I generally avoid speaking about the more intensely spiritual/mystical side of the Christian faith: it’s real, it’s powerful, but understanding and speaking of such things is not my strong point.
But where I am weak, Suzanna Rowntree is strong. Her thoughts helped me out, and I believe it can help you out too!
Quotes are from the transcript of Spiritual Warfare 101.
Long before we get to that, spiritual warfare is about walking in the Holy Spirit and not giving any ground to the devil in the first place. This is a practical matter of our daily walk in the Lord. It means refusing to tolerate sin in our own lives. It means loving mercy and doing justice. It means having the law of God written on our hearts. It means shining a light on injustice and protecting the vulnerable. Long before we ever get to the point of rebuking demons, we need to be sure we’re walking in the light. Otherwise none of the things I’m about to say in this episode will help you.
I like rooting your spiritual warfare in practical actions, as well as prayer and spiritual sanctification. What is the worth of holiness if it doesn’t actually expand the Kingdom of God in the real world, doing justice for all (especially the poor and weak), extending mercy to the repentant and the victim, and despising the wickedness in our own hearts, inviting the Holy Spirit to drive evil out and fill us with holiness, love, righteousness, mercy, and truth.
We cannot defeat evil OUT THERE, unless we break its hold IN HERE. First God wins in our hearts and minds; then in our hands, eyes, mouths, and eyes; and out into the greater world.
All of it belongs to Christ, “secular” and “sacred” alike.
(And not to some propped-up power-idol like the State or the Race or the Leader or the Party.)
For instance, CS Lewis in The Screwtape Letters warns us off paying too little attention to the devil, and in the next sentence warns us about paying too much. With all respect to Lewis, It’s sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario, and I’ve never found this take to be tremendously helpful. I’ve also had people express their concern about my making the topic of spiritual warfare a study at all. Multiple people have told me cautionary tales about Christians whose interest in the spiritual world resulted in their living in constant fear…afraid of demons, subject to demonic attack, unable to function in their lives or ministry. The unspoken assumption is that my own interest will lead me into a similar fear and a similar paralysis, and that if I ever try to communicate what I’ve learned, I’ll be passing on a sort of viral terror… And yet here I am, three years later, in a state of mental health that can only be described as offensively robust, and nobody seems to have caught anything off me, either.
Honestly? It was before I learned anything about spiritual warfare that I used to be afraid of demons. As a child, I’d have recurring nightmares in which I could feel myself under spiritual attack and be unable to fight back either by calling on Jesus or running away. As an adult, there’d be times late at night when I’d feel the darkness thickening and wonder if it was my imagination frightening me, or some real spiritual incursion. What was additionally frightening was the idea that maybe I could make myself vulnerable to spiritual attack simply by being sensitive to it. I mean, what happens when you tell yourself not to think about something? You just think about it all the more…and that just makes you more frightened.
What happened when I started to learn about spiritual warfare was that I realised it doesn’t work like that. Spiritual warfare is ethical-judicial: you can’t summon demons just by thinking about them, and unless you are actually giving ground to the devil by sin in some area of your life, you don’t have to worry about him. These days, when I wonder if something is a spiritual attack or my own hyperactive imagination, I don’t spend any time worrying about it one way or another, and I don’t even bother turning on the light anymore. I just announce my authority in Christ to the darkness, turn over, and go back to sleep.
Pagans knew of spiritual realities… and had no means to fight them. So, the oh-so-rational Ancient Greeks spent so much time living in fear of demons, doing magic rituals to try to control them. Without Christ, without even the knowledge of God that the Jews had…
(…and used as a status symbol to stand above the Gentiles, instead of medicine to heal the Gentiles…)
…the Greeks were utterly defenseless.
And there are the Pagans of today, who deny what they don’t understand.
(Because they hate the Law and Authority of God, which they understand all too well.)
And so, denying the existence of demons, they are little more than the playthings of demons: from concentration camps and gulags, to crushing oppression and widespread injustice, to the murder of their own future while crying out for Leaders to Keep Them Safe, to sexual delusions and financial madness.
But those who follow Christ know the way to life, and peace, and victory.
Those who know the way to life, and walk it, are truly blessed!
I certainly don’t dismiss my friends’ stories about Christians who come under spiritual oppression because of fear. After all, I’ve felt the same kind of thing myself. But the answer to this problem is not to keep the church of God in ignorance. The answer is to give us the weapons we need to fight back. The answer is not to run from the fight because we’re weak, the answer is to put on the armour of faith and win the fight.
I like the focus on victory. In the world of the spirit, and the world of the flesh as well.
This is God’s land.
You may not be aware of this, especially if you’ve grown up in the reformed or cessationist churches, but the church actually does have at least one handbook on spiritual warfare, the book of Ephesians – there’s actually another, Revelation, but we’ll get to that later. If you aren’t intimately familiar with Ephesians already, I’d encourage you to open it up so you can see what I’m talking about. In Ephesians, the main theme has to do with the mysterious unity that exists between Christ and the Church. Paul starts by telling us, in Ephesians 1:3, that we are blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.
Miss Rowntree now warms up to her main theme: Our Authority in Christ, in the spiritual (and then, the material) realm.
The bottom line is, all things have been put under Jesus’ feet. And we are Jesus’ body. I don’t think Paul is mixing his metaphors here at the end of chapter 1, I think he means that when all things are put under Jesus’ feet, they are also put under us, as his body. So, because we have union with Christ, we have the authority of Christ. Ephesians 2:6 makes it even clearer: having been raised up from our deathly sins, we are, right now, being made to sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
We have spiritual authority, as part of the Body of Christ, over every wicked thing.
There is a great heavenly council, where the sons of God meet before the Lord.
In 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah describes Jehovah seated on his throne in the midst of his court, asking one of the host of heaven to volunteer to deceive King Ahab. A spirit does so, and becomes a lying spirit in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets. A similar commissioning ceremony happens in Isaiah 6, with the Lord asking for volunteers to go to prophesy to Israel, and this time Isaiah volunteers and is commissioned. Another happens in Job 1, with a spirit accusing Job and being sent to test him; and there’s another similar scene in Zechariah 3, when the accuser – this will be translated as Satan in your bibles – rather than a name, the word may simply be a title similar to “prosecutor” – when the accuser brings an accusation against the high priest Joshua, and the Lord overrules the accusation and commissions Joshua to bring forth a future saviour.
There are other Old Testament references to the divine council, some of them not always evident on a surface reading. Psalm 89:6-8 asks,
For who in the heaven can be compared unto the Lord? Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord? God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him. O Lord God of hosts, who is a strong Lord like unto thee?
You may be surprised to learn that the original Hebrew of this passage is full of heavenly-council imagery. It speaks of God sitting “in the council of the holy ones”. The “sons of the mighty”, literally in the original Hebrew, are “the children of the gods” and “the convocation of the holy ones.”
Psalm 82 is one of the most illuminating passages on the topic of the heavenly council, as it existed in Old Testament times.
God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods. How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Defend the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; rid them out of the hand of the wicked. They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.
It’s fascinating that we see God standing in his heavenly council, rebuking these powerful spirits for failing to judge justly. Remember from what we saw in Job and Zechariah, that the satanic accusers of Job and Joshua the High Priest still seem to be official members of the divine council at this stage. The Lord goes on to say in Psalm 82:
I have said: Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
Here, God prophesies that despite the power and glory of the spirits on his council, they will die and fall just like mortal men. The psalmist then responds in his own words:
Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit the nations.
Now, we don’t know a huge deal about how the heavenly council actually worked in Old Testament times. But from what we do know from Scripture, it seems that there were fallen spirits on this council at this time, and that these spirits had a role in governing the ungodly nations around Israel. For example, in Ezekiel 28, Ezekiel is given a message to “the prince of Tyre”, which says, in part,
Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth…thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee.
In the same way, in Daniel 10, the angel Gabriel tells Daniel that he was sent to answer Daniel’s prayers but was delayed in a battle against the spiritual prince of Persia. Later in the same passage, Gabriel tells Daniel about a new, rising spiritual power: the prince of Greece.
Several times in the Old Testament, God speaks of Israel as his own special inheritance, suggesting that while rulership of the other nations was deputed to these fallen princes, God ruled Israel directly, himself. But Psalm 82 prophesied a coming time when God was going to destroy the demons who ruled over the pagan nations, judge the earth and inherit the nations himself. And…this is exactly what we see happen in Revelation chapters 4 and 5. The Apostle John has a vision of God enthroned in the midst of a heavenly council, which is now made up of twenty-four elders. An angel asks for a volunteer to break the seals and open the scroll. John tells us that nobody was found in the cosmos who was able to do this thing…but then the Lamb appears and opens the seals – which inaugurates God’s judgement on the earth, a judgement which saves the lives of a precious remnant of persecuted saints. This is the very same divine council drama that we see enacted in the Old Testament and in Syrian-Mesopotamian mythology, but this time, the appointed saviour is taking up supreme authority not for a short while, for all time. In the course of this salvific judgement, in Revelation 12, for the first time the devil and all his angels are cast out of heaven, no longer able to access the divine council.
And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.
In Revelation, therefore, we see the Psalm 82 prophecy being fulfilled as the old order of corrupt angels is destroyed, the accuser of Job and Zecharaiah is cast out, and Jesus Christ inherits all the nations as his own inheritance. The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Incredible, right? But the most amazing part is that there’s still a divine council in heaven…and this time, humans are on it. Revelation 20:4:
And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
In fact 1 Corinthians 6:3 suggests the saints had a role in judging the old, corrupt council: Know ye not that we shall judge angels?
And now we come all the way back to Ephesians again:
He raised Christ from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church; Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
…He hath quickened us together with Christ….and hath raised us up together , and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
Doesn’t that make a whole lot more sense now? Paul tells us that since we died in Christ’s death, and were resurrected in Christ’s resurrection body, therefore we sit and reign together with Christ in the heavenly places. And in the process, every other spiritual authority that rebels against Jesus, has not only been put under his feet, but under our feet as we reign with Jesus on his heavenly council.
The demons tremble at Christ’s power. And that very same power is our inheritance in Christ. I want you to know this and believe it with every fibre of your being. You are a member of the divine council. This is what it means to have access to the throne of grace. There is no demon in this cosmos that has more authority than you do, because Christ’s authority is yours. This is why you can put on the whole armour of God and wrestle fearlessly against the spiritual wickedness in this world.
We have authority under God.
As His people, we are to maximize our lawful authority… and to do so, we are not to give an inch of ground to evil thoughts and deeds.
Nothing to Satan.
All to Christ.
[Note: i am snipping a whole lot about postmillennialism — a.k.a. the expectation of victory on this world, as well as the world to come — and the hard struggle against Satan and our own besetting sins. Read the article for more.]
Ephesians 6 goes on to tell us that “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.” I think this is extremely important for Christians to understand. As my co-host Elisabeth mentioned in our previous episode on tribalism, huge parts of the modern church have allowed themselves to be distracted from fighting our real enemies in spiritual places. We’re more interested in the culture wars than we are in spiritual warfare. We ignore the spiritual enemy and instead focus on fighting the captives we were sent to save. We demonise those who disagree with us on politics and religion, instead of casting out the very real demons behind it all. Instead of binding the strong man, we shoot his captives. No wonder we don’t see any positive change in this world!
Something worth chewing over.
[Some more good material skipped]
Once again, I would recommend reading Mark I Bubeck’s book The Adversary. Unfortunately, this is the only practical handbook on spiritual warfare that I’ve currently read, so it’s the only one I can personally recommend. I do differ from Bubeck in certain theological matters, but this is still a confident, level-headed, unafraid look at the topic of spiritual warfare that goes into much more depth than I have in this podcast. A final book I would recommend is Michael Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm, which helped me parse out a lot of the material about the heavenly council that I discussed at the start of this episode, although I have even more urgent disagreements with him. It’s still well worth a read, especially when allied with a robust postmillennial eschatology.
God’s people are going to win, and Satan’s people are going to lose.
While we live out lives, Christians must be careful to live in fear/worship and obedience to the Lord.
(As opposed to fear/worship and obedience to Satan.)
While they are still breathing in the flesh, some of Satan’s human servants will grow to despise the evil they do, grow weary of living under demonic bondage, tire of their enslavement to their own unreasoning lusts and sins, and long to escape the hell-grave they are being lured into.
Christians are to be used as holy instruments of God, to shatter the chains and set the slaves free. While they are still alive, to receive His word, welcome the Holy Spirit, and choose life over death.
It’s time for the good guys to win: first in the spirit, and then in the flesh.