What Does Paul Mean by “Fighting the Good Fight”?

What Does Paul Mean by “Fighting the Good Fight”?

I am in the process of writing a commentary on 1 Timothy (for the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series). When I came to 1 Timothy 1:18, I noticed that the phrase “fight the good fight” is composed of a verb (strateuō) and a noun (strateia) that is a cognate word with the verb. The use of the noun “fight” after the verb “to fight” in this phrase is a figure of speech whereby there “is a repetition of the same basic word with the same sense” to underscore the meaning of the redundant wording. The redundant wording had a ring to it, so I decided to see if this repeated wording was used elsewhere in the Greco-Roman world, since it did not appear anywhere else in the New Testament or the Greek Old Testament. What I found after many hours of research surprised me and encouraged my faith very much. I hope what you are about to read will not only surprise you but also encourage your faith amid the trials of this world.

A Patriotic Warfare Idiom Underscoring a Reputation of Good Character

To my amazement, when I looked at the standard online concordance to the literature of the ancient Greek world, I found that this redundant wording was used very often (from the fifth century BC up to the third century AD and onward). I began to study the meaning of the redundant expression in all their various contexts. The expression can be translated as “battle the battle” or “serve as a soldier in warfare,” or more generally as “perform military service” or “serve in a military campaign.” The wording typically is a patriotic warfare idiom for good character revealed by persevering through not merely one battle but military campaigns extending over a period of time. We need further to see how this idiom is used in the ancient Greek world before we can understand how it is applied to Timothy and Paul and to Christians in general.

In the Roman military system, in times of danger from foreign powers, citizens who enlisted in the army were “obligated to serve as soldiers in warfare service [strateuō + strateia] for twenty years,” though only ten years were required for being “eligible for any political office” (Polybius, Histories VI.19). The point here was that an extended period of military service was a requirement for political office, since it demonstrated a person’s honorable character as a loyal citizen, willing to persevere in service in order to protect the home country. A military commander named Astyphilus “fought first at Corinth, then in Thessaly and again throughout the Theban war, and wherever else he heard of an army being collected, he went abroad holding a command.” Afterward, “he was fighting in other war campaigns [strateia + strateuō] and was well aware that he was going to run risks on all of them.” Then “he was about to set out on his last expedition, going out as a volunteer with every prospect of returning safe and sound from this campaign” when he finally died in battle at Mytilene (Isaeus, IX. On the Estate of Astyphilus 15,). His patriotism is expressed both through his amazing perseverance in fighting for his country until death and his religious and civic commitments (for these commitments, see 13, 21, and 30).

Similarly, the Roman commander Pompey affirmed that he had received “the greatest honor” as a result of “the battle campaigns he had fought” (strateia + strateuō; Dio Cassius, Roman History XXXVI.25). On another occasion, while dying, a Jewish martyr executed by the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes encourages his brothers to persevere in their faith and to be “of good courage” and to “fight [strateuō] the sacred and noble fight [strateia] for godliness.”

In a Greek papyrus from the second century AD, a father writes a letter to his son who was “persuaded . . . not [to] enlist to fight [strateuō] at [a city called] Klassan.” The father “grieved” over what appeared to be his son’s lack of patriotism. The father said, “from now on, take care not to be so persuaded . . . not [to] enlist to fight, or you will no longer be my son. You know you have every advantage over your brothers, and all the authority. Therefore, you will do well to fight [strateuō] the good fight [strateia]. . . . Therefore, do not transgress my instructions and you will have an inheritance.” The son’s willingness to “fight the good fight” will certainly enhance his reputation before his father (enough to receive the father’s inheritance) and likely in the eyes of others. “Good fight” refers here to a war in which it is “honorable” to participate in fighting for one’s country (or city) because fighting for one’s country (or city) and overcoming the enemy is “good.” Once again, the idiom demonstrates a person’s good character as a loyal citizen to his king and kingdom.

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