Some of Jesus’ critics accused Him of partnering with the devil to perform miracles. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke, examining the Lord’s response and what it teaches us about the purpose of miracles and the power of Christ.
This morning, we will continue with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will read from Luke 11:14–26:
And He was casting out a demon, and it was mute. So it was, when the demon had gone out, that the mute spoke; and the multitudes marveled. But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.”
Others, testing Him, sought from Him a sign from heaven. But He, knowing their thoughts, said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and a house divided against a house falls. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? Because you say I cast out demons by Beelzebub. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace. But when a stronger than he comes upon him and overcomes him, he takes from him all his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoils. He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters.
“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”
This teaching from Jesus is about the devil, a being that Scripture—from Genesis 3 to the end of Revelation—takes extremely seriously. Yet in our own time, great distortions have arisen about the nature and work of Satan. We need to listen to the teaching of Jesus to get a proper understanding of this diabolical person who seeks our destruction. The record of this event comes to us by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It carries the full weight of the authority of God Himself, and I trust that you will receive it as such. Let us pray.
Father and our God, as we contemplate the things contained in this text, we need Your help, not only for understanding them, but to protect us against the evil one. It is our prayer, God, every time we pray or sing the Lord’s Prayer, that You would deliver us from the power of Satan. We ask that even now, in this hour, deliverance may be manifest, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Satan’s Unceasing Assault
The first time we meet the devil in the Bible is in the garden of Eden, where he is introduced in chapter three of Genesis with the somewhat cryptic, ominous, foreboding words: “The serpent was more subtle or crafty than any of the beasts of the field.”
Jesus tells us that the serpent was a liar from the beginning, and he used the power of the lie to seduce our primordial parents and bring the whole creation into ruin. It was the same serpent who assaulted our Lord in the wilderness and did everything in his power to seduce Jesus and prevent Him from fulfilling the mission the Father gave Him. Fortunately for us and the world, the second Adam stood firm and overcame the enemy. Even with Jesus’ victory, Satan’s assault against Him did not cease, but followed Him every step of His earthly ministry.
A Foolish Charge
This passage tells us that Jesus cast out a demon from a man who was mute, and when the demon had gone away, the mute spoke. Everyone who knew this man knew that he did not have the ability to speak. So, when Jesus performed this miracle, the people were astonished. However, not everyone celebrated this victory over the demonic world. The enemies of Jesus, chiefly the scribes and Pharisees, took this occasion to bring perhaps their greatest insult against Jesus.
It was in this moment that the scribes and Pharisees came this close to committing the unpardonable sin. They said that Jesus cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub; by the power of the prince of demons; by the power of Satan. It is one thing to be hostile to Jesus, and something else to say He is in league with the devil.
Luke tells us that others wanted to test Jesus further and ask for a sign from heaven, but He knew what they were thinking. So, Jesus responded to the charge that He was performing works by the power of Satan. Listen carefully to His answer: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and a house divided against a house falls. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? Because you say I cast out demons by Beelzebub.”
What was Jesus saying? He was saying that they had made a foolish supposition: “How stupid would Satan be to use his power in Me to destroy his own kingdom? Haven’t you seen what I just did? I delivered this man who was under the control of a junior-grade demon. That demon answered to Beelzebub as one of his minions, one of his lieutenants. Do you think Satan is going to destroy his own army if he expects his kingdom to stand?” This is how Jesus gave His initial response to the charge that He was doing His miracles through the power of Satan.
Who Can Perform Miracles?
There are a few matters we need to see clearly. In the first place, the leaders, many of whom were scholars, did not deny that Jesus was doing miracles. They did not accuse Him of duplicity, of performing sleight of hand or cleverly devised tricks. They fully acknowledged that Jesus was doing miracles. But the issue was this: by whose power was Jesus able to perform these astonishing signs, wonders, powers, and miracles?
Do you remember Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night with a differing view from his fellow Pharisees? He said to Jesus in a complimentary and flattering way, “Teacher, we know that you are sent from God, or you wouldn’t be able to do the things that you are doing.” He was one Pharisee whose thinking was sound. Nicodemus acknowledged that the miracles of Christ were authentic, but he took it to the next step and said, “You couldn’t do this unless God were with you.”
Notice what Nicodemus did not say. He did not say, “Jesus, we know that you’re a teacher sent from God or from Satan, or you wouldn’t be able to do the things that you’re doing.” Nicodemus had eliminated the second alternative, the idea that Jesus had been sent from Satan. What was he thinking? Nicodemus was thinking that only God can empower a miracle, that Satan does not have the ability or the power to perform miracles.
What if we took a poll of evangelical Christians in America and asked the question, “Do you believe that Satan has the power and the ability to perform miracles?” I have not taken this poll and I am only guessing, but my guess is that most professing evangelical Christians would say, “Yes, Satan can perform miracles.” At that point, I would have to step forward and ask if I could bring the minority report, because I do not believe for a second that Satan has the power to perform miracles. Satan is not God; Satan is a creature. He is stronger than we are and craftier than we can be but he does not have the attributes of God.
I doubt that you or I will meet Satan in our lives because, as a creature, he can only be at one place at one time. He spends his time assaulting the big boys and girls. He sends his junior-grade demons to torment us. We will never have to deal with Satan like Jesus, Luther, and Edwards did, because he is not divine. He does not have the attribute of omnipresence, nor is he omnipotent. His power is greater than mine and yours, but there is a limit to that power, and that limit falls far short of the power of God.
Lying Signs and Wonders
Some might ask, “Doesn’t the Bible warn us against the miracles of Satan?” Let me read a passage that those who believe in Satan’s ability to perform actual miracles will go to first. In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul wrote these words of warning:
Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.
Just a brief excursus—you have heard of the phrase antichrist. The term anti in Greek does not simply mean “against.” It does mean that, but it also means, “in place of.” We expect the antichrist to be not only an opponent of Christ, but one who wants to usurp the position of Christ and to be His vicar, if you will, to take His place and establish himself as the great authority.
Paul continues: “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” He goes on, talks about restraining and so on, and says, “The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish.”
In his warning, the Apostle Paul says that the one who comes in the power of Satan will come with the power of lying signs and wonders so wonderful and so powerful that they might even deceive the elect.
Here is the question: What does Paul mean? What does the Bible mean when it attributes to Satan the power of performing “lying signs and wonders”? What does it mean by “lying”? Does Paul mean that Satan will come doing bona fide, authentic miracles in support of a lie? Or does the term “lying” mean that those signs and wonders are not true signs and wonders establishing a lie, but false signs and wonders trying to establish a lie? Do you understand the difference?
I think Paul says the latter, that Satan can perform signs so prodigious that they can persuade and deceive even the very elect of God. Nevertheless, as clever and impressive as these signs may be, they are phony. They are not real miracles.
Real Miracles vs. False Miracles
Back in the book of Exodus, God called Moses out in the Midianite wilderness and told him: “Go to Pharaoh and tell Pharaoh that I said, ‘Let my people go.’ Tell Pharaoh to dismiss the greatest slave labor force in the history of the world. Then go to the people and say: ‘Let’s go. Pack up your bags, we’re out of here.’ The people are going to say, ‘We don’t have any weapons, so how are we going to resist the chariots of Pharaoh?’ Then you will say, ‘Trust me, we’re going on the largest wildcat strike in the history of the world.’”
Moses was impressed by the presence of God, of course, but he said: “God, how am I going to accomplish this? How will Pharaoh believe me when I say that You sent me? How are the people going to believe me when I tell them that You sent me?”
How did God answer Moses’ question? He said, “Moses, take your stick and throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground, and it turned into a snake. God said, “Now pick it up by the tail.” Moses picked it up by the tail, and it turned back into a stick. Then God said, “Moses, put your hand in your shirt and pull it out.” There was leprosy. “Moses, put it back in your shirt and pull it out.” It was clean. God told Moses, “Here’s how they’re going to know that I sent you: I’m going to empower you to do miracles—the kind of miracles that only I can empower.”
All of history was changed because God empowered Moses to perform true miracles, not lying signs. He went into the palace of Pharaoh and told Pharaoh the message. Pharaoh said, “Bring me my magicians.” Moses threw down his stick, turning it into a snake, and the magicians of Egypt threw down their sticks and they became snakes. It was a standoff; that is, until Moses’ snake ate up all their snakes. Then it was all over.
Pharaoh’s magicians were great magicians, practiced in sleight of hand. They could have empty sticks that already had snakes in them, collapse the sticks, and let the snakes go. There was a limit to their magic. It was no more magic than the magicians you see on television today. They were lying signs, lying wonders.
Against Nature and Against Evil
Theologians who have defended the idea that Satan can perform miracles make a fine distinction. In classic theology, part of the definition of a miracle is a work wrought through the power of God that is contra naturam, meaning, “against nature.” An axe head floating, a virgin bringing forth a child, or water turning into wine violates the laws of nature. Those things do not naturally occur. To do them involves working contra naturam, against nature.
The question is, Can Satan perform miracles against nature? He is not the Lord of nature. He is not the author of nature, but he is supernatural, an angelic being with more powers than we have. So, those who defend Satan’s ability to perform miracles reason that he can work contra naturam. While Satan can work contra naturam, they say, he cannot work contra peccatum, and that is what Jesus was saying in our text. Satan can work contra naturam, against nature, but not contra peccatum, against evil. Jesus’ miracles are both against nature and against evil. You can see how they make that conclusion from the discussion we have read in our text.
I believe and agree that Satan never works against evil, against peccatum. He works pro peccatum, for evil. I disagree that he has the power to work contra naturam, because that is the basis for a real and truthful miracle.
Why am I exercised about Satan’s ability to work miracles? Hebrews 2 starts with these words: “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how then shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation”—let me pause where the comma is.
So Great a Salvation
This is a question that every one of us needs to be able to answer: “How then shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” The salvation that comes to us in Jesus Christ is not a mean salvation. It is not an insignificant salvation. It is not one way of salvation. It is a great salvation. This is the greatest work of benevolence that the providence of God has ever wrought.
I drive to church every Sunday morning and see multitudes of people along the way who are utterly indifferent to the greatness of salvation. They systematically neglect it. That is the way of the world. God provides a great salvation. We neglect it. We dismiss it. We overlook it.
It is a rhetorical question raised by the author of Hebrews: How can we possibly escape if we neglect so great a salvation? Let us make it personal: How can I escape the judgment of God if I neglect that great salvation? How can you possibly escape if you neglect that salvation?
The Purpose of Miracles
The author of Hebrews continues: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him.” The writer is saying: “This great salvation was announced by Jesus. We heard it from Him at first, and what He told us about this great salvation was confirmed.”
What does it mean to confirm something? It means to authenticate it. It means to take away any doubt about it. It is to make it certain as the confirmation comes. How was the word of this great salvation confirmed? God confirmed it by bearing witness with signs, wonders, and various miracles. The truth of sacred Scripture, the truth of the gospel, and the truth of Christ were authenticated by miracles. That was God’s way of certifying and confirming His truth.
Do you see what is at stake? If Satan can really perform true miracles, then the miracles of Christ, the miracles of the Apostles, and the miracles of Moses confirm nothing.
Satan is clever. He can disguise himself as an angel of light. He goes about as a roaring lion seeking those whom he can devour, but he is not God. There is a limit beyond which he cannot go. That is why we give a tight definition of a miracle. We get loose about it when people say: “What’s a miracle? Every time a baby is born, that’s a miracle.” No, every time a baby is born is a wonderful thing, but it is not a miracle.
Expect a Miracle?
Sometimes I’ll go into a minister’s office, and I’ll see this sign on the wall: “Expect a miracle.” If you are expecting a miracle, it is not a miracle. A miracle is the last thing that you expect. It is extraordinary. There is nothing ordinary about a miracle. A miracle, by definition, is so extraordinary and so unusual that it demands our attention.
God answers prayers every day. He does inward things that we do not see. But nobody is raising people from the dead. Nobody is making axe heads float. Nobody does these kinds of works that only God can do.
When true miracles come to pass, they bring with them divine certification. That was the point of miracles. Principally and chiefly, they were to prove once and for all that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
You can have a demon cast out, and that demon can roam about the dry places, but if he is not replaced by the Holy Ghost, he will come back with all his friends and your end will be worse than the beginning. We can respect the power of Satan, but let us not give him the power and authority that only God possesses.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.