Faith and Courage: No Cowards for Christ
We usually think of strength in physical terms. But the Bible often speaks of strength in reference to faith in God. This is seen at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, which contains Moses’ farewell sermon to Israel as the people of God prepared to enter the Promised Land. Moses reminded Israel that Yahweh fought for them (Deut. 1:21, 29-31; 3:22; 20:4; 31:6, 8). Therefore, Israel was to “be strong and courageous” as they entered the land (Deut. 31:6, 7, 23). They were not to fear the Canaanites, but they were to fear Yahweh (Deut. 4:10; 5:29; 6:13, 24; 8:6; 10:12, 20; 13:4; 14:23; 17:19; 28:58; 31:12, 13). This all comes together near the close of Moses’ sermon, as he exhorted Israel:
Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you. (Deut. 31:6, ESV)
Moses followed this by likewise commanding Joshua:
Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed. (Deut. 31:7-8)
Thus, Israel was to be courageous as they entered the Promised Land because Yahweh went with them. And Joshua was to courageously lead Israel because God went before him and was with him. God Himself also gave this same command to Joshua – “Be strong and courageous… I will be with you” (Deut. 31:23). When God again gave this command to Joshua, He tied courage with obedience to His law (Josh. 1:6-9).
Joshua later gave the command he received from Moses and God to all Israel, “Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. For thus the LORD will do to all your enemies against whom you fight” (Josh. 10:25). David gave this same command to “be strong and courageous” to his son Solomon in 1 Chronicles 28:20 (cf. 1 Kgs. 2:2).
Courage, Not Fear
The words “courage” and “courageous” occur at least 30 times combined in most English Bible translations, with the common refrain in the Old Testament to “take courage” or “be of good courage” (e.g., Num. 13:20; Judg. 20:22). At root, the word translated as “courage” connotes “strength.”
The command in Deuteronomy to “be strong and courageous” combines this Hebrew verb for being courageous with another term that more explicitly refers to being strong. Thus, both verbs in the command “to be strong and courageous” combine emphatically to call hearers to be strong in contrast to being weak.
The command to “be strong and courageous” is often contrasted with “fear,” with the implication that ungodly fear is a form of weakness. This contrast regularly occurs when the phrase “be strong and courageous” is used by Moses, Joshua, and David:
Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them. (Deut. 31:6, Moses to Israel)
Be strong and courageous… Do not fear. (Deut. 31:7-8, Moses to Joshua)
Do not be afraid or dismayed; be strong and courageous. (Josh. 10:25, Joshua to Israel)
Be strong and courageous and do it. Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. (1 Chron. 28:20, David to Solomon)
Thus, Israel’s leaders called their successors to have courage in the face of what weak men fear. Where did such courage find its basis? In the unassailable strength of their God. We see a similar contrast of “fear” and “courage” in Psalm 27, which begins with the questions, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (v. 1). Psalm 27 then closes, “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (v. 14). The Hebrew phrase here in Psalm 27:14 is similar to Moses’ command to “be strong and courageous,” only it adds a reference to the heart. Of course, this command in the psalm is for all who trust in the Lord. The same command is found in Psalm 31:24, “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!”
Courage for the Christian
In the New Testament, Jesus told the disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). While the ESV has “take heart,” the command is better rendered as “take courage” (LSB, NASB95, NET). This is how the ESV translates the same word in Acts 23:11, when Jesus told Paul, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” The Septuagint (LXX), consistently uses the same Greek word to translate the Hebrew phrase, “do not fear” (e.g., Gen. 35:17; Ex. 14:13; 20:20; 1 Kings 17:13). In both Testaments, courage is contrasted with fear. Jesus told His disciples and Paul not to fear, but to be courageous because He who conquered the world was with them. The same goes for all who trust in Christ: be courageous because Jesus is with you.
Similarly, Hebrews 13:5-6 says, “be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” Thus, Hebrews quotes God’s words to Joshua that He would not leave or forsake him (Josh. 1:5; cf. Deut. 31:6, 8), followed by a quote from Psalm 118:6 that because God is with us, we can say, “I will not fear.” We can say this “confidently” – or better, “courageously” – as the Greek word is another form of the word Jesus used in John 16:33.
Toward the end of his first letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul says, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). The word translated “act like men” occurs only here in the New Testament, and it can mean “conduct yourself in a courageous way” (BDAG, 76). In this sense, the call to “act like men” has application for Paul’s female readers. However, not only does the prefix of the verb (ἀνδρ-, andr-) have an “emphasis on maleness” (BDAG), but courage in Scripture is often associated with godly masculine behavior. This is seen in the connection between courage and divinely commanded combat in the Old Testament (Judg. 20:22; 1 Sam. 4:9). Returning to those Old Testament texts we considered above, the Greek word andrizomai is used in the Septuagint for the command to “be strong and courageous” (Ισχυε καὶ ἀνδρίζου) (Deut. 31:6-7, 23; Josh. 1:6; 10:25; 1 Chron. 28:20 [LXX]).
All Christians are to be courageous by trusting Christ and not fearing our enemies, but men as leaders and protectors are especially to manifest courage in their thoughts, speech, and conduct. Christian men should not be soft or “effeminate” (1 Cor. 6:9, LSB, NASB95, KJV), but they should be strong and courageous, or properly masculine. It should not be missed that 1 Corinthians 16:13 combines the command to “act like men” (or “be courageous”) with the command to “be strong.” Thus, Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 16:13 is essentially a New Testament application of the timeless Old Testament command to “be strong and courageous” spoken by Moses, Joshua, David, and God Himself. Paul echoes the Old Covenant Church’s leaders in calling New Covenant Christians to be strong in Christ.
No Cowards for Christ
While Christians do not need courage for fighting Canaanites, we need courage nonetheless. The church and Christians around the world face many fearful things – employers who want to control us, politicians who want to silence us, and persecutors who want even to kill us. God calls us to obey His commands, which includes working our jobs, loving our families and communities, and rearing our children in the Faith. But He calls us also to stand strong amidst persecution and opposition. Such strength does not come from lifting weights (though this is a good practice), but by trusting in the Lord our God.
Revelation 21 is a well-known passage about the new heavens and the new earth. But have you ever noticed how it includes “cowards” in the list of sinners cast into the lake of fire? The KJV translates the Greek word here as “the fearful,” while many modern translations say “the cowardly.” Significantly, Revelation 21 lists “cowards” first – “But as for the cowards, unbelievers, detestable persons, murderers, the sexually immoral, and those who practice magic spells, idol worshipers, and all those who lie, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. That is the second death” (Rev. 21:8, NET).
While it may strike us as odd, there is a good reason that Revelation 21 lists “cowards” alongside murderers and the sexually immoral. The “faithless” or “unbelievers” are those who do not trust Christ, while “cowards” are those who profess to be Christians but are overcome with fear. They are Christians outwardly, but they fall when faced with persecutions. Cowards are weak and fearful rather than strong and courageous. Of course, all Christians struggle, and our faith can feel weak at times. We need the encouragement that God is with us (Heb. 13:5-6) and the exhortation not to fear. The dire warning implicit in Revelation 21:8 is one such exhortation: God is with you, so stop acting like a coward. Cowards go to hell (Rev. 21:8).
Consider one recent high-profile example of cowardice in the face of ungodly opposition in. In 2021, Bethany Christian Services, a Christian adoption and foster care agency, complied with State mandates to open services to homosexual couples. Had Bethany been courageous and obedient to the Lord, they could have refused to comply and made the State shut them down—instigating political backlash that might have forced the State to back down or at least make Bethany a symbol of resistance against secular wickedness. Instead, Bethany bowed the knee and aided their enemies. Their example of cowardice is condemnable; indeed, God condemns such compromising timidity.
A Spirit of Courage
We have too many cowards leading Christian institutions who cave to cultural pressure at every opportunity. We need Christians who live their whole lives for Christ. We need pastors who preach the whole counsel of God. We need college presidents who stand against the LGBT lobby. We need seminary professors who teach against the evils of rampant secularism, materialism, egalitarianism, and feminism that have infected the gospel ministry writ large. We need a church that speaks against abortion and transgender surgeries performed on minors – and legislators who will do something about it.
We need men like King Asa, who heard from the Spirit through the prophet Azariah that God was “with” him and that he needed to “take courage” (2 Chron. 15:1, 2, 7). Asa indeed “took courage,” and he proceeded to remove the “detestable idols” from the land, repair the Lord’s altar near the Temple, and lead Israel in worshiping and covenanting with God (2 Chron. 15:8-15). Courage in the Lord should lead God’s people to tear down idols and restore the worship of the risen Christ.
We have many dangers before us, but God is with us – the same God who led Israel into victory in Canaan and raised Christ from the dead. His Spirit indwells us (Rom. 8:9-11), and He is not a Spirit of “fear” or “cowardice” (2 Tim. 1:7; cf. 1:14). So do not fear but be strong and courageous, for it is the Lord who goes with you.
Zachary Garris (MDiv, RTS-Jackson; JD, Wayne State University Law School) is pastor of Bryce Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA) in White Rock, NM. He writes as KnowingScripture.com.