If you've ever seen a battle (or at least watched an episode or two of Game of Thrones), you know that armor can sure come in handy when you're engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Christians may not literally be taking the field of battle, but Paul sure thinks they're involved in spiritual warfare. And even in a metaphorical fight, it's important to be well armed.
Get Ready to Rumble
One of the most famous images from the Epistle to the Ephesians is Paul telling his Christian readers to suit up for battle:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 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. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-17)
The idea here is pretty clear. There are dangerous forces out there—both actual people and institutions and evil forces—waiting to take Christians down. The best defense is a good defense, so Paul wants his readers to arm themselves so that they'll be protected when the time comes.
Paul is basing his description off the battle-wear that Roman soldiers would put on, so this whole section is actually meant to be a little satirical. Christians don't have the power of Rome and can't defend themselves with literal weapons. But they do have the power of God and can break out all the spiritual big guns:
- The Belt of Truth—A belt keeps your pants from falling down. The belt of truth keeps you from tripping over any lies out there.
- The Breastplate of Righteousness—According to the Hebrew Bible, this is what God wears when judging sinners. The Big Guy is loaning it out to Christians so that they can be just as awesome and above reproach as him.
- Shoes—Anyone who walks around spreading the peace of Jesus is on good footing. Just make sure the laces are tied.
- The Shield of Faith—Real belief and true faith can ward off any attack. Here's hoping your shield doesn't have any cracks in it.
- The Helmet of Salvation—The only thing that keeps your pretty little head safe is the knowledge that God will save the world.
- The Sword of the Spirit—This is the only offensive weapon in the arsenal. If you have the word of God at the ready, you can go after people with it. Watch out: you might get a paper cut.
Sounds like Christians are ready to rumble. Watch out, Roman Empire.
Ironclad in the Old Days
As brilliant as Paul is, he didn't come up with these images all on his own. The idea of putting on armor for spiritual warfare is big in the Hebrew Bible:
[God] saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle. (Isaiah 59:16-17)
The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against his frenzied foes. (Wisdom 5:17-20)
You'll notice that in both these verses, it's God who's getting suited up for the fight. In Ephesians, Christians are the ones who are supposed to don the armor. God must be letting them borrow his clothes.
Onward, Christian Soldiers
This image has been pretty powerful throughout history. See, in the years after Jesus died, Christians had a bit of an underdog complex going. That's probably because they were actual underdogs when compared to the big bad Roman Empire. The idea of putting on God's armor was a way for Christians to regain the power that had been stripped from them by society.
Oddly enough, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, they switched over to wearing literal armor with no problems at all. Sure, it was still important to arm yourself with faith, but a really sharp sword wouldn't hurt either. The Crusades and the Inquisition also weren't the church's finest armor-wearing hours.
No matter how mighty Christianity got, the image of spiritual warfare always stuck around. The shield of faith gets its name from this passage in Ephesians. The Christian superhero, Bibleman transforms by putting on the armor of God. John Bunyan clothed his hero in the armor of God during his journey in The Pilgrim's Progress. Hymns about spiritual battle are all over the place, too.