A PRIMER ON SPIRITUAL WARFARE
Book Review By David P. Craig
As a pastor for almost 30 years I’ve experienced corporate, individual, internal, and external spiritual warfare of various kinds. Spiritual warfare is a lot like a military battle nations face with its weapons and surprises that are unpredictable, and the attacks of the enemy often come when you least expect the enemy to show up. Over the years I’ve read books that see a demon behind every bad thing that happens in life (the extreme of demonic awareness) to those who say that Satan and his demons are totally bound today (no presence of the demonic). Borgman and Ventura have written a book that really does what they say they are going to do in the subtitle: strike a biblical and balanced perspective.
The authors have written a solid exposition based on the most extensive account on spiritual warfare in the Scriptures: Ephesians 6:10-20. The Puritan William Gurnall wrote the classic text on this passage a few hundred years ago, but it’s massiveness and ancient language makes it a popular but widely unread book on the subject. On the other hand, this book is short (128) pages, comprehensive, clear, illustrative, practical, insightful, theological, and focuses on the Majesty and Supremacy of Christ over the demonic realm.
I now have a new go to book to give to people who have questions about Satan and demons and how they operate today in the 21st century. Questions like How can I prepare myself for the spiritual battle? How can I fend off the attacks of the demonic? Can a Christian be possessed or demonized? And many others. I like the fact that the authors stick close to the text of Scripture and offer answers that are biblically sound and cogently articulated. If you’re only going to read one book on spiritual warfare – this is the one I would recommend you get. I think one of the best features of this book are the questions for the discussion at the end of each chapter so that it can be used for a sermon/small group series on spiritual warfare.
*I was provided a free copy of this book for review by the publishers and was not required to write a positive review.
One of the biggest issues of our day revolves around the trustworthiness and the authority of the Scriptures for all of life – private and public. This is a classic sermon by one of the most influential theologians living today. Though given in the late 70′s during the beginning stages of the development of the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy – it is just as pertinent, relevant, and needed today. R.C. teaches with absolute clarity and expositional and theological precision that the Scriptures are indeed authoritative and sufficient for all of life and practice privately and publicly. Enjoy this wonderful sermon by Dr. R.C. Sproul [DPC].
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, (“hath God said” in KJV) ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” – Genesis 3:1
“Hath God Said?” By Dr. R.C. Sproul
I think that we are all not only aware, but in many cases painfully aware, of the continued academic, technical, and intellectual difficulties that we face when we make an affirmation of the inerrancy of Holy Scripture. I trust that we have not been bathed in obscurantism to a degree that makes us ignorant of the avalanche of criticism that has been directed toward the church’s classic position over the last two hundred years. And I hope that we recognize that much of that criticism may not be lightly dismissed. To do so, of course, would not be wise.
I think we are aware that it is our duty and the urgent need of the Christian community of our day, not to rest merely on the splendid statements of our fathers in defense of the authority of Scripture. Surely our generation is called to face the new issues that have been raised in academic circles. What I am saying simply is this: that there exist problems of an academic and intellectual nature with respect to the confessions that we are so bold to make. But that’s not what I am concerned to focus our attention on this morning.
For in addition to these questions of an intellectual nature, which at times indeed may be excruciating, there are other facets to this question that must never be overlooked. There is an emotional dimension. There is a psychological dimension. There is a theological, or perhaps what we may call a religious dimension that touches the heart of this issue.
As you recall a few months ago, I had the privilege in behalf of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy to be involved in dialogue with a group of very respected theologians and biblical scholars in this country. It was a behind-closed-door session of question and discussion, clarification of our position, vis-à-vis theirs. The discussions went for an intense period of seven hours. And at no time during that discussion did it become one of vituperative or vitriolic exchange. It was a sanguine atmosphere and the discussion was carried on in the spirit of cordiality. But it was intensely academic in nature, and I believe that we were all weary at the end of it. What I recall was that after the discussions were over and we were moving to the parking lot, one of the elder statesmen of the other group who has been a friend and colleague of mine for years came up to me, not in a paternalistic way, but in a genuine fatherly gesture. He put his arm around me and said, “R.C., why do you get so exercised over this question? Why are you devoting so much of your time to the question of biblical inerrancy? Why can’t we leave that aside and move on the real issues of reaching the fallen people of this generation?”
I’m sure that this man’s primary concern was precisely that we get on with the business of the work of the church and of Christ and not be paralyzed by internal disputes and debates about matters like these. He was expressing genuine concern over my particular career as a teacher. And he was almost weeping as he raised that question.
As I stepped out of the academic and intellectual atmosphere that had characterized the previous hours and looked at him, I answered his question as emotionally as he asked it. And I said, “I can’t help it. Scriptures are my life. I am not a second generation Christian. I came to Jesus Christ from the streets, and that’s what brought me into the kingdom of God, the words from this Book. I love it. The contents, the message broke through the recalcitrance of my pagan heart and brought me into the kingdom of God and showed me the loveliness and sweetness of Christ.”
And then in a statement of perhaps characteristic belligerence, I said to him, “No one will ever take this Book from me.” And I had to admit candidly that I am somewhat prejudiced and emotionally involved in this question. I raised this point with him. “I understand,” I said, “the difficulties that criticism has raised, and I know that many feel that as a matter of intellectual integrity they must set aside this doctrine, that they cannot cling to it merely for emotional or sentimental reasons. I must agree with the integrity of that.” But I said to him, “What I would like to see when that happens, is that our Christian brothers and scholars who have abandoned this point lay it down with tears. And I haven’t seen that.”
I would think that if we came to the conclusion that this point of the faith of our fathers indicates an error of our tradition, and that we must abandon inerrancy, that if we did, in fact, come to that conclusion, that we would do it with tears, rather than in the attitude or spirit we have seen in some circles. I don’t see this in evangelical circles, but in some circles there seems to be a certain delight and glee in finding difficulties in the text of Scripture. At that point it becomes religious, moral, and I think that we are facing the problem not only of the academic but the problem of enormous pressure to conform to contemporary drifts of opinion. Many have said quite candidly, “It is not expedient for us to take such a stand in this day and age.”
Again another candid and private conversation I had with a pastor for whom I have great respect and love. He said, “R.C., I am not a scholar. I am not an academician. I am not a trained and skilled apologist. I am a pastor and my concerns are pastoral in nature. Now, R.C., in my heart I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, but I simply cannot defend it. I do not have the tools, the erudition necessary in this sophisticated era to make a good defense. And so I prefer not to stand for the doctrine.” It was only a few months later that this pastor was asked in a public situation, “Do you, sir, affirm the inerrancy of Scripture?” and his response publicly was, “I do not.”
Now it’s possible that the man changed his mind in the intervening months between our private conversation and his public statement. But I am also recognizing the real possibility that the intimidation that he was experiencing was more than he could bear in his humanity. And who of us has not had to face that kind of pressure? Who of us has not succumbed to it at one point or another in our lives? We have sinned and do sin, my brothers and sisters, and we must be careful in this concern that we not give the idea that we are the ones who maintain a pristine purity of Christian life and obedience, while others have easily and quickly capitulated and negotiated the faith of Jesus Christ. We all have participated at one time or another in such capitulation.
We are often put to the test, and the test of our faith is very infrequently couched in terms of strict theological affirmation such as, “Do you believe in God?” We all confess that we believe in God, but the point at which we negotiate is a different question. “Do you believe God?” That’s the issue. And that’s where the point of testing is focused in our day. Now the idea of a test at the point of believing God is nothing new. And it’s not an experience that we are facing as a first generation of the tested, but rather to God that is the test of fidelity.
Let me say it another way. The two greatest tests in the history of mankind focus the term of the test precisely on the point of whether or not the ones being tested believed God. I am referring, of course, to the test of our original parents in paradise and the test of our Redeemer in the wilderness. And I would like to direct your attention in the time that is remaining to an examination again of the terms and the circumstances and the outcome of those two critically important moments of test.
Let’s look at the third chapter of Genesis. It begins with three words that appear to be innocuous in the text, but which the late E. J. Young throws into bold relief in his commentary as having interesting and significant import. Those three words are, “Now the serpent … ” E. J. Young rhapsodizes on the significance of those three words as they introduce the third chapter of Genesis. Everything that has preceded those three words is a majestic statement of God’s acts of creation. Everything is so positive and so lovely and so good and so true about God and his created order, until that note of dissonance is introduced into biblical history.
“Now the serpent … ” It sort of suggests that something sinister and negative is about to be unfolded. And the words continue, “Now the serpent was more subtle than any of the other of the wild beasts of the field that God had created.” This draws attention to the subtlety or craftiness of the creature being introduced. We read that this subtle serpent comes and speaks to the woman and asks what appears to be at the outset a harmless question, a request for information.
“Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees in the garden’?” The question again in the ancient version is, “Hath God said, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees in the garden’?” It’s a very, very interesting question. You might wonder why the serpent raised the question in the first place. Was he just saying in “Columbo” fashion, “There’s just one thing that I’m not quite sure about; do you mind if I ask you a personal question? Let’s see if I have it right here. Did God say that you shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden? Is that what he said? Just wanted to get the record straight.” Perhaps Adam and Eve were to assume that the serpent was doing a job of recording the facts for posterity.
I don’t think that’s what it was about here. But before I suggest what it was about, let me indicate another alternative. Do you think that the serpent did not know what God had said? Do you think that the serpent was ignorant of the terms of the probationary test that God had put before his creatures? I think the serpent knew very well what God had said. But listen to the subtlety of the question. “Hath God said, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden’?” What’s the suggestion there? Satan knew very well that was not the case. They say, “No. In fact, God said we could eat freely of all the trees of the garden, but one. And that one, of course, he said if we touched, we would surely die.”
Existentialist Jean Paul Sartre in the twentieth century has made it a matter of evangelistic zeal to maintain that unless man is utterly and completely autonomous, he is not, in fact, free. Sartre gives one of the most fascinating and clever arguments against the existence of God I have ever read. Traditionally we have argued, if there is man, and we have to explain and account for his creation, then there must be a God. Sartre turns that around; he says, “If man is, God cannot be. Because intrinsic to our notion of humanity is the concept of human subjectivity and freedom. And if there is a God to whom we are ultimately accountable and responsible, a God who has sovereignty over us, then we do not have autonomy. If we do not have autonomy, we do not have freedom. If we do not have freedom, we do not have subjectivity. If we do not have subjectivity, we do not have humanity.” Ergo. “Since we do have these things, there is no God.”
The point is very subtle; unless you are utterly and completely free you are not free at all, and Satan is raising that very point here. “Hath God said, ‘You shall not eat of any of the trees of the garden’?” Every one of us has encountered this question of freedom in our own lives, particularly those of us who are parents. My daughter comes and asks, “Daddy, can I go to this rock concert in Pittsburgh on Friday night?” I say, “I’m sorry, honey, I have to say, ‘No.’” And what do you suppose her response is? “You never let me do anything!” Put that one restriction there and the natural reaction is, “I’m not free at all.” Unless I can have total freedom, absolute autonomy, I’m not really free; and that’s the subtlety of the serpent that is being repeated again and again and again, even down to this very day.
But the test shifts from matters of subtlety to a direct contradiction and denial of what God in fact had said. Now the serpent leaves his “Columbo” methodology, becomes very straightforward, and says, “You shall not die, but you shall be as gods.” I say that because so frequently I have heard it said that the initial slogan of humanism was the famous statement from Protagoras: Homo neusura—Man, the measure. Man is the measure of all things. No, my friends, the irony of history is that humanism’s slogan does not begin with Protagoras; it begins with the serpent in Genesis who said, “You shall be as gods.” An irony of ironies: the father of humanism was not even human.
Now it becomes a test of whom to believe. God says, “You’ll die.” The serpent says, “You will not die.”Today some have said that’s all right; they contradict but contradiction is the hallmark of truth. We say contradiction is the hallmark of the lie. Imagine the theory that contradiction is the hallmark of truth in this situation. Adam and Eve are wrestling with the dialectic. “God says, ‘You will die,’ whatever that means. This one says “we will not die.”
“Now that’s a contradiction,” says Adam. “And contradiction’s a hallmark of truth, so this serpent must be the ambassador of the truth. And if God is the truth, then this must be God’s ambassador who is now abrogating and setting aside the earlier prohibition. So let’s go to the tree. It looks sweet; it’s delightful; let’s help ourselves.” The issue in the Fall was the issue of believing God’s Word.
Now let’s go to the New Testament to the new Adam, and to the work that he performs immediately following his baptism. We read, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was driven (or led) by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Now, before we consider the content of the test of Jesus, let’s take a moment to examine the scenario in terms of the differences between the temptation of the second Adam and the conditions under which the first Adam received his test.
The first Adam was subjected to a test of righteousness and obedience in the midst of a lush garden, a garden that provided for him all of the resources and benefits that he required to sustain his bodily needs. In fact, if I understand the test correctly, he was in a gourmet’s paradise. Whatever he wanted to eat was there, readily available to him.
But the circumstance and the context of the test of Jesus was that of a fast. Not a three-day fast, but a forty-day fast during which Jesus ate nothing.
Jesus is not in paradise, but he was driven into the wilderness, outside the camp into the outer darkness into that desert place, which to be sure in one sense is the traditional meeting place between God and his people; yet at the same time, it symbolizes that threatening, ominous state of fear and solitude. Solitude is quite significant for our consideration, because the test that is given to Adam and Eve is given to them in the context of a supportive community, indeed the most supportive community that God has ever instituted, namely that of marriage. When Adam underwent a test, he had at least the support of a helpmate that was suitable for him, who stood next to him, shoulder to shoulder. And as the evil one came to seduce them, to cause them to negotiate and compromise their loyalty and devotion to God, they had each other for mutual consolation and support. But Jesus was alone.
Again I take you back to the original account of creation where in every aspect of creation, after God does his work, he pronounces a benediction: “That’s good.” And yet the first malediction of biblical history comes when God sees something that is not good.
It is not good that man should be alone. God understands the anguish that is involved with one who is sentenced to solitude. Kierkegaard is eloquent on this point when he discusses the problem of existential solitude, pointing out that one of the worst punitive measures we can enact against a criminal is to place him in a situation of solitary confinement. Yes, indeed, there are moments when we crave our privacy, and even Jesus at times sought the respite of solitude, but how many of us could stand it for day after day after day? And then have to face temptation when we are alone.
But when we as Christians come together and sing together and work together, I feel a sense of encouragement welling up, a challenge to stand firm where I might, if left to myself, be quite willing to compromise my faith. And most of the sins of which we are most deeply ashamed are done in secret, things we would keep from the scrutiny and the knowledge of the community. There is a sense in which solitude gives us a certain freedom to do things that we might not do publicly.
This is not the sense in which Jesus is saying, “OK. I’ve just come out of the Jordan River and here publicly John the Baptist has sung the Agnus Dei. He has declared me to be the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world. He said such marvelous things: that he is not worthy to untie my shoe laces. And now I’m being put to the test in front of the public.” In that situation it would be difficult for Jesus to compromise. But now, it’s off in the wilderness, by himself, no wife, no support system, utterly alone, no one there to offer restraints in terms of public opinion, and along comes that same serpent. And the point is not so much the contrast, but the similarity.
But … the issue is precisely the same. I have heard sermons on this many, many times, and I hear the text frequently read like this, “If you are the Son of God, change these stones into bread.” The preacher focuses on the agony and anguish of Jesus’ hunger, which, indeed, must have been great, but I think the point is in the beginning of this thing. “If you are the Son of God, change the stones into bread.” Jesus is not confronted with the statement by Satan, “Jesus, since you are the Son of God, go ahead and change the stones into bread,” or “Because you are the Son of God, go ahead and change the stones into bread.” But he says, “If you are the Son of God.”
Ah, there’s that subtlety again. What were the last words, as far as we know from the biblical record, that Jesus had heard from the mouth of God? When he came up out of the Jordan River after his baptism, the heavens opened and the dove descended and a voice was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son.” God had declared it. He had made an utterance to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth was his son. Now I suspect that if God, in this day, in this room, opened up the heavens and spoke to us directly and immediately, not through the medium of human authorship of the Scriptures or anything like that, but directly and immediately, and said, “This Book is the inerrant Word of God,” the debates would be over.
But it wasn’t over with Christ, because Satan came and said, “If you are the Son of God.” I wonder. I don’t want to be a heretic here and maybe wander to the rim of heresy to even ask the question, but I wonder if during that ordeal that Jesus suffered, the thought may have come into his mind, “If I am the Son of God, why am I going through this hunger? I am happy to do it, Lord, I’ll hold out to the end, and I won’t play with the stones; I won’t eat; I won’t break the fast. I’ll do all those things, but this seems to be a very strange way for the Son of God to have to live.” But that’s the way Satan comes on. “If you are the Son of God.” He is suddenly suggesting that maybe what God said at Jesus’ baptism was not altogether true.
But Jesus responded quite differently from Adam and Eve. He said, “Satan, it is written.” (I think it has been demonstrated once and for all that this has the force of a technical formula, by which the biblical authors are referring to sacred Scripture.) “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God.’ Satan, the Bible says that I am not to live merely by bread. Now I am hungry. I would love to have a piece of bread. There is nothing I would like better than a piece of bread. but I don’t live by bread alone, and you’ve forgotten that it is my duty to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Our doctrine of inspiration confesses that the words of Scripture proceed ultimately from the mouth of God. We grant the mediation of human authorship and all the qualifications that are made, but we are speaking in terms of inspiration of the origin of this Word, as having been breathed out by God. And it is my duty, says the Lord, to live by that Word. Now let’s look at Luke’s version of the temptation rather than Matthew’s—the progression is different. (It’s one of those problems we have to deal with.) “And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours’” (Luke 4:5–7).
The devil is saying: “I know the Father has promised you a blessing, if you go through your humiliation. You probably have some idea that exultation is at the end of the road, that all glory and power and dominion will be yours. But you have to go the via dolorosa, and this would make it so much easier, so much more expedient for you, since the end is the same. What difference does it make what means we use to get there? I can give you the same thing that God can give you: the kingdom. I can give you a kingdom here and all you have to do is genuflect ever so slightly. Bow one knee, that’s all; we are out here in the wilderness and nobody’s going to see you. John the Baptist will never know it. The multitudes who are to hear your sermon on the mount will have no report of it. Just one slight action of homage and it’s yours.”
And Jesus said, “That sounds so easy. But there’s something you have overlooked. You’ll have to excuse me, Satan, if I tend to be a bit rigid on this point, but it is written, it is written. You see, Satan, it says here, ‘you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”
And Satan says, “That’s all right, you can still serve him. I’m not asking you to quit serving God; I am just asking you momentarily to give me a little homage. Why can’t you serve us both? Oh, I guess I didn’t read that text right, did I? ‘Him only shall you serve.’”
“Satan, I can’t serve two masters, and what you’ve asked me to do is to choose this day whom I will serve, and the choice is clear. I go by what is written.”
Satan responds, “But that was written so long ago. Is it really relevant to this live situation in which you are finding yourself today? Come on, certainly, Jesus, you have been a victim of the errors of your day and you are restricted by your human knowledge and living on the basis of Midrashic tradition and the like; certainly we don’t have to enforce that ancient prohibition that wasn’t written by Moses in the first place.”
Now very shortly Satan began to get the idea that this tactic was not working, so his subtlety became even more intense. “And he took him to Jerusalem, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple” (v. 9). For you see, Satan perceived that Jesus was a very religious man. So he took him out of that isolated circumstance of the wilderness, out of the arena of profanity, and brought him into the temple’s dominion itself. Indeed, to the pinnacle of the temple. It was comfortable, his Father’s house. And then Satan says again, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written … OK, Jesus, you have come after me all the time with this ‘It-is-written’ stuff, so let me give it back to you. I read the Bible too. I know what it says. Now look.” Now it becomes a question of hermeneutics. “It is written,” says Satan, “‘He will give his angels charge of you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (vv. 10, 11).
Jesus said, “I know what’s in that Book. But does it not also say, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’? And, Satan, we must not set Scripture against Scripture.”
What’s Jesus saying here? He is saying that the Scripture prohibits us from putting God to a test of fidelity.“God has said as you have pointed out, Satan, that he will give his angels charge over me. Now at the present time I can look all around the temple and I can go back to the wilderness and look behind every bush, and I have to confess I haven’t seen an angel in the whole forty days I have been here. I know that God says that he will give his angels charge, and I haven’t seen any. So you want me really to see if God meant what he said. You want me to see if God’s Word is trustworthy for this particular life situation I am in. You want me to jump off the temple and see if the angels catch me in their arms. Well, you see, there is something that you don’t understand, Satan. What’s going on here is not a test of God, but God is testing me.”
Some have interpreted this text to suggest that Jesus is saying that Satan is inappropriate in testing Jesus, as touching his divine nature. And this is cryptically a confession of Jesus’ deity by Jesus himself, saying, “You should not tempt the Lord your God, and since you are here tempting, or testing me, you are doing something that is quite diabolical which is your nature, namely: to suggest that I as the Lord God incarnate, may be tempted.” I don’t think that is the point at all in the context. Remember that this test is being done to Christ as the second Adam. Jesus is representing man. I don’t want to divide the two natures obviously, but I think that we can safely distinguish them at times, and here Jesus is saying, “I have no right touching my humanity, as one undergoing a test, as the second Adam, to turn that test around and throw it in God’s lap. Why should God be put to the test? Has not the whole redemptive history demonstrated again and again that our God is a God of truth? Our God never violates his covenant. Our God never breaks his Word. The question of loyalty is not one that we can raise about God. The question that history raises is the loyalty of man. I am the one who is to be tested, not the Father. So go away, with your distorted applications of Scripture.”
And we read that, “Satan departed from him until he could find a more opportune or convenient moment.”
I want to conclude with one more contrast between them. Jesus believed God’s Word indicating that he was the Son of God. Jesus believed God that angels would be given charge over him. Now we read in the Scriptures in Matthew’s account that as soon as Satan departed, what happened? The angels appeared and embraced Jesus. They nourished his broken, mutilated physical body that had gone through this struggle and trial. I suggest that Jesus’ physical appearance by the end of that forty days must have resembled that of a Mahatma Gandhi after a hunger strike. He must have experienced the ravages of the lack of food on his frame, and the angels came and embraced him and nourished him and applauded his triumph.
What happened when the tempter left the original Adam? There we read that the serpent left, and “God came back into the garden.” Before, when our parents heard the voice, they walked in the cool of the evening. They were delighted and their souls were thrilled. They couldn’t wait to go up and speak and have direct and intimate fellowship with God, but after their test, God came into their presence, and they fled and hid. They were naked; they were aware of their nakedness. They were ashamed. They were embarrassed to be in the presence of God because they had denied God.
Do you remember Peter standing outside of the judgment hall where his test came? Even after he had been warned as to what was at hand and prepared for it, when the test came, not by the princes of the church or the accrediting educational institutions … but some washerwoman came up and said, “Do you know the man?”not only did Peter say, “I don’t know the man,” but he began to swear he didn’t know him.
And just as Jesus was being led from one of the places of judgment, as they were escorting him under arrest, the Scriptures tell us, “His eyes fell upon Peter.” He didn’t say anything. He just looked at him. That was the most painful moment of Peter’s life, when he looked into the eyes of Christ, who even at that moment was going to deliver himself to the forces of hell rather than betray his Father. And Jesus looked at him and knew that Peter had failed the test.
“Do you believe God?” This must never be seen as a purely academic question. This is a matter that touches our faith in Jesus Christ. Faith, not in the sense of assent, but faith in the sense of fidelity. Do we live, or do we not live by every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God?
I am weak, and you are weak. We are all too susceptible to subtle pressures and temptations to compromise on this point. But it is a real test. And it requires in our lives nothing less than a dependence on the grace of God from moment to moment and a clear recognition that we understand that our feet are of clay and that our frames are of dust and that we must cling tenaciously to that grace that God has given us. If left to ourselves, there would be no perseverance. And not only do we need the grace of God, but part of that grace and its outworking in this world is the support of the Christian brotherhood, the fellowship of the church, the communion of the saints. We are told again and again in Scripture, “Encourage one another.” What we need in this hour is not simply knowledge and erudition, but I am convinced what we need is moral courage. And so I ask you to encourage me and to encourage each other and to encourage the church and even the world that God’s Word is true.
*Source: Sermon adapted from R.C. Sproul’s chapter entitled “Hath God Said? Genesis 3:1” in the book Can We Trust the Bible? Earl D. Radmacher, ed. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1979.
About the Preacher:
Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, an international Christian education ministry located near Orlando, Florida. His teaching can be heard on the programRenewing Your Mind, which is broadcast on hundreds of radio outlets in the United States and in 40 countries worldwide. He is the executive editor of Tabletalk Magazine and general editor of The Reformation Study Bible, and the author of more than seventy books (including some of my all time favorites: THE HOLINESS OF GOD; CHOSEN BY GOD; KNOWING SCRIPTURE; WILLING TO BELIEVE; REASON TO BELIEVE; andPLEASING GOD) and scores of articles for national evangelical publications. Dr. Sproul also serves as president of Ligonier Academy of Biblical and Theological Studies and Reformation Bible College. He currently serves as senior minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, FL.T
Book Review: “Satan is No Match for Jesus” by David P. Craig
In this sixth essay on significant encounters with Jesus from the New Testament Tim Keller addresses Jesus’ baptism and subsequent temptation by Satan in the desert as depicted by the Gospel of Matthew in chapters 3 and 4.
Keller goes on to dispel the notion that if we do things God’s way that we will protect us from the evil one. The reality is that no one was more obedient to God the Father than was Jesus, and yet His life was one of constant battling with the evil one. As Jesus had to battle the enemy, so must we.
Tim answers three crucial questions in relationship to our own warfare with Satan: (1) Who is Satan? (2) Where and how does the enemy fight us? and (3) What is our best defense against the wiles of Satan? He then goes on to demonstrate the erroneous views of Satan in our day namely: monism and dualism. We either have a tendency to underestimate or overestimate the power of Satan over us.
Ultimately our best defense against the enemy is in our knowledge and application of the truth. Jesus knew and used the Word mightily in His battle with the enemy and so must we if we expect to stand in the day of temptation. The most important reality we have in the battle with the enemy isn’t just the Word on paper, but the Word Incarnate.
Keller writes, “We don’t simply have a Book, as perfect as it is–we have Jesus himself, who has been through fiery trials so intense that we can’t imagine them. And he has done it all for us. Now, strengthened with his deep empathy and tender power, we can come through it all at his side.
In this short essay Keller provides encouragement and steps for victory in the battle with Satan as we seek to live our lives in, through, and for the Lord Jesus Christ. We can have no fear of the enemy because Jesus has already won the battle, and will lead us on to victory in the end.
Series: Word Studies in New Testament Greek #1 – Testing: for Good or Evil?
James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” In verse 12 of the same chapter he wrote, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. However, a problem arises when the next verse is read, because it says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one’” (James 1:2,12-13).
On the one hand it seems that temptations are sent to us from God and we are to consider it a privilege to pass through them, but on the other hand we are told that God does not tempt any man.
In order to understand these verses, it is necessary to know the meaning of the words that are translated “trial” and “tempted.” The same Greek word is used in all three of the verses quoted from James (vv. 2,12-13). Yet there are different shades of meaning intended by the author. The word is used in its noun form in verses 2 and 12 and its verb form in verse 13. The noun is peirasmos and the verb us peirazo. The root word of these forms has such meanings as “test,” “try,” and “prove.”
The matter of significance about peirazo is that it is used in both a good sense and a bad sense It can have the idea of testing with the purpose of bringing out that which is good, or it can have the idea of testing with the purpose of bringing out that which is bad.
When the word is used in regard to Satan, it has the bad sense of brining out that which is evil or soliciting to evil. Satan himself is known as “the tempter” (Matthew 4:3a). Satan thought he could get Christ to respond to evil, but because Christ is God, there was nothing in Him which answered to evil. Christ told Satan, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matthew 4:7). Satan was not trying to bring out that which was good in God but was endeavoring to solicit Him to evil.
When Ananias and Sapphira lied about the amount they had received for their land, Peter asked Sapphira, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (Acts 5:9). They were not trying to bring out that which was good in the Lord, so the word is used in its bad sense in this context.
The word peirazo is used in 2 Corinthians 13:5, where Paul told the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” In this context the Corinthians were obviously to look at the good as well as the bad in their lives. So the word is also used in a good sense. This, in the Book of James, the “trials of various kinds” have a good purpose in view—to bring out that which is good in the believers. This is also true regarding James 1:12. However, the word is used in its negative sense in verse 13, as is evident from the words, “for God cannot be tempted with evil.” In the phrase “and he himself tempts no one,” it is with reference to “with evil.” Therefore, God never solicits a person to do evil but rather He brings tests into a person’s life that will bring out that which is good in him.
First Corinthians 10:13 uses both peirasmos and peirazo in their good sense: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” God sends tests and trials into our lives to bring out that which is good in us, and He always provides the strength necessary to bear up under the tests.
Another Greek word was frequently used when the writer wanted to emphasize a testing with the purpose of bringing out that which is good. This word is dokimazo. Whereas peirazo could be used in either a good or bad sense, dokimazo is used only in a good sense. In this regard it has to do with “proving” or “examining.” In fact, of the 23 times dokimazo is used in the New Testament, it is translated “prove,” “examine,” or “discern” ten times (depending on the English translation).
One such occurrence is Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern (dokimazo = “prove,” or “examine,”) what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Dokimazo is also translated “examine” in Luke 14:19: “And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ The excuse this person used for not attending the great supper was that he wanted to try out his yoke of oxen to see how good they were.
In 1 Corinthians 3, which tells of the Judgment Seat of Christ, dokimazo is translated “will test” in verse 13: “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” This helps us to see that at the Judgment Seat of Christ the emphasis will be on discovering that which is good so it might be rewarded. Only those who have received Jesus Christ as Savior will appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ. The purpose of the judgment will be, not to condemn, but to reward that which is good. The believer has been delivered from all condemnation through faith in Christ.
The understanding of this Greek word also helps us to see what God’s purpose is in sending trials of our faith. 1 Peter 1:7 says, “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” The word “tested” is a noun form of dokimazo. Thus we see that the purpose for the trials of our faith is that God might bring out that which is good and that it might become mature Christians.
Because peirazo has both good and bad meanings, it can be used in regard to both God and Satan. However, dokimazo can never be used for Satan because he never tests to “prove, discern, or examine” that which is good but rather to solicit to evil.
About the Author:
Harold J. Berry specialized in Theology and Greek at Dallas Theological Seminary and graduated in 1960 with his Th.M. He was for many years the personal assistant to Dr. Theodore H. Epp (the Bible Teacher of the Back to the Bible Hour before Warren W. Wiersbe became its primary teacher). He was known as an outstanding professor of Greek in various Institutions. The Word Study above was adapted from a publication by Berry entitled “Gems From The Original” published by Back to the Bible Broadcast in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1972. The outdated language has been updated where necessary, and the more familiar ESV has been used instead of the KJV.
“The King Reins in His Kingdom”
The messianic Kingdom on earth is a vindication of God’s creative activity…. The triumph of God over the satanic dominion of this planet is necessary for the glory of God. If there were no messianic age, if God simply picked up the redeemed remnant and took them to heaven, then we would have to conclude that God was unable to complete what he began. —William S. LaSor
He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. – Isaiah 2:4
When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” what are we praying for? What did Jesus have in mind when He asked us to pray for His coming kingdom, and how would we recognize this kingdom if it were to appear? And what would our role be in it?
The idea of utopia exists in every human heart. Every generation has looked forward to an idyllic time when men and women live in peace and prosperity. This has been the goal of every civilization, every political philosophy, and every sincere Christian. Thomas More invented the word utopia in 1516 when he wrote a book by that title, but the vision of a time of harmony and freedom was in existence long before then.
The Bible describes a future utopia, but one very different from worldly descriptions that have come to us throughout history. The biblical vision includes the intervention of God, namely, the coming of Christ to earth to personally establish His kingdom. History has proven conclusively that man cannot bring in any form of utopia because sin permeates human nature. Selfishness, dishonesty, and distrust make the possibility of any such a golden age impossible. But when Jesus returns, the King of Kings will do what man cannot. And, incredibly, we as believers will be given a part to play in this new world order.
Thankfully, God will complete what He began. The devil will not have the last word on this planet. The very place where Satan was given authority to rule will eventually be ruled by Jesus Christ. God subjected the rule of this world to Adam who dropped the scepter, and God let Satan pick it up.
And so, the second Adam—that is, Jesus—will reverse this sequence of events and claim the title to rule in triumph. “You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet” (Hebrews 2:7–8). In putting everything under Him, God left nothing that is not subject to Him. Yet at present we do not see everything “subject to him” (v. 8). Yes, eventually all things will again be subject to man, specifically the one man named Jesus. Where Satan won a victory, Jesus will triumph.
OLD TESTAMENT PREDICTIONS OF THE COMING KINGDOM
The prediction of a coming kingdom on earth ruled by Christ was clearly revealed to David. God gave him this startling revelation saying that he would have a son who would build a temple, and who would be disciplined when he did evil. But there was much more to this prediction: “When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7: 12–13). Solomon fulfilled the first part of that verse, but most assuredly, the throne of his kingdom was not established forever. That word house means “genealogy” and the word kingdom means “territory” in Israel where David ruled.
Has this promise ever been fulfilled? I think not. David certainly did not rule “forever.” God was speaking about a kingdom that would transcend David’s and Solomon’s era, and He predicted a coming king who would rule forever.
As further proof that this promise was not fulfilled in Old Testament times, we are again reminded that the angel Gabriel said to Mary, “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31–33). Has Jesus ever ruled over the house of David and over the tribe of Jacob? Certainly we must agree He has never ruled from Jerusalem and the territory over which David ruled. Clearly, this is a reference to the coming kingdom age.
In the Old Testament prophets there are many chapters devoted to the idea of a utopia where God’s special king rules, and we have descriptions of a kingdom, the likes of which we have never seen. For example, Isaiah 2:2–4 says:
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
If you visit the United Nations building in New York and then walk cross the street to the plaza, you will see a wall with an inscription of only the last half of verse 4, which reads, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Why wasn’t the first part of the verse included in this inscription? Obviously, it is because the first part of the verse predicts that Messiah shall usher in this rule (judge) and bring peace to the nations. The point to be made is that the United Nations thinks it can accomplish the heady goal of peace without Christ’s intervention and help.
Tellingly, on the wall there is no chapter and verse given for this quotation, but under it is simply the name Isaiah. The wall itself is called the “Isaiah Wall,” but there is no hint that his prophecy necessitates the coming of Messiah in order for it to be fulfilled. Quite possibly the architects did not give the reference in Isaiah, lest someone look it up in the Bible and discover that it was a Messianic passage! The United Nations may be doing many good things, but trust me, their agenda does not include establishing peace on earth under the authority of Jesus! Let’s consider another similar prediction of Isaiah:
And he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. (11:3–6)
The phrases, “the wolf will live with the lamb” and the “leopard will lie down with the goat” remind us that we are not yet in the era of the millennial kingdom. Today if a wolf were to lie down with the lamb, when the wolf got up we would discover that the lamb is missing! Isaiah is speaking about the rule of Jesus on earth in the coming kingdom. Peace will come—but only Christ can bring it to earth.
WHO’S IN AND WHO’S OUT?
Who will qualify to enter into this kingdom? All those who pass the test at “The judgment of the nations” discussed by Jesus in Matthew 25. To quote the words of Jesus, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left” (vv. 31–33).
We should note in passing that this text is further proof of the pretribulation rapture of the church. If the rapture and the glorious appearing happened simultaneously, there would be no need to have a judgment of the “sheep and the goats.” That separation would have already occurred when all believers were caught up into the clouds to meet King Jesus. The only plausible explanation is that there is a period of time between the rapture and the glorious return when people do come to trust in Messiah Jesus. Thus this judgment does not take place at the rapture, but rather it takes place after the tribulation just before the millennium.
The imagery of sheep and goats would have been familiar to the first-century listeners. Sheep and goats, I’m told, don’t get along well. Sheep are usually quite docile whereas goats are very unruly, so in this context, the sheep enter the kingdom and the goats are cast out. Jesus explains the terms of the judgment: Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:34-36)
Has Jesus changed the terms of salvation? Is He now teaching that we are saved by our deeds of kindness to the poor and those who are imprisoned? After all, He commends those who fed the hungry and visited the oppressed in prison and invites these to enter the kingdom, whereas those who neglected these good works go into everlasting destruction. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (v. 41).
There is a better explanation for these verses than to say that deeds of kindness save us. Remember that during the tribulation period the faithful do not take the mark of the beast, whether Jew or Gentile. These people will endure persecution; they will be jailed, and many killed. The Jews especially
The Jews especially will be targeted for persecution and martyrdom. The righteous Gentiles will want to support their fellow brethren, the Jews, and will do whatever is needed to stand in solidarity with the Jewish people. These Gentiles will have proved their loyalty to Christ by the way they treated His “brothers” (v. 40). Their sacrificial kindness is not the root of their faith, but the fruit of their faith.
The bottom line is that only believers will enter into the kingdom that is about to be established. Both Jews and Gentiles who refused the mark of the beast will be found worthy to enter the kingdom and hear words of welcome from Jesus. As for the others, “They will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (v. 46).
WHAT WILL WE FIND IN THE KINGDOM?
What are some of the characteristics of this kingdom? One of them is most assuredly that Jesus rules. “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6). During this kingdom age the curse will be partially lifted, but not totally. “Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed” (Isaiah 65:20). The point is that if you die at the age of a hundred in the kingdom, you’re dying young; whereas today to die at the age of a hundred is to die very old. In the kingdom there will be health and longevity, but death itself will not be avoided. These predictions do not depict heaven as some interpreters allege. In heaven all people will have eternal, indestructible bodies that will not die; whereas in the kingdom, people live in natural bodies and die.
At Christmas one of our favorite carols is “Joy to the World.” Most of us only know the first stanza, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King.” But when you read through stanzas two through four, you find a beautiful description of the millennial reign of Jesus. The third stanza reads, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground.” Verse four includes, “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness, and wonder of His love.”
Today Jesus is not making the nations “prove” anything. Look carefully at a crop growing in a field and you will see plenty of weeds; perhaps even thorns will be infesting the ground. Read the newspapers and you will soon discover that no one is ruling the world with “truth and grace.”
So when we sing this carol, we should realize that the author, Isaac Watts, was not only thinking about the first coming of Jesus in Bethlehem but also His second coming when He will redeem the earth.
SATAN IS THROWN INTO THE ABYSS
Read this critical passage that sheds additional light on the nature and length of the kingdom reign. Note especially the binding of Satan and the time frame:
And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time (Revelation 20:1–3).
Satan is thrown into the Abyss, a holding place for evil spirits which for now will include Satan. Recall that demons asked Jesus to not cast them into the abyss. The lake of fire still awaits these evil creatures; for now they are being held for judgment. In being confined here, Satan is not yet being punished, but he is simply prevented from deceiving the nations. As the millennial kingdom is about to begin, Jesus in effect says to an angel, “I have a job for you to do. I’m going to empower you so that you can bind Satan with a chain and throw him into the pit.” The chain is probably symbolic, but the point is that this angel has the key (authority) to open the Abyss and throw the devil into this bottomless pit. All that the angel has to do is say, “Satan, I am under God’s authority. Come over here. We have a place for you. You’re going to be incarcerated for a thousand years. Get into the pit right now!” We salute the absolute authority of Jesus and His angels over Satan! An unnamed angel, acting under divine authority can bind the evil one and put him away for a thousand years! So much for his vaunted pride and power.
Six times in this chapter we read the phrase “a thousand years.” Have you ever wondered where the idea arose that the kingdom is going to last a thousand years? It is based on this chapter which repeatedly mentions this length of time—hence the term millennium (meaning a thousand years). And if you believe as I do that Jesus will return in glory before the millennium, you are a premillennialist. There is another popular view called amillennialism, which teaches there will be no millennial reign as such. These Bible teachers tend to spiritualize the Old Testament promises regarding the kingdom and believe that the church (not Israel) will inherit these promises. They assume that the “throne of David” is actually Jesus ruling in heaven rather than on earth. Certainly David would have never understood God’s promise in that way. And when the angel said to Mary that her son would inherit the throne of his father David, and “reign over the house of Jacob forever” she certainly could never have imagined that this was to be fulfilled in heaven and not on earth.
BELIEVERS RULE WITH CHRIST
During this millennium, Satan is bound and believers rule with Christ: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge” (v. 4). Who will rule with Jesus in the millennial kingdom? I believe there will be four different categories of people.
First, there will be the Old Testament saints. Daniel predicted that His holy ones were going to be ruling with him (7:27). This will include Abraham, Moses, David, and a whole host of other unnamed people saved in ancient times who will join in the rule with Christ during the millennial kingdom. I expect that Enoch who walked with God before the flood will also be raised to enter the kingdom.
Second, the apostles certainly will be ruling with Jesus. He gave them this special promise: “Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’” (Matthew 19:28). We know that the eleven apostles will certainly rule with Christ.
And, lest you think we will be left out, the good news is that all present believers will also rule with Jesus. Paul writes, “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12). Jesus said to the churches of the book of Revelation, “He who overcomes, to him I shall grant to sit with me on my throne, even as I overcame and sat with my father on his throne.” It also says in Revelation 5:10 that “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” We will be sitting with Jesus and carrying out the responsibilities that He gives us.
Finally, there is a fourth category: those believers who accepted Christ during the tribulation period and then either died a natural death or were martyred for their faith—these will be resurrected to reign with Christ. “I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God…. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years…. This is the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:4–5). So, these saints join the others who will reign with Christ in the kingdom.
A point of clarification: When you read the above passage, just note that the word this in the phrase, “this is the first resurrection” actually refers back to the martyrs in verse 4 and does not include the dead who will be raised after the millennium to face judgment. In other words, the phrase, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended” (v. 5) is actually a parenthesis.
So, in John’s mind, there are basically two resurrections. All those who participate in the “first resurrection” are believers: these include Jesus who was the first to be raised, then also the saints who were raised at the rapture, and now we can add to these those who died as martyrs in the tribulation period. And at some later period, there no doubt will be a resurrection of those who die in the millennium as believers. Obviously, the “first resurrection” is not just a one-time event but includes several resurrections. No wonder he writes “blessed and holy are those who have participated in the first resurrection.”
The “second resurrection” is the resurrection of the unrighteous, those who will appear at the great white throne judgment. “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended” (v. 5). These belong to the second resurrection, that is, the resurrection of those who will experience the “second death.” The bottom line is that at one time or another all who die will be raised, either to everlasting life or everlasting damnation. All human beings will be eternal beings; all will have indestructible bodies, either enjoying eternal bliss or suffering eternal damnation.
Are you troubled when you realize that in the millennial kingdom, those who have their eternal/resurrected bodies will be ruling over people who still have their earthly bodies? This interaction between the two kinds of people should not trouble us. After His resurrection, Jesus was able to interact with His disciples, and although in a glorified body, He ate fish with them (Luke 24:40–43; John 21:11–13). So, while it is difficult for us to imagine what life will be like in an entirely different sphere, we can trust the promises of God. We will rule with Christ in the kingdom and apparently intermingle with those who still struggle with the challenges of an earthly existence.
THERE IS A FINAL REBELLION
Incredibly, at the end of the millennium, Satan is released and foments a rebellion against God. “When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—to gather them for battle” (Revelation 20:7–8). Gog and Magog are sometimes used generally to refer to nations that are rebellious against God.
How could this rebellion happen in a peaceful environment under the leadership of Christ? Does this mean that believers can lose their eternal salvation and end in rebellion against Christ? A better explanation is that these people, the “sheep” who enter the millennial kingdom in their earthly bodies, will have children, and those children will grow up and some of them will trust King Jesus and others won’t. Given their sin nature, they will be given the opportunity to express their opposition to Christ. This brief rebellion will be the final proof that human nature, even with Satan bound, will express itself in self-will and sustained rebellion. We don’t need the devil to help us do evil, though he is glad to oblige.
As a contingent of rebels in this final battle arrives near the city of Jerusalem, God ends their foolishness by sending fire from heaven to destroy His enemies. Satan is then thrown into the lake of fire where the Beast and the false prophet already are, and “they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (v. 10). Never again will there be a rebellion on Planet Earth. The millennial kingdom is coming to an end, and a new era is about to begin.
THE KINGDOM BECOMES ETERNAL
What next? With the era of the millennium now over, Paul tells us what happens: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” (1 Cointhians 15:24). In eternity past, God the Father in effect saidto God the Son, “I’m going to give You a people to redeem.” These are referred to as the elect; Jesus referred to them as “those you have given me.” (See His repeated use of this phrase in John 17.) Jesus then comes and redeems His people by dying for them; He wins a massive victory over Satan, proving His superiority over all rivals. And, having completed His mission, and with all enemies now under His feet, He now triumphantly submits the kingdom to God the Father. And what does the Father do? Apparently the Father, deeply gratified by the Son’s obedience, returns the kingdom back to the Son, because we are told that Jesus will rule forever and ever, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).
Perhaps it is better to say that God the Father and God the Son will share the eternal throne in Trinitarian glory and splendor. And we will be invited to join them and participate in this unimaginable honor. And to think, at this point in our experience, eternity will hardly have begun.
STRENGTH FOR TOMORROW
It is easy for us to read about the millennial kingdom, but it is quite different for us to grasp its reality. And, how can these truths transform us today? All of the Bible is relevant for us, and this is no exception. We must prepare for our distant future with the same diligence with which we plan for retirement, only more so.
First, let us remember what we learned about rewards. If we are faithful, we will be generously rewarded with a more honorable position in the kingdom. In a parable (Luke 19:11–27), Jesus indicated that there were differences of levels of faithfulness and therefore different levels of reward. In summary, after giving each servant a mina (about three month’s wages), the king returned for an accounting: “The first one came and said, ‘Sir your mina has earned ten more.’ ‘Well done, my good servant!’ the master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge often cities’” (vv. 16–17).
Then as the parable continues, the man whose mina made five more was put in charge of five cities. But the unfaithful servant, who hid his mina and refused to invest it, had his taken away from him and it was given to the servant whose mina had made ten minas. “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! … Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas” (vv. 22, 24). The point is that if you are faithful in this life you will be rewarded with special honors in the next. To live for one’s self after Jesus has given His life for us is an insult to our Savior that will not go unnoticed.
Don’t take it for granted that in the kingdom and the eternity that follows you will have the same honors as everyone else. The way we live in this life affects our position in the kingdom and, for that matter, all of eternity. Let us repent of our lack of passion in serving Christ. A victor at an ancient Greek Olympic game is said to have been asked, “Spartan, what will you gain by this victory?” He replied, “Sir, I shall have the honor to fight on the front line for my king.” That determination should be ours as we fight for the King of Kings.
There is a second lesson, and that is the incorrigible nature of evil. A thousand years of incarceration do not change Satan’s nature. He will come out of the Abyss just as evil and with just as much intent to fight against God as he had before he enters. He was probably even more enraged, because an evil being (or, for that matter, an evil person) doesn’t change simply because he/she has been defeated. Hell is perfectly just for Satan who both will not and cannot repent of his rebellion against God. And those individuals who harden their own hearts and follow him will receive the same fate.
We’ve also seen that the children of human beings, though living under the authority of Jesus, will also rebel. In effect they will say, “Who is Jesus to rule over us? Yes, we took that field trip to Jerusalem. We saw that He is reigning there, and we see His far-reaching authority, but why should He be the one to choose what mansion we get to live in? We don’t want Him to reign over us. We’d rather be free in hell than servants in the millennium!”
Think about this: As indicated, some of the children who grow up in the millennial kingdom will be “gospel hardened,” as the saying goes. Living under the rule of Jesus, they will have heard it all and seen it all. They will reject His offer of eternal life in favor of their own rebellious ways. We must beware that we are not like them. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…. See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:7–8, 12).
Things are not always what they appear to be. Satan, freed from his abyss, anxious to fight against Jesus one more time, will receive a whiff of satisfaction when he is released and foments a last rebellion against God. He will try to recruit as many as he can to join him in this last revolt against Jesus. But he and his accomplices will be defeated by Jesus using simply “the breath of his mouth.” One breath and it will all be over. Let us never forget that time is short and eternity is long.
About the Author:
Since 1980, Erwin W. Lutzer has served as senior pastor of the world-famous Moody Church in Chicago, where he provides leadership to Chicago pastors. Dr. Lutzer earned his B.Th. from Winnipeg Bible College, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University, an LL.D. from Simon Greenleaf School of Law, and a D.D. from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.
Dr. Lutzer is a featured radio speaker on the Moody Broadcasting Network and the author of numerous books, including 10 Lies About God: And the Truths That Shatter Deception; The Vanishing Power of Death, Cries from the Cross, the best-selling One Minute Before You Die and Hitler’s Cross, which received the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (EPCA) Gold Medallion Book Award. He speaks both nationally and internationally at Bible conferences and tours and has led tours of the cities of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The article above was adapted from the excellent and practical book on the End Times and Prophecy in Erwin W. Lutzer with Dillon Burroughs. The King is Coming: Preparing to Meet Jesus. Chicago: Moody Publishers. 2012 (Chapter 8).
Why let the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes. – Psalm 115:2-3
I’m told that after an earthquake in California a group of ministers met for a prayer breakfast. As they discussed impassable expressways and ruined buildings, they agreed that God had very little to do with the disaster. They concluded that since the earth is under the Curse from Creation, earthquakes and other natural disasters simply happen according to laws of nature. But even after they made that conclusion, one of the ministers closed in prayer, thanking God for the timing of the earthquake that came at five o’clock in the morning when there were fewer people out on the roads.
So did God have anything to do with that earthquake or didn’t He? How can a person conclude that God is not involved and then thank Him for His involvement? It can’t be both ways.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes. Our earth is not immune to disasters. So how does God fit in? Intuitively, people know God is in charge. When tragedy strikes, people call out to Him. We know that when something is outside of our control, we need to call upon a higher power for help. But if people intuitively know that God is in charge, how do we explain the heart-wrenching suffering that accompanies such disasters?
Who Is Responsible?
There’s no doubt about it—natural disasters aren’t very good for God’s reputation. As a result, many Christians try to absolve Him of any and all responsibility for these horrific events. They want to “get Him off the hook” in order to help Him maintain His loving image. Some do this by saying that God is weak—He can’t really stop these disasters from happening, but He will work really hard to bring something good out of them. Others try to give the devil all the blame, saying God is not involved at all in any of the bad things that happen—He’s just a bystander.
Is God Weak?
Let’s begin with people who try to protect God’s reputation by claiming that He is unable to prevent our planet from getting pounded by one calamity after another. These folks fear that if we say God is responsible for natural disasters or that He allows them because of a higher purpose, we will drive people away from the Christian faith. “Why would people want to come to a God who would do such horrible things?” they ask. When we glibly say that “God will bring good out of it” or that “in the end we win,” it does little to comfort those who have lost loved ones or possessions in a disaster.
I agree that glib statements about suffering being part of God’s plan will not immediately comfort the grieving. In fact, it probably is true that giving such answers without any compassion or understanding could indeed drive people away from God rather than toward Him. As Christians, we do need to be very careful what we say to those who are grieving from great loss. Sometimes it is best to remain silent, not pretending that we have the right to speak on God’s behalf, but to act benevolently on His behalf instead. I will talk more about this later in this chapter.
To take the approach that God is weak, unable to handle the forces of nature, is to believe that God is finite. If it is true that God is not all-powerful and must deal with natural disasters as best as He can after they happen, how can a God like that be trusted? If God is helpless in the face of a hurricane, how confident can we be that He can one day subdue all evil? To believe that God is finite might get Him off the hook for natural disasters, but it also puts end-time victories in jeopardy. The Bible does not describe a weak God, however. In fact, just the opposite. God is omnipotent—all-powerful. Consider just a sampling of Scripture that focuses on God’s power over His creation:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. – Genesis 1:1
You formed the mountains by your power and armed yourself with mighty strength. You quieted the raging oceans with their pounding waves and silenced the shouting of the nations. – Psalm 65:6-7
The heavens are yours, and the earth is yours; everything in the world is yours—you created it all. You created north and south. Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon praise your name. Powerful is your arm! Strong is your hand! Your right hand is lifted high in glorious strength. – Psalm 89:11-13
Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. – Isaiah 40:26
[Jesus] got up and rebuked the wind and waves, and suddenly there was a great calm. – Matthew 8:26
For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20
It would be strange indeed if the God who created the world were unable to control it. To describe God as too weak to handle natural disasters doesn’t help God’s reputation, it doesn’t get Him off the hook, and it isn’t biblical. The answer to the question, “Is God weak?” is a resounding no! God is all-powerful and completely able to control nature.
Are Disasters the Devil’s Fault?
The second way some Christians try to exempt God from involvement in natural disasters is to simply blame everything on the devil. God is not responsible for what happens, they say. He created the world and lets it run; nature is fallen, and Satan, who is the god of this world, wreaks havoc with the natural order.
Scripture clearly tells us that nature is under a curse just as people are: “The ground is cursed because of you. All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it” (Genesis 3:17). It follows, then, that Satan might indeed be involved in natural disasters. We have an example of this in the book of Job, when God gave Satan the power to destroy Job’s children. Acting under God’s direction and within certain set limitations, Satan used lightning to kill the sheep and the servants and a powerful wind to kill all ten of Job’s children (Job 1). Clearly the devil takes great pleasure in causing havoc and destruction. Take a moment to look at the wretched life of the demon-possessed man before Jesus commanded the legion of demons to leave him. The Gospel of Luke describes him as homeless and naked, living in a cemetery, shrieking, breaking chains and shackles, completely alone, and without hope (Luke 8:26-29). This is a snapshot of Satan’s ultimate goal for living things. Here is proof, if proof is needed, that satanic powers might indeed be connected to the natural disasters that afflict our planet.
So if the devil is involved, does this mean that God is removed from Does He really have a “hands-off policy” when it comes to disasters? Does this absolve God of responsibility? Is it all the devil’s fault? Clearly the answer to all of these questions is no. God has not relegated calamities to His hapless archrival the devil without maintaining strict supervision and ultimate control of nature. No earthquake comes, no tornado rages, and no tsunami washes villages away but that God signs
off on it.
But that conclusion creates its own set of questions…
So What Does It Mean That God Is in Control?
If God isn’t too weak to deal with His creation, and if we cannot put all the blame on Satan, then where does that leave us? It leaves us with the fact that God is all-powerful and in control—and that applies to natural disasters. We must think carefully at this point.
We must distinguish between the secondary cause of disastrous events and their ultimate cause. The secondary cause of the lightning and the wind that killed Job’s children was the power of Satan. But follow carefully: it was God who gave Satan the power to wreak the havoc. It was God who set the limits of what Satan could or could not do. In effect, God said, “Satan, you can go this far, no further. I’m setting the boundaries here.” That’s why Job, quite rightly, did not say that the death of his children was the devil’s doing. Instead, Job said, “The LORD gave me what I had, and the LORD has taken it away. Praise the name of the LORD!” (Job 1:21).
Scientifically speaking, we know that the secondary cause of an earthquake is due to a fault beneath the earth’s crust; the top of the earth’s crust moves in one direction while the levels under the earth’s crust gradually move in the opposite direction. The secondary causes of a tornado are unstable atmospheric conditions combined with warm, moist air. The secondary cause of a hurricane is a large air mass heated and fueled by the warmth of the ocean. All of these weather patterns might or might not receive their momentum from Satan, yet we can be sure that the ultimate cause of these events is God. He rules through intermediate causes and at times by direct intervention, but either way, He is in charge. After all, He is the Creator, the Sustainer, of all things. We sing with Isaac Watts,
There’s not a plant or flower below,
But makes Thy glories known;
And clouds arise, and tempests blow,
By order from Thy throne.
So what does it mean for us that God is in control, even when natural disasters occur? How do we begin to process this?
First, many theologians who agree that God is in charge of nature emphasize that God does not decree natural disasters but only permits them to happen. Understanding the difference between these words is helpful, especially since in the book of Job God permitted Satan to bring about disasters to test Job. However, keep in mind that the God who permits natural disasters to happen could choose to not permit them to happen. In the very act of allowing them, He demonstrates that they fall within the boundaries of His providence and will. The devil is not allowed to act beyond the boundaries God sets.
Second—and this is important—God is sometimes pictured as being in control of nature even without secondary or natural causes. When the disciples were at their wits’ end, expecting to drown in a stormy sea, Christ woke up from a nap and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” The effect was immediate: “Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39). Christ could have spoken similar words to the tidal wave in Papua New Guinea or the rain that triggered the mudslides in Venezuela, and they would have obeyed Him. At the word of Christ, the tsunami in Southeast Asia would have ended before it hit the coastlines. Notice how the Scriptures credit tidal waves and tsunamis to God: “The LORD’s home reaches up to the heavens, while its foundation is on the earth. He draws up water from the oceans and pours it down as rain on the land. The LORD is his name!” (Amos 9:6).
Third, if the heavens declare the glory of God, if it is true that the Lord reveals His character through the positive side of nature, doesn’t it make sense that the calamities of nature also reveal something about Him too? If nature is to give us a balanced picture of God, we must see His judgment, too. “The LORD does whatever pleases him throughout all heaven and earth, and on the seas and in their depths. He causes the clouds to rise over the whole earth. He sends the lightning with the rain and releases the wind from his storehouses” (Psalm 135:6-7).
After the tsunami in Southeast Asia, a supposed Christian cleric was asked whether God had anything to do with the disaster. “No,” he replied. “The question as to why it happened demands a geological answer, not a theological answer.” Is he reading the same Bible I am? Or has he read the Bible and simply chosen not to believe it?
Who sent the Flood during the time of Noah? God said, “I am about to cover the earth with a flood that will destroy every living thing that breathes. Everything on earth will die” (Genesis 6:17).
God determined the timing, the duration, and the intensity of the rain. And it happened according to His word. It would have been difficult to convince Noah that God had nothing to do with the weather, that all He could do was weep when the Flood came.
Who sent the plagues on Egypt? Who caused the sun to stand still so that Joshua could win a battle? Who first sealed the heavens and then brought rain in response to Elijah’s prayer? Who sent the earthquake when the sons of Korah rebelled against Moses? This event recorded in the Bible is of special interest:
[Moses] had hardly finished speaking the words when the ground suddenly split open beneath them. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed the men, along with their households and all their followers who were standing with them, and everything they owned. So they went down alive into the grave, along with all their belongings. The earth closed over them, and they all vanished from among the people of Israel (Numbers 16:31-33).
Can anyone say that God is not the ultimate cause of these disasters? In the story of Jonah, the biblical writer leaves no doubt as to who caused the storm that forced the sailors to throw the stowaway overboard. “The LORD hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart” (Jonah 1:4, italics added). The sailors agonized about unloading their unwanted cargo, but we read that they “picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once!” (Jonah 1:15). It appears that the Bible is not as concerned about God’s reputation as some theologians are. It puts God clearly in charge of the wind, the rain, and the calamities of the earth.
What do all these stories have in common? Notice that God is meticulously involved. Whether an earthquake, a raging wind, or a rainstorm, the events came and left according to God’s word. In addition, many of these calamities were acts of judgment by which God expressed how much He hated disobedience. In Old Testament times, these judgments generally separated godly people from wicked people (this is not the case today, as we shall see in the next chapter). However, even back then, sometimes the godly were also victims of these judgments. Job’s children were killed not because they were wicked, but because God wanted to test their father.
On the other hand, we should also note that in both the Old and New Testaments God sometimes sent a natural disaster to help His people. During a battle when Saul’s son Jonathan killed a Philistine, we read, “Then panic struck the whole [enemy] army—those in the camp and field, and those in the outposts and raiding parties—and the ground shook. It was a panic sent by God” (1 Samuel 14:15, NIV, italics added). And in the New Testament, an earthquake delivered Paul and Silas from prison: “Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening. Suddenly, there was a massive earthquake, and the prison was shaken to its foundations. All the doors immediately flew open, and the chains of every prisoner fell off!” (Acts 16:25-26).
Both of these earthquakes had God’s signature on them.
God uses nature to do His bidding. Directly or indirectly, He can cause an earthquake to happen at five in the morning. God does as He wills.
Is Our God Really Good?
If God is the ultimate cause of all things and if He does as He wills on this earth—including with nature and natural disasters—can we put the blame on Him for the evil and suffering that these disasters cause? How can God be good when He permits (or does) things that seem so destructive and hurtful to human beings? Surely if we had the power to prevent an earthquake, if we could have stopped the tsunami, we would have done so.
Natural disasters are not “evil” in the usual sense of the word. If a tsunami took place in the middle of the ocean and did not affect any people, we would not think of it as evil. It’s when humans are affected, and when death and suffering occur, that such disasters become “evil.”
In light of what I’ve said, should God be blamed for such destructive disasters that create unfathomable human suffering? The word blame implies wrongdoing, and I don’t believe such a word should ever be applied to God. But even asking if God is responsible for natural disasters also might not be best, since the word responsibility usually implies accountability, and God is accountable to no one: “Our God is in the heavens, and he does as he wishes” (Psalm 115:3).
Let’s begin by agreeing that God plays by a different set of rules. If you were standing beside a swimming pool and watched a toddler fall in and did nothing to help, you could be facing a lawsuit for negligence. Yet God watches children drown—or, for that matter, starve—every day and does not intervene. He sends drought to countries in Africa, creating scarcity of food; He sends tsunamis, wiping out homes and crops.
We are obligated to keep people alive as long as possible, but if God were held to that standard, no one would ever die. Death is a part of the Curse: “You were made from dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). What for us would be criminal is an everyday occurrence for God.
Why the difference? God is the Creator; we are the creatures. Because God is the giver of life, He also has the right to take life. He has a long-term agenda that is much more complex than keeping people alive as long as possible. Death and destruction are a part of His plan. “‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the LORD. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote that natural disasters prove that God cannot be both good and all-powerful. If He were, suffering and happiness would be carefully meted out to all people, each person getting exactly what he or she deserved. Since natural disasters appear to be random, affecting both good and evil people, God therefore cannot be both good and all-powerful. Mill forgets, however, that we don’t receive our final rewards and punishments in this life. Indeed, the Scriptures teach that the godly often endure the most fearful calamities. God always acts from the standpoint of eternity rather than time; His decisions are made with an infinite perspective. Therefore, it comes down to this: we believe that God has a good and all-wise purpose for the heartrending tragedies disasters bring.
Speaking of the earthquake in Turkey that took thousands of lives, pastor and author John Piper says, “[God] has hundreds of thousands of purposes, most of which will remain hidden to us until we are able to grasp them at the end of the age” (John Piper, “Whence and Why?” World Magazine, September 4, 1993, 33). God has a purpose for each individual. For some, His purpose is that their days on earth end when disaster strikes; for the survivors there are other opportunities to rearrange priorities and focus on what really matters. The woman who said she lost everything but God during Hurricane Katrina probably spoke for thousands of people who turned to Him in their utter despair. God does not delight in the suffering of humanity. He cares about the world and its people: “But you, O Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15). God does not delight in the death of the wicked but is pleased when they turn from their wicked ways (Ezekiel 18:23). We finite beings cannot judge our infinite God. He is not obligated to tell us everything He is up to. As Paul described it, the clay has no right to tell the potter what to do (Romans 9:19-21). It is not necessary for us to know God’s purposes before we bow to His authority. And the fact that we trust God even though He has not revealed the details is exactly the kind of faith that delights His heart. “It is impossible to please God without faith” (Hebrews 11:6). In chapter 5 we shall see that this sovereign God has given us reasons to trust Him. Faith will always be necessary, but our faith has strong supports. We do not believe clever fables but rather a credible account of God’s will, God’s power, and God’s dealings with us in the Bible.
Responding to the Hurting with Compassion
The God who created the laws of nature and allows them to “take their course” is the very same God who commands us to fight against these natural forces. Before the Fall, God gave Adam and Eve the mandate to rule over nature. After the Fall, the mandate continued even though the ground would yield thorns and thistles and childbearing would mean struggling with pain. The desire to live would become the fight to live.
We’ve seen it over and over—the relentless compassion of people reaching out to help others who have been faced with calamity. People offer money, goods, services, and their time and labor to bring aid where it is most needed. Charitable giving to the American Red Cross for Haiti relief set a record for mobile-generated donations, raising seven million dollars in twenty-four hours when Red Cross allowed people to send ten-dollar donations by text messages (Doug Gross, “Digital Fundraising Still Pushing Haiti Relief,” CNN, January 15, 2010, http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-15/tech/online.donations.haiti_1_earthquake-haiti-haiti-relief-twitter-andfacebook?_s=PM:TECH). This is when God’s glory shines through even in the darkest times.
God uses nature both to bless and challenge us, to feed and instruct us. He wants us to fight against the devastation of natural disasters, even as we fight against the devil, so that we might become overcomers in this fallen world. Although nature is under God’s supervision, we are invited to fight disease and plagues.
We can and should strive for better medical care and clean water and food for the starving in Third World countries. We should be willing to help those who are in distress—even at great personal risk.
Martin Luther, when asked whether Christians should help the sick and dying when the plague came to Wittenberg, said that each individual would have to answer the question for himself. He believed that the epidemic was spread by evil spirits, but added, “Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our lives in this manner John the apostle teaches, “If Christ laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren’” (1 John 3:16 and for more on Martin Luther see Timothy Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1989, 744).
In recent years, the news media have carried stories of virulent flu viruses that have infected humans in epidemic proportions. Some Christians might wonder if they should help those who are sick, risking their own lives for the sake of others. Disasters such as these make Luther’s comments about Wittenberg plague relevant. Martin Luther continued:
If it be God’s will that evil come upon us, none of our precautions will help us. Everybody must take this to heart: first of all, if he feels bound to remain where death rages in order to serve his neighbor, let him commend himself to God and say, “Lord, I am in thy hands; thou hast kept me here; they will be done. I am thy lowly creature. Thou canst kill me or preserve me in the pestilence in the same way if I were in fire, water, drought or any other danger” (Ibid, 742).
Yes the plague was “God’s decree,” but we also must do what we can to save the lives of the sick and minister to the dying, We should thank God when He gives us the opportunity to rescue the wounded when a disaster strikes. Tragedies give us the opportunity to serve the living and comfort the dying all around us. Through the tragedies of others, we have the opportunity to leave our comfortable lifestyles and enter the suffering of the world.
Historically, the church has always responded to tragedies with sacrifice and courage. During the third century, the writer Tertullian recorded that when plagues deserted their nearest relatives in the plague, Christians stayed and ministered to the sick.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, churches rose to the occasion to help the victims. Church members prepared tens of thousands of meals for people left homeless and scattered in shelters. One church would help another begin the painful process of relocation and reconstruction. Even the secular press had to admit that governmental red tape did not stop the churches from sacrificially helping in time of need. What the government and the Red Cross could not do, the people of God did. This is how it should be. This is how we become Jesus’ hands and feet in the world.
In the days after the 2011 Joplin tornado, one pastor’s wife wrote to a friend, “It [the tornado and its aftermath] has certainly stretched us. All the things that pastors deal with on a day-today basis—marriages in crisis, pettiness, misunderstandings, sins of all varieties—do not go away when the storms come. They do get put on the back burner. They catch fire. Other things that pastors deal with on a day-today basis—tireless, selfless, tenderhearted servants who are constantly seeking to please God and serve His church—do not go away either. They catch fire. I am amazed at these people.”
Jesus was touched by the plight that the curse of sin brought to this world. We see Him weep at the tomb of Lazarus, and we hear His groans. “Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance” (John 11:38). After the stone was removed, Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43) and the dead man came to life in the presence of the astonished onlookers. The Jesus who stayed away for a few extra days so Lazarus would die is the very same Jesus who raised him from the dead.
Like Jesus, we mourn for the horrendous pain people experience on this planet. Like the weeping prophet Jeremiah, we find ourselves saying, “Rise during the night and cry out. Pour out your hearts like water to the Lord. Lift up your hands to him in prayer, pleading for your children, for in every street they are faint with hunger” (Lamentations 2:19).
Although modern medicine and technology allow us to stave off death as long as possible, eventually we will all be overcome by its power. Yet in the end, we sin! Christ has conquered death.
Responding to God in Faith
If there is still some doubt in your mind that ultimately God has control of nature, let me ask you: Have you ever prayed for beautiful weather for a wedding? Have you ever prayed for rain at a time of drought? Have you ever asked God to protect you during a severe storm? Many people who claim God has no control over the weather change their minds when a funnel cloud comes toward them. The moment we call out to Him in desperate prayer, we are admitting that He is in charge.
It is also vital to understand that if nature is out of God’s hands, then we are also out of God’s hands. We should be nothing more than victims of nature and thus die apart from His will. Jesus, however, assures His children that He will take care of us. “What is the price of five sparrows—two copper coins? Yet God does not forget a single one of them. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7). The God who cares for the tiny sparrows and counts the hairs on our heads is in charge of nature.
The ministers in California were right in thanking God that the earthquake came early in the morning when there was little traffic on the expressways. They were wrong, however, for saying that God was not in charge of the tragedy. Of course He was—both biblically and logically.
There is, perhaps, no greater mystery than human suffering, so let us humbly admit that we can’t determine God’s ways.
The eighteenth-century English poet William Cowper put the mysteries of God in perspective:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessing on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain (William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” Cowper’s Poems, ed. Hugh I’Anson Fausset. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1966, 188-189).
“Grieve not because thou understand not life’s mystery,” wrote a wise man. “Behind the veil is concealed many a delight” (Quoted in Charles Swindoll, The Mystery of God’s Will. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999, 115).
The trusting believer knows this is so.
About the Author:
Since 1980, Erwin W. Lutzer has served as senior pastor of the world-famous Moody Church in Chicago, where he provides leadership to Chicago pastors. Dr. Lutzer earned his B.Th. from Winnipeg Bible College, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, an M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University, an LL.D. from Simon Greenleaf School of Law, and a D.D. from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary.
Dr. Lutzer is a featured radio speaker on the Moody Broadcasting Network and the author of numerous books, including The Vanishing Power of Death, Cries from the Cross, the best-selling One Minute Before You Die and Hitler’s Cross, which received the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (EPCA) Gold Medallion Book Award. He speaks both nationally and internationally at Bible conferences and tours and has led tours of the cities of the Protestant Reformation in Europe.
Dr. Lutzer and his wife, Rebecca, live in the Chicago area and are the parents of three grown children. The article above was adapted from Chapter 2 in the short and insightful book by Erwin W. Lutzer. An Act of God: Answers to Tough Questions about God’s Role in Natural Disasters. Wheaton: Illinois, Tyndale House Publishers, 2011.