Second of four parts.
Read Part 1: Seeking Heaven With the “Full Armor” of God — Part 1 of 4
With the election of a new pope upon us, it’s an opportune time to consider the Catholic Church’s view of itself, of non-Catholic Christians and of non-Christian religions. Does it believe, as often is charged, that its members are the only human beings who will find their way to heaven? The answer, which will be developed in the rest of this series, is not quite as simple as popular opinion makes it seem.
To better understand how Catholics view their fellow human beings, we need to spend some time looking closely at St. Paul’s urgent request in Ephesians 6:10-17 (Revised Standard Version):
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
People of the 21st century are far removed from this ancient image of warfare. Hand-to-hand individual combat, with swords, spears, knives, arrows, darts or stones, was the essential image of warfare throughout the time of the Scriptures and for centuries afterward. But to understand what Paul means, we must take ourselves back to those days.
Study closely the painting that appears with this article. Completed in 1896, it depicts the moment that David’s stone struck Goliath in their famous confrontation (1 Samuel 17). One can see Goliath wearing or carrying every item (except for the footwear) that Paul references in the passage from Ephesians. As one might expect, each item had a purpose:
The helmet protected the top of the head against weapons raining down from above the soldier (such as stones, boulders or even landslides that an enemy might trigger atop a hill). Note well, however, that the ancient battle helmet did not cover the entire head – unlike the helmets worn by the medieval knights of Christendom.
The shield, when held in front of the soldier’s face and chest, would help make up for the lack of a face guard when spears, darts, arrows or slung stones were flying through the air or an enemy soldier attacked with a sword or a knife. The breastplate, or “coat of mail,” offered similar protection to the body’s most essential organs – particularly the heart.
Examine the garment with which Goliath has “girded his loins.” A soldier needed to protect that area to preserve his ability to transmit life to another generation. If one were running or moving quickly in battle, the metal-tipped straps of this garment likely would be swirling in the air, increasing the odds of deflecting projectiles at that height.
Goliath’s thighs are protected with metal, though his calves are not. When one considers the major blood vessels located in the thighs, however, the reason for that choice becomes clear. And though one does not see the feet in this painting, soldiers certainly would need good shoes to cope with long marches and be able to move about quickly on the battlefield.
When properly used, then, the armor available to the ancient soldier offered significant protection against the weapons of the day while still preserving his mobility in battle. And if the soldier was a towering physical specimen like Goliath, the available armor would have made him extremely difficult to bring down.
And yet David did just that! Let’s examine 1 Samuel 17:37-49, which offers much to ponder beyond mere military strategy:
And David said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And (King) Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you!”
Then Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a helmet of bronze on his head, and clothed him with a coat of mail. And David girded his sword over his armor, and he tried in vain to go, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot go with these; for I am not used to them.” And David put them off.
Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. And the Philistine came on and drew near to David, with his shield-bearer in front of him. And when the Philistine looked, and saw David, he disdained him; for he was but a youth, ruddy and comely in appearance.
And the Philistine cried to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.”
Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and a spear and a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the LORD saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD’S and He will give you into our hand.”
When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone, and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.
Look again at the painting. How could David’s stone have struck Goliath on the forehead? It could have done so only if Goliath’s shield was at his side. As young and short as David was, Goliath didn’t think David could defeat him in hand-to-hand combat as he, Goliath, understood it. So Goliath let down his defenses.
Because he did not make use of his shield, Goliath in effect cast off the one piece of his own “whole armor” that could have protected him from David’s stone. The stone itself did not kill him, but Goliath was slain by his own sword – taken and used by David once the stone had knocked Goliath unconscious. In truth, Goliath’s own pride and arrogance killed him.
So let’s ponder the Ephesians passage further. Who does Goliath represent to us? The devil, who surely is stronger in the spiritual realm than Goliath was in the physical. If it took Jesus’ death and resurrection to seal Satan’s ultimate doom, how can we hope to stand against this “Goliath” with only our own resources as imperfect, sinful humans? What do we need to live – and who alone can supply it?
That will be the subject of Part 3 of this series.