August 5, 2017

Why a Belt, and Why the Truth? (The Armor, part 1)

At some point in human history, someone decided that belts were a good idea. Thank goodness! Seriously, who wants to see some random guy wandering around in public “lookin’ like a fool with [his] pants on the ground?” Not me! So, kudos to the inventor of the belt - whoever you were. While “pantsing” has been a mainstay of comedy over the years, the Belt of Truth is no laughing matter.

The common modern image of the Belt of Truth is based on the Roman cingulum militaire: the belt which is worn on the outside of a soldier’s armor. This belt helps to secure the breastplate and also holds the soldier’s scabbard (sword-holder) in place. The scabbard is not actually supported by the belt, but by a shoulder strap; the belt keeps it fixed in its proper location, allowing the sword to be drawn quickly when needed. The cingulum might also hold various small pouches and a scabbard for a dagger, as well as the iconic leather strips which may have served as some protection for the groin, or which may have been purely decorative.

You may be surprised, however, to learn that scripture doesn’t actually list the Belt of Truth as an item at all. The KJV translation renders the original Greek very accurately: “…having your loins girt about with truth…” (Ephesians 6:14) Some other translations do present the belt as an object similar to belts we use today, though the attempt to use more modern language in this way obscures some of the finer details of the original symbolism. A more modern and accurate rendering of the Greek verbiage which preserves the full symbolism of the text might be, “…wrapping your waist with truth…”

Before we go any further, we must dispel one myth: the Belt of Truth really has nothing to do with keeping us from telling lies. This is not to diminish the grave nature of lying – there is no room for lies in a Christian’s life! But lying is actually covered in another piece of the Armor – the Breastplate of Righteousness, which will be discussed in a later post. “Truth,” in this case, is nothing less than a reference to Jesus Christ.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” John 14:6 (ESV)

The “Truth” symbolized in Ephesians 6:14 is Jesus! Putting on the Truth here means that we accept the truth about Jesus: He is the Son of God; He lived a life without sin; He died for our sin; and He defeated death itself by His resurrection. Putting on the belt (wrapping ourselves in Truth) means that we acknowledge Christ as Lord and Savior. Salvation itself is the result of putting on the very first symbolic element of the Whole Armor of God! Remember, Paul wrote this letter to Christians in Ephesus – to believers who have chosen to follow Jesus. Without belief and trust in Christ as Savior, none of the rest of the armor matters. Indeed, it cannot be worn at all.

A second misconception about the Belt of Truth stems from an incomplete knowledge of Roman military gear. The cingulum is only half of the story. Furthermore, the Belt is listed first among the elements of the Armor, while the cingulum would be put on after the breastplate. How do we resolve what seems to be an inconsistency? Why is the belt listed first if a Roman soldier actually put it on last?

Actually, the first step in putting on a Roman soldier’s armor was to wrap a rope or cord around the waist – a process known as “girding.” Here we see the importance of the KJV translating the reference to the Belt as an action, rather than an object. Looking only at the “outer” belt leaves us with an incomplete picture of God’s Whole Armor, of which the “inner” belt is a vital element. Here’s how it worked…

A Roman soldier wore a tunic under his armor (after all, who would want a metal breastplate rubbing up against their bare chest? Not me!). A portion of the tunic was pulled upward above the cord and bunched up around it, providing a firm, thick wrapping which encircled the soldier’s waist. This girding would transfer much of the weight of the breastplate to the hips, as well as reinforcing the soldier’s back and abdominal muscles.

A Roman soldier’s gear was heavy, and carrying heavy loads for any amount of time can be tiring and lead to back strain. Injured soldiers (not surprisingly) are less effective than healthy ones. Hence, this method of bearing the weight effectively and efficiently was vital to the Roman military. Today, professional weightlifters and people who work in jobs requiring a lot of heavy lifting use braces commonly known as lift-belts. These belts protect the user from back strain and enable them to lift heavy loads more easily.

"The Lord is my strength..."
Psalm 28:7 (NKJV)

The symbolic importance of the girding now becomes clear: it’s not easy to live a Christian life. While Jesus does stand in our place of judgment for sin, we are expected to repent and do our best to follow His example. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Matthew 6:24 (ESV) It is a monumental undertaking which can become a heavy burden if we try to do it on our own.

Too often, we burden ourselves with concerns better left to Jesus. And yet, Jesus himself does all the heavy lifting, if only we give it over to Him. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you … and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-10 (ESV)

Putting on the Belt of Truth begins with accepting Christ as Savior, who thereby grants us the strength needed to bear the rest of the Armor – which in the end means living a Christian life. Christ gives us the strength to stand “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12 (NKJV)

Indeed, only by putting on the Belt of Truth can one truly say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” 
Philippians 4:13 (NKJV)

But what about the outer belt? Isn’t it important, too?

Yes, it is. I’m glad you asked! What starts the process (the inner belt) finishes it as well (the outer belt). For the Roman soldier, the outer belt helped secure the breastplate and held other vital components of his gear in place, as well as reinforcing his ability to carry all of that weight. The cingulum completes the process started with the girding. Symbolically, both “halves” of the Belt of Truth encompass and bind together all of the rest of the Armor - all of the work God does in our lives.

 “…looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…”
~ Hebrews 12:2 (NKJV)

“…He who has begun a good work in you will complete it…”
~ Philippians 1:6 (NKJV)

“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.”

God begins to change our lives from the moment we are saved; He gives us the strength to face all of life’s trials, tribulations, and hardships; and His Holy Spirit completes the work of sanctification in us as our lives unfold according to His will. We must realize that it is God who creates us, sustains us, and gives us the ultimate victory over sin and death; God is with us from our conception until our last breath (and beyond!). From everlasting to everlasting, God is, was, and shall always be the central Truth of existence.

Finally, the decorative strips (sometimes called baltea) adorning the Roman cingulum are worth mentioning. While the standard infantry soldier’s belt might have been plain and utilitarian, there are some surviving examples of belts which are highly adorned with precious metals and gemstones. These beautiful and expensive belts may have reflected the social status of higher-ranking officers and officials. Another possibility is that many common soldiers spent their hard-earned money on fancier, more elaborate equipment (because who doesn't love some bling?). Either way, it is clear that the belts in question were considered to be very valuable.

Matthew 13 presents a series of parables, two of which spring to mind when considering the value of these belts: the parable of the hidden treasure, and the parable of the pearl of great price. Both parables speak to the value of the Kingdom of Heaven. Symbolically, the baltea of the Belt of Truth represent the same idea expressed in these two parables; that becoming a citizen of God’s Kingdom is of far greater value than any worldly treasures we might accumulate. Whatever glory may be associated with a soldier’s decorative equipment, God’s glory is infinitely… more.

The Belt of Truth is the first (and arguably the most important) piece of the Whole Armor of God. Putting on the belt by accepting the truth of Jesus begins a truly miraculous process of transformation which impacts every aspect of our daily lives. As this series continues, we must keep in mind that every symbolic element we study depends completely upon the Truth – upon Jesus. Without Him, nothing else works – either symbolically or in everyday “real life.”

Make no mistake about it: a day of judgment will come. The Truth can save you – it can make you free. Let me urge you today to put on the Belt of Truth. Don’t be caught with your pants down!

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