All the Gospels record that demon possession could have a variety of physical and psychological effects. We have discussed the phenomenon of demon possession and the Lord’s power over demons already in this series of sermons because we have already been treated to a number of accounts of the exorcism. Here the accent falls not on one more case of exorcism but on the conversation that ensued about what such exorcisms meant and, in particular, what they revealed about Jesus. Accordingly Luke records the healing or exorcism with little detail. One important observation, however, is that even the Lord’s enemies apparently never doubted that he had power over the demons. We never once in the Gospels hear of them casting doubt on the Lord’s power. If one were not to believe in Jesus he had to provide some other explanation for the tremendous things that he did and that as well never once in healing the sick or delivering the possessed had he tried and failed.
v.14 Matthew tells us that the man was blind as well as mute. Luke reminds us that when the Lord did such things the response of the onlookers was always electric. The people marveled. This was not something that they had ever seen before. Such power was utterly unprecedented in their experience. They were in the presence of something they did not understand. It was awe-inspiring. A man who couldn’t speak now spoke freely! How was Jesus able to deliver him? No incantations, no magical ceremonies, simply the commandment given to the demons and their unquestioned obedience. That he was delivered was obvious to all; but how?
v.15 Beelzebul was the name of a heathen God of the cult of Baal (he is mentioned in the OT) but it had been attached by the Jews to Satan, the arch enemy. It was a slur as it probably means “lord of the flies.” [Bock, ii, 1074] It is the sort of thing we do when we call someone we think a traitor a “Judas” or a wanton or deceitful woman a “Jezebel.” It was their way of mocking the Devil as we do when we imagine him with horns, holding a pitchfork, and looking silly.
Luke says simply “some of them.” Matthew and Mark inform us that these were, once again, scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem. It was the religious leadership — as it is so often today — who took the lead in suggesting another explanation for how Jesus did what he did or in imputing sinister motives to him. Only by placing the miracle worker in a bad light could they preserve intact their view of the world and of themselves.
v.16 Others simply wanted him to do something else extraordinary and amaze them in some other way. If he is really the Messiah, let him prove it in some spectacular way.
v.18 This famous statement, taken up into American political history by its use in a famous pre-war speech by Abraham Lincoln, is a simple piece of logic. Why would Satan work against his own kingdom by emasculating his own servants? Civil war among the devils? Come on. The only logical inference from Jesus’ miracles is that God was working through Jesus to bring about his kingdom. And remember, we are not talking about a single exorcism, but all manner of healing miracles that he had been performing for many months, if not for nearly two years. And all this by a man who warned against the Devil and commended all men to faith in God’s grace!
v.19 This is a comment that sounds a little strange to us but would have meant a lot at the time. If Jesus’ power over the kingdom of evil is because he is in league with the Devil himself, then by what power or authority do Jewish exorcists of the period cast out demons, or, at least, attempt to do so. As we said in an earlier sermon, demon possession at this time was a widespread phenomenon and, though we read nothing about it in the OT, at the time of Jesus it was such a scourge that great thought and effort had been devoted to finding a way to deliver those who were possessed. We read of Jewish exorcists as well in Acts 19:13-16. If you remember they didn’t fare very well there! But you get the Lord’s point: if I am casting out demons by the mere utterance of a word, if they are invariably obeying me and I am delivering one person after another from the scourge of demon possession because you say I am in league with the devil, are you then ready to declare that all the Jewish exorcists are as well? If I succeed only with demonic power, then so must others seeking to do the same thing. They would not have been willing to say that.
v.22 Far from being in league with the Devil, the Lord was spoiling his kingdom and delivering those who were Satan’s captives.
v.23 The point is that, as the Lord’s power over the demonic realm demonstrates his divine authority, there can be no neutrality about him. His work is too powerful, too unusual, and too much a blessing to the needy to be ignored. You are either for him and enthusiastic about what he is doing or you are against him, which is to say you are either on God’s side or the Devil’s. This is Luke’s version, if you will, of the “lunatic, liar, or Lord” argument that C.S. Lewis developed in Mere Christianity, though the argument was not original to Lewis. Jesus is either from God or he is a bad man. Hard to believe he is a bad man teaching what he did, delivering people as he did, and living as selflessly as he did. Hardly anyone through the ages has ever thought or claimed that Jesus was a bad man or that he was mentally ill. But if not, then what are we left with? Only the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord.
v.26 Vv. 24-26 are obviously a warning and perhaps the best way to take them is as a warning to the people, both those who had been delivered from demons and those who had witnessed the deliverance, that they must not assume that such deliverance was enough. “The heart of a man is a house which must have an occupant, and the only way to ensure that it is not taken over by disreputable squatters is to see that it is inhabited by God who made it for himself. Exorcism is not enough: the spiritual world, like the natural, abhors a vacuum.” [Caird, 155] The picture is of a person who has experienced (or witnessed) a great act of God but who has not responded to it in real faith. [Bock, ii, 1093]
Luke omits Matthew’s concluding statement that applied this principle to the Jews of that day. Think of Israel herself at this point. The worship of idols had been exorcised form Israel’s life by the Babylonian captivity and, as it were, that demon was gone; but other demons had returned as the worship of the letter of the law, legalism, formalism, covetousness and spiritual pride. Israel’s situation was even worse than it had been before. She was near to crucifying the Prince of Life. [Plummer, 305]
If there were any doubt about Jesus’ claims about himself at this point in his ministry, they were put to rest here. He did not, to be sure, explicitly claim to be the Messiah. He never said that in quite those words. He did not refer to himself here as the Son of Man as he did elsewhere. But he made the following claims:
- What he was doing he was doing with the power and authority of God himself. He was God’s agent in the world. Lewis’ point is absolutely correct. People who make such a claim are ordinarily thought to be mentally ill, unless, of course, it is true.
- He is greater than Satan in power and authority. That had been proved repeatedly as he commanded the demons and, however unwillingly and petulantly, they obeyed him. They were unable to resist his authority over them. But to me more powerful than Satan is to be God himself!
- And, his presence in the world and his mighty works require men to make a choice: to be with him or against him. With many men, even great men, we can remain neutral; we can refuse to make a decision. We can leave the evaluation of him to others or wait for events to clarify the situation. But the extraordinary, mighty works of power that were the regular feature of the Lord’s ministry, public as they were – together with his teaching and the claims about himself – force men to a decision. In the nature of the case one had either to accept that God was with this man, that he had God’s authority and was doing God’s work and was bringing God’s kingdom, or to contrive some other explanation for the remarkable things that had been done. And the fact that the other explanation was so contrived, so desperate, so unconvincing meant that to refuse to acknowledge Jesus as the representative of God was a willful act of unbelief. You can’t remain neutral about Jesus, if you don’t worship him as Lord and Savior you have rejected him and the God who sent him into the world.
The situation was becoming clearer. There had been not this one exorcism but many. No longer was there merely the rumor of miraculous healings being performed by Jesus and his entourage in Galilee. So many had been healed of so many ailments in so many places that it was no longer possible to ignore the fact that Jesus of Nazareth had miracle working power at his fingertips and could deploy it as he pleased. But what if someone still despised the man, as many did, especially among the religious leadership? He had criticized them and their leadership; the unforgiveable sin in their view. He had rejected their theological system in which they took great pride. Also unforgiveable. And he demanded submission to a radically different understanding of salvation and the holy life and claimed that this was in fact what was taught in the Word of God. Who was he to tell them what to think and how to live? Were they not Israel’s teachers? He was demanding their loyalty. The effrontery!
And to make matters worse, he was still wildly popular among the people even if in Galilee that popularity had crested and had begun to wane as people realized that he was not the Messiah they had hoped for. He was still much more popular than they were. They were jealous, envious of his popularity and his power. They couldn’t work miracles so no crowds were following them from place to place. Some of them, the Gospels make clear, were virtually mad with jealousy. No doubt in someone’s house, late at night, some of these same Pharisees and scribes, had sat around the table talking about Jesus. The more they talked the angrier they got. They hated the man, hated what he stood for, what he said, and hated his popularity. No doubt it was all couched in suitable religious motives. He was a danger to the people; a rabble rouser; a provocation to the Romans. And someone offered for the first time this suggestion: he must be doing the Devil’s work. He must have made a bargain with Satan. Perhaps he is demon possessed himself. And the light went on for the whole room. Of course, that’s it! That is how he has done what he has done and demonstrated that amazing power of his.
What other explanation was there, after all? The power was supernatural. Everyone was forced to admit that. So if it weren’t the power of God, it had to be Satan’s power. There is something terribly realistic about this adamant refusal to face facts and to admit that one has been wrong. It is so true to human life and to human pride that people would rather pin their hopes on any alternative explanation, however desperate, rather than admit that they have been wrong or that they are actually required to submit to God and Christ. And in the case of God — against whom the sinful and rebellious human heart is overtly hostile and unyielding — any explanation will do, however unlikely, however hurriedly run into the breach. For the moment it will have to do; we’ll think of something better later! “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, That’s how he does it!” And believe me, for the last two thousand years they’ve been hard at work trying to find a better explanation than that one.
It is a fact of life that arguments of this kind, alternative explanations that justify unbelief, are the special province of the elite culture, of the people who have the most to protect, as did these scribes and Pharisees. Those who read the Bible can get too used to this fact and not reckon with it as we should. It can seem to us to be a phenomenon of biblical history but somewhat detached from our own life and experience. Not so.
We encounter this phenomenon everywhere in life, of course. Human beings are masters of the self-serving explanation. In the evolutionary community it has been raised to an art form. Hand waving explanations are employed again and again to deflect attention from the gaping holes in the argument that the world and everything in it is a chemical and biological accident. Modern views of human life and of ethics are buttressed by just this sort of argument, the kind of arguments that are woefully insufficient to explain what needs explanation as was this argument, leave immense questions unanswered as did this argument, and whose implications no one ever wants to face, as in the case of this argument. Remember Santayana’s dictum about the naturalist worldview of the modern west: “You have to dream with one eye open.” In other words, you have to pretend that there are ideals, that there are such things as right and wrong, that your life and the lives of others have meaning and so on. But no one admits this, or hardly anyone: just a few honest unbelievers or maybe the curmudgeonly type of unbeliever who likes to tweak his fellow unbeliever by pointing out the obvious. No one calling Christians “homophobes” or “Nazis” in the current debate over sexuality ever admits that according to the arguments he uses to establish his position nothing means anything at all, no behavior can be called “right” or “wrong” because moral absolutes do not exist; but that is precisely what those arguments mean.
To be sure, people around us don’t appear to us to be God-haters, though the Bible says they are. They certainly don’t think of themselves as haters of God. But then neither did the scribes and Pharisees. They thought of themselves as lovers of God and servants of God. But, the fact is, when God came among them they called him a devil and when God’s power was demonstrated before their eyes they preferred to think it was Satan’s, even though it was wielded against demons and to the blessing and benefit of men. Unbelief wears a mask; always has, always will. We should know that very well from our experience in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, the Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem who explained that Jesus was, in fact, doing the Devil’s work, were churchmen! And they have had a host of descendants in the history of the Christian church and have many today.
Let me give you an example that, in a way, very closely parallels the incident described in our text. César Malan was one of a group of young Frenchmen whom God raised up in the first quarter of the 19th century to preach the gospel to a church that had forgotten it. And not forgotten it only, but had come to despise it. Others in that circle included Merle d’Aubigné, later the famous church historian, and Adolphe Monod, who was to become the celebrated Paris pastor and preacher. These men and others had been in Geneva studying in the theological Academy there, the seminary founded by Calvin and Beza during the days of the Reformation, but which had long since been overtaken by unbelieving rationalism. There wasn’t a scintilla of sympathy with the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the Genevan Academy in those days.
Then to Geneva came a Scot by the name of Robert Haldane. In his hotel room — which room d’Aubigné was later to call the birthplace of the second Genevan Reformation — he began to hold a Bible study on Romans. Soon the news had spread to the students in town that there was a man in the city who knew the Bible like Calvin himself. And in the course of time, under Haldane’s influence, Malan and his friends became the bearers of revival to French speaking Europe. This was the movement that in church history is referred to as the Réveil. (French for “Revival.”)
Malan made a number of trips to Great Britain, by the way. On a visit to Scotland in 1826 he was instrumental in the conversion of young John Duncan, later to be the famous “Rabbi” Duncan, whose words I have quoted to you often enough from this pulpit. On another occasion Malan was instrumental in the conversion of a young invalid Englishwoman by the name of Charlotte Elliott. She had been suffering through a period of spiritual depression. She knew she needed God but could not find her way to him. It was at just this point that Malan, who was a friend of her father, visited her home. In a conversation about spiritual things, after she had disclosed her problem to him, Malan told her, “Come just as you are Charlotte.” It was those words that brought her peace with God and, as you may know, it was those words which became the basis of Charlotte Elliott’s wonderful hymn, “Just as I am without one plea…O Lamb of God, I come.”
That is a digression but we are talking about César Malan. In May 1817 it came to be his turn to preach in the Cathedral of St. Pierre in Geneva, the very pulpit in which Calvin had preached almost three hundred years before. Some of you have visited that church. And preach Malan did: the grace of God and the salvation that can be found in Jesus Christ God’s Son. One eyewitness reported that “His eloquent words dropped on the leaden slumbers of the audience like bolts of fire shot from heaven.” He preached the Bible and what the Bible said, he preached the Good News, but his hearers were furious and the leaders of the church even more so. The church hadn’t heard that message in anyone’s memory and no one wanted to. The Good News offended them. They were not sinners needing salvation! Malan felt the force of their scorn as he left the church. Even his wife, who was not yet a believer, resented him because she saw his chances for advancement disappearing before her eyes. He would later be suspended from the ministry for preaching that sermon.
Malan went home from the church deeply dispirited and hopeless and remained so until he answered a knock to find Robert Haldane standing there. He was beaming: “Thank God,” the older man began, “the gospel has been once more preached in Geneva!”
It was the word of God and the calling of every faithful preacher, to preach the gospel was in fact the solemn promise that every Genevan pastor made when he was ordained, but the congregation hated him for preaching the good news and the church punished him for doing so. He would eventually be deposed from the ministry for continuing to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was doing God’s work, proclaiming God’s kingdom, many were being delivered, but the established church thought him a Devil.
Here was the same brute fact we encounter in our text this morning, the violence of unbelief that led men to attribute the work of God and the deliverance of suffering men to the Devil. When God has manifested his grace and power and men think it evil, you see how virulent man’s hostility to God actually is and how intransigent his unbelief actually is. You wonder why people will not believe in Jesus? Well, here is why.
So it has always been. The Hebrews, as Jesus once reminded the Jews of his day, had killed God’s prophets, so little were they interested in hearing the Word of God. Jesus himself would be executed at the demand of Jewish clerics and lay elders. And once he had ascended to heaven and his cause was carried forward by his apostles, they too felt the fury of the church’s faithless leadership. They were not ignored. Outspoken Christians are never ignored. Jesus was right about that. He forced a decision about himself upon people and those who speak and live on his behalf do so as well. So it has been and is today. It is one of the great facts of human history: the hostility of the world to Jesus Christ.
There is much to carry away from this exchange the Lord had with some elders and clerics. There is, of course, great encouragement for us believers. The fact is, the world doesn’t have a case and can’t mount an argument that threatens our faith in the least. We should be confident in our convictions and always hopeful. Some of you sent me notice — I had already seen it on a number of websites — of Thomas Nagel’s new book. Thomas Nagel is not a believer — he describes himself as an atheist — but he is one of the most authoritative and consequential of American philosophers and is publishing a book due out in September that is purported to demonstrate that the evolutionary proposal, the naturalist’s claim that the world and all that is in the world has come about by accident is almost certainly false. Nagel’s level of intellectual sophistication surpasses that of a Richard Dawkins or a Christopher Hitchens by some orders of magnitude. Don’t count on the world falling to its knees as asking: what must we do to be saved? But their argument for their unbelief has never been any good and is getting worse by the day!
The Pharisees and scribes thought they could be rid of Jesus and plotted his death and, for a moment, seemed to succeed. But then came the resurrection and Pentecost and thousands of Jews deserting to the Christian movement and that movement then overspreading the world and nobody was talking about Judaism anymore; they were talking about Jesus Christ by the hundreds of thousands and then by the millions. Christianity is the largest religion in the world. There are today some 14 million who call themselves Jews and some 2.1 billion who call themselves Christians. Neither number, of course, is an accurate reflection of the number of the devout of either faith, but the plain fact is that the Galilean has triumphed! And we know a far more complete triumph is still to come.
But there is this as well. The opposition that Jesus faced, inflexible and unyielding as it was, desperate as it was, stemmed from the very nature of human unbelief and rebellion against God. This episode in the Gospels is a window on the life of mankind. This is the world in which we live today, a world in which anything else — however ludicrous, however destructive — will be believed in order that Christ not be believed. The opposition to him is visceral, subliminal, but when brought to the surface it is ferocious.
We serious Christians, we who really believe Jesus Christ to be the incarnate God the Son, the King of Kings, the Savior of the world, I say we who really believe in him are not only the friends of the bridegroom, we are his only friends. And in a very real sense, more obvious at some moments than at others, everyone else is our enemy. The closer they get to Christ in us, the greater the hostility will be. It is a fixed law of the spiritual world.
As is becoming more and more clear to Christians in the West, we live in a world hostile to our faith and our way of life. It is a world full of desperate explanations, like the one the scribes and Pharisees offered here. As Christians we bear the brunt of that hostility as is right. Our Savior’s name is a name we wear with pride, with gratitude, and with love. Christ himself is no longer present in the world to bear it himself. Or better, his presence in the world is now mediated by his followers. To the extent they see Christ in us, to that extent there is a measure of hostility. It is this fact that led Paul to say that anyone who seeks to live a godly life in this world will suffer persecution. “They hated me,” Jesus told his disciples, “so they will hate you for the same reason.”
There is nothing “woe is me” about this, or at least there should not be. The great meaning of human life is precisely this contest between God and Satan, between good and evil, between truth and error, between faith and unbelief, and between life and death. It is precisely the importance of human life that it is — all of it — caught up in this death struggle between these two kingdoms and that the eternal destiny of every human being is determined by the side he chooses in this epic battle. Life can seem so small and mundane, but to think it so is a great mistake. There is nothing small about; nothing mundane about it. Mundane literally means having to do with this world. No; our lives, everyone’s life has to do with the world to come and eternity.
When a soldier in his foxhole hears the bullets zinging by his head, thudding into the ground or a nearby tree, when artillery shells explode nearby, he does not stick his head out and cry out in confusion, “Why are you shooting at me? Was it something I said?” He knows very well that his life is in danger because of the side he’s on.
We have a king. His kingdom and his cause are ours. The fact that he did such remarkable things for people but nevertheless polite, moral, upstanding, and influential figures in his culture, against whom he had done nothing except perhaps wound their pride, accused him of being a dupe of the Devil is proof enough, if proof were any longer needed, that we live on a battlefield and can expect the attacks of a hostile enemy. This is a text to nerve the Christian soul! To put him or her on guard for battles still to come. It is a call to arms and to faithfulness. They may call him a dupe of the Devil, but that is only a measure of their desperation. The Devil couldn’t stop him or prevent the coming of his kingdom. Nor could they.
So for us, it is to be ready for the hostility of the world, to welcome it as a sign that Christ’s presence is being manifest in us. It is to be ready to stand up and be counted on behalf of the one before whom the demons trembled and slunk away. You remember, don’t you, Amy Carmichael’s wonderfully realistic and bracing verses?
Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright, ascendant star,
Hast thou no scar?
Hast thou no wound?
Yet I was wounded by the archers, spent,
Leaned me against a tree to die; and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned.
Hast thou no wound?
No wound? No scar?
Yet, as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow me;
But thine are whole: can he have followed far
Who has no wound nor scar?
Believe me, brothers and sisters, for Jesus, righteous and devout as he was, to be called the Devil’s dupe for doing good to others was a terrible blow. It stung; it kept him up at night. But such is life in this world where the battle is being fought until the victory is completely won. Bear your witness, do your good in Jesus’ name, advertise your loyalty to him, and accumulate your scars! The polite, urbane folk who thought themselves good and in the right called the King of Kings and the Savior of the world a Devil! Ponder that one fact and it will make sense of so much of your world. Ponder that fact until it has made sense of the world you live in and until it has made clear the calling that you have.