Rules of engagement
Rules of engagement determine how military operations are conducted. Those rules are extremely important, as they provide consistent, understandable, and enforceable standards for how military forces act in times of war.
As Christians, we are engaged in serious warfare – the cosmic conflict between God and Satan (Ephesians 6:12, NRSV). Do we have any rules of engagement so that our victory in this great controversy will be sure and certain?
The Gospel of Luke gives us a clue at its outset. Here Luke tells the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the first two individuals to be directly involved in the redemptive mission of Jesus. The Gospel’s portrayal of the childless couple informs us of at least five rules of engagement – the nature and modalities of our partnership with God in His plan to save the world.
Rule 1: Obey the will of God our Commander unflinchingly.
Both Zechariah and Elizabeth “were upright in the sight of God, observing all the commandments and regulations blamelessly” (Luke 1:6). The notion of obedience almost feels offensive to rugged individualists and even to so-called “liberated” Christians. However, as followers of Jesus, we are conscious that we are involved in a spiritual warfare against the rulers, authorities, and powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:10-18); we do not even understand the nature of the enemy’s operation. Our only safety and effectiveness is found in staying close to the counsel and guidance of our Commander in Chief, factoring His instructions and values into the simple as well as the complex decisions we make on a daily basis.
Rule 2: Obedience is no insurance against life’s perplexities.
Although Zechariah and Elizabeth were obedient to God and willing soldiers in His great army of righteousness, “they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years” (Luke 1:7). Unflinching obedience to God is no insurance against life’s problems and perplexities. When faced with life’s darker realities, a question that is commonly asked is, “Where did I go wrong, or what have I done to deserve this?” The assumption behind such a question is either self-doubt (“Was I really obedient?”) or self-righteousness (“I was obedient, but does God care?”). Such was certainly not the case with Zechariah and Elizabeth, for they were blameless “in the sight of God.”
That is not to say we do not reap the consequences of our wrong choices, but here, such was certainly not the case. One cannot imagine a more natural and legitimate wish and prayer for a God-serving and God-honoring young couple: to have a child, a fruit of their love and union to brighten their home. Coming from a priestly lineage, they would be very familiar with the words of the Psalmist, “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your sons will be like olive shoots around your table. Thus is the man blessed who fears the Lord” (Psalm 128:3, 4). Yet they had been deprived of the blessing and were now “well along in years.” In life’s warfare, God’s people must live with the reality that faithfulness and obedience are continually confronted with the puzzles and perplexities of this sinful world.
Rule 3: Remember that God answers the prayers of His people; He answers in His time and in terms of His greater purpose to save the world.
Zechariah and Elizabeth led a life of obedience, prayer, faith and hope, and yet life seemed bewildering. Even as they accepted this perplexity of childlessness, God chose to answer their prayers to fulfill His purpose in the great controversy. The answer could not be mistaken: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son” (Luke 1:13).
One can imagine the angel Gabriel taking a pause after uttering the first phrase, “Your prayer has been heard.” Zechariah may have wondered to which prayer the angel was referring, because he was a man of prayer who regularly and daily presented his petitions and supplications. Gabriel was referring to a prayer Zechariah probably forgot: the prayer for a child. After all, both he and Elizabeth were “well along in years.” They had forgotten. God had not. They had passed the age of child bearing; but nothing is impossible for the Commander in Chief. He always answers, but does so in His time and in terms of His greater purpose.
Their son was to bring them great joy and delight; he would be filled with the Spirit and would prepare the way for the Lord Jesus. He would “go on before the Lord in the power and spirit of Elijah” (Luke 1:17 NIV). God’s answers are always the best for us and contribute to the advancement of His cause. Greatness in the sight of God is not measured by the way world defines greatness – power, fame, wealth, and position – but by our usefulness in the kingdom’s cause.
Rule 4: Because nothing is impossible for our Supreme Commander, with whom we are in partnership, He expects us to believe the unbelievable.
Imagine Zechariah’s astonishment at the momentous announcement. “How can this happen?” he asked. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (vs. 18). One would expect some sympathy from the angel; a few words of explanation would have helped. Instead, Zechariah was chastised for his unbelief, at least temporarily. “And now you will be silent and not be able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which come true at their proper time” (vs. 20).
The human heart tends to assess our predicaments in terms of the resources we naturally dispose of and thus overlooks the fact that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Jesus. As we yield to this tendency, we weaken our position as God’s representatives in the great controversy. But our Commander in Chief continually draws our attention to His sacred Word to acquaint us each day with the infinite resources at our disposal and with the certainty of victory in our spiritual warfare. Therefore, God’s rules of engagement demands: “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His power” (Ephesians 6:10, NRSV).
Rule 5: There is always a good ending to the story of our partnership with our Commander in Chief.
Finally, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the story of their faith, prayer, obedience and hope, ended well. The elderly priest makes a great prayer of confession: “[God] has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people” (Luke 1:25). Taking away our disgrace, restoring our dignity, giving us a place of honor in partnering with Him in the greatest of all rescue operations: this is what our Commander in Chief offers us. Soon there will be an end to our earthly story and a beginning of an eternal one at His second coming. Yes, there is indeed a good ending to our story as we embrace His rules of engagement.
Gilbert R. Cangy
Youth Ministry Director, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists