Jesus came…to destroy the works of the evil one

I have been continuing my teaching at New Wine (Hub 1, 2.30 pm each day) on the question of ‘Why Jesus came…‘ based on sayings in the gospels in which Jesus states his purpose in these terms. We begin by exploring Jesus saying ‘I have come to preach [good news]…‘ and then reflected on Jesus’ saying ‘I have come to call sinners to repentance’ (Mark 2.17, Luke 5.32).

This third saying doesn’t quite come on Jesus’ lips himself, but from a verse in 1 John and from the saying of someone on the receiving end (as it were) of Jesus’ ministry. The verse is 1 John 3.8:

For this reason Christ was revealed: to destroy all the works of the evil one.

When I became a Christian as a teenager, and avidly read the writings of David Watson, this verse was one of his ‘top ten’ memory verses for new Christians. I am not sure that it would be in a top ten today—and do we still encourage the learning of memory verses?! I also remember that it was in a well-known chorus, and again I wonder why we don’t sing more scripture in our songs. We might think that this text was about ‘spiritual warfare’ or ‘deliverance’ ministry—but in fact the context in 1 John is the relatively mundane question of holy living and not being led astray in our understanding of God.

But a similar phrase comes on the lips of the man possessed by an unclean spirit right at the beginning of Mark’s account of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark 1.24:

What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!

In this section of the gospel, Mark appears to have pulled together a range of incidents in order to offer us a typical ‘day in the life’ of Jesus’ ministry. This pattern is expanded in chapter 4 and 5, where we see Jesus preaching the good news (in the form of a parable), driving out demons, raising the dead (Jairus’ daughter) and healing (the woman with an issue of blood)—the same kind of pattern of ministry that Jesus calls the disciples to in Mark 6 (and in parallel in Luke 9 and 10).

Jesus’ encounter with spirit-possession is explored in detail in the encounter with the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5.1–20. It is worth reflecting why it is, in such a short gospel, Mark tells us this story in such detail, but does not tell us more stories about these kind of incidents. I think the only reasonable conclusion is that he offers this as an archetypal account of such incidents; once we understand what is going on here, then we will understand the dynamic of this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Mark offers us a kind of taxonomy of evil—a description of what the presence of the Evil One effects in a person’s life, and how Jesus’ ministry addresses that.

There are several things to note from a careful reading. First, the language of ‘crossing the lake’ occurs eight times in Mark, and refers not to crossing the middle of Galilee but traversing its top section, which takes Jesus from Jewish territory proper into and out of gentile territory. The gentile Decapolis region is where the story ends. This is part of Mark’s interest in boats, fishing and fishermen; there is something distinctly ‘fishy’ about this gospel, which is evidence of Peter’s eye-witness testimony behind it.

Second, the story is actually chaotic. Although Mark appears to be giving us an orderly account, things are actually out of order—the man shouts at Jesus in verse 7 but we discover that Jesus has already been commanding the spirit out of him in verse 8. It is a chaotic encounter which must have looked like a shouting match of sorts—and offers a challenge for anyone reading this passage out loud to capture this sense of chaotic struggle.

This points to the third dynamic—there is a mighty power struggle at the centre of this encounter. It is highlighted by Mark’s repeated emphasis on the man’s strength, and he acts as a kind of literalising of the metaphor of the ‘strong man’ in Jesus’ earlier dispute with the Jerusalem authorities in Mark 3.22–29. The power dynamic pits the man against the local people, it pits the man against Jesus, and of course it pits the ministry of Jesus against the presence of the unclean spirit(s). We need to be aware that the use of power in a spiritual or religious context is highly contested in our culture at the moment, with New Wine being named by some antagonists as a place of potential spiritual abuse because of teaching about the Holy Spirit—which is itself a cultural power play. But we also need to remember that the (right) use of power is part of Jesus’ ministry and calling to us. Luke, in particular, focuses on the importance of power in Jesus’ ministry.

Finally, there is the significant presence of dissociation. The man has become cut off from his community—and it is striking that the end of this episode is focused emphatically and rather surprisingly on Jesus restoring him to the place he has come from, sending him home in every sense of the word. There is dissociation of the man from his body, as he cuts and harms himself, and dissociation from the forces at work in him, as the voice of the unclean spirit(s) speak to Jesus in verse 9. These dynamics of dissociation are very evident in our world, with fractured communities and broken relationship, the apparent rise of mental health issue, individualism, and the defining of the self detached from bodily identity at the heart of the debates about sexuality and transgender ideology. There is no sense in which I am suggesting that any of these things are the result of ‘demon possession’ but Mark is telling is the impact of Jesus’ ministry on this complex range of issues.

We live with a long suspicion of claims about the spiritual realm in our materialist culture. Rudolph Bultmann, the highly influential German New Testament scholar, once declared that ‘we cannot believe in the world of demons and spirits and the world of electric light at the same time’ and this assumption was behind his programme to ‘demythologise’ the gospels and translate them into a message about existential decision in response to the (contentless?) message of Jesus. But most scholarship now recognises that the account of Jesus’ ministry of deliverance is theologically at one with his healing and his proclamation of the kingdom.

In Luke 13.10–16, we see Jesus healing a woman on the Sabbath who has been bent over for 18 years. Luke introduces her condition in ‘spiritual’ terms, ‘a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years’ (Luke 13.11) but that appears to be a theological judgement and not a phenomenal description. In all other ways this appears to be a ‘straightforward’ healing—yet Jesus also describes this illness as something by which ‘Satan has bound her’ (Luke 13.16).

The connection between aspects of Jesus’ ministry and the presence of the kingdom of God is made even clearer in the key verse Luke 11.20 = Matt 12.28:

If by the finger/Spirit of God I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come among you.

Jesus is here claiming that God himself, the one God of Israel, is present in his ministry, that in Jesus the king of the kingdom has come, and that in his ministry of deliverance the rule and reign of God is present. In other words, wherever Jesus exercises authority, Satan is dethroned.

We often miss the connection here, but it is at the heart of Christian prayer. When we pray as Jesus taught us ‘Your kingdom come…’ we go on to pray ‘Deliver us from the evil one’ though this is disguised in most English versions that reduce this to a general statement about evil rather than a reference to the devil himself (the definitely article is present in the Greek text). And it is expressed in quite striking terms in John’s gospel:

Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. (John 12.31–33)

According to John, it is on the cross that Jesus is enthroned and God’s glory is revealed. And when Jesus is enthroned, Satan is dethroned. This is part of the basic shape of NT theology, expressed in the language of the two ages, ‘this age’ where there is sin and sickness, which is ruled by the ‘prince of power of the air’ (Eph 2.2), and the ‘age to come’ initiated by the resurrection of Jesus in which God is king. That is why Paul is clear that our struggle is ‘not with flesh and blood, but with the principalities and powers’ (Eph 6.12)—but also that the battle has been won by Jesus, who disarmed them in the cross and resurrection (Col 2.15).

The Book of Revelation offers the same theological perspective, but makes explicit the implicit connection with the political realm.

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. (Rev 12.10)

Here we see the triumph of the cross and resurrection (summarised in the male child snatched up in Rev 12.5) bringing about the defeat of Satan, so that there ‘is now no condemnation’ (Rom 8.1)—but the work of Satan on earth is continued by the ‘beast from the sea’, a metaphor from Daniel 7 of Roman Imperial power. This connects with Chad Meyers’ political reading of Mark 5, noting that the language of ‘legion’ used by the demons is borrowed from military images of Roman occupation of Judea and Samaria.

The good news is not so much that ‘God is love’ but that ‘Jesus is Lord’. As the king of the kingdom of God, he has broken the power of Satan and destroyed his works, including works of sin and sickness, brokenness of lives and communities. Jesus has the authority to restore what is broken in every aspect of human life, and he invites us to share that authority and join the work of restoration as his kingdom is made known.

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11 thoughts on “Jesus came…to destroy the works of the evil one

  1. I think this bit is a false dichotomy: “We might think that this text was about ‘spiritual warfare’ or ‘deliverance’ ministry—but in fact the context in 1 John is the relatively mundane question of holy living and not being led astray in our understanding of God.” There’s nothing ‘mundane’ about holy living, in any sense of the word, excepting perhaps an incarnational one! I far prefer your later comment, “Jesus’ ministry of deliverance is theologically at one with his healing and his proclamation of the kingdom.” The marginalisation of Deliverance ministry in the Church flows from a rather toxic brew of liberal theology, legitimate safeguarding concerns and the lack of proper Scriptural awareness that you highlight here (so thank you for that) which means that we have forgotten the integrity that runs between healing, proclamation and deliverance, and the mission of the church is compromised as a result.

    Are you familiar with the work of Richard Beck? If not, I think his ‘Reviving Old Scratch’ is an excellent introduction to what you are describing here, especially the Johannine/ Revelation/ political elements. I’d be really interested to read your analysis of his position. Beck also has an excellent blog:

    • Thanks Sam. I can see why reading my comment in the context of the blog might make it look like a false dichotomy…but in fact that reflects the context that this verse was wheeled out in. My recollection was that this language was used in connection with deliverance ministry in charismatic spirituality.

      But of course the main point is to undo this dichotomy, and my point is precisely that ‘holy living’ is anything but ‘mundane’ but is part of theology of the two ages.

  2. You don’t tackle a fundamental problem we have in our society now, which is the treating of evil as located in a spiritual being. I have no problem with this, but our society does. (I sometimes think that we do a great disservice to our society by not preaching and teaching more about the nature, extent and power of evil – we are in too much of a hurry to rush over it and emphasize the victory of the resurrection. )

  3. Glad you brought this up, Ian, it highlights a huge hole in the gospel message. I do love your contrast – “The good news is not so much that ‘God is love’ but that ‘Jesus is Lord’”. Yes, it would sound strange to reconfigure Philippians 2:11 as “that every tongue should confess that *God is love*”
    If we consider how much of an emphasis there is on spiritual warfare in Ephesians then comparatively so little is heard of this area of Christian life. I suspect this is not just fear of getting it wrong (and getting into trouble in a secular society) but also because it is not something which can be assimilated merely intellectually as per 1 Corinthians 2:14 “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” We are trying to study this in our men’s group; and I am making a special focus in my prayers to try and understand spiritual warfare in the heavenly places.

  4. Ian, how do you connect your treatise on deliverance ministry with the attempt by certain bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference to ‘exorcise the demon of homosexuality’ in a priest colleague? Do you consider homosexuality to be ‘the work of Satan’ in the life of human beings?

  5. Ian—your studies at New Wine sound like a great idea. The protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15 outlines the course of the gospel? But instead we have been misled by the Augustinian concept of a ‘fall’—a concept found nowhere in Scripture as Anthony Thiselton points out. The gospel is not primarily about sins, and a sinful nature, but rather about the battle with the ‘evil one.’ Adam was ‘pushed out’ of Eden (the two Hebrew verbs for divorce used in Jeremiah 3 are employed) into the arms of Satan (alias ‘Sin’). Jesus came to ‘free us from Sin’ (John 8:36). Thus “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).

      • Re Philip. Yes! The symptoms are the same whether it is described as a fall or not – it is the ‘cure’ that is different. The Bible story is one of exile, exodus, then a new exodus – not a fall and a rise. It is the wrong metaphor. Re Ian – Yes indeed! I recently stayed in a home where they had found a stain on a wall. Somewhat puzzled, they cleaned it off and redecorated—but some weeks later the stain reappeared. On further investigation they found that inside the wall there was an old waterpipe that had corroded and was leaking. It had to be cut out and the stain cleaned again. It has not come back since. Jesus first came to take the battle to Satan. The stains also need cleaning.

  6. ‘Then there is now no condemnation to the [ones] in Christ Jesus’ writes Paul in Romans 8:1. A corollary of this statement is that there is condemnation for the ones not in Christ Jesus. The Greek word ‘katakrima’, according to the Strong website, is defined as ‘punishment following condemnation, penal servitude, penalty’. Also according to Strong, the word is found in only two other places in the New Testament: Romans 5:16: ‘As not as though one[man] sinning the gift; for on one hand the judgement [is] of one [offence] to condemnation, on the other the free gift [is] of many offences to justification’ and Romans 5:18-19: ‘So therefore as through one offence to all men to condemnation, so also through one righteous act to all men to justification of life; for as through the disobedience of the one man the many were constituted sinners, so also through the obedience of the one [man] the many will be constituted righteous’.
    Who is the ‘one man sinning’ and who committed the ‘one offence’ and the ‘disobedience of the one man’? Clearly, from 1 Corinthians 15:22 it is Adam.
    So whether or not we choose to use the word ‘fall’ to describe the events of Genesis 3, it is clear from Romans 5:12-21 that Adam’s sin brought condemnation on all members of the human race. Whose condemnation? Obviously God’s condemnation, deliverance from which must surely be our greatest need.

    The battle with the ‘evil one’ is indeed a major feature of the Christian life and often in danger of neglect, but the gospel is primarily about sins – ‘…and thou shalt call the name of him Jesus; for he will save the people of him from the sins of them’.
    Phil Almond

  7. Sins committed do indeed keep us from God’s presence. But I suggest that they are the symptom of the problem not the problem itself, which is not our sinful nature (an invention of Augustine) but our relationship with Satan. Jesus came to take us out of the “body of Sin” (i.e. those that belong to Sin/Satan – the world) into the “body of Christ” (those that belong to Christ – the church). The forgiveness of sins committed would not put into effect that transfer, but would enable that transfer to be made. Portrayed in the marital imagery as Christ taking the elect as his virgin bride. Not all virgins are brides – the cleansing of sins was only part of the transaction at the cross. Jesus had first to free us from Satan so we could “marry another” (KJV Rom 7:4), that is, Jesus Christ.

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