May 6, 2012

Jesus Meets a Demon

Luke 4:31–37

One day, as Jesus was preaching in the synagogue, He was interrupted by the cries of a demon. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition in the gospel of Luke to consider how this confrontation reveals the divine power and supreme authority of Christ.


We are continuing with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading Luke 4:31–37.

Then He went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and was teaching them on the Sabbaths. And they were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority. Now in the synagogue there was a man who had a spirit of an unclean demon. And he cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!”

But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him in their midst, it came out of him and did not hurt him. Then they were all amazed and spoke among themselves, saying, “What a word this is! For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out.” And the report about Him went out into every place in the surrounding region.

What goes through your mind when you hear an account like this? To contemporary ears, it sounds almost bizarre. Today, many within the church write this off as sheer first-century mythology, but I remind you that this passage comes from God. It is His Word and His sober truth. Let us receive it as such. Let us pray.

Now, our Father, in the midst of the cosmic struggle in which we are engaged with the forces of hell, we pray that You would send Your Holy Spirit to abide with us that we may know how to deal with those spirits that are unholy. For we ask it in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Jesus Goes to Capernaum

The narrative leading up to our passage describes Jesus speaking at the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth. There, He had declared His identity, that He was fulfilling the messianic prophecy of Isaiah. However, the hometown crowd turned against Him, and our Lord barely escaped from that furious mob. Luke tells us that He then went to Capernaum, where He stayed for some time during His ministry in Galilee. Additionally, the gospel of Mark confirms that Jesus took up residence in Capernaum for a while, probably in the house of Peter.

When Vesta and I visited the town of Capernaum, we saw the excavations of the synagogue where Jesus taught, as recorded in the text we just read. We also saw the excavation of several homes in that town, and I was amazed at the size of these dwellings. My guess is that the average size of the home in Capernaum was about two hundred square feet or less for an entire family. As I thought about how families could live in such small dwellings, I thought of the Native American tribes who lived in small spaces such as teepees. Ancient people were not used to the spacious accommodations that we experience today.

The Thunderous Weight of Jesus’ Message

Luke tells us that Jesus went into the synagogue, as was His custom, and that He served as the visiting Rabbi on more than one occasion, interpreting the scroll of the week and giving His sermons there. We are told that the people were utterly amazed and astonished at His teaching because He spoke with such authority.

The Scriptures describe Jesus’ manner of speaking with the term exousia, which means either “power” or “authority.” We can call it a mixture of the two, an authoritative power or a powerful authority, so that when Jesus spoke, the people marveled at His words—at their truth, solemnity, sobriety, depth, and seriousness. The people did not realize it at the time, but they were listening to sermons presented by the One who was the incarnation of truth and who had within Himself the power of life that attended the proclamation of His Word. When Jesus spoke, there was a moment of crisis for everyone in the room as they would feel the thunderous weight of the message that He would give.

On this occasion, Jesus was rudely interrupted in the middle of His message by the cry of a demon. The New King James Version omits the first word that the demon spoke, which went something like “Ha!” The demon was effectively saying, “Ha! What’s this?” It was a brief word of mockery and sneering at the teaching of Jesus.

No Theology without Demonology

Let me pause before we continue with the narrative. As I said before, this text presents matters that seem bizarre to our ears in this day and age. New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann said that no one can avail themselves of electricity, radios, televisions, and modern antibiotics and still believe in a world inhabited by angels and demons, where there is a supernatural realm beneath the earth and above the earth—those days have gone. According to Bultmann, if we are to gain meaning from the New Testament, we must first subject the Scriptures to a rigorous process of demythologizing to find some kernel of religious or existential truth.

When I was a graduate student in Holland, G.C. Berkouwer, a professor of mine, once commented that there cannot be any theology without demonology. The New Testament clearly propounds the reality of the demonic and angelic worlds. They are supernatural beings who are usually invisible to our gaze but nevertheless are real and powerful. The New Testament speaks more often about angels than it does about love or even sin. The word angelos, the Greek word for “angel,” appears far more frequently than the words for “love” or “sin.” Whether you like it or not, the Christian faith contains a commitment to the supernatural realm where not all the angels are good and righteous, but some have fallen and are minions of Satan.

From Sober Exegesis to Baloney

During the 1960s, the most remarkable phenomenon in the American church was the rapid and surprising spread of the charismatic movement, which arose out of the Pentecostal church. It made its way through every major denomination, including Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and even Roman Catholics. This Pentecostal revival had begun at the Azusa Street Mission in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century. For the first half of the century, it was restricted to Pentecostal and Church of God denominations. However, it burst out and went through all the different denominations. It brought not only a revival of great interest in spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, and so on, but it also gave rise to the phenomenon of deliverance ministries in which exorcisms became the matter of the day. It even reached the inner courts of Hollywood, which took advantage of this new interest in exorcism by releasing the blockbuster movie, The Exorcist.

I had a friend who was deeply involved in the charismatic movement and was interested in deliverance ministries, including exorcism. He twisted my arm to listen to a tape from the learned scholar Derek Prince, who supposedly gave the definitive teaching on the matter of demons and demonic exorcism. I agreed to listen to the tape. At first, I was struck by the careful work that Prince had given to New Testament exegesis. He talked about the Greek word daimonion, from which we get the English word “demon,” and about how Scripture speaks of the demonic reality.

In the middle of Prince’s message, he moved from sober exegesis to giving his experiences of discerning what kind of demon a person is delivered from. He had a theory that demons leave people in a manner similar to how they first enter them. For example, if a person is delivered from the demon of smoking, he utters a sigh, just like exhaling. If one has the demon of alcohol, it leaves by vomiting, the opposite of drinking. He came up with a bizarre set of signs on how to know when a demon was exorcised. I decided that was enough of that because it was baloney. The reality of the demonic world, however, is not baloney.

I want us to understand that Luke, who was a physician, distinguished between demonic possession and lunacy throughout his gospel, which is also true of the other gospels. Contemporary people who want to say that first-century observers confused demonic possession with insanity are wrong because the Bible distinguishes between the two. It also distinguishes demonic possession from what we would call convulsion or epilepsy. So, there is a category that is separate from other maladies in New Testament literature that has specific reference to demonic possession.

The Unholy Recognizes the Holy

I do not think that there has been a period in human history when the demonic world was more active and engaged against the kingdom of God than in the first century. The reason is that the Son of God was walking on earth, and all the power of hell was unleashed against Him. Virtually every miracle you see Jesus performing in the New Testament was also performed in the Old Testament by prophets like Elijah, Elisha, or Moses. What was radically new about the supernatural ministry of Jesus was exorcism.

Jesus said, “If you see Me casting out Satan by the finger of God,” which is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit, “then you will know that the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). The New Testament writers were keen to let us know that Jesus’ power over the demonic world was significant. It was a sign of His supernatural origin and His supreme authority that even the devils of this world trembled at His presence.

The accounts in Scripture of encounters between Jesus and the demonic realm follow a similar pattern. There is always a protest from the demon: “Jesus, what are you doing? Leave us alone. Do not torment us. What have we to do with you? Did You come to destroy us?” Elsewhere, the question is: “Have you come to destroy us before the time?” (Matt. 8:29). The demons knew that their days were numbered, that God had established a day when they would be wiped out and their power would be completely removed. However, that day had not yet come, and they knew it.

One thing I could say for demons is that they have a sound theology. They know who Jesus is, what the truth is, and who God is. If one says he believes in God, it is not enough because even the demons believe and tremble (James 2:19). If you say that you believe in God, all that does is qualify you to be a demon because even they know that much theology. Their understanding of the identity of Jesus is impeccable, strangely enough. The problem with demons is not that they are ignorant of the truth but that they hate it with every fiber of their being. No one has ever hated Jesus more than demonic beings. When He appeared, they trembled, feared, protested, and resisted so that nothing would quench their fierce hatred of Him.

The demon said, “I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” Can you say that? Do you know who He is? The demons know who Jesus is. Nothing recognizes the holy more clearly than the unholy. No one recognizes the intrusion of heaven more than those who inhabit hell. Here, we find the testimony of the devil to the identity of Jesus. This demon interrupted Jesus, but He silenced him by saying, “Be quiet,” which is not as polite as it sounds. In effect, Jesus was saying, “Shut up, and come out of him.”

Fight the Right Fight the Right Way

Luke continues:

And when the demon had thrown him in their midst, it came out of him and did not hurt him. Then they were all amazed and spoke among themselves, saying, “What a word this is! For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out.” And the report about Him went out into every place in the surrounding region.

During our annual mission conference, Richard Pratt gave a message at the men’s breakfast entitled “Our God is a Warrior.” He went to the first chapter of Joshua, where God commanded Joshua to have courage and to be brave. He also warned him of the battle that was coming. Yet, God promised Joshua that He would be with him in this battle. Dr. Pratt went on to say that we are called to engage in a battle, but we must engage in the right fight and in the right way. In that stirring message, he pointed us to Ephesians 6:10–13, which says:

Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

The Apostle Paul ends this epistle the same way he began it. He describes the cosmic struggle in the heavens between the victor, the Son of God who leads captivity captive, and these invisible but powerful forces from hell. Paul said that we need the whole armor of God because we are in a battle, and it is not with people. The battle that a Christian must endure is a spiritual battle, not just a struggle with their own sinful tendencies but a war that is cosmic in scope. In effect, Paul was saying, “Do you realize that, as a Christian, you are engaged in a battle against cosmic powers, principalities, and spiritual wickedness in high places?” The Bible tells us that God raises the world’s empires and tears them down.

There is an idea that human empires, whole nations, can be demonized so that their political structure and actions are carried out under the influence of the devil. I remember reading in Holland a documented photograph from Adolf Hitler’s diary in which he wrote: “Today, I have entered into a pact with the devil.” He wanted a new Reich, a new kingdom, the symbol of which was a crooked cross, the Hakenkreuz. It was twisted, distorted, and demonic. He and his highest staff members were involved in Satan worship, not much different from Joseph Stalin and Idi Amin.

The late Swiss New Testament scholar and church historian Oscar Cullman said, “There is an element in biblical truth that is often overlooked, and that is the idea of the influence that these supernatural angelic beings have cosmically.” The word in the Greek refers to cosmic power. We are fighting against supernatural forces, and we are fighting that battle with supernatural power—the Holy Spirit and the armor of God.

Resist the Devil, and He Will Flee from You

I get asked all the time: “Can a Christian be demon-possessed?” I don’t think that for a minute. You can be harassed, you can be oppressed, and you can be frustrated by the enemy, but where the Spirit of God lives, there is liberty. Satan cannot inhabit the same space as the Holy Spirit. If you are indwelt by God the Holy Spirit, Satan cannot get in you. He can come up against you and harass you, but he cannot possess you. “For greater is the power that is in you than the power that is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

That is good news, but it is also bad news for those who want to find excuses for their sinful behavior by saying, “The devil made me do it.” If the devil made you do it, you are not a believer. If you are a believer, Satan goes around like a roaring lion seeking to devour whom he will. He is an adversary to be warned of, but Scripture also depicts this roaring lion fleeing with his tail between his legs. For God says, “Resist him, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

The mission of the church is despised by Satan and the forces of hell, and they will do everything they can to push us out of the battle and onto the sidelines. They want to paralyze us, hold us captive, and cause us to retreat. However, we are called to pursue this battle until every inch of real estate on this planet confesses Christ as Lord and Savior.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.