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The Puppet Master

I recently read a statement in Byzantium: City of Gold, City of Faith by Paul Hetherington, that made me stop and think. The author describes the construction of the Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus, a prototype of the great Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople in the 6th century:

“It is hard not to conclude that there was one mind controlling all aspects of the work, and so providing this unity of both major forms and of the decoration of smaller units, and that this mind was the Emperor’s.”

Read that statement again and think about the ramifications for the world in which we live. “One mind controlling all aspects of the work, and so providing unity in both major forms and smaller units.”

Have you ever wondered if some unseen force is determining social trends and shaping public opinion? Does it ever feel as though some invisible puppet master is pulling the strings in your city or region?

In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul lifts the veil on the hidden realm of the spirit and explains its influence on society:

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph 2.1-2).

The phrase “dead through trespasses and sins” denotes a state of separation from God and His life. When God created the first man, Adam, He commanded him, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2.16-17).

Clearly, God was referring to something other than physical death because Adam lived for another 930 years before he eventually expired (Gen 5.5). But Adam “died” in another sense on the day that he ate the forbidden fruit — he and his wife were driven out of the garden and out of the immediate presence of God as a result of their sin.

The prophet Isaiah highlighted the lost state of humankind, warning Israel that “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isa 59.2).

Paul points out that human beings are “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2.12, and consequently live in a state of spiritual darkness (Eph 4.18; 5.8). The “darkness” is Satan’s domain, a place of tyranny characterised by fear and death (Col 1.13; Heb 2.14-15).

Paul also states that human beings who are separated from God “follow the course of this world” and that this course is set by an entity known as “the ruler of the power of the air,” one of the titles of Satan. According to Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, “the prince of the power of the air” denotes the unseen god who lies underneath, guiding the course of this world. In other words, the invisible puppet master or the mind behind the machine.

The Greek word aer, translated “air,” denotes the lower, denser atmosphere as against aithēr, the rarer atmosphere above the mountain tops. It refers to the atmospheric heavens surrounding the earth, the place where Satan has established his headquarters and from where he shapes the course of human behaviour.

“Course” is aiōn, the fads and fashions, values and beliefs, and attitudes and behaviours of the age in which we live — all part of a world system that is opposed to God. The 19th-century theologian, Richard Chenevix Trench, put it this way:

“All that floating mass of thoughts, opinions, maxims, speculations, hopes, impulses, aims, aspirations, at any time current in the world, which it may be impossible to seize and accurately define, but which constitutes a most real and effective power, being the moral, or immoral atmosphere which at every moment of our lives we inhale, again inevitably to exhale — all this is included in the aiōn, which is, as Bengel has expressed it, ‘the subtle informing spirit of the kosmos, or world of men who are living alienated and apart from God.”

Paul paints a picture of men and women who are dominated by the capricious winds of public opinion, embracing arbitrary social norms and conforming to the pressures of a deteriorating moral environment. Sociologists refer to this as “groupthink” — a phenomenon in which individuals sacrifice their own beliefs and values in order to embrace the view of the majority.

Human beings are often described as “sheep” in the Scriptures. One of the characteristics of sheep is that they are community-orientated; they tend to congregate as a flock. They are also susceptible to external influences and are easily led astray. Commenting on this trait, the prophet Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way …” (Isa 53.6).

On July 8th, 2005, major news outlets such as the BBC and Fox News reported that nearly 1,500 sheep jumped off a cliff in Van Province in Eastern Turkey. Over 450 animals died in the disaster in a devastating blow to the local economy. According to eyewitnesses, it all started with one sheep jumping to its death, followed by the others in a macabre mass suicide.

The moral of this story is that following the leader or conforming to the will of the majority is not always in one’s best interests. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Paul urged the believers in Rome, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12.2).

Social influencers from hell

The real “social influencers” are not found on Facebook or Instagram or TikTok. They are situated in an invisible realm, which Paul refers to as “heavenly places.”

“Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6.11-12).

In this passage, Paul portrays Satan as a master strategist who is constantly scheming to undermine God’s purposes and destroy God’s people. Satan implements his nefarious plans through a hierarchy of demonic forces stationed in the spiritual realm. Our struggle may not be against human beings per se, nevertheless these evil powers use human beings to achieve their goals.

History is littered with the corpses of men and women who consciously or unconsciously served the agenda of Satan in their generation: Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany, who tried to systematically exterminate the Jewish race; Josef Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union, who tried to eradicate the Christian faith from Eastern Europe; Eva Perón, the beautiful, beguiling wife of Juan Perón, who together with her husband, ruled Argentina in a strong dictatorship and promoted spiritism as the country’s unofficial religion.

The question is, how do demonic forces influence people and get them to work on their behalf? To understand Satan’s modus operandi, we need to look at Genesis, and the very first encounter between human beings and the prince of darkness. Satan did not force Adam and Eve to do anything; he simply planted a thought in their minds, “Did God really say …?”

The “cosmic powers of darkness” exert influence over people by planting thoughts in their minds. As time goes by, these thoughts turn into entrenched beliefs and attitudes. Paul refers to them as “strongholds” — philosophies and arguments that are opposed to the true knowledge of God (2 Cor 10.4-5).

Darwin’s theory of evolution, Hegel’s theory of existentialism, and Marx’s theory of historical materialism are examples of thoughts or belief systems that changed the world. As Benjamin Franklin once boasted, “Give me 26 lead soldiers (referring to the printing press) and I will conquer the world.”

Indeed, there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has arrived — especially if that idea is repeated often enough. After all, it must be true because everyone is saying it!

Standing firm in the evil day

In view of the conflict with the forces of evil, Paul exhorts believers to “take up the whole armour of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day” (Eph 6.13). The question is, “What does Paul mean by the phrase, ‘the evil day’?” He is obviously not referring to a literal, 24-hour day, but rather, a specific time or season of intense spiritual warfare.

When Jesus was betrayed and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he said to the chief priests and officers of the temple police, “When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!” (Luke 22.53).

The “evil day” is a figure of speech that denotes a particular time or season of spiritual conflict in which Satan mounts an aggressive campaign against the Kingdom of God, and the Church stands its ground, refusing to capitulate to the enemy’s assault.

For example, it may be the introduction of a bill in Parliament legalising behaviour that is contrary to the Word of God and the Judeo-Christian principles upon which our nation is founded. Or it may be a coordinated media crusade seeking to besmirch Christian churches and charity organisations.

In Russia’s case, it was the Bolshevik Revolution of October/November 1917, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. What was the Russian Orthodox Church doing as the Bolsheviks occupied government buildings in Petrograd and effectively seized power? Rather than “watching and praying” and standing firm against the onslaught of evil, 564 delegates, including bishops, priests, deacons, and sacristans, were meeting at the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral to discuss issues such as church governance, clergy remuneration, divorce and remarriage, and church-state relations.

Ironically, within a few months, many of these delegates would be imprisoned or executed by the Bolsheviks. However, the Church was not without warning of this impending catastrophe. As early as 1905, Father John of Kronstadt prophesied that “God will take away the pious Tsar and will send a whip in the person of impious, cruel, self-appointed rulers, who will inundate the whole earth with blood and tears.”

Around the same time, the clairvoyant Elder Hieromonk Barnabas of the Gethsemane Skete, north-east of Moscow, prophesied that “persecutions against the faith will constantly increase. There will be an unheard-of grief and darkness, and almost all the churches will be closed. But when it will seem for people that it is impossible to endure any longer, then deliverance will come …”

But seemingly very few people in the upper echelons of the Russian Orthodox Church took these warnings seriously. As a result, when the “evil day” eventually came some 12 years later, the Church wilted like a flower in the heat of the noonday sun.

Resisting the devil

Paul concludes his exhortation on spiritual warfare with these words:

“Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints — and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel” (Eph 6.18-19).

Prayer is the arena in which spiritual battles are fought and the means by which spiritual weapons are deployed. Prayer is the primary way in which believers resist the schemes of Satan and nullify his influence. As the great revivalist, John Wesley, observed, “Prayer is the main business of the Church.”

The Greek word anthistemi, translated “withstand,” denotes face-to-face combat against an adversary. The objective is to stand one’s ground and refuse to yield to the adversary’s pressure and intimidation. The apostle James uses the same word in his exhortation to Jewish believers who are being tested in their faith.

“Submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4.7). But how are we supposed to stand our ground when all hell is breaking loose around us? James provides the answer in the very next verse: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”

In Hebrew word and thought, the phrase “draw near to God” signifies prayer and worship. The Psalmist David talks about “ascending the hill of the Lord,” “standing in the holy place,” and “seeking God’s face” (Psalm 24.3,6). Moreover, he expressed his personal desire to live in the house of the Lord, to behold His beauty, and inquire in His temple (Psalm 27.4).

The single most powerful thing that believers can do is to pray. Indeed, the earnest, heartfelt, continued prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available, dynamic in its working (James 5.16 Amp.).

It is our privilege and responsibility to shape history through Spirit-inspired, faith-filled prayer. This is what Jesus meant when he uttered these immortal words:

“Pray in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come; Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven …”

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