Mark 3:7-12 “Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. For he had healed many, so that those with diseases were pushing forward to touch him. Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’ But he gave them strict orders not to tell who he was.”
Mark is telling us that once the Lord Jesus has begun his public ministry he was soon under pressure. There were the Herodians and the Pharisees who were watching his every move and were plotting to murder him. So the Lord chooses to move away from his little home in Capernaum and go to the lakeside, presumably sleeping under the stars with his disciples. But there is no escape from the people who want to see him. At the lakeside he is cornered, the focus of vast crowds, maybe tens of thousands of men and women, all anxious to meet him, many of them wanting to be healed. They gather from all points of the compass, from Judea, Jerusalem and Idumea in the south; from the regions across Jordan in the east; from around Tyre and Sidon in the north, and of course from Galilee in the west. Some have walked hundreds of miles to be there; Jerusalem itself was a hundred miles away, and the other places mentioned are much further. Mark’s gospel has begun with a description of John the Baptist’s ministry and how the crowds went out to him from Judea and Jerusalem. Mark is telling us that they came from much further afield to see the Lord Jesus because the greatness of the King must excel the greatness of his herald.
No publicity machine has been needed; the grapevine has been so effective. The crush is frightening as the crowds press in and in, “pushing forward to touch him” (v.10), so much so that our Lord is in physical danger. He is forced right back to the water’s edge and one of the disciples – maybe Peter the fisherman – has a small boat ready to take Jesus away if the surging crowds actually push him into the lake. Today bodyguards have a car at hand with the engine running. Then there were no police and no one martialling the multitudes. So the Lord was under pressure, and the main reason people came flocking to him from everywhere was because he was able to heal the sick. The story had got around that there was an amazing person in Galilee who could cure anyone of anything. That had caused this excitement. Life expectancy was short, medicine was primitive, some doctors were excellent (according to their light and ability), but there was only so much that they could do. The possibility of healing an incurable illness by a man who lived a few days’ journey away brought the masses along. As healthy people walked there they passed the blind, the deaf, sick children and some being carried by friends: they were all on their way to Galilee to be cured by Christ. Not a denarius had been spent on advertising, but thousands knew about him because the bush telegraph had been so effective. The whole place was being overrun; Christ was hunted down remorselessly by this pack of people.
So the Lord Jesus had begun his preaching a few months earlier by telling people that the rule and power of God – his Kingdom – was near, and then Christ manifested the actual presence of the Kingdom in this eruption of healing miracles. These signs and wonders couldn’t be ignored. No one could close their eyes to all that was happening. It was absolutely gripping news, even to people who lived far from Galilee. When women went to the well to draw water or men gathered at the city gates in the evenings this was the theme on everyone’s lips, “Did you hear what Jesus of Nazareth did yesterday?” In one place Dr Benjamin Warfield makes this classic observation: “Disease and death must have been almost eliminated for a brief season from Capernaum and the region which lay immediately around Capernaum as a centre. No wonder the public mind was thrown into a state of profound perturbation, and, the enthusiasm spreading, men flocked from every quarter to see this great thing, questioning with one another what it all meant” (B.B.Warfield, “Works,” Volume 3, p.175).
At the same time the Lord was confronted with another source of opposition. Not now the scribes and Pharisees and Herodians but the demons and the kingdom of darkness. The crowds who harassed and pressed in on Christ contained many people who were possessed with evil spirits, and these people were falling down in the presence of Christ and shouting out, “You are the Son of God.” (v.11). Christ was filled with the Spirit, and by the Spirit he was healing, and as he was engaged with men at that sort of level then these unclean spirits were drawn like hornets to him.
1. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MIRACLES OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST.
How important are the miracles of Christ? Would Christianity be more sensible and believable to the man in the street in Aberystwyth if we never mentioned them? Many believe that, in and out of the professing church. They say, “In past ages people were less scientific and more gullible, and that made it easy for them to believe in miracles. But in our scientific age, we’re not so easily persuaded. We know that miracles are impossible.” My own conviction is that the exact opposite to that is true. We live in an age in which anything is believed. Millions try to make contacts with the spirits of the dead; others sit under glass pyramids; they read their horoscopes each day, think Elvis Presley is still alive, believe in aliens coming from outer space who abduct people, see visions, read crystal balls, and believe in all kinds of miracles. That is the age we live in, whereas Jesus lived amongst very shrewd and sensible country people not bamboozled by the media as our civilization is.
As David Feddes nicely says, “Let’s get real. The people back then may not have had all the scientific information we have, but they knew where babies come from. They knew people don’t walk on water. And they knew that dead people stay dead. When Mary got pregnant with Jesus, how did Joseph react? Did he say, ‘Hmm, another virgin birth – happens all the time’? Joseph didn’t need a Ph.D. in biology to know where babies come from. He figured Mary must have been with another man, and he decided to break their engagement. Only after an encounter with an messenger from God did Joseph change his mind and accept that Mary was a virgin and that the baby she was carrying was a miracle child.
“When Jesus’ disciples were out in a boat in the middle of a storm and saw him walking toward them on a lake, did they say, ‘What else is new – yesterday a bunch of people were out for a walk on the waves’? No, they were astonished and couldn’t figure out what was happening. They didn’t need to know every formula of physics to appreciate that people don’t walk on water. And when Jesus’ friends found his tomb empty on the first Easter, did they yawn and say, ‘Must be a resurrection – knew it all along’? No, they didn’t need modern science to know that dead people tend to stay dead. Resurrection was the last thing on their minds that morning. They were afraid, and then they figured someone must have stolen the body, but who would want it, neither friend nor foe. And when Jesus appeared to some of the women and they told the news to Jesus’ male followers, the men thought the women were out of their minds. They started to believe only after Jesus came to them and ate with them and convinced them that he was alive.
“It’s nonsense to say that people back then found it easy to believe what people today find impossible to believe. Any miracle is impossible in terms of the ordinary patterns of nature; otherwise it wouldn’t be a miracle. But things that are impossible in terms of natural patterns are perfectly possible if the God who designed those patterns takes direct action” (David Feddes, The Back to God Hour, “The Miracles of Jesus,” October 2001, Volume 46, Number 10).
There are other people who are rather embarrassed by the sheer abundance and centrality of New Testament miracles. They like the great ethics of Jesus, they say, believing that it’s his teaching and example that is important, but the miracles are to them like the works of a magician. They even say that the miracles detract from Jesus’ religious insights and a philosophy of life. So they want us to get away from all this supernatural stuff and concentrate on Jesus’ teaching of ‘unconditional love.’ But that is an option we don’t have, to say that he was a fine man, even the best man this world has seen, who left the world a legacy of moral teachings, because this man had supernatural powers, and he claimed equality with God: “I and my Father are one,” he said. In the Sermon on the Mount he not only gives great ethics, he makes extravagant claims, that one day all the world is going to stand before him and he is going to judge us all and allocate to each of us personally our eternal destinies. We’re not given the option of making him just a good teacher. He is a religious maniac, or there’s another possibility, that he is the ultimate deceiver from hell. If you discard both of those as impossibilities then there is also this, that we worship him as Lord and God.
From what Mark tells us in our text the miracles of Jesus mattered very much to his fellow countrymen. He was Mary’s son, and he came from Nazareth and he appeared in many ways to be just an ordinary man, yet he healed these people, simply hundreds and hundreds of them. He was different from everyone else in his divine powers. People couldn’t deny that lives were transformed by him, the blind saw, the cripple jumped with joy, the lepers were cleansed and the dead were raised. Even the Pharisees didn’t deny that these things were happening every day. There were far too many such cases, thousands of them, to deny that they occurred. So some of the Pharisees said that his miracles did occur but it was by the power of the devil he did them. Other Pharisees were more cautious about saying something so evil. They didn’t know the explanation, but they believed that abundance of miracles, 100% effective, could only be achieved by the power of God. Listen to these old familiar words from the beginning of John’s gospel, chapter three: it is the account of one Pharisee, utterly perplexed, coming for a private audience with Jesus: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (Jn. 3:1&2). He was a Pharisee, but what struck him were two things, the amazing preaching of Jesus – “a teacher who has come from God” and the miraculous signs. Nicodemus disdained the view of today’s liberal scholars who claim that Jesus didn’t do miracles at all or that his miracles didn’t matter. There were too many people, from both Jesus’ friends and enemies, who knew the people involved before and after they had been changed by Christ, and they knew that this meant something was happening beyond the tricks of a magician and the powers of a human personality. Those miracles certainly mattered if it was you or your loved ones whose lives had been transformed by the Lord Jesus Christ.
This gospel of Mark was written about thirty years after the resurrection of Jesus, when most of the people involved were still alive. The extant manuscripts recording this gospel go back a long way, scraps of Mark exist which go back to within a hundred years of Mark’s original writing. When you consider that the oldest manuscript of Caesar’s Gallic Wars was copied a thousand years after Caesar wrote it (and it is considered a reliable source) you can see how authentic our account of Mark’s journalism and reporting actually is. I am saying to you that scientists have no evidence at all that Jesus Christ didn’t do any miracles. In other words, not one of his contemporaries wrote anything saying something like this, “There’s such a fuss being made about the alleged power of Jesus of Nazareth to perform miracles. That man is a magician and a trickster. He never did a single miracle.” There is nothing like that in existence. In the centuries that have followed the life of Christ of course we find many critics claiming that, but no one said such things when Jesus was alive. They couldn’t; they would have become the laughing stock of the land. In every village in Galilee there were families who had members given new life by Christ. I am saying to you that the only written records of the life of Jesus all speak of the sheer prodigality of miracles which he did. His whole life was ablaze with miracles. Anti-supernaturalism may call itself the ‘historical’ view, but its peculiarity is that it has behind it no single scrap of historical testimony; the entirety of historical evidence contradicts it flatly. It is, in fact, historically impossible that a great religious movement which we call Christianity could have taken its origin and derived its inspiration from such an invention as a desupernaturalized Jesus Christ.
More significant than their facticity, Jesus did miracles in a way only God could do miracles. Jesus never said, “In the name of God get off your bed and walk.” Or, “In the name of Jehovah receive your sight.” Or, “As the servant of the Lord be cleansed of your leprosy.” He never spoke like that . . . not once, but always magisterially, in his own name – that great “But I say unto you!” – and with his own authority he said, “Walk! Rise! Be cleansed! See!” He never acknowledged the Lord once. He acted as though these miraculous powers were his own powers, but when God came to speak to him, far from rebuking him for such presumption, God said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
So these things did happen; there is no proof that they didn’t. The onus of producing the evidence that they did not occur lies with the sceptic. “Set forth your case!” we say. We taunt you, “You have no evidence at all.” These Gospel miracles are a reality that all the world has to reckon with. If Jesus Christ is more powerful than death itself, raising up Jairus’ daughter, and the widow of Nain’s son, and Lazarus also from the dead – the three we know of, and of how many others there is simply no room on the gospel scrolls to record them – then what must be the implications of all that for you and for me? I worship Jesus as my Lord and my God!
2. THE MEANING OF THE MIRACLES OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST.
What, then is the meaning of these miracles of our Lord so that Mark especially gives them so central a place? Let me say this, in the sort of phraseology many Christians use today, the miracles show that “the Holy Spirit was really with Jesus.” Christ himself claimed it like this “I by the Spirit of God cast our devils” (Matt. 12:28), and when his apostle Peter first preached the gospel to Gentiles in Cornelius’ house he told them, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power . . . he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10:38). Have you ever considered this, that our Lord did no miracles at all before his baptism when the Spirit of God came? It is when Jesus returns from the 40 days in the wilderness that men first see that the power of the Spirit is upon him and the supernatural works begin all over Galilee. The miracles are saying to us, “See how close is the fellowship and work of Son and Spirit!”
We can make the same point this way: the living God was confirming his own words about Jesus, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” through these miracles. This is what Peter says to the people of Jerusalem at Pentecost: “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22). Peter is proclaiming something like this, “We saw him still the storm and raise the dead. Only divine power could do that. These miracles of Jesus were the divine accreditation that he was sent into the world by God. You must come to the same conclusion. God was present and is at work in Jesus Christ. In his miracles he demonstrates who is the Lord of this creation in which we live.
David Feddes has drawn our attention to C.S.Lewis’ book entitled “Miracles” and especially the fact that Lewis divides up Jesus’ miracles into two categories, what he calls, “Miracles of the Old Creation’ and ‘Miracles of the New Creation.’ I will give you this long quotation because it is helpful and comprehensive. Feddes says, “Lewis emphasizes that in Jesus’ miracles we see an invasion of nature, but it’s not a hostile invasion by some enemy of nature. No, it’s an invasion by the One who is nature’s designer and rightful ruler. Some religions teach that all physical things are evil or an illusion, and for such religions, the only proper miracle would be to break away from the patterns of nature and escape from the physical world entirely. If you want a religion that’s purely spiritual, if you think the physical world is bad or unimportant, you’ll care only about spiritual teachings; physical miracles won’t have any significant place because the physical doesn’t matter. But Christianity teaches that this physical world matters. It’s created and kept by God, and it will be rescued and restored by God to a splendid newness and perfection. The miracles of Jesus are signs that he is indeed the God who is Lord of both the old creation and the new creation. In other words, they confirm that Jesus is the God the Son, and they announce what the future is going to be under his reign.
i] Miracles of the Old Creation
“In miracles of the old creation, Jesus does things that God has already been doing all along. Jesus does rapidly and directly and in miniature what God usually does gradually and indirectly and on a worldwide scale as Creator and Sustainer. Jesus’ first miracle was to change water into wine at a wedding. This was remarkable, but don’t forget that God changes vast amounts of water into wine every day. He just uses vines and natural processes rather than an instant transformation. Jesus took a little bread and fed more than 5,000 people with it. A miracle indeed, but think of what God is doing right now. Again this year the Creator will take a little grain, he’ll transform it gradually with soil, sun, and water, and make of it enough to feed 6 billion people. We call it a miracle when the Lord fed 5,000, but when he feeds 6 billion, we tend to take it for granted. Psalm 104, written long before Jesus came, says that God “makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man… and bread that sustains his heart” (Psa.104:14-15).
“Much the same could be said for Jesus’ miracles of healing. Jesus showed a deep concern for the bodily well-being of people he met, and he gave many of them healing right away from all kinds of diseases. In this way he showed himself to be the God described centuries earlier in Psalm 103:3 as the one who ‘heals all [our] diseases.’ We tend to overlook the fact that God created our bodies with marvelous capacities to heal themselves. When I get a scratch, I bleed a little, and then it stops. I don’t sit around wondering why the blood doesn’t just keep flowing until my body has no blood left. I take for granted that blood clots itself and skin heals itself. When I get over a cold, I don’t ask why I didn’t die of pneumonia. I take for granted that my immune system fights those germs. The astonishing healings of Jesus show us that he is the very Creator who also provides us with all the healings that we think of as rather ordinary.
“Or think of the miracle in which Jesus calmed the storm. His disciples couldn’t help exclaiming, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!’ They could have found the answer to their question by looking in their Scriptures. Psalm 89:8-9 says, ‘O LORD God Almighty; who is like you? You are mighty; 0 LORD, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.’ In the very act of stilling the storm, Jesus had already answered his disciples’ question. What sort of man is this? He’s no other than the Lord Almighty who rules the sea and stills its waves.
“When the Lord Jesus calmed that storm suddenly with a short command, he did in a direct and miraculous way something that he’s constantly doing in ordinary ways. In the words of C. S. Lewis, ‘God made Nature such that there would be both storms and calms: in that way all storms. . . have been stilled by God.’ God controls even the weather itself, and he watches over each person who is affected by the weather.
“Maybe you’ve always thought of miracles as violations of the laws of nature. But Jesus’ miracles aren’t violations of the laws of nature. They are demonstrations by the Lord of nature. What we call ‘the laws of nature’ are really just the ordinary patterns by which creation operates, as ordered by the Creator. Those so-called laws are in no way binding on God himself. When God lived and walked among us in the person of Jesus, he did miracles to show his identity as the King of creation and as the Lord who is ‘loving toward all he has made’ (Psalm 145:13).
ii] Miracles of the New Creation.
“But Jesus’ miracles did more than demonstrate that he is Maker and Master of the old creation. His miracles also reveal him as the Maker and Master of a new creation, and they give us a taste of that new creation. When Jesus changed water to wine, and when he fed a multitude with bread, he was giving a sign and a taste of an eternal banquet, in which he himself is our food. Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry; and he who believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6:35). We Christians celebrate this every time we feast at the Lord’s Supper.
“When Jesus did his miracles of healing, he sometimes did rapidly what some processes of healing in the old creation do gradually – but he often did something brand new. He reversed the process of disease, decay, and death that grips the old creation poisoned by sin, and he gave a sneak preview of what he’s going to do on a universal scale in the new creation. Jesus made paralyzed people walk. He made deaf people hear and mute people talk. He gave sight to blind people. He raised the dead. He gave glimpses of a day when ‘there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,’ when he makes ‘everything new’ (Revelation 21:4-5).
“The supreme signs of the new creation were the dead whom Jesus brought back to life. He raised the son of a poor widow, the little daughter of a synagogue ruler, and a man named Lazarus. in this old creation, poisoned by sin, death seems to have the final word, but Jesus’ miracles of raising the dead showed his power over death itself. Death won’t have the last word. Jesus will. ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ he said. ‘He who believes in me will live, even though he dies’ (John 11:25). In Jesus the new creation has already appeared among us.” (David Feddes, op cit)
3. DELIVERANCE FROM DEMON POSSESSION BY JESUS CHRIST.
There is no doubt that once the Lord Jesus began his ministry in Galilee a great plague of demonic activity broke out and spread the province. This black death of evil spirits possessed many people, especially those who were more vulnerable through moral, psychological or physical weaknesses. Mark tells us of such a man in the very first chapter of his gospel, and again in our text above we are told, “Whenever the evil spirits saw Jesus, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’ But he gave them strict orders not to tell who he was” (vv. 11&12). Later on in this chapter he gives his apostles “authority to drive out demons” (v.15), and then chapter five of this gospel begins with the healing of a man with an evil spirit who was living in the tombs. There can be no doubt that all the gospel writers want us to be aware of this remarkable phenomenon, that when the Lord Jesus was in the land the activity of evil spirits was especially evident. There are in fact 52 references to demon possession in the Gospels and in addition to them there are references to this in the book of Acts.
We would expect nothing less than that. Let me illustrate it like this: think of a situation in London when the British Nazi party announce that it is going to hold a national rally on a certain Saturday. Their leader is going to be there and make an inspirational speech. They are going to use the occasion as a recruiting opportunity. What happens? Many of the anti-Nazis, far more than the Nazis themselves, go to that place from all over the south of England and protest about them, their beliefs and activities. They hold a counter-demonstration to break up the Fascist meeting. So it was here: it was this Lord of glory, the Son of God, who had consigned these fallen angels to hell, and kept them in its darkness awaiting judgment. When they heard that he had come to earth leaving the glories of heaven – a heaven which they had once known – and always having access to this world, they seized the opportunity of opposing and troubling Christ in his great redemptive mission. It couldn’t have been otherwise. He had come to confront their kingdom of darkness and to establish his own everlasting kingdom, and they were intent upon thwarting his intention. We know that the kingdom of darkness of the god of this world is always in existence. Satan never relaxes his grip on sinners. Christ’s presence on earth simply exposed the activity of these sinister forces.
The recently appointed Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, helpfully describes these principalities and powers in this way: “Calling these forces ‘unclean spirits’ is a convenient way of saying two things about them. First, they are non-physical powers that operate upon, and sometimes within, a person. Second, they defile the one they inhabit, making such a person behave in ways that are untrue to their calling as a human being. But these spirits know when they are in the presence of a power greater than themselves. They recognize in Jesus, not just a great healer, but a spiritual power and presence of an altogether different order from themselves. And so they yell out Jesus’ real identity” (Tom Wright, “Mark for Everyone,” SPCK, London, 2001, p.33). Dr Wright is an intelligent man, and he doesn’t have the same theology as I have, but he is not prepared to rubbish these New Testament claims to pervasive demon possession.
It’s often suggested that the simple people of Jesus’ time looked at folk with learning difficulties, or these who had seizures, and they said, “Ah, those kinds of people are demon-possessed.” Yet when we read the gospels we meet parents who are distressed at the epileptic fits of members of their families. They are quite aware that their loved ones have an organic disease not some spiritual or demonic problem. You notice this in Matthew 4:24, “People brought to Jesus all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralysed, and he healed them”. You notice how they instinctively made the distinction between their friends and family members having seizures and those they knew to be demon-possessed.
Why should we take time to consider this matter? It is here in the Bible, of course, and that should be enough for us, but also because the apostle warns Timothy that “in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (I Tim. 4:1). We live in such times. The book of Revelation might even teach that before the return of Jesus Christ there may be another outbreak of unclean spirits. We also need to have a sensible grasp of this matter because of the fantasy dimension in Hollywood films and horror writing some of which is extremely popular and accomplished in its plots and drama. Books about evil powers sell in their millions.
We have to consider it because theological modernism has dismissed the entire New Testament approach. Emil Brunner, for example says so airily, “For the Fundamentalist, of course, this subject presents no particular problems. The Bible speaks of angels and of devils; in accordance with the Scriptures therefore, we can do so too. But for us this way is impossible” (Dogmatics, Vol. II, Lutterworth Press , London, 1952, p.135). Such liberals say that Christ chose not to correct the popular opinion of his day, but he did so with many other treasured opinions. Is the theme not important enough? Would Christ allow people to go on being deluded? Did he not say elsewhere that if something were not so he would have told them? Others say that Christ accommodated his language to the prejudices of his time, but in this instance it would to the extent of accommodating himself to what is a massive fabrication of falsehood. Then there is the whole liberal mistaken view that the actual God the Son had emptied himself of his omniscience and shared the muddled views of the people of his age, wandering around Galilee in gawking wonder at things that went ‘Bang!’ in the night. But if Christ is unreliable when he speaks about Satan and demons, when is he reliable, and why? Others say that Christ didn’t actually cast out any demons but the gospel writers erroneously taught that he did. So the Scriptures themselves, from this perspective, are a very unreliable record.
Such attempts to find another explanation for the presence of demons in Galilee reflects the old cold rationalist approach to the supernatural. How quaint and out of touch it all seems in this age of seances, witches’ covens, exorcisms and the absolute fascination with the occult. This characterises the time in which we preach the gospel. The best selling Christian books are those that deal with angels, spiritual wars, end time demon activities. Those liberals in the 20th century high age of cerebral modernism, were rationalist children of their time. For them the Christian faith was going to be explained and defended by grey-suited men meeting in ‘Brains Trusts’ and civilized discussions in book-lined rooms. The atmosphere would be reasoned; no power that walks in darkness would trouble it. But the Christ of the New Testament was confronted with the Devil. Demons cried out to him. His is another religion from liberalism. Goethe once said, “People don’t know the Devil is there even when he has them by the throat.” Christ transcended his time and ours.
Our own age has swung to another extreme and some religious people can see demons where there is just the cunning deceit and desperate wickedness of the natural heart. If a certain woman, for example, is judged to be demon possessed, while her problems are in fact the result of her own sinful behaviour, then her case is going to be deeply complicated. She is meeting men who speak with an intensity and certainty who tell her that she is possessed by an evil spirit. Then they attempt to cast out her nonexistent demons. Not only are such efforts futile, leading to her own hopelessness and despair, but it has shifted the focus away from the responsibility of this woman for her own behaviour. She begins to view herself as a helpless victim rather than as a guilty sinner. This results in her being confirmed in her sinful life patterns when the attempted exorcism fails, and the people trying to help her are reduced to fruitless prayer, and pity, and discouragement. I say that when we are confronted with bizarre behaviour our first response must be to attribute it to deceit, or long patterns of wickedness, and not to demons.
I had a letter this week from a former student here who has been in Botswana for many years. He describes the gloomy situation in the country thus: “Evangelism is very slow and so little fruit. ‘Revival Crusades’ abound and people are exhorted to have demons of witchcraft, jealousy etc cast out of them. People are told they are bound by demons and all they have to do is go up front and be prayed for. Sometimes Christ is not mentioned at all in sermons . . . People here get the impression that the demons alone make them sin, and all they need is to respond to the alter call or have someone put hands on them and all will be well. Sometimes I feel that this country will be the last to receive a true revival. The church we go to has some of these elements but one survives by ‘switching off’ when such things happen. There is nowhere else to worship. The health and wealth gospel is alive and active here, and is also preached in the crusades. People are promised that their bank accounts will be inflated, and there will be no more illness. ‘Praise and worship’ sessions may be little more than singing ‘Amen! Alleluia!’ many many times. Many churches depend on ‘holy’ water, charms and strings which members wear in order to protect themselves from evil. The Zion Christian Church people stamp on the ground in order to drive out the devil from their lives.” This is a fair reflection of the Africa described to us as abounding in Christianity. What kind of Christianity?
We must avoid the error of equating unusual behaviour with demon possession. Keith Underhill and I were once in a small village in rural Kenya, and we had a meeting which lasted until 11 p.m.. The people then requested that they should stay in the small room a little longer and sing some hymns. They had traveled a distance and liked to be with one another. We weakly agreed, but it had been a long enough evening for everyone, and we should have forbidden it and urged everyone to go off to bed. But the two of us crawled under our mosquito nets and lay down while they sang and sang in this nearby hut. The singing got louder and louder, and the clapping, and then there were shouts and cries and noise. Then we heard them walk home between one and two in the morning talking excitedly. In the morning the leader Paul told us that they had cast evil spirits out of two women. “Who were these spirits?” we asked. “The spirits of their ancestors that trouble them,” we were told. “How do you know that it was demon-possession?” we asked. “They fell on the floor and twisted themselves about.” We told Paul firmly that he should know that after people die their spirits go to God and their destinies are secure, the righteous in heaven and the evil in hell. The former have no wish to trouble us and the latter are prevented by God. We told them that after five hours of meetings, ending in some hours of chanting and drumming, it was a wonder that they didn’t all fall off their chairs in that little room and writhe on the floor. Since that time Paul has taken two more wives and now runs his own meetings where he has no biblical restraints on his activities or the ‘exorcisms’ that characterise such meetings.
Paul, this Luo pastor, was confident that the falling on the floor and the writhing about was certain evidence of demon possession. People can even claim that they themselves have demons. This is almost inevitably faulty self-analysis. I don’t think we can come to such a conclusion based upon bizarre behaviour, our own depression, or even on what these people say to us. In the New Testament the accompaniments of demon possession are really very broad. Categories of illness predominate; they include convulsions, an orthopedic condition, self-injury, bizarre behaviour, isolation and withdrawal, deafness and dumbness, but Christians would be swift to affirm that being sick like that is certainly no proof that a person is demon-possessed.
What was significant with those sick people in the Bible which tell us that they were demon-possessed? There seems to be four or five features:
i] There was a change in their personalities. When we are ill with convulsions, deafness and dumbness or whatever, our personalities don’t change, not even when we have a mental illness. But during the life of Christ when there was demon possession there could be a change of personality. “The poor possessed person begins to act in a strange and unusual manner or is no longer able to function as he normally does, or is at times deprived of the normal use of his faculties. In other words, in the accounts of this condition we find that violence is at times manifested” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Not Against Flesh and Blood: the Battle Against Spiritual Wickedness in High Places” Bryntirion Press, Bridgend, 2001, p.62).
ii] There was a failure to conform to any known pattern of symptoms for a disease. Today you examine a person; “he is suffering from a disease and he has a complex of symptoms. There is a definite clinical entity or picture. But when you look at a case of devil possession, you see that it can never be put into one or the other of the clinical pictures. That is one of the diagnostic points, one of the ways to differentiate devil possession from a disease” (Lloyd-Jones, op cit, p.69)
iii] There was given to these people unusual knowledge and information. See them in our text, “Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God’ (v.11). In the New Testament, it is striking how those with an unclean spirit were able to recognise our Lord. The Pharisees and scribes and Sadduccees and Herodians did not, but these people did. The women with a spirit of divination in Philippi had the insight to recognise that Paul and Silas were the servants of the most high God. So this demonic influence also gave a person a capacity above their own insight and knowledge.
iv] There was always the debased element, an element of uncleanness. That was not seen in ordinary illnesses that people had but it was present through the influence of an unclean spirit.
v] There was always a great variety in the influence of these evil spirits. We have one extreme case in Mark’s gospel chapter 5 of the Gadarene demoniac, that man who couldn’t be bound even with a chain. “He tore the chains apart, and broke the irons on his feet” (Mk. 5:4). He lived naked amongst the tombs and cut himself with stones. This was clearly a singular and horrible example of demon possession. No other people in the New Testament were like that. Others possessed by demons might have had some kind of sickness, but there are no symptoms at all given to us in the case of Mary Magdalene just the fact that a number of demons troubled her. So there were gradations amongst them.
The Lord Christ gave strict orders to these demoniacs not to tell who he was (v.12). Mark’s gospel is about God revealing certain truths to men in his own way and in his own time, and what we have in the first section of this gospel is Jesus opening the eyes of his disciples by a variety of means to the fact of his own identity. Once you’ve seen that, of course, it becomes perfectly evident why he did not allow the demons to speak. “They are not,” as Bengel put it, “the messengers, nor is this the time.” Jesus says to Peter in Matthew’s gospel that flesh and blood had not revealed Christ’s Messiahship to him by his Father in heaven. That is utterly crucial. The Father himself does the work of the opening of the disciples’ eyes in his own time. Peter learned who Jesus of Nazareth was from heaven, not from angels even, and demons are prevented from publicising the identity of Jesus even to his disciples until the time comes for the divine revelation to dawn upon them.
I have never come across a case of demon possession, but I am reluctant to say that it could not occur today. One sympathizes with the great R.L. Dabney who said that he did not feel qualified to affirm or deny it. We know that men and women can come under the influence of other people – as they do, for example, in hypnosis. There we see the case of one personality governing and controlling another. There have been preachers and religious leaders with that kind of natural charisma. They can mesmerize people so that an audience is swayed to act in certain way by the hypnotist. They will get out of their seats, they will swoon, they will even laugh in hysterics and weep, or they will make animal noises. The people are responding to the personality of the man. Think of the hypnotic power of a Hitler. When you see pictures of him today with that little moustache he seems a pathetic figure. How could cultured Germany – of all the nations of Europe – have come under the influence of such an evil creep? Well, you have to bring in this dimension of mesmerism. My point is this, that if men can come under the influence of other men it is surely possible for them to come under the influence of unclean spirits. People who dabble in the occult, in voodoo, in idol worship and sacrifice, those who seek to talk to the dead in seances are opening themselves to such fearful possibilities.
Dr Lloyd-Jones writes of one example he came across of a person he believed to be demon-possessed: “Here was a poor girl who was supposed to be paralysed, and many doctors had fallen in the trap of thinking that since she could not walk she had an organic disease. But they could not say which one it was, for none of the doctors could fit the paralysis into any known disease. Then it fell to my lot to see her – partly as a doctor, and partly as a minister – and what struck me immediately was that this was not an organic disease at all, but clearly a case of devil possession. How did I know that? Well, one of the reasons was that when I approached her bed with her doctor and her own minister, the expression on her face changed to something I shall never forget, and though she had not been able to walk for eight years, she began to make the most violent movements with her arms and legs and head, and this continued for ten minutes. Later, as the result of the conversion of two of her sisters, one after another, with a good interval between, that poor girl began to attend a place of worship – she was carried there at first – and finally she herself was converted. Nothing was ever said about her paralysis, but it just completely disappeared” (Lloyd-Jones, op cit, p.71).
Now I realise there would be other sound and reliable pastors who might have looked at that girl and seen some evil influence in her life, but who might not come to the same conclusion as Lloyd-Jones that she was actually demon-possessed, but like him who would go on to approach her by prayer and the word and who would finally see the same happy transformation of her that he reports. No experts in demon-possession exist. No other spiritual gift of delivering people from demons is possessed by anyone than what you as a Christian possess already. Take such persons to God in prayer! Address them armed with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, and with the healing balm of Jesus’ blood which is found in the gospel. Not one word will fall to the ground.
“A more unequal match can hardly be,
Christian must fight an angel; but you see
The valiant man by handling sword and shield,
Doth make him, tho’ a dragon, quit the field.” (John Bunyan).
Trust in God and speak from your heart in his strength. Christians will come to different conclusions. There is no infallible guide in such cases anywhere and never will be, though plenty of sensible counsel from fellow pastors – we all have men we turn to when we feel out of our depth or entering uncharted waters. Such difference of opinion in diagnosis is not at all a disaster as long as the cure is pure. Dr. Lloyd-Jones made a judgment about the evil influence over this girl, and he was a discerning man not easily swayed by claims for the supernatural. For example, he said that he had never personally witnessed a miracle – though there were more than one man who wanted him to acknowledge such cases. I think it is significant that he cautiously mentions just this single case of a woman delivered from an unclean spirit.
What delivered her from the kingdom of darkness? Not bizarre ceremonies of exorcism. Not jiggery pokery. The testimony of people she knew who came to trust in Christ as their Saviour, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, the new birth, attendance at a gospel church on Sundays, the preaching of the word week by week, such things as these – the ordinary yet extraordinary means of grace – these things transformed her in body, mind and spirit.
There is another memorable case of the conversion of the medium or spiritist in the 1930s in the Forward Movement Hall in Sandfields, Aberavon, where Dr Lloyd-Jones was then the pastor. It is often quoted, and it is a salutary incident. Dr. Lloyd-Jones tells the story like this: “Here was a woman who made her living as a spiritist medium, earning her three guineas almost every Sunday night. One Sunday she was unable, because of a slight illness, to go and do what she normally did. As she was sitting in her house she saw people walking to a place of worship. Quite suddenly she thought to herself, ‘What if I went with them? I wonder what they do there? I wonder what that place is like in comparison with what we do?” So she went to that place of worship, and that led to her conversion. She never again did what she had been doing before.
“But I want to quote to you her reply to my question, ‘What did you feel like when you came to this service?’ ‘Well,’ she said. ‘this was what really convinced me and finally convicted me. When I came into this place I felt immediately that there was a spiritual power here, exactly as we have in our meetings. I was always conscious of power in our meetings, and I was conscious of power in your meeting, but there was one great difference. The power in this building here, in some indefinable way, seemed to me to be clean. I didn’t think of it. I wasn’t reasoning. I was just conscious of power and cleanliness and of purity such as I had never known before.’ That is it. Spiritism is unclean … the mediums are not in touch with the spirits of the departed dead, but with evil spirits impersonating the dead” (Lloyd-Jones, op cit, pp. 54&55).
This Saviour appeared preaching that the Kingdom of God was near. He showed his kingly authority over sickness, the effect of sin, over death itself and over the devil. His apostle John says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (I Jn. 3:8). He said, “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it . . . believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father” (Jn. 10:37&38). Believe the miracles! Do you? God is in Christ and he is in his Father. What’s your response to this Miracle man? Do you believe that Jesus is the God in whom we live and move and have our being? He can break the grip of sin and death in your life. He can translate you from the kingdom of darkness into his own kingdom. He will bring you into his renewed creation. This conqueror of the devil indwells every single Christian. So do not leave this place afraid because of the power of the god of this world, but with quiet thanks and praise that greater is he that is in you than the devil, all his legions and all his works. Walk in step with Jesus Christ through the days ahead and you have nothing to fear.
2nd March 2003 GEOFF THOMAS