The original photograph of Marines raising the American flag above Iwo Jima is well-known–possibly the most reproduced photograph in history. It may also be the most inspirational photograph of all time. Iwo Jima was a small, volcanic island of little strategic importance besides the fact that it held Japanese airfields, which the US hoped to capture and use for their own aircraft. After several days of bombarding the island by air, Marines made an amphibious landing on February 19, 1945, launching one of the fiercest battles of World War II.
The first major goal was the capture of Mount Suribachi. Only five days into the fighting, a patrol of Marines secured the summit and raised a small American flag to proclaim their success, although the island as a whole was far from won. Later that day a larger flag replaced the first, and became the official face of the battle for Iwo Jima and even the war itself. Combat raged for thirty-one more days following the flag-raising, ending in an American victory and the securing of Iwo Jima.
Seventy-one years later. The battle is history. Japan and America are no longer enemies. But that scene on the war-ravaged crest of a dormant volcano lives on. The triumphant ripple as freedom’s banner was lifted to the breeze—the eager strain of those arms planting a promise in bomb-shattered soil—the stark circle of men holding up a symbol that thousands below their feet were fighting to destroy. This picture presents a question: why sacrifice so many precious lives to win the privilege of raising the victor’s banner over a mass of rock and ash?
In a sense, the struggle for Iwo Jima was a reenactment of an even greater battle fought and won almost 2,000 years ago. The situation was surprisingly similar. A Man gave away His life on a hill just as barren and forlorn, dying for His friends, surrounded by multitudes of His enemies. A Banner was raised that day—not a square of cloth embroidered with bright colors, but a cross bearing the Son of God. That Banner was lifted to proclaim victory over sin—a victory shared by all who choose to stand with Christ—just as the Stars and Stripes were lifted to proclaim victory over Japan for America and all her allies.
John 3:14-15 “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” In John 12:32 Jesus stated, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” So because Jesus was lifted up on the cross, whoever believes in Him has eternal life. Because He died and rose again, we can live. And to show this victory to the world, Jesus was raised like a banner for all to see. Isaiah 13:2 “Lift ye up a banner upon the high mountain, exalt the voice unto them, shake the hand, that they may go into the gates of the nobles.”
Every person in the world is an Iwo Jima. A barren, eruptive dot in a vast ocean, occupied by the enemy. When we call on Jesus to save us from our sin, He fights the enemy for us, just as those armed forces did on Iwo Jima. We do not deserve rescue because of any virtue of our own. Iwo Jima means “sulfur island.” Interesting, considering that as sinners we face an eternity in the Lake of Fire, which burns with fire and brimstone, according to the book of Revelation. Brimstone is another word for sulfur. Our greatest value is in our greatest fault—that we are being used by the adversary. Liberty always desires to free the oppressed. God always wants to free those enslaved to sin. Jesus said in Luke 5:32, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9 “Not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
So why did those six soldiers plant a flag on Mt. Suribachi? They had not won the battle by scaling the summit and raising Old Glory; they had invaded but had not yet cleared the island of the enemy. However, both sides knew from the start who would ultimately conquer—the mere size and strength of the American army compared to the Japanese prophesied victory. Those men lifted their banner to the sky in faith that they would overcome not only the mountain they stood upon, but also the entire island. They were declaring to their opponents that this was now their territory.
Isaiah 59:19 “When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.” When Jesus saves us, He delivers us from the power of sin and Satan, but not from their presence. While we live on this earth we will daily battle the world, the flesh, and the devil. But when Jesus indwells us, He “sets up camp”—He plants His standard to mark His territory and let everyone know He intends to win the final battle, just like those Marines did on Iwo Jima. Psalm 20:5 “We will rejoice in thy salvation, and in the name of our God we will set up our banners.” Psalm 60:4 “Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth. Selah.” Romans 8:16 “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.”
The battle for Iwo Jima was and still is controversial. Many wondered why a campaign against a volcanic outcropping became so costly in lives and materials, and whether the ground won was worth the blood spilled. I am sure the angels wondered how ransoming the lives of men could ever be worth the life of the sinless Son of God. I have often questioned why God bothered to die for me—I know I never could deserve the price He paid for my rescue. But I am forever grateful that He considered me a victory worth fighting for.