Article by: Brandon D. Crowe
All Christians acknowledge that the Gospels are vital for discipleship today. But interpreting and applying the Gospels can be difficult since they’re about things that happened a long time ago—“back then.” What difference do these ancient events make for our daily lives?
The Gospels are relevant because they showcase the victory that Jesus Christ, through his lifelong obedience, won on our behalf. The victory he won back then has cosmic and personal consequences that affect us right now.
To demonstrate such relevance, let’s turn to a difficult parable of Jesus: the binding of the strong man, as found in Mark 3:22–30. Although this passage can be a head-scratcher, it’s best understood as a parable explaining Jesus’s mission.
In Mark 3 Jesus’s mission is under attack. After announcing the coming of God’s kingdom (Mark 1:14–15), he begins to heal the sick, cast out demons, teach with authority, call disciples, and even forgive sins. But not everyone is happy with him. In Mark 3:22–30 the scribes challenge the source of Jesus’s authority, claiming it comes from Beelzebul, the prince of demons (Satan). In response, Jesus points out that his attacks on the kingdom of Satan invalidate the accusation that he’s working with Satan.
Jesus says he came to bind the strong man (that is, Satan) in order that he himself, as the stronger man (cf. Mark 1:7), might plunder Satan’s house. This is Jesus’s own explanation of the events we encounter in Mark 1–3.
But what did this binding of the strong man mean back then? And what difference does it make right now? Here are three key truths.
1. Jesus Came to Crush the Devil
First, Jesus came to defeat the Devil. We can lose sight of this point since the Gospels contain many stories. But at a foundational level the Gospels are about Jesus’s victory over Satan (cf. 1 John 3:8). Before we get to Mark 3—a text that features Jesus, the Devil, and the Holy Spirit—Mark’s readers have already encountered the wilderness temptation (1:12–13) featuring the same three characters. We’re therefore encouraged to read the binding of the strong man in light of Jesus’s obedience in the temptation episode.
So how should we understand the temptation episode? Most probably view the Devil’s threefold challenge and Jesus’s scriptural response as an example for us as we fight temptation. This is a valid application, and Jesus does indeed provide a model for us.
But is there more? When we read Mark’s account, we’re struck by how distinctive it is: Jesus was with wild animals and angels ministered to him. How is that a model for us? It’s better to think of Jesus’s temptation primarily as a unique event in the history of redemption when God’s anointed Son battled and bound the Devil as part of his kingdom work.
Reading Mark’s temptation account as Jesus’s initial victory over Satan fits well with Mark 3:22–30. Jesus’s explanation of binding the strong man employs kingdom language (3:24–27), and only after Jesus’s obedience in the wilderness does he announce the coming of the kingdom (1:14–15). Jesus is the king who establishes the kingdom on the basis of his own obedience. The battle with Satan isn’t over in Mark 1 or Mark 3 (Jesus will end up sacrificing his life to establish the kingdom fully), but a decisive blow has already been dealt.
2. Jesus Can Forgive Your Sins
Second, Jesus’s binding of the strong man means he can grant forgiveness of sins. We see this in the logical relationship between Mark 3:27 and 3:28. Jesus says that the one who binds the strong man can plunder the strong man’s house (3:27). Then he immediately says “all sins” and “whatever blasphemies” will be forgiven (except the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit) (3:28). In other words, the forgiveness explained in 3:28 is a result of Jesus’s binding of the strong man recounted in 3:27.
Though we don’t have space to discuss the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, we shouldn’t miss the incredible scope of forgiveness Jesus grants in 3:28: all sins and whatever blasphemies. Put simply, there is no sin or blasphemy beyond the scope of Jesus’s authority to forgive. Again, this wide-ranging forgiveness logically results from Jesus’s wide-ranging obedience by which he bound the enemy (see also Irenaeus’s Against Heresies 5.21.3).
Here’s the crux of the matter: Because Jesus is stronger than the strong man, he can offer those who trust him full and unfettered forgiveness for every sin.
3. Jesus Gives Life Where Adam Brought Death
Third, the literary relationship between the binding of the strong man and Jesus’s temptation shows us that Jesus is the new Adam who brings life in place of death. Jesus’s testing took place in the wilderness, the deserted landscape resulting from Adam’s sin. Jesus’s peaceful coexistence with the wild animals shows him exercising benevolent dominion over creation, which sinful humanity failed to do (cf. Isa. 11:1–9).
Whereas Adam should’ve cast out the serpent who called into question God’s Word, Jesus overcame the Devil—and indeed bound him (cf. Rev. 20:2)—as part of his faithfulness to his messianic task.
Adam should’ve obeyed unto life; instead, Adam sinned and brought death. Jesus obeyed fully, even unto death, and his obedience brings everlasting life. Jesus bound the strong man through obedience to God’s will. And only this fully obedient Savior has the authority to grant you life and forgive your sins.
Editors’ note: Learn more in Brandon Crowe’s book The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels (Baker Academic, 2017).
Brandon D. Crowe is associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. His recent works include The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels, and (co-edited with Carl Trueman) The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance.