Note: In the sermon yesterday from Luke 4:33-44, I did some teaching on demon possession in the NT. Here are my notes:
And in the synagogue there was a man, which had a spirit of an unclean devil, and cried out with a loud voice (Luke 4:33).
Now, before we go further we need to discuss the phenomenon of demon possession and the practice of casting out demons as it is described primarily in the Gospels and in the ministry of Jesus.
There are at least three views for understanding the phenomenon described here (cf. Godet, Luke, pp. 156-157):
1. The view of the rationalistic skeptic: The demon-possessed were those with natural problems (what Godet called “lunatics” and we would today describe as being mentally disabled or even suffering with a mental illness), which the ancients (Jews and pagans) understood as having a supernatural cause.
2. The view of some believers (including many evangelicals and, especially, charismatics) who see full continuity between the demon-possessed in the Gospels and some persons today. These would argue that what modern science ascribes to natural causes are actually due to supernatural causes. And so, these person will suggest that persons may be plagued by demons today and the treatment they need is not merely natural (though they might agree that medical treatment might also be applied) but spiritual and supernatural. So, they pray for persons to be delivered from demonic control.
3. Finally, there would be the discontinuity view. This is the view of some believers that sees demon-possession as primarily an extra-ordinary phenomenon encountered by Jesus in his life and ministry but not ordinarily encountered today. Godet, for example, asks: Did God permit “at this extraordinary epoch in history, an exceptional display of diabolical power?”
It is this third option that I lean toward.
The South African Dutch Reformed expositor Norval Geldenhuys:
In the New Testament, demon possession means that a person is dominated by the spirit of a demon and tormented by him. It is noteworthy that it is distinguished (especially in the Gospel of the Physician Luke) from cases of ordinary sickness, insanity (“lunacy”), leprosy, blindness, lameness, deafness and other natural defects and diseases (cf., e.g., Matt iv.23, 24, viii.16, x.8; Mark vi.13; Luke iv.40, vii.21,22). Accordingly this was not merely an ordinary form of mental disease as some writers have alleged, but a special phenomenon which was particularly frequent during Jesus’ earthly sojourn and thus was directly connected with His coming to destroy the power of darkness (Luke, p. 174).
So, he continues, demon possession is not “a mental state in which someone suffers from delusion” or disturbance. Neither is it “only a kind of physical disease.”
One interesting point he makes here is that very often when Jesus is described as healing someone with a physical illness in the Gospels he either sends the healed person to the priest to offer sacrifices for purification (cf. to the leper in Luke 5:14), or he announces that the healed person’s sins are forgiven (cf. to the paralyzed man in Luke 5:20). But this does not happen with those freed from demons. “Those possessed are depicted throughout as unfortunate sufferers who by no fault of their own are dominated by evil spirits” and whose deliverance is only observed with joy and gratitude.
Another point of note is that outside the Gospels there are only two places in the NT where demon possession is mentioned (Acts 16 with the girl healed by Paul’s hand and Acts 19 with the sons of Sceva).
Are there not times when God permits a superior power to invade humanity? Just as God sent Jesus at a period in history when moral and social evil had reached its culminating point, did not He also permit an extraordinary manifestation of diabolical power to take place at the same time? By this means Jesus could be proclaimed externally and visibly as the conqueror of the enemy of men, as He who came to destroy the works of the devil…. (p. 157).
So, I think it best to see the encounters Jesus had with the demon-possessed as extra-ordinary challenges to the authority and power of Jesus permitted by God Himself to display Christ’s glory.
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