The Need for Unity Amidst Spiritual War
The Nature of Western Spiritual War
I want to start with a medley of Scriptures from Jesus, Paul, and Peter concerning the nature of the spiritual reality about us:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31).
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
“11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:11-12).
“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:8-9).
There is a war happening even now, and I wonder if we have any idea. Here’s an outline of the average American Christian’s life: A man wakes to his morning alarm, uses the bathroom, brushes his teeth, eats some breakfast, and drives to work while listening to the radio. He punches the clock at 8:00AM, gives his eight hours, and drives home to have dinner with his family, after which they watch television. They go to bed. Every day repeats similarly through Friday. Saturday he mows the lawn, cleans the garage, goes for a run, and then spends time at the park with his family. Then Sunday morning he dresses up, comes to a building, and shares pleasantries with other people. He sings some songs, hears a message, and leaves to go live the same exact week again.
Now, Pause for a moment and ask, “Where’s the war?” It’s simply way to easy. And yet Paul and Peter and Jesus say, “Strongholds, cosmic powers, wicked authorities, and forces of evil are warring against you—now.” Is that not, in the least bit, unsettling? If you feel no war—though there’s certainly war happening—you ought to ponder what may be happening under your nose.
I met with Mani Pagidipalli two weeks ago for coffee. He told me of the work in India and the things they’re dealing with every day in the work of the gospel. He said, “We’re experiencing spiritual war every day. The kinds of things we’re seeing—you can’t attribute it to anything but spiritual war.” He’s talking about the persecutions and the government pushbacks and the hostility from Hindus and Muslims. I said, “Americans think way too naturalistically, and because we aren’t seeing such overt hostility, we assume there’s no war.”
The spiritual war in the West is of a different sort than India—a more subtle one—but there is war happening. In C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, The Screwtape Letters, he gives a wonderfully imaginative insight to how the devil may be working in a Western context. Let me read a brief excerpt in which a chief demon named Screwtape is writing to his nephew, a demon named Wormwood:
My dear Wormwood,
I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. Do not indulge the hope that you will escape the usual penalties; indeed, in your better moments, I trust you would hardly even wish to do so. In the meantime we must make the best of the situation. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the bad habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour…
…One of our great allies at present is the Church itself…When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sings out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous (Lewis 5-6).
One of the chief means of spiritual battle in a context with very little physical hostility is to turn brothers and sisters against one another—to get us thinking these people are the enemy—or at least to get us nitpicking and perturbed by something a brother or sister did, making us think they’re the enemy.
I saw a video circulating facebook the other day in which two African antelopes were fighting, drawing back and ramming heads. As they drew back to butt heads once more, a lion came up and—BAM—devoured one of them. They didn’t even see it coming. That’s what happens when we lose sight of the real battle. The enemy isn’t in here, church. The enemy is not a brother or a sister, though the devil would love for us to think so. To defeat our enemy, we need sobriety and total unity.
Open your Bibles to Philippians 1:27-30. By way of an outline for the message, I want to first make very clear from this text that we are in a battle and therefore should accept spiritual war as a present reality. Then, I will briefly discuss Christian patriotism, after which we will expose two tactics for success in spiritual battle. So, in short, the message will be broken into four parts, beginning with the reality of this war.
Spiritual Conflict, Freely Given
First off, there are at least five allusions to war between verses 27 and 29: (1) Paul wishes to hear of the church “standing firm in one spirit.” Imagine a line of soldiers creating a bulwark of sorts; (2) they are to be “striving side by side,” or “struggling side by side.” The imagery is of a unified front working to defend something of great value; (3) they should not be “frightened in anything by those opposing you” (literally). So there’s a unified bulwark of Christian soldiers working to defend something from a great opposition; (4) All these things are a “sign to them of their destruction.” So the battle imagery is made even clearer with the opposition being defeated, ultimately; (5) these Christians are “engaged in the same conflict” as Paul, who was in prison for the gospel.
We are in a spiritual battle and should accept spiritual war as a present reality. And the reason I say this text applies as much to us as them is because of what Paul says in verse 29: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”
The word “granted” in that passage actually means “freely given” as a gift of sorts. It has been given to us from Christ not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him. God has, quite literally, enlisted Christians to be soldiers in a spiritual war of cosmic proportions. We don’t just get to believe in Jesus and sit back making demands of him. He’s the king. Our belief in him brings us under his command, and it is our awesome privilege to fight along side the king of the world against every stronghold who stands opposed to Him. This duty has been given to us graciously, and we accept it with honor.
So, we really need to accept the present reality of spiritual war here—and we must embrace it. That’s the first part of the message today.
Worthy Citizens, Christian Patriots
Now, look closely at the first clause in verse 27: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” More literally, it says, “Only be worthy citizens of the gospel of Christ.”
In Christ, you are the elect—the chosen—recipients of a kingdom that cannot be shaken—sons and daughters of the King, Jesus—citizens of the only kingdom made to last. In Christ we are members of a royal priesthood, bearers of truth, messengers of salvation, the redeemed, the called out ones. Where’s our sense of pride—pride not in self but in what we have been made in Christ? Worthy citizens aren’t mopey, nor are they ashamed.
This gospel of the kingdom of God bears an inherent demand for every citizen. There are no passive spiritual welfare candidates. Those in Christ are made to be citizens with a demand on them to behave worthily of what they now are and what they now have received in Christ.
What demands make us “worthy citizens,” according to the text? The next two points concern our behavior as citizens and, more specifically, our tactics in spiritual war.
Stand Firm, Strive Together
It’s been a couple of weeks since I mentioned the underlying purpose for the letter to Philippi, and I did not do so somewhat intentionally. Paul wrote to Philippi because he desired to see a totally unified church, striving side by side for the gospel—in one mind, with one spirit—because there was a conflict among the brethren (see 4:1ff). And for the past couple weeks we’ve witnessed Paul’s unabashed face in the midst of great hostility. The gospel has advanced by his imprisonment. His faith is strong. He’s ready to die. He’s aware that salvation is impending and Christ is his prize. We looked to Paul for courage.
Now Paul reveals why he’s spent the last good chunk talking about his own fight. He says, “Only be worthy citizens of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”
Paul’s own fight stands as a means to grant courage to Philippi before he gives them their challenge. The rhetoric is something like—“Do you see that my focus is totally on the advancement of the gospel? I’m ready to die! Therefore, please Philippi, let me hear that you all are unified in your work for the gospel.”
This work of cosmic proportions demands total unity. Don and I were having breakfast the other day, and he said, “If the devil sees a single crack, he will get in it and do everything he can to make the problem bigger.” As citizens of the kingdom of God, it is demanded of us that we be of one spirit and one mind as we strive together for this awesome work called gospel.
There’s far too much at stake to let the kinds of things C.S. Lewis described take us over. Paul makes a reminder a couple times in this text—we have an opponent, there is a true conflict, but it isn’t against one another. And therefore, we are called to be a Christian bulwark. So we sing, “Bind us together, Lord!”
Imagine, then, that a brother or sister legitimately offends you (not considering the fact that most often we simply misunderstand each other or we offend unintentionally). What if you legitimately do not see eye to eye with a brother or sister on a particular matter? Let it go. Unless someone is openly living in sin—which is a separate matter altogether—there is never an acceptable reason to be bitter toward one another.
Paul said, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Does God forgive our legitimate wrongs? Yes. Does he forgive our unintentional wrongs? Let’s hope so. In Matthew 18, Jesus told a parable of an unforgiving servant, who was forgiven a great debt from his master, though turned immediately to his own servant and began choking him for his inability to repay it. Jesus said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:32-33).
Insofar as we aren’t openly sinning, Christ is calling us to lay down our arms and embrace each other with love. Be unified and strive for salvation with everyone in here.
Have No Fear of Them
Lastly, there is an enemy. There are strongholds against us. There are great powers against us. But the greatest power of Satan is not real prowess—it is deception. Satan is a power who wishes us to believe he is a true lion. However, James said, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” That’s not your average lion. Lions don’t flee scenes. The devil’s power is not so much in his might as it is in making us believe he is mighty.
But we stand strong, knowing that “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” We hear Jesus when he says, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
For these reasons and many more, Paul says, “do not be frightened in anything by your opponents.” He offers the following reason for our fearlessness: “This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation.”
Now, why should that be important to us? Why should we care that our enemies see our fearlessness and thus know they’re damned? I can think of two reasons: (1) When they see this as a sign of their destruction and of your salvation, there is a chance that they would relent from their treachery and turn to God. This surely would not happen if Christians rolled over and submitted to these powers. And (2) this is one powerful means to tell Satan and his hosts, “You lost.” I don’t know about you, but there’s a grand satisfaction in telling history’s greatest enemy, to his face, “You’re damned.”
Martin Luther said, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Thomas More said, “The devil…that prowde spirite…cannot endure to be mocked.”
We are in a battle of cosmic proportions. The battlegrounds may be here, where Satan attempts to turn brothers against brothers. Remember now and always that we are fellow soldiers, working together against the one great enemy.
Pray this week for a deeper unity. Think fondly of one another. Be one.
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