FS Sunday Sermon
The Word of God Comes Alive in Conflict
By: David Mathis
Our conflicted times may pale in comparison to history’s greatest conflicts, but in our own generation, the stresses, strains, and uncertainties of the last fourteen months have been unusual. Many of us are manifestly more on edge. Fuses seem shorter. Words, harsher. Moods, more burdened. As we’ve run on empty, previously dormant fault lines have opened up in our families, among neighbors, among longtime friends, and even in our churches.
Of course, what we experience as conflict comes in different layers. We experience societal, even global, conflicts, like the pandemic. But when conflicts erupt in our family, on our block, between longtime friends, in our own once-harmonious church, these are personal. They have faces we recognize. When another person, whether far away, or especially so when close to home, seems set on our humbling, silencing, or firing, whether justly so or not, we feel a personal sting unfelt in other trials.
One precious truth to rehearse, and experience, in times like ours — and especially when conflicts and threats become personal against us — is that God’s word comes alive in conflict. God didn’t only give us his word to get us through life’s trials, but he also gives us trials to make his word come alive. In conflict, his priceless comforts fall less on deaf ears than they do during peacetimes.
In his wise plan, severe mercies, and good providence, God takes his children’s lives through cycles of relative peace and conflict, no more than we can bear. Peacetime Christians can find plenty of hope and strength in the Scriptures, but how many of us have discovered how so many parts of the Bible — if not the whole — teem with life and clarity when conflict arises, especially when it’s close to home?
Born for Adversity
The Bible itself was born in conflict. Its heroes did not live in comfortable, peaceful times. Such days do not require heroes. And so too the Bible’s writers, under God, and its first readers were often embattled: from slavery in Egypt, to life under wicked tyrants and kings, to psalmists and prophets running for their lives, to looming exile and oppression, to God’s own Son betrayed and crucified, to Christ’s appointed spokesmen opposed and imprisoned, to his fledgling church straining on the edge of survival.
Consider the patriarchs in the trials and fears of nomadic living. They had no city with its haven from wild animals and marauders. The next stop for God’s people was Egypt, eventually to be oppressed by Pharaoh. Then back into the trials and fears of the wilderness for forty years.
Once established in the land, and having endured relentless conflict under the judges, even Israel’s greatest king, and its sweet psalmist, was pursued by his own friends, betrayed by dear companions who turned into enemies and threatened his life. How many were David’s foes — both before he took the throne, and even as he reigned as king. He was sought by Saul, and fled to the wilderness. Later he was betrayed not only by his own son, Absalom, but also by his most trusted counselor, Ahithophel. Even Joab, his own cousin and longtime right-hand man, proved unfaithful.
Old and New
So too great David’s greater son, Jesus — how many were his foes! The authorities plotted against him. Scribes and Pharisees, on the one hand, and the rulers and chief priests, on the other — political rivals crossed the aisle to conspire against him. Carnal masses came to fill their bellies and dispersed at the word of truth (John 6). In the end, the cowardice of Pilate, the cruelty of Rome’s soldiers, and the taunts at the cross, even from the fellow crucified, would be eclipsed by the pain of his own men betraying him, denying him, and fleeing for their own lives.
Even the early church lived in conflict, under growing threat of persecution. First reviling, then imprisonment, then Stephen, the church’s first great orator, was stoned on the spot. The rulers cut off James’s head, and planned to do the same to Peter. When one of the church’s lead opponents became radically converted on the road to round up Christians, he too was pursued and opposed one episode after another. How many were Paul’s foes: legalists and Judaizers, pagans and licentious scoffers, sophists and apostates.
Then Paul had to deal with young, immature, conflicted churches spread across the Roman world. His cares included not only unbelievers who sought his life but “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). Most pressing of all was not conflict with the opponents but conflict in the trenches, turmoil within the congregations, as in Philippi (Philippians 4:2–3), Rome (Romans 14–15), and Ephesus (1 Timothy). Paul himself was no stranger to the sting of personal conflict as he divided with Barnabas over John Mark (Acts 15:37–40) and found Peter in error in Antioch and “opposed him to his face” (Galatians 2:11).
Shine in the Shadows
Yet here, in the shadows of conflict — in its tensions, threats, and insecurities — here is where the light of truth shone out all the clearer. Timeless epistles were forged. Truth took a stand. Light thrashed against the darkness. Conflict clarified not only the mission, but the source of strength: God himself in Christ.
Instead of Christ’s messengers being silenced, they took heart. As Paul said to the Thessalonians, “Though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). Conflict? No, it’s not pleasant. But it is a great opportunity for our God. He speaks into conflict, and his words come alive with fresh power to those who are embattled.
Later, writing from prison, Paul encouraged the Philippians that it was a gift (“granted to you”) to “suffer for [Christ’s] sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:29–30). Moving and speaking to spread the gospel brought conflict. And in that conflict, the word of God did not fade. It flourished.
Our conflicted times, and conflicted relationships, do not increase our earthly comforts, but they need not shake our confidence in heaven. The Scriptures were forged in such times, in the most challenging of days. The lead characters suffered. They did not live easy lives. The greatest figure of all, God himself in human flesh, anticipated as Messiah for centuries, was executed in public on a horrible Roman cross. And no servant of Christ is greater than his Master.
How tragic, then, when we allow the swelling of tensions and the uptick of trials to push us away from God’s word, rather than to him. God gave us his word for pandemics. And for civil and political unrest, and for crises of public information. We see afresh, in such times, how God’s words are the one real rock in a world of sand.
Our foes today may feel like many: from within the church, and without. From professing believers and unbelievers. Perhaps someone we once knew well and who was close to us now has turned on us in some way, whether through betrayal, denial, or abandonment. Our God is not surprised by the many dangers, toils, and snares that come upon us. Neither should we be (1 Peter 4:12). Our conflicted times are in his hands, lovingly sifted through his fingers, in all their pain and difficulty. And they are a setup: for the beauty and strength of his voice.
For Times Like These
As we endure fightings without and fears within, what a Savior we have who has gone before us, promises to be with us (Matthew 28:20), and has poured out his own Spirt on us for precisely such times. In his own conflicted days on earth, he turned to the word of his Father, rather than away, when pain pressed in on him. God’s word was his life and preserved his faith — not just in the wilderness but even at the cross itself, where the Psalms he had learned and cherished from childhood found the very setting they long anticipated, even as they flowed from the embattled life of a great king a millennium before.
God’s words have been a peacetime balm for countless millions. Cherish them, meditate on them, find strength in them on the brightest and warmest of days. And as our days of great peace come, may the clarity and power of God’s words not abate. But when life gets hard, opposition arises, enemies approach, and peace collapses into conflict, lean hard on the words of God. They swell in their power and thrive at new depths in assaulted souls.