Guest Essay by Ed Vitagliano
It’s one of the stories we rarely tell during the Christmas season. After Herod the king learns from the magi that the Messiah has been born, Herod doesn’t exactly rejoice and sing carols.
Instead, understanding what the coming of the Messiah would mean for his own reign, Herod tries to find the Christ child and exterminate Him. Herod’s scorched-earth campaign includes slaughtering all the male children, two years old and under, in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas (Matthew 2:16).
It is a human impulse: Protect what’s mine; keep the other guy from taking it. Protect what’s here; keep the new thing from changing it. Somehow we tend to believe what is must always be.
Thus, wherever Christians have gone preaching the gospel, they encounter the Herods in every culture who refuse to embrace the new truth that will, without question, overthrow the old order.
Progress of the Gospel
Matthew speaks of the beginning of the earthly ministry of Jesus in terms of light and darkness: “The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a Light dawned” (4:16).
The coming of the kingdom of God in the Person of Jesus was an invasion of enemy-controlled territory, and His reign at the right hand of God continues to shatter the power of rebellious human and demonic resistance.
Psalm 2, for example, pictures a world rife with scheming rebels intent on throwing off the kingship of God. His answer to this rebellion is the installment of Jesus Christ as King and His subsequent reign over mankind, even to “the very ends of the earth” (vs. 8).
Of course, one day all rebellion will be stamped out by force at the physical return of Christ, but until that day the light of the gospel advances into the darkness confronting every lie raised up against the true knowledge of God (Acts 13:47).
This is clearly the intent of the Great Commission: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Tearing Down Strongholds
Nevertheless, human and demonic rebellion remains in the earth, and it is stubborn. The spiritual bondage that results from being conformed to a satanically-instituted system of lies can afflict one person or many. In 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, Paul refers to these systemic lies – “every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God” – as fortresses or strongholds.
There is only one thing to be done with these strongholds, whether they exist in a single heart or an entire civilization: Tear them down. How? Not with human weapons but with biblical truth.
This makes sense if we apply this principle to the heart of a single person, but what about the lies that have seeped down into the very foundations of an entire culture? Such strongholds determine how the majority of people living in a society view the world – i.e. their “worldview.”
As Christianity began its movement out of its birthplace – the Upper Room – into the wider Jewish culture and beyond, it plowed right into these ideological fortresses (Acts 1-2). In turn, the defenders of the prevailing worldview did not appreciate the collision, and a backlash ensued.
Pattern of Resistance
In Acts 19, for example, extraordinary miracles are occurring in Ephesus through the Apostle Paul (vs. 11). People are getting healed, delivered and saved as everything is coming into the light. People are responding in repentance, renouncing the darkness in which they once lived by “confessing and disclosing their practices” (vs. 18). They are destroying the physical manifestations of what they now recognize to be a demonic masquerade (vs. 19). The gospel is triumphing: “So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing” (vs. 20).
This victory for the truth of God has further consequences for the culture at large. Idolatry is being exposed for the sham it is and an entire worldview – a stronghold – is being challenged: the worship of the goddess Artemis.
The result is a sudden and spontaneous backlash, as defenders of Artemis are stirred to rage against the Christians who dared to confront the idolatrous foundations of an entire city.
This sequence of events is part of a pattern in Acts – a pattern of gospel penetration into a culture, its progress in the declaration of God’s truth, and a demonic retaliation through human agency.
In Acts 13:44-45, for example, as the gospel message is proclaimed, the unbelieving Jews “began contradicting the things spoken by Paul” – because this was a battle between competing worldviews. When this failed to stop the gospel’s progress, Acts says “the Jews incited the devout women of prominence and the leading men of the city, and instigated a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district.”
In Acts 17, the unbelieving Jews dragged Christians before the city authorities and complained, “These men who have upset the world have come here also” (vs. 6).
When they claim that the world has been upset, the Jews do not mean the actual foundations of the earth itself, but what men had created upon it. As Herod did in Matthew 2, opponents of the truth of God were lashing out at that which threatened the status quo.
Why is this done over and over? Because it really is a worldview that is being threatened. The Jewish leaders in Acts 17 had always understood the world as a dichotomy: There were Gentiles (who were wrong) and there were Jews (who were right.) But now Christianity came along and called all men – both Jew and Gentile – to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. That call could not be allowed to succeed, for it threatened the Jews’ view of the world.
Into the Breach
There is no other way to fulfill the Great Commission than for Christians to take the light of the gospel into every dark corner of the earth – and into every cultural battle once they get there.
Who will plunge into the breach, risking all, to save those spiritual captives being led to death? It must be Christians. There is no one else. Christians have the message that saves.
But there will be backlash. There will be retaliation. Idols are entrenched, and the demons behind them do not yield without a fight.
This is why Paul in Romans 8:35-36 says we are like sheep being led to the slaughter. When Christians enter the darkness holding a lamp, they encounter tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword.
Nevertheless, for centuries missionaries have shouldered their packs, left the warmth of kith and kin and marched off to continents that were spiritually pitch black, filled with people held hopeless in demonic chains and oppressed by innumerable idols and false religions.
Can we in America, with our churches well established, do anything less against the secular and pagan ideologies springing up in our land like poisonous mushrooms?
“The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light,” it says in Matthew 4:16.
We have the light of God. Let’s boldly shine it in the darkest corners of our culture.