Spiritual Conflict in Biblical Perspective 3

John Christopher Thomas

In the first plenary paper on the biblical text I proposed one way in which the various writings of the NT might be drawn upon in the construction of a NT theology on the subject of origins of illness in order to gain some leverage on the larger question of spiritual warfare. In the second plenary paper I sought to extend the study by offering a set of reflections on the implications of the first paper for theology and ministry. In this third plenary paper, I should like to address the issue of spiritual warfare and world evangelization more directly by offering a set of observations that are based upon the biblical text generally and by making explicit additional implications of the more narrowly focused study found in the first two papers.

First, it should be observed from the outset that the text of the NT is very clear about the fact that signs, miracles, and wonders are very much a part of the church’s proclamation of the Gospel. Evidence for this assessment is found in all the Gospels, Acts, the Pauline literature (Romans 15.18-19; 2 Cor 12.12; Gal 3.5; 1 Thess 1.5), Hebrews (2.4; 6.5), and the Apocalypse. Many of these texts reveal that such miraculous events do not simply accompany or confirm the proclamation of the Gospel but are themselves a proclamation of the Gospel. Thus, while there may be room for disagreement on the issue of spiritual warfare, it would appear that those committed to the task of world evangelization must have an appreciation of and place for signs, wonders, and miracles as part of Gospel proclamation if their evangelistic work is to be in keeping with the text of the NT as a whole.

Second, there is indeed a very strong emphasis in certain NT books upon the Kingdom of God. The Gospels are consistent in affirming both that the kingdom is present and yet has a future dimension. One of the ways in which the Kingdom is shown to be present is in the exorcisms which Jesus performs (Mt 12.28; Lk 11.20). When his followers, the Seventy[-Two], return from their ministry mission, which includes the exorcism of demons, Jesus states that he saw Satan falling (Lk 10.18). Thus, part of the proclamation of the Gospel involves conflict between God and his emissaries and the Devil and his forces. It is also significant that it is not uncommon for the NT generally to use language that underscores the ongoing conflict between God and the Devil. Thus, it is not inappropriate to describe the Christian life as one engaged in spiritual warfare. Yet, it is also clear that this conflict is no dualistic struggle between two equal powers but between an all powerful God and less powerful forces in rebellion to him.

Third, as observed in the previous papers when it comes to identifying the origins of illness, the NT is not monolithic in its attribution. Despite the fact that Jesus and the disciples are engaged in a struggle with the Devil and demons, one cannot always assume that the Devil stands behind a given infirmity. Sometimes it appears that God is at work through an infirmity, while most of the time illness is regarded as neutral with regard to origins. Thus, simplistic equations that always see a relationship between illness and the devil obfuscate the issue by ruling out of hand God’s role and purposes in some illness while at the same time demonizing infirmities that the NT might treat in a neutral fashion. It is possible that preoccupation with a spiritual warfare paradigm might result in a similar obfuscation of God’s role and purposes in evangelizing the nations. It seems clear from Scripture that the Devil and demons oppose the mission of the church, and this is a reality that should never be ignored or underestimated. Yet, it is, at the same, apparent from the biblical text that God may cause providential delays in world evangelization to accomplish his purposes. Is it possible that the church could be misinterpreting providential delays or struggles in world evangelization owing to a preoccupation with a spiritual warfare orientation that might not fit every situation? In other words, is it possible that we are sometimes not hearing the voice of God in a given situation because we have predetermined the way in which God must work or the nature of ‘opposition’?

Fourth, as was seen in the first two papers, there is some degree of diversity of thought in the NT about Satan’s role in illness and infirmity. While Luke-Acts and Matthew (to a certain extent) make clear that the Devil and demons are responsible for a number of infirmities and, consequently, the proper response in most instances involves exorcism, other NT writers never attribute an illness to the Devil or a demon. This suggests that there was some diversity of thought and practice on this issue amongst early Christians. In this vein, it might not be insignificant that the Kingdom of God paradigm, which is dominant in certain NT books, is nearly completely absent in others. For example, if one allows the FG to speak on its own terms, the essential message of Jesus is not understood in terms of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God but rather belief in the Son of God which results in Eternal Life. In fact, the only person in the Fourth Gospel who is ever accused of having a demon is Jesus – an accusation made by `the Jews’ and some of the crowd (John 7. 20; 8.48, 52; 10.20). Exorcisms and power encounters of that sort find no place in the narrative of the FG. Thus, the mission of the church in the FG is not understood in quite the same way as it is in the Synoptics. The closest one comes to such an understanding in the Johannine literature is the statement in 1 Jn 3.8 that `For this reason was the Son of God manifest, in order that he might destroy the works of the Devil’. But a close reading of the text reveals that in this text `the works of the Devil’ are equated with sin. None of this is intended to suggest that there is no cosmic struggle within the Fourth Gospel, only to point out that there is some degree of diversity amongst the NT Gospel writers on how the work of God is to be made manifest. One of the implications of such diversity of thought in the NT for the mission of the church might be that an evangelistic strategy which focuses solely on a `Kingdom of God’ paradigm may be a less than holistic biblical approach to the mission of the church.

Fifth, it should be abundantly clear that discernment is essential and extraordinarily important in discerning whether an illness has its origin in God, the Devil, or neutral causes and in discerning the ongoing activity of the Holy Spirit in leading the church in its missionary work. The Book of Acts is literally full of examples of how God, through his Spirit, is integrally involved in the mission of the church. His involvement and activity include: empowering for witness (Acts 1.8, et.al.), enabling Spirit-filled sermons and speeches (Acts 4.8; 13.9), serving as a witness to the saving events associated with Jesus (Acts 5.32), leading Stephen to preach – resulting in persecution that leads to an expansion of evangelistic ministry (Acts 6-8), giving specific directions to Philip for the purpose of witness (8.29), transporting him supernaturally in order to preach the Gospel (8.39-40), encouraging the growing church (9.321), directing Peter to preach the Gospel (10.19; 11.12), setting apart certain individuals for mission (Acts 13.1-4), adjudicating difficult theological issues (15.28), restraining individuals from preaching in certain areas (Acts 16.6-7), encouraging Paul to proclaim the Gospel (Acts 18.9), leading (19.21?) then compelling Paul to go to Jerusalem (20.22), warning of dangers ahead (20.23; 21.4, 11), and making clear the Gospel in the words of the Prophet (28.25). From this evidence it would appear that part of the church’s missionary task is to pay careful attention to what the Spirit is and is not saying with regard to the expansion of the Kingdom. This observation is not intended to create doubt in the mind of the reader as to the importance of and need for evangelism, but rather to underscore the need for an absolute reliance upon the Holy Spirit not only to empower the mission but also to direct it. Oddly enough, an over emphasis upon a spiritual warfare paradigm for evangelism might result in less of a reliance upon the Spirit’s role by only having room for one aspect of the Spirit’s ministry: the power encounter. It should also be noted that prayer is clearly essential in order for the church to accomplish its mission in the power of the Spirit. When in doubt as to how one should pray, it would always be appropriate to pray that the Lord of the harvest send laborers into the harvest.

Sixth, with regard to the issue of territorial spirits, the OT text can speak of spirits and/or angels in several ways. 1) Reference is sometimes made to spirits who happen to be located in certain geographical areas but who do not appear to have control over their places of abode. Specific mention is made of `goat-demons’ (Lev 17.7; Is 13.21; 34.14), Lilith (Is 34.14), and (less certainly) Azaliel (cf. Is 34.14; Lev 16.8, 10, 26). 2) In the minds of the Arameans, the gods were tied to specific geographical locations (1 Kg 20.23). 3) In some texts the gods are identified with certain lands and nations (2 Kg 18.33, 35). A couple of OT texts identify the gods with demons (Dt 32.8-17; LXX Ps 96.5). 4) Certain OT texts describe angels which are connected to specific nations (Dan 10.13, 20-21). Interestingly enough, there are no hints that believers are to concern themselves with such spirits, as the believer’s role (in this case Daniel) is largely defined as that of observer of how God accomplishes his purpose on the broad screen of history. What is perhaps as significant is that there is no evidence in the NT that a concern about territorial spirits ever figured into the missionary strategy of the early Christians. In fact, even when it is clear that Satan has hindered Paul from coming to Thessalonica (1 Thess 2.18), he does not engage in or advocate coming against Satan by means of `spiritual warfare’. Thus, while it is possible that Satan manifests himself more strongly in certain places than in others, there seems to be little biblical warrant for a number of the practices associated with some forms of spiritual warfare which focus on territorial spirits. (1)

Seventh, a final observation is offered about the question of demonic influence upon believers. On the one hand, despite the many arguments to the contrary there appears to be no direct biblical evidence that Christians can be possessed or controlled by a demon. The most reasoned apology for such a reading of the NT in the end fails to convince owing in part to the fact that in nearly every case the `Christian’ in question appears to be one who has left the faith. (2) On the other hand, it is clear that there is at least some precedent for the affliction of a believer by a demon though here the evidence is skewed by the fact that in the case of Paul’s thorn God is involved and he does not remove it even when Paul petitions for its removal. The role of the Devil and/or demons in temptation, deception, persecution, and accusation of the believer is documented within the NT.

In these three plenary presentations I have sought to examine and reflect upon the biblical text particularly as it relates to the issue of spiritual warfare. While listening to the biblical text is a very important part of the theological task, it should be noted that there is more to the theological task than (simply) listening to text. As the hermeneutical method found in Acts 15 reveals, (3) the early church not only had a place for the text in their interpretive activity, but also a very real appreciation for the activity of the Holy Spirit, as well as an appreciation for the role the believing community plays in the interpretive process. My prayer is that the Lord would allow to exist amongst the delegates of this consultation the kind of atmosphere which would allow for a dynamic interplay between the biblical text, the activity of the Holy Spirit, and the experience of the believing community. I commit myself to this interpretive process.

1. Cf. esp. the helpful thoughts of R.D. Israel, `Territorial Spirits? Old Testament Texts, Traditions and Theology’, Working paper presented to the Biblical Studies Special Interest Group of the Society for Pentecostal Studies in Chicago, IL, 1994, and those of C.E. Arnold, 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), pp. 143-98.

2. For such a reading cf. the capable work of Arnold, 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare, pp. 93-97. Perhaps the best case can be made for such an interpretation on the basis of Eph 4.26-27 which speaks of giving no foothold to the Devil. But even here, one appears to be rather far from demon possession.

3. For my thoughts on this cf. J.C. Thomas, `Women, Pentecostals, and the Bible: An Experiment in Pentecostal Hermeneutics’, Journal of Pentecostal Theology 5 (1994), pp. 41-56.

Date: 22 Aug 2000

Gathering: 2000 Nairobi


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