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The strong man bound

August 1998 | by Frederick Leahy

‘How can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? And then he will spoil his house’ (Matthew 12:29).

The onlookers, the ordinary people, were astonished. Christ had cast out a demon from a man whom the demon had rendered blind and dumb. Now his speech and sight were restored. ‘Can this be the Son of David?’ they asked. Could this carpenter from Nazareth really be the Messiah after all? They had not closed their minds to the possibility. Not so the Pharisees! They were out to oppose Christ whatever he did. In this passage we see just how deep and irrational was their hatred for Christ.

Christ stands accused

His enemies could not deny that the sufferer had been delivered from his tormentor and fully restored. But they were dogmatic in attributing the miracle to Satanic intervention (v.24). They saw the Nazarene as a tool of the devil. Speaking contemptuously, they insisted that Christ was in league with the powers of darkness. Indeed, as Mark tells us, they believed that he himself was demon-possessed (Mark 3:30).

It was not the first time they had levelled this charge against Christ. He said to his disciples, ‘If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household?’ (Matthew 10:25). Christ’s followers cannot expect better treatment than their Lord. But even though the Pharisees offered the deadliest insult conceivable, their case was weak and inconsistent. If he released those he had once captured (v. 25-26), Satan would demolish his own kingdom, and that he would never do willingly.

Besides, the Jews of that day practised exorcisms. Their historian, Josephus, refers to this practice in his writings. So now Christ turned the tables on his accusers (v. 27). Without endorsing their practices, he asked by what authority they carried out exorcism. In terms both of logic and consistency, the Pharisees had lost the argument.

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The claim Christ makes

The claim comes in the form of a question that is itself an unanswerable argument (v. 29). The term ‘strong man’ in this context refers to Satan. A strong man will strenuously resist all attempts to deprive him of his possessions until he has been overcome (‘bound’) by someone stronger than himself. Once bound he is powerless to prevent his victor from ransacking his house. The house can be plundered item by item and room by room.

In Luke’s account the strong man is represented as armed and guarding his palace or residence. But once disarmed by a stronger opponent, he is deprived of his spoils (Luke 11:21-22). Christ’s claim, then, is crystal clear. He has ‘bound’ Satan and can plunder his house at will. He had just done so in restoring this sufferer. Satan cannot successfully resist Christ. The tyrant has been defeated. He may and does counter-attack, but he has already lost the war. He knows that his time is short (Revelation 12:12). So do his minions as they ask Christ, ‘Art thou come hither to torment us before the time?’ (Matthew 8:29). They know that torment awaits them in hell, a place ‘prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matthew 25:41).

Satan is bound by the cross of Christ. There the serpent’s head was crushed and the forces of evil were routed. So certain was Christ of victory as he went to his cross that he could say emphatically, ‘Now is the judgement of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out’ (John 12:31; and in the original the emphasis is on the ‘now’). It is true that at this time Christ had not yet laid down his life as a substitute for his people. But it needs to be remembered that the atonement is retrospective (or retroactive) in its efficacy, as well as prospective. In other words, it relates equally to all post-Fall history, whether for us it is past or future. It is trans-historical.

Old Testament believers

Old Testament believers were saved by that cross, exactly as are New Testament believers. The blood of bulls and goats could not, and did not, cleanse their sin, but it did prefigure Christ’s effectual sacrifice on the cross. New Testament believers have vastly greater knowledge of what happened at Calvary than the saints of old, but in terms of justification they have nothing essential that Old Testament believers did not have.

Christ’s death redeems from transgressions those who were ‘under the first covenant’ (Hebrews 9:15). As Philip E. Hughes comments, ‘The efficacy of this redemption … extends not only to those who have lived since the advent of Christ but also, retroactively, to those who trusted the promises prior to their fulfilment in his coming … The perfection that is ours in Christ is theirs also.’ Adam and Eve believed those promises. So did the Patriarchs. Paul writes that, through the promises, the gospel was preached to Abraham (Galatians 3:8), while Jesus said, ‘Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad’ (John 8:56).

The truth that the cross relates equally to all human history since the Fall, means that Satan has always been dethroned. He has always been ‘bound’ by the cross and able to move only as God permits him (see Job 1:12; 2:6). This does not mean that the crucifixion left the situation unchanged. There has been a significant change, in that Satan’s activity has been further curbed and restricted, so that he can no longer deceive the nations (Revelation 20:3). He cannot frustrate the Great Commission or prevent the spread of the gospel throughout the world.

The finger of God

The Pharisees said that ourLord had an ‘unclean spirit’ (Mark 3:30), but Jesus Christ said he cast out demons ‘by the Spirit of God’ (Matthew 12:28). Our Lord received the Holy Spirit without measure (John 3:34), and he pours out the same abundance on his people, individually and as the church (Acts 2:18; 10:45; Titus 3:5-6). The Father does not bestow the Spirit grudgingly on Christ, and the same is true of the church. It is in the power of the Spirit that the Saviour confronts and repels the demonic powers, now as in his days on earth. In Luke’s account he says he cast out demons ‘by the finger of God’ (Luke 11:20). He was using a familiar Old Testament expression. Confronted by the plagues, Pharaoh’s occult advisers were forced to confess, ‘This is the finger of God’ (Exodus 8:19). In employing this metaphor, Christ clearly has the Spirit of God in mind.

The psalmist sees the wonder of the universe as ‘the work of thy fingers’ (Psalm 8:3). That term denotes the power of God, and nothing less than that power can deliver any soul from the clutches of Satan. That kingly power is evident in all Christ’s miracles; andSatan retreats before it.

Still a dangerous enemy

Of course, Satan is still a dangerous enemy. A dog on a chain is circumscribed in its movement, but within that sphere it can be dangerous. So it is with Satan. His movement is restricted by a sovereign God – as the book of Job makes clear – but the Christian is nevertheless exhorted to wear the armour that God has provided. Only thus can he ‘quench the fiery darts of the evil one’ (Ephesians 6:16; Leon Morris calls them ‘flaming arrows’). Scripture strikes a careful balance between presenting Satan as ‘bound’, yet as dangerous as a hungry lion (1 Peter 5:8).

Overall, Scripture sees Satan as clearly under God’s power. Calvin sees Satan serving God in spite of himself, ‘Because with the bridle of his power God holds him bound and restrained, he carries out only those things which have been permitted to him; and so he obeys his Creator, whether he will or not, because he is compelled to yield him service wherever God impells him’ (Institutes, 1:14:17). That was supremely the case at Calvary (compare Acts 2:23).

The results of Christ’s conquest

Because Satan is on a leash, and the Christian is delivered from his authority, because the believer is now indwelt by the Holy Spirit and ‘sealed’ by the Spirit ‘unto the day of redemption’ (Ephesians 4:30), Christ’s people can successfully resist the devil (James 4:7). But to do so consistently they must use the means that God has provided. Satan fears those who delight in God’s Word and who pray believingly. Contrary to some modern teaching, the Christian is ‘kept by the power of God’ (1 Peter 1:5) and can never come under demonic control. Satan lays his snares and tempts the Christian, but he cannot compel him to sin. If and when the believer sins, it is his own doing to be confessed as such (Romans 6:14; James 1:14-15).

Would that Christians would read again that much neglected book, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To believe and teach, as some do, that a Christian can be demon-possessed is a monstrous error that runs counter to all that the Bible says about the believer. It is utterly grotesque to think that the Holy Spirit and an evil spirit can reside together in the same person. Those who think they can, show how little they understand the momentous change effected in regeneration and conversion. Many so-called ‘deliverance ministries’ of our day are blighted by this false doctrine and are doing incalculable damage to anxious souls.

Castle of San Marino
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Proclaiming the gospel

Another great result of Christ’s victory over Satan and his underlings is the assurance the church has in obeying the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). In going forth as Christ has commanded, the church knows that Satan cannot frustrate God’s purpose. His Word will not return to him void, but will accomplishes what God desires, gathering his church out of the world until the end of the age (Isaiah 55:11). So the church, keeping Christ’s victory in mind, must go forth boldly proclaiming the gospel, knowing that the outcome of her witness does not depend on human ingenuity or special techniques, but on the sovereign working of the Spirit of God. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts’ (Zechariah 4:6).

Two kingdoms

The passage we have been studying can be summarized in this way. We areshown two, strongly opposed, kingdoms. One is Satan’s kingdom (v.26) and the other is Christ’s kingdom, or the kingdom of God (v.28). Both kingdoms relate to human hearts and lives. Satan reigns in the hearts of the godless, and in that sense is the ‘god’ and ‘prince’of this world. Every time a sinner is saved, whether demon-possessed or not, Christ has ransacked Satan’s house. Thus it is that our victorious Redeemer divides the spoil with the strong (Isaiah 53:12), for God’s people share in the fruits of his victory.

Two kingdoms. Two contestants. But only one mighty Victor! Let us make sure that by God’s grace we personally have been ‘delivered from the power [dominion] of darkness’ and ‘translated [transferred] into the kingdom of his dear Son’ (Colossians 1:13).