The Seen and the Unseen War
Each day we make important choices about lifestyle, relationships, careers, priorities, entertainment, and friends. To truly comprehend the significance of these choices, we need to make sure we understand what they are really about. We need to pull back the curtain and see the unseen, for the Bible teaches that there is an unseen reality that greatly impacts what we do see.
Living in the age of science, we shouldn’t have a hard time believing in invisible realities. We who know about X-rays, radio waves, and wireless communication should easily believe in what we cannot see. With every cell phone call we make or receive, or with any satellite communication we watch, we are working on the assumption of unseen realities that make these seen (and heard) experiences real.
Indeed, the great controversy between Christ and Satan forms the unseen background to the world of the seen that we experience every day. This week we will examine texts from Matthew (and elsewhere) that help to reveal these unseen forces and how they impact our lives, and choices, here.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, April 30.
Scripture is the Word of God, and in it the plan of salvation is made clear. Yet, some texts can be difficult to understand. This, though, should not be surprising. After all, in every aspect of natural life we find things hard to understand. How much more so will it be with parts of the Word of God, which reveal to us spiritual and supernatural truths and realities?
Ellen G. White expressed this concept so clearly: “The very humblest forms of life present a problem that the wisest of philosophers is powerless to explain. Everywhere are wonders beyond our ken. Should we then be surprised to find that in the spiritual world also there are mysteries that we cannot fathom? The difficulty lies solely in the weakness and narrowness of the human mind. God has given us in the Scriptures sufficient evidence of their divine character, and we are not to doubt His word because we cannot understand all the mysteries of His providence.”—Steps to Christ, pp. 106, 107.
For instance, one of the most challenging texts in all Scripture is Matthew 11:11, 12: “ ‘Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it’ ” (NIV).
Some translations of verse 12 read: “ ‘From the days of John the Baptist until the present, the kingdom from heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people have been attacking it’ ” (ISV). “ ‘And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it’ ” (NLT).
What is Jesus saying to us here?
Bible students through the ages have struggled with Matthew 11:12 because the words that describe the kingdom and the people here can be used in either a positive or negative sense. The Greek verb basmati can mean either “forcefully advancing” or “suffering violence.” And the Greek word biastes can mean “forceful or eager men” or “violent men.”
So, does this verse mean that the meek and mild kingdom of heaven is suffering violence, that violent people are attacking it? Or is the kingdom of heaven forcefully advancing in a positive sense, and the forceful men seizing it are actually followers of Christ?
Is it possible for followers of Christ to be this aggressive, even forceful, in their pursuit of the kingdom?
Some have argued that the most likely interpretation of Matthew 11:12 is to apply the most common uses of biazomai (typically positive) and biastes (typically negative), giving us this interpretation: the kingdom of heaven is forcefully advancing with “holy power and magnificent energy that has been pushing back the frontiers of darkness”; and while this is happening, “violent or rapacious men have been trying to plunder it.”—D. A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary With the New International Version: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), pp. 266, 267.
This interpretation appears to ring true to the wider Gospel of Matthew. In fact, this interpretation also captures the bigger picture, that of the struggle between light and darkness, between Christ and Satan, a theme that permeates the Bible but is made explicit in the New Testament. There is indeed a war, seen and unseen, in which we are all involved, in which we all take a side, in which we all experience every day, regardless of how much we do or do not understand what’s going on. This is what living amid the great controversy is all about.
Whatever the ultimate meaning of Matthew 11:12, as we saw yesterday, it does help to reveal the reality of the great controversy. It depicts a struggle, a battle, and—as we know from other Bible texts—this battle is, at the core, the one between Christ and Satan.
1 John 5:19
Eph. 2:2, 6:10–13
These are just a few of many more texts, both in the Old and New Testament, that refer to what one contemporary (non-Adventist) theologian has called the “Warfare Worldview,” the idea that there is a battle going on between supernatural powers in the cosmos, a warfare in which we are all in one way or another involved. This notion, of course, is not new to Seventh-day Adventists. It has been part of our theology from the earliest days of our church; indeed, our pioneers held to it even before our church itself was officially formed.
As we have already seen, the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:12, however deep, do reveal the fact that the kingdom of God isn’t going to be established without a struggle, or without a fight. That fight, we understand, is the great controversy, and it has been and still is raging. It will until the final destruction of sin, Satan, and the lost. And, at times, it can and does get very nasty along the way.
We can see the reality of the great controversy, and just how nasty it can become, in the context in which Jesus Himself said what He did in Matthew 11:12.
For starters, who do we think inspired the leaders to put John in jail? We can see here Satan’s attempt not only to stop John but to discourage faith in Jesus. After all, if John, Jesus’ forerunner, met such a fate, what could one hope for Jesus Himself?
Then, too, there’s no question that Satan could have made the followers of Jesus and John ask themselves the question: If this Jesus of Nazareth can do so many wonderful things, and has so much power, then why is He letting such a faithful and good man as John, His cousin, rot in jail?
Also, who do we think was putting the doubts in John’s head? Why am I here? Why doesn’t He free me? Hence, no wonder he asked, “ ‘Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?’ ” (Matt. 11:3, NKJV). Remember, this is the same John who baptized Jesus, who saw the “ ‘Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him’ ” (Matt. 3:16, NKJV) and who heard the voice from heaven declare: “ ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’ ” (Matt. 3:17, NKJV). Now, though, with all that had happened, he becomes filled with doubts. Of course, as bad as John’s situation was, it was (at least for the short term) going to get worse, which could only continue to feed more doubt (Mark 6:25–28).
All through history, humans have engaged in warfare. Something in human nature causes the people of one group to want to plunder, pillage, and slaughter those of another. In a book about her father, British philosopher Bertrand Russell, Katherine Tait wrote about her father’s concern at the outbreak of World War I regarding the joy in the streets of England at the prospect of war with Germany. “He had grown up with an optimistic Victorian belief in automatic progress, with the confidence that the whole world would, in its own good time, follow the wise course of the English from ancient brutality to civilized self-government. Then, suddenly, he found his own beloved compatriots dancing in the streets at the prospect of slaughtering great numbers of fellow human beings who happened to speak German.”—My Father Bertrand Russell (England: Thoemmes Press, 1997), p. 45. Multiply this same idea over history among almost all people, and we see the reality of fallen human nature in one of its most consequential and tragic forms.
Now, in most of these human wars, no one knew the outcome beforehand. People went to battle not knowing if they would be on the winning or losing side.
In the “Warfare Worldview” of our cosmos, we have one great advantage: we know which side has already won. Christ has won the decisive victory for us. After the Cross, no question remained about who is the Victor and who can share in the fruits of that victory. Satan’s cause is, indeed, a lost cause.
Just as Satan lost the war in heaven, he lost the war on earth, as well. But with hatred and vengeance he’s still seeking all whom he may devour (see 1 Pet. 5:8). However complete Christ’s victory, the battle still rages, and our only protection is to place ourselves, mind and body, on the winning side. And we do that by the choices we make every day. Are we making choices that put us on the winning side, where the victory is assured for us, or on the losing side, where defeat is certain? On the answer to this question our eternal destiny hangs.
Further Thought: Who among us doesn’t know the reality of the great controversy? We know about this war because we feel it inside us on a daily basis. We live in a broken world, a world cursed with anxiety and pain. A world where a serpent isn’t limited to one tree in the middle of a garden but where the entire garden has been overrun with serpents. A world full of the whispers of temptation that come in all sorts of ways and that so easily ensnare those who are not diligent in faith and in prayer. No wonder Jesus said: “Watch and pray” lest we fall into the many snares that await us. And, of all the snares, perhaps the most dangerous one for the Christian is believing the lie that says, “When you succumb to temptation, you’ve gone too far. There is no God of grace who will welcome you back into His arms.” Who hasn’t at one time or another heard that voice whispering in his or her ears? In one sense, that sentiment is right: when you fall into temptation, even once, you have gone too far to ever get yourself back. That’s exactly why Jesus came, won the victory for us where we all have failed, and then offers His triumph to us. This is what the whole gospel is about, Jesus doing for us in the great controversy what we could never do for ourselves. At the same time, too, though, we have to choose, daily, hourly, moment by moment, to place ourselves on His side, and we do that by obeying His Word and by claiming the promises of victory that He had assured us we can have, the whole time leaning only upon His merits for us as the surety of our salvation.