Today we come to the end of the text of Ephesians, which concludes with a famous exhortation for the faithful to arm themselves for battle against their spiritual foes. At first glance this may seem jarring; we’ve spent the past couple of weeks (and chapter and a half) deep in codes of conduct and now, out of the blue, we have this extended metaphor about spiritual armour. So, before we get into the text today, let’s remind ourselves of the bigger context of the book to help situate this metaphor in the letter’s argument.
Power has been a major theme throughout Ephesians. The book began with a discussion of God’s powerful saving acts on our behalf, manifested especially in the raising and glorification of Jesus, and us with him. Yet despite this wonderful divine victory, there is no room for triumphalism. We are caught in the now-but-not-yet tension of having to live lives of good faith in a world that makes that almost impossible to do; God’s power working in us may do ‘infinitely more than we can ask or imagine’, but it is still hard work to live out the new life and mimic God’s humble, self-offering love, in all of our relationships.
This catches us up to where we’re at now in Ephesians. So, let’s look at how Paul furthers this theme of power in today’s text:
(6.10) Finally, be empowered in the Lord and in the might of his strength: (11) Put on the full armour of God so that you have the power to stand against the schemes of the deceiver; (12) for our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the cosmic powers who govern of our present darkness, against the spirits of evil in the heavenlies. (13) Therefore, take up the armour of God, so that you have the power to stand firm on the day of evil and, prevailing against everything, to remain standing. (14) Stand, therefore, wrapping your your waist with truth, putting on the breastplate of justice, (15) lace up your feet with readiness for the Good News of peace, (16) in every situation taking up the shield of faithfulness, in which you are able to extinguish every flaming arrow of the evil one; (17) and take the helmet of salvation, along with the sword of the Spirit, that is, the word of God, (18) praying with every prayer and supplication in the Spirit on every occasion, and to this end, stay alert with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints, (19), and for me as well — that the right message would be given to me as I open my mouth, and that without inhibition the mystery of the Good News be made known, (20) the Good News for which I act as an ambassador in chains. And pray that, since I will be required to speak, I will speak about it without inhibition.
(21) Tychicus, my beloved brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything that’s happening, so that you will know what’s going on with me. (22) I sent him to you for this very reason, that you will know how things are for us here and that he might encourage your hearts.
(23) Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love, with good faith from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ; (24) Grace be with all of you who love our Lord Jesus Christ with integrity.
So, as Paul wraps up the letter, his final big push is about the specific ways we can arm ourselves for the inevitable spiritual struggles that come our way. The weapons at our disposal are essentially the fundamentals of Christian life: truth, justice, the Good News of God’s peace, faithfulness, salvation, and Spirit-breathed words, including Scripture, prophecy, and, most especially, prayer. Thinking of his own coming (literal) trial, Paul asks his readers to pray for him, that he might have the courage and right words to talk about the Gospel effectively before the Roman court. Finally, he ends the letter with a blessing that echoes the prayers of his greeting from the start of the letter: for peace and grace, along with the love that has pervaded the teaching of the letter and the faith and faithfulness that have been its primary goal.
Today’s study will focus on the following questions that, I hope, will deepen our understanding of this famous text:
- What exactly does the author have in mind when he says our battle is against spiritual forces?
- Is there a precedent for the idea of the armour of God?
- What can we say about the specific armour the faithful are urged to take up?
- What might we say about the strange last word in the letter, which I’ve translated as ‘integrity’?
Spiritual and Physical Enemies
The passage begins with a call to arms, but the enemies it conceives of are not human, but spiritual in nature. As C.S. Lewis famously said in the preface to The Screwtape Letters:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves (the devils) are equally pleased by both errors.
I think this is a smart approach to such things. We should certainly not fall into the trap of seeing the demonic everywhere (as happened in the Early Modern Witch Hunts, but also as recently as the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s and ‘90s); but neither should we assume, as Christians, that when it comes to evil in the world, ‘what we see is what we get.’
There is a long biblical history of understanding that there is a spiritual dimension that underlies every social and political construct. And I think this idea is what Paul is hinting at. He isn’t saying that human opposition isn’t a problem — he is after all about to go on trial in a very human court — but that our struggles, no matter how human they may be, have a spiritual component. As I’ve written previously about this:
But in speaking of the Kingdom of God, Jesus takes it one step further: the problem is with the way the world as we know it works. Left to our own devices we will always end up oppressing ourselves or each other. Politics will always let us down. Beautiful ideologies will be corrupted. High-minded revolutions will fall into tyranny. There is something powerful at work behind the scenes — Jesus called it “the ruler of this world” or “Satan,” the Accuser; Paul called it “the Principalities and Powers,” and we might call it social contagion or even shadow — that works to twist authority into authoritarianism, wealth into oppression, that makes the strong stronger at the expense of the weak.
Just as he did in 1.21, Paul collects these powers opposed to God under a few terms — again, not intended to be an exhaustive catalog of types of spirit, but simply a catch-all of representative terms. We don’t need to be overly concerned about these powers (1.21-22), but do need to be prepared to stand against them ‘on the evil day’, which doesn’t necessarily have apocalyptic connotations, but should rather be interpreted as, in Klyne Snodgrass’s words, “any time evil is encountered.”* Again, this battle is spiritual but will manifest in tangible, social and political ways. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza succinctly notes, “the political language of Ephesians makes the spiritual political.” Just from Ephesians we might see such tangible manifestations of spiritual battle in: the Church breaking itself down instead of building itself up; false, foolish or harmful talk; the sexual, relational, and economic impacts of the disease of ‘more’; dysfunction within the family; and being put on trial by the state on a religiously-motivated charge. And if these problems have a spiritual dimension at their root, then they need to be battled on a spiritual level, with spiritual tools.
Before moving on, it’s important to note that this politicization of the spiritual and spiritualization of the political should not in any way lead people of faith to attack other people as ‘demonic’ or ‘tools of the devil’. Quite the opposite is in mind: the whole point is to understand the spiritual dimension behind others’ actions — this means that our human opposition should be seen, as Clinton Arnold put it, “not … as the enemies but as the victims” of spiritual war.
Social and Literary Background
The extended metaphor equating virtues with a suit of armour appears to be unique to Paul. Research by Tet Li Lau (cited by Schüssler Fiorenza) notes that there was some Stoic precedent for describing the philosophical life as a battle, but the length, presuppositions, and aim of this text are unique. So, what might have inspired it? I want to look at this question from two directions: first, understanding the message within the context of the letter as a whole, and second, looking at some possible Roman and more likely biblical sources of the images themselves.
While the military imagery here seems to come out of nowhere, a lot of the language in this section picks up on language used earlier in the book. This stands to reason, since this description of the armour of God functions as the peroratio — the concluding part of a piece of Roman rhetoric that brings all of the parts of its argument together with the intention of rousing the audience to desired action — of the letter. Snodgrass has helpfully put together the following list of direct correspondences in this section to what has come before:
- ‘power’ (6.10), cf. 1.19-20; 3.7, 16, and 20;
- ‘schemes of the deceiver’ (6.11), cf. 2.2, and especially 4.14, 27
- evil spiritual forces (6.12), cf. 1.21, 3.10
- ‘darkness’ (6.12), cf. 5.8, 11
- ‘the heavenlies’ (6.12), cf. 1.3, 20; 2.6; 3.10
- ‘the day of evil’ (6.13), cf. 5.16
- ‘truth’ (6.14), cf. 1.13; 4.15, 21-25; 5.9
- ‘justice’ (6.15), cf. 4.24; 5.9
- ‘good news’ / ‘the gospel’ (6.15), cf. 1.3; 3.6
- ‘peace’ (6.15), cf. 1.2; 2.14-17; 4.3
- ‘faith’ / ‘faithfulness’ (6.16), 1.15; 2.8; 3.12, 17; 4.5, 13
- ‘salvation’ (6.17), cf. 1.13, 5.23
- ‘the Spirit’ (6.17-18), cf 1.13-17; 2.18-22; 3.5, 16; 4.2-4, 30; 5.18
- ‘the word’ (6.17), cf. 5.26, 1.13
- ‘prayer’ (6.18-20), cf. 1.15-19; 3.14-20
- ‘saints’ / ‘holy ones’ (6.18), cf. 1.1, 15, 18; 2.19; 3.8, 18; 4.12; 5.3
- parrhesia (’freedom of speech,’ ‘lack of inhibition’, ‘boldness’) (6.19-20), cf. 3.12
- mystery (6.19), cf. 1.9, 3.3-4, 9; 5.32.
And, perhaps most importantly, the exhortation to ‘put on the full armour of God’ (6.11) seems to be synonymous with the earlier command to ‘put on the new person’ (4.24). This holy suit of armour we are called to put on is essentially what the clothing ourselves with the ‘new person’ looks like.
But where exactly might Paul have taken the imagery of the armour? Many commentators over the years have attempted to see it in terms of the armour worn by Roman soldiers (see Martin’s commentary for a contemporary example) and tied it to Paul’s situation under armed guard. But, there are notable pieces of a soldier’s uniform that are missing from the list (greaves, for example), and he doesn’t use any technical vocabulary for the individual pieces, but rather sticks to general terminology, making this less likely. Whether or not he had a Roman soldier’s uniform in mind, what does seem clear is that he took his language from the Greek text of Isaiah:
- The reference to “wrapping the waist” (6.14) is reminiscent, in theme, grammatical construction, and word choice, of Isaiah 11.5, which describes the messianic ‘shoot from the stump of Jesse’ filled with the sevenfold Holy Spirit and coming to enact justice for the poor and oppressed, “with his waist wrapped in righteousness, his loins belted with truth.”
- The images of justice acting as a breastplate and salvation as a helmet are borrowed from Isaiah 59.17, in a passage which describes YHWH intervening on behalf of the oppressed when no human defenders are to be found.
- The connection of feet with readiness and the Good News of God’s peace are from Isaiah 52.7, which is part of the prophecy about the end of the Exile: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, / who brings good news, who announces salvation, / who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
- The ‘word of God’ as the sword of the Spirit doesn’t have an obvious origin in Isaiah, but may be connected to the Greek of Isaiah 11.4 (a passage already referenced in relation to the belt image), in which there is a parallelism using the same ideas as we see here: “And he will strike the earth with the word from his mouth, and by the spirit of his lips he will carry off the impious”
Only one article, the “shield of faithfulness” (or ‘faith’), seems not to have a connection to Isaiah. The idea that God’s faithfulness is protective for the faithful is common enough in the Scriptures, however. For example, YHWH says to Abraham, “Do not be afraid; I am your shield” (Genesis 15.1), and 2 Samuel 22.31 (among other texts) refers to YHWH as “a shield for all who take refuge in him.”
At any rate, it seems clear that this passage is drawing heavily on biblical, and particularly Isaianic, precedents. This adds context and depth to our understanding of the ‘armour of God’. In a manner consistent with the teaching of Ephesians overall, these gifts or virtues, which are associated primarily with the might of YHWH or YHWH’s Messianic king, are now offered to the faithful ‘in Christ’ as they become ‘imitators of God’, are ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’, and take up the spiritual battle.
The Armour of God
Understanding the prophetic origin of much of the imagery surrounding the armour of God helps to colour how we interpret the individual elements.
Truth has recurred throughout Ephesians (see especially chapter 4). But truth can refer to many different things — even in Ephesians so far, it has referred to the truth of the Gospel, the truth of the new identity in Christ, rejection of lying and deceit, and living life with integrity. While all of these may be in view to some extent, the prophetic context from which Paul is drawing the image suggests an active and restorative sense of truth here: it is truth as a means of enacting justice, in a sense reminiscent of how the ‘children of the light’ (5.8-14) expose what is hidden for the purposes of bringing it into God’s presence and purview.
When we encounter the word dikaiosyne in the New Testament, we have to choose in our English translation between the more private (‘me and God’) connotations of ‘righteousness’ and the more public (‘me and others) connotations of ‘justice.’ Both senses are normally in play, since the prophets are clear that it is impossible to righteous before God without concerning oneself for justice. But in English-speaking Christianity, ‘righteousness’ has taken on a more strictly personal, pious connotation, and so I tend to avoid it since that is so rarely (if ever) in view in the biblical sensibility. The prophetic origin of the image Paul uses here supports this translation, since God puts on the breastplate in Isaiah 59 in order to work justice for those being oppressed. Likewise, this context shapes how we understand ‘salvation’ in Ephesians 6. This is not an abstract ‘going-to-heaven-when-we-die’ idea, but a practical, God-given drive to fight injustice for the safety and health (the two ‘real life’ meanings of soteria, ‘salvation’ in Greek) of those impacted by it.
The sense of ‘readiness’ in our text also makes more sense in light of its origins in Isaiah. The whole oracle in Isaiah 5.2 itches with anticipation for coming joy. We must be ready and quick on our feet to proclaim the Good News of God’s peace. In a similar vein, the shield of faith or faithfulness is beneficial as we trust God’s faithfulness to protect us from harm. And the sword of the Spirit — the only offensive weapon in the arsenal — can be thought up equally in terms of Scripture (as Jesus warded off the deceiver’s attacks in the desert by framing them in terms of Scripture), good, holy, and true speech (commended earlier in the book), and — the primary focus here — prayer.
If we can say anything about this armour, it’s that it is to protect us as we stand strong in the face of opposition (the word ‘stand’ is found four times here) as we seek to life lives that live out God’s justice. Just as we saw how the love we are called to emulate is always other-focused, so too is this spiritual battle — not to turn other humans into our enemies, but to engage the spiritual powers that are at work in the background of the psychological, social, and political realities that oppress them.
Not-So-Famous Last Words
Before, concluding this post, I’d like to comment on the simple two-word phrase that ends the book, en aphtharsia, ‘in incorruption.’ It’s a strange way for Paul to end things, especially since the benediction that makes up his parting words is otherwise filled with such common Christian ideas as grace, peace, and love. It’s also not clear how the phrase should be translated. It’s a small matter, but I thought I’d talk a bit about the options since they all in their own way help to summarize the passage’s — and indeed the book’s — message.
- ‘Grace [be with you], with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ, [who lived] incorruptibly.
Here, the focus is on the perfection of Christ’s earthly life, which throughout Ephesians, has been the model our own lives are to imitate. In this case, the book’s ‘parting shot’ would be to remind us of the perfection to which we are called.
2. ‘Grace [be with you], with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ, [who dwells] in [the realm of] incorruption.
A little more likely is this reading, which understands ‘incorruption’ in a literal rather than moral sense. In this case, Paul would be picking up on the resurrection-and-glorification theme from Ephesians 1.20-21 and 2.4-6, and reminding readers of the source of the divine power given for us.
3. ‘Incorruptible grace [be with you], with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ.
This option takes en aphtharsia as modifying the whole sentence. It is a prayer for grace that cannot fade or decay. This itself could be interpreted in two ways: as a reference to God’s eternal faithfulness (and so God’s grace does not decay), or as a reference to the type of resilient and steadfast grace we are called to have for others.
4. Grace [be with you], with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ incorruptibly.
This is the option I took in my translation. Here en ephtharsia modifies the love of Christ. It is a blessing for those who love Christ without corruption, that is, with integrity. While all four options offer something special, I went with this one because it seems to me that it best fits the intention of the book, which is for readers to understand their calling to live out their new identities in Christ as fully as possible.
This is a case where I genuinely love the ambiguity that exists in the ‘earthen vessels’ of our Scriptures. While, yes, in a translation, we have to pick one of these interpretations and run with it, all are present in the text, and all are true, and all have something beautiful to say to sum up this wonderful and challenging letter.
Summary and Assessment
All too often, expressions of Christianity that care a lot about spiritual warfare make it either very personal — about fighting demons which try to get in between me and God — or very abstract in frightening, conspiracy-theory-type ways — about demons possessing world governments, for example. What I like about the interpretation of spiritual warfare that emerged in this study is that, by grounding the armour of God in the oracles of Isaiah, it insists that spiritual warfare is primarily about justice — specifically seeking justice for the oppressed. This idea means that spiritual warfare is essentially another way of expressing the humble, other-oriented love of Christ, which we are called to imitate, and into which we are called to grow up and mature. By connecting the first half of the book, which focused on the power God has demonstrated in Christ, in the subjugation of opposing spirits, and within the lives of the faithful, with the second half of the letter’s focus on practical application of this life of faith, the teaching on the whole armour of God functions as a perfect peroratio, a summation of the letter’s argument and stirring call to action for the reader.
* For more information, please see the full Bibiliography for the series.