Victory, triumph, conquest: it sounds like a three-point sermon from a prosperity preacher doesn’t it? It’s certainly not the terminology I feel comfortable using to describe the gospel or my own Christian experience. After all, our great enemies, Satan, sin and death, still cause a lot of pain and suffering.
Honestly, I find it easier to discuss the work of Jesus in terms of finding legal forgiveness or relational acceptance. Both those things are found in Jesus, but so too are victory, triumph and conquest. When we read the work of the first-century church and her leaders such as Paul, John or the author of Hebrews, it doesn’t take us long to realise that there’s more going on than we often admit. Look at these passages.
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8).
…having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:15).
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Could it be that we’ve lost the language of the early church? Could it be that we’re far less comfortable discussing and believing these things than we should be? Can we really speak about the cross in terms of victory, triumph, conquest, and still consider ourselves upstanding evangelicals?
Perhaps we need to go back to the start.
Victory through death
In Genesis 3, shortly after the record of humanity’s rebellion, God enters the scene and announces a verdict. As the result of our sin, in the face of the Satan who sought to undermine God’s rule, death will enter in. Yet, in the midst of that judgment comes a promise, often referred to as the ‘protoevangelion’ or the first good news. God promises to provide a way back for humanity. Speaking to the treacherous serpent God promised to ‘… put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel’ (Genesis 3:15).
With the whole cast in plain view — Satan, sin and death — the first good news is a declaration of war, a promise of victory over our accuser, a glimpse into triumph over death. There’s much to be fleshed out for sure, but in a seedling form, God has announced that he will sort things out and undo all that’s gone wrong. That’s our hope.
If we fast forward to the gospel records of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we see that he often spoke about his ministry as doing just that. For example, in Mark 3 as he responds to accusations of collusion with the devil, Jesus described his work as ‘binding the strong man’ and ‘plundering the strong man’s house.’ It’s a description of neutralising Satan and taking a redeemed humanity as his trophy. It’s victory.
Perhaps with even more clarity in John 12, we hear Jesus coupling the downfall of the serpent with his own death, resurrection and ascension:
Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself (John 12:31-32).
Again it sounds a lot like winning. In this context we might ponder a little longer the great declaration of Jesus, ‘It is finished!’
Victory over death
But Jesus’ means of accomplishing this, the cross, begs the same question as our own suffering and struggles. If Jesus is winning, why does it look so much like death and defeat?
As with much in our lives, looks can be deceiving. The cross certainly looks like failure, even foolishness to many, but when understood correctly it’s a tremendous victory and fantastic news to those who would otherwise be perishing. Calvary was by all accounts counterintuitive; a place where death led to life. As John Stott put it, ‘[At the cross] the victim was the victor.’
In bearing our sin on the cross, and overcoming the judgment of death it had brought us, Jesus was able to rise to a new victorious life that we’re all by faith invited to enjoy with him. In one fell swoop, he removes our guilt, erases the fear of punishment and silences our accuser. Jesus’ self-substitution is precisely how he achieves his ultimate goal of conquering his enemies and offering us victory in himself.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes us on this journey. Beginning with the gospel that saves he reviews the facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. From there we head into the reality and necessity of the resurrection before terminating the expedition with a final rousing observation that, thanks to Christ’s intervention,
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor. 15:54-57).
Undoubtedly our enemies’ heads have been crushed. Jesus has conquered and in him so shall we. We’re on the side of the victor.
So why doesn’t it feel like that? Why does it so often look the complete opposite? How could people like Peter tell believers that Satan had been defeated and still warn them to be on the lookout as for a prowling lion?
We shouldn’t forget that Jesus’ victory came cloaked in defeat. We shouldn’t forget that Jesus’ life was found on the other side of death. We shouldn’t forget that the road to glorious triumph was marked with suffering. When we share with Christ in his conquest, we should expect to experience it in the same ways. That’s how the Puritan author understood it when writing, ‘The way up is the way down.’
Victory over Satan
Perhaps our biggest problem isn’t that we experience hardship or that the biblical authors speak about Jesus’ work in final, triumphant terms. Perhaps our biggest problem is a confusion that emerges from equating conquest with annihilation. It isn’t. Jesus hasn’t caused Satan, sin and death to cease to exist, but he has rendered them ultimately powerless. They remain present even if their power has been dissolved.
If you’re still unconvinced, let’s skip to the end. If we think of the Bible as a hymn, what’s the final refrain? The book of Revelation. No doubt you’ve been troubled or confused by something you’ve read there. But one thing that’s universally agreed on is that it shows us how utterly and convincingly Jesus wins. And with him, so does his bride, the Church. So do I. So do you.