Encountering Territorial Spirits - part 3

The preceding articles in this series have considered the encouraging fact that believers can obey the Great Commission to evangelize the world by taking the Bible as their sole and sufficient guide for faith and practice. Further, Scripture makes clear that they can obey the Great Commission by keeping their focus on the clearly-stated content of the Commission. Naturally, Jesus did not leave His followers without adequate instructions on carrying through with their assignment. In fact, the matter was so urgent that He not only addressed it during His more than three years of earthly teaching, but He also spoke of it several times during His post-resurrection ministry.

Following at least a year and a half of concentrated teaching, our Lord selected twelve of his students for ministry assignment. When Jesus called them, Scripture clearly declares His purpose was to "send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out demons" (Mark 3:14-15). Just before sending them on their first "solo mission," He gave them instructions not unlike a military briefing from a commander on the eve of battle. Mark relates that, after the instructions, "[T]hey went out and preached that people should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them" (Mark 6:12-13).

In both instances the mission was clear.

It was three-fold in extent. The Twelve were to preach, heal the sick, and cast out demons. Mark joins James in recording that early ministers anointed an ill person with oil as a part of praying for the sick (Mark 6:13). James says, "[L]et them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord" (5:l4).

Jesus gave similar instructions to the Seventy whom He selected and sent forth to minister. Luke records, "After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go" (10:1). When sending them forth, He told them that they should heal the sick and preach the good news of the coming of the Kingdom of God (10:9).

Luke reports on the results of that first experience on their own. "Then the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name" (10:17). They, like the Twelve Apostles, had obviously preached, prayed for the sick, and cast out demons. Significantly, Jesus sought to temper their excitement over the subject of demonology. He responded to their enthusiasm by saying, "Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven (Luke 10:19-20).

The ministerial assignment that Jesus left His Church at the time of His ascension was so important that He spoke of it several times and in various places during His post-resurrection ministry.

The Great Commission in the Gospel of Mark contains the same three elements as the assignment the Lord had given to His workers before the crucifixion (16:15-18). They were to "preach the gospel to every creature," "cast out demons," and "lay hands on the sick." The "sign" of speaking with new tongues implies that they were to do all this only after receiving the Baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in other tongues.

Indeed, the absence of a formal Commission in Luke makes this even clearer. Although indirectly, Jesus referred to the assignment He left His followers when He said that "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations" (Luke 24:47). He proceeded to identify the apostles as the "witnesses" who should carry out that assignment. Then He added, "But tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high" ().

The other signs promised to accompany their preaching were related to the apostles' ministry to the sick (Mark 16:17-18). The Teacher offered a general promise that if His followers would lay hands on the sick, they would recover. Then He gave specific encouragement to believe for healing in the case of someone who accidentally swallows a poisonous drink. That is the implication of the Lord's reference to "if they drink any deadly thing." His words in no way give believers reason to drink poison in order to display their faith, an erroneous practice followed by some Pentecostal fringe groups.

The context also suggests a similar specific promise for healing in cases of accidental snake bite. Again Jesus does not promote the handling of snakes as a religious ritual, as some do. Since Scripture is its own best interpreter, the only other reference to a snake bite in connection with ministry will help explain Jesus' statement. Luke records it in Acts 28:3-6. Shipwrecked on the beach of Malta, Paul unknowingly picked up a deadly snake in a bundle of wood for a fire. The serpent fastened its fangs on the apostle's hand. Citizens of the island expected him to die immediately. Instead, he shook the snake off and "suffered no harm!" God's amazing display of protection enhanced the work of evangelism in that place.

The Great Commission in Matthew differs much from that in Mark primarily because the two Gospels record different settings and occasions for Jesus' assignment to His followers. Undoubtedly, He spoke of their mission on many occasions during His post-resurrection ministry, but only a few of them are recorded in Scripture. In Mark the audience was the "eleven" (16:14). They were together eating a meal in a house, probably somewhere in the vicinity of Jerusalem. Mark records (14:28; 16:7) that Jesus had ordered them to move north into Galilee, and that is where we find them in the Book of Matthew. They met on a mountainside there (Matt. 28:16).

In Matthew the Commission has only one basic command (28:18-20).

That command is to make disciples of all nations. Our Lord's instructions to go, teach, and baptize are all related to that of making disciples. The assignment to "make disciples" contains the only finite verb in the directions He gave. The other three words are participles. Thus Jesus said that as they were going (literally, "having gone,"), they must make disciples, teaching and baptizing them. The core of their effort was to be developing students for Him. Obviously, then, the emphasis of the Commission in Matthew is on the preaching/teaching work of the followers of Christ in evangelizing the world.

The Book of Acts tells of the last time Jesus spoke with His followers concerning their mission on earth. This exchange occurred just before His ascension into heaven (Acts 1:4-8). As in Matthew, Jesus' emphasis was on the single activity of sharing with the nations of the world the good news about His coming to earth. The disciples were to witness of Him to all, beginning at Jerusalem, then in Judea, then Samaria, then "to the end of the earth."

These facts concerning Jesus' commissioning workers lead to the conclusion that, central to their duties was the task of communicating the truth that sinners must believe in order to be saved. It is that good news that is the "power of God to salvation" (Rom. 1:16). The healing of the sick and the casting out of demons are ancillary to preaching in the work of evangelism.

Even Peter Wagner declares, "We need to understand up front that prayer and spiritual warfare do not in themselves save the lost. No one was ever saved through pulling down strongholds or binding the strongman."[1] Later he correctly declares, "Lost souls are saved only through preaching the gospel of the cross of Christ and His resurrection, followed by repentance and allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior."[2] Neil Anderson joins Wagner in declaring that the work of evangelism involves more of a truth encounter than a power encounter.[3]

The Church in the Book of Acts understood that its main assignment was the preaching of the Gospel.

Its actions demonstrate that clearly. Most of the emphasis in the work of the Church is on preaching, with a lesser focus on healing, and even less still on casting out demons. In view of the biblical evidence, it is difficult to see why Anderson concludes, "The primary feature in the apostolic commission to ministry is casting out demons, however, not healing nor preaching."[4]

Wagner and several others spend much of their energy in delving into demonology, with a tendency to go dangerously far beyond what Scripture says on the subject. While confessing that the Bible offers little information on the organization of demons in the spirit world, and that theologians through the centuries have concluded virtually nothing on the matter, Wagner and the others expound at length on the subject.

In devising a rather elaborate scheme on how to cast out demons, Wagner has unwisely expanded on the simple command of Jesus. He speaks of spiritual warfare on three levels. "Ground-level" refers simply to casting demons out of individuals. "Occult-level" concerns confronting "Satanism, witchcraft, Freemasonry, Eastern religions, New Age, shamanism, Astrology and many other forms of structured occultism." "Strategic or cosmic-level" describes battles with high-ranking principalities and powers.[5] It is this third level that provides the base for all Wagner says on "territorial spirits."
Apparently, however, Wagner finds it impossible to be consistent with his arrangement. For example, commenting on Paul's casting the spirit Python out of the young girl in Acts 16:16-18 (ground-level warfare), Wagner declares, "I am led to believe that the strongman over the city of Philippi was bound at that time" (strategic-level warfare).[6]

Focusing too much on any single teaching of Scripture, often makes people end up saying things which have very little biblical basis. They should, rather, learn to be content to take the plain teachings of the Bible and act upon them

Believers should hear anew the words of Moses: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deut. 29:29). When it comes to eschatology, for example, most in the Church world have warned against going beyond the basic events Scripture makes rather clear. Yet many fail to heed the warning. They attempt to devise neat and complete systems that offer to tell us anything and everything about the future. They have done no small hurt to the work of evangelism in the process.

Such experts in prophecy are not unlike the followers of Christ in the first century.

They were so taken up with that subject that they could think of nothing else, even in their last moments with their Teacher before His ascension back to heaven. They enquired, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). The reply of Jesus made clear that He did not want His followers to get sidetracked with peripheral issues. He said simply, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in his own authority" (7). Then the Lord of the Harvest made clear that they should focus on their assignment to witness for Him worldwide. He declared, "But 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).

Any "one-theme" preacher would do well to take note. The tendency to focus on a single doctrine in a ministry naturally leads to saying more than the Bible says about it simply in order to have enough material. It often makes the speaker appear to have knowledge that ordinary preachers don't have. The result focuses people's attention on the minister more than his message. Human pride and devotion to men are some of the unfortunate results. Another negative consequence is the minister's neglect of other teachings of equal importance. Rather than that, he should be able to say with Paul, "I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27).

An overemphasis on the work of demons leaves too little emphasis on the work of God. What Jesus has already done, what the Father does, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and even the work of angels get virtually no attention in the literature of Wagner and his associates.

One must first take note of what Jesus has already done, including examining the proof-text that demonologists use in their call for "binding the strongman." A thorough and unbiased examination of that scripture yields conclusions quite different from those the demonologists take from it (Mark 3:22-27). In this passage, the scribes have accused Jesus of casting out devils through the power of Beelzebub, the prince of devils. The Teacher responds by showing them the fallacy of their logic. If their view were correct, Satan would be fighting Satan, and thus he would destroy his own kingdom.

Then, speaking obviously about Himself, our Lord declared, "No man can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house" (Mark 3:27). Thus, Satan had already been bound by Jesus and was already under His authority! Jesus could do as He pleased with anything in the devil's house or kingdom. Paul declared about Jesus at Calvary, that, "having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:15). In doing so, Jesus was like a military commander of the day who returned home after victory in battle. In his grand march into his home city, he led behind him the defeated and helpless enemy commander along with other prisoners of war. This analogy makes it clear that it is Jesus Who has already bound Satan.

Further, an overemphasis on the work of demons in the universe demeans the work of God the Father.

It tends to portray God and Satan as equals in a great cosmic conflict, though it admittedly gives the final victory to the Lord. Indeed, Wagner confesses to holding a view of "limited dualism."[7]

Concluding as Scripture warrants, however, that demons are a part of idol worship, one must not forget that in the Bible, Jehovah repeatedly shows Himself much greater than all the gods of this world. As the Almighty, He even sarcastically pokes fun at their powerlessness (Isa. 41:21-24; 44:9-20). Thus, dualism--the idea that the power of God and the power of the devil are both eternal and of roughly equal strength--is a completely erroneous concept with no backing in Scripture.

Furthermore, what about the activities of the Holy Spirit? Is He not at work in the world to bring men to Jesus? Jesus pinpointed that as precisely what the Spirit would do on earth. The Holy Spirit's official duties would be to reprove, convict men concerning sin, convince them concerning righteousness, and persuade them to avoid judgment to come (John 16:7-11). His major mission on earth is to draw people to the Father and the Son. As Jesus said, "No man can come to Me unless the Father who hath sent me draws him" (John 6:44). It is through the Spirit that the Father draws men to the Son, ever since the Day of Pentecost.

The demonology specialists contend that the power of territorial spirits must be broken in every area of the world before evangelism is possible. Satan, the god of this world, has so blinded the eyes of sinners that such is necessary. Surely Jesus, however, through the power of the Spirit, is in the business of opening the eyes of those who have been blinded spiritually. It was basically the witnessing ministry of Paul that the Lord used "to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins . . ." (Acts 26:18). The Spirit worked mightily to make all that possible.

Finally, we should not neglect the work of angels.

Though it gives few details, the Bible indicates that angels engage in combat with demons during the great cosmic conflict of this present age. They did so in Old Testament times (Dan. 10:10-13) In fact, current demonologists use the account in Daniel as a major proof-text on battling territorial spirits. However, Robert Priest, Thomas Campbell, and Bradford Mullen observe, "Daniel had no knowledge of the details of the battle, such as who is fighting whom, or even knowledge that there is a battle until he is told later. He simply prays and trusts God for the unseen dimension of things."[8] They then conclude that "Daniel does not ‘discern,' ‘map,' ‘bind' or ‘pray against' a territorial spirit."[9] Even Wagner admits to some of their observations, despite much emphasis to the contrary in his writings.[10]

Angels will do battle with demons yet again before this age comes to a close (Rev. 12:7-9). Will the specialists in demonology now divulge to us the elaborate schemes that the angels use to combat Satan and his hordes? It actually seems more reasonable to learn all the details on how to work with angels than to know how to work against demons in the cause of evangelism.

Obviously, faith is at the core of all relationships with God. It follows that ministers must believe that He is the one who works His will in evangelism, though certainly He has assigned men a part in what He does. They must never forget, however, that He works and no man nor any demon can hinder (Isa. 43:13). Some preachers sow the good seed of the Gospel while others water it, but it is God who gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:5-7).

In the handling of Scripture, one does well to follow a rule of interpretation offered many years ago by Eric Lund: "It is necessary, so far as possible, to take the words in their usual and ordinary sense."[11] From this, one may deduce the rule: "If the first sense makes good sense, seek no other sense at all." Using common sense might save people from the extremes in both doctrine and practice that current demonologists promote. Priest, Campbell, and Mullen draw attention to one of the dangers of going with these extremes. They write that "those who embrace and propagate the tantalizing falsehood would divert valuable energies and resources from productive reality-based understandings and methods."[12] It is much better to follow the plain teachings of Scripture in the Great Commission.

Believers, then, can evangelize the world by keeping their focus on the clearly-stated content of the Commission. They have it in the ministry assignments Jesus gave, both to the Twelve, and to the Seventy. Biblical writers have also preserved it for them as the Great Commission in Matthew, Mark, and Acts. By keeping that focus, they will avoid the dangers of going foolishly beyond what the Commission contains, and at the same time they will use wisdom in trusting God to do the real "power encounter" work of evangelism.

Selected Bibliography

Anderson, Neil T. The Bondage Breaker. Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House Publishers, 1990.

Lund, Eric. Hermeneutics: The Science and Art of Interpreting the Bible, 3d and rev. ed. Translated by P. C. Nelson. Enid, Okla.: The Southwestern Press, 1941.

Priest, Robert J., Thomas Campbell, and Bradford A. Mullen. "Missiological Syncretism: The New Animis­tic Paradigm." In Spiritual Power and Missions: Raising the Issues, ed. Edward Rommen. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1995.

Wagner, Peter. Confronting the Powers. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1996.

, ed. Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial Spirits. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1991.


[1] Peter Wagner, Confronting the Powers (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1996), 26.

[2] Ibid., 157.

[3] Neil T. Anderson, The Bondage Breaker (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1990), 209-210.

[4] Ibid., 292.
[5] Wagner, Confronting the Powers, 21-22.
[6] Ibid., 196.
[7] Ibid., 64.

[8] Robert J. Priest, Thomas Campbell, and Bradford A. Mullen, "Missiological Syncretism: The New Animis­tic Paradigm," in Spiritual Power and Missions: Raising the Issues, ed. Edward Rommen (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1995), 73.

[9] Ibid., 73.

[10] Peter Wagner, Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial Spirits (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1991), 19.

[11] Eric Lund, Hermeneutics: The Science and Art of Interpreting the Bible, trans. P. C. Nelson, 3d and rev. ed. (Enid, Okla.: The Southwestern Press, 1941), 45.

[12] Priest, Campbell, and Mullen, Missiological Syncretism, 24.