The Military Metaphor of the Christian Life
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Eph. 6:11-13
Why the military metaphor? Well, one answer to that question is that Paul's epistle to the Ephesians is one of the Prison Epistles, and no doubt as the apostle was under house arrest, he had a lot of opportunity to converse with Roman military personnel. This probably led to a lot of thought on the apostle’s part about how the military and warfare illustrate key realities in the Christian life. Certainly, the apostle uses the metaphor of warfare a lot in his epistles. For example, in writing to Timothy, he says, “Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:3-4). And then, referring to himself, he writes, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).
I think next to theology, I enjoy reading military history most. And I think one of the reasons it is so appealing to me is because of this connection between military life and the life of faith. There are so many.
But the question is, exactly how does this military metaphor tie in to the message of this epistle? I think it does so in the following way. In this epistle, the apostle Paul is telling us, in not so many words, that God is building an army. Think back to chapter 2. How are we described? We were dead in sin, unable to take one step toward God, prisoners of lust, of the world, and of the devil. “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved)” (2:4-5). And then, he not only gives us life, but he begins to equip us for battle. First of all, he gives us a new nature, makes us new men and women in Christ (4:20-24). Our allegiance has changed. Once we were the willing servants of Satan and of sin, but now we willingly follow our new Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. Then he equips us, gives us spiritual gifts and builds us up as part of the one body of Christ (4:1-16). Yes, Christ is building a new society, but he is also building an army.
I don’t know about you, but this reminds me of the vision of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37). God takes these dry bones which were scattered all over the place, puts them together, brings sinews and skin upon them, and then breathes life into them. The result? “So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army” (37:10). That is what the apostle says has happened to the Ephesians. They were once no different, spiritually speaking, from a collection of dry bones. But God has brought life to them and they are now part of “an exceeding great army.”
That is one reason. But there is another reason I think the apostle uses military language in addressing the believer. When we think about the glorious privileges that are ours as men and women who are united to Christ, it is easy sometimes to forget that we are not in heaven yet. It is easy to think that once we are believers that our life should no longer be hard anymore. In particular, it was easy for them to faint at the tribulations the apostle had to experience for the sake of the Ephesians and other believers (cf. Eph. 3:13).
But the reality is that union with Christ, though it is a reality right now, does not make the road to heaven any less hard or any less narrow. It is a road beset with enemies who are determined to bring you down. And that is why the apostle ends on this note. It is a reminder that our salvation does not take away the fact that “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We are opposed by an enemy who will fire upon you, fix your position, and being maneuvering on you. And if you are not prepared, you are going to be brought down. You are not going to stand if you are not ready.
And it is hand-to-hand combat that the apostle is preparing them for. That idea is embedded in the word “wrestle” in verse 12. Some commentators have wondered why the apostle didn’t use the word “war” or “battle” instead of “wrestle” there. But the reason is that in the first century, you didn’t defeat your foe unless you engaged them in hand-to-hand combat. The apostle is talking about soldiers who are fully engaged here; they are not sitting back firing missiles from miles away. This is up close and personal. And if you are not prepared, you are not going to come out of that unscathed. So you need to be ready.
In verse 13, the apostle says that we need to “be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” That expression, “the evil day,” is an interesting one. It refers to a specific event in the believer’s life when their faith is under siege and they are on the verge of breaking spiritually. We don’t experience this every day, but we have all experienced times in our life when it is far more difficult than others to keep following Christ, to say no to sin, to push back against the bitterness and unbelief. The apostle is saying that you need to be prepared for that. It will come, if it hasn’t already.
And evil days come even when we have successfully weathered previous evil days. Think about how the devil attacked the Lord. He didn’t come at him at all times. We are told that after the wilderness temptation, “when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season” (Luke 4:13). He attacks, and if he is not successful, he will try again. He may depart, but it will only be for a season. The evil day will return. So we shouldn’t become complacent. You haven’t “done all” (13) just by winning one battle. The devil isn’t finished with you. So you need to be constantly on your guard. You need to be like the builders on the wall of Jerusalem in Nehemiah’s day, who worked with a tool in one hand and a sword in the other.
So the military metaphor is here to remind us who we are (we are the army of the Lord, and he is our Captain) and what we are doing (we are fighting a war that can be brutal and difficult). Now the difficulty doesn’t mean we should despair, because our Lord has already defeated the forces of evil on the cross. The final victory is sure. And we can stand as long as we are strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. There is no reason for despair, for defeatism. But there is still every reason for caution and preparedness.