August 23, 2009 - Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
On April 15 this year, in Vancouver, Washington, Jay Alie got out of his cruiser and walked toward the car he and his partner had just pulled over. As he did, someone in the car shot him in the chest. Alie survived because he was wearing a bulletproof vest. Like so many police officers today, he considered it an essential piece of equipment. It just doesn’t make much sense to go into harm’s way without some protective armor.
As the letter to the Ephesians draws to a close, we encounter a picture that would have been familiar to anyone living in the western world at that time. Verse 20 tells us Paul wrote these words in chains, probably in Rome. He was chained directly to a soldier who guarded him. So as he was casting about for an image with which to encourage his readers to be strong, his eyes lit upon the armored body of his guard. That man looked much like all soldiers throughout the empire, wearing a standard attire and armor.
So in verse 10 Paul makes a final call for Christians to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” Then he illustrates with a brief catalog of a Roman soldier’s armor and weaponry. The items would have been familiar to anyone living in Rome’s large territory.
Yet this passage is not at all a call for Christians to be “armed and dangerous” with the ordinary weapons of the day. Verse 11 says, “Put on the full armor of God…” This could mean simply a spiritual armory—protection and weaponry that are God’s gifts—and that would be correct. But turning to the Old Testament we find that this is not only armor that comes from God. It’s armor God Himself wears. Isaiah 11:5 talks about the belt of righteousness that God puts on. Isaiah 59:17 has God putting on “righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head.”
We are to be equipped for spiritual battle the way God Himself is equipped. This brings us back to our text two weeks ago, when we read Ephesians 5:1, “Be imitators of God.” As we live in Christ, we Christians are meant to receive and put on God’s own protection and strength for the struggle with evil in this world. Wear God’s own armor, says Paul, “so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.”
As he has before in this letter, Paul is telling us to take Satan’s activity seriously, but without being afraid of him. We have armor available that enables us to stand strong against a crafty and dangerous enemy.
You might see Satan’s schemes in all the little mishaps and bits of bad luck that come to us in this world. Some Christians imagine every head cold or financial reversal or failure to find a parking space as the devil working against them. But our enemy’s work is both bigger and less pervasive and detailed than that. God does not allow Satan to control every little facet of our lives, nagging us with illness and misfortune and petty accidents. No, the schemes of Satan are larger evils in our world, the evils which Christ calls us to confront and battle for the sake of His kingdom.
No, the devil’s not at work when you can’t find your glasses. He might jump in if you let it aggravate you enough to become unkind with your children or co-workers. But Satan is much more in the business of stealing away hope and joy on the large scale. He’s working in governments that suppress the sharing of the Gospel. He delights in the creation of conflicts that have nations going to war, even Christians killing other Christians. He’s scheming to keep people in poverty, without food and housing and health care. He contrived a longstanding plan to make killing unborn children legal. And as Kay Strom talked about with me this past week, he’s at work where human beings are bought and sold as slaves even today in 2009. The schemes of the devil and the evil against which you and I stand takes place in a much bigger arena.
In fact, the arena of our conflict goes even beyond this world. Verse 12 says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark word and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” There is a battle between God’s good and the devil’s evil going on all around us in spaces and realms we cannot even see.
The ever-present danger in thinking about all this is that we will become fascinated and focused on those evil spiritual powers. Some Christians see this verse as a catalog, a hierarchy of demonic beings. To use old King James language, first “principalities,” then “powers,” then “rulers,” like ranks in Satan’s army. They imagine ways to engage each of these ranks in spiritual combat. But that’s all just fanciful speculation. We know very little, and God wants us to know very little, about the devils and his angels. All we need to know is that those evil forces are the real enemy.
Please hear who Paul says is not our enemy: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood…” We are not at spiritual war with other human beings, not with flesh and blood men and women whom God loves and for whom Jesus also died and rose. For Paul, the soldier on the other end of his chain was not an enemy. The Jewish leaders who turned him over to Rome were not his enemies. The Emperor was not his enemy. No the forces of evil working in all those hearts and lives, and in Paul’s own heart and life, were the real enemy.
For Christians, evil dictators or terrorists are not our enemies. Neither Osama Bin Laden, nor Kim Jong Il are our enemies. The evil forces and desires which motivate them, and which lurk in our own souls, are the real enemy. We’re not in a fight against gay people or abortion doctors or slave traders. We’re fighting pride and lust and greed and hatred—and those evils attack you and me as much as they do a terrorist or a politician.
“Therefore, put on the full armor of God,” Paul repeats in verse 13, “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” God does not want you and I to be overwhelmed and bowled over by the evil of this world. He does not mean us to get bad news fatigue as we hear about poverty and pollution and political corruption. He wants to give us courage and strength to stand our ground against all that and for His kingdom, a kingdom of righteousness, justice and peace.
“Stand,” he says again in verse 14, and start buckling on the armor that is appropriate to the evil we face. No police officer wants to go into the streets without a Kevlar vest. No Christian should want to go out into the world without Christian Kevlar, without the armor which God supplies us.
Christian armor begins with the “belt of truth.” A Roman soldier wore a belt from which he hung his sword. As we see further on in verse 17, a Christian’s sword is God’s Word, the truth which God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ and in Scripture. So the “belt” around us might mean being equipped to carry God’s truth. But “truth” here also means “truthfulness.” We not only carry God’s Word, we are protected by telling the truth in all matters. We wrap truth around us at all times.
The “breastplate of righteousness” corresponds to the Roman armor known as lorica. Originally sturdy leather, these were either chain mail or segmented pieces of metal that hung to waist or even lower, protecting the chest and torso. Here again, we may think of it as the righteousness of God, but we are also called to and protected by our own righteousness. As Christians do good and refrain from evil, we become able to resist slander and all sorts of attacks on our character.
Verse 15 moves to the feet, as the apostle asks us to be “fitted with the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace.” Roman soldiers wore leather, hobnail boots that made them ready to march long distances at a rapid pace and which provided secure footing in battle. But our boots are instruments of God’s peace, not war. We’re always ready to move out or stand and share the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who came to reconcile us to God and to each other.
The Roman armies carried large shields, about two and half feet wide and four feet high. They were made of leather stretched over wooden frames and sometimes reinforced with iron bands around the edges. They were effective for warding off arrows and spears and sword thrusts, and when soaked in water they even managed to protect against and extinguish the flaming missiles often used in ancient wars.
Now here’s the thing about those Roman shields. They were helpful to an individual soldier, but the Roman legions put them to use in concert. A line of soldiers would kneel and overlap their shields with those on either side and create an almost impenetrable line of defense. What’s more they could even rise together, point their spears or swords ahead and push on through the enemy like a moving wall. It was all a matter of cooperation and united discipline.
So as we come to verse 16 and “the shield of faith,” it’s time to note that all the imperatives Paul is using here, “be strong,” “put on,” “stand,” “take up” are plural. The armor of the Christian is not just individual spiritual life and preparation. It’s something we live and share together. We unite our faith and trust in God to shield and protect one another. Just as we said in our call to worship last week, when some of us feel weak and attacked, the rest of us gather round in support and care. When Satan throws flaming darts of temptation or doubt at one of us, others form a shield of trust and faith in God.
In verse 17, we strap on head protection. Children wear helmets when riding a bike or skateboarding. Motorcyclists wear helmets. Our fragile brains need extra protection from blows and trauma. So the Christian puts on the helmet of salvation. One of the greatest ways our enemy has to cripple us is to make us fear the future, to fear death or fear what lies ahead for us after death. That’s why God protects and cradles our minds in the sure, solid assurance of salvation in Jesus Christ. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” That headgear can take a lot of knocks. Sickness or danger or age or failure all bounce off your salvation in Christ and leave you standing safe and secure in Him.
Most Christian gear is defensive. An actual Roman soldier might carry two or more of several sorts of weapons, spears, daggers, javelins, throwing darts and other kinds of missiles, but Paul only gives the Christian one offensive weapon, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
You and I are conditioned to think of the word of God as this book, the Bible, but remember that as Paul created this armory image, the Bible was not yet complete. What Paul has in mind is the specific word of the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus Christ, His life, death and resurrection. We thrust forward into our world with a good word, the message that Jesus Christ came so that anyone who believes in Him may enjoy salvation and peace with God. Our sword is the wonderful news that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. It’s a sword that heals more than it hurts.
Your English Bible text may be deceptive as we come to verse 18, if it starts a new paragraph here. Paul’s sentence actually continues from verse 17, “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit… praying in the Spirit on all occasions.” Prayer is not an afterthought or something different from the business of wearing God’s armor. It’s part of it. In fact, prayer is the way we put on our armor. In order to stand strong in the face of evil, we must constantly be praying.
In my own life I’ve sensed what it feels like to be without prayer. My main daily prayer time is in the morning, after I get here to church. I kneel in my office and pray through some Psalms, pray for myself, for my family, for our church in general and for some of you in particular. It’s preparation, it’s arming for the day ahead.
Yet sometimes I think I’m too busy to kneel down, too busy for much prayer. I walk in and the phone starts ringing or someone is there to talk with me or I need to finish the bulletin so it can be printed. I start off then with little or no prayer, and it actually seems like I’m a bit naked. Something’s wrong. I feel exposed, vulnerable. If a quiet moment comes later in the afternoon I try to grab it, kneel down and finally get properly armed for what’s left of the day.
Prayer is the way we each individually take up and wear God’s armor of truth and righteousness and readiness and faith and salvation and the word of God. Yet remember those overlapping Roman shields. Verse 18 continues, “and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” Then Paul himself in verses 19 and 20 asks the Ephesians to pray for him, to pray that he will be given fearless words when he has the opportunity to declare the Gospel in front of rulers and authorities, perhaps before the emperor himself. Even the great Apostle Paul needs the prayers of others.
Prayer is the way we help arm each other. Imagine that breastplate of righteousness as having buckles that have to be fastened in the back. The only way to put it on is with assistance. That’s what we’re doing when we pray for each other. We’re fastening the buckles, tightening the belts, lacing the boots, strapping tight the shields and sharpening the swords for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
David and Joy met with me this past week to share their heart and situation as they begin a time of sabbatical and rest before going back to their mission. At the very end of our conversation they asked me to pray a blessing over them. They said that’s what they are asking all the time now of friends and colleagues in ministry, to pray God’s blessing down upon them. They are getting armed. They are gearing up with the equipment that really matters. And you and I can help them. You and I can help gear up each other.
We’re going to close this morning by praying and singing. Our prayer comes from one of the great soldiers of the faith, a man who took the protection of God’s armor with the utmost belief and seriousness. As a young boy he was captured and made a slave. He escaped, but then went back, wearing God’s armor, to share the Gospel with those who had enslaved him. His name was Patrick. He brought Jesus to the Irish. And the prayer we’re going to pray together has come to be known by the name for a Roman soldier’s breastplate, the Lorica, the Breastplate of St. Patrick.
Patrick begins and repeats several times, “I arise.” Let us arise and pray his prayer. Let us arise and stand strong in the Lord each day. Let’s be alert and always praying for ourselves and for each other, even when times are hard, even when days are evil. And then we’ll be able to sing these words from an old hymn of our own tradition, “I fear not for I carry God’s armor in the fight.”
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj