Luke 4:31-37

We begin today a section of the Gospel that gives us a picture of the Lord’s ministry. It will be made clear that the events that are recorded are hardly the whole of what might be told, but representative of a much larger body of work, whether exorcisms, physical healings, preaching to crowds, or teaching his disciples.

Text Comment

v.31     A journey from virtually anywhere in Galilee, and certainly from Nazareth, to Capernaum is down, Capernaum sitting as it does on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee which itself lies 680 feet below sea level. Clearly it was the Lord’s custom to preach in the synagogue on the Sabbath day.

            This is the first of five accounts of the Lord’s healing of people on the Sabbath day. The Pharisees, as you remember, ignored the distress of these people and, according to their doctrine of the Sabbath took offense at what they took to be Jesus’ work on the Sabbath day. The Lord will later point out that the Pharisaical view of the Sabbath was simply unbiblical; it missed the whole point of the Lord’s gift of a day of rest every week.

v.32     The reaction to his preaching in Capernaum was the same as it had been in Nazareth. The people were astonished. It hit them as something utterly new in their experience.

            The fashion in rabbinic teaching of the period was to base everything a rabbi taught on precedents found in the teaching of earlier rabbis. The scribes taught from tradition. Rabbi Eliezer was utterly typical in his disavowing of novelty: “nor have I ever in my life said a thing which I did not hear from my teachers.” [Cited in Morris, 129; cf. Bock, i, 429] Not so Jesus. Note the “his word.” Jesus spoke as one who was bringing the very word of God. He taught on the strength of his own authority and taught so brilliantly and so convincingly that his teaching stood out – in both substance and manner – as utterly different from the teaching the people were used to.

v.34     Nowhere is the phrase “spirit of an unclean demon” explained in the Gospels. Obviously the man was possessed by an evil spirit and of this spirit we can say at least this much on the strength of what follows: he knew of things the people did not (he knew who Jesus was; he knew of his power, and so on); he had the power to control a human being; and, as J.C. Ryle reminds us, his knowledge and power were “unaccompanied by faith, or hope, or [love].”

            The “us” is usually taken to refer not to the demon and the man he was possessing, but to the demon and his fellow demons. A good argument can be offered for that interpretation. The demon certainly understood that Jesus was the enemy of an entire kingdom of demons. But if the demon means himself and the man, he may have thought that Jesus couldn’t get to him without harming the man. In which case the fact that the man was unhurt when the demon was forced to leave him – a point to which Luke draws our attention in v. 35 – may be a demonstration of the fact that the Lord had greater power than even the demon imagined. He could drive the demon out and prevent him from doing any further harm to the man.

            It is very interesting that the demon and the man he was possessing were present in the synagogue as Jesus taught. That isn’t always the case. Some demons drive the people they possessed away from population centers to live alone and apart in the uninhabited parts of the land. But this man walked into church that morning like everybody else. It was Jesus’ presence and his teaching that prompted the demon to cry out. The demon obviously felt threatened by Jesus. He was nervous about what Jesus would do.

            This is an instance of the truth often expressed in the Bible in respect both to demons and human beings: one can know a great deal of truth about God without knowing God or believing in God. Here the demon actually describes Jesus as “the Holy One of God!” That is virtually a compliment, but the demon delivers it anyway, because he can’t help it. He knows who Jesus is! James reminds us that the demons know that there is one God, but that only makes them shudder; it does not make them willingly submit to God, trust and love him. [James 2:19]

v.35     There were exorcists in that day because in almost every period of human history there have been those who have believed in such a thing as demon possession. Jesus did not employ a “spell” such as so-called exorcists of the time would have used to drive out the demon; nor did he employ a potion or some other magical device as was also common. [Bock, i, 427n.] He spoke and the demon obeyed, though not without one last petulant hateful act.
The Lord’s command “be silent” maybe the first instance in the Gospel of Luke of what has come to be called “the messianic secret.” Jesus, during the earlier stage of his ministry, often told both demons whom he ordered out of people and people for whom he performed a miraculous cure to tell no one about him. It was a command that the people, though never the demons, often disobeyed. This clearly was an effort on the Lord’s part to keep his identity as the Messiah under wraps as much as possible so as not to precipitate before it was time the crisis with the Jewish authorities that would lead to his execution. Once the time for his death began to draw near the Lord no longer told people to keep quiet about who he was and what he had done.

v.37     The tense of the verb and the plural form of spirits indicates that this was not the only instance of the Lord’s delivering people from the power of evil spirits. The people are not referring to this one instance. They are commenting on something the Lord had done more than once.

We have before us in the text we just read the first instance of demon possession and the Lord’s mastery of demons in the Gospel. It will not be the last. Demon possession is a condition of life in which a person is dominated by an evil spirit and tormented by him. Everyone knows the general idea who has seen the movie The Exorcist. What is striking about the Gospel accounts of demon possession is that genuine demon possession was not commonplace in the ancient epoch. There is but one case mentioned in the Old Testament – the sad history of King Saul includes an instance of his being tormented by an evil spirit – and in the NT, outside of the Gospel history, demon possession is mentioned only twice, both times in the Book of Acts. Most of the NT narrative and the history of early Christianity proceed without reference to demon possession. It was not a phenomenon which the church of the Lord Jesus Christ had to deal with significantly in the years that followed.

We suppose that there is a simple explanation for this. It goes without saying that the powers of darkness would make every effort to defeat or at least to hamper the One who came into the world with the explicit intention of destroying the works of the Devil (1 John 3:8). As we read in v. 34 the demons certainly appreciated the threat to their kingdom posed by the arrival of the Son of God. No doubt it was their intention to demonstrate in a public way their power in the world even as the Lord Jesus was demonstrating his power in a public way. The concentration of demonic activity during the ministry of the Lord Jesus is explained by the struggle of the kingdom of darkness to prevent the establishment of the kingdom of God among the world of men. It was a futile effort on their part, but, then, it always was and will be. But hellish rage is never put off by the certainty of eventual defeat! Think of the terrible deeds Adolf Hitler was doing until the very last days of his life when defeat was a certainty. He was still ordering the execution of as many people as he could think of to murder.

From God’s side – and if our text makes anything clear it is that the Almighty could have put the demons in their eternal place of doom long before had that been his will – the purpose of permitting such an outbreak and public demonstration of demonic power seems likely to have been the setting it provided for the demonstration of the divine authority and power of the Lord Jesus. He was able to rebuke and to command even the demons, the very conclusion to which the amazed people give utterance in v. 36.

Now, no doubt you are aware that many people in our Western culture today take the account we have read from the gospel of Luke as a case of primitive superstition. What the ancients called “demon possession,” they say was really simply some psychological disorder, some form of mental illness. Naturalists – by which I mean people who believe that nothing exists apart from matter – are compelled to come to that conclusion. Their worldview has no place for invisible spirits, good or bad. The material universe is the sum total of reality. The world and everything in it happens of its own accord; there are no personal, spiritual forces bearing upon it. This was the viewpoint of Christopher Hitchens, the prominent atheist and author of the bestseller God is Not Great, who died this past week at the age of sixty-two. It is not, however, the view of his equally talented, equally thoughtful, equally elegant writer brother, Peter Hitchens. But we need not be impressed with that argument for reasons with which you are familiar.

  1. Naturalism is certainly no more “scientific” a view of reality than Christianity, and there is much to commend the view that it is much less scientific. Naturalism is a faith commitment. How does a naturalist know that spirits, angels and demons, do not exist; that God does not exist? He doesn’t. He simply believes it to be the case, or, perhaps better, he hopes it to be the case.
  2. Naturalism is beset by a number of fatal problems that its advocates have never resolved. It can account for very little of what makes human life human life as we know it: human rationality, the integrity of human thought and judgment, the moral nature of human life, human freedom, and so on.


The opening pages of C.S. Lewis’ book Miracles would be one place to start in examining the pretentions of naturalism. But, of course, we have much more to say about our confidence in the historical narrative of the Gospels. We could point out that Luke himself was a physician and that the Gospel writers distinguish demon possession from both ordinary physical illness and mental disease (Luke 7:21-22; Matt. 23-24). It is apparent in the Gospels that demon possession presented the observer with a set of characteristics utterly unlike what we today would describe as mental illness.

What is more, the typical conceit of the modern mind, viz. that it is so much more sophisticated and rational and unprejudiced by superstition than the mind of ancient men and women needs to be exposed for what it is: a conceit. People today are pretty much as superstitious as they have ever been and there were plenty of skeptics and naturalists in the ancient world. What is more, ordinary people in those days knew very well the difference between the natural and the supernatural. When Joseph discovered that his fiancé was going to have a baby, he decided to divorce her. Why? Because he knew as well as any modern gynecologist that women don’t have babies unless they have had a sexual relationship with a man.  [Miracles, 50]

This leads invariably to the question whether demon possession occurs today. That question has been answered in different ways even by scholars who have no reservations concerning the accounts of demon possession in the Gospels. Some, taking the paucity of evidence for it everywhere else in the Bible, have concluded that it is a condition that God allowed only during the epoch of the Lord and his apostles. In other words, they would think about demon possession in much the way they would think about the gift of tongues. It was something for that time, that foundation laying time in the history of redemption, but not for the ordinary history of mankind. It was a phenomenon confined to the age of Jesus and his apostles.

Others, while admitting that demon possession is a rare phenomenon, believe that it has occurred and may still occur in certain times and places. In 1854 a Presbyterian missionary by the name of John L. Nevius reached his post in China. Nevius was an American who had been educated under Charles Hodge at Princeton Seminary. This Nevius is the missionary statesman who pioneered the strategy, a strategy that would later be called the “Nevius method,” that stressed the importance of converts being organized as quickly as possible into churches that were self-governed, self-supported, and self-propagating (hence the Three Self Churches of modern China, an instance of a Christian idea being co-opted by an atheist state). In this way Nevius hoped to break the back of the dependence of converts on missionaries and halt the production of the so-called “rice Christians,” who were accused of becoming followers of Christ only for the physical benefits they would reap from the missionaries. The Nevius method was the strategy used systematically for the first time by Presbyterian missionaries in Korea to remarkable effect, the result of which we can see today in Korea’s strong churches and the thousands of Korean missionaries spreading out over the globe.

Nevius brought with him to China a strong conviction that demon possession, such as had occurred at the time of Christ, was confined to that unique period of human history and that the claims of demon possession and of communication with evil spirits that he had heard from missionaries in China were evidence of superstitious thinking common to less sophisticated cultures. He arrived in China determined to find naturalistic explanations for the experiences that had been described to him. He was not long in China, however, before his views underwent a radical transformation. He eventually wrote a book that became a classic in the field entitled Demon Possession, in which he reported case after caseit makes for blood chilling reading –   that had convinced the skeptical Presbyterian that demon possession was occurring in 19th century China in a way very similar to what we read of demon possession in the Gospels. No one can read that book without being impressed with the intelligence and integrity of its author, on the one hand, and the fact that he took great care to confirm his facts before changing his mind. Nonetheless, interesting as this question is, it is not what this text is about – how to deal with demon possession if we should encounter it in our day – not really.

Whatever one believes about demon possession today, the great importance of the text we have read is to be found elsewhere. For what we have here is a window on aspects of reality that are trans-temporal and trans-culture and are as important to you and me as they were to the people who gathered in that synagogue that Sabbath morning in Capernaum. We could, for example, speak of the reality of spiritual adversaries. As Calvin puts it in his Institutes:

“All that Scripture teaches concerning devils aims at arousing us to take precaution against their stratagems and contrivances, and also to make us equip ourselves with those weapons which are strong and powerful enough to vanquish these most powerful foes. [I, xiv, 13]

“Moreover, in order that we may be aroused and exhorted all the more to carry this out, Scripture makes known that there are not one or two, nor a few foes, but great armies, which wage war against us.” [14]

As we said in a previous sermon, the existence of the Devil and his demons is supposed to make us take a serious view of life and of the spiritual warfare. The Christian life is not play but warfare, something to be committed to in deadly earnest because we have adversaries that are seeking to destroy us. They are powerful and they are clever; they change their tactics to suit the circumstances. They disguise themselves as angels of light; they are wily, full of schemes, but relentless in their opposition to our salvation. No one who really believes this will fail to take a serious view of the Christian life.

Of this we can be sure. When history has come to its close and we know so much more about why things happened in the world, why certain human lives that promised so much came to so little, why certain professing Christians lost a grip on their faith, and why others remained so adamantly opposed to the gospel, and why such terrible things happened to people, we will discover that the Devil and his minions had been hard at work in every case. I suspect that virtually all the tragic events of human life will prove to have had a demonic element.

Or we could consider from this text the nature of sin and evil itself. Do you want to see what sin is in its essential nature? We’ve domesticated sin, we’re not afraid of it. It irritates us from time to time, but we live with it happily enough. Do you want to see what sin does when it is set loose from all the softening effects that God has built into human life to protect people and especially his children from the misery and despair that would otherwise ensue? Well consider this demon and the other demons of whom we are told in the Gospels. We are so familiar with these accounts, have read them so many times that it is difficult for us really to sympathize with the people who suffered from demonic possession and oppression. We think of them less as real people and more as characters in a story. But real people they were: someone’s husband, or brother, or son. How horrible it was!

Demons don’t improve a human life, they wreck it. They make deaf and blind; they cause otherwise sane and healthy people to harm themselves. They rip them away from family and friends and from the comfort of human society, to live apart and alone as outcasts. They tear at human bodies, make them fall into fires, and in other ways blight and ruin the lives of the people they possess. They strip people of their dignity and finally their humanity. To be possessed was a matter of physical agony and psychological despair. That is what demons do. Their motivation is hate and their business is ruin. It is not enough to gnash their teeth at God; they must harm as many other lives as they possibly can on their death-march to hell. And that is sin. That is what becomes of a person when he or she is given over entirely to sin; and that, dear friend, is what will become of you if you are not rescued from your sin by Jesus Christ. Two of the worst features of hell are 1) what you yourself will become there – you at your very worst, all the time: hateful, vengeful, spiteful, ungrateful, utterly, thoroughly, constantly selfish. You will become exactly that kind of person you despise now; and 2) the company one must keep there because everybody else is going to be just like you: selfish, hateful, mean-spirited persons struggling with one another for any, even the most minor advantage. This is why demons disguise themselves as angels of light. If they gave many people any sight of whom and of what they really are, people would run from them in horror and seek safety in Christ, the last thing demons desire.

But, surely, the primary lesson of our text is that impression of Jesus that overwhelmed the folk in Capernaum that day. The poor man, their neighbor, had been no match for a demon. When the demon singled him out he was powerless before his cruel and heartless enemy. And it would be no different for you or for me.

But when Jesus appeared the tables were suddenly turned. The demon found himself completely outmatched. Jesus spoke and the demon simply had to obey. Great power had encountered far greater power and was compelled to yield! Never once in the Gospels do we find the Lord struggling to bring the evil spirits to heel. Never once is there even an argument or an attempt at resistance. The Lord’s authority over the demons was absolute, his power unchallenged. What we have in the Gospels is the historical demonstration of the truth that John would later express in his first letter: “He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.” I suspect that when John wrote those words his thoughts were traveling back to what he had seen and heard when he was present those times when the Lord commanded demons to come out of the people and the demons promptly obeyed.

Great as demonic power is – and it is very great according to the Bible, far greater than our power; the Devil after all is the prince of this rule and the ruler of the powers of the air – malevolent as the demonic kingdom is, happy to ruin every human soul if in this way it can get back at God, our Captain, our Champion has proved himself in every way able to protect us from the kingdom of darkness. Indeed, when we are in Christ by living faith, the Bible says, the Devil himself is at our beck and call; he must flee if we resist him.

Have you ever been really afraid? I know some of you never have and that’s a wonderful privilege. But for even a few moments in your life have you been really afraid? Terrified? We’ve had some men in this congregation who have been in combat, who have had friends die next to them in combat. There is fear there. My experience of fears are of a lesser order. I remember having to get on this terribly big roller coaster on a date once because I couldn’t allow my girlfriend to think I was afraid when she was not, but I was. Or afraid of heights you find yourself somehow on a ladder both very tall and very rickety. Or you found yourself on a dark street at night in a less than savory part of town. I was once on a plane that was struck by lightning. There was a terrible bang and for minutes thereafter there was not a word from the crew, leaving the passengers to wonder if the pilot and co-pilot were struggling to keep the plane aloft. On a trip across Kansas once the highway patrol stopped us in a small town, right next to a grain elevator, because tornadoes were passing through. I remember it today as if it were yesterday. We sat on the road in our heavy 1970s American sedan and the car began to rock from side to side in the wind with us inside wondering if we were just going to fly away. When I was in high school some friends of mine and I went to see our school’s basketball team play an away game in a part of the city with which we were wholly unfamiliar. We were stopped at a traffic light when our car was suddenly surrounded by four or five young men who began to rock the car and pound on the windows. Thankfully, the light changed and the traffic began to move, but for a moment there we were scared! And then there have been a few times when our burglar alarm has gone off in the middle of the night and one wonders what he will find as he descends the stairs. We fear what can hurt us, understandably enough.

But experiences like that do not begin to compare to the danger you are actually exposed to every day of your life. If only you could see the evil spirits around you, if only you could hear what they say to one another about your soul, if only you could sense the hate they have for you and their desire to destroy you. Why you would walk through his world shivering in fear every hour of every day.

That is, you would, until you also saw the Lord Christ stride your way and the devils scurrying for cover, scattering before his majesty, wailing in their own terror at the onrush of his mighty power. That is your life, if you are a Christian today. You do have enemies seeking to devour you, but you have a champion before whom they are powerless.

Jesus in the episode we have read from Luke 4 seems far away. It was a long time ago in a place far removed from Tacoma. But actually the devils are the same. They don’t have sex, they don’t have children. It’s exactly the same company today it was then and Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is as near to you now by his Spirit as he was to that benighted man delivered from the demon that day by his spoken word. Remember Tennyson’s lines?

Speak to him thou, for he hears,
   And Spirit with Spirit can meet –
Closer is he than breathing, and
   Nearer than hands and feet.

If this man is for us, who can be against us. If this man is so near to us, what can the demons do? Let us, by all means, live our lives wide awake to the dangers all around us and the seriousness of life, this struggle for the safety of our eternal soul. Let us refuse to give the demons one inch of our lives. When you face temptation, look into the unseen world and say, “Oh, no you don’t. You have no power over me.”

But still more, let us live in the active consciousness that the one before whom the devils shrivel, at whose coming the demons flee, that Lord Jesus Christ is with us wherever we go.