A Neglected Topic
2020 has many options for word of the year: “Unprecedented.” “Social Distancing.” “Mitigation.” “Lockdown.” “Unrest.” As I write these words we have come to the end of the most interesting year in my lifetime. One year ago, on Christmas Eve, who would have thought that we would be operating at 25% capacity and wearing masks the next year? Nobody. If you suggested it, people would think you were crazy and perhaps suggest you should talk to a counselor… or at least a pastor… about your obsessive thoughts.
And yet… here we are. 2020 has been a challenging year for all of us. No one has been exempt from its impact. We have all felt the pain of social isolation. Some have lost loved ones; others have lost jobs. Opinions about politics may have strained once close relationships, or ended them altogether. Fear of the future has produced feelings of anxiety in some of us we never thought possible.
2020 has felt like a disaster year. However, as I said in a recent sermon: hope is born in disaster. When life gets hard, it is time to run to our God. Despite the pain of the last year, there have been many bright spots: the church has innovated, people have reached out to their neighbors, interaction with friends and family, while done digitally, have become more frequent. And so, as we end a tumultuous year, I would like to offer some lessons I have learned over several blog posts.
The first topic I’d like to cover is one that is often neglected: spiritual warfare.
A Year of War
If my opening paragraphs did not make it clear—2020 has been a “year of war.” Every day has felt like a battle. The truth is, spiritual warfare is always with us, but we often fail to recognize the danger and we don’t know how to wage the war. Others of us like to avoid conflict, and so we try to keep the peace at all costs. If there is one thing I have learned this year it is this: we must wage war against an invisible enemy who is trying to discourage and divide the church.
Spiritual warfare is all over the Bible. Here is a sampling of some passages that speak to the topic:
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. (Eph. 6:12)
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)
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. (2 Cor. 10:3-4)
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. (Eph. 6:13-15)
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident. (Psalm 27:1-3)
In the scriptures, spiritual warfare is assumed. Why would we not assume that we are in a spiritual, cosmic war as well? If 2020 has taught us anything… it is the reality of spiritual war. In reflecting on 2020, then, I would be remiss if I did not offer a few principals to prepare us for 2021. To be sure, when January 1, 2021 comes the war will not end. In fact, it may only intensify and we need to be ready.
Here are some lessons I learned this year from the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 6. The first lesson is…
Lesson #1: Trust God When You Are Under Siege
This scene will show us the reality of the great invisible war between heaven and hell. We read this about Elisha’s situation in 2 Kings 6:8,
Once when the king of Syria was warring against Israel, he took counsel with his servants, saying, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” (2 Kings 6:8, ESV)
We learn that Israel and Syria are in an all-out war. We are not told why they are fighting, just that they are. It is likely that the King of Syria is sending raiding parties across the border and it is provoking the Israeli King, Joram. I think we can relate. Doesn’t it feel like an enemy has crossed our border this year and is terrorizing us? However, Israel’s king as a secret weapon—ELISHA!
But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Syrians are going down there.” And the king of Israel sent to the place about which the man of God told him. Thus he used to warn him, so that he saved himself there more than once or twice. (2 Kings 6:9-10, ESV)
Elisha is playing the role of James Bond at this point in the story. Actually it should be made clear that Elisha is discerning the movements of the Syrians through the power of God’s spirit. In other words, Elisha is using spiritual power to protect Israel. A better analogy would be this: Elisha is stealing signs to let the Israel Army know every time the Syrians wanted to throw a curveball. In fact, the whole scene is kind of funny: every time the Syrian King thought he has Israel’s army caught… they would be gone. This probably happened many times! The only person who was not amused was the Syrian King:
And the mind of the king of Syria was greatly troubled because of this thing, and he called his servants and said to them, “Will you not show me who of us is for the king of Israel?” (2 Kings 6:11, ESV)
Can you picture this scene? He is crying out in frustration— “How did they know I was coming?!” And naturally he thinks he has a traitor in his midst. All his servants, to protect themselves, try to come up with an answer and eventually they point at Elisha:
And one of his servants said, “None, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.” (2 Kings 6:12, ESV)
Ah… Israel has a prophet; a seer; a secret weapon. Although it seems a little creepy that he is listening to him in his bedroom! It is clear that Israel has an advantage and the Syrians need to neutralize it. What will they do? Verse 13:
And he said, “Go and see where he is, that I may send and seize him.” It was told him, “Behold, he is in Dothan.” So he sent there horses and chariots and a great army, and they came by night and surrounded the city. (2 Kings 6:13-14, ESV)
What is the king’s plan? After someone finds out where Elisha is he sends an entire army after him. And I understand his desire to level the playing field… but we are talking about one man, right? Isn’t it just a bit humorous that Elisha needed an army to defeat him. However, it does show us a truth: when we are doing great things for God, we will face opposition. Elisha was being used by God in the world—we need God’s people, speaking God’s word, to a dying world. When that happens… you can be guaranteed our enemy will send an army after us. Translation: we need to trust God when we are under siege by our enemy.
Lesson #2: Recognize the Danger
Here is a foundational principal: if you are going to fight a spiritual battle… you have to recognize the danger. Truthfully, some of us don’t. We don’t think there is really a spiritual war going on—only religious fanatics believe that. C.S. Lewis famously wrote in his book, The Screwtape Letters, that we make a grave error if we disbelieve the existence of the devil. I would say this is his greatest weapon. Because, truthfully, if you don’t have an accurate assessment of the danger, you won’t have the proper response. This is why Paul warns us in Eph. 6 to put on the Armor of God every day, because when the attacks come we have to be prepared to stand. He might as well have said: RECOGNIZE THE DANGER.
Friends, we are in the midst of a great COSMIC WAR! Christians face opposition from at least two areas: (1) Our circumstances. Sometimes we are in a spiritual battle just because we live in a fallen world. We suffer and we need to battle against that and trust in the Lord. (2) But second, we do have enemies. There are people who are actively seeking to oppose Christian beliefs in this world and they want to silence the Gospel. Secular people are constantly trying to lift up the false gods of money, sex, power, entertainment and if you speak out against the dominant voice you will be marginalized. Recognize the danger! Because before you know it, you will be outnumbered. The Apostle Peter offered this warning to 1st century Christians living in a world hostile to them:
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)
Life is a spiritual war and every day we will face small skirmishes or major battles. When you are under siege, outnumbered and all hope seems lost, the question is: what shall we do? You might say, “I am doing my best to trust God, but it’s so hard!” Our third lesson moves us to action: don’t just trust God… ASK God to open your eyes!
Lesson #3: Open Your Eyes to Spiritual Reality
Now we’ve reached the most interesting scene of this whole story. Let’s remind ourselves what is happening. The King of Syria has discovered that the Prophet Elisha can hear his plans; he is always one step ahead of him. So he sends an army to kill him at Dothan. Elisha and his servant are surrounded and under siege. What is the reaction?
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” (2 Kings 6:15, ESV)
Imagine you wake up and your house is surrounded by people with guns… how would you react? I would panic too. “We’re surrounded!” He’s crying out! “Elisha—there is no hope… what will we do?” Now, I want to pause for a moment and press into this reality. Most of us reading this post have not literally been surrounded by an army on a mountain (Maybe some of us have!), but we know the feeling. There are times when it feels like the world is crashing around us. It’s the feeling of anxiety we get when something unexpected happens. It’s the feeling we get when that bill comes and the bank account is too low. It’s the feeling we get when that medical test comes back “positive.” It’s the feeling we get when we have not studied enough for that crucial test and we ask, “What shall we do?” Many of us, during this year, have panicked over an attack on our faith because we wonder if God will protect us. Some of us don’t believe he can. We are living a “what shall we do” reality. Elisha hears the cry of his servant and look how he replies:
He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” (2 Kings 6:16, ESV)
What a thought as we end 2020 and prepare for 2021. At this point his servant probably looked around and thought— “Elisha…. are you crazy? We are alone! How can the two of us defeat this huge army?!” And this is the feeling many of us get when the armies of life surround us. Whether it is circumstances or enemies… fear can come upon us quickly. Elisha says calmly, “don’t be afraid… there is more of us than there are of them.” Then, Elisha does what so many of us forget to do: he prays:
Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:17, ESV)
Lord… open his eyes. Lord… open their eyes. Lord… open MY EYES! That needs to be our prayer as we enter a new year. You see, so many of us are in that “What shall we do?” place. What the Lord wants to do is OPEN OUR EYES. What does he see? The Lord gives both of them the power to see his invisible army; he gives them the ability to see they are not alone! There are more soldiers there than meets the eye. And that gets us to lesson #4:
Lesson #4: Call On God’s Invisible Battalions.
Let me ask a question: Do you believe in angels? The Bible often talks about the “armies of the Lord,” but we too often dismiss this as superstition. Just like we pretend the devil doesn’t exist, our modern scientific world chooses to ignore the heavenly host of angels. Over and over in scripture we see angels showing up: (1) When Jacob met with Esau in Gen. 32, we are told “the angels of God met him.” (2) King David attests to the reality of angels over and over in the psalms. Psalm 91, in particular speaks of guardian angels: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways (v. 11).” Friends, if you are a child of God, you have angels watching over you—God’s invisible battalions! You are not alone—even if you feel surrounded by enemies. The seraphim and the cherubim are at the ready—if only we could perceive them! When we are under siege, if only we could perceive the mighty army that is with us. Elijah continues:
And when the Syrians came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord and said, “Please strike this people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Elisha. (2 Kings 6:18, ESV)
Elisha prays a second time. This time he prays for blindness against his enemies. However, this is probably not referring to actually blindness, but rather mental confusion. In other words, they are in a daze; literally they were bedazzled. Elisha even has some fun with them:
And Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. (2 Kings 6:19, ESV)
What a scene! Elisha has this whole army, dazed and confused, and he is playing follow the leader with them. “Not this way—that way! Follow my voice!” He probably was getting a chuckle. It’s as if Elisha is saying, “You were looking for me… here I am!” Then the Lord opens the eyes of the Syrian army—BEHOLD! They were right where they were trying to get to: in the Israeli capital of Samaria… surrounded by the army of Israel. What’s interesting about the final scene in vv. 20-23 is that the king of Israel, Joram, Ahab’s son, wanted to slaughter the army. He turns to Elisha and asks, “Shall I strike them down?” He asks this twice in v. 21. The fact that he asks twice means he was bloodthirsty. But Elisha says, “No.” Instead, he orders the Syrian army be fed and send home. IOW, Elisha shows us that in our spiritual battles, we must never stop loving our enemies.
That is a lesson we need in 2020, and one we need to carry into 2021. Some of us are so focused on fighting the culture wars that we are bloodthirsty for our enemies. We want to see them crushed. But who are we called to fight? Doesn’t Paul tell us in Ephesians 6:11-12 that our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in this dark world. God calls us to love our enemies, even if they hate us. And guess what? The Syrians never raided the land of Israel again. I’d like to think the love Elisha showed them had something to do with it. Elisha’s example shows us one final lesson:
Lesson #5: Fight on Your Knees in Prayer
This lesson is the most important, but the most neglected. Or perhaps, it is the one we take for granted. The reality is, too often, we want to fight this spiritual war under our own power. I know I do. You see, I think with all my Bible knowledge, with all my youthful health, with all my cleverness I can outsmart the enemy… and then I’ll give God the credit. But the reality is this—God wants to rescue us! God has an army and he wants us to cry out to him in prayer… and yet we don’t. The greatest weapon against our enemies is prayer to the living God of the Bible.
If there is one lesson I would prioritize over all others it is this one. In our Christians busyness, we take pride in what we are doing for the Lord that we forget to spend time with the Lord. We are modern day Martha’s. Let me beseech you, and myself, do not enter 2021 without a commitment to spend time in prayer with our savior. Sit silently with him and just listen. Read his word and pray it back to him. Intercede on behalf of others. It is only then that the tides will turn in this great, cosmic battle we face.