Are you a coward?
That’s the horrifying question I asked myself as a believer the first time I read the 21st chapter of Revelation, as recorded by the Apostle John at Patmos. It is a rich and riveting account filled with vivid promises of final victory that captures the imagination and bring the believer to his knees in contemplation of an eternity without suffering, sadness, or even death. And yet, abruptly, in the middle of that hope-filled chapter where God lovingly wipes away every tear, we are confronted with the devastating flip-side of a much different outcome.
Some people, in various states of spiritual malignancy, will be tossed into the lake of fire and sulfur. And first on the list, and perhaps foremost, are the cowards:
“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” – Revelation 21:8
This verse should immediately snatch the breath from any sensitive Christian. The “cowardly”? Is there a believer in all the world who has never struggled with doubt nor shrunk back in fear from earthly trouble? Is anyone thus saved? Am I saved?
The Definition Of The Cowardly
The Greek word deilos translated in Revelation 21:8 as “cowardly” in the ESV is also defined as “fearful” or “timid” in other translations, but as the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges maintains, the translation that expresses the sense “more accurately, at least in modern English” is, quite bluntly, “the cowards.”
Indeed, coward is an ugly epithet. The harsh, unyielding tone of this English translation is obviously informed by the surrounding biblical context where the theme of God’s wrath and judgment is in full view, and is contrasted by the beautiful victory of those believers who are the opposite of cowardly: the brave martyrs who refused the mark of the Beast, and are named in the preceding verses as the “thirsty” and the “overcomers.”
It should be noted here that “deilos” is only used in two other places in the Greek New Testament (Matthew 8:26; and Mark 4:40), and both are found in the same context of Christ and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee during a tempest, when Jesus refers to the occupants of the boat as “fearful” for not trusting in His protection. No doubt the disciples were cowardly in this instance, but it was a teaching moment for the Lord to bring a gentle rebuke for their lack of faith. In this case, the muted word “fearful” would seem to be more appropriate to the Lord’s situational intent.
Nevertheless, the charge of fearfulness or cowardice is alarming to the sincere Christian in any situation, and is one of the most humbling issues with which to be confronted. Such was the case of the often-proud Peter who emphatically swore he would never deny Jesus, and yet did so thrice when faced with suffering the same fate as his Master, who was then under brutal arrest. Indeed Peter was shown to be a coward in that pivotal moment, but the Lord had chosen him for greater things, and eventually Peter, as an apostle, was proven an overcomer and champion of the faith by God’s grace and power after Jesus’s resurrection. And the humility he learned after Christ’s arrest would forever set the tone for his ministry, even unto his own death.
This, too, is what the true believer strives for, though not by way of Peter’s apostolic prominence. Yet even in our humble status, we are asked to fight the same spiritual battle from which we, too, must not shrink until the final victory is achieved by Almighty God Himself. Whether we tremble on a stormy sea or crumble under extreme pressure, we can find refuge in Christ to learn from these moments of weakness and “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). Ultimately, with God’s help, those times of fear can be overcome by perseverance in the faith.
The Old Testament Model For Spiritual Warfare
So how do we rise as brave soldiers to the occasion and avoid being finally judged cowards destined for the lake of fire? In what way will we find ourselves among the blessed “thirsty” and the victorious “overcomers”? We find many of the compelling answers in the Old Testament and in God’s dealings with the Israelites, His chosen people among the pagan nations.
In Deuteronomy 20, the Lord carefully lays out to them His specific laws concerning the engagement of warfare, and it has tremendous application for Christians today as we engage in our own present battles “not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
In this passage from Deuteronomy, God makes it clear that when the Israelites go out to war against their enemies, they are commanded to do two things: firstly, don’t be fearful; and secondly, trust God to bring the victory. Here again, a clear warning against cowardice comes into play. The Hebrew words used here for fear, fearful or fainthearted (“yare” and “rakh”) all correspond to the Greek word “deilos” that is also used in Revelation 21, and so we have this meaningful connection to bring us further enlightenment on the matter.
Here God insists upon faith, not as evidence of a commendable brashness and derring-do, but as a sign of humble submission to Him and trust in Him to bring success in the battle. He told the Israelites to ignore the size of the enemy’s army and the massive number of their horses and chariots, and to see instead the greater advantage: “The Lord your God is he who goes with you to fight and give you the victory.” Ultimately, then, the triumph and the glory goes to God and Him alone, and thus we march into battle with full hearts of faith, knowing that God shall prevail.
Convincing the Israelites of this fact was not always easy, however. God’s laws in the Mosaic economy were but a tutor to them that would find perfect fulfillment in the substance of Christ Jesus, but for now they struggled in the shadow despite God’s intimacy with them. Note well that God made concessions for the weaker among them: those who feared and were more concerned with their earthly desires and occupations. God knew that any fearfulness or love of the world would spread among their ranks if left to fester there. Those who coveted their homes, their vineyards, and their girlfriends more than God’s glory had no place in the battle to come:
Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying, ‘Is there any man who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. And is there any man who has planted a vineyard and has not enjoyed its fruit? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man enjoy its fruit. And is there any man who has betrothed a wife and has not taken her? Let him go back to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man take her.’ And the officers shall speak further to the people, and say, ‘Is there any man who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go back to his house, lest he make the heart of his fellows melt like his own.’ – Deuteronomy 20:5-8
The New Testament believer has much to learn in this passage. What a perfect picture of the worldly professor who cares more for his earthly affairs than the spiritual battle set before him. God in His mercy released the worldly Israelite from his military duty for the sake of the morale of the faithful; but in the spiritual warfare of the New Testament Church, God will not spare the abiding coward in the end. His contagious fear and faithlessness will only bring confusion within the Church and so his portion will soon be outside the congregation and one day in the lake of fire.
When disciples are called into service by Jesus to follow Him and put their “hand to the plow,” they must not look back to earthly considerations or make convenient excuses to avoid their pledge of duty. The man who suddenly felt the need to leave Jesus and “bury his father” was immediately challenged by the Lord for his ambivalence: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:22). This reply may seem harsh, but the Lord knew the man’s fearful heart and saw the telltale signs of one who is perhaps not fit for the Kingdom and the battle ahead.
The Thirsty Ones Are Fit For The Battle
Who is fit for the battle? Later in the Old Testament, we see that God’s laws concerning warfare were literally put to the test in Judges 7 when Gideon prepared the Israelites for battle against the Midianites. As first laid out in Deutoronomy 20, the Lord God sought to bring glory to Himself and reveal His mighty power to both sides of the conflict. In our feeble thinking, the number of soldiers and armaments matter much in war, but not to God. The Israelites in this instance greatly outnumbered the enemy and so God saw fit to winnow down their troops to show that “their own hand” had little to do with their impending victory:
The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home and hurry away from Mount Gilead.’” Then 22,000 of the people returned, and 10,000 remained. – Judges 7:2-3
Again, the Lord specifically calls out the “fearful and trembling” and uses the Hebrew words (“yare” and “chared”) associated with the Greek word for timid and cowardly. This time, however, the Lord is not content to send the remaining one-third into battle, even though the significantly smaller group presented themselves without fear. God would further test them by having them drink from the nearby stream that came from the spring of Harod. God observed each soldier’s disposition in the act of drinking and set aside an even smaller army to be led by Gideon.
And the Lord said to Gideon, “Every one who laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself. Likewise, every one who kneels down to drink.” And the number of those who lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was 300 men, but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the 300 men who lapped I will save you and give the Midianites into your hand, and let all the others go every man to his home.” – Judges 7:5-7
Down to 300 men against the Midianites who were like “locusts in abundance”! What must have Gideon thought?
On the face of it, this water test was completely random and arbitrary, and many fine theologians have cautioned against further speculation. There is wisdom in being cautious and in rightly handling the word of God for fear of injecting foreign ideas into the text. Most certainly we should strive to stay within the bounds of scriptural integrity, and yet the compelling context of this historical event naturally gives rise to thoughtful study and meditation. It is a fair question worthy of asking: why were the ones who lapped like dogs chosen to bring glory to God in battle? And why the curious reference to dogs?
Students of the Bible will surely see the echo of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:22-28, who persistently begged on her knees for her daughter’s healing. When Jesus refused her and labeled her a dog outside the house of Israel who had no right to “the children’s bread,” her response revealed her great humility.
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Immediately, Jesus commended her for her “great faith,” and her daughter was instantly healed.
Perhaps what the Lord saw in the Canaanite woman, then, was the same towering faith and cowering humility that God saw in the 300 men who quickly and sparingly lapped water like dogs prior to the battle before them. They were ready and eager to serve at a moment’s notice like a shepherd’s faithful cur. The two ways of drinking, according to Alexander Maclaren, obviously indicated a difference in the character of these men, and the preferred one was doglike:
“Those who glued their lips to the stream and swilled till they were full, were plainly more self-indulgent, less engrossed with their work, less patient of fatigue and thirst, than those who caught up enough in their curved palms to moisten their lips without stopping in their stride or breaking rank…
“Christ calls for self-restraint that we may be fit organs for His power, and bids us endure hardness that we may be good soldiers of His. If we know anything of the true sweetness of His fellowship and service, it will not be hard to drink sparingly of earthly fountains, when we have the river of His pleasures to drink from; nor will it be painful sacrifice to cast away imitation jewels, in order to clasp in our hands the true riches of His love and imparted life.”
This view hearkens back to the blessed people in Matthew 5:6 who thirst for righteousness, and especially in Revelation 21:6 where God finally gives the thirsty “the spring of the water of life without payment.” John MacArthur further describes the fiber of these dry souls in his sermon, The New Heaven and the New Earth:
“Isaiah [55:1] said, ‘Come, you who thirst. You with the parched souls.’ Simple imagery, this. It pictures a thirsty man. We don’t really know what it is to thirst. We’ve got water all over the place. We’ve got every imaginable kind of drink. We don’t live in an arid desert where we had to fend for ourselves, but they did. There was a desperation in terms of water. And people knew what it was to be thirsty. The Apostle John is hearing God say [in Revelation 21: 6], ‘It’s the thirsty one, it’s the one who’s not satisfied, it’s the dissatisfied one, it’s the one who knows he doesn’t have what he needs and craves it with every part of his being.’ Like Psalm 42:1-2 says, ‘Like the deer who pants after the water brook, so my soul pants after Thee, O God.’”
These are the humble few who are exhibiting weakness in their doglike humility, yet are separated from the cowardly because they press on to the spiritual battle and never give up because they fully trust God for the victory – despite their underlying fear of temporary suffering. They dare not ask Jesus as the fearful disciples did in Mark 4:38, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” True faith has already answered this question: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish…” (2 Peter 3:9).
Ralph Davis, in Focus On The Bible, points out this unique, yet ironic mixture of boldness and humility exhibited in the true soldiers of the faith:
“We sometimes dupe ourselves into thinking that a real servant of Christ is only someone who is dynamic, assured, confident, brash, fearless, witty, adventuresome, or glamorous — with one or two appearances on a Christian television network. Don’t think you are unusable because you don’t have that air about you. Christ takes uncertain and fearful folk, strengthens their hands in the oddest ways, and makes them able to stand for him in school or home or work. We must not forget how the writer of Hebrews describes those we sometimes call the ‘heroes of faith’: ‘They were weak people who were given strength to be brave in war and drive back foreign invaders.’”
As we see in the Old Testament, God sought a smaller contingent of faithful men to prove that victory against foreign foes was His, and not achieved in the physical might of His army. Victory would come by faith in God and His power, and so the water test separated the men who most exemplified what God was clearly looking for in their service: soldiers of great humility with a deep reliance and commitment to trusting in God alone for their provision in battle. This seems counter-intuitive to the world’s thinking, of course. The true warriors of Christ are never overly brash or self-assured, but neither are they cowardly. In fact, their bravery is much more evident when they humble themselves to the task and march into battle regardless of their inner fears.
As Josephus so brilliantly suggests, it is this “handful of such poor dispirited creatures” which brings the most glory to God when victory is achieved.
A Sober Assessment Before It’s Too Late
So are you a coward? It is a sobering question, and yet one that you may not be able to correctly answer until your personal faith is tested during times of spiritual conflict. Warren Wiersbe says a faith that can’t be tested, can’t be trusted. Too often, he says, what people think is faith is really only a “warm fuzzy feeling” about faith. And you can’t simply trust in a generic faith that you define outside yourself like the “faith of our fathers.” J. G. Stipe said that faith is like a toothbrush: everybody should have one and use it regularly, but it isn’t safe to use somebody else’s.
In other words, you cannot avoid the consequences of a necessary, lived-out faith; eventually you will be called to warfare with our many spiritual foes. Our Lord and Savior says so time and time again. Desertion will only damage the outward authenticity of your faith and calling, and potentially brand you as a coward and false professor.
A true, abiding faith in Jesus Christ will be tested in the furnace of affliction and spiritual opposition. Jesus warned his disciples that “if the world persecuted me, then surely they will persecute you” (John 15:20). He told us we will be “hated by everyone on account of My name, but the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). Such was the dire case presented in Revelation of those believers who refused the mark of the Beast and were faithful unto death. As Cesla Spicq noted, “It is a commonplace that human courage and cowardice are revealed in the face of death.”
Ah, but not all of us will be faced with such deadly persecution. There are subtler forms of spiritual opposition that must also be dealt with. To some, the swift punishment of death might seem a merciful luxury, but ongoing victimization might be much harder to bear and cause some to betray Christ in favor of the world’s tacit approval. In Matthew Poole’s mind, in fact, the cowardly in Revelation 21:8 can just as easily be those who “through fear of losing their reputation, estates, or honours” deny the Lord Jesus Christ or “dare not own Him.” The text further embraces, according to the Expositor’s Greek Testament, “all those who draw back under the general strain of ridicule and social pressure.”
Jack Cottrell, in his article, Who Are The “Cowardly” in Revelation 21:8, takes it even further in presenting the dilemma for professing Christians in America:
“As of now, in the American culture, we have not yet come to [life-threatening persecution]; but Christians are often called upon to take more subtle risks for Christ’s sake. Sometimes we must choose between faithfulness on the one hand, and such things as social popularity and acceptance, the respect of the intelligentsia, good grades in a college science course, or even our job.”
The question I’ve been asking myself lately is this: Have you set yourself apart from the world in order to show forth your faith and testimony as a true disciple of Jesus Christ? Is it possible that you sometimes relish the view from the broad road more than from the narrow path? Have you ever taken off the armor of God, or worse, put on the uniform of the enemy in order to blend in and find safe passage through this evil world? Are you showing signs of cowardice in your daily walk?
Jesus Christ says this:
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).
What do you think? Have you the submissive heart of an overcomer who denies self, lives boldly for Christ, and will lay down his life for Him (both literally or figuratively) because you know the victory is at hand? Or will you abide in fearfulness and one day suffer the same fate as unbelievers, the detestable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying?
Considering the unfolding reality of God’s victory over sin and death, and the breathtaking panoramic view of eternity described by John in the last two chapters of Revelation, it seems an easy choice to make. Read it, weep with joy, and be strong in the Lord.