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Put Your Armor On

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Understanding the True Power of the “Armor of God”

On February 28, four days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a British television crew came under fire after while driving about 30 km from Kyiv. They had been told the area into which they were traveling was quiet, but things had clearly changed. As one of the journalists reported:

From being a quiet location, the whole of this part of the countryside - including our intended destination - had turned into a battlefield.

After turning around and heading back to the city down a different road, their car suddenly came under attack from what was believed to be a “Russian reconnaissance squad”. Even though their car was pounded by enemy gunfire, all five members of the team were able to get out and scramble over a concrete barrier to safety. But correspondent Stuart Ramsay had been shot twice in the back. But amazingly, in the end, he was just fine. How is that possible? Two words: body armor.

The Whole Armor of God”

We discover a similar reminder about the importance of armor in Ephesians 6. As he moves toward the conclusion of his letter to followers of Jesus in the ancient city of Ephesus, the Apostle Paul encourages his readers with these words:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. [11] Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. [12] For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. [13] Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. [14] Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, [15] and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. [16] In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; [17] and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God...

What is the Apostle describing here? He's describing life on the battlefield. Conflict. Forces of Evil. Putting on armor. This is the language of warfare, of a battle taking place in which the Ephesian Christians are involved. And if we believe their faith is our faith, if we believe this was and is God's word to his people, then we are on that same battlefield. So to better understand and faithfully apply this passage, let's think more carefully about three elements God has revealed here through Paul: first, our enemies in the battle, second, our goal in the battle, and third, our protection in the battle.

Our Enemies in the Battle

Notice that Paul wastes no time in identifying our common enemy on this battlefield. Verse 11: “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” But he doesn't stop there. In verse 12, he provides us with a rich description of an entire movement or system or complex of evil that is working to extend “this present darkness” of “evil”. We read about “rulers”, about “authorities”, about “powers”, about “spiritual forces”.

Now it's important to grasp both the emphasis and contrast here: there is clearly an emphasis on the very real power of our opponents. But we also see Paul presenting a clear contrast between, on one hand, “flesh and blood” opposition, and on the other hand, those “cosmic” and “spiritual” enemies “in the heavenly places”. Why this emphasis? Why this contrast? Because our tendency, even as Christians, is to focus on our everyday circumstances and our everyday obstacles and our everyday antagonists, and in so doing, miss the fact that larger forces are at work, behind the scenes.

The devil may be a mysterious, spiritual being, but he is not indifferent toward us. He is not indifferent toward you personally. He is scheming (v. 11). And he is not alone in carrying out these schemes. He has a network of evil, one embedded deeply in the power structures of this world. That's why words like “rulers... authorities... [and] powers” are also used in the New Testament to talk about human governments (cf. Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1). So what is the goal of the devil's schemes?

Our Goal in the Battle

While this passage doesn't explicitly spell out the goal of these demonic schemes, I think we can understand them from Paul's emphasis on our goal in this battle. Notice that even though Paul is painting a picture of what some have called spiritual warfare, there is nothing overtly and tactically offensive about his encouragements in this passage. We are not called to 'advance'. We are not called to 'take the hill'. We are not called to send in saboteurs. We are not called to push back the frontline or take spiritual prisoners or cut off supply lines.

What are we called to do? Three times in four verses Paul is crystal clear: (v. 11) “stand against the schemes of the devil”, (v. 13) “...take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand (or stand in opposition) in the evil day... having done all, to stand firm.” And again in verse 14: “Stand therefore...” While some in recent times have developed fanciful versions of spiritual warfare that involve imaginative demonologies, systems that often have more in common with occultism than the Bible, the word of God itself reminds us that true spiritual warfare is first and foremost about 'standing our ground' in the gospel (the Good News of Jesus).

Consider this example from the same letter. Look back at 4:26–27...”Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.” How is the devil scheming in this scenario? He is looking to gain a foothold through unresolved anger in the body of Christ. The context in chapter 4 makes it clear that Paul is talking there about our life together as God's people. And our life together should be grounded in “the gospel of peace”. Drop down a few verses where Paul writes in 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”

What is the devil's goal? How are these “spiritual forces of evil” attacking us? By seeking to move us away from the gospel... the very thing that unites us. They seek to use things like unresolved anger to keep us focused on ourselves and divided within the church. This also applies to our lives as the church scattered.

Here's the key idea: if Jesus Christ has already won the war, and the gospel is the proclamation of his triumph, then fundamentally, the most strategic thing we can do in our battles is to simply stand firm in our faith; and in so doing, embody and reflect the greatness of his victory.

Our Protection in the Battle

So how can we stand firm in light of daily attacks from these numerous and powerful, spiritual enemies? We can put on the armor of God. Not just some of it, but (v. 11) “the whole armor of God”. What exactly does that mean? Well notice the elements that Paul is highlighting here. How is he highlighting them? By creatively comparing them to different pieces of armor that a soldier might wear in an earthly battle. So when he talks about a soldier's belt or breastplate or shoes or shield or helmet or sword, he's really talking about (v. 14) “truth” and “righteousness”, (v. 15) “the gospel of peace”, (v. 16) “faith”, (v. 17) “salvation”, and (v. 18) “the word of God”.

What should be striking about all these elements is just how familiar they are in light of everything detailed in the previous chapters of Ephesians. Paul is not introducing here some secret knowledge about spiritual warfare. He is, here at the conclusion, simply repackaging everything he's already been telling them throughout this letter.

Now, we have to be careful with this armor imagery not to get bogged down in minutiae, that is, in how each piece of armor works in light of the comparisons presented here. The main point is the very point emphasized in the very first verse of this passage, verse 10: “...be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” There's our armor! That's our protection! It's what Paul called in 1:19 “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe”. You see, to “put on the whole armor of God” is not a magical or mystical practice that results in supernatural protection. It is a 'gospel practice' that rehearses and is reassured by the supernatural protection we already have in Jesus.

Let's unpack that idea by first rehearsing again the elements Paul lists in verses 14-18: “truth”, “righteousness”, “the gospel of peace”, “faith”, “salvation”, and “the word of God”. Now in light of those, listen to some key verses from previous chapters:

Paul reminds them in 1:13... In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit...

He emphasizes this same reality in 2:8... For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God...

He goes on to talk about the community implications of the gospel in 2:14... For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility... And in 3:6 he summarized these community implications... This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

He drives home the reassuring results of this in 3:11–12... This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, [12] in whom we [i.e., all of us] have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.

You see, he wants them to remember, ...the way you learned Christ! [4:20][then in 4:21] –assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, [22] to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, [23] and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, [24] and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Is “put[ting] on the new self” the same as “put[ting] on the whole armor of God”? I believe it is. Both of these are simply calls to live in light of the gospel; the former may focus more on walking a new path in spite of old temptations, while the latter emphasizes standing firm in that newness in the face of these enemy attacks.

So why highlight all these other verses from chapters 1-4? Because they demonstrate how Paul is not doing something new here in 6:10-17. The imagery is new, but the pastoral message is not: our protection in the daily battles, in the midst of trials and temptations, our protection in the face of numerous and powerful, spiritual enemies, is the strong armor of Christ's powerful victory over sin and death. When we are wrapped up and encased in those realities, we are indeed “strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” As Paul asked in Romans 8:3, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”

Armor Up!

What battles are you fighting today? What battles do you see on the horizon? In light of God's word in Ephesians 6:10-17, I hope you will do two things in light of your battles:

First, I pray that you, no matter the battle, will recognize how larger forces are at always work, behind the scenes, seeking to move you away from the gospel. That hard situation at work, that medical scare, that rift in your family, those financial pressures, that battle with depression and/or anxiety, those challenges with your kids, that addictive behavior, the ultimate goal in all of it, the point of the enemy's scheme, is to push you toward distraction and doubt and despair in terms of your faith. It's so easy to fixate on the “flesh and blood” of our struggles (that person, that situation, those feelings, that hurt). But when we do that, we often fight using “flesh and blood” strategies. Please take a moment to consider what is really happening in that battle.

Second, as you recognize that truth, I pray you, in response, will put on the armor of God by rehearsing, embracing, and applying the powerful truths of the gospel. When our enemy launches a flaming dart that says, “You are a loser!”, raise up that shield of faith and proclaim, “No. I am loved.” When that darkness tries to attack you with your past sins, wear that helmet of salvation confidently, knowing that you are forgiven because Christ was forsaken in your place. When those “spiritual forces of evil” try to undercut you and make you doubt God's favor and presence, wield “the sword of the Spirit” and declare, “God has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) When they attempt to divide us, let the “gospel of peace” ready your feet, so that we move closer together instead, as one body in Christ. And when they attempt to stab us with worldly, with fleshly temptations, let us take comfort in the “breastplate of righteousness”, knowing that we have been redeemed for a new life of humility, purity, and love.

Brother, sister, Jesus Christ died and rose again, and in so doing, forged an armor stronger than anything this world can offer; unrivaled protection; incomparable safety. Though we might suffer temporary wounds, this armor perfectly and always ensures our ultimate safety, in God, and with God forever. And that promise should strengthen us in the midst of any battle. 

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