The Christian life is described in various ways in the New Testament. Various metaphors and images are used to depict the life of the disciple of Jesus. Sometimes, for example, athletic and sporting metaphors are used. One group of images used quite often is that of military metaphors.
Quite a few passages use themes of warfare, fighting, the military, and battles to depict the Christian life in this world. Martial symbolism and military metaphors abound. Here I wish to examine just a few of these passages, and emphasise the implications for us.
The Old Testament of course depicts God in military terms. One famous passage is Exodus 15:3, “The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name.” The theme of the divine warrior runs throughout the Bible. Of interest is the fact that while Yahweh often fights for Israel (Deut. 28:7), he also fights against Israel, when necessary (Deut 28:25). (For more on this general topic, see Tremper Longman and Daniel Reid, God is a Warrior, Zondervan, 1995.)
Turning to the New Testament, we find that Jesus was not averse from using military themes in his teaching. For example, in his instructions on the costs of discipleship he says this: “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:31-33).
Paul regularly uses such imagery. One key passage is 2 Corinthians 10:3-5: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Of course unlike Islam, where jihad has both spiritual and military connotations, the Christian’s battle is always only spiritual, but with theological and intellectual ramifications. Followers of Jesus are never commanded to use force or violence in the presentation of the faith.
But Paul makes it clear that we are very real spiritual adversaries, and we must be on guard. Indeed, we must be on the offensive. David Garland explains what is being presented in this military terminology: “Paul appeals to three stages of the campaign in ancient siege warfare: destroying defensive fortifications, taking captives, and punishing resistance when the city is finally brought to submission.”
In using this description of offensive warfare, the reader will be reminded of the words of Jesus: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matt 16:18). The picture here is not one of the church defending against the enemy’s attack, but of the church on the march, storming the very gates of hell.
Says Garland, “Everyone in the ancient world knew, however, that the advantage was always on the side of the attacker with his siege engines and not with the fortified city. No matter how well defended cities might be, they would eventually fall to the resourceful and determined general.”
These spiritual ramparts include various intellectual and theological defences against the gospel. Both false beliefs and wrong behaviours may be in mind here. But all these things must be taken captive for Christ. As Stott notes, “Ethically, we are to flee evil and pursue goodness. Doctrinally, we are to avoid error and contend for the truth.”
Or as D.A. Carson says, “every pretension” mentioned in v. 5 “embraces every arrogant claim, every haughty thought, every proud act that forms a barrier to the knowledge of the living God.” The rebellious drive to be independent of our creator God is ultimately what must be opposed.
Of course a much fuller description of these spiritual weapons of warfare are provided by Paul in Eph 6:10-18 where he encourages us to put on the whole armour of God. But Paul’s point here is clear enough: enemy positions need to be taken, and serious warfare is part of the believer’s calling. As Scott Hafemann says,
“Paul’s choice of this warfare metaphor in 10:3-6 is itself an indication of the seriousness of the present situation. He is at war for the eternal destiny of the Corinthians. To win the battle, Paul intends to destroy the defences of the enemy by demolishing the arguments they raise against the knowledge of God (vv. 4b-5a).”
The Pastoral Epistles also contain a lot of this imagery. Consider four texts:
1 Tim. 1:18 Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight,
1 Tim. 6:12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
2 Tim. 2:3-5 Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs – he wants to please his commanding officer. Similarly, if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules.
2 Tim. 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
As is often the case with Paul, in the two passages from 2 Timothy, he mixes his metaphors, and adds athletics to his imagery. (And in 2 Tim 2:6 he adds a third image, that of the farmer.) But all speak to the same truth. Whether serving in the military, competing in sporting events, or toiling on the farm, one is called to put aside that which is unimportant, and concentrate fully on the activities at hand.
Or as Philip Towner comments, “Taken together, the illustrations function loosely but nevertheless forcefully to convey a consistent theme. Each links disciplined, diligent performance to obtaining a valuable goal.”
It is worth noticing where some of these passages were written from. Paul most likely wrote his second letter to Timothy from a prison in Rome. As John Stott remarks, “Paul’s prison experiences had given him ample opportunity to watch Roman soldiers and to meditate on the parallels between the soldier and the Christian. . . . Soldiers on active duty do not expect a safe or easy time. They take hardship, risk and suffering as a matter of course. These things are part and parcel of a soldier’s calling.”
Or as Towner also remarks, “Roman troops were a model of discipline, and because of that discipline, they were unbeatable. Such ideas were in Paul’s mind when he chose the image of the soldier to describe the servant of Christ.”
Several things stand out as we consider such imagery. One, it is hard to square the NT teachings with the claim that Christians must be pacifists and eschew any form of force or military involvement. There is way too much military symbolism and imagery here to square with the claim that fighting and warfare are intrinsically evil. Police and military forces have their place in earthly life.
Two, we are in a war, and that means Christians cannot sideline themselves, or vote on whether they sit this one out. We are all called to be actively engaged in the many battles which lie before us. Now is not the time to take a lengthy siesta. Our eternal rest is still ahead of us, but for now, we must engage the enemy.
Of course these calls to single-minded dedication to the Lord’s work are not meant to imply that we are to pull out of worldly activities altogether, including marriage. As William Mounce says in his commentary, “Obviously, Christians in general must have some involvement in day-to-day affairs, but they can never become entangled in them.”
He continues, “Paul and Barnabas worked outside their ministry (1 Cor 9:6), and their lives were anything but hermitlike. The key is to realize that the purpose of the metaphor is to stress Timothy’s call to suffer hardship, that regardless of the degree of suffering Timothy must, like a soldier, persevere in his ministry and by so doing please God. It is an issue of priorities.”
Stott reminds us that during the Second World War “people frequently said to each other with a wry smile ‘there’s a war on’ – a watchword sufficient to justify any austerity, self-denial or abstention from innocent activities because of the current emergency.”
That is indeed the point of this whole article: “there’s a war on”. In the light of this truth, what sort of people ought we to be? Are we sleeping through this war, not even aware it is waging around us? Have we declared ourselves conscientious objectors? Have we thought we could simply straddle the fence?
None of these responses are acceptable. Every follower of Jesus Christ is to be fully engaged in the battles at hand, and put his own priorities on hold, or at least relegate them to their rightful spot. Jesus and the work of the kingdom take first priority here.
We are soldiers on active duty, in the middle of a very real war with numerous battle fronts raging around us. Let us therefore take our calling seriously, and give it the full attention which it deserves.