Onward Christian Soldiers (Sermon)
1 Timothy 6:11-16
1 Timothy 6:11-16 (ESV)—But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in August 1941 on a battleship to agree to the Atlantic Charter, a worship gathering was held for which Prime Minister Churchill chose the hymns…He chose “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
The hymn was sung at the funeral service for President Dwight Eisenhower, and the hymn had a constant presence during the Civil Rights Movement.
Onward Christian soldiers
Marching as to war
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before
Onward then, ye people
Join our happy throng
Blend with ours your voices
In our triumph song
Christ the royal master
Leads against the foe
Forward into battle
See His banners go
Crowns and Thrones may perish
Kingdoms rise and wane
But the cross of Jesus
Constant will remain
Unfortunately, few Christians are familiar with this war hymn anymore, and I’m sure there are many reasons for that. One pastor, Brian McLaren, who chose to rewrite the hymn because he felt like it focused too much on war and not enough on peace. Speaking about his new version, McLaren writes, “So I would hope that singers of this hymn would begin to internalize the identity of being peacemakers, and I would hope they would see this as a more beautiful and transcendent calling than the original lyrics suggest.”
Now, I understand why some might agree with McLaren and think that the church should focus more on peace and less on war, but THERE’S ONE PROBLEM WITH THAT:
The entire storyline of the Bible centers on the subject of warfare.
· Genesis 3:15: Cosmic war between the seed of the woman and the serpent
· Hebrews 12:4: War against our own sin
· 2 Timothy 2:3: Paul describes Timothy as a “soldier” of the gospel
· Ephesians 6: War is against the cosmic powers of the present darkness; therefore we need to put on the whole armor of God
· Revelation 20: Final war against Satan in which he will be thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur
We may not like to use warfare language when talking about Jesus and his gospel, but I agree with Russell Moore when he writes, “To do away with spiritual warfare imagery is to do away with the Bible, with Jesus, with the gospel."
The key for understanding warfare in the Bible is understanding that our foe is not our neighbor. Our foe is not the police. Our foe is not the Democratic Party or the GOP. Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but as Paul writes…
Ephesians 6:12: 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.
That’s why Paul writes to Timothy at the end of his letter to this young leader in the church of Ephesus. Look at verse 12—”Fight the good fight of faith.”
What words of wisdom does the aged apostle leave with his young protégé? Is it relationship advice? Is it tips on purchasing a home? No. Paul leaves Timothy with one word: FIGHT! FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT OF THE FAITH!
The text gives us many imperative statements (commands that we should obey), but the central demand of the text flows from verse 12: “Fight the good fight of the faith.” Here, Paul has in mind two things:
Fight for the gospel.
Our fight is not of this world. Satan is seeking to destroy the church. He is seeking to rob God of his glory. Satan is seeking to distort the gospel. Satan wants to destroy marriages. He hates children. He hates when we share the gospel with our neighbors and when we get on planes to take the gospel to other nations. That is why we must fight to keep the gospel central in our lives and in our church, because the Prince of Darkness is waging war against us. That is why we must also…
Fight for faithfulness to the gospel.
The way we wage war has eternal consequences. We have a God who desires to bring salvation to all peoples, but we have a foe who desires for all people to suffer in hell forever. There is a battle waging for our marriages. There is a battle waging for our neighbors and coworkers and family members. There is a battle waging for the peoples of India and Indonesia. Satan does NOT want the gospel to be spread, which is why he loves when Christians grow apathetic. Satan loves lazy Christians. He wants us to sit on our hands and bite our tongues, keeping the gospel in our hearts but out of our mouths.
So, how is Satan winning in your life? Are you even aware that you are in a war? Are you fighting for the gospel? And are you being faithful to the gospel?
Not a Christian? Are you aware there is a war raging all around you, though you are blind to it. The gospel tells us the end of the war. At the end we see a defeated foe and an exalted Savior. Will you respond to him by faith today?
But God does not leave us with a command to fight for the gospel and to fight for faithfulness to the gospel without telling us what that fight looks like. He gives us our battle plan. How do we fight?
Fight by running away from everything that pulls you away from faithfulness to Christ.
Paul tells Timothy, who he calls a “man of God” to fight by first running. That may seem counterintuitive.
In premarital counseling we teach conflict resolution. Most people are either fighters, where they run toward conflict, or they are flyers, where they take flight away from conflict. Of course, neither of these methods work very well in conflict.
Now, this is not Paul’s idea here. Rather, he is saying, to fight the fight of faith, you first need to run away from anything that pulls you away from Jesus. In verse 11 Paul says to flee “these things.” He’s pointing back to the previous verses where he discusses materialism, slander, and arrogance. Paul is saying that we need to flee sin, flee distractions, and free anything else that pulls us from Christ.
Are you fighting? Are you asking yourself the tough questions about habits you need to stop or distractions you need to get rid of for the sake of faithfulness to Christ? Is there anything you love more than Jesus? Go to war. Is there anything other than Jesus you cannot live without? War against that mindset.
Then Paul says that we must not only run from certain things, but we need to run toward other things…
Fight by running toward Christlikeness.
Instead of focusing on money and fame, we are to focus on righteousness. Paul says to “Pursue” or “run after” righteousness. Run after godliness. Run toward faith and love.
Essentially Paul is outlining the qualities of the Spirit-filled man or woman of God. Sin in not to characterize us, but rather we are to walk in intimacy with Christ. As we do the Spirit will produce good fruit. But this does not happen passively. No, we fight. We fight to know God and love him with all of our might.
Do you ever find yourself in a state of spiritual lethargy? Maybe you’re in a funk right now. When that happens we normally begin to isolate ourselves from the means of grace/spiritual disciplines. We quit gathering for church. We stop reading the Word of God. We don’t talk to God in prayer. We never share the gospel with anyone. But Paul says to fight! We do not gain righteousness from God when we read the Bible or pray or share the gospel. Our righteousness does not come from ourselves; our righteousness is gifted to us by Christ through his death and resurrection. However, how do we come to experience and enjoy the life Jesus purchases for us? We get to know God through Bible reading and prayer. We get to know his love for people and his power to save through sharing the gospel. We get to know his great provision by giving sacrificially to others and witnessing God provide for us.
If you’re in a state of apathy this morning. You feel numb and you just came to church today because that is what you do. Fight! Run away from sin and distractions, and run toward the things that make you more like Jesus!
Fight until Jesus returns.
Verse 12 contains the central command to fight, but then in the second part of the verse Paul turns toward the idea of perseverance.
Paul says to “take hold of the eternal life to which Timothy was called.” Paul reminds Timothy and all Christians that eternal life is not in the future. If we have trusted Jesus as our only hope, we have…we possess…eternal life NOW. Paul says, take hold of it! That phrase is the same phrase used of Jesus when he took hold of Peter on the Sea of Galilee to keep him from sinking. Paul says, “Grab it! Hold on to it! Hold on to your salvation and calling! Fight! Fight today, tomorrow, and the day after that! Don’t quit! Persevere!”
Paul reminds Timothy of his salvation. He reminds him that he make a commitment to Christ and a commitment to follow Christ. Paul says, “There are witnesses!” Paul is probably pointing to Timothy’s baptism, when he made his public commitment to Christ. It is the gospel of Jesus that saves, but we confess Jesus as Lord through baptism. Paul reminds Timothy of that, and so, Timothy, don’t quit!
Let’s be honest. When reading the Scriptures we often get excited about Jesus. We see his incredible miracles, his authoritative teaching, his death of the cross in our place, and he glorious resurrection. We read his promise to always be with us…he’ll never leave us or forsake us. We read about the future. Jesus is coming again, and we will no longer have to deal with sin. We will no longer have to mourn the death of anyone. No more shootings. No more riots. No more injustice. That is true…it is not make-belief.
But right now, we have every-day-skirmishes with sin. We have neighbors and coworkers and family members who will die and be separated from God’s love forever unless they hear and believe the gospel. Right now, we have millions of unborn babies who cannot cry out for justice, so we have to cry out on their behalf. We have billions following false religions and false saviors, and the gospel is there only hope, and we have to get it to them.
Until Jesus returns, we fight. We get up in the morning and go to bed at night fighting for the gospel and for faithfulness to the gospel. Our spouses need us to fight. Our children need us to fight. Our neighbors need us to fight. The people in the city of Makassar, Indonesia need us to fight. So, persevere, don’t quit.
But that sounds impossible doesn’t it? How in the world can we continue to wage war when new sins always replace the old sins we finally crucified…when a new lost neighbor moves in next door in place of the old neighbor you shared the gospel with. How can we keep fighting when the fight seems to never stop? Paul concludes with an encouragement.
Fight with your eyes fixed on Jesus, the one who fought, fights, and will fight for you.
God is encouraging us in his Word by reminding us that in the spiritual war we are engaged in we are not fighting against God; he is fighting for us! God, the only who gives life to all things, is on your side if you have confessed him as Lord.
Verses 13–16 form a doxology, maybe even an early church creed. Paul is pointing Timothy to God, especially the person of Christ, to encourage him to keep going in the war. Likewise, when we find ourselves losing ground in the war, or even forgetting that there is a war. What do we do? We fix our eyes on Jesus, our Mighty Warrior.
Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, and he confessed that he was indeed King. And that confession cost Jesus his life. At the proper time God sent Jesus into the world. Jesus was unstained by sin. He loved and obeyed his Father perfectly, yet he was crucified in the place of sinners. On the cross Jesus took our sin, our shame, our penalty so that we could take his life, his righteousness, his immortality.
The God who set this plan into motion is the “only Sovereign” as Paul says in verse 15. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Jesus did not stay dead, but rather he resurrected and defeated death. This Jesus appeared to over 500 witnesses and then went to heaven sitting at the right hand of his Father. God, the one who sovereignly saves, and the one who saves by giving up his Son. This God has all authority and dominion. Amen!
Do you see what God is doing in this text? He is prodding us to fight! He is exhorting us to persevere in the fight! But when we grow weary, and we will, he is reminding us to look to his Son, the one who fought for us on the cross, the one who is fighting for us even now, and the one who will put an end to the war one day in the future.
We can carry on in the war, fighting for the gospel and for faithfulness to the gospel, if we will keep our eyes on Jesus.
“Onward Christian Soldiers” is right. We are indeed marching on to war, but we do not march alone, a crucified and resurrected Warrior leads the way.
Christian, are you fighting? Are you waging war against your sin and running actively toward Christlikeness? Maybe you’re weary…look to Jesus.
Not a Christian? There is a war all around you, and you may be oblivious to it. The strange thing is that the ultimate battle has been won, and there is a Mighty Warrior King named Jesus who fought for you. Will you respond to him by faith today?