The story is told of a teacher who wanted to prove to his class the law of the pendulum. The law of the pendulum states that if you release a pendulum, and it swings to the side, when it comes back it will never reach as high as its starting point. Gravity and air friction will slow it down. So the teacher demonstrated this with a small pendulum he had made for the class. Every time the pendulum came on the back swing, he marked the spot where it came up the highest. Every mark was a little bit lower than the previous mark. However, the lesson was not over. He had a much larger pendulum hanging from the middle of the science room. He asked the students whether they believed that the law of the pendulum was true. They all said yes. So he then got one of the students to stand next to a wall. He held the pendulum an inch from the student’s nose. He asked the student if the student believed that if the teacher let go of the pendulum, the student’s nose would not be in any danger. The student said that he believed that. However, he was sweating already. The teacher released the pendulum. On the back swing, the student simply couldn’t take it, and quickly got out of the way. The teacher then asked the room full of students whether this one student really believed the law of the pendulum. They all answered “NO!” And that was true. The student didn’t really believe it, did he? If he had, he wouldn’t have needed to get out of the way, since he was as safe where he was as he would be anywhere else in the room. What he lacked was faith. Faith would have shielded the student from that pendulum, because the student would have known that the pendulum couldn’t touch him. It looked like the pendulum could. However, the law of the pendulum said that the student was safe. This illustration comes from Ken Davis’s book How to Speak to Youth. Our faith needs to be the kind that will stand firm even when it looks like Satan is going to get us. To understand what Paul is saying here, we must understand what a shield was in Roman times, and how it was used.
There were two kinds of shields used in Roman times. First, there was the smallish round shield that was used in hand to hand combat. It was lighter, made of wood usually, and had a leather covering. That is not the kind of shield that Paul mentions here in the text. The shield that Paul is talking about was the long shield, rectangular in shape, although it bowed out in the middle. It also had a leather covering, and an iron point in the middle of the shield, pointing towards the enemy. That point had a purpose. It was not just for show. It was there so that direct attacks on the shield would be somewhat deflected, and therefore lose some of their force. This shield covered the whole person. The soldier could hide behind this shield and be safe from arrows, spears, or swords. Furthermore, this shield was usually drenched in water before battle, since arrows were often dipped in pitch and set aflame. Those arrows would then thud into the shield and be extinguished by the water-drenched leather. Or, they would bounce off the shield, fall into the ground, and be extinguished. Either way, this shield was an extremely effective piece of defensive armor.
However, there is one more aspect of this shield that is important for us to recognize. This shield worked the best when it went lock step with other soldiers’ shields. If a whole row of soldiers held their shields together, then hardly any arrow could attack, even from an angle. One shield all by itself could not defend from an arrow that comes from an oblique angle. But a whole row of shields could. Normally, the Roman army marched into battle with a protective wall of shields all around the outside of the square of solders. Those in the middle would hold their shields overhead. This would prevent arrows from getting at them from above. When this happened, the entire square (called a phalanx) could reach the scene of battle without loss of life from arrows. It allowed them to close with the enemy with their full numbers intact. This is the metaphor which Paul uses to convey what faith is like.
Faith is like a shield. Because it lays hold of Christ, faith covers us with the righteousness of Christ, which is immune to the attacks of Satan. Satan wants to accuse us as being not worthy of the kingdom of God. He would be right, if we didn’t have that shield. Our unprotected person would be completely open to Satan’s attacks in this regard. But our shield protects us. Now, we must be careful here. It is not faith as we exercise it, in and of itself, that protects us. Faith does not shield us because of the fact that we have it. It shields us because of the object of our faith. Faith lays hold of Christ. Faith opens up to Him. Faith is like a pair of tongs with which we take hold of something that would otherwise be too hot for us to hold with our bare hands. Faith is an empty hand reaching out to God’s fullness. In other words, faith is not a thing. It does not have a substance. Faith is always faith in something or someone. In the illustration, it was faith in a particular law of motion, the law of the pendulum. Notice, then, that faith needs to be in something that does not change. The law of the pendulum does not change. Of course, if the pendulum were to become unattached from the ceiling, then you would have cause to worry. However, the law of the pendulum stays the same, even in that situation, where you would certainly not be safe. But faith in God is not like that. God is not only unchanging, but also powerful enough to ensure that all things work together for good for those who love Him. God’s pendulum will never come undone from the ceiling of heaven. His purposes are unchanging and unchangeable. He is far more worthy of our faith and trust than anything or anyone in this world.
Do you therefore have this shield? Have you taken it up in the heat of battle? I should mention here that anyone’s faith, if it be a true faith, will be this kind of shield. Some people’s faith is stronger than other people’s faith. However, what is true about all faith is that it is a shield against Satan’s attacks. He will try to tell us that we are too sinful for God to forgive us. He will tell us that God didn’t really forgive us of all sin, and that we need to get our act together if we want God to forgive us. The problem with this kind of thinking is that we do need to get our act together! But not because we want God to forgive us. It is rather because God has already forgiven us. Getting our act together therefore is our response of gratitude to God for what He has done, and even there God has to help us to get our act together by giving us the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, do you think of your faith as joining up with your fellow Christian’s faith? Just as those shields need to work together for maximum protection, so also our faiths need to work together. We need to encourage one another, and love one another. If someone’s shield is drooping a little, we need to help them hold up that shield a little better. Of course, those soldiers who are closest to you are your own family. Are we taking pains to strengthen those shields? Are we using the catechisms with our children? Are we having them memorize Scripture? Are we reading through the Bible with them? Are we praying with them and for them? Similarly with regard to our spouses: are we encouraging our spouses in their spiritual walk, or do we cut them down? Do we encourage them to read more Scripture, and pray more? Are we honest with our doubts? Doubt is not the same as unbelief, we must understand. A doubt is something that can actually help us to understand our faith better. Doubts, of course, are never comfortable things. However, there is no Christian in the history of the world who has not had any doubts. Satan, of course, will try to turn that doubt into yet another arrow to shoot at you. But you must take the doubt to God, and ask Him to show you the way out of it. God is faithful, and He will do it.
Thirdly, when you think about your faith, do you primarily think about what is in you, or do you primarily think about Jesus Christ, the object of your faith? Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a great Scottish preacher once said these words, “For every one time you look into yourself, look ten times at Christ.” I am convinced that our faith would be a lot stronger if we would measure the strength of our faith not by how well we believe, but by how well Jesus saves, and by how much Jesus loves us, and by how faithful Jesus is as our great High Priest.
When we do these three things, actually taking up this shield, joining our faiths with other believers, and concentrating our faith on the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, then our shield will be strong, since it will have God’s own iron strength holding it all together for us. None of Satan’s arrows can pierce that shield. So take up that shield!