The Armour of God Redux

armour1Last Sunday evening at Kilmallie Free Church we were looking at Paul’s rich metaphor of the Armour of God in Ephesians 6. The week before, we’d already set it in its context: the commands to Be Strong! and Stand Firm! You can wear as much armour and weaponry as you can carry, but without basic determination and strength, you won’t be much use in battle.

The imagery Paul uses of the Armour of God is evocative. That’s perhaps one of the reasons why Paul’s words here have been treated almost as a special teaching, a somewhat mysterious insight into the world of ‘spiritual warfare’. Sometimes it seems as if it’s presented as: ‘well, you’re a Christian, but if you grasp this teaching on the Armour of God, you’ll be living at a whole other level.’

So, let’s bring it all right down to earth (which is where this teaching belongs). Paul is describing the nitty-gritty, the bread-and-butter of Christian living. Yes, it is in battle language, because we live with at least some level of constant conflict with the fallen world, and at times we encounter an especially evil day (a particularly trying and difficult period, either in history or in our own lives). This is what Paul means (both aspects, the constant and the particular) when he writes of the Evil Day in v.13. ‘Spiritual warfare’ is not some mystic insight into the unseen realm. It happens in our everyday experience. When Paul writes about the strategies of the devil (v.11), he writes about us experiencing them through rulers, and those in authority in our societies, and through the very real power-brokers in a dark world (v.12). He depersonalises the struggle, it is their position and power that we oppose, not them as human beings, as if we would attack them physically – our struggle is not against people’s living bodies (v.12). Yes, behind these very real political, cultural, societal (even familial sometimes) powers stand unseen forces of evil, but it is the seen that we encounter, and that’s why we need the Everyday Armour of God.

armour2So, a quick comment on the six pieces of equipment Paul mentions in verses 14-17:

Belt of The Truth: This refers to putting on The Truth, not just telling the truth as opposed to lying. To understand it, we need 4:25: ‘Therefore having put aside The Lie, let each one of you speak The Truth.’ The Lie is the worldview we used to have, before we believed, or the worldview that is constantly foisted upon us by our Western secularising consumerist culture. The Truth is the worldview of God’s Word. What we believe will shape us: our personality and actions. If we believe we are consumers, we will live to consume. If we believe the advertisers and the peddlers of chauvinist dogma, we might believe we are ugly, worthless, unloved. God’s Truth sets us free with news of an unconditional love from our Creator, and a sure salvation in Jesus Christ, the divine Messiah.

The Breastplate of Righteousness: From what we believe, our worldview, to our actions… Paul calls us to live out this new worldview that comes from The Truth. The Gospel call us to righteous lives. Step back to 2:10: we are ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God planned beforehand that we should live them out.’ If we pay attention to following Jesus commands, to living as Christians, that will protect us. If we don’t deal with habits and behaviours from our old life, these will drag us down. Yes, we know we will never be free of sin, we’ll never be perfect, we always need God’s mercy and forgiveness. But, the transforming power of Jesus is real – we can do good.

The Boots of the Gospel: If we understand the Gospel (which is a message of peace), we will be always ready for the struggle! The Gospel is the ‘good news of our salvation’ (1:13) and it reminds us of what is at stake, the goal of our salvation. To stay alert, we must have the Gospel in our DNA. Then, the whole of our lives find their true perspective. What Gospel? The Gospel of the Kingdom. The Gospel of the King. The King of the Cross. The King who has bought us forgiveness of our sins, and who has defeated death. The King who one day will make all things new.

The Shield of Faith: Faith is believing what God has said, specifically in Jesus Christ. Faith is believing in Jesus Christ as Lord. True Christian faith is a belief that is fundamental to us, that changes our approach to life. We become disciples. It is fundamental to our salvation because ‘by grace you have been saved through faith’ (2:8). If we maintain our faith in God in Jesus Christ, then that faith will make the attacks of the Evil One useless (6:16), however they come, whether threats to our jobs or family, or personal attacks on our faith. Or whoever they come through, whether a neighbour, a work colleague, or even when those closest to us try to drag us down.

The Helmet of Salvation: The imagery here, as for the breastplate of righteousness, is borrowed from Isaiah (59:17), where God puts on a helmet of salvation for his mission to bring judgement and salvation to earth. That we are called to put on a helmet of salvation might also speak, not of our own salvation, but of our purpose to bring salvation to others. Of course, God alone is the author of salvation – we can’t save. But, we are called to make disciples, to work to bring others to salvation. As God puts on a helmet of salvation, so must we – we must put on the armour for our mission – to bring salvation to others. This helmet is a helmet of purpose. The same emphasis might be added to the breastplate of righteousness. Our good works are to be seen in the context of our mission. As Christians, we are not hunkering down, hoping to survive. We are in active combat – day-to-day, fighting not just to survive, but for the Kingdom of God to come. As Paul writes in 2 Cor 10:4-5, we are demolishing strongholds, demolishing arguments.

The Sword of the Word of God: The sword is not the Spirit, it supplied by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit has forged the Word of God in the Bible, the sword which we take up. Here is the power of our mission – the Word of God. God’s message. The Gospel message is what we must understand, in order to succeed in pulling down strongholds. We pull down arguments, with the arguments of God’s account of His world and its future; with God’s account of his intervention in Jesus Christ; with God’s account of the realities of salvation and judgement. And it’s not some redacted, back-of-an-envelope Gospel, or a gospel that fits on a pledge card. The sword that we carry is ‘the unsearchable riches of the Messiah’ (3:7-8).

This armour is the everyday way we live, the everyday things we embrace as we seek to live effective lives as Christians: The Truth, Righteous Living, The Gospel, Faith, Seeking the Salvation of others, the Bible. Let us put on the full armour of God as we seek to Be Strong and to Stand Firm.

Stott on Living as the New Humanity

stottAt last Sunday evening’s service, and again on Wednesday night, I quoted John Stott on Living as the New Humanity. I promised to put the quote on the blog, so here it is. In the quote Stott uses the language of ‘new society’, but the meaning in the same – he also uses the language of ‘new humanity’ elsewhere. Anyway, here’s the quote…

We are God’s new society, a people who have put off the old life and put on the new; that is what he has made us.

So we need to recall this by the daily renewal of our minds, … thinking Christianly about ourselves and our new status. Then we must actively cultivate a Christian life.

For holiness is not a condition into which we drift. We are not passive spectators of a sanctification God works in us. On the contrary, we have purposefully to ‘put away’ from us all conduct that is incompatible with our new life in Christ, and to ‘put on’ a lifestyle compatible with it.

John Stott, Ephesians (BST), 193

The Conversion of the Imagination

paul2A couple of weeks ago in Kilmallie Free Church, we started studying Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. As part of the groundwork for the series, I was thinking about a way to capture Paul’s intent in chapters 1 and 2 of the letter. A way to set up the study, to shake things up a little! The words of Richard Hays came to mind (actually about what Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, but apt for Ephesians too):

Paul…was calling Gentiles to understand their identity anew in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ – a gospel message comprehensible only in relation to the larger narrative of God’s dealing with Israel… As a result, Jew and Gentile alike found themselves summoned by the gospel story to a sweeping re-evaluation of their identities, an imaginative paradigm shift so comprehensive that it can only be described as a ‘conversion of the imagination’. The Conversion of the Imagination, 5-6

Now, this is theologian-speak, so it may need a little teasing out. Hays is pointing out two important things about the way Paul understands Christian discipleship. They’re important to us as we set out to study Ephesians, because they’re apparent in the letter itself.

  1. Christian faith is not just what we believe about God, but what we believe about ourselves. That’s the ‘imagination’ bit. Not imagination in terms of fluffy unicorns, or ‘what would it be like to base jump off the north face of the Ben’, but imagination in terms of a mental exercise, something that goes on in our heads. Often we put belief in God so far out in front that what we believe about ourselves is barely on our radar. In fact, we sometimes have the mistaken impression that to think about ourselves is somehow a manifestation of pride and unbecoming for the Christian. That’s not right. This particular mental exercise is to do with questions like: who am I? why am I here? They’re questions of identity.
  2. Christian faith is not really about truths in the abstract, a list of prepositional truths that we assent to. Sure, there are things we believe, and we can write them down in a list. But, Paul believes that it’s when we understand these truths as part of a story, the story of God’s unfolding purposes in the world, that things really start to take off in terms of our Christian discipleship. And so, in Ephesians 1 and 2, Paul rehearses the story of Israel, the promised Messiah, and the Goal of God’s Purposes. He sets out how the Ephesians became part of this story. And he tells them that understanding this story is so important that it’s his constant prayer for them.

So, the ‘Conversion of the Imagination’ is not really an event, but a process. It’s a ‘imaginative paradigm shift’ (a radical change in how we think about ourselves) that might be more radical when we first see it, but that sets a trajectory that doesn’t really stop during our lives. We are always learning more about God’s purposes as revealed in Holy Scripture. We are always fitting more things into the story, and understanding how aspects of our lives relate to, or are incorporated into this story.

Unless we understand the Big Picture, we won’t understand Our Part in It. Unless we understand the story, we won’t understand our place in it, our role in it. How we’re supposed to be living; what we’re supposed to be doing; what does salvation mean for us, in the end – all these are part of it. If you’ve never read the Lord of the Rings and you read a random chapter from the Two Towers, it’s not going to mean much. In fact, you might get totally the wrong end of the stick. You might come away feeling pretty despondent about the story of tragedy, struggle and defeat. And that Tolkien was a bit morose. But, if you’ve read the whole trilogy, you’ll see the richness in that chapter and you’ll immediately understand its significance. The bigger picture sets the whole in a context of hope.

Just as important, since this is a real story (unlike Tolkien), our participation in it joins us together with Jesus Christ. Assenting to a list of prepositional truths is not Christianity. Merely knowing a story is not Christianity. Christianity is knowing Jesus, but it’s more than that. Christianity is following Jesus. And following is what happens when we are living within the story of God’s purposes in Jesus the Messiah.

So, the idea of the Conversion of the Imagination is about being transformed by the ‘renewing of our minds’ – in a very particular way. It’s about the light that’s shed on our lives and our self-understanding by our knowledge of where God’s story is going, how Jesus is realising its goal, and how we fit into it as his disciples. And that is truly transformative.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe. Ephesians 1:16-19

New Covenant Patterns in Ephesians 1-2

mbephesiansA few weeks ago, I posted some thoughts about how the pattern of realisation of the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 might be reflected in New Testament texts about how the Gentiles have been grafted into an already-renewed Israel. One of the places I think this is seen is in Ephesians 1 and 2. Many commentaries make little of Paul’s alternating use of ‘we’ and ‘you’ in this passage, but they are missing something important. John Stott picks up the significance in his work, but of all the commentaries on Ephesians, Markus Barth’s volume is one of the best on this. Here’s an excerpt of what he writes:

The verses 1:11-13 contain distinct statements made about us (“we”) and about “you”..…

In decisive passages of Ephesians…the change between “we” and “you,” “our” and “your,” indicates something other than…an appeal to a common Christian creed, or a cavalier, unnecessary, and meaningless change of diction: as observed earlier, those addressed in Ephesians are all of Gentile origin. They have been “apart from the Messiah, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, strangers to the covenants . . . bare of hope and without God” (2:12). These formerly hopeless people are distinct from other men who have equally been “under the wrath [of God]” (2:3), but were privileged to be the “first to set” their “hope upon the Messiah” (1:12). While the latter call themselves “The Circumcision” because of a “handmade operation,” the former are called “The Uncircumcision” (2:11).

In 2:17 (cf. 13), one of these two groups is called “those who are far,” the other, “those near.” 2:19 speaks of recently naturalized citizens, or newly adopted children who are now among the saints as members of God’s household. Five times the first group is called “the nations” or I “the Gentiles”; in 2:12 the second group is explicitly identified as “Israel.” It is emphatically asserted that Gentiles have now been made fellow heirs, fellow members, fellow beneficiaries in an heirdom, a body, and a promise that were established already before any Gentiles were given access to it (l:18c; 2:19; 3:6). Gentiles now partake of Israel’s privileges and possess the same rights and titles as were formerly reserved for the Jews only….

Just as in Rom 1:16, so also in Ephesians, Paul calls election and salvation by grace events that concern “the Jew first and [also] the Greek.”
Markus Barth, Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1-3 (Anchor Bible, Vol. 34), 130-1, emphasis added.