God's Protection for the Saints

QUESTION: What is the meaning and use of the Christian armour Paul describes in Ephesians 6:10-17?

ANSWER: The spiritual armour of the Christian is important to our welfare. Therefore, the meaning and application of the Ephesians passage is worthy of careful thought and study. There is certainly some room for differing conclusions, especially since Paul does not give us a thorough explanation, and the Bible elsewhere uses the imagery in slightly different ways (cf. Isa. 59:17; II Cor. 6:7; I Thess. 5:8).

It should also be noted that Roman armour varied over time, and not all were exactly outfitted as described. But herewith a brief explanation of each piece of armour, and my own conclusions about it.

1) The Belt of Truth (Integrity of Character)
The Armour: As the Roman soldier prepared for battle, a wide, strong belt was put on first. It gathered in his loose tunic, giving greater freedom of movement. It also gave support to the abdominal muscles, and sometimes included a scabbard for the sword.

The Meaning: Some suggest the belt represents the objective truth of Scripture. However, that is amply covered by other pieces of armour. It more likely refers to honesty, integrity, sincerity, and truthfulness in the life. The sword of truth is to be drawn out of the belt of personal truthfulness. Compare the example of Ezra, "[He] prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it [this came first], and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel [after he had applied it to himself]" (Ezra 7:10).

Our service for Christ ought not to be rooted in hypocrisy. God's objective truth can only be an effective weapon as it is sincerely applied and reflected in the Christian's own life. "Behold, You [Lord] desire truth in the inward parts" (Ps. 51:6). We are to "wage a good warfare, having faith and a good conscience" (I Tim. 1:18-19), and "be sincere and without offense (Phil. 1:10; cf. II Cor. 4:2; 11:13-15; I Thess. 2:3-4).

2) The Breastplate of Righteousness (Godly Affections and Desires)
The Armour: The breastplate covered the soldier's heart and other vital organs. Sometimes it was molded of one solid piece of metal, sometimes it was hinged to allow for freer movement.

The Meaning: This piece of armour, by its position, alerts us to the need to guard our heart's affections, values, priorities and desires. We are to base our life choices on a love for God and His Word. "Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life" (Prov. 4:23). "Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (I Jn. 2:15; cf. Heb. 11:24-26). "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:21).

3) Shoes of Peace (Assurance in Daily Walk)
The Armour: The sandals worn by Roman soldiers were often hobnailed (i.e. having cleats like some athletic shoes of today). This gave greater stability and surefootedness, on long marches and in combat.

The Meaning: Some say this indicates we are to be prepared to share the gospel. True enough, we are. But a picture of that duty is covered by wielding the sword. The Bible calls these shoes "the preparation of the gospel," not a preparation for sharing the gospel. This more accurately portrays the stability we gain through personal assurance of salvation.

Confidence in God as to the good news of our eternal safety in Christ helps us to keep our balance, instead of succumbing to needless worry and fear. Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you....Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (Jn. 14:27). "You [Lord] will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You" (Isa. 26:3)."Let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called" (Col. 3:15). "Be anxious for nothing, but...let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God...will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7; cf. Rom. 15:13).

4) The Shield of the Faith (God's Word Used Defensively)
The Armour: The Roman shield could be quite large–3 or 4 feet high, and about 2½ feet wide. It was commonly known as a door shield. A soldier could crouch behind it and be hidden. Or a line of men could overlap their shields and present a solid wall of protection to the enemy. The shield consisted of a wooden frame covered by a thick layer of leather. When this was soaked in water, it was also fireproof.

The Meaning: Many miss the point of this piece of armour that is "above all," providing an overall defense. Some claim that our defense against the devil is our personal faith. However, if we are protected only by our own poor, weak faith, we are in trouble!

The true meaning of the shield rests on a peculiarity of Greek grammar that is not always translated into English. There is actually a "the" before the word faith. More literally, it is "the shield of the faith." In the New Testament this refers not to our own faith, but to the body of truth in which we are to place our confidence. It stands for sound doctrine, the truths of God's Word.

The word "the" is translated in a number of passages to convey this meaning. For example, it was said of Paul, "He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy" (Gal. 1:23). And at the end of his life, the apostle himself testified, "I have kept the faith" (II Tim. 4:7). We are to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3), because "in latter times some will depart from the faith" (I Tim. 4:1).

Satan is called "the accuser of the brethren" (Rev. 12:10). And when he hurls at us fiery darts of accusation and blame, or lies intended to bring doubt and fear, we are to raise up the shield of The Faith, God's Word used defensively, to protect us.

That is precisely what Jesus did in His temptation in the wilderness. When the devil tempted Him, His response each time was to declare, "It is written..." (Matt. 4:4, 7 ,10). Of course, subjective faith is involved in this, since we believe God's Word, or we would not defend ourselves with it. But the point being made is that what stands between us and the attacks of the devil is not our own weak faith but the truth of the inspired, infallible Word of God.

5) The Helmet of Salvation (Understanding God's Great Salvation)
The Armour: The Roman helmet could be a leather cap with metal plates sewn to it. Or it could be cast of one solid piece of metal in the shape of the head. To this were added either metal flaps at the sides, or a visor that could be put in place to protect the eyes.

In one fierce battle, a Roman soldier named Brutus Maximus wore a full shield shaped like a face. It was not an image of his own face, but of his emperor, Caesar Augustus. Wearing it not only protected his face and eyes, but it said to those he fought, "I see you through my emperor's eyes and I am representing him in this battle. I fight for his glory." We can see an application of this to the Christian soldier.

The Meaning: The helmet represents a knowledge of God's Word. However, it is in particular an understanding of the doctrine of God's great salvation that Paul seems to have in mind. Salvation is a kind of umbrella word that encompasses some three or four dozen things God does for a person the moment He saves him. Ephesians 1:3–2:10 lists some of these, calling them "the riches of His grace," and "the exceeding riches of His grace" (Eph. 1:7; 2:7).

For the Christian, in summary (cf. Eph. 5:25-27; Rom. 8:30, 32), there is: Salvation in the past tense from sin's penalty (Jn. 5:24; Eph. 2:8); salvation in the present tense from sin's power (Phil. 2:12-13; Gal. 5:16; I Jn. 4:4); and salvation in the future tense from sin's very presence (Rom. 8:21; II Pet. 3:21; Rev. 21:27). The believer should be armed with a thorough understanding of these truths and, in effect, he should view all of life through Christ's eyes, and, as it were, through a cross-shaped visor.

6) The Sword of the Spirit (God's Word Used Offensively)
The Armour: The Roman short sword is in view (as opposed to a larger two-handed broadsword). It was actually an 18-inch-long knife, razor sharp on both edges, and it was used in hand-to-hand combat.

The Meaning: This represents God's truth used as an offensive weapon. Thus the Word of God is included twice in the Christian's armoury–for defense on the one hand, and offense on the other.

NOTE: It is helpful to consider these two functions separately. But in practice, offense and defense are mixed. The sword can parry defensively, and the metal protrusion in the centre of the shield (called a boss) was used to strike. Compare a hockey team on which defensive players sometimes score goals, and wingers sometimes block shots.

Wielding the sword, we are to advance into Satan's territory (the world) proclaiming the truth, with a view to the salvation of the lost and the edification of the people of God. "For the Word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerning of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb. 4:12; cf. Acts 2:37). "Preach the Word" (II Tim. 4:2). "Him [Christ] we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus" (Col. 1:28).