Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20
Extending last Sunday’s focus on Christ the bread of life, here again is exhortation to serve the one true God of liberation, to have life by eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood.
When the disciples hear Jesus’ words — “the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58) — the text says they respond that this is a difficult teaching. Indeed! The preacher’s responsibility on this Sunday is to explore that difficulty — the paschal mystery.
The preacher receives help from the Ephesians text because it addresses the churches’ task in the face of the gospel proclamation. The text is structured so that we hear, first, a rationale for the task (“to stand against the wiles of the devil”), secondly, the needed armor (truth, righteousness, peace, faith), and finally, the requisite spiritual orientation (prayer in the Spirit).
The churches are to maintain strength, wearing the “armor of God,” in order to pray that “the mystery of the gospel” will be proclaimed. The proclamation is not about something knowable in the way we know a fact or a brute encounter. The proclamation is about something irrevocable (a crucifixion), unbelievable (a resurrection), and imperative (true life).
On one level, the text concerns the proclamation not just of the gospel but of the mystery of the gospel, for the command to have life eternal through eating bread and drinking wine in Jesus’ name is, indeed, a mystery. On another level, the text’s command is directed to the assembly to pray for the preacher! Consider that this praying is so arduous and important that it requires serious attention to armaments which not only protect those who pray but also pierce the listener.
Battlefield imagery is problematic for many Christians. Here we have the warrior garb of Roman soldiers who upheld an oppressive, totalitarian regime. A soldier conscripted from among the large percentage of the population who were not Roman citizens would receive citizenship with its many benefits after serving for at least 25 years.1 When obedience reaps huge rewards, a soldier eagerly carries out the tyrant’s orders.
Do Christians really need a soldier’s garb? Years ago Marva Dawn gave a Bible study in which she talked about the language in the old hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” reminding us that following Christ Jesus by praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek, forgiving endlessly, etc., is in many respects to live embattled. It is not to fight against other people. It is not a triumphal war to form a Christian government (a theocracy like that endorsed today by various religious traditions). It is not a struggle opposing non-Christians or back-sliders or even one’s own petty and enormous inabilities. The task is much bigger, and for that reason the image of being robed in the armaments of violence is meant to emphasize the eschatological scope of Christian identity.
The “whole armor of God” is needed for the war against the principalities and powers, and against the forces of sin, our own separation from the Holy One, our own desires for what does not feed and nourish God’s creation. The enemy (verse 12) is “the rulers… the authorities… the cosmic powers of this present darkness… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The enemy threatens from within and outside ourselves. To be readied for war with that enemy is to be set for the daily battle against all that opposes God’s desire that “the mystery of the gospel” give joy on Earth.
Several commentaries describe these six pieces of armor with varying explanations of what they offer to the faithful. One matter to hold in mind is that, while they constitute the garb of an individual soldier, in the context of serving as equipment for prayer, they are the armor of the church as a body. We wear these gifts together. We “stand therefore” (verse 14) shoulder to shoulder as Roman soldiers would do,2 as today’s riot police do: an impenetrable wall of strength.
The belt holds up the toga so the soldier can move unencumbered by cloth. The “belt of truth” fixes what is necessary in such a way that it leaves the church free and flexible, able to walk or run, loosed from what constrains or trips the wearer.
The breastplate covers the core of the body. Righteousness protects the heart and lifeblood from cosmic evil.
Shoes are for readiness to stand and speak peace.
The shield is defense against flaming arrows. Roman shields were leather, wetted against incoming fire, and large enough to cover the one who carried it and one-third of the person beside him.3 The shields were linked, so that again, we can see the church, armed with faith, facing assaults from those who do not know the gospel is about peace.
The “helmet of salvation” reminds us of baptism, the cross on our foreheads.
The only piece of this armor that can be used for offense is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Proclaiming the mystery of the gospel, the word of God both cuts and salves. It is law and gospel, in Lutheran terms — trouble and grace, in the language of homiletician Paul Wilson.4 Even the offensive weapon is for healing and peace, because, in Christian terms, the Spirit kills and brings to life.
The preacher is given all this specificity in exploring the paschal mystery so that, in the end, the assembly can feel the armored heft and power of God’s Word and move emboldened into the week ahead where the church is to pray in the spirit and persevere. Living the paschal mystery in the presence of the forces of destruction calls for impressive tools.
1Mark Black, “Paul and Roman Law in Acts,” in Restoration Quarterly 24:4 (1981), 212.
2William Warren, “Engaging the Forces of Evil (Ephesians 6:10-20,” in Theological Educator 54 (Fall 1996), 100; see also Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 55.
3Ronald Olson, “Thinking and Practicing Reconciliation,” in Word & World 17:3 (Summer 1997), 328.
4Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995).