As I’ve mentioned several times, we’ve been discussing Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when we gather with the church on Sunday mornings. (We often discuss this book at other times also, but we’ve decided as a group to study Ephesians together at that time.) We’ll probably finish Ephesians this Sunday by discussing the last part of chapter 6.
Of course, one famous section of Ephesians 6 deals with “the armor of God.” In that passage (Ephesians 6:14-17), Paul exhorts his readers to “take up the whole armor of God,” and then he lists several pieces of armor: belt, breastplate, shoes, shield, helmet, and sword. Of course, each of those is associated to an aspect of our lives in Jesus Christ. For example, the belt is associated with truth and the breastplate is associated with righteousness.
But, in this post, I’d like us to consider the list item of “armor” in that list: “The sword of the Spirit.” It, along with the helmet of salvation, is mentioned in Ephesians 6:17 –
…and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God… (Ephesians 6:17 ESV)
The last part of that verse – “which is the word of God” – is a relative clause. All relative clauses begin with a relative pronoun. This relative clause begins with the relative pronoun “which.” The relative pronoun points back to a noun in the previous sentence and connects the relative clause back to that noun. In other words, “the word of God” describes one of the nouns in the previous sentence.
But, which noun?
There are two primary options:
1) The clause “the word of God” refers back to “sword.” Of course, “sword” has already been described as being “of the Spirit.” So, in this case, the “sword” which is “of the Spirit” is also “the word of God.” This is the way that I usually hear this phrase interpreted.
2) The clause “the word of God” refers back to “Spirit.” In the case, the “sword” is still “of the Spirit,” but it is the Spirit which is then described as “the word of God.”
In English, there is ambiguity regarding the relationship between the words “sword” and “Spirit” and the relative clause “the word of God.” In other words, either options #1 or #2 above are valid in English.
In Greek, however, some of this ambiguity is removed. Why? Because relative pronouns (like other kinds of pronouns) must match their antecedent (the word they point to) in gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) and number (singular, plural). “Sword” is a feminine singular noun, while “Spirit” is a neuter singular noun.
The relative pronoun which is translated “which” above is a neuter singular pronoun, indicating that the relative clause “which is the word of God” refers back to the noun “Spirit” not the noun “sword.”
Of course, recognizing this distinction is only the first part of the issue. Now, we can finally get to the real question: What is the difference between “the sword of the Spirit” being described as “the word of God” and “the Spirit” being described as “the word of God”? Or, to ask my question a different way: Does it matter that “the word of God” only refers to “the Spirit” and not to “the sword of the Spirit”?