Put on the whole armor of God. Sounds like a call to battle, doesn’t it? Shields and swords and breastplates and helmets. It all sounds like preparation for war.
Except, if that’s what we hear, we’re hearing the opposite of the author’s intention. This is not a call for us to defeat the devil. It’s not a declaration of war—us against the forces of evil. It’s not.
This letter was written for people whose allegiance to Jesus put them at odds against their neighbors, their friends, their government, even their families. So in the context of first century believers in Turkey, we have to remember:
That this metaphor was written for people who were an overwhelming minority and were therefore feeling extremely powerless;
That even with the overpowering domination by Rome, the struggle is not with any people, even their Roman enemies;
That the armor described is for defending, not attacking. It is a survival strategy for people of faith in a hostile world.
Look at this from their perspective. When everything in your whole world is pointing to the hopelessness of ever seeing justice, when the might of Roman oppression appears to be unbreakable, when military power is ruling every aspect of your life, the author of Ephesians reminds the church why they exist:
To reveal to the world what God’s love looks like.
To show the world what peace really is.
To put skin on forgiveness, unconditional love, and mercy.
And in order to do that, they have to stand fast. They have to resist the powers that defy God, not matter how strong they appear to be. They have to stand together as a congregation, supporting and encouraging one another. They have to stay focused on their purpose, because there are powers at work that will sidetrack them or even derail them. They have to be on guard against that.
And since they are all so familiar with the uniform of the Roman military, the author is turning that armor imagery around for the church. They, too, can put on armor, but for a completely different reason. They can use this armor not for injustice, but for justice. Not to oppress, but to bring peace. Not to kill, but to forgive.
Even so, the author is clear that Rome is not the enemy here. “The struggle,” he writes, “is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against . . . the cosmic powers of . . . darkness . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
There are forces that oppose God’s love and mercy. Those are revealed in human violence and division and injustice in the world around them. And as church, Christians are called to not cave in to those forces which are so common in the world that they can be seen as normal, if not overwhelming. Instead, the church is to continue to reveal God’s love and forgiveness and compassion to everyone, as Jesus made clear to them.
You see, they are to be on guard, standing in opposition to forces that don’t reveal God. They are to stand fast in their purpose, no matter how the odds appear to be stacked against them, so that the people around them have the opportunity to see God’s love, and God’s grace, and God’s compassion made real by the church.
The same thing still goes on. The forces opposed to God’s love and the purpose of the church to reveal God’s love.
So, let’s help each other put this into our current context.
I’m going to ask you (left side) to tell us something going on, either in the world, your neighborhood, or your own life, that oppose God’s love and mercy.
Then I’ll ask you (right side) to think of a way we can reveal God’s love in the midst of that.
Then we’ll switch sides and do it again.
. . .
That is the message of the book of Ephesians: to remind the church of who we are and why we’re here. May God’s love continue to be known because of us.