In New Testament times the Roman Empire held sway, sustained by the ruthless efficiency of its armies. On occasions, Paul the apostle benefited from his Roman citizenship,1 and in the later chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, he enjoyed Roman protection against the hostility of Jewish opponents. It is not surprising, therefore, that he draws upon a rich set of military metaphors and allusions in his correspondence. This article reviews the spiritual teaching we can derive from his use of military metaphors.
Salvation involves a profound change of realm and allegiance; it takes the believer out of the realm of darkness and into the kingdom of light and life. As a result, it brings inescapable conflict with the powers of darkness. Since this conflict is spiritual,2 it follows that only spiritual resources will suffice.
There are myriad malignant forces in the spiritual realm in rebellion against God, cp. Dan. 10. 13-21. They are headed up by the ‘god of this age’, 2 Cor. 4. 4 NKJV, the devil. Defeated by Christ, they are nonetheless particularly active in those who refuse the gospel. They cannot rob us of our salvation, but they could easily neutralize our effectiveness for God.
Faced with such a struggle, complacency would be inexcusable, but so also would despair. Our Lord has fought and won the decisive battle at Calvary, and Satan is now a doomed and defeated foe. Satan and his minions staged their opportunistic assault at the cross, but our Lord triumphed comprehensively, ‘by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him’, Col. 2. 14, 15 ESV. Contrary to all outward appearances, Paul sees the Conqueror turning His cross into the chariot of His triumph over all His foes. For the Christian, final victory is assured because Christ has conquered, Rom. 8. 37.
Parallels are often drawn between Ephesians and the book of Joshua. The whole of the Promised Land lay before Israel, but they needed to move forward in faith (and strengthened by God), to fight their battles and possess their possessions. Beginning at Ephesians chapter 6 verse 10, Christians are seen as soldiers engaged in the cosmic conflict between the powers of good and evil. We are provided with the ‘full armour of God’, v. 11 NIV - nothing less than God’s own armour that He now graciously provides to equip His people for their own spiritual battles. If we are to be effective Christian warriors, how must we proceed?
First, we are to be strong in the Lord, v. 10. The point is that God is our only strengthener.3 His mighty power (literally ‘the strength of His might’) recalls its supreme demonstration in the resurrection of Christ, Eph. 1. 19, 20.
We are to avail ourselves of the ‘whole armour’ of God. This is the complete equipment of the heavily armed soldier. It is ‘of God’ in the sense that He has used it Himself, and now He provides it, and indeed appoints it, for our protection. We need this strengthening and armour if we are to stand. I note the emphasis on ‘stand’ and ‘withstand’, rather than on ‘advance’; we occupy ground that Christ has secured for us through His death and resurrection.
Even the best-equipped soldiers can be undone by a surprise attack. We dare not wait until the ‘evil day’ is suddenly upon us, the day of Satan’s assault; rather, we are to be ready, armed, and watchful, on guard against sloth and carelessness. Job certainly experienced ‘the evil day’, with blows first in respect of his possessions and family, and then finally his health, Job 1. 13 - 2. 10.
‘Wrestle’, Eph. 6. 12, suggests conflict at close quarters. There is no escape; the struggle is personal! ‘Loins girt’ implies preparation for serious engagement. ‘The girdle of truth’, v. 14, suggests personal integrity. Isaiah chapter 11 verse 5 (LXX) states, ‘And he shall have his loins girt with righteousness, and his sides clothed with truth’. In the Isaianic context, this points to Messiah’s coming rule as one of righteousness and truth. ‘Truth’ denotes the truth of God, as revealed in the gospel, Eph. 4. 21; 5. 9, to be worked out in the lives of believers, displaying Christ’s character in our language, attitude, and behaviour.
‘And he put on righteousness as a breast-plate, and placed the helmet of salvation on his head’, Isa. 59. 17 Septuagint (LXX). Again, this refers to God’s actions for the vindication of His people. Donning God’s righteousness involves putting on the new man, Eph. 4. 24, created to be like God in righteousness and holiness. Putting on God’s righteousness commits us to behaving righteously in all our dealings.
What about combat footwear? Having one’s feet shod with ‘the preparation of the gospel of peace’ alludes to Isaiah chapter 52 verse 7. It probably means a readiness to share the gospel of peace, and teaches that every Christian should be a bearer (‘feet shod’) of the saving message of the gospel for the blessing of others. ‘Peace’ recalls teaching in Ephesians chapter 2, and speaks of comprehensive blessings, salvation, and reconciliation, both in the vertical and horizontal dimensions.
Faith in God is frequently mentioned in Ephesians.4 Deep confidence in God, ‘faith’, constitutes a large shield, v. 16. To ‘take’ the shield, we lay hold on God and His resources in order to withstand Satan’s attacks, cp. 1 Pet. 5. 8, 9, ‘whom resist stedfast in the faith’. Roman soldiers used to soak their shields in water to quench burning arrows. The devil will attack us with all sorts of destructive weaponry, both from without (opposition, propaganda, persecution) and from within (doubts, fears, temptations).
Our warrior God wears the ‘helmet’,5Isa. 59. 17, as He saves His people and judges their enemies. Now, He makes that salvation available; hence, salvation, appropriated and enjoyed, constitutes the vital helmet. The Epistle emphasizes the accomplished fact and the present enjoyment of salvation; Christ has triumphed over all the enemy’s power, and we are in Him. The more we grasp this, the safer we will be.
The Christian warrior, like their Lord, is privileged to wield the ‘sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’. We must take the battle to the enemy. The Holy Spirit gives the word of God its cutting edge. But have we made it our own? Are we comfortable and competent swordsmen? The Greek here suggests spiritual readiness with a timely word or saying (rhema). Whilst we might think of our Lord’s own use of scripture during His temptations in the wilderness, it is more likely that Paul is thinking of the gospel. In Messiah’s conflicts He slays the wicked with the sword of His mouth. When we faithfully proclaim the gospel in the realm of darkness, men and women held captive by Satan are liberated from his clutches. How ready we should be with a gospel word!
Then, finally, what an emphasis on watchfulness, prayer, and supplication, vv. 18-20! Surely this is an area of great weakness in the modern church. Prayer has a higher profile than any of the previous weaponry. Paul desires all kinds of prayer at all times, v. 18; Christian fellowship in prayer, praying for one another. As usual, Paul does not seek an easy life, but enhanced boldness to make the gospel and its glorious doctrines fully known, even at the highest levels.
In 2 Timothy chapter 2 verses 3 and 4, Paul exhorts Timothy to take his share in suffering as ‘a good soldier of Jesus Christ’. This is one of several metaphors linked by the thought of discipline and effort.6
Timothy is to be a soldier on active service, ‘not entangled in the affairs of civilian life’.7 Similarly, Uriah the Hittite refused to visit his wife Bathsheba when his fellow-soldiers were at war, 2 Sam. 11. 11. Singleness of focus and freedom from distracting cares are essentials in service for Christ.
Perhaps the highest incentive of all is the knowledge that we are pleasing the One who chose us for His service. The great commanders of history inspired outstanding loyalty. It is said that Alexander the Great’s elite warriors would have gladly followed him to the ends of the earth. Surely Christians cannot be less committed to pleasing the One who chose them to be soldiers?
Military metaphors feature in 2 Corinthians, where Paul is seen to be embroiled in many instances of suffering and conflict. He alludes to spiritual weaponry, 2 Cor. 10. 3-6, deployed to demolish proud arguments and lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God and taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.
Earlier, he employs the vivid imagery of a triumphal procession, 2 Cor. 2. 14-16. The victorious Roman general could savour the ultimate honour of a triumphal procession in Rome. His trusted commanders and soldiers would be there to share his glory, with the fragrance of incense filling the air, receiving the adulation of the appreciative crowds.
Such scenes firmly point us to the future, and the day of Christ, the day of review and reward. Paul was looking well beyond the misery of prison and the approach of martyrdom when he wrote, ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day: and not only to me, but also to all them that have loved his appearing’.8
Despite the paradox of our present experience regarded as ‘sheep for the slaughter’, Rom. 8. 36, for Paul the reality is that ‘we are more than conquerors through him that loved us’, v. 37.
Acts 16. 37, 38; 22. 25-29; 23. 27.
John 16. 33; Eph. 6. 10; 1 Pet. 5. 8, 9.
2 Tim. 2. 1; Phil. 4. 13; cp. Josh. 1. 6, 7, 9.
Eph. 1. 13, 15, 19; 3. 12, 17; 4. 5, 13; 6. 23.
Cp. 1 Thess. 5. 8, ‘for an helmet, the hope of salvation’.
The athlete must train and adhere to the rules of the competition; the farmer works hard in the hope of produce from his labours, 2 Tim. 2. 5, 6.
F. F. Bruce, Expanded Paraphrase of the Epistles of Paul, The Paternoster Press.
2 Tim. 4. 7, 8 RV.