“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor 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. 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.
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. 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.” – Ephesians 6:10-20
The apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians tells us to “put on the whole armor of God”. Talking about armor implies life is a battlefield… which can sound wearying, since we live in a world that already seems too full of violence. Every day it seems, we turn on the TV and hear news of war, or terrorism, or another shooting of innocent people. We live in a world where people long for peace… so when Paul starts talking about putting on battle gear we are tempted to resist the suggestion. Besides, aren’t Christians supposed to be believers in peace?
Yes, we are. Paul is using the analogy of armor to point out that trying to live as Christians in a fallen world can sometimes get a little bit dicey. He’s drawing a parallel between a soldier’s equipment and training, and our own spiritual equipment and training. Paul makes three basic points in this passage: (1) as followers of Christ we will face opposition; (2) the nature of the battle is spiritual, not physical; and (3) because these things are true, we need to make use of the spiritual arsenal God provides.
So starting with the first point: If we try to live as disciples of Christ, we will face opposition. Why? Because Jesus faced opposition. We will face the same challenges Jesus faced, often from similar sources. Jesus mentions this himself at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, when he says, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matt 10:25) In other words, if they called Jesus the son of the devil, what are they going to call us? As followers of Jesus we can expect to find friends where Jesus found friends, and to find enemies where Jesus found enemies.
It’s not that we’re going around trying to make enemies – we don’t. Scripture tells us to live at peace with all people, as much as it depends on us… and for the most part I think we do. We’re not like the Westboro Baptists who seem to think it’s a Christian duty to go out of their way to offend people. Groups like that aren’t doing the cause of Christ any favors, because Christian spirituality is not measured by political power or media attention.
Which leads us to Paul’s second point: the nature of the opposition we face. If, as Christians, we face opposition, where will it come from? Paul says in verse 12 we do not fight against enemies of flesh and blood, but against “rulers”, “authorities”, “cosmic powers of this present darkness”, and “spiritual forces of evil”. (Eph. 6:12)
This is a difficult teaching. It almost sounds like Paul is advocating rebellion against the government, but that’s not where he’s coming from. As Christians, we are taught to respect rulers and authorities as much as conscience allows. There are government leaders we cannot in good conscience obey (Hitler was a good example). But on the whole Christians are called to respect and obey the laws of the land.
Here’s the thing: when Paul talks about “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” he was writing 2000 years ago to people in a culture very different from ours. Our modern ears hear these words a certain way, and our modern understanding is relevant, but it’s probably not what Paul meant. So when we hear the words “cosmic powers of this present darkness” – make a mental note of what that phrase means to you, and we’ll come back to it.
In this particular context, Paul is writing to a church in ancient Greece, to people familiar with Greek religion and Greek philosophy, and the early church in particular was interested in the philosophy of Plato. In the 21st century we don’t often think about Plato and his friends, but our modern world is heavily influenced by his teachings even if we no longer recognize Plato as the source of those teachings. Wikipedia says of Plato that “he laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science.” What a huge claim to make of one person! And even our word “democracy” has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy: it’s a combination of the Greek words “demos” (the people) + “kratia” (power or rule).
So what Paul is talking about here would have been recognized by the early church as an illustration taken from Greek philosophy. And it’s an aspect of Greek philosophy that has fallen out of favor in our time, but which was widely believed in the days of the early church: that there are spiritual realities called good and evil. In our postmodern world people shy away from calling anything ‘evil’ because we are taught to say ‘it’s different’ or ‘your truth isn’t the same as my truth’ or ‘that’s not how I experience things’. The ancient Greeks were wiser than that. They may not have understood God in the way Jesus taught (the Hebrew understanding of God is relational rather than intellectual), but the Greeks understood that there were some actions in life that bring a person closer to the heavenly realms and some actions that bind a person to earth and prevent them from ascending into the heavenly realms. Things that bind a person to earth and prevent approaching the heavenlies are described as “evil” or, as Paul puts it, “cosmic powers of this present darkness”. That’s what Paul talking about: things that bind the hearts of men and women so much to this world that they become blind and senseless to the heavenly realms, ignorant of God.
When we look at the news on TV, and we see all the pain and suffering in the world – racial unrest in our cities, women and children being sold as sex slaves around the world, ever-increasing corporate greed as entire nations fall into bankruptcy, wars and violence – and all of this happening at the same time – this is not by chance. There are ‘cosmic powers of this present darkness’ at work in the world, opposing God’s good purposes, opposing Jesus’ sacrifice to redeem the world. And powers that oppose God, will oppose us also when we seek to follow God.
So to sum it up, what is our opposition? It is that spirit which promotes injustice, and coldness of heart, and fear, and which despises and abuses God’s creation, and which depersonalizes and dehumanizes human beings who were made in God’s image. It’s not surprising movies like Hunger Games have become so popular lately. The movie illustrates what it’s like to try to live a life of integrity in a world built on a morally numbing combination of oppression, injustice and show biz.
So the second point Paul makes is that the nature of the opposition is spiritual. It is not at its source ultimately human. We do not do battle with flesh and blood. This is good news. It means it’s OK for people to be different, to belong to different political parties, to enjoy different things, to be male and female, African, Caucasian, and Asian… and as for the divide between rich and poor, God is so rich even Bill Gates looks like a pauper standing next to God. It’s all good!
There’s a corollary to this point and that is this: it’s not our job to make this earth into paradise. I want to linger on that thought for a moment, because I’ve heard a lot of religious nonsense from all kinds of Christians who say we need to “work to bring God’s kingdom on this earth” or “work until this earth becomes like heaven”. If that’s true then Jesus died for nothing. Jesus said “my kingdom is not of this world” and he gave his life so that those who trust him can pass through death into God’s eternal kingdom, into the new heaven and new earth that God will create. Bringing about God’s kingdom is not our job.
Which brings us to Paul’s third point: what is our job? Our job is to make use of the spiritual tools God gives us… so let’s take a look at those tools. Paul says to put on:
- The belt of Truth. The belt is what keeps everything else on, it holds the outfit together. And what holds everything together spiritually is God’s truth. God’s truth can be found the Bible, and ultimately in the life of Jesus who said “I am the truth”. So we begin with the Truth.
- The breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate protects the internal organs, most importantly the heart. It is Jesus’ righteousness – not our own – that protects our hearts from the powers that oppose God. Whenever we doubt ourselves, whenever we feel insecure or unworthy, we can look to Jesus who is the “author and finisher of our faith” and he will protect our hearts.
- Shoes that make us ready to preach the gospel of peace. The footgear is about readiness, about having a secure footing spiritually speaking. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said ‘the readiness is all’ and Paul is saying the same thing. Be ready to share the good news about Jesus. That’s where our feet stand. In a world of violence that longs for peace we have a message of peace to share… not temporary peace like treaties between nations but an eternal peace won by Jesus on the cross.
- The shield of faith “with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one” Paul says. The shield of faith guards and deflects, and protects the whole body. Spiritually speaking, the shield is trust in God’s word which guards us from the arrows of doubt, discouragement, and difficulty.
- The helmet of salvation. The helmet protects the head. Spiritually speaking, the knowledge of salvation – firmly rooted, not in our own righteousness but in Jesus’ saving work – is what protects our minds from deception and misinformation.
- The sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. This is the only item Paul mentions that is not purely defensive; the sword can be used both defensively and offensively; and Paul mentions both uses. As an offensive weapon, the sword of the Spirit has to do with speaking and sharing the ‘word of God’. This can mean sharing scripture or sharing Jesus who is the Living Word. As a defensive weapon, as Paul says, the sword becomes prayer, as we reach out to defend others. We can pray scripture, which is fantastic, using the sword in two directions at once, praying for ourselves and others. That’s why we pray for each other every Sunday in the Joys & Concerns, and hopefully whenever we think of each other. Paul says, “Persevere in supplication for the saints.” Pray for each other’s health, safety, protection, and witness, and for all our needs. And “pray also for me” Paul says, “so that I may speak with boldness the mystery of the gospel.”
Paul’s message is a simple message really, but an essential one to life in the faith. Because Jesus was opposed by the powers and principalities of evil, we can expect the same. We need to understand that this opposition is spiritual, and that in this battle God does not leave us undefended but provides us with a spiritual arsenal to protect ourselves and each other as we follow him.
The discipline of a soldier is a good way to understand how to take hold of, and practice maneuvering in, God’s truth and righteousness. We need to practice standing in truth, holding high the shield of faith, protected by the knowledge of salvation, sharing God’s word with boldness. And pray for each other and for me as we minister God’s word to a world that desperately needs it. Put on, and make use of, the full armor of God. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/23/15