God’s Life: Taking on the Powers

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power (Eph 6:10 NRSV). With this command, the letter to the Ephesians enters the final stretch. Nice transition from the previous conversation about power between people, wouldn’t you say?

One of the most prevalent commands in the Bible is to be “strong and courageous” (See, for example, Deut 31:6–7, 23; Josh 1:6–7, 9, 18; 10:25; 1 Chr 22:13; 28:20; 2 Chr 32:7). Take, for example, the following:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. (Deut. 31:6 NIV)

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. (Josh. 1:9 NIV)

Be strong and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight. (2 Sam. 10:12 NIV)

God must know that we need our courage bolstered—

—especially since our war is not with humans but against demonic forces, known in the Bible variously as principalities, powers, rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil. Ghastly is the evil that seeks to dethrone our God and destroy us.

However, there is protection—the armor of God. In a rather extended metaphor, Paul uses various pieces of armor to describe God’s resources for us in the battle against evil.

These consist of the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, sandals/shoes ready to spread the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and finally the sword of the Spirit. In each case what is important is not the piece of armor but the virtue that piece of armor represents.

Attempts to tie these to the armor worn by Roman soldiers—often done in Vacation Bible Schools—fail primarily because we know where Paul gets each piece of armor—from the OT prophet Isaiah. For example, the belt of truth (in 11:5), the breastplate of righteousness (11:5, 59:17), sandals/shoes ready to spread the gospel (52:7), the shield of faith (31:5), the helmet of salvation (59:17) and finally the sword of the Spirit (49:2).

What this means is that the armor of God is not armor from God, but the armor belonging to God. It is God’s armor that we are invited to wear! In each of the Isaiah texts, God wears the armor, except for the sandals. I wonder why?

If this is God’s armor, a couple of pieces seem to require some explanation. For example, why would God need a helmet of salvation? Aren’t we the ones in need of salvation.

Here it is good to remember that all of these images come out of the Old Testament stories of military battles. In that context, the word we translate as “salvation” might be better translated “deliverance” or even “victory.” Thus, God wears, and shares with us, the helmet of victory over our enemies, in this case, the forces of evil.

Additionally, the sword of the Spirit only secondarily refers to the Bible as so often understood. The sword represents the Spirit of God—God’s very voice, God’s decisive judgment against those who challenge his people. See this image in the Isaiah text listed above and in the picture of Jesus in Revelation:

… and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. (Revelation 1:13–16 NIV)

While it would be profitable to trace the development of the notion that God is our warrior throughout the Bible, we don’t have space here. However, these strands find a tight synthesis in the Jewish writings between Old and New Testament times. In a first century BC writing called the Wisdom of Solomon (5:17-20), we find

The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against his frenzied foes.

While the images are fluid, the point remains the same: God is our mighty warrior and not only does he fight for us, it is his armor that will protect us.

Be strong in the Lord, indeed.

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