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Paul’s exhortation to take up the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10–18 is a favorite passage for many Christians. It is stirring and vivid. It reads like an inspiring call to battle. It inflames the Christian’s heart with language that radiates strength and courage for the warfare we face “in the evil day” (v. 13). Its position at the end of Ephesians makes this passage a reprise of Paul’s earlier teachings in the epistle and a final exhortation before he passes on to a very brief ending to the letter. The exhortation is quite simple: “Stand firm” and “pray.” But this beloved passage has a few striking features that come out with a closer reading, which we will briefly survey here.

The first striking feature of Ephesians 6:10–18 is an unusual term Paul uses for armed warfare. In verse 12, Paul refers to this warfare as “our struggle” (NASB, NIV), rendered as “we wrestle not” or “we do not wrestle” in the KJV and ESV, respectively. In Greek, the word is a noun that refers to a wrestling match. Such matches were commonly conducted in ancient Ephesus and elsewhere as well as in local, regional, and international games such as the Olympics. As is the case today, wrestling matches in the ancient world were not carried out in full military armor or with “flaming darts” (v. 16) and swords (v. 17).

The intriguing question is why Paul refers to our “struggle” as a wrestling match rather than as “warfare” or “combat,” or as a “battle” or “fight,” which are more fitting for a contest in armor. There are several reasons for this.

These attacks take place particularly through malignant teachings to throw Christ’s people off their feet and to take them captive as slaves.

The most important reason Paul says we are in a wrestling match is his repeated exhortation to “stand” or to “stand firm” (vv. 11, 13–14) and to “hold your ground” (v. 13; ESV “withstand”). This is not exactly a complete set of orders for a soldier in battle ranks, who would be expected to advance against an enemy rather than passively waiting to be surrounded, attacked from all sides, and routed. “Prepare buckler and shield, and advance for battle!” (Jer. 46:3, emphasis added). But the Christian’s warfare is more like a wrestling match even if we are clothed with the “armor of God” (Eph. 6:11).

It is true that in the ancient world, battles between heavily armed and armored soldiers often devolved into intense hand-to-hand combat, and the soldier who lost his feet would inevitably perish. He had to “stand fast” and “hold his ground.” Perhaps this explains Paul’s emphasis on our standing, which he accents through repetition in verses 13 and 14: “. . . to stand firm. Stand therefore.” As a result, it shows that Paul is not giving us a calm bit of advice during a pleasant retreat. No, the Apostle is urgently warning and exhorting us on the battlefield in the face of a grim onslaught “in the evil day” (v. 13). Steady . . . steady . . . Stand fast! Hold your ground! Stand! “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand” (v. 11); “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:13–14).

Paul does not give a complete listing of contemporary combat gear. The main elements of armor in the passage are defensive: breastplate, shield, and helmet (with the exception being the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”). Perhaps this fits more appropriately with Paul’s point about the church’s standing firm like armored wrestlers.

Finally, wrestling matches were and are often won not only through brute strength but also by feints and guile in order to throw the opponent off his feet. Hence, Paul’s warning here is that our close order battle is against “the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11), whose minions employ “human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (4:14). These attacks take place particularly through malignant teachings to throw Christ’s people off their feet and to take them captive as slaves (e.g., Rom. 16:18; Gal. 2:4; Eph. 5:6; Col. 2:8; 1 Tim. 6:3–5; Jude 4; 1 John 2:26). It is for this reason that we must stand fast against an onslaught of evil flaming darts directed against us by “cosmic powers over this present darkness . . . the spiritual forces of evil” (Eph. 6:12).

The strength upholding the church in its conflict flows out of Christ’s supremacy over every competing realm and power that can be named both in this age and in the next.

One prominent background feature of our passage is its connection with the Lord as a divine warrior. The links with Isaiah and the military equipment in Ephesians 6:14–17 in particular are overt; however, we should underline that the armor in Isaiah is the Lord’s own, which He takes up to defeat His enemies for the sake of His helpless people:

He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head. (Isa. 59:16–17)

It was the Almighty who has “rent the heavens and come down” (Isa. 64:1). And now that this messianic King has decisively won our salvation (Eph. 1:20–22; 3:7, 16, 20; 4:8; see John 16:33). His people are equipped with His own armor to defend themselves in this age.

One important question arises that is periodically discussed: What constitutes the Christian’s armor? Is it personal piety or virtue (Eph. 6:14), preparedness to share the gospel (v. 15), or some other characteristic of the believer? Or is the armor objective aspects of Christ’s victory in the divine armor that He Himself had put on to bring about salvation for His people? For example, is “the breastplate of righteousness” in verse 14 Christ’s own righteousness imputed to us in justification?

The answer is a combination of both Christ’s own perfection clothing us as a divine gift by grace through faith alone (see especially 2:8–9) and the church’s own resulting integrity. It is essential, though, to read this and many other passages as addressing Christians not in isolation but as members of a community in the same way that the individual soldier must be part of an army to stand fast against an enemy horde. Our integrity is corporate as well as individual, for we help one another stand fast in the faith (see Heb. 12:15).

Our faith in Christ informs everything about our daily lives so that we can stand firm in steadily sanctified holy array.

The exhortations here come to the church as a whole to stand fast in the panoply that God supplies in Christ. Individuals partake but are not isolated and on their own. The members of Christ’s united people are clothed with Christ in whom is all truth (Eph. 4:21). They stand their ground clothed in truth (6:14) and speak the truth to one another (4:25), maturing together to Christ’s stature produced by the Word of God and its instruction (vv. 7–16; 6:17).

The strength upholding the church in its conflict flows out of Christ’s supremacy over every competing realm and power that can be named both in this age and in the next (e.g., Eph. 1:15–23; 4:10). Hence, Christians are to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (6:10, emphasis added; see 3:7, 16, 20) and are urged to be “strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Col. 1:11).

Being told to put on the Lord’s armor may sound like David attempting to put on Goliath’s armor (1 Sam. 17:5–6). It’s so big and we’re so little. There are two things that help us.

First, putting on the armor of God that Christ Himself bore is tantamount to putting “on Christ,” which we have already done when we were baptized “into Him” (Rom. 6:3 ; Gal. 3:27). This is tantamount to telling us to look to Christ in faith for all things. Notice the parallels in this passage:

The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Rom 13:12–4, emphasis added)

Our faith in Christ informs everything about our daily lives so that we can stand firm in steadily sanctified holy array.

Second, Paul’s exhortation is summarized in Ephesians 6:18–20, where he tells us to pray “in the Spirit” (v. 18). This is how we wield the “sword of the Spirit”: prayer. We are under orders from the Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6; Eph. 2:14–17), and our only offensive weapons for conquest of the world are prayer and the “word of God” (v. 17), which centers on glad tidings of peace (vv. 15, 19–20) and love. Like a tiny science-fiction weapon that can destroy a star, gospel proclamation soaked in prayer packs a huge wallop: “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4).

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From the October 2021 Issue
Oct 2021 Issue