This is part of a syndicated series for Lent 2019 with Harvard’s Christian Journal Ichthus. Visit Ichthus at http://www.harvardichthus.org
By Daniel Sutton, visiting student and recent Oxford graduate.
A few years ago, a friend of mine was climbing a mountain in the French Alps, around early February. It was a cold day, with a clear blue sky, and he was about halfway up the mountain when he heard a loud crack; then a rumbling. The ground began to shudder beneath his feet. Then he looked up, and saw this great cloud of white snow rushing towards him down the mountain. As he stared at the avalanche, he was in no doubt whatsoever about its enormous power – in that moment, he had only two questions. Where had this power come from, and how was he going to respond?
In Luke 11:14-28, the crowd also witness a quite astonishing power. Verse 14 describes it: Jesus has cast out a demon, the mute man can now speak, the crowd are amazed. At first glance, this passage might look a little strange: it’s not clear exactly what’s meant here by an evil spirit, or precisely how Jesus drove it out. But none of the crowd are in the slightest doubt about the extent of Jesus’ power. Their only question is: where does it come from?
Some of them, verse 15 says, thought the power came from the Devil, here called Beezlebub. To this, Jesus gives a purely logical response. My power cannot come from Satan, He explains, because if it did, I surely wouldn’t be using it to drive out evil – as He puts it, “every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert”. I’ve started to watch some football during my year in the USA, but being new to the sport, I rarely know who the players are. If it was a very wet day, and a player’s shirt is muddy, I wouldn’t be at all certain of which team they were on. How would I work it out? I’d look at who they chose to pass the ball to, and who they chose to tackle. If one of the Harvard players started charging into other Harvard players, knocking over their teammates, snatching the ball from them, the team would immediately fall utter carnage – it’s implausible. We can trust that no Harvard player would ever tackle his own teammates; just so, Jesus tells the crowd that His power doesn’t come from Satan, because He used it to drive out evil.
In his reply, however, Jesus tells us more than where His power isn’tfrom; He goes on to explain that “it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons” – His has this power because He is God the Son. Not only does Jesus’ power not come from the Devil, but He is able to completely overwhelm the Devil’s power. In verse 21, Jesus characterises the evil spirit He just drove out as a strong man, guarding a castle; he then describes how only someone stronger than that man could ever attack and overpower him. For followers of Jesus, here is a great encouragement: Jesus’ power comes from God, and can defeat sin and evil.
But that’s only half of Jesus’ reply. Like my friend in the avalanche, the crowd have to answer a second question: what response does this demand of them? Jesus is very direct about the need for a response: He tells the crowd that the Kingdom of God has come to you, and that whoever is not with Him is against Him. There’s no ignoring Jesus; He demands a response.
Jesus is also crystal clear that it’s no good at all if our attitude to sin and evil is to try to put on a good appearance, or try to confront it by ourselves. In verses 24-6, Jesus tells us about the sort of person who’s trying this approach, as he describes an unclean spirit, who treats this person as their house. In Jesus’ example, the evil spirit goes out for a time, and the house – that is, the person – “is swept and put in order”; everything appears to be ok. But before long, the evil spirit comes back with ease, and brings with it seven others who are more evil still. As Jesus says, “The last state of that person is worse than the first”. In my residence hall, we have mice in our kitchen, and even if we apply a repellent spray to make them go away, within a couple of days, they invariably return. Spray again, they’ll come back again. And again. It’s no good leaving the kitchen tidy and orderly if the mice will come back, even though for a day or two it might look like they’ve gone. It’s no good making our lives look tidy, or trying to tackle sin on our own – it’ll return.
For a number of years, I thought Christianity was just this – it was a set of rules, through which God told me how to do the right thing and how be a good, respectable person, or at least look like one to the outside world. It seems that many of the crowd, or many of the people Luke was writing to, thought likewise. In these verses, Jesus says that approach is completely futile. It was for me: it was no good trying to erase the sin from my life myself, or to put on a good appearance. I would keep on making the same mistakes, and berate myself for my failings, or give up on anything more than looking respectable for friends and family. Eventually, I realised that if I wanted a permanent answer to my sin, and if the way that it led me to fall short of God’s justice, I had to welcome Jesus into all of my life, ask His forgiveness, and commit to following Him. “Whoever is not with me is against me”; we can’t simply clean out sin from our lives, but need to welcome Jesus in. It’s futile to keep on spraying mouse repellent over your kitchen; the only permanent way to stop the mice returning is to get a cat.
So, what does the right response to Jesus look like? It’s not simply being amazed, like the crowd in verse 14. Nor is it just giving Him our praise, like the woman in verse 27, though that is a good and important thing to do. No, in verse 28, Jesus spells it out for the crowd: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” The right response to Jesus’ power is to listen to His message of saving grace, to accept Him as the Saviour who has defeated evil, and to follow Him. He doesn’t allow us to ignore what He says, nor does He promise that obeying His word will be easy. But He does promise that He has the power to defeat evil, and that that power comes because He is God.