St. Paul mosaic

Studying Ephesians 6 10-18

Our text for this week is Ephesians 6:10-18 – putting on “the whole armor of God” as we contend with the powers and principalities. Everything on my end is a little out-of-kilter still, but I did make some notes on Ephesians [and some questions, here], and here they are, for what they’re worth:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is our last of four lessons in the book of Ephesians. We’ve read the first thirty-three verses, which lay out a vision of a church thoroughly identified with Christ by God, from “before the foundation of the world,” created by adoption into the life of God in Christ, for the purpose of “the praise of his glorious grace,” and secured in accordance with God’s “plan for the fullness of time.” This plan is actively unfolding in the lives of the Christians to whom the author is writing, who “by grace are … saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God – not of works, lest any man should boast Ephesians two eight and nine.”

Then, we skipped the rest of the theological discussion: the appeal for the unity of the chosen people of God, the appeal to Paul’s example as a preacher of the gospel, and the eloquent and highly quotable concluding appeal for Christ’s indwelling by faith and for the Ephesians to be rooted and grounded in love, and to comprehend “the breadth and length and height and depth” and “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and to be filled with the fullness of God. Because ultimately God can accomplish in them abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. [How does anyone not love Ephesians??!!]

We also skipped all the practical instructions about household relationships, which run right up to Ephesians 6:9, concluding with how we ought to behave as slaves, and how we ought to treat our own slaves. That may manage to remind us that this practical advice was written to people who live in a very different place and time from ours. Some adjustment for how to live faithfully as Christians within or alongside one’s surrounding culture in light of the prevailing philosophy of personhood and humane-ity may be called for. Especially considering how Christianity itself has influenced that prevailing philosophy over time … [OK, in real life I do honestly understand why some people do not love Ephesians …]

Which brings us to OUR text, with its concluding instructions about standing firm in the life of faith.

This text develops a military image that would have made more sense to the inhabitants of the ancient world than it does to us. The image of the “panoply” or “full set of armor.” The word itself comes from the kit appropriate to a “hoplite,” a citizen-soldier of a Greek city state. [Here’s a video of a contemporary person putting on a classical hoplite panoply.] By the late first century, when most think the letter to the Ephesians was written, people would presumably have thought of the typical “panoply” of a late first century Roman legionnaire. That had evolved considerably since the time of the classical Greeks. [For more on the Roman military in the New Testament see this. For more on the Roman military in the first century, see this. And for more on the (long) evolution of the Roman panoply, there’s this.]

Thinking about the realities that drive the evolution of military equipment is a bit grim. On the other hand, that grim thinking, an everyday feature of ancient life, presumably informs the way we need to think about this image. The struggle with the forces of “this present darkness” is presented here as something not to take lightly.

Ephesians 6:10-20 is one of the options for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B), so we might know it’s in the Bible even if all the Bible we know is what we’ve heard in church.

CLOSER READING: Our passage may divide, really, into two instructions: (1) be strong (v10) and (2) pray (v18). Unless we think “pray” is a continuation of what it means to “be strong,” which is not far-fetched. But considering the next verses, about the content of prayer, it seems to be a second main instruction.

The instruction to be strong is complex. First, the readers are to be strong in the Lord and in the might of [the Lord’s] strength. That echoes the language of Ephesians 1:15, the might of the strength God put to work to raise Jesus Christ out of the dead. So, strong, in the way Jesus Christ is strong, in the might of the strength of the God of new resurrection life.

Being strong in this way entails putting on the panoply – the full armor of God. Maybe this means it is armor issued by God; or, the armor associated with the forces of God; or, maybe God is the substance of the armor. Let’s note that armor is also a uniform, and makes a powerful statement about identity. Wearing “the full armor of God” would identify someone as one of God’s troops.

This full armor gives us the power – the ability – we need. The word “power” repeats in various forms (v11, 13, 16).

The strength and power are needed for standing. Once again, the verb “to stand” repeats four times in various forms in the next four verses. Maybe this is because prevailing in our “struggle” – specifically, our “wrestling” – requires not getting knocked down and unable to rise, or pinned. Or maybe we just need to stand because falling down or falling back is something everyone knows is what you don’t want to do in a fight.

Whether or not it is significant that we are not being ordered to vanquish these foes, but seem to be doing well just to stand against them, is something to consider.

Next, we are told about the nature of the struggle. We have to stand against the methods of the devil. Having taught “methods” courses, I am particularly affected by the idea that the devil has “methods.” I think: procedures, grounded in systemic and theoretical principles, that produce desired results. This suggests the devil is systematic and experienced. NRSV translates “wiles,” which suggests the devil is clever, entertaining, and deceitful.

The struggle is not against blood and flesh. That is, not a physical fight, and not a fight against human opponents. The fight is against rulers, powers, cosmic (or worldly) mights of this darkness, of spiritual evil. In the heavens/heavenly places. “This present darkness” sounds good, and “present” is surely implied here, albeit not stated. Whether there is a whole theory of the unseen world and of spiritual conflict between the forces of good and the forces of evil embedded in this statement is unclear to me. Particularly in light of the very strong statements made in chapter one about God’s effective planning and choice. It seems possible the author is simply thinking of the Roman pantheon of  deities  demons here, rather than being full-out Frank Peretti.

On the other hand, it’s still a strong statement about the seriousness of sin and of everything that attacks and undermines faith and faithful living.

Finally, we get a description of the panoply of God – forming an extended metaphor that maps six spiritual qualities or powers onto six critical pieces of military equipment. It would be possible – and indeed, has surely been done many times – to spend time analyzing the correspondences. Why truth as the belt, for instance? Literally, “having girded the loins in truth,” the first act of getting ready to do something strenuous. Is it significant and intentional that this first step is truth? [I’m inclined to say “yes,” especially since the “methods” of the devil notoriously start with the opposite of truth.] Why righteousness (justice) as the breastplate – the core piece of defensive equipment? Etc.

We might think it’s ironic that we’re supposed to have on footwear that prepares us to proclaim the gospel of peace – considering how much fighting we’re preparing for. Until we recall that the spiritual forces of evil are not exactly irenic. The logic of “look what you made me do” may apply here.

It DOES seem significant to me that the shield of faith has the specific purpose, elaborated explicitly, of “quenching the flaming arrows of evil.” Because there is a lot of evil in this present dark age, and all that evil can have the effect of making us wonder who the heck is in charge around here. In real life, it seems to me, faith does require an element of commitment: I’m trusting God, through this, IN SPITE OF what I see all around me. Although, for that matter, a commitment like that is presumably itself sustained by the faith we already have as a gift from a gracious God. Circular, yes. Like, maybe, the kind of circle with a center everywhere and a circumference nowhere. (That’s Empedocles’ definition of the God of the philosophers, but maybe it will work here anyway.)

The sword of the Spirit raises a question: is it the sword wielded by the Spirit, or is the Spirit the sword? If we follow the pattern established in v14, where truth is the belt and righteousness is the breastplate and salvation is the helmet, then the Spirit is the sword. And that sword that is the Spirit is the Word of God.

In which, as instructed in v18, we are to pray, in every time – that is, not every moment as measured by the clock, but in every moment as identified by situation and circumstance. “Kairos” kind of time. Always watching – that is, not sleeping. The “keeping awake” that Jesus exhorts everyone to do in Mark 13:37. Praying with perseverance and supplication for each of the saints.

And if everyone does that, the church will make a sturdy “phalanx” that corresponds to that panoply, standing shield to shield, holding the bridgehead already secured by the strength of the might that raised Jesus Christ out of the dead.

Image: “St. Paul mosaic” Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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