Gandalf the Grey once observed, “There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil….And that’s an encouraging thought.”
Christians’ attitudes about the spread of the gospel and the progress of the human condition between now and when Jesus returns range from very optimistic to very pessimistic. There are biblical arguments for both extremes and everything in between. The kingdom will spread like yeast until it fills the whole lump, but yeast spreads invisibly; the tares are growing along with the wheat. Things will wax worse and worse, and there will be great persecutions and tribulations right up to the end. With all of the confusion around us, all of the different perspectives on what the spread of the gospel will look like, one truth that we must claim is that gospel preaching will always fulfill God’s purposes. We may not see in society the changes we think the gospel should bring. We may not see the number of people saved that we hope for. But if we can know that our efforts are actually accomplishing something even when times look bleak, God can apply that knowledge to our wills and give us the diligence to keep working while it’s day. We must be confident that the powers opposing God’s purposes cannot stand against gospel truth. God knows the weaknesses of his people and how easily they fall into doubt, and so God gives his people signs.
Jesus’ miracles were signs. Like road signs, they did not exist for their own purposes; they pointed to some other truth beyond themselves. Among the crowds of people who followed Jesus were those who didn’t see beyond the miracle itself. When Jesus produced food for thousands of people in the desert, many of them missed how this teacher was identifying himself with the covenant-keeping God who gave their ancestors manna in the desert and promised that a prophet like Moses would someday come to shepherd them. Many enjoyed the meal and followed Jesus in the hope that he would make more food.
But there were some who understood perfectly what these signs meant, and they hated it. Many religious leaders had built for themselves powerful thrones over the spiritual lives of broken people. They recognized how each sign Jesus performed was a direct attack on the chaos and suffering that sin brought into the world, how each was a fulfillment of the promises God had made about a perfect kingdom to come, and they saw their seats of power begin to crumble. The issue reached a climax in an event recorded in Matthew 12:22-32. Jesus heals a man oppressed by demons. The religious leaders, avoiding the implications of a true exorcism, mutter to themselves that Jesus’ power must come from Satan himself. But Jesus reads their thoughts, something that even Satan has never been known to do. He makes it very clear where his power comes from and what it all means. “If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?…If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (26-28).
Jesus’ free ability to drive out demons with a word is a sign that there has been a seismic shift in the spiritual tectonics undergirding our world. The kingdom has come. Why is it that casting out demons signifies the coming of the kingdom? Jesus clarifies with an analogy: “How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house” (29). The kingdom’s approach would be characterized by a devastating blow to Satan’s power. If Satan is a strong man and the world is his house, Jesus has bound the strong man and will proceed to rob him blind. Satan’s house has been infiltrated, and his synagogue is crumbling.
This teaching of Jesus looked forward to the climax of his ministry when he would take the sacrificial love of God to the belly of the grave itself and conquer it once and for all. After Jesus rose from the dead, he made it clear why he so often identified himself as the Son of Man pictured in Daniel 7. Daniel saw in a vision “One like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom” (13-14). After his resurrection, Jesus declared, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). Not long after this declaration, he was taken up to the Ancient of Days in the clouds of heaven. But he didn’t leave before giving his disciples a job to do on the basis of his authority: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” (19-20). Jesus was not finished plundering the house of Satan, and he would continue that task through the efforts of his disciples as they gathered people into Christ’s Assembly, a task that we continue to this day. As long as our Church is built on a confession of Christ, “the forces of Hell will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).
But people forget and start to doubt. When Paul writes his second letter to the believers in Thessalonica, he’s concerned that they continue with confidence and diligence in the faith. They had recently been shaken by the false teaching that the final judgment had already come. Perhaps recent persecution made them feel as though the gospel was losing its effect. Paul wants them to know that Jesus is still in authority, is still present with them, and still empowers them to continue in their faithful living. He reminds them, “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.…The coming of the lawless one is based on Satan’s working, with all kinds of false miracles, signs, and wonders, and with every unrighteous deception among those who are perishing.” (2 Thess. 2:3, 9-10). This man of lawlessness whose coming must precede the final judgment will rise as an outworking of Satan’s deceptive power. Paul further reminds the Thessalonians that he can’t come yet. “And you know what currently restrains him, so that he will be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but the one now restraining will do so until he is out of the way” (6-7).
The man of lawlessness was not alive at that time, so restraining him meant restraining the deceptive power of Satan that would give rise to him. Paul wanted the Thessalonians to remember that Jesus was still in a position to plunder Satan’s house, and that the full deceptive power of Satan would be held back, unable to raise up the final enemy, until God said so. In the meantime, “brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught” (15). Even when things around us seem bleak, even when our lives themselves are taken away, the Church continues triumphantly. Satan’s thrones continue to crumble, and while they fall, “together with Christ Jesus [God] also raised us up and seated us in the heavens” (Eph. 2:6). Even while our bodies die outwardly, our souls are raised to heavenly thrones “so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (7).
But people still forget and doubt. And so God has left us with a final sign. In contrast to the rest of the New Testament that, though divinely inspired and guided, voiced the thoughts of human authors to specific audiences, the book of Revelation was revealed by Christ himself and was addressed to the entirety of his Church. It is the closest thing we have to a letter directly from Jesus directly to us. One of the final commands of Scripture is implied in one of the last statements in Revelation: “The bride say[s], ‘Come!’” (22:17). By the time we finish reading Revelation, we should have the confidence we need to continue proclaiming the gospel despite how the world looks around us.
To fulfill this purpose, Jesus gives us a series of signs. Revelation is filled with larger-than-life pictures that teach us things present and things to come. One of the last signs that Jesus leaves for us is a picture of all of the truths we just looked at combined. John, the human author of Revelation, says, “I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for 1,000 years. He threw him into the abyss, closed it, and put a seal on it so that he would no longer deceive the nations until the 1,000 years were completed. After that, he must be released for a short time.”(20:1-3). Just as Jesus had already taught, his coming landed a devastating blow on Satan’s reign over this world. Specifically, Satan’s power of deception over the nations has been limited, and that limitation will be as firmly in place as a locked seal over the abyss. Not until God says so will that deceptive power be allowed to raise up the man of lawlessness and the final rebellion, and then only for a very short time (7-9).
Meanwhile, John reports, “I saw thrones, and people seated on them who were given authority to judge. I also saw the people who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus…They came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years…Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of the Messiah, and they will reign with Him for 1,000 years” (4-6). For as long as Jesus holds back Satan’s power and plunders his house, the Church, though we physically die for his sake, are raised up to heavenly places. This picture that Jesus delivered to John of the first, spiritual resurrection gives us confidence that we will never taste the second, spiritual death.
If this is the kind of authority that Jesus holds, then we can have absolute confidence that no matter how bad things look out there, our diligent gospel preaching does not return void. We have God’s promise, demonstrated through signs and wonders and sealed with Jesus’ resurrection, that behind the scenes the kingdom of God reigns. Sometimes it looks like the darkness is winning. But as we walk by faith, we can stand firm and continue to proclaim and live the truth to God’s glory. There are other forces at work besides the will of evil.
And that’s an encouraging thought.