Friday, February 1, 2013

You Think You Have Enemies...

You Think You’ve Got Enemies

When I think of enemies, I think of the big ones. I think of Stalin’s Soviet Bear. I think of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. Today we have Al Qaeda and Islamic Fundamentalists. There are also pretend enemies, like the Boogieman – as a kid, I was scared of some guy named Mr. Freebish, who my dad threatened would come in and eat my vegetables if I didn’t eat them (I didn’t mind so much if he ate them; I was just scared of this stranger who would presumably break into the house to eat my food). Then there are characters from fiction, like Darth Vader. And over the course of our lives, there are times when we make other enemies, too. Like the bully down the street. Or the rival for your beloved’s attention. Or the person at work who always seems to at you.

Most of us probably don’t have enemies who threaten to physically harm us, though if we have school-aged children or grandchildren, they might.

Three weeks ago, we looked at Saul’s conversion to Christianity, and in the last two weeks we looked at two of his friends, Barnabas and Timothy. It’s great to have a friend like Barnabas, the Encourager. And for Timothy, it was great to have a “true Father in the faith” like Paul was.

But today we’re looking across the aisle, at Paul’s enemies. Paul ended up with lots of enemies. It seemed like everywhere Paul went, there were problems. The problems were mostly with “the Jews” – people who knew the Jewish law yet refused to recognize that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah. I went through the book of Acts, looking at who Paul’s enemies were and why they were his enemies.

(In Acts 13:13 ff) When Paul and Barnabas arrived in Pisidian Antioch, Paul was invited to speak in the synagogue, telling the good news about Jesus, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. Because of the testimony, many people followed them and dialogued with them about the grace of God, and they were invited back to the synagogue. But the Jews saw the crowds and were filled with jealousy and began to speak abusively against Paul and Barnabas. They continued by inciting the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city, who stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas and expelled them from their region. So Paul and Barnabas shook the dust off their feet in protest and left for Iconium.

This was just the beginning. In Acts 14, when they got to Iconium, after some Gentiles and Jews came to believe in Jesus, the Jews who refused to believe stirred up as many as they could and “poisoned their minds against the brothers.” Still, Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord. That, of course, made the Jews angry, and they plotted against them to mistreat and stone them, and even after they left town, the Jews followed them to Lystra, where they stoned Paul and left him for dead (Acts 14:19).

(Acts 16:16-24) In Philippi, Paul and Silas met a slave girl who predicted the future by a spirit. When they drove the spirit out, the slave’s owners went nuts and drove the city into an uproar. The town magistrates ordered Paul and Silas stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison and put in stocks.

In Acts 17:5, in Thessalonica, some Jews became jealous because Paul and Silas had talked to some of the Jews (and Greeks as well) and some of the town’s prominent women and had convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah. So the jealous Jews rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace and started a riot in the city.

In Acts 18, in Corinth, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court. Thankfully they were unable to sway the proconsul and Paul remained unscathed there. But in his next stop, Ephesus (Acts 19:23 ff), he led many people to Christ, which enraged silversmith named Demetrius, because he lost business making silver shrines for Artemis. So he worked the crowds into a frenzy.

In Jerusalem, Jews from the province of Asia came (Acts 21:27ff) and saw Paul at the Temple and they went full-riot on him, beating him and trying to kill him. In fact, in Acts 23:12, we find that a group of more than forty Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul.

In some of his letters, Paul writes about his enemies, the Jewish Christians requiring circumcision. They were teaching if you’re not circumcised, you’re not saved. Not so big a deal for those who were circumcised as Jews, on the eighth day, but quite a big deal for those who converted as adults. In fact, most of the book of Galatians deals with this issue. If you think the Bible is all G-rated, look it up: Paul finally gets fed up and says, “For those who are stirring up dissention over this matter: I wish you’d go the whole way and cut it all off.” Galatians 5:12. Look it up. In fact, in Philippians 3:2, Paul calls the circumcision faction “dogs” and “mutilators of the flesh.”

I’ve spent all this time talking about situations where Paul faced human enemies. Before you think that Paul just went around picking fights, listen to what Paul said in Romans 12:18: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. So don’t take this as license to go around ticking people off just for the sake of “if Paul made enemies, then I can, too.”

Because Paul recognized that in spite of all of the human enemies he amassed over just a few chapters of Acts, these weren’t his real enemies. Despite all of the fights he had with the Jews and even with Jewish Christians, Paul knew that the fight was deeper. Many of us are familiar at least with the concept of the armor of God. In Ephesians 6, Paul admonishes the church to be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Ephesians 6:10-11). You might even know what the armor consists of: Stand firm, then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waste, with the breastplate of righteousness in place and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. (Ephesians 6:14-18)

But who is the enemy Paul is concerned about? He explains in verse 12. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

In other words, yes, there are people who are against us, people who cause trouble, people who oppress, people who fight against us, but they are not the real enemy. In fact, they are beloved by God, who created them and who is grieved by their actions. This is why Jesus could tell anyone who follows him to love our enemies; because our human enemies are not God’s enemies. He loves them.

But we have enemies. Do we ever. We are in the middle of a spiritual war. Two kingdoms are at war, God’s Kingdom and Satan’s kingdom of Darkness. “We are in a holy war for the souls of men and women” Satan’s one burning desire is to take as many people to Hell with him as possible – if he isn’t attacking, perhaps it’s because he figures you’re already his. He will continue to aim his attacks at Christians who are serving God. There are times when it seems like the only way to avoid his attacks is to give up: to do nothing for God’s Kingdom at all. In a scene from the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Theoden, King of Rohan, is asked to fight to save humankind. He replies, "I will not bring further death to my people. And I will not risk open war." To this, Aragorn replies, "Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not."

If open spiritual warfare is upon us, whether we would risk it or not, what do we do? We first have to acknowledge that we are at war, and we prepare to fight. 2 Corinthians 10:3-4 says: For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.

We can’t fight like the world does, because that type of warfare does not affect spiritual beings. So we have to use weapons that are divinely powered to demolish demonic strongholds. If the term “stronghold” is strange or foreign to you, think of it as the enemy’s battlements or armaments. The enemy is entrenched, and we have to have a way to defeat him, but scripture says that we can actually demolish the enemy’s strong fortifications.

To understand how we can do so, the best person to study is Jesus. We can study a one-on-one war Jesus had with Satan, the temptation of Jesus. In Matthew 4, we see Jesus do battle with Satan in the desert.

[Matthew 4:1-11]

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’”

 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

If we look at what Jesus did in the desert, we can discern Jesus’ Battle strategy:

1.                  First of all, Jesus was prepared. He didn’t go to the desert until immediately after his baptism. He knew his place – the Son of God – and he knew that his Father was already pleased with him. But Jesus’ preparation also extended to his submission to God. James 4:7 tells us to Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Jesus was fully submitted to God – did you notice that it was the Holy Spirit who led him into the desert, where he was tempted? Because Jesus was submitted to God, then God fought his battle for him. Jesus never said or did anything new in the desert – he only humbly quoted his Father.

2.                  Jesus also prepared by fasting: he didn’t meet Satan in the wilderness until he had fasted forty days and forty nights. Our culture has limited fasting to giving something up for Lent, whether it is caffeine or chocolate or sweets or whatever people give up these days, and often we can read all about someone’s fast on Facebook, and that’s not a biblical fast whatsoever. The Bible tells us that our fast should be between us and God – don’t look all sad and give everyone the puppydog eyes because you are missing out on your daily Big Gulp – you should look and act normal. Fasting is a time of remembering that God is the provider and that we should take our greatest delight in him, not in the things of this world. For all of the pleasures of this world were made for our delight, for us to enjoy, but we abuse them all, and we use many of them to self-medicate or cover up our desperate need for God.

3.                  To take the Battle to Satan, we must have the Word of God written on our hearts. Psalm 119:1 I have hidden your Word in my heart that I might not sin against you. If we truly know God’s Word, we will be prepared to counter the devil’s schemes. The devil knows the Bible, and even used it against Jesus. The devil will use scripture out of context to make his own point. He has been doing that for years – did you know that the first major Methodist schism came over slavery; many good church-going Christians were deceived for years into believing that because the Bible mentions slavery, that it was normative, meaning that it was prescribing it. So obviously people thought it was “right” to own other people. There are many who are deceived by half-truths – this is truly the devil’s plan, to trick us with something that sounds true or good but at heart is not. Pastor Ray Steadman said this: “Our problem is that we have become so accustomed to believing our feelings as though they were facts. We never examine them. We never take them and look at them and ask, ‘Is this true?’ We simply say, ‘I feel this way. Therefore it must be true.’ This is why so many are constantly defeated; because they accept their feelings as facts.”  

We accept the devil’s word and fail to examine our culture or even our own thought life, and that’s because we don’t know the Word of God. Hebrews 4:12 tells us that the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. In Ephesians 6:17, Paul names the Word of God as the only offensive weapon in his list of the Armor of God.

4.                  Jesus’ final weapon against Satan is perseverance. Even Jesus’ battle with the devil wasn’t won in a day. Don’t give up! The Apostle Paul says our goal in fighting spiritual warfare is to stand our ground, and after we have done everything, to stand (Ephesians 6:13). James 1:12 tells the believers: Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial, because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

We are in the midst of spiritual warfare. But God is on our side, and if God is for us, who can be against us?