Jesus, Satan, and the Apostle Paul (Jesus and the victory of God in Paul’s thought)

Defeat of SatanIn recent years scholars have taken more seriously the influence of Jesus of Nazareth on the apostle Paul’s thinking. You might think this connection was obvious, but in the world of “biblical” scholarship nothing is obvious. Evangelical scholars contend that the greatest change in Paul’s thinking was brought about as a consequence of Paul’s vision of Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul’s conversion took place after he saw Jesus who “appeared” to him on the road to Damascus (1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:8). Paul describes his conversion as a revelation of Jesus the Messiah (Galatians 1:12). The risen and exalted one appeared to Paul accompanied by the radiance of his glory. Paul was convinced that Christ Jesus was YHWH’s (LORD’s) promised Messiah who would inaugurate the long-awaited kingdom of God. Paul did not abandon his monotheism when he became a follower of Jesus; rather Paul’s monotheism was “recast to include Jesus within the divine identity”. Paul resolutely maintained that the one God had revealed himself in Jesus.

N.T. Wright says that “Paul’s refined monotheism gave him a powerful stance over the various ‘powers of the world’…they have been defeated in the death and resurrection of the Messiah”. Paul believed the church is the earthly manifestation of the people of God and therefore shared in all the privileges and benefits of belonging to God (e.g. Ephesians 1:3-14), including protection from the “powers” (e.g. Ephesians 6:10-12).

How much did Paul know about what Jesus did and taught?

An interesting question we may consider is how much exactly of the Jesus-tradition was known to Paul. Paul wrote in Galatians 1:12 that his gospel was not perverted by human opinion but received as a “revelation” from God and in Galatians 1:16 that God was pleased to “reveal” Jesus Christ to Paul. Paul claimed that his gospel was not the result of a theological symposium, but given to Paul by God himself. Paul came to belief that Jesus was the Messiah, as the rebellious sect “The Way” had been doggedly maintaining (cf. Acts 9:2). Yet, much of the traditions about Jesus could not possibly have been given to Paul on the Damascus Road. Paul had to have had input from the other apostles and associates of Jesus. Paul also claimed to have “received” the gospel and then passed on what he had learnt (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Paul therefore learnt other facts about Jesus from the other apostles and Christians before him. Far from the Galatians 1:12 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-3 being a contradiction, it seems that in Galatians 1 Paul was convinced of the truth of the gospel by a supernatural revelation and then in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul writes that what was received from others was the content of the gospel, that is, “the historical facts about Jesus” . Which historical facts did Paul receive? Which oral (maybe even written) traditions concerning the teachings and actions of Jesus did Paul learn1? Did Paul have access to the gospels and the gospel accounts? (Of course the New Testament was being written at this stage in history.) Many think he did.

Jesus the kingdom-bringer and demon-banisher

Many scholars have come to recognise that Jesus’ miracles were not primarily seen as proof of his divinity, but object lessons as to the nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus claimed to inaugurate (cf. Mark 1:15-16). The oppressive powers like demons and leprosy that held people in bondage were subject to Jesus’ rebuke and thus the apostle Peter, in Luke’s words, could describe Jesus as “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (cf. Acts 10:38). The point being that Jesus’ ministry, of which made up the Jesus-tradition Paul received, could be described as a frontal attack on Satan and the demons. Indeed, the story of Jesus is told against the backdrop of the demonic. The “kingdom of God”, which has its roots in the Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic literature, denoted a time of “God’s sovereign rule by which God’s people would be made socially, physically and spiritually whole and all forms of evil and the resistant wicked would be destroyed” (Guelich). Jesus’ teachings and actions as related to Satan and the demonic are integral elements of his earthly ministry and are to be read in the light of the promised salvation that was to mark the establishment of God’s sovereign rule in the day of salvation. Paul no doubt understood this. (cf. Colossians 2:15)

Paul believed that Christ Jesus was inaugurating the kingdom of God and therefore that the judging and overthrow of the God’ enemies, including the evil “powers”, had begun. Jesus’ ministry and the history of the early church took place against the backdrop of a worldview in which the existence of evil spiritual forces was a reality. The gospels view Jesus as assuming the existence of these forces and see Jesus’ ministry as confronting and overthrowing these forces.

The Trial in the Wilderness

All three synoptic gospels record the incident of Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness right after Jesus’ baptism. Although it would be inadequate to interpret the temptation account in a woodenly literal sense, there is no good reason to doubt that the account is grounded in the historical experience2 of Jesus. Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan evidently to demonstrate that it was God’s will that Jesus should be put through a time of trial. Satan is seen primarily as a tempter seeking to entice Jesus into disobedience, not unlike the snake of Genesis 3. Satan seeks to frustrate the realization of the kingdom of God, but the temptation is unsuccessful. Unlike Adam and Eve and the people of Israel who were tested in the wilderness after the exodus, Jesus did not fall into temptation. Jesus overcame the evil one.

The Beelzebul Controversy

Few New Testament scholars would dispute the truth of the synoptists’ portrayal of Jesus as an (successful) exorcist. According to Matthew and Luke the Beelzebul controversy was sparked by an exorcism performed by Jesus. Some accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons. The name Beelzebul would have been well understood as a euphemism for Satan. Jesus replies that it is unreasonable to think that his exorcism was performed by the power of Beelzebul because that would be self-defeating. The exorcism, according to Jesus, is a sign that the “kingdom of God” has come and the coming of the new age of God’s rule overcomes the power of Satan (cf. Matthew 12:28). This truth is further explained by the analogy of plundering the house of a strong (cf. Matthew 12:28) or armed man (cf. Luke 11:21-22). One can only do this if an even stronger man disarms the homeowner. Jesus is the stronger man who disarms Satan. This analogy symbolised Jesus’ ministry, especially the practise of exorcism, which declared and demonstrated that the power of Satan was broken by the promised arrival of the “kingdom of God” into history. The defeat of God’s enemies, as anticipated in the Old Testament (and in the Intertestamental literature) had commenced.

Like Lightening from Heaven

In a response to a report of some of his followers that demons where subject to them, Jesus declared, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (cf. Luke 10:18). This saying is rather cryptic and the language used probably indicates that Jesus is speaking figuratively. It is difficult to know to what exact event Jesus referred to. Was he speaking about an event that took place during his earthly ministry or an event that will take place in the future? Various arguments have been put forward. Some think it referred to Satan’s defeat during Jesus’ time in the wilderness and others contend it points to Satan’s sudden anticipated destruction at the end of time. Others maintain is speaks of Satan’s defeat at the cross or at the resurrection. Whatever view we may hold, these words demonstrate that Jesus believed that the victories of his followers over demons demonstrated that Satan had been decisively defeated.

The parable of the soils

Jesus told of a sower sowing seed, which was the word of God (cf. Luke 18:11) or more precisely, the message about the kingdom (cf. Matthew 13:19). Some of the seed took root in good soil and bore a great harvest, other seed however, amongst other things, was eaten by the birds and bore no harvest. The birds were identified with the devil or Satan or the evil one in the interpretation of the parable (cf. Luke 8:12, Mark 4:15, Matthew 13:19).   Jesus claimed in this parable that the devil opposes the preaching of the message of the kingdom by inducing human beings not to believe the message. Satan is thus pictured as actively opposing the preaching of the gospel.

Now, but not yet

Jesus’ words and actions demonstrated that the kingdom of God was at hand and indeed had arrived in his ministry. The new age had begun and the punishment of God’s enemies, particularly the evil spiritual powers, had commenced. We find no hint of any dualism in Jesus’ ministry – Jesus and Satan are not two equal opposing forces. We find no hint of struggle in Jesus’ encounters with the demonic. In the exorcism accounts, instead of resorting to various devices, formulae and incantations for removing demons (e.g. as seen in the Magical Papyri), Jesus simply speaks a word of command and the demon leaves its victim3. It is difficult to argue that Paul as a convert to Christ Jesus would not seek to learn as much as possible about the historical Jesus’ acts and teachings. It seems that Paul had access to the Jesus-traditions in some form or another and drew upon these traditions in order to realign his thinking concerning, among other things, Satan, demons and the powers of darkness. Paul believed the one true God had sent his Messiah and the inauguration of the “age to come” had begun and would be fully consummated sometime in the future.



(1) Cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread…”  Paul thus received instruction about Jesus’ last supper before his execution.

(2) Craig L. Blomberg bemoans the fact that “the problem for the modern historian is that he or she does not have the option of explaining events in terms of demon possession or miracle.” He adds that surprisingly these days   “even typically critical continental circles are increasingly recognizing that anti-supernaturalism is philosophically and scientifically indefensible and are admitting that a solid core of the gospel miracle stories is undeniably factual”.

(3) The use of the name “Jesu” in many incantations against demons found in the magical papyri seems to indicate that Jesus was considered to be a very successful exorcist!


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