July 14: Ephesians 6:16-18

Ephesians 6:16-18

The final Pauline reference to the Spirit to be considered in these notes is also the last such reference in Ephesians (see the previous notes on 2:18-22 and 4:3-4). It is part of the closing exhortation in 6:10-20, the famous “armor of God” section, which develops, in much expanded form, a Pauline illustration used as part of his ethical instruction elsewhere in the undisputed letters (1 Thessalonians and Romans). Here, in 6:11 we read:

“You must sink yourself in(to) [i.e. put on] all the equipment [panopli/a] of God, toward your being [i.e. so that you are] able to stand toward [i.e. in the face of] the ways of the Dia/bolo$ [Devil]”

The noun panopli/a means “all the equipment”, every kind of o%plon (piece of equipment, instrument, tool), a term frequently used for military equipment—weapons, armor, etc—and so also the connotation here. The weaponry is primarily defensive and protective, enabling the person (i.e., the believer) to stand against the Devil’s attacks. The warfare is not physical but spiritual, as Paul (or the author) famously states in verse 12:

“…(for) us the shaking [i.e. grappling] (in combat) is not (directed) toward blood and flesh, but … toward the world-powers of this darkness, toward the spirit-(thing)s of th(is) evil, in the (place)s over the heavens”

Elsewhere in his letters, Paul clearly has the same basic idea in mind, though he does not go into such detail. In 1 Thessalonians and Romans, the illustration is part of a more general ethical instruction, with a strong eschatological orientation. Note the same emphasis on darkness and on the current Age of wickedness:

    • “The night (has) cut (its way) forward [i.e. gone ahead], and the day has (now) come near. (So) then, we must put away from (us) the works of darkness, [and] we must sink ourselves in(to) [i.e. put on] the equipment [o%pla] of light.” (Rom 13:12)
    • “…you are not in darkness, (so) that the day [i.e. the day of Judgment] should not take you down as (one) stealing [i.e. a thief], for you are all sons of light and sons of the day—we are not of the night and not of darkness. … and we, being of the day, we should stay sober, sinking ourselves in(to) [i.e. putting on] (the) chest-guard of trust and love and (the protection) around the head of (the) hope of salvation” (1 Thess 5:4-8)

In Thessalonians, Paul mentions two pieces of equipment—a chest-guard (qw/rac) and a helmet, lit. protection around the head (perikefalai/a). The same two pieces are part of a more extensive armor-list in Eph 6:14-17, with similar kinds of associations with divine attributes:

    • loin-guard (something “being girded around the loins”)—truth
    • chest-guard (qw/rac)—justice/righteousness
    • footgear (equipment “bound under the feet”)—the good message (Gospel) of peace
    • shield (“door-[guard]”, qu/reo$)—trust/faith
    • helmet (protection “around the head”, perikefalai/a)—salvation
    • sword (ma/xaira)—the Spirit

The final, climactic element in the list (v. 17) is “the sword of the Spirit” —the sword (ma/xaira) being the piece of equipment which best enables the believer to strike back against the Devil’s attack. Since the nature of this attack is spiritual, from “things of the spirit” (pneumatika)—that is from unclean or evil spirits—the only real defense comes from the holy Spirit of God (and of Christ). The directive to the believer that “you must take the sword of the Spirit…” is followed by the qualifying phrase “…which is the utterance [r(h=ma] of God”.

This particular phrase has been poorly understood, especially for those who only read the passage in English translation, where the syntax and grammar in Greek are obscured or ignored. For Protestants with a Bible-centric orientation, it is popular to read this verse as saying that the “word of God” (understood as the Bible) is an inspired “sword” by which (through study and memorization, etc) one can defeat the Devil. Such a view, however, represents a backward and distorted reading of the text. For one thing, the relative pronoun here (o%) is neuter, and thus agrees with the noun pneu=ma (“Spirit”) rather than ma/xaira (“sword”, feminine). In other words, the emphasis is: “…the Spirit, which is the utterance of God”; that is to say, the Spirit is identified as the “utterance of God”.

The noun r(h=ma is often translated “word”, but properly refers to something uttered (“utterance”); while it can be used of the Scriptures (or a specific Old Testament prophecy), such a facile substitution should not be made here. Paul (or the author) is not speaking primarily about Scripture, but about the presence and power of the Spirit itself that dwells in and among believers. The Spirit is the source of life and power for the believer—and it is the internal guidance of the Spirit which allows us to combat the evil power of sin and wickedness, and to remain faithful and pure in our union with Christ. This emphasis is thoroughly Pauline, as even a casual reading of Galatians or Romans will make clear. The central role of the Spirit in this ethical-religious dimension of the believer’s life, was discussed, in particular, in the earlier note on Gal 5:16-25.

How this “sword of the Spirit” works is clarified in verse 18:

“Through all (your) speaking toward (God) and (making) request (to Him), (you should be) speaking toward (God), in every moment, in the Spirit [e)n pneu/mati]…”

The immediate context of the “sword of the Spirit” is not Scripture at all, but prayer—that is, we are to speak to God “in the Spirit” (cp. the role of the Spirit in Rom 8:26-27). The implication is that this realm of Spirit-guided communication (with God) is the main battleground where the combat with the Devil and evil spirits is to take place. There may be a connection here with the gift and experience of speaking in “tongues”, as Paul discusses it in 1 Corinthians 12-14. By contrast with the narratives in Acts 2:1-4ff, etc (where the speaking of real human languages is involved), this gift of tongues, as described in Corinthians, seems to have more the character of a special kind of prayer language, meant to be spoken to God, not to others (14:2ff). Note how Paul characterizes tongues as a state in which the believer “…speaks not to men, but to God; for no one hears [i.e. understands] (it), but in the Spirit [e)n pneu/mati] he speaks secrets [musth/ria]”.