Lectionary Commentaries for August 23, 2009
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 6:56-69

Brian Peterson

For the fifth Sunday in a row we find ourselves in John 6, but as this long account comes to its end, there are some disturbing surprises.

Throughout this chapter’s discussion about the bread which gives life, Jesus’ words have been greeted with misunderstanding, confusion, and objection from the crowd, referred to either simply as “they” or “the Jews.” In verse 60, we hear about the reaction from the “disciples” (in John not to be equated with “the twelve”; see verse 67). We may expect better things from them. After all, they were the ones who sat together with Jesus at the beginning of this text, who followed Jesus’ instructions in gathering up the leftovers of the bread and fish, and who were rescued from the storm at sea by Jesus. Perhaps most importantly, we expect that “the disciples” belong to “us,” and not to “them.”

Thus we may be stunned when we hear that the disciples are now the ones who are bothered by what Jesus has said. We may have been tempted to simply write off the rest of the crowd as stubborn and obtuse, but the reference to “the disciples” sounds uncomfortably close to home. In verse 61, the disciples begin to grumble (NRSV “complain”), just as “the Jews” did in verse 41. Here, the problem seems not so much that the disciples have difficulty understanding what Jesus is saying; they understand quite well, but cannot believe and follow what Jesus has said. How often do we find the same to be true about ourselves?

As has been Jesus’ habit throughout this conversation, he meets objections by sharpening the point of his message, raising the offense rather than softening it, and thereby bringing the conversation to a crisis. In verse 62, Jesus points to his “going up” (NRSV “ascending”). We may think first of Luke’s ascension scene, but we need to remember that this is John’s story, and in John’s telling Jesus returns to the Father by being lifted up on the cross. If the disciples have been scandalized by what Jesus has said, what will happen when Jesus “goes up” via the cross? Will they be able to see the glory of God there?

Jesus’ statement that the “flesh” is useless (verse 63) cannot be read as a rejection of bodily life or a denial of creation’s goodness. After all, this is the Gospel which joyfully declared that “the Word became flesh” (1:14). Rather, “flesh” here indicates the normal way of seeing reality, the way of viewing life judged to be “sensible” by the world, which cannot see that eternal life comes through the exaltation of Jesus on the cross, and which cannot believe that the way to life is by participating in the death of Jesus. It is only the Spirit that can give life by making faith possible. Luther boldly reflects this same reality in his Small Catechism: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith…” (Translation by Timothy J. Wengert). In verses 63-65, Jesus points to his own words as life, to the Spirit as the one who gives life, and to the Father as the one who brings people to Jesus. Faith itself is here presented as the work of the Triune God.

The issue raised in this text revolves around a division between those who believe and those who do not. The text makes clear, however, that unbelief can be found not only among “them” on the outside, those we so easily forget or write off. The pain of unbelief is found among us (and within us!), reflected in this text both in those disciples who leave and in the one who stays to betray Jesus. Where will we find ourselves in this narrative? Are we the disciples who turn and leave, or those who with Peter confess that Jesus is the one – the only one – with the words of eternal life?

Chapter six begins with a huge crowd that needs to be fed and is interested enough to track down Jesus across the lake, but soon becomes disenchanted and grumbling. Even many of his disciples who stay around through the long sermon, in the end, cannot accept it. At the end of the chapter, only twelve are left, and even one of them will betray Jesus. The direction of chapter 6 is not, as far as “flesh” is concerned, a promising trajectory.

Yet God is working life in the midst of apparent failure and rejection. The church is still called to see that it is in such places that the Word of Life is doing its work around us, among us, and within us. The presence of Peter the denier, and even of Judas the betrayer, at the end of this text is a striking note of hope. Our natural inclination is to turn and leave, to avoid the difficult call and above all to avoid the cross. Yet the Word, the Spirit, and the Father continue to call, and enlighten, and draw us to life.

Peter’s response to Jesus is not a word of despair or a statement that they will have to settle for Jesus because there is nothing else. Peter and the others who remain have been given the gift of knowing that Jesus is the one who can give genuine life. Here, as elsewhere in this chapter, the paradox remains: faith only comes as the Father draws us, and yet Peter and the others (and we too) are asked for our response. Peter and the other twelve “choose” to remain, and yet the greater and prior reality is that they have been chosen (verse 70). The mystery of faith and unbelief is not answered by supposed solutions to the paradox, but by grateful confession that the Father has indeed drawn us to faith in Jesus, and thus to eternal life.


First Reading

Commentary on Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Sara Koenig

Martin Luther King Jr. begins his autobiography by stating,

“Of course I was religious. I grew up in the church. My father is a preacher, my grandfather was a preacher, my great-grandfather was a preacher, my only brother is a preacher, my daddy’s brother is a preacher. So I didn’t have much choice.”1  But of course King, like all of us, did have a choice, and he made it with his whole heart, soul, mind and strength. One wonders if King heard our passage during his early days of instruction in the faith, and whether he recognized the situation Joshua speaks to as his own situation: a community with a historical, covenantal relationship with God must nevertheless choose to live into that relationship.

The lectionary text comes at the end of the book of Joshua, when Joshua has summoned the people to Schechem to renew their covenant with God. He recounts the history of this covenant relationship. He begins by remembering their distant past, “long ago,” literally “from eternity,” when the ancestors of the Israelites lived “in the land beyond the river,” that is, the Euphrates. He then tells what God did for their ancestors: he gave them descendents and good land; afflicted their enemies and brought them out of slavery; brought them to a new land and gave them victory over the Amorites.

Note that Joshua does not follow the typical tripartite recollection of the ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Instead, he goes even further back in history to Terah, Abraham’s father, and includes the lesser known Nahor, Abraham’s brother. In doing so, Joshua shows that from the story’s beginning, there have always been under-currents of the Israelites’ faithlessness. Terah and Nahor “served other gods” (verse 2). We see this evidence in Genesis 31:53. When Jacob and Laban make their covenant at Mizpah, they swear by the God of Abraham and the gods (‘elohe) of Nahor. From the beginning of Israel’s history, then, there is evidence of those who did not choose to serve the Lord.

Against this background of polytheistic ancestors who served other gods, Joshua exhorts the people to fear and serve God in complete faithfulness (Joshua 24:14). “Serve God” becomes the core refrain of Joshua’s message. He repeats the word twice in verse 14, and it appears three times in the subsequent four verses. Only the New English Translation translates the word as “worship;” other English translations translate it as “serve.” Both translations have merit, since the semantic range of the verb suggests that to worship God is to serve God. “Worship” emphasizes that we should worship only God and not bow down to other gods (as the Old Testament constantly reiterates).

Nevertheless, in Joshua, the word “serve” makes better sense, particularly because of its proximity to Exodus. The Israelites have been freed from slavery in Egypt, but their freedom is not absolute. Rather, they move from being Pharaoh’s servants to being God’s servants. Unlike the type of slavery and service they provided in Egypt, however, this time they must choose to serve God.

In fact, Joshua recognizes that serving God may not be something people want to do. Verse 15 begins with Joshua’s acknowledgment that it may not be desirable (NIV), or the people may not be willing (NRSV) to serve the Lord. These translations miss the raw honesty of the ESV and the KJV, which reflect the drama of the literal Hebrew. It is not simply that serving God seems unpleasant to the people, but that it may be “evil in your eyes,” (ESV) and it may seem “evil unto you” (KJV).

If it is a choice–perhaps undesirable, perhaps even evil–to serve God, then why make it? The Israelites themselves give us two answers, signaled by the word “for.” The first one comes in verse 17. The reason to serve God is because of what God has done for them. They were listening to Joshua’s sermon! They echo back the history that Joshua himself recounted in detail for them. The second reason emerges naturally from the first. If God has done this for us, then he is our God. This affirmation becomes more profound when it is set against the background of polytheism.

In verse 15, Joshua points to the availability of other gods–the gods of the Amorites, the gods of their ancestors, or the Lord. But the people rightly acknowledge that the Lord is their God. It would be absurd to serve other gods, and to forsake God, when this God is ours! It is significant that the people affirm this. The Israelites often suffer from amnesia when it comes to remembering God’s past acts, but not here.

The lectionary text ends before the chapter does, which is somewhat unfortunate, for the conversation between Joshua and the people continues with wonderful rhetorical flair. Joshua has laid out the challenge–choose to serve God–and the people have responded, “We will serve God!” Not content with this, Joshua lays down the gauntlet, telling them that they cannot serve God, and warning them of the consequences for forsaking the Lord. To this, the people once again sound the chorus, “We will serve the Lord” (verses 21, 24). Joshua concludes by removing himself from the picture. He will not be the witness to the people’s promises, but instead the people “are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord” (22).

In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus likewise recognizes the necessity of “choosing to serve God,” even though it will be difficult. In response to Jesus’ hard teachings, some leave. Jesus recognizes that the twelve may want to leave, too. Peter responds, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). They can leave, but why would they? Jesus has brought them this far, and he is their God, with the words of eternal life.


1Martin Luther King, Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Warner Books, 1998), 3.


Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11] 22-30, 41-43

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

Having been introduced to King Solomon in last week’s reading, we meet him now eleven years later, as he finishes the work for which he is perhaps best remembered:

building of the Temple in Jerusalem. Our text for today is Solomon’s prayer at the Temple’s dedication.

The previous chapters in 1 Kings speak of the seven years of the Temple’s construction. Solomon uses the finest of building materials: the cedars of Lebanon, cypress wood, gold, silver, bronze, and huge blocks of cut and dressed stone. He has master craftsmen carve into the walls of the Temple elaborate decorations of cherubim, palm trees, and flowers. He overlays everything–even the floor–with gold. It is a magnificent building, inside and out.

When all is ready, Solomon brings up the Ark of the Covenant, which has been residing in the Tabernacle, and installs it in the newly finished Temple, in the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, under the wings of the cherubim, carved of olivewood and covered with gold. As soon as the priests put the Ark in its place, a cloud fills the Temple and the glory of the LORD inhabits it.

This cloud that descends on the Temple is a sign of the presence of the LORD. It is the same cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt and protected them from the Egyptian army (Exodus 14:19-25). It is the cloud that descended on the top of Mount Sinai when God made a covenant with the Israelites and gave them the Law as a gift (Exodus 24:15-18). This same cloud settled on the Tabernacle, that movable sanctuary, by which the LORD was present with the chosen people throughout their wilderness wanderings (Exodus 40:34-38).

The cloud of God’s presence is not the only explicit connection between this text and the Exodus. The Exodus from Egypt and the Sinai covenant are mentioned six times in this chapter alone (1 Kings 8:9, 16, 21, 51, 53, 56). Just as the LORD was present with those early Israelites some five hundred years before (1 Kings 6:1), he is present now with their descendants, in the Temple that Solomon built.

There is continuity here–the same God who brought Israel out of Egypt now dwells with them in their land. But there is also a significant shift in worldview. The Israelites are no longer wandering nomads in the Sinai Peninsula. They are established now in their own land, the land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are a nation in their own right, with a glorious and wise king. The covenant at Sinai is still in force, but Solomon speaks also of another covenant in his prayer–the covenant God made with David, his father, to establish David’s line forever (1 Kings 8:23-26). And perhaps most significantly, from now on the LORD will be associated not with Mount Sinai, but with Mount Zion, the Temple Mount.
It is difficult to overstate the significance of the Temple (and therefore Jerusalem/Zion) in Israelite/Jewish theology. To cite just one of a myriad of examples, Psalm 137 gives voice to the longing of the exiles in Babylon for Jerusalem:

By the rivers of Babylon– there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
…………………………
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalm 137:1, 5-6)

The Talmud instructs Jews to recite this last verse to a bridegroom at his wedding, as he waits for his bride to arrive, so that he will remember that there is no greater joy than the joy one should feel over Jerusalem.1

In Solomon’s prayer, Jerusalem is “the city that you [God] have chosen” (1 Kings 8:44). The Temple is the place of which God says, “My name shall be there” (1 Kings 8:29). It is the place where heaven meets earth and where God’s glory appears (Isaiah 6:1-3). The Temple dedicated in our text for today, the Temple Solomon built, lives in the Israelite and Jewish imagination long after it is destroyed by the Babylonians; long after its replacement, the Second Temple, is destroyed by the Romans. The longing for the Temple, and for the city in which it stood, is the reason that the Passover meal traditionally ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” It is the reason that the Western Wall (the remaining wall of the Temple Mount that is closest to the site of the Temple) is Judaism’s holiest site.

What is a preacher to do with this text? The Temple, and Jerusalem, do not hold the same importance for Christians as they do for Jews. Nevertheless, it may be fruitful to explore the history and significance of the Temple in a sermon and remind one’s congregation of the relationship between God and Israel and the ongoing faith of our Jewish brothers and sisters.

This text also lends itself to speaking about how God is present with God’s people throughout Scripture–in cloud, in fire, at Mount Sinai, in the Tabernacle, in the Temple, and (most fully) in Emmanuel, God-with-us. God remains faithful to God’s people, both Jews and Christians, through the centuries.

Given this text’s focus on the Temple, it is also important to note that Solomon’s prayer does not confine God to the Temple. In 1 Kings 8:27, Solomon acknowledges that this “house” cannot contain God; and in several verses he speaks of God’s “dwelling place” being in “heaven,” from where God can hear prayers and act in mercy towards those who pray (1 Kings 8:30-49). Although the Temple is central to Israel’s worship for many centuries, it is not essential. When it is destroyed (twice!), God is still present with and attentive to God’s people.

Finally, it is important to note that we who are Gentiles are also in this text. In verses 41-43, Solomon speaks of the “foreigner” who will pray “towards this house.” He asks God to heed the prayer of (even) that foreigner “so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel” (8:43). We Gentiles are included in God’s mercy and have access to God even at this early stage of Israel’s history. Such inclusion is reason for thanksgiving and humility.

God is present with God’s people. God hears prayer and will respond with mercy. Such is the Gospel in this text. The Temple is a sign and a means of that communion with God, and thus deserves to be remembered with honor in both synagogue and church. This text gives us opportunity to remember our ancestors in faith and to give thanks for the mercy of God that includes us, too–the wild olive branches grafted into the root of Israel (Romans 11:11-24).


1James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), p. 467.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 34:15-22

James K. Mead

With the concluding verses of Psalm 34, the author has returned to the subject matter with which he began, namely the suffering from which God delivered him (verse 4).

Along the way, as we saw last Sunday, the psalmist explored the connection between worship and some of the wisdom principles for right relationships (verses 9-14). It may have been possible, however, to get the wrong impression from those general principles. The way the question in verse 12 is posed — “Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?” — might suggest to us that if we simply uphold the standards of right speech and action listed in verses 13-14, we can count on a long and happy life.

In case we are tempted to follow that logic, the remainder of the psalm brings us back to reality. Today’s psalm lection is fraught with a sense of conflict between good and evil, intense affliction for the righteous, but also the hopeful assurance that the Lord is aware of such trouble and acts to rescue the sufferer. Among the many avenues for reflection available to us in this passage, the following three ideas stand out to me.

The reality of suffering for the righteous
The psalmist unflinchingly holds the traditional wisdom of verses 11-14 together with the fact of suffering for the righteous. Given the reputation of the Book of Proverbs as presenting a simplified view of obedience and blessing, we should notice that the object of oppression and trouble in verses 15-22 are not some group of pretend-worshipers or secret slackers who finally get what’s coming to them. If that were the case, then we could explain their sufferings and take refuge in our tidy theology of prosperity for the righteous.

However, this psalm won’t let us off the hook. Without disparaging the general truth of traditional wisdom, the author nevertheless states that the righteous do indeed suffer. They “cry” and experience “troubles” (verses 15, 17).1  They are “brokenhearted” and have “afflictions” (verses 18-19). It is also likely the case that these righteous ones are “socially marginal,” turning to Yahweh for help instead of to some other source within human society.2  Such a class reading may help to explain a source of their affliction, but the repetition of “righteous” points to a moral/spiritual cause of persecution as well. One thinks, in this regard, of the apostle’s encouragement of those who “suffer for doing what is right” (1 Peter 3:14; 4:15-16).

The reality of evil in the world
As obvious as this affirmation seems, I take the time and space to comment on the “conflict” theology present in the psalm. There are excellent biblical and theological reasons for shunning a world and life view that explains everything in terms of conflict. We live with the increasing potential for demonizing enemies and even average folks who simply disagree with us on politics and religion. A gospel mindset teaches that abundant life isn’t about identifying the “bad guys” in every situation or turning every issue into an ultimate battle between good and evil. That being said, the tone of opposition in our passage is confirmed by human experience.

Thus, in spite of the very real danger of oversimplification, Psalm 34 provides an eloquent Old Testament conversation partner for the New Testament epistle reading this Sunday (Ephesians 6:10-20), with its message of spiritual conflict. The psalmist’s reason for acknowledging such conflict is not to demonize evildoers but to maintain solidarity with the victims of evil. The believer leaves the judgment in the hands of the Lord (verse 16). While this passage is not a mandate to end the struggle for justice, the author prefers to trust the mysterious workings of providence, namely, that “evil brings death to the wicked” (verse 21a). Moreover, the passive sense of verse 21b (“those who hate the righteous will be condemned”) tends to remove personal vengeance from the disposition of justice.

The reality of divine rescue
In spite of the above painful realities, the psalmist nevertheless believes that God is actively present to bless and save the righteous sufferer. This theme is lifted up in manifold ways that all have a vivid, sensory, and personal expression: God’s “eyes” and “ears” which see and hear the plight of the needy (verses 15, 17); God’s “face” which is “against evildoers (verse 16); God’s nearness to and salvation of the “brokenhearted” (verse 18); God’s keeping “the bones” and redeeming “the life” of the righteous (verses 20, 22). Thus, Weiser writes, “The true happiness of a godly life consists in the nearness of God and in the living experience of his help and not in being spared suffering and affliction.”3  This notion dovetails nicely with the sense of “abiding” in the gospel lection for today, John 6:56-69.4 

There is a challenge here of translating the truths of an ancient Hebrew worldview into modern Christian categories. To speak of rescue is not to advocate some type of “victorious Christian life.” We are clearly cautioned by the ultimate expression of Jesus as the perfectly righteous sufferer who does not experience God’s rescue on the cross but only from the grave. Even so, we do not have to suggest, with Derek Kidner, that verse 19b “urges the mind to look beyond death.”5 

There will be moments in the here and now when the believer asks others to join her in thanking God for answers to prayer, deliverance from illness, provision for the journey, and so on. The cumulative effect of verses 15-22, therefore, is to assure the believer that whatever the outcome of any particular experience of persecution, grief, or pain, God’s nature as a rescuer offers hope and peace.6  And that truth makes possible the act of worship in the midst of suffering.


Notes:

1 In verse 17a, the NRSV follows the Greek by clarifying that it is indeed “the righteous” who cry for help.  The Hebrew has no such noun, simply writing, “they cry . . .” The potential problem is that the immediately antecedent noun in verse 16 is “evildoers.” The Hebrew could imply that those crying out to God in verse 17 are repentant evildoers. In spite of the grammatical openness, such a reading goes against the grain of the whole passage, and verse 15 has just used “righteous” with another noun for “cry.” See W. VanGemeren, “Psalms” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1991), 285. 

2 W. Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Augsburg, 1984), 134.

3 A. Weiser, Psalms: A Commentary (Westminster, 1962), 299; italics his.

4 J. McCann, “Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon, 1996), 816.

5 D. Kidner, Psalms 1-72 (InterVarsity Press, 1973), 141. Still, Kidner is right in seeing Christ’s resurrection as a fulfillment of this hope, given the New Testament’s citation of the psalm with respect to the cross (verse  20 in John 19:36). Patristic interpretation certainly went in this direction. See C. Blaising and C. Hardin, eds., Psalms 1-50, Ancient Christian Commentary (InterVarsity Press, 2008), 19: 266-269.

6 See M. Gilmour, “Crass Casualty or Purposeful Pain? Psalm 34’s Influence on Peter’s First Letter,” Word and World 24 (2004):404-411.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20

Susan Hylen

These verses form a powerful and eloquent conclusion to the letter.

They represent a reworking of biblical imagery to support the author’s viewpoint that the church, having been united as one body through the work of Christ, takes an active role in pursuing God’s righteousness and justice.

The author is working closely with Isaiah 59, in which God appears as a divine warrior who will bring about justice (see Isaiah 59:15b-19; this tradition is also developed in Wisdom of Solomon 5:17-23 and 1 Thessalonians 5:8). As in Isaiah 59:17, the “armor of God” includes “the breastplate of righteousness” (Ephesians 6:14), and “the helmet of salvation” (Ephesians 6:17). Yet in Ephesians’ use of the imagery, it is the community of the faithful that takes up this armor. They do so “in the Lord,” which suggests that they wage this battle alongside the Lord. However, in Isaiah the language indicates that “there was no one to intervene” (59:16), and so God fights for justice alone. In Ephesians, we see a unique expression of the church’s role in salvation and justice. By taking up God’s armor, the community becomes active in the struggle against spiritual forces (cf. verse 12).

The active role of the community is also communicated in the verbs of verses 10-11. “Be strong” (verse 10; Greek: endunamousthe) and “clothe yourselves” (verse 11; Greek: endusasthe) are both middle verbs in Greek, which gives them a reflexive quality: literally, “strengthen yourselves” as well as “clothe yourselves.” In the author’s earlier discussions of God’s power, the active role of the community has not been stated explicitly. This power was put to work in Christ (1:19-20) and is far above other powers (1:21). The author prays that the readers may be strengthened with God’s power (3:16) but also recognizes the “power at work within us” (3:20). Ephesians 6:10-11 extends this notion to suggest that the community itself acts to take up God’s power, at least partially through its own initiative.

The active role of the church is not altogether surprising, given the writer’s previous indication that God has “raised us up with [Christ] and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (2:6). This exaltation is a unique expression of the church’s identity among New Testament writings. However, it is interesting to note that, while Christians are already seated with Christ in the heavenly places, this position does not eliminate the need for struggle. The wrestling “against the spiritual forces of evil” also takes place “in the heavenly places” (6:12).

While modern Christians are likely to have a view of heaven as a paradise in which no evil dwells, the writer of Ephesians is drawing on a different set of cultural assumptions, one in which a struggle between cosmic forces occurs within the heavenly realm. Christians, who already reign with Christ in some sense, are obligated to participate in this struggle.

The armor of God that the church takes up relates to the message that the author has already laid out. The theological message of Ephesians 1-3 is now depicted metaphorically as preparation for a spiritual battle in which believers engage through their actions. By girding themselves with the “belt of truth” (6:14), readers metaphorically prepare themselves for the work to which they have already been called: they are to “speak the truth in love” to one another (cf. 4:15, 25). Similarly the “breastplate of righteousness” relates to the “new self” with which they are to clothe themselves, as beings “created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24).

The author has earlier explained the “gospel of peace” (6:15), for which readers should ready themselves by putting on shoes. In reconciling Jews and Gentiles into one body, Christ “is our peace” (2:14). The elimination of hostility through Jesus’ death on the cross is central to the letter’s understanding of the heart of the gospel message. It is this message of reconciliation that should lead the church to the behavior indicated here and in the rest of Ephesians 4-6.

In addition to these, the reader is exhorted to take up “the shield of faith” (6:16). According to Ephesians, faith activates the power of God (cf. 1:19; 2:8). Salvation is God’s gift, yet it also comes through the believer’s faith (3:12). It is “through faith” that Christ dwells in the believer’s heart (3:17). Metaphorically, taking up the shield of faith communicates the protection that faith activates. The salvation that comes as God’s gift through faith is depicted as the ability “to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (6:16).

Prayer (6:18) is an activity that is connected to the taking up of God’s armor. The author also prays on behalf of the church for their strength and understanding (cf. 3:13-19). The church is instructed to pray for all of the saints and for the author as well. The cosmic adversaries of 6:12 carry an eschatological tinge, because the imagery of God taking up God’s armor to seek justice was related in first century culture to the notion of the day of the Lord. Yet in Ephesians’ reworking of the imagery, the battle with cosmic forces is not simply a battle delayed for a future day of God’s judgment, but is a present battle believers must engage on a regular basis.

The church’s struggle is a heavenly one against spiritual powers, but it is acted out on a more mundane level in the types of behavior to which the reader is called. The “chains” of the writer’s imprisonment (6:20) are another reminder of the ways that the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” impinge on the lives that believers live in this world. The armor of God does not mean that the church will not encounter difficulties, then, but enables Christians to encounter such difficulties. Through perseverance and prayer, the church may boldly proclaim the gospel even in the midst of persecution and hardship.