If Facebook has taught us one thing it is that sensational titles are crucial to being successful online. If this post were a video, the title would run something like this: ‘The Church Grew More Rapidly Than Ever Before, But You Will Not Believe How…’ However, I don’t believe that my caution in this post—that Satan can indeed grow the church—is irresponsible or sensational. In fact, Jesus seems to teach that very point, in Matthew’s Gospel.
Satan hates Jesus’ Church.
It should come as no surprise that Satan hates Jesus’ Church. And we can all think of ways that Satan works against God’s people: from power hungry leaders to cultivating shame, from sowing division to temptation. Throughout the life of Jesus, we see Satan working against him. This is perhaps most prominent in Jesus’ temptation, though it is implied in other places. Thus Jesus warns his disciples about Satan’s schemes in his parables, most noticeably the “parable of the weeds of the field” (Matthew 13:36).
The Parable Of The Weeds
Very briefly, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a farmer, who sows good seed (Matthew 13:24). But while the farmer and his workers sleep, an enemy sows weeds among the good seed (Matthew 13:25). Thus when the good seed grows up, its intertwined with the weeds (Matthew 13:26). The workers want to pull up and destroy the weeds (Matthew 13:28). But the farmer tells them that would harm the crop that grew up from the good seed (Matthew 13:29). Thus, they must grow together until the harvest, when they will be separated (Matthew 13:30).
A few verses later, Jesus explains this parable (Matthew 13:37-43). And, as unpopular as the notion might be, he makes a distinction between those who are his and everyone else. For our purposes in this article, note that Jesus says the enemy—the one who sows weeds in the field—is the devil (Matthew 13:39).
One of the ways that Satan deceives us is by growing local churches.
This parable teaches a few things: the church visible is not the church invisible; on judgment day Jesus will vindicate his people whilst judging those who rejected him; and God is not deceived by Satan but fully aware of his designs. However I believe another point is often missed in our reading of this parable. That is, Satan grows local churches. One of the ways that Satan deceives us is by growing local churches.
This should not surprise us. If we look at Jesus’ temptation, we will see that Satan offers him great things: comfort, recognition, and power. However, taken together as an episode, what Satan ultimately tempts Jesus with is the spectacular. He offers the messiah might. He tempts him with power and fame that avoids sacrificial service and shame. Satan presented Jesus glory without the cross. Considering the anguish with which Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, Satan’s offer was no doubt tantalising.
What Satan ultimately tempts Jesus with is the spectacular.
As my former principle, David Seccombe, writes in The King Of God’s Kingdom: “[Jesus] saw just how easy it would be to win the kingdoms if he were to employ the armoury of evil tactics which have been used from time immemorial to achieve political power.” Satan was offering him what the Father had promised him: dominion. Satan could give the Son what was deservedly his: all glory and honour and power. But Satan’s offer bypassed the cross.
Returning to the parable of the weeds, Satan still tempts us with wonderful things, perhaps particularly big churches.
The Pastor’s Temptation
I want to address pastors, from all traditions, denominations, and walks. Our adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). And one of the ways that he can do this is through giving you what you rightfully desire: a vibrant, impressive church. Thus we should be extremely wary of loading our confidence into the size of our congregations.
We should be extremely wary of loading our confidence into the size of our congregations.
Sam Storms, in To the One Who Conquers, warns against pointing to sizeable offerings and overflowing crowds as an indication of divine approval. The field may simply be full of weeds. Writing on Jesus’ letter to the Philadelphians (Revelation 3:9), Storms says: “The greatness of a church is not measured by its membership roll or budgetary prowess, but by the size of its Saviour, whom it faithfully honours and passionately praises and confidently trusts.” It sounds trite, but it is true.
Satan is the surreptitious prince of this world, sowing weeds and causing us to look in awe at the size of churches. But we must remember, from Jesus’ encounter with him, that he can give us what we know to be good and desirable. Pastors need to be aware of the temptation to adopt alternate means, as Jesus was, in achieving church growth. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, our work will one day be measured. Only that which is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ will last.
God Vindicates The Faithful, Not The Successful
In Matthew 13 we learn that Satan can grow the church. Indeed, it is one of the ways that he deceives believers. Therefore we must be cautious about seeing the size of our congregation as a mark of God’s blessing or presence. I know of very large churches where Satan’s promises are preached. I’ve also visited many seemingly insignificant but faithful local churches that I am sure God is pleased with.
Satan revels in the church where attendance is the mark of faith and its leaders worship growth.
In Matthew 4 Satan tempted Jesus with a right and desirous end, but the means were idolatrous. For us today, especially those in ministry, the difficult line to walk is between desiring growth in the local church while keeping that desire from becoming an idol. Our enemy revels in a church where attendance is the mark of faith and its leaders worship growth.