“Are you ready?”
“Okay, let’s go.”
“Hold on. I just need to put my shoes on.”
“So, you weren’t ready?”
Many such conversations happen, I find, as people get ready to go out and do things. When you get ready, putting on shoes is generally a pretty key part of that preparation.
The apostle Paul wasn’t going anywhere. He was a prisoner “in chains”. Despite his imprisonment, he kept up his work of making known “the mystery of the Gospel” and encouraging the church through his letter writing.
His letter to the Christians in Ephesus ends with an extended metaphor which was likely to have been inspired by the Roman soldiers he would have been with or have seen during his imprisonment. He uses a soldier’s armour as a metaphor for what a Christian requires when engaged in a spiritual battle.
Despite the fact that Paul was imprisoned by the Romans – and that this is clearly a direct conflict with Paul on a personal level, Paul begins by separating the personal and the spiritual.
“… 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.”
I think this is a really interesting starting point (well, when I say starting point – this was all part of his “And finally”… of his letter to the Ephesians) because it fits so well with Jesus’s idea about loving one’s enemies. Christians should never “have it in for” people in general or individuals in particular – “our struggle is not against flesh and blood”. Paul’s clarification here reinforces Jesus’ idea: it is evil itself that Christians have to oppose, not those who may promote or defend it. So – although Paul is imprisoned by Romans, he is not in a struggle against the Roman people, or the individual soldiers holding him; he is in a struggle against the system and the powers of evil that worked against him.
He then begins the extended metaphor:
“Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”
The whole thing – the whole armour – the panoply (sorry!) – is about readiness (not just the shoes that I haven’t got to yet!) The Ephesian Christians were being encouraged to get ready by putting on this metaphorical spiritual armour for battles yet to come. I think his explanation of the purpose of this is really interesting.
Firstly, the purpose of wearing the armour is to be “able to stand your ground” and ultimately “to stand”. But in the middle there is the “after you have done everything” slipped in there. So – the Christian has to stand their ground and afterwards still be standing – which in a way sounds pretty easy (just don’t move!) but between those two points, they need to (perhaps) do “everything”. So, they needed, in fact, to be ready for anything and everything to happen.
If you were told to be ready for anything – and you needed your shoes of readiness, which shoes would you select? Pink fluffy slippers? Birkenstocks? DMs? Winklepickers? High Heels? I think I would have either my hiking shoes or my trail running shoes. They are my shoes of readiness, no matter the terrain.
But for the “soldier of Christ” – what shoes of readiness do they require?
“Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.”
These first three elements of the Armour of God work together – so before I get to the shoes of readiness that comes from the gospel of peace, there is the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness to inspect.
Truth has always been under attack, even although philosophically that is nuts. From Pilate wondering what truth was and not waiting for an answer – to the 18th century Romantics giving subjectivity a wee boost – to poor old Winston Smith being presented with 2 plus 2 and having to agree with the Party that it might perhaps be 5, while a boot stamped on a human face forever…
The truth that matters here, I would suppose, is the truth about God – for example, Jesus’s claim – “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The truth about God, the gospel – the good news. The truth about who Jesus is what holds everything together for the wearer of the Armour of God.
More complex is the breastplate of righteousness. A first century equivalent of a bulletproof vest, the breastplate would protect the heart, lungs and abdomen. To protect one’s metaphorical vital organs, Paul suggests covering them with righteousness: the quality of being morally right or justifiable. This is where it gets tricky. The soldier knows that he cannot sustain a morally right and justifiable life. If one dons a breastplate of one’s own righteousness, he may well find it full of holes.
Elsewhere (Romans 3), Paul explains how this works:
“…the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe…”
This breastplate of righteousness is not one that the soldier has forged for himself. It is the righteousness of Christ, received as a gift to the believer. The soldier can then go into battle confident that his breastplate will work and the fatal blow will not come – the righteousness of Christ actually is morally right and justifiable unlike the homemade efforts of the soldier.
Back to the shoes.
They are described variously in different versions/translations. For example:
and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.
For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared.
and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.
And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;
So, there are a few key elements for selecting your shoes. Grip? Watertightness? Comfort? No.
Firstly, these spiritual, metaphorical shoes are all about readiness and preparedness. And it’s such an appropriate image as shoes are all about readiness. But where does this readiness come from? It comes from “the gospel of peace”, “the Good News”.
Here is where this half of the whole extended metaphor comes together:
The gospel (concerning the shoes), the Good News is, in fact, the Truth. This links back to the belt of truth. The peace (concerning the shoes) is the peace that comes from believing – and to the believer is given the righteousness of Christ. This links back to the breastplate of righteousness.
As one commentator put it: “We believe God’s truth. We are righteous in Christ. We are at peace with God.”
This then means that we are ready. For “everything”.
Because the soldier of Christ is at peace with God, they are then opposed to evil. This then brings about the struggle he mentioned initially – the struggle “not against flesh and blood”.
Metaphors can be tricky. One can be accused of reading too much into metaphors. It could be argued that Paul was just rounding off his letter with a pithy, memorable visual for his readers. But the way that these first three items work together make me suspect that the rest of the armour will be woven thematically in with these so that we do, in fact, end up with the panoply – the “whole armour of God” – in that the whole thing needs to be in place (okay okay it’s a metaphor) for the soldier of Christ to be ready for everything.
What is life like when you are not ready? When have you cried out, “I wasn’t ready!” – when the day or the weather or the circumstances have run ahead of you and you regret your lack of preparation. It is always frustrating to be stuck in a situation with the wrong shoes or the wrong jacket…
This whole extended metaphor goes beyond general readiness for daily life. It prepares the soldier of Christ, the Christian, for the most difficult of days.
I am not sure precisely what Paul meant when he referred to “when the day of evil comes” – whether he meant a specific day or whether he meant that each soldier of Christ may have individual attacks from Satan. But I think such a day can be identified when the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness are attacked: when the truth about God is under fire or the shame of one’s own sin is raised when it has been covered by Christ’s righteousness. But when these two are intact, the shoes of readiness are there – because the soldier is at peace with God and so, a little ironically, is ready for battle.
“Are you ready?”
Dons belt and breastplate.
“Okay, let’s go – although, will you not need to put your shoes on?”