Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20
As the letter to assemblies of believers in Ephesus and throughout the great cities of Asia Minor draws to a close, the author offers a final extended metaphor for how a person of faith in Jesus as God’s own anointed one, Lord over all, might shape the life of believers.
It is important for preachers to keep in mind that the addressees of this letter were very much a minority group in the first century. The language used to describe their God and Lord was very similar to that used to describe imperial officials, especially the emperor. Even the word for their gatherings, ekklesiae, was a term for political gatherings at the local level. This letter, then, was written for people for whom their allegiance to Christ set them at conspicuous odds with the allegiances of others in their families and cities. Perhaps for these folks a certain kind of armor would be exactly what they craved.
It is impossible to think about this passage in 2015 without thinking of the many minority groups at odds with their overlords throughout the world. For many of these groups, the United States government has been asked desperately for “armor” of a more contemporary sort, armor that will allow such groups either to claim their freedom more aggressively or to defend it simply by standing fast. How would such persons hear this the description of the kind of armor offered here? Can all this translate into our own cultures?
The first point made very directly is that the events of life in this world, especially the conflicts, are truly indicative of warfare in the “heavenly places.” The battle is not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), but with other dark and dangerous powers who do rule the world at the present time. For the Ephesians, no matter what hostility is displayed by their fellow townfolk, they are to understand that hostility as emanating from larger, darker, spiritual forces. Such forces cannot be fought by the believers themselves, but are rather to be resisted. Faithfulness to God places one in the midst of a battle one is unable to fight aggressively on earth.
What good news this might be for those who are no longer able to participate in worship centered on the emperor or any of the gods honored in town, city, or family. Believers do not stand alone and forgotten in the difficult places created by faithfulness to God, the Father of Jesus Christ. Instead, the beleaguered minority dares to trust that they are enrolled with the Lord and the hosts of heaven and protected finally — if not penultimately — by God’s strength and might (Ephesians 6:10). Spiritual hosts of wickedness guide and manipulate world rulers of this present age, but the battle is not with other people. It is with the powers of wickedness in the heavenly places. To quote Martin Luther, the devil’s “doom is sure.” Indeed, the author of this letter is confident that Christ already rules in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:20).
Yes, it is dangerous indeed to classify those with whom one disagrees as agents of the devil. We have three protections against making Ephesians 6 a warrant for warfare or oppression:
- first, this metaphor was written for minority persons;
- second, flesh and blood opponents are not those against whom one contends;
- finally, the very nature of the armor makes clear that the message here is a survival strategy for persons of faith in a hostile world, not a strategy for aggression.
Note that the armor is designed to help folks stand fast: it is not armor for aggressive action. Standing fast does not require a person to hurt a neighbor in any way.1 The “standing fast,” from histemi is repeated in Ephesians 6:11, 13, 14, clearly a very significant thread in this passage. Anthistemi also appears in v. 13. Withstanding (anthistemi) is necessary for standing. The armor is to empower believers to withstand (anthistemi) the evils that surround and threaten them.2
Second, the nature of the armor itself is profoundly defensive. The only equipment for attack is the sword, Even that weapon is a sword of the Spirit, aka, the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). Believers are girded in truth, faith, peace, the Spirit through the word, and in prayer for their defense and strength.
Finally, the boldness for which this armor empowers one is the boldness of witness in speech (Ephesians 6:20). Not all are expected to engage in such bold witness. This kind of speech would be a gift granted to some, but not all (Ephesians 4:11). Yet all share in this confident life in the midst of difficulty by perseverance in prayer for everyone. The armor is for individuals and their lives and, perhaps more importantly, the community as a whole is armed with faith, truth, peace, God’s Spirit, and prayer. The words calling upon believers to stand fast are plural. One believer alone does not have to be a kind of Don Quixote for God in the midst of a godless world, tilting at windmills and not taken seriously. This passage calls for considered, corporate resistance to evil when and wherever it is embodied in the structures of the world one lives in, through the power of God. One testifies to that power, confident that the Lord who lives in the heavenly places has already won the battle.
Such a donning of the armor of God on our part does not create us an impenetrable community who does not hear the cries of others. It does not render us invulnerable to change or to hearing the word of God uttered by others. Indeed, in identifying the “mystery of the gospel,” (Ephesians 6:20) and calling upon believers to remain alert (v. 18) and praying for wise speech, the armor of God protects us from confusing standing fast and rigidity. Dark powers adapt readily, eager to draw believers from a life of faithful love. God’s armor empowers believers through the millennia to grasp and resist such manipulation.
1 It is only fair to say that in the ancient world refusal to honor local or imperial deities could be taken as harmful to the corporate whole.
2 References to believers being empowered in Ephesians use dunamai and occur in 3:4, 20; 6:11, 13, and 16. Evil powers are not described in Ephesians 6 using a form of dunamai.