The phrase “tear down strongholds” is vernacular among some believers, but what does it mean? What is a stronghold?
Galatians 5:1 says “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”
We know that Christ has set us free, but why are so many Christians still entangled in bondage? These are important questions to ask as we journey on the path of becoming NO LONGER ENSLAVED. In order to answer these questions, we need to dig into scripture to see what the Word of God has to say about strongholds.
The Hebrew word for ‘stronghold’ is ‘māṣûḏ’ which means “net, capture, castle, defense, fortress, be hunted, snare, strong place”.(1) It comes from the root word, ‘ṣûḏ’ which means “to lie in wait, to chase, to hunt, to take provision”.(2) Intriguingly, this root word is used figuratively to describe someone who lies in wait to catch a human, in other words, to entrap someone with the intent to exploit for personal gain (i.e., human trafficking). The Greek word for ‘stronghold’ is ‘ochyrōma’ which means “a castle, stronghold, fortress; anything on which one relies, like arguments and reasonings used to fortify one’s opinion and defend against an opponent.”(3)
Strongholds can be positive or negative, a blessing or a curse. David understood the blessing of a stronghold.
2 Samuel 22:3 “my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior – from violent people you save me.”
When we choose to make the Lord our stronghold, He becomes our defense, our fortress, our strong place. Quite literally, the Lord provided strongholds for David to hide in when King Saul was hunting after him. The cave of Adullam was a stronghold (2 Samuel 22:1-5); the inaccessible places of En Gedi were strongholds (2 Samuel 23:29). These strongholds were a blessing from the Lord because they protected David’s life. But as the Hebrew definition of ‘māṣûḏ’ implies, strongholds can also be a curse. We can be captured in the net of a stronghold or caught in its snare.
A stronghold is like a fortified city. Jericho had impenetrable walls to control the flow of who came and went. Principalities, rulers, authorities, powers, and the spiritual forces of darkness look for ways to establish strongholds. Their goal is to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10), so to accomplish this, the enemy tries to take our territory and lock us up in chains that bind us.
Tom White, in his book A Believer’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare, defines stronghold as “an entrenched pattern of thought/ideology/behavior – that is contrary to the will of God.”(4)
Edward Silvoso, in his book That None Should Perish, defines stronghold as “a mind-set impregnated with hopelessness that causes us to accept as unchangeable situations that we know are contrary to the will of God.”(5)
Cindy Jacobs, in her book Possessing the Gates of the Enemy, defines strongholds as “fortified places Satan builds to exalt himself against the knowledge and plans of God.”(6)
Spiritual strongholds are invisible structures that are erected through the cooperation of human will with demonic influence. Strongholds are strengthened by individual, corporate and/or generational iniquity. George Otis Jr. in Twilight Labyrinth explains, “first, strongholds are born whenever cultures welcome evil powers into their midst through unambiguous pacts; and second, strongholds are extended when the provisions of these pacts are honored by successive generations.”(7) Given that iniquity creates strongholds, it behooves us to understand what iniquity is so we can stay far from it.
Iniquity vs Sin
Iniquity is a pattern of sin that comes out of having a depraved mind. Sin means to miss the mark, but iniquity comes from a heart set on evil ambition. Sin is like a single strand of yarn, whereas iniquity is strand upon strand woven together to form a thick cord. Examples of iniquity include drug and alcohol addictions, sexual addictions, domestic violence, abuse of women and/or children, adultery, lawlessness, deceptive practices in business, manipulation and domination in relationships, idolatry, bloodshed, and broken covenants. If these occur in a community, it opens the door for the enemy to gain a foothold in that territory. If these iniquities are not dealt with through repentance, then the foothold becomes a stronghold, and the stronghold acts like a net to entrap people.
There can be strongholds over our minds as well as cities, regions, states, and nations. Territorial strongholds can affect the inhabitants of that territory. People can develop strongholds within their minds which are directly connected to the strongholds of the region. We see this in Israel’s response to the report given by the 10 spies.
Numbers 13:28, 32-33 “But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there…the land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
Their report was filled with fear and intimidation which was the pervading attitude of the Canaanites. Through the iniquitous acts of the Canaanites, a territorial stronghold of fear and intimidation was established in the land. The 10 spies developed a stronghold in their mind consistent with the territorial stronghold, and tragically, this impacted their report given to the Israelites. Whereas, Caleb and Joshua did not allow themselves to be swayed by the stronghold; they were able to perceive the situation according to the will of God.
Numbers 13:30 “Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”
In the days of Ezekiel, Israel engaged in idolatry which led to the presence of a territorial stronghold.
Ezekiel 13:17-21 “Now, son of man, set your face against the daughters of your people who prophesy out of their own imagination. Prophesy against them and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the women who sew magic charms on all their wrists and make veils of various lengths for their heads in order to ensnare people. Will you ensnare the lives of my people but preserve your own? You have profaned me among my people for a few handfuls of barley and scraps of bread. By lying to my people, who listen to lies, you have killed those who should not have died and have spared those who should not live “
‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against your magic charms with which you ensnare [‘ṣûḏ’] people like birds and I will tear them from your arms; I will set free the people that you ensnare [‘ṣûḏ’] like birds. I will tear off your veils and save my people from your hands, and they will no longer fall prey [‘māṣûḏ’ ] to your power. Then you will know that I am the LORD.”
The false prophets engaged in iniquitous acts by using magic as their source of prophetic utterances. This established a stronghold in the territory and the Israelites became entrapped in the net of idolatry. They believed the lies of the women who were prophesying out of their own imagination. The Lord declared that He was going to tear down the stronghold by removing the veil of deception that ensnared his children.
There are countless examples throughout scripture of iniquity creating a territorial stronghold that impacts the inhabitants. Nebuchadnezzar ordered all the people living in Babylonia to bow down and worship the golden statue when they heard the sound of instruments (Daniel 3:4-12). The Jews held in captivity were not only in physical captivity, but their minds were held captive by the stronghold over Babylon. This is evidenced by the fact that all but three Jews bowed their knee to worship the golden statue.
Another example is the depravity of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah who committed iniquity through sexual perversion. These deviant acts greatly impacted the people living there.
Genesis 19:4-5 (NKJV) “Now before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both old and young, all the people from every quarter, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot and said to him, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may know them carnally.”
This particular passage paints a remarkable picture of what took place. The men of the entire city, despite their age, along with all the people from every quarter of the city, desired to have sex with the angels which is the most detestable form of sexual perversion. The stronghold over these cities was so powerful from the accumulated individual, corporate and generational iniquity, that not one person was unaffected!
Strongholds in Our Mind
The story of Gideon, in Judges 6, is an example of how a territorial stronghold due to corporate and generational iniquity can lead to a stronghold in our thinking. During the time of Gideon, the Israelites had engaged in idolatry through their worship of Baal. As a result, they brought upon themselves a curse for their disobedience (Deuteronomy 28:15-19). The Lord handed the Israelites over to the Midianites for 7 years. The Midianites terrorized them by ravaging their land, destroying their crops, and killing their livestock. As a result, the Israelites had to hide in caves and forts. The angel of the Lord found Gideon hiding in the winepress threshing wheat; normally, wheat is threshed on a hilltop, out in the open air. But Gideon was threshing wheat in a protected area for fear that it would be stolen by the Midianites. This is our first hint that Gideon was under a stronghold of fear and intimidation. Our next hint comes from Gideon’s exchange with the angel of the Lord (Judges 6:12-24).
The angel of the Lord revealed to Gideon his true identity, he was a mighty warrior with the strength to save Israel. But Gideon was blinded by the stronghold that gripped his mind causing him to doubt the truth of his identity. Gideon declared that he came from the weakest of the tribes of Israel and he was the least in his family. Gideon was entrenched in a pattern of thinking regarding his identity and it was contrary to the will of God. He saw himself as weak and insignificant, but the Lord saw him as a strong and mighty warrior who would save Israel from their enemy.
Acts 19-20 record some of Paul’s experiences in the city of Ephesus, the capital of magic during the first century. In particular, Ephesus was the center for the worship of Artemis, the Greek name given for the Roman goddess Diana. The Temple of Artemis was well-known throughout the region, and worshipers would travel great distances to partake in rituals and ceremonies honoring Artemis. Female shrine prostitutes surrounded the temple grounds for worshipers to engage in ritualistic sexual deviances. A spiritual stronghold of darkness enveloped the city and prior to Paul’s visit, only a few followers of Jesus resided in Ephesus.
Acts 19 describes Paul’s encounter with the people of Ephesus who were ensnared in this stronghold. For two years, Paul taught in the lecture hall of Tyrannus untangling mind-sets of those caught in the net of the prevailing religious spirit. As Paul ministered in signs and wonders, Demetrius, the silversmith, aroused opposition to the works of God. A riot ensued.
Acts 19:32 “The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.”
This passage shows us that a territorial religious spirit fosters a stronghold of mind-control. The false worship of Artemis, elevated this goddess to become the territorial spirit over Ephesus. Keep in mind, a religious spirit does not allow for the breaking of tradition to make way for new revelation; under this type of stronghold, questions are discouraged and critical thinking is dissuaded. The stronghold of mind-control captivated the Ephesians in such a way, they became confused and unable to reason; they didn’t even know why they were rioting. If we dig a little deeper, the occurrences in Ephesus can teach us a great deal about strongholds and spiritual warfare.
Lessons from Ephesus
When Paul arrived in Ephesus, he sought out the believers. There were only twelve. Paul taught them about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. They were eager to receive the Holy Spirit, so Paul laid hands on them and they were filled with the Spirit, speaking in tongues and prophesying. Paul taught in both the synagogue and the hall of Tyrannus, so that all the Jews and Greeks living in the province of Asia could hear the word of the Lord. God did extraordinary miracles through Paul demonstrating the power of the gospel. Light broke through the darkness. Paul engaged in ground level spiritual warfare by healing the sick and casting out evil spirits. Paul was a conduit for the power of God; even handkerchiefs he touched transmitted the power of God in such a way that people were delivered from illness and demonic possession.
The demonstration of power through the ground level warfare was so extraordinary that several of the Ephesians tried doing it themselves. The cultural norm established by the stronghold in Ephesus was to use magic spells, incantations, and curses to manipulate circumstances and/or people. So, the sons of a Jewish chief priest named Sceva, errantly thought they could use a magic formula to release the power to cast out demons. They went around town trying to drive out demons by reciting the incantation “In the name of Jesus, who Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” The sons of Sceva quickly realized that the power of God cannot be accessed by incantation. They were overpowered by the evil spirits and wound up a bloody mess, nearly beaten to death.
Word traveled fast around Ephesus of this power encounter and a great fear fell upon the people. The power in the name of Jesus rendered their methods of witchcraft and sorcery inept. Their occult practices were no match for the power of the One True God. Consequently, the name of the Lord Jesus was greatly honored.
C. P. Wagner, in his book Confronting the Powers, describes three levels of spiritual warfare: ground level, occult level, and strategic level. Casting out of demons is ground level warfare. Occult level warfare is confronting practitioners of the magic arts through power encounters that demonstrate the authoritative power of Yahweh. Strategic level warfare is dismantling the strongholds setup by territorial spirits over a city, region, and/or nation.(8)
Paul engaged in ground level and occult level spiritual warfare while he was in Ephesus, but he did not engage in strategic level warfare. Why? Was the power of God that flowed through Paul not enough to dismantle the strongholds of the territorial spirit Artemis? I believe it was a matter of timing. It wasn’t the kairos (opportune) time. C. P. Wagner emphasizes a crucial principle regarding strategic level warfare,
“When Paul left Ephesus, Diana of the Ephesians had been thoroughly embarrassed, and her power had been severely weakened… Sometime after Paul left Ephesus, the apostle John went there to live and to minister. We saw that during Paul’s ministry there, he did not enter the temple of Diana, nor did he engage the territorial spirit in overt strategic-level spiritual warfare. John did both of these things… An obvious question arises. Why was it that Paul did not go into the temple of Diana, but John did? The answer is simple, because it rests on a principle…in strategic level warfare, proceed only on God’s timing. Both Paul and John had the discernment and the experience to know this principle well. I would surmise that if Paul had violated the principle and gone into Diana’s temple to take her on, he, rather than her altar, might have ended up split in pieces. It is dangerous to trifle with territorial spirits.” (emphasis mine) (9)
In order to understand the strategic level warfarethat the apostle John engaged in, we need to turn to an apocryphal writing called the Acts of John. This book is not part of the canonized Scriptures; however, it is useful as a historical document. It informs us about the nature of John’s experience in Ephesus prior to banishment to the island of Patmos.
John was in Ephesus during a festival honoring the birthday of Artemis. It was on that day of celebration that the kairos moment came for strategic level warfare. The worshipers gathered at the temple of Artemis in white robes as part of the celebration, but John showed up wearing a black garment. John sensed the magnitude of the moment and told the frenzied worshipers:
Acts of John 40-44: “For now is it time that either ye be converted by my God, or I myself die by your goddess; for I will pray in your presence and entreat my God that mercy be shown unto you. And having so said he prayed thus: O God that art God above all that are called gods, that until this day hast been set at nought in the city of the Ephesians; that didst put into my mind to come into this place, whereof I never thought; that dost convict every manner of worship by turning men unto thee; at whose name every idol fleeth and every evil spirit and every unclean power; now also by the flight of the evil spirit here at thy name, even of him that deceiveth this great multitude, show thou thy mercy in this place, for they have been made to err.’ And as John spake these things, immediately the altar of Artemis was parted into many pieces, and all the things that were dedicated in the temple fell, and… the half of the temple fell down, so that the priest was slain at one blow... The multitude of the Ephesians therefore cried out: ‘One is the God of John, one is the God that hath pity on us, for thou only art God: now are we turned to thee, beholding thy marvelous works! Have mercy on us, O God, according to thy will, and save us from our great error!’ And some of them, lying on their faces, made supplication, and some kneeled and besought, and some rent their clothes and wept, and others tried to escape. But John spread forth his hands, and being uplifted in soul, said unto the Lord: ‘Glory be to thee, my Jesus, the only God of truth, for that thou dost gain (receive) thy servants by divers devices.’ And having so said, he said to the people: ‘Rise up from the floor, ye men of Ephesus, and pray to my God, and recognize the invisible power that cometh to manifestation, and the wonderful works which are wrought before your eyes. Artemis…Where is the power of the evil spirit? Where are her sacrifices? Where her birthdays? Where her festivals? Where are the garlands? Where is all that sorcery and the poisoning (witchcraft) that is sister thereto?’ But the people rising up from off the floor went hastily and cast down the rest of the idol temple, crying: ‘The God of John only do we know, and him hereafter do we worship, since he hath had mercy upon us!”(10)
We learn from this passage that going into the temple of Artemis had not been on John’s radar until that day. He discerned that the kairos time had come, that it was the God orchestrated moment to dismantle the strongholds in Ephesus and evict Artemis from the city. He prayed with authority as one of Christ’s ambassadors and took dominion over the principality of Ephesus.
We must recognize that tearing down territorial strongholds is not something every believer is called to do, BUT demolishing strongholds established in our minds IS the work of every believer.
Freedom from Strongholds
2 Corinthians 10:4-5 “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
We should never underestimate the power of our thinking. Epigenetics helps us understand that our thoughts, behaviors and lifestyle choices affect our body, soul, and spirit as well as our future generations. Our thinking can alter our genetic expression making us more susceptible to disease and illness. We need to perceive and interpret reality through the mind of Christ and the direction of the Holy Spirit, otherwise we are susceptible to our thinking being influenced by the traditions of our family, culture and religion.
Epigenetics has a transgenerational component which can lead to generational iniquity. Swedish researchers (Pembrey et al. 2006) found that eating and lifestyle choices of pre-pubescent boys effects their progeny for two generations. Boys who overeat and/or smoke around the age of 10 have children and grandchildren with significantly shorter life spans.(1) Our choices (epigenetic signals) alter the expression of our genes (epigenetic markers) which can be passed on to our children and grandchildren. So, our poor choices become their bad predispositions which can set the stage for a stronghold to develop.(12)
It has long been thought that our genes predispose us to disease and mental illness, but the science of epigenetics demonstrates that the lion share of the responsibility falls upon epigenetic mechanisms. For example, researchers have found that only about 5% of cancer and cardiovascular disease can be attributed to genes, 95% are triggered by environmental factors that alter epigenetic markers.(13)
If we entertain a toxic thought, the proteins produced from this thought don’t form properly. A repetition of negative thinking can lead to disease or mental illness because of the improperly formed proteins. In other words, toxic thinking leads to mental illness. The good news is that we can change the way we think.
Our overall mental health improves when we develop healthy thinking patterns which translate into healthy behaviors. Epigenetics adds another layer of understanding to the mechanics of how this works. Our reaction to situations can literally change the structure of our brain. Therefore, we must be vigilant with the thoughts we entertain, it’s critical to the very structure of our DNA. This is why we are encouraged in 2 Corinthians 10:5b to “… take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
Our Creator designed us to experience health and wholeness when our mind is in alignment with the mind of Christ. His instruction manual leads us to abundant life. Our choices directly impact our livelihood as well as that of our offspring.
Deuteronomy 30:19 (NKJV) “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.”
No matter how much our minds have been entrenched in strongholds, the good news is that there is a way out of the dark caverns of mind control. Freedom and transformation are possible because our loving Maker created our brains with the capacity for neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is one of the most amazing aspects of brain function; it means the brain is malleable and adaptable. This is described in Romans 12.
Romans 12:2 (NIV) “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
In order to renew our minds, it helps to understand what this means. The Greek word for ‘renew’ is ‘anakaínōsis’ which means “renewal, renovation, complete change for the better”.(14) It comes from the root word ‘anakainóō’ which means “to cause to grow up, to make new, to be changed into a new kind of life as opposed to the former corrupt state.”(15) This is promising and gives us great hope. We can tell our former corrupt self, it’s no longer welcome. We want the Holy Spirit to transform us so that we can live a life free from strongholds and aligned with the will of the Father.
It all begins with guarding our thoughts!
Written by Laura Sanger, Ph.D.
1. H4686 - māṣûḏ - Strong's Hebrew Lexicon (NIV). Retrieved from https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h4686/niv/wlc/0-1/
2. H6679 - ṣûḏ - Strong's Hebrew Lexicon (NIV). Retrieved from https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h6679/niv/wlc/0-1/
3. G3794 - ochyrōma - Strong's Greek Lexicon (NIV). Retrieved from https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g3794/niv/mgnt/0-1/
4. White, T. (2011). The Believer’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare. Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books.
5. Silvoso, E. (1995). That None Should Perish. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books.
6. Jacobs, C. (2018). Possessing the Gates of the Enemy. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books.
7. Otis, G. (1997). Twilight Labyrinth. Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books.
8. Wagner, C. P. (1996). Confronting the Powers. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.
10. Apocrypha: Acts of John (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.interfaith.org/christianity/apocrypha-acts-of-john/.
11. Pembrey, M.E., Bygren, L.O., Kaati, G., Edvinsson, S., Northstone, K., Sjöström, M. & Golding, J. (2006). Sex-specific, Male-line Transgenerational Responses in Humans. European Journal of Human Genetics (14), 159-166.
12. Leaf, C. (2013). Switch on Your Brain. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.
13. Lipton, B (2005). Biology of Belief. Santa Rosa, CA: Mountain of Love/Elite Books.
14. Blue Letter Bible (2021). “Dictionary and Word Search for ‘anakainōsis’ (Strong’s G342)” Retrieved from https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g342/kjv/tr/0-1/
15. Blue Letter Bible (2021). “Dictionary and Word Search for ‘anakainoō’ (Strong’s G341)” Retrieved from https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/g341/kjv/tr/0-1/