June 15, 1775 – the newly formed Continental Congress appoints a Virginia plantation farmer to serve as Commander-in-Chief of a ragtag army made up of disparate colony regiments. His assignment was to fight against the most powerful army of the day, that of the British Empire.
Washington was an experienced soldier, but not the only one. There were other men with experience and seemingly with capability. Two noteworthy candidates thought they should bear that position; another would so prove himself in battle that he could have been a candidate. The three men were Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, and Benedict Arnold.
Charles Lee was a popular general. Washington even renamed a fort in his honor, and he was assigned to lead northern troops in an effort to bolster Washington’s troops who had suffered a string of losses. Lee was supposed to lead the troops under his command to meet up with Washington, but he unaccountably dawdled. Meanwhile, Lee was sending letters to members of congress expressing his dissatisfaction with Washington. Perhaps he was writing one of those letters, when he was surprised by a small British guard, while still in his dressing gown. Inexplicably, Lee had taken a dozen of his officers on a night outing to a tavern and inn, leaving himself exposed to capture. Lee would eventually be returned to the colonial army, but it was later revealed that he had been treated royally by his captors and had even drawn up attack plans for the British. In the Battle of Monmouth, he was given command for the attack but botched it miserably (or intentionally?). Only Washington’s quick action turned imminent defeat into a standoff with the British.
The other general was Horatio Gates. Gates started out as the first adjutant general of the army and did well. Both he and Lee were key leaders in organizing the army in its early days. Gates had the further knack of being in the right places without also being in the line of fire, and thus receiving credit for the heroic deeds of other officers. He, even more boldly than Lee, led a campaign among congress to replace Washington as Commander-in-Chief. His downfall came at the Battle of Camden (SC), where the troops under his commander were routed, though Gates himself escaped.
Then there was Benedict Arnold, who proved early on to be the most capable and daring of all the commanders. Washington promoted him to the rank of general. One biographer noted that if Arnold had died in the Battle of Saratoga, where he was wounded, he would be remembered as one of the greatest heroes of the American Revolution. But Arnold was the victim of slights and character attacks. Twice he was denied credit for his courageous role in American victories. He was discredited by enemies for his service as military commander of Philadelphia. Embittered, he betrayed his country by trying to turn over a fort to the British. He successfully escaped to the enemy and served as an officer against the American army.
Three soldiers – men who had proven their worth as military leaders. Each of them ended their careers in disgrace. Why did they fail? Though in the beginning they were eager to fight against the enemy, none were prepared with the armor – that is, the traits of character – necessary to stand against the battle of the real enemy. They were ready physically and mentally to fight British dragoons, German Hessians, and even Scottish Highlanders. It was their hearts that were woefully ill-prepared to withstand the temptations that would beset them.
It is this battle that the apostle Paul warns his readers about in verses 10-13. It is for this battle that he now displays the armor of God, of which they may avail themselves.
having fastened on the belt of truth,
The apostle Paul starts with the basics. The Greek phrase here reads, “gird the loins.” The soldier is to gather the undergarments on him and tie them with a belt so that he can fight unencumbered. He is to get himself prepared for battle. In Luke 12:35, Jesus is giving instruction about being ready for his return. He tells them to “let your loins be girded.” The ESV translates the phrase as “stay dressed for action.”
The belt that we are to use so as to be properly prepared for action is truth. The term could mean the objective truth outside of us, namely the truth of the gospel, or of God’s Word. That certainly is of great value in being prepared. Most commentators agree, though, that Paul is speaking of truthfulness, as in having integrity. We are to be persons who highly value the truth – both in knowing it and in communicating it.
and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
Again, the word can have two references. Paul could be referring to the righteousness of God found in Christ that covers us. Or he could mean that we are to live righteously. If we take truth as being truthful, then it makes more sense for righteousness to refer to our living righteously.
15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.
A more literal rendering would be “binding your feet with the readiness.” The word for “readiness” could be translated “preparation,” or “equipment.” Readiness fits in well with the focus on preparing oneself against attack. Some commentators make the point that this particular analogy teaches that we are also to do our own attacking, so to speak – i.e. we are to go forth with the gospel of peace against Satan’s territory. That certainly is a true teaching as exemplified by Paul’s own ministry.
But I think in this instance, Paul is still focusing on our protection against Satan’s attack. And as a pastor, I have seen how vital this particular equipment of the gospel of peace is. I would say that the majority of Christians who have come to me for counsel over the years have been undermined by lacking the peace of the gospel. They have forgotten that they are reconciled to God and that God is at peace with them. They have forgotten Paul’s teaching in Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Not having shoed their feet with such preparation, they have slipped and fallen before Satan’s accusations against them.
Truth, righteousness, peace of the gospel – these are three fundamental pieces of the soldier’s armor to prepare for the attacks of Satan. Consider our three generals who started well but failed to stand.
Lee had been an able soldier. But he lacked the belt of truth. He relied on deception. He could not be trusted when danger was at hand, nor could he be trusted to put the cause of the Revolution before his own ambition and personal protection.
Gates could have been a successful adjutant general. But he let his ambition dictate his actions. He took commands that he was ill-equipped to lead; he took credit and honor that he should have bestowed on others. He conspired against his superior commander. Because he did not wear the breastplate of righteousness, his service ended in failure and shame.
And then there is Benedict Arnold, whose very name for Americans is used for betrayal. Arnold lacked peace all his life. He sought military honor, an honor which he could not quite possess – both because of the selfish actions of others and also because of his own character failures. That lack of peace led to his betraying his country.
16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;
Most shields were made of wood. So one tactic of warfare was to shoot flaming arrows that would then set the shields on fire, frightening the soldiers and causing them to throw down their shields. The Roman shields were long, protecting the whole body; they were also covered with a thick leather that the soldiers would wet with water before battle. This allowed the shields not only to protect against arrows but to also extinguish their flames.
So faith is to do for the believer. But it is not faith for faith’s sake. It is critical what the faith is in. Merely to have faith that things are going to somehow turn out right is not an effective shield; nor is having faith in other people or bank accounts or physical condition; and certainly not the faith that our culture reveres the most – faith in oneself.
The faith intended here is the faith in Jesus Christ and all that the believers receives in him, as expounded in the first three chapters. For Satan shoots such flaming darts as these:
“How can you expect God to have saved such a sinner as you?”
“God would never claim someone like you.”
“See what a sinner you are. How can you expect forgiveness now after what you have done?”
Such arrows demoralize believers, frightening them so that they hide from God.
But those who use the shield of faith and able to withstand such attacks, for they are able to extinguish the flaming darts with faith in the work of Christ. They are able to retort, “Yes, I am a sinner but:
“It is God the Father who chose me, and he will not let me go.
“It is God the Son, Jesus Christ who won my atonement, and his work his accepted by
God the Father. It is in Christ, therefore that God claims me as his child.
“It is God the Holy Spirit who seals my salvation, and his seal cannot be broken.”
We come now to the final two pieces of armor.
17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,
Here is what Paul tells us by speaking of the helmet of salvation. Suppose we do drop our shields out of fear. We are nonetheless protected with the helmet of salvation that says to us what Paul reminded his readers earlier in 2:4-8:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
We are saved…by grace! It is the gift of God! He has made us alive together with Christ! He has raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus! Our confidence is in his promise, in his word!
And it is God’s word that we now lift as our swords to battle back. With the word of God, we need not merely hide behind cover. For his Word, filled with the promises that are in Christ Jesus, fills us with confidence and makes us strong for battle.
And yet we may have all the armor we need; but if we are not alert, our armor avails us little. In the book, Band of Brothers, one lesson is made clear time and again. It is the element of surprise that is most accountable for victory. Surprise is attained by deception, a trait that Satan excels in. It is also attained by the overconfidence and relaxing of diligence by the defender. And so, Paul concludes by exhorting believers to pray.
18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. And as he adds, “To that end keep alert with all perserverance…”
We know the term “fox-hole prayer.” It is the prayer for help that soldiers make when they are pinned down by the enemy, usually including a promise to be a better person if God comes through. Does that characterize our own prayer life? We pray when we become aware of danger; but the very real danger is when we are least aware of it. Satan and his forces are always alert, and they attack when they see us relax and even remove our armor. Let King David be a lesson. His biggest failure – the seduction of Bathsheba – came when he was far from the battlefield, so he thought. We will devote more time to the vital work of prayer next week.
How effective is this armor? Consider the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who availed himself of it. Indeed, Jesus could refer to himself as the Truth, so tightly was it tied about him. He only spoke truth because he only spoke the will of his Father. As he testified of himself,
My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory, but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood (John 7:16-18).
Jesus wore the breastplate of righteousness, even to living a perfect life without sin. He could say to his enemies, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:46), without fear of a true accusation.
Jesus wore the shoes of the gospel of peace. He preached the good news and the peace with God that comes to those who receive it. He also possessed peace with God his Father, with whom he was one. Indeed, he prayed for his own followers to possess this unity: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:20-21).
Jesus bore the shield of faith, trusting that God his Father would protect him and reward him for the work he would accomplish on the cross. It was for the joy that was set before him – believing by faith that God would provide his promised reward – that he endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2).
And so he wore the helmet of salvation, the protection of God his Father. He wielded the word of God, so that when tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he thwarted each thrust of the enemy with quotation of the holy Scriptures. He too was alert in prayer, spending long periods of time in prayer. It was the prayer in the garden of Gethsemane that strengthened him for the battle of the cross.
This was the armor that Jesus wore in his earthly life to win the battle for our souls. For he too did “not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12). And unlike us, who stumble and fail to be alert, he stood firmly against the schemes of the devil; he was able to withstand in the evil day. Understand that Satan needed only one sin, one slight stumble from Jesus and the battle would belong to him. One blemish, one chink in his armor and we would be lost.
But the battle belonged to the Lord. His armor did not fail; he was not thrown off guard but remained alert. And his strong arm won the day. He is our champion, so that even now we may trust in him.
Do you not despair at times when you read this list of armor and consider how poorly you wear it? Can you say that you wear the belt of truth tightly around your waist? That you never lie, never fudge the truth, that you are always proven trustworthy? Can you claim to wear the breastplate of righteous without embarrassment of failing God? Are you truly noted as a bearer of the gospel of peace, or have you yielded to fears and even spread fear among others? Has your faith extinguished the flaming darts of Satan, or have you panicked and doubted God? Has the helmet of salvation rested securely upon your head, or has your confidence in God been dented time and again? Has the Word of God felt heavy to your arm, so that you do not raise it up either for protection or to do battle? Have you been like the disciples in Gethsemane who preferred sleep over prayer, and thus have been caught off guard too many times?
Take heart. For God is true to his promises in Christ, and the breastplate of Christ’s righteousness still protects you. His gospel of peace still carries you and keeps you standing. No flaming dart can destroy you, for the Holy Spirit protects you. The Spirit has fastened the helmet of salvation and his seal cannot be broken. The Word of God never fails, however weak or tired your arm may be. And though you woefully lack due diligence in prayer, Jesus Christ, your High Priest, is faithful to make propitiation for your sins, to plea your cause before the throne, so that with confidence you may draw near to the throne of grace and receive mercy and help in time of need.
The book I referred to, Band of Brothers, exalts the camaraderie, the preparedness, and the valor of a company of Army soldiers. But even heroic soldiers can be vulnerable to enemy fire. One of them wrote the following to his commanding officer years later after the war.
My career after the war was trying to drink away the truckload of Krauts that I stopped in Holland and the die-hard Nazi that I went up into the Bavarian Alps and killed. Old Moe Alley made a statement that all the killings that I did was going to jump into the bed with me one of these days and they surely did. I had a lot of flash backs after the war and I started drinking. Ha! ha!
“Then my sister’s little daughter, four-years-old, came into my bedroom (I was too unbearable to the rest of the family, either hung over or drunk) and she told me that Jesus loved me and she loved me and if I would repent God would forgive me for all the men I kept trying to kill all over again.
That little girl got to me. I put her out of my room, told her to go to her Mommy. There and then I bowed my head on my Mother’s old feather bed and repented, and God forgave me for the war and all the other bad things I had done down through the years.”
The armor of God – it is there for you. And as strong as it may be to withstand enemy assault, it is nevertheless light enough even for a little girl to carry.
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