The year was 391. A man named Telemachus, a Christian monk, traveled on a pilgrimage to Rome.
While there, Telemachus noticed crowds of people entering the Colosseum in Rome. He followed the people into the Colosseum. When he arrived, the sight he saw repulsed him.
What he saw were gladiators preparing to do battle. The Roman Emperor was celebrating his triumph over the Goths. The gladiators were armed with spears and swords. They reenacted the battle, complete with some of the gladiators dieing.
After the reenactment, the bodies of the dead were dragged from the arena. The bloodied surface of the Colosseum was covered with a fresh layer of sand. Then a new group of gladiators came into view. Some of them were armed with swords and spears, others with nets. The crowd in the Colosseum watched with excitement as those gladiators tried to outdo each other.
When a gladiator was wounded, his opponent would loom over him, waiting for the crowd’s verdict on whether to kill him or let him live. So great was the bloodlust that at times wealthy spectators paid the price to be allowed to climb down from the stands to get a better view of the execution.
Telemachus watched all this with horror as battles raged, people died, and the crowd cheered. After a time, the monk knew he had to do something. What he did was make his way onto the Colosseum floor. He then ran toward two gladiators locked in battle, grabbed one of them, and pulled him away. He yelled at the two gladiators, urging them to abandon their murderous sport. He then appealed to the crowd to stop calling for the breaking of God’s law by murdering.
The response to Telemachus was anything but favorable. Angry voices drowned out his voice, those voices demanding that the spectacle continue.
The gladiators prepared to do battle again, but Telemachus stood between them, holding them apart, urging them to reconsider. Driven by the anger of the crowd and their own rage at Telemachus’ interference, the gladiators cut Telemachus to the ground. As the crowd threw things at him, Telemachus died.
What a sad thing happened that day in the Colosseum. However, Telemachus’ death was not in vain. It took a while, but 14 years later the Emperor declared gladiator battles were to end. It is reported that Telemachus’ courage helped that decision to be made.
Courage is what we will be discussing today as we complete a series of messages on four of the qualities God wants His people to have.
Earlier this month, in the first three parts of the series, we talked about the qualities of mercy, the desire to bear witness for Jesus, and discipline. For today, the fourth quality will be discussed. It is the quality of courage - spiritual courage - defined, as Telemachus displayed, as the willingness to say and do the right thing regardless of the earthly cost. The ability to do that because of the knowledge that God promises to help us. An act takes courage if it will likely be painful physically or emotionally.
There are many Bible passages that teach the need for courage. Two of them will be covered in this message. The first one is in John 16, the last part of verse 33.
That verse records just a bit of what Jesus shared with His disciples shortly before His arrest and crucifixion. What He shared during the last meal He had with His disciples before His death on a cross. In fact, the way it is recorded, it was the last thing Jesus said in a long conversation with His closest followers. A conversation that started back in John 13.
The last part of John 16:33 records these words of Jesus. “In the world you have tribulation, but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”
What a downer the first part of that passage is. In the world you have tribulation, tribulation meaning great trouble, great suffering, pressure, oppression.
That is not a happy thought, but Jesus’ disciples already knew that. They knew it from how they had seen Jesus being persecuted for the three years of His ministry.
Of course there were some who believed Jesus’ teachings, and this came shortly after what we know as Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of praise and prayer, but many other times He had been questioned by the important people of the day. Sometimes He was opposed by common people who were afraid of His power. And earlier in this conversation, Jesus had made comments predicting the suffering He would soon endure - the beatings, the whipping, the mocking, the false trials, the crucifixion.
Jesus had experienced tribulation. He was going to experience more tribulation. So, too, would His disciples experience that, right away as they would watch Jesus’ suffering and death, and later as they, too, would be persecuted for continuing His ministry.
Is the same true for us? Does the world hold tribulation for God’s people even now? I dare say it does. We know persecution happens to Christians many places around today’s world. To a lesser extent it happens in our country as sometimes living our the Christian faith and speaking in favor of Jesus is considered politically incorrect.
Beyond that, how about the suffering and pressure of life in general as some suffer economically and some suffer in bad relationships and some suffer physically, including with diseases?
I used to think when a person accepts Jesus as Savior, everything from that moment on should be absolutely wonderful and peaceful and happy. That a Christian should never again experience any kinds of problems.
Now I am wiser. Now I realize Jesus never promised a carefree life to His followers. In fact, He did say, “In the world you have tribulation.”
That is the downer part of the passage. What follows is so much more positive.
“But be of good cheer.” Do not be overcome by the troubles. Why? Well, as we discussed in last week’s message from a passage written by the apostle Paul, suffering is good when it helps us develop endurance, which is good when it helps develop us character, which is good when it helps us develop hope.
But there is also this. Jesus added that we can be of good cheer because, He said, “I have overcome the world.”
Jesus knew what was going to happen with the ultimate persecution, which would be His death on the cross. However, He also knew that on the third day after His death, He would rise from the dead. He knew that a few weeks after that, He would ascend to Heaven. He knew that no matter what the world did to Him, He would overcome it. He would survive.
We cannot, by ourselves, overcome the world. On our own, we do not have the strength and the wisdom to do that. But when we have Jesus with us, we can survive. Jesus shared that promise so His disciples and so we, His people today, can have the courage to face any and all tribulations that might or do or will come our way.
Easy? No. I certainly do not like the idea of suffering. But we can have courage. We need to have courage. That is a quality God wants His people to have. A quality we can have as we apply what the apostle Paul wrote in today’s second passage.
Ephesians 6:10-18. This passage comes toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Christians in the city of Ephesus. Toward the end of chapter 5 and in the beginning of chapter 6, Paul addressed family relationships - how wives are to treat their husbands, how husbands are to treat their wives and their children, and how children are to obey and honor their parents. Paul also taught the proper relationship between slaves and their masters.
Then in verse 10 he wrote, “Finally…” That word means that what follows applies to family and business relationships, but also to everything else in life. “Finally, be strong in the Lord.” Another way of wording it is to have courage. The courage needed to follow Jesus and stand up for Him. “Be strong in the Lord by using the strength of His might.” Might available as we put on - verse 11 - “the whole armor of God.”
What is that armor? Verses 14 through 17.
“Gird your loins with truth.”
That refers to putting on what we would call a belt. For a Roman soldier, which was Paul’s point of reference, it kept his tunic from being so long it threatened to catch his feet and trip him. The belt also was place to hang his sword.
What is to be our belt? Our belt spiritually? What is to keep us from tripping spiritually?What is to keep us ready to fight against the enemy of sin? What is to keep us from being overcome by tribulation? Truth. The truth that is the word of God. Knowing God’s word and using it as a belt will keep us going.
“Put on the breastplate of righteousness.”
A breastplate was a crucial piece of equipment for a soldier because it protected his heart. There are of course other critical parts of the body, but if your heart is injured, there is not much hope for survival.
What is to be our spiritual breastplate? Righteousness, defined as treating God and others rightly. Doing that will be good for God and for others, but it will also be good for us. It will protect our hearts so we can have the courage to overcome the tribulations of life.
“Shod your feet with the equipment of the Gospel of peace.”
Not everyone in the days of Paul had shoes. It was a privilege to have them. Think how important shoes are for soldiers. Shoes keep their toes from being stubbed. They keep rocks from puncturing the skin on the soles of their feet. Shoes keep the feet warm. It is easier to move quickly when shoes are worn.
What are to be our spiritual shoes? The Gospel of the peace of Jesus. And yes, telling others about Jesus, upholding the Gospel of Jesus, can be scary. It was scary for Telemachus, the subject of the opening story of this message. It was dangerous for the woman in the story that will be shared a bit later. But we are to have the courage necessary to tell others about Jesus and uphold His word. The Gospel gives us what to say. We need to put on the Gospel so we can tell others about Him.
“Take the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.”
Also important is the shield a soldier carried. Especially the kind of shield used at that time. It seems one of the most dangerous weapons of Paul’s day were darts tipped with a flammable substance, set on fire, and projected toward the enemy. The shield referred to by Paul was made of two layers of wood glued together. When a flaming dart hit a shield, the tip would go through the first layer of wood. The fire would be snuffed out and the danger of that dart would be over.
As mentioned, there are lots of problems in life. Lots of temptations are thrown at us, including temptations to not stand strong for Jesus. But we can be strong. We can have courage. Courage is a quality we can have when we carry the shield of faith. When we trust the Lord enough to walk closely to Him, we can survive.
“Take the helmet of salvation.”
As mentioned, the heart is important. The feet are important. So is the head important. So Roman soldiers wore helmets when in battle. Special helmets that covered the whole head except for the face, which means nothing could hurt the head from behind. Neither could anything hurt them from either side.
What is to be our helmet? Salvation. Applying that to Roman helmets, think of the significance of what Paul wrote. No matter what we have done in the past, it does not affect our relationship with the Lord now. With protection on both sides, there is nothing the devil can do that will distract us from being spiritually successful. That will be the case as we keep our attention on what is ahead, looking forward to more blessings from the Lord, all the way until we reach the wonder and the beauty of Heaven.
With the helmet of salvation protecting us, we can have spiritual courage. Then “take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Have we noticed that all the armor mentioned is defensive in nature? Except this last part, which is an offensive weapon.
A sword - the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God - is the only weapon we need. And like it was with Telemachus and as it was with the girl at the center of the story in just a moment, we might not survive physically when facing tribulation, but we will survive spiritually when we fight with the word of God.
Verse 18. What makes it possible for us to have and put on and benefit from the whole armor of God? Prayer. Paul wrote, “Pray at all times.” That is what will help us to have and keep wearing the armor of God.
The story about a woman who stayed true to God comes from Cambodia. I do not know the year, but it was sometime late in the 20th century.
One day, as a pastor was reading from his Bible to the group of Christians he shepherded, men with guns broke into the home, terrorizing those who had gathered there to worship.
The soldiers were Communists, who began shouting insults. They threatened to kill the Christians. The leading officer pointed his gun at the pastor’s head. “Hand me your Bible,” the officer demanded. Reluctantly, the pastor handed over his Bible. The officer, with a sneer on his face, threw the Bible - the word of God - on the floor.
The officer then glared at the congregation. He shouted, “We will let you go, but first, you must spit on this book of lies. Anyone who refuses will be shot.”
One of the soldiers pointed his gun at one of the men. “You first,” the soldier said.
The man slowly moved and knelt down by the Bible. Reluctantly, he spat on it, praying, “Father, please forgive me.” The man stood up and walked to the door. He was indeed allowed to leave.
“OK, you,” the soldier yelled, nudging a woman forward. In tears, the woman could barely do what the soldier demanded. She spat only a little, but it was enough. She, too, was allowed to leave.
Quietly, a 16-year-old girl went forward on her own. She knelt down and picked up the Bible. She wiped off the spit with her dress. “What have they done to Your Word?” she asked. She then prayed, “Please forgive them.”
The Communist soldier put his pistol to her head. He pulled the trigger. The young girl died. But remember the definition of courage. Courage is the willingness to say and do the right thing regardless of the earthly cost.
Courage is what that girl had. It is what Telemachus had. It is to be what we have.
No, we will likely never find it necessary to stand between gladiators surrounded by a bloodthirsty crowd of people. We might never find ourselves being forced to desecrate a Bible. But we are called on, every day, to face the problems of life, meeting them with the armor of God so that in all things, we will have the courage to know and obey all the teachings of Jesus about how to live. To do that even when opposed or ridiculed or ignored or rejected by other people.
Again, Jesus had the courage to do that. He is willing and able to help us have that courage as well.
* * * * *
As has been shared this month, God wants us to have mercy. To withhold wrath, showing compassion or forgiveness to someone within our power to punish or harm.
God wants us to bear witness for Him. He wants us to tell others about Him. All others, including our children.
God want us to have discipline in all areas of life, including, among other things, what TV programs we watch, how we spend our money, the types of clothes we wear, the company we keep, how we handle whatever business we do.
As has been discussed in this message, God wants us have courage. The courage to say and do the right things regardless of the earthly cost.
God wants us, His people, to have mercy, the willingness to tell others about Him, discipline, and courage. As mentioned throughout this series of messages, the point is not to make anyone feel bad if we do not yet have those qualities fully developed. However, it must be our goal to develop them. To have that goal as strongly as today’s final story indicates.
The year was 1968. It was the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico, during the marathon.
The Olympic stadium was packed and there was excitement as the first athlete, an Ethiopian runner, entered the stadium and began to circle the track. The crowd erupted with cheers as he crossed the finish line.
Way back was another runner. He was John Stephen Akwhari of Tanzania. He had been eclipsed by the other runners. Then his head began to throb. His muscles started to ache. Both those things caused him to fall, causing a serious leg injury.
Race officials wanted Akwhari to retire from the race, but he refused. With his knee bandaged, he picked himself up and hobbled as he continued on his way.
Finally, an hour after the winner had finished, Akwhari entered the stadium. Almost all the crowd had left, but he made his way around the track. It was a painstakingly slow pace he had, but he did cross the finish line, doing so to the cheers of those who remained in the stadium.
After the marathon, when asked by a reporter why he had not dropped out, Akwhari said, “My country sent me, not just to start the race. They sent me to finish it.”
As Christians, we have all started the race toward mercy, telling others, discipline, and courage. May we remember that the Lord - the one who sent us on that journey - also wants us to finish. As Akwhari, we might be beat up along the way. We might stumble and fall from time to time. But the important thing is to get up and keep moving. To keep developing all the qualities He wants us to have.
You know who is cheering us on? The one who will be with us until we cross the finish line. The Lord. What a joyful thought that is.
Today’s closing is a reading that is based on the hymn Be An Overcomer, which is based on part of today’s first Bible passage. It also uses the word that is today’s theme. The word “courage.”
Be an overcomer.
He who stands with you is a mighty one who is always true.
In the most difficult conflict, you shall win the day,
so face the dark legions until they flee away.
Never yield a step in the hottest fight.
God will send you help from the realms of light.
In God’s might put the foe to flight
and the victor’s crown you shall wear at last.
Be an overcomer.
Boldly forward go.
You are strong enough if you trust God.
Strong enough to conquer, through sustaining grace,
to overcome every foe you face.
Never yield a step in the hottest fight.
God will send us help from the realms of light.
In God’s might let’s put the foe to flight
and the victor’s crown we shall wear at last.
God, among other things, You want Your people to be merciful, to tell others about You, to be disciplined, and to have courage in both the scary times of life like those represented in two of today’s stories and the normal times of life we face each day. While all those qualities might not yet be fully developed, in at least some of us, the goal is to continue the process. To continue the race toward them, knowing that on the way and whenever we cross the finish line, there You are and will be, continuing to cheer for us. Thank You, Lord. Amen.