The Cross and the Cosmic Conflict

By Mark Koonz offers summary of James S. Stewart with quote |  March 31, 2014

There is a little book preachers should read every 5 to 10 years in order to ask, “Does my preaching content include the great doctrines of the biblical faith?”  The man who wrote it was himself a master preacher and teacher, James S. Stewart.  His book is A Faith to Proclaim.  The people in the pews should read it too, because it is so readable, in order to hold preachers to a high standard.  Stewart noted that the attendance of men went up dramatically when he preached on the great doctrines of the Bible.  Under the chapter “Proclaiming the Cross” he has a lot to say about the cosmic struggle that engulfs this world and fills human history. I’ll use this as a guide and weave in some of my own thoughts and illustrations as well.
 
As we prepare for Easter we must remember that the victory of Christ is always tied to his sacrificial death, for the two events belong together as two sides of the same coin.  It is impossible to speak about all aspects of the atoning work of Jesus.  Not even a book-length discussion can say everything.  Today I want to remind you that the biblical context includes more than the details of Jesus’ death.  As a backdrop there was a cosmic battle.  It raged like a tornado through the events the Gospel books record, especially the week when Jesus died.
            The cosmic battle is not always seen but at times emerges visibly on the stage of world events.  It was operating in all aspects surrounding the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus.  This is a reminder to us that our struggle with sin is more than an individual problem or interior struggle at the core of our lives.  Today some psychologists talk about the “divided self,” or the life instinct and the death instinct that are opposed to each other, and so on.  There are all kinds of ways to talk about the inner confusion in our desires.  Yes, there are problems within our nature that we have to deal with, but temptation is often more than an inner conflict.  Stewart says:
 
                        “If temptation were essentially this kind of inner conflict – a higher self
                        against a lower self – then presumably the temptations of Jesus in the desert
                        and Gethsemane were also of this kind:  which would make havoc of the
                        Gospel.  I submit that in our Christian anthropology we have lost something
                        vital here.  Too much there has been lost the sense of cosmic battle which
                        emerges visibly on the stage of world events . . . where it traverses and cuts
                        clean across all such external and contingent frontiers as democracy and
                        Communism and invades at deeper levels in the arena of the life of man
                        and the experience of the individual soul.  We have lost the emphasis that
                        what is really at issue in the agelong tragic dilemma of Romans 7, what in
                        fact is always at stake in every moment of temptation, is not a higher self
                        or a lower self, personal integrity or dishonour – that is the least of it:  what
                        is at stake is the strengthening or (please God) the weakening of the spirit
                        forces of evil that are out to destroy the kingdom of Christ.”  (Pages 78-79).
 
 
 
There are indeed spiritual forces invisible to the human eye that oppose God in this world.  As part of that opposition they seek to mar and disfigure the human creature God has made, they seek the breakdown of all human communities from families to nations.  Because humans were created for the glory of God, as was all the animal kingdom, our destruction and misery is the aim of spiritual forces in rebellion against God. Along with our own personal struggles with sin and self-centeredness, these powers have to be kept in mind.  And so we pray, “Deliver us from evil.”  We mean deliver us as individuals from the sway and influence of evil, but we also mean deliver our entire human family and our world from the presence of evil powers.  “Deliver us from evil” is an important element of daily prayer.
            The Reformer John Calvin, who lived at the time of Martin Luther, said, “For if the glory of God is dear to us, as it ought to be, we ought to struggle with all our might against him who aims at the extinction of that glory” (The Institutes).  When the Apostle Paul faced an angry mob at Ephesus, he saw spiritual powers behind the scenes as it were, like “wild beasts.”  He grappled with them in prayer.
            All of this means that the death of Christ was not merely a revelation of God’s love through the example of suffering, though it certainly was that.  True, he showed us that there is a love that does not stop loving even in the face of hatred and torture, and we need to recognize the greatness of God’s love when we think of Jesus on the cross.  But there was more going on than just the revelation of God’s love.  There was also the culmination of a cosmic battle, a great gathering of forces.  The wolves that circled around Jesus were more than Caiaphas, Pilate, and Herod.  They were more ancient, more malevolent, and more powerful than their human pawns.  They were invisible spiritual powers.  And Jesus broke their backs, as it were, when he died and rose from the dead. 
            Their destruction is sure.  They are like a wounded bear or lion that has suffered a mortal wound.  It will die, but is still dangerous if you are within range.  Or, as another theologian put it, they are like a tethered lion.  It has a range in which it can still strike, wound, and kill.  But its range is now limited by its chain.  Another illustration that acknowledges these powers are still at work comes from World War Two.  Some military planners on the German High Command knew that if the Allied Forces landed on the coast of France and gained a foothold then the end of the war was sure, because the Allies could supply both troops and tanks via that foothold while Russia pressed from the other side.  Marshall Rommel and others knew that Germany was ultimately doomed because of D-Day, but there was still a lot of deadly fighting that would wreak havoc until the day of surrender.
            And so we live in the in-between times.  When the assurance of Satan’s defeat is proclaimed by the Cross and Resurrection, but the culmination of that defeat is still awaited.  We live in the spiritual realm between D-Day and Victory Europe Day!  But we live in the confidence that there can be no other outcome but the final destruction of the forces that oppose God.
            Therefore we seek to live in the light of the victory that is assured and coming.  We seek to honor God and help the poor, welcoming all people into our fellowship because all will be welcome to participate in the Kingdom that is coming.  We honor God by living according to the values of the world to come, not according to the values of greed, jealousy, personal power and self-advancement that disregards the needs of others.  We learn to see people through the eyes of Jesus.  This is our challenge and the good work God alone can accomplish within us by giving us new spiritual eyes and the hope of eternal life.
            Thus Jesus’ victory in his death and resurrection shines a great light on us and gives us hope.  Because of Jesus’ we can even enter the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil.  Because Jesus atoned for our sin, we need not fear God’s wrath in judgment, for Jesus has already received it on our behalf.  We will each answer for things we have personally done, but not as one who stands alone without an advocate.  We have been elected for salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ. 
            In personal ways we may suffer or face difficulties that try our patience.  That is a real problem every human must face with the help of God’s Spirit.  But the outcome of the cosmic struggle is assured.
 

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