Volume 48 - Issue 3

The Greco-Roman Background to “Fighting the Good Fight” in the Pastoral Epistles and the Spiritual Life of the Christian

By G. K. Beale


What does Paul mean by the expression “fight the fight” in 1 Timothy 1:18 (NASB)? The Greek verb στρατεύω with the noun στρατεία can be also rendered “battle the battle,” or more generally “perform military service” or “serve in a military campaign.” This expression occurs often in Greco-Roman literature as a patriotic warfare idiom for good character revealed by persevering through warfare or military campaigns. It also occurs in legal contexts to affirm someone’s innocence and good reputation before the court. This idiom is applied to Timothy to demonstrate his good Christian character and reputation over against the false teachers’ bad character. Paul similarly exhorts Timothy to “struggle the struggle” (ἀγωνίζου τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα) in 1 Tim 6:12, which most commentators recognize to be synonymous with “fight the good fight” in 1:18 (cf. 2 Tim 4:7).

The expression “fight the good fight” is often used in Christian circles and even in western culture in general. Indeed, while perusing “Amazon” I found at least 31 books with the title “The Good Fight” and at least 10 books with the fuller title “Fighting the Good Fight,” some of which were overtly Christian in nature but many that were not. The origin of the phrase is 1 Timothy 1:18 (and perhaps in 1 Tim 6:12 and 2 Tim 4:7). In 1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12, Timothy is exhorted to “fight the good fight;” in 2 Timothy 4:7 Paul says he himself “has fought 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” was composed of a verb (στρατεύω) and a noun (στρατεία), which was a cognate word with the verb.1 The repeated 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” in order to underscore the meaning of the redundant wording.2 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.3 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 in the midst of the trials of this world.

1. The Classical and Hellenistic Background of Στρατεύω + Στρατεία

To my amazement, when I looked at Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, the standard online concordance to the literature of the ancient Greek world, I found that this redundant wording was frequently used from the 5th century BC up to the third century AD onwards.

1.1. A Patriotic Warfare Idiom Underscoring a Reputation of Good Character

I began to study the meaning of the redundant expression in all their various contexts. In these contexts, the expression can be translated as “battle the battle” or “serve as a soldier in warfare,” or more generally “perform military service” or “serve in a military campaign.” The wording typically is a patriotic warfare idiom4 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 this idiom is applied to Timothy and Paul, and to Christians in general.

For example, in the Classical work of Hyperides, Funeral Speech 23, people who have “fought [the] fight” (στρατείατῶν στρατευομένων) in past battles to provide liberty for their country (Greece) are to receive “praise.” In Athens, one Herakleides Salaminos of Charikleidos is said to have “loved honor for the benefit of the Athenian people,” and due to this he received “a gold crown” and became a “patron and benefactor of Athens,” and, as a result, he and his descendants had the right “to wage wars [στρατεύεσθαι αὐτοὺς τὰς στρατείας] and pay property taxes with the Athenians.” These and “other praiseworthy things” about him were to be “engraved” in a “decreed writing by the Athenian presidencies.” Thus, here Herakleides’s “waging of wars” was among honorable and praiseworthy activities for which he was honored by having this privilege of “waging war” being written on a stone stele.5 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 [στρατεία + στρατεύω] 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 9.15, On the Estate of Astyphilus). 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 Isaeus 9.13, 21, and 30).

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 [στρατεύω + στρατεία] for twenty years,” though only ten years were required for being “eligible for any political office” (Polybius, Histories 6.19). 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.

Similarly, the Roman commander Pompey affirmed that he had received “the greatest honor” as a result of “the battle campaigns he had fought” (στρατεία + στρατεύω; Dio Cassius, Roman History 36.25). On another occasion, while dying, a Jewish martyr suffering execution from the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes IV, encourages his brothers to persevere in their faith and to be “of good courage” and to “fight the sacred and noble fight for godliness” [ἱερὰν καὶ εὐγενῆ στρατείαν στρατεύσασθε περὶ τῆς εὐσεβείας; 4 Macc 9:24]. Likewise, Marcus Cato, a Roman commander, sought “high repute in battles and campaigns against the enemy,” having “fought [his] first campaign [τὴν πρώτην στρατεύσασθαι στρατείαν] when he was seventeen years old.” Such battle renown added to “the weight and dignity of his character” (Plutarch, Marcus Cato 1).6 The emperor Tiberius “waged war with distinction [στρατείας ἐπιφανῶς στρατευσάμενον], served in the second place as the high priest of Asia, and presided over the games and acquired the office of imperial commissioner of the most distinguished cites” of Asia (IG 12.3.1119; 1st cent. AD).7 Thus, Tiberius’s battle reputation is inextricably linked to religious and political positions, the epitome of the loyal citizen.

In a Greek papyrus (2nd cent. AD), a father writes a letter to his son who was “persuaded … not [to] enlist to fight [ἐστρατεύσω] 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 [στρατεύω] the good fight [στρατεία].… Therefore, do not transgress my instructions and you will have an inheritance.”8 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.

“Fight the good fight” in 1 Timothy 1:18 refers to the same thing as in the papyrus letter (with the identical three words in Greek), though the warfare is spiritual and is conducted against false teaching opponents (e.g., see 1 Tim 1:3–6, 18–20; 6:20–21; 2 Tim 3:7–14). Also, like the papyrus letter, Paul considers Timothy and Titus each to be a “true child,” though a child in “the faith” (1 Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4). In addition, both also are promised an inheritance, if they persevere. This is clearest in 1 and 2 Timothy. In 2 Timothy 4:8, after saying “I have fought the good fight,” Paul says “in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord … will award to me on that day.” Like Paul in 2 Timothy 4:7–8, if Timothy perseveres in “fighting the good fight” (1 Tim 1:18; 6:12),9 he will finally receive an inheritance, i.e., he will “receive [attain to] the eternal life to which he was called.” As with Paul’s command to Timothy to “fight” in 1 Timothy 1:18, so likewise the father’s use of “fight” has an imperatival sense because of the immediate context. The papyrus letter gives a striking parallel to the idiom of “fighting the good fight” in the Pastoral Epistles.

The idiom of “fight the fight” occurs 40 times (including the father’s letter to his son) in the Greek world as a patriotic warfare idiom for one who perseveres in loyalty to king and country by fighting war campaigns to preserve the welfare of the kingdom. As a result, a person earns a reputation as a good and honorable citizen. Paul applies the idiom to fighting for God’s kingdom instead of an earthly kingdom. He is referring to a “fight” against false teaching to maintain and foster “godliness.”10 Thus, this is a “good” fight or extended “war campaign” through which Timothy is to persevere, which will demonstrate his good Christian character and reputation over against the false teachers’ bad character. “Good” is further defined in 2 Timothy 2:3–4, where Paul exhorts Timothy to be “a good soldier” and then defines part of what such a “good soldier” is: “no soldier while being engaged in a war campaign entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.” Thus, the warfare is also “good” because the divine Commander who enlisted the Christian soldier to fight would not enlist anyone if the warfare was not a “good” one in which to engage. Ultimate loyalty in this world is to be given to the divine king and not to earthly authorities (though there is a place for submitting to earthly authorities [Rom 13]).

Paul in 1 Timothy 1:18 gives Timothy a “command” to uphold true doctrine for the purpose that he might “fight the good fight.” The “command” picks up the earlier use of “command” in 1:3 and 1:5 (respectively the verb παραγγέλλω and noun παραγγελία), which reenforces that this is a “command” to fight for truth against false teachers. It is likely not coincidental that the main point of the preceding paragraph (1:12–17) ends with praise of God as “King” and that the warfare idiom occurs directly afterward in v. 18. As the main point of vv. 12–17, God as “king” is surely still in view as Paul “commands” Timothy in v. 18, so that the “command” can be viewed implicitly to have its origin with the “King,” for whom Timothy is to fight.

The only other place in the Pastoral Epistles where “king” is used (excepting 1 Tim 2:2, where reference is to human kings) is 1 Timothy 6:15, where the reference is to God and the doxology is extended as in 1:17 and has several verbal parallels with 1:17 (e. g., “the only” God, “King,” “invisible, “honor … forever. Amen”). In addition, 6:15 forms a nice epistolary bookend with 1:17, since “fight the good fight” in 6:12 also occurs in close connection to praise of God as “King.” Furthermore, there is also the parallel of Paul giving another “command” to Timothy (6:13), as in 1:18a (see also “the command” in 6:14). In fact, as the climaxing part of the bookend in 6:15, the kingship of God is emphasized with synonyms (as in 1:17): “the only ruler, the king of kings and Lord of lords.” It is also clear that Timothy and Paul are citizens of a “kingdom” in which they will participate consummately at Christ’s final coming (2 Tim 4:1, 18, though this kingdom is likely inaugurated). God as “King” in 6:15 is closely linked to the imperatival form of the battle idiom in 6:12 (and to the imperative there to “receive eternal life”), since “I command you” in 6:13 and “keep the command” in 6:14 includes the imperatival idiom in its purview. And, as we have seen, God as “King” in 1:17 is in the immediate purview of the “soldier in warfare” idiom of 1:18. These links between 1:17–19 and 6:12–15 show that Timothy’s “fighting the good fight” against false teachers is for the King and the welfare and protection of the kingdom. And, since they form bookends for 1 Timothy, this theme should be seen as a major theme of the book.

The redundant word combination of “fight” + “fight” (στρατεύω + στρατεία) is literally in Greek rendered as “struggle” + “struggle” (ἀγωνίζομαι + ἀγών) in 1 Timothy 6:12 and 2 Timothy 4:7, which is recognized by commentators as a synonymous word development of the phrase in 1 Timothy 1:18. In the Greek world, this phrase also is a well-worn idiom used in the same way as “fight the fight,” most likely highlighting the difficulty of the fight. This is why the expression “struggle the struggle” is synonymous with the expression in 1 Timothy 1:18, even with the added adjective “good,” as many translations agree. However, there is not space to discuss and analyze the “struggle” phrases the way we have the “fight” expressions, but I will summarize them toward the end of the essay.

1.2. A Patriotic Warfare Idiom Endorsing a Reputation of Good Character in a Legal Court

The patriotic warfare idiom occurs often in a legal context to affirm the character and good reputation qualifying a person to be an officer of the court or endorsing a person’s character before the court in a legal dispute, showing him to be worthy to be considered of an innocent verdict (so 22 times). This occurs in Classical and Hellenistic Greek often in a context where the accusations are not true. Nine of the seventeen legal uses actually have reference to “witnesses” in the context (either μάρτυς or the verb form or other cognate forms),11 as we will also see is the case with Paul’s usage.

For instance, in a court case an adopted son claims entitlement to his deceased father’s contested estate against those making wrongful claims. He adduces in support of his good character, in contrast to the bad character of his legal adversaries,12 the fact that he had been a “useful citizen” and that, “I have served as a soldier in warfare on behalf of the city” (ἐστράτευμαι τὰς στρατείας τῆ πόλει; Isaeus 7.41, On the Estate of Apollodorus [note μάρτυς in 32–33, 36–37]). In a different court case, before deciding a person’s innocence, the following general maxim is stated: “when choosing a man for public office they used to ask what his personal character was, whether he treated his parents well, whether he had fought a war campaign on behalf of [his] the city [εἰ τὰς στρατείας ὑπὲρ τῆς πόλεως ἐστράτευται], whether he had an ancestral cult or paid taxes.” The maxim is applied to a defendant by the name of Aristogiton and it is found that he “could not claim [even] one of these qualifications for himself” (my brackets). He thus was viewed to be a person of poor character and reputation, and on this basis, an appeal is made to find him guilty in court of his accused crime (Dinarchus, Against Aristogiton 17;* though “witness” is not found in context). Those who were to campaign to be candidates for a political office were to be put through a kind of “scrutiny” about whether their character was good or bad, since, if elected, they would have to have their character examined by a law-court to show their qualification for an office. Among the preliminary qualifications to be able to campaign for a political office (such as good treatment of parents, not squandering one’s inheritance) was that the person should not have “failed to perform the military service [τὰς στρατείαςμὴ ἐστρατευμένος] demanded of him” (Aeschines, Against Timarchus 1.29;* note μαρτυρέω in 1.26).13 A Roman, Marcius, accused in a legal court of tyranny, recounted “how many campaigns he had fought [ὅσας ἐστρατευμένοςστρατείας] which were on behalf of the commonwealth” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 7.62.1; the plural of μάρτυς, “witness,” is found in the directly following context). Marcius adduced his military service as evidence of his good character and faithfulness to his commonwealth, which was an indicator of his innocence.14

Not only have commentators apparently not recognized στρατεύω + στρατεία to be a patriotic warfare idiom15 as background to 1 Timothy 1:18, but they also have not recognized its use in legal contexts as this might relate to 1:18. The first hint that Paul uses this wording not only as a patriotic idiom of warfare in 1:18 but also in a legal context are the words παρατίθημι and παράγγελμα in 1:18a, which both elsewhere have legal associations.16 The second hint that this idiom of warfare in 1 Timothy 1:18 is to be placed in a legal context is that the epistle concludes with an allusion back to it in 6:12, which is in a legal context!17 The phrase in 6:12 reads ἀγωνίζου τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα τῆς πίστεως (better than “fight the good fight of faith” is “struggle the good struggle of faith”);18 6:12 continues, “grasp the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in front of many witnesses [ἐνώπιον πολλῶν μαρτύρων].” The ἀγωνίζομαι + ἀγών expression is a development of στρατεύω + στρατεία in 1:18, as is especially apparent from the similar redundant wording together with the use of τὸν καλόν in the middle of that syntax. Timothy’s “good confession” is then compared to that of Christ’s: “Christ Jesus, who witnessed [μαρτυρήσαντος] the good confession before Pontius Pilate” (6:13), which was done in an explicit legal context and in the face of false accusations to Pilate by the Jews (cf. Matt 27:13; Mark 15:4). The legal context associated with “witnesses” in 6:12 is expressed earlier in 5:19, where the word is used with reference to a church court: “do not receive an accusation against an elder unless it comes on the basis of two or three witnesses [μαρτύρων]” (the number of witnesses needed to convict someone of a crime in the OT; indeed, this is an allusion to Deut 19:15: “on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed;” almost identically, see Deut 17:6). Likewise, the legal context of this idiom is reiterated in 2 Tim 4:7, where Paul says “I have fought the good fight” (again straightforwardly, “I have struggled the good struggle” [τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα ἠγώνισμαι]), which is directly followed in v. 8 by “in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that day”). 2 Timothy 4:7, like 1 Timothy 6:12, would seem also to be a development of 1 Timothy 1:18 for the same syntactical reasons.19

Thus, Paul also uses this patriotic warfare idiom in a legal context, which is to demonstrate and acquit Timothy’s character and reputation over and against that of the false teachers, who have made false accusations against the character and teaching of Christian leaders, likely including Timothy (on which see 1 Tim 6:4; 2 Tim 3:3; Titus 2:8;20 the same happened to Paul [2 Tim 4:14–15, both with respect to his character and teaching]). The accusatory nature of the false teachers is also suggested by 2 Tim 3:8–9, where the false teachers are compared to “Jannes and Jambres” who “opposed Moses;” like these Egyptian magicians, the false teachers will “oppose the truth,” which may include false accusations against Timothy, probably with respect not only to his teaching but also to his character. If Timothy perseveres in “fighting the good fight” by maintaining “faith and a good conscience” in the face of false teaching, it will reveal his character and confirm the truth of his message in the church’s courtroom (cf. 1 Tim 5:19) and, ultimately, in God’s courtroom and vindicate him at the eschatological judgment, where he will be shown to have been in the right and his false teaching opponents in the wrong.

Similarly, in 2 Timothy 2:2–3, Paul exhorts Timothy to “suffer hardship with me as a good soldier [καλὸς στρατιώτης]; no soldier in active service [στρατευόμενος] entangles himself in the affairs of daily life.” Significantly, these verses are directly preceded by Paul telling Timothy that Timothy has heard Paul’s teachings “in the presence of many witnesses” (v. 2), which again reflects a legal atmosphere. This is especially notable, since 2 Tim 2:2–3 also has a similar redundant expression of fighting (καλὸς στρατιώτηςστρατευόμενος, even together with the word καλός) as does 1 Timothy 1:18. This parallel with 2 Timothy 2:2–3 also shows that the expression of fighting in 1 Timothy 1:18 entails suffering or hardship, which must allude to some degree to participating in warfare. Since a “good soldier” in 2 Timothy 2:2 is one who faithfully performs his duty and obeys his commanding officer, the “good fight” must refer to a warfare in which it is worthy of one performing his duty. Similarly, later Paul elaborates on στρατεύω + στρατεία (though with different wording, τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα ἠγώνισμαι) by explaining it as “finishing the race” and “keeping the faith,” both of which are worthy pursuits and which highlight persevering in faithfully carrying out the task before him. He will be considered worthy to receive a “crown” for enduring in his duty (2 Tim 4:7–8). Both in 2 Timothy 2:3–5 and 4:7–8 Paul combines the “athletic” metaphor with that of “soldiering in warfare” to underscore the nuance of the necessity of perseverance through suffering, training, and the necessity of obeying rules, all of which apply to the picture in 1 Timothy 1:18. Furthermore, in these latter two references in 1 Timothy 6:12 and 2 Timothy 4:7, the phrase is strictly not στρατεύω + στρατεία but ἀγωνίζομαι + ἀγών (as noted above, something like “struggle the good struggle”), which underscores the personal, persevering nature of the fight.

2. The Classical and Hellenistic Background of Ἀγωνίζομαι + Ἀγών

Just as was the case with στρατεύω + στρατεία, it is beyond coincidence that this redundant expression ἀγωνίζομαι + ἀγών is an idiom especially for military battles and legal conflicts, which commentators also appear not to have recognized.21

2.1. A Patriotic Warfare Idiom Using ἀγωνίζομαι + ἀγών Underscoring a Good Reputation (Usually of Courage in Battle)

The use of the idiom for participating in military warfare that enhances one’s reputation is abundant, which is in an implicit context of patriotism. Demosthenes, in defending himself from accusations in a court, appeals to the “men of Athens” and commends them for “the battle of Greece’s freedom which you fought” (ἀγῶνα, ὃν ὑμεῖς ἠγωνίσασθε; Letters 2.6). This expresses a reputation for courage in battle. Regarding a battle against the Athenians and their Lacedaemonian allies, “they fought many and good battles along with one another” (πολλοὺς καὶ καλοὺς ἀγῶνας ἠγωνίσαντο μετ’ ἀλλήλων).22 In another case, in a battle between the Hernicans and the Romans, “there was at length a good fight which both armies fought bravely [ἔνθα δὴ καλὸς ἀγὼν ἦν ἐκθύμως ἀμφοτέρων ἀγωνιζομένων]” (Dionysius of Halicarnasus, The Roman Antiquities 8.65.2). After the Romans had defeated the Volscians, one of the two Roman generals leading the battle victory “demanded the [highest honor of the ceremonial] ‘triumph’ [θρίαμβος] usually granted by the senate to generals who had fought a brilliant battle [ἀγῶνα λαμπρὸν ἀγωνισαμένοις],” but he was denied that honor because of a particular conflict with the other Roman general (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities 6.30.2, my brackets). Likewise, Plutarch notes that “Tuscany,” an enemy of Rome, “had waged many good contests for glory [πολλοὺς καὶ καλοὺς ἀγῶνας ἠγωνίσατο περὶ δόξης] and power in her wars with the Romans” (Plutarch, Camillus 2.4). Also, Plutarch refers to the last battle in the career of Camillus, a Roman commander: “This last of military struggles was struggled by Camillus” (στρατιωτικῶν ἀγώνων οὗτος ἠγωνίσθη τῷ Καμίλλῳ τελευταῖος; Plutarch, Camillus 42.1). This last battle was among other accomplishments by Camillus that led to his good reputation among the Romans at the time of his death (see Plutarch, Camillus 43). Plutarch in addition speaks “of the struggles of Pelopidas, which many he struggled [τῶν Πελοπίδουἀγώνωνοὓς πολλοὺς ἀγωνισάμενος] and did successfully,” and afterward “living most of his life in fame and honour” (Plutarch, Pelopidas 34.5). Plutarch says of Titus, “From his earliest years, he was trained in the arts of soldiery [στρατιωτικός] since at that time Rome was fighting many great battles [πολλοὺς τότε καὶ μεγάλους τῆς Ῥώμης ἀγωνιζομένης ἀγῶνας], and her young men directly from the beginning [of their youth] were taught by serving as soldiers [στρατεύω] to command soldiers [στρατηγέω]” (Plutarch, Titus Flamininus 1.3). Then Plutarch says “he won a good name … for his conduct in the field [τὴν στρατείαν].” In yet another similar citation, Plutarch refers to Caesar as one “who was waging contests in behalf of the Roman supremacy” (ἀγωνιζομένου τοσούτους ἀγῶνας ὑπὲρ τῆς ἡγεμονίας), which resulted in his “glory” and his “enjoying his honours undisturbed” (Plutarch, Pompey 56.1). Still in another description of a battle, a certain Lydiades, a commander of the Achaeans, “fell, after having fought brilliantly and a most good23 fight [ἔπεσε λαμπρῶς ἀγωνισάμενος τὸν κάλλιστον τῶν ἀγώνων] at the gates of his native city” (Plutarch, Aratus 37.2–3).24 The spirit of patriotism and courage is especially seen in Plutarch, Alexander 40.2; see also Plutarch, Antony 64.1: “we are told, that an infantry centurion, a man who had fought many battles for Antony [παμπόλλους ἠγωνισμένον ἀγῶνας Ἀντωνίῳ] and was covered with scars, burst into laments as Antony was passing by, and said: ‘Imperator, why dost thou distrust these wounds and this sword and put thy hopes in miserable logs of wood [ships]? … but give us land, on which we are accustomed to stand and either conquer our enemies or die.’” In yet another passage, the Athenian “ancestors” are said to “have conducted many other battles and good battles” (πολλοὺς δὲ καὶ ἄλλους ἀγῶνας καὶ καλοὺς ἠγωνίσαντο; Lesbonax, Προτρεπτικός B 12, line 1).25

The redundant idiom also containing the phrase “good fight” (καλός + ἀγών) occurs five times with reference to “good” military battles that were fought,26 as well as two other times.27 The phrase “good fight” (καλός + ἀγών in various forms and word order) apart from the idiom occurs roughly twenty-three times in Classical and Hellenistic writings. Of those, the majority refer to military battles fought well (16x), four (and possibly five) refer to “good competition” in the Greek games, and several refer to a “good” inward ethical or spiritual struggle.28

2.2. An Idiom Using ἀγωνίζομαι + ἀγών for Fighting a Legal Court Battle

As mentioned earlier, sometimes ἀγωνίζομαι + ἀγών, somewhat like στρατεύω + στρατεία, is an idiom for a struggle in a legal or courtroom context. Whereas the στρατεία idiom refers to appeal in a legal context to having faithfully served in the army, the ἀγών idiom refers to the battle of a legal trial itself. An adopted son, who is wrongly challenged in court about the legality of his adoption and thus the legality of his inheritance, says he will “fight this legal struggle” (ἀγωνίζεσθαι τὸν ἀγῶνα τοῦτον; Isaeus 2.43, On the Estate of Menecles).29 It is thus natural that Paul would use the “struggle” idiom in a legal or courtroom context in 1 Tim 6:12–13: “fight the good fight [ἀγωνίζου τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα] … you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses“ (both verses developing the church courtroom concept of “two or three witnesses” from 1 Tim 5:19). Similarly, in 2 Tim 4:7, Paul says he “fought the good fight” (τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα ἠγώνισμαι), as a result of which “there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day” in his eschatological courtroom (4:8).30

3. Conclusion

There is a lot of discussion today about what “patriotism” in America means. Some believe it means to be loyal to the Constitution and traditions of America, while others believe that America needs to be “remade” or “transformed” into something else. Some believe that Christian faith is inextricably linked to American patriotism. Paul was clear about what he believed was “patriotism” for those who are Christians. His definition would never need revising as long as this world continues, since he was an apostle whose letters were inspired by God and contain truth for all times. His use of “fight the good fight” is a patriotic warfare idiom for one who perseveres in loyalty to King and heavenly country by fighting war campaigns to preserve the welfare of the beginning end-time kingdom on earth. As a result, in this way a person earns a reputation as a good and honorable citizen in God’s kingdom.

Paul and Timothy were to fight against false teachers who were contradicting the truth of the gospel and were even maligning their character. Likewise, we as Christians are in a “fight” in this life. As they, so we are still in the “latter days,” which the OT and Jesus prophesied would be characterized by a tribulation including false teaching (see 1 Tim 4:1–2; 2 Tim 3:1–13). Spiritual and worldly forces are arrayed against us. We need to persevere as spiritual warriors in the face of constant opposition, which is ultimately inspired by Satan (see 1 Tim 4:1–2; 5:13–15; 2 Tim 2:23–26).

Therefore, not only elders and pastors, but all Christians need to know the Bible well to do “sword fighting” with false teachers who distort the Bible (whether that be Mormons or Jehovah’s witness or other teachers within Bible-teaching churches who begin to introduce teachings contrary to Scripture).31 We need to “be diligent to present ourselves approved before God, workmen … accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15; so also Titus 1:9!). The word of God is our “sword” in the fight (Eph 6:17). Ironically, even Paul’s exhortation to “fight the good fight” has been adopted and twisted as a title for some books that have nothing to do with true spiritual warfare or with Christianity itself. If we persevere in “fighting the good fight,” which is an extended life-long war campaign, we are being loyal to our divine King and helping to maintain the spiritual welfare of the kingdom in our churches. If we do so, we will prove our good character as a spiritual and faithful patriot and will receive honor as a reflection of the only One who is truly worthy to receive “honor” (1 Tim 1:17; 6:16) for whom we have fought.

Satan causes battles other than that involving false teaching, which we also must fight and persevere through “as good soldiers” of Christ Jesus (2 Tim 2:3–4). We may get battered by Satan, the powers of evil, and the world, but we need to remember that if we are true soldiers of our King, he will give us the armor and armament to battle through the trials we encounter. These trials may include illness, loss of job, breakup of a family or persecution in the workplace (and beyond). Just as a centurion under the commander Antony “was covered with scars” as a result of ‘fighting many fights,”32 so may we “bear on our body the [cruciform] brand-marks of Jesus,” as a result of our “fighting many fights” for our Lord (Gal 6:17). May our King give us grace to serve, persevere, and be loyal to him in this life-long war campaign until we meet him face to face, and he says “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21, 23).

[1] A “cognate” word means that it is a word that has the same linguistic derivation as another word. We could say figuratively that a “cognate” word is a “blood relative” of another word, usually composed of the same essential consonants (e.g., “she drank a drink of water,” “drink” is a cognate noun following the related verb and which is called a “cognate object.”).

[2] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968), 266; cf. also 275 and 279. The redundant use of the verb plus noun in both the battle and struggle idioms is a figure of speech known as a “polyptoton,” whereby there “is a repetition of the same word in the same sense but not the same form” (in the two cases the verb is followed by a cognate noun) in order emphatically to underscore the meaning of the redundant wording. I am thankful to my colleague, Peter Lillback, for this reference to Bullinger.

[3] This essay is based on a much longer article titled “The Background to ‘Fight the Good Fight’ in 1 Timothy 1:18, 6:12, and 2 Timothy 4:7,” ZNW 113 (2022): 202–30. A much shorter summary of this essay in ZNW is published as “What Does Paul Mean by ‘Fighting the Good Fight’?,” Tabletalk, 6 September 2023,

[4] An idiom is a peculiarity of wording known from common usage to have a meaning not deducible from those of the separate words (cf. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English).

[5] See IG II2 360, IG II3,1 367 (Cynthia J. Schwenk, Athens in the Age of Alexander: The Dated Laws and Decrees of ‘the Lykourgan Era’ 338–322 B.C. [Chicago: Ares, 1985], 68:10–25). All evidence from IG, FD, and EKM 1. Beroia is cited according to the online edition of Greek Inscriptions by the Packard Humanities Institute ( See also Aristotle, Politics 1324b and Paradoxographus Vaticanus, Admiranda 56:1–3, which refers to the same Carthaginian custom as the Aristotle reference with the very same wording (στρατεύσωνται στρατείας), perhaps in allusion to the Aristotle reference.

[6] Similarly, Aeschines is said to have “fought the first battle campaign” (ἐστρατεύσατοπρώτην στρατείαν) of his career, which is cited in a context where he is repeatedly attributed honor. E.g., apparently, during that first campaign, he was part of a military expedition in which “he fought valorously;” at another battle “he fought … worthy of his noble birth.” At the end of his life, he received “an honorable burial” (Apollonius, Life of Aeschines 35–65).

[7] For other uses of the idiom in a Roman context, see Plutarch, Caius Marcius Coriolanus 3, Plutarch, Caius Marius 3, and Plutarch, Comparison of Agesilaus and Pompey 4.3.

[8] This papyrus letter can be found at the following online source: SB, Vol. 4, Document 7354, lines 2–14, Duke Data Bank of Documentary Papyri (

[9] Though as we will see the Greek in 1 Tim 6:12 and 2 Tim 4:7 is different from 1 Tim 1:18 yet synonymous.

[10] See the use of εὐσεβεία (“godliness”) 10x in the Pastoral Epistles, 8 of which are in 1 Timothy (6 of which are explicitly juxtaposed to false teaching; so likewise 2 Tim 3:5).

[11] We will note when the μάρτυς (“witness”) word group is used in these references, and when an asterisk (*) follows these references it means people of bad character are in opposition to people of good character.

[12] These adversaries had a history of bad dealings with other estates and were in an antagonistic and unreconciled relationship with the original deceased owner of the estate who had passed it on to the rightful claimant in this case.

[13] For more examples of this idiom of demonstration of good character in a legal context, see Beale, “Background to ‘Fight the Good Fight,’” 212–13 nn. 23–24.

[14] For other examples of the idiom in a Greek trial to demonstrate good character, see Isaeus 4.29, On the Estate of Nicostratus (note μαρτυρία in 31 and μάρτυς in 26); Lysias, Against Theomnestus 1.25 (note μαρτυρέω twice in 30 and ψευδομαρτύριος in 25), and Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters 5.215d.

[15] Some cite the repetition of στρατεύω + στρατεία in a few sources, but no comment is made on these combinations by the commentators (see a list of commentators in Beale, “Background to ‘Fight the Good Fight,’” 213–14 n. 25).

[16] For the notion of “entrustment” (see παρατίθημι in 1 Tim 1:18a) having a legal context, see Christian Maurer, “παρατίθημι κτλ,” TDNT 8:162–64 (here 162), who says “the trustworthiness of the trustee was thus most important.” See likewise with respect to παραθήκη, Ceslas Spicq, “S. Paul et la loi des déspôts,” RB 40 (1931): 481–502; Spicq, “παραθήκη,” TLNT 3:26–27; Schmitz, “παραγγέλλω, παραγγελία,” TDNT 5:763.

[17] Cf. Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 410–11; and Jerome D. Quinn and William C. Wacker, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, ECC 54 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 529 (“perhaps the latter phrases [of 1 Tim 6:12] were consciously modelled on the former [1 Tim 1:18]” (my brackets).

[18] The link of this phrase in 1:18 to 6:12 is further confirmed, as we saw earlier, by observing that the phrase is closely related to a doxology in 6:15–16 that is very similar to the doxology in 1:17, which directly precedes 1:18. Furthermore, “struggle the struggle” in 6:12 is directly followed by παραγγέλλω (“I command”) in 6:13, quite similar to the noun form παραγγελία at the beginning of 1:18, which itself picks up on the earlier mention of the same verb and noun respectively in 1:3 and 1:5.

[19] See Beale, “Background to ‘Fight the Good Fight,’” 215 n. 30, for additional arguments that 1 Tim 6:12 and 2 Tim 4:7 are developments of 1 Tim 1:18, as well as for discussion of the order in which the pastoral epistles were written. If 2 Timothy preceded 1 Timothy, then the way I have explained the development of these phrases would be reversed. That 1 Tim 6:12 is a clear development of 1:18 would, on the surface, appear to point to the same phrase in 2 Tim 4:7 also being a development of 1 Tim 1:18. Whichever way the direction of development is, both epistles are mutually interpretive.

[20] All three of these references focus more on “slandering” or “defaming” the character of Christians, likely including Timothy. See βλασφημία in 1 Tim 6:4; note in 2 Tim 3:3 the use of διάβολος, which means “one who engages in slander” (BDAG 226; so likewise Titus 2:3). See Titus 2:8: “young men [are] to be […] sound in speech which is beyond reproach, in order that the opponent may be put to shame, having nothing bad to say about us,” which is applicable to Timothy, since some likely “were despising his youthfulness” (cf. 1 Tim 4:12). 1 Tim 4:2 also refers to the false teachers who “through the hypocrisy of men … teach falsely and have their own consciences seared as with a hot iron” (Weymouth New Testament). “Liars” probably includes false accusations about Christians. The verb βλασφημέω refers in 1 Tim 1:20, 1 Tim 2:1, and Titus 2:5 to slandering or defaming Christian truth (see BDAG 178).

[21] On which see further below. LSJ, 18–19, cites “battle action,” “action at law, trial,” and “speech delivered in court or before an assembly or ruler” as three major categories of usage of the word ἀγών.

[22] Cited by Raymond F. Collins, I & II Timothy and Titus: A Commentary, NTL (Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 273, who is citing Wilhelm Dittenberger, ed., Sylloge Inscriptionum Graecarum, 3rd ed., 4 vols. (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1915–1924), 1:676 (n. 434–35); cf. IG II2 687 [] and IG II3,1 912 []).

[23] “Most good” is a rendering of κάλλιστος, which is the superlative form of καλός, which is strikingly close to the expression in 1 Tim 1:18.

[24] The implication is that Lydiades’s reputation was enhanced by such a noble and courageous fight as a patriot of his “native city.”

[25] For additional examples of this battle idiom underscoring a good reputation, see Beale, “Background to ‘Fight the Good Fight,’” 220 n. 38. Sometimes the redundant wording is an idiom for mere warfare, without patriotism or reputation being in mind, though these notions may be secondarily included.

[26] These citations have been cited fully in the preceding paragraph, so here we give only the sources: Dionysius of Halicarnasus, The Roman Antiquities 8.65.2; Plutarch, Camillus 2.4; Plutarch, Aratus 37.2–3; Lesbonax, Προτρεπικός B 12.1–2.

[27] The remaining two occurrences refer to an ethically ideal “good struggle” to sacrificially die for someone (Euripides, Alcestis 648), and to a “good contest” to demonstrate where faithful friendship has been demonstrated (Lucian, Toxaris 10.13).

[28] For Hellenistic and Classical sources attesting the uses in this sentence, see Beale, “Background to ‘Fight the Good Fight,’” 221 nn. 41–43.

[29] The defendant appeals to “witnesses” (μάρτυρες) to help “fight” this case (44; likewise see the verb form of μάρτυς, referring to people “witnessing” in his defense in 38). Other examples of this use of the idiom are documented in Beale, “Background to ‘Fight the Good Fight,’” 222–23,

[30] It is possible that the redundant ἀγών expression is an idiom for the “struggle“ of an athletic competition (occurring 4x), but it is not used enough to be considered an idiom in comparison with the other uses throughout this essay.

[31] See J. W. Shire, Scripture Twisting (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980).

[32] Plutarch, Antony 64.1.

G. K. Beale

G. K. Beale is professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.

Other Articles in this Issue

Menzies responds to Tupamahu’s post-colonial critique of the Pentecostal reading of Acts and the missionary enterprise...

In this article, I argue that John provides a window into the mechanics of how Jesus’s death saves, and this window is his use of the OT...

This article seeks to construct a biblical theology of gender based on Geerhardus Vos’s magisterial Biblical Theology...

This article argues that the One God of the Old Testament and Judaism is exactly the same God as the Trinitarian God of the New Testament and Christian creeds...

A well-known Christian intellectual and cultural commentator, John Stonestreet, has often publicly spoken of the need for Christians to develop a theology of “getting fired...