Tuesday, February 14, 2012

He Commands Even the Unclean Spirits

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee (Mark 1:23-28).

Jesus, in his sermon at the synagogue, had already claimed the authority of God by the way in which he taught. Now he would confirm his authority by displaying his power. Jesus is confronted with a demon-possessed man at the synagogue. This man with “an unclean spirit” called Jesus out in front of everyone, identifying him as “the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebukes and silences the unclean spirit and drives it out of the man with a simple command, demonstrating once again that he is Lord.

To understand the significance of this display of his divine power we must first understand what a demon, and demonic possession, is. The original Greek word "daimon" does not carry the negative connotation of the Koine (New Testament Greek) daimonion. This negative connotation was later ascribed to any cognate words sharing the root. The original word was intended to denote a spirit or spiritual being (Demon 2012). In the New Testament, a demon is a messenger, or ministering spirit, of Satan. They are not simply impish or mischievous, but actually evil. These beings are not autonomous, but subordinate to Satan and do his bidding. Demons are able to afflict man with mental, moral, and physical distempers (Harrison, Bromiley and Henry 1999).

We are all more or less familiar with demonic possession from William Peter Blatty’s stark depiction of the subject in his novel-turned-motion picture, The Exorcist. Popular culture generally uses this film’s portrayal of possession as a frame of reference; the image of Regan MacNeil (played by Linda Blair) doing spiritual, and sometimes physical, battle with Father Merrin and Father Karras has become something of a cultural icon. It has also caused great consternation among Christian and non-Christian alike. Is demonic possession real? Why do people become possessed? Why does God allow it? Can a Christian become possessed?

First off, let me begin by saying that I am in no way the definitive authority on the subject of demonic possession; I do not claim or seek that distinction. Furthermore, I do not claim to speak for 1) The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, 2) My home congregation, or 3) anyone else in general. This article is intended to be a discussion of the subject in light of the text, from the perspective of one Evangelical Lutheran, and nothing more. I am, as I have done in the past, asking questions that have come up in my mind while studying scripture.

That being said, the first question to enter my mind when reading about something as disturbing as demonic possession is the obvious: Is possession real? Being a Bible-believing evangelical, my immediate answer is a resounding, if not slightly anxious, yes. If something was a reality in so-called “Bible times,” I believe that something is a reality today. For instance, the Bible tells us that God communicated with his people through prophets in ages past. Just because he does not communicate with us in modern times through prophets does not mean that he can’t, or won’t again at some time in the future[1]. Likewise, if demonic possession was a spiritual reality in Jesus’ time, I believe it is a spiritual reality today, and something with which Christians should be familiar, to the extent it is dealt with by Scripture. The trick is to deal with the subject appropriately. People tend to become either obsessed with, or dismissive of, supernatural things. C. S. Lewis summarized this sentiment best:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight (The Quotable Christian 2012).

Therefore, we should study what Scripture has to say on the matter, without allowing fear – or interest – consume our spiritual lives. If we allow either of the two extremes to become a reality in our lives, we will have become ineffective in our Christian mission, something at which Satan rejoices.

So, what does Scripture say on the matter of possession? Why would God allow some people to become demon possessed? Demonic forces were particularly active in opposing Jesus’ ministry. One particular passage in Matthew, however, may enlighten the issue somewhat:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation (Matthew 12:43-45).

Jesus here describes how a person delivered from a demon becomes worse when there is failure to fill the emptiness with goodness. You see, without saving faith in Jesus, which comes by the working of the Holy Spirit as a result of hearing the Gospel, we are still empty houses. Only the Holy Spirit can replace the evil spirits that are constantly seeking someone to devour[2] (Engelbrecht 2009). Baptized children of God need not have fear of demon possession because Jesus has redeemed them from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil (McCain, et al. 2005). The regenerate Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Before coming to faith we all were slaves to sin[3]. Jesus, however, has bought us, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death on the cross, and we who believe are now slaves to righteousness.

No one can claim to know why God allows possession to happen to some people. I can only point to the case where Jesus healed a man who had been born blind and draw conclusions from there[4]. The disciples asked Jesus who had sinned – either the man, or his parents – that he was born blind. Jesus answered that neither of them had committed any sin that caused the man to have been born blind as punishment. Rather, he explained that the man was born blind so that God could be glorified, and then Jesus healed him. Perhaps that is the case with possession; maybe God allows it to happen in some cases so that his power over Satan may be demonstrated, and so that we, his children, glorify him. That certainly was the case when St. Paul was afflicted by the “thorn in the flesh”:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

In healing the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus demonstrated with a display of divine power that the authority he had just claimed for himself when preaching in the synagogue was legitimate. The exorcism Jesus performed here reveals his identity as the Holy One of God. We have no reason to fear, though we may, like St. Paul, be vexed by demonic forces. We are now part of God’s family, cleansed of our sin by the blood of Jesus, sanctified by the by the working of the Holy Spirit in us. Our house is occupied. There is no longer any room for demons.

End Notes

[1] The author of Hebrews writes, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). While God is certainly capable of speaking to his people through selected, individual prophets, his call to repentance and message of salvation has been once and for all time delivered in the incarnate Word – Christ. The Word is the primary means of communication from God to man “in these last days.”
[2] 1 Peter 5:8

[3] Romans 6:15-18

[4] John 9

Works Cited

"Demon." Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. February 7, 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demon (accessed February 7, 2012).

Engelbrecht, Edward A et. al. The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009.

Harrison, Everett F, Geoffrey W Bromiley, and Carl F Henry, . Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1999.

McCain, Paul T, Robert C Baker, Gene E Veith, and Edward A Engelbrecht, . Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

The Quotable Christian. February 7, 2012.
http://www.pietyhilldesign.com/gcq/quotepages/demons.html (accessed February 7, 2012).