Fight the Good Fight

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We are now coming to the end of this short series on the first chapter of Paul's first letter to Timothy. Tonight we are to look at the last three verses of chapter 1, verses 18-20. Let me just read those verses again:

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, 19 holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. 20 Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.

Let me remind you why Paul is writing this letter. Why is he giving what he calls in verse 18 "this instruction"? One answer is that Paul is teaching Timothy, this young church leader, to drive out error from the church and to establish sound teaching in the church. And that is so important for three reasons. Two reasons are in the previous verses. One is here in these verses.

The first reason is that this is the way to true Christian love. Look at verse 5:

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

Paul knew that apostolic truth - the truth that we now have in the bible - is the only way to genuine Christian "love". It is simply a matter of record that genuine Christian love doesn't come from false belief and heresy and sham Christianity. Who were the social reformers in the 19th century? Men like the great evangelicals, Wilberforce and Shaftesbury - true believers. What did the 19th century liberal theologians achieve - men from Germany like Schliermacher and Harnack? Karl Barth said they helped fan the flames of the 1st World War!

Secondly, Paul is giving "this instruction" because it is "sound". He calls it in verse 10 "sound doctrine". Paul says, on the one hand there is "sound doctrine" and on the other hand there is what "is contrary to the sound doctrine." As an example of the sort of people that promote or live by such unsound doctrine he cites in verse 9 and the first part of verse 10:

lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; ... those who kill their fathers or mothers, ... murderers, ... adulterers and perverts, ... slave traders and liars and perjurers.

"Sound doctrine" literally means "healthy doctrine". It is a medical metaphor. In medicine what is healthy is good for you and life enhancing physically. So healthy doctrine, sound doctrine, is good for you and life enhancing spiritually. Paul, therefore, is concerned that Timothy drives out error and establishes the truth in the church because, one, this is the way to produce genuine Christian love in believers; and, two, in this and in other ways it produces healthy spiritual lives, or "soundness".

But the third reason Paul is giving "this instruction" is that Timothy has to realize that there is a war on - a spiritual war. Timothy is to "fight the good fight". And the truth is essential in the fight. Look at verse 18 again:

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.

That is why our title for tonight is FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT. And you will see from the outline that my headings are first, THE WAR, secondly, THE ARMOUR, and thirdly, THE FIFTH COLUMN.

First, THE WAR

True Christianity is a fight.

There are a lot of people who tell the opinion pollsters that they are "Christian". But many of them know very little of "true Christianity". They may come to church from time to time; and they may think they are decent people. But what marks them off from true believers is that they know nothing of Christianity as involving "a fight" that has to be fought. They possibly have been married in church, and possibly they hope that a clergyman will conduct a funeral service for them one day. But you see no "fight" about their Christianity. There is no spiritual energy exerted, no self-denial or self-sacrifice, and no conflict over matters of principle. But Paul's message to Timothy is that he must "fight the good fight" because there is a war going on. This is a constant theme in Paul's teaching.

First of all he taught that there is war going on in the believer's own heart or will. In Galatians 5:16-17 Paul had said:

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.

This conflict is something the believer experiences even more than the unbeliever. Every human inherits "the sinful nature". But the believer, the person who trusts in Christ, receives a new power, the Holy Spirit, who works in them to help destroy that "sinful nature". And this passage in Galatians makes it clear that that doesn't happen instantly, after a person has been born again by the Spirit. No! This side of heaven that conflict is always real in the believer.

Oscar Wilde could say that "the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it." And that is why the way of the world (in the short term only) is an easy ride compared with the way of the Spirit. For the believer tries to fight temptation and sin. And that is a struggle.

It was Luther who said that Christian people are not "stocks and stones" - that is people who "are never moved with anything, never feel any lust or desires of the flesh." Yes, the Holy Spirit helps them subdue what is wrong. But there is indeed a conflict between the sinful nature that has been inherited and the Holy Spirit. This is an internal war that has to be fought. And Timothy had to fight it as did (and does) any other believer.

Secondly Paul taught that there is an external war going on as well as an internal war. Paul wrote about that in Ephesians 6:

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.

There is an external spiritual war going on in the wider world and beyond. The Old Book of Common Prayer summarizes the opposition that Christians face in this spiritual war - this "good fight" - as "the world, the flesh and the devil". That is a good summary. And you have to fight all three.

Today more than ever before the world has to be fought - the world understood not as the created order but as men and women in defiance of God. And it has to be fought, as it ever has, in the realm of ideas and the mind. In 2 Corinthians 10. 3-5 Paul said this:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 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.

And today you indeed have "every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God". It is called "the post-Christian mind". The post-Christian mind involves the denial of any absolutes except that of personal unfettered choice. It involves the relativizing of every belief and ethic. And it produces a materialistic cultural vacuum that allows such inanities as Big Brother.

On Friday night, of the two affable finalists the female runner up blasphemed with every other breath and the male winner was described as the "king of the Queens" because he was homosexual. What a parable of "post-Christianity". One writer says, "A vast campaign is needed to clean up the mess." But the fight has to start with the individual.

You see there are always three options when you find you are in the minority with the majority going in the opposite direction. Either you can put your head in the sand and keep quiet and try to pretend there is no problem (and, sadly, many Christians do that). Or you can "go with the flow" (and, sadly, many Christians do that). Both those options avoid conflict. But they achieve nothing for the cause of Christ.

The third option is the option Paul is pressing on Timothy - it is "to fight" - not to retreat to some back water but to be where the action is, and then not to go with the flow, but to oppose what is wrong and false. So you do that in business and politics. You do that in education, social work and medicine. But you say, "all that is easier said than done. You don't know what it is like where I work. How can I ever take a stand?"

Well, Timothy would have said the same kind of thing. As you read on in both 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy you find that Timothy was not the robust sort that Paul seems to have been. No! He probably would have been awake all night with worry before taking a stand on anything. So Paul suggests ways and means for Timothy. That brings us to my second heading.

Secondly, THE ARMOUR

Look at verses 18 and the first part of 19 again:

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, 19 holding on to faith and a good conscience.

Elsewhere Paul talks about being "self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet" (1 Thess 5.8). In Ephesians 6 he has other elements as armour. But here he focuses on three things that are always important in "fighting the good fight".

First, Paul wants Timothy to be conscious of his "calling". He is to "follow" the prophecies once made about him. Literally, that can be translated "armed in them you are to fight". What were these prophecies? We are not told. But chapter 4 verse 14 suggests that they were given at Timothy's ordination. That would have been an occasion when Timothy was very conscious of his call to work and stand up for Christ.

You see, when you are confident of Christ's call on your life - and all believers, not just clergy are called - you can be confident of his strength and power and protection, whatever the odds. So you can take that stand. Oh! you do it tremblingly, but you do it.

Secondly, Paul says Timothy is to be "holding on to faith" as he fights the good fight. Faith includes a trust in Christ and a confidence in him, of course, - but that is presupposed in Timothy's consciousness of his calling. So the emphasis here is probably more on the content of faith - "the" faith. Being confident of what we believe is so important for all of us if we are to "fight".

When you are clear that foeticide (or so called "abortion") is wrong, it is easier to take a stand and not go along with the crowd than when you don't know what you believe. When you are clear that getting drunk and debauched is wrong, it is easier to take a stand and not go along with the crowd. It is easier to say "no!" if you have absorbed those words from 1 Peter 4 verse 3 about, I quote,

"debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4 They [pagans] think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you."

Others may think you are a spoil sport. But you know your stand is not just being fussy; it is being obedient to God and important.

Thirdly, Paul says Timothy is to hold on, not only to "faith" but to "a good conscience" as he fights the good fight. A good conscience is one that is free from feelings of guilt. It relates to that inner battle or warfare. And Paul teaches that essential in that inner battle is for Christians to "crucify" "the sinful nature with its passions and desires" (Gal 5.24). That is to say, you are to say "no!" to sin in a definite way.

Crucifixion was a terrible form of execution. So you are to be equally pitiless, brutal and decisive with temptation. And when you fail, you need to confess your sins, and seek Christ's forgiveness. That is a way to a "good conscience" - and that is essential in the fight.

And notice how Paul joins both "faith and a good conscience". At the end of the day, you won't keep the faith, if you want to be immoral. So Paul is telling Timothy that if he is to fight the good fight, he needs to be conscious of his call, be sure in his faith and what he believes, and have a "good conscience." That brings us to our third and final heading tonight.


There were, says Paul, in the second half of verse 19:

Some [who] have rejected these [actually "this" - a good conscience - it is singular] and so have shipwrecked their faith. 20 Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.

Paul is saying that if you reject your conscience, you will make shipwreck of your faith. For example, you decide (against what you know to be right) to enter some immoral relationship or you refuse to take a stand when you know you must. Well, if you don't repent of what you have done and pull out of that relationship or eventually take that stand, don't be surprised if before long you too make "shipwreck" of your faith. I have known apparently good Christian leaders who have been morally disobedient and then have drifted theologically and ruined their ministries.

These are serious matters. That is why Paul is writing as he does to Timothy. Paul is not referring to carelessness, but to a serious rejection of what is clearly right - something we are seeing today in the church and in the world. But Paul is concerned, of course, primarily with the church. And there are two people he singles out who have done this - Hymenaeus and Alexander. Notice Paul is not afraid to name names.

Hymenaeus may have been the same man you can read about in 2 Timothy 2.17 and 18 who "taught that the resurrection had already taken place". We don't know who Alexander was. But what we do know is that when this sort of thing happens in the church, there needs to be discipline.

What is the discipline here? Answer: exclusion from the Christian fellowship. Exactly how this happened and what was involved we don't know. But the early Christians believed in Satan. They knew that the evil in the world was not accounted for by the sum total of individual misdeeds. There was more to it. There was a power of evil. And Jesus had been crystal clear that that power was not an "it" but a "he". And the bible says, that "the whole world is under the control of the evil one" (1 John 5.19).

So to hand someone over to Satan is to put someone back into the world, outside the Christian fellowship. It is excommunication. These men were excommunicated. Nor do we need to assume this was to be a permanent condition. It was to teach these men "not to blaspheme" - not to speak against Christ or the truth of Christ. Such action shows us the seriousness of the church preserving the truth of the gospel and sound teaching.

I must conclude.

I do so with a question. Are you "fighting the good fight"?

If not, is that because you've never yet trusted Christ as Saviour and Lord, sought his forgiveness and prayed for his Holy Spirit? If that is so, why not do that tonight?

Or are you not fighting because, although you are a Christian, you have forgotten your calling to live and work for Christ; or you need to read the bible more to be more secure in your faith? Or is there some definite disobedience in your life?

To fight effectively you need to be sure of your calling, sure of your faith and with a clear conscience. Then beware of what I have called "the fifth column" - people, even church leaders, who have made shipwreck of their own faith. Don't let them make shipwreck of your faith.

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