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What to Read on the Armor of God (Eph. 6:10–20)

Tomorrow, Lord willing, I’ll be completing a four-sermon series on the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-20. It’s been a rewarding challenge and great joy to have camped out here in God’s word this past month with the saints at Redeemer URC in Orange City, IA. [1]

Part of the impetus behind the series came from listening to an excellent episode of Christ the Center with Will Wood, a PhD student in Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. While I always had a natural draw to the armor (who doesn’t?), as it conjures up exciting images of heavenly wars and cosmic battles that deeply resonate with the Christian life, I also had a certain hesitation to preach or teach on it. This was because the interpretations I had heard in the past tended to degenerate into exegetical free-for-alls. The pieces of the armor could apparently morph into just about anything. So when Wood began elucidating the Isaianic background of the armor, the Christ-centeredness of it, and its specific role in the redemptive-historical context of an inaugurated end-time tribulation, I recognized a solid exegetical ground on which to understand it.

I then began to do further study on the armor and came across some very good resources. I thought it might be helpful to share with you the five I found most useful.

1. Clinton E. Arnold, Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians

Arnold has done the church a great service in thinking both responsibly and insightfully about the powers of this age in Paul’s writings. This may be a topic some of us are hesitant to wade in, but a topic that is nonetheless vital for understanding Paul’s overall thought. It was Geerhardus Vos who even said,

… one gains the impression that [Paul] was conscious of a mysterious drama being enacted behind the scenes of this visible world in the world of spirits, and that not a drama bearing its significance in itself; it is something pregnant with the supreme solution of the world-drama at the close of history (Pauline Eschatology, 281).

Arnold brings to light the theme of power that runs throughout Ephesians with careful attention to the historical context in Asia Minor and especially Ephesus. Paul pastorally addresses a people who have been ensconced in magical practices and a worldview that believed the spirit realm could be manipulated through amulets and incantations. Arnold summarizes,

Ephesians appears to have been written to a group of churches in western Asia Minor needing help in developing a Christian perspective on the “powers” and encouragement in their ongoing struggles with these pernicious spirit-forces (p. 167).

He shepherds them by expounding the glories of Christ’s exaltation “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21). This supreme power of Christ is accessible to the church, which comes to her not through magical means of manipulation, but “from an intimate relationship and identification with the Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 138). The armor of God is then an elaboration of the divine strength and power upon which the church is to depend in her struggle against the powers of this age.

I would also recommend his more accessible book Powers of Darkness: Principalities & Powers in Paul’s Lettershis commentary on Ephesians and his article, “‘The Exorcism’ of Ephesians 6:12” (JSNT 30 [1987]: 71-87).

2. Donna R. Reinhard, “Ephesians 6:10-18: A Call to Personal Piety or Another Way of Describing Union with Christ?” (JETS 48/3 [September 2005]: 521-32)

If you only have time to read a single article on the armor of God, make sure it’s this one. I came away with two very insightful points from the article. First, Reinhard exegetically shows how the armor of God passage (Eph. 6:10-20) is a concluding summary of the entire letter. The significance of this is that as a summary Paul is bringing together elements he has already spoken of earlier. So, for example, when he comes to speak about the belt of truth, he has already said much about what this truth is (1:13; 4:15). Reinhard writes,

Truth first appears in the indicative section (1:13); the word of truth is the gospel of salvation. In the imperatives, Paul exhorts the people to speak the truth to each other in love, so that they may all mature in the faith (4:15). A pattern of truthfulness is part of normal community life after putting off the old self and putting on the new self (4:25) and is necessary for unity. However, in 5:8-9, we find that living lives characterized by truth is not something that one does in one’s own strength, but that this is a fruit of light and an outward sign that one is walking as a child of light. Thus, the desire and ability to live a life characterized by truth are gifts from God which each believer is expected to act upon and incorporate into his or her life. Paul discusses truth first as a divine gift and then as a human responsibility.

The second point is already expressed in the above quote. The armor is not something the people of God are called to manufacture on their own; rather, each piece is a divine gift that God graciously supplies his soldiers with. These gifts then entail a responsibility as they call us to a certain lifestyle and to specific war-time action. Again, consider the belt of truth. Because God has given to us the gospel of truth as a divine gift (1:13) we are called and equipped to speak the truth in love to one another (4:15).

3. Thomas Yoder Neufeld, Put on the Armour of God: The Divine Warrior from Isaiah to Ephesians

While you may need to check this one out at a library, it’s certainly a must read for an in-depth study of the armor. As the title suggests, the main focus of the book is on its Isaianic background (and its historical development from Isaiah to Paul). This helps us see that Paul isn’t inventing something new here; the armor has an important history to it. The armor Paul exhorts his readers to put on is the very same armor that the Lord himself successfully wore in battle in Isaiah 59.

He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak (Isa. 59:17).

The armor of God is battle-tested; therefore, we can rest assured that with the armor on we can stand against the schemes of the devil and the whole host of rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places—all of whom seek our destruction.[2]

4. Jeffrey R. Asher, “An Unworthy Foe: Heroic έθη, Trickery, and an Insult in Ephesians 6:11” (Journal of Biblical Literature, 130 no. 4 [Wint. 2011]: 729-748)

What I found most helpful about this article was that Asher asked good questions that often go unaddressed. These questions specifically focused on the opponents of the church Paul lists. For example,

Why does the author divide the combatants into two clearly defined groups by assigning to each group distinctive martial characteristics and practices? Why is strength the distinctive goal of the believers, and why is there a specific focus on heavy armament? Why is the enemy of the believers depicted as one who uses stratagems or tricks (6:11) and missile weapons (6:16)? (p. 730).

What he ends up arguing is that

this portrayal of the devil is based on an ancient Greek model of cunning in warfare. This model originated in the heroic tradition, principally Homer, and served as the antithesis of a competitive heroic virtue, strength. When combined with its opposite, it often carried negative connotations, implications that I will argue carry over into Eph 6:11. When the author labels the archenemy of believers as a trickster, he is not only issuing the literary equivalent of a “challenge-riposte,” but he is also slandering the enemy of the community with a traditional insult drawn from one of the important symbols of Greek culture. The language thus symbolically encodes various honorific and shameful attributes to the different combatants and labels the enemy of the believers as an unworthy foe (p. 731).

5. S. M. Baugh, Ephesians (Evangelical Exegetical Commentary) and Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (PNTC)

These are the two commentaries I found most helpful regarding the armor. Baugh provides solid exegetical insight as he masterfully deals with the Greek grammar and O’Brien tends toward a more theological and exhaustive treatment of the pieces. In the application section of Baugh’s commentary he writes,

Christianity is not a stroll through the mall but a grim fight. Yet we are not engaged in earthly military forays, clumsily cutting off people’s ears (Matt. 26:51; John 18:10), but in a contest against supernatural forces. Because we cannot stand on our own against superhuman powers, we must rely on the strength of the Lord’s own might, which he supplies chiefly through prayer (v. 18). This divine strength is represented in the complete panoply of God from head to foot that consists of belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, and sword (p. 562).

Other online resources: Chrysostom, Calvin, and Hodge.

It is interesting that Calvin follows Chrysostom in understanding the breastplate of righteousness as the personal virtue of the Christian, rather than as the imputed righteousness of Christ. This is an interesting discussion, but one that would require a whole separate post. If you want to study this matter further see Wenkel’s article “The ‘Breastplate of Righteousness’ in Ephesians 6:14: Imputation or Virtue?” (Tyndale Bulletin 58 [2007]: 275-87).

What have you found helpful for understanding the armor of God? Let us know in the comments below. 

[1] You can find the sermons here, for what they’re worth. Also, if you haven’t experienced some good Mid-West hospitality, you certainly need to make your way out here!

[2] The Belgic Confession speaks of these enemies of the church in article 12: “The devils and evil spirits are so depraved that they are enemies of God and every good thing; to the utmost of their power as murderers watching to ruin the Church and every member thereof, and by their wicked stratagems to destroy all; and are, therefore, by their own wickedness adjudged to eternal damnation, daily expecting their horrible torments.”


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