Wage the Good Warfare

Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 1:18-20 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/4/2016 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Timothy 1:18-20

Wage the Good Warfare

I wasn’t alive during our nation’s involvement in World War II, but the sense I get is that the war was generally on people’s minds here in the U.S. I’m talking about the perspective of the U.S. citizens that were here at home and not on the battlefield. Obviously, if you were a soldier at that time who was on the battlefield, you would know that we were at war. But, I’m talking about here at home. The sense I get is that the average citizen knew we were at war. Not only did you have a lot of government propaganda to encourage support for the war, but you had various wartime measures like gasoline rationing. There were different ways that everybody in the country was called to participate in the war, even though they weren’t the soldiers fighting on the front lines. This all seems very different that our more recent wars. At least since I’ve been alive, the wars we’ve been in have usually seen distant. Yes, we’ve known that we are at war, but since it is less visible to us, it can be hard to appreciate the reality. It’s only when things like 9/11 happen, that we actually have much greater sense of connection with the reality of the wars that our nation is involved in.

So, my introduction here is to apply this now to the warfare that the church is involved in. Yes, we know that technically, on paper, the church is involved in a war right now. We see it again in a passage like today. But, it can seem so distant because it is not that visible with the human eyes. It is a spiritual war, and though it effects are sometimes more visible than at other times, it can be easy for us to forget that we are actually at war. Donald Barnhouse called our battle the “Invisible War”. It can be easy to forget about an invisible war. But here we have some God-given war propaganda that should awaken us today to the fact that indeed we are at war and must, by the grace of God, rise to the challenge. But we thank God that he is with us and supplies what we need for this battle that is before us.

So then we begin in our first point by noting the reality of this war. We see that in verse 18. Paul is recommitting to Timothy the charge that he must “wage the good warfare.” That language of waging the good warfare is sometimes translated as “fight the good fight.” I like the pew Bible’s use of the word warfare because that is the literal sense of the wording here. This is war language. In fact, the Greek is even more clear because the word that is translated as “wage” is also a war term, meaning to “make war”. So instead of saying “wage the good warfare” you could translate it like “war the good warfare.” So, the text very much emphasizes that there is a war going on and Christians are in the midst of it.

Having just finished going through the book of 1 and 2 Samuel, we are well aware of this reality from an Old Testament perspective. There we saw repeated battles between God’s people and their various enemies like the Philistines. Of course, in the Old Testament, those battles tended to be very physical. In keeping with the many physical types and shadows of the old covenant, God’s people would have to engage in physical battles to seek peace and rest in the Promised Land. Now that we come to the New Testament, we see that the battle between God’s people and external threats are still there, but in keeping with the more spiritual and heavenly emphasis under the new covenant, we see that the war we fight in is really a spiritual one. Because of this, we don’t look to use physical weapons, but spiritual ones. We use weapons like God’s Word, and prayer, and righteousness, and hope in Christ, to do our battling. So our studies from 1 and 2 Samuel have helped to remind us of these ongoing battles that we face as a church with such enemies of the faith.

And yet as much as that is true, I might suggest that those battles against nations like the Philistines are not quite the most direct Old Testament correspondence to today’s passage. You see, we remember that Paul has been telling Timothy that he needs to fight against those from within the church who would teach other doctrines. And so that’s especially the context for the warfare language for today. And so that is a sobering reminder. One battlefront of our spiritual warfare is fighting from outside the church, like how Israel battled Philistines under the old covenant. Today, there are pagans outside the church that would look to afflict the church, and we spiritually battle them. But this book of 1 Timothy reminds us that sometimes the fight is closer to home. Sometimes false doctrines and false religion is found within the church and needs to be rooted out of the church. Of course there are plenty of Old Testament examples of this too. As just one example, remember the days of Elijah. He had to do battle with all the Baal worship and idolatry that was taking place from within Israel. And even in the New Testament times, during Jesus ministry, we saw that there was perversion of doctrine and practice going on with the Sadducees and Pharisees.

And so my point here is for us to not only acknowledge the reality of the church’s spiritual warfare, but I also want us to see that the battle is not only with those outside the church. It can also be from within the church as well. The church must fight the good fight against these internal threats as well. Of course there is a challenge to this. Realize that Paul says Timothy needs to fight the “good” warfare; keyword “good”. Timothy must fight the good fight, but that means he must not fight the “bad” fight. What I mean is that when we do battle with internal threats, often the temptation is to be fighting over things we shouldn’t be fighting. Fighting the good fight shouldn’t be about what kind of coffee the church serves or what color the pews are. Fighting the good fight shouldn’t be over matters of Christians liberty where Scripture is silent. Nor should fighting the good fight even be over doctrinal matters, if those doctrines are trivial. And yet there is a good fight to fight. We must stand against the many doctrinal and moral divergences that are threatening the church from within today.

This was the issue we saw at the start of this letter. There were issues of false doctrines that were being promoted in the church. Timothy is being called to fight against them. These same false teachers were also trying to teach the law but however they were teaching it, they were doing it in such a way that it was not speaking against sin as the law should. Timothy is also being called to fight against those who would try to promote such lawlessness and immorality in the church as well.

Does any of that sound familiar? Yes, we know that too often the church has fought over silly things like the color of the pews. But we also know that too often the church has not fought like it should over serious matters of Christian doctrine and
practice. Today, there continues to be people under the flag of Christendom who deny the inerrancy of Scripture, or who deny that Jesus is the only way, or who don’t believe in the substitutionary atonement of Christ, or who make justification to be by faith and works, or say certain sins are not actually sins. There continues to be a spiritual battle to fight in these areas and we must rise to the challenge in our day and stand against these various movements that threaten the church from within.

So then, we thank God that one provision he gives his church amidst this battle are leaders. Strong, godly, leadership is needed amidst these challenges from within. In our passage, we are reminded that Paul was such a leader, and we see that he is reminding Timothy that he too is such a leader. Last week we were reminded of how Paul was called into the apostolic ministry, and now today Paul reminds Timothy of how Timothy was called into the pastoral ministry. This is verse 18 and becomes the basis for Paul charging Timothy to continue on in this God-given ministry. We learn here in verse 18 that for Timothy, his call into the ministry involved prophecy. This prophecy according to 4:14 came at his ordination when the elders laid hands on him. We are not told what specific prophecy was given to Timothy; evidently the Lord did not think we needed to have that recorded for us. But we can remember the revelation Paul received about his call to ministry. Those prophecies about Paul spoke not only of the ministry Paul would do but the suffering that he would endure for Christ’s sake. We could imagine that these prophecies about Timothy may have been something similar. The bottom line is that this verse would have gotten Timothy to think about his calling and ordination to the gospel ministry. And it reminds us then today of the importance to have such leaders amidst this spiritual battle that we are a part of.

In fact, this book will go on to help us think further about this. At this time in redemptive history we don’t expect new prophecies to come to tell us who is to be the next pastor or elder or deacon that we should ordain. In fact, even at the time of this letter of 1 Timothy, that wasn’t the way they were supposed to look for their new leaders. Because in chapter 3, Paul will tell Timothy how he is to be going about looking to ordain and install new leaders in the Ephesian church. The process doesn’t involve waiting for new prophecies to come, but about recognizing the gifting God has given to certain men in the church. Chapter 3 will list the qualifications that elders and deacons must have. Part of Timothy’s responsibility is to see that new elders and deacons meet those qualifications. And so we should see that this is also part of God’s ongoing provision of leadership today. Down through the centuries, the church has sought to follow the principles in the Bible for recognizing the men whom God is calling into the ministry and then ordaining them to that task. We’ll have a chance to study that more as we keep going through this book. But today’s discussion about spiritual warfare from within reminds us why this is so important. As a cross reference, I think of Acts 20 where Paul himself told the Ephesian elders that they needed to be on guard against false teachers rising up in the church. That’s again proof of what we see here. Godly leadership is needed in the face of such a battle. But we thank God for how he in fact does provide this for his church.

So then in our last point I want us to think about how these church leaders should then be conducting themselves. There are three things told to Timothy here about how he should conduct himself as a leader looking to fight the good fight. These three things have an application to our leaders still today. The first thing is found in verse 18 with the words “by them”. Look there in verse 18 and see those words “by them.” That’s referring to the prophecies that Timothy had received about his call to the ministry. Paul thinks that these prophecies should be owned by Timothy in such a way as to help him fight the good fight. Now since we don’t have these prophecies we can only speculate how such prophecies could be helpful to Timothy. But at a bare minimum he is to be reminded that God is the one who ultimately commissioned him to serve. That means that he should fight the good fight on behalf of God, seeking to see that God’s word is properly received and honored in the church, instead of the false teachings of these other teachers. Similarly, pastors and elders and deacons today should refer back to the prophecies given to them for their call to ministry. Now, I don’t mean that in a charismatic way. I already said that today’s leaders should not look for some new prophetic revelation to be given about them particularly. That’s not how the church is told to pick its leaders. But whenever a new pastor or elder or deacon is ordained in the church he should remember all the existing prophetic revelation that has already been given to the church about such a role. In other words, I’m talking about the Bible. I’m talking about the elder or deacon remembering what the Bible has to say about being an elder or a deacon. These leaders need to remember the instructions God have given them about how to do their jobs. That needs to dictate how they serve God in their capacity as a leader. Using the war imagery, they need to remember the orders from their Commander-in-Chief as they serve as captains and generals in God’s army.

The second and third things that Paul says Timothy needs as a leader is in verse 19. He needs to have faith, and he needs a good conscience. We remember that these two things were also mentioned in verse 5, in contrast surely to the false teachers. Let’s talk about faith first. The idea here is that Timothy needs to continue to hold fast to the faith. And when we are talking about the faith, he needs to hold to the one true faith, not some false faith, or other faith. In other words, when we hear of this faith, we should remember all the discussion on sound doctrine that we’ve been having. For Timothy to fight the good fight against those threats against the faith, he must hold fast to the very faith he is looking to defend. That is the faith that says things like Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. It is the faith that also says that the law is good and useful for exposing people’s sins and driving them to Christ. Timothy must sincerely hold fast to the true faith in order to combat those who have swerved from it.

Similarly, Timothy must have a good conscience. The idea here is that you will have a good and clear conscience if you do what Bible tells us to be doing in terms of righteousness. When you are looking to live in light of God’s laws, you will have a good conscience. When you instead reject God’s laws in favor of doing whatever you want, then you are rejecting a good conscience. Paul’s says that what happened to these two people mentioned in verse 20. Evidently Hymenaeus and Alexander were blaspheming and thus had rejected God’s laws on that in favor of their own evil. The result for them was a shipwrecked faith. But Timothy is to hold fast to a good conscience. In order to fight the good fight, he needs to consciously look to live above reproach. He needs to look to live in accordance with God’s law and sound doctrine.

And so when Paul talks about Timothy having faith and a good conscience, you could think of this as getting at Timothy’s doctrine and practice. Doctrine and practice. What he believes and how he lives out his faith is very important in his combatting these false teachers. He must not fall into the same errors of these false teachers. So then, Paul’s call for faith and a good conscience is really a warning to Timothy to not fall victim to the very things that these false teachers are trying to peddle. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid Timothy! Stay true to your calling as both a Christian and a leader in Christ’s church. And it is this same exhortation that must come to our leaders today. This is what we must want of our leaders. It is what we must look for in future leaders and what we must expect from our current ones. This is a key application from this passage for today. We must seek to have church leaders who believe and live according to the Bible.

And so in closing brothers and sisters, I would like to bring this home to each of us. These qualities that we should want in our leaders, certainly have applications to every Christian. Remember, that in this spiritual battle, the battle is not just fought by the leaders. See yourselves as soldiers in this army. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. If we expect our leaders to conduct themselves according to how the Bible says they should be conducting themselves, then that is the same for us. We should look to see how the Bible says Christians are to be serving in Christ’s army, and we should look to be doing that as well. In the same way, if we expect our leaders to hold fast to right doctrine and right practice, we too should have that desire and goal for our own lives. We should continue to look to love sound doctrine and to live out righteousness as defined in God’s Word. The standards that we’ve discussed today, these qualities that we want in our leaders, should be something that every Christian should want in their own life as well. So then, by the grace of God may we seek to grow in these areas. Let us look to be established and rooted more and more in God’s truth. Let us strive by his grace to live these things out more in practice. May we too follow these God given leaders in Christ into battle. May we seek to fight the good fight with them and war the good warfare. May the Lord bless us and keep us in this battle, for his glory and for the good of his church, until the day of Christ. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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