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THE STORYLINE OF THE BIBLE: THE ONGOING FIGHT OF GOD'S PERSISTENT LOVE TO REGAIN THE HUMAN HEARTS
by bruno sebrechts
3/16/2021 / Bible Studies
Genuine Worship of a Holy God Versus Idolatry
God’s most fundamental attribute is his perfect holiness, which means that he is perfect, transcendent, fully distinguishable from his creation, and thus wholly unique. No one and nothing can compare to him. His integrity, love, goodness, and wisdom are perfect. They surpass all human understanding and call for awe and worship (Ps 99:1–5).
Humans—the image bearers of God—were created as relational beings, because the triune God is relational in himself. But when the relationship between God and humans was broken, hunger for alternative spiritual relationships led to idolatry. This is what the powers of darkness exploit. Paul sums up the Fall in terms of idolatry: “[they] worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25).
The Bible frequently shows how slowly human beings come to trust and obey God, for anything that exposes their idolatries is instinctively suppressed (Rom 1:18–23). Scripture describes idols as utterly worthless and powerless in and of themselves, but also explains that those who worship them give themselves over to the influence of demons (1 Cor 10:19–21).
We might describe the storyline of the Bible as God’s love song in the night of humanity, while the adversary is using darkness to create confusion and to thwart the work of God's Spirit.
An Increase of Evil
Despite God’s promises in Genesis 3, humanity turned even further from him. Genesis 6 tells us the remarkable story of the “sons of God” (or “sons of gods”) marrying daughters of men. These "sons" were probably angels, materialized in bodies of flesh, or took possession of the bodies of wicked men, to have sexual intercourse with women (see Jude 6, 2 Peter 2:4). Or—less likely—they may have been impressive people who identified themselves with gods. Both interpretations suggest the beginning of intimate relationships with the unseen world.
God intervened with a deluge to restrain evil and thus saved Noah—the only remaining righteous man—and his family. However, the story repeats itself in following generations, with the people of Babel organizing their rebellion in an attempt to reach heaven by building a tower—probably a temple of idolatry and demon worship. In Babel, the original purpose for humanity to rule and bless the earth was replaced with a demonic counterpart. Humans were joining with evil spiritual powers in their pursuit of personal fame and power. God intervened by confusing their language, and from then on, the Bible depicts Babel (or Babylon) as a symbol for idolatry and unclean spirits (Isa 21:9; Rev 18:2).
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had to face a tempting voice coming to them in the form of a serpent. Since then, humanity faces demonic temptations in the many form of idolatry.
In Genesis 11, we read about Abram's calling, which is a hinge point in the history of salvation. After humanity had clearly failed in every respect, God took a new approach. Just as a teacher might call a student to the front of the classroom for instructions on how to deal with a problem that the group has failed to solve, God called Abram and promised to be with him. Abram came from a tribe that served "other gods" (Josh 24:2), but he obeyed and trusted the One who had called him. He was called to walk blamelessly, leave his home country, and receive a wonderful promise. He and his offspring would become a source of blessing for all tribes and nations of the earth (Gen 22:18). This had been God's original intention in creation (Gen 1:28), but his purpose to bless had been impeded since the Fall. Here we see how God reconfirms his goal.
Called to go to Canaan, a land of flagrant idolaters, Abraham had to wander as a stranger among people living in spiritual darkness. This reveals a divine principle: Abraham had to leave idolatry, but was still called to live among idolaters in order to save them. God will overcome evil by good. Light will conquer darkness—but only after many generations have passed and many stages have been reached.
Abraham and his offspring were promised “a land,” and that they would be a blessing for “all the generations of the earth,” which was later associated with the gospel of Christ. Conquering and possessing the promised land foreshadowed the spiritual warfare for spiritual deliverance.
Abraham’s descendants struggled to get rid of their past idols (Gen 35:2–4), just as the history of God's people shows a continuous struggle between true worship and idolatry. This demonstrates the ongoing tensions between serving God and enslavement to the powers of darkness.
Later on, Abraham’s descendants would suffer in Egypt. After more than four hundred years, there would be a confrontation between the magicians of Pharaoh and two servants of God, Moses and Aaron.
"I Am Who I Am" Versus the Horror of Idolatry.
The Hebrew word Yahweh is connected to the Hebrew verb that means “I am.” So, Yahweh is most fundamentally the One-Who-Is. When God met Moses at the burning bush, he referred to himself as I am who I am (or, I am who is, will be who I will be). God is always himself and cannot be defined or used by others. He cannot be manipulated or fundamentally obstructed. Yahweh is Lord, the source of goodness and wisdom, and his words have absolute authority.
Idolatry and witchcraft are diametrically opposed to genuine worship. For the idolater, it is not "God is who he is,” but “he must be what I want him to be." Idolatry arises from reckless human imaginations (Rom 1:21), just like the serpent inspired Eve with many haughty thoughts to trap her in its grip. Idolatry substitutes God with human imaginations (Jer 13:10), taking physical objects or intangible concepts out of context to deify them. By assigning authority to something that is in itself powerless, the demonic magic of an idol is activated.
In the ancient Egyptian cult, the Pharaoh and the Nile were deified, and the Pharaoh chose magicians as intimates. Babies were thrown into the Nile to maintain Pharaoh’s position of power, and the weakest ethnic group was exploited as slaves. The horror of idolatry is not only that it ignores God's position and wisdom (Jonah 2:8), but also, due to the unreliability of the human heart, that it can lead to the ruthless oppression of everything that is regarded as an obstacle. Idolatry is based on human illusions, but Yahweh's covenant is based on the objective text of the Ten Commandments. The first commandments are about the unique position of Yahweh, the Deliverer. The subsequent commandments build on this foundation and are to protect fellow humans.
In Egypt, Yahweh judged the oppressor and delivered the oppressed to demonstrate himself to the world (Exod 10:2; 14:4, 18). The real acts of sorcery at the court illustrated the spiritual forces behind their gods. But Yahweh’s “let my people go” overcame “who is Yahweh? … I will not let Israel go” (Exod 5:1–2). God responded with judgments, “that you may know that I am Yahweh” (Exod 10:2; 14:4, 18), thereby demonstrating his superiority over all powers. He judged their gods (Exod 12:12; Num 33:4), and redeemed the people “out of Egypt, from the nations and their gods” (2 Sam 7:23). Israel's existence as a people and as a nation was the result of a spiritual war between God and the dark forces behind idolatry.
Surrounding nations also practiced various kinds of occult practices. The serious warnings for Israel not to adopt those practices were related to the reality of the spirit world that was associated with idolatry (Deut 18:11; Lev 20:6).
Throughout the Bible, the exodus from Egypt remains a symbol of God's deliverance. But after being delivered, Israel first had to dwell in the desert to learn to humbly serve God (Deut 8). On Mount Sinai, God made a covenant with them that looked like a vassal and marriage covenant: promising faithfulness, protection, and abundance of blessings, in return for Israel belonging to him as a holy nation and a kingdom of priests (Exod 19:6). He gave them laws to keep their hearts from evil (Ps 119:11) in a covenant that may be summarized with these words: “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12). However, if they followed other gods, they would come under covenantal curses. Yet, on their “wedding night,” they committed spiritual adultery by worshipping a golden calf. Only the petitions of Moses persuaded God to renew the covenant with those willing to devote themselves again (Exod 32:14, 29).
The Tabernacle: “In the cover of his tent … lifted up above my enemies” (Ps 27:5–6)
God dwelt among his people in the tabernacle, the forerunner of the temple. The final book of the Bible draws parallels between the Garden of Eden, the tabernacle, and the new creation, with the special presence of God being the common factor. The tabernacle or temple serves as a symbolic transition between the Garden and the future full salvation. The consequences of the Fall are nullified in their rituals, keeping the prospect of a perfect world alive.
The main focus of the tabernacle and its priestly service was to worship God as the Redeemer and Deliverer, and to reject idolatry. At the holiest place stood the Ark of the Covenant with the Ten Commandments, which were given in the presence of God’s heavenly deliverance army (Ps 68:18; Deut 33:2). The first commandment refers to the Deliverer, the second to the forbidding of idols (Exod 20:1–2). The full name of the ark was "the ark of the covenant of Yahweh of Armies, who sits above the cherubim" (1 Sam 4:4). The ark was not some kind of talisman, but the symbol of victory over the idols. An idol exposed to its presence could not remain standing (1 Sam 5:3–5). David called the ark the footstool of God, and mentioned how the enemies of God will end under God’s feet (2 Chron 28:2; Ps 110:1). The ark confirmed God’s strength in battle (Ps 132:8; Num 10:35; Josh 6; 2 Sam 6:2). In the book of Revelation, when the ark is highlighted in heaven, the full victory over the powers of evil will take place (Rev 11:19; 15:5).
The tabernacle contained elements that were similar to religious objects and rituals from the surrounding cultures. It included elements that functioned in those cultures to ward off demons or hostile gods by magic, such as anointing oil, inscriptions with sacred texts, incense, candlelight, and cleansing rituals. Yet such similarities reflected no similar spiritual nature, for their characters actually opposed each other. With the tabernacle, they were not referring to magical practices but rather to the covenant with Yahweh, placing an emphasis on sin and impurity as the ultimate source of trouble. Nevertheless, these similarities suggest a consciousness of victory over evil powers. The protective role against spiritual adultery, any kind of communion with other gods, is clear from passages like Numbers 15:39. The sacrificial service directly opposed the worship of idols (Exod 20:22–24; Acts 7:42–43).
The focus of the tabernacle was honoring and serving God, but its rituals contained veiled references to an underlying battle against impure or unclean spirits:
- The sanctuary, worship, and spiritual battle were a unity (see Ps 20:2; 27:4–6). Revelation 11:18–12:11describes a spiritual warfare surrounded by symbols of the tabernacle.
- The protection measures surrounding the tabernacle remind us of the threat of evil in the Garden.
- The tabernacle service was entrusted to the Levites, the smallest tribe of Israel. They were exempt from military service, but had to guard the sanctity of the tabernacle and safeguard it from any unauthorized person.
- No unclean animals were allowed to be brought to the altar of sacrifice. This recalled the serpent in Eden, medium of the devil, and the archetype of the unclean animals. Many regulations were symbolic expressions of the need for discernment. The creation, and the animal world in particular, offered them the opportunity to thank and worship God, as well as to use them for idolatry (Rom 1:23).
- Besides the altar with its symbolism of forgiveness of sins, there was also the copper laver for the cleansing of the priest’s hands and feet. James mentions cleansing of hands in the context of dealing with the devil.
- Some rituals reflected a severance of the ties with their past, a past associated with demon worship (Lev 17:7). In general, all God’s commandments protect against the influence of other gods (Deut 11:16, 28; Deut 28:14), and idolatry was associated with demons (Deut 32:17). Consequently, violating his commandments made them susceptible to demonic powers.
- The tabernacle and its rituals point toward the ministry of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross (Heb 8:1–5; 10:12–13). His ministry walking the earth included dealings with evil spirits, and Jesus himself interpreted the ordinance of the Jubilee as a foreshadowing of spiritual deliverance (Luke 4:19).
- The rituals about food laws, feasts, and Sabbath, foreshadowed Christ’s victory over the powers of evil (Col 2:15–22).
If we combine these elements, it becomes clear that the symbolism of the tabernacle and its rituals, although primarily focused on worship and the eradication of sin, included symbols about conquering idolatry and demonic powers. This also sheds light on the remarkable Azazel ritual.
Leviticus 16 describes a ritual with two goats on the Day of Atonement, the most important day of the year. One goat is slaughtered, and the other is laden with the sins and impurities of the people, and sent into the desert to Azazel, the personalized antipode of the holy God (see Lev 16:8-10 NET). The two goats jointly accomplish one “offering for sin” (Lev 16:5). A typical offering for sin required one animal, but here a second animal was involved and sent into the domain of Azazel. Being sent outside the camp was a measure for people under certain sinful or impure conditions (e.g. Num 5:3).
In the symbolism of substitution, an innocent animal bears the burden of the guilty. Certain sinful and impure conditions bring the offender under demonic influence, so it makes sense to send an additional substitutionary goat into the demonic realm.
This prefigured the vicarious work of Christ, who bore our sins and their consequences. He died for our sins, but he was also disconnected from his Father, and confronted with the demonic world (Mark 15:34; Col 2:15).
Most scholars describe Azazel as referring to an evil power. Some interpret it as a barren, desolate desert area with an abyss. Many rabbis, church fathers, and contemporary scholars conclude that it was a higher demon, or Satan himself. In the New Testament, “dry places” and the “abyss” are mentioned as destinations for evil spirits (Luke 8:31; 11:24; Rev 20:3).
We note that two main elements of the exodus, namely, the confrontation with the demonic gods of Egypt, and the blood of the Passover lamb, are reflected in the two-part ritual of the Day of Atonement. Both are also major aspects in our salvation, which includes deliverance from sin and from the powers of evil (Acts 28:18).
The Azazel ritual illustrates the Biblical principle of victory over evil powers: their claims are broken as an outcome of divine atonement (see Zech 3; Col 2:15).
God’s Nation Moves On
Because Adam failed to extend God’s blessed rule over all the earth, the nation of Israel was given this task. In a sense, Israel was the next Adam, and the parallels are striking. Both had a far-reaching mandate. Israel voluntarily and enthusiastically accepted God’s offer at Sinai, being impressed with their deliverance and exodus from Egypt. Yahweh wanted the Israelites to become a blessing to all people, but if they would violate the covenant, then he would allow suffering and misery until they would repent (Deut 28:14; Lev 26). But just like Adam, the people of Israel failed their first test. They lost patience when Moses remained on the mountain, and they created their own idol.
During their desert wanderings, they kept failing to trust God. When their rebellion escalated, God sent serpents that attacked them with lethal bites (Num 24:1–9) to show them externally how evil was destroying them internally. Moses had to make a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole. Only by looking to that snake—by taking the lesson to heart—could they be healed, thereby showing how God is able to turn judgment into blessing.
The first generation was not permitted to enter the promised land because of their unbelief (Heb 4). It was left to the next generation to conquer Canaan—after they had been alerted to the pitfalls of foreign gods (Exod 34:14).
In the promised land, they failed to destroy all the altars dedicated to idols (Judg 2:2). Thus, the germ of idolatry remained among them, and periods of idolatry and misery alternated with periods of repentance and deliverance (Judg 5:8, 31). When they groaned under the domination of their enemies, they called to their God, and time and again, he sent them a leader to deliver them.
Their rejection of Yahweh’s desire to be their one and only King was the result of their idolatrous attitude (1 Sam 8:8). God permitted them to establish an ordinary monarchy, just like their neighboring nations. Kings succeeded each other, creating depths and heights for Israel, as faithful kings cleansed the land of idols, and unfaithful kings lapsed back into idolatry, dragging the people along with them. Israel reached its zenith with David, who asked God to let him build a temple. God’s ironic answer was that Israel’s ultimate purpose was not to build a physical house, for Israel was promised an eternal royal house, which would one day be manifested in his descendants.
It was not David, but his son Solomon, who was permitted to build the earthly temple. However, decay seeped in again in his later years. God had rescued his people from Egypt, but Solomon married the daughter of the Pharaoh and many other foreign women. His heart was seduced to serve their gods (1 Kgs 11:2–4), and divine judgment came in response. His kingdom was divided between north and south. The northern kingdom of Israel set the tone with provocative idolatry, worshiping a golden calf at both Dan and Bethel, just like their forefathers in the desert (1 Kgs 12:29). Israel was the first to come under foreign dominion, while the southern kingdom (Judah) remained independent until after King Manasseh’s reign. He led Judah to its lowest point, for when he openly served the demonic powers (2 Kgs 21), it seemed that after all those centuries, the people of God had gone back to square one. Abraham had been called to separate himself from a culture of idolatry, yet here was his offspring committing the same offenses—their king was even promoting idolatry of the worst kind. Eventually Manasseh’s grandson, the child-king Josiah, cleansed the land from its foreign altars and idols; but when his own sons strayed from the right path, it was obvious that the removal of the physical idols had not changed them inwardly (2 Kgs 23–24). Apart from an intervention of a Messiah-Savior, victory over idolatry seemed impossible.
David delivered Israel from its physical enemies, and Josiah delivered it from its physical idols, but still worse than the presence of physical idols was their relationship with the spirit of idolatry (Acts 7:41-43). A savior was still needed to deliver them from such evil.
Decline and Exile
Just as Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise, God’s people were expelled into exile. The northern kingdom was deported to Assyria, and about a century later, Judah was deported to Babylon. God’s people were not yet ready to welcome their Savior. He had warned them that apostasy would have severe consequences. God’s people were carried away into exile to learn this lesson, as Jeremiah prophesied: "Your own wickedness shall correct you, and your backsliding shall reprove you” (Jer 2:19). They had joined with evil powers through their idolatry, so their dwelling in Babylon, the symbol of idolatry and communion with evil spirits, reflected their spiritual condition. This judgment was part of God’s dual purpose to crush and heal. In Babylon, they would be bitten by “serpents” that could not be charmed (Jer 8:17); yet in the end, they would be restored. Once in exile, God gave them hope through the prophets: “I think toward you, says Yahweh, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you hope in your latter end. … You shall seek me, and find me, when you shall search for me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:11, 13). A redeemer would one day lead them back home, but even more importantly, would cleanse them of idolatry, and give them a new heart (Isa 49:24–26; Ezek 36:26). This cleansing would be followed by the judgment of the nations, which is essentially a judgment of the gods of the nations (e.g., Isa 46:1). And in the end, there will be a new heaven and a new earth (Isa 65:17). These prophecies also revealed that God’s plan of salvation and restoration would still take several stages.
God did not forsake his people. He had chosen them, not because of their personal merits, but because of his desire to reveal himself to the world through a small people with no claim to their own fame.
Lessons through the Old Testament
God taught his people (and, indirectly, the whole world) deep lessons through his actions. They experienced firsthand the benefits of God’s laws. They discovered that lawlessness and idolatry lead to misery and spiritual slavery.
Humans are designed to worship God, but once they relinquish their calling, they seek false gods.
Why is idolatry so seductive? Idolatry suggests easy answers to difficult problems. It pretends that life can be manipulated, self–centeredness is allowed, and high moral standards can be avoided. The magical (demonic) nature of idols fascinates, and at times, produces impressive results (Exod 7:11, 22; Jer 44:17; Acts 8:9).
Israel was incapable of remaining faithful to God through its own virtue, and experienced the bitter fruits of idolatry over the long term. In the Garden of Eden, two individuals failed. Years later the corporate body (Israel) also failed. Joshua conquered many enemies in the promised land, but at the end of his life, he still had to urge his people to put away the idols of their ancestors (Josh 24:14, 23). In the ages that followed, no king, priests, or prophets, would succeed in totally and permanently eradicating idolatry.
Yet even before the coming of the Messiah, God met his people graciously in times of distress—even individuals when they were in spiritual trouble (e.g., 1 Sam 16:23). But clear and plain deliverance from demonic powers would only come through the promised Savior (Luke 10:23-24).
Yahweh is Lord of History
The Scriptures reveal God's dealings with human beings as an unfolding process. One of Jesus’ names was “Son of David” (Luke 1:32), which underlines Israel’s meaning in the story of salvation. The fulfillment of many promises guarantees the fulfillment of all remaining prophecies.
The Emmaus Disciples, on the afternoon of Jesus’ resurrection, illustrate how the Holy Spirit makes use of the Old Testament to reveal God's purpose: “Weren’t our hearts burning within us, while he spoke to us along the way, and while he opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). We need the testimony of God's actions throughout all ages, for though the face of God is seen in Christ, God’s message can only be fully understood in the light of the whole salvation history (Rev 21:10–12).
The Messiah as the Representative Israelite
Without bypassing individual responsibilities and blessings, the main focus of the first covenant was on the whole nation. By collectively humbling themselves, they might receive collective redemption and deliverance, to collectively become a tremendous blessing to the world.
But Israel as a whole failed (Jer 23:5–6). They had to wait for the Messiah—the servant that would represent his nation. He would not be a substitute for his people, but he would fulfill its calling, and lead it to its destiny. The confrontation with Goliath can serve as a foreshadowing. The army failed, but David, the anointed representative of Israel, brought victory.
The Need to Be Cleansed from Invisible Idols
The first chapters of Isaiah introduce us to a time when Israel was in deep moral, social, political, and spiritual decline, practicing a merely ceremonial religion that was marked by idolatry, occultism, and all forms of injustice. And while Isaiah was confronted with his own depravity, and that of his people, he saw a vision of God's glory (Isa 6:5–6). He became desperate, but rescue came from God’s throne, as an angel cleansed Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal that had been taken from the heavenly altar.
Isaiah was called to the task of bringing his people to a point of wholesome despair before he could comfort them. But how could the purifying fire of the heavenly altar reach his people? He prophesied that a Messiah would come as a great light in their darkness, and as the deliverer to liberate them from a heavy yoke (Isa 9:3).
Seventy years of exile for God’s people was followed by a partial return from Babylon. Those returning were back in the promised land, but they still lived under the reign of a foreign power. Upon returning, they cleansed their land of high places of idolatry and of wooden and stone idols. Instead, they built a new temple, with a high priest, priesthood, daily sacrifices, and a class of scribes teaching them God’s law.
They had been delivered from the strong man of Babylon, and were freed from physical idols, yet they had not been delivered from the spirit of idolatry, and from Beelzebub, the ruler of evil spirits, who was the invisible strong man working behind the scenes. This meant that a subtle form of idolatry remained: soon their temple was filled with greed (cf. Rom 2:22). The prophet Micah described this post-exilic society as degenerate and corrupt. Despite keeping up an outward appearance to the contrary, the temple in reality became a den of robbers (see Luke 19:46).
God’s law instructed that all the idols be burned (Deut 7:25). But how could the invisible idols, such as Mammon, in their hearts, be burned (see Matt 6:24)? God could not save them as long as their idols separated them from him (Isa 59:1). They needed deep, inner salvation—a deliverance from evil spiritual ties.
Zechariah shared a vision for the returned exiles, describing a woman related to idolatry who was dwelling in a closed “ephah” basket. This dark habitat was unsuited for a physical presence, given that an ephah only holds 5–9 gallons. Yet the basket somehow contained a presence so threatening that it had to be kept in close confinement and guarded by a powerful angel. This woman embodied the sinister power of idolatry of which the Israelites were cured outwardly but not inwardly. At the end of the vision, she was transported back to Babylon (Zech 5:5–11).
In addition to receiving forgiveness for sins, the influence of the dark powers must be cut off and sent back to its origin, which recalls the Azazel ritual, and how Babylon will become the gathering place for every demon and unclean spirit (Rev 18:2).
Isaiah had indeed prophesied that Israel, despite divine discipline and laborious effort, gave birth only to wind and not salvation. Yet he also prophesied that Yahweh would one day intervene to deal with iniquity and subdue the cosmic power of evil (Isa 26:16-27-1).
The Old Testament prophet Malachi announced a day of refining, describing a fire meant to cleanse and to execute judgment (Mal 3). His was the last prophetic message for about four hundred years. This silence ended when John the Baptist announced that God’s kingdom was at hand and called the people to radical repentance. He promised the coming of one who would baptize with the Spirit and with fire (Matt 3:11).
When the Old Testament explicitly mentions evil spirits, it reveals them in some sense as part of the divine policy (e.g., 1 Kgs 22:22).
However, the New Testament more clearly emphasizes the malicious nature of these spirits, as well as the fact that God wants to destroy their influence because they have misused their position to afflict their victims beyond measure. The Gospels reveal an ongoing conflict between God and Satan, between the powers of light and the hosts of darkness. Jesus was the Christ, the one anointed to deliver his people. But God’s people had to agree and assent, yet they were too deeply divided and not ready to be delivered as a whole (Luke 13:34; 19:44). Therefore, Christ would save all individuals that turned to him (John 1:11–12).
A Baptism with Fire
Just as Moses proclaimed the deliverance of God’s people with signs and miracles, Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God was accompanied by many miracles. The casting out of demons was the most explicit evidence of the breaking-in of the kingdom (Mat 12:28). (Physical healings were kingdom related as well, but they were merely indicative signs. Just like a disintegrated seed that would return to its original state, not becoming a flower yet, so miraculous healings can restore someone's health, but they do not lift someone above the present condition of physical constraints). The Messiah would bring salvation and cast out many evil spirits in the light of the in-breaking kingdom , as it revealed the superhuman consequences of evil. Jesus would baptize with fire and with the Spirit: a symbol of judgment for the wicked, and a symbol of purging and salvation for the penitent. The Old Testament used fire as both an image for the judgment and cleansing by God who intervenes to save his people from their enemies, and for dealing with the symbols of idolatry (Exod 9:23; Ps 18:9; Isa 37:19; Jer 43:13). For example, Daniel saw a stream of fire welling up from a future throne, a throne that would replace all other thrones forever (Dan 7:10–14). In the early church, fire was an image of the believer’s purification from sins and deliverance from demons, which is consistent with biblical passages on purifying fire (e.g., Isa 9:4). This fire may indicate a drastic, radical, and perhaps even painful process of dealing with the core of a problem.
John the Baptist also uses the image of tossing wheat in the wind, so that the chaff is carried away and burned up by fire (Luke 3:17). In the Old Testament, chaff served as a symbol of Israel’s enemies, and in Psalm 83, chaff is an image of enemies who want to take possession of "the houses of God" (Ps 83:12 KJV). Isaiah used this image to depict the judgment of the transient world order (Isa 41:15–16; see also Dan 2:35). The image of fire and chaff can relate to a deep cleansing from the contaminations of the old world order (e.g., Psalm 83:12–19).
Jesus’ preaching and healings shook things up, and God's Spirit, described more than once as a fire or a wind, caused the evil spirits to flee. The image of fire also reminds us of the fire of judgment that is prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41). That judgment caused great unrest among the evil spirits (Matt 8:29), all to indicate that the warrior–shepherd, announced by Isaiah, was on earth.
To become partakers of the new kingdom, we need to get rid of all the influences of the old kingdom of darkness. Israel failed to serve God out of its own strength, but Jesus brings salvation though a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire, of cleansing and judgment. This paves the way to reveal God’s kingdom and to serve the King by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the Gospels, the topic of the kingdom has multiple facets. It is “at hand,” “accessible,” “hidden,” and still “coming”. It is also multidimensional, in the sense that it affects all creation.
The Wisdom of the Cross
The climax of the battle for the heart of humanity is the wisdom, righteousness, and love of Christ, manifested in his crucifixion. Anyone who comes to the smallest understanding of that love can never remain the same. He bore the penalty of our sins, and made it possible to cleanse our hearts from all defilement, and to fill them with his Spirit.
A genuine recognition of Jesus as Lord is incompatible with clinging to idols. The first Christians were expected to acknowledge the emperor as divine, so Christ’s lordship was not an easy confession. They risked their lives by confessing it over the “absolute” lordship of Caesar, for this was considered subversive and criminal. Yet such confessions demonstrated the power of God’s salvation. The powers of darkness have no response to self-denying love.
Debunking Deceptions and Affirming God's Victory
The book of Revelation shows us how the powers of evil remain very active till the end of the present era, but they are neither ultimate nor decisive. God is in control, and his kingdom will be installed on earth.
Why is the victorious and saving power of Christ’s death and resurrection not more visible in the world today? God indeed tolerates idolatry and wickedness until a measure that he alone knows will be reached (Gen 15:16; Rev 18:5). In the end, the internal divisions and vanity of the opposing earthly powers will be obvious (Rev 17:16). John describes how the impressive, rich, and confident Babylon, the symbol of human accomplishments through idolatry, will be exposed as a drunken prostitute, to collapse and disappear, like a millstone sinking in the sea, never to return (Rev 18:6-21).
Text is available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Japanese and Farsi.
For a general treatment of the theme of spiritual deliverance, see
"Light In Our Darkness, Essentials of Spiritual Deliverance" – Bruno Sebrechts.
Humble Joy Publishing ISBN 9789083136400.
Spanish Edition ISBN 9789083136417
Bruno Sebrechts is a counselor and Bible teacher with over twenty-five years of pastoral experience. He saw God at work, especially in the healing and deliverance of the most damaged believers. His writings are the result of his extensive experience and continuous study. www.LightInOurDarkness.net
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