The shield

In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery.  Here are some memory-jogging highlights:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.  11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. . . .  13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. . . .  (Eph 6, NRSV)

In the context, we might first note the imperatives in 6:10-20.  The first imperative—”be strong” or “be strengthened”—while clearly indicating voluntary action on the part of the Christian, employs the “passive voice,” suggesting the power comes from another source.  In other words, the Ephesian Christian is not told to exercise his triceps, which would result in power based on his own efforts.  On the contrary, the source of power here is God.

A second notable aspect of this first imperative, to be strengthened, is that it appears to be modified by three succeeding imperatives,¹ and this fact is instructive.  We might then ask the question how is one to be empowered/strengthened?  Then we see the answer:  take up the armorthat’s how.   In other words, Paul employs the armor language in 6:13-17 to suggest how the strengthening or empowering is to occur.

Previously, here, I offered a generally pejorative look at the communicative issues with battle imagery.  I would like now to hone in on one piece of the armor—the shield of faith(fulness)—discussing its interpretation and application.  Although we could bog down in the type of shield (the word signifies not a little, round shield but a larger one), I rather want to shine light on the faithfulness represented by the shield.  Here is the text:

In every situation take the shield of faith,
and with it you will be able to extinguish
all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  (Eph 6:15b, HCSB)

Although Paul appears to have drawn on older texts in Ephesians 6,² this is the only time the word translated “shield” is used in all the NT writings.  It might also be noted that the Ephesians example gives us the most extended armor language in the NT.  Those observations might not turn out to be significant.  What we can be sure of is this, though:  in the Ephesians 6 micro-context, the shield is uniquely emphasized textually in at least these two respects:

  1. The expression “in all” or “in every situation” above (en pasin in Greek) appears with the shield but does not appear before the other armor elements.  The root word is employed several times in 6:10-20, perhaps most notably in v18 where prayer is the topic.
  2. The future tense, not used in connection with the other armor pieces, seems to indicate for Paul a certain result:  that the one who takes the shield will be able to extinguish the flaming arrows.

We should bear in mind that it’s not the size or composition of the shield, or the nature of the darts, that matters most.  It’s what the shield represents in the life of the believer:  pistis.  I use the English transliteration of the Greek word here both advisedly and conscientiously.  I certainly don’t intend to put up any barriers for those unfamiliar with Greek, but I do purposefully assert that it is the original word-concept to which we should appeal, not the word-concept that has developed around it—in another language, centuries later.  Pistis, or faith(fulness), is found all over the place in Paul’s writings; it appears eight times in Ephesians, for instance—in every chapter but the 5th.  The range of meaning for this word includes (1) trust, (2) “the faith,” i.e., a collected body of understood beliefs, and (3) faithfulness.  It is this last possible definition that I am after in the context of the shield of Ephesians 6:16.

Here I would refer to the motivated reader to Matthew Bates’s book Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King.  I have blogged about that book previously here and here.  I find Bates’s thoughts persuasive—and also very helpful to the overall Christian proposition in terms both of doctrine and pragmatics.

To reiterate:  in the perspective of 6:10-20, we see a built-in textual design that spotlights the being empowered/strengthened.  The taking up of the shield is illuminated by a somewhat less intense spotlight, but it is a spotlight nonetheless.  The primary concern is the pistis, not the shield.  But what did Paul mean by pistis?  Is it the “trust” aspect he had in mind in telling Christians to hoist the shield?  Or is it the quasi-corporate aspect of “the faith”—in other words, was Paul saying they should surround themselves with “people of ‘the faith'”?³  Perhaps one, or the other, or both.  Here, though, I commend the reading in blue below as plausible and perhaps the most helpful:

Be empowered . . . (6:10)

To do so, take up God’s armor; withstand, and stand firm (13, 14)

by fastening truth (14)
by putting on righteousness,
by preparing for spreading the gospel of peace
and in all, shielding yourself by allegiant living (6:16)
by topping with salvation
by being prepared to take the Spirit’s message

“Taking the shield of faith,” then, could mean “shielding oneself by making faithful choices that are loyal to the Lord.”  The verbs above are naturally plural, since Paul is writing to a group, so there is a corporate aspect to Paul’s language.  However, I would suggest that taking up the shield of faith represents an individual choice to live loyally to King Jesus.  This same King had been in the literary spotlight in 1:19-21:  God’s power led to His resurrection and ascension, and that same power is in turn connected to my being individually empowered to live loyally.  As I ponder, attempt weakly to live out, and experience a degree of allegiant living, I am becoming persuaded that holding the shield of faithfulness becomes an integral part of “standing firm” (6:13,14).  That same shield in turn is a key aspect of being empowered (6:10).

B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/7/18


¹ “Take on” and “receive” are basic past-tense imperatives that are “simply listing what empowerment entails.” – Stanley Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament (1999), 13,2.3

² Isaiah 59, Wisdom 5, and 1Thess 5.  The shield is not mentioned in Isaiah or in 1Thess.  Another word for “shield” is used in Wisdom 5 and in many other OT and Apocryphal texts.

³ On this point we might recall that the “struggle” of 6:12 appears to signify a close-encounter “wrestling match” type of conflict.  See my prior post here, noting particularly the expression “hand to hand combat” in the 3rd footnote there.

 

Does the “armor of God” imagery communicate as intended?

In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery.  Where does this battle language come from?  Approximately 14 years prior, Paul had used similar language in his first letter to the Thessalonians.  He also appears to have drawn on other texts—specifically, Isaiah 59 and Wisdom 5:17-20.  These armor texts might at first seem about the same, yet it soon strikes the reader that there are similarities but no quotations per se. 

I don’t think the point in Ephesians 6 is to relate each piece of armor strictly to a particular aspect of Christian life.  It’s not, for example, that Paul is saying the helmet protects the salvation thoughts in our brains so we can avoid the loss of salvation.  Paul’s purpose in using this extended metaphor seems somewhat more general.  The battle imagery has found continued life in many Christian songs through the ages—some good ones and some not so good.  “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (1742), for instance, contains quite a few expressions derived directly from Ephesians 6:

  • “Strong in the strength which God supplies and in His mighty pow’r” (6:10)
  • “Stand entire at last” (6:13)
  • “Take, to arm you for the fight the panoply of God” (6:11, with “panoply” being a transliteration of a Greek word)
  • Still let your feet be shod, ready His will to do (6:15)

The full poem (found here) does descend into militaristic machismo a time or two.  Here’s an example:

Brandish in faith till then the Spirit’s two-edged sword,
Hew all the snares of fiends and men in pieces with the Word

I doubt that stanza has ever shown up in a widely published hymnal (!), but the song’s references and analogies are communicative overall.

“Lord, Speak To Me” (1872) similarly echoes the Ephesians emphasis on being filled with God’s power, especially in the later stanzas:

  • “O strengthen me, that while I stand firm on the rock, and strong in Thee” (6:10, 11)
  • “O fill me with Thy fullness, Lord” (1:10; 4:13)

Never a favorite of mine but widely sung for more than a century, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (1858) has some negative expressions, such as “charge for the God of battles, and put the foe to rout” and “each soldier to his post; close up the broken column, and shout through all the host.”  To my ear, those phrases are gratuitous appeals to those experienced in the military forces and are not very communicative of spiritual realities or imperatives.  Yet a phrase such as “put on the Gospel armor; each piece put on with prayer” does highlight not only the armor angle in Ephesians 6 but also the letter’s strong emphasis on prayer.  On the whole, it is easy to see why this song has been published in more than a thousand hymnals.

The children’s song “I’m in the Lord’s Army” includes these words:

I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.
I may never zoom o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s Army!  (Yes, sir!)  

As the reader might remember, body motions suggestive of physical battle accompany that song.  And why shouldn’t there be (from a keep-the-children-active perspective)?  The actions are fun.  Yet weaning children on that kind of thing probably gets them thinking more about U.S.A. military service than about spiritual armor and battle.  Recently, I unexpectedly acquired a castoff record of George Beverly Shea (singer for Billy Graham crusades) and found myself unwittingly listening to a  song called “The Army of the Lord.”  This song is a hokey exhortation to march for the Lord, laced with Christianese, and set to music that unites Leroy Anderson with a sort of Sousa-like polka.  At least it didn’t become blatantly militaristic.  At this point, I start to wonder whether it’s been military personnel who write such things, as opposed to theologians or biblical exegetes.  Leaving those ill-advised examples now, let me comment more thoroughly on the implications of two songs I would call ambiguous or perhaps questionable.

In the church of my youth, we sang “Faith is the Victory” (Encamped Along the Hills of Light) (late 1800s) quite a bit, but I don’t think I’d sing it today without prefatory explanation for the sake of the contemporary mind.  For instance, what do the expressions “press the battle” or “let all our strength be hurled” mean to us nowadays?  Yes, in one sense, “faith is the victory that overcomes,” but if we appeal to those “saints above” who “with shouts of triumph trod” and “swept on o’er ev’ry field,” we might start to envision a physical battle, largely unaware of the unseen realm that is under consideration in Ephesians 6.  Put differently:  if we have human war mechanisms at the forefront, trying to apply their strategy and protective gear to the (spiritual) cause of Christ, we’ll stumble.  On the contrary, Paul had the cause of Christ in mind first, applying various metaphors and analogies in order to explicate Christian living, here focusing on the unseen.

The song has “we’ll vanquish all the hosts of night in Jesus’ conqu’ring name,” and that sounds like a mass military offensive, whereas Paul’s idea of “living as children of light” (Eph 5:8) is not aggressive at all.  His advice to put on the armor so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil (6:12) is singular/individual, so it’s a leap to conclude that this is directly about any kind of “army of the Lord” or the actions of any faith community group. 

Curiously, the music for the once-popular “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (1864) was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan¹ of British operetta fame.  Sabine Baring-Gould’s lyrical exhortation to be a soldier for the Lord is biblical, yet what is communicated now (or in the 1860s, for that matter) to an American by the term “soldier” may not be what was originally intended by the poet, an Englishman, in words written very hastily for a children’s procession.²  The first stanza (“marching as to war … with the cross of Jesus going on before”) seems the most problematic, possibly conjuring up Grant or Sherman for a Union loyalist, or Constantine and Theodosius for those with a broader view.  The song has been removed from some hymnals, but it might still be used judiciously, if one is aware of possible communication gaps.

Further on the differentiation of corporate military actions from the individual spiritual battle, we might note at this point that Paul chose a word for “struggle” (6:11) that had been used in secular literature for a wrestling match.  The word describes not a company-front marching offensive but an individual, up-close-and-personal conflict with the devil.³  Christian solidarity is no bad thing, but the notion of a Christian flag carried at the front of a marching military regiment communicates more to those versed in military history or experienced in the ways of war than to those who wish to understand the Christian life and mission on an individual scale.

Neither “Faith is the Victory” nor “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is a bad song if one interprets appropriately, but as the decades pass, and as we have in the collective consciousness not only the Civil War but the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein, ISIS, and more, the picture becomes obscured with different types of clouds.  The so-called Cold War and justifiable indignation over various outbreaks of tyranny, genocide, or human enslavement have led to increasing, many-faceted polarization.  Anti-war politicists are more in the mainstream, if not more rabid; and it seems increasingly likely that rightist “Christians” would indiscriminately mix human/geopolitical militarism with Pauline imagery, forgetting that killing people is foreign to Christ and His ways.  Apparently with notions of “manifest destiny” at heart, none other than the late Prime Minister of Great Britain said this, for example:

We sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.  W. Churchill, 1941)

It makes great sense for Mr. Churchill, as the Prime Minister, to have delivered that stirring-if-over-confident “kill the Nazis” rhetoric at that point in history, but his comments became presumptuous at the point at which he appealed to “on high.”  It was ignorant and arrogant for him to have mashed together (a) those who were killing the enemies with (b) those who spoke English, all under the aegis of “Christianity.”  Yes, presumptuous:  the very suggestion that God would help the English-speakers rid the world of that particular horror passes lightly over the prospects of death and hell in a way that Paul would abhor, suggests that Churchill and Truman had taken a prophetic mantle, and ignores that God had not always led His Old-Covenant people to physical victory.  So why would God assure Great Britain and the U.S.A. a victory from on high?

In the event that I would be judged too serious and “too heaven-minded to be of any earthly good” at this point, let me share this fine parody on “Onward, Christian Soldiers”:

Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.

(Ian Bradley, The Book of Hymns, New York:  Testament Books, 1989, p. 333)

Perhaps church music in our era is no more nuanced or developed in the few instances in which it uses military imagery.  In my estimation, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” (1984), full of musical strength, has some ironically weak lines.  It is not a great song, but it does greatly point to the great Lord.  Surely it is good to remind ourselves often that we have a greater One to serve.  In considering this notion, we might recall Paul in 2Tim 2:  the soldier’s aim is to please his “commanding officer.”  And of course, the Lord’s power and strength are themes in Ephesians (e.g., 1:19ff; 3:16,20; 6:10).

The hymn-style “Fight the Good Fight” (1853) was once among my top 50, but I doubt it rises to that level for many.  My conception of it was shallow, and its words do not even speak much of battle or armor, but I mention it here mostly to call attention to its title.  “Fight the Good Fight” would not be sung much these days because concepts fighting and battles are different now, geopolitically speaking.  I do love expressions such as “Christ is thy path, and Christ thy right,” “lay hold on life, and it shall be thy joy and crown eternally” and “upon thy Guide lean.”

Perhaps it is largely a result of my non-violence bias that I find so much of the military imagery in songs to zoom over the area of Paul’s real concern.  The singer may mentally don his fatigues and load his guns, having been raised in post-World War America, before he ever stops to ponder what Paul was really writing about.  As we ponder what “spiritual warfare” in the unseen realm means to individual Christians and to our churches, I think there are multiple good reasons to emphasize the shield of faith(fulness)—both in the Ephesians literary context and in the real-life context of Christian existence.  In the next post, I will deal more briefly with an interpretation of this central piece of the “armor.”

B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/4/18


¹ Operetta, a subgenre touched off by Jacques Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan combo, is light, humorous opera.  Sullivan wrote comparatively few “serious” works.  It would come as no surprise that no deep or stately connection to Christian theology arose when Baring-Gould’s words were set to his music.  Aside:  Sullivan wrote “religious music” while being known to have adulterous affairs, indulge heavily in gambling, and participate in Freemasonry.  See this Wikipedia link for more information.

² Baring-Gould apparently had second thoughts about some of the words and revised some later.  See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onward,_Christian_Soldiers.

³ According to Benjamin Merkle, the word πάλη  | palē “was most widely used for the sport of wrestling.”  Merkle continues, “. . . Paul is envisioning a fierce battle and not merely an athletic competition.  Nevertheless, the term may have been used to intensify the closeness of the battle.  The struggle is not fought by proxy or at a distance but involves close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat.”  Benjamin L. Merkle, Ephesians, ed. Köstenberger and Yarbrough, B&H Publishing Group, 2016.

About 1,956 years ago: a possibly intentional difference

In studying Ephesians last week, I found that 1:15 has some “stock” wording:

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints (NRSV)

To my ear, that sounds like “typical Paul.”  I quickly recalled, though, that Philemon, which is easily among my three favorite¹ letters in the NT, includes similar wording:

I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus (NRSV)

We could slice and dice and parse the English translation in this version or any number of others.  We could discuss the chronology and Christology of both letters, but I doubt there would be any major discoveries in those respects.  The thing is, the Philemon wording is not the same as the wording in Ephesians, and that fact just might be significant.  The difference might be attributable only to style or preference . . . or it could give us a clue into one or more emphases in each letter.  Let’s break it down a little.

In Ephesians, the hearing is in the aorist tense—a basic past tense—but it is a participle, and participles come in different flavors, and my palate isn’t refined in this area, ll just leave that alone before I get myself in grammar trouble.  In Philemon, the hearing is in the present tense but is again a participle in “mood.”

Note the next difference, carefully.  The succeeding phrases are quite different.  In Greek, word order is not nearly the same thing as it is in English, but these are two different bunches of coconuts.  “Your love and faith that you have toward Jesus and all the saints.”

Ephesians:  I have heard of your . . .

faith in the Lord Jesus (pistin en to kurio iesou)

the conjunction and (kai)

the love for/to all the saints (ten agapen ten eis pantas tous hagious)

Philemon:  I hear of your . . .

love and faith that you have (agapen kai ten pistin en exeis)

toward Jesus and all the saints (pros ton kurion iesoun kai eis pantas tous hagious)

Isn’t the difference curious?  I observe first the inclusion of the verb “to have” (exeis) which is not present in Ephesians.  This verb is used again later in Philemon, so its (ostensibly unnecessary) inclusion here may be notable.

Next—and I think quite significant textually—are the phrases that involve faith, love, Jesus, and the saints.  Philemon has things sort of mashed together on both sides of the verb.  Whereas the wording in Ephesians is more “stock,” Paul’s wording in Philemon reveals, or at least hints at, a purposeful mixing of things:  love and faith can both be directed toward Jesus and other Christians.  (1) Love of others and (2) faith toward Jesus are obviously norms, but we can also love Jesus.  Moreover, we learn in Philemon that Paul is attempting to elicit faithful behaviors from Philemon (and his house church) toward Onesimus, who is newly a Christian brother.  This possibility becomes especially pregnant when pistis (faith) is translated as “faithfulness” a la Matthew Bates.²  Bates continues to influence my thinking, now particularly as I study Ephesians 6:10-20 and the shield of faithfulness.


¹ Not only is Philemon a favorite; it is among my three most ardently studied—and not because it’s brief.  This is no “‘Jesus wept’-is-my-verse-to-memorize” thing.  It’s simply a great letter!

² See this blogpost and this one for an introduction to Bates on this topic.