Over a half-century ago, Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church, gave his CBS radio audience a different picture of what it would look like if Satan took control of a town in America. He said that all of the bars and pool halls would be closed, pornography banished, pristine streets and sidewalks would be occupied by tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The kids would answer “Yes, sir,” “No, ma’am,” and the churches would be full on Sunday … where Christ is not preached.
Not to be alarmist, but it looks a lot like Satan is in charge right now. The enemy has a subtle way of using even the proper scenery and props to obscure the main character. The church, mission, cultural transformation, even the Spirit can become the focus instead of the means for “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). As provocative as Barnhouse’s illustration remains, it is simply an elaboration of a point that is made throughout the story of redemption. The story behind all the headlines of the Bible is the war between the serpent and the offspring of the woman (Gen. 3:15), an enmity that God promised would culminate in the serpent’s destruction and the lifting of the curse. This promise was a declaration of war on Satan and his kingdom, and the contest unfolded in the first religious war, between Cain and Abel (Gen. 4 with Matt. 23:35), in the battle between Pharaoh and Yahweh that led to the exodus and the temptation in the wilderness. Even in the land, the serpent seduces Israel to idolatry and intermarriage with unbelievers, even provoking massacres of the royal family. Yet God always preserved that “seed of the woman” who would crush the serpent’s head (see 2 Kings 11, for example). The story leads all the way to Herod’s slaughter of the firstborn children in fear of the Magi’s announcement of the birth of the true King of Israel.
The Gospels unpack this story line and the epistles elaborate its significance. Everything is leading to Golgotha, and when the disciples-even Peter-try to distract Jesus away from that mission, they are being unwitting servants of Satan (Matt. 16:23). “The god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers”-not simply so that they will defy Judeo-Christian values, but “to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:4-5).
Satan lost the war on Good Friday and Easter, but has shifted his strategy to a guerilla struggle to keep the world from hearing the gospel that dismantles his kingdom of darkness. Paul speaks of this cosmic battle in Ephesians 6, directing us to the external Word, the gospel, Christ and his righteousness, faith, and salvation as our only armor in the assaults of the enemy. In Revelation 12, the history of redemption is recapitulated in brief compass, with the dragon sweeping a third of the stars (angels) from heaven, laying in wait to devour the woman’s child at birth, only to be defeated by the ascension of the promised offspring. Nevertheless, knowing his time is short, he pursues the child’s brothers and sisters. Wherever Christ is truly proclaimed, Satan is most actively present. The wars between nations and enmity within families and neighborhoods is but the wake of the serpent’s tail as he seeks to devour the church, employing the same tried and tested methods: not only martyrdom from without, but heresy and schism from within… toward what can only be called, tragically, “Christless Christianity.”