Luke 9:37-43. “The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. A man in the crowd called out, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.’ ‘O unbelieving and perverse generation,’ Jesus replied, ‘how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.’ Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.”
We are pointed back a day in the opening verse of our text to the mount of transfiguration. The incident that is recorded above took place 24 hours later. They’d come down from the mountain of glory to the mundaneness of life in our valleys where men live in the shadow of disease and death. Mountain high: valley low. The world sings of this experience. This is not the first time this contrast occurs in the Bible. When Moses came down from the glory-peaked Mount Sinai he was confronted with noise, rebellion, idolatry and apostasy in the valley. Jehovah’s people were dancing before a golden calf and acknowledging it as their god. When Elijah came down from his triumph over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel he met the threatening swagger of Jezebel strutting her stuff. When Jehovah Jesus came down from the mount of transfiguration his wonderful memories of that occasion were shattered by the shout of a father crying for his only child who was being destroyed by the devil. That’s the scenario; a journey from the mount of transfiguration to the valley of the devil; from the vision of glory to the sight of demon possession; from the company of Moses, Elijah and the chief apostles to the company of men being consumed by the evil one; from a foretaste of heaven to the troubles hell is causing in our world; from the voice of God testifying aloud of his love for his Son to the voices of men clamouring for deliverance; from blessedness to pain. We are taken from a mountain where three apostles didn’t know what to say after what they had seen, to the screams of a tormented child abused by Beelzebub, a broken-hearted father and a little group of feeble disciples wringing their hands helplessly. What a contrast! Two days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth are described here in a single chapter of Luke’s gospel.
THE COMPANY GATHERING AT THE FOOT OF THE MOUNTAIN
Let’s look at this scene as it is so fully and fascinatingly described to us. The narrative of this incident is also found in the gospels of Matthew and Mark.
i] We are told that there was a large crowd (v.37), in other words many fascinated witnesses, most of whom would have been still alive when Luke wrote this gospel, many of them knew the family concerned, while all of them know of someone whose life has been changed by Jesus. Many were there out of curiosity. Some were hostile we are told by the other evangelists. If Jesus were the Messiah then why didn’t his disciples save this boy from the devil? Hadn’t they been with him long enough? Isn’t this what they’d been called and gifted to do? Here is a controlled experiment, and the disciples could easily prove their point that God was with them. They were here, and the frightened boy was lying on the ground. They could lay their hands on him and heal him and everyone would be impressed and think again of the claims of Christ.
“If that boy were delivered I’d believe in Jesus,” says one man. “Me too,” says another, while yet another says, “I’d believe that that Nazarene had been sent here by Jehovah if that child were healed.” I can imagine today people saying similar things, setting their own standards for becoming believers saying, “If a former cabinet minister, a man of the world would believe in Jesus, then I’d think seriously of becoming a Christian too. If a media star said he were a Bible believer then I’d become one too.” But all of us may indeed be wimps and nonentities – you have every right to your opinion of us, but we are not all stupid, and we are believers. If you want famous men to become Christians to persuade you, then Jonathan Aitkin the former cabinet minister believes, and Euan Murray one of the best prop forwards in the world is an evangelical Christian, and Gavin Peacock the great soccer player is training for the gospel ministry at London Theological Seminary, and Dan Walker presents football programmes on TV each Saturday at lunchtime, and he is a Calvinist and sometimes he preaches, while his brother and father are preachers, in fact his parents met in this congregation. There are media people and well-known people who are Christians. Why aren’t you a believer? You’ll move the line; unbelievers like you always do. You want to see with your eyes someone else transformed before you’ll start to cry to God to transform you. You plead another miracle and then you’ll trust in Christ. In the villages of Galilee the dead were raised; on the Sea of Galilee the winds and waves obeyed Christ; thousands of men and women were healed by the Lord Christ, but even there many people did not believe in him; they wanted to see more. I doubt if more signs would change anyone; even if someone rose from the dead in Aberystwyth not one more person would become a Christian. So there was the crowd and they were watching as you are.
ii] There was something else here, and that is the devil himself. How triumphant he is! He struts around! “You disciples can try your exorcisms,” he seems to be saying, “and all your praying. You preach away at this boy, and shout away at me to leave him alone. Weep over him; do what you will; I’m not leaving this son of a gun.” He seems to sink his talons into the boy’s soul: “Do your best. Do your worst. I’m not afraid of you. I’ve got this fellow and I’m keeping him. There’s no power that’s going to separate me from him.” Can’t we believe that today the devil stands outside many a temple, many a mosque, many a cathedral, many a church, watching the people going in. He’s not perturbed; he says, “There’ll be no deliverance for them in that place. I’m not worried seeing them in that building. Nothing’s going to touch them there. Nothing’s going to break their chains.” Does he say it about this congregation? Maybe he’s very confident this moment about some of you. He’s blinded you and deluded you a long time and now he’s confident that nothing will save you. We are not so despairing about any of you, even the very worst, whoever that might be, in fact we believe that wherever Christ exercises his saving power that chains are broken and the old dragon is robbed of his prey.
iii] There was someone else and that is the wee boy. What a grievous condition he was in. We are told that the devil came and seized him (v.39); he really had a grip on the life of this little chap and he would scream out in terror (v.39). We are told that he threw him into convulsions (v.39) so that the lad twitched and shook in horrible ways. The boy foamed at the mouth at such times (v.39). There would be moment of rare peace, but then the torment would start again, scarcely ever leaving him (v.39). The life of this child was being destroyed. Those of you who have unfortunately read accounts of the devil in which he is painted as a larger than life rogue, almost likable, then you must read verse 39, what the devil does to a child, what an unreservedly evil tormenter the devil is, destined for the bottomless pit.
iv] There is also the poor father of the demon-possessed child, utterly dejected. He says, “I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not” (v.40). “I had built up my hopes that you would deliver my dear son and he’d be healed. I begged them and they tried but were as unsuccessful as the rest. What do you mean by encouraging people to hope in a healing? Now where can I turn if you are unable to help us? How dare you break my heart and the heart of my dear wife. We’ve come a long way looking for Jesus of Nazareth, and it will be even longer going home again. If you couldn’t do this then will your Master be any better? I wish I’d never heard of Jesus of Nazareth, to leave home and take money from friends for the journey, all for nothing, and worst than nothing. When we came here we had at least some hope.” That’s the poor father. Perhaps he has come here today? He is saying, “I don’t know why I came here. I suppose I believe in God, and I have brought my children to this church, and I’ve prayed for them but I think today they are more interested in the devil than in Christ.” There may be a woman here who brought her husband to church, but she is thinking that now he is just as much under evil influences, and she is close to despair.
v] Fifthly, there are the disciples, and they look a sorry bunch of men, heads hanging down, nothing to say about this boy and their pathetic failure to help him. “We don’t know how to account for it. We treated him just like we acted with all the others who were brought to us when we evangelized Galilee.” Maybe one of them said, “When a demon-possessed person is brought to me I just say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of him,’ and it’s always worked in the past. I can’t understand this. I’ve lost my touch.” And another apostle pipes up, “We’d all better give up.” Again this is happening in our day, all over the country. We meet ministers who preached throughout last year and don’t know of a person becoming a Christian. Christ has called them to become fishers of men, and yet not a single person was caught that they are aware of. They claim that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and yet there is little power in their preaching. They are close to giving up.
So that is the scene we have at the bottom of the mount of transfiguration. There are the scoffing scribes (Mark tells us), and the disillusioned father, and the perplexed disciples, and the undecided crowd looking on, and the triumphant devil. What more could you want in order to bring your mind and your emotions to this scene?
2. THE LORD OF GLORY APPROACHES THESE MEN.
Haven’t we seen this on a human level from time to time? There is a scene of chaos and confusion, and into the midst of it comes a man of authority. I heard a man called Nicky telling of a Saturday morning on which he had taken his son to play a game of football. When he arrived there they discovered that there was no referee and he was cajoled by the boys and some of their fathers into refereeing the match – though he had never done so before and he had an imperfect knowledge of the rules of football. He blew his whistle and the game started, and soon his judgments were being challenged: “That was a foul!” “No it wasn’t.” “Yes it was.” “He was offside.” “No he wasn’t.” “It’s not fair. That’s cheating.” The boys were shouting at one another and soon it was a scene of utter confusion and bitterness as the game was spoiled. Then, on his bicycle, unaware of all this chaos, the actual referee rode up. He thought the game was to start an hour later. He blew his whistle, and called the two teams to line up and the game started and it was fun, because a figure of authority who knew the rules had come along. The rules of a game don’t destroy the game, they make it.
You see this in many walks of life. The troops are in disarray; the centre has almost failed; the enemy is gaining heart; their artillery is opening fire and the ranks are in range. What is going to happen? Along comes the general. He sums up the situation in a moment. “Forward there! Hold that position! Backward there!” The orders are given. New resolve is introduced and the scene changes. The mere presence of this man affects the whole face of the field and now the enemy has a real fight on its hands.
So it was at the bottom of the mount of transfiguration when someone turned around and shouted, “Here’s Jesus!” What a relief! He and his three disciples arrived at the scene. Immediately he sees and sums up what is happening. Before long he is in complete control of the crowd, the father, the discouraged disciples, the sick boy and the devil. You see it during times of spiritual awakening. There is chaos in a meeting with excited people getting up and speaking loudly from all over the building; men and women are swooning and laughing and weeping; others are trying to sing. Then a man stands in the pulpit, addresses them, and grips them with a divine authority. The discord ends and all things are done decently and in order – the sure mark of the Spirit’s presence. Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was once preaching in Park Baptist Church in Merthyr Tydfil and he had not spoken two sentences before a man sitting in the gallery said ‘Amen!’ Then another sentence and another ‘Amen!’ from the gallery. Another sentence and another ‘Amen!’ Dr Lloyd-Jones stopped; he fixed his eye on the man, “My friend, the gospel is to be applied not applauded.” The man was silenced and there were no more distractions from him during that sermon. Divine authority.
What do we have here? A group of the second rank of Jesus’ disciples who have been continuing Jesus’ ministry, but without Jesus’ presence. They were like a body trying to act without its head! How many ministers of the gospel are behaving in that way today? Men and women in the body of Christ – how dependent on our mighty Lord we are in our worship and evangelism and in raising our children and in handling sickness and in guidance and in so many issues. He alone has the fullness of authority and power and wisdom that he will pour into his body. The Lord Jesus works everything after the counsel of his own will. What has he done here? He has deliberately abandoned these men to depend on their own wits, in order that they write on their hearts his great words, “without me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). What a humbling public way to learn that lesson. Down they’ve fallen, utterly humiliated and mocked. These are experiences I have had throughout my ministry here in the pulpit and in conferences and conventions. I had it this year in Geneva, preaching dismally at the fifth centenary of the birth of the French reformer. I again went through a similar humbling when the snowstorm prevented four politicians coming to a Radio Wales version of Any Questions here in Aberystwyth. I was persuaded to take part on the panel with three local politicians. I was an absolute disaster, not having the brains or wit or wide political knowledge for that sort of thing, and so publicly I was profoundly humbled. Such days we remember for the rest of our lives. J.C.Ryle says, “The things that we learn by smarting experience abide in our memories, while truths heard with the ear are often forgotten. But we may be sure that it was a bitter lesson at the time. We don’t love to learn that we can do nothing without Christ” but that is what these crestfallen disciples learned.
So, there was chaos and disappointment and accusation and heartache. Then the Lord Jesus came and took a grip on the situation. What did he say? You would think that he would address the child immediately, but that is not what he did. He addressed his own disciples; “O unbelieving and perverse generation,” were Jesus’ first words. What is he saying? Something like this . . .you disciples have been wonderfully privileged. You have had my friendship and love for the last couple of years. You have seen my greatest miracles. You have seen the tempest stilled on the Sea of Galilee. You have seen the sight restored of the man blind from birth. You have seen the dead raised. You have heard my parables and the Sermon on the Mount. What good has all this done to you? You are just like this generation. You’re like everyone else, unbelieving and more than that, perverse, that is, twisted. In other words there is no excuse for anyone who considers the life of the Lord Jesus, not to believe in him. You are a twisted man to be rejecting the loveliness and truthfulness of Christ. That is what he is saying. All that we men and women today would love to have heard and seen those men actually did hear and see. What we claim would make us passionate Christians – hearing the voice of God, seeing the dead raised – they witnessed, and yet they remained unbelieving. It takes more than the sight of a miracle to change the heart of a sinner. They twisted the miracles so that they justified going on just as they were. “He does it by the power of Beelzebub,” they said. I am saying that it was not because of any failure or absence in what Jesus had done that the disciples couldn’t help this young boy.
So Jesus breaks into a lamentation; “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” (vv. 41). He has been in the glorious fellowship of heaven on the mountain top. His Father has come so close in a cloud covering him. He has told Jesus how much he loves him, and then Moses and Elijah have spoken at length with him, but it all came to an end. They returned to heaven but he’s come down from the mountain top to a world twisted and unbelieving. It has been thirty years that he’s lived in the fetid atmosphere of our kingdom of darkness. “How long?” he cries. Think of a prisoner visited by his wife for two hours and then she kisses him good-bye and goes home. He has to return to his cell. “How long shall I stay here?” He thinks.
But I want you to notice that Jesus said these words aloud. He didn’t soft-pedal his reactions. He showed his pain. He didn’t mask it; he wouldn’t allow them to think of their unbelief as justifiable. They couldn’t plead that they were ‘only human beings . . .’ He charged their consciences with their sin. With all the privileges they had had yet they were not looking to him and trusting in him, and that made him groan. Now you might think that that was the response of Jesus before his resurrection and ascension, and that he does not judge his disciples today of being faithless and twisted. But he is equally firm to the seven churches of Asia Minor. “You have forsaken your first love . . . . Remember the height from which have fallen! You are neither cold nor hot . . . I will spit you out of my mouth . . . cover your shameful wickedness.” The Head in the midst of the throne is grieved by the behaviour of the body on earth.
THE LORD OF GRACE PASTORS THE MAN.
“Bring your son here,” (v.41) says Jesus. He wants us to bring our family and friends to him. You might remember that there were buddies of a certain paralysed man who carried him all the way to Christ, even removing a section of the roof from the house in which Jesus was teaching in order to bring their friend right before our Lord. Others brought their servants or their children to him by name, or sought to bring Christ to their loved ones. These two vastly different people have to come together, the Lord Jesus and the one with a great need. That is what we do in prayer, we bring before the Lord our friends in their need, that he will draw near and help them and they will draw near and plead for assistance. That is what we do when we invite people to come where two or three gather together in his name.
Then what happens when the boy stands before the Saviour? All hell is let loose on the little chap. As he came walking up to the Lord, brought by his Father, the demon ferociously attacked him again and “threw him to the ground in a convulsion” (v.42). It knew the identity of Christ and so began to wreak its destruction on the lad utterly contemptuously: “he fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth” (Mark 9:20). Do you see this picture? A sinner in need is coming to Jesus, a sinner in the grip of the god of this world, and that evil one is not going to let you go without a struggle. When Jesus comes to save someone then there is a torment of evil activity. It is the last desperate flurry of hatred and frustration and fear that the devil shows. You would imagine that when Jesus drew near to an unbeliever that the signs of his nearness would be a peace and a new openness to the gospel, but when this boy comes near Christ there is conflict. Is there any new life truly born without birth pangs and some pain? Of course with the birth of some children there is more pain than with others, but no new life without them; there is no new life without a struggle. Don’t give up being sweet to your family and friends if they start using some bad language deliberately in your hearing when you have been talking to them about the gospel – something they never did all the years you’ve known them. It is the devil that makes them act like that. Be encouraged! That sort of thing may be almost inevitable if the Holy Son of God is dealing with them.
But for you too; some of you reading this are very near the kingdom of heaven, but over the past months you have read with the greatest reluctance. You have found yourself thinking, “How boring it all is! He preaches on and on and on. I don’t believe this; I can’t believe this; I can’t become a Christian; I don’t want to become a Christian. I’m starting not to feel well when I come here! I am getting nothing out of all this. It’s a lot of nonsense. I won’t be coming to church again. How much longer is this going on?” It’s Satan makes you think like that because he sees you slipping out of his fingers. That is the last desperate ploy he’ll use to keep you under his control. We are not ignorant of the devil’s devices. You know how the devil works. He might, for example, drive you into presumption so that you think you are a Christian before the indwelling of the Spirit. Or he’ll take the opposite tack and will drive you into despair so that you imagine you can never be born again. Sometimes this spirit threw this boy into the water, and sometimes he threw him into the fire, and when the boy felt he was drowning he longed for the fire, that it would be infinitely better, but when he was burning he longed to be drowning in a river. That is how the devil works. One Sunday in the cellar, the next Sunday in the attic. One Sunday the cold of melancholy, the next the heat of self-conceit. Satan drives us to extremes. He will make us think one church is absolutely perfect, and another church lacks a single redeeming feature. Satan has your brief lifetime in which to get you and take you to the place of woe with him for ever. He wont give up easily, and so the father here could look down now at his boy at Jesus’ feet, and see him being thrown down on the ground – bang – and then rolling round and round in a torment foaming at the mouth. What convulsions when someone is brought close to Jesus to be changed!
THE LORD OVER DEMONS DELIVERS THE MAN’S SON.
“But Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father” (v.42). Two wonderful words, “but Jesus.” Things were looking bad for this father, but Jesus . . . Things were so horrible for his little boy, but Jesus . . . Things were totally beyond the ability of the disciples to help, but Jesus . . . The demon was tormenting and destroying the boy, but Jesus . . . My life would have been a self-centred life; I would have lived for me and made every big choice by my own wits, but Jesus Christ had mercy on me and became my Lord and Saviour. He taught me from the Bible to be a certain kind of son, and husband, and father, and friend, and pastor, and preacher. The hymnist says, “I was lost but Jesus found me, found the sheep that went astray.” I was dead but Jesus gave me life. Mine was just an ordinary conversion, 55 years ago, God giving me the grace to commit myself publicly and then to stumble on with many falls ever since that time, keeping trusting in him, finding sold joy and peace in knowing his mercy and grace to help me. What would have been the future of this family without the intervention of the Lord Jesus?
I say a few things always about these cases of demon possession in the New Testament. Let me lay down four convictions from my own thinking;
i] Firstly that the land of Israel during the three years Jesus continued his public ministry was a unique time for such demonic activity. That was because the Son of God was in one location in the world and so Satanic activity, which we know is limited and finite, was focussed on some of the people who lived where he lived. Demons infested the land and the Lord Jesus Christ delivered them all. If I can say it without misunderstanding, it doesn’t seem to have been a big thing. By the time he had finished visiting some villages of Galilee all the illnesses and all demon possession had vanished. This was a unique time in the history of redemption.
ii] The second thing I say is that I have never come across a case of demon possession and do not expect to because of my kind of ministry. If I were working in Papua New Guinea, or in Haiti where there is voodoo and the spirits of the dead are courted, or even in Wales where some misguided people devote themselves to trying to communicate with the dead I might meet some who are much more susceptible to satanic influences. I might say of them that they were demon oppressed, but I have not met them.
iii] The third thing I say is that there is a mental condition of psychosis, and people have to be locked up and also need to take medication for many years because otherwise they are in danger of hurting other people and themselves. I am not saying that such people are demon possessed. I am saying that we live in a fallen groaning world.
iv] The fourth thing I say is that the devil is active here and now, not two thousand years ago, and his chief work is to blind the minds of men and women to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. If there is anything that might alert people to the fact that he is doing this then he will hate that and shun drawing attention to his own actions. If he can make us believe that the horror films and the books about vampires and demons are the ways in which he works then that is all to the good. People will think that the devil is a fantasy figure, or someone very distant and medieval, someone who had no influence in their lives at all. The reality is that their whole lives are being influenced by him to think and speak and act in their little world without any reference to Jesus Christ. Every unbeliever is under the power of the god of this world who says to his citizens, “You don’t have to believe in Jesus, and you don’t have to believe in me. Just do your own thing. You are in charge of your own life.” But just wait until you try to escape from his kingdom and how tough he makes it for you to be delivered.
v] The fifth thing I want to draw your attention to is how swiftly and simply the Lord Jesus delivers people from satanic influences. You will see that there was no jiggery-pokery here. Our Lord didn’t touch the boy; he didn’t put out garlic in a circle, and burn candles in the form of a cross, and lay the boy down in the middle, and dance six times in one way and six times in another way, and chant, and shriek, and anoint him with oil and kill a cockerel and scatter his blood or any of that horror book rubbish. The Lord Jehovah Jesus simply rebuked the evil spirit, “Vile creature of hell!” and the demon shot back to the pit. Thus Jesus healed the boy.
Then he “gave him back to his father” (v.42). Jesus magnifies the law of God. The fifth commandment tells us to honour our father and our mother. Jesus did not set up orphanages for children who had been demon possessed as henceforth in need of specialized attention. He gave this boy back to the loving keeping of his father. He said, in other words, “Go home.” Fearful providences come into the lives of ordinary Christians. We’ve had no preparation or experience of what lies before us, no hint of what is going to happen to us as a family. There is some dreadful accident, or a mysterious illness not responding to treatment, or the impact of dementia or some psychosis, or the birth of a handicapped child. We were totally inexperienced. Our plans for our lives had been set out, and then, out of the blue, this happened. We knew that it was under the providence of God. Yes. We knew the promises of God, but it was still so hard, so very hard. How would we possibly cope? Think of this fearful providence, to have in your home right at the heart of your life, like this father, a boy who screamed and had convulsions, a son who was being destroyed. Yet we did cope, because we had something else. We had someone else. We had the Lord Jesus. We brought ourselves to the Saviour, and we brought the boy to the Saviour and we lived a day at a time, trusting in his grace to help us at that time of need, and our confidence was that this child of ours, given to us by God we had given to the Lord, and he had given back to us. One day we know that these bodies of ours, will be delivered from their fallenness and mortality. The Christian child that has Downes will be transformed in the day of Christ and she will be more glorious than the angels. When she sees Christ she shall be like him; she shall see him as he is. “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (I Cors. 15:42-44).
The crowd standing around, curious and sceptical, and the disciples humbled by their impotence to help, all witnessed what the Lord had done. We are told that “they were all amazed at the greatness of God” (v.43). They had heard the rebuke of Jesus; they had seen the deliverance of Jesus, but what amazed them was God’s greatness, because that was the one who had come among them. The Word was made flesh and full of grace and truth. He is the one who said, “I and my Father are one.” And, “if you have seen me you have seen my Father.” He is the one who thought it not robbery to be equal with God. He is the one Thomas fell before saying, “My Lord and my God.” They saw a man do what no man has ever done before or since, one with absolute power over the devil, and they didn’t take it all in their stride on their way to something else. They were lost in wonder because they saw, as never before, the greatness of the incarnate God. Behold it, sinner! See his power and glory! Bow down before him! Confess him as your God. Cry mightily to him that he will deliver you from the god of this world, and cease not your crying until you know he’s heard you.
29th November 2009 GEOFF THOMAS