Luke 4:31–37 Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath he taught the people. 32 They were amazed at his teaching, because his words had authority. 33 In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, 34 “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” 35 “Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him. 36 All the people were amazed and said to each other, “What words these are! With authority and power he gives orders to impure spirits and they come out!” 37 And the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area.
Experts will tell you that demon possession doesn’t happen in majority Christian cultures. It would be too counterproductive. In non-Christian, pagan settings though it’s a wonderful demonic strategy. When demon possession happens there it sends people to their idols and their shamans and their witchdoctors. The sick get even sicker. But in places like ours, demon possession is counterproductive for the demons. Think about it. If you saw a guy who was acting like someone out of AMC’s The Walking Dead, I’ll bet I can guess where you’d go. You’d go to church. So would a lot of other people. And that’s totally counterproductive to the work of the demons. Instead in a Christian culture the demons’ best strategy is to hide in plain sight. In other words, in America today demons fight us using guerrilla warfare. So say the experts.
I’m not sure though that expert opinion would’ve really comforted the lady I met earlier this week at the ICU. I had shown up to try to visit a friend whose mother was there and managed to somehow get into a conversation with the ICU’s receptionist. We talked for a while about a number of theological issues that were on her mind before I noticed a look cross her face that I knew all too well from personal experience. I had gotten up to go because I thought our conversation was over when I saw that look. I understood it perfectly before she even asked her questions. She asked, “Do you ever feel the attacks of the devil? Is it worse some days?” I smiled in the gentlest and knowing way I could and said something like, “Yes and yes.” And I thought about the sting of the conscience, the sick gravity of temptation, and the days that made me want to pull the covers up over my body and never to crawl out of bed. She broke in on those thoughts and said, “I think this was a divine appointment.” I walked away thinking about her and the encounter. We don’t live in spiritual Switzerland. We live in occupied territory and behind enemy lines, but we don’t ever see the enemy. And in some ways that makes it even tougher.
Because it can feel a bit like we’re headed for a case of spiritual PTSD. Like a demonic landmines or sniper bullet could nab us when we’re least expecting it. Sometimes I think we like to deal with that by romanticizing the past. Like we kind of miss the good ol’ days of the 1st century when Satan walked around like some kind of evil sheriff saying, “Stick’em up,” to everybody. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to spot him and to know his work? Wouldn’t it be better to see the guy who’s got the gun trained on our heads – at least then we’d know it was, right? Don’t you just want to scream sometimes, “Stop the sniping and come out where I can see you.”? But then you read the Scriptures and you see what the first century was actually like. You read about how people’s minds and wills were so supernaturally supressed that the demonic personality took over bodies not even allowing the human soul to waggle a finger. You read about how they’d toss their human host bodies into fires and cut them to maim and disfigure them beyond recognition, but not functionality; how the possessed people would crawl into catacombs to cuddle with skeletons; how they’d foam horribly at the mouth; how they’d walk around naked and smeared with feces. You read all that and you realize you’re right back at square one. Neither Satan’s modern guerrilla warfare nor his first century open attacks are preferable. They’re both just awful.
Luke would agree. He’s so helpful here. Because it just isn’t clear in this case which strategy Satan was employing. We’re not sure if this guy’s fellow church members knew he was possessed or not. He wasn’t jumping into fires. He wasn’t cuddling with skeletons. He wasn’t foaming at the mouth or cutting himself that we know of. What we know about him is that he was sitting at church for church. That’s what Luke tells us. He says, “On the Sabbath he (Jesus) taught people.” (v. 31) I don’t want to spend too much time on this today, but it’s probably worth pointing out that apparently demons don’t have any problem going to a church where the gospel isn’t preached and the Scriptures are all muddied up. What became problematic and troublesome and upsetting for this particular demon was the powerful gospel preaching of this preacher. I do think – or rather Luke does – that it’s worth underlining that idea. It wasn’t actually the charisma or magnetism of the preacher that upset the demon. I’m not saying – neither does Luke! – that Jesus’ deity or sonship or charisma or preaching ability are at all in question. They’re not. They’re just not the Spirit’s main point here. No doubt Jesus was an amazing communicator, an engrossing and entrancing kind of speaker, the best of the best preachers, but when Luke describes Jesus the preacher he’s focused only on his words. He says, “They were amazed at his teaching, because his words had authority.” (v. 32)
Jesus didn’t meander this way and that through various points like their normal preachers. Jesus didn’t stand up there and say, “This rabbi says the text means this and this rabbi says the text means that. You can choose. We’re not really sure.” Jesus didn’t even stand up there out of duty or mere obligation saying, “I guess I better preach. It’s the Sabbath.” Jesus knew where he was going with his sermon. Jesus spoke knowing what the text actually meant. Jesus spoke charismatically and joyfully as the gospel filled his being. I’ll bet it moved his arms. I’ll bet it filled his eyes with light. I’ll bet his message seemed to ooze out of his very pores. And just consider the fact that this was one of Jesus’ rookie sermons. Even as a rookie preacher he was making the Scriptures come to life before their very eyes in such a powerful way that after the sermon everybody in the church felt like they had been mind slapped. That’s the word that’s translated here as, “amazed,” (v. 32). It’s actually kind of a violent word. It talks about a powerful knock to the senses. Like when your head gets slammed in a football game and you see stars or when you get a concussion playing ice hockey. This is the spiritual version of that. Their minds were stupefied. They were spiritually knocked silly. They were amazed. Do you see Luke’s point? Luke wants us to understand the power of Jesus’ words. They always amaze.
Case and point? That poor, poor demon who was sitting at church for church on the wrong Sabbath. He thought he was going to get his normal gospel-less sermon, and then Jesus started preaching and he reacts with perfect fear and complete surprise. Luke says he cried out at, “the top of his voice.” (v. 33) You know what the poor demon cried? At first, he cried nothing. Nothing meaningful that is. He’s so upset. He’s so surprised. He’s so undone and threatened and feeling so vulnerable that when he cries out at the top of his voice he says nothing meaningful at all. He just lets loose a meaningless vocalization. I think it was maybe like some kind of annoying car alarm or the sound a stuck pig makes. At any rate, it was a sound of horror, surprise and probably deep, deep anger. And apparently the sound was pretty memorable because Luke does his best to get it down for us. He says that the loud and terrifying vocalization sounded like, “ἔα.” (v. 34) And then the demon starts trying to piece it all together. He asks, “What do you want with us?” And “Have you come to destroy us?” (v. 34) And then he identifies Jesus, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God!” (v. 34) And then two seconds later the whole encounter was over. Jesus speaks. He issues two terse commands. “Be quiet! Come out of him!” (v. 35) And the demon is exorcised. There was no incantation. No ritualistic holding up of a cross over the possessed person as they scream in agony. There was only Jesus issuing a command with words and the demon immediately doing his bidding.
And only then does Luke make his big theological point. Truthfully it’s probably not the one you might be expecting. At least, not if my NIV Bible is any indication. It’s unfortunately not incredibly helpful in connecting the dots for us. My Bible has the title JESUS DRIVES OUT AN IMPURE SPIRIT on this section, which – you know – is nice. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy as much as the next guy seeing the divinity and power of Jesus in action. It’s always awesome and faith building to do that, but that’s actually not Luke’s big and overarching theological point here. You know what is? Jesus’ words not only have authority, they also always act when they’re spoken. In fact, that’s why the whole episode is bookended the way it is. Well before the demon ever made itself known in that church the people had already been blown away by, “his words,” and their, “authority.” (v. 36) What they hadn’t quite learned yet is how much authority those words really had. But they knew now. In fact, if you read the account closely that was their big aha moment after the exorcism. It wasn’t, “This preacher has power over demons. Did you see that guy drop unharmed and exorcised right in the middle of the church?” It was, “What words these are!” (v. 36) They even add more praise and accolades to his words than they had after they sermon. Now they say about his words that they not only have, “authority,” but also, “power,” (v. 36) to do what they say.
As I walked out of the ICU, I thought about how badly we all need that kind of power. I thought about how demonic power can take a human spirit and squelch it into such a small place inside a person’s own body that it can’t even waggle its own finger. I thought about myself. I thought about how on the days I miss of Scripture how the anxiety seems to magically appears with way too much force. I thought about people I love. I thought about how the darkness of depression always seems to become overwhelming only after church gets skipped for a couple of weeks. I thought about how faith goes up in thin air when the Word is absent even for just a couple months in our lives. I thought about the crazy way the devils use personal problems like a sick tractor beam to keep people out of church when church is what they need the most. I thought about it all. I thought about the guerrilla warfare and the backdoor strategies and all the satanic misdirection and how it all seems to have such an unearthly power over all of us. I thought about how this isn’t Switzerland though sometimes we live like it is; and how our failure to recognize and act on the fact that this is occupied territory is part of the demonic influence itself.
And then I thought about Luke’s high and driving point. I thought about how badly he wants us to see the words of Jesus as not only authoritative, but also as full of available and active power. I thought about how we’re supposed to see how Jesus’ words come from on high and do their work on earth. I thought about how it’s not the charisma of the preacher that reliably does that. It’s just the words. That if it’s only Jesus’ words they’ll not only upset the devils, they’ll get them gone. That if those words could totally dislodge a demon, they could deal with all the other demonic strategies as well. And then I thought about how badly I wanted to leverage that power in this church. And I thought about how that’s part of Luke’s whole point. Jesus doesn’t pick locales haphazardly. Jesus doesn’t show up randomly in places to do his Messianic work. It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t haphazard that he showed up in a synagogue and it wasn’t coincidental that careful, detailed, and Spirit-led Luke tells us that. The gospel has value over coffee mugs, over dinner tables, friend to friend, and soul to soul, but here Jesus is zeroing in on our church. Jesus is teaching us to love and value our church as the place where the gospel exorcises our demons. This is where Satan loses his influence over your soul. This is where you along with everybody will be stupefied, mind-slapped, and knocked sideways with the grace and exorcising power of the gospel. That’s what we’re here for. To make demons shriek and souls sing with the new power of Jesus’ words.
I thought about all that. And then I thought ahead to this moment where I might be able to say to someone who’s despairing that God is up to anything good in their lives and how that thought sticks in their heads like a kind demonic super glue. I thought about how I would tell them right now, “Jesus commands that devilish idea to come out.” And how those very words would accomplish it. I thought ahead to the people who are here who might have demons tugging at them making their days feel a whole lot more like nights. And I thought about how I would tell them, “Position yourself right here in Jesus’ church. Listen to his voice. Those demons will have to leave. When Jesus’ words get spoken, they don’t have a choice.” And then I thought of all the people who might be here who’ve got some sin – any sin – devilishly strangling their conscience; how I’d get to say to them, “I forgive you in Jesus’ name.” And how when I’d say that that Jesus’ forgiveness through those very words would be perfectly applied. And then I thought how afterward we’d all be just like that guy who had been exorcised who must’ve looked at his exorcist so filled with thanks that he was only able to mumble the words that later came off Luke’s pen. “What are these words!?! What authority! What power! They even give orders to impure spirits and they come out.” Amen.