Can you explain Paul's teaching in Ephesians 6:13-17 on the "whole armor of God?"
This is a great passage of Scripture, one we need to understand and follow. First and foremost, we need to put the passage into context, so let’s look at the verses prior to this passage.
At the beginning of chapter 6 of Ephesians, Paul instructs us regarding certain relationships (children and parents, fathers and children, slaves and masters, masters and slaves). He then moves in verse 10 to exhorting us to be strong in the Lord, and we do this by putting on the full armor of God:
“10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
The context of this passage is that we need to be strong in the Lord to withstand the schemes of the devil. Notice that we cannot do this in our own strength; rather, we must do this in the Lord’s strength. The picture is one of a soldier going into battle, and arming himself with everything available to stand firm against the enemy. The word schemes means “cunning arts, deceit, trickery”. That is how the devil attacks Christians so that we do not stand firm in the faith. This is why v. 12 says our struggle is not against humans (“flesh and blood”) but “against spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places”, which means against the devil and his demonic angels.
James 4:7-8 says, “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” So, we are commanded to obey God and resist the devil. God does not leave us without defense, but provides us with a full body armor, one that is specially designed to resist the devil that we may stand against his attacks. This armor consists of girding our loins with truth, putting on the breastplate of righteousness, covering our feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace, taking up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. Let’s consider each piece of armor.
First, Paul tells us to “gird our loins with truth”. In Biblical times, most people, including men, wore loose-fitting garments that basically consisted of three holes: one for your head and one for each arm, much like a Roman toga. Such clothing was not conducive to running or fighting, as the looseness of the clothing could easily entangle a person in such instances. To remedy this, soldiers would bring up the bottom of the garment between their legs and around their torso (by their “loins”) and fasten it (gird) with a belt. The picture here is of a soldier dressed for battle. Likewise, when God told the Jews to leave Egypt, He told them to “gird up their loins”, which meant for them to be ready to move. So, it’s also an expectation to be ready, be prepared for battle.
In our case, we are “dressed for battle” when we fasten ourselves in the truth of God’s word. It has been well said that to spot counterfeit currencies, people are trained to know what the authentic currency looks like. Similarly, we can stand firm against Satan’s deceit and lies when we know God’s truth. This is the point of Ephesians 4:
“13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming.”
Not only are we to know the truth, we are also to walk in the truth. Knowing God’s word will keep us from being led astray by the devil and by sinful men who are under his influence (1 John 5:19).
Next, we are to put on the “breastplate of righteousness”. A breastplate typically covered the soldier from the neck down to the navel. So, clearly, a breastplate protected a soldier’s vital organs, his heart, liver, kidneys, etc. Getting shot with an arrow or hit with a sword in this area would likely be fatal.
The Jews viewed the heart symbolically as the mind. Proverbs 23:7 says, “For as he thinks in his heart, so he is.” In Matthew 15 Jesus said, “11 It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man…18 But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. 20 These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”
So, what and how we think determines what we say and do. Thus, the heart, our minds, must be protected. Furthermore, the Jews associated the bowels/stomach with feelings and emotions. Indeed, we feel things in our stomach, in our gut. So, we need to also protect our emotions and feelings.
Satan will attack the believer in his thinking and his emotions. He wants to get a Christian to change his thinking by his deceit and trickery, or appeal to a believer’s emotions so as to go against God’s word. He does this primarily by trying to get us to doubt God, which for us is given in the Bible. So, his attack is against the word of God. He wants to cause believers to doubt the veracity of Scripture.
He does this in numerous ways, including the lie of evolution, trying to say that science disproves the Bible, or sending false teachers into the church to teach false doctrine. Satan has done this from the beginning, when he told Eve “has God said?” (Genesis 3:1) He wants us to doubt the Lord, rather than trust in the Lord with all of our heart as the Bible commands (Proverbs 3:5).
So, we must protect ourselves with the breastplate of righteousness. The word righteousness means that we are in a right relationship with God, which comes by faith in Jesus, as His righteousness is credited to us by faith. This means we are now able to have right thinking, right feelings and emotions. We now have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). As such, by the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, we can now even live righteously.
Thus, knowing God’s truth, protecting our minds and emotions, and living righteously by the power of the Spirit is how we put on the breastplate of righteousness. As John says, “7 Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; 8 the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3) If we are righteous (by faith), then we will live righteously.
Next, Paul says to “shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace.” Keep in mind that all of the armor of God is meant to make us able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil (v. 11). So, here, putting the gospel on our feet is akin to the shoes a soldier wore to allow them to keep from slipping in battle. The material was a heavy bottomed sole with hobnails on the bottom, much like a modern day cleat. This allowed the soldier to keep his traction in battle, to stand firm.
The same is true for Christians in that we are to stand firm in the gospel of peace. This means that we know that we are no longer under the wrath of God. Because of what Christ has done for us, we are now at peace with God. We can stand against the schemes of the devil knowing that God is on our side, that we are no longer His enemies (Romans 5). This is very similar to what Paul tells the Corinthians, “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” (1 Corinthians 16:13) Now that we are believers, we have the power and resources of the Holy Spirit, who lives and dwells in us.
This is how we stand firm in the faith against the schemes of the devil, knowing we have peace with God, and this “gospel of peace” is symbolically shown to be shoes here that allow us to stand firm in the battle.
The next piece of God’s armor is the “shield of faith”. This type of shield was not the one you might see a soldier holding on one arm while fighting with a sword with the other hand. Rather, this shield was a large, four-cornered shield. It was covered with either metal or thick leather, and it was designed as a protection against flaming arrows shot by the enemy.
Likewise, the shield of faith protects us from Satan’s flaming arrows. Notice that the shield of faith will allow us to extinguish ALL of Satan’s flaming arrows. So, no matter what Satan shoots at us, the shield of faith will allow us to render them harmless. Now, these flaming arrows are what Satan uses to tempt us. They include things that appeal to the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life. This is how Satan always tempts us. He tempted Adam and Eve this way with the fruit in the Garden of Eden. He tempted our Lord Jesus this way. The temptations are always designed to lead us away from God, to be disobedient to Him. Our defense against these temptations is the shield of faith.
So, what does faith mean? It means we believe what God has told us. We believe it when He says that if we believe in His Son we will have eternal life. We trust Him. So, when the devil comes along with a temptation that questions what God has told us in His word, by faith we believe what God has said and do not believe the temptation of the devil. Adam and Eve believed Satan’s lie and consequently fell into sin (Genesis 3). Jesus believed everything God has said (Matthew 4, Luke 4), and so did not fall into Satan’s temptations.
Thus the shield of faith, believing God and His word, protects us from Satan’s flaming arrows of temptations. As Proverbs 30:5-6 says, “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words Or He will reprove you, and you will be proved a liar.” Similarly, Psalm 18:30 says, “As for God, His way is blameless; The word of the Lord is tried; He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him.”
Our next piece of armor is the helmet of salvation. The Roman soldier wore a helmet to protect against the enemy’s attacks to the head, typically with a broadsword. This was a very large sword, 3-4 feet in length, and was designed to inflict major damage with a single blow. If you could hit your opponent on the head and drive the sword into the skull, you’d probably defeat your enemy with one blow. So to protect against that, soldiers wore helmets.
The helmet of salvation also protects us from Satan’s attacks. It’s important to know that there are really three aspects to our salvation. First, we have been saved; the Bible calls this our justification, and we are justified (made right with God) through faith in Jesus. Through justification, we are removed from the penalty of sin, since Jesus took our punishment on the cross.
Second, we are being saved; that is what the Bible calls sanctification. By the power of the Holy Spirit living and dwelling in us and by the study of His word, we can become more and more like Christ over the course of our lifetime. In this sense, we have the ability to escape the power of sin. By God’s power, we can now choose to not sin, although we still sometimes do.
Third, we will be saved. That is, God will complete our salvation ultimately when we get to heaven, when we will be glorified and will be like Him (Romans 8:30; 1 John 3:2). This aspect of our salvation is the hope of our salvation. Here, hope is not a verb, but a noun. Hope is not something we worry about, it is something we glory in, knowing we have been saved and have salvation to which we can look forward. When we are in heaven, we will be free from the presence of sin, for in heaven there is no more death, and since the wages of sin is death, there can therefore be no more sin. This is our hope.
It is this aspect of salvation that Paul describes as our helmet. 1 Thessalonians 5 says, “8 But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation.” Having such a hope, we do not grow weary of Satan’s attacks but persevere in doing good. We do not get discouraged by a lack of seeing the fruit of our efforts.
Consider that God commissioned Jeremiah to preach to Israel, but then told him that they would not listen to him nor would they answer him (Jeremiah 7:27). Yet, Jeremiah was obedient, knowing he had the hope of his salvation to which he could look forward. So, although Satan and his demons will attack our mind, causing us to doubt and to be discouraged, we persevere, knowing our salvation awaits us, which is the helmet of salvation. In that sense, we protect our mind, our thinking.
Our final piece of armor is the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Note that this is the first weapon that is not solely defensive, as are the other weapons. The sword can be both defensive and offensive. We are talking here about the Bible, God’s word. If this is one of our weapons, then it logically follows that in order for us to be able to use this weapon, we must understand God’s word. This is one reason Bible study is so crucial in the life of all believers.
An interesting aside is that the Greek word for sword here is máchaira, which is a small sword, as opposed to a much longer broadsword. This sword would be anywhere from 6 to 18 inches, and was used for close combat fighting. The picture here is one that is personal.
We use the word of God because it is true, it is inerrant, it is infallible. Hebrews 4 tells us it is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It is powerful – it is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). By the word we are sanctified (John 17:17). The word of God is a powerful weapon indeed.
Perhaps the best example of using the sword defensively is given to us by our Lord Jesus when He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4, Luke 4). Jesus answers each of Satan’s temptations with Scripture. He is thus defending Himself against temptation with the word of God. Likewise, we can protect ourselves from Satan’s temptations by knowing God’s word, just as our Lord did.
The sword of the Spirit can also be used offensively. When we preach the gospel, we are attacking the dominion of Satan by bringing people out of the darkness and into His marvelous light (all by the power of the Holy Spirit). We can attack the elementary principles of this world when we preach the truth in love, which is typically against the views of the world (e.g., marriage, sex, drunkenness, lying, stealing, etc.) We use it offensively so we can “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15)”
Lastly, as one prominent teacher pointed out, the armor is a picture of Jesus Christ our God and Savior. He is the truth (the belt). He gives us faith (the shield). He is our righteousness (the breastplate). He is our peace (the shoes). He is our salvation (the helmet). And He is the Word (the sword of the Spirit). To God be the glory!