Week of September 10, 2017

The Point:  Demonic forces are real, but Christ is greater.

Jesus Heals a Boy with an Unclean Spirit:  Mark 9:14-29.

[14] And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. [15] And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. [16] And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” [17] And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. [18] And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” [19] And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” [20] And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. [21] And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. [22] And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” [23] And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” [24] Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” [25] And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” [26] And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” [27] But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. [28] And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” [29] And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”   [ESV]

“Our Relationship to Demons.  (1) Are Demons Active in the World Today.  Some people, influenced by a naturalistic worldview that only admits the reality of what can be seen or touched or heard, deny that demons exist today and maintain that belief in their reality reflects an obsolete worldview taught in the Bible and other ancient cultures. However, if Scripture gives us a true account of the world as it really is, then we must take seriously its portrayal of intense demonic involvement in human society. Our failure to perceive that involvement with our five senses simply tells us that we have some deficiencies in our ability to understand the world, not that demons do not exist. In fact, there is no reason to think that there is any less demonic activity in the world today than there was at the time of the New Testament. We are in the same time period in God’s overall plan for history (the church age or the new covenant age). Much of our western secularized society is unwilling to admit the existence of demons and relegates all talk of demonic activity to a category of superstition. But the unwillingness of modern society to recognize the presence of demonic activity today is, from a biblical perspective, simply due to people’s blindness to the true nature of reality. But what kind of activity do demons engage in today? Are there some distinguishing characteristics that will enable us to recognize demonic activity when it occurs?

(2) Not all Evil and Sin is from Satan and Demons, but some is.  If we think of the overall emphasis of the New Testament epistles, we realize that very little space is given to discussing demonic activity in the lives of believers or methods to resist and oppose such activity. The emphasis is on telling believers not to sin but to live lives of righteousness. For example, in 1 Corinthians, when there is a problem of dissensions, Paul does not tell the church to rebuke a spirit of dissension, but simply urges them to agree and be united in the same mind and the same judgment [1 Cor. 1:10]. When there is a problem of incest, he does not tell the Corinthians to rebuke a spirit of incest, but tells them that they ought to be outraged and that they should exercise church discipline until the offender repents [1 Cor. 5:1-5]. When there is a problem of Christians going to court to sue other believers, Paul does not command them to cast out a spirit of litigation (or selfishness, or strife), but simply tells them to settle those cases within the church and to be willing to give up their own self-interest [1 Cor. 6:1-8]. When there is disorder at the Lord’s Supper, he does not command them to cast out a spirit of disorder or gluttony or selfishness, but simply tells them that they should wait for one another and that each person should examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup [1 Cor. 11:33,28]. These examples could be duplicated many times in the other New Testament epistles. With regard to preaching the gospel to unbelievers, the New Testament pattern is the same: although occasionally Jesus or Paul would cast out a demonic spirit that was causing significant hindrance to proclaiming the gospel in a certain area [see Mark 5:1-20; Acts 16:16-18], that is not the usual pattern of ministry presented, where the emphasis is simply on preaching the gospel [Matt. 9:35; Rom. 1:18-19; 1 Cor. 1:17-2:5]. Even in the examples above, the opposition was encountered in the process of gospel proclamation. In marked contrast to the practice of those who today emphasize “strategic level spiritual warfare.” Rather, Christians just preach the gospel, and it comes with power to change lives! Of course, demonic opposition may arise, or God Himself may reveal the nature of certain demonic opposition, which Christians would then pray and battle against, according to 1 Cor. 12:10; 2 Cor. 10:3-6; Eph. 6:12. Therefore, though the New Testament clearly recognizes the influence of demonic activity in the world, and even, as we shall see, upon the lives of believers, its primary focus regarding evangelism and Christian growth is on the choices and actions taken by people themselves [see Gal. 5:16-26; Eph. 4:1-6:9; Col. 3:1-4:6]. Similarly, this should be the primary focus of our efforts today when we strive to grow in holiness and faith and to overcome the sinful desires and actions that remain in our lives and to overcome the temptations that come against us from an unbelieving world [1 Cor. 10:13]. We need to accept our own responsibility to obey the Lord and not to shift blame for our own misdeeds onto some demonic force. Nevertheless, a number of passages show that the New Testament authors were definitely aware of the presence of demonic influence in the world and in the lives of Christians themselves. Writing to the church at Corinth, which was filled with temples devoted to worship of idols, Paul said that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God [1 Cor. 10:20], a situation true not only of Corinth but also of most other cities in the ancient Mediterranean world. Paul also warned that in the latter days some would depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons [1 Tim. 4:1], and that this would lead to claims for avoiding marriage and avoiding certain foods [3], both of which God had created as good [4]. Thus he saw some false doctrine as being demonic in origin. In 2 Timothy, Paul implies that those who oppose sound doctrine have been captured by the devil to do his will [2 Tim. 2:24-26]. Jesus had similarly asserted that the Jews who obstinately opposed Him were following their father the devil [John 8:44]. Emphasis on the hostile deeds of unbelievers as having demonic influence or sometimes demonic origin is made more explicit in John’s first epistle. He makes a general statement that he who commits sin is of the devil [1 John 3:8], and goes on to say, By this it may be seen who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not do right is not of God, nor he who does not love his brother [1 John 3:10]. Here John characterizes all those who are not born of God as children of the devil and subject to his influence and desires. John also says, We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one [1 John 5:19]. Then in Revelation Satan is called the deceiver of the whole world [Rev. 12:9]. When we combine all of these statements and see that Satan is thought of as the originator of lies, murder, deception, false teaching, and sin generally, then it seems reasonable to conclude that the New Testament wants us to understand that there is some degree of demonic influence in nearly all wrongdoing and sin that occurs today. Not all sin is caused by Satan or demons, nor is the major influence or cause of sin demonic activity, but demonic activity is probably a factor in almost all sin and almost all destructive activity that opposes the work of God in the world today. In the lives of Christians, the emphasis of the New Testament is not on the influence of demons but on the sin that remains in the believer’s life. Nevertheless, we should recognize that sinning (even by Christians) does give a foothold for some kind of demonic influence in our lives. Thus Paul could say, Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil [Eph. 4:26]. Similarly, Paul mentions the breastplate of righteousness [Eph. 6:14] as part of the armor that we are to use standing against the wiles of the devil and in contending against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places [Eph. 6:11-12]. If we have areas of continuing sin in our lives, then there are weaknesses and holes in our breastplate of righteousness, and these are areas in which we are vulnerable to demonic attack. Where there is a pattern of persistent sin in the life of a Christian in one area or another, the primary responsibility for that sin rests with the individual Christian and his or her choices to continue that wrongful pattern. Nevertheless, there could possibly be some demonic influence contributing to and intensifying that sinful tendency.

(3) Can a Christian be Demon Possessed?  The term “demon possession” is an unfortunate term that has found its way into some English translations of the Bible but is not really reflected in the Greek text. The Greek New Testament can speak of people who have a demon [Matt. 11:18; Luke 7:33; 8:27; John 7:20; 8:48,49,52; 10:20], or it can speak of people who are suffering from demonic influence, but it never uses language that suggests that a demon actually “possesses” someone. The problem with the terms “demon possession” and “demonized” is that they give the nuance of such strong demonic influence that they seem to imply that the person who is under demonic attack has no choice but to succumb to it. They suggest that the person is unable any longer to exercise his or her will and is completely under the domination of the evil spirit. While this may have been true in extreme cases such as that of the Gerasene demoniac [Mark 5:1-10], it is certainly not true with many cases of demonic attack or conflict with demons in many people’s lives. So what should we say to the question, “Can a Christian be demon possessed?” The answer depends on what someone means by “possessed.” If by “demon possession” they mean that a person’s will is completely dominated by a demon, so that a person has no power left to choose to do right and obey God, then the answer to whether a Christian could be demon possessed would certainly be no, for Scripture guarantees that sin shall have no dominion over us since we have been raised with Christ [Rom. 6:14]. On the other hand, most Christians would agree that there can be differing degrees of demonic attack or influence in the lives of believers [see Luke 4:2; 2 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 6:12; James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8]. So how severe can demonic influence become in the life of a Christian after Pentecost who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit? Before answering this question, we should note that it is similar to a question about sin: “How much can a genuine Christian let his or her life be dominated by sin, and still be a born-again Christian?” It is difficult to answer that question in the abstract, because we realize that when Christians are not living as they ought to live, and when they are not benefiting from regular fellowship with other Christians and from regular Bible study and teaching, they can stray into significant degrees of sin and still can be said to be born-again Christians. But the situation is abnormal; it is not what the Christian life should be and can be. Similarly, if we ask how much demonic influence can come into the life of a genuine Christian, it is hard to give an answer in the abstract. We are simply asking how abnormal a Christian’s life can become, especially if that person does not know about or make use of the weapons of spiritual warfare that are available to Christians, and persists in some kinds of sin that give entrance to demonic activity. So we need to recognize that there can be varying degrees of demonic attack or influence on people, even on Christians. And the solution to any sort of demonic influence or attack is to put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil [Eph. 6:10-20].

(4) How can Demonic Influences be Recognized?  In severe cases of demonic influence, as reported in the Gospels, the affected person would exhibit bizarre and often violent actions, especially opposition to the preaching of the gospel [see Mark 1:23-24; 5:2-5; 9:17-18,20,22]. Satanic or demonic activity always tends toward the ultimate destruction of parts of God’s creation and especially of human beings who are made in the image of God. In other cases, the Epistles indicate that demonic influence will lead to blatantly false doctrinal statements, such as exclaiming, Jesus be cursed [1 Cor. 12:3], or a refusal to confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh [1 John 4:2-3]. In addition to these outwardly evident indications, demonic activity was sometimes recognized by a subjective sense of the presence of an evil spiritual influence. In 1 Corinthians 12:10, Paul mentions the ability to distinguish between spirits as one kind of spiritual gift. This gift would seem to be an ability to sense or discern the difference in the working of the Holy Spirit and the working of evil spirits in a person’s life. In all of these attempts to recognize demonic influence, we must remember that no spiritual gift functions perfectly in this age, nor do we have a full knowledge of people’s hearts. This does not mean that we should ignore the possibility of demonic influence, however, and as we grow in spiritual maturity and sensitivity, and as we gain experience in ministering to the needs of others, our ability to recognize demonic influence in various situations will not doubt increase.”  [Grudem, pp. 419-436].

“Theology in Application.  The Supremacy of Jesus.  The supremacy of Jesus, announced at the transfiguration [9:7], is now revealed through exorcism. While the disciples try and fail to exorcize the demon, Jesus casts it out with a single command. Jesus is no Hellenistic magician who uses potions, rituals, and incantations to coax spiritual forces to act on His behalf. He is the Son of God, who acts with divine power and authority. Jesus’ supremacy is seen throughout the episode. When He arrives, the crowd is amazed and rushes to greet Him; while the disciples are powerless against the demon, He easily casts it out. Moreover, He forbids it from returning. This is power over time and place, when the demon leaves the boy comatose after its violent departure, Jesus takes his hand, lifts him up, and restores him. This is power over life and death. The Struggle for Faith to Accomplish God’s Purposes.  A second theme beside Jesus’ authority is the need for greater faith. This is illustrated both in the failure of the disciples to cast out the demon, noted at the beginning and end of the episode [17,28-29], and in the father’s struggle for greater faith in the middle [22-24]. The father’s cry, I believe; help my unbelief is one Christians have resonated with through the ages. Our genuine faith in God is challenged by difficult circumstances. We want to believe, and we do believe, but that faith wavers when the storms of life arrive. Like Peter, who has faith to get out of the boat but then is distracted by the wind and the waves [Matt. 14:25-33], we have initial faith but then slip into the waters of doubt and despair. It is at this point we need to claim Jesus’ promise, All things are possible for one who believes. When our faith wavers, it is not because we are not striving hard enough to succeed or are not confident enough in our own abilities. It is because we have gotten our eyes off Jesus. Jesus’ words here echo those of Paul, I can do all things through him who strengthens me [Phil. 4:13]. We can accomplish anything when we acknowledge that we can accomplish nothing on our own. Mustard-seed faith is a little bit of faith in a very big God. The disciples are right to come to Jesus after the episode. They want to know why they failed in order to avoid such a fiasco in the future. But Jesus’ answer does not focus on procedure. Their failure was not because they said the wrong words or followed the wrong ritual. Their problem was that their past successes had given them confidence in their own abilities. Jesus calls them to more prayer, that is, greater dependence on God, who alone has authority over the forces of evil. The disciples’ authority to cast out demons was always mediated authority; they are Jesus’ representatives acting in His power. The same is true for us today. The most powerful servant of God is the one who recognizes that when I am weak, then I am strong [2 Cor. 12:10]. Doing great things for God means seeking His guidance, being led by His Spirit, and allowing His power to work through us. The Reality of Spiritual Warfare.  Like other exorcisms in Mark’s gospel, this one reminds us of the reality of spiritual warfare and the demonic realm. Though we may not always experience it existentially or acknowledge it openly, this conflict is real. The disciples’ failure and Jesus’ response teaches those involved in deliverance ministries that the most important weapon we bring to this battle is not the right rituals or incantations. It is prayer – our complete dependence on the One who has disarmed the rulers and authorities … triumphing over them in him [Col. 2:15].”  [Strauss, pp. 400-401].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. The anti-supernatural world in which most of us live does not view demonic activity as real. But what does the Bible teach concerning the activity of spiritual forces such as Satan and demons? What evidence of demonic activity do you see in the world today? What balance must believers have in viewing demonic activity? How can you safeguard against excessive emphasis on demonic activity in people’s lives today?
  2. Are there any areas of sin in your own life now that might give a foothold to some demonic activity? If so, what would the Lord have you do with respect to that sin?
  3. In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus emphasized faith and prayer as essential weapons in spiritual warfare. How can you use these weapons in your battle against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places [Eph. 6:12]?


Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem, Zondervan.

The Gospel According to Mark, James Edwards, Eerdmans.

Mark, Robert Stein, BENT, Baker.

Mark, Mark Strauss, Zondervan.

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