Figures of speech abound in the Bible. God's penmen often illustrated divine truths by comparing it with objects from everyday life. The parables of Jesus dealt with fishing, farming and vineyards, things the residents of Palestine were familiar with.
The apostle Paul often compared our vocation with that of an athlete. He tells us if anyone "competes is athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules" (2 Tim. 2:5). Near the end of his life, he said he had "fought the good fight," and had "finished the race" (2 Tim. 4:7).
Another figure of speech Paul used dealt with the military. He told a young evangelist to "wage the good warfare" (1 Tim. 1:18) and to "endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ" (2 Tim. 2:3).
In the latter part of his life, Paul was constantly surrounded by Roman soldiers. On some occasions he was even chained to his guards. He lived in the presence of the greatest military power this world has ever seen. When writing to the brethren at Ephesus, he tells them to put on the "whole armor of God" (Ephesians 6:10-20). The Roman soldier carried his shield, a sword and a spear and wore greaves, his breastplate and a helmet. But what about soldiers of the cross of Christ?
Since we are not fighting a fleshly battle, "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal" (2 Cor. 10:4). In our fight against the wiles of the devil, Paul mentions six distinctive pieces of armor.
"The girdle of truth": The girdle was not an ornament -- it was used to bind all the other pieces together and give the soldier freedom of movement. The center of our armor is truth. In John 17:17 Jesus said God's word is truth.
"The breastplate of righteousness": The breastplate of the Roman spearman was made of chain-mail. It was used to protect the heart and other vital organs. Our heart is to be protected by righteousness.
"Feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace": The sandals of the foot soldier were composed of thick leather soles studded with cleats of iron. This would give the soldier a firm footing during the battle. These sandals were designed to make it difficult to walk backwards. This is just as well since the soldier had little or no armor on his back. If he decided to flee from the enemy he would be better off to discard his armor. Our footing must be supplied by the gospel of Christ. "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace" (Romans 10:15).
"The shield of faith": The Roman shield was composed of leather or wicker. It was usually four feet long by two and a half feet wide. The enemy often fired long arrows covered with ignited pitch. If an arrow were to strike a soldier his breastplate would stop the arrow from piercing him, but the pitch would fly off the arrow and set the soldier on fire. Our spiritual enemy does not always attack directly. The shield of faith can protect us from his advances.
"Helmet of salvation": The helmet was made of leather and reinforced with bronze. We are to take, or receive, this helmet from God. It is our salvation.
"Sword of the Spirit": Unlike the legions of Rome, our only offensive weapon is the "sword of the spirit," the word of God (Hebrews 4:12). This was the weapon Christ used when attacked by Satan in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). A soldier is never wasting his time while sharpening his sword. Soldiers of the cross need to become more proficient in their use of our only weapon. Timothy was told to give himself to "reading, to exhortation, to doctrine" (1 Tim. 4:13). Our armor is to be put on with prayer. Let us always realize we are mere foot-soldiers, God is in control.
Flavius Josephus lived during the zenith of Rome's military glory. Having been made a Roman citizen by Vespasian, he travelled with the Roman legions during the middle of the first century. Josephus was truly impressed with military discipline. He claims soldiers always carried their weapons with them, even in time of peace. Furthermore, practice in the proper use of their weapons never ceased. "Every soldier is every day exercised, and that with great diligence, as if it were in time of war, which is the reason why they bear the fatigues of battle so easily" (Josephus, The Wars Of The Jews, Book III, Chap. 5, 1).
If only Christians could become as familiar with our weapon, God's word! If we would "search the Scriptures daily" (Acts 17:11) we would never fear the day of battle.
Have you ever wondered what caused a military power like Rome to meet its downfall? Nearly all historians agree that Rome brought about her own demise. Edward Gibbon says "the relaxation of discipline, and the disuse of exercise rendered the soldiers less able, and less willing, to support the fatigues of service" (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 3, p. 271). Soldiers were able to convince their officers that the weapons were too heavy. The Roman sword and shield which had subdued the world was cast aside. "The cavalry of the Goths, the Huns, and the Alani, had felt the benefits, and adopted the use, of defensive armor -- they easily overwhelmed the naked and trembling legions, whose heads and breasts were exposed, without defense, to the arrows of the barbarians" (Gibbon, p. 271). Gibbon further states that their "indolence may be considered as the immediate cause of the downfall of the empire."
Occasionally I get the feeling some of my preaching brethren have decided our armor just isn't suited for today. I get this impression from church bulletins consisting entirely of news, notes and reminiscences, but no teaching. It is also seen in the preaching of some. Instead of meaty sermons from gospel preachers, we hear "three points and a poem" from Dale Carnegie impersonators. Instead of "earnestly contending for the faith" (Jude 3), some would rather apologize for it.
If men do not have the backbone to fight, they should at least get out of the way of those who do. Three times in Ephesians six we are told to "stand." Paul told the Corinthians the "weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty through God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God" (2 Corinthians 10:4,5). It is not enough for us to defend the truth in our own comfortable meetinghouses, we must attack the citadels of error and pull down the enemies strongholds!
When General Douglas MacArthur was called home from the Korean war in 1951, he reminded Congress that "wars very object is victory, not prolonged indecision." God's people today can not be interested in merely "holding our own," we must be on the offensive.
Some brethren have apparently forgotten who the enemy is. Maybe they need a course in "enemy recognition." Jesus declared that the man who is not with Him is against Him (Matthew 12:30). If a man is not preaching the gospel of Christ, he is a minister of Satan. The devil does not always attack under his own banner, sometimes he advances under a flag of truce. Paul warned us that it is possible for Satan to appear as an "angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14).
Let us remember we are in a "fight to the finish" with our enemy. If we remain in a constant state of preparedness, the enemy will not catch us off-guard. At the end of our struggle we have a home prepared for us with other faithful soldiers of the cross. "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them" (Rev. 14:13).
A detailed sermon outline on The Gospel Armor compares the armor worn by Roman soldiers to the "gospel armor" worn by Christians. Includes photos of Roman military uniforms from throughout the Roman empire (PDF file size: 868k)