When the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Ephesians, he was writing from prison in the city of Rome. He was in prison, not because he was a hardened criminal, but rather because he was a follower of Jesus. Paul had this pesky habit of preaching the gospel in spite of being ordered not to do so. Some people are like that. They have this thing called a calling, and they just won’t quit.
And so while Paul was in prison, he had a constant companion. It wasn’t the kind of company that any of us would be looking for, but, being in prison, Paul didn’t have much choice when it came to choosing companions. Paul’s companion was a fully decked out Roman soldier. This soldier was there just to make sure that Paul didn’t seek other, more relaxed living situations.
Paul was the kind of guy, though, who could make the best of any situation, and we know this because he said so in his letter to the church at Philippi. And so as Paul spent his days in prison with this Roman soldier, God was able to inspire Paul to write one of the most familiar passages in all of the New Testament. Except that it is not a passage that we have particularly come to love. In fact, sometimes we are put off by the whole thing, and mostly because of its military imagery.
But, as the Apostle Paul pondered the constant companionship of his ever-present guardian, he had a tremendous insight. Even though it was the Romans who had put him in prison, and even though it was the Romans who believed that the world would be a better place without the disruptions that Paul’s preaching created, and even though it was the Romans who had made themselves the enemy of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and even though it was the Romans who would eventually put him to death, Paul realized that his problems did not rest with the Romans at all. In spite of appearances, Paul understood that his real enemy was not the Romans, and certainly not this Roman soldier. Knowing Paul, he and the soldier were probably quite good friends. I would not be surprised at all if Paul and this soldier shared faith in Jesus Christ. Paul was that kind of an evangelist.
In Paul’s heart, the enemy wasn’t a huge nation bent on controlling the entire world. The true enemy of the Gospel was the evil one, that fiendish despiser of all that is good and godly.
And in this is a very important lesson. In the 1st century, we can be sure that not everyone shared Paul’s heart in this matter. I’ll bet that there was much griping and complaining going on among the followers of Jesus about the Romans. We can be absolutely sure that when people of faith gathered for worship they neither erected, nor saluted a Roman flag. Just the thought of the Romans brought disgust and revulsion to their hearts. Perhaps some even admitted that they hated the Romans. I can hear them now. “If it wasn’t for the Romans we could get a lot more done around here. If it wasn’t for the Romans we’d have more people in our worship services, if it wasn’t for the Romans and their oppressive taxation, we’d have a lot more money to support the work of the gospel. If it wasn’t for the Romans…” Well, you get the picture. Just insert your least favorite political party into that complaint.
And yet, here in this passage, Paul makes it clear that it isn’t the Romans at all. It is not flesh and blood that is interfering with our work. It is something larger, something far more insidious. The trouble is, too often we are tempted to place the blame for our troubles on some lesser satrap.
And so even though it is not the Romans who are the problem, Paul is not beyond using the Romans to make his point in this passage. And so, the fully decked out Roman soldier becomes an illustration of how we ought to be living and doing ministry in a world that is hostile to our faith in Jesus Christ. This is incredibly ironic. Much to the likely revulsion of his readers, Paul is using a powerful symbol of their of their much despised enemy, to make a positive illustration. In this passage, the enemy becomes the example to be emulated.
Paul looks up and down this guy, seeing him from head to toe. Paul knows without a doubt that this Roman soldier is fully prepared and completely equipped to do his job. The Romans were not stupid. They were professionals at the business of war, and their dominance of the world proves this. This soldier is well trained, perfectly equipped, and completely dedicated and committed to his task. This is exactly what all soldiers must be. Soldiers who are poorly trained, ill equipped, and who lack commitment and dedication are a liability, not an asset.
And Paul is thinking to himself, wow! The Romans have got it right! All followers of Jesus ought to be this well trained, this well equipped and this fully committed and dedicated! Paul mentions, almost as an aside, an evil day that his readers need to be prepared for. I suppose that Paul could have the end of the world in mind here; followers of Jesus have always hoped that Christ would return in their life-times, but I rather think that Paul is talking about something that is likely to happen to most of us before Jesus comes back. I’m pretty well convinced that Paul is talking about a time, or times in our lives when things are just about as rotten as they can possibly get. These kinds of times, when nothing seems to be going right, are not unknown to any of us.
When we experience these kinds of times, if we are insightful, we realize that what is going on in our lives is bigger, much bigger than the presenting circumstances. We can sense the true demonic nature of our troubles.
And so as Paul studies this Roman soldier, he tells us to fasten the belt of truth around our waists. Truth is huge. Truth is foundational. Truth is the opposite of deception. Truth is the deep seated belief in our hearts that the message proclaimed by Jesus Christ is true. That it is fundamentally and profoundly true; that it is far more than mere mental assent. This us an issue of the heart. It speaks of a deep connection with heaven that is a part of our inner being. Knowing the truth helps us to better sort out and overcome the difficulties that come our way.
Next, Paul encourages us to put on the breastplate of righteousness. Righteousness flows naturally out of our deepening understanding of the truth. This is far more than being a good person. Good people are everywhere. but so are the bad ones, too. Being a good person is a good thing, but having a relationship with Jesus Christ is everything. Righteousness doesn’t even have much to do with being a good person. Our righteousness doesn’t come from our good deeds, because good deeds are always inadequate. Just ask someone in the Early-Bird Bible Study. Righteousness can only come from our savior, and it comes as a gift to us. That’s why Paul tells us to pick it up and put it on. Righteousness also has a rather interesting benefit. Used honestly, and with the truth, it will help us to determine if the source of our troubles is external, and demonic, or internal and self-inflicted. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.
Next, Paul tells us to put on some shoes. He’s not particular about what kind of shoes, so long as they help us to proclaim the gospel of peace. Prepare for irony. The Roman soldier wore thick leather boots that were studded with nails. Very nasty very destructive, very damaging, very war- like and excellent equipment for fighting. Our shoes on the other hand, should take us to places where we can proclaim the wonderful message of peace with one another and peace with a loving God. Our shoes ought to be completely harmless; incapable of fighting, but very capable of sharing the peace that comforts and encourages.
As he goes on, Paul encourages us to take up the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. The sword of the spirit is the first and only offensive weapon in Paul’s entire uniform, based on his Roman soldier brother in Christ. Paul simply says of the sword of the spirit that it is the word of God. Followers of Jesus always need to be better sword bearers. Never should it be known of us that our sole encounter with God’s word happens during the Sunday morning worship service. The shield of faith, and the helmet of salvation, as Paul says, have the authority to quench the flaming arrows of the evil one.
Finally, Paul mentions prayer. I am convinced that prayer, since Paul mentions it last, is what brings everything together. And, obviously, prayer isn’t part of the uniform of Paul’s constant companion unless of course, this companion has, under Paul’s encouragement, become yet another follower of Jesus. Paul says to pray. He says to pray at all times. Paul says that we should be praying for others, that we should be praying for him, so that he will have boldness when he proclaims the mystery of the gospel.
I suppose that we could probably knock off praying for Paul. He’s no longer in prison, no longer being guarded by his constant companion, no longer in need of our supplications on his behalf. Paul has achieved his life’s most important goal. So instead of praying for Paul, pray for your pastor. Every request that Paul puts up for his readers in terms of prayer also applies to me, with the possible exception of chains. Paul’s chains were forged of iron, but I suspect that he also felt the presence of another set of chains that bound him, that were unseen by human eyes. I sense those chains also. Pray that I will be released from them, and that I will be able, as Paul prayed, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.