FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (ESV) John 8:31-36

 When we talk about following Jesus, there are certain things that we can do that are like opening up channels to the Holy Spirit. If we are serious about the fact that Jesus is our Lord and savior, we ought to do these things, in order to grow closer to him, and be the people that he intends us to be.

I’m talking about things like  reading your Bible every day. Now, don’t sweat if you a miss day, or even two or three, once in a while. But if want to allow God into our lives in greater measure, if we want to grow spiritually and become what we were meant to be, we can’t do it without regular infusions of God’s Word, which we get from the Bible.

Prayer is another one. If  you are struggling in your Christian life, and you never pray, there is no mystery about why you struggle. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says we ought to pray continually. It’s like a long, ongoing internal conversation with God, along with times that are dedicated specifically and only for prayer.

There is also fellowship with other believers. If we don’t have regular Christian community, our walk with Jesus will suffer. The same is true of worshipping God with other believers, and also serving others. All of these are practices and disciplines that are channels between us and God. The Lord can and does use things to pour more of his love and grace and joy and peace and so on into our lives. We really cannot expect to move closer to God without them.

Now, I want to make sure we have this straight. We don’t do them to please God, or to motivate him to bless us. These are means by which we can connect with the Life he offers. He still has to choose to bless us – we can’t make him do it. But he has designed us as human beings to need these things, and also to have them as resources to help us.

If we do these things regularly, it is likely that we will, at God’s chosen pace, grow in our faith, and also grow in the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

However, there are a few situations in which these things are not enough. The first situation is one that I have experienced during the past few years. At times, the Lord calls his people to suffer. No matter how hard we try, there is at least part of life that simply cannot work, because God has given us the honor of growing through suffering. This is a mystery, of sorts, but there can be wonderful grace as we suffer for him. Sometime, I’ll expound more on this.

There are times, however, when we suffer unnecessarily. You see the Bible insists that we are in a spiritual war. Sometimes, we face struggles and hardships because we are not paying attention to what is going on in that war. Listen to some of what the Bible says about this:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).  We are urged to participate in that war:  We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a disciple because…it’s just hard.  But why is it hard?  Because we have enemies who make it hard for us.  These enemies are not flesh and blood.  Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (1 Timothy 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of evil spiritual entities called the devil and demons.

Now, there are two mistakes we make in the spiritual war. The first is assume that neither the devil nor his demons are real, or that the threat they pose is not significant. Prior to September 11, 2001, in the United States, Americans were only dimly aware of radical elements of Islam that hated the United States. No one took the threat seriously, and that resulted in tragedy. Let’s not make the same mistake with regard to the spiritual war.

The second mistake is to imagine that everything that ever goes wrong is because of the devil. If you never maintain your car, and it breaks down on the way to church, that probably is not spiritual warfare. Sometimes mental illness is medically based, requiring medications and other treatments. Sometimes, life just doesn’t go the way we planned. It is not necessarily all the fault of the devil.

This is tricky, for instance, when we talk about something like depression. My wife Kari has struggled with depression off and on throughout her life. One time, we prayed about it, and we were convinced that her depression had a spiritual cause. We engaged in spiritual warfare, and the depression lifted for several years. After many years, it returned. We prayed, and we realized that Kari’s life was very hard at that time, and her depression was a natural result of her circumstances, and so we needed to change some things.  A third time, the depression returned, and this time we were led to seek medication, and found that in this third case, there was a chemical imbalance. I encourage you to seek out all possibilities, but do not discount the spiritual one until you have investigated it.

The Bible also tells us that these entities work against us primarily by influencing how we think and feel. The battleground of the spiritual war is in our mind and emotions.

And so, at times, there may be a kind of spiritual block that is interfering in your relationship with Jesus. The Bible calls these spiritual blocks: strongholds.

A stronghold is a place in your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus. Maybe it helps to think of it as a room in your house that is locked off from the rest of the house. Inside that room, it is not Jesus who is in charge. We may think we are the one in charge in that area, but the truth is, if we have locked it off from Jesus, that area will be under the influence of the devil and his demons. If you walk past that room, they can use that as a base to dart out and attack you.

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (ESV 2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

If there is some area of your life where you seem stuck, where you can’t get victory and you just don’t understand why, there is the possibility that it is because of a spiritual stronghold.

Bitterness and unforgiveness are major sources of spiritual strongholds. In Ephesians 4:26

26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. (NLT Ephesians 4:26-27)

Jesus himself said that when we refuse to forgive others, we are closing our selves off from God’s forgiveness:

14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT) Matthew 6:14-15

Now, I don’t think God is being vindictive. I think that unforgiveness creates a major stronghold that interferes with us being able to receive God’s grace. It isn’t God being mean, it is us cutting ourselves off from his grace.

Other strongholds can be created when we make a firm decision – what I call, an internal vow – that excludes God. Perhaps a woman grew up in poverty. At some point, she felt so humiliated by her family’s condition that deep inside, she made a vow, something like this: “I will never, never allow myself to be poor again.” But what if the Lord calls this woman to marry a missionary, or to have a career in some area that doesn’t make much money? Her vow excludes God’s authority in her life, and it will cause all sort of issues later on.

Some people make vows that they will never allow themselves to be emotionally hurt badly again. Sometimes this works in the short term, but usually that sort of thing gives an opportunity for the devil, because God often calls us to self-sacrificing love for others. That sort of stronghold could really play havoc in a marriage. It could seriously interfere in someone’s ability to be close to others.

Addictions often accompany strongholds, or vice-versa. Without consciously saying it, we have decided God can do anything he wants, but he just can’t touch my habit of….fill in the blank.

Any area of your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus will be unfair game to the forces of evil. Any place where you are excluding God can become a stronghold.

There is, however, terrific news. One of the reasons we create strongholds in the first place is because we don’t trust that God will truly do what’s best for us. Or, we think he will do what’s best for us, but we believe that we find that very unpleasant. You will indeed find God’s purposes for you to be troublesome and unpleasant for as long as you hold on to your own right to manage your own life. However, when you surrender to the Lord and receive whatever he wants to do in your life, you can find grace and joy in any situation.

I know what I’m talking about. I have suffered severe, intense pain for the past four years. The short description is that it feels like I have been trying to pass a kidney stone, 24/7 365 days a year, for more than four years. The first two years were horrible in every possible way. I still find it daunting to get through some days. However, I also find a great deal of joy, peace and meaning, even in the midst of this, because I am accepting whatever the Lord is doing. I believe he is good, he is powerful and he loves me. The pain has impressed that into every fiber of my being. So, even that which looks terrible from the outside can become joy and blessing when we surrender to Him.

The good news, we can be free, and the Lord has made it simple to be free.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV Galatians 5:1)

In the first place, Jesus took all the guilt of our sin upon himself at the cross. In Jesus, you are now declared “not guilty” – even of the sins you have committed. Second, through the cross, Jesus defeated the powers of evil:

13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. (NLT Colossians 2:13-15)

The spiritual powers of evil – including those which inhabit any strongholds – have been disarmed by Jesus. They have suffered a public defeat. Therefore, when we command them in the name of Jesus, they must go. They go, not because we are strong enough to resist them, but because Jesus will back us up when face them. He will make them go way when we tell them to.

The Lord has already defeated the devil. So, for us, destroying a stronghold has three simple parts. First, we identify the stronghold. Next, we repent of it, and ask Jesus to come and take control there. Finally, we speak a prayer by the authority of Jesus, telling the powers of evil to release that stronghold. I have helped many people clear there lives of various spiritual strongholds. I have cleared a few out of my own life, also. It can be shocking to see how free and joyful we can be when all areas of our lives belong fully to Jesus.

I don’t mean that we are perfect, and we never thwart his will. But a stronghold is a place where we persistently, continually thwart God’s control of our lives. When are free of such things, it makes a tremendous difference.

Really what I am talking about is taking inventory, and consciously allowing Jesus to be in control of every single part of your life. Paul did that, and that is why he wrote this:

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (ESV, Galatians 2:20)

That life, by the grace of God, is a life of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It is also a life filled with tremendous hope.

Take  a moment right now to examine your heart. Pick a time this week when you will spend an hour – or several – thoroughly surrendering every part of your life to care of our loving savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.

REVELATION #27. THE BATTLE FOR OUR MINDS. (12:7-13)

Battle for the mind

Whether we choose to believe it or not, we Christians are in the middle of a spiritual war. Often, following Jesus is hard, and the reason we find it so is because we have enemies in the spiritual realm. They will attack whether we believe in them or not. The primary weapon used against us is lies. Often we think these lies are our own thoughts. We need to be aware of this, and learn how to fight those lies with the truth of scripture.

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 Revelation #27. Revelation 12:13-17

I want to reiterate something I’ve said before: I approach this book with a great deal of humility. I don’t think that I have the one true understanding of Revelation. But for each message, I study the scripture carefully, without regard to what others have said about it. I pray and ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say through the scripture this time. After I have heard, I do check my interpretations against those of others. So, my main goal with each message is to hear what the Spirit wants to say in this moment. There may be many points in a text that we pass by to focus on the main thing I’m hearing for this particular time. If we come back to the text another time, we might find a different aspect to focus on. This is why we call the Bible “living and active.” The Spirit can reveal many different shades of meaning from one text, though, if the meanings are legitimate, they won’t contradict each other.

Last time, John presented us with crucial information about the spiritual war: Satan has already been defeated. He is like Hitler, fighting on from late 1944 until May 1945. No one could possibly deny by November of 1944 that Germany was going to lose the war. Even the Battle of the Bulge, which cost so many lives, and set back the Allied victory by a few months, never stood a chance of actually stopping the Allies. So it is with Satan. He can still wreak havoc in the lives of individual human beings, but he has already lost the war.

With that firmly in mind, the next few chunks of Revelation describe the spiritual war as it is before it is finally over. I think one of the purposes of it is to warn Christians. We need not fear the final outcome, but we can, and should be, aware of the schemes of the devil, which can still cost us dearly before the end finally comes.

I think that verses 13-14 are talking about exactly the same thing as verse 6.

Verse 6: “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.”

Verses 13-14: But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.”

John is going back, and repeating what happened earlier in the passage. “A time, times, and half a time,” is the same as 3 ½ (years) or 1,260 days. Once more, this is a reminder that there are periods in the battle with the devil when the church is protected and nourished in complete dependence upon God.

There are some interpreters who believe that the woman is not the church, but God’s people Israel. In this interpretation, the “1,260 days” might represent the time of their exile from the Holy Land. Or, perhaps it means a time when they will be kept apart, after which, they will convert to Jesus in large numbers. This interpretation may be correct; I want to remain humble about my own understanding of Revelation. However, this interpretation does not leave us with much help for following Jesus in our ordinary lives. It seems much more helpful to consider that there are times when God seems to set people “in the wilderness” where all we can depend upon is him alone. That might happen when you move, and you don’t know anyone around you. It could occur if you lose a special relationship with someone. It might happen through financial hardship, or health issues. In that “wilderness-place” God takes care of us, if we depend completely upon Him. The time frame reminds us that it will not last forever. Of course, we should always depend completely on God, but the wilderness seems to indicate that there is some hardship or difficulty during this period.

While the woman is taken to the wilderness, the dragon spewed water out of his mouth, hoping to destroy her. I believe that this represents, in general, what we call “spiritual warfare;” that is, the schemes of the devil and his demons to destroy Christians. I want to spend the rest of our time on that subject.

Many people think the idea of spiritual warfare is kind of weird, and that maybe we can be Christians without “getting into all that.” But consider this: Prior to September 11, 2001, very few people had heard of an organization called Al Qaeda. Millions of Americans went through their daily lives, vaguely aware that America was somewhat unpopular in places like the Middle East, but not terribly concerned about it. All that changed – at least for a while – on that fateful September morning in 2001. The terrorist hijackings and the destruction of the World Trade Center and parts of the Pentagon, the loss of almost 3,000 lives all woke us up to the fact that whether or not we believed it, we were at war. “9/11” jarred us loose from our daily patterns. We suddenly realized that though we hadn’t taken the Islamic radical threats seriously, they certainly meant them seriously.

Before 9/11, I think most Americans felt pretty much invulnerable. In the weeks and months following it, we felt anything but that. Belatedly, we became aware that we had enemies – enemies who were dedicated, implacable and had the ability to do us great harm.

Sometimes I think that we Christians are dangerously complacent about the fact that we have enemies: deadly implacable enemies who will stop at nothing to destroy us. We go around, vaguely aware that there is something in the Bible about the devil and demons, but it doesn’t have much relevance to our daily lives. Unfortunately, striking unfairly and without warning, the spiritual terrorist network often takes out unsuspecting, complacent folks who might otherwise have faithfully served and followed Jesus. Even if we don’t take the threat seriously, the devil and his demons are serious about getting to us.

The fact is, the Bible (mostly the New Testament) refers to, teaches on, or mentions that we are in a spiritual war over 110 times. The Bible mentions demons or refers to demonic possession almost 100 times. The devil is mentioned 33 times. The name Satan is mentioned 54 times. Now, obviously there is some overlap among some of these verses, but even so the point is clear: Spiritual Warfare is in fact a major theme in scripture. It starts in Genesis 3:15, when God says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between your offspring and hers…”. It doesn’t end until Revelation chapter 20 when the Devil and all his angels (demons) are thrown into the lake of fire – and that time has not yet come in history.

If we choose to be followers of Jesus, then we have entered a spiritual combat zone. Our enemies don’t care whether or not we believe it – but we are in a battle. They strike without warning, and if we are unprepared, great damage can be done. But now, pay attention – we can do great damage to them if we are aware and make use of the tools God has given us.

Consider what the Bible has to say about this: Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We are urged to participate in that war: We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a Jesus-follower because…it’s just hard. But why is it hard? There is a definite reason: Because we have enemies who make it hard for us. These enemies are not flesh and blood. Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (Ephesians 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of demons. Satan and all his demons are our enemies. At times they use other people, but we ought to keep in mind that those people are usually used unwittingly. The real enemy is the devil and his cohorts.

Two questions seem important to address: (1) How does the enemy wage war against us? How do we know when we are being attacked? And (2) How do we wage war against the enemy?

I don’t have time or space to lay out all of the different possible ways you can be attacked by the devil and his ilk. But here is the most common one:

The devil most often attacks us through lies. I believe this is why John pictures it as something spewed out of the mouth of the dragon. And the place where these lies take hold is in our thoughts. Demons have a way of planting thoughts in our heads, and then trying to get us to agree with them. They might do this through the insensitive words of others. Or, You might hear: “Tom, you are so stupid! What basis do you have for thinking you can help these people?” (but only if your name is Tom…). Or you might hear, “look at that hot babe! (or, guy!) You want her (or him)!” The devil wants you to agree with these kinds of thoughts. The minute you do, he’ll condemn you for it, and use it to beat you up all day long. Often we think it is us talking to ourselves, because the devil wants to trick us into thinking we have sinned before we actually have. He is, after all, “the accuser of the believers” (Revelation 12:10).

The point is that our sinful flesh (or a demon) is saying something that is not true, something that God does not say. The moment we accept that thought and agree with it, we have given the devil a foothold from which he can abuse us. He can use it to bring about scandal, problems in your relationships, to make you feel worthless and to paralyze you from really being a disciple. We may have a weakness in certain areas because of our backgrounds and experiences. The enemy will exploit that if he can!

To refute these attacks, we must learn to recognize the difference between God’s voice and every other voice. The scripture says God is for us, not against us (Romans 8:31-34). These same verses (and others) also tell us that, because of Jesus, God does not condemn us. We know also that God does not sin. So, if a thought condemns us, separates us from God, results in something clearly negative, or leads us into sin, we know it is not the voice of God. The best way for us to tell the difference between God’s voice and every other voice is to read the Bible regularly.

Now, it is true that the Holy Spirit will convict us of sin as he needs to (John 16:8). But when the Lord convicts us, it doesn’t condemn us — it motivates us to take action. When the Holy Spirit brings conviction, you find you want to repent, to make things right. It’s a good clean feeling, even if not completely pleasant – like a dip in a mountain stream that is really too cold – but also is beautiful and refreshing. On the other hand, when the enemy tries to tempt you with false condemnation, you will feel condemned, guilty and completely unmotivated. You will simply want to wallow helplessly in the guilt. That is not the voice of God. Once we recognize that the thought is not from God,

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)

You might simply pray something like this:

Jesus be with me as I battle the enemy. In the name of Jesus, I come against that (the thought or idea). I reject it utterly and refuse to believe it. I take the thought captive and demolish it, in the name of Jesus.

It helps at this point if you know scripture well enough to bring to mind a verse or passage in the Bible that will directly contradict the attack in your mind.

But do we have the power to just throw Satan (or a demon) out like that? Yes! We covered it last time. Here are some other scriptures:

“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:18-20)

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)

What all this means is that the devil has already been defeated. His fate is sealed. We don’t have to be afraid – we can defeat the evil one, because the Holy Spirit is in us, and he has already done it (Colossians 2:15). We talked about that extensively last week. The outcome of this spiritual battle has already been decided, and disciples of Jesus Christ are on the winning side. But the fighting isn’t over yet. We are still in the battle, and we need to keep our weapons loaded and ourselves alert.

In the 1970’s, the United States withdrew from Vietnam in disgrace. Vietnam is known as the only war which our country has ever lost. The interesting thing about Vietnam is that the war would never have been lost on military grounds. Our military at the time was far superior to anything the North Vietnamese could muster against us. And so the North Vietnamese used terrorist-style tactics, hit-and-run attacks and guerilla warfare. But our military, hampered by political considerations and public opinion, conducted very few major campaigns and did very little to make use of our tremendous advantages in equipment, resources and firepower. The reason we lost the war is because our country did not have the political will to commit to winning the war. The country didn’t really believe in the war, and so, naturally, we were defeated.

Too many Christians don’t really believe in this spiritual war. We don’t understand, we aren’t committed, and so the cost of fighting doesn’t seem worth it. We may feel sort of silly, or like it takes too much energy to do battle in our minds like that. Or, like the war on terror, we don’t recognize that many of the things we experience regularly are a war. As disciples, we must recognize that we are still fighting a war, and though the outcome isn’t in doubt, the enemy will still take out as many individuals as he can.

Paul’s advice to the Ephesians is helpful, as we consider how to conduct ourselves in this spiritual war:

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:15-21 (ESV)

We need to be wise about spiritual warfare, “because the days are evil.” We need to understand God’s will – we need to know what the Bible says, so we can refute the competing messages we are getting every day. We should avoid dulling our senses, or coping, by abusing substances. We should, whenever possible, not give the devil any foothold through sin. We need each other in this battle: fellow Christians can encourage each other, and speak the words of scripture to one another. Finally, praise and thanksgiving are powerful weapons against the devil and his demons. Truly giving thanks to God helps us take hold of his promises, and causes Satan to flee.

REVELATION #26. THE VICTORY IS ALREADY WON.

Falling Dragon

Maybe you find yourself in a situation like that of the first Christians to read Revelation. You’ve tried to follow Jesus. You’ve been faithful, but sometimes it seems like it isn’t working out. Life is still hard, and sometimes it costs you to be true to Jesus. You look around and see others who don’t care about Jesus, and they seem to be doing great. It’s easy to be discouraged. We need to remember that there is a war going on. In war, we expect opposition. Our enemy hates us. But take heart. The Enemy is already defeated. He is just lashing out in bitterness as he is destroyed. If you have truly given yourself wholeheartedly to Jesus, there is no permanent harm the devil can do to you.

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Revelation #26.  Revelation 12:7-12

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them!

But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (ESV. Revelation 12:7-12)

Let’s do a quick check-in with the original recipients of the book of Revelation. Many of them were persecuted. Many of them had lost property and homes. Some of them had seen friends and/or family members imprisoned, and even, in some cases, killed for their faith in Jesus. In other places, faithful Christians were watching as some members of their church compromised with the culture. People who call themselves Christians were going to idol feasts, justifying it because they needed to do so in order to continue on in their careers. Other Christians were beginning to believe things that neither Jesus nor the apostles had ever taught. Still others were falling into sexual immorality, and other types of sins. All of this would have been extremely traumatic for the faithful followers of Jesus. In various ways, John’s vision (the book of Revelation) provided comfort to them. In this fourth section in the book of Revelation, John is offering yet one more perspective of hope for those who remained faithful to Jesus. He is describing what they are going through as part of an ongoing spiritual war. The first Christians, as they read this next section in Revelation, would have been reassured: what they are going through is not random. There’s a reason for it: the devil is at war with God and his people.

In the first part of this section, John provided the set up for the spiritual war. In the third and fourth parts, he is going to warn his readers by showing them that at times it will indeed look like the devil is winning. However, this can also be assuring, since it means that their negative experiences have an explanation. But before he does that, we have our passage for today. In this passage, he’s making sure that we understand (before we get to the more difficult bits ahead) that the outcome of the war is not in doubt. God has already won; the devil is no match for God Almighty, and he has been thrown out of heaven.

John tells us very clearly that the dragon is “…that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” So, he is telling us in a picturesque way about the rebellion of Satan, and his fall from heaven. Other, more clear parts of scripture tell us that Satan has been active in the world since the time of Adam & Eve. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that what John is describing is something that happened long ago. There are some other clear parts of scripture that speak of a spiritual battle:

10 Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by His vast strength. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. 12 For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. 13 This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand. (HCSB Ephesians 6:10-13)

Our passage in Revelation tells of the devil and many “fallen angels” coming to earth; later in the passage it describes him trying to make war against Christians. The apostle Paul tells us, in a very clear passage, that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil.”

It sounds crude and primitive, but the true Christian faith has always believed that there is a real being whom we call the devil, and there are evil/fallen angels whom we call demons. When you think about it, it isn’t that strange. We believe that humans are not merely physical, but also spiritual. 99% of the world’s population throughout history, and even still today, believes that also. I mean it should be obvious. Take love, for instance. There are certain physical actions and sensations that go along with love. But the main experience of love cannot be examined physically under a microscope, or subjected to tests by the scientific method. Even if someday the chemicals involved in love were discovered, that would not encompass the metaphysical thing – the spiritual thing – that we call love. Though we are grounded in the physical realm, the experience of being human is primarily a spiritual experience. We are more than our bodies.

If we believe there are good things in the spiritual realm, why couldn’t there also be bad things? The Bible’s explanation of these things (which includes the devil and demons) makes sense out of the actual experiences of human beings.

In addition, the Bible’s teaching about spiritual warfare keeps Christians from thinking that other human beings are enemies.  As Paul writes, our real enemies are not flesh and blood.

Next time we will consider the spiritual war in greater depth, because the next few verses describe the dragon making war on those who follow Jesus. But before we get into that, I want to make sure we get the message of this passage. The basic message of our verses is this: The devil has already been defeated, and his days are numbered. God has already won.

Some religions (and philosophies) are dualistic. That means they believe that good and evil are equally balanced. In a dualistic system, evil might win just as easily as good. One is as strong as the other. But Christianity is not dualistic. We believe that God is the only uncreated, eternally existing being. Everything else has a cause, a reason for existing. But even atheists understand that at some point, there must be one thing that is the originator of all other causes, something which has no cause itself. Logic demands it. We Christians believe that God is that ultimate being.

This means that there is no entity in all of existence that can be a true rival to God.

As far as I can recall, we learn the names of only two angels in the Bible: Gabriel, and Michael. Gabriel seems to be primarily a messenger for God: he delivered the news of John the Baptist to Zechariah, and the news of Jesus to Mary. Michael, on the other hand, is described by Jude as an “archangel,” which implies that he was a leader among other angels. There is also an obscure incident in the book of Daniel. Daniel is praying, and doesn’t get an answer for three weeks. Then, an angel comes to him, and says that he was held up, because he had to contend with “the prince of Persia” (Daniel 10:10-14). Most people think this is describing warfare between God’s angels and demons. Next, the angel tells Daniel that he was helped in this battle by Michael, who is apparently a prince among angels. And that is all I know about that. I think it is probably best not to spend too much time on such things, because the Bible itself doesn’t mention them often. To me, it seems like a little glimpse into things that we won’t understand until Jesus returns. The main thing I want you to understand is this: God did not even need to fight Satan himself: he had Michael do it. Not only is the devil not as powerful as God, he isn’t even as powerful as God’s best angels.

One time, Jesus sent out 72 of his followers to do ministry. Among other things, he gave them the authority to drive out demons. When they went out, they found out that the demons left when they commanded them in the name of Jesus.

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (ESV, Luke 10:17-20. Bold added for emphasis)

The power of Satan was decisively broken by God. In terms of straight-up power, Satan has very little. What I mean is this: the devil cannot simply overpower any being that serves as God’s agent. Jesus here declares that his followers have authority to tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy. I don’t think he means literal snakes and scorpions. He means that he has given his followers power to defeat the devil and his demons.

This power is only given to those who trust Jesus, however. Once, there were some people who heard about the power of Christians to drive out demons. These people were not Christians themselves. Here is a brief summary of their story:

13Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” 14Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. 15But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. (Acts 19:13-16, ESV2011)

On our own, human beings are very vulnerable to the devil. But in Jesus, we share in the victory over the powers of evil. This is why, after Satan is thrown out of heaven, those who rejoice say this:

10And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Rev 12:10-11, ESV2011)

Now, obviously, that is not talking about Michael’s victory over the devil. It is talking about those who follow Jesus on earth. The authority of Christ conquers the devil. The blood of the lamb (that is, the sacrifice of Christ for us) and the word of our testimony (that is, claiming the authority and the blood of Christ in our own lives) – these are now the things that conquer Satan on earth.

This is really a several part series. Next time we will talk specifically about the spiritual war, and what it looks like, and how to practically engage the authority of Christ, the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony. But for now understand this: the devil is fighting a battle that is bitter and humiliating for him, because he has already lost, and his time is short. We who are in Jesus need not fear any evil; we only need to humbly trust in Jesus.

Maybe you find yourself in a situation like that of the first Christians to read Revelation. You’ve tried to follow Jesus. You’ve been faithful, but sometimes it seems like it isn’t working out. Life is still hard, and sometimes it costs you to be true to Jesus. You look around and see others who don’t care about Jesus, and they seem to be doing great. It’s easy to be discouraged. We need to remember that there is a war going on. In war, we expect opposition. Our enemy hates us. But take heart. The Enemy is already defeated. He is just lashing out in bitterness as he is destroyed. If you have truly given yourself wholeheartedly to Jesus, there is no permanent harm the devil can do to you.

Take a few minutes to think about these things, and be alert for what the Holy Spirit may bring to your mind as you do.

 

THE BATTLE GOES ON

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Christians need to recognized that we are not in neutral territory. We are in the middle of a spiritual war.

1 Samuel #17 Wars within and Without. 1 Samuel chapter 18

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1 Samuel chapter 18 is part of a larger section that records the development of David as a warrior and leader, and the increasing tension between Saul and David.

In number 10 in this series, we looked at 1 Samuel chapter 14, and saw that Jonathan, son of Saul was a very different man from his father. Jonathan was a man of faith. He trusted that if God wanted to deliver his people, he could do it, whatever the odds. I have wondered at times, why Jonathan, being the man he was, did not fight Goliath. The bible doesn’t tell us, but I suspect that Saul might have forbidden him to do it. In any case, it was God’s desire to use David in that situation.

David approached Goliath with exactly the same kind of faith that Jonathan had when fought the Philistines earlier. Jonathan recognized the faith of David and recognized in him, a kindred spirit. Without any pretensions as the king’s son, and in self-confident humility, Jonathan honored David and made a covenant with him. A “covenant” was a solemn agreement. It doesn’t spell out here what exactly the covenant was. I think we can assume that it was a little bit like the old native American tradition of becoming blood brothers. Certainly, they became lifelong friends, inseparable in spirit, loyal to each other in spite of the difficult circumstances that could have come between them. In addition, after the victory over Goliath and the Philistine armies, Jonathan gave David his precious iron-age battle equipment.

Saul had made a vow to honor the giant-killer with marriage to his daughter, and riches, and exemption from royal taxes (17:24-27). But there is a great contrast between Saul and his son. Jonathan made no vow, and yet rewarded David with honor, and such gifts as he had power to give. Saul made promises, and then reneged on them.

After Goliath was killed, the armies of Israel pursued the Philistines to the gates of two of their cities. Previously, Israel had won only defensive victories – they had driven the Philistines out of the hill country when the Philistines invaded. However, this time, spurred by David’s feat of faith, they took the battle into Philistine territory. As they returned from the fight, the people celebrated and sang songs and verses. In their songs they sang that Saul had killed thousands, and David tens of thousands.

This was a faith opportunity for Saul. He could trust that God was Lord of both him and David, and that God would be merciful and good to him even now. But instead, Saul gave in to fear and doubt and insecurity – as he always did. 18:10 says this:

10 The next day an evil spirit sent from God took control of Saul, and he began to rave inside the palace. David was playing the lyre as usual, but Saul was holding a spear, 11 and he threw it, thinking, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David got away from him twice. (1Sam 18:10-11, HCSB)

Previously, when the Lord used the evil spirit to try and bring Saul to repentance, Saul was able to find hope and relief by God’s spirit working through David’s music. But this time, Saul utterly rejected God’s spirit. He chose to not live by faith. He chose to try and control his own fate, apart from God’s plans. And so when David played the lyre for him after this, there was no relief, because Saul cut off all of God’s efforts to reach him.

I want to point out a few things that come out of this particular incident. First, when we close the door on God, it means we open a door to the realm of Satan and evil spirits. I don’t mean that this happens every time we make a single mistake and choose wrongly or fall into sin. But Saul persistently and deliberately rejected God over a long period of time. It seems to me that chapter 18 records a time when Saul makes a firm, final decision to not trust God. Therefore, God had no way to reach him anymore. And since Saul put himself beyond God’s reach, he was a sitting duck for the devil.

Second, we see the intention of all evil spirits – to destroy the work of the Holy Spirit. David was the instrument of the Holy Spirit at that time. The evil spirit, when given control took the most direct route – destroy God’s chosen instrument.

I think it is important for us to recognize the spiritual war that this reveals. David was aware of it in the battle against Goliath. Jonathan was aware of it in his earlier battles. The devil wants to destroy the work of God. Jesus said, talking about Satan in John 10:10 said, “a thief comes to kill, steal and destroy.” Peter wrote this:

8 Be serious! Be alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. (1Pet 5:8, HCSB)

This world is not neutral territory – it is a battle ground. All of us who trust in Jesus are now the chosen instruments of the Holy Spirit. The devil cannot kill us all. But he seeks to undo the work that God wants to do in and through us. We don’t need to fear the devil – Jesus told us that he has won the definitive victory over Satan.

18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:18-20, ESV)

Satan cannot harm us if we remain in Jesus. Therefore the New Testament tells us to be alert (1 Peter 5:8), to remain in Jesus (John 15:1), to resist the devil (1 Peter 5:9 and James 4:7) and to take our stand against all the powers of evil in the spiritual realms (Ephesians 6:10-18). We don’t need to be afraid, but we shouldn’t be naïve either. If the devil could, he would drive a spear through you too. Saul shows us the only way the devil can get at us – when we shut God out.

When you feel particularly angry, ask yourself – is my anger level unreasonable? Could the devil be tweaking an already tense situation? Perhaps you feel a weight of sadness and depression that is out of proportion to the situation you are in. Pay attention to it. Don’t just submit to it and let it hang like a cloud over your life – ask the Lord about it. Maybe when you try to move ahead with what the Lord has for you, you encounter continual discouragement — maybe even physical roadblocks. Don’t just accept this. Ask the Lord about it, and you may need to pray specifically against spiritual opposition. Satan’s biggest weapon is deception. If he can get us to believe he isn’t involved, we will never kick him out of places where he doesn’t belong.

Consider David for a moment. He was God’s chosen instrument. He killed the giant. But after the party, the biggest result is that now the king hates him. Reading on, we see more opposition. Saul promised his eldest daughter in marriage to the giant killer. But he reneged on it, and had her marry someone else. As it turns out, that was OK, because Saul’s younger daughter, Michal, loved David. When this came up, Saul, no doubt realizing that not keeping his promises would make him unpopular, proposes that those two marry.

Now, in those days, in that part of the world, a prospective groom was supposed to give goods and property to the father of the bride. This gift was called the “Bride Price.” They did the same thing in Papua New Guinea where I grew up. In New Guinea, the price was usually paid in livestock and other property, and ancient Israel was probably similar. In chapter 17, the wording implies that killing Goliath is more or less equal to providing the bride price. However, in chapter 18:23-25, an additional bride price was clearly part of the negotiations. David said basically, he couldn’t afford to become the king’s son in law. This means two things: first, Saul is now requiring something more from David than the death of Goliath. Second, it means that Saul also went back on his promise to make the giant killer a wealthy man (17:25) – since David had no resources to pay the Bride price.

Saul now requires a new price – that David kill 100 Philistines, and bring back a certain gruesome proof of each death. He was hoping that the extreme danger involved in doing this would actually put an end to David.

None of this is fair. None of Saul’s treatment of David from here on out is righteous or godly. David is God’s chosen instrument – and yet through Saul, the devil is continually cheating him and threatening his life.

Even so, David did not become bitter, or even disrespectful toward Saul. He did not even confront him about his false promises. He continued to trust the Lord to work in him and through him. He continued to do what the Lord put in front of him to do. And through the Lord, he was protected and blessed in his endeavors. He and his men killed not 100, but 200 Philistines. While he remained trusting in the Lord, the devil could not get to him.

So I have a few thoughts for application here. Are you engaged in the mission that God wants to accomplish through your life? If you don’t know, I challenge you to pause and ask God about it right now. If you know you aren’t, I want to warn you that you are endangering the work of God, and yourself.

In addition, when we are letting the Lord live his life through us, we ought to heed the warnings of the New Testament. We need to be alert and aware that the devil is out to attack the work of the Holy Spirit. He wants to stop you from experiencing grace. He wants to stop you from the mission God has for your life – from touching others the way God wants you to. We aren’t in neutral territory – we need to be aware that the devil will try to use every discouragement, every burst of anger, unforgiveness, hate, envy, discord – anything we do not turn over to the Lord.

FACING THE GIANT

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1 Samuel #16. David & Goliath. 1 Samuel Chapter 17

1 Samuel chapter 17 contains one of the most familiar incidents in the whole bible: the fight between David and Goliath. There is one puzzling thing about the text, and I want to deal with that first, so that we conclude by focusing on what the Lord is saying to us through it.

After the whole thing is over, Saul asks his military commander a strange question: “Whose son is this youth, Abner?”

The question is strange because at the end of chapter sixteen, prior to the fight with Goliath, David was brought to court to play the lyre and sing for Saul. The text even says that Saul loved him. And David’s father, Jesse, is mentioned by Saul’s courtiers in chapter 16. This is one of those places where some people claim that the Bible contradicts itself. I want to point out to begin with that there is no theological or spiritual significance to this “contradiction” even if it exists.

Some scholars speculate that chapter 16 and chapter 17 came from two different sources, and the source for chapter 17 was unaware of the account of how David came to court as a singer. The problem with this theory is that whoever put the sources together, right next to each other, must surely have seen the apparent contradictions – but they made no attempt to explain it. Therefore it is safe to assume that whoever wrote the history that we call “1 Samuel” saw no necessary contradiction between these two chapters, and in fact, assumed that readers would be able to understand the differences. And in fact, there are several possible explanations.

Chapter sixteen records how Saul was afflicted with an evil spirit. The manifestation of this was apparently some kind of mental illness. In fact, continuing on through 1 Samuel, Saul exhibits some of the classic symptoms of paranoid-schizophrenia. To put it simply, sometimes, he was a few sandwiches short of a picnic, and confusion went along with that. So his question may have been partly a result of that affliction.

Notice also that David’s brothers are verbally tearing him down. That shows that there is a kind of jealousy there. It hints at the idea that at some point David had been called back home, and the older brothers were concerned about him getting uppity because of his previous time in the court of the King. So it is also quite likely that Saul hasn’t seen David in a while. Since David was still a teenager, he had probably changed a great deal in a short amount of time.

In addition, Saul had promised a reward to the person who killed Goliath. He said the warrior who did it would be married to his daughter. He also said that the whole family of the victor would be exempt from taxes. In order to keep these promises, he needed to officially verify the identity of David’s father, since the father was the key figure in both the marriage arrangements and tax exemption. Remember, Saul doesn’t ask, “who is that young man?” – he asks, “who is his father?

The man Saul asked was Abner, who was commander of the Army. Saul may have been further confused, because he did not think of David as a warrior, but rather as a minstrel. So when he seems him accomplish a great feat of war, he thinks, “Is that David? Can’t be.” He is seeing him in a whole different context; he has never thought of David as a warrior. So he asks Abner, but he, as military commander, has had nothing to do with David up until now.

All this is to point out once more, that an apparent contradiction in the bible has no spiritual significance, and actually, does not have to be a contradiction at all.

Now, most of us know the story outline pretty well: a young man (almost certainly a teenager) defeats a hardened warrior twice his size. I want to point out a few things that we don’t always consider.

Goliath was about nine feet, six inches tall – almost three meters. He was huge. But Israel had a huge man on their side also – King Saul was likely around seven feet. Certainly, that was smaller than Goliath, but he was bigger than anyone else in the Israeli army. He would have been the natural choice to face Goliath. But Saul was afraid just like everyone else. By this point, he had already rejected his role as God’s chosen instrument.

The bible describes Goliath’s armor. Only two people in the Israeli army had equipment like it: Saul and Jonathan. The armor and weaponry was iron age technology. The rest of the Israelis were using bronze age weapons. The difference, and the advantage it gave the Philistines was a little bit like the difference between muskets and modern semi-automatic rifles. Both can kill you, in roughly the same way, but the more modern weapon is far more deadly.

Saul tried to get David to wear his armor, to even out the advantage. David ultimately rejected it for three reasons. First, it didn’t fit him. Saul was a much bigger man. Second, it was not David’s style. David had fought for his life before, and he didn’t use that sort of thing. God used him differently. Third, David did not believe he was at a disadvantage.

Everyone else looked at the external situation. Here was a man almost twice as big as anyone else. He was well armored, with potent modern weapons that others would have a hard time even lifting. It was like fighting an intelligent, well armored grizzly bear. To send a boy with a sling against a giant with armor was crazy. The odds were completely in favor of the giant.

But David saw it primarily as a spiritual battle. What it looked like on the outside made no difference to him. In David’s eyes, Goliath wasn’t challenging him, or Israel – he was challenging God. So it wasn’t a boy against a giant. It was an arrogant giant…against the Creator of the Universe. All David had to do was give God a chance to strike Goliath down. It didn’t matter what weapons or armor he had. Using the sling wasn’t a clever surprise tactic. It was just the tool that was most handy and familiar to David. The real weapon, in David’s eyes, was the power of God.

Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. (1Sam 17:45, ESV)

The outcome, of course, made history. David killed Goliath with a stone slung into the skull. He completed the job for certain by cutting off the giant’s head with his own giant sword. David predicts what will happen, and why:

47 and this whole assembly will know that it is not by sword or by spear that the LORD saves, for the battle is the LORD’s. He will hand you over to us.” (1Sam 17:47, HCSB)

I invite you to pause for a moment to consider what the Lord might say to you through this. What are you facing in your life that seems like a giant threat? Is there any place where you feel that the odds are stacked against you doing what God wants you to do? I encourage you to see God’s battles from God’s perspective. Now, sometimes we are fighting battles that are not God’s – that is a whole separate issue. But if we are walking in faith, letting Jesus live his life through us, the battles we encounter in the course of doing what He wants to do in us and through us – those are battles that He will fight. All we need to do is grab whatever is most handy and comfortable, and let the Lord do the fighting.

There is a related truth here. God will use you – the unique person that he has made you to be. Others pressed David to take Saul’s armor, to fight the way everyone thought he should fight. David politely but firmly declined. He was just fine for the job, being who God made him to be. So when it comes time to rise to the challenge, I am not saying you should despise advice. But it is OK to approach your challenges as the person that God made you to be. You don’t have to pray in the fashion of “all good prayer warriors.” You don’t have to look or sound exactly like other good Christians as you face your giants. But do listen to the Lord, and do what he tells you.

Do you realize also, like David did, that our battle is not in the arena of flesh and blood, but is actually a spiritual conflict? David actually had to fight a flesh and blood conflict. Even so, he recognized that it was primarily about what was happening spiritually. So, we have to face trials and difficulties of various kinds – and yet it is good to remember the spiritual reality behind it all. Maybe we have to pay bills and it is hard to make ends meet. That is flesh and blood. But there is a battle that goes along with that – the battle of discouragement and hopelessness and the challenge to trust God as provider. Yes, we must deal with the flesh and blood, but the battle is spiritual.

Maybe you have to deal with someone in your life who is difficult, or troublesome or who causes you anguish. Obviously, you encounter that in flesh and blood situations. But the real battle is to trust God, to continually allow God’s power to forgive that person, to recognize that the devil wants you to hold on to rage and bitterness.

Right now, my wife and I both have health issues going on. Nothing life threatening, but they do affect our active lifestyle, and place a financial burden on us. Both of our issues are difficult, complicated and expensive to deal with. We have to deal with them in the realm of flesh and blood. But at the same time, there is a spiritual battle to make us discouraged and hopeless. That’s the real battle and that’s the battle that Lord will win for us every time we let him.

Let the Lord speak to you now about giants and battles!