A Legal Conflict, Not a Battlefield
Summary: The nature of spiritual conflict changed at the cross from war-like battles to legal conflicts. For us to function as spiritually mature believers, we absolutely must understand how God’s legal-judicial system governs both the spiritual and physical realms.
The history of the Old Testament is full of skirmishes, battles and even prolonged wars. The New Testament includes numerous references to warfare, armor and strongholds, and Christians frequently talk about spiritual warfare. This leads us to the conclusion that we’re fighting the devil and we use military and combative terminology to describe that conflict.
I think there’s a serious problem with this perspective. Is there a major conflict between Satan and followers of Jesus? Definitely and we make ourselves spiritually vulnerable if we ignore it. The issue is how we describe that conflict.
Is it wrong to speak of spiritual warfare or use combative terms when talking about this conflict? No, its not wrong; but we need to avoid applying our contemporary cultural understanding of warfare, because that’s problematic. So are references to first-century weapons, like swords and shields, because such terms suggest the whole concept is irrelevant to modern times. The warfare perspective also is difficult for many non-combative or non-confrontational people to apply.
In addition, there are always uncertainties in military conflict. It involves brute force and if you don’t get the results you want, you just try harder. So as a result, Christians feel we have to defeat the devil and we struggle to do so.
It’s important that we examine the New Testament passages that use military or combative terminology, because we’ll discover the language in those passages is figurative, not literal. As we’ll see in this article series, our conflict with the devil now occurs in a legal environment. If we have a military or combative perspective, we’ll be very ineffective in the legal environment, so we might need to radically change how we view our situation. Let’s examine some key words and how they’re used in the New Testament. Because the legal perspective counters the widely-held belief in spiritual warfare, it’s necessary to look at quite a few scriptures.
One of the two Greek words translated “sword” is machaira, which refers to a short sword or long knife used for close-quarters, hand-to-hand fighting. The New Testament uses this word literally but also figuratively for general violence, strife, war and death. Some suggest the Bible uses this word to describe the close, personal nature of our fight.
Jesus used this word when he said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Mt 10:34) Is he referring to a literal sword in this verse? No, he’s using the word figuratively. He’s not talking about taking over the world through physical violence or warfare.
The Apostle Paul used this word in his well-known “armor of God” passage. “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Eph 6:11) Notice the objective is to “take your stand,” which describes taking a firm position, standing against an oncoming attack without being moved. Paul continues, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then….” (vv 13-14a) In three verses, Paul states four times that we’re to “stand,” so the emphasis clearly is on “standing your ground,” not on attacking the enemy. Later in this passage, Paul again uses the same word for “sword”: “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (v 17) Is the “sword of the Spirit” a literal sword? Of course not, because he’s referring figuratively to the word of God. It may seem Paul is advocating warfare in the second heaven and a lot of people interpret it that way, but actually he’s teaching how to maintain a defensive posture when attacked by spiritual beings. Most of the armor of God clearly is defensive and the only offensive item is the sword of the Spirit – the word of God, not a blade.
The other Greek word translated “sword” in the New Testament is rhomphaia, which is a large thrusting sword; the word also is used figuratively for pain, intense sorrow and distress. When Joseph and Mary took the child Jesus to the temple as required by the Law, Simeon spoke prophetically over the child then spoke directly to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Lk 2:35) He clearly was speaking figuratively, not suggesting she’d be killed with a sword. Also, notice he said the sword would pierce her soul, which a physical sword can’t do.
Several verses in the Book of Revelation use this word for sword. The Apostle John describes his first encounter with Jesus in heaven: “out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword.” (Rev 1:16) In the next chapter, Jesus speaks to the church in Pergamum: “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Rev 2:16) Later, John describes the rider on the white horse: “Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.” (Rev 19:15) And again, “The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse.” (Rev 19:21) These are all figurative uses of the Greek word and do not refer to a literal sword. What literally comes out of the Lord’s mouth in these verses? Words. Speech. This is the same analogy as Ephesians 6:17, in which the sword of the Spirit is the word of God. Can the words Jesus speaks kill entire armies and nations? Yes, he can speak both death and resurrection.
The New Testament also uses a few Greek words for war. One word is used only once, antistrateuomai, a verb that means to oppose and seek complete destruction, either literally or figuratively. Paul uses this word to describe his struggle with sin in Romans 7:23, “but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.” The “war” in this verse is the struggle resulting from the law of sin working within his physical body.
The verb, strateuo, appears frequently in the New Testament and primarily means to engage in a war or battle; it also means to serve in an army. It appears in Paul’s “armor of God” passage: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Co 10:3-5) The nature of this “war” is a conflict of ideas and words. Paul wrote about destroying reinforced beliefs (strongholds), arguments and lofty claims that oppose the true knowledge or revelation of God. This definitely is a conflict, but not a literal battle. Notice that he clearly states the “weapons” we use are not the weapons of the world; that is, we don’t respond to this conflict as unbelievers would. Physical weapons aren’t effective against ideas, beliefs or spiritual beings, so he clearly is using an analogy.
Paul uses two grammatical forms of this Greek word in writing to Timothy. “Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience.” (1 Tim 1:18-19) The first use of “fight” is the verb form, to engage in a war or battle. The second use of “fight” is the noun form, referring to a military campaign or warfare. So what’s the nature of the “fight” and “military campaign” in this passage? Following the prophecies spoken over him and holding on to faith and a good conscience.
James uses the word in the context of problems we create for ourselves. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (Jas 4:1) The battle he describes is with the problems created by our own desires.
Peter makes a similar statement. “Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.” (1 Pet 2:11) Again, the war he describes is a conflict between our sinful desires and our soul.
The key Greek words in these verses clearly are used figuratively and refer to non-combative conflicts. Also, the authors never use these words for believers engaging in conflict with Satan or other evil spiritual beings.
The New Testament writers also used other Greek words when describing warfare and conflicts. The noun, polemos, translates as war, battle, conflict or fight; the verb, polemeo, means to make or wage war, or to fight. James used the verb once: “You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.” (Jas 4:2) This refers to conflict with other people, not Satan, and such conflict is clearly inappropriate.
All other occurrences of the verb, polemeo, are scattered throughout the Book of Revelation. Near the beginning is a reference we’ve already seen: “Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.” (Rev 2:16). Again, notice the weapon is words, not a literal sword. In the next verse, we see both the noun and verb forms: “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven.” (Rev 12:7-8) In Chapter 13, people worship the dragon and the beast, and ask who can make war against the beast. (13:4) In Chapter 17, the ten kings make war against the Lamb but he overcomes them. (17:14) And finally in Chapter 19, the rider on the white horse victoriously makes war. (19:11) The New Testament never uses the verb, polemeo, for believers battling Satan, either now or in the future.
The noun, polemos, is used three times in the context of Satan’s war against the saints. The beast from the Abyss attacks the two witnesses in Jerusalem, overpowers and kills them. (Rev 11:7) Then the dragon, which represents Satan, “went off to make war against … those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus,” which refers to Christians. (Rev 12:17) And finally, Chapter 13 states the beast out of the sea “was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them.” (13:7) Notice that none of these verses state that the Christians fight back or that they should. Why would God allow these “beasts” to kill the saints? The scriptures don’t tell us specifically, but I suspect there are at least two reasons: (1) it proves the saints would stay faithful and not shrink from death (Rev 12:11), and (2) it shows the Lord’s judgment against Satan and his forces is fully justified. (Rev 16:5-6) If we were to examine all other uses of the noun, polemos, we’d discover it’s never used in the New Testament for believers making war against Satan.
The New Testament writers used contemporary images and analogies to present their points, including those of agriculture, livestock, weddings, armies and competitive sports among others. Israel and the nations the epistles were written to were occupied by the Roman military in the first century, when the New Testament was written, so everyone related to army analogies. But if you examine the bigger picture, you discover our actual conflict is not a brute-force military type of conflict. The military or combative imagery, including the phrase “spiritual warfare,” has been used so much it’s easy for us to view our conflict with Satan as combat.
I’m asking you to consider a different perspective, which has the potential to radically change the way we deal with spiritual conflict and greatly improve our effectiveness.
The nature of the spiritual conflict changed at the cross. Jesus said, “It is finished,” which among other things means he won the victory. (Jn 19:30) The Book of Colossians uses the Roman tradition of parading defeated armies in humiliation to describe Jesus’ victory: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Col 2:15)
I understand that “spiritual warfare” terminology represents a perspective of our literal conflict, but I believe it misrepresents how we must respond to that conflict. I suggest that actual spiritual warfare is bi-directional between similar beings, such as angels. That conflict is often portrayed as fighting with swords, but it’s not a fight to the death because all spiritual beings will exist forevermore. God doesn’t battle anyone because he’s the Almighty and there’s no one else like him or greater in any realm that exists. Humans aren’t equivalent to angels and are unable to engage in literal warfare with them. Except for Jacob, who wrestled with the physical manifestation of God, there’s no biblical record of any human physically struggling with a spiritual being. (Gen 32:24-30) Christians now are lower than the angels and dependent on God for protection from them. In the next era, we’ll be elevated above the angels in rank and will judge them; no need to battle them then. (1 Co 6:3)
It’s not up to us to defeat the enemy in any respect; rather, we’re to live in and enforce the victory Jesus won. In general, we do that by authoritatively declaring what God has said. When the enemy attacks us, our recourse is to appeal to God for a verdict then use the spiritual authority he gave us to enforce that verdict. It’s not even our spiritual authority that produces the results; rather it’s the verdict of Almighty God that makes things happen when we authoritatively declare what he said.
Jesus defeated Satan; yes, there’s still a conflict, but we don’t have to fight him. Everything involving us in the spiritual realm is a legal matter and is handled as such. The protocols for handling our spiritual conflicts are those of a courtroom, not a battlefield. For us to function as spiritually mature believers, we absolutely must understand how God’s legal-judicial system governs both the spiritual and physical realms.
If this is a new concept to you, you might object that scripture clearly refers to warfare, but not to legal conflict. But as we’re about to discover, the evidence is in the language. Many of the key words in the original language primarily are legal terms and as we examine them, we’ll discover the clues have always been there; we simply didn’t understand their significance.
I did a quick survey of the New Testament using the NIV Bible, looking at how many times legal terms were used compared to warfare terms. I discovered legal terms are used more than three times as often as warfare terms. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to speak in terms of spiritual warfare, but our thinking about spiritual conflict should clearly emphasize the legal aspects.
The following articles provide scriptural evidence related to the judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, legal dynamics and enforcement of verdicts. As we examine these topics, the legal nature of our spiritual conflict will become indisputable.