If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then whether you know it or not, you have enlisted in a spiritual war against Satan and his demons. And the only way that you can possibly be successful in that war is to be strengthened continually by God as you allow Jesus to dwell in your life and then put on the full armor of God. Before we continue looking at the individual components of that armor this morning, let’s take a moment to review the overall principle of putting on the full armor of God. We’ll begin by looking once again at this verse from another of Paul’s letters.
Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
Romans 13:14 (NIV)
As I pointed out last week, it is absolutely crucial that we recognize that the armor is a symbolic description of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. To put on the full armor is to be clothed with Jesus Himself. And since that is the case, what we find is that spiritual warfare is actually more about getting closer to God than it is about battling the Devil! Although I certainly need to understand my enemy, I assure myself of victory, not by focusing on the enemy, but by focusing on Jesus Christ and how I can cloth myself with Him continually.
With that in mind, let’s read our passage for this morning. As we did last week, we’ll read from both the NIV and the more literal NASB translations:
...with the breastplate of righteousness in place
Ephesians 6:14 (NIV)
...and having put on the breastplate of righteousness
Ephesians 6:14 (NASB)
The breastplate of the Roman soldier was typically made of bronze or iron, backed with leather, but some of the more affluent officers wore a coat of chain mail. The leather backing would attach to the belt to keep it in place. That’s why, as we discovered last week, that the belt was actually the first piece of armor the soldier would put on and why we need to begin by putting on the belt of truth. Truth holds everything together. The breastplate covered the soldier’s vital organs, including his heart and his bowels, in much the same way that many policemen use a bulletproof vest to protect those same vital organs today.
The symbolism of the breastplate would have been very noteworthy to Paul’s readers. The first vital area it protected was the heart. To Paul’s readers, especially those with a Jewish mindset, the heart represented the source of their thoughts, or what we would commonly refer to as the mind. We see that in the words of Jesus:
For out of the heart come evil thoughts...
Matthew 15:19 (NIV)
The breastplate also protected the bowels, which represented the seat of one’s emotions. We don’t see that very well in many of our English translations, but both the Hebrew and Greek words for deep compassion literally mean “bowels.” Even today, our emotions can give us a “gut feel” or we can ache in our stomach as the result of some emotions.
We need the breastplate of righteousness because those are the two areas where we are most vulnerable to the attacks of Satan. He wants to cloud our minds and our thinking with false doctrine, lies and deceit. And he wants to manipulate our emotions and twist and pervert our affections. So Paul makes it clear that the way that we defend against those attacks is to make sure we have the breastplate of righteousness on at all times. So let’s take some time this morning to make sure we understand exactly how to do that.
We need to begin by defining the word “righteousness”.
• Root word = “straightness”
• “conforming to a standard or a norm”.
In Washington D.C. there is a building called the "National Institute of Standards and Technology." This facility is responsible for storing perfect samples of weights and measurements. They have what are called “prototypes” of pound weights and kilograms and measuring rods for feet, yards and metric measurements like meters. For example, they have a “Meter Standard” a reinforced bar of platinum alloyed with exactly 10% iridium. When they want to know the exact measurement of a “meter” they cool this bar down to 0 degrees Celsius at a sea level of 45 degrees latitude then they know they will have the exact tip to tip measurement of a meter.
When it comes to righteousness, that authoritative standard is God Himself. Therefore Biblical righteousness means to live a life that conforms to the holy character of God. I’m not sure who the author is, but I really like this definition of righteousness that I ran across this week:
In short, the righteousness of God is all that God is, all that He commands, all that He demands, all that He approves and all that He provides (through the gospel of Jesus Christ, the perfectly Righteous One.)
But there are various aspects of righteousness that are described throughout the Scriptures, so if we’re going to be able to understand exactly what Paul means by the breastplate of righteousness, we need to see if we can determine which aspect or aspects of righteousness Paul is writing about in this verse.
To what righteousness is Paul referring? – Three possibilities:
1. Personal (individual) righteousness
This is our own self-righteousness – trying in my own power to live in a way that is pleasing to God.
2. Positional (imputed) righteousness
This refers to the righteousness that has been given, or imputed, to us by Jesus Christ that makes us positionally righteous before God.
3. Practical (imparted) righteousness
This third type of righteousness describes living out, or imparting, the righteousness that Christ has given to us.
Most of you have probably already made some fairly accurate guesses about which of the three Paul is referring to here in Ephesians 6, but let’s make sure we put some Biblical backing behind our assumptions. And in order to do that, we’re going to look at an Old Testament passage from the prophet Zechariah.
In Zechariah 3, the prophet Zechariah records for us a vision that he is given by God in which Joshua, the high priest, faces the accusations of Satan. Since this is one of the few passages in Scripture where we are given a direct look at how God deals with Satan, and because it also addresses all three aspects of righteousness, I’m going to use this passage to help us determine which aspect or aspects of righteousness Paul is writing about in Ephesians 6.
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The LORD said to Satan, "The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?" Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, "Take off his filthy clothes." Then he said to Joshua, "See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you." Then I said, "Put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by. The angel of the LORD gave this charge to Joshua: "This is what the LORD Almighty says: ’If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here.’”
Zechariah 3:1-7 (NIV)
As Pastor Dana has so accurately pointed in out in our Thursday evening Old Testament survey, the Jesus is woven like a thread throughout the Old Testament, and this is one of the best examples of that. There is no doubt in my mind that the “angel of the Lord” is clearly a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus, because Jesus would have been the only one capable of having the filthy garments, which obviously represented the sin of Joshua and the kingdom of Israel, removed. So let’s use this passage, as well as several others we’ll look at, to help us determine which aspect, or aspects of righteousness, Paul is writing about when he describes the breastplate of righteousness.
1. Personal (individual) righteousness
In this vision of Zechariah, Joshua represents not only himself, but the entire kingdom of Israel. He is described in this vision as wearing filthy clothes, which brings to mind a similar passage in Isaiah that would have probably been familiar to Zechariah.
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
Isaiah 64:6 (NIV)
Joshua’s filthy clothes represent his own self-righteousness, as well as that of the entire kingdom of Israel. And, as Isaiah so clearly described, those righteous acts are like filthy rags in the eyes of God. They have absolutely no worth at all. You’ll notice that when Satan accused him, Joshua could not stand against Satan on his own, or try to use his own righteousness as a defense against Satan’s accusations, because every one of those accusations that Satan made was true.
We live in a culture today, where people think that their own self-righteousness is adequate, both as a means of pleasing God and as an effective weapon against the evil one. Recent surveys show that 70% of Americans believe that their own righteousness is adequate to earn their salvation, and what is even more startling is that even among those identifying themselves as evangelical Christians 40% believe that salvation is available based on their own good works. But the Bible paints a completely different picture.
In Jesus’ day, some of the Pharisees and other religious leaders were also deceived into believing in the sufficiency of their own self-righteousness. But here is how Jesus responded to that notion:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:20 (NIV)
From a human perspective, the righteousness of these religious leaders certainly appeared to be adequate. And compared to the other people around them, they probably were extremely righteous. But since Biblical righteousness involves conforming to the standard of God’s holiness, then neither these religious leaders nor any of us can measure up to that standard. It is quite obvious that our own self righteousness, no matter how good, will always fall far short of that standard, as Paul described in this familiar verse:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Romans 3:23 (NIV)
Our own righteousness is completely insufficient for our salvation and it is also completely insufficient as a weapon against the schemes of the devil. So obviously that is not what Paul had in mind as he wrote about putting on the breastplate of righteousness. So let’s cross that one out.
So let’s look at the next possibility.
2. Positional (imputed) righteousness
In our passage from Zechariah, we find that although Joshua was unable to remove his own filthy clothes in order to stand firm against Satan’s accusations, God did it for Him. God not only took away his sin, but he also clothed Joshua with rich garments. Joshua didn’t deserve that or earn that in any way. It was completely an act of grace on God’s part. And then it was God, not Joshua, who rebuked Satan for his accusations.
In this account, it was God’s own righteousness that was imputed, or given to Joshua. And as a result, Joshua had positional righteousness before God. That is exactly what Jesus Christ has done for every one of His followers. He has taken away our dirty clothes, our own self-righteousness, and clothed us with His righteousness. Paul describes this process very clearly in a number of his letters.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21 (NIV)
When Jesus, who never sinned, died on the cross on our behalf, he provided every person with the possibility of having His righteousness imputed to them. But, as we see in this next passage, not everyone chooses to take advantage of what God has made available.
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe...
Romans 3:21, 22 (NIV)
It is only those who have faith in Jesus Christ alone who experience this imputed righteousness and are therefore positionally righteous before God. But all who believe immediately and permanently have the righteousness of Jesus imputed to them. As a result, every time that Satan tries to bring His accusations against one of God’s children, we have an advocate on our behalf who rebukes Satan for his accusations. Here is how John described that process.
My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous
1 John 2:1 (NASB)
When we sin and Satan tries to accuse us before God, Jesus is our advocate who intercedes on our behalf. And based on the passage in Zechariah, I think I’m on firm Biblical ground to conclude that the encounter goes something like this:
Satan approaches God and accuses us when we sin. He might say something like, “God, did you see that Pastor Pat today? He calls himself a Pastor and he didn’t even take time to read Your Word or to pray all day. How can you accept him as Your child?” But Jesus is there at the right hand of God and He replies, “Everything you say is true. But I’ve already paid the penalty for all of that sin in his life. I’ve taken off his filthy clothes and replaced them with my rich garments.” And then God turns to Satan and says, I rebuke you Satan.”
I’m convinced that Satan loves to attack us in ways that lead us to forget about this imputed righteousness of Jesus. He would love to make us think that God doesn’t love us because of some sin in our life. And when he brings those thoughts into our minds, our defense is certainly the imputed righteousness of Jesus.
So that must be what Paul is referring to here when he writes about the breastplate of righteousness. Right? That was certainly my initial thought. But when Paul writes “...and having put on the breastplate of righteousness” he uses a verb form that gives me some doubts about that.
First of all the verb indicates a past completed action. So that certainly fits with the idea that at the very moment I committed my life to Jesus, I was once for all clothed with His imputed righteousness.
But here’s where the problem arises. In the middle voice, it also means to clothe oneself. It’s the same principle that we looked at last week with truth. No one else can put on the belt of truth for us. We have to put it on ourselves. And since the Bible is quite clear that I don’t receive the imputed righteousness of Jesus based on anything that I do, there must be something more to this breastplate of righteousness that I must put on myself.
As we’ll see more clearly in a moment, even though the imputed righteousness of Jesus is not the breastplate of righteousness, per se, there is no doubt that it is the essential foundation for that breastplate. Without that positional righteousness, we would be powerless to clothe ourselves with the breastplate. So even though we’re going to cross off this second possibility, you’ll notice that I’m doing it with a transparent line since imputed righteousness does provide the foundation for practical righteousness. So, with that in mind, let’s look at the third and final possibility.
3. Practical (imparted) righteousness
Let’s return to our passage from Zechariah one more time. After God removes Joshua’s filthy clothes, replaces them with rich garments and rebukes Satan, we might expect that would be the end of the story. But before He dismisses Joshua, God gives him this command:
’If you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you will govern my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you a place among these standing here.’
The command to walk in God’s ways and keep His requirements is what I have described as practical righteousness. Although God had already provided Joshua with his imputed, positional righteousness, there was one more thing that Joshua needed to do. He needed to apply that righteousness in his everyday life. Once he was clothed with the righteousness of Jesus, it put him in a privileged position that required him to practice that righteousness in every area of his life. He was to impart that righteousness to others in all of his relationships.
Once again, the very structure of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians confirms the principles that we find in that letter. In the first three chapters, he describes how we have been clothed with the imputed righteousness of Jesus. And then in the last three chapters, he describes how we are to live out that righteousness in our everyday lives. And it is that practical righteousness that makes up our breastplate of righteousness.
In Philippians chapter 2 Paul begins by writing about how Jesus humbled Himself and died on the cross in order to provide us with His imputed righteousness. But he follows up that section with this instruction:
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence - continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
Philippians 2:12, 13 (NIV)
All of those to whom Paul was writing had positional righteousness. As we’ve seen, that is a necessary pre-requisite to putting on the breastplate of righteousness. But in our daily spiritual warfare that righteousness must be worked out in fear and trembling. In other words, imputed righteousness makes imparted righteousness possible, but it doesn’t automatically make it a reality. That’s why I’m responsible for putting on the breastplate of righteousness by living out the righteousness of Christ in my everyday life. That’s something that I have to work out day by day, moment by moment. But the good news is that God is at work in my life both to give me the desire to do that and the power to carry it out.
The consequences of removing the breastplate of righteousness
Unfortunately, there are some Christians who have ignored this last aspect of righteousness. They think that because they have the imputed righteousness of Jesus, it doesn’t really matter what they do. That is a lie straight from Satan. That’s exactly what he wants us to think, because once we do that, we’ve taken off the breastplate of righteousness and we’ll experience nothing but defeat in our lives. I can think of at least four ways we experience defeat when we remove the breastplate of righteousness:
• We lose our joy
I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
John 15:11 (NIV)
Far too many people view Gods’ standards, His righteousness, as some kind of a kill-joy in our lives. But just the opposite is true. God has provided us with His principles for living a righteous life because He knows that following them is the only way to have real joy in our lives. And when we violate those standards and principles and take off the breastplate of righteousness, Satan swoops right in to rob us of our joy.
• We lose our fruitfulness
Let’s look at the word of Jesus once again:
"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
John 15:5 (NIV)
When we abide, or remain in Jesus and live according to his righteousness, then He promises that we will bear fruit. But when we try to separate ourselves from the vine by failing to live a righteous life, we lose the ability to produce fruit.
• We lose our reward
In our series on heaven, we saw that one day every believer will have to stand before God and be judged for the purpose of receiving rewards. And one of the consequences of removing the breastplate of righteousness is that our useless deeds will be burned up and we’ll lose the rewards we might have otherwise received. And the consequences that occur as a result of losing out on those rewards is eternal.
• We lose our testimony
One of the purposes of our practical righteousness is that God might receive glory and that others would be drawn to Him:
In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.
Matthew 5:16 (NIV)
When we fail to live a life that is consistent with the imputed righteousness of Jesus, we destroy our testimony and we rob God of the glory that He would otherwise receive.