Although it was not my intention originally, this is now the fourth – and hopefully final – article in a series of four pieces which sprang out of the recent political assassination in Australia. They show a progression – again, initially unintended – from the more particular and the political to the more general and spiritual.
Here I wish to discuss something which non-believers will obviously balk at, but which, sadly, many believers will also find themselves perhaps uncomfortable with. Although Christians should be the first to recognise and admit to a spiritual realm which lies over, and interfaces with, our political, cultural, social and moral realms, many tend to live as if they do not really believe this.
We certainly pay lip service to the supernatural, including the demonic realm, but we tend to be hesitant about allowing for spiritual powers of darkness to in some ways be influencing and interacting with the affairs of this world. We tend to ignore or downplay such cosmic forces altogether.
That is, we have tended to lose sight of much of the supernatural world, and no longer really believe there are these spiritual powers at work in our world. Now this is not the place to enter into discussions about demon possession and the like, but we must remind ourselves of some key biblical truths here.
It was C.S. Lewis who warned us in his 1942 classic, The Screwtape Letters, that we can fall into two errors about the devils: “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Our problem today, even in much of the church, is the former error.
So I here wish to remind us that Scripture presents us with a solid picture of the supernatural realm, including the realm of Satan and demonic powers. These nefarious supernatural powers of course wage war against the saints of God, but we are also informed that nations too can come under their influence and power.
Such passages are scattered throughout Scripture, but a tentative picture can be put together about how we are to understand this issue. The first general text which is quite important here is of course Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”.
Much ink has been spilt in seeking to understand just what these spiritual powers are all about, and what the phrase “principalities and powers” actually means, but some basic truths seem to be clear here. Behind this world there are supernatural forces at work – some good obviously, but some evil.
In this case there are maleficent spiritual forces at work, bent on evil. Peter O’Brien comments, “Paul’s point here is that the Christian life as a whole is a profound spiritual warfare of cosmic proportions in which the ultimate opposition to the advance of the gospel and moral integrity springs from evil, supernatural powers under the control of the god of this world.”
Some rather recent theological discussions about these matters have wanted to focus entirely on earthly structures, but it seems that a genuine personal, spiritual force in the heavenlies is in view, but one which certainly works in and amidst worldly institutions and power centres.
As John Stott comments, in an extended discussion of this passage, “That social, political, judicial and economic structures can become demonic is evident to anybody who has considered that the state, which in Romans 13 is the minister of God, in Revelation 13 has become an ally of the devil.”
Indeed, it is worth turning to the book of Revelation where from chapter 12 onwards we see a powerful picture of demonic activity influencing the affairs of this world. In Rev 16, for example, we read about an ungodly trinity waging war against the church. Comments Grant Osborne,
“Behind the political opposition and religious blasphemy of both the Roman Empire of John’s day and the beast’s empire at the end of history are demonic forces leading the pagans into worshipping the wrong gods.” And in Rev 12 we read about Michael the archangel warring against the dragon.
Michael of course is mentioned several times in the book of Daniel. There he is described as a “chief prince” of a heavenly army, and one who fights against the “prince of Persia”. “His role in Scripture is a military one, fighting against the cosmic forces behind Persia on behalf of Israel (10:13, 21) and saving the faithful people in Israel from the ‘distress’ of the last days (12:1).”
Thus spiritual armies both for good and evil are involved in human political and military contests. We see that in many places in Scripture. In the Old Testament for example we have the famous story of an angelic host fighting for Israel. In 2 Kings 18-19 we read about the miraculous rout of the Assyrian army under Sennacherib.
In 19:35 we read these amazing words: “That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand men in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning – there were all the dead bodies!”
Earthly battles are not fought alone. There are heavenly battles taking place as well, which only spiritual eyes can begin to discern. So too in the rise and fall of nations: unseen spiritual realities are a part of all this. Believers need to recognise that there is more to life than mere political and social conflict.
As I mentioned, these texts about spiritual battle and heavenly forces of good and evil are scattered throughout the Bible, and a comprehensive, systematic understanding of the whole situation is not easy to come by. There remain plenty of questions.
But we do know that behind all the power struggles on earth – be they personal, political, or international – there are spiritual powers at work. Thus all Christians must be aware of the spiritual war going on around us, and be willing to engage in it. Of course that we must do in the power of Christ, not in our own efforts.
That is why Ephesians 6:12 is preceded with these words: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (vv. 10-11). In a spiritual battle like this we dare not seek to fight in our own strength.
As we witness all sorts of political intrigue, and the rise and fall of rulers, and even nations, let us be mindful that behind all this is a cosmic battle which is taking place, and one in which we are called to participate in, by prayer, spiritual warfare, and constant intercession.
This is a struggle far greater than between Liberals and Labor, than between Republicans and Democrats, than between one political ideology and another. This is ultimately a spiritual battle which has monumental consequences for all of planet earth.
So as we rightly engage as believers in the political, social and moral battles of the day, let us always remember the larger cosmic conflict which is taking place around us. And let us also remind ourselves that Christ has triumphed over these spiritual powers, and will one day return as the true King of planet earth.