What Do We Do With the Warfare Imagery in the Bible?

By Michael Brown Published on January 16, 2024

In the Psalms David declared, “Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands  for war, my fingers for battle” (Psalm 144:1), while Moses describes the Lord as a “man of war” (Exodus 15:3; “warrior” in the NIV). Similarly, in the New Testament, Paul spoke of some of his colleagues as “fellow soldiers” (see Philippians 2:25 and Philemon 2), even encouraging Timothy to, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).

Should we move away from warfare terminology for fear that it could lead to acts of violence, especially in light of today’s supercharged atmosphere which deeply intersects with Christian beliefs?

Absolutely not. We simply need to teach what the Bible says rightly, without being reactionary or fearful.

The fact is that we are in a war — a spiritual war, first and foremost, but also a moral and cultural war.

Spiritual War, Moral and Cultural War

At the same time, the New Testament states explicitly that we do not fight the way the world fights.

As Paul also wrote, “For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons, but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4, NET).

So, we do have weapons and we do engage in battle, but not in fleshly, human, worldly terms. (For the record, Paul is not saying here that Christians cannot serve in the military or wield a weapon. That is not his point here at all, and whether or not ancient Christians served as soldiers is a separate issue entirely.)

Just as clearly, Paul wrote this to the Ephesians, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 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” (Ephesians 6:10-13).

To minimize the intensity of the spiritual conflict is to minimize spiritual reality. On the flip side, to try to fight demonic powers with earthly weapons of war is like shooting bullets to stop the wind.

Could People Get Confused and Take Up Arms for the Gospel?

It’s very true, of course, that some people could misunderstand biblical language, thinking that the call to “put on the full armor of God” meant a literal call to purchase body armor — divine body armor at that! And, to be sure, there are some believers who feel a sacred calling to take up arms. (I don’t mean in self-defense, which is also not under discussion here; I’m talking about taking up arms in the interest of forwarding the gospel.)

But, to repeat, that doesn’t mean that we rewrite the Bible. It simply means that we teach it correctly.

That’s why, for the last 25 years, when speaking of a gospel-centered moral and cultural revolution, I have gone out of my way to add, “Not a revolution of hatred or violence or intimidation, but a revolution where we overcome evil with good, hatred with love, lies with truth, and the power of the flesh with the power of the Spirit.”

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That’s also why, in my book Revolution: An Urgent Call for a Holy Uprising, there is an entire chapter titled, “Take Up Your Cross, Put Down Your Sword: The Jesus Way to Revolution.” No one reading this book could possibly mistake the thrust of my message without ignoring what I wrote explicitly and clearly.

What then should we do with the violent, warring imagery of the Old Testament, imagery that was often quite literal? We should explain that the literal points to the spiritual, and what did Israel did to its earthly enemies, we do to demonic powers.

We Drive Out Demons

This is underscored in the longer ending of Mark, where Jesus says, “In my name they will drive out demons” (Mark 16:17). The Greek there uses the verb ekballo for “drive out,” a verb often used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (called the Septuagint) with reference to Israel “driving out” the Canaanites.

In other words, what Israel did physically to its earthly enemies, in physical warfare using physical weapons, we do to our spiritual enemies — speaking of Satan and his demonic hordes — using spiritual weapons as we engage in spiritual warfare.

Both battles are very real and fraught with danger. It is just the way we fight that is different. Israel drove out people; we drive out demons.

We know, of course, that, at times, the Church has weaponized the cross (think the Crusades, for example). But surely, for millions of Christians who sang the old hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” there was no thought of leaving the church service and shooting up our enemies. God forbid.

Let’s not be reactionary, then, as Christian conservatives are increasingly accused of being violent insurrectionists (not to mention white supremacists).

Let’s just teach the Bible rightly, modeling what we teach as well.


Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. His latest book is Why So Many Christians Have Left the Faith. Connect with him on FacebookTwitter or YouTube.

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