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Some biblical accounts are difficult to forget. In Acts 19, Luke recounts the powerful ministry of Paul as he healed the sick and exorcised demons in the city of Ephesus. Seeing his success, some itinerant Jewish exorcists evidently decided to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus as a part of their own exorcism on a man who had an evil spirit. The possessed man replied unforgettably, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” (v. 15). Then he proceeded to overpower the exorcists, who had to flee “naked and wounded” (v. 16). When the residents of the area heard the news, many, including believers, came forward, confessing their continued acceptance of “magic arts,” and burned their books publicly (v. 19). Luke records the surprising value of the books: “fifty thousand pieces of silver” (v. 19), or more than 135 years’ worth of daily wages. Though Luke’s intention in including this episode is to display the power and the expansion of the church through the Word of the Lord, it is instructive in understanding the biblical teaching on spiritual realms and powers.

the spiritual realm is real

Luke, Paul, and the Apostles ministered among people who believed in the spiritual realm and were conscious of the presence of spirits. People in the first century agreed that the supernatural and spiritual realm exercised control over everyday life and ultimately determined eternal destiny. Magic, divination, astrology, and the like were employed to influence and manipulate spirits so that good things were received and any harm was thwarted.

The New Testament not only recognizes this spiritual reality but portrays the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles as opposed to and overcoming the spiritual powers. The authority and power of Jesus over “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) are seen in the Gospels by the way that Jesus overcame the temptations by Satan, exorcised demon-possessed people, and healed the sick and the lame. Luke records the activities of the Apostles in defeating the power of darkness by exposing the futility and powerlessness of pagan idolatry with all its associated activities. Paul was no different. Paul often mentions principalities (Rom. 8:38; 1 Cor. 15:24; Eph. 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:10; 2:15), powers (1 Cor. 15:24; Eph 1:21; 2:2; 3:10; 6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:10; 2:15), dominions (Eph. 1:21; Col. 1:16), elemental spirits (Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:8, 20) to acknowledge the reality of spiritual powers that oppose God and His people. Moreover, Paul did not hesitate to inform his flock of the powerful presence of the evil one, referring to him as Satan, the devil, the evil one, prince, spirit, Belial, the enemy, the serpent, the tempter, and the god of this world.

Jesus, by His death on the cross and resurrection from the grave, took away the power of the evil one, who no longer has dominion and power over those who are in Christ.

It is hard to deny or ignore the existence of the spiritual realm. Some have attempted to “demythologize” the Bible by erasing any elements of supernaturalism. Others have ignored the reality of the spiritual realm and spirits by conducting life as though such powers and spirits did not matter, often leading to spirituality without belief or a life of faith that exudes self-reliance and not prayerful dependence. But such belief in the spiritual realm and powers is not a vestige of a premodern view of the world; it represents the view of the great majority of the world, both modern and ancient. Thus the Bible provides an understanding of the world that transcends modern prejudices, requiring believers to take seriously what the Bible takes seriously.

christ has overcome

Paul’s power to exorcise spirits in Acts 19 reminds us that though Christ and His church are engaged in a spiritual battle against the evil one and his spirits, the end was never in doubt. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ ability to heal those who were possessed or afflicted not only declared the presence of the kingdom of God but also demonstrated His absolute power over the evil one. He has come to bind “the strong man” (Mark 3:27), to plunder his kingdom, and to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8; see John 12:31; 16:11). The decisive and final victory over evil and the evil one was accomplished on the cross. As Paul explains, “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15). Jesus, by His death on the cross and resurrection from the grave, took away the power of the evil one, who no longer has dominion and power over those who are in Christ. Even death, Satan’s strongest weapon, could not subdue or overcome Jesus, who by His resurrection displayed His power over evil once and for all. Moreover, the cross, once a symbol of pain and the evil one’s seeming victory over the Son of God, now displays the power, love, and wisdom of God while exposing the weakness, powerlessness, and futility of the evil one. Jesus will soon return to deliver “the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:24), and “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10–11).

The biblical authors are not naive to the realities of sin, hostility, and even persecution. Yet no matter the magnitude, complexity, or frequency of the spiritual opposition, we are reminded of the promise of God in Romans:

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38–39)

neither denial nor obsession

Luke suggests in Acts 19 that among those who brought their books of magic arts to burn were many who were already Christians: “Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices” (v. 18). If some either academically or practically deny the spiritual realm and the spirits, there are others who, while taking the spiritual powers seriously incorporate extrabiblical assumptions and practices about the spiritual world. Be it belief in oneness with an impersonal power or “force,” ancestor worship, or superstitious belief in rituals or astrology, believers unhelpfully and at times unknowingly marry the teachings of the Bible with prevailing culture and spiritual practices, creating a syncretistic faith and practice that undermines the gospel’s witness and jeopardizes one’s faith. Some believers become preoccupied with spiritual dimensions, angels and demons, and powers of darkness, finding the work of demons in every event. It certainly does not help that all of us are catechized daily by social media and popular culture from astrology to zombies.

Our approach should begin with and be bounded by the teachings of Scripture. John Calvin states, “Let us willingly remain enclosed within these bounds to which God has willed to confine us, and as it were, to pen up our minds that they may not, through their very freedom to wander, go stray.” Even as Paul emphatically teaches the reality of the spiritual world and spiritual warfare, he does not attempt to include and explain much about the spiritual world, such as the history and fall of the angels, the hierarchy among the angels, the unique and special powers of angels or demons, the ways that demons operate, and the places that demons occupy. Instead, Paul repeatedly reminds the believers that even if all principalities, powers, and demons gather against believers and the church, they will ultimately prove powerless because Jesus wins.

In his entertaining yet insightful book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence, and the other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” On this point, his advice is sound.

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From the June 2023 Issue
Jun 2023 Issue