Alfred Place Baptist Church

4:31-37 Christ’s authority over evil spirits

Luke 4:31-37 “Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath began to teach the people. They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority. In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, ‘Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’ ‘Be quiet!’ Jesus said sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him. All the people were amazed and said to each other, ‘What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!’ And the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area.”

We live in days of fascination with the devil and all his works. More people in the world read about the occult than about Christ. The books of Stephen King are read by the million and are translated into every major language. There is rarely a week without the latest films about Satan and Satanism being released, or older ones being shown on TV. Even the script-writers of the children’s science fiction hero Dr Who have changed his role from battling with daleks to dealing with dark spiritual forces. We sometimes read of cases of exorcism and the influence of the occult. I occasionally visit a person who is totally convinced that there is a ghostly spirit in the house.

More than that, there have been unspeakable horrors in our world in the last decade that suggest something else is responsible for them that is more than the evil ingenuity of man’s hearts and the use of drugs and alcohol – the senseless cruelty of the actions, their vile baseness, the murder of children, the half-killing of feeble old ladies in their homes, the suicide bomber who pushes a switch and kills himself and women and children he doesn’t know traveling on the tube trains and buses of London. I’m not thinking principally of events long ago and far away, though with many of them I don’t discount the active participation of the evil one. I’m thinking of pervasive violence in English cities and the young men knifed to death; respectable businessmen and fathers who turn out to be serial rapists; women who are involved in hideous murders, the mysterious outbreak of teenage suicides in an area of South Wales – young men and women who appeared to be normal teenagers with all their lives before them living in a land that has never been so affluent who yet prefer to die at their own hand. I have heard more than one person saying that they don’t believe in God but they believe in the devil. Here is God’s splendour displayed before us day and night in our universe in all its design and grandeur. The heavens declare the glory of God, and yet men say, “I don’t see it. I can believe in the devil but not in God.”

In this gospel Luke wants us to be in no doubt about the existence of the devil. At the beginning of this chapter we are told of the Lord Jesus going into the desert and there he was tempted by the devil. Here in the passage before us we are told that Christ was in Capernaum and teaching the people with that gripping, lucid authority which the Spirit of God had given to him. There was also in the congregation listening to him “a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit” (v.33) and we are told that he shouted out in the service, but that he was delivered by Jesus. We are meant to take this quite event quite literally and historically, the day it happened and the place where it occurred are mentioned and when Luke’s first readers looked at this chapter they could go to Capernaum and talk to the people in that synagogue and ask them, “Was it just like this?” If you read the four gospels then you will come across other instances of such a phenomenon. There are people who reject the truth of Christianity because they say that it is quite impossible in the 21st century to believe in demon possession. Maybe there are some here like that, and we are glad you are here and I will try to address this issue as calmly as I can.

1. HOW COMPLEX IS THE MANIFOLD INFLUENCE OF SATAN.

The devil one can trouble men and women at a number of different levels.

i] There is a general dominion exercised by Satan over every natural man. Let me draw your attention to three verses in particular that expound that fact.

A) You hear the Lord Jesus speaking to people and saying to them, “You belong to your father the devil” (John 8:44). He wasn’t addressing a group of criminals but ordinary men and women. Imagine if I should say something like that to you this morning, how insulted you would be. “Who is he to say that to us?” and yet here is the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, gentle Jesus, meek and mild, the incarnate God, and he said it. “You belong to your father the devil.” He attributed their refusal to bow before him and believe on him as due to their relationship with the evil one. They had that family likeness and when they heard the teaching of Christ it pulled them away from all who supported them and believed and lived as they did. Who are we to believe? Is Jesus an utterly prejudiced egomaniac, or could he be right? Is this constant pull in all our hearts towards darkness one reason for the evil mankind does – we all belong to our father the devil?

B) Again, you read words of the apostle Paul as he writes to Christians in Ephesus saying to them, “you followed the ways of this world and . . . the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time” (Ephs. 2:2&3). It is the same emphasis as you find in Paul’s Lord. There is a spirit at work in all mankind, and we are all following the evil one. He is the Pied Piper; we are dancing to his music.

C) Again, you read the words of the apostle in Second Corinthians chapter four and verse four, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” There is a fictional story of H.G.Wells; a traveler climbs a high mountain range and descends the steep cliffs on the other side to be the first man to discover a valley inhabited by people who are all blind. They cannot understand him when he talks of colours, birds, the moon and the stars. They decide that he is crazy due to the two lumps each side of the bridge of his nose and that he will be cured when they cut them out. He escapes from them and climbs out of the valley of the blind. That is the picture of the whole world, influenced by the god of this age so that though God’s divinity and power are seen everywhere the world is blind to it. “They cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Here is the majestic beauty and power of Christ and yet men say, “We can’t be expected to believe in God.” So here is this extraordinary and offensive judgment that the Christian faith passes on the whole world, that the work of the devil is so pervasive that it prevents all men and women from comprehending the greatness of God; they are blind to it. Aberystwyth a town of the blind. The University a college of the blind. Europe a continent of the blind, and this is all because of the deliberate work of the father of mankind, the devil. What an incredible discovery, to turn up in church on a Sunday morning and meet a group of Christians and an obscurantist preacher who in this 21st century can believe something as unbelievable as this. You’ve been thinking it is because of your studies and measured opinions that you’ve come to the conclusion that there is no God, and yet I’m saying, “No,” that you’re in your state of unbelief because you’re a pawn of Satan.

ii] There are men and women whom Satan enters and takes over for a specific season. I am thinking of Judas Iscariot who lived with the Lord Jesus for three years, who heard the Sermon on the Mount preached, saw Jesus speak and the winds and waves obeying him, witnessed Lazarus rising from the dead and yet he betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver. Judas destroyed such a friendship for so paltry a sum. For that he gave up this loving innocent man to be crucified to death. You can’t explain it in any other way than by the fact of an intense activity of Satan, that he actually came to gain control of Judas’ life for that period. “Satan entered Judas” (Lk. 22:3).

It can happen to real Christians. There was a disciple of the Lord Jesus named Peter and we are told that Satan obtained him; Satan got him. Jesus actually warned Simon Peter, “Satan has desired to have you. He has made a bee-line for you and for a moment he has taken you over. He is sitting in the driving seat of your life and he has pointed you in a certain direction. You are in great danger Peter. You are going to be sifted by the devil, but I have prayed for you.” And it was exactly as Jesus predicted; Peter was standing by the fire in the open air the night before the crucifixion and some young women asked him if he were a Christian and he denied it vehemently, again and again, with swearing. His life wasn’t in danger; he wasn’t under threat but he was under occupation by the evil one. He’d been the companion of Jesus for three years, and our Lord had been particular kind to him, and yet Peter could act like that. What can explain such uncharacteristic godless behaviour? Satan can take over a person for a brief time.

iii] There is a binding or restricting activity of Satan, crippling the lives of certain men and women. I am thinking of a certain woman who also met the Lord Jesus in a synagogue while he was teaching. She is described to us in the thirteenth chapter of this gospel in this way, “a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all” (v.18). Jesus healed her and there was an outcry because he had done this on the Sabbath and so Christ rebuked his detractors severely “should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (v.16). She was a true Old Testament believer, a ‘daughter of Abraham,’ but Satan had by his power kept her in this orthopaedic condition, bent over like a question mark for eighteen years. She had been affected by a spirit, says Dr. Luke in his gospel. She was blameless and moral and she worshipped God. There is no suggestion of any kind of irreligion or hypocrisy but Satan had caused this physical infirmity by his considerable power.

You remember in the opening chapter of the book of Job how God allowed the walls of protection around his servant Job to be lowered so that Satan could afflict him horribly. Again there was no wickedness at all in Job that brought grief and illness into his life. It was a terrible testing from God and Satan, and the medical condition that he suffered was brought about by the power of the god of this world. He may be granted such entry into the human body, and there are those mysterious eating disorders, and inexplicable dark times. Satan can exercise this power in such commonplace matters as our journeys, over the elements and tempests and seas. I think of those last chapters of the Acts of the Apostles describing the horrendous storm Paul and the ship he was traveling in endured in the Mediterranean. There was a temporary control of the elements in that part of the world by the prince of the power of the air. One of our dear friends in this congregation had a terrible fall down a flight of stairs two days ago that will put him out of action for several months, and I have no doubt that involved in that event was the malice of Satan because this person had been delivered from the kingdom of darkness.

Now let us be clear that the biblical teaching, as you understand it, is this, not that every single infirmity and every accident we experience is because of Satan. No! They are rarely from the devil, but that sometimes Satan through his power and general determination to destroy us can intrude powerfully into our lives in this way. It is one of his attacks upon us; it is one of the methods at his disposal to humiliate us and damage dishearten us in the work of the gospel. He can hurl his fiery darts at us and bring us low, for example with terrible blasphemous and lewd thoughts that run through our minds, and then he can crash into our lives and bring us low physically.

I think we ought to be aware that here there is a whole area of biblical teaching that may be of tremendous importance to our daily lives, in presenting the possibility that some of the calamities we experience, although occurring under the overseeing sovereign providence of God, are nonetheless quite Satanic in their origin and aimed at the destruction of our faith. I see no reason to doubt this. My whole outlook as a Christian is thoroughly supernatural. You remember the apostle Paul knew a time in his life when something he describes as a ‘thorn in the flesh’ troubled him intensely and he had sessions of prayer asking God to remove it from him. We are not sure what this was, maybe a physical illness, and it was curtailing his usefulness and joy in serving the church. Whatever it was Paul says that it was a messenger of Satan. Now that in no way removes the medical and pathological dimension from the illness or from the treatment – whatever remedies Paul took to alleviate it, but this fact is saying to the Christian that he must be aware of the multiplicity of the ways the enemy of our souls will try to attack us, and demoralize us, and put us on the sidelines, even in such a crude physical fashion. It is not just through the witty subtlety outlined in Screwtape’s letters that young Christians are humbled.

Haven’t you known some of these awful buffetings – real torments and bruising times? There was that accident perhaps, or maybe that computer calamity that wiped out all your hard drive and all the work you’d done, or the burglary, the fire, the abscessed tooth, the heart-stopping event, the person who for some time had a bad influence in your life, and looking back at them you can see Satan’s devices in such things. There was nothing at all of the occult. There was nothing dark that made your flesh creep, but in some crude in-your-face manner these dark providences crashed into your life and the result was much inconvenience, the peace of the family or the congregation was broken, and the ensuing financial problems were desperate. I am saying that behind such bindings and restrictings are the devices of Satan.

So what I have done so far is to put this incident described in our text in the larger biblical context explaining to you that the Bible teaches a general domination of all men by Satan who blinds them to perceiving spiritual realities. He also can temporarily take over a person for a particular purpose as Judas and Peter were. He can also restrict us in his power by sending in mighty problems. Then there is this case described for us in our text.

iv] There are people who are possessed by Satan. We are told this, “In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit” (v.33). Let me make it clear to you from the start that I have never come across such a case anywhere in the world. However, it is clear that when the Son of God was in Galilee this phenomenon was widespread. Of course you would expect this, that Satan would send out all his minions from the place of woe like kamikaze pilots to disturb and disrupt the work of the incarnate Son. People young and old were possessed by an evil spirit. Now what kind of condition could that have been? There were certainly all sorts of accompanying factors. I am thinking of physical illnesses like blindness, deafness, dumbness, epilepsy and paralysis, but those are only accompaniments. You understand that I believe that they are not symptoms. I am underlining that for this reason that it is simply untrue that the New Testament teaches that all illness is a result of demon possession. Perhaps there are some primitive societies in the world that have this outlook just as our own primitive society refuses to acknowledge any activity of the devil at all, but those are not biblical attitudes. The New Testament distinguishes very plainly between those who had infirmities and those who were possessed by demons. There could be all the illnesses that I have mentioned and many more but they had nothing at all to do with demons and Satan.

Let me explain that further; the New Testament does not teach that insanity is almost always caused by demons. There are misguided people who might make that claim though I have never met them. They’d say that in the first century people were very naïve thinking that someone mentally disturbed or insane was possessed by the devil. That is not how it was. In the New Testament we meet families where parents were desperately concerned about their children’s health. They loved their sons and daughters and they understood when some had learning difficulties but that there were also instances when they believed that Satan was somehow involved. The Bible distinguishes very clearly between those possessed by demons and those who were insane. This comes out in the Authorized Version translation of some words in Matthew, “they brought unto [Jesus] all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those who were possessed with devils, and those who were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them” (Matt. 4:24). You see they understood that these people were in different categories. In other words, a demon-possesed person might also have palsy, she might be deaf, she might be crippled but it is not true that everyone who had palsy, or deaf or crippled was supposed to be possessed by a demon. Similarly it was sometimes true that demon possessed men might actually be insane, or suicidal – that was sometimes true – but it was not the case that everyone who was lunatic was deemed to be possessed by a devil by spectators in the first century, because those two things were not at all considered to be synonymous.

So what was this demon possession? I think you will see one distinct mark in the New Testament is this, that the person concerned has completely lost his personality to the demon. His personality had been impaired; it had been taken over by this dark power. He no longer talks and thinks for himself; the demon does the talking and thinking for him. He might shout, as one demoniac did, “We are legion!” You see in our text that this man from Capernaum, “cried out at the top of his voice, ‘Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’” (v.34). In other words it was not the man who was speaking, intelligently and self-consciously, but that the demon has taken over the man. It seems in total control of the man, the one who determines the thinking, and feeling, and speaking, and whole life-style of this individual. So here the evil one is more than dominating the man and binding him there is the suppression of the personality of this individual so that he has lost the power of independent thinking, decision-making and adopting his own chosen life style. The ego, the self has been suppressed by that terrible domination. He’s just taken over by this demon. You will also find alongside that, almost invariably, a tendency to self-destruction, the person is driven into a fire, or into a river, or over a precipice; he might cut himself. There are few other New Testament criteria by which to identify demon possession and that is why I say I have never come across a case where I had any strong conviction that this one was demon possessed.

I have never lived in Haiti which is alleged to be 70% Catholic and 30% Protestant and 100% Voodoo. I have never lived in places where primitive religions have dominated the people for centuries. I have not had much contact with people who give themselves to contacting the dead. I was once in rural Kenya and when the meeting ended at 11 p.m. Keith and I went to our hut and got under our mosquito nets to sleep, but the people in the other hut where the service had been asked if they could stay for a little while and sing some hymns. Soon things got out of hand and they beat drums and sang and shouted as they were packed into that room. We couldn’t sleep with the noise. In the morning their leader Paul said that they had cast demons out of two women. How did he know they were demon possessed? They had rolled on the floor and their eyes had been rolling. If I had sung for some hours after midnight with drums beating in my ears I would have rolled on the floor too. We were not persuaded that what this pastor had done was to exorcise an evil spirit. There is plenty of bizarre phenomenon in Africa, but bizarre phenomena is no proof of demon possession.

Yet I am reluctant to say that there is no demon possession today. Satan has not been annihilated; his activity has not ceased. The last hundred years has given us little encouragement to believe that this sort of thing has disappeared from the world. In many ways this period has been the most Satanic period in human history. It has been the period of Auschwitz, Cambodia, the Twin Towers, the Ipswich rapist and many other murderers like him, and events far too horrible to speak of from a pulpit. So we are persuaded that Satan is still active and exercising a general dominion over ungodly men, entering particular men and able to bind them, and so I cannot say that Satan can no longer possess individual persons. The possibility is there, but I don’t think we should be cavalier in the identification of those phenomena.

2. THIS PARTICULAR DEMON POSSESSED MAN CONFRONTED OUR LORD.

In the synagogue in Capernaum how did this man respond to our Lord?

i] Notice it was not at all that he came searching for Christ. It was not that on that day he set out to encounter the Lord Jesus by his own initiative; he was simply there (v.33) and the Lord Jesus Christ had decided he would speak in Capernaum that Sabbath. The important fact is this, that nowhere in the New Testament do we find a demon-possessed man looking for Jesus and coming to him. You understand the cause of this, that these people have lost the power of independent decision-making. There is no possibility of them wanting to be healed from their condition. They’ve been taken over completely by a demon. They never exercise ‘free will’ and decide, “We will go to Jesus and get healed.” They are no different from any persons outside of Christ; the natural man is at enmity with God, and so he must be brought to the attention of Christ. By prayer they must be taken into his orbit; we plead for them by name before him, and by invitation they are to be brought to the place where two or three gather together in his name where he promises to be. There they are introduced to the place he works in blessing, delivering, restoring and making whole. So I am reminding you that we must never wait for people to come to us. “Go to them,” is the commission of Christ.

ii] The other things is this, that the demon recognized our Lord. “I know who you are!” He knows he is Jesus of Nazareth although for thirty years Christ has been lying low in the carpenter’s shop. The demon knew all about him, that his mission was to destroy Satan. He knew his character – “the Holy One of God.” You understand it is not that the man in the synagogue recognized Jesus. He had never seen Jesus, but it was the demon who identified him knowing Christ’s origin and person and office. The demon, filled with hate, could see the uniqueness and grandeur of God in Christ, that glory that is veiled from the multitudes of university men and women around us – the evil spirit knew! He went on to bear testimony to that grandeur. Isn’t that a solemn thing, that the glory that the natural man cannot recognize a demon is able to see!

More than that though, the demons believe and then they tremble. “Have you come to destroy us?” (v.34) this demon cries. He knew his destruction was imminent, and certain, and so he trembled. Here is a demon seeing the glory of the Lord and trembling, and I wonder what profundity and theological clarity do demons possess. In Paradise Lost John Milton portrays the scene of the demons gathered together in the canyons of hell and they are discussing together the divine determinism and doing so with great accuracy I suppose, and utter cold hatred. Can you see how damning is this comment on the lives of some of you concerning the disjunction that exists between your understanding of Christian truth and your lack of Christian living? It is possible for some of us to have the faith of demons and yet we are not trembling.

3. HOW OUR LORD DEALT WITH THE DEMON-POSSESSED MAN.

If you look at our Lord’s response you will notice he does three things to this demon:

i] Jesus rebukes him. When our Lord was in the boat on the Sea of Galilee there was a ferocious storm so that the seasoned fishermen on board thought they were going to drown. We are told that our Lord arose and rebuked the winds and waves. It is exactly the same word here, suggesting that the same agency, the prince of the power of the air, was behind them both. So our Lord rebuked the demon for daring to address him as he did.

ii] Jesus silences him. “Be quiet,” he says. Indeed the word is ‘be muzzled.’ At what point is he muzzled? At the point where the demon was making manifest his conviction as to the glory of the Holy One of God. There was certainly an impropriety in some tenth rate, filthy, unclean spirit speaking of our Lord Jesus, but there is another reason why he muzzled him. Our Lord had three years to train the Twelve and to gather a flock of 500 disciples and during that time he didn’t need to be incarcerated or even hunted by King Herod when the king heard of some ‘Kingdom’ which Jesus was building. He didn’t have the time to deal with an early arrest by the Jewish Sanhedrin. He needed freedom to travel and evangelise and teach. So Jesus veiled his glory. There was even an economy in the miracles he did. They must not become so numerous and compelling that the veil was useless. Yet there must be sufficient signs to leave men without excuse for their unbelief. But there must not be sufficient miracles to compel them mathematically to nod their heads. So at this stage in the history of our Lord there was a certain secrecy about his Messiahship.

iii] Jesus expels the demon. He expels him by a stern word, “Come out of him!” This is not the exorcisms of sensational religious magazines. There you read of the most elaborate ballyhoo and all kinds of rites and rituals, garlic, candles, chalk circles, symbols and even the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. There is none of that here. There is merely a word that commands a demon to come out and that word is sufficient. That spirit had no capacity to debate the issue. He was standing in the presence of his Creator. The demon could throw the man down but he could not throw Christ down. He came out of the man without hurting him, and the response in the congregation was overwhelming. No one doubted that this man had been possessed by an evil spirit. No one doubted that Jesus had delivered the man. No one thought that this was show biz; no one was entertained. This was scarey! There was a pervasive astonishment throughout the synagogue: “All the people were amazed and said to each other, ‘What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!” (vv. 36&37).

As I close I want to ask you do you see the significance of this for ourselves. Very often Christians think of Satan as a figure of immense power and grandeur. We have picked this up from occult literature and not from the Scriptures. Satan is always under the power of Christ in the Bible; he is a bound devil. He is chained to Christ. He can go so far but if he tries to go too far Christ yanks the chain; “No further.” He has no option but to obey Christ. He is in a completely subordinate position; he is absolutely inferior; he has no ability to resist the authority of Christ. He is bound by the sovereignty of Christ; above all he is bound by the blood of Christ, the great atonement the Lamb of God has made in which he triumphed over the beast from the pit.

Since the victory of the cross Satan no longer rules over the nations of the world and today Christ is active spoiling his house, and ransacking his empire. He is translating people from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son. He is opening the eyes of those who have been blinded by the god of this world. He is opening their understanding and illuminating their souls. He is breaking the chains that have been binding men to their father the devil. He is releasing them and bringing them into the kingdom of God’s Son.

That is what he is doing here today. We meet here in his name; he is present and Satan’s influence in our lives is diminished as we mix all we hear with faith in Christ. He is causing his kingdom to come, and he is attacking the kingdom of darkness all over the world. He is giving that new birth whereby people can enter that kingdom and he is keeping his people by his Word and Spirit.

24th February 2008 GEOFF THOMAS