Isaiah and the Armor of God

Ephesians 6:14-15

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.

On Reading the Old Testament

I was listening to a lecture recently, and the speaker pointed out that as Christians we often read our Bibles backward. That is, we start in the New Testament and work our way backwards to the Old Testament. When I thought about this, I realized that I did not only read my Bible backwards, but my knowledge of the Bible was backwards too! I seem to know a lot about Jesus, salvation through grace by faith, justification, etc. On the other hand, I really don’t know a lot about covenants, God’s promises, and the other big ideas of the OT. But if I don’t know my OT well, can I really say I know the NT? Can I say I know the Bible?

If you’re like me, then you’ll admit that our knowledge of the OT could use some vast improvement. But it’s not like we haven’t tried reading the OT. It’s just that whenever we approach it, it seems dry, esoteric, sometimes even irrelevant and inapplicable. We just don’t get it.

The following are some of the issues I’ve run into while trying to become a better reader of the OT. If you’re an NT-heavy believer like me, you may find some of these beneficial to your study of the OT.

How do we read the Old Testament well? The following three tips (really just variations on the same theme) have helped me in my reading of the Bible, but they are especially helpful when it comes to the OT.

  • It’s not about You. Most of the Bible (and especially the OT) is not written to individuals, much less 21st-century individuals; instead, God’s Word is delivered to large communities, specifically His Chosen People, the Israelites. Yes, God cares about us as individuals, but if our approach to the OT is us-centered–that is, if our focus is on what we as individuals can get out of it, rather than on what God is trying to communicate–then we will be utterly disappointed with what the OT has to say.
  • Direct, Personal Applications are few and far between. Most of us have grown up believing that every single verse of the Bible contains a direct application to us. At the end of every sermon, we expect a three point application that tells us what to do or what to think. But because the Bible isn’t written directly to us (we aren’t the original audience), it’s simply unfair to put personal applications as a priority. This is especially true of the Old Testament, where you’d often be hard-pressed to find the kind of life-changing, personal applications we’ve been conditioned to expect. So, don’t focus on “getting something out” of your reading of the OT; rather, listen to what God is saying to the Israelites, who were the direct recipients of the OT message. Resist the urge to allegorize their situation onto our modern times. Instead, learn to think like an Israelite. Pay attention to the story that God is building between Him and His Chosen People.
  • Grasp the Whole before dissecting the Part. When we talk about reading the context in our Bible studies, we often mean reading the immediate context, maybe the 5 verses around our text, or if we’re feeling real cool, the entire chapter. To put it bluntly, that is insufficient for most of the OT. Exceptions I can think of are maybe (but not really!) the Psalms and Proverbs. If we are serious about getting context, then we have to get the context of the whole book. That means reading and thinking through the entire book as a whole before we get into verse-by-verse studies. What is the main message or argument of the book? What are the big issues it is concerned about? Where does it fit in Israel’s history? What are recurrent themes? Questions like these prime us to think like the original audience, preparing us to receive the message that God is concerned about, rather than the message that we want to hear. The benefit of having the whole in mind is that, once we do get to studying the parts, we know how everything fits together in light of the overall message.

What does it take to read the Old Testament well? In my experience, the following three things (none of which are particularly popular in our fast-food culture) are essential to getting a good grip on an OT book.

  • Time. Unfortunately for us, OT books are relatively long compared to NT books. Any study of an OT book is going to take a long time, especially if we want to understand the book as a whole. In some ways though, this is comforting, because it means that we don’t have to rush our time with the Word. That, of course, is no excuse for being lazy.
  • Patience. Ultimately, the message that God speaks to the Israelites in the OT is also a message that speaks to us. But getting from what God says to Israel to what God says to us is a hard and narrow path. Most times, our first run through an OT book won’t be a satisfying read. We won’t get the pay-off right away, but that doesn’t mean we should just give up and move on to the next book. Wrestling with the Word takes patience and courage.
  • Humility. If our reading of the Word is to be fruitful, then we must approach it with humility, recognizing that our understanding depends on the Spirit’s revelation. Again, it’s not about what we can get out of it, but it’s about what God is giving to us. We need to put our agendas on hold and be willing to submit to the Word that God has revealed in the OT Law, Prophets, and Writings.

What’s the pay-off for reading the Old Testament well? Of course, there are plenty of benefits for reading the OT well, but here are a couple that have been on my mind lately.

  • We come to a deeper knowledge of the Person and Work of Christ. When Jesus said that the Scriptures testify about Him, He was referring to the Old Testament. The OT is the framework under which the NT operates. All the technical terminology of the NT is sourced in the OT. If we want to understand the NT, then we must understand the OT to an equal degree. Finally, if Christ is God’s fulfillment of all His promises to Israel, then knowing Christ means we must be familiar with the history of God’s relationship with his Chosen People.
  • It enriches our worship of God. A deep understanding of the OT enriches our worship by teaching us to approach God in accordance with the way He has revealed Himself. In this sense, our worship isn’t arbitrary. Our idea of God isn’t just something we’ve pulled together from philosophy and world religions. Instead, our worship of Yahweh God is grounded historically, in the work that He has done and the word that He has revealed.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)