Putting on the armor of God that Christ Himself bore is tantamount to putting “on Christ,” which we have already done when we were baptized “into Him” (Rom. 6:3 ; Gal. 3:27). This is tantamount to telling us to look to Christ in faith for all things. Our faith in Christ informs everything about our daily lives so that we can stand firm in steadily sanctified holy array.
Paul’s exhortation to take up the armor of God in Ephesians 6:10–18 is a favorite passage for many Christians. It is stirring and vivid. It reads like an inspiring call to battle. It inflames the Christian’s heart with language that radiates strength and courage for the warfare we face “in the evil day” (v. 13). Its position at the end of Ephesians makes this passage a reprise of Paul’s earlier teachings in the epistle and a final exhortation before he passes on to a very brief ending to the letter. The exhortation is quite simple: “Stand firm” and “pray.” But this beloved passage has a few striking features that come out with a closer reading, which we will briefly survey here.
The first striking feature of Ephesians 6:10–18 is an unusual term Paul uses for armed warfare. In verse 12, Paul refers to this warfare as “our struggle” (NASB, NIV), rendered as “we wrestle not” or “we do not wrestle” in the KJV and ESV, respectively. In Greek, the word is a noun that refers to a wrestling match. Such matches were commonly conducted in ancient Ephesus and elsewhere as well as in local, regional, and international games such as the Olympics. As is the case today, wrestling matches in the ancient world were not carried out in full military armor or with “flaming darts” (v. 16) and swords (v. 17).
The intriguing question is why Paul refers to our “struggle” as a wrestling match rather than as “warfare” or “combat,” or as a “battle” or “fight,” which are more fitting for a contest in armor. There are several reasons for this.
These attacks take place particularly through malignant teachings to throw Christ’s people off their feet and to take them captive as slaves.
The most important reason Paul says we are in a wrestling match is his repeated exhortation to “stand” or to “stand firm” (vv. 11, 13–14) and to “hold your ground” (v. 13; ESV “withstand”). This is not exactly a complete set of orders for a soldier in battle ranks, who would be expected to advance against an enemy rather than passively waiting to be surrounded, attacked from all sides, and routed. “Prepare buckler and shield, and advance for battle!” (Jer. 46:3, emphasis added). But the Christian’s warfare is more like a wrestling match even if we are clothed with the “armor of God” (Eph. 6:11).
It is true that in the ancient world, battles between heavily armed and armored soldiers often devolved into intense hand-to-hand combat, and the soldier who lost his feet would inevitably perish. He had to “stand fast” and “hold his ground.” Perhaps this explains Paul’s emphasis on our standing, which he accents through repetition in verses 13 and 14: “. . . to stand firm. Stand therefore.” As a result, it shows that Paul is not giving us a calm bit of advice during a pleasant retreat. No, the Apostle is urgently warning and exhorting us on the battlefield in the face of a grim onslaught “in the evil day” (v. 13). Steady . . . steady . . . Stand fast! Hold your ground! Stand! “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand” (v. 11); “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:13–14).
Paul does not give a complete listing of contemporary combat gear. The main elements of armor in the passage are defensive: breastplate, shield, and helmet (with the exception being the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God”). Perhaps this fits more appropriately with Paul’s point about the church’s standing firm like armored wrestlers.