The expression “fight the good fight” is often used in Christian circles and even in Western culture in general. Indeed, while perusing I found at least thirty-one books with the title “The Good Fight” and at least ten books with the fuller title “Fighting the Good Fight,” some of which were overtly Christian but many of which were not. The origin of the phrase is 1 Timothy 1:18 (and perhaps in 1 Tim. 6:12 and 2 Tim. 4:7). In 1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12, Timothy is exhorted to “fight the good fight”; in 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul says that he himself “has fought the good fight.”

I am in the process of writing a commentary on 1 Timothy (for the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series). When I came to 1 Timothy 1:18, I noticed that the phrase “fight the good fight” is composed of a verb (strateuō) and a noun (strateia) that is a cognate word with the verb. The use of the noun “fight” after the verb “to fight” in this phrase is a figure of speech whereby there “is a repetition of the same basic word with the same sense” to underscore the meaning of the redundant wording. The redundant wording had a ring to it, so I decided to see if this repeated wording was used elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world, since it did not appear anywhere else in the New Testament or the Greek Old Testament. What I found after many hours of research surprised me and encouraged my faith very much. I hope what you are about to read will not only surprise you but also encourage your faith amid the trials of this world.

A Patriotic Warfare Idiom Underscoring a Reputation of Good Character

To my amazement, when I looked at the standard online concordance to the literature of the ancient Greek world, I found that this redundant wording was used very often (from the fifth century BC up to the third century AD and onward). I began to study the meaning of the redundant expression in all their various contexts. The expression can be translated as “battle the battle” or “serve as a soldier in warfare,” or more generally as “perform military service” or “serve in a military campaign.” The wording typically is a patriotic warfare idiom for good character revealed by persevering through not merely one battle but military campaigns extending over a period of time. We need further to see how this idiom is used in the ancient Greek world before we can understand how it is applied to Timothy and Paul and to Christians in general.

In the Roman military system, in times of danger from foreign powers, citizens who enlisted in the army were “obligated to serve as soldiers in warfare service [strateuō + strateia] for twenty years,” though only ten years were required for being “eligible for any political office” (Polybius, Histories VI.19). The point here was that an extended period of military service was a requirement for political office, since it demonstrated a person’s honorable character as a loyal citizen, willing to persevere in service in order to protect the home country. A military commander named Astyphilus “fought first at Corinth, then in Thessaly and again throughout the Theban war, and wherever else he heard of an army being collected, he went abroad holding a command.” Afterward, “he was fighting in other war campaigns [strateia + strateuō] and was well aware that he was going to run risks on all of them.” Then “he was about to set out on his last expedition, going out as a volunteer with every prospect of returning safe and sound from this campaign” when he finally died in battle at Mytilene (Isaeus, IX. On the Estate of Astyphilus 15,). His patriotism is expressed both through his amazing perseverance in fighting for his country until death and his religious and civic commitments (for these commitments, see 13, 21, and 30).

Similarly, the Roman commander Pompey affirmed that he had received “the greatest honor” as a result of “the battle campaigns he had fought” (strateia + strateuō; Dio Cassius, Roman History XXXVI.25). On another occasion, while dying, a Jewish martyr executed by the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes encourages his brothers to persevere in their faith and to be “of good courage” and to “fight [strateuō] the sacred and noble fight [strateia] for godliness.”

In a Greek papyrus from the second century AD, a father writes a letter to his son who was “persuaded . . . not [to] enlist to fight [strateuō] at [a city called] Klassan.” The father “grieved” over what appeared to be his son’s lack of patriotism. The father said, “from now on, take care not to be so persuaded . . . not [to] enlist to fight, or you will no longer be my son. You know you have every advantage over your brothers, and all the authority. Therefore, you will do well to fight [strateuō] the good fight [strateia]. . . . Therefore, do not transgress my instructions and you will have an inheritance.” The son’s willingness to “fight the good fight” will certainly enhance his reputation before his father (enough to receive the father’s inheritance) and likely in the eyes of others. “Good fight” refers here to a war in which it is “honorable” to participate in fighting for one’s country (or city) because fighting for one’s country (or city) and overcoming the enemy is “good.” Once again, the idiom demonstrates a person’s good character as a loyal citizen to his king and kingdom.

“Fight the good fight” in 1 Timothy 1:18 refers to the same thing as in the papyrus letter (with the identical three words in Greek), though the warfare is spiritual and is conducted against false teaching opponents (e.g., see 1 Tim. 1:3–6, 18–20; 6:20–21; 2 Tim. 3:7–14). Also, like the papyrus letter, Paul considers Timothy and Titus each to be a “true child,” though a child in “the faith” (1 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4). In addition, both also are promised an inheritance, if they persevere. This is clearest in 1 and 2 Timothy. In 2 Timothy 4:8, after saying “I have fought the good fight” (though with different Greek wording than in 1 Tim. 1:18), Paul says “henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord . . . will award to me on that day.” Like Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7–8, if Timothy perseveres in “fighting the good fight” (1 Tim. 1:18; 6:12), he will finally receive an inheritance, i.e., he will “receive [attain to] the eternal life to which he was called.” As with Paul’s command to Timothy to “fight” in 1 Timothy 1:18, so likewise the father’s use of “fight” has an imperatival sense because of the immediate context. The papyrus letter gives a striking parallel to the idiom of “fighting the good fight” in the Pastoral Epistles.

May our King give us grace to serve, persevere, and be loyal to Him in this lifelong war campaign until we meet Him face-to-face.

The idiom “fight the fight” occurs forty times (including the father’s letter to his son) in the Greek world as a patriotic warfare idiom for one who perseveres in loyalty to king and country by fighting war campaigns to preserve the welfare of the kingdom. As a result, a person earns a reputation as a good and honorable citizen. Paul applies the idiom to fighting for God’s kingdom instead of an earthly kingdom. He is referring to a “fight” against false teaching to maintain and foster “godliness.” Thus, this is a “good” fight or extended “war campaign” through which Timothy is to persevere, which will demonstrate his good Christian character and reputation over against the false teachers’ bad character. “Good” is further defined in 2 Timothy 2:3–4, where Paul exhorts Timothy to be “a good soldier” and then defines part of what such a “good soldier” is: “No soldier while being engaged in a war campaign entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.” Thus, the warfare is also “good” because the divine Commander who enlisted the Christian soldier to fight would not enlist anyone if the warfare was not a “good” one in which to engage. Ultimate loyalty in this world is to be given to the divine king and not to earthly authorities (though there is a place for submitting to earthly authorities; Rom. 13).

Paul in 1 Timothy 1:18 gives Timothy a “command” to uphold true doctrine for the purpose that he might “fight the good fight.” The “command” (KJV) picks up the earlier use of “command” in 1 Timothy 1:3 and 1:5 (respectively, the verb and noun form), which reenforces that this is a “command” to fight for truth against false teachers. It is likely not coincidental that the main point of the preceding paragraph (1 Tim 1:12–17) ends with praise of God as “King” and that the warfare idiom occurs directly afterward in verse 18. As the main point of verses 12–17, God as “king” is surely still in view as Paul “commands” Timothy in verse 18, so that the “command” can be viewed implicitly to have its origin with the “King,” for whom Timothy is to fight.

The only other place in the Pastoral Epistles where “king” is used (excepting 1 Tim. 2:2, where reference is to human kings) is 1 Timothy 6:15, where the reference is to God and the doxology is extended as in 1:17 and has several verbal parallels with 1:17 (e.g., “the only” God, “King,” “invisible, “honor . . . forever. Amen”). In addition, 6:15 forms a nice epistolary bookend with 1:17, since “fight the good fight” in 6:12 also occurs in close connection to praise of God as “King.” Furthermore, there is also the parallel of Paul giving another “command” to Timothy (6:13), as in 1:18a (see also “the command” in 6:14). In fact, as the climaxing part of the bookend in 6:15, the kingship of God is emphasized with synonyms (as in 1:17): “the only ruler, the king of kings and Lord of lords.” It is also clear that Timothy and Paul are citizens of a “kingdom” in which they will participate consummately at Christ’s final coming (2 Tim. 4:1, 18, though this kingdom is likely inaugurated). God as “King” in 6:15 is closely linked to the imperatival form of the battle idiom in 6:12 (and to the imperative there to “receive eternal life”), since “I command you” in 6:13 and “keep the command” in 6:14 includes the imperatival idiom in its purview. And, as we have seen, God as “King” in 1 Timothy 1:17 is in the immediate purview of the “soldier in warfare” idiom of 1:18. These links between 1:17–19 and 6:12–15 show that Timothy’s “fighting the good fight” against false teachers is for the King and the welfare and protection of the kingdom. And since they form bookends for 1 Timothy, this theme should be seen as a major theme of the book.

The redundant word combination of “fight” + “fight” (strateuō + strateia) is literally in Greek rendered as “struggle” + “struggle” (agōnizomai + agōn) in 1 Timothy 6:12 and 2 Timothy 4:7, which is recognized by commentators as a synonymous word development of the phrase in 1 Timothy 1:18. In the Greek world, this phrase also is a well-worn idiom used in the same way as “fight the fight,” most likely highlighting the difficulty of the fight. This is why the expression “struggle the struggle” is synonymous with the expression in 1 Timothy 1:18, even with the added adjective “good,” as many translations agree. There is not adequate space, however, to discuss and analyze the “struggle” phrases the way that we have the “fight” expressions.


Paul was clear about what he believed patriotism involved for those who are Christians. His use of “fight the good fight” is a patriotic warfare idiom for one who perseveres in loyalty to King and heavenly country by fighting war campaigns to preserve the welfare of the God’s kingdom on earth. In this way a person earns a reputation as a good and honorable citizen in God’s kingdom.

Paul and Timothy were to fight false teachers who were contradicting the truth of the gospel and were even maligning their character. Likewise, we as Christians are in a “fight” in this life. Like Paul and Timothy, we are in the “latter days,” which the Old Testament and Jesus prophesied would be characterized by a tribulation including false teaching (see 1 Tim. 4:1–2; 2 Tim. 3:1–13). Spiritual and worldly forces are arrayed against us. We need to persevere as spiritual warriors in the face of constant opposition, which is ultimately inspired by Satan (see 1 Tim. 4:1–2; 5:13–15; 2 Tim. 2:23–26).

Therefore, not only elders and pastors but all Christians need to know the Bible well to do “sword fighting” with false teachers who distort the Bible (whether that be Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses or teachers in Bible-teaching churches who introduce teachings contrary to Scripture). We need to “be diligent to present ourselves approved before God, workmen . . . accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15; so also Titus 1:9). The Word of God is our “sword” in the fight (Eph. 6:17). Ironically, even Paul’s exhortation to “fight the good fight” has been adopted and twisted as a title for some books that have nothing to do with true spiritual warfare. If we persevere in “fighting the good fight,” which is an extended lifelong war campaign, we are being loyal to our divine King and helping to maintain the spiritual welfare of the kingdom in our churches. If we do so, we will prove our good character as spiritual and faithful patriots of the kingdom of God and will receive honor as a reflection of the only One who is truly worthy to receive “honor” (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16), the One for whom we have fought.

Satan causes battles other than those involving false teaching, which we also must fight and persevere through “as good soldiers” of Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 2:3–4). We may get battered by Satan, the powers of evil, and the world, but we need to remember that if we are true soldiers of our King, He will give us the armor and armament to battle through the trials we encounter. These trials may include illness, loss of job, breakup of a family, or persecution in the workplace (and beyond). May our King give us grace to serve, persevere, and be loyal to Him in this lifelong war campaign until we meet Him face-to-face.


  1. A “cognate” word means that it is a word that has the same linguistic derivation as another word. We could say figuratively that a “cognate” word is a “blood relative” of another word, usually composed of the same essential consonants (e.g., “She dranka drink of water”; “drink” is a cognate noun following the related verb and is called a “cognate object.”).
  2. E.W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1968), 266; cf. 275, 279. The figure of speech is called “polyptoton.” I am thankful to my colleague Dr. Peter Lillback for this reference.
  3. This short essay is based on a section of a much longer article titled “The Background to ‘Fight the Good Fight’ in 1 Timothy 1:18, 6:12, and 2 Timothy 4:7,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 113 (2022), 202–30.
  4. Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (Thesaurus of Greek Language).
  5. An idiom is a peculiarity of wording known from common usage to have a meaning not deducible from those of the separate words (cf. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English).
  6. This papyrus letter can be found at the following online source: SB, Vol. 4, Document 7354, lines 2–14, Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri (https://library.
  7. Though as we will see, the Greek in 1 Timothy 6:12 and 2 Timothy 4:7 is different from that of 1 Timothy 1:18, though synonymous.
  8. See the use of eusebeia (godliness) ten times in the Pastoral Epistles, eight of which are in 1 Timothy (six of which are explicitly juxtaposed to false teaching; so likewise 2 Tim. 3:5).
  9. In addition, the phrases “fight the fight” and “struggle the struggle” are used in a courtroom context to refer to winning a legal fight (however, there is not space to demonstrate this here). This is also a further reason that some English translations should translate the redundant expressions in 1 Timothy 1:18, 1 Timothy 6:12, and 2 Timothy 4:7 as “fight the good fight,” clearly seeing “fight the fight” and “struggle the struggle” as synonymous.
  10. See J.W. Shire, Scripture Twisting (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1980).

Diverse Conversion Experiences

How Did the Puritans Understand Marriage?