A Legal Conflict, Not a Battlefield


[Reading time: 12 minutes] History recorded in the Old Testament is full of skirmishes, battles and even prolonged wars. The New Testament includes many references to warfare, armor and strongholds, and Christians often talk about spiritual warfare. This leads us to the conclusion that we’re fighting the devil and we use military and combat 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 are spiritually vulnerable if we ignore it. The issue is how we describe that conflict.

Is it wrong to speak of spiritual warfare or use combat terms when talking about this conflict? No, it may be confusing or misleading, but it’s not wrong.

We definitely need to avoid applying our cultural understanding of warfare, however, 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.

Non-combative or non-confrontational people may have difficulty relating to the warfare perspective. In addition, there are always uncertainties in military conflict. It involves brute force and if we don’t get the results we want, we just have to try harder. So as a result, Christians feel we have to defeat the devil and we struggle to do so.

Not Combat

It’s important to examine New Testament passages that use military or combat terms to describe our spiritual conflict, 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 is legal, rather than combative. If we have a military or combat perspective, we’ll be ineffective in the legal environment, so we might need to change how we view our situation. Because the legal perspective counters the widely-held one of spiritual warfare, it’s necessary to look at quite a few scriptures.

One of the two Greek words translated “sword” in the New Testament is machaira, which refers to a short sword or long knife used for 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 against evil.

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” (Matt. 10:34, NIV). 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, either literally or figuratively.

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. 13-14). 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 that 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 many people interpret it that way, but actually he’s teaching how to maintain a defensive posture when attacked spiritually. 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 physical weapon.

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” (Luke 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: “coming out of his mouth was 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: “Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (Rev. 19:15). And again, “The rest were killed with the sword coming 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 physical 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, which 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: “I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” The “war” in this verse is the struggle resulting from the law of sin working within him.

The verb form of that word, strateuo, appears often 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 “strongholds” 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 Cor. 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 clearly 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 am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim. 1:18-19). The word, “fight,” is the verb form, to engage in a war or battle. The word, “battle,” is the noun form, referring to a military campaign or warfare. So what’s the nature of the “fight” and “battle” in this passage? Following the prophecies spoken over him and holding on to faith and a good conscience; that is, ideas and beliefs.

James uses the word for problems we create for ourselves. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1). The battle he describes is with problems created by our own desires.

Peter makes a similar statement: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). Again, the war he describes is a conflict involving our sinful desires and our soul.

These verses clearly use the key Greek words 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 desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight” (James 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 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: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back” (Rev. 12:7). In Chapter 13, people worship the dragon and the beast, and ask who can wage war against the beast (13:4). In Chapter 17, the ten kings wage war against the Lamb but he overcomes them (17:14). And finally in Chapter 19, the rider on the white horse victoriously wages 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 will attack the two witnesses in Jerusalem, overpowering and killing them (Rev. 11:7). Then the dragon, which represents Satan, “went off to wage war against … those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus,” which refers to Christians (Rev. 12:17). And finally, Chapter 13 states the beast out of the sea “was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them” (13:7).

Notice that none of these verses state 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. The epistles to Israel and the nations were written when they were occupied by the Roman military in the first century, so everyone understood army analogies. But if we examine the bigger picture, we discover our actual conflict is not a brute-force military conflict.

The military or combat imagery, including the phrase “spiritual warfare,” has been used so much it’s easy for us to view our conflict with Satan as combat. We need to consider a different perspective, which can radically change the way we deal with spiritual conflict and greatly improve our effectiveness.

Now, It’s Different

The nature of the spiritual conflict changed at the cross. Jesus said, “It is finished,” which among other things means he won the victory (John 19:30). 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 suggest that actual spiritual warfare is between similar beings, such as angels. That conflict often is 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 like him or greater in any realm that exists.

Humans aren’t equivalent to angels and cannot engage in literal warfare with them. Except for Jacob, who wrestled with the physical presence 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 Cor. 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 says. 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 should be 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’s use of legal and warfare terms. I discovered legal terms appeared more than three times as often as warfare terms. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to speak of spiritual warfare, but our thinking about spiritual conflict should clearly focus on its legal nature.

The other articles in this series provide scriptural evidence related to the judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, legal procedures, and enforcement of verdicts. As we examine these topics, the legal nature of our spiritual conflict will become indisputable.


The true nature of spiritual conflict changed at the cross from war-like battles to legal conflicts. To function as spiritually mature believers, we absolutely must understand how God’s legal-judicial system governs both the spiritual and physical realms.

Find other articles about the legal nature of our spiritual conflict