By Dr. Kevin Dougherty,
In Ephesians 6:11, Paul admonishes us to “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Paul then goes on to describe the parts of that armor. Each piece is vital and they work together as a whole, but the sword, shield, and breastplate are especially useful in creating for us a “defense in depth” that allows us to stand against temptation.
In Ephesians 6:17, Paul says to take “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The idea behind a defense in depth is to have several layers of protection that can defeat an enemy in detail rather than to run the risk of just one line of defense that must stand on its own. The sword is that part of the full armor of God that comprises our outermost layer of protection. A typical sword of Paul’s day was between two and two and a half feet long. Adding to that length the length of the soldier’s outstretched arm creates a space of four to five feet that the attacker must penetrate. The idea for both the soldier and the Christian is to use the sword before he is hopelessly entangled with the enemy.
The sword is primarily an offensive weapon that can cut, thrust, and stab. As an offensive weapon, the soldier uses the sword to take the initiative, to put the enemy at a disadvantage, and to defeat him. For the Christian, this offensive action translates in to being so engaged in doing God’s will and work that the devil has no opportunity to interfere. Although the old maxim “idle hands are the devil’s plaything” does not literally appear in the Bible, the idea is very consistent with passages such as 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-10. When we are fully engaged in bearing the fruits of the Spirit as a Christian neighbor, parent, son or daughter, friend, disciple, worker, boss, church member, caregiver, citizen, or anything else, the devil has very little opportunity to lead us astray. We are simply too busy and too invested in doing God’s will for the devil to get our attention.
In addition to this offensive focus, the sword serves a secondary function of being a defensive weapon. The soldier can use the sword to deflect, parry, or block an enemy’s attack. This capability for the Christian is especially relevant when we consider that the sword “is the word of God.” Psalm 119:11 tells us to hide God’s word in our hearts so that we might not sin against him. When we have internalized God’s word in this way, we have it readily available to use to counter the devil whenever he attacks us.
The next layer of defense is the shield. Shields are primarily defensive weapons that a soldier uses to protect himself from attack. The typical Roman shield measured about three and a half feet by one and a half feet by one foot so it was fairly large, but unlike the sword, the shield’s protection extended only as far as the soldier could extend his arm. The shield blocked threats that had evaded the soldier’s sword. Indeed, Ephesians 6: 16 tells us that this “shield of faith… can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” These arrows will likely come at us from different directions and at different times so we will need to keep alert and move our shield around to protect us from each attack. We cannot become complacent or let down our guard.
Although the shield is mainly a defensive weapon, it can also be used offensively to push against an attacker and knock him off balance. Matthew 5: 15-16 tells us to not hide our faith, and we can use our “shield of faith” to minister to others in a way that keeps us in God’s will and less vulnerable to the devil’s attacks.
Whatever temptations of the devil that get past our sword and shield must still deal with what Ephesians 6: 14 describes as “the breastplate of righteousness.” This breastplate is a coat of thick armor that is directly against the soldier’s body to either deflect or absorb blows. The breastplate doesn’t keep us from being attacked but it is how we build the resiliency, confidence, and skill to not succumb to attacks. It is by this breastplate that the promise of 1 Corinthians 10: 13 is fulfilled: “God is faithful: he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
In addition to these three pieces, we have a helmet of salvation, a belt of truth, and feet fitted with readiness to complete our armor. These three pieces represent a literal head, to middle, to toe network of protection, and that is another useful visual image of how God equips us. Between that totality and the defense in depth of the sword, shield, and breastplate we can indeed stand!