The Whole Armour of God
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
On a cold January day a few years ago I was in my office on the second floor of our Toronto home when I hear the sound of glass breaking downstairs. My then-teenaged step-daughter was home and I presumed had dropped and broken something. So I went to investigate. When I got downstairs I was, instead, surprised to see a young man standing in our dining room clad in a hospital gown—he had broken the window in the back door to let himself in. When I asked him if I could help him he told me he was an undercover police office. The truth was he had managed to let himself out of a nearby-hospital where he was being treated for “anti-social behaviour.” (Nothing untoward happened and he was later safely returned to the hospital.)
When I think back on that day I can tell you that even as I was trying to remain calm and engage this man in conversation, in my mind I had already made the calculation comparing his physical stature to mine. If push came to shove I was assessing the situation to determine if I thought I could do the most shoving. It also became crystal clear where objects were that I might find useful if needed; like the shovel at the front door and which drawer in the kitchen contained knives. I was amazed at what I began to think about as I assessed the level of threat this man posed. The immanent perception of a threat made me suddenly aware of what I might need by way of defence.
“Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” Clearly the Apostle Paul asserts that we live in a world with forces that pose a spiritual threat to faith in Jesus Christ and to the faithful as they endeavour to follow Jesus Christ. I wonder if Christians today perceive themselves threatened. Every week we pray as our Lord taught us—“deliver us from evil.” Is this a throw-away line or is the threat real? Jesus thought it real.
Jesus’ death on the cross exposes the threat to be real. The “principalities and powers” that Paul said we wrestle against (Ephesians 6:12) we clearly see were all lined up against our Lord on that day we call Good Friday. On the cross these powers all did their worst. In anticipation of all this Jesus had apprised his disciples that opposition would be the context of the life of the church. “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33)
On March 26, 2014 Simon A. Fish Executive Vice-President and General Counsel of the Bank of Montreal Financial Group sent a letter to the Policy Secretariat of the Law Society of Upper Canada asking the Law Society to deny accreditation of Trinity Western University’s application for approval of their law program to be recognized for admission to the bar in Ontario. The reason was because of Trinity Western’s stand, a Christian University, with regard to marriage. There was no complaint that there was anything deficient with respect to the law programme; they just didn’t like certain of their Christian commitments. We wrestle against principalities and powers. Economics, in which banking finds its purpose, is a principality that serves God’s purposes for human life; Jesus participated in Israel’s economy where he built and sold products as a carpenter and stone mason; the Apostle Paul made and sold tents. But the principalities are corrupted by human sin; often aligned against the gospel.
Education is a principality. The command to love God with all our mind reveals that God intended education as a good. But education too has been corrupted from such purpose. Think about how talk of God is ruled out of bounds. Consider the teaching of the noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He wrote: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” (Dawkins, River Out Of Eden, New York: Basic Books, 1995, p 133.) Such views are not uncommon in various levels of our education system and they are in opposition to the gospel.
As I have noted with you on other occasions, the gospel declares that human beings are primarily creatures of spirit; and to say this is to say that we live, ultimately, in a world of spirit. Which is to say in turn that conflicts in our world are ultimately spiritual conflicts. Most profoundly, our world is not the scene of competing economic forces (although there certainly are competing economic forces.) Ultimately the world is not the venue of contradictory ethical theories, ultimately not the theatre of clamouring historical movements. The world is finally the scene of spiritual conflict, intense spiritual conflict: a conflict, in fact, which claims victims every day.
The apostle insists that the entire cosmos is shot through with evil. No institution is spared. If we do not perceive this threat we are naïve; we are unwitting victims of the “unseen power that controls this dark world.”
And what about us personally? It is to you and me personally that the apostle speaks concerning the “wiles of the devil.” (The devil’s craftiness.) Of course we can be tempted, even seduced, at our point of greatest weakness. Such temptation we recognize quite readily. But we are in equal danger of being tempted or seduced craftily at our point of greatest strength. At our strong point we are in danger of becoming self-important and therefore self-deluded; in short, spiritually blind. Our guard is down because we perceive no threat at our strength. We are much more vulnerable than we think we are.
This is to say that the only thing to do is put on the whole armour of God. As we consider briefly each of these pieces of armour that Paul mentions I would make a general observations. People today are uneasy with the military imagery Paul uses; disquieted by with hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers. It is helpful to note that it is predominantly defensive armaments that Paul uses as metaphor. Still, we should never take lightly the enemy.
1. The first item, says Paul is the belt of truth. The belt which the Roman soldier wore was a wide piece of thick leather. It protected his lower abdomen. It was also that piece of the armour that held everything else in place.
Truth is the truth of the gospel; the substance of the gospel. It is the substance of the gospel which gives us substance, something in our belly. The abdomen is where our stomach is through which the body is nourished. The substance of the gospel, truth, lends us substance; and this in turn fortifies us.
The belt also holds the soldiers clothing and body armour in place. The story of Jesus giving his life for us on the cross is the prism through which the Christian sees everything else in life. God coming among us taking on our flesh and blood is that which holds other truths in palce.
2. The second piece of armour is the breastplate of righteousness (righteousness in this context being the integrity possessed of the person rightly related to our Lord.) The breastplate protected the soldier’s heart. According to biblical metaphor our heart is the control centre for willing, feeling, and discerning. Integrity or righteousness protects our personal control centre. Not the integrity of self-made moral achievement; the integrity, rather, which comes through having Jesus Christ, the righteous one, ruling within us.
Some of you may know how a gyrocompass functions. In World War II all submarines were equipped with a gyrocompass. It spun at startling speed: thousands of revolutions per second. When the submarine was submerged, without radio contact or celestial navigation, the gyrocompass kept it on course. If the submarine was depth-charged and knocked about violently, the gyrocompass reset the course automatically. Eerything depending on a small item which maintained constant orientation however violent the turbulence.
Righteousness, integrity — Paul compares it to the breastplate which protected the soldier’s heart. Righteousness, or integrity, protects the control-centre of every Christian.
3. Shoes, the third item in the Christian’s armour. You can easily understand that the best-trained foot-soldier is only as good as his shoes; what good is a foot-soldier whose feet hurt so much he can’t walk?
Roman soldiers were known for their endurance, their long marches. One of Caesar’s most effective tactics was to keep his men marching when everyone else thought his men would be hunkered down, soaking blistered feet in a basin. But the feet of Caesar’s soldiers didn’t blister; neither did the men become unduly fatigued. Their footwear was better than that. Roman soldiers wore sandals, lightweight sandals made of rawhide. The shoes were light, flexible, resilient.
The shoes, which the Christian wears, are “the gospel of peace”. By “peace” Paul doesn’t mean primarily “peace in my heart”. He means shalom, the kingdom of God, God’s end-time resolution of cosmic conflict when the evil one, now defeated, is finally destroyed and will no longer afflicts God’s creation. The gospel promises this and even now anticipates it. Because I believe the promise, and because my feet are shod with the gospel (which is to say, I’ve already tasted the end-time resolution), I can keep going for as long as breath remains in me. Light, flexible, resilient.
4. The shield of faith. It quenches fiery darts, says the apostle. Roman soldiers soaked their shields in water before battle so flaming arrows that might strike their wood and leather shields would fizzle out. Further every soldier carried his shield on his left arm. It protected 2/3 of his body, plus 1/3 of the body of the fellow on his left. In other words, every soldier was responsible for affording a measure of protection to his colleague.
“Be sure you take faith as your shield”, Paul insists. We must take faith as our shield, not only because faith extinguishes the flaming missiles by which we are assaulted, but also because each person’s faith affords a measure of protection to others in the congregation. The picture Paul has in an army standing side by side affording a measure of protection. If I don’t take the shield of faith, you will be uncommonly exposed to the evil one’s assault on account of my negligence. We need each other in meeting the assaults of this enemy.
5. The helmet of salvation. The helmet protects the head. A soldier’s head is vulnerable. In modern infantry engagements 90% of fatal wounds are head wounds. The head is crucial.
It is the head which thinks. And it’s important to think. Jesus insists that we love God with our mind. And when Jesus heals the disturbed fellow who runs around in the graveyard mutilating himself, the townspeople find the fellow in his right mind. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that they must not be conformed to the mindset of the world around them; they must be transformed by the renewal of their mind. J.B.Phillips again: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remake you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed.” Either our thinking is renewed at the hand of God or we are stuck in that mindset which blindly keeps on rationalizing the delusions and depravities of a world which contradicts the truth of God every day.
Peter urges us to “gird up our minds”. The usual expression is gird up one’s loins. In ancient Palestine people wore calf-length robes. People girded their loins when they were about to do one of three things: work, run, or fight. To gird up our minds means that we must think vigorously; and our thinking has to tell us whether we are to work, flee, or resist. It takes wisdom to survive, even triumph, in the midst of spiritual conflict. Wisdom means knowing when it is appropriate, even needful, to work, flee or resist.
6. The sword of the Spirit, the word of God. The sword, be it noted, is an offensive weapon. The sword of the Spirit (God’s Spirit) is the only offensive weapon the Christian has. Furthermore, it must be noted again that this offensive weapon which God empowers is the word of God or the gospel. The only offensive weapon you and I have and therefore can wield is the gospel.
To say that we wield the gospel is simply to say that the Christian community does not huddle in a corner, a pathetic in-group doing its best to protect itself in a bleak world. To wield the gospel means that we announce and embody the truth of God and the redemption of God and the undeflectability of God at all times and in all places. When Paul wrote the Ephesian letter he was in prison. He didn’t like being in prison, but he also knew that the gospel can be announced and embodied in any setting, and a prison setting is as good as any other.
How fruitfully did he wield the gospel? All around our world many Christians have read this text from Paul’s Ephesian letter and have been fortified for our struggle by the letter he wrote from prison. How much more fruitful could he be?
Now some say that there was one more piece of armour; prayer. As Paul went on to write—pray in the Spirt at all times. A good observation that we do not have time to explore in this message.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand … Amen.