How did New Testament writers apply Old Testament depictions of divine and national warfare to their audiences?

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The theme of warfare is important in Scripture, but it's often controversial in our day. You have to very carefully think through how the Bible applies warfare imagery both in the Old Testament era and the New Testament era. As we think of the whole counsel of God, and as specifically how the New Testament authors look back on the Old Testament, and think through how the warfare now applies to us as believers, it does so in light of the fulfillment that has come in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, under the old covenant, it's important to see that Israel is a theocracy. They're given a specific land, a specific role to play in the nations. As they go into the Promised Land, God commands them to engage in warfare, to execute God's judgment, to remove the nations from the land. That is for a specific purpose — to create a holy people, to allow for the coming of Messiah, to execute God's judgment upon sin — I mean, a whole variety of purposes that are given to us. As we come to fulfillment in the New Testament, the church isn't exactly the same as Israel. It doesn't function like a theocracy in exactly the same way. We don't have a certain geography and a piece of real estate that we are controlling and having geographical borders and this type of thing. We are a spiritual people. We're part of God's kingdom that is international. His kingdom has broken into this world in Jesus Christ. We are people of that kingdom, yet we don't engage in the warfare in exactly the same way that it is under the old covenant. Yet, the New Testament does apply warfare imagery to us. It first applies warfare imagery in Christ. Christ is the one who is true Israel. He is the one who takes Israel's role and fulfills that. He is the one, in his coming, that defeats the powers. He engages in warfare against Satan. You see that in his life and ministry. On the cross, he defeats the power, Satan, sin, death — a number of ways that the warfare imagery is applied. It then comes over to us in and through to him. We are to engage against the principalities and powers with spiritual weaponry, not arms and this type of thing that you would have, say, as maybe tied to Israel of old. We are to put on the whole armor of God — Ephesians 6. We are to engage in warfare under the role of our king, our Lord Jesus Christ. Warfare imagery will be picked up when Christ comes again. He will execute judgment. We aren't to do that; he will do that for us. But we then live as his people in between the times waiting for that second coming. So that, as you think of warfare imagery from the Old Testament to us, it has to be very, very carefully applied. For the most part, it's christologically defined. He is the one who takes up that war. He is the one that defeats our enemies. He, on his cross, wins victory, and we then live in light of that victory. We put Satan under our feet. We engage in spiritual warfare. We do not pick up the weapons of this world, say, 2 Corinthians 10, where Paul says we don't engage in that kind of warfare, but we fight against Satan and all of his sinful and evil deeds as we await the coming of the Lord Jesus who will finally, in judgment, put sin and death down, defeat Satan, as he has done, and it'll be consummated, and we will then have the victory with him.

Answer by Dr. Stephen J. Wellum

Dr. Stephen J. Wellum (B.S., Roberts Wesleyan College; M.Div., Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology