Renewing the Covenant: Fight the Good Fight of Faith
Don Garlington | Sunday, November 17, 1996
Copyright © 1996, Don Garlington
We have been discussing the renewal of our covenant relationship with God, and have studied how the heart and essence of that relationship is faith. God gives us faith in the first place, and then he nourishes and strengthens it so that we can persevere in our faith. We also discussed that faith has two components: reliance and faithfulness. First, Christians rely upon Christ and his work on our behalf, and in this aspect we see the very genius of the Hebrew term for faith, which means to lean upon something. Second, it means that we are faithful to him. So we find two components to faith, reliance and faithfulness, and where we find the one, we find the other.
Faith is always exercised in the context of testing, trials, and problems, including persecution. In this study I want to pick up on that particular aspect of faith and talk about the good fight of faith, referring to Paul's statement in 1 Timothy 6:12 where he instructed Timothy to fight the good fight of faith.
The Defensive Nature of Faith
Why has faith been appointed to be the means of redemption, forgiveness, and salvation? Many answers have been given to that question, but one common answer is that faith is so easy that anyone can have faith and be saved. In this study I want to challenge that notion. Faith is not easy. Were it so, it would not be described in militaristic terms the way that it is. Both in Ephesians 6 and 1 Timothy 6 Paul tells us that faith has something to do with fighting and warfare.
Faith has a defensive and offensive character. We read of its defensive nature in Ephesians 6:16 where Paul says, "In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one." All of the elements of the armor are important, Paul says, but above all, we must have the shield of faith. Why do you think he mentioned the shield? Shields were important in ancient warfare. Ancient Greek fighting men were so connected with these weapons that they were required to come back either carrying their shields, if they had been victorious, or being carried on them, if they fell in battle. So the shield was a symbol for warfare in the ancient world.
In Ephesians 6 Paul uses the word for a large body shield. As he draws upon that metaphor, he says that this shield is something which quenches the darts or flaming arrows of the evil one. Now you may wonder how a shield could quench a flaming arrow, especially knowing the nature of the flaming arrows to which Paul referred. Flaming arrows were the equivalent of flamethrowers in the ancient world. They were the most horrific offensive weapons one could launch against an enemy. How could these shields protect someone against flaming arrows? In one commentary on Ephesians 6, the writer points out that shields were made of wood covered with leather. Before soldiers went into battle, they soaked their shields in water so that when flaming arrows hit them, they would be quenched. I am sure Paul drew on his knowledge of this practice. Therefore he likens to faith as a shield as a vital defensive implement in our spiritual warfare.
Assault of Flaming Arrows
What are the "flaming arrows of the evil one" that the Christian is to extinguish with the shield of faith? These flaming arrows, or fiery darts, as it is translated in some versions, refer to every kind of assault that the devil launches against us. There is no limit to Satan's ingenuity. Every arrow has our name on it specifically. Do you know how it is said in warfare that the bullet that kills a soldier is the one that has his name on it? It is the one he never hears, I understand. So every fiery dart has our name upon it.
Using other metaphors, Paul speaks of Satan's assaults against Christians in other places in his letters as well. In 2 Corinthians 12 he speaks of a messenger of Satan coming to buffet him. I have a friend in the pastoral ministry who gives a certain illustration of what that means. As my friend was growing up, he went through a phase when he wanted to be a fighter. On one occasion he went up to another boy and challenged him to a fight. The boy agreed, and they went outside, put up their fists, and began to skirmish. The other boy hit my friend hard again and again. My friend said he was truly buffeted on that occasion. And there are two Greek words used for hitting someone--one means to hit with an open hand, like a slap, and the other means to hit with a clenched fist. My friend got the clenched fist.
Paul varied his metaphors. He also referred to Satan's assaults as being messengers of Satan who would beat him about the head. But no matter what metaphor Paul, or we, might use, when these fiery darts come, they are unpleasant in the extreme. Every one of them has as its avowed purpose the goal of causing us to forsake the way of the covenant made with God in Christ. It is nothing less than that.
Satan is relentless in his assaults on Christians. Now, suppose the CIA or the Israeli secret service or the KGB was on your trail? Where would you run? Where could you hide? These organizations have almost infinite resources at their disposal. There is no place you could run and hide from them. Unlike them, Satan has truly infinite resources at his disposal. He knows you. He knows where you live, what your weaknesses and vulnerabilities are, and what it takes to get you off the rail easily. He uses those resources to shoot flaming arrows right at your heart. Therefore we must take along the body shield of faith which has been soaked in water, as it were, and hold it up in order to quench the fiery darts.
The more we explore Paul's language and look into his metaphor, the more we see how serious the issue becomes. That is the defensive character of faith.
The Fight Is Necessary
Faith also has an offensive character. And the first thing we must realize about the offensive nature of faith is that the fight is necessary. In 1 Peter 5 we read that our enemy, the devil, goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. That is a well-known passage, but what is not quite so well-known is that Peter derived his language from Psalm 22.
Psalm 22 is one of the great messianic psalms which gives a very vivid anticipation of the sufferings and glory of the Messiah. Psalms 18 and 22, along with Isaiah 53, form sort of a trilogy in anticipation of the work of the Lord Jesus Christ in his suffering and subsequent glory. Psalm 22 starts with David speaking of himself, and messianically of Christ: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" He had been forsaken for a period of time and was suffering from that agony. Not only that, he was scorned by men, as we read in verse 6, "I am a worm and no man, scorned by men and despised by the people." This was people's opinion of David even though he is the king of Israel. They called him a worm, not a human being.
Then David said he was encompassed by enemies who were no better than animals. Look at verse 12: "Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me. They open wide their mouths at me like a ravening and roaring lion." Peter gets his language from this verse. It is important that we understand the source of his language, because what Peter is saying is that if men treated the Master like Beelzebub, are they going to treat his disciples any better? The suffering that befell the disciples is the same kind of suffering--less intense but the same in terms of quality--as that which fell upon Jesus himself.
Now, when we signed on to be Christians, this was in the contract. But there is a form of evangelism with ties to the health and the wealth gospel that says if we just give our hearts to Jesus, everything will be great from that point onward. We will graduate with honors, we will get the job we want, we will have the spouses we want, we will have beautiful children, fine homes, cars, boats, cabins and all the rest. This is not an exaggeration; indeed, I have heard such things with my own ears. But do you not see how that simply runs afoul of the notion of a Messiah whose suffering people form his body? And so the fight of faith is necessary because the adversary is real. He goes about as a roaring lion trying to chew us up and spit us out, and he has an almost infinite array of weaponry at his disposal.
We Must Fight before We Rest
Second, the fight is necessary because God requires that we fight before we rest. In Genesis we read that God entered into his rest after the six days of creation, and it is noteworthy that God's seventh day, his sabbath, is never said to end. He enjoys that rest even now. But as a result of his fall, Adam was not able to enter into God's sabbath rest. As the first apostate and renegade from the covenant, Adam went his own way and chose Satan's interpretation of reality.
After the account of Adam, the rest of Scripture, beginning with the early passages of the Old Testament, picks up the notion of the people of God entering into a rest. We see it in the case of Israel. The people would work six days a week and then rest one day. They worked and rested, worked and rested, over and over again for centuries. Even the feast days of Israel were designed to teach about resting. All of the festival days--Pentecost, booths, and so forth--tied into a sabbath system, as we read in Leviticus 23 and 25. Each festival was headed by the seventh day Sabbath.
There was a whole complex of Sabbath keeping. Even the land was to lie fallow. In the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee the captives went free because they were entering into rest. Do you remember how Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth one day? He told the worshipers, "This day this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." It was as though he was the high priest who puts the yobel , the ram's horn, to his lips and announced the coming of the Day of Atonement on which the year of jubilee began. The yobel was not a brass trumpet, nor a shofar. The yobel made a very high, shrill, unmelodic sound. But for those in debt, in bondage, those with property in hock or in servitude to a fellow Israelites, it was the sweetest sound they ever heard.
All of this symbolized the sabbath rest for the people of God, yet that rest is not here. In one sense it is, for we know that Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Yet resting in Christ and ceasing from the law and our own works all simply opens up the door to the ultimate rest because at the present time, as the writer to the Hebrews says, we are struggling with sin. Our struggle with sin is the struggle to persevere, because sin in the epistle to the Hebrews means apostasy. We are struggling against apostasy.
So until such time as the sabbath rest becomes a matter of historical reality in its consummate phase, we are required to fight. We are required to bear the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one himself who went through the wilderness and now calls to us to follow him.
We Must Fight to Save Our Souls
The fight of faith is necessary because otherwise we will lose our souls. Again, look at the language of 1 Peter. He says that as the outcome of the fiery trials through which we are passing, we obtain the salvation of our souls (1 Peter 1:9). In a similar passage in 1 Timothy 6:12 Paul says to take a firm grip on eternal life.
Now we are not advocating an idea of losing salvation in the Arminian sense of the term, but we are saying there is a sabbath rest which many professing Christians may very well miss because their grip on eternal life is not firm. I once knew a man who had been very dear. He was a worker in the gospel, a brother, so it seemed. Yet when I visited him after an absence of several years, something had happened. It was as though he had undergone a personality change. He was in the process of divorcing his wife. He was already running around on her and asking his children, "Why do you want to go to church and hear about this mean, cruel, unloving God?" It was as though another person or spirit had come and occupied his body. And as far as I know, he is still going down that course. Why would he do that? He did not take a firm grip on eternal life, as Paul tells Timothy to do. I am not saying these things to unsettle you and to scare you, but this is reality. This is why the fight is necessary--the good fight of faith.
The Fight of Faith
How does faith fight? I think it does so by telling us certain things. One thing faith tells us is just who the enemy is. It tells us that, in fact, he is alive, personal, intelligent, and scheming and devising our downfall if he possibly could manage it. If faith did not tell us that, when we experience trouble we would think, "Well, these are just hard times for me. I am going through a rough patch." We would concoct some idea of fate: that the fates are against us and that we are going through a stretch of bad luck right now.
But faith tells us there is a designing enemy. We think of Job in that regard, do we not? We speak of the patience of Job because of the way that phrase is translated in James. But when we read the book of Job, we find that Job could be very impatient. He said things like, "If I washed myself and cleaned myself up, God would simply throw me back in the muck again." We must realize that Job said some things which were pretty blasphemous. And this was not unique to Job. Jeremiah said some things which were downright blasphemous. On one occasion he accused God of deceiving the people. And when he was thrown into the sewer, Jeremiah railed against God.
Finally, though, both Job and Jeremiah came to understand that God is the one who appears in the whirlwind, the one who simply announces his sovereign majesty over the creation, saying that is the bottom line and there is no point in going any further. And like theirs, our faith informs us that not only does God exist, but also the enemy exists. Being informed that he exists and what he is like, we are then able to intelligently wage war against him.
The New Creation
Second, faith tells us that there is a prize, which is the new creation. When we talk about renewing the covenant, the new creation is the ultimate thing God intends to do. The new creation means the removal of all problems, all sin, and all evil. It means human beings are given what Paul calls spiritual bodies, meaning not some sort of ectoplasm that one can see through, but rather, substantial flesh-and-blood bodies especially created and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. And we will be enabled to do marvelous things. Even the most brilliant person, we are told, uses only about ten percent of the available gray matter in the brain. The new creation means that one hundred percent of the human brain will be engaged in a work which will challenge all of the capabilities a human being possesses. Faith tells us that there is such a prize.
Is this just something we dream up to make us feel better throughout the course of this life, especially in the rough patches? Some may say that, but there is a substantial body of evidence, from both the old creation and from the written word of God, that such a thing is to be, and I want to be there to see it unfold. If someone says this is the proverbial "pie in the sky," I would say for the sake of argument that it is pretty good pie, and I am intending to have a big slice of it.
One of the horrors of those who will be lost is that they will be excluded from the glory which is to be. I think that implies the new creation is going to take place first. Those who will not dwell in it will see it in all of its splendor and then have to depart from it, forever banished from the presence of God and his glory. But for those who believe, faith tells us about the prize of the new creation that is well worth fighting for.
The One Who Has Gone Before Us
Faith also tells us that there is one who has gone before us. The whole imagery of the book of Hebrews demonstrates that Christ is the inaugurator of our salvation, the author as well as the perfecter of our faith. He is the one who went through the wilderness first, and the wilderness was more intense, more dangerous, and more outrageous in terms of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for him than it will ever be for us. Faith tells us Jesus has been there before us.
A very interesting insight opens up as we compare a certain passage in the gospels with the book of Deuteronomy. Remember how the Pharisees said John the Baptist had a demon because he came neither nor drinking? And when the Son of Man came eating and drinking, they said he was a glutton and a drunkard? The Pharisees were not really accusing Jesus of indulgence. They were reflecting upon Deuteronomy 21 in which we read of parents bringing an incorrigible son, one who cannot be controlled by them, to the elders of the city. As they brought their son, the parents would say, "We cannot do anything with this disobedient son," and so the elders of the city would stone him. After he died, they would take his body and affix it to a tree to be a warning to all who pass by that this one was under the curse, the anathema, of Yahweh himself. This was God's repudiation of this individual.
In that passage the incorrigible son was described as a glutton and a drunkard. Do you see what the Pharisees were saying, then, about Jesus? They were saying that they were obliged by nothing other than the law of God itself to make an example of Jesus and to purge the evil from their midst, which is what Deuteronomy 21 said to do. There was one difference, though. In Deuteronomy the man was hung on the tree after he died. But in the Jewish interpretation of the period, Deuteronomy 21 was fulfilled when they put a living man upon a tree and put nails through his wrists and his feet. So in their zeal to crucify Jesus the Pharisees thought they were doing God's service. And Jesus pointed out later to his disciples, "If they call the master of the house Beelzebub, then what are they going to do to you?"
Faith tells us that Jesus of Nazareth was not simply a martyr in some sort of a romantic cause. No, he was affixed to the tree while he was still alive because he is one who bore the curse of Yahweh for sinners. He is the one who is now living, the one who made his trek through the wilderness, that we might follow him. Faith tells us that, and faith must tell us that, because Jesus Christ was able to triumph by faith in God his Father. In the book of Hebrews, Jesus is represented as being the man of faith, the one who relied upon his God and was faithful to his God to the very end. That faith is required of us also.
A Cloud of Witnesses
Faith also tells us that other disciples have fought and won. After the writer to the Hebrews lists the heroes of faith in the eleventh chapter, he begins the twelfth chapter by describing how we are surrounded by a great cloud of witness--those who had borne witness to the faithfulness of God in their own lives.
To understand this better, we must try to reconstruct the situation of these Hebrews. It seems that some of their goods had been plundered and some of them had been put into jail. But what, the writer is asking, had they suffered in comparison to those who already fought the good fight of faith in the Old Testament and probably during the period between the two testaments? Were any of them put into hollow logs and sawn in two? Were any of them forced to go into the wilderness and live in caves? Were any of them disemboweled, having their very entrails laid open so that all could see? These Hebrews would have to answer, "No, by no means." None of this had this happened to them. We must also ask if any of this has happened to us. And we must also answer, "By no means."
Thus, we must remember--and faith will remind us--that others have already fought and won. I do not know many of those people by name. Some of them I know from the Old Testament record. But there are hundreds, thousands, and millions of believers whose names are totally unknown to us, and yet they have fought and won. May we be like them! When we die, if the Lord does not return in our lifetime, who is going to remember our names? Those who survive us in this church might, but who else will know anything about us? Who on the other side of the world will have heard of us? But it doesn't matter, because we will have fought and we will have won, because faith has enabled us to understand that there is a good fight which must be waged.
Whatever God Ordains Is Right
Finally, faith tells us that whatever God ordains is right. There is a moving hymn, "Whate'er my God ordains is right; holy his will abideth; I will be still whate'er he doth, and follow where he guideth," and so on.
We were talking a couple of nights ago about the way that we might make a choice between a big bowl of ice cream and a big bowl of bitter Brussels sprouts. All we want is the ice cream but we must have a portion of the sprouts, because we need the iron and vitamins found only in them. And so although we often think we know what is good for us, we usually do not know what we are talking about, because what we want is not necessarily what we need.
Faith takes God at his word. You see, that is what Adam was supposed to do in the beginning. Adam could go only one way or the other. He had two choices. He made his decision because he thought that the adversary's explanation of reality was true and was real. But faith takes God at his word. The only way we know we are following the right course of action and that we are committed to a sense of principles which are worth being committed to is that God has said so in a book, and we are committed to believing the words of that book.
Do you remember the story of St. Augustine's conversion? It thrills me every time I think of it. While Augustine was in his house one day, he thought he heard a voice coming from the courtyard outside. The voice said, "Take up the book and read. Take up the book and read." Later on, he said he was not sure where that voice came from. He may have just been hearing children playing in the street. But he went out into the courtyard and found a copy of the Latin Bible. Taking it up, he read from Romans 13 where Paul says, "Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature" (vv. 13-14). As Augustine read these words, he was converted.
Do you know the story of Spurgeon's conversion? He went to a little Primitive Methodist chapel on a snowy night in London. Only a handful of people had even bothered to show up, among them an old lay preacher who finally got up to preach because even the minister himself couldn't make it in the storm. This man opened the Bible to Isaiah 45:22, "Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other." And the man said to Spurgeon, "Young man, you look very miserable. You need to look to the Savior and live." And Spurgeon, in his autobiography said, "I was not accustomed to be addressed in public in such terms as that." He was only about fourteen or so. But Spurgeon simply took God at his word, and all of his doubts and fears about the faith fell away.
Taste and See That the Lord Is Good
Finally, faith is tasting that the Lord is good. In our study of Psalm 73, I pointed out that the very first thing that author of that psalm writes is the last thing that he came to understand. "Surely God is good to Israel," he writes, referring to his own people, "to those who are pure in heart," meaning those who are not idolatrous, who are undivided.
Now it may not seem to us sometimes, if we are honest, that God is good. Sometimes we do not know what in the world is going on. We may find ourselves abandoned by those who were our friends. We may wonder why--why has this happened, why have friends proven to be false? And as we ask these questions, we find ourselves totally bewildered.
When this happens, to a certain extent we simply have to wait until we can get out of the forest. When we are out, we can look back and see where it all falls together, but for the time being we cling to the words in Hebrews 12 that all discipline for the time being seems painful. Do you know why it seems painful? Because it is painful. But there is such a thing as the afterwards principle. Afterwards, when the pain subsides and when we can begin to look back and see the bigger picture in our lives and in the lives of others, then we bear the peaceable fruit of righteousness.
Remember the afterwards principle, which faith reminds us of while we are going through troubles. Faith tells us that the Lord is good, and we simply need to wait a little while longer to see that goodness manifested in ways which are unmistakable. The vistas of grace will unfold before us, and there we shall see the Lord Jesus Christ truly bearing all things by the word of his power.
It is a great gospel--the gospel of God's Son and faith in his Son. And we know this is the good fight of faith, particularly because God intends for us good as we wage warfare. Therefore, we must fight and struggle on, knowing we have not much longer to fight. May we number our days, get a heart of wisdom, and look to the Christ who has gone before, who has made his trek through the wilderness, and who one day is going to be standing, as the writer of Hebrews says, in the midst of the congregation, singing praises to God the Father. Amen.
Copyright © 1996, Don Garlington
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