December 16, 2017

God’s Strange Armour

Fridays in Ephesus (6)
God’s Strange Armour

During Eastertide on Fridays, we are reflecting on insights from Timothy Gombis’s recent book, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God.

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For a long time, one of the passages Sunday School teachers have used to keep young boys interested is Ephesians 6:10-18: “Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” Knowing that many little guys like action and weapons and the drama of conflict, we let them to be “soldiers for Jesus” and try to capture their imagination and enthusiasm (and endless energy!) so they will think church is “cool” and fun.

Which is fine, I guess. The passage at the end of Paul’s epistle is one of those vivid texts that expresses spiritual truths in concrete, easily grasped terms. But, as Timothy Gombis shows in The Drama of Ephesians, we may have missed how these words work in the context of the letter and exactly how they apply to Christians.

Ephesians 6:10-18 is one of the better known passages in this letter, if not the entire New Testament. In it, Paul exhorts his readers to be strong in God’s own strength as they battle against the powers of darkness. This passage is commonly read as an exhortation to individual Christians to put on various virtues in order to engage the daily battle of the Christian life. The attacks of Satan come in the form of temptations to sin and Christians have the armor of God at their disposal to fend off the darkness. But this is not Paul’s point. This passage is a rhetorical conclusion to the entire letter, in which Paul depicts the church as intimately identified with the exalted Lord Jesus. In Ephesians 1:23, Paul says that the church is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The presence of Jesus Christ fills the church by God’s Spirit so that it literally is “the body of Jesus” on earth. Just as Jesus was the presence of God in a human person, so the church is now the presence of Jesus in the world. For Paul, there is an intense unity between Jesus Christ and the church.

The “armour of God” represents God’s own virtues, as expressed in Isaiah 59 (see especially vv. 16-17). In taking this up, the Church is not merely standing for God in the world, but standing as God’s very presence in the world. He is our armour, and we stand in this world, against the powers, intimately united to God in Christ.

But more about this passage next week in our concluding study. Gombis goes to it at this point in his book because it serves to summarize the role of God’s Church as we live out Christ’s victory on earth. The section it concludes and summarizes is Ephesians 4:17-6:9. Therefore, if we want to see what it means to “stand against the wiles of the devil,” this is the part of the letter that will tell us.

When we read this section of exhortations, we discover what we have seen elsewhere in Ephesians: “doing battle” and standing in Christ’s “triumph” is not a matter of being sacred crusaders or acting triumphalistic, advancing a righteous program through militancy and might.

Instead, as Gombis notes, “the church engages in warfare against the powers in ways that defy and overturn our expectations. Our warfare involves resisting the corrupting influences of the powers. The same pressures that produce practices of exploitation, injustice and oppression in the world are at work on church communities. The church’s warfare involves resisting such influences, transforming corrupted practices and replacing them with life-giving patterns of conduct that draw on and radiate the resurrection power of God.”

In the center of this section, we find these words:

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (4:31-5:2)

It is this kind of counter-cultural, subversive, humble and self-sacrificing way of life that points to Christ in our lives among our pagan neighbors, in our relationships within the community of faith, and in our households.

The Lord’s battle is won by loving service.

 

Comments

  1. Our king decked for battle in Psalm 45 succeeds because of 3 things: truth, humility and justice. That is our clothing and the humility is the stitching.

  2. I remember Christian computer games from my youth that drew on this passage quite a bit!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I remember lotsa Campus Crusade speakers using this passage. And all the same way — imagery of Personal Salvation and Personal Salvation alone. With the corollary that God would Protect you from most or all misfortune as long as you didn’t backslide. Or if you’re of Pentecostal bent and Personal Salvation was not enough, it represented the Baptism of the Holy Spirit (tongues tongues tongues). Either way, it was personal alone.

      And several abusive churches also draw on that imagery for “Armorbearers” (bodyguards/Enforcers) around their Anointed Pastor-Leader.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    “The same pressures that produce practices of exploitation, injustice and oppression in the world are at work on church communities. The church’s warfare involves resisting such influences, transforming corrupted practices and replacing them with life-giving patterns of conduct that draw on and radiate the resurrection power of God.”

    And a lot of churches (usually Independents and Megas) give in to such pressures, exploiting and oppressing their people and calling it Godly. Maybe they don’t realize they’re giving in to “exploitation, injustice, and oppression”, maybe they rationalize it away theologically, maybe they don’t care as long as they’re the one personally benefiting. (The Wartburg Watch blog keeps an eye on a lot of such abuse, usually focusing on the Hyper-Calvinist and Megachurch manifestations.)

  4. Like HUG, every time I have heard this passage taught, it was on the basis of individual application. While there are definitely ways for an individual to apply the “armor of God”, I believe the original recipients of the letter would have had a more corporate view in mind.

    The Roman army of the Imperial period was famous for its teamwork. They were usually outnumbered when they fought, but they were victorious most of the time because of their superior equipment (armor) and for fighting together as a unit. Most of their opponents fought as individuals, even if their army numbered in the thousands. The Roman soldier did not just depend on himself and his armor, he depended very much on the other soldiers around him.

    I don’t know if the American church, affected so much by an individualistic culture, can ever really become the body the Lord intended us to be. I do know this — I need Christians around me who are girded with truth as much as I need truth myself. I need beleivers around me who are shielded by faith when my faith falters. I need people who are grounded in the gospel of peace when I slip on other ground. I need . . . well, you get the idea. The army of God fights with unusual weapons to be sure, but it is intended to fight together.

    t

  5. Is just me, or does anybody have a problem with the fact that “we” still seem to more focused on “beating the devil”, than becoming replicas of Christ?

    I wonder iwhat it would look like if when people saw Christians they saw people who didn’t so much take a “stand against sin”, but were known to “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another,”?

  6. I went to a retreat once where this passage was selected as the “theme”. Interestingly, several speakers talked about accepting God’s grace to flow through you and work within you, transforming you into a true and humble Christian and then helping each other when the times get rough. One speaker used the image of the airline safety demonstration of getting your own mask on before helping someone else.

    While Chill made an excellent point that the Roman army drew its strength in battle from working as a team, I would like to add that each soldier trained themselves first to be the very best they could be. I believe that much can be gained through individual study, personal discernment and self-examination. I actually feel many churches here in the states espouse an abdication model that guarantees personal salvation as long as the beliefs of “the church” are swallowed without question. I also feel that stressing a communal salvation leads to individuals feeling like they can hide their lack of self-transformation by focusing always on other’s transformation (or lack thereof).

    My issue with this is that while community can be extraordinarily supportive and I do not ever want to downplay the importance of community in our faith journey, the bottom line is that on that “last day” we will be standing alone in our nakedness and sinful but forgiven state to answer for our lives and saying “because they all said it was ok” is not going to cut it. Our church community is not going to speak for us, nor can we blame anyone else. Our salvation IS personal, we are not judged as a group, and God treats us as individuals, each with our own story.

    For me, the “Armor of God” is at once both personal and communal, giving us strength and courage during times of self-examination, as well as giving our community a boost when we gather together. Again, I do not want to downplay the need for communal support -I myself meet in a small renewal group every Monday night and would be lost without them and my greater church community. But I still know in my heart that they will not be there on my Last Day. I MUST own my salvation personally, for I am the only one who can answer for myself and my life.