If we want to understand the Biblical witness we must be willing to move beyond the confines of our own experience and enter into the world of the Bible.
By this I mean that the biblical texts did not drop to earth from some heavenly realm but emerge from particular historical and cultural contexts- and these contexts can helps us to discern the present and the future, but the world of the bible is also embedded in the past.
Thus Saint Paul’s Letters are embedded in what we call the first century, the years immediately following the revelation of Christ and within the culture of what is called “Graeco-Roman”, which means the cultures of the Mediterranean that were influenced by the dominating powers of Greece and Rome.
(Alexander the Great had conquered the Mediterranean world and his empire was succeeded by the Caesar’s empire of Rome.)
Without this context in mind, much of what St. Paul has to say, indeed, much of what the New Testament has to say, is unintelligible.
Not only is ignorance of scripture, ignorance of Christ (as St. Jerome was so apt to say) but also, ignorance of history, usually results in ignorance of the scriptures.
Today St. Paul makes reference to the “armor of God” insisting that we put this armor on so as to be ready to resist supernatural powers.
The reference here is not simply “spiritual” but is meant to encourage Christians who were under the domination of the mighty legions (armies) of Rome. These legions in their armor were representatives of Roman power, they were the embodiment of Caesar’s will to rule and to dominate. Christians had every reason to fear this power. Roman power was aggressive, real and violent.
But Christians, have a stronger armor and serve a greater power and St. Paul explains what this armor and power are all about in today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Ephesians.
Worldly power scoffs at the effectiveness of the armor and power that St. Paul describes, but it is precisely the armor and power of God that Christ used to defeat sin, death and the devil- and in defeating these powers, showed himself to be a greater and more important king than Caesar.
Roman power was deeply suspicious of and persecuted the Church, not because it hated religion, but because of the claim that the Church made about Christ- that he was a power greater and more important than Caesar and that Christ, not Caesar was the world’s true king.
In the face of the Church’s claim about Christ, Caesar showed the power of his legions, and Christians had reason to be afraid. St. Paul’s words about the armor of God are meant to encourage the Church, and remind them that it is Christ’s Kingdom, not Caesar’s, that will ultimately be victorious.
What is the lesson for us?
Caesar is long gone, but he has many successors who want our allegiance. Wealth, pleasure, power, and honors… The elevation of our desires to god-like status… Submitting everything, including Christ and his Church, to the litmus test of our opinions, ideologies and personal preferences. These are the ways that Caesar’s successors rule and dominate our lives.
But we must resist.
And for our resistance to be effective, we will have to employ the weapons of the Holy Spirit and take off the fashions of our worldliness and put on the armor of God.