One day in early meditation, the Spirit lead me to study the book of Acts with it’s vortex centered around the passage in Acts 13: 42-52. In this portion of scripture we see Paul in one of his confrontations with evil as he sought to pioneer the gospel message in Pisidian Antioch. Spiritual breakthrough was coming, but at the cost of a bitter battle with a strongly established religious system, or spirit, that resisted the invasion of the good news.
It is worthwhile to take a closer look at this verse. In it we find the strategy of Satan to stop the Message from penetrating the hearts of people who would otherwise receive it warmly. When we understand this often used method of darkness, we can develop counter measures and overcome it in Jesus’ name.
Paul came and presented the gospel on the leading of the Holy Spirit. He preached once and the following Sabbath nearly the whole city came together to hear the Word of the Lord. The presence of God was in his preaching and hungry hearts flocked to hear the messenger speak of their creator.
When the established spiritual leaders saw the multitudes run to these words of salvation by faith, it set in motion the destructive process of the religious spirit. A religious spirit is often seen in those who were once cisterns of godly understanding, but did not remain fountains of living water. They live more on past reputation than on a present walk with Christ. At one time they were a place for many to go for plentiful refreshment. But, something tragic happened in their lives. They became a stagnant pool, and over time, slowly dried up from within. Eventually their claim to ministry became only a mirage in the desert. On close inspection they are old wells with no water. Now only form, tradition and the caked, curled pads of sandy religion are called life’s oasis.
This sad commentary plays out everywhere. Thirsty people want the refreshing word of God in Jesus. But, for too many looking for the water, they are given grains of human dust in the Savior’s name. Parched in a dry land, they walk on in their quest for that which quenches their thirst. Religion misrepresents the Savior and people die.
In part II, I want to turn our attention to why the religious spirit is so effective and how it works.
Let’s take note of the “Religious spirit” in process. There are three stages that are repeated with devastating results. In Paul’s case it took only days for it to respond. In today’s world, it can take months or even years to mature. It is one of the most power wiles of the enemy that rises up when the pure gospel is presented by men and women sent by God.
The first phase of opposition is anger displayed by visible religious leaders. According to this passage, it is motivated by some form of jealousy. Perhaps they envy the anointing of the Lord upon the man of God. Certainly, they do see the end of their time of ruling and controlling, as Sanballat did in the book of Nehemiah. Whatever the motivation, this jealousy is fierce and full of punitive energy (v 45). Since religious leaders express it, no one expects it to be so vile or birthed in the cauldron of demons. But it is, and the true goal is not correction, it is removal of the messenger by any means.
It moves from anger to mockery and gossip. The inner heart of envy begins to control the tongue. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. At first, the words are poured out with a syrupy sweetness of concern for the messenger, “I love them and only want to help.” Then these sentences of love are interrupted by stinging comments, slyly imbedded into each conversation. The statements are hardly noticed at first, for they are subliminal in nature. In time, the comments grow into accusing stories of abuse or sin. The Greek word used in verse 45 for “speak against” has an interesting progression of its own. It takes baby steps by declining to obey the messenger. It matures by declaring one’s self personally at odds with him. In the end, these false leaders refuse to have anything to do with them, because they are just too evil. An unholy arrogance settles in like rigormortis, causing them to distance themselves from God’s true ministers.
Phase one is completed by turning gossip into open, defiant blasphemy of the individual. An open battle of words and actions begin. The ancient word “blaspheme” can have a feeling without definition. It means to slander, defame and to vilify a person. If the destruction and removal of the messenger is going to be possible, their good must be turned into evil. So, false spiritual leaders see evil intent in the messenger’s words, actions and thoughts. They believe that God’s Spirit is revealing these heinous dark secrets only to them. It is their honest belief that the Holy One is directing them to point these faults out to others so that others won’t be deceived. They are driven to “make things right” at any cost, telling everyone of the messenger’s sin, as God has unveiled it privately to them. It is crucifixion by words. Each conversation is now laden with vilification, as the messenger is repeatedly defamed. More and more ready listeners of such gossip, who easily accept the story from such “godly” people are impacted. The truth is, that the false leaders are the ones who are being deceived and being used of the enemy in the name of the Lord. You cannot stand against God’s anointed and be right.
Next, we will look at Phase Two of the operation of the Religious spirit.
It now moves from getting angry to getting followers. A messenger of God is finished when there is a rejection of his message. When this decision is being made, the battle for the crowd is the most fierce. Some listen carefully and are changed. Some give ear to the religious spirit and band together to organize the final directive. In verse 50 the religious leaders “stir up” specific targeted individuals. Their arrogant spirit of superiority and false sense of indignant rightness infects those around them. Followers are solicited. They are incited to hostility and begin to believe that their group solidarity is a sign of God’s approval to carry out the final act. It must be understood that having many do things in unison is not the same as having unity in the Spirit of God. Misguided crowds often do more wrongs while believing in their rightness, in the name of unity. To a large portion of society, might makes right and majority rules. To God, only His word is truth.
Take note of the individuals that are singled out for use of the this spirit. They are the devout, the honorable women and chief men of the congregation. This should give all church leader great pause. Their high position makes them targets for rebellion. Perhaps it would be wisdom to train elders, deacons and other leaders of the congregation that not only do they accept powerful positions in the church, but they invite the temptations of darkness to provoke rebellion against the messengers of God.
The devout are the most involved, the most respected and the most influential in the congregation. Since the word “devout” is inclusive of adoration and worship it may indicate that the popular and admired in the group are especially susceptible to the flattering words of this spirit. If they start to believe they have a following and are particularly favored, watch out.
“Honorable women” are the first important victims to include in the company of the discontent. Women highly influence men. The Greek language describes these two words as well formed, shapely women that are graceful and comely. Their good standing of influence, wealth and respectability give them extraordinary power with the masses. They can easily manipulate the men around them. Especially chosen for their rank, looks and ability to express themselves in speech, they can tip the scales in critical moments.
After convincing the decorous and elegant women, it next moves to the chief men of the gathering. It does not take many, perhaps only five or six men of rank and authority to complete the ensemble. It is now time to strike.
The stage is set for Phase three of the intrusion of the religious spirit. Religion and the true message of God do not dwell together in unity. Either this captivity of darkness is broken or the messenger is expelled in violence. After anger has seethed itself to the surface and followers are solidified, it is the moment to get them out. The messenger is personally persecuted (v 50) for his message and cast from its shores.
The final disposition of rejection of the gospel moves from persecution to expulsion. In the New Testament, expulsion took many forms – all violent. These violent actions commanded people to leave, to be beaten, to be abused, and even included the ultimate rejection of murder. This is expulsion from the shore of humanity. The Greek word here has many meanings that when combined together give us a comprehensive insight into what takes place to the messenger of God. It means to be cast out or driven out with the motion of violence. It is a banishing from a family, a putting out of society. The social world of those expelled is taken from them. The gospel bearer may be led to the edges of town with a force he cannot resist, rejected with contempt, such as they did to Jesus. Many fight back in hopes of winning, but to no avail. The word “expel” paints a vivid picture. Its Greek definition is graphic, it means, “the excrement from the belly into the toilet.” The misguided religious leaders lead the crowds to treat the messenger as dung to be shoveled out of the way so they may retain control of the heart strings of their society.
This poignant moment of the rejection of God’s messenger and his message is both traumatic and sad. The resistors are exalted in the company of the discontent, but their ears are deafened to the Holy Spirit. Their hearts are hardened to the presence of Christ and the miraculous is left undone. A sickening silence settles over the masses. Religion rules, but the river of life goes elsewhere. A dry and thirsty land is firmly established. Now you have a congregation without the grace, and a church without the freedom of God. All of this begs the question, “Will Jesus pass this way again?” In God’s mercy will they get another chance? Only He knows.
It is to be noted to shepherds, that there is a last rite to be performed before you move on to your next assignment of the Lord. Jesus trained the Apostles in this act and Paul carried it out quickly. “They shook off the dust of their feet against them, and come unto Iconium.” This seemingly useless act needs far more consideration. It is more than symbolic. It is a spiritual necessity. It expresses extreme contempt for the powerful rejection of God’s Word and declares an end to dealings with those individuals. Its purpose is to also bring about cleansing of oneself from the filth of the demonic tampering with mankind.
Worldwide, this pattern of enemy intrusion is repeated over and over with great success. It can be defeated, first by recognizing it and standing against it in the mighty name of Jesus. The hearts of the hearers are the battleground. When the hearers stand up and say, “No more!” then a breakthrough is imminent. For the religious spirit always stands in the portal of passage into a grand new work of the Holy Spirit. It is one of the last barriers before Revival.