What Is the Sword of the Spirit?

“And take … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). What is the significance of a weapon being listed in the armor of God?

The first five elements of the armor of God are defensive pieces—armaments the Christian can use to defend against spiritual attack.

Why would an offensive weapon be listed with the other pieces of armor? What should a Christian do with the sword of the Spirit?

What did the Roman sword look like?

The sword used by Roman soldiers was a short sword known as a gladius; and in the hands of a skilled man, it was a fearsome weapon. In fact, it became known as the sword that conquered the world. It was sharpened on both sides, making it lethal against an unarmored foe. The point was also sharpened, enabling it to pierce armor.

Usually around 20 to 30 inches long, the gladius was not the medieval-style long sword usually associated with the armor of God.

This Roman sword was light (around 2 pounds), short and designed to be wielded easily with one hand while the other hand grasped the shield. Its size meant it could be drawn in close quarters, and its sharpened edges made it a threat to any enemy who got too close.

An infantryman in the Roman legions would also go into battle with a dagger, a few spears and possibly a few darts. But the gladius was the only offensive weapon listed by Paul, and it was the main weapon in the soldier’s arsenal.

The Word of God is a sword

Paul defines the sword of the Spirit as the “word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). This isn’t the only place where God’s Word (the Bible) is described as a sword.

The author of Hebrews also makes reference to it: “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13).

The Word of God is even sharper than the Roman sword. It is capable of piercing to the deepest levels of one’s heart and attitude, and it is also a tool of discernment in the hands of the skilled user.

Knowing this raises two important questions: Is the sword of the Spirit only for use as an offensive weapon? And who is the foe against which the sword is to be used?

The sword of the Spirit helps defend us

While the gladius was the primary offensive weapon available to a legionnaire, it was also invaluable for defense, being used to parry and deflect attacks by an opponent. So also is the Word of God valuable in defending against spiritual attack.

To understand how to defend ourselves with the Word of God—the sword of the Spirit—we don’t have to look any further than the example of Jesus Christ Himself.

In one of the Bible’s most iconic confrontations, Jesus demonstrated how valuable it is to be grounded in the Word of God. Satan the devil was eager for an opportunity to derail the plan of God, and after Jesus had spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, Satan thought he had found the perfect opportunity.  

The Word of God is our strength

“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, ‘If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread’” (Matthew 4:1-3).

Satan knew full well that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but he prefaced each of his attacks by saying, “If You are the Son of God” (emphasis added throughout). He wanted to pull Christ away from His dependence upon the Father and the realization that He was there to do the Father’s will. Each time Jesus used the Scriptures to defend against and refute Satan’s temptations.

Satan tried to prey on Christ’s (very real) physical hunger, but Jesus replied, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (verse 4). This is a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3, and it shows where Jesus Christ’s priorities truly were.

The Word of God gives us context

Satan continued the attack: “Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, ‘If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: “He shall give the angels charge over you,” and, “In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone”’” (verses 5-6).

This is an incomplete quote from Psalm 91:11-12. Satan leaves out a very important thought. Here’s verse 11 with the missing part in italics: “For He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11).

The idea being conveyed is that God will send angels for protection when it’s needed, not that you should throw yourself from great heights just to see if God will save you.

Jesus saw through this tactic and answered Satan: “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God’” (Matthew 4:7; quoted from Deuteronomy 6:16).

We also must be wary of anyone taking quotes from the Bible out of context. To properly wield the sword of the Spirit, we must study the Bible carefully, recognizing that it all fits together. If two scriptures seem to conflict, we must study further to understand what God intended by each of them.

The Word of God sets the standards

Satan made one final attempt: “Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9).

It was a gambit. The point of all these attacks was to have Jesus worship Satan instead of God—and in exchange for that worship, Satan was offering “all the kingdoms of the world.”

Jesus had come to the earth to offer Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, forever shattering Satan’s power over the world (Hebrews 2:14). Satan was offering a shortcut—“Worship me,” he was saying, “and I’ll give You the world.”

For the price of that one compromise, that one sin, Jesus could take the easy way out. But the Son of God would be tarnished forever, powerless to truly save anyone. It would be (assuming Satan, the father of lies, would actually fulfill his offer) a momentary victory, but an eternal loss.

Turning once again to Scripture, Jesus replied, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve’” (verse 10; quoted from Deuteronomy 6:13).

This was the end (on this occasion) of Satan’s efforts to unseat Christ as the ruler of the world to come. In each case, Jesus skillfully used a thorough knowledge of the Scripture to parry and deflect the attacks.

What do we attack with the sword of the Spirit?

We have seen, from the example of Jesus Christ, that the enemy of the Christian is Satan the devil, as he tries to separate us from our God (see also 1 Peter 5:8-9).

The apostle Paul used a military analogy when he talked about the Christian fight. He described thoughts and attitudes that we must defeat, just as a soldier would use his weapons to defeat the enemy.

We are to use the Word of God to discern those thoughts and attitudes that are contrary to God’s way and use that sword to bring those attitudes and thoughts into captivity. That is the Christian battle, and that is how we use the offensive weapon in our armor.“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

These are our targets. These are the things we must defeat on the battlefield. We are to use the Word of God to discern thoughts and attitudes that are contrary to God’s way and use that sword to bring our own attitudes and thoughts into captivity. That is the Christian battle, and that is how we use the sword of the Spirit.

We cannot use the sword of the Spirit without training

Roman soldiers could not be sent into battle without having extensive training in the use of the gladius. They were first trained using shields made of wicker and swords made of wood. These items were typically about twice the weight of the normal swords and shields.

The thought was that if the trainee could use these heavier items skillfully, he would be at an advantage when using the real weapons, which were much lighter by comparison.

After training extensively with the wooden weapons, the soldiers were then paired against each other for further training in combat techniques and moves. The importance of the training was reflected in the food rations given by the Romans. Instructors often received double rations. Trainees who didn’t achieve desired levels of skill were given inferior rations until their training evaluations improved.

As Christians, we also must train and be skillful in the use of the sword of the Spirit. The author of Hebrews tells us that we must become gradually more knowledgeable and skilled in the Word of God, until we are able to use it to discern good from evil.

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:12-14).

This level of skill—this proficiency with the sword of the Spirit—comes by “reason of use.” We have to be familiar with the Bible, and we must have our spiritual senses sharpened by it in order to make full use of the weapon God has given us!

How to train with the sword of the Spirit

The desire to become knowledgeable in God’s Word—skilled in the use of the sword—has to come from within. Do you see how valuable it is, and do you desire to have a high level of skill?

Notice the attitude shown by the psalmist when it came to God’s Word:

“I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word. I have not departed from Your judgments, for You Yourself have taught me. How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:101-104).

This is the attitude and approach to God’s Word that can make a skilled spiritual warrior. The psalmist shows us the attitudes a good swordsman needs: a hatred for evil, a love for God’s Word, and a continual desire to understand and obey His judgments—His way of life.

We can’t use the Word of God to repel Satan’s assaults unless we’re intimately familiar with it. The more we dedicate ourselves to studying and living our lives according to God’s Word, the better we’ll be at handling the sword of the Spirit on the battlefield.

The soldiers of the Roman Empire couldn’t hope to survive a war without the proper training. Neither can you. The good news is that you have access to all the training you need—you just have to be willing to engage with it.

And there’s more good news: we’re here to help. Be sure to read “Don’t Be Ignorant of Satan’s Devices” and the articles in our section on “The Practical and Priceless Benefits of Bible Study.” After that, be sure to check out the resources in our Learning Center.

About the Author

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and lived for 14 years in Missouri before moving to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where he completed high school. After moving to Pasadena, California, for 11 years and completing college and graduate studies, Dave moved to Texas.

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