Ephesians VI: 10-24
Ancient Rome was a military Empire and it is hardly surprising, therefore, to find that the Apostle St. Paul frequently uses military metaphors to highlight the need for Christians to be disciplined and focused in their spiritual lives. In Philippians (II: 25) and Philemon (I: 2) he describes Christians as “fellow soldiers” and uses the image of a soldier in his second letter to Timothy as a metaphor for hard work and dedication. In his first epistle to the Corinthians (IX: 7) this image is related to church workers receiving payment, with a metaphorical reference to a soldier’s rations and expenses. However, it is here in Ephesians that he develops more fully the image of the armour of God, replicating exactly what the Roman legionary would have worn: breastplate, belt, sandals and helmet, whilst being armed with a sword and shield.
The key to interpreting this is offered by St. Jerome, who reminds us that in Romans (XIII: 14) the Apostle has told us to clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.
“From what we read of the Lord our Saviour throughout the Scriptures, it is manifestly clear that the whole armour of Christ is the Saviour himself. It is he whom we are asked to put on. It is one and the same thing to say ‘put on the whole armour of God’ and put on the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Our belt is truth and breastplate is righteousness. The Saviour is called both truth and righteousness. So no one can doubt that he himself is that very belt and breastplate. On this principle is also to be understood as the preparation of the gospel of peace. He himself is the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation. He is the sword of the spirit, because he is the Word of God, living and efficacious, the utterance of which is stronger than any helmet and sharp on both sides.”
This armour is required by us in our battle against the Devil’s schemes, or as the Authorised version translates it, “wiles.” I prefer this term as it conveys the sense of devious or cunning stratagems employed in manipulating or persuading someone, a disarming or seductive manner intended to ensnare. St. John Chrysostom warns us,
“The enemy does not make war on us straightforwardly or openly but by his wiles. What are the Devils wiles? They consist in trying to capture us by some shortcut and always by deceit … The devil never openly lays temptation before us. He does not mention idolatry out loud. But by his stratagems he presents idolatrous choices to us, by persuasive words and by employing clever euphemisms.”
The Apostle tells us that we are not contending against flesh and blood, that is real physical assaults of an enemy, but against “principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” In other words, we are battling against spiritual forces, against fallen angels who are agents of the devil.
Most of the armour mentioned by the Apostle is defensive. The faithful are girdled about by truth. Righteousness, must always accompany faith and defends us like a breastplate. Our feet carry the promised gospel, which will bring peace both to the nations and to us. Faith, the chief of virtues, assures us of God’s providence and thus acts as a shield against temptation. Christ, as our helmet, protects our inward affections.
Our only weapon is the word of God, described here as the ‘sword of the spirit’, by which we put the devil to flight; but are we to understand this as telling us to draw inspiration, protection or even quote from the scriptures in our battle ? It is actually much more, because the Greek word used here is Rhema, not Logos, and conveys the sense of light or edification spoken from God. It is “a word that is spoken”, when the Holy Spirit delivers a message to the heart such as the faith given to us through hearing the word of Christ (Romans X: 17) or living on every word (rhema) that comes from the mouth of God. It is in fact the activity of the Spirit (Matthew IV: 4) in prayer as verse 18 amplifies our understanding by employing this word for “prayer in the spirit.”
There is a great Orthodox spiritual classic, “Unseen Warfare,” which began life as a counter-reformation book of spiritual direction, but was later richly amplified by an Athonite monk and a Russian Orthodox bishop. This lists four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, “the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all”: first, never rely on yourself in anything; secondly, bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; thirdly, strive without ceasing; and fourthly, remain constantly in prayer, through which the first three weapons are acquired and gain full force, and from which all of other blessings are obtained.
“Prayer is the means of attracting and the hand for receiving all the blessings, so richly poured on us from the inexhaustible source of God’s infinite love and goodness towards us. In spiritual warfare, by prayer put your battle-axe into God’s hand, that He should fight your enemies and overcome them. But in order that prayer should manifest its full power in you, it is needful that it stay constantly in you, as a natural function of your spirit.”
St Paul is trying to reassure us that we do not enter into battle without being properly equipped. That equipment is twofold: our spiritual preparation and the gifts given to us by God as baptised members of His church. It is appropriate that the church has selected this as one of the Lenten readings, upon which we are called to reflect and to recall us to spiritual vigilance. By emphasising the nature of our enemy he is not intending to frighten or alarm us so that we feel totally inadequate in our preparation for battle: puny Davids setting out to meet Goliath! On the contrary, we are armed with an invincible weapon and assured that if we trust in it, we shall overcome.
 Unseen Warfare, chapter 1.
 Unseen Warfare, chapter 46.