Spiritual Warfare

Spiritual warfare is not some extra thing that a few Christians might encounter every once and a while. The Christian life itself is spiritual war.

Anson Kroeker on March 17, 2019
Spiritual Warfare
March 17, 2019

Spiritual Warfare

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Passage: Ephesians 6:10-20
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As you may know, we are now getting to the end of a series which has been exploring that the Bible is one story, and Jesus Christ is the main character of that story, and we are in that story today. After today, we have about four or five weeks left in this series. And at our spot in the series, we’re considering how the big story of the Bible brings clarity to different elements of the Christian life which are often confusing or difficult to understand.

And so today we come to spiritual warfare.

I don’t know what comes to your mind when you hear that phrase, “spiritual warfare.” For me, it makes me think of some key moments in my childhood when my mom told me that we were engaged in spiritual warfare—a thought that seemed terrifying and yet very exciting all at once. It seemed to bring the Bible to life. These weren’t just stories; Satan and his demons were real, and we were fighting against them just like we read about in these pages.

And that’s actually a big part of what I want us to grasp this morning. Spiritual warfare may be one of the best ways for us to really understand that this story we read about in Scripture is true and we’re a part of it today.

Unfortunately, “spiritual warfare” is something that’s been so often misunderstood and misrepresented. I’m sure we’ve all met someone whom we felt took spiritual warfare way too seriously. The kind of person who, as the phrase goes, sees a demon hiding behind every bush. If they order a meal at a restaurant and it arrives cold, they think it’s a spiritual attack. That kind of thing.

But on the other extreme, there are Christians who barely think about spiritual warfare at all. If the Devil wasn’t real, it wouldn’t make much of a difference in how they thought and acted. Spiritual warfare is not even on their radar.

So what does it look like to be balanced? What does it look like to be biblical? I believe, when we look at what the whole Bible has to say about spiritual warfare, we’ll discover that spiritual warfare is, on the one hand, a much bigger deal than many Christians think. Spiritual warfare is much more pervasive and important than maybe even you give it credit for.

And yet on the other hand, Scripture shows us that spiritual warfare is far less of a deal than some Christians might think it is. Spiritual warfare is far more normal and accessible and than we might expect.

So how does that work? What do I even mean? Well, let’s dig into the story together and see what the big story of the Bible tells us about this important topic.


Spiritual Warfare in the Garden

We’re going to begin in the book of Genesis, in the garden of Eden. This is where we’ve typically begun, because this is where most things begin, including spiritual warfare.

We get the first whiff of the battle in chapter 3 verse 1 which tells us that “…the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). And we go on to read about this serpent engaging in casual conversation with Eve about the tree they weren’t supposed to eat from.

It’s not until later on in Scripture we find out what’s really going on here—that this serpent is actually Satan, the Devil. From the best we can gather, he was one of God’s angels who, at some point, had chosen to rebel and do what he wanted instead of what God wanted.

And what he does in Genesis 3 is recruit Adam and Eve to his team. He makes them doubt the trustworthiness of God and His word, and he sells them on the alluring benefits of charting their own course instead of obeying God.

That is where the battle began. And by the way, the battle lines themselves haven’t moved an inch. The battle is raging today along these exact same issues: the trustworthiness of God’s word and the question of whether we’ll trust and obey Him or follow our own desires.

So Satan won that first round. Adam and Eve believed him instead of God and fell into sin. But God responded to the serpent with a declaration of war: “The Lord God said to the serpent, ‘Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel’” (Genesis 3:14–15). 

He’s coming for you, Satan. There is an offspring coming from this woman whom you just tempted, and he is coming for you. You’ll strike out and wound his heel, but that bruised heel is going to come down on your head and you will be finished.


Spiritual Warfare in the Old Testament

One of the most important things for us to recognize this morning is that from Genesis 3 onwards, everything in the story of the Bible, and therefore everything in the history of planet earth, has been a part of this great spiritual war.

Every man and woman from Cain and Abel onwards has been born onto a battlefield. Every covenant that God made with his people was an act of war, one more step in His long campaign against the serpent.

In other words, from Genesis 3 onwards, spiritual warfare isn’t just one element in the story. It is the story. The Bible is a story about a war.

And it’s true most of the time, as we read through the Bible, we see just one half of this war. We just see people, making their decisions, carrying on in their activities, following God or not following God. And we know it’s all a part of this big plan leading up to Jesus who will crush the serpent.

But every once and a while the curtain gets pulled back and we see the other side of the conflict. Because there is another side. There is an unseen realm which is real and which is a part of this same battle.

Think of Daniel chapter 10, for example. God’s people were in exile, and Daniel was in mourning and fasting for three weeks. And it doesn’t really say why. But then he gets a vision of a terrifying and majestic angel who tells Daniel the for the past three weeks, he was trying to get through to him to communicate a message to him.

Just listen to these words from the angel: “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come” (Daniel 10:12–14). 

And then a few verses later he says “Do you know why I have come to you? But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I go out, behold, the prince of Greece will come. But I will tell you what is inscribed in the book of truth: there is none who contends by my side against these except Michael, your prince” (Daniel 10:20–21). 

Mind-blowing, right? With our eyes, we see human nations in conflict with each other, and the fate of God’s people caught up in the middle of that. But there is a whole other side to history, a cosmic battle going on behind the scenes.

Daniel 10 reminds us that “spiritual warfare” is not just a metaphor. There is a real war going on, and God’s people are really a part of it.


Christ, the Man of War

And then Jesus came. Back on November 25 I preached one of my favourite messages in this whole series, on Jesus the Offspring of Eve. And in that message we saw how the life and death and resurrection of Jesus are the central events in this great war.

We considered the angel armies at the birth of Christ, cheering in celebration that the invasion was finally happening. We saw Jesus facing off against Satan in the wilderness and emerging victorious, standing strong where all others before Him had fallen. We saw demons crying out in terror before Jesus the serpent-crusher, and obeying his voice as he commanded them with absolute authority (Luke 8:26-33).

We heard Jesus describing Himself as the stronger man who had overpowered Satan and tied him up and was in the very act of plundering his house (Luke 11:14-21). That’s what Jesus did and is still doing today. Every person who believes in Jesus is someone whom Jesus has stolen out of Satan’s house. And Satan is powerless to stop any of it from happening, completely overwhelmed by the power of Jesus. 

And then we saw the decisive victory won by Jesus on the cross. As Satan reached out to strike at Jesus, in that very act he found himself crushed. Because as Jesus died, He died for all of those sins Satan had tempted us into and then accused us for (Revelation 12:10). He took on himself the judgement of death that Satan had been using enslave people in lives of fear.

And so Colossians 2 tells us that when Jesus died, he cancelled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:14–15).

Satan and his cohorts were put to open shame by the cross of Jesus Christ. They haven’t just been defeated, they’ve been humiliated.

And Hebrews 2 tells us that “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14–15). 

So in His death and burial and resurrection, Jesus won the decisive victory against Satan. Satan has nothing left to accuse us for. He has nothing to make us fearful of. We are free from his power. And we know how the story ends: after Jesus returns a second time, and right before God creates the New Heavens and the New Earth, Satan will be thrown into the lake of fire and he will be locked up and tormented forever, full stop.

That’s how this war ends.


Spiritual Warfare Today

But what about today? Because the war hasn’t ended yet. Satan has already been defeated, but he has not yet been destroyed.

And what we learn when we read the New Testament is that even though Satan can no longer destroy or even defeat us, even though he can’t snatch us out of God’s hand, he can still cause us a measure of harm. He is still a threat.

And I see Scripture describe at least three ways he can still do this.

The first way is that he can interfere with our lives and bring us a measure of harm. We hear Paul talk about this in 1 Thessalonians 2:18 when he writes “we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us” (1 Thessalonians 2:18). Elsewhere he talks about Satan’s “designs” against the church (2 Corinthians 2:11). In Revelation 2:10 we hear about the devil throwing some of God’s people into prison.

We know that God is sovereign over all of this, just like in Job’s story. The devil can’t do anything without permission. But just like with Job, sometimes God does allow him to interfere with us and cause us a measure of harm.

Second, Satan works through false teaching. This comes up several times in the New Testament, where false teachers are referred to as Satan’s servants (2 Corinthians 11:12), and false teaching is something Satan uses to ensnare people and make them do his will (2 Timothy 2:23-26). Satan works hard to keep us from knowing and believing the truth.

Third, and probably the most significant, Satan still tempts us to sin. It’s his old game from the garden, and it still works. He knows that this sin won’t condemn us to judgement anymore, but it still does affect our witness and quench our joy and slow our progress and make God look bad.

1 Peter 5:8 brings several of these ideas together when it says “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:8–9). 

These Christians were being persecuted, and Satan was going to try to terrify them and likely tempt them with the sin of despair or faithlessness. And so Peter warns them to watch out.

But did you notice what he told us to do there? Did you notice what he didn’t say? “Your adversary the devil prowls around, seeking someone to devour, so be afraid, be very afraid.” He also didn’t tell us to engage directly with Satan with their words by “rebuking him” or “binding him” or “renouncing him” or “praying against him.” All we are told to do is “Resist him, firm in your faith.”

Believe God—be firm in your faith. And resist the Devil. Don’t believe the things he wants you to believe. Don’t do the things he wants you to do. Resist him. We see this exact same idea in James 4:7: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

You want the devil to run from you? Just don’t give in to him. Don’t do what he wants us to do. Stand your ground and trust and obey God instead.


Ephesians 6

And this is the truth that is unpacked for us in wonderful detail in Ephesians chapter 6, which we read together earlier.

This passage is noteworthy in that it contains some of the most vivid descriptions of spiritual warfare in the whole Bible. It opens by telling us that we wrestle “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).

You want a sobering-wake up call to take things seriously? You just got it. You are in a battle of cosmic proportions. You are wrestling against the very forces of darkness themselves.

But what do we need to do? We just need to stand our ground. We’re told that three times in verses 11 and 13 and 14. Stand. Stand firm.

In other words, we are already holding a good position. We are united to Jesus who has been exalted “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” as Ephesians 1:21 says. We already have the high ground. And as the forces of darkness assail us, and they will assail us, we stand our ground and we fight.

And so how do we fight?

Ephesians 6 tells us that we fight by living the normal Christian life. Listen to what it says. Verse 14: “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness.”

Truth in this context is best understood as truthfulness or integrity, and righteousness likewise is best understood as our practical righteousness. That sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? God’s people should be people of integrity and righteous living. And Paul says that these things are our “basic equipment in the spiritual battle."1Max Turner, “Ephesians,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, ed. D. A. Carson et al., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 1243.

We go on to read that our readiness for the battle comes through the gospel of peace (verse 15). And our main defensive weapon against the lies and schemes of the devil? Faith (verse 16). We believe God’s truth and promises instead of believing the lies.

We are further protected by salvation itself, which serves as our helmet. When we compare this to other scriptures (Isaiah 59:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:8), we see that this points to our hope and confidence in Jesus who has saved us and who will save us to the end.

And then we pick up our sword—“The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). God’s word. The thing we’re supposed to be setting our minds on as we walk according to the Spirit. That’s our weapon.

And finally, Paul points to prayer (Ephesians 6:18-20)—prayer for each other and prayer for those who, like Paul, are giving their lives to advance the gospel.

So do you see the picture here? The armour of God is not some mystical spiritual thing that we somehow have to “pray on” each day or else we might be unprotected. The armour of God is just what it says. The shield of faith just means faith. The breastplate of righteousness just means righteousness.

And what this all tells us us that the way we fight the spiritual battle is by engaging in the wonderfully normal Christian life, full of faith and obedience, trusting in God’s promises and relishing in His gospel and setting our minds on His word.

And this all makes sense to us when we remember that from Genesis 3 onwards, everything is spiritual war. In other words, spiritual warfare is not some extra thing that a few Christians might encounter every once and a while. The Christian life itself is spiritual war. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that our armour and weapons are just these basics of the Christian life: integrity, righteous living, a deep understanding of the gospel, faith, hope in our salvation, God’s word, and prayer.


War is Everything, and War is Normal

Now as we step back and take this all in, there’s two possible ways that we could react to this teaching. One is to say: “Oh, that’s all there is to spiritual warfare? Well then I guess it’s not that big of a deal and I don’t really have to think about it.”

That would be the wrong way to take things. Instead we should say, “The normal Christian life is spiritual warfare? As I trust and obey and read and pray and believe and live, I am engaged in a deep and real cosmic spiritual battle? Wow. That means the stakes are high. That means that my spiritual disciplines of spending time in Scripture and prayer are really important. This means that knowing the gospel and being grounded in it’s message is mega-important. This means that what I do during my days is mega-important. This means that being a Sunday Christian is not even a possibility. This means that everything matters. This means that I’m a solider in the army and I need to get fighting.”

Please hear that this morning. When God’s word tells us that spiritual warfare means living the normal Christian life, it’s not telling us that spiritual warfare is no big deal. It’s telling us that the normal Christian life is a really big deal. It’s telling us that every single person in this room who is a believer in Jesus Christ is a spiritual warrior. It’s telling us that we have been fighting against the devil with every decision to honour God, every minute spent reading and thinking about God’s word, every word spoken in prayer, every act of obedience that submits to God’s will.

I also want us to notice that this teaching does correct some imbalances in the way that some people think about spiritual warfare. I remember reading about a Christian author who wouldn’t sleep in a hotel room before he went through this process of “cleansing” the room spiritually. And he would address the demons who might be in that room and he used a verbal formula to supposedly “bind” them and make them leave that room so that there wouldn’t be any “spiritual warfare” while he slept there that night.

And maybe you think, “wow, that guy thinks way too much about spiritual warfare. I’ve never thought to do that before sleeping in a hotel room.”

Well, for starters, I don’t see anywhere in the Bible that demons can attach themselves to rooms or objects and that we should try and use these verbal formulas to renounce them or bind them. That’s not how it works. Jesus already bound the strong man and disarmed the spiritual forces. This whole idea of renouncing or binding or even praying against the Devil is just not in the Bible.

But more importantly, I want to suggest that this guy actually didn’t think enough about spiritual warfare. His understanding was just way too small. He thought spiritual warfare meant demons lurking in a hotel room waiting to pounce on him in the night.  He didn’t understand that spiritual warfare means waking up in the morning and picking up our Bible and praying and believing and obeying. As he went through that day walking in truth and integrity and trusting in Jesus and resting in the hope of salvation, he was—by those very actions—standing up to the forces of darkness.

The Christian life is war.


Conclusion

And as we try to sum this all up, do you know what one of the best passages in Scripture is for us to conclude with? It’s a passage that so many of us know off by heart because we’ve sang it at camp and in youth meetings for the past three decades.

I’m talking about Romans 16:19-20. Which begins: “For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Romans 16:19–20). 

God is going to crush Satan under our feet. Do you hear that echo from Genesis 3? We are the body of Christ, and we play a part in Christ’s serpent-crushing work. God is using us to destroy the Devil.

And how do we do that? By being wise to what is good and innocent of evil. By living the wonderfully supernaturally normal Christian life.

So be encouraged. If you are someone who has been attempting to do that, trying your best to trust and obey Jesus and believe the truth and rest in the gospel and do what you know you should do, then be encouraged. Whether you know it or not, you’ve been fighting and you’ve been fighting well. The forces of darkness have reason to fear you. So keep it up. Don’t give them an inch of ground. Resist the devil and trust the promise that time and time again, he will flee from you.

And if you are not that person, if you haven’t been taking your Christian life very seriously, if you’ve been just taking it easy and thinking that as long as you show up on Sunday everything will be okay, then please hear the call this morning to wake up. 

Jump into the fray. If you’re a believer in Jesus than you are a part of an army, and this church is full of soldiers in the heat of battle who could really use your sword and shield right there beside them.

And finally, if you’re here this morning and none of this makes a lot of sense to you because you’re not sure about Jesus or whether you really believe that He died for your sins, please don’t leave without making that yours today. The battle is real and you are in far more danger than you know. Come to Jesus this morning and find spiritual safety in Him.


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