by John W. Ritenbaugh
True Christianity is not an easy way of life. Jesus Himself declares in Matthew 7:13-14, "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it." Many of this world's religious groups that call themselves Christian would have us believe that accepting the blood of Jesus Christ is the end of all of our problems.
That claim, though, is misleading at the very least—and an outright lie at the most, depending on the material supporting such a claim. Many influences attempt to knock a Christian off the path entirely or in any case cause him to stumble. A Christian must be discerning, taking great pains to maintain his balance against three primary enemies: his human nature, the world, and Satan. Regardless of his age, social status, education, or gender, these foes dog his heels.
The Christian truly has a fight on his hands, if he is serious about glorifying God by his life and achieving the growth that will give God abundant evidence of his sincerity in seeking Him and being in His character image. Many have gone before us in this way. God has faithfully recorded their successes and failures so that we might be encouraged, inspired, guided, and corrected by them.
The apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 10:6, "Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted." "Examples" is here translated from the Greek tupos, though it is translated into a variety of English words in other New Testament contexts, for instance, as "pattern," "fashion," "manner," "figure," or "form." In each case, it indicates something shaped or formed, whether in lesser or greater degree, by a measure of pressure. It describes something that can be accepted, copied, imitated, or followed. In this context, Paul is clear that we must not accept, copy, imitate, or follow what those who went before us did. They set us a bad pattern; they were not good models for our behavior.
Previously, we explored the parallel between Israel's responsibilities in taking over the Promised Land and our spiritual preparations for the Kingdom of God. We saw that some people draw a careless assumption from a surface evaluation of Exodus 23:20-33, leading to a shallow conclusion: that if the Israelites had just obeyed God, they would have marched into the land and taken it over without a fight. Such submission would have undoubtedly made their course easier and produced better results.
However, many other contexts show that God tests His people because He is preparing them for future responsibilities. Israel failed many tests. The march through the wilderness and the conquest of the Promised Land was a school, a vast, almost fifty-years-long training ground, for appreciating, using, and governing the Promised Land. This "schooling" included tests by which the Israelites could measure their progress, and at the same time, prove to God their growth and readiness.
We concluded that God's promises in Exodus 23 were indeed conditional. Their fulfillment depended on Israel's obedience, and part of that obedience was confronting their enemies, the people of the land, in warfare. The episode recorded in Numbers 13—14 reveals that the Israelite spies fully expected to have to fight the Canaanites, Hittites, Jebusites, etc. They did not understand Exodus 23 as a free pass, as many do today. Their responsibility was to drive them out in cooperation with God, as He promised to be with them, enabling them to drive the people out, which they were incapable of doing without His involvement. But they refused to do their part.
They were to drive out the inhabitants even as we, in cooperation with God, are to confront and drive out old habits, attitudes, and loyalties. These are negative characteristics left over from our pre-conversion days. Christian living parallels this Old Testament instruction. This is one reason why the New Testament has so many illustrations and exhortations regarding Christian warfare.
Our warfare is in many ways different. It does not involve bloody engagements featuring swords, spears, or rifles with bayonets. It is a spiritual warfare, one that takes place primarily within ourselves. Nonetheless, it requires qualities such as loyalty, patriotism, courage, self-denial, vision, understanding, and sacrifice for us to be victorious overcomers.
Resisting the World
Resisting this world's many and varied pressures is a major area of warfare, though it is not as effective an enemy as the heart we always bear within us. Its influences are often tangible and easily perceived. At the same time, however, unless we are aware of the world's power and take steps to protect ourselves, we can overlook its subtle influences as if they are of no consequence. Much of its danger lies in familiarity breeding contempt. We frequently take the world for granted.
Because of this, we need to remember how Israel was attracted to the world and began practicing the ways of the people of the land. In Deuteronomy 12:29-32, God makes it clear that we must be wary of the world:
When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, "How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise." You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.
We must carefully evaluate the world's dangers because it has been—in the past, before conversion—the primary shaper of our sinful attitudes and characters. So powerful are the world's evil characteristics that Israelite history reveals that they were drawn into the most perverse and despicable heathen practices. The biblical record proves how easy it is for an individual to return to the old ways and how difficult it is to overcome them.
A baby is not born evil. It is most certainly born with a measure of self-centeredness that God pronounced as very good in Genesis 1:31, for some small measure of self-centeredness enables a person to take care of the self. However, it has a benefit over and above this obvious one:
So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:28-33)
Understood and controlled, a right measure of self-love provides a foundation for the love of others, which proves beneficial for the giver as well as the receiver. This is especially true in marriage because husband and wife become one flesh; to love one's spouse is to love the self because of this oneness.
It is at least equally true, if not more so, in our relationship with Christ. He is our example. Because of our spiritual oneness with Him, and because we are His body, His loving service of us is the same as loving Himself. This principle works both ways. Our loving service of Him is also the same as loving ourselves. What we see in these two intimate relationships is a practical application and benefit of the Golden Rule—"Do unto others as you would have them do to you"—in operation, with the added benefit to the giver.
The problem with self-love is that, without contact with God throughout life, an individual's innate self-centeredness can easily develop into an extreme and sharply honed sinfulness and evil. Such an egotist gives little thought to loving others as a way of life; he shows little care for others and rarely looks for ways to serve. Without God, life becomes all about the self. The world, established by and built upon selfish human nature, continues to feed its self-absorbed inclinations and cravings.
The World Is Evil
Our own personal world includes our parents, spouses, siblings, and extended family. It includes the general geographical and cultural area in which we grew up. Just as we did not have to be formally taught our native language, as we do a second or third language, we absorb the characteristics and peculiarities of our environment. These environmental characteristics in combination with our experiences and choices subtly shape our beliefs and perspectives as we age. We feel comfortable with them, make judgments by them, and then execute our choices as a lifestyle.
Paul writes in Galatians 1:3-4, "Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father." Jesus adds to this picture in Matthew 7:11, regarding the people of His day: "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!"
These scriptures succinctly state how God perceives all the world and its inhabitants, regardless of one's particular environmental factors. The context of Matthew 7 gives no indication that the people who comprised Jesus' audience were particularly evil; they were just normal human beings. Yet, compared to God's standards for His people, their natural self-centeredness was stressful, disruptive, destructive, and calamitous—not beneficial to any concerned. In a word, they were evil.
Jesus and Paul give us comparative statements, but each from a slightly different perspective. Paul points out the cumulative effect, while Jesus identifies the individual sources that produce it. As the apostle John puts it in I John 5:19, "The whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one."
The people to whom Jesus spoke were normal, worldly people. They would not have considered themselves evil, but they were, as God judged them. So are we also evil unless we have been justified and are under the blood of Jesus Christ.
Strenuously Avoid This Evil World
A series of scriptures will highlight the world's danger to us. The apostle James writes: "Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (James 4:4). This epistle is written to a Christian congregation. Even as the Old Testament shows Israel to be a spiritual adulteress to God through the people's disobedience following the making of the Old Covenant, so are Christians—as part of the bride of Christ, having made the New Covenant—spiritual adulterers when they unfaithfully disobey.
James is not saying these people are lost. He is warning them that they are heading in that direction because they were backsliding, having already been unfaithful. The unstated, yet clear cause of their being drawn back is the world, as if it were the seductive temptress of Proverbs 7.
James' counsel is that we cannot straddle the fence between God and the world. He is expounding the "no man can serve two masters" principle. These two relationships—God and the world—frame a black-and-white issue; this war has no neutral zone. A person cannot pursue his self-centered, worldly ambitions and still remain loyal to God.
The apostle uses the word philos, indicating something dear, which the New King James Version translates as "friend." He is stressing an affectionate, emotional attachment. Interestingly, The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips (1959) renders the warning as, "You are like unfaithful wives, flirting with the glamour of this world, and never realizing that to be the world's lover means becoming the enemy of God!" Seen this way, James describes them as silly, immature children, thoughtlessly gambling away their futures in the Kingdom of God.
I John 2:15 adds a refinement to James' warning: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." The Greek word translated as "love" is agapao, which suggests a reasoned, determined love. Thus, John's counsel stresses willfulness rather than mere affectionate attachment. In comparison, one could even describe philos as an unbidden "puppy love," but agapao—never.
John is saying that we should not have intimate fellowship combined with loyal devotion to the world. Our relationship to it must be a more distant, hands-off one. We certainly must live and do business within it, but we have to fight to keep it from becoming the focus of our way of life. The spiritual reality is that, as we might say today, "The world stands ready to eat us alive." It chews Christians up and spits them out. If permitted, it can trash spiritual realities that may once have been cherished hopes and dreams.
Galatians 6:14 provides another guiding principle to hold dear: "But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." This is an example of Paul's spiritual outlook and maturity regarding his relationship with the world. As far as any relationship between him and the world is concerned, the world is dead and crucified, and so is he to it. It is vivid imagery. How much willful devotion can a person have in a relationship going nowhere because both parties are "dead" to each other?
John 15:18-23 adds more about why the world is dangerous to a Christian:
If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, "A servant is not greater than his master." If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates My Father also.
This is the fruit of the carnal mind's persistently disobedient attitude shown in Romans 8:7. The whole worldly system is anti-God. Even though the Christian world patronizes Him, in reality, it hates Jesus Christ, and therefore it hates those who truly follow Him. There is a simple reason why this continual reality exists.
Paul had renounced the whole worldly system. It no longer had any appeal to him; he was, in effect, dead in relation to it. However, the world's pressure never ends, which Paul notes in Romans 12:2, "Do not be conformed to this world." The Greek more correctly reads, "Stop allowing yourself to be fashioned to the pattern of this age," or as the J.B. Phillips translation puts it, "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold."
This is the danger we face when we allow the world to become too important. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. The world subtly but inexorably manipulates us into conformity with its thinking, its value systems, and therefore its attitudes and conduct. If we are alert and truly guarding against an invasion of worldly attitudes and practices, we will soon be able to notice when others relapse into following the course of the world.
The persistent influence of the world is a reality because Satan, the ruler of this world, is its driving force (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The world is Satan's medium, through which he broadcasts his propaganda and disinformation. By confusing people about what to believe, he intends to manipulate humanity. Satan's pitch to mankind is aimed directly at exciting human nature's self-indulgent cravings.
Due to this Satanic effort, even though we are converted, we are apt to become misinformed, lackadaisical, disinterested, and discouraged. We must be aware of it and absolutely resist it. The apostles' advice about avoiding intimacy with the world is a form of the proverb, "Evil company corrupts good habits" (I Corinthians 15:33). Friendship with the world corrupts.
The context expands on this thought:
If, in the manner of men, I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantage is it to me? If the dead do not rise, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!" Do not be deceived; "Evil company corrupts good habits." Awake to righteousness, and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame. (I Corinthians 15:32-34)
This well-known proverb is strategically placed in the Resurrection Chapter. In verse 32, Paul reminds the Greek Corinthians of an example of the perverse, immoral morass that they left compared to the liberating and ennobling calling God has so graciously given them. He then verbally punches them in the nose by telling them the company that they keep is destroying them, meaning they are gradually reabsorbing the attitudes and culture of the surrounding world. He then charges them to wake up to what they stand to lose by being too close to the world—even worldly people who might be fellowshipping with them at services but do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Perceiving that some of them are on the verge of losing their salvation, he says, "Shame on you!"
The world's influences are, for the most part, subtle rather than overt. Being familiar to human nature, we find them easy to fall into or return to. What is the problem with the world? Its ruler, Satan, has designed it to lead people to live only for themselves. Therefore, we must fight and resist its attraction, which influences our hearts, because so much is at stake!
Be Alert and Wary of Satan and His Cohorts
What about the Devil? Satan is a formidable enemy, to be sure, but in a personal sense, he is not as directly dangerous to us as the other two. The chances of his confronting us individually are small in comparison to the influences of our ever-present hearts and the world in which we conduct our lives. Certainly, as our Adversary, he "walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (I Peter 5:8), but unlike God, he is not omniscient. While he can be only at one place at one time, he has many assistants.
We are far more likely to be confronted by one of his demon assistants than the Adversary himself, which is bad enough. However, he and his demons have constructed attitudes, institutions, systems, and entertainments into the course of this world, which they effectively use against us, even when they are absent from the scene. Most of their evil influence comes from the system.
We need to remember, though, that God has put a wall of protection around us, so demons can go only so far in their attempts to corrupt us and destroy our loyalty to God and His truth (Job 1:6-10). Their major responsibility before God at this time appears to be to provide tests for us to meet and overcome, in the same way God used Satan to test Job and to tempt Christ (Matthew 4; Luke 4). In this respect, they play a large role in helping us to recognize evil.
God gives us advice regarding them in I Peter 5:8-9: "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world." In essence, His advice is, "Be self-controlled, be alert, and resist him!" Peter's first term, "be sober," urges us not to let fear of him fluster us to the point that we cannot think clearly. The second term, "be vigilant," charges us to be fully awake, to set ourselves in a state of watchfulness and readiness. The third term, "resist him," is a command not to turn and run but to stand firm.
This instruction lets us know that Satan is not all-powerful. With the protections God provides, including His continuous presence and alert regard for His children, Satan can be beaten. The same Jesus who has already defeated Satan is on His throne, overseeing our well-being. His protection is not something we flaunt, but is power we can rely on.
James 4:7 adds additional advice: "Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you." Again, the charge is to resist, but it is directly coupled with submission to God. Submission is the voluntarily act of placing oneself under the authority of another to show respect and give obedience. If we submit to God, Satan will flee.
Ephesians 6:11 parallels the other two instructions. "Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil." "Stand against" is yet another way of saying "resist him." "Stand" in the Greek indicates that one must hold fast a critical position as an army must do in warfare. However, it is not a passive term, describing something like an unmoving brick wall, but an aggressive, attacking term. In other words, we are to hold the ground we have already gained by going forward.
How, then, do we resist? How do we hold our ground by going on the offensive? We must return in thought to I Peter 5:9, where the first phrase is better translated as, "Resist him, standing firm [or solid] in the faith." Putting this into military terms, a soldier would be likely commanded, "Do not surrender! Do not give up any ground! Do not back down! Move forward with all you've got! Reinforcements are right behind you."
We have the God-backed promise that Satan will flee! Who can resist God's will? The key words here are "standing firm" and "faith." "Standing firm" or "solid" is used in the sense of "unmovable." When linked with faith in practical terms, it means we are absolutely sure or immovably convicted in the face of a strong test.
Overall, the apostles' instruction suggests that what we experience vis-à-vis Satan is common to this way of life. Their advice does not say that he will flee immediately, but flee he will. As used here, "faith" can be understood as either a personal trust in God or confidence in Christian doctrine, as either one fits the context. Ultimately, if we use our relationship with God properly, the confidence in Christian doctrine becomes trust in God Himself.
Ephesians 6:12-17 makes especially clear that we are involved in a war, a spiritual war, and thus our weaponry must also be spiritual.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
The Christian must tend to his weapons, as every soldier in warfare must, for not only is his life on the line but also the lives of his buddies, as he is their keeper too. Without serviceable weapons, the battle is often lost even before it begins. It is a terrifying thought to imagine oneself on a battlefield with nothing in hand to fight the enemy.
The Bible makes it clear that God has willed that this warfare is an absolute necessity for the development and preparation of His children to live in His Family Kingdom. It cannot be avoided; we cannot remain neutral. In one sense, we really have no choice. We must either fight or be lost.
Seeking God Is the Christian's Fight
Recall that David's psalms show that the heart and core of his confidence was his trust in God and His powers. It was not that David was never fearful while under threat, but that he stood firm. Standing firm in faith provides the solid foundation from which to fight this war.
The antagonism between good and evil, right and wrong, wisdom and foolishness, love and hate, sacrifice and self-indulgence, etc., creates choices, tests that we must take, for God to have a clear means of judging us and for godly character and attitudes to become ingrained in our way of living.
Frequently, what we really fear is the sacrifice required to make the right choice. Sacrificing to serve God and fellowman demands a payment we, in many cases, are loath to make. We need the gifts of God's Spirit to move us along the correct course. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:11 that our Father in heaven is very willing to give good gifts that enable us to carry out our responsibilities to Him.
Our earthly spiritual father, Abraham, had an abiding faith in the vision that motivated him. The Faith Chapter says that he looked forward to "a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God" (Hebrews 11:10). His faith was so strong that, to please God, he was willing to sacrifice Isaac, the one he loved more than anyone else (verses 17-19). Undoubtedly, he had made many other sacrifices leading to that great test. His sacrifices began when God called him and told him to leave his homeland. He embarked on a new way of life, not even knowing where he was headed.
He became God's friend and the father of the faithful, setting us an outstanding example. If there is one quality that Abraham and others of the faithful had that gives them an edge, it is that they knew God. Their conception of Him and their vision of His purpose were big and sharp enough for them to give them staunch trust and therefore their undivided, devoted loyalty in submission to Him.
To sharpen one's vision of God is the very reason J.B. Phillips wrote his book, Your God Is Too Small. He believed that a major reason why Christians are so insipid about Christianity is that they do not have a conception of God great enough to motivate them to give their lives wholeheartedly in His service. This is the same basic reason that A.W. Tozer concluded that God Himself is the church's greatest single problem.
Consider the tremendous number of conceptions people have about God's character and purpose! This might discourage some, but for those truly seeking truth, it should spur them on to find the truth about Him. This is why Christians are absolutely required to seek God after they are already converted. It can be said that the seeking of God is the Christian's battle on his course to the Kingdom of God.
If one wholeheartedly and consistently seeks God, it will result in:
»an increasingly solid base of faith from which to work;
»a sacrificial patriotism for the Kingdom of God;
»a loving devotion and loyalty to God Himself, for the more intimately a person knows Him, the greater his admiration for God becomes;
»a stronger sense of loving duty to one's fellow soldiers, unifying him into a tight, serving fellowship.
Seeking God is the exercise whose fruit provides the strengths we need to assure our being transformed into Christ's image and our entrance into God's Kingdom. The major parts of this exercise are battling against the flesh, which is hostile to God and His way of life; the world, which attempts to lure us away; and the Devil, who wants to destroy us outright.