Okay so what’s the deal with Satan and demons or “unclean spirits” in the Gospel of Mark? Spoiler alert: I’m not sure, and this will be dense. Another spoiler alert: don’t be too quick to trust people who are sure. But I’m convinced that most of our trouble begins with the fact that we pick up in Chapter 40 of the Bible and then try and make sense of what’s happening without much regard to the previous 39 chapters, especially the hard-to-understand parts of those first five books, the at-first-glance irrelevant books like Kings and Chronicles, and those weird little books of prophecy. So let me give a bit of context and hopefully that will help.
If we are going to talk about demons, powers, and principalities, we need to start with Israel’s history of idolatry, that is, pledging allegiance to other nations and their gods.
God’s first priority is not difficult to discern in the Old Testament: don’t worship idols. Israel’s one-and-only creed is that the Lord is God, the Lord alone.1 The very first commandment is not to have any other gods, period.2 The second is not to make an image of God or any other god. The second rule of Fight Club is…we get the picture.
But do we? Israel certainly didn’t. First, there’s the golden calf incident.3 Then there is the period of judges where everyone just worships idols constantly because there is no king in Israel. So they get kings, and pretty much all of them after King David worship idols and drive the people to worship idols, often through entering into military alliances with foreign powers because they don’t trust God to protect them.4 And there is always a direct line from idolatry to injustice. Psalm 106 puts it in the starkest of terms:
“They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood. Thus they became unclean in their acts, and played the whore in their deeds.” (Psalm 106:36-39)
That idolatry leads to injustice is the inverse of the reality that allegiance to the one true God leads to justice. So remember that Israel’s calling was to be a light to the nations in their loyal love of God and neighbor. But instead they end up even worse than the nations.5 So God says “Enough!” and, to make a long story short, his discipline comes in the form of captivity in Babylon. Even when a remnant of Israel returns to the land, they remain under the thumb of hostile Gentile powers: Media, Persia, Greece, and then Rome. The land remains “unclean” and the people harassed and helpless under imperial powers and wicked puppet-kings. But the promises of the prophets still ring in the air, telling of a day of comfort, a day of healing and an end to this punishment when the Messiah takes his throne.6 Zechariah 13:2 ties all of these threads together:
“And on that day, declares the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols far from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. And also I will remove from the land the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness.”
So it is into this historical fray of tempting and shrieking spirits that Jesus of Nazareth steps, proclaiming the gospel (“good news”) that the Kingdom of God is at hand.7 As John puts it, the light is beginning to shine in the darkness. But how? How is God becoming King in Jesus and what does that mean for Israel and the nations? Those are the questions Mark is addressing in his Gospel.
So right away in Chapter 1, Jesus is being tempted by “the Satan” in the wilderness. What’s that about? Well if you know Israel’s Law like most of Mark’s readers did, you’d know that in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, Moses gives some guidance regarding the future kings who would reign in Israel. In summary, kings are a bad idea, but since you are going to appoint one anyway, make sure they don’t worship idols, make sure they don’t amass a bunch of military power or enter into military alliances, make sure they aren’t womanizers or rich (move along, nothing to see here…), and make sure they know my Scriptures really, really, really well.
Have you ever thought it was strange how Satan randomly shows up in 1 Chronicles 21 to inspire David to take a census of his military? It’s actually not strange at all; Satan’s work is always to tempt God’s people to distrust God by trusting in other forms of security. When Satan invites Jesus to bow to him in Matthew and Luke’s versions of the story, he is not tempting Jesus to put on some mascara and become a “satanist.” King Jesus is being tempted with the idolatry that destroyed Israel’s kings; he is being tempted to secure God’s kingdom through bread and circus, through worldly powers both economic and religious, through coercion rather than through a cross. Is this temptation not alive and well today? Do God’s people not still put our trust in princes?8 Do we not constantly fail to show the world a better Way?
Remember that Jesus’ kingdom that is not of this world.9 That does not mean it’s irrelevant and only concerned with the afterlife. Rather, the Kingdom of God is the Rule of the Spirit, which is the power of divine love that, through Jesus and his followers, is invading a world ruled by the sword.10 It makes sense then that Jesus calls “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” unforgivable in Mark 3. If Israel attributes (“blasphemes”) the healing, peacemaking power of Jesus to Satan (notice how Satan is again tied up with idolatry, this time the Canaanite god “Beelzebub”), then by definition they will miss out on the healing that Jesus is bringing, the “forgiveness of sins,” i.e. deliverance from idols. In other words, if Israel continues to live by the sword, they will die by the sword. And that is precisely what happened when Rome sent in the tanks in 70 A.D. and wiped out Jerusalem. And speaking of living by the sword, who is it that famously gets called “Satan” in Chapter 8? Peter himself, Jesus’ number two, who tries on multiple occasions to thwart Jesus on his Way to the cross.
Jesus’ second encounter with these dark powers in Mark 1:21-28 then simply serves to show the reader just how deep this sickness goes in Israel. There is a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue on the Sabbath. Yuck. And what’s worse, when Jesus starts healing people, the religious leaders start conspiring together (eventually with Rome!) on how they might kill Jesus. The point? Israel was very resistant to the healing of King Jesus…so what about us? We love to make fun of the stupid disciples who just couldn’t get it, but in the end we are making fun of ourselves. Are we less blinded by our idols than they were? Really?
To risk a summary statement: demonic power is self-clinging love that is willing to exclude, humiliate, and even kill the other. Divine power, embodied by Jesus, is self-emptying love that is willing to be excluded, humiliated, and even killed on a cross for the other.11 Jesus’ death exposes and thus disarms these powers that run our world and take us captive.12 This is why even the power of death had no hold on Jesus and why the fear of death is not supposed to have power over his followers.13
I think another part of our difficulty with these passages is not only our materialism,14 but our individualism. We tend to lose sight of the fact that Jesus is working on a global, even cosmic scale, and not a merely personal one. The Bible consistently pictures humanity as harassed by forces much larger than us that cause us to feel helpless. But the good news of the gospel is that God has addressed this crisis of authority by sending his Son who has been placed above every “power,” and by sending the Holy Spirit to heal and help us. 15. As Romans 8:37-39 makes gloriously plain, nothing can separate those who walk by the Spirit, that is, in the Way of the cross, from the love of God. Neither things present nor things to come…not Rome, not Christendom, not capitalism, not communism, not globalization, not genocide, not abuse, not addiction. Nothing.
Now while engagement with the rest of these strange little vignettes will have to wait, I hope this sets you on a good trajectory to read this Gospel well. In the end, Satan’s work is rather mundane. Like Judas we sell out Jesus for pocket change, dividing our loyalties just enough to avoid suffering. Notice that nowhere in the letters of the New Testament are churches encouraged to expect the kind of fantastic encounters that Jesus had, which has prompted some scholars to suggest that these are literary devices rather than literal, personal beings flitting about.16 The closest thing seems to be the warning against false teachers who will encourage followers of Jesus in the way of the spirits-of-the-age that are opposed to the Way of Jesus.17 If “exorcism” was to be a normal part of our lives in the church, you’d think Paul, Peter, John, James, or Jude would have thought to mention it! Rather, the letters acknowledge that these Jesus communities have been delivered from serving idols to serve the living God and share in the blessings of Israel.18 With one voice these Scriptures call us to fear God, to flee idolatry, to fearlessly pursue righteousness and justice for the least of these from a pure heart, and to stand firm in our faith that we might not fall into slavery again.19 It is the ordinary life of discipleship (i.e. prayer, faith, hope, love) that does war against the extraordinary powers that tempt, isolate, possess, enslave, and dehumanize our world, our nations, our communities, and ourselves.20 As we pursue “the Jesus life,” breaking bread together across ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic boundaries, we declare to the powers that their thrones are temporary and that Jesus is in charge.21 In other words, if you want to wage war against Satan, imitate Jesus by practicing vulnerable hospitality in his name, the name that is above every name.
So that’s the deal with demons. I think.
- Deuteronomy 6:4
- Exodus 20:3
- Exodus 32:1-6
- 2 Kings 21:11; Isaiah 28:15
- 2 Kings 21:9
- Isaiah 40:1-2, Daniel 7:27
- Mark 1:14-15
- Psalm 146:3
- John 18:36
- In Matthew 10:34-39 Jesus said he came not to bring peace but a sword by which he means a division between those who will pick up a cross and those who will pick up a sword. Jesus is a master of irony.
- Philippians 2:5-11
- Colossians 2:8, 15
- Hebrews 2:15
- A demonic, death-dealing power in its own right…see WWII
- See Philippians 2, Colossians 1, Ephesians 1, Hebrews 1, 1 Peter 3…actually just see the New Testament
- Speaking of literary devices, one cannot read the gospels well without a deep appreciation for irony. It is the demons, not the religious leaders or disciples, who immediately recognize who Jesus really is!
- See for instance 1 John 4:1 in light of the Zechariah verse above
- 1 Thessalonians 1:9; Ephesians 2:19
- 1 Corinthians 10:14; 1 John 5:19-21(!); 1 Timothy 6:11; Galatians 5:1
- Ephesians 6:10-20
- Ephesians 3:10; 1 Corinthians 11:26