Being aware of the Underworld - the Demonic - Ephesians 6:10-18
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
In his book, ‘The Screwtape Letters’ in which a senior devil corresponds with a junior devil on how to deter a man from becoming a Christian, C.S. Lewis writes in his preface: ‘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.’ There is little doubt that both extremes are to be found within today’s church.
What I want to do tonight is to draw attention to some of the main points of what the Bible has to say about being aware of the spiritual ‘underworld’, and especially to think about what is called demon possession.
Getting the Perspective
So let’s begin by gaining some kind of perspective and the first thing to note is that reference to demon possession is relatively rare in the Bible. What is more, where you might expect it to be found, it is notably absent. So in the OT the phenomenon is only alluded to with regards to one individual, namely King Saul in 1 Samuel 16 and 18. So in 18:10 and this is what we read; ‘The next day an evil spirit from God came forcefully on Saul.’ But if you were to look at the footnote in your Bible you would see it could be translated an ‘injurious spirit’ and even this was sent by God. In other word it is more akin to a fit of rage- a spirit of temper. So this could be no more than a mental condition, a hateful temper which in this context appears to be part of the judgement God sent upon Saul for his rebellion against him and which David cold somehow sooth with his harp playing (1 Sam 16:23).
There is one fleeting reference to demons in Dt 32:17 in connection with idolatry, so to worship idols is knowingly or unknowingly to connect with demons.
When we come to the New Testament and the Book of Acts there is only one case of demon possession and exorcism related in any detail- that of the fortune telling slave girl in Acts 16. In the case of Peter in Acts 5:16 we read, ‘Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.’ Of Paul in Acts 19 we are told that some evil spirits left people and folk were cured by people taking handkerchiefs which Paul has touched (v 12). Here there seems to be a deliberate paralleling of Peter as the apostle to the Jews and Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles. There are in fact a total of five references in the book of Acts to evil spirits being cast out.
What is particularly striking is that neither demon possession nor exorcisms are mentioned in the epistles. What is more, if it is an integral part of ministry as some charismatics today would claim, why is it not mentioned in the pastorals since Timothy and Titus form the bridge from the apostolic to the post-apostolic age? I am aware that you have to be careful arguing from silence, but in this case the silence is deafening. What is more no exorcism by Jesus is recorded in the Gospel of John. However, that the casting out of demons formed an integral part of Jesus ministry is attested to in the synoptic Gospels; Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Jesus and demon possession
So let’s think for a moment about Jesus releasing people from demons.
Whilst no casting out of demons is associated with John the Baptist’s ministry- once Jesus comes onto the scene, demoniacs appear to be popping up all over the place, that is the impression you get, Mark 1:32ff, ‘That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.’
There are six exorcisms described in the Synoptics:
1. The demoniac in the synagogue –Mk 1:21/ Lk 4:33
2. Gerasene demoniac/s- Mk 5:1/Mtt 8:28/ Lk 8:26.
3. Daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24/ Mt 15:21.
4. The epileptic boy- Mk 9:14/Mt 17:14/Lk 9:37
5. The dumb demoniac- Mt 9:32.
6. The dumb and blind demoniac- Mtt 12:22.
Of course there were exorcisms being carried out by other Jews long before Jesus came onto the scene since Jesus refers to the Pharisees having ‘followers’ who cast out demons in Lk 11:19. Jesus’ 12 disciples were also given power to cast out demons in Mk 6:13 as were the 72 disciples in Lk 10:17. But it does seem to be the case that there is an unusually excessive amount of demonic activity centred on Jesus himself which after his death and resurrection appears to be drastically reduced in comparison.
The question is, why? Why so much activity when Jesus begins his ministry and a diminishing when he has finished his earthly ministry?
Well, in Mark’s Gospel it certainly appears that the casting out of demons underscores the authority of Jesus which in turn points to the divine nature of Jesus as the Son of God- Mk 1:27, ‘The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” It’s as if the coming of the Son of God into the world- the world’s true King -has stirred up a flurry of demonic activity on the part of the prince of this world- the devil- whose rule over people is being threatened. This is quite understandable. Just think about it: it was when the German soil began to be invaded by the Allies during World War 2 that the Nazis fought the most ferociously. This ties in with Jesus own explanation of the significance of his exorcism in Lk 11: 20 ‘…if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’ This is a sign that the King has arrived to establish his kingdom. Satan’s dominion is being shaken to its very foundations, and the demons know this. And so in Mk 1:24, the demons exclaim, “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!” Enemy territory is being reclaimed by its rightful owner and the enemy is stirred in desperation.
But let me make some further points regarding Jesus and the release of folk from the demonic. The first is that Jesus focused not on the devil himself but on the victims of the devil’s destructive work- he was concerned with people. Secondly, while some of Jesus’ conflict with Satan was dramatic as in the case of the Gadarene demoniac, some were less dramatic, such as when the devil uses ordinary people with the best intentions to deflect God’s purposes. Do you remember when Peter said Jesus shouldn’t go to the cross and Jesus replied ‘Get behind me Satan!’? The devil can be at work very effectively through the ordinary as well as the extraordinary and we need to remember that.
Demon possession and illness
In some cases it appears that demon possession results in a physical ailment such as epilepsy, dumbness or blindness. This has led some people to argue that in the case of say, the epileptic boy in Mk 9, this was just ordinary epilepsy, and because the organic causes were unknown in Jesus day it was simply attributed to a demon because they didn’t know any better. And so, it is argued, Jesus was either merely accommodating himself to the ideas of his day or he himself was so locked into the first century world view that he didn’t know any different.
I am not convinced by that argument for a number of reasons.
First, whilst recognising the humanity of Jesus and so him being subject to human limitations (he couldn’t be in two places at once, he grew tired, needed food etc.), in this case he does give a spiritual explanation as to the cause of the problem and he carries out an exorcism not a healing. Contrast this with the case of the woman with some form of spine deformity in Lk 13:10. There we read of this woman having been crippled ‘by a spirit’ for 18 years. It is not described either as a demon or an unclean/evil spirit. Jesus does not cast it out or address it. He simply put his hands on her and declared her to be set free from her infirmity. So here whilst the term ‘spirit’ is used, it seems to be used metaphorically when we say, for example, we have a ‘splitting headache’. But in the case of the epileptic and the other demoniacs, there certainly appears to be a specific personal evil element involved- a demon.
Secondly, unless we have clear evidence to the contrary, to claim that Jesus was simply a ‘product of his own time’ believing in demons when they don’t really exist puts us on a dangerous trajectory. There were notable liberal theologians who have argued this position by saying that such language is ‘mythological.’ Some have gone even further and argued that since we don’t have to take what Jesus said about heaven and hell, demons and angels literally, then why should we take what he says about prayer and God literally? If the one can be jettisoned, then why not the other?
Thirdly, not everyone in the ancient world believed epilepsy was a result of evil spirits. Hippocrates who lived 460BC argued for organic causes for epilepsy and given the tremendous influence of Greek thought in the Middle East, it is likely that such a view was known by the Jews and certainly to Dr Luke.
Interestingly enough other terms are used to denote mental illness in the New Testament.
1. Ekstasis – Mk 3:21; when friends and family came to put Jesus away because they thought him out of his mind, he was ‘beside himself’. (ecstatic)
2. Mania –John 10:20 where the Jews said Jesus was simply mad’, admittedly as a result of a demon they claimed.
3. The term seleniazomai – ‘moonstruck’ equivalent to the Latin phrase from which we get our term ‘lunatic’ is also used in Mtt 4:24 we read of ‘epileptics’ as ‘moonstricken.’, translated in our Bibles as ‘having seizures’. This does not mean that the people at the time believed that such fits were as a result of the waxing and waning of the moon any more than we believe that someone is mentally unstable because of the position of the moon when we call them lunatics. There is a distinction between the origin of a word and the usage of a word. So it would seem that Jesus and the Bible are aware of the distinction between a mental illness and a demonic activity, although in some cases they may be connected.
Demon possession and Christians.
If we agree that it is quite understandable there was concentrated demonic activity at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry with authoritative exorcisms being signs of Jesus’ divine identity; and if it is also a given that signs and wonders were performed as signs of an apostle (2 Corinth 12:12) so we see healings and cleansing from evil spirits occurring in Acts although they seem to be on the edge of the account with the focus being on proclamation; why do we have no instructions about deliverance ministries in the epistles? This question becomes even more acute when you consider some of the places the apostles ministered- Ephesus which was the occult centre of the ancient world. Surely deliverance teaching would be expected in Ephesians 6 about Christian warfare if anywhere? But we have nothing of the sort.
Well, perhaps not quite. In fact, the whole letter to the Ephesians gives us some clues as to why things are now different and just how Satan wages war on Christians at present. Here we see that his method of attack is not direct as with demon possession. Furthermore, we discover that the way Christians are to withstand him isn’t direct either- ‘binding Satan in Jesus’ name’ and the like. Indeed, there is no encouragement given in Scripture for Christians to engage with the devil directly. Certainly we are told by James in his letter to resist the devil (4:7) which is not the same thing as attack the devil. And even here resisting the devil occurs within the context of renouncing pride by being humble. In other words one of the principle ways the devil trips Christians up is by appealing to pride, and of course when we become proud that is when we become the most devil-like for it was pride which led to his fall in the first place.
If the truth be told, the situation of the non-Christian is just as serious (maybe more so) than that of the demon possessed in the Gospel accounts, for Ephesians 2:1ff paints the picture of the whole human race being under the power of the evil one-‘walking according to the ways of this world and the prince of the power of the air.’ How is that power broken? By the Word of the Gospel- 1:13, ‘You were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation’. What is the result? ‘We who were dead in trespasses and sins have been made alive with Christ’, having ‘been raised up with him to dwell in the heavenly realms-heaven’ where Christ rules. (2:6). You see, something has happened which has broken Satan’s grip on the world. And what that something is, is the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ- the Gospel. Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth and under the earth (1:2). So when people come to trust in him, Christ dwells in them by his Spirit-3:14. And if Christ is in residence then no demon can be. The warfare the Christian wages with the devil is then external- battling against false teaching- 4:14 and division within the fellowship- 4:24. By the way the one reference to demons which does occur in 1 Timothy 4:1 is in relation to false teaching, those who bring contaminated teaching into the church as said to be peddling the ‘doctrines of demons’- which simply underscores my point. And when faced with these things, in that great chapter on spiritual warfare chapter 6 the Christian is exhorted simply to hold his or her ground- to ‘stand’- a command which appears four times. And in order to be enabled to do this the Christian has everything he needs in the Gospel which is what the imagery of putting on the whole armour of God is about, the helmet of salvation, breastplate of righteousness, shoes of peace, shield of faith, belt of truth, the sword of God’s Word- they are all different aspects of the Gospel. The one activity Paul does stress, however is pray, mentioned three times in verse 18, before going to ask for prayer for himself in order to proclaim the Gospel. Think too of how when the disciples failed to deliver the epileptic boy Jesus said that ‘only prayer can drive this kind out’- the implication being that the disciples had tried everything but pray! In the battle against the underworld prayer is the essential.
Of course, there is also battling the devil in terms of undergoing persecution which is one of the main themes in the Book of Revelation.
The internal battle a Christian has however is not with Satan but with sin. So contrasting our former way of life under the devil’s rule with our new way of life under Christ’s rule, Paul writes, ‘That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.’ (Eph 4:20ff). Notice it is all to do with responding to the teaching of the Gospel that we are changed and are kept free.
The big connection in the Bible is between death and the devil. It was through the temptation of Adam and Eve that death was introduced into the world (Gn 3 / Rom 5), in this sense he has been a murderer from the beginning according to Jesus in John 8:44 and a liar-promising life while dishing out death, and the word ‘demon’ was often used in the ancient world to describe the spirits of the departed (Philo and Josephus) with the term ‘prince of demons’ being used to describe the being who was the gatekeeper to the underworld. And so it was seen that the demons used by magic or necromancy (mediums) were spirits of the dead. This connection is vital to understand the fuller biblical picture, because it is by his death on the cross, that Jesus liberates us from the fear of death and the one who holds us in its grip, the devil- Hebrews 2:14. ‘ Since the children have flesh and blood, he (Jesus) too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who has power over death-that is the devil’ (cf 1 John 3:8). This is the great deliverance we all need of which the earthly deliverances were but pointers.
But you may say, ‘Surely if a Christian has been involved in occult practices in the past or some relative of his has, might he/she then not have residual demons which need casting out or some occult influence which needs undoing?’ Interestingly enough one of the few places where Paul’s workings of miracles as a sign of an apostle includes the freeing of people from demons shows this is not to be the case - Acts 19. Note that we are not told that Paul engaged in exorcisms, and as far as the miracles were concerned even these were ‘extraordinary’, and not ‘run of the mill’ miracles of an apostle-v11. We are told that aprons were used touched by Paul to cure folk and release them from demons. This puts them into perspective. In v 18 we have folk who already believers were confessing their links with the occult and showing repentance by burning the books. This is just another step in the sanctification process amongst many that Christians have to make, a forsaking of things in their past. It would seem that hearing and believing (which means working out) the Gospel was enough; no extra special ‘deliverance’ ministry was needed. I say ‘working out the Gospel, because mere profession isn’t enough. While I don’t believe that Christians can be demon possessed, I have sadly seen professing Christians acting in devilish ways towards others with anger and malice, the kind of things Paul mentions in Ephesians 4. And of course Satan is behind that kind of thing. No, the Gospel is meant to bear fruit.
So it would seem that as a result of Christ’s victory, ‘having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross’, (Col 2:15), a new state of affairs has been introduced into the universe. While Satan and his cohorts are still real, their power has been drastically reduced and as the Kingdom of God advances through the proclamation of the Gospel people are set free.
Let me end by telling you a true story which illustrates the liberating power of the Gospel. It concerns a student I came across when I was chaplain at Keele University, we shall call him Bill. Bill wasn’t a Christian when I first met him. One day he came to see me in some distress. The reason was that he was having some bad headaches accompanied by dreams which were premonitions of the future. The thing that was really bothering him was that they were all coming true. As we talked it became pretty obvious that he was as sane as you or I. He was a good student, very well-mannered and quite genuine. The next time we met I asked if by any chance he had been involved in any occult practices, such as séances, Ouija boards and the like. He said that although he hadn’t directly, his grandmother was a medium and he had been with her in meetings where she tried to contact the dead. I explained to him why this was both wrong and dangerous and that the only sure was to be freed from all of this was to become a Christian. And so I explained the Gospel to him and he knew what he had to do in order to commit his life to Christ. And so he went away. The next time he came to see me he was a different person altogether- he had embraced the Gospel. And you know what- the premonitions stopped there and then. I continued to disciple him and he grew in Christ. No bell, book or candle stuff, no holy water, just the power of the Gospel prayerfully applied.
 5:15-15; 8:6-7; 16:16-16;19:11-12,13-17
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