world while refusing to take responsibility for our own less than holy behaviors. Second, others deemphasize the nature of evil spiritual forces, counting them as silly or nonsensical. This approach discounts the true nature of our fallen world and the biblical witness. Paul believed there are spiritual forces that seek to keep the world from becoming all that God has intended it to be.
The truth is somewhere in between these two extremes. We must not overemphasize the force and vitality of non-physical evil in the world, but we must not discount it either. We must not shrug our responsibility for the sin we commit by blaming the devil. At the same time, we must not forget that there are systems and structures in our world that have been and are being controlled by the forces of spiritual evil.
For Paul, as for Jesus before him, our struggle is not against the flesh and blood of this world but against all the powers and principalities which wreak havoc on our physical world. Paul’s intent here is not to offer a detailed analysis of the spiritual realm but to help us realize that there are spiritual forces at work in our world that have resisted and rejected God’s plan and wisdom for the world.
To this plan and wisdom for the world, the church, the body of Christ, currently bears witness. So, these spiritual forces of evil attack the church so that we cannot faithfully bear witness to God’s salvation for the world.
The Whole Armor of God…6:13-17 Because these spiritual forces of evil are allied against the church, the church is to put on the whole armor of God. As we clothe ourselves with the armor of God, we will be able to withstand these evil forces both in the present reality of day-to-day life and in the final days to come.
What follows next is a description of the armor of God. In reality, Paul has chosen to use as a metaphor the standard kit for a Roman soldier. Though Paul offers a detailed description of military hardware, we must understand that Paul is not calling us to make an offensive war against the powers that be. Instead, except for one item, all of the gear described is defensive in nature (Fowl, 203). While God has already decisively won the war, the devil continues to make war against the church in vain hopes that all is not lost. The work the church is engaged in is being opposed, thus the need to stand firm, prepared for the attacks which are sure to come.
The Belt of Truth The first item described is the belt of truth which is to be fastened around the waist. Two things are important here. First, this belt is not the outer metal studded belt worn over the armor, but the inner leather undergarment worn like breeches (Lincoln, 447). This belt offered protection, but it also allowed mobility. It is the piece that holds the whole garment together. Second, Paul draws this image directly from Isaiah 11:5. In this passage, the Messianic figure is clothed with righteousness and truth.
As Paul has already mentioned in earlier chapters, truthfulness is a crucial part of building and preserving the church’s unity. While it is true that the truth can be quite painful at times, the pain can be mitigated when the truth is displayed with love. This is true for our interactions with one another in the church, and it is true in regards to our truthfulness with the world as we seek to testify to the mystery of salvation. If we are to stand firm, then truth seasoned with love is essential.
The Breastplate of Righteousness The next piece of equipment described is the breastplate of righteousness. As with the belt of truth, the image for the breastplate of righteousness is taken from Isaiah.
Being a breastplate, this piece of armor covers the most vital parts of the soldier’s body, the internal organs. As such, this is an essential piece of gear.
In the Old Testament, the concept of righteousness is often linked closely with justice.
Loosely defined, righteousness is right relatedness between God and humanity and between people and groups. Of course, there can be no righteousness, no right relatedness without justice. Justice is the fair and equitable treatment of persons and communities. It is both equity and equality. It is the opposite of oppression, domination, and manipulation. Righteousness and justice are both thoroughly relational terms. Because of the relational manner of righteousness, it becomes a central piece of our defense against the spiritual forces of evil. As we have said in previous weeks, disunity is what kills the church.
Paul is saying that as we seek the strength of God, God will outfit us with righteousness so that we can resist any attempts, from within or from without, to sow seeds of disunity within the church, the body of Christ.
Good Shoes Good shoes are the next time on the list. Here Paul does not specify what type of shoe is needed for the proper defense against the forces of spiritual evil. Instead, Paul encourages us to make sure we have got on whatever kind of footwear will make us best ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. As Paul has already said, the mystery revealed to him, and us is that God, through Christ, is bringing together all things in peace. Peace is so much more than the absence of conflict; it is the restoration of that which is broken, the reintegration of that which has been disintegrated. To be ready to proclaim the gospel is to announce that God’s peace has come and is coming to the world through Christ and Christ’s church. Therefore, as the body of believers, as followers of Jesus, we need to put on shoes that will always make us ready to proclaim this gospel of peace. This means that we need to be wise and discerning interpreters of the landscape around us.
Not all roads and terrains call for the same kinds of footwear. Sandals are best for the beach. Warm boots are best in the winter and when it snows. A good pair of athletic shoes are essential for times of competition and exercise. As the world and contexts around us shift and change, we need to discern what type of footwear will help us maintain the unity of the body of believers, which in turn helps us fully participate in the mission of God in the world.
The Shield of Faith The next piece of gear is the shield of faith. The type of shield that Paul refers to here is the larger shield of the Roman foot soldier. It would have been constructed of wood and covered with a thick layer of leather. The size of the shield would have been about four feet long by two feet wide, large enough to offer its wearer significant protection. Additionally, the shield would have been soaked in water before battle as a means of defense against flaming arrows. Paul admonishes us to have this piece of gear because, with it, we will be able to “quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” In battle, flaming arrows would be shot at the enemy in hopes that fire so close to the enemy soldier would cause him to panic in an attempt to extinguish the flame and thus lowering his shield, making him susceptible to injury by spear or javelin (Fowl, 207).
Flaming arrows were a diversionary tactic, a trick. The reality was that the water-soaked, leather-bound shield would quench the flame by itself. The flaming arrow posed no real threat to the soldier so long as he left it alone.
Paul’s point is clear. They will be many times when the enemy seeks to distract or trick us into lowering our shield so that we might become susceptible to another attack. So long as we allow the shield of faith to absorb them, these flaming arrows are harmless. In this instance, the faith we stand protected by is belief in the content of the gospel of peace and constant fidelity to it. So long as we continue to believe in God through Christ and in the power of the Spirit, is actively restoring the world to peace and wholeness, then we need not fear the advances of the enemy.
The Helmet of Salvation The next to last piece of equipment is the helmet of salvation. Again, the image for the helmet of salvation comes from Isaiah 59:17. This helmet serves two functions. First, it protects another vital part of the body, the head. The salvation we have received protects us because it is through that salvation that God has already won this war. The outcome is sure. Second, the helmet identifies the soldier as a member of God’s army. We know who we are and to whom we belong because of the salvation we have received.
The Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God The final piece of equipment is the only piece that is not explicitly defensive in nature, the sword of the Spirit. However, the sword described here is the short sword used for close combat, where it is almost impossible to distinguish between offensive and defensive moves. Either way, we should not make too much of the sword as an offensive weapon in such a thoroughly defensively-minded passage. Here Paul describes the sword of the Spirit as the word of God. Here we must have in our minds the temptation narrative of Jesus in the wilderness. There, confronted by the very same enemies you and I now face, Jesus uses scripture to defeat his enemy. For Jesus and us, scripture has force because it has been breathed into life by the Spirit of God. Therefore, we have been given the sword of the Spirit so that we might use the holy scriptures as a means of defense against wrong thought and action. It should be noted that the enemy’s weapon of choice was also scripture, though a misinterpretation of it. Jesus, because he had the Spirit of God resting upon him, was able to use scripture to defeat the enemy’s wrong reading of scripture.
The apparent takeaway for us here is twofold. Our attention toward and reading of scripture must always be enlivened with the Spirit of God. We must always seek to have the Spirit’s help as we seek to read, interpret, and proclaim the word of God. At the same time, we must be aware that the spiritual forces of evil will use these very same scriptures to seek to knock us down.
Pray in the Spirit…6:18-20 Paul closes out the body of this letter with a request that his friends might pray at all times and in the power of the Holy Spirit. The admission here is that prayer as a confession of dependence upon the God who created and sustains everything is what binds the whole armor of God together. The best spiritual defensive measures in the world will not work if the one wielding them is not aware that they are totally and utterly useless without the power of God. So, Paul encourages his friends to pray always.
The final two verses clarify that Paul has been praying for his Ephesian friends throughout this letter. He now wishes they would pray for him. He, like them, is constantly and consistently in need of the sustaining power of God’s Spirit if he is going to journey with Jesus, standing firm in the mystery of faith that has been revealed to us.
So What? Paul understands that we are still engaged in a spiritual battle against the forces of evil. The final victory is indeed a sure thing, but for now, spiritual warfare is a thing. It’s also clear that Paul understands that while the enemy attacks the church, the fight is not ours.
We are not called to be on the offensive against spiritual evil. We are to be prepared to stand firm against the emery is defense. As we take up the armor of God which has been given to us, God’s Spirit will enliven us, enabling us to remain faithful until the last days as we continue to live together in unity as the body of Christ, the church.
If we take the whole armor of God together, it becomes clear that these defensive measures are not merely static tactics but rather habits and practices which need to be cultivated. Truth is a habit we must constantly nurture.
Righteousness does not flourish without truth. We cannot maintain right relationships with each other without truth. The failure of the relationships within the body of Christ will ultimately lead to its defeat. Cultural discernment regarding the means and methods of sharing the gospel of peace are essential and intentional practices.
We cannot rest on the methods of evangelism that might have worked in the past. Instead, we must seek to have open ears and eyes to see how best to share the good news we have been given. Faith must also be constantly nurtured. If we are not to be distracted by this thing or that, we will need to nurture our belief in the gospel of peace. While our salvation is secure, we must always remember under whose banner we stand. We are God’s children who are learning to do God’s work. We must never forget this.
Finally, we must always invite the Spirit of God to help us read the scriptures correctly. Our enemy is adept at twisting the words of our faith to make them mean things they were not intended to represent. Like Christ, we allow the Spirit to help us defend ourselves, defend the unity of the church, using the scriptures.
Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Take a moment and draw out what you think the armor of God looks like.
What comes to mind when you think about “spiritual warfare?”
Paul encourages us to stand firm as we take up the armor of God. The posture Paul means to convey is one of defense. Why would Paul be describing defensive measures, not offensive ones?
Describe a way you have seen the unity of the church damaged by a lack of truthfulness. How can we develop habits of truthfulness in the church today?
Describe a way you have seen the unity of the church damaged by a lack of righteousness (right relationships between individuals). How can we develop habits of right relatedness in the church today?
Paul calls us to put on whatever shoes will help us be ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. His main intention here is that we would have the discernment to know how best to tell the world of God’s peace and salvation. How might we exercise discernment regarding how best to spread God’s peace?
The shield of faith is meant to help us remain undistracted by threats from the enemy. When we maintain our faith, we won’t be easily deceived. In what ways have you seen the church get distracted so that they let their guard down?
The sword of the Spirit is the word of God, our scriptures. Paul’s point is that we must allow God’s Spirit to help us read and understand scripture correctly. What happens when the church fails to read God’s word in the power of the Spirit?
Works Cited: Stephen E. Fowl, Ephesians: A Commentary, ed. C. Clifton Black, M. Eugene Boring, and John T. Carroll, First Edition, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012).
F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984).