The kingdom and spiritual warfare

How can love survive against evil when evil has the weapons to destroy God’s people?

Spiritual warfare is a kingdom matter. Ever since the coup in Eden’s Garden, earth has been at war with our heavenly sovereign. Unlike the evil emperor in Star Wars, God did not build a death star to destroy the planet and its rebels. Instead he called Abraham away from Babel, to build a family that would bring the world back into his care.

Predictably, Abraham’s family were enslaved by this world’s rulers. With ten “mighty acts” God demonstrated Pharaoh was a fraud. Egypt’s king could not even stop natural invaders like frogs, flies, or gnats. Pharaoh could not protect the families of Egypt, not even his own family, not even Egypt’s heir.

Pharaoh agreed to let God’s people go, but he still had the forces to recapture them. That’s the big question: How can love survive against evil when evil has the weapons to destroy God’s people?

God stepped in. God made a way where there was no way—through the Sea. Pharaoh’s forces followed. God restored the natural order, calling the Sea back into its place.

The chariot drivers realized: “YHWH is fighting for the Israelites” (Exodus 14:25).

Israel realized:

Exodus 15:3-4 (my translation)
YHWH is a man of war; YHWH is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and force he threw down into the sea;
his chosen champions were sunk in the Red Sea.

Spiritual warfare is God standing up for the people who stand up for him.

In the following centuries, Israel struggled to hold the land God promised them. They wanted a human king “to fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20). It worked for a while, but human kings could not defend them. Assyria took most of the land; Babylon took the rest. Israel lost the war and her national identity.

In their darkest hour, Isaiah declared that God himself would be their king (Isaiah 40:9-11). God would put on his armour and fight for them:

Isaiah 59:16–17 (NIV)
16 He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm achieved salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.
17 He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.

When did God do this? It didn’t happen straight away. They suffered under Babylon until Persia made them part of its empire. Then Greece conquered Persia, and they suffered under tyrants like Antiochus IV. Gradually they realized their enemy was something other than the nations around them. Their enemy was a power that did not fall when Babylon or Persia fell. A deeper power kept them oppressed, a power they named Mastema, Belial, or Satan.

That’s why Jesus did not treat Rome as the enemy. Revealed as anointed ruler, Jesus’ first move was not against the Roman garrison to confront their human oppressors, but against Israel’s real enemy (Matthew 4). Jesus “went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38).

This spiritual war led inevitably to his final battle, when Jesus believed he would dethrone “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The Jewish leaders handed him over to Rome. An incredulous Pilate asked the figure before him, “Are you a king?” (John 18:33) Jesus explained that Rome was not his enemy. His regal authority came not by violence but by divine decree:

John 18:36–38 (NIV)
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.”

The truth is that YHWH had promised to step in and deliver his helpless people. The fate of God’s entire project rests on this helpless man, Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews. Ironically, it is Pilate who is powerless: as a pawn in the hands of evil, he declares Jesus innocent and condemns him to die as a criminal.

But death (the tyrant’s weapon) cannot hold Jesus. God steps in to fight for his people, to override the injustice, to vindicate Jesus, to raise him up from death to the throne.

This decisive victory redefines the war. For those who can see it, earth already has a new king.

So we find ourselves in a world where evil still wars against God’s kingship, inflicting violence on his people as it did to our king. Just two days ago, 11 worshippers were slaughtered as they took communion at Bethel Memorial Church in western Pakistan. What do we do?

The wrong approach would be to call for retribution against the perpetrators, as if they were our enemy. Jesus did not view Pilate—the man who ordered his death—as his enemy. Neither did he seek retribution against those who handed him over to Pilate. Our Commander in Chief pleaded for their pardon, “Father, forgive them; they don’t understand what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

That’s how the servants of King Jesus are to conduct spiritual warfare. Facing the same authorities that handed Jesus over to be killed, Stephen interceded for his killers, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

That is spiritual warfare. We refuse to treat human beings as the enemy. We refuse to take up arms to defend ourselves, for we believe that God fights for his people.

As Jesus stood before Pilate to be condemned, God was donning his armour to free the world from captivity to evil. We have no armour except what Jesus wore at his trial debating truth with Pilate:

Ephesians 6:11–17 (NIV)
11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Paul wrote those words in prison. Move your focus from Paul’s quill, and you see the guard with his sword. But the guard was not Paul’s enemy: he’s someone who rightfully belongs to God’s family (compare Acts 16:27-28). So Paul sat in his cell, wearing only the armour God wore when on trial before Pilate. He asks the Ephesians to pray he’ll have the audacity to declare the good news of Jesus’ kingship in circumstances like these (6:18-20).

Towards the end of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, there’s a scene where one warrior directs all his firepower against his enemy, only to discover he’s been wasting his efforts: his enemy was somewhere else. Much that passes for spiritual warfare in the church today is probably like that.

Don’t waste your efforts yelling at the devil, calling him names, and telling him where to go. The Bible describes that as ungodly, slanderous, and irrational, misunderstanding authority and overstepping our bounds. It’s not pitting your power against the devil like the misguided priest in The Exorcist; it’s calling on God to rebuke him when he oversteps his bounds (Jude 8-10).

Spiritual warfare is calling on God, trusting him to deliver his people, even in the face of death. We refuse to fight with the weapons of evil. We refuse to view people as the enemy. We stand, with nothing except God’s armour, like Jesus before Pilate. Our hope is in our King.


What others are saying

Peter H. Davids, The Letters of 2 Peter and Jude, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 63:

Rather than assert his own authority over Satan, Michael calls upon God to render the appropriate judgment.

Gene L. Green, Jude and 2 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 84:

Jude’s point fits neatly into the structure of his argument up to here (vv. 5–8). The heretics have overstepped the boundaries (v. 8), as had Israel (v. 5), the fallen angels (v. 6), and Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 7). By way of contrast, Michael, who seemed for all the world to be in a place to rightly judge the devil due to his position and the attendant powers ascribed to him as archangel, refrained from doing so, giving way to the Lord as the one who is truly the judge (see Bauckham 1983: 60–61; Perkins 1995: 151; Kraftchick 2002: 44).

Pakistani Christians Bury 11 After ISIS Attacks Methodist Church, Christianity Today, 2017-12-19:

Worshipers were lining up to take communion on Sunday morning when at least two men, armed and wearing suicide vests, attacked Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in western Pakistan’s provincial capital city Quetta. They left at least 11 dead and more than 50 injured, many in critical condition, unofficial local figures said.

[previous: God’s kingdom and the millennium]

[next: Jesus the questioner]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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