The Most Neglected Truth about Spiritual Warfare

Dec 30, 2020 6:38 PM

“…In all things taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery arrows of the evil one.” Ephesians 6:16

This verse appears in the midst of an extended parable comparing Christians’ need to deliberately equip themselves in preparation for spiritual battle to the Roman soldier donning his armor piece by piece. Having clothed himself with body armor from head to foot, he has one more piece of defensive equipment to take up before arming himself with the sword, namely, his shield. It is the bulkiest and probably the most uncomfortable and tiring item in the panoply, but it is the one that gives him the fullest and greatest protection in battle. Paul compares it to faith, and while a good shield deflects all manner of attacks, he names but one particularly devastating enemy weapon for which it provides effective protection.

All of this is in the context of a war we are engaged in that is being fought “against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (v. 12, NET Bible).

I’m going to hold off on a discussion of the larger issues of this text and related ones to focus on what I perceive to be the most forgotten, most neglected, most unsung, most un-remarked upon element of spiritual warfare. Do you see it? It’s embedded in the very imagery of the shield of faith, but we miss it not because it is hidden but because we don’t know how the Romans fought their battles and conquered the world.

We (most of us), thanks largely to the movies,  have an image of ancient warfare as a melée of soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat with swords swinging in the air and clashing against one another. The picture is not just faulty, it is false. The Romans did not conquer the world by throwing soldiers into thousands of individual battles, but by massing well-equipped, well-trained, troops in tightly organized, highly disciplined units that moved and fought together as a single, lethal entity. Every man had his place and role, and every man supported all, even as all supported every man, from the 4,800-man legion all the way down to the 8-man squad (the contubernium).

As for the shield (Paul uses the Greek word thureõs; the Latin term is scutum), it was a large rectangle about 4 feet long, made of 3-plies of wood covered with leather and strengthened by a metal boss in the center that could be used to punch an opponent backwards. It weighed about 15 pounds.

It’s size and weight, all managed by a strong and highly conditioned left arm, made it a cumbersome accessory in one-on-one fighting that, if it came to it, might make the soldier want to discard it. But it functioned effectively as a vital element of the combat unit. It was so effective that it suffered surprisingly few modifications across several centuries.

When under attack from archers pouring down a hail of arrows, the individual soldier might have limited protection from his own shield but he was not alone. Standing together in ranks, the first row held their shields to the front edge to edge, forming a wall. The rows behind lifted their shields into a protective roof overhead, and those on the side columns also formed walls to protect the flanks. Thus, whether they were pelted with stones, spears, or fiery darts, with rare exception, they were practically invulnerable.

Paul says that the shield would “be able to quench all the fiery arrows” of the enemy. Fiery arrows or darts are intended to inflict painful, disabling wounds on the soldier; but if they strike the wooden shield, its load of burning tar would stick to the shield and continue to burn even if the missiles (there could be multiple strikes in a volley) were shaken loose, eventually making it unusable. Therefore, the legionary would wet down his leather-covered shield before a battle to extinguish the flames as well as intercept the arrows.

So, what does this have to do with spiritual warfare, and how does it reveal the neglected element?

I’ve read books and articles and listened to sermons and lectures on spiritual warfare that seemed entirely focused on the individual believer’s struggles with temptation, relationship issues, enmities, jealousies, etc. We are urged to elevate our vision to a higher level of struggle than the world and the flesh—and rightly so. We are reminded, correctly, that our real enemy is not all the antagonistic humans in front of us but the malevolent spiritual power behind them.

But it seems like we’re always portrayed as being out on the battlefield by ourselves.

I think we are far too captivated by the idea of the individual warrior for Christ, the David who goes out alone to face Goliath, the Elijah who stands alone on Mt. Carmel against the hundreds of prophets of Baal. Along with that, I think we may also have been influenced by the lone, wandering gunslinger in the Westerns, the monk on a pilgrimage in the martial arts movies, the knight errant or the samurai warrior on a quest. As the popular worship song goes, “This is how I fight my battles.”

But the Roman military ethos that underlies Paul’s metaphor rejected the mentality of the individual warrior. Indeed, one of the greatly admired heroes of Roman army lore was the general Titus Manlius, who had his own son executed for breaking the line in order to engage in personal combat with the enemy. Individual heroics counted for nothing; the teamwork of the unit was everything.

The whole Epistle to the Ephesians is not about Christianity as an individualistic concern, but about the Church. And our spiritual war against “principalities and powers” is backed by the power and authority of Christ, who is seated at God’s “right hand in the heavenly realms far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” The whole thrust of the epistle revolves around the fact that Christ is “head over all things to the Church…the fulness of him who fills all in all.” (1:21-23)

Going back to the “spiritual warfare” passage in chapter 6, we must notice what is only implied in English translation but is explicit in Greek: all the pronouns, verbs, and participles are pluralPaul is addressing us not as individual believers but as a body of believers. 

What is the missing element in spiritual warfare—the one that will cripple us and may even prove deadly if we neglect it “in the evil day”? It is that our warfare is not about one guy who is an exorcist casting out demons, or about any individual Christian facing off against the powers of darkness. If that’s a scary thought to you, then perhaps it should be. I don’t deny that our Lord will stand with us as individuals when we face our most desperate battles. But when Paul here says for us to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might” and to “put on the whole armor of God” so that we’ll be able to stand our ground under the attack of the forces of darkness, he’s not telling us to do that by ourselves, but together. That’s how the Church needs to learn spiritual warfare.

Now, as to the faith itself that quenches all those fiery arrows of the evil one…that’s a subject for another day.