Let’s look at a rough outline of Acts 23. Paul was imprisoned but uses his identity as a Pharisee to his advantage to defend himself and cause division amongst the Sadducees and Pharisees. The Lord Jesus appeared to Paul later that night assuring him that He would be with him and not to be afraid. The chapter ends with a group of Jews taking an oath to kill Paul but were unsuccessful because Paul’s nephew heard about the plot and reported it to the centurion. The centurion snuck Paul out of the city in the middle of the night surrounded by soldiers to protect him. He was kept in Herod’s palace.
The revelation we received from this chapter is that God will use us to change society if we don’t compromise with the religious spirit of the church. What do I mean by this? Listen carefully, and I’ll explain.
One man in our study shared that he felt Paul was using the conflict between the Pharisees and the Sadducees to divide them. Scripture says, But the Lord appeared to him at night, stood near him and said, “As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” (NIV, Acts 23:11)
We know that Jerusalem was the center of religious power at that time, and Rome was the center of secular power.
I think this man’s analysis makes some sense. I call the Pharisees’ sect “Vigilantism”. They are neither Levites nor priests, and they consider themselves to be defenders of the Jewish law. They incorporated hundreds of laws that went far beyond the Law of Moses. Their laws were intolerable. Thus, when the Lord Jesus came, He criticized them for being hypocritical and blamed them for putting heavy burdens on people. They also opposed Roman rule. This represents religious power in the Jewish religion.
Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They even challenged the Lord Jesus on the resurrection of the dead. They did not believe in resurrection and angels, but the Pharisees did believe these things were true. The Sadducees were known to have vested interest in Roman rule, so they had a mixed bag of secular power among the Jews.
Paul was breaking the traditional boundaries of Judaism by spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles, so both groups joined forces against him. There are religious and secular forces here. The main issue is the religious spirit stirred the Jews up against Paul. Instead of giving in to the religious spirit, Paul bravely fought the spirit of the religion, which stirred the Jews into making a vow to kill him.
I shared my experience of leaving one evangelical church and moving to a Pentecostal church to learn more about what they believe. This caused a lot of trouble because my original church didn’t understand or accept the Pentecostal Movement. The rise of the religious spirit in several members of my former congregation caused many arguments. If you’ve ever left a traditional church and moved towards Pentecostalism, you understand what I mean. If someone as unimportant as me can cause such opposition from this religious spirit, you can imagine how an important figure like Paul, who was steeped in Judaism, was strongly opposed for converting to Christianity and preaching the Gospel.
I went to the Pentecostal Movement to seek prayer for healing and prophetic guidance because my wife was unable to conceive. Over time I learned many new truths from this movement. I understand that there is a lot of the enemy’s infiltration as well as human flesh that can get in the way but there are many truths that are important to examine and study. The baptism of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, healing, spiritual gifts and worship are a few to consider. I tried to explain to my former church members what I was learning but some believed they possessed the only truth and didn’t accept what I was trying to get across. Others were too afraid to accept it.
I realized that one of the reasons that my evangelical friends who are older than me cannot accept the Pentecostal Movement isn’t necessarily because it teaches the wrong doctrine. It’s because they may pay a price for joining this movement. Some will lose family or friends through this association. An evangelical pastor runs the risk of losing his congregation. In my situation, I wasn’t a pastor or elder, and the price I paid was to have several evangelical friends who no longer talk to me. That was a low price to pay compared to some. Older members of the evangelical church I belonged to spent their whole lives believing that they hold the only truth. If I come along and challenge these truths with what I’m learning in the Pentecostal Movement, it has a great psychological impact. If they admit I might be right, they have to face the fact that they have actually been deceived. It’s so much easier for them to say that I’m wrong and deceived by evil spirits. Unfortunately, their minds will be closed to seeking out truths that may not be comfortable to them, which can lead to spiritual stagnation.
I have challenged their comfort zone and what they have been taught to think for so many years. The religious spirit immediately tries to convict and stigmatize. Isolation is the next step that keeps them from being “defiled.” In places where an extreme religious spirit operates, such as the one Paul faced, they will try to destroy or eliminate you physically. Although not common in modern Christian civilization, historically, it has happened and still happens with extreme Islamists.
Paul was facing the counter-attack of the religious spirit. Remember, the religious spirit comes from Satan, and it is pervasive in this world and in the church. This doesn’t mean, however, that our fellow believers, Jews or Muslims are the initiators. They are just victims who were used. The master behind it is Satan. Paul said that our struggle is not against flesh, but against the spiritual forces of evil (NIV, Ephesians 6:12). In my personal experience, many fellow believers have triumphed over this religious spirit. Wherever we are, they love us with the love of Christ. They realize that each person has a different calling from God that they need to lay hold of. Judgment is not the aim here. The point is to show how the religious spirit operates.
Fear of confronting the religious spirit can be terrifying. I faced it when I left the church where I was saved. They didn’t encourage people to step out into their own ministry because they taught that it was spiritual pride. They were afraid you would get more caught up in your own ministry and neglect the church. I started my ministry secretly using the pseudonym “Jairus” rather than my real name. In January 2016, I attended a prophetic conference. God told me that I was going to have a child that year and that Jairus Bible World ministry came from Him. In 2017 we ended our ten-year infertility trial and had our miracle baby girl. What God spoke to me gave me confidence and encouragement to break through the traditional teachings and openly start my own ministry.
The religious spirit controls people through fear. Wherever fear exists, there is a lack of God’s love. Psalm 65:3 tells us that the love of God covers all of our transgressions and 1 John 4:18 says that there is no fear in perfect love. Many of the Jews thought Paul was wrong and wanted him put to death. I don’t think that everyone believed it, but many jumped on the bandwagon out of fear. Perhaps they were worried they would be kicked out of the temple or excommunicated from their family or community. I think that many of our fellow Evangelical believers may reject the Pentecostal Movement because they fear evil spirits or are afraid of what people would think of them, not necessarily because they feel the movement is heretical.
The United Methodist Church will be voting in May, 2020 to formally split. The church has been divided for years regarding the biblical authority and acceptance of homosexuality. The division is between conservative and liberal Christians and both sides have decided it would be better to separate. The seminary I attend has a United Methodist background, so I understand some of the feelings behind the controversy. A fellow student in my doctoral program, a Methodist pastor from Virginia, believes that what’s happening in the Methodist church today stems from the church’s compromise on white racism in the early years. He told me that when African-American Methodist churches were first being formed, the church leaders would not allow African-Americans into their congregations. They feared challenging the racism amongst white believers which led the church to compromise and divide into white and African-American churches. This pastor believes that such a compromise led the church to repeatedly compromise on other issues, and eventually, homosexuality. His perspective really helped me to understand the problem. Religious spirits often use our narrowness, including racism, to keep us divided, not accepting other nationalities, races and various Christian denominations. What if the leaders of the Methodist Church had included the African-American believers into their fellowship according to the Bible? They may have gone through challenges and experienced persecution due to racism, but if they stood firm perhaps the spiritual condition of the Methodist Church would be very different today. Remember, the religious spirit often cooperates with the spirit of racism and cultural superiority to control the church. I realize racism exists in many different forms. I’m only using white racism as an example here. The decline of Christianity in the United States can be traced back to Christian leaders compromising and embracing the religious spirit. One compromise causes the religious spirit to grow and require more compromise. The morality of American society has gradually fallen, starting from the 1950s. In 1963 prayer and Bible reading were not allowed in schools which caused further decline. On January 16, 2020, National Public Radio news published an article about President Trump supporting kid’s rights to pray in school and warning those schools that they may lose federal funds if they hinder students from their first amendment rights. It’s good to hear that this is changing.
The church overall, as well as each individual Christian, must overcome the religious spirit in order for the power of the Gospel to transform society. When the church continually compromises with the religious spirit, it will lose the ability to be the light and salt to those around us, and our influence on society will weaken.
That’s why the Lord Jesus came to stand near Paul at night to encourage him. The Lord said to Paul, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” (NIV, Acts 23:11).
Our spiritual journey is also from Jerusalem to Rome, with Jerusalem being the church and Rome the world around us. This is what God ordained for us. The church and its believers must be able to overcome the persecution of the religious spirit within Jerusalem before it can go to Rome and change the world through the Gospel. To the extent that we can transform and influence the church by overcoming the religious spirit will determine how effective we will be influencing society.
How does the religious spirit control the church?
I’ve already shared the first angle of how the religious spirit controls the church through fear. If you come against the traditions of the Jews or Christian denominations, you will be eliminated, defiled, and rumors will be spread about you. You may eventually even be killed. Although people may know the truth, fear of persecution keeps them silent. This cowardly spirit is pervasive in the church.
Lance Wallnau, an American prophet, shared a story about Donald Trump when he was running for President. Donald invited several Christian leaders to a meeting to exchange views. They discussed the Johnson Amendment, which is a bill that stipulates that if a church or nonprofit organization publicly supports a candidate, the IRS can revoke their nonprofit, tax-exempt status. If this happened, the church wouldn’t be able to accept donations, and the pastor’s income would also be affected. Lance noted that Trump said something to the effect of “Why are you guys so weak? You let the Left-Wing and homosexual forces persecute you without fighting back.” Many priests in this meeting were silent because this Johnson Amendment is like a gag order on churches and pastors. They fear taking any risks and possibly losing their careers. Trump mentioned in this meeting the he would help the church by repealing the bill. When he became President, he didn’t repeal it, but he issued an executive order prohibiting its execution.
This bill and many other similar things have allowed the religious spirit and the spirit of this world to restrict and persecute the church. If the church compromises, it will be grabbed by the throat and not be able to refute its biblical position regarding homosexuality publicly. Fear will force the church into a corner over time. Many Christians believe that President Trump has intervened for Christians against the left-wing politics in the United States. President Trump has one quality that many Christians lack. He’s bold and not afraid to be politically incorrect.
Around the same time that Trump came to power, I was struggling with whether or not to start my own ministry. I was filled with fear and uncertainty. In addition to God’s confirmation that this ministry came from Him, Trump’s experience also encouraged me. He was brave enough to go against the establishment and say what he thought in spite of being seen as politically incorrect. I do feel that God called me and inspired me to start my own ministry. I decided to break through the traditions of my former church and bravely follow God’s lead. Through this process, I also achieved a spiritual breakthrough.
Besides fear, the religious spirit uses confusion to suppress believers and the church. Many of the Jews who plotted to kill Paul were not necessarily bad people. They were just confused because of the religious spirit. They believed they were honoring and serving God. Once a person is confused, it’s difficult to pull them out of it. We need to have compassion for those who are confused, just like when Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). However, we must understand that the religious spirit is against any new work of God that would link people together, breaking down the barriers of race, culture, and denominations. This spirit wants to keep us bound to old traditions that keep us divided.
Consider Paul’s example. The Jews had been worshipping the same way for thousands of years, when suddenly a new move of God called Christianity arose. This new move of God allowed you to eat pork and didn’t require keeping the Sabbath. This was heretical to the Jews. Through the traditions of the Jews, the religious spirit was used to persecute God’s new move. It’s not that the Jews weren’t God’s true children. They couldn’t look beyond their traditions to see what God was doing. This allowed the religious spirit to take over. This same thing is what happens in churches today.
Through God’s sovereignty, Paul’s nephew was able to protect him from the Jews who planned to kill him. Through God’s sovereignty, Paul was taken to Rome and imprisoned in Herod’s palace. This was God’s plan to allow Paul to preach the Gospel in Herod’s house and bring them to salvation. Herod was an ungodly man but it says in Acts 13:1 that Manaen, had been brought up with Herod, the tetrarch. This shows that some in Herod’s family were saved, possibly as the result of Paul’s testimony.
To a certain extent, God permits the persecution we face from the religious spirit to help us become stronger. When we can take a stand and testify in our own Jerusalem, we may then be taken to Rome to affect the world and possibly save many people like Manaen. On the contrary, if we compromise to this religious spirit, we will gradually lose the ability to testify to unbelievers in the world.
We need to cast down the fears of offending church traditions and fear God alone. Let’s break off that religious spirit so the church can have a glorious testimony in the world.