Jesus' Parables for Disciples
50. Jesus vs. Beelzebub: Overpowering the Strong Man (Luke 11:14-28)
Lincoln Cathedral in Lincoln, England, is an amazing frieze (c. 1150 AD, restored in 2009) known as 'The Harrowing (or Plundering) of Hell,' that shows the conflict with Satan in graphic terms. The man with the crown is, of course, Christ. The man to the right seems to be John the Baptist. Both have their feet on the devil, bound hand and foot. Christ is grasping those enslaved souls who are reaching out for his help.
" 14 Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. 15 But some of them said, 'By Beelzebub, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.' 16 Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven. 17 Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: 'Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. 18 If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebub. 19 Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. 20 But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.
21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. 22 But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up the spoils.
23 He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters.
24 When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, "I will return to the house I left." 25 When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26 Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.' 27 As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, 'Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.' 28 He replied, 'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.' (Luke 11:14-28, NIV)
When you're trying to get to know a person, it is revealing to see how they respond under pressure. Years ago, when my former church was interviewing candidates for principal of our church's elementary school, one of the things I sought to find out from the candidate's references was how he handled anger. How did she respond under crisis?
The common view of "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" is flat and two-dimensional. It misses the Jesus under fire that we see in this lesson. What emerges is a direct and penetrating response to slander. Like it or not, you are faced with confrontations, too. How do you respond under pressure? How to do that is what we disciples are seeking to learn from Jesus.
Before we examine the incidents in detail, let me give you the big picture of what is going on here. I considered breaking these verses up into several lessons, but I think they're better understood as a whole -- if you can keep the lines of Luke's presentation clearly before you.
Jesus casts out a demon, and most of the crowds marvel, but:
- Some accuse him of driving out demons by the power of Satan himself (dealt with in 11:17-28)
- Others ask for a sign from heaven (dealt with in 11:29-32)
He answers the accusation of casting out demons by the power of Satan in three ways (11:17-22):
- If Satan were attacking his own forces, he would soon defeat himself.
- Jewish exorcists (of whom his opponents approved) would be subject to the same criticism.
- Jesus casts out demons by overpowering Satan who is oppressing the person.
Then he states emphatically that there is no place for neutrality in the war against Satan (11:23-28):
- Those who don't gather with Jesus, scatter.
- Unless the "house" of an exorcised person is inhabited and guarded, it will fall to demonic forces again.
- Freedom from Satan is only possible through obedience to God's word.
First, let's examine how Jesus handles the slanderous charge that he is empowered by Beelzebub.
"Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed." (11:14)
This conflict began in the context of Jesus' everyday ministry of preaching the Word, healing the sick, and casting out demons where necessary. On this occasion Jesus heals a man who is mute, that is, he is unable to speak (and, according to Matthew 12:22, he is also blind). As I discussed in my essay "Demonization and Deliverance in Jesus' Ministry" in the Appendix, all disease is not due to demons, but some may be. In this case, Jesus discerns that the root of these physical symptoms is spiritual, not organic. And so he expels from the sufferer the demon that has caused his affliction. The word translated "driving out" is Greek ekballō, "to throw out, cast out," the common word used for casting out demons from afflicted persons. In English, we sometimes use the word "exorcism" to describe this process.
When the mute man -- now healed -- speaks, the crowds are amazed. Most of them, that is.
"But some of them said, 'By Beelzebub, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.' Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven." (11:15-16)
According to Luke's narrative, Jesus' ministry has moved south into Judea, much closer to Jerusalem, the center of Judaism. His successes have also attracted critics. Matthew identifies them as "the Pharisees" (Matthew 12:24) and Mark as "the scribes" (Mark 3:22).
Unwilling to see God's hand in these healings and exorcisms, they present an alternate theory. They accuse Jesus of being an agent of Beelzebub, the prince of demons, and therefore able to command his minions where to go. Jesus answers this slanderous charge rather fully in 11:17-28. To those who ask for a sign from heaven (11:16) he responds in 11:29-32.
Beelzebub (sometimes spelled Beelzebul, and considered the same figure as Belial in the intertestamental literature) comes from the Hebrew Baal, "lord, husband," the name of an early Canaanite god. Bul is the Hebrew word for "house, high place, temple" (1 Kings 8:13; Isaiah 63:15). So Beelzebul means "god of the high place." However, the Jews may have purposely corrupted Beelzebul -- as a sign of their disgust -- into the word Beelzebub, meaning "Lord of the flies" or "god of filth."448 By Jesus' day, Beelzebul or Beelzebub had become the popular name for Satan, the prince of demons. The scribes and Pharisees are attributing Jesus' success at exorcism to being empowered by Satan, the prince of demons. This is gross blasphemy and slander.
Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines "slander" as "the utterances of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another's reputation."449 Sometimes people will whisper some scandalous rumor about a leader. If someone tars a leader with the hint of sexual abuse or sexual misconduct -- no matter that it may be utterly false -- it is very difficult to remove the nagging doubt from people's minds. Slander is evil, and trying to identify Jesus with Beelzebub is slander at its worst.450
"Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: 'Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebub.'" (11:17-18)
The Pharisees' accusation was outrageous, but unanswered it could dog Jesus' steps the rest of his ministry. He must speak to it. He must put it to rest. There is a time to be silent, and not to answer foolish charges. This was not one of those times.
Jesus appeals to his hearers' reasoning by demonstrating how the accusation is ludicrous. He first states the universal principle that an internally divided kingdom will crumble from within. Then he extends this to the specific accusation. If Satan goes about scattering his own forces, he can't survive. The charge is foolish.
Then he moves to a second approach to undermining his critics' charge.
"Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges." (11:19)
Jesus wasn't the only one in Palestine casting out demons. There were various Jewish exorcists in Jesus' day. Here is an interesting quote from Josephus describing one of these exorcisms, which Josephus attributes to knowledge handed down from Solomon's time:
"God also enabled [Solomon] to learn that skill which expels demons, which is a science useful and sanative to men. He composed such incantations also by which distempers are alleviated. And he left behind him the manner of using exorcisms, by which they drive away demons, so that they never return; and this method of cure is of great force unto this day; for I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, releasing people that were demoniacal in the presence of Vespasian, and his sons, and his captains, and the whole multitude of his soldiers. The manner of the cure was this: He put a ring that had a Foot of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he abjured him to return into him no more, making still mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantations which he composed...."451
Another (non-Jewish) prescription for exorcism with clear Jewish affiliations, begins this way:
"For those possessed by daemons, an approved charm by Pibechis. Take oil made from unripe olives, together with the plant mastigia and lotus pith, and boil it with marjoram (very colorless), saying: 'Joel, Ossarthiomi, Emori, Theochipsoith .... come out of such a one.'"452
Luke also makes note of non-Christian exorcists in Luke 9:49 and Acts 19:13-16, who had, in both instances, incorporated Jesus' name into their incantations.
Jesus says to his critics,
"Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges" (11:19).
In other words, he is arguing, If I am casting out demons by Beelzebub, the same could be said of your own disciples (literally, "sons"). First, Jesus displays his critics' flimsy logic, and then turns their charge against exorcists of their own religious sect. But then he goes a step further.
"But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you." (11:20)
Jesus is saying, If you're wrong, and God, not Beelzebub, is empowering me, then the kingdom of God has come to you and you are too blind to see it.
The term "finger of God" is a powerful term. (Matthew uses the term, "Spirit of God.") The expression "finger of God," which has a similar meaning to the term "hand of God," and comes from the time when God's action was powerfully seen during the Exodus and the giving of the Law before Mt. Sinai:
"When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18). But perhaps Jesus' reference is to the Pharisees' hardness of heart as he compares them to Pharaoh. After the Third Plague on Egypt, the Plague of Gnats, "The magicians said to Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God.' But Pharaoh's heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the Lord had said." (Exodus 8:19)
My dear Christian friend, when the power of God is at work through you and your ministry, as small and insignificant as it may seem to you, it is "the finger of God" writing in history and extending the kingdom of God one step further. Your work and ministry can be evidence to those who will see that the kingdom of God has come to them.
"When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up the spoils." (11:21-22)
If Jesus isn't casting out demons by Beelzebub, then how is he doing it? Jesus continues with a parable to explain the spiritual dynamics of what is going on when he casts out demons.
He tells a brief story of a wealthy man whose home (Greek aulē, "house, palace"453) contains rich treasures, so rich that he hires armed guards to protect it. No one is able to break in by stealth, only by greater strength. But when a stronger force attacks the armed guards and disarms them, then the house's contents can be looted.
This is a curious parable if we were to allegorize it by making the demonized man correspond to the "house" that is guarded by its owner, the prince of demons. But I don't think this is an allegory. It is a story about superior force overcoming armed might, pure and simple. The point of the story applies to Jesus and Beelzebub, not every detail.
The point is, that Jesus casts out demons by his superior power, not by the lesser power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons. Jesus' power is far superior to Satan's! Hallelujah.
"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters." (11:23)
In this context of spiritual conflict between demonic powers and Jesus' kingdom power there can be no neutrality.
We live in a world where agnosticism is sometimes considered a respectable alternative between faith in Christ and atheism. It is in the middle. It is neutral. It doesn't say I don't believe. It doesn't say I do believe. It says, I don't know.
But Jesus makes it clear that when mighty forces are arrayed against each other, individuals must take sides or they'll be crushed in the battle. The strong man, the prince of demons has taken a stand against the Anointed One and the angelic armies of heaven. The war has been won; the enemy has been dealt a decisive blow at Calvary. But there is an ongoing battle with frequent skirmishes, and it is fatal to be caught in No Man's Land. The final battle is to come: Armageddon (Revelation 16:16; 20:7-10).
Jesus' words in 11:23 pose a two-fold question:
- Are you with Jesus?
- Are you gathering with him?
You cannot straddle the fence. You are either with Jesus fully, or you oppose him and effectively scatter the harvest that he is trying to gather.
Now Jesus relates a narrative, a parable of sorts, a story explaining the necessity for commitment vs. neutrality.
"When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, 'I will return to the house I left.' When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first." (11:24-26)
Before we look at the whole, let's consider a few of the words. The word translated "evil spirit" (NIV) is better translated "unclean spirit" (KJV), since the adjective akathartos means "impure, unclean." It is used of "unclean" foods that could not be eaten by the Jews, as well as everything connected with idolatry. A moral sense of the word includes the ideas of "unclean, impure, vicious," and is especially used to describe demonic spirits.454 In this case, the demon "has gone out" of the man. The Greek word is exerchomai, "to go out," which doesn't indicate whether the demon was forced to leave or not, but just that he left.
The phrase "goes through arid places seeking rest" reminds us of Old Testament references to demons living in deserted cities.
"And thorns shall spring up in their cities,
and in her strongholds; and they shall be habitations of sirens, and a court for
ostriches. And demons shall meet with satyrs455,
and they shall cry one to the other: there shall satyrs rest, having found for
themselves a place of rest." (Isaiah 34:14, Septuagint)
"For from the Everlasting fire will descend upon [Jerusalem's enemies] for many days,
And she will be a habitation of demons for a long time." (Baruch 4:35)
"Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!
She has become a home for demons
and a haunt for every evil spirit,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird." (Revelation 18:2)
Leon Morris observes, "Desert places were popularly regarded as the haunts of evil spirits and Jesus pictures this one as wandering through such waterless regions without finding rest."456 But Marshall notes, "The point is perhaps not the dryness but the absence of men from such desert regions, so that the demon cannot find anywhere to rest."457 The Greek word anapausis can mean both "rest" and "a resting place."458 Whatever the significance of the desert places, the demon doesn't find a comfortable abode, so he decides to return his former "house" (Greek oikos). The demon thinks of the person as a dwelling place.
"When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order" (11:25). The phrase "put in order" is the primary meaning of kosmeō (which can also mean "adorn, decorate," and from which we derive our word "cosmetics").459 Without the demon's presence, the man's life has become more regular and organized -- but still empty. Matthew 12:44 explicitly tells us that the house is empty, Greek scholazō, of a place or house "be unoccupied, stand empty."460
The point of the parable is to illustrate Jesus' saying, "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters" (11:23). There can be no neutrality in the spiritual battle. Emptiness, lack of commitment is not enough.
The father of one of our church's elementary school students ran a radiator shop. He was a profane man and a heavy drinker. Occasionally he would come to church when his daughter's class was in a program. One day he called me up to tell me that he had stopped smoking and stopped drinking. I rejoiced with him. But I waited for the other shoe to drop. He had turned away from two evils, but what was he filling his life with now? Unfortunately, he didn't seem to have turned to Jesus. I've often thought of him when reading this parable. Just getting your life cleaned up and more orderly is a good thing -- but inadequate. To be empty is to be vulnerable. Without the strong power of Jesus in our lives, we set ourselves up to be oppressed by evil in some other form.
Emptiness represents here lack of commitment, lack of purpose, lack of focus. There can be no spiritual neutrality.
Our passage concludes with one more word about neutrality and commitment.
"As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in
the crowd called out, 'Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.'
He replied, 'Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.'" (11:27-28)
There is a woman in the crowd who is enthralled with this young rabbi. I imagine her as old enough to be his mother. Such a wonderful teacher! Such a spiritual man, he is! Wouldn't she be proud if Jesus were her son! She calls out, "Blessed is the mother who bore you and nursed you." Everyone hears her words. A ripple of comment moves over the crowd. Some smile, some frown. How will Jesus reply? they wonder.
Jesus has a wise word to give in response: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it" (11:28). You would expect Jesus to pause and say something kind about his mother Mary. Indeed she was blessed by God, and Luke has pointed out Mary's blessedness in her cousin Elizabeth's words, "Blessed are you among women..." (Luke 1:42).
But instead, Jesus says the unexpected, a very pointed and almost sharp word that underlines the theme he has been following in today's teaching -- that only full commitment will suffice. Neither neutrality, nor emptiness, nor family relationships mean anything here.
On another occasion Jesus has made nearly the same point:
"Now Jesus' mother and brothers came to see
him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told
him, 'Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.'
He replied, 'My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice.'" (Luke 8:19-21)
Jesus' disciples do not follow out of family allegiance or pride -- though Jesus' mother and brothers did follow him, and his brother James rose to prominence in the Jerusalem church. Jesus' disciples are those who have committed themselves to hearing God's word through his Son, and obeying it.
Why do you follow Jesus, my dear friend? Is it history or geography or family tradition? Those are good reasons to follow Jesus, and I began my walk with Christ partly because my brother had preceded me by two weeks in surrendering his life to Christ. I had parents and grandparents praying for me and a family heritage of ministry and church service. Family tradition to follow the Lord is a good and powerful thing. Joshua declares, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15). But it is not adequate for disciples. In this lesson Jesus makes the strong point that Jesus' kinsmen are those who listen ever so closely to discern God's voice and word, and then put it into practice. Are you this kind of kinsman? You must be.
And there's a similar lesson for us: We must either stand with Jesus or against him, there is no non-aligned position. "Middle-of-the-road" Christianity won't cut it. On the day we are studying about, Jesus is confronted and questioned and maligned. And if they do it to our Lord and Master, we can expect them to do it to us. We must be able to give an answer when called upon (1 Peter 3:15). The prince of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11) seeks to neutralize our witness, to silence our testimony, to undermine our credibility. But we cannot compromise our stand. We must stand with Jesus and help him in his harvest work, or by our example we help to scatter and weaken Jesus' church and kingdom.
Finally, this passage reminds us that Jesus is the Stronger Man who has the power to overcome the lies, enticements, and deception of the enemy that you and I face. In Him is power for you for deliverance. He is your Stronger Man. He is your Savior. He is your Rescuer. He is the power of God working in you who believe (1 Thessalonians 2:13; Philippians 2:12-13). As the Apostle John put it many years later,
"You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world." (1 John 4:4)
Yes, there are days that we, like Jesus, will be scorned by critics and enemies. But, praise God, we have a great hope while our critics have none. You may have been battered, but don't give up, my friend. Let me leave you with the encouragement that I find in the Apostle Paul's words:
"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain" (1 Corinthians 15:58, RSV).
Father, I have my days, like Jesus, when I am pounded and questioned. When I am accused and slandered. Please strengthen me that I might stand in your strength, and not compromise or cave in. I need your strength to be my strength. In Jesus' mighty name, I pray. Amen.
"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters." (Luke 11:23)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- When Jesus is accused of being empowered by
Beelzebub, the prince of demons, what are the three points of his answer?
Put these points in your own words.
- What in Scripture indicates that the spiritual warfare against Satan and his demons is not an even match? What verse in this passage indicates this?
- (Extra credit) In Luke 9:49-50 Jesus says "Whoever is not against you is for you." But in 11:23 he says "He who is not with me is against me." Are these statements in conflict? What are we to learn from each?
- What are the dangers of seeing Christianity mainly in terms of family pride and responsibility, like the woman in the crowd? (11:27-28)
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Marshall, Luke, pp. 472, 473. BAGD 139.
 Merriam-Webster, p. 1102.
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 8. 2. 5. Marshall, Luke, p. 747 also cites Strack and Billerback IV:1, 527-535.
 Paris Magical Papyrus, published by C. Wessely, "Griechische Zauberpapyri von Paris und London," in Denkeschrift der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenshaften zu Wien, Phil.-Hist. Klasse, xxxvi. (1888), dated about AD 300, reprinted in C.K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (SPCK/Harper, 1956/1961), p. 31-35, quoting lines 1-5, 7.
 Marshall, Luke, p. 477.
 Akathartos, BAGD 29.
 In the LXX, the plural of Greek onokentauros means "a kind of demon haunting wild places" (Liddell-Scott).
 Morris, Luke, p. 199.
 Marshall, Luke, p. 479.
 Anapausis, BAGD 58.
 Kosmeō, BAGD 445.
 Scholazō, BAGD 797-798.
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