The Armour of God. For St Olave’s, Exeter. Proper 16b, 2021

The Armour of God. For Exeter Central Parishes (13th after Pentecost 2021).

The parish has been reflecting in previous weeks on the lectionary readings from the Letter to the Ephesians, which is in its form perhaps originally a circular (or even, “encyclical”) rather than a letter to a particular individual or community, designed to be sent not only to Ephesus but to the other Ephesian churches. In terms of rhetoric it is an example of what rhetoricians contemporary with Paul would have called “panegyric”—that is, speech in praise of something. Ephesians, of course, is particularly concerned to praise God: more precisely, to praise what God has done and is doing for God’s people through Jesus Christ—the implications of which, however, go far beyond God’s people—whether by that expression we mean “Israel” or “the Christian Church”. From its very beginning, Ephesians makes clear that the redemption which God is bringing about is cosmic in its scope. Hence it is the true hope of the entire created order, for it is God’s will “to sum up all things in Christ, the things on heaven and the things on earth” (Eph. 1.10b).

Such faith and hope, declared in the opening verses of Ephesians, are the basis on which the rest of Ephesians builds, including 6.10-20, the famous “whole armour of God” passage, which is our particular reading for this Sunday. 

We may conveniently divide our passage into three parts:

I. Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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. 

The Ephesians are to place their trust in nothing less than the power of God, and nothing less than the power of God is what they need, for the evil that opposes them in life is more than merely human. In Paul’s view—and it is the biblical view—humankind is not alone in being rebellious against God and God’s grace. There are in the universe other “cosmic powers of this present darkness” that are in rebellion against God, and they will overcome us if they can. 

For some moderns, such ideas are to be equated with old-fashioned pictures of devils with a horn and a tail, being simply too crude and unscientific to be be taken seriously. Others, contemplating the monstrous evils that have been perpetrated throughout history, apparently through human agency and not infrequently even in the name of religion, may well ask whether there is not indeed at work here a malignancy greater than can be explained by merely human evil: a malignancy that can lead the same humankind that produces a Saint Francis and a Mother Theresa, an Albert Schweitzer and a Florence Nightingale, to produce also the horrors of Auschwitz and and Hiroshima. 

Whatever our opinions as regards that debate, and however we choose to characterise evil or its origin, it is beyond doubt that life and history confront us with much that is evil, and in our own strength we may well feel unable to stand before it. Paul, however, declares that God has provided us with a refuge in our plight. The prophet Isaiah, centuries before Paul, had used the metaphor of God’s armour. Seeing the world’s injustice, Isaiah said, God acted:

He put on righteousness like a breastplate,

   and a helmet of salvation on his head

(Isa. 59.17)

Such armour, Paul declares to the Ephesians, will also be God’s gift to them if they choose to take it, and will enable them to stand against their enemy.

II. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 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. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 

Pursuing the metaphor, Paul goes on to list six elements in this armour, modelled no doubt on the weapons and armour of a Roman legionary in his own day, and gives to each element a metaphorical sense.

  1. Belt: this most likely refers to a leather apron that was worn by legionaries both for protection and to allow freedom of movement. Paul, however, associates it with “truth (alētheia)”. The essential thing implied by the word “truth” as Paul and his audience will have understood it was not (as perhaps with us) something that was accurate, but rather something that may be relied on—as when we speak of a friend who is “true”—someone you can trust, someone who is faithful. So whose “truth” is Paul talking about? This is God’s armour, and so of course it is God’s truth and God’s reliability that are here in mind. God is true, Paul says, and that truth, if we take it to ourselves, will serve both for our protection and as our only firm basis for action.

The Roman soldier’s “belt” was also used to secure the next item of his equipment, which was the

2. Breastplate: the Greek word here is thōrax, which is used at different periods to refer to virtually anything that protects the chest. Again, Paul probably had in mind the standard equipment of a Roman legionary. The metaphorical thōrax of which he speaks is, however, God’s “righteousness (dikaiosunē)”. The word “dikaiosunē / righteousness” means not “virtue” (as we tend to understand it) but rather loyalty and faithfulness. God is faithful and loyal towards us: and that faithfulness and loyalty mean that God will stick by us even though we are sinners, which indeed we all are (Rom. 3.23, 11.32). This “righteousness”, together with the “truth” of which we previously spoke, are the basis of the “armour” that God gives us.

3. Shoes: Paul perhaps has in mind here the heavy boots (caliga) of a Roman legionary. These gave strength for long marches and for standing firm in battle. The gospel was above all “the good news of peace”—peace between God and humankind. Such was the message of the angels to the shepherds at the birth of Christ (Luke 1.14). And the knowledge of such peace is the footwear in which believers may indeed hope to stand firm, despite their personal weakness and failings.  

4. Shield: the Greek word is thurios, derived from the word for “door”. It describes a large, door shaped shield: in other words, Paul is evidently thinking of the heavy square shield (Latin: scutum) carried by a Roman legionary of the period, which was effective both defensively against missiles and offensively when a detachment of legionaries might advance with shields side by side and a cover of shields above their heads. For Paul the Christian’s shield is “faith”—God’s faithfulness to us, inviting our faith in return: a shield with which the Christian may indeed “be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one”.

5. Helmet: Paul is probably picturing the helmet with cheek pieces of a Roman legionary. But this helmet is “of salvation (sōtērios)”—that is, of “deliverance”: God’s deliverance from what oppresses us, whether it be sin or, finally, death itself.

6. Sword: the legionary, of course, carried a sword: short and straight. Paul, however, speaks of “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”. The writer to the Hebrews also associates God’s word with a blade, speaking of it as “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, … a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4.12). Here in Ephesians Paul speaks of God’s Word as “the sword of the Spirit”. “Spirit” (Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma: both meaning “breath” or “wind”) is a word that the Bible uses frequently to speak of God’s living, creative, dynamic power—God’s “breath”—working in and through humankind and the created order. So, for example, Isaiah looks for “the Spirit of the LORD” to rest on Israel’s ideal king (Isa. 11.11-2: for other examples of God’s creative “breath” bringing order out of chaos or life out of death cf. Gen. 1.2-5, Ezek. 37.1-14). Paul evidently identifies our prayers as one such of work of the Spirit, and in particular that prayer in which the Spirit prays with us (Rom. 8.26-27). It is that kind of prayer—prayer “in the Spirit”—about which he will now go on to speak.

III. 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. 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, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

As the Ephesians seek to take to themselves God’s faithfulness and grace as their armour and shield, so they are asked to pray “in the Spirit”—that is, in the power of God that lives in them and breathes through them in virtue of their baptism. They are to offer prayer for all, but especially for their fellow Christians and for Paul himself. Evidently in prison, Paul does not hesitate to refer to his own personal situation. He does not, however, ask the Ephesians to pray for his release or even his safety, but that he may speak with “boldness”—the Greek word is parrēsia, a word that is used in Acts to describe the way in which apostles freely and bravely give their testimony (e.g. Acts 2.29, 4.29, 31). 

What Paul must speak about is the “mystery of the gospel”—that is, the truth about God’s love and grace that was hidden in past ages but has finally and definitively been shown to us in Jesus Christ—the “mystery” of God’s eternal purpose “to sum up all things in Christ” with which his homily began. On behalf of this “mystery”, Paul says, he himself is “an ambassador in chains”—a wonderful expression in which he expresses at once his sense that he has been empowered by God to speak the truth of God’s grace, and also that his “chains” are not things that make him bitter or angry, but rather the signs and pledges of his office as ambassador—that is, as representative, as qualified plenipotentiary—on behalf of the One who Himself, “did not think equality with God” was something to be exploited, but “humbled himself, being found in fashion as a man”—and so shared the common human lot “even in unto death” (Philip. 2.6, 8). 

We may surely ask for nothing less than the same endurance for ourselves and our communities as we seek in our own time and place to be faithful to God and God’s world. And what is that time and place? Many things, no doubt, for many people. God does not create two snowflakes alike, let alone two human lives. Yet we also have things in common. Our own Bishop Robert, in his July 2021 ad clerum letter, quotes words of St Cyprian of Carthage about these things we have in common, and I can think of no better way to end these notes than by quoting them too. In third century Carthage in North Africa there was a virulent outbreak of plague. Cyprian the bishop, reflecting on its impact, wrote: 

Some talk as if being a Christian guarantees the enjoyment of happiness in this world and immunity from contact with illness, rather than preparing us to endure adversity in the faith that our full happiness is reserved for the future. It troubles some that death has no favourites. And yet what is there in this world that is not common to all? Diseases of the eye, attacks of fever, weakness in limbs, are as common to Christians as to anyone else because they are the lot of all who bear human flesh. What distinguishes the righteous should be our capacity for endurance. (On the Mortality Rate, 8, 11-13) 

Bishop Robert comments, “This is God’s world and God invites us to build communities of grace that speak of hope.” The Letter to the Ephesians teaches us to do precisely that. To which teaching we must surely say, “Amen!”

Christopher Bryan