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This is a spiritual war

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Zechariah 4:1-7

America faces a war unlike any we have ever fought. This war is not for land, money, or power, though all will be involved. This war is not with a nation, though nations will be sorely affected. This conflict pits us against a spiritual opponent who fights for spiritual reasons. His aims and methods are spiritual in nature, and his irrational zeal is inspired by his spiritual fervor.

This is a spiritual war. We need spiritual help, the power of the Spirit himself. We have begun already to sense this, with more people crowding into more churches for prayer and worship than we have seen in a generation. We are right. We need the Spirit’s power for our lives, our future, our leaders, and our nation. Today I must show you why this is so, and how the Holy Spirit can empower each of us for the days ahead.

The spiritual enemy we face

First I must talk about the spiritual enemy we face. To no one’s surprise, on September 13 Secretary of State Colin Powell named Osama bin Laden as a prime suspect in Tuesday’s attacks. Who is he, and what does he want?

The US indicted him for masterminding the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; he has been connected to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1993 killing of American soldiers in Somalia, the mid-90’s bombings of US facilities in Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the US Cole.

Authorities have prevented his associates from launching attacks during the millennium celebrations, from bombing a dozen trans-Pacific flights in 1995, and from assassinating the pope and President Clinton in the Philippines.

So we know what he has done. Why does he do it?

Osama bin Laden is the most notorious leader of a strain of militant Islam that has been growing in the Muslim world for 30 years. Its fundamental belief is that the Muslim world is being poisoned and desecrated by “infidels.”

These “infidels” include both the US and Israel and governments of Muslim states such as Egypt and Jordan which have relationships with them.

These “infidels” must be driven out of the Muslim world by a jihad, the Arabic word for “struggle” often identified with holy war. Then strict Islamic rule must be established everywhere Muslims live. These extremists want to reestablish the golden age of Muslim domination which followed the death of Muhammad. The Taliban’s Afghanistan rule is their model for such a state.

Why has he attacked America?

Bin Laden is especially angry with the United States because of our military presence in Saudi Arabia. When the Saudis invited our troops to their defense after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, bin Laden and others were repulsed at this desecration of their holy land. And so he has bombed American military facilities in Saudi Arabia, and attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania eight years to the day after our first troops were dispatched to Saudi Arabia.

He is furious about our support for Israel, and cannot tolerate our alliances with moderate Arab governments in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (see David Plotz, “What Does Osama Bin Laden Want?” Slate, 9-13-01).

In brief, he wants to drive America out of Muslim nations, annihilate Israel, and establish the strictest Muslim rule over the Muslim world.

It is highly significant that most of that world has denounced both his aims and his tactics.

“Islam” means “peace” or “surrender” to Allah. It focuses upon the Koran as Allah’s revelation of himself to mankind through the prophet Mohammed.

Strict morality and obedience to the Koran, five daily prayers, almsgiving for the poor, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca characterize its basic tenets. Nowhere does the Koran link “holy” and “war.”

It is wrong to speak of bin Laden and his movement as Muslim, just as it is wrong to speak of David Koresh or Jim Jones or the KKK as Christian.

The enemy we now face is unlike any we have seen in military terms. Bin Laden’s organization, called al-Qaida (Arabic for “The Base”), has mobilized perhaps hundreds of cells across the nations affected by its strategies. These underground movements are very difficult to define and attack. While they have been supported by Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Algeria, Libya and Syria, among other nations, attacking these nations would not destroy the movement. Killing bin Laden would not by itself destroy the movement. This is why our president warns us that the war ahead will be long and hard.

And so we must have God’s power and God’s strength. We are facing a spiritual enemy, one which seeks not more money, power, or land, but spiritual goals through spiritual fervor. We are facing a military struggle which will require spiritual strength. The wonderful news is that this power is available to every one of us and to our nation, today.

The spiritual power God will give us

This is by no means the first time God’s people have been tested by their enemies. Let me take you to a place and time amazingly like our own, and offer you the help which gave that people the hope and victory they desperately needed.

The year is 538 B.C. Cyrus, king of Persia, has just conquered Babylon and freed the Jewish people to return from their Babylonian captivity to their homeland in Israel (Ezra 1:2-4; 6.3-5).

Led by Zerubbabel, about 50,000 Jews journeyed home and began work on their temple. Two years later they finished its foundations amid great celebration (Ezra 3:8-10).

But their success aroused the wrath of neighboring nations. These people didn’t want Israel back in the land at all, and feared their renewed spiritual and military power. They opposed this project vigorously, threatening the Jewish people with war and lying about them to the Persian government. For 14 years the temple’s foundations lay untouched, the nation fearful, their walls and city little more than rubble and ruins.

Then Zechariah stepped to the fore. Born in Babylon during the Jewish captivity there, he was among the first to return to Judah. Both prophet and priest, his name meant “the Lord remembers.” Through his ministry, the Lord showed that he did, indeed.

On the fateful evening of February 15, 519, God gave this prophet eight “night visions.” Each of them called the nation to faith in their God and promised them his presence, blessing, and power. Each of them rallied the people to courage and resolve, to strength amidst suffering and fear, to hope for the future and victory in the present.

The fifth of these visions was perhaps the most powerful of all. On Monday morning God led me clearly to make it his revelation to us for these days.

In this vision the angel of the Lord shows Zechariah a golden lampstand with a bowl on top and seven lights on it (v. 2).The bowl is filled with olive oil, the fuel for the lights or candles which are fed by its supply.

To each of the seven candles circling the bowl there are “channels.” The Hebrew seems to indicate that seven channels extend to each light, or 49 for the seven lights. Seven is the Hebrew number for completion and perfection. Perfect light, from perfect supply.

To complete the picture, two olive trees stand beside the bowl, one on each side (v. 3). These trees will produce olives continually, so that oil can constantly be supplied to the bowl, and from the bowl through its channels to its lights.

Who are these trees? The angel tells us: “These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth” (v. 14). These are Joshua the high priest (chapter 3) and Zerubbabel, the national leader (4:7, 9, 10).

What is this oil? Oil is a consistent biblical symbol for the Holy Spirit of God. Through this symbol God promises the power of that Spirit for this hour: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6).

What was the result of the Spirit’s power at work through the leaders and people of the nation? They began work on their temple and nation in earnest, despite the threats of their opponents. They dedicated their temple in 516 B.C. (Ezra 6:15-18). They rebuilt their walls and their city. And most important of all, their nation returned to God in a great spiritual awakening unlike any they had ever known (Nehemiah 8-9).

The Holy Spirit gave God’s people God’s power for God’s will and God’s glory. He moved an entire nation to faith in himself and victory over their opponents. Now he stands ready to do the same again for us, and through us.

Conclusion

How can you and I have this power today? How can America? The key is verse 6: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

“Might” in the Hebrew means military force. “Power” means human strength. The Jews used both in their victory, but they were not the keys to that victory.

The key is the power of God. And he gives this power to humans through his Spirit. As the Sunday school lesson for today makes clear, God continually sends his Spirit “on” individuals in the Old Testament to empower them. Thus, Samson destroyed the Philippines; thus, Saul led Israel; thus, David slew Goliath. All by the Holy Spirit.

Now we who follow Christ have the Spirit “in” us permanently. The Holy Spirit is “Christ in you, the hope of glory “(Colossians 1:27). Jesus promised us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). Paul knew his help: “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29). The apostle said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13)—the Holy Spirit.

How do we experience this power?

Receive the Spirit personally. Make Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior, and his Holy Spirit comes to live in your heart and life (Romans 8.9). As we’ll see next week, when we receive Christ we receive his Spirit.

Yield to the Spirit’s power. Ephesians 5:18 commands that we be “filled with the Spirit.” As we’ll see in two weeks, “filled” means to be yielded, controlled, submitted. God can only give his power to those who will yield to it. God cannot do for us what we try to do for ourselves. Only when we admit that we cannot face the uncertainty of these days, that we cannot handle the bitterness and anger and pain we all feel, that we need God’s Spirit to help us—only then can he. Yield to the Spirit’s control and you will have his power.

Obey the Spirit’s purpose. Jesus said that we would receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). God’s power fulfills God’s purpose. Ask God to use your life to lead others to Christ, to give others strength and support, compassion and care. Ask God to use this horrific tragedy to bring our nation to himself. Ask him to use your life to bring others to him, and he will. Obey the Spirit’s purpose, and you will experience the Spirit’s power.

For many of you, September 11, 2001 feels much like December 7, 1941. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto said, “I fear that all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” He was right then, and now.

But this resolve must drive us to God. Billy Graham said it best: “In times like this, we realize how weak and inadequate we are, and our greatest need is to turn in repentance and faith to the God of all mercy and the Father of all comfort. If ever there was a time for us to turn to God and pray as a nation, it is now.”

The good news is that we can. We are fighting a spiritual war. But we can have the Spirit’s power and the Spirit’s victory. The choice is ours.