Fight the Good Fight
Topic: Spiritual Warfare Passage: 1 Timothy 1:18–1:20
We are in the first letter of Paul written to his son in the faith Timothy. In the opening verses of the book, Paul gave a strong command to Timothy to charge some men who were teaching unorthodox things to stop it. The teaching is described as “different doctrine” and they were devoted to endless genealogies and myths. And the effect of this teaching was that speculations were being promoted, rather than sound truth.
In our text this morning, Paul first comes back to this charge he gave Timothy at the beginning. Still on the forefront of Paul’s mind is what Timothy needs to do to deal with the false teachers causing trouble in the church at Ephesus. We see this at the beginning of verse 18: “This charge I entrust to you Timothy, my child… ” The charge refers back to what Paul said back in verse 3: “Charge certain persons not to teach different (strange) doctrine nor to devote themselves to endless genealogies and myths… ”
Timothy was facing serious pressure and opposition and Paul was urging him to be strong, to not be a wimp. Now, of course this had specific relevance to Timothy - he was a young pastor dealing with some significant problems in the church. Timothy was also someone who had a propensity to be timid - and he needed a pep talk from spiritual father. But this is written not just for Timothy, but for us as well and has tremendous relevance for us today. We too need this exhortation from the Spirit and so I want to draw out three things from this passage:
- A command to fight
- A command to fight in a certain manner
- A warning if we don’t
A COMMAND TO FIGHT
Faithful Christians fight. This is the main point of the passage. I think it was a pastor from the early colonial time here in America, Cotton Mathers who said: “For the faithful, wars never cease.” We see the primary imperative or command at the end of the verse 18,
Wage the good warfare...
Paul reminded Timothy of the prophecies spoken over him when a council of elders prayed for him and commissioned to the ministry and said, “Timothy, according to these prophecies and your calling, wage the good warfare”.
This is a call to arms, a call to be a soldier! I love the opening lines of the old song adopted by William Booth and the Salvation Army “Onward Christian Soldier” which says,
“Onward Christian soldier, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before.”
The word translated “wage” or maybe your translation says “fight” (NASB and NIV) is a verb that means to “serve as a soldier”. This may have been a paradigm shift for Timothy. He may have thought: “I’m not a soldier, I’m a pastor”. Paul wants Timothy to take up the fight as a soldier. And Timothy is not to consider himself as a soldier on standby. Ready to go at some point, but maybe never. No, Paul says, wage the good “warfare”. The warfare carries with it the sense of armed conflict (strateia) → military campaign, expedition. Paul wants Timothy to know “this opposition you are experiencing is the front you are to engage in right now”. Sometimes we are looking for warfare without seeing the battle that needs to be engaged right in front of us. I love the way the Holman Christian Standard version says, it “strongly engage in the battle.” Which battle? The one you are facing right now. And do it like a soldier of Christ.
The faithful Christian is called to fight. And we are called to fight in the greatest conflict known to man… for it is not just a nation or two or ten or twenty but spans to every corner of the world. And it is not a conflict that lasts for four years or four decades or four centuries, but one which has been going since the fall in the garden and will continue until the Lord returns. It’s a conflict that has impacted every nation, every people group, and every single person on the planet. And it is a war with eternal consequences.
Which is why Paul calls it “the good” warfare. It is a good fight, a noble battle. I remember visiting with a friend who was an army ranger called to serve in a place in which it was hard to tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. The US was on one side, but he wasn’t sure about the objective.
This warfare we are called to engage in is good. Which means that a Christian not engaged in the conflict is in danger of defecting to the other side. If that’s you, you need to get back under the Lordship of Christ. Now, this idea of being a soldier, fighting in a war is a theme we see throughout Paul’s writings. Of course the great passage on spiritual warfare and the full armor of God in Ephesians 6, starting in verse 10 says,
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 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. Therefore take up the whole armor of God…
Christians are called to fight, to wrestle. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul said,
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier [in active service] gets entangled in civilian pursuit, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. 2 Timothy 2:3-4
And 2 Corinthians 10:3-4 uses the same language and is so helpful in helping us understand where the battlefront is and what are the rules of engagement.
For though we walk according to the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.
We don’t fight with guns, swords, bombs, and drones. We fight in the arena of ideas. We fight with the truth. The fight is a fight for truth against lies. It’s a fight against opinions raised against the knowledge of God. It is a fight against the forces of Satan who is called the father of lies (John 8:44). Satan is called “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9). And we know that Satan can even masquerade as an angel of light. And this is probably on Paul’s mind, which is why he warned Timothy later in the letter that some will depart from the faith, “devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons…” George Orwell is attributed with saying, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Beloved, Orwell was NOT a Christian - not even close. But that’s insightful. And we indeed live in a time of universal deceit. Good is evil, up is down, a man can be a woman, etc. And we are called to fight with truth to destroy these false ideologies and lies.
So Christians are commanded to fight! We are to be soldiers engaged in the conflict! But it matters how we fight. We are to fight in a certain manner. It matters that we fight well.
How do we fight? Paul has two things in mind that he draws out here. It’s interesting. Paul doesn’t say, “Go out and take on all the evil in the world!” Don’t misunderstand me. Christ does want to impact the world through you and I. But the fight starts closer to home.
HOW DO WE FIGHT WELL?
In order to have an impact on the world, we need to hold on to two things: faith and a good conscience.
Wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. (v.19)
We need to fight while holding faith and a good conscience. The word holding means “to own or possess, to keep, to cling to or grip tightly”. Faith and a good conscience. I think John Stott was right in concluding that this includes something objective and something subjective. Stott said that when Paul said, “holding faith” he meant holding onto “the faith” as in the body of truth we have received in the Scriptures - objective truth. And when Paul said, “holding a good conscience” he meant living before God with a clear conscience - that’s subjective, experiential.
So we are to hold faith or “the faith”. To fight well as Christians, we need to be growing in our grasp of truth, of “the faith” that has been given to us in the Scriptures. In the book of Jude, the author by the same name said that he wanted to write about their common salvation but felt the urgency to
Write appealing to you to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed… Jude 3-4
If the fight we are to engage in is a fight for the light of truth against darkness of lies, truth against false teaching, truth against false ideologies about God, mankind, the world, etc. then we need to have a growing hold on “the faith”. But it is not just an intellectual grasp of truth. It’s not just getting all of our doctrinal ducks in a row, but holding the truth is being convinced of it, staking your life on it, and loving it! Hebrews 3:14 says,
For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.
We are to grasp tightly and confidently to the truth of our faith.
And we are to hold a good conscience. For Paul, this was a nonnegotiable issue. When our moral compass is not pointing north, the battle will soon be lost and if that is not corrected, we may be in danger of complete shipwreck and exclusion from the kingdom of God. A good conscience is imperative. Listen to what Paul says,
I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience. (2 Timothy 1:3)
I always take pains to have a clear conscience before God and man. (Acts 24:16)
Now what is this talking about? It’s not talking about sinless perfection, obviously. But it is also not talking about being careless with regard to sin and just claiming that you’re clean in Christ - Paul said, “I take pains…”. Maybe I could explain it this way. In John 15 we are told to abide in Christ. The only people who can abide in Christ are those who are already in Christ. The only people who can hold or keep a good conscience are those who have received a clean conscience through the cleansing work of Christ. Hebrews 9:14 makes it clear that only the blood of Christ can decisively clean our filthy, defiled conscience. But when once your conscience is clean, you are called to hold it. You are called to cultivate it, to live before God with a good conscience. So how do you do that? This is so important and this is what Hymanaeus and Alexander rejected and made shipwreck of their faith. So listen! How do we cultivate a good conscience?
- Live near the cross. O, how I need to live near the cross! (Galatians 6:14). Bath yourself in the cross daily. Preach the gospel to your soul daily.
- Make it your aim to please Christ in everything. We don’t, but it should be our aim. 2 Timothy 2:3-4 → his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. Is that your aim?
- Repent quickly when you stumble. → Don’t wait, don’t hide in shame like Adam and Eve. Run to Christ in repentant faith and receive the ever-cleansing flow of his blood.
It’s not just overtly sinful acts that defile our conscience. I believe it also happens when we are loose with God’s truth. Paul says that there is a time coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, people will accumulate teachers to tell them what they want to hear. This too can defile the conscience. When told to recant his writings, Martin Luther famously said, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” For him it would be going against conscience to go against the truth.
JC Ryle said, “three things there are which men never ought to trifle with - a little poison, a little sin, and a little false doctrine”. So Christians are called to be soldiers who fight. And we are to fight in a certain manner.
A WARNING: SHIPWRECK
Well, our text also issues a warning for those who do not or will not. Verse 19-20 says,
By rejecting this some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymanaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
Two men are named who have shipwrecked their faith by rejecting a good conscience. The word can be used to speak of throwing something overboard a ship. They threw overboard a good conscience and the ship of their faith swerved and ran aground into the rocks causing a shipwreck.
These two men dabbled in some questionable, speculative teaching, loosened their grip on right and wrong, and before long their ship was sinking. Do you notice the invasion of foreign teachings and practices into the church? [Pigs in the Parlor, SOZO - inner healing, the Enneagram] That’s what these two men were doing. We know from Second Timothy that Hymanaeus was teaching a kind of over-realized eschatology - that the resurrection had already happened. Do you notice the lustful desire in some churches and among some professing Christians to be like the world?
Listen to what Paul said about these two men, whom he names. With the authority of an apostle of the risen Christ, Paul said, “I have handed them over to Satan”. Paul is NOT messing around. This is excommunication. He was not without hope. His hope was that they would ultimately learn and be restored, but if they did not, they most certainly would be excluded from the kingdom.
They rejected a good conscience and the ship of their faith was shipwrecked. Brothers and sisters, may it not be so among you. Fight the good fight, keeping the faith and a good conscience, persevering in this to the end. What awaits those who fight the good fight to the end? Just before Paul was beheaded for Christ, he said to Timothy,
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:8)
What about Timothy? He was a faithful soldier to the end as well. In Foxe’s book of Martyrs we read:
Timothy was the celebrated disciple of St. Paul, and bishop of Ephesus, where he zealously governed the Church until A.D. 97. At this period, as the pagans were about to celebrate a feast called Catagogion, Timothy, meeting the procession, severely reproved them for their ridiculous idolatry, which so exasperated the people that they fell upon him with their clubs, and beat him in so dreadful a manner that he expired of the bruises two days later.
I think an all-important question needs to be asked. Isaac Watts asked the question in the form of a song (Am I a Soldier of the Cross), which is how I would like to conclude this message:
Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own his cause, or blush to speak his name?
Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize, and sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend for grace, to help me on to God?
Since I must fight if I would reign, increase my courage Lord.
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by thy word.
Thy saints, in all this glorious war, shall conquer though they die.
They view the triumph from alfar, and seize it with their eye.
When that illustrious day shall rise, and all thine armies shine,
In robes of victory through the skies, the glory shall be thine.
Are you a soldier in Christ’s army? Then fight the good fight!