Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20
The scene is a dramatic one.
The military leader (be they a monarch, a general, or a rebel-trailblazer) stands before the assembled troops and delivers a rousing speech in anticipation of a coming battle. The troops are reminded of their heritage, promised honor as a result of their bravery, and assured that their valor, not their numbers, will prevail against the might of the enemies against whom they are contending.
Whether it be from Shakespeare’s Henry V or films such as Patton or Braveheart, the battlefield speech is geared to prepare, fortify, and motivate the troops to face the battle ahead of them with determination, courage, and perseverance. In many ways, Ephesians 6:10-20 functions as a rousing conclusion to the entire letter in which Christians are being called to arms for the battle in which they are pitted against all spiritual forces of evil.
Earlier in this letter (Ephesians 1:17-23), we were informed of God’s great power by which a cosmic victory over every rule, authority, power, and dominion was won in the resurrection and exaltation of Christ. This divine triumph includes God’s act of putting everything under the dominion of Christ both in this age and in the age to come. The church shares in this victory as the body of Christ and so experiences the fullness of Christ as Christians have been raised with Christ and are seated with him in the heavenly realms (1:22-23; 2:6-7).
Though the decisive battle has already been won by God and the ultimate divine victory is not in any doubt, the spiritual forces of evil have not gone gently into that good night. The devil, allied with all the evil powers of darkness, continues to scheme against God, to work its destructive, divisive ends, and to attack the saints of God (Ephesians 4:27; 6:11-12). Thus, this text stands as a climactic call to arms in order that Christians are properly equipped in preparation for the ensuing cosmic battle against all that stands against God, against the saving will and work God accomplished through Christ, and against the people of God in Christ.
On the one hand, the use of such motivational, military language and imagery was reasonably common in the religious and philosophical writings of the era. On the other hand, its particular use here, including aspects of the armor, are likely drawn more directly from the book of Isaiah which refers to belt (11:5), breastplate (59:17), footwear (52:7), helmet (59:17), and sword (49:2).
It is quite true that the militant, even combative, tone of this text can be rather off-putting to many contemporary preachers as well as their hearers. Nevertheless, this text is making several significant theological points which should not be overlooked:
- First of all, in the armed struggle with evil, the saints of God are on the defensive, not the offensive. This text is not an “onward Christian soldiers” type of battle cry in which the church militant will usher in God’s kingdom by attacking and rooting out all the forces which stand in opposition to God. Rather, the call is for the saints to stand firm and withstand the attacks of evil (stressed four times in verses 11-14).
- Second, the text takes seriously that not only does evil exist, but forces of evil also target and seek to overthrow the people of God. Whether one regards evil as malevolent cosmic forces or systemic powers of racism, nationalism, and classism, the public witness of the community of faith makes it a target for attack.
- Third, the resources needed for resistance and perseverance do not flow out of the community’s own strength, power, or innate abilities. Rather, the needed resources of resistance are given to the community by God, the Lord Jesus, and the Spirit.
The text’s opening establishes this point, though most English translations do not fully communicate this. Most translations open verse 10 with the exhortation to “be strong,” but the imperative used here is in the passive voice, clearly indicating full reliance on the Lord for strength (thus “be made strong in the Lord”). The preparation for which the community is called involves the readiness for the gospel of peace (verse 15), the word of divine truth which is salvation for those who believe (Ephesians 1:13). It is not the word which slays but the divine revelation of the peace which unites humanity that had formerly been divided and alienated (3:4-6; 2:14-17).
The equipment to be utilized are not instruments of destruction but the gear which builds up the community and equips the saints for ministry (Ephesians 4:12). To fasten the belt of truth involves speaking the truth in love as part of our growth into Christ (6:14; 4:15). Putting on the breastplate of righteousness recalls how our new self was created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (6:14; 4:24). Taking the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation evokes how we have been saved by grace through faith not as our human action but through the action of God as a pure gift (6:16-17; 2:8).
Finally, prayer is a major resource for resistance worked in us by the Spirit (as is emphasized through its exhortative repetition in Ephesians 6:18-20). Persistence in prayer is a hallmark of trusting in God’s care and relying not on one’s own abilities but remaining open to the directives of the Spirit. The admonition to prayer for all the saints (6:18) reminds us how we are always intimately linked to one another as conscientious members of the body of Christ who continue to grow together in love (4:15-16).
The conclusion of this text (verses 19-20) contains a bit of irony in that the one giving these instructions on preparation for battle is himself in chains as a captive. Indeed, he is also reliant on God’s troops for their prayers. So even the apostolic general is dependent on the Lord’s strength and on the community’s bonds to persevere for the proclamation of the gospel in face of all opposition.