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Is a Defeated Devil Powerful?
When I was church planting in Arizona, the last sermon series that I preached through was the gospel of Mark. I didn’t get to finish it because you guys didn’t let me—you’re expedited, fast, Chris Sawicki-like approach to extending a call cut me off halfway through Mark!
That said, I was a bit shocked to see how many sermons on the devil I had to preach when I made my way through the first half of Mark’s gospel. When you read through any of the gospels, you’ll quickly see the devil’s demons practically ruling Jerusalem. Right away in Mark 1, after Jesus calls his first disciples, the first story of Jesus’s ministry involves Jesus casting a demon out of a man who was in the synagogue! Then a few verses later, Mark summarizes Jesus’s early ministry in Galilee by saying “he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.” (1:39). The image we get, there, is an Israel which had been infested with demons-possession like a plague.
Then, Jesus came. He defeated the devil at every turn of his life and ministry. Forty days of being tempted in the wilderness didn’t turn Jesus to the dark side. Being harassed by demoniacs didn’t do anything—they were afraid of him (remember legion?). Even his death was a definitive blow against the devil. Hebrews 2:14, he became a human “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”. The devil appeared to have destroyed Jerusalem by the time Jesus arrived. Then, Jesus destroyed the devil.
So, here’s the question—if the devil was “destroyed” at the cross, then why does it seem that he still has power in our passage? Why is he still opposing God’s kingdom? If you compare Acts with the gospels, it almost seems like nothing has changed at all. Think about where we’re at, here in Acts. Paul is finally beginning his formal missionary work to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. This is the passage when the church’s formal work of global missions begins. R.C. Sproul says, “In this brief text we find the onset of the most significant missionary undertaking in the entire history of the church, indeed in the entire history of the world.” This is where it all begins.
What’s the first opposition to Christ’s kingdom, as this work begins? The devil and his kingdom, still working a full frontal assault against God’s kingdom. “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy!”, is what Paul says to the magician he meets in our passage (13:10). Paul and Jesus are facing the same challenges, here. So, in some ways, the question before us this morning is this— is the defeated devil still powerful, after Christ supposedly put an end to him? Has anything changed—even for us, today, as we consider what this means for us?
We’ll answer that question, this morning, by allowing our passage to define three important, game-changing weapons which Christ made available to us, to his kingdom. Now, instead of giving you a clear, three-point outline this morning, I want to keep you on your toes. So, I’m just going to tell you—once again—that you can expect three game-changing weapons of warfare which Christ has equipped us with through his victory, for his kingdom, as we contend our sin and the darkness around us. Through these weapons, the devil is rendered powerless over us.
The First Weapon Christ Equips Us With...
So, let’s look our passage this morning, where we might find the first weapon of warfare which Christ has equipped us with. Look at verses 1–4, where it’s mentioned twice.
Acts 13:1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.
Acts 13:4 So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus.
So, what weapon am I think of, here? What’s mentioned twice? Worshipping the Lord? Praying? Fasting? Fasting is mentioned twice, here—in verses 2 and 3. That’s not what I’m think of.
I’m thinking of the Holy Spirit. Fasting, praying, worshipping—it’s all completely powerless and fruitless in our warfare against sin and the devil if it’s not accompanied with the power of the Holy Spirit.
As you read through Acts, you’ll see that it’s the Spirit who is driving Christ’s kingdom and mission forward at every turn of the page. Jesus prepares his disciples for this when, just before ascending to heaven, he tells them to wait in Jerusalem until they are “clothed with power from on high”. Whose power? Jesus’s power, God’s power—namely, the Holy Spirit's power. At Pentecost, the church receives the Spirit as they receive Christ’s salvation. When the gentiles first believed in Acts 11, they received the Spirit. Whenever Peter, John, or Stephen, or Philip (whenever anyone) preaches powerful sermons, Acts reminds us that they are “filled with the Spirit” as they are speaking boldly and being persecuted. The Spirit is moving Christ’s kingdom forward, and the devil’s kingdom back.
Here in our passage, more specifically, we see the Holy Spirit giving the church direction as the church is considering how to begin her mission to the gentiles. “Set apart Paul and Barnabas for the work I called them to” (verse 2). There’s no salvation, no power, no growth or maturity or direction in the church or in any believer without the Holy Spirit.
How Do We Receive the Spirit?
So the question, then, is how does the church receive the Holy Spirit? How can we be sure we are equipped with this same Spirit of salvation, and power, and boldness, and direction as the early church was, so we might also be effective for Christ’s kingdom?
Some folks would say that because we’re stuck-up, traditional Presbyterians who sing from a hymnal and have a structured, liturgical service—we don’t have the Spirit. Have you heard that accusation? “I went to that church. They don’t have the Spirit, I just didn’t feel him there”. That’s a big accusation, folks—and, I fear many folks don’t know it. We’ve been trained to think the Spirit is an energy force, or some “power” to “tap into” and “feel”.
The Bible says that the Spirit is a person. He’s the third person of the Godhead—Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit, there’s no God in a church. It’s a godless church. “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to [Christ]”, is what Paul says in Romans 8:9. So again, how can we be sure we have the Spirit and his power among us?
The shortest answer to this question, ladies and gentlemen, is to receive the gospel—to receive Jesus, crucified and risen—through faith. That’s what we’ve seen over and over again throughout all of Acts. As we’ve seen the Spirit received in Acts, we’ve no doubt seen Jesus preached in Acts. The apostles preached Jesus at every turn of the page. They preached his life and ministry—he lived a perfect life, without sin, so he might offer the perfect sacrifice. Then, the apostles preached his death—he died to atone for the sins of his people. Our guilt before God’s wrath and judgment is dealt with. Period. Forgiven. Washed away with the blood, for fellowship with God. Then, the apostles preached Jesus’s resurrection and ascension—he bodily rose to life, and ascended to his throne in heaven where he received all authority and power as the victorious Savior of God’s people. As that was preached, and the people received the Christ, we are told that the Spirit came upon them with power to believe, and to follow their Lord.
Spirit-empowered preaching brought Spirit-enabled faith and salvation, as the Spirit was working powerfully in the church. Generically, that’s how the churches in Acts received the Spirit.
How is the Spirit a Weapon For Us?
Now, how does that relate to the Spirit being a weapon of warfare for Christ’s kingdom? What power, or blessings, is available to a church through the Spirit?
I love how Peter says it in his Pentecost sermon, if you wanted to turn back a few pages to Acts 2:32. Peter is just going through the gospel, here, as I just described. After Jesus rose from the dead, Peter says this about what Jesus acquired for his church—
32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.
So, Jesus wasn’t just raised up from the dead, there. He was exalted. You exalt kings, and rulers. This is describing how God set Jesus on the throne of his kingdom—“at the right hand of God”, as verse 33 says there. Most kings rule with a Scepter, and with their word as they give commands and statutes for their kingdom. What did God give Jesus? God gave the Holy Spirit to Jesus—“having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing”. Jesus’s scepter—his word that goes out to dictate rules and legislation—isn’t the scepter and word of any ordinary king. He rules through the power of his Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who powerfully raised Jesus from the dead. That’s the scepter of our king. That’s the Spirit of Christ’s kingdom, at the disposal of the king’s wise hand. Through his Spirit, Christ subdues rebellious hearts to himself, to receive his forgiveness and salvation. Christ protects his people, provides for them, rules peace and love and patience directly into their hearts. He guides his church through his Spirit. The list goes on forever, folks—as infinite as God’s Spirit may be.
So, all this to say—the church in Antioch who sent Paul and Barnabas on their mission to the nations had the Spirit working among them, directing them, because they received Jesus. If you’ve received Jesus—even if your faith is the size of a mustard seed—then you can rest assured that Spirit a wonderful work of salvation in you. The king is subduing your heart to himself, for your good and your protection and salvation.
Seeking More of the Spirit’s Power
However, as I just mentioned, the Spirit is indeed a resource of infinite, divine proportions—and, we can appeal to God, through Christ, for more of his Spirit’s blessings. There are ways we can ask God for the Spirit’s blessings and power—and, we see those in our passage, don’t we? What were the folks in Antioch doing when the Spirit told them to set apart Paul and Barnabas?
They were looking for direction. They were looking to God for direction. Given the recent events that we’ve read about in Acts, it was only a matter of time that the church would be called upon to commence global evangelism to the nations. Put yourself in that situation—“ok Covenant Presbyterian, it’s time to bring Jesus to the nations for the first time, ever.” What would you say? “Great! Where do I start?” You could go anywhere, you know. North to Speculator. South to Albany or New York City (God help us). West to Syracuse? East to Boston? Should we take a plane to Africa? Then of course—who do we send? I can only imagine the loss for words, and the need for direction, this church was experiencing at this moment. They needed their Lord to help them. So what did they do? Verses 1–4 tell us how they sought the Spirit’s blessings: worship (verse 2), fasting (verse 2), and prayer (verse 3).
That’s what they were doing. At a moment of dire need in Christ’s kingdom, the church worshipped and prayed diligently, with fasting. That should put some things into perspective for us, this morning, as we’re gathered here to worship. We often say prayer is warfare—but so is corporate worship. When we gather in worship, we aren’t merely offering up our praises to God. We’re trusting that God will meet with us to empower us and encourage us in our fight against sin, the devil, and this world. Corporate worship is warfare—remember that. Every Sunday, a big statement is declared to the world, to the devil, and to us: “Jesus is alive, reigning through his Spirit—he’s called us to worship him as Lord, and he will save us, even if the world would seek to kill us”.
So generically, we’ve defined the first weapon of Christ’s kingdom is the Spirit of his kingdom. Every believer and every church which has received Christ by faith has Christ’s Spirit, regardless of the size of their faith. Only by faith in Jesus, let’s then appeal to the Spirit’s power through prayer, fasting, and worship.
Now, there are two more weapons which Christ made available to his kingdom.
The Second Weapon Christ Equips us With...
Exactly what did the Holy Spirit do in our passage—specifically at the beginning of our passage? He appointed the two men who would lead the next phase of Christ’s kingdom into the Roman world, and he sent them out. “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (verse 2). So, this is the Spirit’s work to appoint certain men to the ministry. Notice that the Spirit doesn’t tell them where to go in this passage. We’re left without knowing why Paul and Barnabas made their first stop the Island of Cyprus.
Right now, just notice that the Spirit’s work, here, is appointing certain men to lead certain ministries in Christ’s kingdom. Here, he called Paul and Barnabas. But these aren’t the only men who have been appointed by the Spirit in this passage. Look at verse 1—the actual names of the leaders in the church at Antioch are mentioned. That’s a bit odd—seemingly inconsequential, here. They’re described as “prophets and teachers”. God, through his Spirit, appointed these men to be the leaders of the church in Antioch. Paul says in Ephesians 4:11 that God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers… for building up the body of Christ”. God gave these offices to the church. God appoints certain men through his Spirit.
I think that may be part of the reason why we have actual names and descriptions of the men in verse 1, there. Without going into detail, the descriptions describe an unusual crew of men from drastically different ethnicities, economic and religious backgrounds. This is a situation ripe with conflict and leadership failure, by many standards. Now, they’re serving the same Lord—willing to die together. From beginning to end, Christ’s kingdom is the work of Christ. This goes for the leaders he calls. The more unlikely the leader, the more Christ’s power is exalted through his church.
Now, God appointed these men to be weapons against the powers of darkness for his kingdom. I already pointed out Ephesians 5—God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers… for the building up of the body of Christ”. Throughout our study in Acts, we’ve seen how certain, appointed offices have served as weapons against darkness for the church. Back in Acts 6, we saw how we’re called to appoint deacons to protect the church from grumbling, and to protect pastors from being distracted from their preaching and teaching responsibilities.
Then there’s the prophets in the early church. When the church was not yet equipped with the New Testament Scriptures, Christ equipped his church with prophets. When the church was young and vulnerable, in need of guidance, Christ provided his prophets.
We could say much more about the apostles, and about the evangelists and missionaries like Barnabas. The point is—Jesus is reigning over his church as he provides these offices, and as he appoints men into these offices. In a show of his power and mercy, he’s even able to call men like Saul of Tarsus to fulfill his work. We should all be diligent to pray for the men like myself, who are filling these offices. May the Lord cause the man to disappear behind the power and glory of his Spirit’s ministry. “I must decrease, he must increase”, as John the Baptist said.
So, we’ve seen two weapons of warfare which Christ has equipped his church with. He’s given us his Spirit—and then through his Spirit, he’s appointed leaders to lead the charge of Christ’s kingdom forward.
Let’s look at the last weapon Christ has given us.
A Third Weapon Christ Equips us With...
When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Cyprus, what do they do? Verse 5—“When they arrived at Salamis”—that’s the eastern-most port city on the island, where they would have docked—"they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews.” Any guesses what the last weapon of warfare might be? Not only the Spirit of God—but the Word of God is driving Christ’s kingdom forward.
Consider the battle that needed to be contended, here. Paul and Barnabas begin preaching in the Jewish synagogues that were on the Island. The word “synagogues” in verse 5 is plural. So, they went from synagogue to synagogue, preaching Jesus. They went the entire length of the 50-mile-wide island, wielding the Sword of truth, preaching Jesus, until they arrived on the western-most port city of Paphos (verse 6). There, they met their opposition. A Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus opposes them.
This was a crucial point in Paul’s ministry on Cyprus, by the way. Paphos was the governmental district of the island. It’s where the proconsul Sergius Paulus lived and carried out his civic duties as the proconsul of Cyprus. He would have served much like a governor serves today. This was Paul making a bee-line to Albany, if you will, in order to preach the word to governor Hochul and turn her to serve Jesus rather than Caesar.
Bar-Jesus—or, Elymas (as he’s called in verse 8)—opposes Paul and Barnabas. He’s named “Bar-Jesus”, possibly because that’s what he called himself. He’s a false prophet, he likely claimed that he was the “son of salvation”. That’s what Bar-Jesus literally means. Then in verse 8, Luke calls him Elymas—a word that means “magician”. So, he proclaimed himself as the son of salvation, and he had black magic to back his claims. More than this, he was “with the proconsul” (verse 7). So, he used his spiritual power to gain political power. Verse 8 tells us that he sought to “turn the proconsul away from the faith”, as Paul was preaching. He wanted Sergius to himself. This was a battle for power, influence, and control over worldly leaders and governments (not to mention the soul of Sergius himself).
The devil is in the details of wicked, worldly governments, folks. And the only thing that could ever change that is Christ, through his powerful weapons of warfare as we see them unfold this morning.
God's Word of Truth
Now, Paul is militant to declare God’s word in this situation. He’s fighting. He declares God’s word in three ways. He first declares God’s word of truth—he identifies truth from falsehood, crooked from straight. In verse 10, we’re told that Paul, “filled with the Spirit, looked intently at him, and said ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?’” That’s Spirit-filled name calling, right there. It’s the word of truth. This man called himself “son of salvation”, yet he was the son of the devil. Exposing sin, deceit, and the devil—through Christ’s word and Spirit—are powerful ways to disarm the devil and destroy sin in your life.
God's Word of Judgment
Now, Paul doesn’t just proclaim God’s word of truth, setting straight what was crooked—he also proclaims God’s word judgment. Verse 11, “And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” The man who claimed to be a prophet of salvation, who could see spiritual things which ordinary people couldn’t, now needed help to walk out of the room (verse 11). After a dinner this week, I had my boys run around the table saying “I’m the best! I’m the smartest! I’m the fastest!”—then, I put a blindfold on them and told them to keep gloating and running in circles. William literally ran head-first into a wall, as he was in the middle of saying “Follow me! I’ll save you!”. They got the point of the story. The judgment exposed the folly and the lies, and revealed Christ and Lord.
So Paul proclaimed Christ’s word of truth, and Christ’s word of judgment.
God's Word of Salvation
But, there’s one more subject matter that Paul proclaimed. Verse 12— “Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” What was it that ultimately astonished Sergius, and moved him to believe in Jesus? “The teaching of the Lord”. Again—Paul’s preaching which no doubt included the word of Christ’s perfect life and ministry, his perfect sacrifice for sins to satisfy God’s wrath for forgiveness, his resurrection and ascension, and his powerful rule from heaven which the Proconsul saw first-hand as Christ’s Spirit struck Elymas with blindness.
No doubt, the Spirit went before Paul, fighting for Christ’s kingdom, even as the Spirit appointed Paul for this task. However, the Spirit went forward through the preached word. His word is a powerful weapon, folks. Don’t neglect it. Don’t think for a second that our church is dying or is stagnant or powerless, or any such thing. So long as his word is proclaimed and received, he’s ruling among us through his Spirit of wisdom and power. May he fight for us, give us wisdom—even as he did for the church in Antioch, as we go to him in prayer and worship every week. May he fight for us as we go to his word, and spread his word through our witness.
The Weapons Are Available
So, Christ’s weapons available to you, by his blood, through faith—(1) the Spirit of Christ kingdom, (2) the appointed leaders of Christ’s kingdom, and (3) the Word of Christ’s kingdom. They’re all available to us, this morning, as Christ continues to rule over us with utmost patience and power and wisdom.