Recovering Souls from Satan's Power
Satan makes great efforts to keep sinners in his kingdom. His evil hope is that they will continue to dishonour God for the rest of their lives and spend eternity still under his power. Thus Paul refers to the evil work of "the god of this world": he "hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them" (2 Cor 4:4). He blinds even those who listen to sound preaching so that they will not focus on their need as sinners; he distracts them from seeking salvation and from seeing the wonder of the glorious gospel that Paul, and many others since then, have delighted to proclaim.
"Let no man wonder", says John Flavel, "at the enmity and opposition of Satan to the preaching of the gospel, for by the gospel it is that souls are recovered out of his power. It is the express work of ministers ‘to turn [men] from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God'." Flavel quotes an unnamed writer: "Satan is a great and jealous prince; he will never endure to have liberty proclaimed by the ministers of Christ within his dominions"; he will always do his utmost to prevent the success of the gospel. Yet Flavel points to the "multitudes of prisoners [who] have broken loose from Satan at one proclamation of Christ". The reference to Acts 2:41 makes it plain that Flavel is thinking of the 3000 who were set free from Satan's kingdom on the Day of Pentecost. (John Flavel, Works, Banner of Truth reprint, 1968, vol 2, p 277-8)
Yet there is no fundamental difference between one of Satan's prisoners escaping from his kingdom and 3000 doing so at one time. Each of them must be made willing to accept the liberty that is proclaimed to them; each of them must be delivered from the blinding effect of Satan's activity. God must act, by the Holy Spirit, on each individual soul. Paul adds: "God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor 4:6). It is not the light that shone around him and his party on the way to Damascus that Paul is thinking of here; it is rather the Holy Spirit enlightening his understanding so that he was able to discern Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. If that was to take place, Satan, who had so long blinded Paul's mind with self-righteousness, must be swept aside. And that must be a divine work, as it manifestly was.
From his own blinded perspective, Paul was, as "touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless" (Phil 3:6). Matthew Poole points out that this refers to his external observance of the law; "he was, in the eye of man," someone living a blameless life; "yet when he had his eyes opened, he found there was no such matter of confidence for him before God. This external performance he found, when enlightened, was far short of internal and perfect obedience; and therefore he saw it necessary to change the ground and foundation of his confidence – all that he before rested on – unto Christ alone." But if Satan had been allowed to go on as before, Paul would have continued as blind as ever to the reality of his spiritual condition: that he had no righteousness before God, that he had a corrupt heart, that he was fallen in Adam and therefore under condemnation. So, besides the work of the Holy Spirit in enlightening Paul's mind as to these matters, God acted to prevent Satan dealing successfully with Paul any longer. Satan's activity was restrained and Paul escaped from his clutches.
The moment Paul felt his need as a sinner, Jesus revealed Himself to him as the One appointed by God to be a Saviour for fallen, guilty creatures. Here was the One who was revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures as the Messiah – God's righteous Servant who was to justify many, for He was to bear their iniquities (Is 53:11). If Satan had been permitted, he would have blinded Paul's eyes to prevent him seeing Jesus as a Saviour. But in God's mercy, Satan was held back from so dealing with Paul, and the future apostle entered into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
We do not know much about Zacchaeus' spiritual attitudes before he climbed into a tree to see Jesus. Presumably it was curiosity that motivated this tax collector to want to see "who He was", and we can safely assume that Satan would have been determined to do all in his power to blind the eyes of Zacchaeus' soul to spiritual realities. Previously, we might assume that a secure income from his employment, an income somewhat enhanced by "false accusation", would have focused his hopes on the good things of this life while Satan blinded his eyes to his worldliness and various particular sins, and to the danger of a lost eternity.
But great though Satan's power is, it is finite; it is no match for the infinite power of the divine Saviour. Christ assured Zacchaeus: "This day is salvation come to this house . . . . For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:9,10), but we are given no details of Zacchaeus' experience. Yet we may easily infer that the Holy Spirit worked powerfully in his soul, making him a new creature in Christ Jesus and enabling him to trust in the Saviour and follow Him. We may also readily deduce that divine restraint was exerted on Satan's activity; otherwise Satan would have continued to blind Zacchaeus to his need and to the divine glory of the One he had climbed into the tree to see; and he would have hardened Zacchaeus' heart, leaving him focused on the things of this world and unwilling to follow Christ. But the time had arrived for Zacchaeus to be saved, and nothing could interfere with God's purpose, not even the devil's malicious power. All his efforts against Zacchaeus that day were doomed to failure.
Kenneth D Macleod