"Flirting with Darkness"
(Delivered at Bethany Bible Church on Sunday, July 16, 2000. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
We live in exciting times. Sociologists say that we live in what has come to be called a 'postmodernist' society. The self-assuredness that used to characterize modern society -- the overly-confident reliance in the ability of science, technology and human reason to solve all our problems -- is quickly fading away. People are increasingly admitting to the mystery of much of life, and are looking more and more toward spiritual answers to life's perplexing questions. In many ways, this opens up a great opportunity for the Gospel.
But these times are also potentially dangerous. People have developed an undiscerning interest in spiritual things, and are placing a high value on 'tolerance' as a social and ethical model. As a result, more and more people are becoming open to the occult.
The word "occult" comes from a Latin word which means "that which is hidden, secret, dark, and mysterious". The 'occult' has, literally been around as long as mankind has exited on the earth. It finds its roots in the lie that the devil proposed to the woman in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:5) -- that man can be "like God, knowing good and evil". The essense of this great lie -- and really the essense of the occult -- is that there are hidden, secret powers that can accessed, and dark mysteries that we can apprehended, all apart from and independent of God. And the devil's great design in this great lie is that of keeping people distracted from the true spiritual resources that God makes available in Christ.
I'd like for us to look at what the Bible tells us about this lie that the devil proposes in the form of the occult. But I'd like us to begin our look at the devil's counterfit by looking at the genuine thing first.
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As followers of Jesus Christ, we're called to lives that are distinct. We're called by God to live with such radical distinction that the world can see that God exists, and that He's powerfully able to transform people's lives. In short, we're to be living gospel tracts for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But God hasn't left us to our own devices to fulfill that calling. In order to make an impact in the world, God has given us some spiritual resources that are more powerful than anything in this world.
For example, consider what a powerful resource we have in the form of prayer. The almighty God acts in response to the prayers of His people! Weak, frail people like us can actually move the hand of the almighty God through prayer! Think of what Jesus told His disciples;
"... Whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it (John 14:13-14)."
Now there's an obvious qualification to that. We must make our requests with the right motivation: 'that the Father may be glorified in the Son.' We can't ask greedy and self-serving things of God and expect to have them answered. But if our prayers are geared toward God's glory and the advancement of His Son's Kingdom, we can literally ask anything, and the Son of God will personally take care of it for us. Could God have placed a greater resource into our hands than prayer?
I read recently that Dr. Luis Palau has a very wealthy friend in Latin America; and this friend tells Dr. Palau to call him up anytime he has an evangelistic crusade so that he can pay for a few nights of television air-time for him. Sometimes, after not hearing from him for a while, he calls Dr. Palau and asks, "Why haven't you called upon me lately? Don't you have any crusades going on? What's the matter -- don't you need any money?" Dr. Palau says that, even though he obviously has lots of crusades going on, and obviously needs money, he hesitates to call on his friend and ask for it. He just feels funny doing that -- even though his friend is very wealthy, and very willing and eager to give from his wealth.
Dr. Palau says that we tend to treat God the same way. God has given us the greatest resource the world has ever seen in the form of prayer. It's impossible to 'max-out' prayer. We can't drain God's resources through our prayers, or even diminish them in the least. And yet, we're still far too timid about taking advantage of this greatest of all resources! How silly of us! Imagine powerfully we'd live in the world if we used the powerful resource of prayed more than we do!
Another great resource we have is the power of indwelling Holy Spirit. Imagine! If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, God the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in you, and actually lives in you! There's so little that you and I are able to do in and of ourselves; but there's nothing that the Holy Spirit cannot do through us! Just before He ascended to the Father, Jesus made this promise to His disciples;
"... You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8)."
Would you like to know how powerful God is toward His people through the ministry of His Holy Spirit? Paul once told the Ephesian Christians that he prayed they'd know, among other things,
"... what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come (Eph. 1:19-21)."
I always feel sad whenever I hear believers complain that they can't do what God commands them to do in the Bible. They obviously don't understand that the same power is at work in them that raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him in heavenly glory! The truth is, they can do whatever God tells them to do through the mighty power of His mighty Holy Spirit at work in them! What a difference we would make in this world if we relied consistently on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and lived in obedience to His leading and direction!
And another great resource that we have in this world is the Scriptures -- the word of God. God has spoken, and has recorded His words for us in the Bible! God has declared eternal truth about who He is and what He has done -- truth that the world can receive in no other way than by God Himself revealing it! Talk about "insider information" ...!! You can't get better than that!!
Just how powerful is the word of God? It's so powerful that it not only reveals the eternal truths of heaven to us; it also reveals the truth about ourselves to us as well. Hebrews 4:12 tells us,
"For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb. 4:12)."
There's no philosopher or psychologist in the world that can claim to be as wise or discerning as that! And God's word will never fail. God Himself has said about His own word, that
"It shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11)."
God has placed a great resource in our hands in giving us the Scriptures -- the written word of God. How powerful we would be in this world if we would simply trust it with all our hearts and speak it faithfully -- in the full confidence that the almighty God always stands behind what He says!
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People need what these resources provide. People need, for example, to know eternal truth about life, the future, and eternal realities; and this need is met for us only through God's revealed word. People also need to tap into a power that is greater than themselves to deal with the trails and struggles of life; and this need is met for us only through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. And people need to be able to reach beyond this world and communicate with the One who made them; and this need is met for us only through prayer.
But here's were we need to be on the alert. The devil is intent on distracting people from these resources found only in Christ, and diverting them to a dependency on his phony promise of wisdom, power and spirituality apart from God, in the form of 'the occult.'
The devil is terrified of anyone who trusts in the spiritual resources which are ours by God's grace through Christ; but he has no fear whatsoever of anyone who believes his lie, and falls under the bondage of the occult. And so, we need to have our guard up so that we, ourselves, are not in any way distracted from our true spiritual resources in Christ. We need to cultivate a sense of discernment with respect to the occultic practices of our culture. And so, I'd like us to look this morning at Deuteronomy 18:9-14.
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The children of Israel had been traveling through the wilderness for forty years; and at the time of this passage, they were about to enter into the land that God had promised them. The people groups living in Canaan, prior to Israel taking possession of it, were completely given over to occultic practices; and God wanted to warn His people not to fall under the influence of those practices. And so, among other things, He told them this:
"When you come into the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you. You shall be blameless before the LORD your God. For these nations which you will dispossess listened to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the LORD your God has not appointed such for you (Deut. 18:9-14)."
Notice, first of all ...
I. What sort of practices God is speaking of.
He begins by describing how low the occultic practices of the people of Canaan had sunk. The Ammonites who inhabited that land were worshippers of the false god Moloch; and the worship of Moloch involved human sacrifice -- most particularly, children. One archeologist writes;
"The image of Moloch was a human figure with a bull's head and outstretched arms, ready to receive the children destined for sacrifice. The image of metal was heated red hot by a fire kindled within, and the children laid on its arms rolled off into the fiery pit below. In order to drown the cries of the victims, flutes were played, and drums were beaten; and mothers stood by without tears or sobs, to give the impression of the voluntary nature of the offering (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, p. 2075.)"
Why would God mention such a horrible thing first? I believe that God is establishing that, when we turn away from our Creator, and away from dependence on His divinely appointed spiritual resources, and follow after the devil's counterfits instead, we open ourselves up to the potential of falling into unspeakable evil. Once we've turned our back on God's ways for us, there's literally nothing that can stop us in our downward slide. That's why openness to the devil's spiritual conterfits is such a dangerous thing.
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He next mentions a series of practices. The precise meaning of each of these occultic practices isn't easy to discern. Sometimes, their meanings seems to overlap. It may be that it wasn't God's intention to give us a list of distinct practices, but rather to speak of practices that fall under some broad, general categories.
First, He mentions "witchcraft" -- a word that is more correctly translated "divination" as it is in the NIV. This has a broad meaning, and is probably meant to cover all efforts to obtain spiritual information that is outside the reach of normal, human means.
Second, He mentions "soothsayers" -- that is, those who deal in interpreting the future through the use of physical signs and devices; much like what we see today in the form of tarot cards or palm reading.
Third, He mentions those who "interpret omens" -- probably referring to those practices that are intended to foretell the future through astrology or the interpretation of dreams.
All of these have a common intent: to obtain knowledge or information that is not ordinarily available to human beings, and that are, in truth, the intellectual property of God alone.
Next, He describes practices that go beyond the mere attempt to 'obtain information', and that involve actually trying to make things happen. He mentions "sorcerers" (or those who engage in witchcraft, as it is in the NIV). In the Greek version of the Old Testament, this word is translated "pharmakos" -- a word from which we derive our English word "pharmacy". This may have reference to the practice of enchantments and magical effects through the use of drugs and potions. Then, He mentions those who "conjure" or "cast spells". The literal Hebrew word means "to unite" or "tie with a magic knot"; and it probably refers to those who perform mystical feats and wonders. This is obviously speaking of something other than "magicians" who perform slight-of-hand tricks strictly as a form of entertainment. Rather, this speaks of those who seem to genuinely perform magical acts and wonders as if through supernatural powers.
Again, the theme in these two practices is a common one: that of casting spells, performing magical feats, and using spiritual and supernatural powers to actually accomplish things that are beyond the limits set by God's wise design for us.
Finally, He describes practices that are spiritualistic in nature; that is, practices that deal with an interaction with beings in unseen realms. First, He mentions "mediums"; and the word that He uses refers to someone who allows their body to be used by another spirit -- much like what we refer today as a "channeler". Second, He mentions a "spiritist"; that is, someone who consults with and inquires of 'spirit guides' with whom they supposedly have a special relationship and through whom they gain supernatural information. Finally, he refers to necromancers -- those who "call up the dead". This would be a reference those who engages in sťances and other such practices in order to make contact with people beyond the grave.
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One of the leading authorities in the area of ministry to people ensnared by the occult, Dr. Kurt Kock, wrote that there are three main divisions of occultic activity: fortune-telling, magic arts, and spiritism (Kurt Koch, Occult Bondage and Deliverance, p. 18-19.) God mentions all three of these in this passage. And all three of them involve phenomena that are easily produced by the devil and his demonic forces, so as to deceive people into believing that they really, truly offer a source of spiritual communion, power and knowledge, apart from the authority of God.
I remember talking several years ago to a fellow I used to work with. We had lunch together once; and as we ate, he told me that he regularly received visits from spirit-beings that came to him in "beams of white light" and gave him leading and direction in life. He boasted that he trusted them and did whatever they told him. And before I could even say a word (It must have been pretty obvious that I was about to say something.) -- he immediately stuck his finger in my face and said, "And don't give me that garbage that my mother gives me about it being demons!" Of course, that was exactly what I was going to tell him. But he wouldn't hear me.
Second, notice ...
II. What God commands regarding those practices.
First, God says to a people about to enter a land formerly occupied by pagan nations, "You shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations" (v. 9). Earlier in Deuteronomy, the people were told,
"When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.' You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods (Deut. 12:30-31)."
It's interesting that God says, "You shall not 'learn' to follow these practices. The word used for 'learning' has more to it than the mere idea of acquiring information. This particular word involves putting these things into practice. And the idea of 'learning' to follow them suggests a process. People don't ordinarily fall into occultic practices in one day. People become entrapped in occultism in the same way that they come under bondage to many other sins -- by a series of little compromises here and there along the way.
This was the great downfall of King Solomon. God had poured out His blessings on Solomon, and had made him the wisest king that ever lived. He wasn't prone to fall into paganism and occultism all of a sudden. And yet, over time, he had disobeyed the command of God in that he had married many non-Hebrew wives. Eventually, we're told,
"... when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Solomon did evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not fully follow the LORD, as did his father David (1 Kings 11:4-6)."
Tragically, Solomon even went so far as to build places of worship for these false gods in the city of Jerusalem. In the end, God became so angry with Solomon that he tore 10 of the tribes in his kingdom away from him; and as a result, the nation was divided from then on. All this happened, because he didn't obey God's command against learning to follow the occultic practices of the nations around him.
The devil is desparate, and will do anything it takes to get us distracted from our true resources in Christ. And he has centuries of experience in doing so very cleverly and deceitfully. He wont blow his cover by suddenly thrusting occultism into our faces. Rather, he'll entice us slowly and unperceptively, with the idea of just learning a little more about it --just a bit at a time. Beware!
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Second, when He lists these practices, God tells His people, "There shall not be found among you anyone" who practices them (v. 10). His first instruction deals with the personal receptivity of the people of Israel to the occult through other people groups; but this second command deals with their relationships with each other as a society. As they entered into the land, they were to not only make sure that they didn't learn these practices from the nations around them, but they were also to make sure that they didn't tolerate anyone in their midst who practiced them either.
Now obviously, our situation is different from that of the nation of Israel under Moses. Witchcraft for example was, in the Old Testament times of Israel, a capital crime (Ex. 2:18). Some of us, by contrast, must go to work every day among people who are self-professing witches and practitioners of the occult. Our task is to represent the love of Jesus Christ to such people with patience and grace.
But two things must be said. First, when interacting with practicioners of the occult, we must keep ourselves distinct from the influence of their practices in our relationship with them. And second, we cannot and must not tolerate any element of occultism in our homes or in our circle of intimate friends.
One of the devil's tactics in trapping us into occultism is through a 'pluralistic' and 'tolerant' spirit. He propagates a confusion between 'tolerance' (and attitude which respects the right of people to practice the occult if they wish) and 'approval' (an attitude which celebrates the practice of the occult as if it were the moral equivalent of the Christian faith). If we're not alert to the devil's tactics, before we know it, we've become so comfortable with the occult in the spirit of "being open and tolerant" that we give it our "approval". Remember what Paul said in a different context; "Do not be deceived, 'Evil company corrupts good morals'" (1 Cor. 15:33). He warned us to, "have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them" (Eph. 5:11). Again; beware!
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Finally, a third command is implied in verse 14. God told the Israelites,
"... The nations which you will dispossess listened to soothsayers and divines; but as for you, the LORD your God has not appointed such for you."
The word used for "listen" means to give heed to soothsayers and divines in such a way as to award some measure of authority to what they say, and to yield to their words in obedience. God says, "Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God" (Lev. 19:31).
This is another clever method of the devil in getting us under the influence of practitioners of the occult -- that is, by getting us to think that there just might be something to what they say. This is especially effective if what they say seems to "work"! The Old Testament prophet Isaiah puts things in perspective for us when he says,
"And when they say to you, "Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter," should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isaiah 8:19-20)."
As followers of Jesus Christ, we have the sure word of God. Go to the Book! That's where all our answers are to be found. That's where the almighty God has spoken. Turn to the pages of Scripture in prayer and in humble receptivity -- and don't even give a minute of your precious time to the astrologer's column or to the psychic hot-line! If what they say agrees with God's word, then you didn't need to hear from them anyway. And if what they say disagrees with God's word -- which it almost always does -- then you'll only get burned by taking their ungodly advice. Once again; beware!!
Finally, notice ...
III. Why God says to avoid those practices.
You'll notice a repeated word throughout this passage: "abomination". Unfortunately, when people hear that word today, they tend to think of a big, hairy snow-man. But what that word really refers to is any act that is detestable to God. It refers to something that actually has the effect of causing God to be repulsed! The Bible describes several things that are an "abomination" to God, such as idolatry (Deut. 7:25-26), homosexuality (Lev. 18:22, 20:13), cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5), the sacrifice of children (Deut. 12:30-31), and the offering of blemished animals in sacrifice (Deut. 17:1). We can add to the list of "abominations" the practices of the occult.
What's more, you'll notice that not only are these practices declared to be an abomination to God, but so are the practitioners themselves! Verse 12 says, "For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you." Now, God always stands ready to extend His pardoning grace to anyone who turns from these practices. He's pleased to wash them clean and purify them; and when He does, they cease to be an abomination to Him. But so long as they insist on clinging to practices that are an abomination to Him, they themselves become an abomination to Him! How dreadful!
Why are such practices an abomination to God? Certainly one reason is because such practices involve sin. They involve a conformity to the values and priorities of this world. But another reason why the practices of the occult are such an abomination to God is because they are, at the very heart, 'acts of rebellion' against Him.
The Bible equates witchcraft and sorcery with the sin of rebellion (1 Sam. 15:23). Occultic practices are, basically, treasonous acts of rebellion against God -- a creature shaking his or her fist at the Creator. These practices spring from an attitude that says, "God; I don't trust You. I wont rely on You. I can get a better deal than what You're offering." They involve an assent to the ancient lie of the serpent in the Garden that they can be like God, knowing good and evil apart from Him.
If you'll think about it for a moment, you'll see that this is so. Doesn't fortune-telling and divination involve seeking to know things that God has chosen to keep in the council of His own wisdom apart from His revealed word? Isn't the act of trying to look into the future an act of rebellion against God's command to trust Him for tomorrow? Doesn't the use of magic arts involve seeking to access powers that God has not entrusted to man, and to exercise them as a free-agent, without dependency upon God? Doesn't spiritism involve trying to cross over into the spirit realms without the permission of the God of all spirits, and attempting to bridge the great gulf that Jesus said cannot be bridged (Luke 17:26)?
The occult is a form of spiritual rebellion; and I believe that's why God hates it so much. It is an expression of mistrust toward Him. It makes its practitioners join in with the devil in his rebellion against the Creator. It offers a bunch of cheap conterfits to the real thing -- a substitute for prayer, a substitute for dependency upon the indwelling Holy Spirit, a substitute for trust in God's sure word. In short, it offers a way to have spiritual communion, power and knowledge apart from God.
No wonder God's sums up His command against practicing the occult by saying, "You shall be blameless before the LORD your God" (v. 13).
I hope that, now, you can appreciate why I began our look at the occult by talking about our true resources in Christ. I find no delight in talking about the occult in and of itself. Rather, I'd like to put the spiritual counterfits of the devil into perspective by highlighting the real wisdom, real power and real spiritual communion we enjoy in Jesus Christ. Once you understand what we have in Christ, anything that the devil has to offer is an inadequate substitute indeed!
But how about you? Do you trust in the spiritual resources of Christ? Do you find yourself gravitating more and more toward the devil's counterfits?
Take stock! Are you finding yourself "learning" to follow some of the occultic practices of this world, and find yourself influenced by them increasingly? Do you find yourself looking less and less to the word of God and to prayer for the answers in life; and looking more and more to spiritual authorities that profess an independence from Him? Do you find that the decisions you make in the course of your day are influenced more by what you see in the horoscope or by psychics than by God's sure promises? Do you enjoy stories and movies and television shows that tend to glorify what God clearly says in this passages is an abomination to Him? Is the devil gradually luring you away from true riches in Christ, and entrapping you with the phony promises of the occultic elements of our culture?
Dear brothers and sisters, when we cut ourselves off fromthe devil's counterfits, and entrust ourselves fully and whole-heartedly to the resources of God through Jesus Christ, the only one who loses anything in the exchange is the devil. Confess your dependency on such things before God, turn away from them, and learn to depend on your resources in Jesus Christ.
Don't flirt with the darkness any longer!
(copyright 2000 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)