This is the fifth in a series. For the introduction to the series, click here.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit… (Ephesians 6:13-18)
This is a very familiar passage. If you have been involved in churches for any length of time, you will have heard sermons on this text. If you went to church as a child you no doubt saw posters with a picture of a soldier with these various armor pieces on. Your church might have even had a kid-sized set of “armor” that one lucky kid got to wear in class when the teacher taught on the Christian’s armor.
The funny thing is, I don’t ever remember a Sunday School lesson from this verse:
But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. (I Thessalonians 5:8, NKJV)
So what’s the deal? Was Paul shortchanging the Thessalonians, telling them they only needed a breastplate and a helmet? (If you read the rest of Chapter 5, there are no other armor pieces mentioned.) Since most scholars agree Thessalonians was written first, maybe Paul learned about some new pieces between the time he wrote Thessalonians and Ephesians. Why did he write that faith is our breastplate when everyone knows faith is our shield? And what does love have to do with any discussion of armor?
These questions are silly, but if you listen to some pastors and teachers, they obviously haven’t thought of them. I have heard sermons about waking up each morning and taking time to “put on” each of the pieces listed in the Ephesians passage. You can find books about how righteousness protects our hearts, salvation protects our heads (minds), and so forth. Such a hyper-literalistic approach to the text of Scripture does little more than confuse people, especially those who read I Thessalonians and learn that love and faith protect our hearts, not righteousness.
Let’s get back to a simple reading of the text. Paul in these two passages is obviously using a military metaphor for the Christian life. Overall, his point is not so much the pieces or the particular traits associated with them but the traits generally. When our lives are characterized by faith, love, righteousness, truth, knowledge of the Scripture and so on, we will be prepared both positively to do good for God and others and negatively to defeat temptation.
But that’s too simple for some people. They would rather delve into the minutiae of Paul’s metaphor rather than let the text speak to them. That’s been the whole point of this series: God did not give us a mystery book that we have to work and stretch our minds to be able to understand. Of course there are plenty of passages that are difficult to understand, even passages on which brethren of good will may disagree. But most of the Scriptures, and certainly all the vital portions for belief and practice, are really quite simple. God doesn’t keep secrets from His children.
So am I saying you need to get rid of the toy armor from the Sunday School closet? No, let the kids play with it. But don’t focus solely on the individual pieces. Instead, take the opportunity to remind them that they need to have salvation, faith, truth, and everything else in their lives in order to please God. If your young people learn that you will have done them some good.