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.

Take Hold of Instruction

Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her for she is your life (Prov 4:13)

Being instructed is hard. It rubs against our pride by forcing us to admit that there is something lacking in us, and everything in our society tells us that we are complete and adequate in ourselves, just as we are. There is nothing in us that requires instruction, at least not morally; men are basically good in themselves. If there is a flaw, society will take care of that through its Department of Corrections. The emphasis in public education upon “self-esteem” undermines real instruction. No longer does a student have to master a certain body of material; he is given passing marks so that he will feel good about himself. As a result of this unBiblical philosophy, larger numbers of our society are having to be “corrected.”

But Solomon’s words to us – if they are followed – actually help us live satisfying lives, because they keep us humble. We don’t think “more highly of ourselves than we ought to think” (Rom 12:3). We recognize in these words that there is real life…satisfying life…fulfilling life…abundant life, not a pretense of life like we see in the characters on TV and the movies. That’s why Solomon tells us to “guard her.”

Primarily Solomon has the informal instruction of a parent to his child in mind, but it is not outside the meaning here to think of formal instruction. Some professions expect a certain amount of “Continuing Education” or “Professional Development” of their members. My own course in seminary is stretching me to read things that I might otherwise have set aside. In some cases I have read books that I had not known existed, books confirming certain convictions in me but which I had no idea had been put into print. The confirming of those convictions has been a great encouragement to me, in some cases delivering me from an “Elijah Syndrome,” the feeling of being all alone in my ministry.

I’m glad I “[took] hold of instruction.”

Testing Our Faith

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth (Josh 5:2-3).

This is one of the places in the Biblical narrative where geography plays an important role in understanding what is happening in this passage.

Joshua has taken over for Moses in leading Israel. To confirm this God parted the Jordan River at flood stage so that Israel could to cross into the land. This would imitate the great miracle He did in the leadership of Moses – the crossing of the Red Sea – and remind the people that Joshua was indeed God’s choice to succeed Moses. After the nation crossed, the river returned to its natural state.

The place that Israel crossed and camped was not far from the place where the Jordan River feeds into the Dead Sea. Geographically, this is the lowest point in elevation on the face of the earth. Within about 5 miles, and, more importantly, within sight was the fortified city of Jericho. Joshua, Israel’s military commander under Moses and now the political leader, was looking up at the city, with no place of escape behind him – not the place a military commander would seek to launch an attack from. It was at this point that God tells Joshua to circumcise his army, effectively disabling his army for 2-3 days. Had the king of Jericho tried, he could have launched an attack just then and destroyed completely the army that was threatening him. He, of course, didn’t know this but it didn’t make it any less significant that Joshua was risking the safety of his nation by immobilizing is army.

Why didn’t God have them do this before they crossed the Jordan? Why did He wait until the River had returned to flood stage? It was simply and solely because He wanted to test the faith of His leader. Joshua passed.

There are times when God tells His people to do what is totally against the dictates of human reason, but to do it at His command and in dependence upon Him. Tithing is such a command. In an age when there is such financial pressure on families, He still calls upon us to give a tithe (see Matt 23:23 and Luke 11:42). The idea is not that we deplete our resources; it that we honor the One who owns it all. And this often goes counter to accepted practice in our society.

A related area is that God promises us that if we seek first His kingdom, all our material needs will be cared for. So, should a Christian mom take a job and put her kids in day care or should she stay at home and instill the values in them that she believes? Should a teen take a part-time job that will require him/her to work on Sunday?

There are other apparently irrational things that God calls us to do that we should do in obedience, just like Joshua (e.g., consider Isaiah 40:31). If we are fully devoted to Him, He will test our faith.

When I Think of Christmas…

…I think of the Normandy Invasion, commonly known as D-Day. Years of planning went into that event. First, and the most obvious, was physically amassing the men and equipment needed to pull off the invasion. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, landing boats, airplanes, troop transports, weapons and ammunition, communication devices, food and medical supplies all were assembled despite the threat of German U-Boats that were intent on preventing the invasion.

Then there was the element of strategy. How could the Allies pull off a surprise invasion when the Germans knew that it would happen and would fortify the likely landing zone? We know now that the Allies used quiet gliders under the cover of darkness to allow the paratroopers to drop in behind the German fortifications and take the battle to them from both sides. Our leaders created a unique communication device – a clicker – so that the paratroopers could communicate with one another in the dark. They also used the Navajo language to securely communicate information because of the difficulty of breaking this code.

Finally there was the sacrifice. The loss of life would be great; the human suffering would be greater. But the goal of freedom required it.

Amid the quiet scenes of Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus in the manger, we tend to forget that there’s a war raging. It’s a war where the two sides have clearly defined goals: freedom, on the one side; tyranny, on the other.

For centuries the Triune God had been preparing for the invasion of His Son into the world so the intense battle could begin and the final victory won. Just as the Allies in WWII amassed the soldiers and equipment, so God prepared the players for His Invasion: the Roman peace, the Greek culture, the Jewish religion, a godly virgin woman, a morally upstanding fiancé.

Then there was the strategy. Despite the prophecies, the enemy of our souls never dreamed that the Deliverer would come in the innocence of a Baby. Perhaps Satan was looking for the Father to put His endorsement on a prophet or priest, already in the Jewish system. But he never dreamed that the Triune God would Himself take on human flesh to become one of His subjects. The defenses of the enemy – a brutal political world and a legalistic religious system – were no match for the strategy of the Incarnation.

But the War could not be won without sacrifice. Our soldiers at D-Day laid aside their comfortable surroundings for the hardship of war, in many cases not returning. But freedom was at stake. Our Lord laid aside the prerogatives of His heavenly home – the fellowship with the Father, the honor and majesty of His position – to come to this war zone and fight – again, because our freedom was at stake.

The pictures in our old newspapers of the joy of our returning soldiers after WWII are indelibly impressed upon our minds, as they should be. But how much greater will be the victory parade in heaven when the King of Kings rightfully assumes His place.Jesus…although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:5-11).

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.

Take Hold of Instruction

Take hold of instruction; do not let go. Guard her for she is your life (Prov 4:13)

Being instructed is hard. It rubs against our pride by forcing us to admit that there is something lacking in us, and everything in our society tells us that we are complete and adequate in ourselves, just as we are. There is nothing in us that requires instruction, at least not morally; men are basically good in themselves. If there is a flaw, society will take care of that through its Department of Corrections. The emphasis in public education upon “self-esteem” undermines real instruction. No longer does a student have to master a certain body of material; he is given passing marks so that he will feel good about himself. As a result of this unBiblical philosophy, larger numbers of our society are having to be “corrected.”

But Solomon’s words to us – if they are followed – actually help us live satisfying lives, because they keep us humble. We don’t think “more highly of ourselves than we ought to think” (Rom 12:3). We recognize in these words that there is real life…satisfying life…fulfilling life…abundant life, not a pretense of life like we see in the characters on TV and the movies. That’s why Solomon tells us to “guard her.”

Primarily Solomon has the informal instruction of a parent to his child in mind, but it is not outside the meaning here to think of formal instruction. Some professions expect a certain amount of “Continuing Education” or “Professional Development” of their members. My own course in seminary is stretching me to read things that I might otherwise have set aside. In some cases I have read books that I had not known existed, books confirming certain convictions in me but which I had no idea had been put into print. The confirming of those convictions has been a great encouragement to me, in some cases delivering me from an “Elijah Syndrome,” the feeling of being all alone in my ministry.

I’m glad I “[took] hold of instruction.”

Testing Our Faith

At that time the LORD said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth (Josh 5:2-3).

This is one of the places in the Biblical narrative where geography plays an important role in understanding what is happening in this passage.

Joshua has taken over for Moses in leading Israel. To confirm this God parted the Jordan River at flood stage so that Israel could to cross into the land. This would imitate the great miracle He did in the leadership of Moses – the crossing of the Red Sea – and remind the people that Joshua was indeed God’s choice to succeed Moses. After the nation crossed, the river returned to its natural state.

The place that Israel crossed and camped was not far from the place where the Jordan River feeds into the Dead Sea. Geographically, this is the lowest point in elevation on the face of the earth. Within about 5 miles, and, more importantly, within sight was the fortified city of Jericho. Joshua, Israel’s military commander under Moses and now the political leader, was looking up at the city, with no place of escape behind him – not the place a military commander would seek to launch an attack from. It was at this point that God tells Joshua to circumcise his army, effectively disabling his army for 2-3 days. Had the king of Jericho tried, he could have launched an attack just then and destroyed completely the army that was threatening him. He, of course, didn’t know this but it didn’t make it any less significant that Joshua was risking the safety of his nation by immobilizing is army.

Why didn’t God have them do this before they crossed the Jordan? Why did He wait until the River had returned to flood stage? It was simply and solely because He wanted to test the faith of His leader. Joshua passed.

There are times when God tells His people to do what is totally against the dictates of human reason, but to do it at His command and in dependence upon Him. Tithing is such a command. In an age when there is such financial pressure on families, He still calls upon us to give a tithe (see Matt 23:23 and Luke 11:42). The idea is not that we deplete our resources; it that we honor the One who owns it all. And this often goes counter to accepted practice in our society.

A related area is that God promises us that if we seek first His kingdom, all our material needs will be cared for. So, should a Christian mom take a job and put her kids in day care or should she stay at home and instill the values in them that she believes? Should a teen take a part-time job that will require him/her to work on Sunday?

There are other apparently irrational things that God calls us to do that we should do in obedience, just like Joshua (e.g., consider Isaiah 40:31). If we are fully devoted to Him, He will test our faith.

The Anchor

Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (Rev 1:3).

Theologians and Bible teachers have debated for centuries what “this prophecy” refers to. Does John promise blessing for reading the twenty-two chapters of the Book of Revelation or is the blessing for those who read the whole of the Scripture? We won’t resolve this debate in this blog, but we will testify to the blessing that reading either this book or the whole of the Scripture brings.

For more than 30 years I have been committed to reading the Bible, cover to cover, each year. It started with merely reading five minutes a day. My reasoning went something like this, “If God created me and has a purpose for my life, should I not set apart – at a minimum – five minutes each day to listen to Him?” Certainly He deserves much more than a mere five minutes, but since I could not predict how my life would go and what demands would be placed upon it over the course of time, I vowed only to this small amount. Still, that vow has kept me in the Scripture daily – usually for more than five minutes. On the rare occasion when I have failed, I have been conscious that the Holy Spirit has awakened me – sometimes from a very deep sleep – and has prompted me to fulfill my vow.

This vow to read the Word has created stability in my life like nothing else could. It has comforted me in trying times; it has reminded me of the Source of every blessing when times have been good, keeping me from thinking too highly of myself. When the world around me has been uncertain, whether due to politics, economics or personal loss, the Word has brought assurance that it will remain and that He is my refuge.

This vow has also brought real direction to me over the years. It has been – in the words of David – “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). There have been many times when my daily reading schedule has brought me to a passage of Scripture that was clear direction for that moment, if not that day. Most of these have not been profound, out-of-body experiences, but the quiet confidence that I had heard from God.

Whether you regularly read all sixty-six books or just the last one, John’s promise is true – you will be blessed. Nothing can be an anchor to our lives like reading this Book.