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 armor—that’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:
- 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.
- 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.