In Mark’s gospel, Satan is the head of a demonic army that causes suffering for human beings and who attempts to prevent Jesus from accomplishing his mission to save the world.
Satan himself makes only one direct appearance in the gospel. He tests or tempts Jesus in the wilderness [1:13] and then disappears from the scene. Nevertheless, Satan’s minions are everywhere.
I count at least nine distinct pericopae in Mark’s gospel related to Jesus casting out demons, or to others casting out demons at Jesus’ direction or in Jesus’ name. Some are longer narratives describing specific exoricisms or the encounters that led to them (e.g., the man in the synagogue in Capernaum [1:23-27], the man among the tombs in the region of the Gerasenes [5:1-13], the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Tyre [7:25-30], and the son of the man whom Jesus encountered after coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration [9:17-27]). Other are more general references to the fact that Jesus cast out demons in the course of his ministry. He cast out many impure spirits in Capernaum [1:32-34]. He traveled through Galilee casting out demons [1:39]. He twice sent out his twelve core disciples with authority to cast out demons [3:13-15 and 6:7-13]. There were others, as well, who also cast out demons in Jesus’ name [9:38-40].
In Mark’s gospel, the demon-possessed are not suffering from guilt, temptation, immoral behavior or simple misconduct. People are quite capable of sinning without Satan’s help. Mark quotes Jesus:
What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person. Mark 7:20-23
Sin arises within the human heart. Satan doesn’t have to whisper anything in the human ear.
Rather, the demon-posssessed in Mark’s gospel suffered symptoms ranging from insanity to muteness, combined with involuntary, irrational, uncontrollable, and self-destructive behavior. The legion of demons in the Gerasene demoniac gave him incredible strength which he used only to hurt and isolate himself. Mark draws us a picture that is not quite Linda Blair in 1973’s The Exorcist, but something similar.
In Mark, then, demon possession is a kind of suffering and Jesus’ exorcisms are akin to healing. Mark often writes about healing and casting out demons side-by-side.
Casting out demons is like healing, but it is also something more. It is a showdown with the devil. Modern readers may look at Mark 5:1-13 and see schizophrenia; in Mark 9:17-27, they may see epilepsy. If there was a miracle, it was simply a miracle of healing. That is not how Mark saw it.
Jesus’ exorcisms are battles between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. They are a prologue to Satan’s final defeat. When the demons encounter Jesus, they recognize who he is and cry out in anguish. They shriek and throw their victims into convulsions. Jesus has come to destroy them, and destroy them he does.
Jesus offers his success as an exorcist as evidence that he is plundering the dominion of Satan. Satan is the prince of demons. By casting out demons, Jesus is attacking Satan’s kingdom. He is overpowering Satan and driving Satan from the field of battle [3:22-27].
If Jesus is attacking the kingdom of Satan by casting out demons, Satan is also fighting back. Mark gives us two specific examples of Satan’s counterattack.
First, Satan “snatches away” the message of the kingdom that Jesus is sowing, so that it never takes root. Some members of Jesus’ audience hear the word and immediately reject or dismiss it. That’s Satan’s doing according to Mark 4:15. Satan’s work, however, is only one threat to saving faith. Some people receive the word with joy, but fall away because of trouble or persecution. Others let their own worries, ambitions or desires choke out their belief. Jesus attributes the first cause of unbelief to Satan, but not the others. Perhaps Satan is happy when he sees fear, cowardice, anxiety and avarice in believers, and maybe he even presents occasions for such reactions to occur, but Mark does not present Satan as the ultimate cause of failure among the previously faithful.
Second, Satan attempts to dissuade Jesus from completing his mission. Mark does not give us the three specific temptations described in the wilderness narratives of Matthew and Luke. Rather, Mark’s gospel hinges on the passion prediction in Mark 8:31-38.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Mark 8:31-33
In Peter’s rebuke, Jesus hears the voice of Satan. The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. If he takes any other approach, Jesus will not successfully accomplish God’s mission – God’s great purpose of establishing his kingdom. The same Son of Man will come on the clouds with great power and glory, and he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens [13:26-27]. But first, he must suffer, die an unjust death and and rise again. Satan attempts to lure Jesus from the costly path of mission success.