5 February 2017


Matthew 17:14-21

This morning we deal with a controversial subject — demonic possession and oppression.

What shall we make of such accounts in Jesus’ ministry? Do things like these happen today? Do they happen to Christians? Are believers vulnerable to demonic attack? And if so, how do we deal with them? Exactly like Jesus or the disciples did? How relevant is demonic attack to Christians, today?

A biblical worldview believes that wicked, invisible evil spirits operate in our world, the result of an ancient rebellion began by Lucifer, a powerful and highly placed angel. These spirits oppose God, life, all that is good and right, and seek to bring the world into rebellion against God and to deceive mankind with respect to the truth about Jesus Christ. When we give ground to Satan — by believing his lies or by involvement in sin, we open ourselves also to demonic attack. Ignorance can develop a spiritual bondage that most people incorrectly see as ‘I am just a useless Christian’.

I have actively and wilfully trusted in Christ as Saviour since 1973, but I have not lived every hour fully surrendered and empowered by God. Saving faith? Yes. Love for God? Yes. Desire to live a life pleasing to God? Yes. But I still have to cope with evil, with temptation, with falling short of God’s ways. Every day, every hour, every minute. This is the human condition — and many times I have to realise I am not doing very well in the constant onslaught of satanic attack. Occasionally, any one of us can reach the point where we want to exclaim, like the apostle Paul once did: O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:24) Did you know that Martin Luther would sometimes become so cross at the devil, he would hurl his inkwell across the room, at the wall. Sometimes we struggle and think we can never overcome, never defeat the sinful manifestations, and we start to use words like ‘demonic oppression’ and ‘demonic possession’.

In our text, a father from the very northernmost regions of Israel has come to find help from Jesus, only to find nine of the disciples and no Jesus. Jesus and the three disciples had climbed the Mount of Transfiguration to experience the mountain-top experience in the presence of God the Father and Elijah and Moses which we talked about last week. But after most every Mountain-Top experience comes the descent into the valley of this world’s grim realities, and the experience of Jesus and his three closest disciples was no different. This story is recorded by Matthew , Mark, and Luke — with most detail found in Mark’s gospel. Jesus, Peter, James and John, have come down the mountain after the Transfiguration, to find the other nine disciples in a spot of trouble. There are some scribes around who are arguing with them, but there is also a disgruntled man, unhappy because the disciples have been unable to do anything to heal his son, whom he suspects is demon possessed. Matthew has some key details. As Jesus comes back to join the nine remaining disciples, this man falls on his knees before Jesus, and according to verse 14, begs him saying, “Lord have mercy on my son, for he is a lunatic and is very ill, for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. I brought him to your disciples, and they could not cure him.”

Notice how the father has not given up. He perseveres — hold that idea. The disciples have been unable to help, not for lack of trying. They were pretty upset at their failure. Remember too, that this is in spite of Jesus having actually previously given the disciples authority to do miraculous things when he sent them out two-by-two. Matthew 10:1 tells us that Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness. Before this particular father showed up, they had been done no this ministry without any problem, just as Jesus had done. When they told a demon or demons to go, they had to go. When Jesus gave the same commission to the 70, they came back and reported in Luke 10:20 that even the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name. So, for the first and apparently only time, Jesus’ disciples had not been able to cast out demons in Jesus’ name. What had gone wrong?

That’s the big question, but this boy’s father is desperate. He immediately falls to his knees and begs for Jesus’ mercy on His son. Clearly, He did not believe anyone other than Jesus could cure or deliver His son. This man sets a great example: When we’re troubled by evil spirits, or even desperate, don’t give up! Keep asking Jesus for help. One thing that the devil counts on is that Christians will give up. It’s not easy to command a demonic spirit, as Jesus did, it can require much perseverance. But never give up! Where there is Jesus, there’s a way, and without Jesus, there is no deliverance. If you believe you are experiencing strange manifestations, nightmares, or temptations that are difficult to control, the worst thing is to do nothing. You might worry people will think you’re crazy, but demons do exist, they do afflict people from time-to-time, and if you ignore the problem, it will likely get worse, because demons, like the devil, come to steal, kill and destroy.

How can you tell you’ve got a problem with evil spirits? It is not always crystal clear. Some organic, medical, conditions can look like possession, but when it is not, and behaviour is destructive, self-harming, suicidal, of simply something that can only be described as evil actions, there is a strong possibility that demons are at work. Demon oppression and possession intend to harm, to destroy, to steal away the life God has offered us. Jesus said in John 8:44-45 that the devil was a murderer from the beginning, and that so are his cohorts, the demons.

In this case in scripture, the boy was inhabited by a demon bent on killing him through throwing him into the water or into fire. None of which was accidental. The other gospels tell us the boy was also a deaf-mute, and the reason for his affliction was that he had a deaf-mute demon—a particular kind of demon, interesting because it tells us there are different kinds of demons, with different powers, effects and assignments. We need to be alert for symptoms of demonic influence, involvement or oppression. It can appear to be a medical issue, but sometimes it’s something more. Look for other symptoms: blasphemous or heretical thoughts, suicidal or homicidal tendencies? Apparitions, compulsions, compulsive behaviour, nightmares, or even trances? Can they affect a Christian? Yes I believe they can, but we have also been given absolutely trustworthy means of escape and defence.

Jesus hears the father describe things, and then he gives a comment which is also a rebuke, aimed at the man, the son, and everyone who was looking on. Verse 17: “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you. How long shall I put with you.” These are deliberate words, and indicate the perspective God has, of this tragic situation. Our world was full of sin, full of evil, full of rebellion against holy God, and this produces circumstances like this one. Jesus sees the end game, that one day he will return and put an end to evil and sin, and those who are committed to it. But before that happens, he describes the number one problem: unbelief. Unbelief in the one, true living God. This horrible situation began with unbelief. When we do not acknowledge, believe in and serve the one true living God we passively or actively join in the devil’s rebellion against God or as I John 5:19 puts it, we are “in the lap of the evil one.” Deception and influence of Satan and His demons, through unbelief, is a result of the rebellion that took place in the Garden of Eden.

Jesus also uses a second description: perverse — He describes the world as perverse, a word meaning distorted, twisted, even twisted in two. God’s plan is perfect; it is wonderful, but sin and rebellion and the devil specialise in distorting and perverting God’s ways. Destroying His good and perfect intent. Unbelief and perversion of faith in all God has declared Himself to be, will always get a person into a demonic shambles. It is black and white, it is day and night, it is truth or lie. In that boys life, even though we do not know the exact perversion and unbelief, we know it got him into that mess, something the devil and his demons swooped in to take advantage of.

Not everybody ends up this afflicted, but Jesus teaches they can happen to anyone. Unbelief and sin against God are the root problems behind demonic oppression. Knowing how to deal with it is important. If you are a Christian, you can say you have belief, therefore unbelief, as an opportunity for the devil, is much less likely. True. If you take care of knowing what you believe and why you believe it, this is a powerful shield against Satan.

What is more likely for Christians is to be sin. It is very easy to look like we do not sin, simple stuff to convince others we are paragons of Christian virtue, and yet to also be full off sin. Things we do that we should not, and things we do not do that we should. When we start to tell ourselves that the sin we are living can satisfy us in ways that God’s will cannot, we have become exactly what Jesus meant when he said we are ‘perverse’ Christians can live under the shadow of the Almighty, and we can appeal for His strength and protection, but we are also reminded in the NT that we must be alert, because the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone, a believer, to devour. We are still vulnerable to Satan’s attacks and to his lies we believe, and to the sins we willingly agree to participate in.

Time does not allow me to teach more deeply about this today, but there is one key verse worth memorising: James 4:7: **“Submit therefore to the Lord, resist the devil, and He will flee.” ** The order is so important: First, submit to the Lord, with regard to your sin, or a false belief. Then (and only then) can you resist the devil. You need to move yourself from rebellion’s side, to the Lord’s side, and once you are there, you have access to all the power of Jesus, to resist the devil. And when you do, He will flee! Jesus rebukes the demon, the demon came out of him, and the boy was immediately cured. Jesus Christ is our rock, our fortress and our deliverer. Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and Lord of the Spirits, and when He speaks, demons listen, or else. And they know it! The disciples learn after that they failed to deliver the boy from his demons because they did not have enough faith. Jesus tells them the story about having faith even the side of a mustard seed, will be enough.

Faith is having complete trust or confidence in someone. The disciples went through the motions, prayed the prayers, but nothing happened, because their trust in the authority of Jesus, then, was incomplete. You want to see the Lord work amazingly in and around your life? Work at getting rid of whatever things are stopping you from having total trust in Jesus Christ. Persevere with faith, grapple with unbelief and deal with sin in your life. The one thing the devil counts on is that God’s children give up way too easily. Persevere with enlarging your faith in the Lord, and keep hacking away at anything you know God does not find pleasing in your life. When you have a faith that perseveres in prayer, you win. You go from desperation to deliverance, because Jesus always wins over the devil. Amen!