“Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness…” (Ephesians 6:14).
A Roman soldier’s breastplate was essential. Some of the most important organs in the body are located in the chest. Wounds to the heart and lung could cause rapid death. Other vital organs, including the liver, stomach, and pancreas, are in the same general area. The chest and abdominal region of the body are vulnerable. Along with the head, they are some of the most important body areas to protect from injury.
The soul needs protection as well. The ancient Israelites would think of the heart in two ways, much like we do now. Both they and we acknowledge the physical organ. The Israelites thought of the heart as having a function for the soul as well, as the seat of the will. If you want to do good, it is because your heart is drawing you to do so. If you desire evil, it is because you have a bad heart. Incidentally, they associated some other internal organs with other elements of the inward part of people. The intestines were the seat of compassion: The Greek word for “to have compassion” could literally be translated “to have bowels for someone or something.” The kidneys were viewed as the seat of emotion. Nowadays, we symbolize all of these with the heart. When we have compassion for someone, we do not say, “I am bowelized over this.” Instead, we say something like, “My heart breaks for him.”
Whether it is the heart, the lungs, the liver, the small intestines, or any of the other organs behind the breastplate, it needs protection. Likewise, every element of our souls needs protection. This is why we need the breastplate of righteousness.
Paul was not the first biblical author to associate righteousness with a breastplate. Centuries earlier, Isaiah wrote in one of his Messianic prophecies
“Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins” (Isaiah 11:5).
One can readily see the connection between the first line and the breastplate of righteousness, with a belt that protects the lower abdomen. Likewise, “the belt of his loins” is faithfulness, which the Hebrew writers frequently use as a synonym for truth. Thus, this verse prefigures the first two pieces of the whole armor of God. It also reminds us that the whole armor is found entirely in our connection with Jesus.
Later, Isaiah describes the Lord God’s response to injustice. When He could find no man who was willing or able to accomplish His righteous will:
“He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak” (Isaiah 59:17).
The Lord God did this as He took on human flesh as the Son, Jesus Christ. As mentioned in the previous article in this series, putting on the whole armor of God is akin to clothing ourselves in Christ (Romans 13:14; Galatians 3:27). Thus, we do not clothe ourselves in our own righteousness. The Word of God tells us that our own attempts at righteousness are like filthy rags before God (Isaiah 64:6). We need to clothe ourselves in the righteousness of Christ, to allow His righteousness to cover us and emanate from us.
Elsewhere, Paul describes it as a breastplate of faith and love:
“But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (I Thessalonians 5:8).
Faith, hope, and love are essential elements of relationship with Christ. Faith and love are intertwined with the righteousness of God. We protect our hearts—our will, emotions, desires, and entire souls, so to speak—by covering them with the righteousness, faith, and love of God in Christ Jesus.
We cannot ignore the opportunity to clothe ourselves in the breastplate of righteousness. This is not a take-it-or-leave-it option. It is a choice between being clothed in the righteousness of Christ as a slave to righteousness or being a slave to sin:
“What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Romans 6:15–22).
Each of us must make a decision. Do I want to be a slave to sin or a slave to the righteousness of God? “None of the above” is not an option. As Bob Dylan sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Will you remain in the army of the Lord, or will you be taken captive as a prisoner? Will Satan hold you captive and bound in sin, or will the Lord release you with His power to serve Him with the gifts and talents He has given you?
As we clothe ourselves in Christ, He empowers us to walk by faith in Him and display His love to those around us. This is the breastplate of righteousness in action, guiding us to walk as He walked. Most importantly, this breastplate guards our hearts by guiding our wills to remain in sync with His will. As long as we keep our hearts guarded by Jesus, He will protect us from the temptations to turn our hearts to the lures of Satan that bind us in slavery to sin. Even when we do sin, the righteousness of Christ is available to us:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (I John 2:1).
This verse appears after John reminds us that Jesus is merciful and just to forgive and cleanse us if we confess our sins (I John 1:9). As we follow Jesus, trust in His sacrifice on the cross for our salvation, and turn to Him in regular confession and repentance, He will guard our hearts and protect us from the attacks of the enemy. Jesus will be our breastplate of righteousness.
Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.