When it comes to the task of preaching, authors typically use the most prominent biblical images to describe proclamation. For example, John Stott used the following common pictures to describe the task of preaching in his classic work The Preacher’s Portrait: steward, herald, witness, father, and servant. The tendency to use popular and well-known images has resulted in the neglect of other biblical descriptions. One important image often overlooked is the description of preaching as warfare.
The Bible as a Weapon
Preaching is many things, but Scripture clearly indicates preaching is an act of spiritual warfare. In Ephesians 6, Paul used warfare imagery to describe the Christian life. The final piece of armor described was "the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (vs. 17). The same image is used to describe Scripture in the book of Hebrews. The author wrote, "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). These verses describe the Word of God as a weapon, which means the use of Scripture is an act of warfare.
Sometimes the Word of God is used defensively, like Christ's use of Scripture during His temptation in the wilderness. Clinton Arnold wrote, "Just as Jesus used Scripture to resist Satan's temptations while he was in the wilderness (Mt 4:1-11), Paul called on believers to use God's Word to resist the devil in their own situations."
The Spirit's work through the Word helps enables believers to resist temptation and continue their pursuit of Christlikeness. Other times the Word of God is used offensively, which is where preaching comes into play. As preachers proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ from Scripture each week, they are confronting the kingdom of Satan and the powers of darkness. They are engaging in spiritual warfare.
I am an unashamed advocate of Christ-centered preaching. Every sermon should be dripping with grace and centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is a constant reminder that Satan was defeated at the cross. Unbelievers need to be invited to enjoy the benefits of that victory by turning from their sin and trusting Jesus Christ's substitutionary death, and believers need to be challenged to constantly experience that victory by crucifying their flesh and obeying God by His grace. Only the gospel allows preachers to make these demands and enables people to respond.
Plundering Satan’s Domain: Gospel Proclamation and Unbelievers
As preachers proclaim the gospel, they are engaging the enemy. They are mounting an assault on Satan's kingdom. Those who do not believe the gospel are under the blinding influence of Satan. Satan has blinded their minds to the glorious truths contained in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote, "And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God" (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). The gospel threatens to overcome his blinding influence and overthrow his kingdom of darkness.
Paul makes it clear the key to opening blinded eyes is the proclamation of the gospel. He didn't preach himself. He didn't preach moralism. He didn't preach legalism. He didn't preach self-help. He preached the gospel. He declared, "For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Corinthians 4:5). As the gospel is proclaimed, the light of the gospel shines in the heart of those who do not know Christ and gives "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). It is only through the proclamation of the gospel that blinded eyes are opened, stony hearts are softened, and rebellious sinners experience God's saving grace.
So, Satan has blinded the mind of unbelievers, but God has chosen the preaching of the gospel to open blinded eyes and to set captives free. He has chosen to use preaching to move people from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God, to change unbelievers into disciples of Jesus. When this happens, Satan's kingdom is robbed; his domain is plundered. As Arnold aptly put it, the Word of God is "a weapon of aggression.
The Word of God and the work of the Spirit are the means by which the people of God step out in defiance of Satan and rob his domain. They are the means by which God draws people to himself, transforming their lives and bringing them into a relationship with himself." Then, he concluded, "Thus, according to Paul, the primary aggressive action the Christian is called to take in the world is to spread the gospel." Preachers who commit to consistently proclaiming the gospel are engaging in spiritual warfare, assaulting the kingdom of Satan through the power of the gospel and plundering his domain.
Victory in Jesus: Gospel Proclamation and Believers
Not only is preaching an act of warfare, it is also involves an invitation to engage in spiritual warfare. Those who have turned from their sin and placed their faith in Christ's perfect work on the cross become sons of God, but they also become soldiers of war. Their salvation places them in the family of God, but it also places them in the army of the Lord.
This is why Paul could say he had "fought the good fight" (2 Timothy 4:7), why he could tell Timothy to "share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ" (2 Timothy 2:3), and why he could tell the Ephesians believers to "put on the whole armor of God" since they "do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). In all of these passages, Paul was affirming the military aspect of the Christian life. Christians are soldiers of Christ and must battle the world, the flesh, and the devil.
As preachers stand up and proclaim the gospel, they are inviting Christians to experience the victory Christ has provided by resisting the schemes of Satan, crucifying their fleshly desires, and obeying the Word of God by His grace. In the Ephesians passage, note how many times Paul used the word "stand." This is because we "are standing on ground that God's anointed king, Jesus, has already won." Christians are simply called to live and fight as victors through Christ. This involves depending on His grace to resist Satan's schemes, crucify the flesh's desires, and obey God's commands. Constantly proclaiming gospel reminds believers that Christ has already won the victory and enables them to battle Satan and their flesh as they obediently follow Christ.
Pastors, when you preach, you are engaging in spiritually warfare. So, pick up the Word, proclaim the gospel, and confront the darkness. Preach the gospel so lost people turn to Christ and Satan's domain is plundered. Preach the gospel so believers recognize the combative element of Christianity, truly realize that Christ has won the victory, and fight Satan and their sinful desires as they pursue Christlikeness. Open the Bible, preach the gospel, and make war!
John Stott, The Preacher’s Portrait (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988).
Clinton Arnold, Powers of Darkness: Principalities & Powers in Paul’s Letters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992), 156.
Frank Thielman, Ephesians, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 419.