Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Shield of Faith

In the wake of a tragedy which struck our church Body this last week, I had a difficult time focusing early on. I spent some time reading some historical info, trolling the internet as is my custom, just out of boredom. I was reading particularly several things about Sparta when I ran across this quote:

When asked why it was dishonorable to return without a shield and not without a helmet, the Spartan king, Demaratos (510 - 491) is said to have replied: "Because the latter they put on for their own protection, but the shield for the common good of all." (Plutarch, Mor.220)

Of course this reminded me of several scenes from the movie 300. The first when Leonidas was explaining to his son how the strength of a Spartan warrior was the man next to him and the next being when Leonidas explained to the hunchback, Ephialtes, that he could not stand with his men because he couldn't hold his shield properly. The purpose of the shield- to cover the man next to him. It seems a bit of historical accuracy crept in there!

Then I ran across this text, from a college textbook:

Legend has it that when a Spartan mother sent her son off to war, she would say to him, "Come back with your shield, or on it." If a warrior came back without his shield, it meant that he had laid it down in order to break ranks and run from battle. He was supposed to use his shield to protect the man next to him in formation, so to abandon his shield was not only to be a coward but also to break faith with his comrades. To come back on his shield was to be carried back either wounded or dead. Thus the adage meant that the young warrior should fight bravely, maintain his martial discipline, and return with both his body and his honor intact.

I was floored by a simple, spiritual concept. Epesians 6 lays out clearly that we are to wear "the armor of God" and a critical piece of that armor is the "shield of faith". In my mind- which is very visual in nature- I have always read this passage envisioning a single soldier dressed out for combat. That is very western, after all: the notion of one man, standing tall, being the hero. But this idea is not shared by all and many veterans speak quite to the contrary.

So here is this simple notion- I have a shield of faith, but it is not meant for me alone. My shield is meant to protect my comrades in the faith; and I am to rely on theirs. How simple but how profound! I am still thinking about what all that really means, but I think in this last week of trial I have seen this principle lived clearly through my church.

What keeps a person going in the hour of trial? Surely the temptation to be angry, bitter, overcome of emotion must be a constant threat. Our church massed around this family in their most dire hour. They were talked with, ministered to, cared for and prayed over earnestly by literally scores of saints. The body of Christ mustered together just to keep watch over this one, little family. I realize that they needed to be strengthened with all might in the inner man and this is accomplished by God's holy Spirit. Christ is, indeed, enough. But He has chosen to use us: so the reality is that no, He is not enough. He requires something from His people and when we answer the call, then Him, working through us and through His Spirit is enough. The Church brought our shields of faith together to cover each other, and this family in particular.

What an example! This family in turn showed up to the memorial service, man and woman, toting with them their own shields of faith. We were all covered from the attacks of the enemy bythe strength of their faith in Christ, trusting in His goodness and anticpating His good work. They responded to God and reciprocated and have covered the Body with thier own faith. Would to God that we let all the fiery darts of doubt, fear, anger and bitterness be quenched by the mutual faith of God's people!

When Paul wrote the words of Ephesians 6, Greek glory had passed into history. Roughly 200 years priory, the Roman legions proved their superiority over the Greek phalanx. (This was a much weaker version of the phalanx than what the Spartans had at their height. But the final outcome would have likely been the same.) Their methods were radically different. The Greek word Paul uses for "shield" refers specifically to a large, four-cornered shield, much as the Roman "scutum". The Greeks had a different word for a small, round shield. (per Thayer's lexicon). The Roman shield was designed to cover one man and their legions fought with more space between individuals. They did not cover each other the same way as the Greeks. However, when they would come under heavy fire from projectiles they would execute a very complicated formation called the "Roman Tortoise". The men would march, or even kneel, side by side, closing all gaps between their shields. Men on the edges would hold their shields at their sides and the men behind would loft their shields overhead ("above all"?) to cover themselves as well as the men in front. This made the entire unit nearly impenetrable. This is the same idea as the Greeks using their shields to cover each other but is specific to dealing with "darts".

Eph 6:16
Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.

Here's a thought regarding those fiery darts. We quench them. It's our job. That's what the Bible says. We can pray for them to magically disappear but the Scripture is clear when it says "ye shall be able to quench". We do that. God has given us the tools, the strength and the wisdom. We need to show up with our shield: our faith. When we hold our faith, side by side, covering each other, those darts will not avail. What the Church (at large) today needs is less whining in the face of attack and more obedience. We cannot be defeated except we defat ourselves.

This also requires of us that we stay "in position". If I leave- up and quit- because it's too hard to follow Jesus- I leave a hole. That hole will be used by the enemy, guaranteed, except the Church act quickly to cover the breach. That being done, the unit will be fine- but what of me? Once a believef lays down the shield and walks away from the protection of their cohort, will the enemy just give them a pass? Not likely! Now utterly defenseless, they will be consumed.

One last thing regarding the Roman shield: I have often heard how the sword of Ephesians 6 is the only offensive piece of equipment issued to the believer. I was surprised to learn that the Romans very much counted their shields as offensive as well. The shields were constructed with a wooden frame and covered with several layers of skins. But in the center they would mount a solid metal piece called a boss. They used this for pushing and punching. The tactical concept behind the legions' formations was to constantly apply forward pressure on enemy ranks. Their shield design allowed them to do this by functioning as a weapon as well as a defensive tool.

Lastly, Epesians 6 twice states that the posture of the Christian is to "stand". In Paul's days there were many different types of units, including archers, skirmishers (spear throwers, mostly), cavalry and siege engines of various types. But God chose the illustration of an infantryman- particularly a heavy infantryman- to describe how we should conduct ourselves in the spiritual battle. It seems to me that there was no more effective force to resist any type of assult (in the ancient world anyways) than a properly trained, highly disciplined and well equiped unit of heavy infantry. The history-changing victory of Charles Martel at the battle of Portiers is an excellent example of this. Outnumbered and unrespected by their enemy, they took the high ground and refused to give an inch.

"And in the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief, the people of the Austrasians carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts of the foe." - Bishop Isidore of Beja

May God's people stand firm, close to another as a bulwark of ice and, by Scripture, lay great blows to the hearts of those angelic powers that would try to break between us the love of Christ!