The Strong Man and the Still Stronger


Mark 3:7-30

The first two paragraphs we will read this morning are, in effect, summary statements. What Mark has reported Jesus doing, he continued to do, healing the sick and driving demons out of the possessed. And, after reading in the first several chapters of the call of five of the Lord’s twelve disciples, we are given the names of the entire group of 12 who would form the Lord’s inner circle of followers and whom he would spend much of his time preparing for their subsequent ministry as his apostles.

Text Comment

v.8

The Lord’s fame spread rapidly. It was a world, of course, without electronic communication but still news moved quickly in the ANE (no wonder the remarkable miracles he was performing) and people – apparently both Jews and Gentiles – came from all around to hear him and to bring their sick to be healed.

v.9

Our typical picture of Jesus is of him standing in a field holding a lamb in his arms, with perhaps a few other sheep or people in the background or foreground. A more realistic picture, based on the Gospel history itself, would be the very modern one of a celebrity being jostled by a crowd, with reporters sticking microphones in his face and demanding attention and paparazzi running to snap the next front page photo of Jesus with a sick child or teaching a large crowd. The words Mark employs here suggest not the respectful attention of the crowd but of Jesus being crushed or mobbed by the crowd. The use of a little boat as a “mobile pulpit” [France, 154] will be described in 4:1.

v.12

At this point, the demons know better who Jesus is even than his disciples do. They say the same thing about him that God the Father said about his Son at his baptism as we read in chapter 1:11. It was a case of spirit recognizing spirit. [Vos, Self-Disclosure of Jesus, 171] They knew who Jesus was, they were hostile and hateful, but they remained powerless before the Lord. However unwilling, they were his subjects. But Jesus must, for the time being, remain at least somewhat incognito and he commands the demons to silence.

v.13

The nature of Christian discipleship is a primary theme of the Gospel of Mark and Mark tells us something here of that new community created around Jesus. It was summoned into existence by the initiative of the Lord Jesus himself and consisted of those who “came” to him, that is who answered his summons in faith and obedience. The disciples are always a group distinct from “the crowds” in the gospels. The crowds press around Jesus, are interested to a degree, want things from him, but are not his followers in this deeper and more important sense.

v.14

From that community of his followers of which there were many more he appointed twelve men to be with him in a particularly close and intimate way – for the purposes of their training, no doubt, but still more so that they could be witnesses of his life and deeds and especially of his death and resurrection. As the New Testament proceeds you know that will be an emphasis that the Apostles were eyewitnesses of Christ’s life and work and they are being prepared to be sent out to preach, as he was a preacher, with the same message that he came preaching and to exercise his own authority over demons. In other words they were to continue and to expand the Lord’s own ministry. That is what they were as the twelve. As representative Christians the disciples also provide for us a picture of Christian living and Christian discipleship. There is a who as well as a what to Christian discipleship. Christians are people who are with Jesus and people who serve him. [Edwards, 113-114] As we have already said, twelve indicates that the disciples represent a new epoch in the life of Israel, a reconstitution of the people of God. As there were twelve tribes of Israel making up the whole so now there are twelve disciples that serve as a microcosm of the new age of the church.

v.21

We know that his brothers, his siblings in the Joseph and Mary family, did not believe in him through the years of his public ministry, we are told that later in the gospels, and Mary’s faith was not apparently strong enough to withstand the determination of her sons. [Cranfield, 135]. There is obviously, however, more to this story than Mark relates. We’d like to know exactly what was going on here and what they thought. In any case the point is that it is not just the religious authorities who were mistaken about the identity of Jesus Christ and the meaning of what was happening in the world in and through him, but those who were closest to him did not understand as well.

v.22

The religious authorities from Jerusalem would have had greater prestige than the provincial scribes [Cranfield]. Their appearance suggests that news of Jesus’ movement had reached Jerusalem and was already a matter of concern to the higher authorities of the people there. Their immediate accusation certainly suggests that they were not on some neutral fact-finding mission. They had come looking for a fight. [France, 169] Even they could not and did not deny Jesus’ miracles; but they impute his power to perform them to the Devil. Baalzeboul or Baalzebub, words from Israel’s Aramaic and Hebrew past, was regarded as the prince or arch-ruler of the demonic realm, in other words “Satan,” as the following verses make clear. Interestingly, this continued to be, for some centuries a standard Jewish polemic against Jesus, you read it in the Talmud: he was a sorcerer exercising demonic power and authority. It amounts to an admission by his enemies that Jesus had wielded astonishing, unprecedented power in the world.

v.23

Here “parables” refers to the “picturesque maxims” [Taylor] that follow and an argument more suggestive than direct, as Jesus rebuts their charge that he is in the service of Baalzeboul.

v.27

The connection between this statement and the earlier ones seems to be that the correct conclusion they should have drawn from the fact that Jesus was driving out demons was not that he was in the service of Satan – that is absurd, for why should Satan be acting contrary to his own interests – but that one stronger than Satan has appeared and is bringing his kingdom into subjection. There is no mistaking the fact that Jesus identifies himself here as one who has authority over the demonic realm and the power to subdue it and by doing so is delivering men from Satan’s cruel and despotic rule by the power of God himself.

v.30

The Lord’s saying about the sin against the Holy Spirit is a difficult one and has been the source of untold anguish for many believers through the ages. It is clear that the Lord is addressing a fixed state of mind, a hostility against the truth of God and the manifestation of that truth in Jesus Christ. It is not the utterance of a word or the thinking of a thought as many Christians have feared. It is not even said precisely that the scribes here have actually committed that sin. The Lord may be warning them of their danger of doing so. [Cranfield, 142] But here, clearly, the sin against the Holy Spirit is the settled rejection of Jesus Christ by someone who knows better. Calling Jesus a servant of the Devil is an act motivated by a determined unwillingness to accept the truth. Members of Jesus’ family said that Jesus was out of his mind, that he was insane, but that was not the sin against the Holy Spirit for they would later be brought to faith. But for men of the Word of God, as the scribes were, to continue to attribute his work to Satan in the light of what everyone could see him do and hear him say, that is a defiance of God’s revelation that must finally place a person beyond the willingness of God to forgive. That is blasphemy, a slander against the very name of God, the Holy Spirit – the revealer of Jesus – a slander that defies forgiveness.

We have before us in our text the most sustained teaching in the Gospels on the relationship between Jesus and the demonic realm. He had already, as we have read, been driving demons out of people but we hadn’t heard anything about demons, we hadn’t had any explanation given to us about them and their work. The demons themselves were clearly aware of who he was and were just as clearly entirely subject to him. And now we learn from the Lord’s own lips that all of these exorcisms represented his own direct assault on the kingdom of Satan.

In the Gospels and in the New Testament as a whole, Satan is the focus of the consideration of the demonic realm. The demons themselves remain somewhat shadowy figures, clearly in subjection to Satan their prince, and servants of his will but we are taught very little about what they do or how they do what they do. [France, 171-172] Mark has already reported Satan’s temptation of Jesus immediately after his baptism in chapter 1, and though he has not been mentioned since, Jesus teaches us that he saw his encounters with evil or unclean spirits as a continuation of that contest that began there at the beginning of his ministry. The exorcisms indicated that Satan’s kingdom was under attack and here Jesus tells us that the coming of the Son of God into the world represented a decisive defeat for Satan and his kingdom, a despoiling of his realm, and a breaking the back of his rule over the world. The fact that the entire New Testament continues to represent Satan as a powerful and malevolent force in the world indicates that Satan’s kingdom has not yet been destroyed, even if the decisive battle has already been fought and won by the Lord Christ.

Since the publication of the French Reformed theologian Oscar Cullman’s book Christ and Time in 1946, the standard illustration of this phenomenon of a final victory that has not yet resulted in the total collapse of the enemy has been that of the successful invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944, D-Day, a remembrance celebrated last week. Once the allied armies were safely ashore, their eventual victory was certain. The German generals knew it; everyone knew it except the vicious rulers of the Third Reich who had, by that time, lost all touch with reality. The decisive battle had been fought and won though the war was not over in fact there would be another year of bitter fighting before it was. Well, in the same way, Christ’s conquest of the Devil and his kingdom – in his ministry and on the cross and in his resurrection – made the final outcome a foregone conclusion (much more certain than the Allies victory in World War II), however much fighting, even bitter fighting, may be left for Christians to do before the end comes. Christ came into the world, John will later tell us, to destroy the Devil’s work.” And that is what he did and what he will finally do. And all of that is here in the binding of the strong man by the still stronger man and the plundering of his possessions.

If you ask why the world is such a magnificent place, so beautiful, so impossibly rich in resources; if you ask why man is so marvelous in his intellect and his capabilities, his artistry, his inventiveness, the Bible’s answer is that God made this world very good and made man in his own image. Though very definitely not God, man is God-like in some important respects. The wonder of this world and of man himself is because it and he are the creation of God himself.

If, on the other hand, you ask why the world is such a miserable place, a tragic place, a place of such ugliness and evil and pain, the Bible gives two answers, not one. One answer is that man, by his rebellion against God, has fallen into bondage to sin. Adam, the first man, chose for himself a life of rebellion against God instead of submission to him and bequeathed that way of life to his descendants. Man has been corrupted by his sin and his pride, his lusts, his being curved in upon himself, explain why this world has gone so terribly wrong. Man has gone wrong and not only does he live in defiance of God’s will, but he also must bear God’s curse upon his life because of his defiance. That is one answer to the question of what is wrong with the world.

But there is another answer given in the Bible, another explanation for the woe of this world. Before the fall of man there was another fall, this among the world of spirits, created beings of great power, and that first fall produced a vast company of rebel spiritual beings, evil in their hearts, and restless in their determination to oppose the will of God and the kingdom of God at every turn. As the angelic host was organized at least in some form of a hierarchy, so the evil angels have a commander, a leader, a prince. Just as there are such beings as arch-angels – think of Michael and Gabriel – so there are arch-demons and the first among them is Satan, also referred to in the Bible as the Devil and Baalzeboul or Baalzebub.

Satan was already God’s enemy at the creation of man and he was we know from Genesis 3 instrumental in leading Adam into ruin. And ever since man and this world has had an adversary, an enemy, who has been at work bringing and keeping men in bondage to his will, making them servants of his cause enlisting them in his own rebellion against God, however unknowingly, however unwittingly.

Indeed, the two rebel communities – demons and unbelieving human beings – finally become one at the end of human history, a point made with melancholy emphasis when Jesus says that wicked human beings will at last be cast into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The dismal company of the damned will include those who fell before human history began and those human beings who joined them in their rebellion against God. The difference lies here and it’s not much of a difference eternally speaking: while men had nothing to do with the damnation of the fallen angels, the demons do their best to contribute to the condemnation or damnation of human beings. Their rebellion against God came first and it is served by fostering the rebellion of men and woman against God.

Now there is much here that remains a mystery. The Bible is not very forthcoming about the demonic realm. Satan and his demons have great power but certainly not unlimited power. The Bible does not tell us precisely how demons exercise authority in this world and how they rule over human beings. Paul tells us that unbelieving man follows the ways of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. But he doesn’t tell us how they are at work in those who are disobedient. John Duncan, the uncannily insightful spiritual writer of 19th century Scottish Presbyterianism, taking the whole of the Bible’s teaching about the demonic realm into view, concluded that “no single heart-secret is known to any single devil.” [Just a Talker, 56] The Devil can’t read your thoughts, he doesn’t know your secrets, he doesn’t have that kind of omniscience that belongs to God alone. Duncan argued that the Devil’s work ín us is always accomplished by influences brought against us from outside. Perhaps so, I’m not sure.

What is more, the Bible never indicates what portion of human sin exists because of the blackness of human hearts and what portion exists because of the encouragement of Satan and his devils. We know the Devil is a wily tempter and that he forms schemes to bring men to do his will. The Bible speaks of the “powers of this dark world” and of men belonging to the Devil and carrying out his desires, of their imitating him in his lying and so on. But it is generalities that we get, nothing more. We are not told how to distinguish between the temptations that arise from our own flesh and those that the Devil sends our way. We are given some tantalizing hints of Satan’s influence in the political life of the world, but little more than that. How much of wars and famines or the rise and fall of nations does he have something to do with? The Bible does not say. We are not told how much of our own sin he has something to do with.

But surely the existence of this powerful realm of evil, ranged against both God and man, wishing harm to God’s kingdom and so to every human being because the only hope of any man or woman for happiness in the eternal future is by his entering the kingdom of God – however futile the wish – and motivated by hatred so deep and so pervasive that apparently its only interest in man is to keep him out of the kingdom of God; I say, surely the existence of that realm of evil beings greatly increases our appreciation of the seriousness with which we measure of wickedness and woe that exists in the life of mankind. We cannot say for sure how much evil in this world is the Devil’s work, but the Bible certainly indicates that he is hard at work bringing men into subjection to himself, hardening them in their opposition to God, and using them against one another.

Would there be suicide bombers, who intend nothing else but the death and dismemberment of as many other human beings as possible, men, women, and children in a market, along a road, in a building, I say, would there be suicide bombers without the Devil? I do not know. But surely there is a viciousness, a relentlessness, an irrationality, a mystery to human evil that almost defies description. I am not only speaking of such a thing as the holocaust or the sexual abuse of children, or a whole raft of violent crimes, betrayals, or other cruelties. These acts are evil both in themselves and their breathtaking indifference to the hurt and the harm they cause other human beings. People will destroy the life of another human being at a whim. It makes you wonder; you cannot help but wonder how much the Devil contributes to all of this. But consider this for example:

The American Red Cross reports a new scam that targets military families with soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. We tend to think of the Iraqi’s, Muslims as the enemy. Someone calls the home to tell the military wife that her husband has been wounded in action and med-evacuated to a hospital in Germany. The caller needs to verify the soldier’s identity as a result of his wounds and asks for his social-security number. Of course, what he really wants is access to the absent soldier’s bank account and credit cards. What prompts a human being with a conscience, every human being has a conscience, to do something so disgraceful, so villainous, so cruel, something so utterly devoid of all human feeling, care, or compassion? To break a woman’s heart to get a social security number! Is it simply the lust for money in that man’s heart, or is he at that moment in the service of a vicious spiritual master?

Perhaps we cannot say for sure. But the existence of the demonic realm certainly forces us to recognize the dominion of evil in our world, its power, its malevolence and its cruelty. It also forces us to face the astonishing and terrible reality of human evil being perpetuated in defiance of not only the truth and the facts, but a human beings own best interest. No demon thought he could prevail against the Lord Jesus. No demon ever did. But the futility of their rebellion notwithstanding, they remained and will remain rebels to the bitter end. They will do their best to ruin as many human beings as they can and apparently they do not know who will be saved and who will not. But the same irrationality in evil we find in the demons we see every day as people persist in courses of action that must be destructive to themselves as well as to others. They are in the grip of a power that has utterly blinded them to what any human being ought to be able to see. Is this not the Devil’s work?

Certainly one purpose of the revelation of the demonic realm in the ministry of Jesus is to unmask the supernatural power struggle that took place beneath and behind his ministry and takes place in our world still today. Human beings live their lives largely unaware that there is any such struggle going on within them or around them. They are blithely unaware that the world in which they live is a battlefield strewn with the corpses of generation upon generation of the spiritually dead. But for those few epoch-making years, the battle for the souls of men surfaced so as to be visible to human beings. This world and humanity in it are the spoils and two kingdoms are ranged against one another in a battle to the death. The revelation of Satan and the demonic realm is supposed to make all of us serious about life, about salvation, about the spiritual warfare that we are called to wage as soldiers of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is after all an enemy, his enemy and ours; there is a host arrayed against us; that host seeks our ruin. All of this is the unmistakable implication of the Lord’s driving demons out of people and of his remarks about binding the strong man and plundering his possessions. It is not to teach us a different technique of Christian living as if we are to deal with the Devil’s temptations in a completely different way than we deal with the temptations of the world and our own flesh. You get that idea on Christian television but there is nothing like that in the Bible. We have but one technique you deal with all our temptations and all your spiritual enemies in exactly the same way: by faith and by obedience. We are told this about the Devil to take it seriously all that the Lord says to us about our lives. It is to teach us that we have an adversary seeking our ruin, that when we are unfaithful to the Lord we give aid and comfort to that adversary, that enemy of our own souls and that enemy of every human soul in the world. The more powerful the enemy the more seriously the soldier takes the fight.

But, the still more important implication of this material and the one the Lord himself draws our attention to is the certainty of his victory and so the victory of those who love and serve him. At every point in the Gospel history, Satan is revealed as impotent in the face of the authority of the Lord Christ. When Jesus commanded a demon to come out of a man, he came out. He couldn’t do otherwise. He may have cried out, he may have pled with Jesus for some concession, in his bitter hatred he may have torn the poor man one last time, but come out he did. When the demons spoke something the Lord wanted to remain a secret, he silenced them and they remained silent. They were utterly helpless when confronted with the authority of the Lord Christ.

It is this futility, this impotence, in which Satan has involved himself in the hopeless task of swimming against the stream of the universe, in which he wears himself out in an entirely absurd attempt to overturn the will and plan of the Almighty, it is in this futile effort that we discover that Satan is as much a fool, a laughingstock as he is a supreme villain. As C.S. Lewis famously said, “The Devil, in the long run is an ass!” It is in this sense that Luther once said that “the Devil is God’s devil.” That is, he can serve as a foil to reveal the power of God, he can be used of the Lord to punish the wicked, he served to provide the raw material for the demonstration of the divine authority, goodness and compassion and redeeming power of Jesus Christ. But at no point is he able to alter or even frustrate the divine plan. At every moment he is in his place and, gnash his teeth as he will, he cannot and will not upset the plans of God.

The Devil and his demons are very like the Washington Generals. You remember the Washington Generals. They were the foil to the Harlem Globetrotters comedy basketball show. They played a somewhat serious basketball game in general, though allowing the Globetrotters to do their comedy routines with the basketball, and they virtually always lost. It was their part of the act. In fact, they actually won a game on January 5, 1971, ending the Globetrotters’ 2,495 game winning streak! From 1953 until 1995, the Generals played exhibitions against the Globetrotters, winning only six games, the last in 1971, and losing more than 13,000. They came out onto the floor knowing they would lose. It was inevitable. The difference, of course, is that the Devilnever wins in a confrontation with Christ. He doesn’t win; he doesn’t get paid; he gets no satisfaction; he doesn’t compete; he doesn’t even make it close. He submits because as a creature that is all he can do before the Almighty.

All of this is indicated in the Lord’s remarks about the strong man encountering one stronger than himself, and about his binding the strong man and plundering his possessions. And it is still more emphatically indicated by the authority that the Lord bestowed on the Twelve to drive out demons. His rule over the demonic realm is so absolute that he can grant a measure of that same authority to mere human beings to exercise. And he does so still. As the New Testament makes clear, every Christian has the power to resist the Devil, to send him packing, to see through his schemes and render them harmless. The Devil has no power at all in a Christian life unless a Christian cedes it to him.

There is a great deal of difference, all the more when having to face a dangerous enemy, to know that one is on the winning side and that victory is secure. It is an altogether different experience, producing an altogether different mind, heart, and spirit, to know that one cannot win and that one’s destruction is only a matter of time. Like the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, who knew both that they could not prevail in that battle and that they had lost the war, and so were motivated only by the prospect of killing as many of the enemy as possible before they were killed themselves. So the demons are motivated only by the desire to take as many others to hell with them as they possibly can. And this, this is the heart, this is the spirit, this is the will, this is the character of the One who holds so many human beings as willing subjects in his thrall. This is the true mystery of evil and of unbelief. Men would rather do the will and serve the cause of the one who craves nothing but their ruin and their misery than to submit to the will of the living God of love, grace, mercy, and goodness.

In that defiant spirit, to attribute to Satan the saving power of Jesus, is and must be blasphemy indeed. To attribute the deliverance of poor, benighted men from the clutches of the Devil to the Devil himself, that is blasphemy indeed. But for us who believe, it is life and hope to know that the one so darkening this world and so blighting the lives of countless human beings cannot and will not stand before the authority of the Lord Christ. Strong though he be, there is one much stronger than he.

You and I are to live in the happy knowledge of that fact everyday! We live on a battlefield, but the day is ours!