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.

The New World and the Old

nt-wrightOver the past few months, from time to time, I’ve been using the phrase ‘Living Between Two Worlds’ to highlight and to teach the distinctively Reformed view that the world in which we live is God’s world, is good and is the subject of God’s renewal in new creation. We live in a fallen world, yes, but it is God’s good world that is fallen. New creation has begun in the Church through Jesus the Messiah. This new creation brings redemption, and we await the complete renewal and redemption of all creation. This view is not just doctrine; when grasped, it transforms our lives and mission as God’s people.

I’m mining Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N.T. Wright’s magnum opus on Paul for gems for my thesis at the moment. Here’s a couple of quotes on The New World and the Old that I needed to share…

It is this robust version of the Jewish monotheistic doctrine of creation that underlies Paul’s equally robust affirmation that the present world of space, time and matter is itself good. That is why marital union is good in itself (1 Corinthians 7), why all meat is good in itself, even if offered to an idol (1 Corinthians 8, 10), why all time, all days, are basically the same in the sight of the one God (Romans 14.5). Here we see the creational element of Paul’s inaugurated eschatology. One might have imagined that, if the new creation had already been launched, everything about the old one would become not only irrelevant but somehow shabby, tarnished, shown up as in some sense actually evil, so that Paul would be advocating escape. Not at all. For Paul the old creation has, of course, been relativized. It no longer assumes cultural, or even cultic, significance. But it remains good, and can be enjoyed if received with thanksgiving. The new world, already launched with Jesus’ resurrection, reaffirms the essential goodness of the old one even as it relativizes its ultimate significance. As with the biblical texts on which he drew, Paul understood the entire created order not as a static entity to be observed but as part of a narrative, a narrative which had now, he believed, entered its long-awaited new phase.  PatFoG, 1368.

And again, Wright emphasises the two poles of Paul’s eschatology of creation: continuity (God’s covenant commitment is to this creation) and discontinuity (this creation will be renewed, and set free from everything that spoils it)…

For Paul, the renewal of the existing creation was just as important as the renewal of the existing creation. Without the second, one would be trapped in a world of inevitable entropy. Without the first, the idea of new creation would collapse into some kind of gnosticism. PatFoG, 1372.

The Gospel: In Short-hand and Long-hand

St Paul DamascusIs your gospel big enough? I’ve been told a few times that the whole gospel is seen at the cross. And, I’ve been told that the return of Christ is emphatically not part of the gospel. These views are more common than they ought to be. Just what is the Good News?

Recently I read a paper by Margaret Mitchell (‘Rhetorical Shorthand in Pauline Argumentation: The Functions of “The Gospel” in the Corinthian Correspondence’) in which she argues that when Paul writes about the gospel he uses the term ‘the gospel’ (and synonymous terms and phrases) to represent the whole of what he understands to be the gospel. That might seem a prosaic point, but it’s linked to her second argument: that Paul uses single elements of the gospel narrative to evoke the wider whole; they are a kind of shorthand. So, for example, where Paul uses the phrase ‘the gospel of the cross’, this is not a definition of the gospel, but rather a synecdoche (a smaller part evoking a bigger whole).

The gospel is the gospel of the cross, but also the gospel of the resurrection and the gospel of the parousia. Where Paul singles out individual elements of the gospel as shorthand, he does so for rhetorical purposes. So, the cross might be emphasised where Paul’s readers need most to be reminded of the self-giving humility of Jesus. The resurrection might be emphasised where the new life of the believer or ultimate victory over the battles of this life are in view.

Mitchell makes a really important point as to what, in Paul’s mind, are the elements of the gospel. They include the key narrative events that he rehearses in 1 Cor 15, for example:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Cor 15:3-8

It’s worth noting that within this narrative gospel sweep, Paul includes his own encounter with the risen Lord. However, after writing the above, Paul quickly moves on to the return of the Christ and to the resurrection of God’s people. Mitchell writes about this:

In 15:23-28 Paul provides a fresh narrative of the events of the endtime, an example of the opposite literary tendency from shorthand: an expansion of the gospel narrative to respond to new questions which the gospel has engendered for those who seek to live it out in the present and look forward to the future. 74

For Paul, the elements of his gospel form a broad narrative sweep. Mitchell also concludes that the elements of the gospel cannot be easily separated, especially the cross and the resurrection. Writing abut 2 Corinthians 4, Mitchell concludes:

The synecdochical logic which lies behind 4:10-11 is that the death and resurrection of Christ are inseparable and constitute the indivisible unity of the kerygma. 78 (emphasis added)

I highlight this point (which can also be sustained by analysing the kerygmatic speeches of the apostles recorded in the New Testament) because evangelical understandings of the gospel have a tendency to neglect exactly this.

In 2 Corinthians 1:19 we find one of the most interesting uses of Pauline gospel shorthand. The gospel is here summarised as Jesus Christ himself as the Son of God.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy. 2 Cor 1:19

And that is why the gospel, in Paul’s mind, is not merely circumscribed by the events of the death, resurrection and parousia of the Messiah. Whilst the death and resurrection of Jesus are the indivisible unity at the heart of the gospel, the gospel itself is the consummation of the story of God’s dealings with Israel within which the promise of a Son of God, a Messiah came. This story is in fact the story of God’s dealings with his world – something that has become clear in the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah.

…the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord. Rom 1:1-4

The Gospel of Jesus the Messiah sits within, and embraces, an even broader narrative sweep. The gospel is the Good News of how in Jesus Christ, God the Creator is putting his world to rights, reversing the curse, securing redemption for a new humanity through the forgiveness of sins. The incarnation, the life, atoning death, resurrection and return of Jesus are all part of The Gospel. So are the results of God’s decisive intervention in his world: the resurrection of human beings, the redemption of the creation, and in the here and now the presence and action of the Church in the world. The gospel good news is the message that God’s rule is being, and will be, re-established in all the earth. And that is why the gospel is ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ (Matt 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; Lk 16:16).

Judging Preachers

PaulRomeHow do we judge the effectiveness of preaching? It’s a question that’s of obvious interest to preachers. And it’s also a question that’s at the heart of the ubiquitous discussions amongst the laity about who is, or isn’t, a good preacher.
Some time ago I read through Bruce Winter’s Philo and Paul Amongst the Sophists. It’s a very persuasive argument for a background to the problems in the Corinthian church in the sophistic movement of the first century. The Sophists valued rhetoric and presentation above all else in their speaking, and the hearers too would judge the relative merits of the Sophists by this same criterion.
So, when Paul is at pains to point out that he didn’t arrive in Corinth with a message delivered by ‘cleverness of speech’, he’s distancing himself from a sophistic culture which was represented amongst the Corinthian Christians. Similarly, the parties at Corinth (‘I am of Paul, I am of Apollos…’) was a reflection of the tendency to follow and identify with a particular sophist, not necessarily because of the content of their declamations, but simply based upon their style. The sophists were not merely concerned with the style of their speech, but also with their appearance (which might connect with 2 Cor 10:10). Sophists were keen to present themselves outwardly as exemplars of style to the masses. In one case cited by Winter, Epictetus, who is unimpressed by this superficiality, berates a young student of the Sophists for plucking the hair from his body and being concerned about the way in which the hair on his head is set.
How do modern attitudes in the church compare with the attitudes of the Corinthian Christians? To start with, it’s definitely a familiar phenomenon to find preachers judged on their rhetorical power. But, as Paul is at pains to point out, that is a very poor way to judge the effectiveness of a ministry (1 Cor 2:4,5; 4:20). The measure of effective preaching is not how elated we feel when we sing the final hymn or when we are leaving the church. It is how we feel six months or six years later, when we are able to judge the cumulative effect of a ministry in our lives.
And there are implications for us as hearers. If we approach sermons looking for a ‘hit’, a ‘rush’, a ‘high’, looking to be thrilled, our listening might not be conducive to understanding and learning. And there are implications for preachers. If we are looking primarily to thrill the congregation, then that might not be an approach geared to effective teaching and learning. Are we, as hearers, listening in order to grow towards maturity? Are we, as preachers, teaching in such a way as to produce these outcomes amongst our hearers?
And as for the outward appearance… Some preachers have to run just to stand still with some congregations because they’re not wearing a collar (or because they are); because they’re not wearing (or are) a tie, or a suit, or jeans! In the contemporary church there is a tendency to judge a ministry, especially a preacher’s ministry, in terms of oratory, or personality, or even appearance, or perhaps in terms of new people coming into church drawn by that oratory or some other aspect. However, the true test is one of results, not of the instant gratification of an adrenalin hit or a spiritual high, or of the fickle measure of bums on seats, but by the solid, nitty-gritty of effective teaching leading to spiritual growth across the board: new Christians and more established Christians both growing to be mature, effective Christians.

The Renewal of our Spirits and Bodies

P1010056In 1 Corinthians Paul perceives a now-and-not-yet in human salvation. Now, the redemption of our spirits, and in the future, but not-yet, the redemption of our bodies. It is part of Paul’s inaugurated eschatology. The contrast between the anthropos psuchikos (natural/unregenerate man) and ho penumatikos (he who is spiritual) in 2:14-15 expresses the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit. In 15:44, the soma psuchikon (natural/unregenerate body) is transformed into the soma pneumatikon (spiritual body). One body is animated by psuche, the other animated by pneuma. The categories applied to the inward transformation of the one who has faith in Jesus Christ are here applied to their bodily transformation. Both aspects are part of the same overall process and goal. The diagram on the right is an attempt to show this.

Hans-Joachim Kraus writes similarly in his Theology of the Psalms. In his chapter on The Individual in the Presence of God, he identifies spirit (ruah) and heart (leb) as synonymous descriptions of the inner being of humans. The ruah is ‘the wind, the breath of life, the life-giving power.’ It is equivalent to breath (nismah). So Psalm 51 contains a plea for a ‘clean heart’ and ‘a new and right spirit.’ It is a plea for a creative renewal of the human ruah, which can only be achieved through the intervention of the ruah of Yahweh himself.

ruah as a revivifying element of creation corresponds here to ruah as the divine power of new creation, or of its effect on the human spirit. The person who has been renewed in her or his ruah through Gods ‘holy spirit’ is the counterpart to the person who as God’s creature has been given life through ruah or nismah. Both aspects, however, are intimately related, because it is the will of Yahweh the Creator to renew his creation. This will is, however, first active in human beings in Israel. Here the human ruah is in need of God’s protection and guidance through the divine Spirit. ‘Let thy good spirit lead me on a level path!’ (Ps. 143:10).  p147.

What Paul sets out explicitly, we detect in God’s renewing, creative action in the Psalms. What I especially love about this quote is the salvation-historical clarity: the will of the Creator for renewal is ‘first active in human beings in Israel’! The same will of the Creator is today active in all the world! We are closer today to the goal: Behold, I make all things new!