One of the greatest battles in history was the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. Against hundreds of thousands of Persians a few thousand Greeks stood and fought to defend their homeland from the most powerful empire at the time. The most famous event of this battle was the last stand of the Spartans who numbered 300, along with around 1000 others (Thespians and Thebians). This battle was romanticized in the movie 300 which takes considerable poetic license with the actual history of the battle. The ancient historian Herodotus gives us one of the best, early accounts of the battle and most other histories lean heavily on his work.
Now, before I go any further I want to insert an important disclaimer. What I am about to write is not to be understood as me elevating the Spartan culture as a whole to be emulated. In Sparta infanticide was institutionalized along with abuse, racism, slavery, and sexual immorality. Their singular goal was to create the finest professional military force known to man – and they did. Everything in a person’s life was subjugated to the state. Our modern sensibilities, especially if we value “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” should be appalled by Spartan society.
That being said, we can still learn something valuable from the Spartans. Their heroism in the face of overwhelming odds should be an inspiration. I would submit that heroism and altruism is almost always something to be appreciated, even if the cause is not our own. Their ability to apply superior military training and overcome sheer numbers displays an important tactical principle. The way the Spartans faced their enemy is instructive as well, one can even find some points of contact with biblical exhortations.
Herodotus records that on the morning before the Battle of Thermopylae commenced a Persian scout observed the Spartans preparing for battle. In that this was a warrior culture they had a particular pre-battle ritual which involved exercising “stripped” and tending to their hair. Xerxes thought this was crazy but the truth, as Herodotus reminds the reader, was that “the Spartans were preparing themselves to die and deal death with all their strength.” They were preparing for what they called “the beautiful death.” The scout reminded the king that he was about to, “deal with the finest kingdom of Greece, and with the bravest men.” The result was that the Greeks held off, for three days, a force that was exponentially larger with the superior tactics, training, and preparation of the Spartans.
“Thanks for the inspirational history lesson.” Right? So, what does this have to do with the Bible, or the Christian life? Much. The Bible makes it clear, through both the Old and New Testaments, that we are in the midst of a war. It is a war that involves both the visible and invisible realms, and it is between good and evil. As Christians we have the incredible advantage of being on the side that will ultimately be victorious. However, that does not excuse us from the battle. Coming to the realization that we are part of a war, whether we like it or not is, as G.I Joe reminds us, half the battle. But, as you can imagine, half of a victory looks suspiciously like a defeat. What are we to do with our knowledge that we are at war?
Prepare. We are to prepare for the battle.
Ephesians 6:10-20 is the famous passage where Paul describes the “armor of God.” Three times Paul uses the word “stand.”
- “Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil.”
- “having prepared everything, to take your stand.”
- “Stand, therefore…”
The Spartans knew they were making a stand against a numerically superior force and so they prepared. As Christians we know we are taking a stand against the forces of the enemy in the spiritual realm, and against the world system that is influenced by that enemy. What are we doing to prepare for that battle? Sadly, I wonder if 200+ years of being the dominant religion in America has desensitized us to the battle. Let me assure you, it is real and the casualties are real.
Paul writes in Ephesians 6:10, “Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by his vast strength.” This is a great way to start. As numerous and as powerful as the enemy is, God is bigger and stronger. This is not a battle of equal opposites. God is superior in every way and the victory is his. We are then reminded to put on God’s armor, not our own. If we rely on our human skills, abilities, and wisdom we will be defeated. However, if we draw on the “vast strength” and unlimited resources of God and his kingdom we will see victory.
Furthermore, Paul tells us who this battle is against, “not flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this darkness, against evil, spiritual forces in the heavens.” That tells me that my weapons and armor aren’t going to be much good anyway, a truth confirmed in 2 Corinthians 10:4; “since the weapons of our warfare are not of flesh and blood, but are powerful through God for the demolition of strongholds.”
Once we understand the nature of our enemy, we grasp the nature of the tools necessary for this battle, then, “having prepared everything, to take your stand.” We must prepare for battle. But how?
Ephesians 6:14-20 gives us the basic summary of the answer. Paul describes various items of armor and weaponry that will help us experience victory in spiritual warfare. Without going into detail about each item (something many people have done very well) it can be summed up in two areas integral to the Christian life; prayer and the study of scripture. It is through the study and application of God’s Word that we discern truth, experience the “gospel of peace,” know of salvation, and learn to pray. Our prayer life is the umbilical cord that keeps us connected to the heart of God and gives us strength. The Spartans prepared for war with exercise and grooming. The Christian prepares for war through scripture study and prayer.
Christian, you may be in the heat of spiritual battle, or you may find yourself in a lull. Whichever is the case, be prepared to take your stand against the enemy. Lean not on your own understanding, but rely on the vast strength, and armor of the great and mighty God who has accomplished victory through his beloved son, Jesus Christ.