In any warfare, it is virtually impossible to fight against an unknown and unidentified enemy. It is a war without a sense of direction. At the same time, this poses a grave danger to the lives of the soldiers involved. Every move that is made could be met with a fatal counterattack from the enemy. In such a situation, the mounting fear would destroy the courage needed to fight on till the end. Is there a chance at all for this kind of battle to be won? Needless to say, this battle has one probable and predictable outcome—it is as good as lost even before it begins.
Likewise, Paul tells us that we are battling not against flesh and blood; we are up against the spiritual hosts of wickedness (Eph. 6:12). The fight is made all the more difficult because the enemy is invisible. How are we going to fight? Thankfully, we do not fight by ourselves. We battle against the foes in the air through our faith in Jesus. The word of God, much like a pair of combat night-vision goggles, enables us to locate the whereabouts of our enemies of darkness. If the word of God is firmly upheld in our hearts, our spiritual eyesight will be brightened up to see our enemy’s every move.
Evil spirits cannot be seen by the naked eye. Their works are made visible through those whom they have taken captive. In the case of a demon-possession, the possessed person is fully under the control of Satan. His will is under the dictate of the devil, as is his mind and behaviour. This inevitably leads the sufferer to have an off-the-wall lifestyle, causing much headache and huge problems to people around him. This abnormality is a clear pointer to the existence of the work and the presence of the evil one in the person.
One time, Jesus came to the country of the Gadarenes, where He met a demon-possessed man (Mk. 5:1–4). The man had lost control of his senses completely: he did not live in his own house; instead he dwelt amongst the tombs. The people around him could not bring him under control—even when they bound him with chains, he was empowered by the spirits to break free. Practically, no physical restraint could be imposed on him with any lasting effects. He lived a life of insanity, wondering about on the mountains and in the tombs. Instigated by the evil spirit, he would cry out loud for no apparent reason. And harming himself with stones had become a regular affair in his life in darkness.
Demon-possession—occasional emergence of the spirit
Sometimes, a spirit can remain dormant in a person for a substantial period of time, but these cases are not exactly easy to identify. This is because the demon-possessed person may act like any mentally sound person and live a normal life. Occasionally, the spirit emerges, when the demon-possessed is made use of to achieve the will of his master. Once the work is done the spirit hides itself or goes away and the person returns back to his normal self. Perhaps, the only difficulty with identifying such a case is that it is uncertain when the evil spirit will strike again through the human vessel it possesses.
The case of King Saul, after the Spirit of God had left him, is one notable case. The Bible says a distressing spirit from the Lord came upon him and troubled him, and his servants could see that the spirit disturbed him (1 Sam. 16:14–15). However, there is a hint of normality in the behaviour of Saul. He still managed to speak to his servants and was not completely taken over by the spirit. That is why he consented to the suggestion of his servants to bring in a skilful player of the harp to help him be set free from the spirit’s disturbance (1 Sam. 16:16ff).
Saul’s oscillation between normality to abnormality further discloses the work of the evil spirit. Sometimes, Saul would be completely normal when David was playing the harp for him. But at other times, when the distressing spirit came, he would be moved to kill David (1 Sam. 18:10f). When Saul came back to his senses, he would be utterly sorry for his acts of insanity and resolve not to harm David ever again (1 Sam. 19:6). But later, the evil spirit again instigated him to try to kill David with a spear (1 Sam. 19:9–10). Obviously, there are reasons that prompted the spirit to work in Saul. In this case, it was due to his suspicion and jealousy (1 Sam. 18:9).
The covert acts of Satan through man
In the Gospels, Jesus warns us that in the last days the works of the evil one shall be more rampant than ever before (Mt. 24:5, 11, 24). Elder John expresses the ultimate attack of Satan on the saints. The wicked one is extensively deceiving the world (Rev 12:9). The subtlety of the attack is that it is not done with weaponry of mass destruction upon physical lives. Rather, it is designed to confuse the mind, causing one to disobey God and His word. When the word of God or the standard of belief is no longer clear, the way of salvation shall be indistinct and eventually lost.
This part of Satan’s work is tricky, as it is not made manifest in demon-possession with abnormal behaviour. It is covert in that it works on the mind, to lead the deceived away from the right path. Their behaviour is perfectly normal, like any other human being, but their mind is corrupted to go against the truth of the Lord. Paul warned the church in Corinth that he feared the believers’ simplicity in Christ was corrupted (2 Cor. 11:2f). The scary part is that the deceived always insistently believe that whatever they do is noble and for the Lord.
- Capturing the heart
In the time of Hosea, the entire nation was bent on going against the Lord and worshipping idols. Although many prophets had been raised up, time and again, to warn them about the impending wrath of God, they could not turn away from idolatry. This is not just about being stubborn. According to Hosea, it is the spirit of harlotry that had caused them to stray (Hos. 4:12). In other words, they were under the control of the spirit. They were unable to direct their deeds towards turning to their God for the spirit of harlotry was in their midst (Hos. 5:4).
An identical message is given by Paul, who gave instruction to Timothy to deal with those who opposed the truth (2 Tim. 2:25f). Paul’s perception of a deceived person is that he has lost his senses—not in the sense of being abnormal but, rather, he is not able to see what the truth is. He has fallen into the snare of the wicked one. Surely, somewhere down the line in his life or service to God, he must have given ground for the devil to work in him. He eventually ends up being taken captive by Satan to do the will of the wicked one. He is no longer a servant of God but one of Satan.
In a normal setting, he will be warned and corrected by workers and the church (2 Tim. 2:25). However, there is no guarantee that such a person would return to the truth. Provided he responds to the correction positively, God will grant him repentance. Otherwise, there is no way for him to turn to God. The longer he remains in deception, the more difficult it will be for him to be disentangled from the bondage of Satan. He would be completely sucked into the whirlpool of falsehood, without a trace of the truth—that had saved him before—remaining in him. The consequence is unthinkable. He will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived (2 Tim. 3:13).
- The case of Judas
He was one of the twelve disciples, whom Jesus had chosen, and he was given the task of looking after the coffer. Unfortunately, he was a greedy person and a thief; he always took what was in the money box (Jn. 12:1–6). He gave ground for corruption to seep in. This allowed the wicked one to freely put the idea of betraying Jesus in his mind (Jn. 13:2). The work of the evil spirit was virtually unknown to all, apart from Jesus. It seeks to gain free access to the person and take control of his mind. Little was Judas aware that he had been turned into the instrument of Satan, who was trying to put Christ away.
Such was the bizarre state of Judas. Oftentimes, his words were lies, covering up the wicked intent of the heart. Seeing that Mary anointed Christ with a precious ointment, he spoke out against the seeming squandering of wealth, which could have been used to help the poor. His motive, the Bible reveals, is not one of genuine care for the poor but one of stirring up by the greed in his heart. Likewise, his action to kiss Christ is one of betrayal, signalling to his conspirators who Jesus was. No wonder John says Satan had entered into his heart (Jn. 13:27).
Discern the spirits
In view of the above, it becomes absolutely essential for the church and individual believers to discern the spirits by knowing the work of Satan, in order to avoid falling into his trap. The strength and power to discern comes from God, knowing His word and being rooted in the beliefs the church has received. Any attempt to move away from the foundation of the faith would give ground to Satan to work in individuals’ lives and, indeed, the church as a whole. Paul says unambiguously that “no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).
The stakes cannot be higher: to be rooted in the firm foundation of the Lord is of utmost importance. The danger cannot be greater when the church, or anyone for that matter, is not holding on firmly to the word of God. The church shall suffer great loss when the word of God is snatched away from her. The decline of the apostolic church is a historical reality that we cannot afford to ignore. Instead great lessons must be learned from the downfall of the earthly church. It should always serve as a stern reminder to the end-time true church, with whom God has planned to achieve the final part of His work of redemption before His second coming.