“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”
Thus the eponymous Gladiator, known as “The Spaniard” (aka Russell Crowe), unmasks his true identity to the emperor (Joaquin Phoenix) before the Colosseum masses. The emperor now faces an awkward political calculation: this brilliant fighter is no mere slave—he is the chosen successor of his father, Marcus Aurelius, and therefore his most dangerous rival. Fear of the mob drives him to spare Maximus’s life and the crowds are ecstatic. Here at last is true leadership, true resilience, true power: in the valiant but wronged soldier unjustifiably enslaved, not their sybaritic Caesar draped in perfumes and purple.
Throughout the movie, Maximus has faced intolerable odds, as the hero of any rattling yarn must. Survival, quite apart from restitution, is improbable. The empire’s once-loyal servant has become the emperor’s most intractable foe. But it’s an asymmetrical contest and therefore, to the majority of armchair spectators, an unwinnable one. And yet our noble hero overcomes, through a superhuman combination of special-forces-toughness, whip-smart opportunism, and, quite naturally, the fact that he is Russell Crowe. Power and nobility. Or as Maximus’s comrades’ motto would have it, Strength and Honor.
If there is a moral to the story at all, it’s that we should never cease to wonder at that elusive Hollywood holy grail, the human spirit (whatever that is). Just search for the hero inside of yourself! Yup, you too can be Maximus, or Katniss, Luke or Rey, Po or Elsa! But the grand story at the heart of Ephesians won’t let us be content with such hackneyed fictions. It subverts this and every other human story, at almost every significant point.
Yes, there are peculiar parallels: we read of asymmetrical power relationships, epic battles requiring armor, defensive and offensive maneuvers, a fight against overwhelming odds. There’s even a nice Ephesian resonance with Maximus the Roman citizen spending his entire professional life serving earth’s greatest city despite never having laid eyes on Rome.
But that’s where the similarities end.
An Asymmetrical Relationship
This ought to go without saying, but every person who comes into contact with the living God finds him or herself in a profoundly asymmetrical relationship. How can it be otherwise? The Creator who provides for his creatures, yet creatures we remain; the Omniscient who accommodates himself to those who can know only in part; the Omnipotent who deigns to employ the frail, finite, and deeply flawed as his “coworkers” (1 Cor 3:9); the one whose name is Love and who loves the ones that hate him. No, there is no equality here and never can be. The only way we can possibly relate to God is if he takes the initiative to stoop and to keep on stooping.
For all its controversies, that is perhaps why we find that unsettling asymmetry in Ephesians’ so-called Household Code. As was clear in last week’s chapter, there is an equal demand on all believers to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). That doesn’t mean, however, that its applications are identical. Paul grants different roles to different groups. But the key to the husband’s lengthy injunction to love for his wife comes in 5:25: “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” That is no small task. It is far easier to grasp why the child-parent, and perhaps even the slave-master relationships, are necessarily asymmetrical. In the Roman Empire, age, gender, and freedom status profoundly shaped a person’s options.
Jesus-shaped power is a threat to the status quo. It is also very hard to do. Mark Meynell
In itself, that would have surprised nobody in Paul’s day. There is plenty of evidence that the Household Code was a relatively common ethical form: it’s found most famously in Aristotle’s Politics (Book 1, XIII), but also alluded to in Stoic writings such Seneca’s letters. What is revolutionary about Paul’s household codes is how he subverts them. Even to address wives, children, and slaves at all was startling. Previously, the head of the household (the paterfamilias) was the sole recipient of these codes, because husband, father, and master tended to be one and the same man. But then look what Paul expects of that man: to sacrifice himself for his wife because Christ did, to bring up his children for the Lord, to treat slaves justly because he shares the same heavenly master. Christ takes precedence over each and every role. Christ’s authority relativizes a man’s. Always. That is why African American slaves would often address the Lord Jesus as “Master,” a deliberate reminder both to themselves and their owners that they all submitted to a higher authority. He is the ultimate owner.
Such absolute authority might be the grounds for deep anxiety. Indeed, when the prophet Daniel is confronted by a vision of “one like a son of man” who is granted all divine, cosmic power and authority, he is justifiably terrified. (Daniel 7:13-15) Like Tolkien’s ring, such power is too great for a mere mortal human being—until we see what the Son of Man did with it. He had compassion for the most vulnerable to asymmetrical power dynamics (especially if religious): the widows and orphans, the outcasts and aliens, the sinners and tax collectors. He accompanied, he encouraged, he honored, he healed, he taught, he loved.
Why would anyone object to that?
An Alternative Road
The problem is that society has never traditionally recognized such behavior as “power.” If anything, it is its polar opposite. So when worldly powers encounter it, they either smirk and jeer with effortless superiority or attempt to neutralize and crush in bewildered hostility. Jesus-shaped power is a threat to the status quo. It is also very hard to do. It demands a willingness to trust in God, the ultimate Master, often despite what every sense in your body is communicating. But “all that is required” is to stand and remain standing against the devil’s schemes. (6:11-12)
No wonder that Christians down the ages try to fight fire with fire. A militaristic passage like Ephesians 6:10-20 might (at first sight) seem quite the justification (and don’t get me started on Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land). Yet from Peter lopping off a soldier’s ear to notorious episodes in Christendom’s history, the results of conflating God’s kingdom with human empires and states never look pretty.
Paul teaches that there is a battle; of that there’s no doubt. But it’s primarily a spiritual, rather than material, duel against “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (6:12), demanding disconcerting strategies and defenses. It pits a Christ-like wielding of power (which puts a premium on sacrifice, altruism, and even submission) against the bullying cruelty of hellish power (which relentlessly exploits, subjugates, and destroys). The outcome of such a battle seems like a foregone conclusion, doesn’t it? Of course hell’s powers will win. How on earth can the former avoid annihilation against such sulfurous, or dare I say it, hideous strength?
The clue comes in 6:10. Paul makes no appeal for intensive workouts to build up core strength. In fact, he doesn’t think we need to be strong at all, at least not directly: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.” This is a matter of deciding which power center to align yourself with. The primary requirement of the disciple here is to cling on tight to the Lord. The phrase translated “strength of his might” has twice appeared before in Ephesians (1:19 and 3:7), the evidence for which is clear: the Resurrection (1:20). Who wouldn’t want to be on the death-conqueror’s team? That’s awesome power. The challenge is that he had to go to the cross first, which, paradoxically, was the supreme sacrifice of power. As Chesterton pointedly put it, “You cannot defeat the cross, because it is defeat.” How bizarre to have as a rallying point a symbol of weakness and dishonor.
No wonder being a foot soldier in this cross-shaped conflict demands an unconventional approach, to say the least:
It will be grounded in truth—or to unpack Paul’s metaphor, held together by truth (6:14). So never be deceived by the mere appearance of power, by mistaking barking for biting.
It will be a true path to true goodness—this breastplate of righteousness, like the gospel, is a gift. (6:14) Anything less will have “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh,” as he puts it in Colossians 2:23.
It will constantly be prepped for action, like any soldier—but the action is to bring peace, ultimately with God, but in consequence between people(s) (6:15). I suppose it makes the kingdom soldier more UN peacekeeper than imperialist invader.
It will defend itself by trusting God’s promises against the Accuser’s barbs and lies (6:16), in particular to guard the head with the confidence of salvation. But because it is a divine gift, assurance is not just possible—it is inherent.
It will have only one offensive weapon: a sword. This is not designed to sever limbs but to cut to the heart—with divine truth. And thus we come full-circle.
Maximus would never have survived the gladiatorial arena with these defenses. But nobody can ever withstand the devil without them. But the most extraordinary truth of all is that we know the outcome in advance. In movies, that can spoil the effect somewhat. But in the Christian life, it simply makes it livable.
Artwork Credit: “Desert Wind” by Joshua Smith