I have never been in combat, but it looks to be an overwhelmingly unique experience. Having been trained to use such a lethal weapon and having those same weapons firing back would lead many to just start shooting at anything that moved, simply for survival. The concept of war was not foreign to the Bible. One can easily spot even some rather graphic accounts battles fought under the prompting of God.
The New Testament brings a different flavor to the concept of combat. After some of the most beautiful passages on the gospel in the whole of Scripture, the Apostle Paul spends time reminding us of the nature of this battle. In Ephesians 6:10-13 he challenges what had been the overriding thought for the day. Many of the Jews believed that the Messiah would come to end their oppression at the hand of the Romans.
Both for the people of that time and for us, Paul recasts the battle as not one “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” To further the point, Paul talks about wearing armor and carrying a sword, but defines them in terms of the gospel, salvation, and faith. Essentially, Paul charges us to battle against evil, not one another.
This battle is largely defensive. Of all the pieces of armor, only one is offensive. Paul calls the Word of God the sword. Listen to what he says later to his student Timothy:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.
(2 Timothy 4:1-4 ESV)
Does that not sound challenging and embolding? Frequently this passage is lifted up as the defense for the Christian offense. Indeed this passage calls us to tell people what they need in spite of what they may think that they need. It challenges us to make a firm stand for the gospel even when the battle is raging and we cannot find safety. This sounds like a call to battle!
What are we fighting against?
Again, go back to Ephesians and find that we are not called to fight against other people, but against their ideas, their beliefs, and their philosophies that are not the gospel. It has been said that the three most important rules of biblical interpretation are context, context, and context. Let us employ those rules for the context of the battle cry in 2 Timothy 4:
Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.
(2 Timothy 2:14-17 ESV, emphasis added)
In chapter 1 Paul has clearly reminded Timothy of the gospel message and that it is our source of life. In the passage above it is clear that Timothy should not be ashamed of that message, but he must also not start arguments and quarrels. What a challenge, to be bold about the gospel but also to avoid babble! Paul says not only that it is irreverent, but that it spreads ungodliness and evil as a disease that literally eats away the flesh.
He goes even further later in the chapter:
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.
(2 Timothy 2:23-26 ESV, emphasis added)
Kindness, patience, and gentleness are not often words associated with war. They are, though, characteristics of someone who knows what battle this is. We battle not against one another, but against infectious ideas that twist and manipulate the message of the gospel. Paul calls us to boldly challenge the philosopies of our day with the truth of the atoning work of Christ on our behalf. It is that saving work that has freed us to take up our arms and battle for the Lord.
What, then, do we do when we have been granted repentance (v. 25)? Paul writes with the full knowledge that Timothy has been called by God and has been made alive in light of the gospel. Yet, we must assume that the young evangelist was guilty of starting these sort of arguments and quarrels. It is in this context that Paul calls Timothy to repentance:
Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.
(2 Timothy 2:20-22 ESV)
I like that in chapter 2 verse 15 Paul says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved….” God indeed demands perfection, but that perfection has been presented by the atoning work of Christ. He clothes us in his righteousness so we are no longer seen, but Christ. Don’t take my word for it, here are Paul’s words from chapter 1:
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
(2 Timothy 1:8-14 ESV)