23 May 2024

The armor of God.

Ephesians 6.10-17.

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

Jesus teaches us to foster and encourage peace. Mt 5.9 Of course, our depraved 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 but offense. Those who fancy themselves “prayer warriors” love to talk about how to attack with this 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, even blasphemously—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 like that! Using it surgically is the Holy Spirit’s job. When we use it, we’re not so precise. 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 the sword is likewise used for defense. It’s used to parry our opponents’ swords, just as Jesus did with Satan. Our Lord quoted Deuteronomy in order to defeat the devil’s temptations. We gotta do likewise: Assuming we know what God’s told us (and assuming we’re not just projecting our own will upon him), we quote it at devils and naysayers and use it to resist.

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

Ephesians 6.10-17 KWL
10As for the rest, {my family}:
Be empowered by the Master,
and in the might of his strength.
11Put on all of God’s gear,
so you can enable yourself to stand against the devil’s tactics.
12Because the struggle isn’t us against blood and body,
but against types of rule,
against special privilege,
against the things which rule this dark world {in this age},
against supernatural evil in the high heavens.
13This is why, so receive all God’s gear,
so you might be able to stand against those things on the evil day,
and they’re enabling you to withstand everything.
14So stand: Belt your waist with truth.
Put on the body armor of justice.
15Lace up your shoes in preparation
to deliver the good news of peace.
16Carry at all times the shield of trust in God,
which you’ll use to put out every flaming arrow of evil.
17Accept 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 are we fighting?

The Holy Spirit grants different gifts to different Christians in his church. But when it comes to fighting Satan and temptation, every individual Christian needs to be properly equipped. We can’t have better saints do our fighting for us. You can’t call your pastor in the middle of the night every time you’re tempted to blow the mortgage money on online poker! My spiritual might can only do so much for your spiritual weakness, and vice-versa: I can pray myself silly for all the weak Christians in my family and church, but when Satan comes a-tempting, if they’re not armored up, they’ll fall.

Certain Christians imagine themselves demonologists—experts on devils, particularly experts on battling the devils. They try to learn everything they can about devils and false gods. Since the scriptures give us very few details about them (on purpose), some of their “biblical data” about evil spirits is really just connect-the-dots guesswork. They read what this or that demonologist claimed, and claimed to experience; they think they’ve figured out the hierarchy of hell, or figured out all the different species of devils. In some cases they got this information by talking to the evil spirits who were possessing someone—which you should immediately realize is an extremely problematic tactic. Devils lie, y’know, and I’m sure they’re having great fun with all the outrageous myths they’ve tricked demonologists into believing about them. Trust nothing devils tell you.

So yeah, I’ve heard many a “prayer warrior” claim Paul’s list of things we’re fighting in verse 12—the types of rule (KJV “principalities”), the special privilege (KJV “powers”), the things which rule this dark world (KJV “the rulers of the darkness of this world”), and the supernatural evil in the high heavens (KJV “spiritual wickedness in high [places]”), are four different species of demon. (And let’s not forget the “thrones” and “dominions.” Cl 1.16) Some of ’em actually try to correspond these “classes of demons” to what they think are “classes of angels”—however 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. Like a gaggle of politicians, they likely jockey for power, and if another devil falls, to them it’s not a loss; they really hated that guy. It’s an opportunity!

Okay, let’s back up. If you’ve read Sun Tzu, you know in human warfare, we have to know our enemy in order to defeat it. Have to. But in spiritual warfare, we actually don’t. We’ve been given armor and weapons which ludicrously overmatch our opponents. It’s like they have pointed sticks, but we have phaser cannons 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 detail about the devil, its origins, its abilities, and its strengths: They don’t matter! Jesus easily conquers Satan by talking. Learning demonology tactics will tempt us into thinking our knowledge is where victory comes from. No it doesn’t; we’re not fighting flesh and blood! Our victories come from God’s power and nothing else. We already know plenty about 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 types of demons; not even close. They’re power structures. Our struggle isn’t with the fellow humans who fill the roles in these structures; we’re fighting the structures themselves. Which easily become tools of the devil. Which is why Paul listed the tools of God.

Okay, so here’s the opposition:

TYPES OF RULE (ἀρχάς/arhás, “firsts, princes, rulers”). 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?

Now I might have a gun, or a mob of thugs, and claim my authority comes from my ability to murder them. Plenty of kingdoms were founded that way. Plenty of kingdoms were overthrown that way too. More often, the people in charge of these kingdoms got everyone to believe they deserved to rule; that they’re part of a ruling race, caste, or class, put in place by God. It’s rubbish, but people still fall for it. It’s what keeps them from getting overthrown: People fear to touch the Lord’s anointed, accept their rule, and their baseless claims of royalty.

I’m American; we got rid of our royalty and replaced it with a democratic society, where everyone’s equal. So when I dare to take a position of authority, people wanna know where my authority came from. Because it isn’t inherent. I wasn’t born to rule; we don’t have nobles. I’m not their dad; I’m not their boss. My authority can only come from the people electing me to rule them; and once they elect someone else, I have to surrender that authority to the new ruler.

In Paul’s day you had the Roman Empire. It had castes. Some castes made you a noble; the rest made you commoners. Then there were non-citizens (i.e. conquered, occupied countries like Judea) and slaves. Paul’s readers wouldn’t always have recognized how authority really works. They might have imagined, like the Romans taught their kids, it was inherent—you’re adopted into a caste, and if it’s a ruling caste, you rule. But this was never God’s idea. This is why we Christians need to undermine and abolish every caste system we find.

SPECIAL PRIVILEGE (ἐξουσίας/exusías, “privilege, authority”). Not everyone in my country believes everyone is equal. Mammonists insist no, there are people who deserve to rule. And it’s the wealthy and successful. People who know how to wield power, so you can trust ’em to do it efficiently. People who know how to get things done, so put ’em in power and they’ll get things done. People who know how to run a business, so they must know how to run a country. People so wealthy, they can’t possibly be bought by special interests.

And that’s one way I can gain authority: I could offer money. It works great! Some folks will do absolutely anything for money. Seriously, anything. Including the nastiest things you can think of.

I mentioned using a gun; that’s likewise a form of special privilege, if I have a gun and my opponents don’t. If racists are in power, I could take advantage of the fact I’m the same race. If sexists, I could take advantage of the fact I’m a man. Anything which gives me an advantage over the rest of the population is a form of power. And if I use that power to help them… well, that’s exactly what Jesus does. But if I use that power to help myself, that’s certainly one of the things we Christians oughta oppose.

THE THINGS WHICH RULE THIS DARK WORLD (κοσμοκράτορας τοῦ σκότους τούτου/kosmo-krátoras tu skótus tútu, “world-powers of this dark[ness]”). Paul likely invented the word kosmo-krátoras for the occasion. We can contrast it with one of God’s titles, παντοκράτωρ/panto-krátor, “all-governor,” which we tend to interpret as Almighty. But really it means God rules all; he’s sovereign.

Despite God’s sovereignty there are dark things ruling our world. Evil, 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—that is, when we haven’t co-opted it to win elections.

SUPERNATURAL EVIL IN THE HIGH HEAVENS (πνευματικὰ τῆς πονηρίας ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις/nefmatiká tis ponirías en tis epuraníhis, “evil supernatural gifts in the high heavens”). In every other instance in the New Testament, supernatural gifts (nefmatiká) are a positive thing; they’re blessings from God. This is the only instance where these powers are possessed by something evil. And they’re evil in the high heavens (epuraníhis) —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; Satan 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, and 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, and unthinking partisanship. 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 (περιζωσάμενοι τὴν ὀσφὺν ὑμῶν ἐν ἀληθείᾳ/peridzosámeni 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 the belt 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.

JUSTICE’S BODY ARMOR (ἐνδυσάμενοι τὸν θώρακα τῆς δικαιοσύνης/endysámeni ton thóraka tis dikeosýnis, “wear a vest of justice”). Or “breastplate.” Roman armor didn’t only cover the upper chest, but it definitely covered that, ’cause if you get shot or stabbed in the heart, you die. 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 breastplates were custom-made and well-decorated. 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. Breastplates 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 justice like armor,” as Isaiah put it. Is 59.17

Being just—standing up for what’s right and fair and compassionate—must be the most decorative, obvious, visible thing about us. This justice is defined from God, and is the armor he issues us. When it’s not visible—or not even there; we’re not even on the right side—we’re fighting unprepared. Or we’re just not fighting.

PEACE’S SHOES (ὑποδησάμενοι τοὺς πόδας ἐν ἑτοιμασίᾳ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου τῆς εἰρήνης/ypodisámeni tus pódas en etimasía tu evangelíu tis eirínis, “strap on your shoes in preparation for the evangel of peace”). Many people in ancient times went barefoot; slaves in particular. 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 particular sandals were in preparation for peace. These soldiers wouldn’t be fighting. They’d be presenting the good news that peace has come. The battle’s over; Jesus won; good news!

This is 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 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 (τὸν θυρεὸν τῆς πίστεως/ton thyreón tis písteos, “the shield of trust”). Our trust 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 (τὴν περικεφαλαίαν τοῦ σωτηρίου/tin perikefaléan 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 יְשׁוּעָ֖ה/yeshúa, “salvation,” on his head. (That word sound familiar? It should.) 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 does 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 (τὴν μάχαιραν τοῦ Πνεύματος/tin mákheran tu Néfmatos, “the machete of the Spirit”). The word mákheran 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 meant to be used to work.

Same as God’s word. The machete represents God’s spoken word, the ῥῆμα/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.