The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is engaged in a life-long battle involving two kingdoms: the kingdom of God (or kingdom of heaven) and the kingdom of Satan. That warfare took on a new dimension when Jesus came to earth to establish His messianic kingdom, preaching the good news of the kingdom, casting out demons and healing the sick.
In a recent sermon[i] on Mark 1:21-28 Rev R Bredenhof began by asking: “why did Jesus come to earth? What was the purpose of Jesus’ life?”
“’He came to die on the cross for our sins,’ someone will say. Someone else says: ‘Jesus came to seek and save the lost.’ Or: ‘He came to gather his sheep, to open the kingdom, to reveal the Father.’ Each of these answers is true.
But there’s another answer that Scripture gives, in 1 John 3:8, about why Jesus came to earth. It’s surprising, because there the apostle John says, ‘The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.’ As a mission statement, that’s entirely different from what we’re used to. It’s not the picture of a shepherd, or a Passover Lamb. It’s the picture of a warrior—a soldier who wants to annihilate his enemy. Jesus, ‘meek and mild,’ came to destroy the works of the devil!”
When Jesus begins His ministry on earth we see a world under the influence of Satan being invaded by Jesus Christ who has come to establish His kingdom. To quote again from the sermon:
“Jesus’ first miracle is to cast out a demon! There’s a rich symbolism here: Jesus is showing his total power over the forces of evil; He is taking the fight to Satan, and beating him. This is why He came, so that we can be saved from the devil’s power!”
Through His ministry Jesus proclaims the Word and casts out demons, converting unbelievers into children of God, into people who submit to Jesus Christ. He takes people from under Satan’s dominion and turns them into believers, gathers them into His church and thereby into His kingdom as children of God.
“We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Matthew Henry[ii] says about this verse:
“All mankind are divided into two parties or dominions; that which belongs to God, and that which belongs to the wicked one. True believers belong to God: they are of God, and from him, and to him, and for him; while the rest, by far the greater number, are in the power of the wicked one; they do his works, and support his cause.”
Mark begins his gospel in the time of the Roman world empire which was under the sway of Satan. But now the Lord Jesus invades this realm. Jesus begins His ministry and establishes as it were a bridgehead. He is going to force back Satan’s kingdom and establish His kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. That’s why John the Baptist tells the people to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Mark’s gospel says in effect: this is where it begins, with the ministry of Jesus Christ who, as Commander in Chief of the heavenly forces, will break through Satan’s defences and establish the messianic kingdom of peace, a kingdom founded in the forgiveness of sins.
But that involves warfare. As Rev R Bredenhof said in the sermon:
“Satan is nothing if not determined. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he’ll keep opposing the Lord and his kingdom. From other parts of Scripture, we know that Satan is the general of his own army, a massive army of spirits, devils and demons. They do Satan’s will on earth, which is: trying to destroy God’s good works. Sometimes Satan’s spirits will attack the powerful and important, so that wide-scale damage can be done. Other times, his spirits will target ordinary people like this man in the synagogue, and make life a total nightmare.”
How does Jesus launch His offensive against Satan? He doesn’t call the Jews together to fight against the Roman Empire. Instead He does it by “immediately” proclaiming the gospel in the synagogue, in a church service, on the Sabbath. He doesn’t speak the way the Pharisees do by appealing to the words of prominent Rabbis but He speaks God’s Word with authority. After all, who knows the Word like Jesus does? He is the Son of God, the Word that became flesh (Jn 1:14).
He preaches about the kingdom of God, that kingdom that had been proclaimed in the O.T. but was still somewhat of a mystery. Previous generations had not seen it in all its glory. But now “the kingdom of God is at hand” and the hearers are faced with the need to repent and believe the gospel. They must make a radical decision. They must choose between the cause of Christ and the cause of Satan. For Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me…” (Mt 12:30).
Commenting on this text, Prof Schilder draws an analogy to an offensive against a tyrant in his castle. The tyrant is Beelzebub, the prince of demons, who has the world in his grip. Suddenly Jesus arrives on the scene with his army (the disciples) to attack Beelzebub, and now all the farmers and others living in the area are forced to choose sides; neutrality in such a situation is impossible; if you’re not on Jesus’ side in this offensive, you’re against Him.[iii]
Jesus’ weapon against Satan is His Word, and His authoritative preaching brings reaction. Immediately a man with an unclean spirit screams, “What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In other words, “Leave us alone!” Us, plural. The demon, speaking through the man, speaks on behalf of the other demons. They don’t want Jesus invading their realm, converting people, forcing demons out of people. They don’t want to lose people from Satan’s kingdom to being children of God. And the demons know that in the face of Jesus’ kingdom they’re doomed.
The demon-possessed man had, it seems, not yelled out under the Pharisees’ preaching. The devil is quite content to hear preaching that doesn’t proclaim the truth and doesn’t force people before a radical choice. But when Jesus preaches the true doctrine, when He reaches back to what Scripture really says, the demons can’t stand it.
Also today the issue is: where is the true doctrine proclaimed? That is the basis for working fruitfully in God’s kingdom. If the truth is compromised to make it more palatable for the hearers, reinterpreted so that God’s Word is adjusted to conform to today’s culture, if the God-ordained enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent is smothered, Satan will leave us in peace. But if the Word is proclaimed faithfully and hearers bear the fruit of faith, manifesting by their walk and talk the kingdom of Christ, then the kingdom of Satan is being pushed back, conquered by the Christ who dwells in His people by His Spirit.
Jesus speaks with authority and commands the demon to come out of the demon-possessed man. Thereby He demonstrates that the kingdom of God has come. It has broken through in Jesus Christ. His faithful ministry will lead Him to the cross and thereby to the definite conquest of the kingdom of Satan. At the cross He disarmed the principalities and powers.
And now that gospel has to be proclaimed throughout the world by the disciples and missionaries and by the ministry of the gospel in churches. Christ’s church is to be on fire for the kingdom of God. When we uphold the truth, when we say, pointedly, “This is what God’s Word says”, when we uphold the commandments, then we show our allegiance to God and His kingdom.
In the strength of the Lord we can resist Satan. He is not invincible. Indeed, as Rev R Bredenhof said:
“the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan are not equally matched”. For Satan is not a god, he’s only a creature. He is strong, but he’s not invincible. He is really smart, but he’s not perfectly wise. He might have many demons at his command, and many allies in this world, but not one of them can stand against Christ. Where the Holy One is, Satan has to leave. One word from Christ is enough to put the devil on the run.”
In speaking about the petition “Your kingdom come” our catechism puts it this way: “So rule us by Your Word and Spirit so that more and more we submit to You, preserve and increase Your church…” (LD 48). We confess that the kingdom is there where members of the church submit to Christ in their whole walk of life. It’s there when they walk in holiness before Him from day to day.
There’s no room for unclean spirits in a holy life. Consequently when the holy, sinless Son of God proclaims God’s Word, the demon’s presence cannot be tolerated. Darkness and light have nothing in common. This, says Rev R Bredenhof, teaches us something important about avoiding sin:
“It teaches us something about the evil that we might be tolerating in our life. We can be soft on our sin, even when we know what the works of the devil are. We identify them quickly: Blasphemy of God’s name. Drunkenness. Hatred of other people. Sexual impurity. Pride. Disrespect to authority. These are all against God’s Word—period. They’re not fitting for God’s people.
Yet don’t we give oxygen to these things? We make a show of closing the front door on them, but then we let them in through the back. By our actions we show that we still accept them. ‘I’m just going to watch this video, even though it’s full of swearing. I can listen to these songs, though I know they’re full of sexual innuendo. I’m just going to share a bit of gossip. Or give in to bitterness. Or click on things that I know will only feed dirty thoughts.’
These things aren’t fitting for the people of Christ. They’re incompatible with his holiness—even the unclean spirit knew that. And he knew that either he had to go, or Jesus had to go. But we act sometimes like we never learned that, like we’ve forgotten just how offensive sin is. ‘What fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?’ We ought to have nothing in common with what’s unclean. We ought to avoid whatever may entice us to sin. We belong to the Holy One of God!”
We are caught up in a great, age-old battle. Through it Christ is establishing His kingdom as He continues to gather, defend and preserve His church by His spirit and Word in the unity of true faith (LD 21). Idle soldiers are worse than worthless in battle. His kingdom manifests itself there where His people submit to His will (LD 48), fighting against their sworn enemies—the devil, the world and their own sinful desires (LD 51). Sharing in Christ’s anointing, they follow their Lord and Saviour as prophets, priests and kings (LD 12), instruments of the Spirit in pushing back the kingdom of Satan and promoting and further establishing Christ’s kingdom—the kingdom of heaven. They know the victory is already assured and that, with Christ, they are more than conquerors. With Luther they dare to sing:
And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear for God has willed His truth to triumph through us.
[i] Preached in FRC Mt Nasura 4th September 2016.
[ii] Matthew Henry Commentary, 1706.
[iii] Prof. Dr K Schilder, Om Woord en Kerk, Oosterbaan en Le Cointre, Goes, 1948, pp. 266/7.