Rev. Erik Veerman
Victory over Darkness and Confusion
Over the centuries, various people have written about three great enemies of the faith: “the world, the flesh and the devil.” Those categories are helpful.
The world, the flesh, and the devil.
• The world being the social structures of tyranny – sometimes earthly kingdoms that suppress faith. Other times worldly philosophies with organized followers, yet other times cultural ideas and values that oppose the faith. And sometimes all of those are combined. The world.
• The flesh being our internal enemy. Sin and its various forms - unbelief, idolatry, immorality. All the things inside that turn our hearts away from faith and God. Our flesh… not meaning our physical bodies, but rather our sinful desires.
• And then the devil - the domain of darkness - Evil and all of Satan’s minions. This enemy is real. There are demons and evil spirits.
The world, the flesh, and the devil. And these enemies all work together in a confluence of hatred that oppose faith in Christ… and that oppose God and his people.
I was thinking of the book of Revelation – the last book in the Bible. All throughout it speaks of a great cosmic battle. And who are the enemies?
• Well, for one, Babylon the great – signifying the oppressive regimes, the worldly powers that rise up to conquer the earth and God’s people.
• And then there’s the great prostitute – signifying sin, immorality, and abominations. That’s the flesh. Revelation connects the great prostitute directly with Babylon the great. Of course! Flesh and the worldly powers go together. The fleshly lust for power and control create structures of oppression and hate.
• And in Revelation there’s also the great dragon – seven heads and ten horns. Casting down the stars of the heavens. Signifying Satan. To quote revelation 12: “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world…” It is the devil and his darkness that feeds upon our sin and seeks to animate the worldly kingdoms to oppose the kingdom of God.
It’s a cosmic battle. Their collective goal to destroy the faith and stop the Gospel.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesian church he writes this at the beginning of chapter 2 “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world,” there’s enemy #1 – the world. Paul goes on “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” He’s referring there to the Devil – another enemy. Then Paul says, “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh…” there’s the third enemy. You see, Ephesus was dealing with it all.
That’s what we see in these verses. The world in the form of leaders stirring up a mob trying to put an end to faith in Christ. The flesh with its pursuits for money and false idols. And the Devil… the very clear evil spirits at work in the first few verses here.
So to give us a little structure here this morning, I’ll take these enemies, one at a time. We’ll go in reverse order – the devil, the flesh, and the world - that’s the order they come up here.
But know, it’s not just the Ephesian’s battle. No, it’s your battle, my battle. It’s our collective battle. Each of these enemies is at work. The battle is raging around us and in us. And if we are not on guard, prepared for this spiritual battle, we may be a casualty of war. The spiritual stakes are high.
The Devil. One of the attackers of faith is the devil. Often times we don’t think of Satan and the spiritual forces of evil. Particularly here in our country – we don’t experience the underlying spiritual war as much. There’s a broader base of Christianity and prayer. But if you speak with people from other countries, or especially missionaries in unreached people groups, darkness is felt and experienced more strongly.
We see the devil and his spirits of darkness at work here in Ephesus – verses 15 and 16.
As a matter of background, Paul has been in Ephesus for two years now. There’s a significant Christian population. A church is meeting in Priscilla and Aquila’s home in Ephesus. Paul mentions that in one of his letters. People are coming to faith.
And one of the ways that God is at work in Ephesus is “extraordinary miracles” - verse 11. God was even using pieces of cloth to heal people. Things that Paul wore or that he used to wiped the sweat from his brow. That’s amazing. People were healed by it. Evil spirits were coming out of people. It’s similar to how God used the apostles back in chapter 5 – and Peter specifically back in chapter 9. It demonstrated the power of God over sickness and over spiritual darkness.
Well, as you can imagine, word got out. And this particular group of “Jewish exorcists” (it says) wanted to do what Paul was doing. An exorcist is someone who claims to be able to cast out evil spirits. They thought, “hey, if Paul is using Jesus’ name to cast out these demons, we can do that, too.”
So that’s what they tried. But it didn’t go well. It backfired in a pretty bad way for them. One commentator I read pointed out that it was like reverse exorcism. Instead of casting out these evil spirits, these evil spirit attacked them! Talk about humiliating - these spirits overpowered them. These men were wounded in some way, their clothes torn off and they ran out of the house naked and afraid.
Their mistake was thinking they could invoke the name of Jesus apart from faith in him.
This event revealed an underlying subculture of demonic practices and magic arts – verses 18 and 19. The devil had a foothold in Ephesus. His evil spirits were at work.
We read Ephesians chapter 6 earlier in the service. Paul encouraged them to “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood…” The word flesh in this instance is referring to our physical bodies. “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood but,” he said, “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Paul had experienced the devil and his schemes with the church in Ephesus. Acts 19 here reveals some of that. Paul wrote to remind them of the battle. It’s a reminder for us. We should, as they were instructed, take up the armor of God. Not physical armor. No, rather, as the rest of the Ephesians 6 passage tells us… spiritual armor: truth, righteousness, the Gospel, faith, salvation, the Holy Spirit and His Word, and prayer.
These are the weapons against the great spiritual enemy – the devil.
The next enemy of faith: the flesh. The sinful desires of our flesh. And by the way, these enemies all overlap here in Ephesus – the devil, flesh and the world.
In regard to our flesh. Acts 19, here, gives us a contrast. On the one hand repentance and faith in Christ, and on the other hand defiance and rejection of Christ.
On the encouraging side, look what happens next. After the demonic encounter, verse 17, fear came over all the people… and “the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled.” And then many people came to faith. The very people who had been involved in these evil practices. Out of the confusion and spiritual darkness, a great Gospel awakening. And they took their books – that is, their magic arts books, and burned them. Vere 19. They were valued at 50,000 pieces of silver total. A piece of silver was worth about a day’s labor. So doing the math, 50,000 silver coins equaled about 3-4 million dollars. They didn’t sell the books and take the profit, no, they burned them – they didn’t want anyone to have these sacrilegious materials. Now, that’s denying the flesh.
The contrast is down in the next section.
All these craftsmen, including a man named Demetrius, were threatened by the Christians, threatened by the Christian message. Why? Well because their income was threatened. They were selling things related to the local goddess, Artemis. (goddess of the hunt). This was big business in Ephesus.
A little side note…. I’ve never been to see the ruins of Ephesus. Interestingly though, when I was visiting my sister who lives in Vienna, there’s an Ephesus Museum in Vienna – in Austria. Kind of strange - I have no idea how it got there. The museum has various ornate columns, many many statues and carving from the various excavated buildings. In them you see all the Greek and Roman influences in these works of art. And there’s a model of the ancient city. I found that most interesting because you could see the layout of where things were.
• Carved into the side of a hill next to the city center was a huge outdoor amphitheater. We’ll come back to that in a few minutes.
• The theater was situated near many city buildings including the library, commercial area, various halls, and bathhouses.
• A short way up the hill, you’d come to the temple of Artemis.
• Down the road was a separate sports arena.
As an important trading city for the region, Ephesus featured entertainment, and sport, and as we already saw, various religious practices. And these religious practices involved commerce – the magic arts books, the various crafted religious objects – idols and small shrines.
So, when Paul preached that “gods made with hands were not gods at all” (verse 26), well that angered the people. Why? Their livelihood - their income was at risk. And they would not give that up. They didn’t care to consider whether their god was a true god.
Do you see the contrast between these two groups of Ephesians? The new believers in the first section gave up their valuable magic arts scrolls - in essence their livelihood. And in contrast, these Ephesians held on tightly to their counterfeit trinkets that they crafted and sold. That’s the flesh.
A well know quote by Jim Elliot came to mind. I’ve mentioned him before. He was one of the missionaries to a remote tribe in Ecuador who was killed. He said this: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” [repeat] The new believers in Ephesus gave up what was very valuable from an earthly standpoint to gain faith in Christ, which will never be taken away.
When we latch on to things in this world… when we put them before God in Christ, then we’ve let our flesh rule over our faith.
Let me expand the comparison. In fact, let’s add the apostle Paul and the Jewish exorcists to the comparison.
• On the side of faith - extraordinary miracles. On the side of the flesh – evil spirits and false idols
• Then there’s lifting up the name of Jesus – compared with taking the name of Jesus in vain.
• Repentance and belief compared with rejection and unbelief
• Great self-sacrifice for the believer, but great selfish gain for the unbeliever
• On the one side, seeking truth and peace… and on the other side, which we’ll see in a minute, stirring up strife and false hope.
There’s a stark contrast here – the way of faith… and the way of the flesh - the enemy of faith – sin within.
So the devil, the flesh… and the other enemy of faith, the world.
The use of the word “world” again here meaning the things in the world that are opposed to faith.
This enemy of faith would include cultural ideologies opposed to the Gospel – beliefs that people rally behind but are contrary to faith and righteousness. There can definitely be an organizational component to this enemy - human structures or institutions that suppress truth or oppress people.
It’s the concluding sections of Acts 19 where we see two glimpses of this last enemy of the faith - the world.
First, this microcosm of the ancient world, Ephesus, included idol worship and a commerce that centered around evil spirits and false gods. The people of Ephesus had built up an informal cultural network of beliefs and dependencies that opposed God in Christ. And this guy, Demetrius, harnessed that informal power that was opposed to faith.
He created a mob opposed to the Gospel. They started shouting “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (verses 28 and 34). They shouted that for 2 hours, it says. They dragged two of Paul’s travelling companions to the amphitheater. We don’t know how big this crowd was, but the theater held 25,000 people. So, perhaps hundreds or even thousands were there. Mass confusion prevailed.
Mob mentality is pretty scarry: self-awareness goes away; emotions like anger, hostility, and excitement take over; people feel anonymous and no longer have a sense of individual responsibility.
Thankfully, those who were with the apostle Paul wouldn’t let him enter the theater. Demetrius had called out Paul as the instigator (verse 26), so Paul could have been beaten to death. But wisdom prevailed.
This is a small glimpse of worldly beliefs, cultural motivations, and organization or in this case, organized chaos – that opposes the faith.
But something interesting happened. Calm is restored. And it happens through a different human institution – this time a formal one - the Roman empire that controlled the entire region. The town clerk stepped in. He reminded them of the risks of breaking the Roman laws against rioting. He urged the people to use the court system. Then he dismissed the assembly. Wow, that’s power.
We’ve seen this kind of thing three to four times now in Acts. It appears the Roman law and proconsuls are on the side of faith. At least, the Roman system provided cover for faith. But be careful who you put your trust in.
Speaking of government and politics, I heard someone say this on a podcast this week – we shouldn’t be putting our trust in the elephant or the donkey, instead we should be putting our trust in the lamb. Think about that one. Jesus, by the way, is called “the Lamb of God.”
Let’s not forget, Rome was just as complicit in the execution of Christ as the Jews were. Here we are 25 years later. It’s about the year 56. Nero had just been anointed emperor over the Roman kingdom. Only 8 or 9 years later, Christianity would undergo a severe persecution under Roman oversight. It would include horrible atrocities. Really, it epitomized Revelation’s description of Babylon. The kingdoms of this world against the kingdom of our God.
The world - enemy of the faith.
The world, the flesh, and the devil. And to reiterate, these are not isolated enemies of the faith. They work together. Even here in Ephesus…
• sin and unbelief gave rise to cultural worldliness.
• Idolatry itself is fueled by the devil… he’ll do anything to distract people from truth and grace. Jesus called Satan the father of lies. His demons, his evil spirits lie and deceive, appealing to the sinful desires of the flesh.
• The great serpent and Babylon the great work together to destroy faith.
Some have called these three enemies of the faith – the unholy trinity.
And we ask – and maybe you’re asking, “do we have any hope?” In one sense, No. What I mean is that if we were left to our own devices and sin and practices, then, no. The world, the flesh, and the devil would win, would conquer us all. The church would be no more.
But beloved, we’re not left to our own sin and devices. Rather, God has intervened into the battle.
We’re not left alone to defend ourselves. “Is there hope?” Yes. A resounding yes! We see the hope here in Ephesus in an amazing way. Look at it… out of all the confusion and evil, God turned the tables. I mean, what caused these people, who had dedicated their lives to some form of witchcraft, to all of a sudden forsake it all? They burned their unholy books! And look at verse 20. “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.” That’s not the work of Paul or the other disciples. No, that’s the work of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, in the providence of the Father. It’s an amazing testimony of victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil.
And you need to know, this victory in Christ is not temporary. Ephesus is not a small victory in a war that will be lost. No, the victory has already been won and secured.
Revelation doesn’t leave us hanging to wonder what becomes of the great prostitute, or Babylon the great, or the great dragon. No, the cosmic battle will be won.
• Satan, the great deceiver, will be thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur – he will be defeated forever and ever, it says.
• And Babylon? She will fall. Judgment will come. She will be laid waste, Revelation promises. She will be consumed with fire.
• And along with Babylon, the great prostitute, who corrupted the earth with her immorality, God has judged, it says.
We’re not hoping in something we hope will happen. No, we hope in something we know will happen.
In fact, it has happened. Do you know who the victor is? Who has accomplished victory? Here’s what it says in Revelation 17 “They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.” Jesus has conquered by his blood! The victor has been secured, not by this overwhelming display of force. No, it has been accomplished in humility in the least expected way.
All three of the enemies of faith thought they had prevailed. When the son of God hung on the cross – the world thought God was defeated. The flesh, or sin, had appeared to prevail, and the devil thought he won and was ready to usurp all the power throughout the world.
But no! What happened, instead, is that through that great display of humility as Christ died on the cross, he defeated all the enemies of faith.
• Our sin - our flesh – the consequences of it - was atoned for on the cross as Christ bore it for us.
• The devil was defeated as Christ rose in power victorious over the grave and hell.
• And the world was overcome as Christ ascended to heaven. He reigns now as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. His reign will be forever. As it says, “the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ.”
We don’t hope as if victory is yet to be obtained over the world, the flesh and the devil. No, it’s already been obtained.
We hope with anticipation of that great day. That day when we will fully realize (in eternity) the victory of the Lamb of God – the only Savior of the world in whom our faith rests.