The Gospel Is Spiritual Battle 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:13 Introduction The summer of 1977, exactly thirty years ago, was one of New York City’s hottest on record. Typically, whenever it was hot in the city, people would battle the heat by spending their evenings outdoors. But not this summer. New York City was in a panic over the “Son of Sam” serial killings that had been taking place. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer, whose name comes from a creepy letter he left at a crime scene, confessed to six murders and wounding seven others between 1976 and 1977. Berkowitz claims that two years earlier, in the spring of 1975, he joined a Satanic cult. Initially, he said, the group did harmless activities such as séances and fortune telling. Gradually, however, Berkowitz maintained that the group introduced him to hard drug use, sadistic pornography, and other violent activities. They began by killing dogs, and soon moved on to people. Now there’s always something strange and horrifying about a serial killer, but what made the Berkowitz unique was that he claimed that a neighbor’s dog was possessed by an ancient demon that issued irresistible commands that he kill people. Berkowitz said that he once tried to kill the dog, but that his aim was altered by what he believed to be supernatural intervention. So Berkowitz’s initial defense of his actions was this, “The devil made me do it.” Now when we hear things like this, our tendency is to be hugely skeptical, and probably to think that the person is insane. I can just imagine the New York City police officers response to that confession: “You mean you’re telling us that your neighbor’s dog was possessed by a demon whose will you couldn’t resist and that you couldn’t kill because something supernatural kept you from killing it? You know what? Wait…Joe…did you hear that? “Yeah, I think I did?” “Berkowitz, did you hear that?” “Hear what?” “It’s the devil. He’s telling us to tell you, ‘Your NUTS!’ Get over here.” Now I think that we ought to have a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to people saying things like Berkowitz did when he confessed to those murders in 1977. Often people are insane, mentally ill, strung out on hallucinogenic drugs or methamphetamine. Sometimes they are none of these things, but are looking to avoid facing the death penalty, hoping that by their insanity, they’ll be able at least to live out the rest of their days and die a natural death. But just because there are crazy people out there, and con artists, doesn’t mean that there’s no such thing as supernatural evil. Supernatural evil is real. There are such things as demons and there is such a person as the ruler of the demons, the devil, also called Satan. The Bible is quite unequivocal on this. In fact, the Bible teaches that we are in a spiritual battle, the powers of evil against the people and power of God. There’s a war going on…and you’re a part of it. So knowing that supernatural evil is real, that we are in a spiritual battle, I think it’s an understatement to say that we should not be so quick to dismiss it when we hear or see it rearing its ugly head. Because if it is what the Bible says it is, then we can’t afford to ignore it. And as we as a church seek to bring the good news of Jesus’ overthrow of the supernatural regime of evil to the Twin Cities Metro, we can never forget that the powers of darkness are especially interested in seeing our mission fail. The devil and his servants are hell-bent on thwarting our efforts and soliciting us to give in to temptation. Because whenever people turn from living for whatever it is they’re living for to Jesus Christ, it’s as if a banner is waved of God’s victory over the forces of evil – and they don’t like that one bit. This reality underlies the passage from 1 Thessalonians that we’re going to look at this morning. So if you have a Bible, turn in it with me to 1 Thess 2:17 and read through 3:13. <Read the text> Let me begin by giving you the gist of the Apostle Paul’s concern here. Afraid for the Faith of the Thessalonians You may remember that very shortly after the church was established in the city of Thessalonica – a metro like ours – Paul and his companions were forced to leave. They probably didn’t spend more than six months there. And because of this, they (and especially Paul) were concerned that these new Christians weren’t quite strong enough to be on their own. And why? Well, their becoming Christians wasn’t easy. They faced almost immediate persecution. Look back to 1:6. <Read the text> This language (received the word) is the language of becoming a Christian. When a person repents of their sins and believes in Jesus Christ they respond to a message – the word, or message, of the gospel. And this text says that they responded to that message (received the word) in much tribulation, which means “severe suffering.” When the Thessalonians became Christians it meant turning their backs on a whole way of life – their old way of life that revolved around their gods, their city, their families. Those who knew them best didn’t take their conversion to Christianity very well at all. They made life difficult for them, and not just when they first responded to the message that Paul and his colleagues brought. Turn ahead to 2:14 and read with me. <Read the text> So when we get to v 17 and following, we see why Paul was so interested in getting back to Thessalonica. Here was a group of very young Christians that he essentially left to the wolves. And the whole time he’s away he wondering if they survived. I can imagine that even though it wasn’t at all his fault – I can imagine him even feeling guilty that he didn’t get to establish them further. I think you can even detect a little of that in 3:5. <Read the text> Paul was afraid. He was afraid that they might have been derailed in their faith – in fact, so derailed as to be lost. That’s what he means in v 5 when he says that he had fear that the tempter might have tempted them, and their labor would be in vain. He was deeply concerned about them. And notice that his concerned was wrapped up in something that he thought the tempter might have done. Paul was afraid that the devil might have solicited them somehow to turn away from the Christian faith. So Paul wanted to get back to Thessalonica as soon as possible to check up on his new converts. In fact, according to 2:18, he purposed to come on more than one occasion. Read it with me. <Read the text> Now when the verse says that they wanted to visit the Thessalonians, it’s not referring simply to a wish. It is referring to what they actually purposed, to what they planned, and perhaps even attempted. Paul says that he purposed more than once to come to them, but that he was unable to do so because he was quite literally thwarted by Satan. So both in terms of the Thessalonians’ spiritual well-being and in terms of the Apostle Paul’s mission, Paul understands the threat in terms of supernatural evil. With respect to his visit, Satan hindered him. And with respect to the Thessalonians’ new-found faith, he feared potential satanic influence. Now with that in mind, let me back up and give you the big picture of what’s happened in Thessalonica, and therefore what can happen here in the Twin Cities. What to Expect of the Mission Paul and his friends bring the gospel to the metro. Many Thessalonians become Christians. And that’s exactly what they expected. They were sent by God to preach the gospel so that the Gentiles (non-Jews) would be saved from their sins and given eternal life with God. And we should expect this, too. The church is still on a mission. God is still bringing people into the Christian community. And by them, he’s transforming even the institutions of which they’re a part. Until Jesus comes back, we can expect people to be converted to Christianity. But as we’ve seen, it’s never all that easy. The apostles and the Thessalonians faced persecution for their commitment to Christ. And that’s exactly what they expected. Look at 3:3-4. <Read the text> When you faithfully preach and live out the exclusive message of the Christian faith, you can expect hardship, difficulty, affliction, tribulation, and persecution. “All those who want to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12). “It is through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). We should expect that along with seeing people in the Cities become Christians as we faithfully preach and live out the Christian message – we should expect also to experience persecution. So we should expect conversions, and we should expect human opposition. And according to 2:17ff., we should expect something else. We should also expect supernatural opposition. Satan thwarts the ministry of the gospel and he threatens the children of the gospel. That’s what he does. The devil wants to hinder us from completing our mission and even when we succeed, he wants to harm those we’ve led to Jesus Christ. He wants to hinder and he wants to harm; he wants to thwart and he wants to threaten. So as we attempt God’s instruments for the gospel transformation of the Twin Cities, we need to realize we’re in a battle, a spiritual battle against forces of evil. And we can’t afford to be ill-equipped. But how is it that we become equipped? Equipped for the Battle: Realize the War Is On Well, the first step is to realize that we’re in a battle in the first place. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the renowned 20th century Welsh preacher, was right when he said that “not to realize that you are in a conflict means one thing only, and that is that you are so hopelessly defeated, and so ‘knocked out’ as it were, that you do not even know it—you are unconscious!...Anyone who is not aware of a fight and a conflict in a spiritual sense is in a drugged and hazardous condition.” Over and over again in Scripture we read that the Christian life, and in particular, the work of Christian ministry – the mission we’re all on – is spiritual battle. Paul puts it like this in Eph 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” We are engaged in an intense struggle with strong opposition. Ultimately, our battle is not natural; it is supernatural. And although it may seem as if the enemies we face are our human persecutors, the human architects of hostility against the church, no matter how mild or fierce the opposition, at bottom is a battle against the spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places. This is the nature of the Christian life and the gospel mission we’re on. And we cannot opt out of it. We can’t “dodge the draft” by moving to Canada, we can’t be “conscientious objectors.” We are engaged in a serious fight with a powerful, intensely gifted, and wicked enemy. Satan is fighting against God and his people; we must recognize this reality. We cannot escape this fact. So if you’re squeamish about the battle, then you don’t want to be in the army – you don’t really want to be a Christian. So the first step to becoming equipped for spiritual battle is fairly simple: recognize you’re in one! Equipped for the Battle: Know Your Enemy The second step to becoming equipped for spiritual battle is this: know your enemy. The supernatural evil that we face reaches its apex in one individual, a fallen angel named Satan. We’ve met him twice in this morning’s passage from 1 Thessalonians. He’s mentioned by name in 2:18 (Satan hindered us), and he’s referred to by activity in 3:5 (for fear that the tempter might have tempted you). But who is Satan? What’s he all about? Well, Satan is certainly not how he is depicted in pop culture. He does not don a red jumpsuit, have horns and a goatee, carry a pitchfork, and wear a sinister expression. Neither does he wear a Hawaiian shirt while he holds a barbeque in hell – I saw him depicted like that just a few years ago on the cover of a national news magazine. These depictions are more caricature than reality. And I think the reason for the caricature is owing to our general skepticism about all things supernatural, and especially all things traditionally, or Christianly supernatural. We seem more likely to entertain the possibility of extra-terrestrials or contacting our dead relatives in the “hereafter,” than we do of the possibility of a real devil who truly, in the words of Luther, “threatens to undo us.” All this notwithstanding, there is no doubt that there is a devil and that his campaign to thwart the progress of the gospel both inside and outside the church is a settled reality. So if the commonplace picture of Satan is a caricature, what is the reality? Undermining the Word of God Well, to see that, let’s begin at the beginning. Turn with me in your Bibles to Genesis 3. You may remember that when God created the man, he put him in the Garden of Eden to take care of it. The garden would sustain him as he cultivated it. And it was all his…except for one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Gen 2:16-17 God forbids the man from eating from it. Look there with me and read. <Read the text> Very clearly, God gives the man a command, a mandate not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And with this mandate, he also sets forth a consequence, a threat – “in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” Well, after this command is given, we read how God created woman out of man as a suitable companion for him. And presumably, the man relayed to the woman (or perhaps it was the Lord himself) the commandment about the forbidden fruit. Enter the devil in Genesis 3. Read vv 1-7 with me. <Read the text> Let me first tell you why I say that the serpent of Genesis 3 is, in fact, Satan. Now perhaps you think that it’s obvious that we’re dealing with the devil here. Well, in a way, I’d agree with you. However, if you do any reading about religion in the newspaper or even watch say, public television’s religion spots, there are some who suggest that Satan and the serpent are not one and the same person. In fact, a very popular series of interviews took place between the late American mythology professor, Joseph Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers in which Campbell suggested not only that Satan and the serpent of Genesis 3 are not identical, but that the serpent really isn’t even all that bad. After all, in the day that Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they did not die. The serpent told the truth. But that’s tangential to what I’m saying here. The point I’m making is this. The serpent and Satan are one and the same person. Revelation 20:2 is unambiguous on this point: “And [an angel] laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years.” That I think is pretty straightforward biblical evidence that we’re dealing with the same individual we encounter throughout Scripture – the serpent is Satan. Now then, while there are a variety of issues that are raised by Genesis 3 with regard to the devil, there is one that I would say is foundational. And it’s expressed in v 1. Read it again with me. <Read the text> That phrase (Indeed, has God said) or as the esv puts it “Did God actually say…” – that phrase is one of the keys to understanding how our adversary threatens to undo us. He causes us to question the reliability, the truthfulness of God’s word. “Did God actually say what you know he unambiguously said?” Satan as been at work since our fall into sin, since we first rebelled against God, causing us to question God’s word. And you can trace this activity through every century of the church. You can see it in the Arian heresy of the fourth century in which Scripture was twisted to -suggest that Jesus was not fully God – that he was created by God, but not eternally existent within the Trinity. You can see it in the medieval church – a time during which Scripture was obscured and trumped by superstition, church tradition, and so-called papal infallibility. You can see it at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century when higher criticism began to dominate Christian scholarship – an approach to the Bible that began to question the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible. And you can see it today in the church’s embrace of post-modern views of truth. That language is hopelessly ambiguous, where words themselves became meaningless, where the reader determined their meaning for herself – a meaning that could be mutually exclusive of another person’s assigned meaning. And the assertion that truth is relative. This is the work of the devil. And it is not new. It began with the words, “Did God actually say…?” And this is most likely what Paul feared could have happened to the Thessalonians. Turn back to 1 Thess 3:2-5 and read with me. <Read the text> Do you see the word translated disturbed there in v 3? Well, the nasb (the English Bible version I’m using this morning) has a footnote that says “Or deceived.” In other words, the term could mean “deceived.” And I’m inclined to think that this is precisely what’s in view here. Paul was afraid that the Thessalonians’ had been deceived into thinking that Paul’s teaching about being destined to suffer was false. Or to use the language of v 5, that the tempter might have tempted them to believe a lie. But how does the devil do this? Does he come right out and say it to the Thessalonians like the serpent did with Eve? Actually, no. Deception’s Modus Operandi At this stage of the game, the devil is more subtle than that. Instead, he uses human mouthpieces – winsome and persuasive and gifted – to spin his plausible lies. Turn ahead to 2 Thess 2:1-3a, 9-12; 1 Tim 4:1-2. <Read the text> The devil is too brilliant simply to come up to us and say, “Hey, I’m the devil, Satan! I hate God and I want you to be derailed in your faith. In fact, I hope you end up in hell just like me. Paul is a liar. Don’t believe him!” Instead, the devil persuades us to believe a lie by making the lie plausible and by spinning his plausible lies through attractive human instruments. Basically, he uses people who appear in every way to be the genuine article, but in fact, are demonic, used by the ruler of the demons to harm the people of God. You can turn back to 1 Thessalonians. Perhaps Paul’s opponents told the Thessalonians something like this: “Look, if this teaching were really from God, why would God allow things to be so difficult for Paul and his friends? Why would the Lord have allowed them to be run out of town by their own countrymen?” Whatever they might have said about him, Paul was afraid that the Thessalonians would be deceived – tempted by the tempter to cause their faith to come to nothing. The fundamental approach of the devil in his temptation of believers is to cause them to question the word of God and instead to believe a lie. And he does so in ways that are slick, sophisticated, and subtle, using liars believable enough to win our respect with teaching plausible enough to persuade us. So then, we need to know our enemy. The devil, as Jesus says in John 8:44, “does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” But this isn’t all there is to our enemy. This is not his only theater for attack. There is much more, which, Lord willing, we’ll address next time. Conclusion…for Now For now, let me say that we need to be watchful. In particular, we need to be diligent to grow in our understanding of God’s word, to know it well enough to be able to detect the counterfeit when we see it. I am often asked questions by newcomers about different currents in the church, in evangelicalism. What do you think about the “Purpose Driven” church model? What do you think about Donald Miller’s, Blue Like Jazz or Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy? What do you think of Joel Osteen or Kenneth Copeland or Creflo Dollar? What do you think of contemplative prayer? The list goes on and on. My answer is this: there is so much false teaching, so many erroneous things swirling about in the church that it is impossible for me to keep up with without neglecting my work as a pastor. So here’s what I focus on: giving you the genuine article. After all, the counterfeits are always changing – you’d never be able to keep up with them. The more familiar you are with the genuine article, the better you’ll be able to spot the counterfeit. Just like the bank teller becomes intimately acquainted with genuine U. S. currency in order to spot the fakes, so we must become intimately acquainted with the word of God in order to spot false teaching. So in this our spiritual battle let’s follow the admonishment of the Apostle Paul to take along our sword – the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph 6:17).