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Many Christians today feel as though they are engaged in a battle. The world seems increasingly hostile to biblical truth and aggressive against those who promote it. Indeed, the Bible teaches that Christians are in hostile territory and that God’s people are engaged in combat. Paul puts it this way: “For we do not wrestle 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” (Eph. 6:12).
This is not an isolated example. One of the most prevalent images for the life of the believer is that of a soldier. The church is also presented with martial images—pictures of armies and discipline and armor and warfare. This is the nature of the work and calling of God’s people on earth. This could lead to discouragement or even despair, but the Bible does not merely describe the terms of our warfare; it points us to the confidence we can have as soldiers marching into battle under the royal banner of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The images of warfare are introduced in the Old Testament. There, the people of God were serving as physical soldiers in the army of the Lord, actively participating in the war against His earthly enemies. Abraham led a platoon of trained men to rescue Lot by force (Gen. 14:14). Moses led the people in a military campaign against Midian in Numbers 31 as commanded by God: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Avenge the people of Israel on the Midianites. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.’ So Moses spoke to the people, saying, ‘Arm men from among you for the war, that they may go against Midian to execute the Lord’s vengeance on Midian’ ” (Num. 31:1–3). This kind of command and these kinds of battles continued. The Lord provided many miraculous victories to Joshua and his armed men, beginning with the battle of Jericho recorded in Joshua 6, and the conquest of the land, which is recorded in Joshua and Judges.
The military exploits of God’s people do not end there. David wins many great victories over the Philistine army, including over their champion, Goliath (1 Sam. 17); Joab leads a group of soldiers to crush a rebellion against David (2 Sam. 18); Jehoshaphat defeats Moab and Ammon in the field of battle (2 Chron. 20). And in one of the great accounts of Old Testament prophecy, when God calls the prophet Ezekiel to preach to a valley of dry bones, God raises those bones and makes them battle-ready: “So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army” (Ezek. 37:10).
Given this pattern for God’s people, it is no surprise that the New Testament refers to those who serve Christ as soldiers. In Philippians 2, Paul refers to his dear friend and coworker Epaphroditus as a soldier; in Philemon 2, Archippus is called the same thing. In 2 Timothy, Timothy is instructed to avoid any distractions or entanglements, because “no soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2:4). One verse earlier, he is simply commanded, “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (v. 3).
our enemies today
Why is this language used? The answer is clear: the New Testament sees the church as an army and our earthly pilgrimage as a battle. In using this language, the Bible is not calling Christians to physical violence, but it is reminding God’s people that there are real enemies of the soul that must be fought. While on earth, struggle is to be expected. Just as there were enemies of God in the Old Testament, the New Testament reminds us that there are vicious enemies who wage war against God’s people. Christians must be on guard against them. The church on earth has a militant posture.
But who are these enemies? The Bible categorizes them under three headings: the world, the flesh, and the devil.
These are the enemies that characterize the kingdom of darkness. Before regeneration and conversion, all people are caught up in and by them,
following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Eph. 2:2–3)
Notice that all three elements—the ideas of the world, the spirit who is Satan, and the passions of the flesh—are mentioned here. All are enemies to be opposed.
The system of worldly thinking can be subtle. When the Bible speaks of the world in this negative sense, it refers to the system of thoughts and values opposed to the Lord. It does not always present itself in direct opposition to God, though it is ultimately rooted in pride and suppresses the knowledge of God in unrighteousness. This is why John writes: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). The Apostle Paul issues a similar command in the book of Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). To do battle against the subtle patterns of worldliness that seek to infiltrate our individual thoughts and our families, Christians need to pursue the mind renewal that comes through studying the Scriptures and meditating on sound doctrine.
When it comes to the flesh and the devil, the battle is no less intense. Peter, writing to Christians who were enduring much hardship and suffering, writes, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Later in that same letter, Peter again employs the language of watchful resistance: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:8–9). This is why the armor of God is of such importance. “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Eph. 6:11).
The world, the flesh, and the devil are serious enemies, which is why the church on earth is presented as the church militant—engaged in warfare, putting on God’s armor, always alert. But the church in heaven is the church triumphant. On earth, the church may look as though she is struggling and weak, declining in numbers and power, but Christians must never forget the victory of the church triumphant containing all those in heaven whom God has saved. The Bible puts it this way:
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb. 12:22–24)
The reality of the church triumphant ought to give Christians courage today. It is not unlike the situation centuries ago. In the time of Elisha, the Syrian army surrounded the city where he was staying. Elisha’s servant was terrified, thinking that God’s enemies would destroy them. It looked as though all was lost. But Elisha recognized the reality of the situation:
He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:16–17)
So it is today. In the midst of increasing hostility, there are invisible realities that encourage us. The church triumphant worships God victoriously in heaven, and Jesus Himself is in our midst by His Holy Spirit: “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). The church militant can look to heaven and fight on, surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses, . . . looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1–2).