Missionary Christians as Warriors

Basil Grafas
Sunday, November 1st 2020
Nov/Dec 2020

Christian missionaries are witnesses, warriors, and ambas­­sadors in exile. It is common to view missions in terms of tasks such as proclaiming the gospel or, with modern trends, incarnating it. (1) There are problems we encounter when we limit ourselves to these words. Proclamation is something we send out, but with global work not all of us do it. Attempts by the church to get behind the work rather than engage in it are counterproductive. Interest and support for missions are waning in the visible, local church, and that trend must be reversed.

We need concepts that wed the church to missions, not abstract it from our lives. The three descriptions noted, in fact, describe what God already calls us to be: witnesses, warriors, and ambassadors. From our being made in God’s image, to the church identifying itself as Christians living out their corporate identity in 1 Peter, to the seven churches of the Revelation, we embody these descriptions. My purpose in this essay is to introduce us to this way of thinking so that the church can become the beacon to the world it should be.

In the previous issue of Modern Reformation, I described the Christian church on mission as witnesses. We now consider the role of warriors. Before plunging in, we note two things. First, we are not crusaders taking up arms against the infidel. We fight with weapons of the word and Spirit—the weapons of life, not death. Second, we should not miss the umbilical connection between the three descriptors. To be a witness, ambassador, and warrior is to describe three unique perspectives of the same calling. Therefore, one cannot achieve any one of the activities associated with the descriptor without exercising all three.

Cementing the Believer’s Identity

The New Testament reveals the expected Messiah’s identity: He is the Lamb of God. It pinpoints his humility and sacrifice, but it moves our attention from his fulfilment of prophecy at the cross to a further revelation of his full identity. He is our high priest and sacrifice; but he is also creator, commander of the hosts of the Lord, and Lord of the universe. We can see his identity emerging as we follow the flow of the New Testament. Each Gospel account reveals something, moving from the expected messianic savior to the preexistent God the Son. We move from incarnation to ascension. As the word brings Christ more and more into view, so too is our understanding of ourselves as we live in him. We meet men and women who stumble in their following of him and those who die witnessing of him. The New Testament fleshes out our identity step by step as individuals and as he incorporates us into one body. It is not a body of drones. It comprises different kinds of people melded together with the multidimensional purpose of unstoppable worship and witness. This is a family, a people on the move, and an army that engages in the spiritual warfare that accompanies the confrontation of a fallen world with the word of life.

Timothy Gombis interprets Ephesians as providing an overview of God’s victory in Christ over the illegitimate powers of the world. (2) In this letter, Paul describes how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit redeem and mobilize creation through human relations, which then carry the spiritual fight to the principalities and powers of the fallen world. Ephesians applies universal truths with a cosmic scope to a local context. It describes a comprehensive divine perspective of conflict and victory. In the first chapter, Gombis sees the motif of divine conflict as the logical thread connecting the heavenly perspective to the nitty-gritty of everyday cosmic battle fought on the front lines by wearing the armor and wielding the weapons of our faith, standing shield to shield, doing our part. We have the truth, the word of God. What an amazing depiction of every Christian’s calling in this present, fallen world.

Ephesians provides us with perspective in which we see that the sovereign hand of the Triune Lord governs our present. He redeems, repairs, and transforms us, equipping and mobilizing us for mission in adversity. It is not the picture of a brand-new church plant, but rather of a body struggling with its calling. The warrior motif is, ultimately, a realistic picture of the life of the church. It is a message given for churches that are not in a honeymoon phase—if they ever had one.

It is not an occasional message given to one church seeking to unite Jewish and Gentile believers in mission. Gombis and others have forced me to change my thinking about the warrior identity in Ephesians. I saw the warrior described, particularly in Ephesians 6, with Roman soldiers engaged in offensive operations, using defensive weapons such as breastplates, helmets, and shields as protection for the offensive. I am not completely convinced that this general thought is inappropriate. What I have had to rethink is that the weaponry also, and perhaps primarily, connects the lives of the Christians in Ephesus with those of Israelites moving to occupy the Promised Land. That seems to me to make a great deal of sense. In that way, the context of conflict and of Christian life and witness as spiritual warfare that extends into the here and now connects the history of God’s people from first to last. It is who we are and what we do.

This is a stunning idea. In my experience, we do not always live out this identity. It is a crucial reality for us, particularly as the West slides farther and farther away from any self-image nestled in Christendom. Christians are rarely in charge, and biblical norms have to fight uphill. Passivity is never the order of the day, because the status quo is our adversary, not our home. Why, then, would Christians huddle in their churches as civilians or peacetime soldiers? What Ephesians, Hebrews, 1 Peter, Revelation, and the whole of the New Testament prove is that war is the current state of affairs.

The Most Practical Book in the Bible

The overarching conflict waged between God and Satan is clear in the Gospels, and it comes into full view in the Epistles. These occasional and circular letters deal with the everyday realities of witness in hostile contexts. As they do so, writers such as Paul constantly connect their contemporary situation with the experiences of conflict that Israel endured. Paul and others describe the constant thread of conflict that the covenant people of God experienced. (3)

The book of Revelation is a natural intersection of our calling to be witnesses, ambassadors to foreign courts, and warriors who refuse to desert Christ. The book opens with John’s bearing witness “to the Word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ” (1:2). John himself follows in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, “the faithful witness” (1:5). The rest of the book opens up the divine perspective to reveal the present and future reality of the church. Human beings, created as images of God who reflect and represent (witness) Christ, do so amid conflict, visible and invisible. Suffering and persecution are the normal context for Christian life. The juxtaposition of witness and its adversarial context is placed within a legal framework. This means that the testimonies we give take place not in the safety of a quiet court but on a battlefield. That is the reality, like it or not. (4)

Revelation introduces us in several places to the picture of 144,000 believers. There are a variety of explanations given as to their identity. We have a confluence of images spanning Revelation 6 and 7 that include martyrs underneath an altar, a vast host caught up in worship, and the 144,000. Are the latter an idealized number of martyrs, or do they symbolize the spiritual Israel of God, the redeemed people of God? I favor Richard Bauckham’s analysis. He sees them as a messianic army. The 144,000 cannot be just symbolic for the spiritual, redeemed Israel. Can they represent the church’s martyrs? I think it more persuasive that they represent the martyr-witnesses of the church, people who faithfully stand with Christ even at the cost of their own lives. (5)

I agree with Bauckham’s analysis partly because of the additions and eliminations of specific tribes from the war census noted in the book of Numbers. The entire list in the Old Testament text is a summation of males “20 years and older, all in Israel who can go to war” (Num. 1:3). Dan (Judg. 18:30) and Ephraim are removed from the list and become bywords for idolatry and unreliability (Hos. 5:3; 6:10; 12:1). (6) The army of 144,000 witnesses have earned their trust in battle. They were tested, and they stood their ground. They are the whole people of God, not elite troops. That is enormously important. The imagery describes the people of God engaged in spiritual warfare to advance the witness of Christ to the ends of the earth. It describes every Christian’s present reality, not simply those of missionaries or church planters. (7)

They are, however, only part of God’s cosmic army. The book of Revelation reveals that fact as John observes a door standing open in heaven (Rev. 4:1). Just as chapters 2 and 3 reveal to the church the reality of its plight here and now on earth, so chapters 4 and following place our situation in a divine perspective. When we see things as God sees them, we see a war waged against evil and death. We see the commander of the hosts of heaven and earth joined in a fight to the death of death. Then we understand that God has at his command an innumerable host of mortal human enemies fused into one body and one family allied to a heavenly host without number. We are never alone. We are in every sense surrounded by a multitude of witnesses (Heb. 12:1) as we move forward to God’s eschatological climax—not as lone warriors or athletes, but in formation. (8) The Bible describes its eschatological perspective in terms of a new exodus and conquest, summarized in Revelation 15–19. (9)

There we see the images of witnesses, exiles, and warriors merging into a single identity as the church moves to the new heavens and the new earth. The warriors of God gather by a sea of crystal and echo the Israelites at the Red Sea singing their war song, the song of victory. (10) We can see a kind of inclusion or parenthesis around the covenant people from Moses to Christ that contains their context of combative witness, their suffering, their faithfulness, and their Lord’s leadership. It is they who defeat the dragon through the blood of the Lamb and their own sacrificial testimony. (11)

Theirs is a strange way to win a war. The commander they follow is the risen lamb, the sacrifice of God nailed between two criminals. They win by dying for their faith, by not yielding to fear. Those who see fellow witnesses pay the ultimate price for their obedience to Christ knowingly pay the same price until God’s appointed time when he consummates his ultimate victory over tyranny and death. They do not require power or cleverness to win. They cling to Christ, and they go where he takes them and witness. (12) This, in toto, is their righteousness validated by their being clothed in white robes of righteousness. To be a faithful witness is to be a righteous warrior who lives and moves only in Christ with the rest of the hosts of God.

Revelation brings the warrior identity of the Christian engaged in mission into clearest view. There are many valid reasons why Revelation comes last, aside from that of fulfilling the sovereign will of God, the author of Scripture. It comes last because it is the last word that describes the final revelation. That is accurate enough, but it is last because it describes what God wants us to know as we set out into the world. It is a practical guide to living. It is not esoteric imagery so much as it is a companion that guides embattled believers from day to day. If we are to promote our witness and winsome presence in the world, then we can survive the experience only if we understand the seen and unseen context. We also need to understand the urgency of our calling. The reality of living as witnesses in the world is that we stand as faithful witnesses, wielding the spiritual weapons—such as the word, faith, prayer, and so on—without giving in to intimidation. The seven churches in Revelation 2–3 show us in practical ways what the combat looks like and what distinguishes consistent Christian faith from cowardice or treason. We urgently need that lesson. I write this in the presence of rioting and the pandemic. Both are opportunities for the church to embody the callings God has given us. They are also warnings. If we do not follow the Lord into battle as indefatigable witnesses and reliable ambassadors of the king, then Christ will remove our candlesticks and we will be no more. The Lord will triumph, and the church will be with him in the victory; but we will fade away, a sad reminder of those who ran when they should have stood, who remained mute when they should have witnessed, and who crossed over to the enemy in the heat of battle.

Basil Grafas is the pen name of an American missionary working overseas.

1 [ Back ] I do not endorse this view. There is, properly, one incarnation. We cannot follow Jesus in becoming incarnate. What missiologists mean when they resort to the concept is that the gospel must be contextualized in specific contexts. That is true, but “incarnation” is a misleading term when used in that context.
2 [ Back ] Timothy G. Gombis, The Drama of Ephesians: Participating in the Triumph of God (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010), 9.
3 [ Back ] T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 115.
4 [ Back ] Allison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
5 [ Back ] Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (London: T&T Clark, 1993), 217.
6 [ Back ] Zechariah 12:7 prophesies Ephraim’s restoration, but Revelation’s context suggests that unreliability is in view and that would fit the tribe’s long history of idolatry and betrayal.
7 [ Back ] See G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 413.
8 [ Back ] Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 145.
9 [ Back ] Alexander, 113n16, cites Longman and Reid. See Dennis E. Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 216.
10 [ Back ] Johnson, 215.
11 [ Back ] Blount, 285.
12 [ Back ] Sook-Young Kim, The Warrior Messiah in Scripture and Intertestamental Writings (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), 213.
Sunday, November 1st 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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