'Eucharist,' stained glass window, St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Parish, Findlay, Ohio.
'Eucharist,' stained glass window, St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Parish, Findlay, Ohio.

One of Jesus' favorite themes is salvation -- setting people free! He used a number of parables and analogies to teach his disciples these truths.

6.1 Analogies of Salvation

6.2 Analogies of Jesus' Death and Resurrection

6.3 Setting People Free

6.1 Analogies of Salvation

Jesus told a number of parables to help clarify for his disciples what salvation was and what it was not. Many of these brief analogies are found in the Gospel of John.

Two caveats before we begin. First, some of these concepts like "born again" and "rivers of living water" are buzz-words or jargon, so ingrained in our Christian theology and terminology that it is difficult for us to lay that aside and look at what Jesus actually says.

Second, since some of these analogies are so central to our theology of salvation, I'm tempted to spend a lot of space putting them in context. But in a focused study of the parables, it's hard to do them justice. So, for fuller expositions, I refer you to my prior studies.

Analogy of Spiritual Birth (John 3:3-7)

(Also known as New Birth and Second Birth)

Jesus is teaching Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the ruling group of Great Sanhedrin leaders in Jerusalem. Jesus insists that a person must be born again spiritually.

"I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." (John 3:3)

Birth"Again" in verses 3 and 7 could be translated "from above," but Nicodemus tries to puncture Jesus' illustration of salvation as re-birth, by claiming the physical impossibility of rebirth, thus suggesting that "again" is the main idea.1

"How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!" (John 3:4)

But Jesus insists that a spiritual birth is necessary.

"5 I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.'" (John 3:5-7)

In verse 5, water could be interpreted as (1) amniotic fluid as symbolic of physical birth, or (2) perhaps repentance and cleansing inherent in John's water-baptism mentioned previously in John's Gospel. We can't be sure which. Verse 6 states clearly that this spiritual birth is distinct from physical birth. Thus, people are not automatically born by the Spirit -- probably not Nicodemus himself at this point in his quest. Later, he comes to faith and is counted as a disciple (John 7:50; 19:39).

Jesus is talking about a new plane of life and understanding that is entirely beyond man's control. It is a birth and a new life that the Spirit gives. This "new birth," or "second birth" is as radical as our physical birth was, and is necessary to "see" (verse 3) and "enter" (verse 5) the Kingdom of God that Jesus is talking about. Of course, much more could be said about the new birth of the Spirit that we can't get into here.2 But second birth is a powerful image that teaches us something about spiritual life. The theological word to describe spiritual birth and life is "regeneration." As Paul puts it:

"He saved us through the washing of rebirth3 and renewal4 by the Holy Spirit...." (Titus 3:5)5

Analogy of the Wind of the Spirit (John 3:8)

Now Jesus switches from a birth analogy to the wind. He emphasizes that the Holy Spirit cannot be manipulated. He is completely beyond man's control.

"The wind (pneuma) blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit (pneuma)." (John 3:8)

"Wind" is pneuma, the breath of God, the same word that is translated "Spirit" at the end of verse 8. In Hebrew also, the word for spirit (rûaḥ) is also used for wind.

People who have been born of the Spirit, Jesus is saying, are motivated, guided, and moved by an unseen but powerful force beyond themselves. The life of the Spirit is a new level of spiritual existence, a different plane entirely. Only people who have been born of the Spirit can perceive and enter the Kingdom of God.

Q23. (John 3:3-8) In what way is becoming a believer in Jesus similar to a second birth? What aspects of physical birth are analogous to spiritual birth that Jesus seeks to clarify with this analogy? What about wind's characteristics are we to attribute to the Spirit?

Analogy of Lifting the Bronze Serpent (John 3:14-15)

As you'll recall, Nicodemus, a highly placed inquirer, comes to Jesus at night to talk about salvation. After explaining the new birth and the wind of the Spirit, he explains faith with this analogy.

"14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life." (John 3:14-15)

For us, this seems like a rather obscure analogy, but for Jesus' Jewish listeners it taught them something. It refers to an incident when God judged the rebellion of his people in the desert with an abundance of venomous snakes whose bite was lethal. The snake danger had the intended effect. The people repented of their sin and asked Moses to take the snakes away. Yahweh tells Moses:

"8 'Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live. 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived." (Numbers 21:8-9)

The analogy doesn't compare Jesus with a bronze snake. Rather, it involves a two-fold comparison:

  1. Lifting up. Like the snake was lifted up, so Jesus will be lifted up both on the cross and in resurrection and ascension (see John 8:28; 12:32-34).
  2. Faith. Just as people looked at the snake and lived, so people will look to Jesus in faith and live, that is be healed of their sin and receive eternal life.

Parable of the Bread of Life (John 6:35)

As part of a long discussion of manna, Jesus identifies himself as "the true bread from heaven" (John 6:32) The true bread doesn't give just physical life, but eternal life. Jesus spells it out using a metaphor, one of Jesus' seven "I AM" declarations in John's Gospel.

"35b I am the bread of life. 36 He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty." (John 6:35-36)

Again, Jesus' words sound much like his promises of living water to the woman at the well (John 4:13-14, Lesson 6.1 below), words that bring life forever -- eternal life. He says it again:

"48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever." (John 6:48-51a)

Contained in Jesus' Bread of Life Discourse is the related Parable of Eating Jesus' Flesh in Lesson 9.3, where we'll dig deeper into these figures of speech.

"Bread of Life" and "Living Bread" mean bread that brings life, just as "Living Water," in the spiritual sense, means water that brings life as we see in the next analogies of salvation.

Parable of Water for Eternal Life (John 4:10, 13-14)

Life-giving Water

Now we come to a pair of parables of salvation that use the figure of "living water" -- water for eternal life in John 4:13-14 and "streams of living water" in John 7:37-39. To unwrap both of these parables, we need to understand water as a symbol and the meaning of "living water."

1. Water as a symbol of life. In a largely arid land, water is a symbol of life. The patriarchs dug wells so they would have enough water for both themselves and their herds.

2. The meaning of "living water." The phrase normally referred to flowing water from a spring, stream, or river, as opposed to standing water in a pond, well, or cistern. Flowing water suggests a continuous flow. So "living water" is a symbol not just of life, but continuous, eternal, everlasting life.

Jesus' words aren't said in vacuum, but amidst a rich heritage of the Old Testament prophecies about water and salvation. For example:

"My people ... have forsaken me,
the spring of living water." (Jeremiah 2:13; cf. 17:13)

"You give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life." (Psalm 36:8b-9a)

"On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem...." (Zechariah 14:8)

Now let's examine Jesus' parables about living water, first the Parable of Water for Eternal Live (John 4:10, 13-14)

The Woman at the Well

'Samaritan Woman at the Well,' stained glass, Our Lady of Providence Catholic Church, St. Louis, Missouri.
'Samaritan Woman at the Well,' stained glass, Our Lady of Providence Catholic Church, St. Louis, Missouri.

Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well and asks for a drink. She brings up differences between Jewish and Samaritan religious beliefs, but Jesus isn't distracted. He speaks to her deep spiritual need of salvation.

"If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." (John 4:10)

A few minutes later he says,

"13 Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring6 of water welling up7 to eternal life." (John 4:13-14)

Jesus makes two claims for those who drink this Living Water.

  1. They will never again thirst spiritually.
  2. They will have eternal life.

Parable of Streams of Living Water (John 7:37-39)

A similar metaphor of spiritual life and eternal life is "rivers of living water." Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. This annual Jewish feast has a tradition of a daily libation, or pouring out of water that was understood by the rabbis and the people as symbolic of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.8 Now, at the culmination of the festival, Jesus proclaims in a loud voice:

"37 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Streams9 of living water will flow10 from within him.'11 39 By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified." (John 7:37-39)

Jesus draws on Isaiah's use of water as a metaphor for salvation (Isaiah 12:3; 44:3). He speaks to the spiritual thirst of the Jewish people with both an invitation and a promise.

1. Invitation. "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink" (John 7:37). This turns my mind to several similar invitations in the Bible:

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters." (Isaiah 55:1-2)

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened...." (Matthew 11:28-29)

"Whoever is thirsty ... let him take the free gift of the water of life." (Revelation 22:17)

2. Universal invitation. The invitation and promise are to "whoever" (NIV, ESV) believes in Jesus -- not just the Jews, but thirsty people around the world. This is his invitation to anyone even in our day who thirsts for healing, for reality, for truth, for love.

3. Promise. Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will flow from within like an artesian well, never stopping. There is so much here to explore, but we don't have the time in this particular study.12

Jesus' promise here is fulfilled with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and the continued presence of the Holy Spirit in each believer. This passage is the basis for a praise chorus from the Jesus Movement of the 1970s:

"There's a river of life flowing out of me,
Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see,
Opens prison doors, sets the captive free.
There's a river of life flowing out of me.
 Spring up a well within my soul,
 Spring up a well that makes me whole...."13

Q24. (John 4:13-14; 7:37-39) If water is symbolic of life, what is flowing or living water symbolic of in these passages? Who creates this spiritual thirst in a person? How are these promises fulfilled in believers?

Saying of the Camel and the Needle (Matthew 19:23-24; Mark 10:24-25; Luke 18:24-25; §189)

CamelOne of the greatest misconceptions in Judaism during Jesus' time was that a person could become righteous enough to be saved by doing good deeds. This isn't too far from American popular religion that sees people getting to heaven on good works. Of course, the cross isn't needed in a world that exalts human effort and minimizes the need for

God's working. This brings us to Jesus' Saying of the Camel and the Needle.

The context is Jesus' encounter with the Rich Young Ruler. This young man was a serious, observant Jew who asks Jesus what he might do to inherit eternal life. Jesus stuns him by telling him that he needs to sell all his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and then follow Jesus. The man balks at this and "went away sad."

The disciples are shocked. If a wealthy man who is serious about keeping the law can't be saved, who can? In Judaism's eyes, a wealthy, young pious Jew was the very kind of person who could enter the Kingdom of God, that is, be saved, since he could afford to keep all the laws. That was the common wisdom. If he can't be saved, who can be saved?

How Hard for the Rich to Enter the Kingdom (Luke 18:24-25)

Jesus answers this question with his Saying of the Camel and the Needle.

"24 Jesus looked at [the Rich Young Ruler] and said, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.'" (Luke 18:24-25)

Jesus explains to his disciples about how "hard" or "difficult" it is for the rich to be saved.14 Then Jesus declares it impossible -- illustrated by a short saying or parable.

Camels were a curiosity to Israelites. Farmers didn't use them; the donkey was their animal of choice. But the camel, domesticated by 1,000 BC, was used for long-distance trade. Camels brought goods along the Silk Road from China though Palestine and Syria to the coast, then the goods were loaded on ships headed for Rome. Camels also carried frankincense and myrrh along the Incense Route from south Arabia.

Galilee was near a crossroads of some of these trade routes, so camels were not unfamiliar to the Galileans. Nevertheless, the camel was a wonder, the largest animal regularly seen in Palestine.

The ancients were quite familiar with sewing needles to make clothing, tents, etc. Archaeologists have found bone and ivory needles dating back tens of thousands of years. Copper and iron needles date from the fourth and third millennia BC.

At issue in Jesus' saying is the tiny opening for the thread in the eye of the needle. Some rabbinical writings have a similar expression: "Draw an elephant through the eye of a needle."15 Both this saying and Jesus' saying share the same contrast between the huge beast and the proverbially small eye of a needle. The point of both these figures of speech is impossibility; they are proverbs of impossibility. We know this because Jesus uses the word "impossible" (adynatos) in Luke 18:27.

The Gate of Jerusalem Myth

For hundreds of years there have been various explanations floating around to change Jesus' teaching of "impossibility" to some kind of "you-can-do-it-if-you-really-try" approach. One of these pseudo-explanations imagines a gate through the wall of Jerusalem called "the needle's eye," so small that a laden camel couldn't get through unless it were to kneel down and be completely unloaded. Preachers and tour guides love the story. It is picturesque, but has absolutely no support in fact.16 It also distorts what Jesus is trying to say from "impossible for man" to "possible by man."

Possible Only with God (Luke 18:26-27)

As mentioned, he disciples' were astonished at the impossibility of salvation for the rich.

"26 Those who heard this asked, 'Who then can be saved?'
27 Jesus replied, 'What is impossible with men is possible with God.'" (Luke 18:26-27)

Even the most religious, the most pious Jews -- of which the Rich Young Ruler is an example -- and the most saintly Christian believer can't save themselves. Salvation is not man's work, but God's. God can do what is impossible to man. He can open the most distracted heart, cleanse the most polluted person, and flood the soul with his life-giving Holy Spirit.

Q25. (Luke 18:24-25) Why do you think people try to distort Jesus' Saying of the Camel and the Needle from a parable of impossibility? Why is salvation impossible to humans?

6.2 Parables of Jesus' Death and Resurrection

Jesus uses several analogies and parables to teach his disciples about his death and resurrection. As you may recall, three times prior to Holy Week, Jesus told his disciples about his death and resurrection, but they didn't understand it -- and even refused to understand (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19).

Thus, part of Jesus' training for his disciples was to help them find ways to process his death and his resurrection. Even if they didn't understand immediately, they would be able to look back at his teachings later and realize what he was saying to them. Much of Jesus' training along this line was in the form of parables.

Acted Parable of the Bread and the Wine (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20; §236)

We are so used to the bread and the wine representing Jesus' body and blood that we hardly think of it as one of Jesus' teaching parables. But it is -- perhaps the most important and enduring one, since these Words of Institution are to be spoken in every congregation every time the Lord's Supper or Eucharist, the Communion or the Mass is remembered. In Luke he says, "Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 21:19; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:24).17 This acted parable is designed to be remembered!

Here is Matthew's version, recounting what happened on Thursday evening, just before his crucifixion the following day.

"26 While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, 'Take and eat; this is my body.' 27 Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying,

'Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom.'" (Matthew 26:26-29)

By the time of the Apostle Paul, the Words of Institution had become a bit more fixed, more parallel to each other (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Whenever I teach about Christian Baptism and the Lord's Supper or Eucharist I risk offending people, since Christians have a wide range of beliefs about these two important sacraments (or institutions), and our respective denominational traditions have battled about doctrine for centuries. I don't write to offend. But I would be remiss, if I didn't point out that Jesus' giving the bread and cup to his followers seems to me to be a metaphor where the bread and wine represent Jesus' body and blood.18

I certainly don't want to offend my dear Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters who believe in transubstantiation. They take Jesus' words at the Last Supper literally, and believe that the bread of the Eucharist IS the Real Body of Christ at the time it is consecrated.

On the other hand, I believe that when Jesus held out the bread before the disciples at the Last Supper and said, "This is my body given for you," he was speaking metaphorically. As they looked at him, they had no trouble clearly differentiating between his physical body and the loaf of bread he was holding in his physical hands. Nevertheless, though we may disagree on some understandings, we must endeavor to love one another in Christ!

Notice where Jesus says, "I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom'" (Matthew 26:29). This is a reference to the great eschatological banquet where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob feast with the saints of God. (See Appendix 5. The Great Messianic Banquet.)

Much more could be said about the Eucharist, of course. My main purpose here is to point to it as an acted parable, comparing the bread and the wine to his flesh and blood given for us on the cross.

Q26. (Matthew 26:26-29; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) How do the bread and wine remind us of Jesus' sacrifice for our sins? In what way, when we partake of the Lord's Supper, do we "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26)? https://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/topic/2200-q26-bread-and-wine/

Acted Parable of Baptism (Mark 1:4-8; Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16)

While we're at it, let's consider baptism as an acted parable of salvation, a symbol of cleansing from sin.

We don't have any of Jesus' own teaching about the significance of baptism, but since Jesus' ministry had a real continuity with the repentance theme of John the Baptist,19 we can assume that his message was similar to that of his cousin.

"4 And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River." (Mark 1:4-5, §1)

I'll briefly summarize what was going on here. For centuries, the Jews practiced ritual washings.20 Jews would build a mikvah in their synagogues -- and do so to this day -- a bath for ritual purification by self-immersion. Proselytes to Judaism were baptized by immersion as an initiation.21 John's baptism was probably understood by the Jews of his time against this background as a kind of mikvah of repentance in preparation for the kingdom. Jesus' disciples also conducted this kind of baptism under Jesus' direction (John 3:22, 26; 4:1-2).

When Paul describes the circumstances of his own baptism, he links baptism with cleansing. In Paul's account, Ananias says to him:

"And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name." (Acts 22:16; cf. 1 Peter 3:21)

Thus, baptism of believers is a metaphor of spiritual cleansing, or salvation from sin. Jesus clearly tells his followers to baptize new believers on the basis of their faith in Christ (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16).

In addition to cleansing, Paul also understood baptism as a symbol or metaphor of death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4; cf. Colossians 2:12). Whenever we witness a believer being baptized, it is intended to remind us both of cleansing from sin and rising to a new life -- an acted parable.

Analogy of the Kernel of Wheat (John 12:24)

When Jesus shares the Analogy of the Kernel of Wheat, the Triumphal Entry has already taken place. It is Holy Week, the last few days of Jesus' physical life on earth. He knows that the cross is coming soon, but the disciples refuse to accept it (Matthew 16:21-23). Nevertheless, Jesus patiently teaches them how to understand his death and resurrection, though on this occasion he appears to be speaking to a crowd as well as his disciples.

"23 The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.22 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,23 it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (John 12:23-25)

Here, Jesus uses an agricultural analogy to typify both death and resurrection -- a seed that is planted in the ground germinates, grows, and eventually reproduces itself many times over. Paul uses this kind of analogy too: A seed "dies" by being planted in the ground like a body in a grave (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:36). But when the seedling breaks through the earth and "rises from the dead," so to speak, it grows up to be stalk of wheat with a seed-head bearing many seeds.

The disciples didn't understand that Jesus' death on the cross enables their salvation. They didn't understand that Jesus' resurrection enables the promise of life for all. But it was so. The Analogy of the Kernel of Wheat gives Jesus' disciples another way to understand and process their Master's death and resurrection.

Remember Jesus' words, "The man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:25). We'll see that idea again when we examine Jesus' Parable of Taking Up One's Cross in the Synoptic Gospels (Lesson 8.4).

Analogy of the Rooms in the Father's House (John 14:2-4)

Another analogy Jesus uses to prepare his disciples for his death, resurrection, and ascension is his promise of preparing a place for them in his Father's House. He senses their confusion at his talk about going away (John 13:36), so he reassures them.

"In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2)

What house is he talking about? The noun is oikia, "a structure used as a dwelling, house,"24 essentially synonymous with the more common noun oikos, "house, household, family." Sometimes "the house of the Lord" refers to the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem.25 But here, Jesus is talking about God's heavenly dwelling.26

Every time I see this verse, I think of a wonderful African-American spiritual:

"Come and go with me to my Father's house,
To my Father's house, to my Father's house,
Come and go with me to my Father's house,
There is joy, joy, joy!

Jesus will be there, in my Father's house....

There'll be no crying there, in my Father's house...." (etc.)

In the Father's house, Jesus says, there will be many rooms. "Rooms" (NIV, ESV), "dwelling places" (NRSV), "mansions" (KJV) is monē, "a place in which one stays, dwelling(-place), room, abode."27 Perhaps these might be comparable to personal apartments in the Father's heavenly palace -- who knows?

Jesus says he is going there to "prepare a place"28 for his disciples. I can remember going to my grandparents' home, with a guestroom prepared for my brother and me -- clean sheets and all. Jesus is going away, not just to freshen up rooms for us in heaven, but to prepare the "way" so we can get to heaven at all, as we'll see in verse 6: "I AM the Way." Jesus explains that he isn't just leaving, but he is coming back.

"And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me29 that you also may be where I am." (John 14:3)

Where is Jesus going? He is "returning to God" (John 13:3), "going to the Father,"30 he is going to "my Father's house" (John 14:2). The Father's house seems to be a metaphor of heaven, the very presence of God.

Parable of the Woman in Childbirth (John 16:21)

Jesus has been talking to his disciples for his death followed by resurrection, about going away and then returning. They are discouraged, confused. And so he gives them a word of comfort using the figures of a laboring mother and her newborn.

"20 I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy." (John 16:20-22)

My wife was a childbirth instructor for several years, so I learned that "transition" is a stage in childbirth that comes during the last part of active labor, just before birth. It can be particularly intense and painful, with contractions close together that can last as long as 60 to 90 seconds each.

Women, especially during transition, are caught in a zone of pain and sometimes panic that seems like it will never end. Their focus is so intense on the pain of bearing the child, that they can't see beyond it. But when the baby comes and the midwife puts the newborn in the mother's arms, she relaxes and breaks into a huge smile. The struggles of birth fade away in the joy of holding and nursing the new life.

Jesus is referring to the joy his disciples will experience when they see him raised from the dead in his resurrection glory. And of the lasting joy they will have in the risen Christ long after his ascension. Nearly all these disciples were martyred for their faith, but even through the pain of that, they clung to their joy in their resurrected Lord. Because of this they were unstoppable.

I might go a step beyond that. For us, the struggles of this life may seem overwhelming. But there will come that day when we see his face, and the struggles of life lose their grip in the joy of his presence. Come soon, Lord Jesus!

6.3 Setting People Free

Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God has power to set the sinner free! Jesus told two parables about this:

  1. Analogy of the Slave and the Son (John 8:34-36), where Jesus says, "If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (More on this in Appendix 4.2.)
  2. Plundering the Strongman's House passage (Luke 11:17-26), which we'll examine here.

The Plundering the Strongman's House passage (Luke 11:17-26) is really a cluster of three mini-parables.31 Since they appear differently in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we'll consider each of them separately.

  • Analogy of a House Divided (in all Synoptic Gospels)
  • Parable of Binding the Strong Man (in all Synoptic Gospels)
  • Parable of the Empty House (in different contexts in Luke and Matthew, only)

Analogy of a House Divided (Matthew 12:25-26; Mark 3:24-26; §86; Luke 11:17-18, §149)

Jesus had become known for casting out demons. Unwilling to acknowledge God's hand in these healings and exorcisms, Jesus' enemies32 present an alternate theory, that Jesus drives out demons because he is working for the devil himself.

"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.33 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.'" (Luke 11:17-18)

By Jesus' day, Beelzebul or Beelzebub had become the popular name for Satan, the prince of demons.34 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. It is also illogical!

Jesus uses a common-sense illustration from political life. A kingdom with a mortal conflict between leaders won't be able to continue. One party will destroy the other and the kingdom will topple.

Thus, Jesus is saying: If he is casting out Satan's demons by Beelzebub, the chief demon, then Satan's dominion cannot continue! It would be rent by internal warfare and fall. Jesus concludes his scathing criticism of his enemies' theory by noting that their own followers conduct exorcisms (Luke 11:19).

Deliverance by the Finger of God (Luke 11:20)

Now Jesus delivers a powerful challenge to his critics.

"But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you." (Luke 11:20)

The term "finger of God" is a powerful term,35 similar in meaning to the term "hand of God." We see it in God's powerful actions during the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the law before Mt. Sinai (Exodus 8:19; 31:18).

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.

Parable of Binding the Strong Man (Matthew 12:29; Mark 3:27, §86; Luke 11:21-22, §149)

(Also known as the Parable of the Strong Man)

While Jesus' Analogy of the House Divided is designed to expose faulty logic, his Parable of Binding the Strong Man teaches us some amazing things about Jesus' understanding of his ministry.

On the west front of Lincoln Cathedral in Lincoln, England, is an amazing frieze known as 'The Harrowing (or Plundering) of Hell,' (c. 1150 AD, restored in 2009).
On the west front of Lincoln Cathedral in Lincoln, England, is an amazing frieze known as 'The Harrowing (or Plundering) of Hell,' (c. 1150 AD, restored in 2009). It 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.

"21 When a strong man, fully armed,36 guards his own house, his possessions are safe.37 22 But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up the spoils." (Luke 11:21-22)

Jesus is using military terms to picture an estate and outbuildings38 guarded39 by a fierce, well-armed warrior. He patrols the property constantly, so that no one can break in and steal the treasures within.40

But now, an even greater warrior41 faces him in battle with a head-on attack,42 coming against him with greater force. This opposing warrior is stronger, bigger, more determined, and better armed. There is no comparison when it comes to strength! The stronger warrior "overcomes" or "overpowers" the weaker guard and slays him.43 As was the practice on ancient battlefields, he strips the dead warrior of his sword and shield, his breastplate and helmet, his belt and clothing.44 Since the conquering warrior has no need of these himself, he "distributes" them to his fellow men in arms.45 When he plunders the wealthy owner's treasures, those also go to his followers. To the victor goes the spoils. That is the vivid, powerful picture that Jesus paints in just two sentences.

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. The story applies to Jesus and Beelzebub, but not every detail. I don't think this is a simple allegory. It is rather a direct story about the superior force of Jesus the Messiah, Commander of the Armies of the Lord, overcoming the power that enslaves Satan's victims. It tells of the defeat of Satan! Satan's house contains his captives; King Jesus overcomes Satan and sets them free.

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.

Victorious Jesus, Mighty Warrior

Sadly, the picture of Jesus as Mighty Warrior and Savior seems to have diminished in popular preaching. But Yahweh as Mighty Warrior is a rich theme in the Old Testament. We see him as El Shaddai (Mighty God), Lord of Hosts (armies), King of Glory, Mighty Warrior, Savior, Deliverer, etc.46 The "commander of the army of Yahweh" appears before Joshua prior to the fall of Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus reminds his disciples:

"Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:53)

Finally, we see in the Book Revelation Jesus riding on a white horse, leading the armies of heaven to victory over Satan (Revelation 19:11-14).

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 our deliverance. He is our Stronger Man. He is our Savior. He is our Rescuer. He is the power of God working in us 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)

Q27. (Luke 11:17-22) In the Parable of the Binding of the Strong Man, who is the strong man? Who is the stronger warrior? How does this explain Jesus' power to cast out demons? How does it explain Jesus' power to set you free? To set your friends free?

Parable of the Empty House (Matthew 12:43-45, §88; Luke 11:23-26, §150)

(Also known as the Parable of the Return of the Evil Spirit)

Finally, in this series of three mini-parables in Luke, Jesus relates the Parable of the Empty House. As we'll see Matthew includes it, but in a different setting. Mark omits it entirely. It is a difficult parable to interpret, but seems to be a story explaining the necessity for full commitment vs. neutrality.

"23 He who is not with me is against me,47 and he who does not gather with me, scatters. 24 When an evil ("unclean"48) 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." (Luke 11:24-26)

Demons were thought to haunt desert places.49 But the demon doesn't find a comfortable abode so it decides to return to its former "house" (oikos), the body of the formerly demonized person. "When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order"50 (Luke 11:25), so it decides to take up residence again, with lots of friends!

Context in Matthew

The parable as it appears in Matthew seems to be about Israel. In Matthew, the parable is placed following Jesus' castigation of the dullness of his generation, as "a wicked and adulterous generation" (Matthew 12:39), particularly its leaders. Jesus concludes the parable:

"That is how it will be with this wicked generation." (Matthew 12:45)

The key idea in Matthew's version (verse 44) is that the house is "unoccupied" (NIV) or "empty" (ESV, NRSV, KJV).51 Thus the meaning would be: In the same way as an individual is freed from a demon, so the nation of Israel was initially cleansed by the teaching of Jesus (and John the Baptist), but must continue in the teachings of Christ. Israel's leaders can't remain neutral! If they don't follow Christ's teachings, they will be overcome again by the Evil One. Thus, they will be worse off than before, since now they are guilty of rejecting the Messiah and his teaching.52

Context in Luke

In Luke, the parable is found right after the Parable of Plundering the Strongman's House (Luke 11:17-23, Lesson 6.3). Most commentators follow Leon Morris's interpretation of Luke's version which is more personal than national in application. Morris says,

"When a man gets rid of an evil spirit but puts nothing in its place, he is in grave moral danger. No man can live for long with his life a moral vacuum."53

This is what Jesus means in Luke 11:23:

"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." (Luke 11:23 = Matthew 12:30)

Neither Israel nor an individual can remain neutral about the Messiah.

Jesus' Parables for Disciples, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats

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 a lack of commitment, lack of purpose, lack of focus. There can be no spiritual neutrality!

Jesus' parables of salvation are so rich, so deep, so powerful! Meditate on them so you will grow as a disciple!


Father, thank you for your Son's death on the cross on our behalf, and for his resurrection. Thank you for a second birth. Teach us disciples how to pass on these truths to others, to those who have never heard the good news of abundant life and deliverance from sin. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


References and Abbreviations

[1] "Again" (NIV, ESV, KJV, NASB), "from above" (NRSV, NJB) is anōthen, an adverb of place. It can mean (1) "from above," but probably is (4) at a subsequent point of time involving repetition, again, anew" (BDAG 92, meanings 1 and 4).

[2] For a detailed study of this passage, see my John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus (JesusWalk Publications, 2015), Lesson 6. https://www.jesuswalk.com/john/06_born_again.htm In brief, the main explanations for water are: (1) Christian baptism, (2) amniotic fluid, (3) procreation (sperm), and (4) repentance and purification.

[3] "Regeneration" (ESV, KJV), "rebirth" (NIV, NRSV) in verse 5 is the Greek noun palingenesia, "the state of being renewed, renewal," here, "experience of a complete change of life, rebirth" of a redeemed person. (BDAG 75, 2).

[4] "Renewal" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "renewing" (KJV) is anakainōsis, a Greek word not found outside of Christian literature, "renewal," of a person's spiritual birth, in Titus 3:5 and Romans 12:2 (BDAG 64), "a renewal, renovation, complete change for the better" (Thayer 342). This is a compound verb from ana-, "anew," repetition, renewal + kainizō, "to make new."

[5] See Disciple's Guide to the Holy Spirit (JesusWalk Publications, 2018), Lesson 4, Born of the Holy Spirit. https://www.jesuswalk.com/spirit/04_spirit_born.htm

[6] "Spring" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "well" (KJV) is pēgē, "a source of something that gushes out or flows, spring, fountain, flow" (distinguished from krēnē, "artificially constructed fountain." Ordinarily of water, "spring, fountain" (BDAG 810, 1a). "Running water," then "fount, source" (Liddell-Scott, p. 1399).

[7] "Welling up" (NIV, ESV), "gushing up" (NRSV), "springing up" (KJV) is hallomai, literally, "to make a quick leaping movement, leap, spring up," here used figuratively of the quick movement of inanimate things, "to spring up from a source," of water, "well up, bubble up" (BDAG 46, 2).

[8] For this Alfred Edersheim (The Temple and Its Services as They Were at the Time of Christ (1874), chapter 14) cites Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkot Vol. 1, p. 55 a (5.1). Also, Edersheim, Life and Times, book 4, chapter 7; Morris, John, pp. 420-21.

[9] "Streams" (NIV), "rivers" (NRSV, KJV) is potamos, "river, stream," from which we get our word "hippopotamus" ("horse of the river") (BDAG 856, b).

[10] "Flow" is rheō, "to flow with liquid," here in a transferred sense (BDAG 904, a).

[11] The river flows "from within him" (NIV), "out of his heart" (ESV, NRSV), "out of his belly" (KJV), phrases that translate the noun koilia. It refers to the organs of the abdomen, thought to be the "seat of inward life, of feelings and desires," what we express in English as the functional equivalent of "heart" (BDAG 550, 3).

[12] More on this in my John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus (JesusWalk Publications, 2015), Lesson 15; and my Disciple's Guide to the Holy Spirit (JesusWalk Publications, 2018), Lesson 4.

[13] "I've Got a River of Life," words and music by Louis Casebolt (no date).

[14] "Hard" (NIV, NRSV), "difficult" (ESV), "hardly" (KJV) is dyskolos, "pertaining to that which is difficult to fulfill or do, hard, difficult" (BDAG 265).

[15] I have researched this considerably and found nothing that provides any support whatsoever for the "gate in the wall" theory. All my sources -- from older commentators such as Matthew Henry (1710), to respected scholars in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1974), to my newest scholarly commentaries on Matthew, Mark, and Luke -- all of them, discredit the story as unsupported, if they mention it at all. Marshall, Luke, p. 687 cites Ber. 55b; BM 38b; Strack and Billerbeck I, 828, dating from the third century AD.

[16]See Otto Michael, TDNT 3:592-594. Marshall, Luke, p. 687.

[17] The early manuscripts of Luke 21:19 differ some. The earliest documents include a longer passage, but the Western text omits verses 19b and 20. The majority of the Editorial Committee of the United Bible Societies preferred the longer text "impressed by the overwhelming preponderance of external evidence supporting the longer form," and "explained the origin of the shorter form as due to some scribal accident or misunderstanding" (Metzger, Textual Commentary, pp. 149-150). Metzger gives the longer reading a {B}, "some degree of doubt" confidence rating.

[18] English words sometimes used in a discussion of the Lord's Supper include: Symbol -- "something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance." Emblem -- "an object or the figure of an object symbolizing and suggesting another object or an idea." Token -- an outward sign or expression." "Metaphor -- "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them" Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary.

[19] Matthew 3:2 = Matthew 4:17; John 4:1-2.

[20] Exodus 40:30-32; Leviticus 15:18; Deuteronomy 23:11; etc.

[21] William Sanford LaSor, "Mikvah," ISBE 3:354.

[22] When Jesus talks about the time for him to be "glorified," he seems to be referring to his death, resurrection, and ascension (John 7:39b; 12:16b, 41; Luke 4:26). This seems to be a reference to the Suffering Servant passage where the Servant will be "raised and lifted up and highly exalted" (Isaiah 52:13).

[23] Of course, from a scientific viewpoint, the seed doesn't die. But from the observation of a farmer -- and this audience was made up of people who had experience with subsistence farming -- it might well appear like death and burial, and resurrection glory when the seeds appear on the plant.

[24] Oikia, BDAG 695, 1b.

[25] For example, Exodus 23:19; Judges 19:18; Psalm 27:4; John 2:16.

[26] The writer of Hebrews refers to it as the City of God (Hebrews 9:21, 24; 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14).

[27] Monē, BDAG 658, 2, from menō, "continue, abide, stay."

[28] "Prepare" is hetoimazō, "to cause to be ready, put/keep in readiness, prepare" (BDAG 440, a). "Place" is topos, from which we get our English words "topography, topographical, topical." Topos refers to "an area of any size, generally specified as a place of habitation, here, "an abode: place, room," to live, stay, sit, etc. (BDAG 1011, 1e).

[29] The phrase "take you to be with me" carries the idea in Greek idiom, "I will take you with me to my home" (Beasley-Murray, John, p. 250; Kruse, John, p. 297). "Take you" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "receive you" (KJV) is paralambanō, "to take into close association, take (to oneself), take with/along" (BDAG 767, 1).

[30] John 14:13; 16:10, 17.

[31] In Mark's account, "Jesus called them and spoke to them in parables" (Mark 3:23), where "parables" is plural, suggesting more than one parable.

[32] Matthew identifies them as "the Pharisees" (Matthew 12:24), Mark as "the scribes" (Mark 3:22).

[33] Abraham Lincoln, 16th American president, famously used this parable in his "House Divided" speech in June 16, 1858, seeing inevitable conflict over slavery in America. "'A house divided against itself cannot stand.' I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other."

[34] 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" (Marshall, Luke, pp. 472, 473; BDAG 173).

[35] Matthew 12:28 substitutes the term, "Spirit of God."

[36] "Strong man" is the adjective ischyros, "strong, mighty, powerful," here, "pertaining to being strong physically, mentally, or spiritually, strong." "Fully armed" is kathoplizō, "arm fully, equip," here a perfect participle in the middle voice, "to arm oneself with weaponry, arm, equip oneself" (BDAG 492, a).

[37] "Safe" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "in peace" (KJV) is two words, en, "in" and eirēnē, "peace," here, "be in peace, out of danger" (BDAG 287, 1a).

[38] "House" (NIV), "palace" (ESV, KJV), "castle" (NRSV) is the adjective aulē, literally, "enclosed open space, courtyard," then, "dwelling complex," either of ordinary property, "farm, house," or of royal property, the "court" of a prince, then "palace" (BDAG 150).

[39] "Guards" is phylassō, "to protect by taking careful measures, guard, protect" (BDAG 2b).

[40] "Possessions" (NIV), "property" (NRSV), "goods" (ESV, KJV) is the present active participle of the verb hyparchō, "exist, be present, be at one's disposal." As a participle it refers to "what belongs to someone, someone's property, possessions, means" (BDAG 1029, 1).

[41] "(Some) one stronger" is the comparative of ischysros in verse 21.

[42] "Attacks" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "comes upon" (KJV) is eperchomai, "to move to or upon," here, "to come against someone with force, attack" (BDAG 361, 3).

[43] "Overpowers" (NIV, NRSV), "overcomes" (ESV, KJV) is nikaō (from which we get the brand "Nike"), "to win in the face of obstacles, be victor, conquer, overcome, prevail," then "to overcome someone, vanquish, overcome" (BDAG 673, 2a).

[44] "Armor" is panoplia, "the complete equipment of a heavy-armed soldier, full armor." We see the word used in a spiritual sense in Ephesians 6:11, 13 (BDAG 754, 1). "Spoil(s)" (ESV, NIV, KJV), "plunder" (NRSV) is skylon, here, "armor and weapons taken ('stripped') from the body of a slain enemy," then generally, "booty, spoils" (BDAG 933), from skyō, "to pull off."

[45] "Distributes" is diadidōmi, "to apportion among various parties, distribute, give" (BDAG 227).

[46] See Ralph F. Wilson Names and Titles of God (JesusWalk Publications, 2010), lessons 2, 7, and 11. https://www.jesuswalk.com/names-god/2_almighty.htm

[47] In an unrelated incident we see what seems on the surface just the opposite of this call to decision. The disciples had reported that someone is casting out demons in Jesus' name. "Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40-41; cf. Luke 9:49-50). But this is different. It is about someone who recognizes Jesus' power and authority and is experimenting with it, not the Jewish leaders who bitterly oppose him and are trying to trap him so they can destroy him.

[48] The word translated "evil spirit" (NIV) is better translated "unclean spirit" (ESV, NRSV, 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.

[49] Isaiah 34:14 (LXX); Revelation 18:2. 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" (Morris, Luke, p. 199) 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" (Marshall, Luke, p. 479). The Greek word anapausis can mean both "rest" and "a resting place" (BDAG 69, 3).

[50] The phrase "put in order" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "garnished" (KJV) is kosmeō (from which we derive our word "cosmetic"), " to put in order so as to appear neat or well organized, make neat/tidy" (BDAG 560, 1).

[51] "Unoccupied" (NIV) or "empty" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) is scholazō, "to be without occupants, be unoccupied, stand empty" (BDAG 982, 2). Luke omits the word "empty" in the earliest texts, but seems to assume the idea anyway. Metzger (Textual Commentary, p. 134) sees this as a clear interpolation from Matthew, and gives the text omitting the word a {B} "some degree of doubt" confidence rating. The earliest Greek manuscripts omit "empty" (p75 Aleph* D Θ 700).

[52] So France, Matthew, p. 494; Morris, Matthew, p. 330; Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Eerdmans, 1951), p. 351.

[53] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries; Eerdmans, 1974), p. 199.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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