Who can overpower Satan & release his captives?
Scripture tells us that, “Jesus always used stories and illustrations ... when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet: 'I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.'” (Matthew 13:34-35)
Notice the word “hidden”. When people asked Jesus why he always taught using parables, he explained that such stories have a way of hiding the truth from hard-hearted people. (Matthew 13:10-15) But they can have a positive effect on those who are teachable, whetting their appetite and making them thirsty to learn more. A few people, after hearing Jesus, came and asked what the parables meant. (Matthew 13:10-23) Therefore, while parables hide the truth from some people, they enable others to learn more.
Now that you understand the purpose of parables let me tell you a modern day parable.
There was a man who decided to invest in a beautiful aquarium which became his pride and joy. Every day when he came home from work he would relax on his couch to enjoy watching the miniature world he had made. One day he came home to find his beloved fish in grave danger from a predator – a huge, sinister snake was poised on the edge of the fish tank intent on devouring its occupants. The horrified man rushed to the rescue. The snake was now in the water so he dived head first into the fish tank! Wait a minute. That's not what happened. The man was too big! Doing this would shatter the fish tank and the fish would die. No, no, no. The man rushed across the room and plunged his arm into the fish tank. Grabbing the snake by the neck, he threw it to the ground and stamped it to death. It took a few days for him to recover from the painful fang bite in his heel but he regretted nothing. His beloved fish were saved!
This parable has all the makings of a good story: a hero, a villain, a plot with rising tension, a turning point and a resolution. And since it is a parable it contains a hidden truth. So let me ask, “Who do you think the owner represents?” … It's not difficult to see the analogy, is it? The Bible says God made a beautiful world, calling it “very good.” When he placed Adam and Eve in the garden they were his pride and joy. Every day he came down and walked with them. He took pleasure in talking with them.
So who is the villain? Who does the snake represent? The serpent comes to destroy and kill so he represents the Devil. In Revelation Satan is described as the ancient serpent, the Destroyer. (Revelation 12:9; 9:11) Elsewhere Jesus called him the murderer from the beginning. This brings us finally to the beloved fish, “Who do they represent?” They are human beings whom God so dearly loved.
Before we continue to explore this symbolism, let us consider a question that sceptics like to ask. “Is there really a Devil?” This attitude is not so common in Africa but in western nations one often hears these kinds of questions posed in an almost mocking tone of voice. Until recently such scepticism was fashionable, but in view of the shocking escalation of unimaginable atrocities, including the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the Middle East by so-called Muslims, and in light of the unprecedented upsurge in worldwide persecution of Christians, the idea of a real Devil seems quite plausible.
As a matter of fact, Muslims, who are the second largest religion on earth, have no doubt that there is a real Devil. Shaitan is the arch-enemy of mankind. According to the Biblical and Quranic account of man's fall, God Almighty pronounced a curse on Satan, after he deceived Adam and Eve and enticed them to sin. However, we need to look carefully at the Genesis account otherwise we may miss certain vital details which are not in the Qur'an.
The Bible says in Genesis 3:14-15,
Then the LORD God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all animals, domestic and wild. You will crawl on your belly, grovelling in the dust as long as you live. And I will cause hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."
This verse shows God cursing the serpent and, ultimately, declaring a victory for humans. It foretells that a special one – the offspring of the woman will strike a deadly blow to the head of the Serpent. It is not difficult to see parallels between Genesis 3:15 and the fish tank parable. In fact, anyone with general knowledge of the Bible realises there are clues in the Gospels showing a rising hostility between Satan and the Messiah, who is Jesus. However, let us look first at some clues in the Old Testament that help explain the promise of Genesis 3:15. We will start by reading two prophecies that foretell the task which God commissioned the Messiah to do.
Speaking through Isaiah, God predicted, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me, I will make you a light to the Gentiles and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6) A few chapters later Isaiah described a dark scenario – a gloomy situation into which Jesus would shine a bright light. “We look for light but find only darkness. We look for bright skies but walk in gloom.... Even at brightest noontime, we stumble as though it were dark … and anyone who renounces evil is attacked. The Lord looked and was displeased to find there was no justice. He was amazed to see that no one intervened to help the oppressed. So he himself stepped in to save them with his strong arm...” (Isaiah 59:9-16) Taking this imagery of light, one of Christ's disciples connected the dots. Matthew noted how Jesus fulfilled prophecy, saying, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” (Matthew 4:16)
The two passages which we have just read from Isaiah show God intervening and saving. Isaiah 49:6 describes God's servant as bringing his salvation to earth and in Isaiah 59 the Lord says that he himself will “save with his strong arm.” But what is meant by the expression, “strong arm”? Does God have a physical arm? From a literary viewpoint, it is proper to understand that this is simply a figure of speech, meaning God saves by means of his servant, the Messiah. Both the Qur'an and the Bible use this kind of figure of speech with reference to God, e.g. the face of God.
This imagery rings true in the fish tank parable as we see the owner rescuing his beloved fish with his strong arm.
This theme is further confirmed in the story of Jesus' birth where he is given a name as instructed by the angel. The name Jesus, (Yeshua in Hebrew) means “The Lord is salvation” which corresponds exactly with what Isaiah predicted. Jesus brings God's salvation to the world. Interestingly, the story of Jesus' virgin birth and how he was given a special name is not unique to the Christian Bible. This story is also recorded in the Qur'an.1
Another question that may arise when discussing this with Muslims: If God Almighty is the ONLY Saviour, as the prophet Isaiah says in 43:10, how can Jesus be Savior? Sam Shamoun provides an excellent answer which is available online here.
Jesus vs Satan
We've seen how the arm of the Lord signifies saving power. Now let us examine more specifically a few examples where Christ rescued people from the oppressive grip of Satan. Matthew 12:22-29 recounts how Jesus cast out demons from a man who was both blind and dumb. To everyone's amazement, he was dramatically healed. Seeing this, the Pharisees were filled with envy and hatred. They accused Jesus of doing this by the power of Satan. Jesus refuted their allegations and then added,
But if I am casting out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God has arrived among you. For who is powerful enough to enter the house of a strong man like Satan and plunder his goods? Only someone even stronger – someone who could tie him up and then plunder his house.
John 12 is another example showing hostility between Jesus and Satan. In fact it shows him confronting Satan in combat. This happened near the end of Christ's time on earth. He felt an ominous sense that he was about to face his most intense confrontation. Choosing his words carefully he said to his disciples, “The time for judging this world has come, when Satan, the ruler of this world, will be cast out.” (John 12:31) Notice this statement comes immediately after Jesus predicted his death, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels – a plentiful harvest of new lives.” As if to underscore how a buried kernel depicts death, Jesus then said, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” John, who penned this Gospel, says this was Christ's way of clarifying “how he was going to die.” (John 12:23-24, 32-33)
Notice in this paragraph Jesus foreshadowed his death in two very different ways. These clues shouldn't be pondered in isolation, but rather, in combination with other statements where Christ explicitly predicted his death. In this way we are better able to connect the dots of the overall story.
Notice also that Jesus saw his pending death as a gateway “to enter his glory.” For obvious reasons, the prospect of dying caused Jesus to feel “deeply troubled,” yet he did not flinch from his mission. This is clear when he asked, rhetorically, “Should I pray, 'Father save me from this hour?' But this is the very reason I came! Father bring glory to your name.” (John 12:27-28)
Three things emerge from our reading of John 12.
1) Satan will be judged and cast down.
2) Jesus will die.
3) Jesus will not remain in the grave, but be gloriously raised (many other passages affirm this).
Let us take a moment to review and connect the dots back to Genesis 3:15, indeed, going back all the way to the fish tank story. You recall that in both cases a serpent suffers a crushing blow to his head. We've traced a series of clues from the OT and the Gospels showing that John 12:23-33 fulfils Genesis 3:15.
In summary, here's what we have learned so far: the Messiah, the offspring of a (virgin) woman, plays a vital role in pronouncing judgement on the Devil and casting him out. Jesus testifies that he saw Satan fall down in judgement. However, this victory is not achieved without pain. The Messiah suffers a non-lethal wound, metaphorically speaking, to his heel.
Earlier we saw how Jesus called Satan “the murderer from the beginning.” In a similar way, the Devil enslaves mankind to fear of dying. Scripture tells us in Hebrews 2:14-15, “Because God's children are human beings--made of flesh and blood--the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.” Similarly, we read elsewhere that “our Savior, Christ Jesus, ... destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:10, NIV) Jesus came to destroy all the works of the Devil, not the least of which is death - his most terrible work.
We've made progress unravelling the parable by looking at three passages in the OT and two in the Gospels, however, our investigation wouldn't be complete without considering two passages from the last book of the Bible. Revelation 12:7-17 tells us,
Then there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven. This great dragon--the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world--was thrown down to the earth with all his angels. Then I heard a loud voice shouting across the heavens, "It has come at last--salvation and power and the Kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down to earth--the one who accuses them before our God day and night. And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens! And you who live in the heavens, rejoice! But terror will come on the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you in great anger, knowing that he has little time." When the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But she was given two wings like those of a great eagle so she could fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness. There she would be cared for and protected from the dragon for a time, times, and half a time. Then the dragon tried to drown the woman with a flood of water that flowed from his mouth. But the earth helped her by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that gushed out from the mouth of the dragon. And the dragon was angry at the woman and declared war against the rest of her children – all who keep God's commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus.2
Two chapters later the apostle John reveals the final outcome of the war waged by the Devil against the children/seed of the woman. Revelation 19:10 says,
the Devil who had deceived them was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulphur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
It is important to understand this outcome because in the time period between Revelation 12 and 19, Satan's emissary, the anti-Christ, overpowers the saints. Revelation 13:5-8 tells us,
Then the beast was allowed to speak ... terrible words of blasphemy against God, slandering his name and his dwelling--that is, those who dwell in heaven. And the beast was allowed to wage war against God's holy people and to conquer them. And he was given authority to rule over every tribe and people and language and nation.
During this time, many Christians suffer martyrdom. This is why Scripture repeatedly urges us to endure to the end. How relevant is this for us today? As we look around our country, South Africa, with 75% professing Christians, it is hard to imagine terrorists attacking one of our campuses, as they did recently at Garrisa University in Kenya, (note, Kenya also has a high percentage of Christians). I'm sure those 142 students who died as martyrs never imagined a day would come when they might have to be prepared to die for believing in Jesus, but it did come – much sooner than they expected! Likewise, until a few years ago, most Nigerian Christians were able to live fairly normal lives, not thinking whether they might have to pay the ultimate price for their faith. But the situation has grown much worse, especially for those living in the northern half of Nigeria.
Open Doors, who do highly respected research on global persecution, have noted that the last couple of years have seen an unprecedented escalation in the persecution and martyrdom of Christians. In light of this, Christ's call rings truer than ever, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24) Let me explain by quoting from an online ministry called GotQuestions.org
Let’s begin with what Jesus didn’t mean. Many people interpret “cross” as some burden they must carry in their lives: a strained relationship, a thankless job, a physical illness. With self-pitying pride, they say, “That’s my cross I have to carry.” Such an interpretation is not what Jesus meant when He said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.”
When Jesus carried His cross up Golgotha to be crucified, no one was thinking of the cross as symbolic of a burden to carry. To a person in the first-century, the cross meant one thing and one thing only: death by the most painful and humiliating means human beings could develop.
Two thousand years later, Christians view the cross as a cherished symbol of atonement, forgiveness, grace, and love. But in Jesus’ day, the cross represented nothing but torturous death. Because the Romans forced convicted criminals to carry their own crosses to the place of crucifixion, bearing a cross meant carrying their own execution device while facing ridicule along the way to death.
Therefore, “Take up your cross and follow Me” means being willing to die in order to follow Jesus. This is called “dying to self.” It’s a call to absolute surrender. After each time Jesus commanded cross bearing, He said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:24-25). Although the call is tough, the reward is matchless.
Jesus sent out seventy two disciples on a mission to show and tell the Gospel. One way they demonstrated Good News was to release those held in bondage by Satan, i.e. demonized. It is encouraging to hear the reports of how, in Jesus name, they were able to set captives free.
The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them,
“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)
Like the other passages we have read, this one calls to mind Genesis 3:15. Christ overpowered Satan and so, under his authority, we too can “tread on serpents.” We should be emboldened, realising that as we go out to preach the Gospel, we do so empowered by Christ who has “all authority in heaven and earth.”
In conclusion, let me give you a take-home assignment so that you can be doers of God's word not just hearers. Ask the Lord for opportunities to share the fish tank parable. (It is available online and fits 8 times on one page. Bear in mind that most of the people who heard Jesus tell parables found them interesting, but only a few were interested enough to explore the meaning. Sometimes Jesus asked questions while giving the parable, at other times he allowed listeners to take the initiative and ask questions. Be guided by the Spirit. Consider offering your friend a clue to help probe the underlying meaning of the parable. A good place to start is to tell the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent as recorded in Genesis 3. Don't be timid or ashamed. Remember many people enjoy the challenge of solving a riddle. Get out there and start sowing the seed! Pray that God will open doors enabling you to explore this conversation with unbelievers in a seasoned-with-salt manner. (Colossians 4:4-6) Be confident that the Spirit will enable you to unfold God's Word. “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130, NIV) This is an adventure tailor-made for you, although initially you may feel inadequate like Gideon.
If you have questions or comments please feel free to email me here.
All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation unless otherwise indicated.
Other relevant articles worth reading on this topic:
If you want to download a one page pdf file containing multiple copies of the fish tank parable you may do so here. I trust this makes it easier for you to print copies and pass them on to your friends.
Using the fish tank parable to share the Gospel: Simple guidelines
Common people in Christ's time enjoyed how he taught using parables. People are no different today. They love reading a well told story. Are you ready to share the Gospel seed as encrypted in the intriguing fish tank parable?
There was a man who decided to invest in a beautiful aquarium which became his pride and joy. One day he came home to find his beloved fish in grave danger from a predator – a huge, sinister snake was poised on the edge of the fish tank intent on devouring its occupants. The horrified man rushed to the rescue. The snake was now in the water so he dived head first into the fish tank! Wait a minute. That's not what happened. The man was too big! Doing this would shatter the fish tank and the fish would die. No, no, no. The man rushed across the room and plunged his arm into the fish tank. Grabbing the snake by the neck, he threw it to the ground and stamped it to death. It took a few days for him to recover from the painful fang bite in his heel but he regretted nothing. His beloved fish were saved!
Here is a simple way to graciously share the parable with someone. You may introduce it something like this; “A friend of mine who has an aquarium composed an unusual parable – you might call it a riddle. I found it quite interesting. I think you might also like it.”
After some time passes and you meet your friend again, simply ask, “How did you like the story?” Also, you can ask whether he has an opinion on what it means. If the Lord opens the door, suggest a clue which can help him/her probe deeper. Two clues (verses) come to mind; firstly, Gen. 3:14-15 and secondly, Isa 59:15-16. Note: As a rule of thumb, don't give more than one clue at a time.
Satan is a very real and relevant concern to Muslims
There are many reasons (beside the ones alluded to above) why we need not hesitate to engage Muslims in discussion about Satan.
1) Muslims pray many times each day for protection from Shaitan, the accursed.
2) The ahadith teaches that Mary and Jesus (Isa) were the only people not touched by Satan. (Perhaps John 14:30 provides food for thought where Jesus said, Satan has no hold on me.)
3) Muslims believe Isa will play a strategic, if not unique role, in the end-times in terms of overcoming Satanic forces aligned with Dajjal (anti-Christ).
4) Most Muslims are willing to read stories in the Gospels telling how Jesus resisted the Devil's temptations (Matthew 4) also cases where he cast demons out of people.
5) A growing number of signs point to the approaching end of the world, e.g. calamities such as great earthquakes, international political turbulence and fighting, moral decline, the escalating gay agenda, pornography inspired partly by Hollywood, sexual promiscuity, the epidemic abortion rates, the HIV pandemic, etc. In relation to the topic of end-times, the return of Isa (Jesus) has special special significance for Muslims as they believe he is “a sign of the hour”.