On Satan, Spiritual Conflict, & Its Pastoral Obligation
The Gospel of Mark is, perhaps, the most urgent of the Gospels in its literary form and structure. It gives a fervent, almost raw depiction of Jesus’s life and ministry, presenting powerful scene after powerful scene of his authority, mercy, and sovereignty. In the latter half of the opening chapter, we are shown Jesus’s penchant for doing the unexpected, as he almost invites the hostility of the religious aristocrats by performing various exorcisms and healings. (Mark 1:21–45) While some choose to spend time focusing on Christ’s affinity for speaking life and grace into unclean and undesirable people — and rightly so — perhaps a less noticeable aspect of Jesus’s healings is his outright assault on the works of darkness by taking an aggressive stance against Satan and his cronies through such miracles.
Fundamental to the gospel itself is an understanding of its inexorable testament to a literal devil figure, whose might and minions are at once thwarted in their mission to subvert God’s reclamation of creation by the Son of God’s triumph over death. Evidence throughout the Gospels affirm the real activity and tangible presence of Satan and demons, with Jesus trouncing their operation at every turn. The devil shows up early on in each of the Synoptic Gospels in the account of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. (Mark 1:13; cf. Matt. 4:1; Luke 4:2) This scene, though rife with theological undertones, acts as one of the key Christological averments to Satan himself. The Synoptics are also filled thematically with the tension between the two kingdoms, God’s and Satan’s, as is evidenced by Jesus’s own remarks when accused by the scribes of exorcizing demonic spirits in the devil’s name.
The scribes who had come down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and, “He drives out demons by the ruler of the demons.” So he summoned them and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand but is finished. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can plunder his house.” (Mark 3:22–27)
Jesus’s rebuttal to the question of his authority in the purging of spirits is not only a (not so) subtle testimony to his own deity but also to the reality of the devil and the demons that carry out his malevolence. Mark’s Gospel portrays well the motif of darkness as representative of demonic influences and occurrences. Indeed, the bulk of the first half of Mark’s account is made up of exorcism stories and healing accounts, the first appearing in Mark 1:29–31 in the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and the last recorded healing coming in Mark 10:46–52 in the cleansing of Bartimaeus. Even still, it would be naïve to assume that the ministry of healings only appeared in Jesus’s early days on earth. Christ and Satan are at war throughout the Gospels, and Jesus’s engagement with the evil one is a telling nod to the manner in which Jesus would establish his Father’s kingdom.
Early Jewish society was inundated with the notion that death was intimately linked to the devil himself. Later this connection would come to include illness, as well. Therefore, the corollary ran that anything associated with death or touched by illness were obvious signs of the devil’s presence. Thus, when Jesus made it his mission to “proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed” (Luke 4:18–19), he was not only rustling the feathers of the religious elite, he was upsetting the very fabric of Satan’s dominion. Christ, of course, knew precisely what he was doing whilst performing these supernatural deeds. He was not showboating or grandstanding, nor was he merely showcasing his mystical powers. Moreover, neither was he setting the template for his followers to go about conducting their own exorcisms. No, through these exorcisms, healings, and cleansings he was driving back the domain of darkness. Indeed, it in these very supernatural deeds that we see that “Satan’s kingdom is diminished, and God’s kingdom” expanded. (Bell, 195)
One is made to catch a glimpse of the siege of Satan’s kingdom in the Person of Christ in Jesus’s remedial powers over demonic blindness. The theme of darkness, which runs throughout Mark’s Gospel, is indicative of the movement and influence of Satan and his cohorts, but is also representative of “human ignorance and confusion regarding the person of Jesus.” (Bell, 199) One can see this most clearly in Jesus’s retort to Peter in Mark 8 after Peter has questioned the necessity of the Messiah’s death and resurrection: “Get behind me, Satan! You are not thinking about God’s concerns but human concerns.” (Mark 8:33) The diabolical blindness which hindered those in Jesus’s vicinity from understanding his true nature and purpose finds its culmination in Jesus’s passion.
According to Mark, then, the blindness caused by the demons comes to an end as Jesus utters his final cry and looks to his deliverance from death, which is related to the breaking in of the kingdom of God. (Bell, 200)
Jesus takes it upon himself, through much travail no doubt (Mark 14:36), to not only drive back this darkness but to defeat it once for all. In a paradoxical mold for a warrior, Jesus does not unsheathe a sword as he clashes with Satan on the cross. Rather, he uses the very evil most closely associated with the devil as his own weapon against the devil. In the death of Christ, death itself is weaponized again death, summoning the utter defeat of Satan and all his underlings. “Death, the engulfer, is himself engulfed,” writes prominent English minister Alexander Maclaren. “Death, the conqueror, is conquered utterly and forever.” (251) The penultimate cleansing of Satan and sin, which also signals the final purge to come in the Last Days, is attended by the darkest of scenes, as the supposed Savior breathes his last on a ratty Roman cross. And it is in this darkness that the light of the resurrection shines forth in resplendent light to declare that death itself is defeated. It is no more. It is finished.
This, then, serves as ample ground on which pastors proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to their congregants. Despite the darkness which still persists and spiritually blinds many to the hope of the gospel, pastors are imbued with an obligation to preach death and resurrection, which is, in and of itself, a message of categorical victory. Finished, indeed.
This article has also appeared on Dead Men.
R. H. Bell, “Demon, Devil, Satan,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
Alexander Maclaren, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians (To II Corinthians, Chapter V) (New York: Armstrong & Son, 1910).