Warfare in Jesus’ Ministry
The theme of God striving to establish his sovereign will (his Kingdom) on earth over and against forces that oppose him is prevalent in the New Testament. In keeping with the apocalyptic climate of the time, there are many references to angels at war with God, demons that torment people, and the powerful being who leads this rebellion against the Creator. His name, of course, is Satan.
Jesus refers to Satan as “the prince” (archon) of this present age three times (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). The term archon was used in secular contexts to denote the highest official in a city or region. (1) When Satan offers Jesus all “authority” over “all the kingdoms of this world,” Jesus does not dispute this claim to authority (Luke 4:5–6). The whole world is “under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), for Satan is “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the ruler of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2).
Jesus taught that those who wish to make headway in tearing down this evil kingdom and in taking back the “property” of this “kingdom” must first tie up “the strong man” who oversees the whole operation (Mark 3:27). This could only be done when “one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him” and thus “takes away his armor in which he trusted” (Luke 11:22). This is what Jesus understood himself to be doing by his teachings, healings, exorcisms and especially by his death and resurrection. His whole ministry was about overpowering the “fully armed” strong man who guarded “his property” (Luke 11:21)—the earth and its inhabitants who rightfully belong to God.
Every exorcism and every healing—the two activities which most characterized Jesus’ ministry—advanced the kingdom of God over and against the kingdom of Satan. (2) Contrary to any view that suggests disease and demonization somehow serve a divine purpose, Jesus never treated such phenomenon as anything other than the work of the enemy. He revolted against disease and demonization as things that ought to be vanquished by the power of God. When confronted with a woman who had a deformed back, for example, Jesus immediately diagnosed her as being “bound by Satan” and freed her from this bondage (Luke 13:11–16). Jesus often attributed illnesses to demons, and cast out demons of muteness or deafness (Mark 9:25; Luke 11:14). Peter summarized Jesus’ ministry as “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38).
Jesus tied up the strong man so that he (and later, his Church) could pillage his kingdom. In the context of Jesus’ ministry, the kingdom of God is a warfare concept. “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons,” Jesus teaches, “then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20). Jesus came to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8, cf. Heb. 2:14) and to establish the earth as God’s domain.
Warfare in The New Testament Church
Jesus’ ministry indicated that God’s purposes for the world had to be fought for and won. Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s will would be done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10), and this presupposed that, to a significant extent at least, God’s will is not now being done on earth.
Through his ministry of exorcism and healing, and especially through his death and resurrection, he destroyed the devil (1 John 3:8; Heb. 2:14), disarmed the principalities and powers (Col. 2:14–15), and put all God’s enemies under his feet (Eph. 1:22; Heb. 1:13). While Satan has in principle been defeated by Christ, God’s victory has not yet been fully realized on the earth. This is the paradox of the “already/not yet” tension within the New Testament. (3) Applying this victory to the rest of the world is the principle business of the Church, the body of Christ. The Church’s call to apply God’s victory to the world invariably encounters strong opposition from the enemy. Though they believed him to be mortally wounded, New Testament authors never underestimated the power and craftiness of this foe.
Hence the New Testament authors referred to Satan, demons, fallen angels, and various levels of evil principalities and powers as being very active in the world (Eph. 1:21, 3:10; Col. 1:16). Exorcism and healing continued to play an important role in the ministry of the early Church (Acts 3:1–10; 8:6–7, 13; 14:3, 8–10; 19:11–12; 28:5). The world was still in bondage to the evil one (Gal. 1:4; Eph. 5:16; 1 John 5:19). Putting someone outside the Church as a disciplinary measure was construed as turning them over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:1–5; 1 Tim. 1:20, cf. 1 Tim. 5:15).
The devil was portrayed as “a roaring lion” who “prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). He was understood to be “the tempter” who influences people to sin (1 Thess. 3:5; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Cor. 7:5; Acts 5:3) and the deceiver who blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Cor. 4:4). Satan was behind all types of false teaching (Gal. 4:8–10; Col. 2:8; 1 Tim. 4:1–5, 1 John 4:1–2; 2 John 7), could appear as an “angel of light” (Gal. 1:8), and even perform “lying wonders and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing” (2 Thess. 2:9–10).
Because of his on-going power, in spite of his mortal wound, Satan was able to hinder the work of the Church, as when he prevented Paul from preaching at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:8). He discourages Christians and entraps church leaders (2 Thess. 3:5; 1 Tim. 3:7). He establishes strongholds of deception in the minds of believers which Christians must war against (2 Cor. 10:3–5). And for this reason Paul warns that warriors of God must never be “ignorant of [Satan’s] designs” (2 Cor. 2:11). Indeed, Paul summarizes the Christian life as a battle “against the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12, cf. vs. 10–18).
Though New Testament authors expressed great confidence that Jesus had defeated Satan and that Satan and his followers would ultimately be defeated when Christ is enthroned as Lord of the cosmos, they were just as certain that in this present fallen world order God does not always get his way. God desires all to be saved, for example, but many shall perish (1 Tim 2:3–4; Pet 3:9). So too, he wants believers to be conformed to the image of Christ, but our minds and behavior are usually to some degree “conformed to the pattern of the world” and under demonic strongholds (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 10:3–5). His Spirit is a Spirit which can be, and frequently is, resisted by our wills (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19). Clearly, the Lord and his Church continue to face strong opposition in carrying out his will as we seek to establish his Kingdom upon the earth.
(1) C. E. Arnold, Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992), 81. See the discussion in God at War, 181.
(2) “Every healing, exorcism, or raising of the dead is a loss for Satan and a gain for God,” writes Susan Garrett. The Demise of the Devil: Magic and the Demonic in Luke’s Writings (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 55. James Kallas also captures the motif well when he notes that, “The arrival of the kingdom is simultaneous with, dependent upon, and manifested in the routing of demons.” The Significance of the Synoptic Miracles (Greenwich, CT: Seabury, 1961), 78. See also O. Bocher, Christus Exorcista: Daimonismus und Taufe im Neuen Testament, BWANT 5:16 (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1972); L. Sabourin, “The Miracles of Jesus (II): Jesus and the Evil Powers,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 4 (1974), 115–75; G. H. Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus, WUNT 2:54 (Tubingen: Mohr [Seibeck], 1993), 217–24; R. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus and Mark, WUNT 2:88 (Tubingen: Mohr [Siebeck], 1997), 137–82.
(3) On the already/not yet tension in New Testament eschatology see G. W. Kummel, Promise and Fulfillment: The Eschatological Message of Jesus, 3rd ed., SBT 1/23 (London: SCM, 1957); G. E. Ladd, Jesus and the Kingdom: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism, 2nd ed. (Waco: Word, 1964); B. Wiebe, “The Focus of Jesus’ Eschatology,” in Self-Definition and Self-Discovery in Early Christianity: A Study in Changing Horizons, D. J. Hawkins and T. Robinson, eds. (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1990), 121–46.
G. Boyd, God at War (IVP, 1997).
G. Boyd, Is God to Blame? (IVP, 2002).