Jesus, Satan, Demons and the Trinity

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"The Temptation of Christ," by Sandro Botticelli (Sistine Chapel)

Read the series so far.

The Christ has been commissioned and anointed with power from the Spirit. His ministry has begun. Immediately, He enters into single combat with His own creation, the chief of all angels, Satan. As His ministry begins, we’ll examine two passages which shed light on Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.

Jesus and Satan in the Wilderness (Mark 1:12-13)

The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, enduring temptations from Satan. He was with wild animals, and angels were ministering to his needs (Mark 1:12-13).

Mark tells us the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness “immediately” after His baptism. “Immediately” is one of Mark’s favorite terms,1 and in this context it means Jesus left for the desert regions straightaway. He was cast or driven into the wilderness.2 Some commentators quibble about whether Jesus was really “driven” into the wilderness, as if He was reluctant to go.3 The idea is simply that the Spirit impelled and motivated the Son to go and begin the divine work He had just been anointed and appointed for. Propelled by this overwhelming sense of mission, the Son went.4

Consider the doctrine of the Trinity in conjunction with this passage. Here is our working definition:

Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three co-equal and co-eternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.5

Consider what this doctrine means each person:

  1. is fully and completely divine,6
  2. has always been co-equal,7
  3. has been around forever,8
  4. is, in some way, distinct from the others, and yet,
  5. is, in some way, one with the others.9

Now, think about this passage (Mk 1:12-13). Heresies about Jesus often fall into two ditches. Non-Christian groups often take hold of the true statement from the book of Deuteronomy—“Listen, Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deut 6:4)—and assume a unitarian monotheism. Then, in an effort to uphold a unitarian concept of God, they either:

  1. deliberately down-play biblical data about Jesus’ divinity and make Him a creation of God (e.g. Arians), or
  2. collapse the real distinction between divine persons and speak of Jesus as a manifestation or role which God played for a time (e.g. Oneness Pentecostals).

What do we see here in our passage? We see the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness.

  • Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον
  • And immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness

We see two persons, one acting upon another. The Spirit is the subject and the actor who drives Jesus into the desert. Jesus is the one who receives this action and is compelled to go forth. It is this same Spirit which Jesus will receive power from the Father to dispense to the believers at Pentecost in a dramatically public and miraculous way (Acts 2:33). It is this same Spirit with which Jesus baptizes all His New Covenant children (Mk 1:8), the Gentiles now and the Israelites upon His return. It is clear that Mark understands Son and Spirit to be different individuals.10

Jesus & the Fallen Angel (Mark 1:21-28)

Demons are not afraid of me. They are not afraid of you. They are not even afraid of God’s chief angels. Daniel records an account where an angel apologized to the prophet for coming so late with an answer to his prayer (Dan 10:12-13). The angel was delayed three weeks by “the prince of the kingdom of Persia,” who is generally acknowledged to be a fallen angel.11 Daniel’s messenger was forced to call in a chief angel, Michael, for help, and together they prevailed in this supernatural battle.

How interesting it is, then, when we read about a fallen angel literally recoiling in abject terror before Jesus of Nazareth. What does this tell us about Him? Is Jesus simply a “good man” with some remarkable powers? Is He a created being? The evidence tells us Jesus is both (a) divine and equal to the Father and (b) distinct from Him, too.

Messiah traveled to Capernaum. He began to teach in the local synagogue on the Sabbath. The people were amazed at His teaching “because he taught them like one who had authority, not like the experts in the law” (Mk 1:22). This means Jesus simply expounded the Scriptures. He did not recite an endless catalog of competing rabbinic interpretations—read the Mishnah sometime and see what this looks like! No, He simply taught God’s Word from the Hebrew Bible.

This was too much for the demon-possessed man:

Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “Leave us alone, Jesus the Nazarene! Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1:23-24)

One wonders why this demon had not protested during services before Jesus came to town! The man is the one who spoke, but he was being controlled and influenced by the fallen angel. Consider what he says:

The Demons Are Frightened

He cries out for Jesus to leave “us” alone. There are presumably several demons inhabiting this poor man.12 There is no passage of Scripture where demons are frightened by anybody or anything except God. Remember what happened to the seven sons of Sceva, those vagabond Jewish “exorcists” who attempted to command and cast out demons—they were attacked and beaten senseless by those possessed (Acts 19:13-16).

The Demons Fear Destruction

You only fear destruction if the one you fear is stronger than yourself. This is simple logic. I once arrested two Sailors in downtown Catania, Sicily who were monstrous in size. Massive. One was 6’10” and the other was 7’0.” I’m 6’5” and my partner was 5’8.” I felt sure we were doomed. If they had decided to resist, we would have been destroyed.

These demons feared Jesus. More than that, they acknowledged and understood His power and authority. Even though Messiah had deliberately veiled His glory, honor, and power in sinful flesh and had stripped Himself, as it were, of all insignia of majesty, they knew their Creator when they saw Him. Therefore they are terrified.

The Demons Acknowledge Jesus for Who He Is

They call Jesus “God’s Holy One.” They do not say Jesus is God. They acknowledge He is distinct from God, but still Holy. Jesus is on a level all His own. He is divine and equal to the Father, yet He is also distinct from Him. Even the demons acknowledge this. There is absolutely nothing above angels in the hierarchy of creation. Jesus, however, is above creation. He created creation. He created the angels. Some commentators speculate that, by invoking His name, the demons were attempting to exercise power over Jesus.13 Whether this is true or not, it is enough to realize that the demons acknowledge who Jesus is—He is “God’s Holy One.”

What happens next is even more interesting. Jesus rebuked the demons (Mk 1:25). It once took two angels three weeks to overcome a fallen angel (Dan 10:12-13). Even the Chief Angel, Michael, did not dare to bring a disrespectful judgment against Satan (Jude 9). Yet Messiah, with a few simple words, rebuked and censured these demons and then issued a command which they were powerless to resist.

After throwing him into convulsions, the unclean spirit cried out with a loud voice and came out of him (Mark 1:26).

The crowd in the synagogue is amazed. “So the news about him spread quickly throughout all the region around Galilee” (Mark 1:28). Messiah has come. Satan is losing. God wins.

In our brief survey of two passages, we have seen that:

  • Jesus is distinct from the Spirit, because He was driven and cast into the wilderness by the Spirit.
  • Jesus is divine and equal to the Father, because the very demons and fallen angels He created quake in terror and cry out in fear when they beheld His teaching from the Scriptures.
  • Jesus is distinct from the Father, which the demons acknowledge when they identify Him as “God’s Holy One.”

In a very real way, the power of God has broken into creation in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, the God-Man. As a man, He lived a perfect and sinless life in our place, as our substitute. And yet, as God, He rebukes and commands the very forces of darkness and wickedness which hold men, women, boys and girls from every tribe, language, people and nation on earth captive in the dungeon of sin and willful rebellion.14

The demons themselves recognize Jesus’ divinity, equality and distinction from the Father. Ironically, they know the triune God far better than those “Christians” who deny the doctrine of the Trinity.15

Notes

1 Mark used the adverb εὐθὺς 42 times in his Gospel.

2 Mark used a verb (ἐκβάλλει—“to cast out”) which was much stronger than, say, Luke’s account (ἤγετο—“to lead”). Luke says Jesus was led to the wilderness by the Spirit. Mark wrote that Jesus was cast or driven there by the Spirit. You cannot help but get the sense that Jesus was propelled into the conflict with Satan in the desert regions.

3 William Hendrickson wrote, “[W]hen the word is thus translated it is not easy to disassociate from it the idea of the use of external force in order to move an unwilling object. And certainly that cannot be the connotation in the present instance” (The Gospel of Mark [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975], 46).

4 Mark Strauss observed, “Mark does not mean the Spirit acted against Jesus’ will, but that the Spirit was now in control of Jesus’ messianic mission, impelling him forward in this urgent task” (Mark, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 73).

5 This definition is from James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998), 26. 

6 Athanasian Creed, clause 15.

7 Ibid, clause 26.

8 Ibid, clauses 8, 21-23. 

9 Ibid, clauses 3-6. 

10 There are very slim pickings in the Gospel of Mark for a doctrine of the Holy Spirit. He is only mentioned three times in the entire book (Mk 1:8, 10, 12). A conservative Unitarian, Anthony Buzzard, argues against the deity of the Spirit. “[I]n the New Testament the Spirit is never regarded as a third Divine Person. The Spirit is the operational power and presence of God,” (Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian [Morrow, GA: Restoration Fellowship, 2007; Kindle ed.], KL 2803-2804).

It is beyond the scope of this series to defend the deity of the Spirit, so I won’t deal with that here. See James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998), 139-147 for an excellent overview of the deity and personality of the Spirit. For a more comprehensive treatment, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, vol. 2 (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 245-465.

11 See Leon Wood, A Commentary on Daniel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1973), 271-274 for a good discussion.  

12 Or, the demon could simply be speaking on behalf of himself and all other fallen angels in this world (cf. Hendrickson, Mark, 65).  

13 See, for example, William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 74 and James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 57-58.  

14 William Lane observed this about the astonished crowd in the synagogue, “They do not fully understand who Jesus is or what His presence means, but they cannot evade the impression of having been confronted by a word invested with power to which there were no analogies in their experience. Here was a teaching qualitatively new in the authority with which it laid hold of men. And the people were alarmed. The report concerning the enigmatic bearer of the authoritative word went forth at once into the surrounding region. The disturbance of men by God had begun,” (Mark, 76).  

15 Hendrickson remarks, “When radicals deny Christ’s deity they show less insight than the demons, for the latter are constantly acknowledging it,” (Mark, 66).  

Demonology detail

Doesn't take anything away from the main argument, but I wanted to point out that there are limits to what we can infer about all demons/fallen angels from the "prince of Persia" incident in Daniel. The fallen angels are apparently hierarchical in position and power--which also helps explain why there is so much visible (and seemingly clumsy) demonic activity during Jesus' first advent.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12) 

Here Paul divides the fallen host into "rulers," "authorities" and "powers." And there is a good bit of other evidence of hierarchy also.

So possibly, during Jesus' first coming, Satan turned a large number of low-ranking demons loose in the region--entities not particularly skilled or experienced in dominating individual humans. (The contrast between the clumsiness of Mark 9:17-20 and Matt. 17:15 vs. the marketable finesse we see in Acts 16:16-18 is very interesting... though, admittedly, the "spirit of divination" in Acts 16 also seems a bit clumsy in  having the girl loudly and accurately identify Paul and his team repeatedly over several days... maybe that was the girl fighting the thing.)

Anyway, it seems plausible to me that the sons of Sceva may also have had a measure of success in Jesus' day, but by the time of Acts, the remaining demons from that deployment were a tougher and more skilled breed. Or the sons especially set off the beings in Acts 19:14-16 by invoking the names of Jesus and Paul when they actually had no relationship to either of them.)

All that to suggest that, yes, the terror the demons consistently show toward Jesus is evidence of His deity, but also the "prince of Persia" was (is?) probably an especially (maybe even uniquely) powerful individual.

Aaron

Good point. I haven't given much thought to a hierarchy of demons.

I have wondered for a while now why we don't see demonic possession today like we did in Jesus' day. There are those who believe it was a unique event for that time (i.e. Jesus' ministry). In Seminary, Dr. Larry Oats suggested we do ​see demonic possession, but it simply takes subtler forms depending on the culture. He suggested such things may well be common in remote villages and cultures, but much more subtle in Western civilization. He suggested Satan isn't stupid, and will alter his method of demonic possession as appropriate. I always though that made good sense.

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.

Fits that too

I think the hierarchy of skill levels (as well as positions) explains that phenomenon as well. Since Satan is not stupid, it follows that he would send less powerful servants to do the easier jobs, so to speak, and use those more skilled in subtle manipulation for more difficult/sensitive jobs.

But the idea that Satan loosed a large mob of "amateurs" during Jesus' first advent, while it fits the hierarchy concept, doesn't seem to make tactical or strategic sense. Why would Satan do that?

One possible explanation is that while not stupid, Satan has huge areas in which, shall we say, his nature prevents him from being smart. (I'm anthropomorphizing like crazy, but the biblical evidence suggests that's not entirely unjustified.) 

So, just as humans who are smart people in general have various barriers that make them stupid in certain situations, so it may be that Satan, out of hubris, thought that sending a massive number of his lower ranking demons would defeat Jesus and embarrass Him at the same time ("Look what I did with my lowest of underlings!")

No way to know. It's certainly evident that Satan is under the delusion that he's going to eventually win somehow.

Another scenario is that Satan threw everything he had at Jesus during His first coming, and that Jesus focused on liberating ordinary (vs. high ranking) human beings from the many not-very-clever fallen angels because (a) prophecy so consistently indicated He would be a savior of "the poor," and (b) the leadership was almost unanimous in its commitment to reject Him from the start.

So in that analysis, Satan was going full throttle, but Jesus let the more powerful, subtler demons do their thing among the rich and powerful -- knowing the plan was to die and be victorious by being defeated.

(Home with cold today so I'm kind of writing long posts!)

Jehovah's Witnesses

I'd appreciate any tips on some good resources from JW's about how they defend their views about Christ. Where is the best resource from them which states their Christology? Have they produced any commentaries? Are there any exegetical papers? I have found that many heretical groups stay on the systematic level and rarely delve into the actual text or walk through a passage of Scripture in a deep or meaningful way.

I'd be very interested if anybody can point me to some good resources from JW's on this one.

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.


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