THE CHURCH UNDER ATTACK
As the Apostle John languished in the Isle of Patmos because of his love to the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel, he was given a series of glorious but awesome visions to encourage his own faith and the faith of the church then and since. John saw two great powers in mortal combat. Christ, His angels, and His followers, are opposed by Satan, his angels, and his agents. The battlefield is the world of men and women – the world we are living in!
Some years ago I had a surprising experience which seems to illustrate this most vividly. We had been away on our annual holiday and, on returning, I went down to the chapel where I was then the pastor and was surprised to see a stranger going into the building which I expected to be locked up. I followed but could not see where he had gone. Eventually I climbed the stairs into the upper schoolroom where, from the windows, one can see down the length of a nearby street. Beside one of these windows was a table, on the table a chair and, sitting on the chair, a man with binoculars, looking down the street and talking into a small radio transmitter! Recovering from my surprise, I began to ask who he was, only to be forcefully questioned as to my own identity. Soon the mystery was resolved. He found out I was the minister of the chapel and I found out he was a police officer from the drugs squad spending day after day recording the comings and goings at a nearby shop suspected of illegally selling drugs. He even pointed out to me the man they were specially watching as he walked past the chapel. Later, as we chatted with his chief officer, he pointed out of the window and said, with great emphasis, ‘There’s a war on out there’. Obviously he was referring to the war against crime and the drug traffic especially, but how true it is in a much deeper sense than he intended. The war between Christ and Satan, between truth and error, between purity and corruption, between law and anarchy, and between the church and the world.
This conflict is vividly described in Revelation 12. John sees three characters in this remarkable vision – a woman, her man-child, and a great red dragon. It is evident that the dragon’s great intention is to destroy both the woman and her child, (the church and the Saviour). A divine intervention takes the child up to God and to the throne of heaven and the woman flees to a place of refuge prepared for her in a wilderness where her life is miraculously preserved and sustained.
The great red dragon is clearly identified and given a horrifying series of names and descriptions – that old serpent, the devil, Satan, the accuser of the brethren, having great wrath, persecuting the woman, and making war on the remnant of the woman’s family. Such is the wicked-one today. The battle is more fierce than ever because he knows that his time is short; we are much nearer to the end of time than when the woman first fled into the wilderness!
What was the message of hope and comfort to John and the troubled church of his day through these strange sights which the Apostle saw? Surely the same message is needed now as it was needed then.
First. Jesus Christ rules from His throne and all the powers of hell cannot prevail against Him.
Second. The church will never be destroyed; the gates of hell shall not prevail against her.
Third. The way of victory is the same today. ‘They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death’.
How deeply is this comfort needed in our day as the serpent casts ‘out of his mouth water as a flood, that he might cause her (the church) to be carried away of the flood’. The serpent can use many mouths through which to direct his attack against the true church and against all that is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report.
The Church attacked from without
The devil’s attempts to corrupt and seduce the church go on apace. Large sections of the professing Christian church fell before the onslaught of liberal theology which destroyed confidence in an inspired and infallible Bible. Now the devil’s voice is heard through those, including self-styled prophets, who call the church to abandon its exclusive dependence on scripture; to abandon its insistence that believers seek edification not mindless ecstacy; to abandon its insistence that the world and the church are for ever divided and that believers are called out of the world and into the church; to abandon its insistence that the methods used by the church must be Biblical and not pragmatic – not just anything that seems numerically successful.
In parts of the world like communist Russia, the attack comes through the prejudice and hatred of those who are blinded by atheistic indoctrination and often, sadly, by those with responsibility for local and national government. The much publicised recent release of dissidents in the U.S.S.R. has not yet been followed by an equally publicised release of many believers
incarcerated in prisons, labour camps, and psychiatric hospitals for their unwavering faith in Jesus Christ.
The attack in countries dominated by Islam often comes through harassment of Christians and by an atmosphere of hatred and strong opposition to all attempts to spread the gospel.
What of the attack in our own country? It is, at present, less overtly violent but certainly not less subtle. There is the constant bombardment of people’s minds with an ungodly, materialistic philosophy of life. Newspapers, radio and television thrust the devil’s lie at everyone, ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow will be better than today’. Advertising techniques constantly sow the seeds of covetousness and discontent and produce an acquisitive society living on a truly enormous debt of unpaid credit.
The church is threatened as its members live in a society which, as never before, is setting its affection on things on the earth and one is reminded of Revelation 18 where the fall of Babylon is described. ‘And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more’. ‘And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all’.
In recent years there has been another and more violent attack launched upon the true church. Men and women of immoral lives, under the guise of such phrases as ‘equal opportunities’ and ‘no sexual discrimination’ or ‘no discrimination on the grounds of a person’s lifestyle’ are seeking to legislate against and penalise any organisation, including churches, which insist that there are some activities where men are to be employed exclusively and where immoral lifestyles are indeed a bar to employment. These attempts are becoming more noticeable as they are more militantly expressed. The church’s strong rejection of moral evils and its insistence that the leadership and ministry of the church be the prerogative of the men, is being represented as a kind of fanatical fundamentalism akin to that of Hitler or Khomeni in Iran, an interference with people’s personal freedom and an extremist view which is unworthy of a ‘civilised’ society! Surely there is a sad echo of the spirit manifest against Paul in Acts 22.22. ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live’.
The Church attacked from within
Personal trial and temptation has always been the lot of true Christians and Paul describes it clearly in Ephesians 6: ‘Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against
principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’.
These attacks often come in waves, ‘the Christian man is never long at ease, when one trouble’s gone another doth him seize’, and sometimes it is not just one after another but many at once. Satan is constantly seeking to weaken and undermine the faith of God’s elect people. They are the special object of his malice and the more evident their godliness the more malicious his attack. Poor Job knew this in a most distressing way, yet, by God’s grace, he triumphed in the end as he cried I know that my Redeemer liveth’.
A dear friend, a widow now over ninety years old, recently lost her only daughter who had retired early to care for her ailing mother. After a long, distressing illness the daughter was taken home to the Lord and the day after the funeral the elderly mother fell and fractured her pelvis, yet from hospital she could send a message through her pastor to her fellow church members saying, ‘Tell them that the Lord is good’. Such is the triumph of faith in adversity, a faith which frustrates all the devil’s designs.
The church is a community of sinners saved by grace but the devil is only too well aware of the weaknesses which sin has produced in our lives. He attacks individual church members at their weakest point. Some have to battle against pride as the devil whispers, ‘Why don’t they make you a deacon?’ or ‘Why don’t they see that you are being called to preach?’ For others the battle is against the subtleties of spiritual pride as that wicked thought forces itself into the mind, ‘I really have had an outstanding experience’ or for the more introvert personality ‘I really am a very humble person’. Others may be encouraged to indulge in self-pity as they say ‘Nobody cares about me’.
Another fruitful avenue of satanic attack is described in 1 Corinthians 1 and 3. Contentions and a party spirit, often with family pride as its motivation, have destroyed the peace of many a church. Even divisions over favourite ministers are no new thing! Such divisiveness often produces unsettledness, with individuals or groups moving from one church to another vainly seeking a place where they can have their own way, only to produce a new division in the church to which they move.
A fierce conservatism has sometimes been a reaction to any change in a church and since so many changes have proved to be harmful, this is not a surprising reaction, though certainly not a gracious one. Into this atmosphere of reaction to change, the enemy pours his vitriol; suspicions grow; ‘the church is going wide’ becomes a kind of catch phrase for the party rejecting any change and those who seek necessary and useful change are branded as almost heretical and certainly weak, unfaithful members. Leaving
the old familiar tradition of circumcision had much the same effect in the New Testament churches. The battle cry then was, ‘Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved’. Such is the constant working of the evil-one to disturb and divide the people of God.
A gradual erosion of the Biblical standards of behaviour has been another fruitful source of weakness in the church’s testimony, to the delight of the enemy. What is often called ‘the swing of the pendulum’ describes churches who move violently from one position to another. In reaction to a rigid and lifeless legality they swing to an antinomian carelessness, instead of finding the middle way of godliness and sobriety.
It is probably a true saying that the greatest heretics in the history of the church have been ‘nice’ people with a very plausible manner. In Revelation 13.11, we are warned of a beast which had the appearance of a lamb but spoke like a dragon! Here lies the crux of all the enemy’s attacks – an attack upon truth is an attack upon Christ and if that attack is dressed up in the appearance of wonderful and ecstatic experiences, dreams, visions, and voices, and covered over with most attractive, even orthodox sounding phraseology, then many seem to be greatly impressed. Gradually they become impatient of the painstaking preaching of the Word of God and soon have ears itching for the latest and most impressive religious deception.
What is the refuge of the true church in such a battlefield? Only a ‘place prepared for her’ and a divine supply of her needs where she is nourished until the Lord returns. It is true indeed that the church’s only way of victory is to ‘overcome him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.’
There is a precious and comforting prophecy given by Zechariah [2.4-5): ‘Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein: For I, saith the Lord, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her’.