Overcoming the powers of evil
Jesus repeats much of his teaching about dealing with evil and disbelief in this new context. There is no neutral ground: you are either for Jesus or against him.
Jesus repeats much of his teaching about dealing with evil and disbelief in this new context. There is no neutral ground: you are either for Jesus or against him.
Hello welcome to Series 8 and Episode 11, which is entitled 'Overcoming the Powers of Evil'. We're continuing in Luke's Gospel where we've been studying in recent episodes. We're in Luke 11: 14 - 36.
Introduction and Recap
Let's just do a quick reminder of where we are in the story. It's always so important to remember the context and realise there's a big story going on in the Gospels. As you've been following the episodes, no doubt you'll see how important that is in my thinking. We want to tell the whole story and see how it fits together. Going back to Series 7, which many of you hopefully will have watched or read, that was the crucial turning point in Jesus' ministry where he begins to move from Galilee, his base in the north of Israel, and decides to head south towards Jerusalem. The central event there was the transfiguration, where Jesus went up a mountain with Peter, James and John, and they had a remarkable experience of his divine glory, talking to Moses and Elijah briefly. That event launched Jesus' direction, going south into Judea and Samaria, and then to Jerusalem. In the following part of that, we've moved into John's Gospel and we saw a series of events taking place in a short period where Jesus visited Jerusalem. Now, we are back in Luke's Gospel. Our main story writers for this part of the story are in fact John and Luke. As I've mentioned on a number of occasions, John gives a lot of focus to events in Jerusalem and Jesus made that remarkable quick visit that was described in John 7, and then other visits in John 9 and 10, which were described earlier on. This was in the context of tension and difficulty; he didn't stay very long because he needed to do his work in Judea and Samaria and we know from everything that has been said so far, that he's going to return to Jerusalem for one final time at the end of the story. Luke focuses on that journey to make the final visit to Jerusalem.
Our immediate context in Luke has not only been Jesus' decision but also the remarkable event that we saw a few episodes ago, where he sent out 72 disciples including the Twelve. They went out in pairs all over Samaria and Judea to spread the message of his coming Kingdom. This is obviously a systematic attempt to try and saturate the nation with awareness that God's Kingdom is coming through the person of Jesus. These are exciting and challenging times. We looked at the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the wonderful story of Jesus visiting the sisters Mary and Martha in their home and we're going to pick up that story later because that family becomes the focus of a remarkable miracle right at the end of Jesus' public ministry, when their brother Lazarus is raised from the dead. It's recorded in John's Gospel.
In the last episode, we find at the beginning of chapter 11 that Jesus is travelling on this long journey to Jerusalem, a rather indirect journey. He travels around different parts of Samaria and Judea and as he's travelling, he prayed in a certain place and his disciples start talking to him about prayer. They want to learn how to pray as he does. That is what we discussed last time, and Luke continues the narrative; he moves on from the topic of prayer.
There's a miracle at the beginning of the story, and then this miracle triggers a conversation and lots of statements from Jesus about overcoming the powers of evil. We know that the powers of evil are in the theology of the New Testament and in Jesus' own teaching, where real personal evil forces operate in and around the world, operating against the purposes of God. That is the basic theological framework of the whole of the New Testament, in fact, but certainly of Jesus' teaching, and will see this stated very clearly as we read this text, Luke 11: 14 - 28. As we read it, you will notice that there are distinct similarities between this passage and a passage we studied much earlier on - one that appears in Matthew 12, and with a shorter version in Mark 3. I'll comment on that when I've read the passage,
‘Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. 15But some of them said, “By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” 16Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. 17Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. 18If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. 19Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 20But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 21“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. 22But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder. 23“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 24“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.’ 25When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26Then 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.” 27As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” 28He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”Luke 11:14-28, NIV
Similar Account but Different
If you're familiar with the New Testament, and if you've followed through this teaching of the life of Jesus, you will know, or remember, that there is a very similar passage in Matthew 12, with a very compressed version in Mark 3. This provokes us to ask a few questions: Is this the same incident and the same teaching? My answer would be, ‘No, it isn't.’ There are a number of indicating factors. First of all, there is a different context. The earlier passage, based around Matthew 12, took place in Galilee. It represented a confrontation with the Pharisees and the religious establishment. This incident takes place undoubtedly in Judea, or possibly Samaria, on the road to Jerusalem as I described earlier on. The geographical context and the chronological context is different. The timing is very different. Matthew and Mark recount an incident in the second tour of Galilee, Luke describes an incident on the way to Jerusalem in the later part of Jesus' ministry. Another interesting comparison is that the hostile questioners in Matthew's account, Matthew 12: 22 - 24 being the key text, are the Pharisees, particularly aimed at undermining Jesus and contradicting him, whereas here, Luke describes the questioners as being members of the crowd. If you look at verses 14 - 15, you'll see that very clearly stated. These are members of the crowd. The contexts, as described by the different writers are different. I think we should respect that and understand this passage in a slightly different way. Basically, what happens in the life of Jesus, as in the life of any great teacher, is that similar teachings appear in different contexts. This is obvious, in terms of religious teaching; any religious teachers in any religion will teach similar things in different contexts. This is true of academic teaching in a school or in a university; you'll find similar things taught slightly differently in different contexts, so there's nothing surprising about that. We find in the Gospels that some things are repeated in different contexts, and that's essentially what's happening here. The fact that this question about the source of Jesus' power over demons looks very similar to the question that the Pharisees, or the statement of the Pharisees in Matthew 12: 22 - 24, almost certainly means that the idea had seeped into the consciousness of the crowd from what the Pharisees were persistently saying; they were saying he's a false messiah, he's empowered by demonic forces, he's deluded. That message was getting into the crowd, so someone reiterates that view.
Here's a couple of examples of Jesus' teaching which appear in different contexts: one is the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which appears in Matthew 18 in one context, and in Luke 15 in another context, with two slightly different applications. Another good example is from our previous passage in Luke 11, where Jesus teaches the disciples as you'll remember, if you studied that one, the Lord's Prayer. It looks as though from Luke's account, he's teaching them for the first time but if we go to Matthew's Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 6, we find the Lord's Prayer is there in slightly different form. The Lord's Prayer is taught twice to the disciples. Is there any surprise about that? Well, I don't think there is; I think it's just the way things happen, and that's the explanation of the similarity between this passage and the one in Matthew 12 and a smaller version in Mark 3.
Looking at this passage more closely, we see that the accusation is that Jesus is operating by somebody called Beelzebul, or sometimes in the New Testament, Beelzebub. Beelzebub was a name for Satan, or the devil, or the chief of demons; a name in their common usage. The thing that triggered this statement was the power of the miracle of a man who was mute; he was unable to speak. Quite suddenly, through Jesus' prayer and driving out of an evil spirit, he was able to speak clearly, fluently, and no doubt continually. A very dramatic miracle, and some people in the crowd who were influenced by the Pharisees and their teaching, reiterated an earlier statement and accusation. Jesus' answer is basically saying it's rather absurd to suggest that he is operating by demonic power in order to deal with a demonic presence in an individual person. His logic is very strong here. Why would Satan want to destroy his own kingdom? If he destroys it, if it's divided, it's going to fall. It's an illogical thing to imagine that such a situation would occur; the absurdity of the statement is identified by Jesus' response in verses 17 - 22. Jesus is fairly forceful in responding to this particular accusation because this accusation that he is operating by demonic power is in a sense right at the centre of the hostile approach of the religious leaders, the Sanhedrin - the Jewish ruling council - who oversaw the Jewish religion from Jerusalem, and their associates - the Pharisees, and the other religious sects. Their accusation is now well-formed, well-articulated, has been publicly stated as in Matthew 12 and in other places that we've seen, and is well known amongst the crowds, and certainly influences the crowds very deeply when Jesus is in Jerusalem, as we see from John's Gospel because there the hostility to Jesus, the suspicion of him, is very great. The influence of the religious leaders is at its greatest in the capital city of Jerusalem. Here on the road, some people in the crowd are challenging Jesus; they're hostile to him and so it provokes Jesus to make some very bold and decisive statements.
No Sitting on the Fence
Verse 23, ‘Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.’ In other words, there's no neutrality. This is the point of division: you're either with me, formally, or if you're in any other position, if you are not actually with me, you can't say you're neutral; you're actually against me. This is a very fundamental reality of the Kingdom of God. Many people like to position themselves as if to say, ‘Well, I'm very sympathetic with the Church, I'm very sympathetic to Jesus, I'm very sympathetic with his moral teaching, with this Kingdom of God idea.’ But they are not with Jesus in terms of believing in him wholeheartedly and committing their lives to him, and Jesus said if you're in that position, you're actually against me; ‘Whoever is not with me is against me.’ The crowd have to choose. They listen to this conversation. Are they going to follow the accusers from the crowd, saying he's a false messiah, operating by demonic power, or are they going to follow Jesus? Are they going to sit on the fence? If they're sitting on the fence, they're not with Jesus. There is no neutrality.
Jesus then goes on to give this little metaphor of the house being cleaned, talking about the departure of an evil spirit, and the metaphor of driving it out of the house. The house could represent an individual person, such as, for example, the very man who is being healed, which is obviously what is in view here. He says the evil spirit, the impure spirit, has a malicious intention to return to that house, or that person, or that place and it'll try and bring seven worse evil spirits with it and make an even greater impact. The house has to be filled with something else. When Matthew tells the story in Matthew 12, we find that he applies this not just to individuals, but to that generation of Jews in Israel, of Judaism, basically saying the whole nation is a bit like a house. 'I've come, I cleared the house of darkness - spiritual darkness - I've made it a wonderful place. You need to fill the house with faith in my Kingdom. If you don't fill it with faith in my Kingdom and it's a vacuum, as it were, or empty, then that darkness is going to come back, but it's going to be even greater darkness, and it's going to lead to judgement.' This could apply to an individual, as is implied here initially in Luke, or it could apply to the whole Jewish nation, as is stated specifically in the parallel account, the earlier discussion, of the same theme in Matthew 12. It's quite a sobering message, isn't it? Again it points out something which we often see in the Gospels. Experiencing the miraculous power of Jesus, is not all it takes to be saved, to be born-again, to become part of his Kingdom; you can experience his power, you could even be healed by him, the very power of God can flood through your body and still you don't respond wholeheartedly. This is the issue that Jesus is identifying here and warning his listeners that when he performs miracles and when he teaches them, he's looking for a wholehearted response. This is the moment of decision. It's like the whole nation of Israel is in the valley of decision, so to speak. Are they going to follow him or not ? The opposition from the Sanhedrin and the ruling authorities is so strong that it will influence many people not to follow Jesus, just like those people in the crowd who spoke up and quoted the Pharisees' statement again, some time after it had originally been stated.
But to the contrary, some people really did believe and the woman who called out from the crowd is an expression of that humble, simple trust that Jesus is telling the truth, and that desire to follow him. She calls a blessing on him and on his mother - the one who brought him into this world and nursed him and looked after him as a child. Jesus turned that statement and said, the real blessing is going to come to those who both hear the word of God and obey it. Notice the two things together there. The crowd were hearing the word of God as Jesus was walking along the road. They're all hearing him telling the truth about the Kingdom of God but who's obeying it? The one who follows through with wholehearted obedience and faith, is the one who ultimately receives the blessing.
The Sign of Jonah
Let's move on to the next section, verses 29 to 32, again saying something very similar to what we see recorded in Matthew 12,
‘As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 32The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.’Luke 11:29-32, NIV
Jesus saw something very prophetic and powerful in that remarkable story of Jonah, which, as many of you will know, is one of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. It's a very short prophetic book. It's an easy one to read and to understand because unlike many prophetic books, it's primarily telling a story - a very exciting story about a prophet, Jonah, from the northern part of the country, known at that time as Israel, when the country was divided into two kingdoms in some previous period. He was called to go to the imperial capital of a nation called Assyria, which was the world power at the time, threatening to destroy the nation of Israel - in fact sending military raiding parties in, forcing them to pay protection money. It was a very difficult time for the nation of Israel. The Assyrians were their public enemy number one and yet Jonah was called to go right into the capital and preach, something that he found incredible, impossible; it absolutely terrified him. He fled in the opposite direction. He got on a boat and he went west into the Mediterranean, rather than going north-east to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. In the story, this is really the point that Jesus focuses on, there is the remarkable incident where he is on the boat; there's a storm on the boat and to cut a long story short, the sailors throw Jonah overboard, thinking that somehow or other he has caused the wrath of God, and he is swallowed by a great fish. We don't exactly know what the fish is. He miraculously survives for three days and three nights, until the fish spews him up on the shore of Israel and then off he goes to Nineveh. That's just a quick recapitulation of that story. There's much more to it than that. You can read the story in the book of Jonah.
Jesus describes that event of going from life into the sea, apparently dead by all accounts - no-one could possibly believe that Jonah could have survived - and then come back to life again when the fish spewed him out and he miraculously recovered and carried on his life. That three days and three nights of life, followed by a period of what appeared to be death, and then coming back to life again, Jesus takes as a symbol, a sign - very similar to the three days and three nights that will be the sum total of his death, his burial, and then his resurrection, which took place on parts of three days - part of Friday, all of Saturday, and part of Sunday. In Jewish thinking, part of a day is a whole day, hence the expression three days and three nights. He's basically saying, the only sign - the only message now for this generation that will fulfil their desire for something incredibly miraculous that sort of shows the power of God - is actually going to be his death and resurrection. Even his miracles haven't convinced them, great though they were. He said there's just one sign left, the sign of Jonah, which is the death and resurrection which of course was a message to the whole nation. He says here that the Gentiles responded; the Assyrians responded.
Queen of Sheba
He then mentions a lady called the Queen of the South, or the Queen of Sheba, who came to visit King Solomon hundreds of years before from a southern nation maybe in Africa, maybe in Arabia. She was amazed at his faith, his wealth, the temple and the religion, and responded wholeheartedly to it. Jesus is saying: you know the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people, often respond better than the Jewish people, who've got more revelation, more history, more understanding; they've got the Old Testament scriptures but still they stumble at the Messiah, the nature of Jesus, his mission, and the circumstances of his life, death and resurrection.
This passage concludes from verse 33 to 36,
‘No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. 34Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness. 35See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. 36Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be just as full of light as when a lamp shines its light on you.”Luke 11:33-36, NIV
Just as a lamp lights up a house or room, so the human eye, if healthy, metaphorically speaking, illuminates the whole body. Light comes in through your eyes and brings messages and information to your whole body, which, if you're blind, does not take place through your eyes. If you cannot see, your body suffers. The metaphor is about the ability to see or understand the coming of the Kingdom of God. If you do not see the Kingdom of God with your spiritual eyes, then you are in spiritual darkness.
This passage has been very challenging, and although we've gone over similar material from the earlier account in Matthew and Mark, I think it's well worth thinking through the implications. Here are some final reflections as we bring this episode to a close. Jesus often repeated key teachings, and one of the reasons for that was for emphasis. The message here is very important. The message for the Jewish nation was the impending judgement if they did not, as a nation in general, receive the Messiah. It's a warning to the people of that time. We know from history, as I've mentioned in many earlier episodes, that in A.D. 70, the Romans brought huge destruction and defeat upon the whole Jewish nation and destroyed their capital city, Jerusalem, and their Temple. A massive act of divine judgement came about at the hands of the Roman army.
Casting out demonic forces from individuals, bringing spiritual light where there's darkness, is a sign of the coming Kingdom because as the Kingdom comes, there is a confrontation sometimes between good and evil within the hearts of individuals; those battles have to be won. I'd encourage you to pursue his Kingdom wholeheartedly and take note of Jesus' warning that whoever is not with me is against me. There isn't any neutrality in the Kingdom of God.
In conclusion, being without Christ is like living in a house with no lights at night. Some of you know what that terrible sense of spiritual darkness feels like. Some of you will feel the significance of some of the things that Jesus says here. I've got a great good news for you: You can come out of that darkness into the light by faith, by believing, trusting in Jesus, turning away from your independence, things you've done wrong, saying to God that you want to live a new life, and coming to him. He'll receive you, and forgive you, and you'll come into that kingdom of light. This is a powerful passage, and it speaks to every generation, not just to the first generation who received it. Let's receive its teaching, and let's be encouraged by the overwhelming power and victory of God's Kingdom in overcoming all evil powers of darkness. Thanks for following this.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Many heard Jesus’ teaching but not all acted on it. Why is action so important?
- Are there areas of your life where you 'sit on the fence'? What holds you back from making a clear decision?
- Look at the differences mentioned between this passage and that in Matthew 12.
- Read through the book of Jonah in the Old Testament. What is the sign of Jonah to which Jesus refers?