When we read about the armor of God in Ephesians 6, we often think of the spiritual resources with which the individual Christian has been equipped. “Each day when you wake up,” I’ve often heard said, “Imagine yourself putting on the the helmet of salvation, taking up the shield of faith, and arming yourself with the sword of the Spirit.” Such imagery is powerful and provides a ton of material for discussion.
In this post, however, I want to talk about some of the Old Testament references that show up in the armor of God passage. If we get some of the OT context, we’ll catch a glimpse of the cosmic vision that Paul has in mind throughout Ephesians. So, to refresh your memory, here’s what Paul says:
Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
(Ephesians 6:14-20 ESV)
The first part of this passage comes from Isaiah 59.
Truth is lacking,
and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.
The LORD saw it, and it displeased him
that there was no justice.
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;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
According to their deeds, so will he repay,
wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies;
to the coastlands he will render repayment.
(Isaiah 59:15-18 ESV)
In context, this passage is referring to God working salvation for Himself. Finding no one who overcomes the injustice in the world (esp. in connection to exiled Israel), God Himself comes down as a warrior-redeemer and executes justice against the enemies of Israel.
The bit in Ephesians 6 referring to the “readiness given by the gospel of peace” also borrows imagery from – Surprise! – another passage in Isaiah. Take a look:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
(Isaiah 52:7 ESV)
So I just bombarded you with a bunch of text from Isaiah. Why? I’d like to suggest that the Isaiah context helps us to understand the armor of God better and, in fact, fits very well with what Paul is saying about spiritual warfare. Remember, Paul tells us that our struggle isn’t against flesh and blood, but against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). We are engaged in the cosmic battle against the spiritual world-rulers that have dominion over the universe (cosmos) in the present age. But whose armor are we wearing? Not ours, but God’s!
Here’s why Isaiah fits. In Isaiah, the prophet envisions God arriving as a warrior-redeemer, much like He did in the days of Moses. Long ago, when the Hebrews were enslaved to Egypt, God acted decisively in the Exodus, contending against the rulers, gods and spiritual powers that had dominion in Egypt. As God acted in the past, so He will act in the future. For the prophet in Isaiah, God’s redemption of Israel from the Babylonian exile will be a New Exodus.
In Ephesians 6, we have God’s redemption played out on a cosmic scale. He is defeating the evil rulers and authorities and inaugurating His reign as the true King of the cosmos. If that’s so, why is it that Paul tells us to put on the armor of God, when it’s clear from Isaiah that it’s God wearing the armor and doing the conquering?
I think it has to do with what Paul says about the Church in Ephesians 3:
To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
(Ephesians 3:8-10 ESV)
In Ephesians 1, Paul explains the decisive plan that God has enacted in the death and resurrection of Jesus, setting Christ as the head over all things, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:21). This has resulted in the creation of the Church, the Body of Jews and Gentiles united in Christ. Thus, the wisdom and glory of God’s plan set forth in Christ is now demonstrated through the Church to all the spiritual rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
To pull it all together: God is in the business of reclaiming and redeeming the world for Himself from the spiritual world-rulers that have dominion in the present age. This follows – rather, fulfills – the pattern set forth in Israel’s Exodus and rescue from Exile. He is executing this plan in Christ and demonstrating it through the Church, the Body of Christ. In this sense, we – not merely as individuals, but as the Church – bear the armor of God. We are a “holy temple,” God’s presence in and for the world.
One last thing (I promise): how is God reconquering the world for Himself? What’s the means? I like how Paul puts it at the end of the section on the armor of God:
To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
It’s not new ideology, or better education, or faster technology, etc. ad infinitum, that conquers the world, but the bold proclamation of the Gospel. Amen, and amen, to the praise of His glorious grace.