We are working our way through some basic biblical principles regarding spiritual warfare.
First, the Scriptures are totally sufficient.
Second, God is in complete control.
Third, humans are fully responsible.
And now, the fourth – demons are presently active.
And I almost feel like this principle is too obvious to state, but I really want to be careful that while we try to avoid making the mistake of blaming demonic forces for everything we do that we don’t swing so far in the opposite direction that we end up making another equally fatal mistake and that is to think or talk as if demons weren’t real and as if demonic possession was just some silly idea that backward uneducated people believed in.
Because when we open up our Bibles and especially the gospels, it is very obvious that Jesus definitely did, believe in all this.
That demons were real.
That demons could even possess people.
In fact, one of the distinguishing features of Jesus’ ministry was his ability to cast out demons.
As one author has said, “In the ministry of our Lord on this earth, casting out demons occupied and important and marvelous position. Multitudes . . . are recorded as being freed from the terrible effects of demon possession by him, through which His great power and authority are magnified.”
Which means if we start denying the reality of demons and demonic possession, we really are messing with the person of Jesus as well because He believed in demons and He is magnified in the New Testament by His victory over them.
And what’s more, if we deny these realities, we are also messing with the rest of the New Testament as well.
Because the authors of the New Testament clearly believed in demons as well, and not just as something we read about in the past but as presently active.
This whole passage Paul writes for example about wrestling with spiritual forces in the heavenly places would be pretty silly if we didn’t believe demons were a reality and were presently active.
If demons weren’t real and weren’t active we would be wrestling with the air.
And I know you know all of this and that it is very familiar to you but I thought actually one helpful issue to discuss is this whole idea of demonic possession specifically. The devil is presently active, but is demonic possession one of his schemes?
And answering that question well may take a little longer than I have, but looking to the Scriptures, let me say two things about it.
The first is that demonic possession is real.
It is not the only way that demons and the devil attack people, but it is definitely if we look at the Bible, one way.
Now the Bible has two main ways of describing demonic possession and if we look at these two main ways, it helps us understand what demon possession is.
The first and most common ways it talks about it is of one having a demon (that is the language that is used) and one of the main realities that way of putting it seems to emphasize is the fact that the person who is demon possessed is being afflicted by the demon.
Demon possession is being afflicting or tormented by a demon.
In fact even that way of putting it, having a demon, is very similar to the way they might describe someone who had a disease or something like that.
And that’s because the basic purpose of demon possession, what the demon was after in possessing someone, was not so much to tempt them as it was to torment them.
I think I could miss that when thinking about demon possession, because demons do tempt but when it comes to demon possession the main emphasis in the New Testament has to do with them tormenting people.
This is why you see people who are demon possessed in the Bible where, well, you do not usually find them hanging out at bars and how are they behaving, they aren’t usually behaving in their right mind, but instead when we read about them, we see them acting in ways that seem crazy and we find them in places like the cemetery, maybe.
One example of that is the story of the demon possessed man who Jesus met after Jesus calmed the storm and got off the boat in the region of Gerasenes.
This is in Mark 5.
And you remember what that demon did to that man, it drove him away from people, out to the tombs, and what did he do when he got there, he kept cutting and slashing himself.
Or another example from the gospels, would be the child Jesus met when he came down from the Mount of Transfiguration. This is the one with the demon the disciples couldn’t drive out.
The story is found in Mark 9.
And what did the demon do there?
It made the boy unable to speak.
And then it seized him, threw him down to the ground, and caused him to foam at the mouth and grind his teeth as well.
The father said it even sometimes tried to throw him into fire and drown him in water.
These demons were doing what to people, they were hurting them physically and this is why when the gospels talk about people who are demon possessed it often lists them right next to people who were physically sick and when it talks about Jesus casting out the demons, it sometimes describes it in the language of Jesus healing them.
It’s not because back in Jesus day they somehow thought that every sickness was the same thing as being possessed by a demon or something like that.
They were smarter than that.
They made distinctions between sickness and demon possession. They even if you look at Matthew 4:24 made distinctions between people having seizures and people having demons.
The reason they described casting out demons as a kind of healing is because they saw demon possession as a kind of affliction.
That is the first big thing to understand from the way the Bible describes demon possession.
And now if you are wondering how they could tell it was demon possession and not an ordinary sickness, one thing is they could always tell, by the way, there weren’t secretly demon possessed people that we read about in the New Testament, but exactly how could they tell?
One pastor named Geoff Thomas identifies four common features of people who were suffering from demon possession. (And I think he’s actually quoting Martyn Lloyd Jones at this point…)
“One,” he says, “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 dramatic change of personality. The poor possessed person began to act in a strange or unusual manner and was no longer able to function as he normally did.
Two, there was a failure to conform to any known pattern of symptoms for a disease. Today, when a doctor examines a person, he has certain symptoms that go along with certain diseases, but when you look at the case of demon possession, it can never be put into one these clinical descriptions that go along with particular diseases.
Three, there was given people unusual knowledge and information. In the New Testament, it is striking how those with an unclean spirit were able to recognize our Lord. The woman with the spirit of divination in Philippi had the insight to recognize that Paul and Silas were servants of the Most High God. So this demonic influence also gave a person a capacity above their own insight and knowledge.
And four, there was always a debased element, an element of uncleanness that was not seen in ordinary illnesses people had but it was present through the influence of an unclean spirit.”
And the main point is that when we read about demon possession in the New Testament, the first thing we see is that we are pretty much always reading about someone who is being physically tormented in some way by a demon.
The second way the Bible talks about demon possession is with a word that basically means demonized and when the Bible uses this word it is emphasizing the fact that the demon was exercising control over the person and that it physically indwelt him.
A person who is demon possessed is afflicted and indwelt.
This is why we use the language of casting out a demon, because the demon was in there, the demon has physically invaded the victim’s body and is physically living in the person (inhabiting the person like you might a house) and the demon is taking control over that person’s actions from within which the victim cannot successfully resist. It is not that they are tempting them from the outside or even oppressing them from the outside, but they are taking control from the inside.
And that kind of demonic activity, it is real.
It happened and it may still happen. I can’t think of any reason from the New Testament as to why it would have completely stopped happening after the resurrection of Jesus.
But a second thing we need to know about demon possession from the Scriptures is that it seems to be somewhat rare. If someone asks me do I believe in demon possession, I would answer first that I do believe it is real, meaning there are situations where people are physically tormented by indwelling demons and second, that I also have reasons to believe that it is fairly rare, at least in areas where the influence of the gospel is strong.
This is something where good men might disagree with me about, but let me tell you some reasons why I think this isn’t perhaps something as common as we might think.
One reason is because it is not something we read a whole lot about in the Bible actually.
We can think there are a lot of stories about demonic possession in the Bible because we are really familiar with the gospels, but when you stop and think about it a little more carefully, you see that pretty much all the clear stories of demonic possession are either in the gospels or Acts, and only four times in Acts.
In the Old Testament, probably the closest we get to the idea of demon possession might be with King Saul. There are only four times we read of something like this in the Old Testament, three of them have to do with Saul, and yet when you look a little more carefully at what the demons were doing with Saul, there are several reasons to think he wasn’t actually possessed, one the actual language that is used seems to indicate that they were terrorizing him and frightening him and assaulting him more than actually physically indwelling him, two the evil spirit is said to have come from God, three it departed when music was played by David, and Saul later on in his life at a good moment takes responsibility for his actions and doesn’t blame it on a demon.
So in the Old Testament there is basically no talk about demon possession and in the books after Acts, the epistles like Ephesians don’t really talk about it either. Casting out of demons is not even listed as one of the spiritual gifts. That doesn’t mean that demons aren’t active, it just means that it seems there was like this explosion of demonic activity and demonic possession that is being recorded when Jesus appears on the scene.
Now think about that, think about why that might be.
If there were an election in Democratic Republic of the Congo, where one man won over another, and he was going to that other man’s hometown to declare his victory, what do you think might happen when he showed up? There would be all kinds of supporters of the other candidate who would show up at the rally, maybe there would even be more supporters of the other candidate who would show up and try to make a huge riot in order to disrupt and protest that man’s victory speech.
So, one possible explanation as to why there was so much more of this demon possession being recorded and seen in Jesus’ day, might be because as one author puts it, Jesus was here, the Lord of glory, the Son of God, who had sentenced these fallen angels to hell, had arrived, on earth. And as someone has written when the demons “heard that Jesus 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 … in existence. Satan is not going to relax his grip on sinners…Christ’s presence on earth simply exposed the activity of these sinister forces.” It is like at the coming of Christ, Satan was doing all that he could within his might to establish his hold over the world and protest what God was doing through Jesus, His Son.
Now another interesting thing that some have noted is how often this demonic possession seemed to take place primarily in places with heavy pagan influence. In other words, in areas where God’s Word has not gone deep and where out and out idolatry is common.
I was reading “it is noticeable that in the Gospels nearly all accounts of exorcisms are put in a setting where compromise with Grecian religion and paganism were rife. By far the most exorcisms took place in the Galilee area, where there are some eleven instances recorded. From a bit further afield came the Syro-Phoenician woman. Then there are a few general references to the effect that people came to Jesus from Syria, Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, beyond the Jordan, Idumea, Tyre and Sidon, but all these people were not necessarily demon-possessed, although some of them were. These general references are the only ones in the Gospels that suggest that there were demon-possessed in the Jerusalem area. John, who concentrates on Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, does not mention any cases of demon-possession. The only definite evidence of demon-possession in the Jerusalem area comes from Acts 5:16, where it is mentioned that Peter healed some demoniacs. Further references in Acts mention demoniacs in Samaria, Philippi of Macedonia, and Ephesus. Although this evidence is not conclusive, it does support the argument that demon-possession is most common in pagan and idolatrous areas.”
Which makes sense to me.
I don’t know for sure but it seems like when Christians begin to have a real influence on a society, that some of those cruder forms of demon possession may be somewhat more restrained, because there, what would Satan want, it seems he would want people to forget that he exists.
Where people don’t have the hope of the gospel, he’s free to intimidate them and terrorize them because they don’t have an answer to the problem but when people start to realize that there is an answer to the problem, then what is he going to want to do, he’s going to want to get them to forget that there is even a problem at all.