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01 October 2018

The armor of God.

It’s not just for costume parties, but to help us resist temptation.

Ephesians 6.10-17

Christians are fascinated by the armor-of-God metaphor which Paul used in Ephesians 6. Sometimes a little too fascinated.

Jesus teaches us to foster and encourage peace. Mt 5.9 Of course, our sinful human nature would much rather fight, and kick ass for Jesus if we can. So the idea we get to wear armor and play soldier really fires up certain Christians, who’d love to engage in a little testosterone-fueled warfare, and find this passage an excuse to indulge their blood-soaked he-man fantasies a little. If only metaphorically.

For such people, God’s armor is never for defense, Ep 6.11 only offense. Those who fancy themselves prayer warriors love to talk about how to attack with the armor. Christians even make plastic armor for children to play with—including a sword of the Spirit, Ep 6.17 which kids can use to smite one another. In so doing they learn—wrongly—the word of God is about hurting people.

But just because God’s word is sharper than a sword He 4.12 doesn’t mean we’re to wield it in any such way. Using it surgically is the Holy Spirit’s job. When we use it, we’re not so expert; without his guidance it’s a blunt instrument, used to maim our foes, not cure them.

But as part of Paul’s inventory of God’s armor, properly it’s used for defense—to parry our opponents’ swords, just as Jesus did with Satan. Our Lord quoted Deuteronomy in order to defeat the devil’s, not to sin, but to promote himself. And sometimes we gotta do likewise: We know what God’s told us—assuming we do, and aren’t just projecting our own will upon him. So it doesn’t matter what devils and nay-sayers suggest: God’s will and motives win.

Paul actually borrowed the idea of God’s armor from Isaiah 59.17, and expanded it a little:

Ephesians 6.10-17 KWL
10 Lastly: Get powerful in the Master, in the authority his strength gives you.
11 Wear all God’s gear, so you’ll be able to stand fast against the devil’s tactics,
12 because we aren’t in a battle against blood and muscle:
We’re against types of authority, power, things which govern the dark places in this world,
types of supernatural evil in the high heavens.
13 This is why you put on all God’s gear,
so you’ll have a fighting chance on the evil day. You’ll be entirely ready to stand fast.
14 Stand: Belt your waist with truth. Wear a vest of righteousness.
15 Lace your shoes in preparation for the good news of peace.
16 Carry at all times the shield of trust in God,
which you’ll use to put out every flaming arrow of evil.
17 Accept the helmet of your salvation
and the machete of the Spirit—which is God’s spoken word.

And pray at all times in the Spirit Ep 6.18 —but I’ll discuss that another time.

What we’re fighting.

The Holy Spirit grants different gifts to different Christians in his church, but when it comes to fighting Satan and temptation, each individual Christian needs to be properly equipped—or we’ll get defeated and picked off, one by one. My spiritual might isn’t gonna protect your spiritual weakness, and vice-versa. I can pray myself silly for all the weak newbie Christians in my family and church, but when the devil comes a-tempting, if they’re not armored up, they’ll fall.

Certain Christians imagine themselves demonologists—experts on devils, particularly experts on fighting devils. They try to learn everything they can about devils and false gods. Since the scriptures don’t give us a lot of details about them, some of what they supposedly got from the bible is connect-the-dots guesswork: They read about all the things we’ve put on our armor against, and claim it’s a hierarchy of hell, or the different species of devils. I’ve heard many a prayer where “powers” are considered one sort of devil, “principalities” another, “rulers of the darkness of the world” another, and “spiritual wickedness in high places” another. (And let’s not forget the “thrones” and “dominions.” Cl 1.16) Some of ’em try to correspond these “classes of demons” to what they think are “classes of angels”—wherever they imagine cherubs, seraphs, and living creatures rank among angels.

Obviously demonologists have way too much time on their hands. Since devils are as evil and self-centered as humans, I’d be surprised if they recognize any hierarchy among themselves. They likely jockey for power, and if another devil falls, to them it’s not a loss; it’s an opportunity.

In human warfare, we have to know our enemy in order to defeat it. In spiritual warfare, we actually don’t. We’ve been given armor and weapons which far outmatch our opponents. It’s like they have pointed sticks, but we have phasers from Star Trek: We don’t need to know their tactics and strategies in order to vaporize them. We just point and shoot.

This is precisely why the scriptures don’t go into a lot of detail about the devil, its origins, its abilities, and its strengths: They don’t matter. Jesus easily conquers Satan. Learning that stuff will tempt us into thinking our knowledge is where victory comes from. No it doesn’t; we’re not fighting blood and muscle! Our victories come from God’s power and nothing else. We already know how evil works, because we’re evil. We don’t need to analyze evil any further. We only need to resist it.

These things Paul listed? They’re not species of devil. They’re power structures. Our struggle isn’t with the fellow humans who fill roles in these structures; we’re fighting the structures they’re in. We’re fighting the tools of the devil. Which is why Paul listed the tools of God.

TYPES OF AUTHORITY (pros tas arhás). When you give orders to people, often they wanna know who put you in charge. Who gave you authority? Who are you? Why should you be obeyed? What’s your office? What’s your title?

See, I live in a democratic society, where everyone’s equal. So when I dare to take a position of authority, people wanna know where the authority came from—because it isn’t inherent. I’m not a noble; we don’t have nobles. I’m not their dad or boss. If I speak in authority, it’s not really my authority; I hold an office, and once I’m out of office I don’t have that authority anymore.

The Roman Empire was definitely not democratic; they had castes. They had nobles, citizens, non-citizens, and slaves. Paul’s readers wouldn’t always have recognized how authority really works. They might have imagined it was inherent—you’re born with it when you’re born into your caste. (And racists figure it comes with your race.) But it was never God’s idea, and we Christians need to undermine and abolish every caste system we find.

TYPES OF POWER (pros tas exusías). Office, title, and authority isn’t the only way I can wield power. I could offer people money. It works really well. Some folks will do anything for money.

Or I could threaten them with physical harm. Or promise or tempt them with stuff they want. Anything which convinces a person to do other than what they ordinarily would, is a form of power. Some powers are legit, like love. Others less so.

TYPES OF THINGS WHICH GOVERN THE DARK PLACES IN THIS WORLD (pros tus kosmo-krátoras tu skótus tútu). Paul likely invented the word kosmo-krátoras/“world-governor,” for the occasion. We can contrast it with one of God’s titles, panto-krátor/“all-governor,” which we tend to interpret as Almighty. But really it means God rules all; he’s sovereign.

Yet there are dark things in the world. Evil, secret, shadowy, corrupting, killing things. They have nothing to do with God; God has nothing to do with them, ’cause he doesn’t do darkness, 1Jn 1.5 and has no secret, evil plan. The dark things are governed by other types of power, like fear, or paranoia, or greed, or whatever things people use in order to keep the darkness going. Jesus and his church are fighting this darkness—when we haven’t co-opted it.

TYPES OF SUPERNATURAL EVIL IN THE HIGH HEAVENS (pros ta pnefmatiká tis ponirías en tis epuraní’is). In every other instance in the New Testament, supernatural gifts (pnefmatiká) are a positive thing; blessings from God. This is the only instance where these powers are possessed by something evil. And they’re evil in the high heavens (epuraní’is) —they go all the way up. They’re being fought over in heaven.

We can speculate as to what that consists of, and plenty of Christians have: The battle between Satan and Michael, Rv 12.7 which some Christians imagine is still happening at this very moment. (It’s not; it’s done; devil lost.) But again: Best we not waste our time in speculation, and focus on the task at hand.

All these types of power Paul listed are objects—weapons which God’s armor blocks. The devil tries to fight with these weapons, and bases its tactics on them. It uses our institutions against us: The authority and powers of governments, political offices, bureaucrats, law enforcement. The money and control of business leaders, bosses, consultants, market forces, and good old-fashioned greed. The criminal route: Threats, intimidation, violence, bribes, blackmail. And the usual human weaknesses of peer pressure, conformity, political correctness, strong political stances. Even strong religious stances: The devil finds it ridiculously easy to co-opt the righteous indignation of Christians to get its way. Does it all the time.

Demonologists confuse the weapons with beings, and as a result they focus all our attention on the enemy’s flaming arrows. Not the enemy itself.

What we fight with.

So strap on your armor:

TRUTH’S BELT (peridzosámenoi tin osfýn ymón en alitheía/“belt your waist with truth”). In the first century, belts held valuables. Tunics and robes didn’t have pockets, so either you carried a bag, or you lashed a belt round your tunic, and folded it in such a way that it served as your pockets. You put your purse in it, or papers, or weapons.

I’ve heard many preachers claim a belt is the foundation of Roman armor: You belt yourself first, then all your other pieces are connected to it. That’s actually not true. It’s not till the Middle Ages that belts became the foundation of anyone’s outfit. Roman armor was made so soldiers could wear any one item separate from any other item.

Thus, truth is not the foundation of God’s armor. Truth is actually what God’s armor protects. The devil wants to plunder our belts, and render our truth valueless. So we assemble and wear God’s armor to defend truth—the truth of God’s word and Jesus’s revelation. We actually don’t put on God’s armor to defend anything else. Not our lives, nor our souls, which are in God’s hands. We defend the belt. Our valuables are in it. It’s truth.

RIGHTEOUSNESS’S VEST (endusámenoi ton thóraka tis dikaiosýnis/“wear a vest of righteousness”). Or “breastplate,” although Roman armor didn’t only cover the upper chest. Even today, we don’t consider someone to be wearing body armor unless they’re wearing something to protect the chest. It’s the most obvious piece of armor.

Ancient Greek vests were custom-made and well-decorated. And if you were killed in it, your enemies stripped it off you; partly ’cause it was valuable, and partly to count coup. There’s a whole lot of armor-stripping in the Iliad. Vests were needed only when anything got past one’s shield. And it’s actually part of God’s personal armor in Isaiah: “He put on righteousness like armor,” as Isaiah put it. Is 59.17

Our right standing comes directly from God. This is the armor he issues us. When we wear it, it must be the most decorative, obvious, visible thing about us. When it’s not visible—or not even there—we’re fighting unprepared. Or we’re just not fighting.

PEACE’S SHOES (ypodisámenoi tus pódas en etoimasía tu evangelíu tis eirínis“lace your shoes in preparation for the good news of peace”). Many people in ancient times went barefoot. Soldiers can’t be barefoot: They’d injure their feet, be distracted by it, and get killed. So they strapped on their sandals for fighting. But Paul said these sandals were in preparation for peace.

“Good news” usually refers to the gospel of Christ Jesus. That’s why plenty of preachers claim we strap on our sandals so we can tell people about Jesus. Well, we do that too. But specifically, in this passage, we tell people peace has come. It comes through Jesus, but the emphasis is on peace on earth, goodwill to all. Lk 2.14 The battle is over; Jesus won. We run to tell others; we run towards peace. Not war. Not sin. Is 59.7

Paul was trying to turn the battle metaphor on its head. But too often, we force it right back around, talk about running into battle “for the gospel’s sake,” and turn the Good News into bad news.

FAITH’S SHIELD (ton thyreón tis písteos/“the shield of trust”). Our faith in God repels attacks against the truth, which Paul described as the devil’s flaming arrows. Faith can even grow in the midst of defending it.

Faith comes from God. At the same time, it’s something we gotta develop as we use it. When we use it, and it works, of course it grows; we trust God all the more! When we don’t use it, because the “battles” we choose to engage in aren’t real battles, or we’re fighting in political causes which God doesn’t prioritize, nothing’s gonna happen, and faith’s gonna shrink. Those with small faith can’t withstand a serious attack. Those with great faith can—and can even defend others, to a point.

And put out fires. Roman soldiers liked to fight with flaming arrows. They loaded them with oil so when they hit their target, the oil spilled everywhere, and fire spread everywhere—causing their panicked targets to drop their shields, and allowing the Romans to kill them easier. Obviously those with little faith tend to do likewise: When the devil hits them, their faith is tossed aside and they scatter.

The Roman scutum/“shield” was made of wood, coated with thick leather. Thucydides, in his Peloponnesian War, said the ancient Greeks soaked their leather shields in water, which helped make them flame-resistant. Most scholars figure the Romans did likewise. And if we extend this metaphor a bit, I think it’s legitimate to say it’s not enough we only have faith in God: It’s gotta be a prepared faith. One where we’re ready for attack—and which we know better than to drop our faith at the first sign of trouble.

SALVATION’S HELMET tin perikefalaían tu sotiríu/“the head-covering of saving”). We tend to interpret this bit as representing our salvation. And various preachers try to talk about how salvation protects our mind—even though the ancients thought the mind was in the heart, and wouldn’t at all have associated protecting one’s head with one’s thoughts.

The key to interpreting this passage is Isaiah:

Isaiah 59.17 KWL
The LORD puts on rightness like chain mail, a helmet of rescue on his head.
He puts on the coverings, coverings of vengeance. He wraps on jealousy like a robe.

Yep, God wears the helmet of yeshúa/“salvation” (that word sound familiar? It should) on his head. And Paul had this verse in mind, ’cause he did borrow the armor-of-God idea from it. So clearly our helmet has nothing to do with how we need saving. God doesn’t need saving—yet he has a helmet too.

Why’s the Almighty wear a helmet? Well helmets aren’t only to defend your head. They also signify your rank. (Or did back in Roman times; Americans ditched that practice ’cause snipers look for the rank on people’s headgear, and shoot accordingly.) Our helmet isn’t about what the helmet does; it’s about our office. What we’re supposed to do. Namely, minister God’s salvation.

THE SPIRIT’S MACHETE (tin máhairan tu pnéfmatos/“the machete of the Spirit”). The word máhairan gets translated “sword” in most bibles, but it’s more of a long work knife, a Roman sica. It’s what Simon Peter pulled when Jesus got arrested, and Jesus told him to put it away. Jn 18.10-11 It’s a tool; one with a lot of applications, as any work knife does.

Of course the bloody-minded are gonna focus on the close-quarter combat a soldier might be forced to use it for. But in combat, the soldiers were far more likely to use a full-length sword, or gladium. The sica was a work knife, not a fighting knife. That’s why I translate it “machete”: Of course it can be used to kill, but it’s supposed to be used to work.

Same as God’s word. The machete represents the spoken word, the ríma, of God. These would be the definitive truth-statements God makes over our lives. They aren’t necessarily the bible, though obviously many of ’em are gonna come from the bible, and all of them are gonna be consistent with it. They aren’t Jesus, the incarnate Word of God; he’s not a tool. Don’t stretch the meaning of “word” too far. The Spirit gives us God’s messages for the purpose of furthering our lives and blessing others.

Defend yourself!

In God’s armor, we stand fast. Ep 6.11 We aren’t an offensive army. The theme throughout the scriptures is God fights his people’s battles for us. We need do nothing to gain victory, because Jesus already conquered the world. Jn 16.33 So when we have faith in Jesus, we conquer the world. 1Jn 5.4 The spiritual battle so many of us are hankering for? Already decided. Already done.

God’s kingdom doesn’t advance through these petty skirmishes with the devil. Our spiritual battles are about our own personal growth. They actually have nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus’s victory. Don’t think of them that way. Many Christians do—and as a result, they get weird and paranoid, fearing devils behind every corner, afraid the devil might actually defeat the kingdom instead of merely them. Conversely when they resist temptation, or get their prayer requests answered to their satisfaction, they think they’re having tremendous victories, and bringing great glory to the kingdom. You know—typical human behavior, making it all about us.

But some Christians get so fixated on spiritual warfare, so focused on our victories instead of Jesus, the devil actually gets us stalemated. Because we imagine spiritual warfare should be hard, should be a serious life-or-death struggle, we exaggerate everything into such struggles. In some cases we even drop God’s weapons and try to fight hand-to-hand. And resort to fighting dirty—resorting to slander, to faithless, peaceless, unjust, unscriptural behaviors. Some of the least Christian things are done by Christians who imagine they have to borrow the devil’s tactics if we’re gonna make any headway. But when we switch tactics, we switch sides.

Properly, our job is to wait for Jesus to take possession of his world, and stand our own ground in the meanwhile. The armor is to keep the devil from picking us off. The Holy Spirit helps us grow and produce good fruit. He helps us advance. We only have to keep from retreating—“backsliding,” as many Christians call it. We need to stick with the Spirit’s plan, and when the devil tries an offensive, we’re to easily brush it back with the armor God gives us. It’s nowhere near as hard as these so-called “spiritual warriors” make it sound. We have space-age tools in a Stone Age fight. Trust God and trust his tools.