Tuesday, April 1, 2008
What Does it Mean to "Pull Down a Stronghold?"
“Pulling Down Strongholds”
The Bible does sometimes use military terminology when describing the Christian’s responsibility. Yet, in those cases, we must ask ourselves if we are “pushing the parables too far,” by reading more into metaphorical language than was meant. For example, a classic text that is often misinterpreted is 2 Corinthians 10:3-6:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete (2 Cor. 10:3-6).
The King James Version, rather than saying “we are destroying speculations,” says we are “pulling down strongholds.” From this one metaphorical phrase, practically an entire theology has been built to defend the idea of doing “spiritual warfare” in order to “pull down the strongholds” consisting of evil spirits in the atmosphere. But as the New American Standard Version clearly conveys, Paul is speaking, not of evil spirits in the atmosphere, but of strongholds of false beliefs that exist in people’s minds. Speculations are what Paul was destroying, not wicked spirits in high places.
This becomes even clearer as we read contextually. Paul said, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (emphasis added). The battle of which Paul symbolically writes is a battle against thoughts, or ideas that are contrary to the true knowledge of God.
Using military metaphors, Paul explains that we are in a battle, a battle for the minds of people who have believed the lies of Satan. Our primary weapon in this battle is the truth, which is why we’ve been commanded to go into the entire world and preach the gospel, invading enemy territory with a message that can set captives free. The fortresses we are destroying have been built with building blocks of lies, joined by the mortar of deception.
If you will take the time to read all of the tenth chapter of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, you will see that he makes no mention there of wicked spiritual powers, even though we know (and he knew) that wicked spirits are involved in spreading lies. Therefore, in this particular passage, evil spirits were not the “strongholds” of which He was thinking when he wrote. To say that Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 prove that we can and should practice pulling down evil spirits in the atmosphere is an obvious misrepresentation of what Paul actually meant.
If Paul did mean that we should pull down evil spirits in the atmosphere, we would have to wonder why he himself never practiced what he preached, as there is no mention of him ever doing it in the history of his ministry as recorded in the book of Acts.
The Whole Armor of God
Another passage in Paul’s writings that is often misinterpreted is found in his Ephesian letter:
Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:10-17).
May I initially point out that although this passage is definitely about the Christian’s struggle with the devil and evil spirits, there is no mention of pulling down evil spirits over cities. As we study the passage closely, it becomes clear that Paul is primarily writing about each individual’s responsibility to resist Satan’s schemes in his personal life by applying the truth of God’s Word.
Notice also the evident metaphorical language of the entire passage. Paul obviously was not speaking of a literal, material armor that Christians should put on their bodies. Rather, the armor of which he speaks is figurative. Those pieces of armor represent the various scriptural truths that Christians should use for protection against the devil and evil spirits. By knowing, believing, and acting upon God’s Word, Christians are, figuratively speaking, clothed in God’s protective armor.
Let’s examine this passage in Ephesians verse by verse, while asking ourselves, What was Paul really trying to convey to us?
The Source of Our Spiritual Strength
First, we are told to “be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might” (Eph. 6:10). The emphasis is on the fact that we should not derive our strength from ourselves but God. This is further brought out in Paul’s next statement: “Put on the full armor of God” (Eph. 6:11a). This is God’s armor, not ours. Paul is not saying that God Himself wears armor, but that we need the armor that God has supplied for us.
Why do we need this armor that God has supplied? The answer is, “that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil” ( Eph. 6:11b). That is the reason. This armor is primarily for defensive, not offensive use. It is not so we can go out and pull down evil spirits over cities; it is so we can stand firm against Satan’s schemes.
We learn that the devil has evil plans to attack us, and unless we are wearing the armor that God supplies, we are vulnerable. Notice also that it is our responsibility to put on the armor, not God’s.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12).
Here it becomes crystal clear that Paul is not talking about a physical, material battle, but a spiritual one. We are struggling against the schemes of various ranks of evil spirits whom Paul lists. Most Bible students assume that Paul listed those evil spirits as they are ranked from bottom to top, “rulers” being the lowest class and “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” being the highest class.
How can we struggle against spiritual beings? That question can be answered by asking, How can spiritual beings attack us? They attack us primarily with temptations, thoughts, suggestions, and ideas that contradict God’s Word and will. Therefore, our defense is knowing, believing, and obeying God’s Word.
“Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:13).
Notice, once again, that Paul’s purpose is to equip us to stand against Satan’s attacks. His purpose is not to equip us to go out and attack Satan and pull down evil spirits from the atmosphere. Three times in this passage Paul tells us to stand firm. Our position is one of defense, not offense.
This is not to say that we never take an offensive stand, but that this passage is primarily speaking of maintaining a strong defense. When we proclaim the gospel, for example, we are definitely “invading enemy territory” in an offensive measure.
Also, notice that it is our responsibility to take up the armor and to stand firm. God will not do it for us.
Truth—Our Primary Defense
Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth...(Eph. 6:14a).
Here is what keeps our armor in place—the truth. What is the truth? Jesus said to His Father, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). We cannot successfully stand firm against Satan unless we know the truth with which we can counter his lies. Jesus beautifully demonstrated this during His temptation in the wilderness as He responded to Satan’s every suggestion with, “It is written...”
“...and having put on the breastplate of righteousness...(Eph. 6:14b).
As Christians, we should be familiar with two kinds of righteousness. First, we have been given, as a gift, the righteousness of Christ (see 2 Cor. 5:21). His righteous standing has been imputed to those who believe in Jesus, who bore their sins on the cross. That righteous standing has delivered us from Satan’s dominion.
Second, we should be living righteously, obeying Jesus’ commands, and that is probably what Paul had in mind regarding the breastplate of righteousness. By obedience to Christ, we give no place to the devil (see Eph. 4:26-27).
Firm Footing in Gospel Shoes
“...and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace...” (Eph. 6:15)
Knowing, believing and acting upon the truth of the gospel gives us firm footing to stand against Satan’s attacks. The shoes that Roman soldiers wore had spikes on the bottom that gave them a firm grip on the battlefield. When we know that Jesus has died for our sins and been raised from the dead for our justification, Satan’s lies are unable to knock us off our feet.
Paul specifically refers here to “the gospel of peace.” We now have “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). We are no longer enemies with God.
“...in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one (Eph. 6:16).
Notice again Paul’s emphasis here on our defensive posture. He is not talking about our pulling down demons over cities. He is talking about our using faith in God’s Word to resist the devil’s lies. When we believe and act upon what God has said, it is like having a shield that protects us from Satan’s lies, represented figuratively as the “flaming missiles of the evil one.”
Our Spiritual Sword—God’s Word
“And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17).
Salvation, as the Bible describes it, includes our deliverance from Satan’s captivity. God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). Knowing this is like having a helmet that guards our minds from believing Satan’s lie that we are still under his dominion. Satan is no longer our master—Jesus is.
Additionally, we are to take “the sword of the Spirit” which, as Paul explains, is figurative for the Word of God. As I already mentioned, Jesus was the perfect example of a spiritual warrior who skillfully yielded His spiritual sword. During His temptation in the wilderness He responded to Satan each time by quoting directly from God’s Word. So too, if we are to defeat the devil in spiritual combat, we must know and believe what God has said, lest we fall for his lies.
Also notice that Jesus used “the sword of the Spirit” defensively. Some like to point out, to those of us who maintain that the armor of which Paul wrote is primarily defensive, that a sword is definitely an offensive weapon. Thus, with a very weak argument, they try to justify their theory that this passage in Ephesians 6:10-12 is applicable to our supposed responsibility to offensively “pull down strongholds” of evil spirits in the heavenly places.
Obviously, from reading Paul’s own reason why Christians should put on God’s armor (that they may “stand firm against the schemes of the devil”), we know that he is speaking primarily of a defensive use of the armor. Additionally, although a sword can be thought of as an offensive weapon, it can also be thought of as defensive, as it blocks and protects from the thrusts of the opponent’s sword.
Moreover, we must be careful that we don’t strain the entire metaphor, as we attempt to wrench from the various pieces of armor significance that really doesn’t exist. When we begin to argue about the defensive and offensive nature of a sword, we are very likely “pushing the parable too far” as we carve into pieces a simple metaphor that was never meant to be so dissected.
Most importantly, notice that every piece of the armor which Paul described relates somehow to the truth of the Word of God. Knowing, believing, and acting upon God’s Word are the ways we overcome Satan’s schemes against us.
Didn’t Jesus Instruct Us to “Bind the Strong Man”?
Three times in the Gospels we find Jesus making mention of “binding the strong man.” In none of those three cases, however, did He tell His followers that “binding the strong man” was something they should practice. Let’s examine exactly what Jesus did say, and let’s read what He said contextually:
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.” And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? And if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but he is finished! But no one can enter the strong man's house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house. Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit” (Mark 3:23-30, emphasis added).
Notice that Jesus was not teaching His followers to bind any strong men. Rather, He was responding to the criticism of the Jerusalem scribes with unassailable logic and a clear metaphor.
They accused Him of casting out demons by using demonic power. He responded by saying that Satan would be insane to work against himself. No one can intelligently argue with that.
If it wasn’t Satan’s power that Jesus used to cast out demons, then whose power was He using? It had to be a power stronger than Satan’s. It had to be God’s power, the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus Jesus spoke metaphorically of Satan, comparing him to a strong man guarding his possessions. The only one able to take the strong man’s possessions would be someone even stronger, namely, Himself. This was the true explanation as to how He cast out demons.
Satan is the “strong man,” and Jesus is the one who overpowered him to plunder his house. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus did through His sacrificial death? He broke Satan’s power over all those who would believe in Jesus. His casting out of demons was a foreshadowing of an even greater deliverance that He would accomplish for Satan’s captives.
Jesus concluded by warning those scribes of the great danger they were in by attributing to Satan the work of the Holy Spirit.
This passage that mentions the strong man, as well as the similar ones found in Matthew and Luke, cannot be used to justify our “binding strong men” over cities. Additionally, when we examine the rest of the New Testament, we do not find any examples of anyone “binding strong men” over cities, or any instruction for anyone to do so. We can thus safely conclude that it is unscriptural for any Christian to attempt to bind and render powerless some supposed “strong man-evil spirit” over a city or geographic area.
What About “Binding on Earth and in Heaven”?
Only twice in the gospels do we find Jesus’ words, “Whatever you shall bind on earth shall be [or ‘have been’] bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be [or ‘have been’] loosed in heaven.” Both instances are recorded in Matthew’s gospel.
Was Jesus teaching us that we can and should “bind” demonic spirits in the atmosphere?
First, let’s consider His words, binding and loosing. Jesus’ use of those words is obviously metaphorical, as He certainly did not mean that His followers would be taking physical ropes or cords and literally binding anything or literally loosing anything that was bound with physical ropes or cords. Jesus must have used the words binding and loosing figuratively. What did He mean?
For the answer, we should look at His use of the words binding and loosing within the context of whatever He was speaking of at the time. Was He talking on the subject of evil spirits? If so, we could conclude that His words about binding have application to the binding of evil spirits.
Let’s examine the first passage where Jesus mentioned binding and loosing:
He [Jesus] said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (Matt. 16:15-19, emphasis added).
No doubt the reason this passage has been interpreted in so many ways is that it contains at least five metaphorical expressions: (1) “flesh and blood,” (2) “rock,” (3) “gates of Hades,” (4) “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and (5) “binding/loosing.” All of these expressions are figurative, speaking of something else.