In Ephesians 6:17, the apostle Paul talks about the importance of wielding the “sword of the Spirit.” What is he talking about?
The sword of the Spirit is how Paul describes the word of God and its role in spiritual warfare. While truth, salvation, faith, and righteousness are also depicted as essential pieces of armor, the Word of God is depicted as the offensive weapon used in spiritual warfare against the devil, demons, and their schemes.
Let’s explore how the Word of God puts the forces of spiritual darkness on defense.
What do we know about swords in the Bible?
There aren’t just a few scattered references to swords in the Bible, probably because much of biblical history took place in wartime. There are over four hundred references to swords in the Bible. Often, the reference is to a physical sword. Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi use swords to kill the men in a village whose leader raped their sister (Gen. 34:25). As a test, Solomon calls for a sword in order to split a baby fought over by two women claiming to be the mother. After returning from exile, the builders of Jerusalem’s walls strap swords to their sides in case the neighboring peoples try to make good on their threats to prevent the Jews from rebuilding their homeland (Neh. 4:18).
There are a few swords which figured prominently in biblical events, such as the sword of Goliath the Philistine (1 Sam. 21:9), the sword of Israel’s left-handed judge Ehud (Judges 3:16), and the sword Peter used to try to free Jesus from his captors, the sword which Jesus told him to drop (Matt. 27:51). Interestingly, angels are sometimes described as brandishing swords, as in the case of the flaming sword guarding the way back into the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24) and the sword-drawn angel whom Joshua saw before the battle of Jericho (Josh. 5:13).
“There are a few swords which figured prominently in biblical events.”
Swords are also used metaphorically. “Putting a city to the sword” meant going to war against a city (Josh. 10:28). “Falling by the sword” meant being defeated in battle (Judges 4:16). “Beating swords into plowshares” described a glorious future of peace (Micah 4:3; Joel 3:10). “Bearing the sword” described the government’s ability to punish evildoers (Rom. 13:4). The sword is also used to depict the judgment of God, both in the Old Testament (e.g., “He will bring judgment on all mankind and put the wicked to the sword,” Jer. 25:31) and the New Testament (“Coming out of [Jesus’] mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations,” Rev. 19:15). The agony of watching her son be crucified would be for Mary a sword that would pierce her soul” (Luke 2:35).
In Deuteronomy 33:29, God himself is called a “shield,” “helper,” and “glorious sword” for his people.
What’s the connection between swords and words in the Bible?
Well before Paul called the word of God the “sword of the Spirit,” biblical writers were making the connection between words and swords. On the negative side, hurtful words and violent tongues are described as “sharp as swords” and “piercing like swords” (Ps. 59:7; 57:4; Pr. 12:18). Evil people “sharpen their tongues like swords” (Ps. 64:3); “their teeth are swords” and their “jaws are set with knives” (Pr. 30:14).
Evil people “sharpen their tongues like swords.”
The connection between swords and words can also be a positive, redemptive reality. Isaiah explained that God “made my mouth like a sharpened sword” (Is. 49:2). Isaiah 11 describes the Messiah as “strik[ing] the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked” (Is. 11:4). This is a passage Paul might have had in mind when writing about the armor of God; for in the next verse, Isaiah writes,
“Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist” (Is. 11:5).
An extrabiblical, intertestamental writing which Paul likely had in mind in writing about the armor of God is the Wisdom of Solomon 5:17-20, which says,
“The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against the madmen.”
Notice that the Lord’s “stern wrath” is referred to as a sword, a description which resonates with imagery in the book of Revelation about Jesus’ judgment against evil:
- “…Coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword…” (Rev. 1:16)
- “…I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Rev. 2:16)
- “Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” (Rev. 19:15)
“Coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword.”
Another verse drawing the connection between God’s word and a sword is Hebrews 4:12:
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12)
It is possible to read the Bible critically, judging whether you agree with its claims or not. A much more appropriate way of reading the Bible is to let it critique us, as it judges the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts with the precision of a double-edged sword.
What part does the “sword of the Spirit” play in the armor of God?
The apostle Paul closes out his letter to the church in Ephesus by reminding them that they are at war. As Ephesians 6:12 makes clear, it’s not war against people (“not against flesh and blood”) but against the devil and his demons (“against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”).
This spiritual warfare against disciples of Jesus includes such dangers as “the devil’s schemes,” “the flaming arrows of the evil one,” and “the day of evil.” Against this onslaught, our main imperative involves standing: “Take your stand” (6:10), “Stand your ground” (6:13), and “Stand firm” (6:14).
“Against this onslaught, our main imperative involves standing: ‘Take your stand.'”
How do we keep standing with so many forces converging against us (i.e., the rulers, authorities, powers, spiritual forces, schemes, and flaming arrows)? Paul’s answer is that we keep standing firm by putting on the full armor of God:
- Belt of truth
- Breastplate of righteousness
- Feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace
- Shield of faith
- Helmet of salvation
Then, at the end of his description of the armor of God, Paul names the first and only offensive weapon listed:
“Take…the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Eph. 6:17)
Whereas the rest of the pieces of armor are meant to help us stand our ground and not retreat, there is a sense in which the word of God helps us advance and puts Satan on the defense. After mentioning the “sword of the Spirit,” Paul begins talking about prayer, and he continues to use the language of gospel advancement: “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19).
“The word of God helps us advance and puts Satan on the defense.”
So, what part does the sword of the Spirit (the word of God) play in the armor of God? Paul describes the word of God, along with prayer, as how the disciple of Jesus goes from merely standing firm to moving forward and battling the forces of darkness back. Although our natural tendency is to use words to injure people, the Holy Spirit teaches us how to wield words in such a way that they drive our enemy’s forces back so we can play a part in liberating people.
What type of sword would Paul have pictured?
For “sword,” Paul uses the Greek word machaira, which typically means a short sword or even dagger, although the word is used throughout the New Testament as the go-to word for sword whatever the context.
The machaira, as used by a Roman soldier, was straight, double-edged, and typically around 20-24 inches long. Their sharp, tapered point made them effective for stabbing, and their double edges made them effective for slashing and cutting. Whereas longer weapons, such as spears and pikes, would be used for frontline soldiers, machaira was the sword used for close combat.
How is the Word of God the Sword of the Spirit?
The word of God is able to be called the sword of the Spirit because of the Holy Spirit’s role in giving us God’s words as well as in making God’s words effective in our lives.
When we think of the phrase “word of God,” it’s natural to think of the written Scriptures, because the biblical writers refer to Scripture as the “word of God” (e.g., Mark 7:13). If Paul is meaning to equate the sword of the Spirit with the Scriptures, this makes sense because it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the people of God to write Scripture in the first place (2 Tim. 3:16).
“It was the Holy Spirit who inspired the people of God to write Scripture.”
Yet “word of God” is also often used to refer to words spoken by God, such as when “the word of God came” to prophets (1 Chron. 17:3; Luke 3:2) and the message spoken by Jesus was planted in people’s hearts (Luke 8:11). Of two Greek words both meaning “word”—logos and rhema—the latter typically has a narrower focus of being spoken or proclaimed. Rhema is the word Paul uses when speaking of the sword of the Spirit as the word of God, a usage which might imply that he has in mind the spoken word of God, something also orchestrated by the Holy Spirit (2 Sam. 23:2; 2 Peter 1:21). Whatever the case, since so many of God’s spoken words were written down to become Scripture, it makes sense that what Paul is saying here would extend to the written word of God as well.
There is also a strong sense in which the word of God can mean the gospel message which is proclaimed (i.e., in the rhema sense). Consider the following Scriptures:
- “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7)
- “But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.” (Acts 12:24)
- “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Rom. 10:17)
“So the word of God spread.”
As the book of Acts often describes, it’s the Holy Spirit who fuels the advance of the gospel message (Acts 1:8; 13:2; 20:22). So, whether the “word of God” in Ephesians 6 is referring more to the written word, the spoken word, or the gospel message—or all three—it’s easy to see why Paul connects it with the Holy Spirit.
How is the Word of God the Sword of the Spirit?
As we mentioned earlier, the word of God is described as being the offensive weapon in a list of pieces of armor primarily helping us stand our ground. What is it about the word of God which makes it the weapon which drives our enemy back? What about the word of God threatens him?
Here are some ways the word of God threatens the darkness:
- Into chaos, the word of God creates, bringing order and life (Gen. 1; Heb. 11:3).
- Into spiritual and moral confusion, the word of God speaks truth and goodness (Ex. 20:1-11; Ps. 119:11; John 17:17).
- Into seasons of despair, the word of God speaks promises which help us stay faithful (Deut. 31:6; Is. 9:6; Micah 5:2; Ps. 53:5; Rom. 8:37-39).
- Into feelings of self-loathing, the word of God speaks dignity and worth (Rom. 8:1; Gal. 4:6).
- Into the dominion of darkness, the word of God speaks the good news of King Jesus, liberating people from the devil’s clutches (Col. 1:13; 2 Tim. 2:25-26; 1 John 3:8)
“Into the dominion of darkness, the word of God speaks the good news of King Jesus, liberating people from the devil’s clutches.”
Is there a snapshot we have of how God’s Word is wielded as the sword of the Spirit?
We were given a snapshot of how this works when Jesus successfully repelled Satan’s attacks by quoting the word of God to him. After the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism (Matt. 3:16), the Spirit propelled him into the wilderness (Matt. 4:1). There, he was tempted by the devil. Each time the devil tempted him, Jesus responded to the attacks with the words of God:
- “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:4)
- “It is also written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matt. 4:7)
- “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matt. 4:10)
It was after the third Scripture Jesus quoted that “the devil left him, and angels came and attended him” (Matt. 4:11).
“The devil left him, and angels came and attended him.”
If we want to stand firm in our faith and drive the spiritual forces of evil back, we must fill up with the words of God in Scripture and keep proclaiming the gospel message of our saving, risen King Jesus.