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.
Two hymns stand out from my early years growing up in the Episcopal Church. The reading from Ephesians 6 brings them to memory. They may or may not be recognizable to everyone because they don’t appear in most Mainline Protestant hymnals published over the past few decades. These hymns are “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.” These hymns pick up aspects of the biblical message, including the one we find here in Ephesians 6. And as the second verse of “Onward Christian Soldiers” declares:
These hymns have disappeared from most of our hymnals as Mainline Protestants have rightfully tried to step away from the militaristic dimensions of our former commitment to the expansion of Christendom. But you can see why they might resonate with a church that saw itself as the vanguard of God’s saving work in the world.
As our exploration of the Ephesian letter, which has been featured in the post-Pentecost season, comes to an end, we encounter this call to put on the whole armor of God. The author of the letter (we’ll once again call him Paul for the sake of tradition) envisions the church in a battle with the devil. If you’re in a battle you will need protection and weapons so you can stand against the “wiles of the devil.” For early Christians who lived as a religious minority within an often hostile culture, this call to arms seems appropriate. The same is true for Christians living today in places where survival as Christians is always under threat. For middle-class Mainline Protestants living in suburban North America or Europe, such a message might seem out of place. But is there a message here that speaks to our situation without embracing the militarism that seems to be tied up in the metaphor? As my Muslim friends remind me, jihad can be conceived as a form of spiritual struggle rather than holy war. Might we understand the passage here in the same way?
As for this passage, the author makes use of an image that would be immediately recognizable by any reader living in the Roman Empire. With the call to put on the whole armor of God issued, we need to take an inventory of that armor that will be used not in physical warfare but spiritual warfare. Paul begins with the belt of truth. The belt might seem irrelevant, but it holds everything together. From there we move to the breastplate of righteousness. That piece of armor is much more prominent as it is the key piece of protective body armor. From there we go to the shoes (military grade), shield, helmet, and finally the sword. Now Paul gives each of these armaments a spiritual definition. Thus, the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness are foundational elements for the definition of the Christian identity. Christians by definition should be committed to truth and righteousness (justice. From there we move to the shoes, which enable the legionnaire to march across the empire imposing Rome’s vision of good news/peace. For early Christians, this image is a reminder that theirs is a missionary movement. They have good news to share as well, and they likely will be traversing the Roman roads, which requires sturdy shoes. So, be ready when the call comes. Recognizing that not everyone will receive their message with open arms, but might shoot flaming arrows, a good shield is required. Of course, every soldier needs a helmet, and here the helmet represents salvation, the ultimate protection. With all of this protective equipment, the soldier for Christ is ready to go on the offensive with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. That is, the proclamation of the good news of Jesus. Paul seems to recognize that this evangelistic work of proclaiming the peace of God could be dangerous. So, it’s good to be prepared for opposition.
Paul’s use of this imagery is rooted in his cosmic vision. For him, to proclaim the good news of Jesus is to engage in spiritual warfare. He might be using imagery taken from the Roman legions that were ubiquitous across the empire, especially in more restive provinces, but he’s not envisioning forced conversions. While this is a spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of the people, the enemy is Satan who has taken control of the world situation. This battle to deliver the people from Satan’s control is not a battle against flesh and blood. It is instead a spiritual battle. Unfortunately, it’s easy to move from spiritual to actual battle. This is especially true when non-Christian religions and traditions with the gods of the other traditions being conceived as demons. Thus, Christianity is good, the other religions are evil. Therefore, they must be destroyed (together with their adherents). We’ve seen this take place down through the centuries. As Miguel de la Torre and Albert Hernández write: “Over the next two thousand years, this exclusive understanding, coupled with the historical process of conquest and colonization, will lead to much suffering, misery, and death between Christians and the people of other faiths and cultures” [The Quest for the Historical Satan, p. 79]. So, whatever we say about this passage, we must be careful not to use it to justify oppression, conquest, and more.
I should say something here about the mythological imagery here (I should note that I’ve been reading a bit of Rudolph Bultmann lately). Paul’s vision reflects a particular worldview that we moderns may have set aside, but the language of myth is designed to communicate deeper truths. For Bultmann, this imagery needed to be set aside through the process of “demythologization,” so that it could be more accessible to moderns. I’m not so sure we can completely remove the mythological elements from the conversation, because there is a growing feeling that there is more to the universe than meets the eye. So, maybe the language here is filled with mythological elements, but at the same time, it reflects cosmic realities that lay behind the evils present in this world. One way to look at this passage and conceive of our work as Christians is to recognize the reality that structural evil exists and that these structures take on a life of their own that envelope us. So, the work of God involves resistance to those cosmic forces that seek to enslave us.
This is a war of resistance, but the question is the nature of our response. Paul doesn’t mention love here, but it probably should be brought into the conversation. Richard Beck has written an insightful book titled Reviving Old Scratch. Old Scratch is a nickname for Satan that Beck encountered as he taught a bible study in a maximum-security prison. He writes that what he learned at the prison was that “there are forces in the world satanically opposed to love. So, if love is going to invade and establish a beachhead in our lives, we’re going to have to fight for it. That is what I mean by spiritual warfare.” It is a path that took Jesus to the cross [Reviving Old Scratch, p. 97]. In the book, Beck reminds us that social justice is itself a form of spiritual warfare, and therefore needs to be engaged in with spiritual weapons lest we make people the enemy rather than Old Scratch.
The work of spiritual warfare as outlined here includes the proclamation of the good news of God’s peace (as opposed to the Roman peace) and prayer. The closing paragraph of our passage calls on the readers to “pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” This requires alertness and perseverance as they pray for the saints of God, including Paul and his companions. In fact, Paul (or whoever the author is) asks that they pray for him specifically asking that he might have boldness as he proclaims the “mystery of the gospel.” Why? Because he is an “ambassador in chains.” Tradition suggests that Paul is writing to the Ephesians from prison, perhaps in Rome. Yes, even in prison he continues his work of proclamation. Therefore, he asks for boldness. Yes, knowing that the churches are praying for him gives him boldness. The question then for us as modern Christians who likely aren’t sitting in prison is what does boldness look like?
We live in challenging times. Churches are struggling to survive. In North America and Europe, it’s not a matter of persecution and oppression, but the world is not as receptive to the message. To be honest, Christians have been part of the problem. But there is also something spiritual out there that requires our attention. It requires boldness. But standing firm for what is true and just requires boldness also requires grace and love so that we might be peacemakers, not spiritual warmongers.
For more background on the passage see my Ephesians: A Participatory StudyGuide, (Energion Publications, 2010), pp. 85-97.