Wrestling Against Powers

For we do not wrestle 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 ESV)

As Evangelicals we believe this verse, but most of us don’t understand it. I can’t say that I understand it fully either, but I read something this week that offered a bit more insight.

In Daniel 10:13 there is a reference to the “prince of Persia,” evidently a spiritual ruler or authority that has some influence over the whole nation. Since it was in opposition to the angel sent to comfort and aid Daniel, we understand it to be a demonic power. To my knowledge this is the only clear Biblical reference to demonic powers that oversee individual nations, but I have no doubt about the veracity of this teaching. We just don’t have any authoritative supporting information.

But I offer an anecdotal reference. Just last week the German government sent armed law enforcement officers to a private home and removed the 4 children from the home. Their crime? They were homeschooling their children. In 1948 the international community responded to the abuses of the Hitler regime by declaring, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (Universal  Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26, Section 3). But now the German government is  rescinding this without any protestation from the international community. (This information was shared by ParentalRights.org in a recent communique.)

It seems that the same spirit that oppressed Germany under Hitler has reared its ugly head again. Is it just me or does it seem odd that the same oppression is being perpetrated upon the same people 65 years after it was defeated and declared to be evil (or at least associated with an evil regime)? Could it be that there really is a conflict going on in the heavenlies that somehow effects us with real – sometimes dire – consequences, but about which most of us are oblivious?

Obviously, I believe the answer is “Yes!” I cannot explain how the conflict in the heavenly realms impacts our world, but I recognize that to make an eternal difference we need to drop the frenetic pace most of us keep and begin to pray more and fast more. If the real battle is in the unseen world beyond ours, we must learn to take the fight to that realm.

Worship and Fasting

 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3 ESV)

Many churches hold up the first century church as the standard to live up to, and they are correct. Some think that if they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a certain way or frequency, they are following the first century pattern. Some think that if they preach from the Scripture they are following the pattern to the full. Still others imagine that if they experience the signs and wonders that accompanied the apostles’ ministry, they can make the claim to be the “true church.”

Few however in our day follow the pattern set by the Church at Antioch. We don’t know how regularly they met for worship and fasting; this incident in Acts 13 may have been the only time. But personally, I think it was a regular thing.

“Worship” here is mentioned because they were honoring His Person. Worship is not just a rehearsal of all the things God has done for us; it is extolling His virtues, praising His character. It’s the difference between saying to your spouse, “Thanks for the good meal” and “You are a great cook!” Both are appropriate in the right context, but  the praise goes to character. The Scripture speaks of “seek[ing] His face” (Ps 27:8) (who He is) versus seeking His hands (what He does).

“Fasting” is usually associated with an intense need. The incidents of fasting throughout the Scripture are usually connected with a threat to the well being of the nation or the individual. In this case (Acts 13:3) it seems they fasted for the purpose of getting the next step right as the Church was going forward.

As the Church in America becomes more marginalized in the society, many who are earnestly seeking revival are returning to these practices. It is not enough to merely acknowledge His provisions to us; we are being drawn to worship Him, to adopt His values, to wait for His voice. I heard recently a comparison of worship to an orchestra whose Composer and Conductor is the Lord Himself. Sometimes He calls upon our “voices” to play a supportive role; at other times to play the melody; still other times we are to remain silent.

But turning from this metaphor, He has created us in His image so that we can be His partners in the grand cause of world evangelization, “that the whole world may know that He is God.” Just as the Church in Antioch expressed their urgency through fasting, it needs to be revived in the Church again. We need to fall on our faces before Him that all men everywhere would repent and seek Him.

Solemn Assembly

Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast, call a sacred assembly (Joel 2:15).

Economic disaster was imminent when Joel prophesied to the nation of Judah. Locusts had come through and had wiped out the crops. Unlike our day where we have grain stored away for years and we even bid on the FUTURE price of those commodities, when their crops were destroyed they didn’t eat till the next year (at least not that food).

Richard Owen Roberts, a student of revivals throughout history and an author on the subject, identifies the “solemn (or sacred) assembly” as the answer prescribed by God for any kind of imminent appeal to avoid disaster. When the “Ark of the Covenant” was captured by the Philistines, Samuel proclaimed a fast and called the people together to repent before God (I Sam 7). When kings Asa and Jehoshaphat were threatened by nations mightier than they were, they each called upon the people to fast and repent at a solemn assembly (2 Chron 14, 20). When God declared judgment for the sins of his grandfather, Manasseh, King Josiah was moved to repentance himself and called the people to the same in 2 Chron 34:29.

Usually the solemn assembly was accompanied by fasting because throughout the Old Testament, fasting was a sign of self-humiliation, mourning and repentance. It is significant that historically the singular sign of a repentant spirit was the willingness to mourn through fasting. That’s why the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) has historically been known as “the Fast” (see Acts 27:9).

God responds to the Solemn Assembly – not because there is anything magical about an assembly – but because He responds to brokenness and contrition. When Christians mourn and confess and repent of their sin He takes notice because He sees that we understand the seriousness of sin. When Isaiah wrote that Jesus was “crushed” for our iniquities in Isaiah 53:5, that word is the same Hebrew word that is translated “contrite” in Psalm 51:17 – “a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” The power of a single Christian’s repentance is significant, but when a group of Christians – as in a local church – gather to genuinely mourn their sin, His heart is moved to action on their behalf.

In our day the Church has decided that His blessing must rest upon the mega-church because everyone strives for “bigness.” Pastors flock to the seminars or books of the most recent “success” story to learn their “secret,” which they are glad to share – for a price. (I even have a book in my library on how to use fasting to grow your church – apparently the author sees fasting as one of the tools in a pastor’s ecclesiastical toolbox!) But Isaiah tells us that if God wanted to build a BIG ministry, He wouldn’t need us. What He is looking for are those who are “humble…contrite…and who tremble at His Word” (Is. 66:2).

Spiritual Warfare

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).

Apparently my life is too entrenched in the physical world that surrounds me, because this verse always strikes a chord with me. Reading this, along with Ephesians 3:9-10, I am reminded that there is an unseen spiritual presence that somehow impacts the affairs of men that I can see. What the connection is between the spiritual world of “principalities and powers” and our physical world of personal survival, caring and rearing our families, standing for Truth in the political world and promoting Christ is impossible to understand. Perhaps one day when this life is over, we will understand it.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 6:2, Paul speaks about the spiritual armor that we are to don as believers in this battle, but there is another passage that speaks about the weapons that we are to use. That passage is II Cor. 10:4-5 which tells us that our weapons are spiritual and can pull down the strongholds (in the spiritual world) that are impossible if we only see this as a world of space and time. The weapons to which Paul refers are, of course, prayer and fasting. Some might include giving since Jesus included this in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6).

Both of these “means of grace” (to use the term employed by the Reformers) are mysteries to most of us. Why does God need us to pray when He already knows what He wants done and has the power to accomplish it? Why did the ancients consider fasting to be a way “to make your voice heard on high”? Isn’t that what prayer itself does? If our Lord owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” and “the wealth of every mine,” why does He command us to give?

The answers to these are bound up in the reality that “our warfare is not against flesh and blood…” Somehow, what we do when we pray, fast and give impacts the spiritual world in ways that we will never completely understand while we are in this life. Certainly the practice of these disciplines creates a growth component for our lives here that will be satisfying while we remain on this side, but God’s purpose is much greater even than that. Somehow we make a difference in the unseen world, and the unseen world affects what happens around us. That’s why Psalm 149 can say that it is the glory of God’s people to pray and to impact the political world in far-away places (see vss. 6-9).

These spiritual disciplines can become wearisome to us at times, but we must continually feed on the Scripture to keep the truth before us that even if we cannot see visible results from these disciplines, they are effective in the unseen world.

Weeping Prophets

Although they say, ‘As surely as the LORD lives,’ still they are swearing falsely.” O LORD, do not your eyes look for truth? You struck them, but they felt no pain; you crushed them, but they refused correction. They made their faces harder than stone and refused to repent (Jer 5:2-3).

             The indictment that Jeremiah levels against the people of his day could equally be applied to America today. Many in our society use language that suggests they believe in the Lord, but there is little evidence apart from their speech. When God corrected ancient Judah – perhaps through economic struggles or natural disasters – they did not repent. When He disciplined them, they acted like they felt no pain. At the very least, they weren’t changed by the painful trouble.

             This wasn’t merely a phenomenon among one socio-economic class either. The verses that follow the ones above indicate that Jeremiah discovered that it didn’t matter what the individual’s financial status was. Rich and poor alike hardened their hearts and refused to repent.

             But the real tragedy was that he discovered that even the political and religious leadership possessed the same unrepentant spirit.

             A cursory scan of the American Church will reveal a similar heart among our people. Churches are more concerned with full seats than they are with full hearts. Few churches will take a stand against sin for fear of offending the network of family and friends of the sinner in the process.

             It doesn’t seem to phase us that there are more and more natural disasters plaguing our country. We don’t seem to care that our politicians wink at the most sordid immorality. We are willing to justify anything in the name of “tolerance,” lest we offend someone. God, by definition, must love us and therefore put up with any sin we choose to embrace, so we’re not concerned about offending Him. Yet these things and the problems they create should cause us to fall on our knees to wail over the offense we have brought to the true and living God.

             The unrepentant spirit of his people created in Jeremiah a mournful spirit that led subsequent generations to call him “The Weeping Prophet.” That same spirit appears to be returning to those who grieve the aforementioned sins. It’s not a spirit of depression so much as it is a spirit of mourning over the low spiritual fervor of the American Church. We see how few people consult God through the Scriptures; people who pray appear to be the exception rather than the rule in the Church; few denominations are growing statistically, and those that are have only marginal increases. One of the few positive signs is that those that are earnest in spirit are beginning to revive the ancient spiritual discipline of fasting as a way of appealing to the God of Israel.

             The answer to America’s problems will not be found in an election – even if it is wildly successful to conservative causes. The answer – just as in Jeremiah’s day – will only be found in a people willing to fall before the Lord without any hint of self- righteousness, who will grieve and repent of the sins of this land.

 

The Trust Fund

How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you (Ps 31:19).

                Unanswered prayer is the grief of many Christians today. There are usually no answers to the questions of “Why does He delay to answer me? Doesn’t He see how much I am suffering?”

                 As one who has wrestled with these questions many times, I have taken great comfort in Psalm 31:19. It seems that the Lord has a “savings account” of His goodness toward me that I will one day be able to cash in. Perhaps a better illustration would be a “trust fund,” because it is an account that cannot be drawn from whenever I would like. Someone else determines when I will receive it.

                 To access this “trust fund” of God’s goodness to me I must exercise the same kind of faith that a child with a financial trust fund would exercise. It is only a matter of time before I will receive my store of God’s blessing. I must trust that the Word of the One that is managing this fund is true. The only difference is that the time for me is uncertain while the child will know when his inheritance will be given to him.

                 While I am waiting for the display of His goodness the verse tells me the two things I must continue to do: fear Him and take refuge in Him. These are not passive, but active verbs. “Fear” carries the idea of seeking Him wholeheartedly, rather than in just a perfunctory way. “Taking refuge in Him” is an admission of our own weakness and inadequacy.

                 Some believe that this verse suggests that the display of God’s goodness to us will be apparent to all at the Judgment, but my opinion is that the phrase, “in the sight of men,” is that it will be here on earth, not just at a later time. David had earlier stated, “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Ps 27:13).

                 The Lord has His goodness in store for those who trust Him. We don’t always understand why He tells us that we must wait, and it sometimes distresses us when people around us are looking for external evidence of His reality, but He has His purposes, and those purposes are perfect.

                 Spirit of God, descend upon my heart. Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;

                Stoop to my weakness mighty as Thou art, And make me love Thee as I ought to love.

                Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh; Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear:

                To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh, Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

(George Croly, 1780-1860)

The Unseen World

In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house (Mark 3:27).

            Though most of us don’t understand much of it, the Bible makes it clear that there is an unseen world around us that somehow influences this world. This is Jesus’ subject in this passage of Scripture in Mark 3.

            The New Testament suggests a cosmology of angelic beings that exercise their power over various entities within our world. There seems to be a distinction in Paul’s mind between the various angelic beings that he describes in Colossians 1:16, “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities.” What exactly the various beings influence is unclear, but there is ample evidence to suggest that some of these beings influence individuals (for good or for bad) and some influence nations or perhaps, ethnic groups. In a vision the prophet Daniel describes one of these angelic beings as “the prince of Persia” (10:13), suggesting that his influence was over that whole nation or people.

             When Jesus was speaking in Mark 3, it appears that He was referring to this unseen cosmology because it was in the context of a discussion about Satan’s influence in this world. Satan is described as “the god of this world” in 2 Cor. 4:4, and the metaphor is changed to a house in Mark 3. But in both pictures Satan and his angelic majesties are in view and the reference to “the strong man” that must be bound is a reference to Satan or one of his demons. Jesus (and His body, the Church) are seeking to “carry off his possessions,” the people that are still under his dominion.

             The exact meaning of this statement, then, hinges on what it means to “bind the strong man.” Not only, it would appear, does the unseen world have influence over ours, but we in this world can exert some influence over that world as well, probably through prayer, fasting and other spiritual disciplines. In my opinion these disciplines are the means by which we become partners with Him in the work of the kingdom.

             I suggest that one of the ways we are to “bind the strong man” is by prayer for the people groups that are still unreached in our world. Satan is the one who has “blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (see again 2 Cor. 4:4). By “binding” him, then, we would release these people from the blindness so that they can see Christ and turn to Him.

             The Bible is clear in Matthew 24:14 that Jesus will return when the last person is reached with the Gospel. By binding Satan through prayer, we are partnering with Him in the great cause of world evangelization, and hastening His return.