Exorcisms by Satan’s power? Hardly.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 July 2017

Mark 3.22-27, Matthew 9.32-34, 12.22-30, Luke 11.14-23.

In between Jesus’s family fearing he was overworked, Mark inserts this story about the Jerusalem scribes (or Pharisees, in Matthew) accusing him of performing his exorcisms through the power of the devil.

Matthew and Luke tell the story in the context of an exorcism Jesus had just performed. Matthew even tells it twice. Likely this accusation took place more than once.

Mark 3.22 KWL
Scribes who came down from Jerusalem
were saying Jesus has Baal Zevúl—
that he throws out demons by the chief demon.
Matthew 9.32-34 KWL
32 As they leave, look:
People bring Jesus a mute person, a demoniac.
33 Once Jesus throws out the demon,
the mute man speaks.
The crowd is amazed, saying, “This never appears in Israel like this!”
34 Yet Pharisees are saying,
Jesus throws out demons by the chief demon.”
Matthew 12.22-24 KWL
22 Then they bring Jesus a blind and deaf demoniac.
Jesus cures him,
so the deaf man is speaking and seeing.
23 The whole crowd is overwhelmed and is saying,
“Isn’t this the Son of David?”
24 Yet Pharisees who hear of it say,
“This man doesn’t throw out demons—
unless by Baal Zevúl, the chief demon.”
Luke 11.14-16 KWL
14 Jesus is throwing out a mute demon,
and it happens when the demon comes out,
the mute man speaks.
The crowd is amazed.
15 Yet some of them say,
“By Baal Zevúl the chief demon, he throws out demons.”
16 Others, to test Jesus,
are seeking a heavenly sign from him.

Baalism is what we tend to call all the pagan religions which cropped up in ancient Canaan, or Palestine. They’re not all the same god, but they were all called בַּעַל/bahál, “master,” so they were generally lumped together as the “baals.” The Baal in this story is Baal Zevúl, the god of Ekron, Philistia. You might remember him as the god whom Ahaziah ben Ahab tried to contact when he wanted to know if he’d recover from his injuries.

2 Kings 1.2 KJV
2 And Ahaziah fell down through a lattice in his upper chamber that was in Samaria, and was sick: and he sent messengers, and said unto them, Go, enquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron whether I shall recover of this disease. 3 But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say unto them, Is it not because there is not a God in Israel, that ye go to enquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron? 4 Now therefore thus saith the LORD, Thou shalt not come down from that bed on which thou art gone up, but shalt surely die. And Elijah departed.

I think more people remember when Ahaziah sent soldiers to arrest Elijah, and the LORD set the soldiers on fire. 2Ki 1.9-15 Not so much the god Ahaziah worshiped.

זְבוּל/Zevúl means “dwelling,” probably referring to the heavenly dwelling which the god supposedly lived in. But just for fun, the Hebrews started swapping zevúl for the similar זְבוּב/zevúv, “gnat” or “fly.” And it stuck. In the Septuagint, Baal Zevúl is translated Βααλ μυῖαν θεὸν/Vaäl myían theón, “Baal [the] fly god.” But by Jesus’s day, they were back to calling it Baal Zevúl… ’cause in Aramaic, zevúl had come to mean “feces.” Hence the New Testament calls the god Βεελζεβούλ/Veëlzevúl (KJV “Beelzebub,” NIV “Beelzebul”). Y’might notice Pharisees were using the term as a euphemism for Satan.

Christian mythology, particularly John Milton’s Paradise Lost, imagines Beelzebub as a whole other devil than Satan. Sometimes it’s Satan’s vice-devil. Sometimes it’s a devil who rebelled against Satan and went its own way. Sometimes it’s the devil who supervises idolatry; sometimes the devil who tempts humans with gluttony; sometimes the devil who specializes in demonizing people. Meh; a devil’s a devil.

The Galilean Pharisees didn’t know what to make of Jesus. They hated that he violated their customs, especially the ones about Sabbath. But they couldn’t deny he actually performed miracles and exorcisms—and they correctly understood you simply can’t do such things unless the Holy Spirit empowers you. But they didn’t wanna acknowledge this; they wanted some way to condemn Jesus. Likely they sent for Jerusalem scribes in order to help ’em sort this out, and provide an expert position. Remember, the custom in Pharisaism isn’t to declare what the bible means on your own authority, like Jesus does; it’s to defer to experts. (Whereas Evangelicals like me tend to figure we have enough horse sense to interpret the bible ourselves, and don’t need experts… although sometimes we really do, which is why I still look stuff up in commentaries. But yeah, not every Evangelical does likewise. They just judge someone as heretic immediately, simply because they don’t care for their teachings, or their person, or their politics. But I digress.)

Jesus wouldn’t look for bible verses, biblical loopholes, and rulings from biased elders; he’d say look for the fruit. As he does in this very story.

Explaining away the Holy Spirit.

Pharisee scholars were typical humans. Sometimes we humans don’t like somebody, but can’t really explain why we don’t like ’em. (Usually ’cause pure hypocrisy, but sometimes we really can’t explain our gut feelings.) So we look for reasons after the fact. Then we claim these reasons were the real problem all along. Pharisees hated Jesus ’cause he violated their customs, but didn’t care to say that was why they hated him, so they sought some other explanation.

Pharisees couldn’t claim Jesus broke the Law, because he didn’t. (Sin is defined as breaking the Law, 1Jn 3.4 and since Jesus didn’t sin He 4.15 and nobody could legitimately accuse him of sin, Jn 8.46 not only did he not break the Law, but everybody knew he didn’t break the Law. He only broke custom.) So they had nothing they could accuse him with before the city elders, the Judean senate, the Romans, or anyone who could actually have him flogged or crucified. They had nothing. But they presumed if he broke custom, there just had to be something. Something’s gotta be wrong with such a rebellious person; something, somewhere.

Don’t mock them for this mindset: We Christians think the very same way. I have long hair. When I first started growing it out, back in bible college (not too long after the student handbook had deleted their rule about men with long hair), I got grief from conservatives who actually insisted it was a form of cross-dressing. Dt 22.5 Nevermind the Nazirites who had long hair, Nu 6.5 like Samson, Samuel, Elijah, and John; nevermind centuries of men who likewise wore their hair longer than they. Their typical attitude was if long hair isn’t cross-dressing, it’ll lead to it. Typically it doesn’t. (If you pay attention, you’ll notice cross-dressers always start with the clothes. Never the hair.) But conservatives teach it anyway… ’cause since when is prejudice logical?

So because Jesus broke tradition, Pharisees figured he must be some sort of sinner. Jn 9.24 And the Jerusalem scribes concluded he must not follow the LORD… so therefore he had to follow Baal. Right?

Well, no. Jesus, ever the master of logic, points this out with a simple parable.

Mark 3.23-26 KWL
23 Jesus, summoning them,
is telling them in parables,
“How can Satan throw out Satan?
24 When a kingdom is divided against itself,
that kingdom can’t stand.
25 When a house is divided against itself,
that house can’t stand.
26 And if Satan rises up against itself and is divided,
it can’t stand. Instead it’s the End.”
Matthew 12.25-28 KWL
25 Jesus, who knew their reasoning, tells them,
“Every kingdom divided against itself is ruined.
Every city or house divided against itself can’t stand.
26 If Satan throws out Satan,
it’s divided against itself.
So how will its kingdom stand?
27 If I throw out demons by Baal Zevúl,
by whom do your sons throw them out?
This is why they’ll critique you.
28 If I throw out demons by God’s Spirit,
then God’s kingdom goes right over your head.”
Luke 11.17-20 KWL
17 Jesus, who knew their thoughts, tells them,
“Every kingdom split against itself is laid waste,
and house falls upon house.
18 If Satan splits against itself,
how will its kingdom stand?
—for you say I throw out demons by Baal Zevúl.
19 If I throw out demons by Baal Zevúl,
by whom do your sons throw them out?
This is why they’ll critique you.
20 If I throw out demons by God’s finger,
then God’s kingdom goes right over your head.”

I explain this in more detail in my article about this parable. But as everybody knows, civil wars ruin countries; family spats ruin families. And if Satan starts fighting itself, it’s ruined.

Jesus tells these Pharisees God’s kingdom goes right over their heads. “Goes right over your head” is how I translate ἔφθασεν/éfthasen, which the KJV makes “is come unto you” in Matthew, and “is come upon you” in Luke. Properly éfthasen means it overtakes you, like a competitor in a footrace who whipped right by you when you thought he was far behind, or an opponent in battle whose attack takes you wholly by surprise. The Pharisees weren’t ready for the kingdom—and here it is. Right now. Jesus is throwing out demons right now. In a few years, a mass of Jesus’s followers will be equally empowered to throw out demons. The time of demons running amok among humans is coming to an end. Again, right now.

This unexpected arrival of a full-strength kingdom of God, explains why Pharisees freaked the f--- out. And misinterpreted it. And killed their own Messiah as a heretic. It went right over their heads. Hence my translation.

It also explains why certain Christians nowadays make the very same accusation against supernaturalist Christians. To be fair, there are a few fakes among us, trying to pass off human trickery as God’s power. But the Holy Spirit never stopped authorizing Jesus’s followers to throw out demons and evil spirits wherever we find ’em, and stick ’em in the pit. Lk 8.31 These anti-supernaturalists may not realize they’re blaspheming the Holy Spirit whenever they claim the Spirit does no such thing, but I’ll get to that another time.

The devil’s a defeated foe.

Mark 3.27 KWL
“But, upon entering a strongman’s house,
no one can plunder his things
unless he first ties up the strongman.
Then he will plunder his whole house.”
Matthew 12.29 KWL
“Or how can anyone enter a strongman’s house
and plunder his things,
unless he first ties up the strongman?
Then he will plunder his whole house.”
Luke 11.21-22 KWL
21 “When a fully armed strongman guards his own court,
his possessions are at peace.
22 Once a stronger person comes and conquers him,
he strips off his armor in which he trusted,
and surrenders his plunder.”

In Mark and Matthew Jesus speaks of tying up the resistant strongman, whom we figure would be the devil. The idea Christians usually go with is Jesus can’t free people from the devil unless he first binds the devil. Hence whenever Christians perform any kind of exorcism, we usually declare, “I bind you,” or “The Lord bind you,” or something like that. Not like we can physically ziptie them, but you get the idea: We want ’em spiritually ziptied so we can free a poor demoniac from their power.

In contrast, in Luke the strongman full-on surrenders. Gives up his armor; gives up his weapons. Knows he’s beaten.

I realize other bibles prefer to translate it as if the conquerer forcibly takes the strongman’s armor and weapons: “He taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils.” Lk 11.22 KJV The pronouns actually let you translate it either way. I figured “surrenders” is a better translation for διαδίδωσιν/diadídosin than “divideth”—because the strongman is not giving his conqueror a portion of his stuff, but all of it. This isn’t a negotiated conquest, but an unconditional surrender.

Y’notice whenever Jesus encountered demons, sometimes they put up a fight, but for the most part they knew they’d lost, and surrendered the people they possessed. Jesus is absolutely stronger than they. Us, not so much; we’d better be working with Jesus, or we’re in for a fight.

Matthew 12.30, Luke 11.23 KWL
“Not being with me is against me.
Not synagoguing with me scatters.”

Now if the Pharisees insisted upon an absolute, here’s Jesus’s.

The application is obvious: When we see someone doing a supernatural work, we typically judge the work based on whether we approve of the person, or whether we think that individual is good or perfect enough. Face it: Nobody is good enough. Except Jesus, and look what people thought of him.

We need to consider the implications of the work rather than the references of the person. Is God glorified? Is the good news preached? Is Christianity spreading? Is Jesus proclaimed? Are people healed and found and redeemed? If yes, then God is using a weak vessel to confound the mighty. If no, then God’s not in it. That’s simple logic.