In the previous section Paul addresses the issues of how believers are to live out their Christian walk in our most personal relationships, husbands and wives, parents and children, slaves and masters. Paul makes it very clear that in the body of Christ we are to “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”; this concept was and continues to be a very radical way to live. The upside down values we have learned, that the first shall be last, that if you wish to be great in the kingdom you must serve others not rule over them, that you will love your enemies and not retaliate against those who harm you, that our sufferings are an honor that will bring about great things and that our beauty or success is not determined by our outward appearance or circumstances, it determined by our heart unseen by humans but seen and celebrated by our Creator.
Many times when discussing this most personal way of living in obedience to Christ the topic usually reverts to a rejection of Paul because we perceive him as supporting inequality when he tells wives to submit, children to honor and obey and slaves to serve their masters. We are disappointed because Paul did not advocate for rebellion, against Rome and Jerusalem and against the social norms of his day. I believe that if you look closely at what Paul is saying, you will see that in reality he was quite revolutionary for his time and calling. Additionally, the basic principles of Christian living, the value of each life to God, our equal position before the cross and the new culture forming in the early church are the seeds which led to cultural reforms in the coming centuries.
The highly stratified society of the 1st century assumed that the person of the higher status was intrinsically superior to their social inferiors. A person’s significance in his own eyes and in the eyes of others was determined by that social position. Paul’s letters challenge this powerful social norm, he refers to himself as a slave, does not give himself an exalted title and he emphasizes the equality of Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave or free at the foot of the cross. When he speaks of the church’s apostles, prophets, teachers and pastors they are serving but not in the culturally accepted position as rulers. They are preparing God’s people for works of service, in a culture much like today that elevated self above and before all others; this was radical. To begin his discussion with the statement “submit to one another out of reverence to Christ” as the controlling principle in all our relationships with each other was a powerful challenge for the church and became a radical witness to Roman thought. The big picture continues to be that as the church follows Paul’s direction, as believers put into practice living “in Christ” in our families, in the church and in the world the culture is changed.
Paul began Ephesians with a picture of the exalted Father and Son, in the heavenly realms; he concludes this letter with a description of a spiritual battle against evil, in the unseen world, in the heavenly realms. “Finally, be strengthened in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens”. Ephesians 6:10-12
Note this imperative “be strengthened” comes directly after Paul’s appeal for unity, that in our families and in our work we are to submit to each other out of reverence to Christ. How are we to fight our battles against evil if we are resisting God’s commands and fighting each other within our families and in the church? Paul has chosen to appeal to the entire church as an army, not as singular believers fighting alone. Lone fighters are easy to defeat, Paul speaks in defensive terms, we are not to make an attack, but to stand firm, hold your ground, do not give up easily, or retreat – we are to stand firm! The emphasis is “in the strength of His power” – we are to rely on God’s power not on our own strength.
In 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 Paul relates what Jesus said to him, when he was forced to defend himself against his detractors, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong”.
Paul uses a detail description of a Roman soldier’s armor; remember that Paul was writing from Rome while he is under house arrest, in chains and guarded by a Roman soldier. He uses this visual, which would be very familiar to the Ephesians but transforms each piece to remind the believers of the tools God gave them to resist evil powers. “Clothe yourselves with the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand against the schemes of the devil”. The Greek imperative “put on” indicates that believers are responsible for putting on God’s full armor not their own armor.
But also notice that Paul is very clear, the enemy is the devil, not Rome, not their fellow believers nor the pagan culture they live within. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens”. The phrase “world rulers of this darkness” does not refer to human rulers, but the evil spirits that rule over the world. Paul speaks in general about demons and rulers; he doesn’t get specific about ranks of demons, which was a highly popular and speculative topic at that time. Remember in Ephesians 1:20-22 Paul put to rest the position of Jesus Christ. “This power he exercised in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And God put all things under Christ’s feet, and gave him to the church as head over all things. Now the church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.
“For this reason, take up the full armor of God so that you may be able to stand your ground on the evil day, and having done everything, to stand”. Notice that Christians are not to attack Satan, or advance against him; they are only to “stand” or hold the territory Christ and His body, the church, have conquered. The victory is already ours; God has “delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of the Son he loves”. Now we must put on the armor of God so that we will “stand” in the midst of the battle.
Notice that in contrast to how we are “to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” in our church and family which seems passive, in this world, in Satan’s realm, we are to resist, stand our ground and oppose his lies. Knowing that Christ has already “conquered the world”, that troubles, persecution and sufferings will come but as we stand firm in God’s full armor He will keep us safe from the evil one.
Paul is painting a metaphor for his readers based on the attire of a Roman soldier prepared for battle and its similarity to the Christian who is prepared to do battle against spiritually evil forces. Paul describes the tools needed to take a stand and he didn’t include the offensive weapons commonly used by Roman soldiers. The first item is the “belt of truth”, the first thing a Romans soldier would do is put on a belt that held his garments together and out of the way so he could move quickly, it also helped to hold the breastplate and his sword to his body. This was a foundational tool, as is God’s Truth, without God’s truth we will not know where to stand firm. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. Our world says there is no objective truth, that everything in our world is subjective, based on each person’s view. But God’s truth that He has revealed to us, is not based on our thoughts, feelings and desires, it based on God’s character, His promises and His love.
The next piece of armor is the breastplate of righteousness. The soldier’s breastplate protected his chest from an enemy’s attack; this does not refer to justification that we receive when we believe but rather the sanctification process to righteousness as we submit to God. The picture Paul gives us is as we walk “in Christ”, as we stand firm and submit to His plan we have a protective covering over our heart that will guard our heart.
The next piece of armor is well fitting shoes, “by fitting your feet with the preparation that comes from the good news of peace”. This specifically relates to “stand firm”; Roman soldiers had sandals with nails driven through the sole, so that when attacked, they would plant their feet and hold their ground protecting the soldiers behind them. This reminds me of this praise chorus:
“Standing on the promises, I cannot fall
Listening every moment to the Spirit’s call
Resting in my Savior as my all in all
Standing on the promises of God
Standing on the promises of Christ my Savior
I’m standing on the promises of God”
The next item of armor we are called take up is “the shield of faith with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one”. The Roman soldier carried a large wooden shield covered in cloth and leather. Before a battle they would soak the shield in water so that it would smother the fire arrows from the attackers. The Roman soldiers would also lock their shields together first row a solid block with the second row covering their heads. This formation was almost invulnerable to arrows, rocks and spears, like an impenetrable stronghold that could not be breeched as long as they held together. Take up the shield of faith suggests a purposeful and deliberate holding on to God’s revealed plan in the gospel, a dependence on God that defends against anything that Satan and the world throws at us. Faith is believing God, believing what He has said about Himself and believing that He has the power and the authority to accomplish everything He has promised.
The next item is the “helmet of salvation”; the soldier’s helmet was one of the last items he put on, because it was hot and uncomfortable. They would put them on when they were in imminent danger, protecting your head would be life-saving item. The final item is “the sword of the Spirit (which is the word of God)”. This final item is the only offensive weapon; Roman soldiers carried a short sword that was used in close quarters, hand to hand combat. We have a picture of a close personal attack, but remember we are fighting not human enemies but “spiritual powers”, our use of the word of God is to stand firm against Satan’s manipulations, to correct the false teachings with God’s truth in the power of the Holy Spirit as Jesus did when tempted by the devil in the wilderness.
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart. Hebrews 4:12