First Mennonite Church
October 22, 2017
Jesus and Exorcism
Today I want to address a topic in the Gospels, which about a third of Mark’s gospel makes reference to: the exorcistic ministry of Jesus. Because Mark’s account of several of Jesus’ deeds is abbreviated, let us look at Luke’s account of this incident.
First, I am not sure if you have noticed. Stories of demon-possession and of people being delivered from it only appear in the New Testament. This raises the question, is the idea or reality of demon-possession a later development in Israel’s understanding of the works of evil? Why it is not mentioned in the Old Testament? Or, are there incidents of this nature but that were not characterized as demon-possession?
In 1Samuel 16, for instance, we read that after Saul fell from grace before the eyes of the Lord for disobeying God’s order, an evil spirit from the Lord began to torment him. On one of those occasions when the evil spirit came upon Saul, “he raved within his house” (1Sam. 18:10). It would seem to us that Saul’s problem was more like an outburst of uncontrolled anger or a bout of depression, but not something like those described in the New Testament. As I said a couple weeks ago, tell-tail signs given in the Gospels about demon possession are that these people are: fully controlled by evil—vocal cords (Mark 1:24, 5:3,4; 16:16-18); convulsion (Mark 1:26; 9:20-22, 26); and they have superhuman strength (Mark 5:3-4; Acts 19:16). Saul showed none of these, except that he got extremely angry and became murderous on occasions.
Once again, for some reason during the period before Jesus was born, writings about the devil, demons, and fallen angels abound. Writings about people communicating with the spirit of the dead or that the spirit of the dead interacted with the living also abound. Alongside the surplus material on the topic of demons, sensitivity to see signs of their presence in people also developed. Jesus was born among these people with such a worldview. With this I do not mean to say that demon possession is dependent on the type of worldview people have. Even Paul warns against giving “a foothold to the devil” (Ephesians 4:27). When people play with evil, unwittingly they only expose themselves to it. Having said this, we should be aware that people who say they consult with the spirit of their dead loved ones, or those who go to seers, psychics, or play with witchcraft, Ouija boards, etc. and the works of darkness, expose themselves to being preyed upon by the demons. God respects our will and will not force himself on us. He will only enter into our lives to the degree we allow him to. He will never violate our will. The devil is not so. He forces himself on us. If someone gives him a foothold in his or her life, that is sufficient for the devil to take over the entire person. But let us go to our passage.
Luke abruptly begins narrating this story: “Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left the man, he began to speak. And the people were amazed.” This incident raises more questions than it gives answers to the question about the characteristics of demon possession. Was every non-verbalizing person then considered as demon-possessed? Or could it be that the man was a “speaking person” that went silent. Let us remember that one of the signs of demon-possession in the NT, is full control over the person’s speech, whether it comes or not comes out of the person’s mouth. With this in mind, this man was not one with a hearing impediment only. There were various occasions in which the gospels speak of Jesus healing those with physical impediments and the deaf were included in that list (Mark 7:32; Luke 7:22). What is more, in Israel’s sacred scriptures God reminded the Israelites that he created everyone including those with physical impairments.
Then the Lord said to (Moses), “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? (Exodus 4:11). Based on this premise, that God created everyone, Israel was strictly forbidden from violating the dignity of those with physical impairment.
You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:14).
Therefore, when Jesus cast the demon from the man, he began to speak. But some from among the crowd were not happy about the man’s well-being. They were more concerned about the source of his healing. They accused Jesus of casting out the demon by Bēelzebul’s power. And Jesus’ response to this charge is rather illuminating. Jesus answers with a question, as was his typical way of answering a charge. “Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out?” From this reply, we can understand that exorcism was nothing new to Jesus’ audience. People had been casting out demons before and alongside of Jesus’ ministry. In Mark nine, verses 38-39, we read:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons
in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed
of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.
In Acts 19, 12-14, we read of itinerant Jewish exorcists trying to use the name of Jesus in their effort to cast out a demon, but they were overpowered by the demon-possessed man.
We see that exorcism was not new in Jesus, yet there was something radically different and new about his exorcistic ministry. Jesus said to those who were accusing him, “But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
The kingdom of God drew nearer in the person of Jesus and signs of it included the subjugation of Satan and all forms of the demonic force. In the Gospels, the kingdom of God as preached by Jesus was the inauguration of God’s claim of sovereignty over his people, the world, and every power both visible and invisible, as never before seen. We should remember that when Jesus was tempted by the devil, he offered Jesus authority and glory of the nations of the world because these things had been handed over to him and were at his disposal. In this regard, Jesus’ exorcisms were evidence both of extreme examples of how oppressive the devil is, but more importantly that God had handed over to Jesus all power and authority on earth and in heaven.
Jesus’ exorcistic ministry revealed that if those possessed by the demons represented the worst condition of human bondage, his casting out of the demon declared that God’s deliverance of his people had come. If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed, Jesus declared. Another difference between Jesus’ exorcism and of those during his time, was that when someone was delivered, the spirit of God entered the delivered person. Remember the man in Gerasene whom Jesus freed from the demon (Mark 5). He instantly was transformed and wanted to follow Jesus. But Jesus sent him to declare the good news of his Liberator and of his liberation to his own people. This man instantly became a missionary after his deliverance. But those who were delivered by other exorcists risked being repossessed by even more demons according to Jesus. “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first” (v. 24-26).
What we see in the New Testament as demon possession and the deliverance ministry of Jesus points to several issues. The period before and during which Jesus was born was saturated with ideas, writings and practices related to the dark world of evil spirits. There must have been many who tinkered and played with evil only to expose themselves to being fully controlled and possessed by the demons. Demon possession was the worst case of human oppression by the devil. It was the clearest demonstration of the power of the kingdom of darkness in the world.
When Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God coming near and being among his people, these two kingdoms came crashing against each other. Jesus was and is God’s new deliverer. He came to free the captives and set the prisoners free. There is no middle ground between these two kingdoms. Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Each and every person belongs to one or the other, the ones who are with Jesus or those who are against him. We either are gathering with him or are scattering the fruit of his labor. In this world of good and evil, our devotion has to be with only one. Jesus is Lord. To him belongs glory now and forever. A day will come when all men and women will have to confess that he is Lord. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me (Matthew 28:17). If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed. Let us go in the freedom the Son of God gives us. Amen.