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Many of the New Testament writers often use the term “world” in a moral sense. Paul, for instance, frequently uses “world” (and the idea of “this age”) as the totality of people, social systems, values, and traditions, in opposition to God and his redemptive purposes. This is what he has in mind when he speaks of “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Working primarily through key people, evil powers strive to pollute society in their larger effort to lead humanity astray from God.
For example, Satan can oppress a whole country by focusing his supernatural influence on one holding absolute power. Reinforcing thoughts of greed, suspicion, and hate, a ruler can reign tyrannically over a country for years.
In the Old Testament, false gods and pagan cults were frequently used by evil spirits to cause the people of God to turn their backs on him. This is why there is such strong anti-idolatry polemic throughout the Old Testament. In describing Israel’s abandonment of God for idols while in the wilderness, the book of Deuteronomy represents the Jewish conviction that pagan religion had a close connection with the work of demons: “They [the Jewish people] made him jealous with their foreign gods and angered him with their detestable idols. They sacrificed to demons, which are not God—gods they had not known, gods that recently appeared, gods your fathers did not fear” (Deut. 32:16-17). The Apostle Paul was also convinced that the powers of darkness were especially active in non-Christian religions. He sternly warns the Corinthians to avoid participation in pagan sacrifices because of this. He contends, “The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor. 10:19-20). It is thus perfectly clear why Paul urged the Corinthians to “flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14). By maintaining any kind of involvement with pagan temples, the Corinthians were exposing themselves to powerful demonic activity and compromising their allegiance to the one true God.
Throughout his ministry, the Apostle Paul struggled against perverted understandings of Christ and his atoning work that crept into the churches. Paul implies that the false teachings influencing the churches at Colossae and Corinth were demonically inspired (2 Cor. 10:4; 6:14-17; Col. 2:8).
What Did the Cross Accomplish?
The New Testament clearly teaches that Jesus’ cross, resurrection, and exaltation marked the decisive victory of Jesus over Satan and the powers of darkness (Eph. 1:20-22; Phil. 2:9-11; Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14). 1 John expresses it succinctly: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8).
The first three Gospels record the teaching of Jesus himself on the significance of the cross with respect to the powers of evil. He expresses himself in the form of a parable: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house” (Mark 3:27; see also Matt. 12:29, Luke 11:21-22). Satan is the “strong man” and “his possessions” are the people held in bondage to his kingdom. Jesus has come to “tie up” this strong man so he can plunder his house by liberating the prisoners (see Luke 4:18-29), that is, people enslaved to sin and trapped in the bondage and oppression of the kingdom of Satan. Jesus’ many exorcisms clearly demonstrate his power over the strong man, but it was only through the cross that Satan and his hosts were dealt the unrecoverable blow that spells their final doom. The strong man was defeated, and Christ could now build his church.
Nowhere else in the New Testament is Christ’s victory over the powers of darkness given fuller expression than in Colossians 2:15. Paul proclaims, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Having sought to frustrate the redemptive plan of God by instigating the death of Christ on the cross, the powers of darkness unwittingly became mere instruments in God’s hands. Christ rose from the dead and assumed the position of “head” over a new body—a body of people in union with himself who would now spread the message of redemption all over the world.
Nevertheless, the forces of evil continue their hostile activity. The cross represents the major victory of the war, but the battle continues (like D Day compares to VE Day in World War II). There is a vital difference, however, between the time before the cross and after, between unbelievers and believers. Evil powers have indeed been “disarmed” with respect to believers. By virtue of Christ’s victory on the cross over evil powers and our identification with him, believers share in his present power and authority over evil powers.
Are Believers Immune to Demonic Influence?
The New Testament teaching is clear that becoming a Christian does not bring about automatic immunity to the influence of evil spirits. Becoming a Christian links one to a new resource for dealing with these hostile forces. Jesus teaches his disciples the possibility and necessity of “abiding” in him, like a branch in a vine, in order to be infused with his divine enabling power (John 15:1-8). In a similar fashion, Paul constantly affirms our identity as being “in Christ.” Through this real union with Christ believers can draw on divine resources provided by Christ—the head of the body who empowers the body and enables it to resist Satan and fulfill its mission in spite of intense demonic hostility. Christ as the head is able to accomplish this because God has exalted him and placed all of the evil demonic powers under his feet (Eph. 1:22).
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