Paul’s paean to love in I Corinthians 13 is his most famous extended passage, I’m sure, but I also bet that second place goes to his “Put on the full armor of God” exhortation in Ephesians 6. Here it is:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
14 Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, 19 and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.
I’ve divided it into three parts for purposes of discussion, and I don’t have a lot to say about the third part, verses 18-20, except to note what a beautiful transition it is between the discussion of the “full armor of God” and his closing of the epistle, which immediately follows in verses 21-24. That is, he asks that the “sword of the Spirit” (verse 17) be wielded through “prayer and petition” for all Christians (verse 18), and only then turns to his own circumstances and asks for prayer as he continues to evangelize as a prisoner in Rome, so that “I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak” (verses 19-20).
With regard to the first part, verses 10-13, Paul introduces the metaphor “full armor of God,” and says it should be donned “so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil” and “so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” Paul uses this metaphor because, he makes clear, we are every day in a real, high-stakes, life-and-death struggle against Satan. The evil one wants to destroy you and your soul, and the souls of everyone you love. This is not just a game or an intellectual exercise. This is a deadly serious business with a formidable foe.
In his 1941 preface to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote:
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
Paul wants to make sure that the Ephesians don’t make the first mistake.
Let’s discuss, too, the intriguing verse 12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Again, Paul’s point is that it is Satan who is the enemy, not mere mortals.
In this regard, it’s important that the phrase “of this darkness” describes not only “forces” but also “rulers” and “powers”; I’m no Greek expert, but this seems consistent with the original Koine, as well as with the NASB translation that I used above, and it’s reassuring that the various other translations, while they vary in other respects, apparently all agree on this point.
And how do we interpret “the spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places”? It would be surprising if Paul were referring to heaven itself in the last phrase, but perhaps “heavenly places” means churches. Apparently it has also been interpreted to mean “high places,” namely seats of secular power. See M.D. Aeschliman, “That Hideous Strength — C.S. Lewis’s Fantasia of Consciousness at 75” (August 16, 2020) (search for the word “Ephesians” at this link: https://evolutionnews.org/2020/08/that-hideous-strength-c-s-lewiss-fantasia-of-consciousness-at-75/ ; providentially, I happened upon this essay the day after our pastor had preached on Paul’s passage here).
If the latter, by the way, then maybe Paul is deliberately not spelling things out here as much as he could: He doesn’t want the Roman authorities to read or hear that he is calling them instruments of the devil (elsewhere, of course, Paul is at pains to make clear that the Christians are not political revolutionaries, and will follow the civil authorities as well as God).
Let’s turn now to the second part, verses 14-17, in which Paul elaborates on the “full armor” metaphor, listing each piece of martial equipment, and tying each one to a particular spiritual attribute.
Thus, the belt is truth; the breastplate is righteousness; the sandals are evangelism; the shield is faith; the helmet is salvation; and the sword is Spirit/word of God.
It’s important that Paul begins with truth. Our pastor followed a translation here that uses “belt” rather than “gird your loins,” and said that the belt holds all the other equipment together. There’s something to that, but in any event Paul, as he (and other apostles) always do, starts by saying that what matters most here is the truth: The Resurrection really happened, there is God and this is what He wants from us. It always strikes me that an important part of the answer to skeptics’ claims that the New Testament writers were making it all up is that it is odd for alleged charlatans to be stressing the truth so much.
As for the other items of military apparel, I think each one fits well with the Christian attribute Paul chooses to match it with.
Now, this is certainly vivid imagery, but why does Paul choose to use it? Is he just showing off, carried away with his own writing?
Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Scripture being eloquent and using compelling imagery. You’re trying to move human beings, after all, and good rhetoric (in the classical sense, in which Paul was likely trained) is a way to do that. What’s more, I think there were at least two other reasons why Paul may have used this extended metaphor.
The first is that it fits in precisely with Paul’s overarching message: That we are in a fight to the finish with Satan. The martial imagery, then, makes perfect sense, and reinforces Paul’s point.
Second, I wonder whether Paul chose the metaphor also because of its value as a mnemonic device. He has a list of all the central Christian attributes, and he wants the folks in Ephesus — and likely elsewhere, as letters were commonly circulated to other churches as well, and the evidence is that this letter in particular was encyclical — to remember them. But his letter to them would be read out loud in those pre-printing-press days when, besides, many members of the congregations were illiterate anyhow. So some sort of mnemonic device makes sense, and a soldier’s outfit is excellent for that: Everyone back then knew how Roman soldiers dressed and, you have to think, that image would stick in people’s minds.