Arming for Victory

By Stephen Terry


Commentary for the November 17, 2012 Sabbath School Lesson


“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12, NIV

Small boys seem naturally attracted to play with weapons. When I was a young theology student at Walla Walla University, I lived in married student housing with my wife. Another theology student, who was manager of the apartments, lived across the street with his family. His wife took pride in notifying the other families that she was raising her children not to play with toy guns or any sort of violent imagery. However, one day, hearing a ruckus outside, I went to the window to see one of her boys chasing the other down the sidewalk. They both had sticks shaped like very crude pistols and were shouting “Bang! Bang!” at each other. Their mother, with flushed face, quickly ushered them inside. We heard no more about non-violent child rearing after that.

Like it or not, weaponry and armor are common sights. Whether it is the neighborhood cop with his automatic pistol and bullet-proof vest or the soldier on foreign soil with assault rifle and flak jacket, we understand these objects and their purposes. They are inextricably bound with the story of humanity. This being the case, we should not be surprised to find the imagery in the Bible as well, for it, too, is part and parcel with the story of mankind. From the very first murder when Cain slew his brother Abel (Genesis 4:1-15) through the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the present, we have been in a never-ending race to develop weapons of annihilation and defensive armors to protect ourselves from them. The balance of power, within societies and between nations, is often profoundly affected by discoveries that give advantage to one or the other of these technologies.

With a great controversy theme seen as a thread running through the biblical timeline, several Bible writers have used military imagery to convey important points about that conflict. Far too often, out of necessity, the roles of man of God and military conqueror have been conflated. A specific example that comes to mind is King David, who ruled Israel as a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22) and also subdued the kingdoms around him. Another example would be the prophet Samuel who had no qualms about hacking Agag, King of the Amalekites, to pieces in revenge for previous injuries inflicted by the Amalekites on Israel. (1 Samuel 15) It can be seen that often throughout history God’s people have not shirked from addressing spiritual conflict with very real physical combat. While we may debate the ethics of this, we cannot separate the story of Christianity from the story of conquest and destruction, sometimes of entire people groups. Perhaps this is why Paul knew that his meaning would be clear when he used the imagery of battle to convey an important message to the Ephesian church.

Paul states that the battle is spiritual. He writes “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:12, NIV Nonetheless, he continues by using corporeal objects to promote understanding of that conflict. The first of these is the “belt of truth.” Most soldiers understand the important foundation a proper belt is to combat readiness. When I served during the Vietnam War era, we would wear a broad web belt for combat. That belt was designed to hold many things, including pistols, ammunition pouches, first aid pouches, canteens, and knives. Even ponchos which could be used for inclement weather clothing or combined with other ponchos to create temporary shelters were fastened to the belt. If that web belt were defective, many of the items that a soldier relied on could be compromised or lost. So it is with Paul’s “belt of truth.” Without everything being hung properly on truth, Christians will find it difficult to endure battle for any length of time.

What is that truth? Some might feel it is truth as they personally perceive it, but that truth can be fleeting and constantly changing. In the chaos of battle, a soldier needs something stable. That stability may be found in the Bible which tells us that Jesus said “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6, NIV Could it be that Jesus is the “belt” we must hang everything else upon if we are to stand?

Paul goes on to describe the “breastplate of righteousness.” This armor is designed to cover the torso. A military “flak jacket” might be a modern equivalent. Its purpose is to protect the most vital areas of the body. A soldier might survive even a severe wound to a limb, but the torso contains the heart, lungs and other vital organs. Even a small wound to these can easily prove fatal. A soldier who has adequate protection for these organs greatly increases his or her odds of survival.

In most modern armies, this body armor is not owned by the soldier. Rather, it is owned by the military organization and issued to the soldier to wear in combat. When they leave the combat theatre, they return the item to the military. The righteousness the Christian wears is also not his or her own. It is given to the Christian to wear as a gift. It is actually the righteousness of Jesus Christ. However, although it is not our own righteousness, we do not need to ever return it. We can choose to keep it forever.

Next Paul writes of feet shod with the gospel. These must be very beautiful feet for the word gospel means “good news.” It is the good news about Jesus and His love for us. The Bible tells us, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” Isaiah 52:7 NIV

Many times while serving in the Army, I participated in lengthy hikes, sometimes going as far as twenty-five miles in a day. As a medic, I became aware of how easily small problems with footwear could disable an army and destroy its maneuverability. During these hikes, I was often kept busy attending to foot problems that could have been avoided with footwear that was properly prepared and correctly worn. Such an ordinary item was sometimes misunderstood in its importance. Should we perhaps, avoid disabling ourselves in battle by striving to properly understand and put on the good news of righteousness by faith in Jesus?

Next Paul writes of the “shield of faith” as a defense against the “fiery darts of the wicked.” While “shield” is singular, “darts” is plural. The opposite of faith could be doubt, so perhaps these darts are multiple doubts introduced by the wicked to somehow compromise the Christian warrior’s defense. Yet, for each doubt, there is only the one defense that Paul claims is effective for these darts – faith.

A soldier can be confronted by a horrifying storm of bullets from the many automatic weapons on the modern battlefield. When a combat line is paralyzed by such fire, the arrival of an armored vehicle such as a tank can make all the difference. As the tank moves forward with bullets rattling off its armor, the soldiers can move forward behind it. The tank acts as a shield to protect them. Whether a withering fire or only occasional stray bullets, it makes no difference. The tank can be an effective shield against all. Just as their faith in the tank allows the soldiers to move forward, faith can allow a Christian to move forward even though surrounded on every side by darts of doubt.

Paul continues by writing of the “helmet of salvation.” A helmet protects the head which is the seat of our thoughts and awareness. During the two world wars a terrifying tactic often used was to fire artillery into the treetops. When the shells exploded they would send thousands of large splinters of wood hurtling through the air to tear and wound the flesh of the enemy without damaging harder items. The only safety from these air bursts was to have something harder than the wood to protect the body. The steel helmet was well adapted to protect the head in this environment. It was a careless soldier who did not wear his helmet at all times.

Perhaps, for the Christian, it is a knowledge that we are saved in Christ that allows us to endure confidently, even in the face of what may appear to be certain death. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” 2 Timothy 1:12, NIV  As Paul, we should know we have salvation that we might find the mental fortitude to endure “until that day.”

Finally, after dealing with the many items of defense, Paul urges the Christian to take up the sword which is God’s word. For a young soldier in basic training, the weeks of training about the several aspects of military science, the uniform, the marching, the training about military regulations cannot equal the anticipation of the day they begin to train with their weapons. Few soldiers enter the army expecting to sit in a chair doing paperwork. Like those two young boys mentioned at the beginning of this commentary with their crude stick pistols, soldiers tend to look forward to using their weapons. Perhaps for the Christian it is the same regarding the Bible.

When I accepted Christ into my heart as a teenager, I could not get enough of the Bible. I enrolled in every Bible study I could find. Ultimately, this led me to a university degree in theology and biblical languages, but my hunger to study the Bible was not abated there. I continue to read through the Bible over and over again, each time gleaning more insights from those pages. I have found that uniquely the Bible has the ability to speak a different message to a person each time as they come to it from the perspective of different experiences and cultures. The Bible is able to speak directly to those experiences and understandings in a way no other book can. Perhaps this is why it is often called a “living” word. In speaking to every experience of my life, the Bible has given me a profound joy and peace.

The soldier who is secured by the truth of Jesus, covered with the righteousness of Christ, moving forward shod in the good news of the gospel, remaining faithful though faced with abundant doubts, knowing that he or she is saved in Christ, and skillfully wielding the word of God with love and grace shall find little to fear on the battlefield of the great controversy between good and evil. It is a war already won. Victory is not in doubt. Like any army after the victory has been won, we now care for the wounded so they may enjoy the victory, too.



This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry


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