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Luke #44 Overcoming the Evil One

Overcoming the Evil One

Reading: Luke 11:14-26

Introduction: One of the built-in characteristics of human nature seems to be our great capacity for reacting defensively in situations that threaten not just our physical well-being but our perceived emotional and social well-being. Like the apostle Paul talking about sin in Romans 7, I find it to be a law in my life that every time somebody else's views on a matter do not coincide with my own that I immediately tense up and begin marshalling my arguments and digging my mental trenches, not just to hang on to what I think but convince everyone else I am right. What bothers me the most is the fact that I often get the most defensive in situations in which my answer or my way of doing things or my beliefs are actually the shakiest. Whether it is a discussion at home or a theological discussion with someone, or even totally insignificant issues or things, we know what it is like to become defensive when someone threatens our security, our way of doing things, our ways of understanding. Particularly with beliefs and religious convictions, once we become defensive it is extremely difficult to back down, to admit someone else might be right, to admit that some other way of doing things could be acceptable. In becoming defensive, it is no longer an idea or practice at stake but our own personal honor.

In the story just read from Luke chapter 11, Jesus is surrounded by people who have become defensive in his presence. Rather than being seen as Messiah, he is perceived by many to be a threat. He does not fit their understandings of religion and piety. He eats at the wrong times with the wrong people. He fails to observe Sabbath rituals, he allows himself to be found repeatedly in the presence of sinners and social outcasts. He accepts invitations into the homes of women. He speaks with authority, but he does not fit the mold and pattern of a great leader, either politically or religiously. Thus, when he does miraculous deeds or offers kindness and forgiveness to sinners and social outcasts, the religious people react defensively instead of with joy and thanksgiving. Such is the case when Jesus casts out a demon that has made a man unable to speak.

The immediate context for this incident in Luke is somewhat ironic because, as we saw last week, Jesus has just been asked by his disciples to teach them how to pray, to teach them how to most effectively communicate with God. Jesus has told them to pray the model prayer, "Father, make your name holy, let your kingdom come. Give us this day our daily bread, Forgives us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation." The point of the prayer and the commentary that follows is to convince the disciples that prayer is an invitation to experience the presence and power of God. Prayer is our communicative access to God’s presence, to his Holy Spirit acting in our lives and in our world. One asks, seeks and knocks, not so much for particular material blessings, but for the living God to be active in one’s life. If people who are evil know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

So here is Jesus, introducing the concept of God as a Father in kinship relationship to his disciples, talking about how God gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask him, now confronting a man with another kind of spirit--a demon. This demon has rendered a man unable to speak, much like God rendered John the Baptist's father unable to speak back in Luke chapter one. Here it is a demon, an unholy spirit, inhabiting this man's body. Jesus drives out the demon, and the man speaks and the crowd is amazed, just as they were when Zechariah began to speak after the birth of John. This time, rather than God being praised, people in the crowd seem threatened by what they see that they can't explain. Rather than asking and receiving the Holy Spirit from heaven, these opponents seek a sign from out of heaven. Rather than praying to God to deliver them from temptation, they deliberately put Jesus to the test. Rather than recognize Jesus as the one who proclaims the kingdom of the Father, they accuse him of being a minion of Satan. Rather than give God glory and saying as they did in chapter seven, "God has come to his people," they say, “By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, this man casts out demons.” Others tested Jesus. The word translated "test" here is used only one other time in Luke, in chapter 4 where Satan himself tests Jesus. Others tested him, asking a sign from heaven, just as Satan tested him, saying "turn these stones to bread."

The reaction of these people makes one wonder who really has the demons? Who has the interests of God at heart, and who has the interests of Satan at work in them? A man who could not talk, now speaks. Jesus, the one who teaches people that prayer is access to the power and presence of God, available to those who ask, seek, and knock, is tested and accused of being in league with the prince of demons, with Satan. But who is in league with the prince of demons really?

Jesus knows their thoughts and responds in three ways: first with logic, then a comparison, and finally a challenge. First he asks, “How can a kingdom divided against itself remain standing?” Logic dictates that any kingdom fighting itself will be ruined. To claim that he casts out demons by the power of demons makes no sense. Then Jesus compares himself to their own exorcists. "By whom, by what power, do your people cast out demons? You would never accuse your own exorcists of being filled with the power of Beelzebul!” Finally comes the challenge: “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom, the reign of God, has come to you.” Clearly the point of the story in Luke's gospel is precisely that the reign of God is present in the world in the presence and power of Jesus Messiah. Jesus has already made the comment in chapter 10, "I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven." Later in chapter 17, he will again confirm, "The kingdom is in your midst."

Here, Jesus not only is not empowered by Beelzebul, he is the stronger man who has come to cast out the strong man. He is the greater power than Satan, or Beelzebul, or any demon servant of the devil. Although Satan may be a strong man guarding his house, as he was occupying the man's body so that he could not speak, yet Jesus is the stronger man who comes and overpowers the demon. He casts him (the demon) out of the house just as the stronger man takes away the armour in which the man trusted.and divided the spoils.

How ironic, how misguided it is, for Jesus Messiah, the giver of God's Holy Spirit, to be accused of being in league with Satan, in the midst of him casting out Satan, in the midst of him driving out a demon. And if Satan is the only other character mentioned in the whole gospel who tries to test Jesus like these people try to test him, then who is in league with Satan really? (Isn't it the people who are afraid of that which is new and different, the people who cannot believe in that which does not fit what they already believe, even when there is good being accomplished?)

The most difficult part of the episode comes in the last five verses. Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” The context suggests that those who doubt him and accuse him are themselves in league with the enemy when they reject him or fail to be supportive of him. There is no middle ground; there can be no agnosticism about Jesus; you must decide, yes or no. Either you are for him or against him, nothing in between. No room to sit back and say, "I'll decide later." To not be with him is to be against him in this context because one must be filled with some kind of spiritual presence. Either one is filled with the holy spirit and Godly power, or one is filled with demonic spirits. The Holy Spirit and spirits that hurt, maim, and alienate do not walk together.

The story comes full circle at the end, by Jesus telling about what happens to people who cast off evil spirits but fail to be filled with the Holy Spirit. “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first” (11:24-26.). It is not good enough to cast out Satan or the demonic or that which is evil in our lives. Unless the evil is replaced by good, the evil will return, only with a vengeance.

All of that is still true today, isn't it? Regardless of whether we allow our scientific worldview to cast doubt about the existence of actual demons in our time, or whether we today would ever attribute being mute to demon possession, the principles of this story remain the same. When things happen in peoples' lives today in ways that do not fit what we have already chosen to believe, there is the tendency as a first reaction to say, “that's not from God, that's from Satan.” This passage warns against too quickly attributing to Satan what in fact may be the work and will of God. You start blaming Satan for that which is God's doing, and it is you that is in league with Satan just as these people who accused and tested Jesus.

Perhaps more importantly in your life and mine is what happens when we do drive evil out of our lives. What happens when we offer the gospel to people who are struggling, and we baptize them and drive out the evil? Why are we sometimes surprised to see them struggle and backslide and disappear again. What help have we been to them in replacing the evil with good? How much effort do we ourselves put into filling our own lives with good?

When we talk about falling away from the church, aren't we talking about the problem of failure to be filled with that which is good so that Satan has no place to return when he goes searching for a landing place? That is the challenge for everyone of us as we seek to become more of what God calls us to be. We are constantly in the process of throwing out the evil one and being filled with God's Holy Spirit. It is not good enough to just cast off evil; we must be filled with godliness. Sometimes greater Godliness does not look like what we think it should. When Godliness comes in forms that we don't expect, how do we respond? Will we call it the work of God, or will we call it the power of the prince of demons? Certainly there is the need to test the spirits, to discern whether something is from Christ or from wolves in sheep's clothing. Maybe the question is not whether we test the spirits or not, but what our first reaction is. Is our first reaction always to doubt and dismiss the new and different, or is our first reaction open to the possibility of God being at work? Are we willing for God to be at work in our lives beyond what we already have decided he can do? Are we willing for God to be at work in the lives of others in ways that we do not already expect? Are we ready and willing to drive out the evil one from our presence and be filled with God's Holy Spirit?

Isn't that really what we proclaim in our gospel of salvation in the first place? Don't we offer to people the opportunity to cast off the evil one by going to the cross with Jesus in the experience of Baptism? Baptism is not a ritual bath for church people. It is a death, burial and resurrection, with the old ways and Satan's powers being put to death, and a new life with a Holy Spirit being given.

Spiritual growth is that process of being filled more and more with Holy Spirit life and power, lest Satan return and find nothing but a clean house waiting to be filled with evil once more. As this story suggests, sometimes Satan finds such dwelling places in the midst of those following Jesus. They follow but fail to see and understand. When it comes to that attitude of defensiveness that so often ends discussions before they begin, is that from God’s Holy Spirit presence within us, or some other presence? Certainly it is right to avoid evil, but when our first thoughts always are about what’s wrong with something, we may miss out on what’s right, even what God may be trying to accomplish as we test and probe for what’s wrong. Whose side are we on?

Whose side are you on this morning? Which Jesus would you have seen in the first century? The one with horns, in league with Satan because something about him just wasn’t quite right? Or the side of Holy Spirit presence and empowering? Which will you choose this morning?

Delivered at Brentwood Hills, February 12, 1995 a.m.

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