Authority over unclean spirits
Jesus gives the Church authority.
He calls the 12 to him and he gives them authority. And in giving them authority, he gives the Church authority, because the Church is built on their teaching about Jesus, and on communion with them.
Don’t dismiss the language of unclean spirits or of demons.
There are things, forces which control us, which are bigger than our will. They can’t be healed by psycho-therapy, or self-knowledge, or religious ritual, or by our sacrifices, or by self-discipline or meds.
I remember one of our children putting it very clearly. He said on one occasion: ‘There are two mes. There is the good me and the bad me – and I don't know which one is going to turn up’.
And I know that. There are two Malcolms. There is the Malcolm, who wants to put God first and love and serve; and there is the Malcolm - the Malcolm I hate - when the fears and the wrong loves (the lusts) and self takes over.
Jekyll and Hyde is not a monster created by Robert Louis Stevenson. Jekyll and Hyde is alive and well, and is in each of us.
Someone (a Russian) asked me recently whether I thought the Russian people were a good people – were they better or worse than British people?
I didn’t know quite how to respond, but afterwards – isn’t that so often the case – I wished I had remembered a quote by Solzhenitsyn:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.”
When we talk about unclean spirits or demons we immediately think of supernatural phenomena, of possession, and exorcists. We think of the dramatic.
And there certainly were those moments in Jesus ministry:
In Mark 5, our previous chapter, we read about the demon possessed man who lived in the local cemetery – and Jesus drove a multitude of demons out of him.
But that is the extreme.
The desert fathers and mothers, women and men who went into the desert to separate themselves from the things of this world in order to focus on the things of the other world, speak a great deal both about becoming aware of their demons and battling with the demons.
And for each of us, and in each of us, the demons, the unclean spirits, are alive and well.
But – and this is the amazing thing – Jesus gives to his Church, to his people, authority over evil spirits.
The Church does not only have the authority to declare to men and women who are repentant that their sins are forgiven. It also has the authority to ‘cast out’ (that is the language that is used here) evil spirits. It has the authority to set people free.
So how do we exercise this authority?
1. We exercise this authority by being faithful to the teaching of Jesus
The emphasis in these verses is on Jesus’ teaching.
v2: On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue
v6: He went about among the villages teaching
And we are told that his teaching is full of wisdom and it is accompanied by works of power
And the calling of the twelve is an extension of his teaching.
We are told in verse 12, ‘They went out and proclaimed that all should repent’
That is the key to all of this!
It is Jesus’ teaching which sets us free
When people hear his teaching and don’t do anything about it, very little happens.
We see that in v5: ‘And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief’.
But when people hear his teaching, and repent, things happen
And it is when we, as a church, are faithful to Jesus’ teaching, to that vision; and it is when we call people to repent, to turn from living without God to living with God, from living for themselves to living for God; it is when we call people to get off the throne of their life and to submit themselves to his rule; it is when we call people to stop believing the half-lies of this world and to put our trust in what God has done for us when Jesus died and rose from the dead, and to put our trust in the promises of God – that is when things happen.
Sometimes there are dramatic things that happen. But usually it is the quiet non-dramatic life changing stuff that happens.
Jackie Pullinger, who wrote the book Chasing the Dragon was sent by God to work among drug addicts in the old walled city in Hong Kong. She speaks of how for the first year or so she saw remarkable miracles. She prayed for addicts and they were instantly delivered – with no withdrawal symptoms. But, she wrote in a subsequent book, after the initial period, those instant deliverances didn’t happen. Instead she worked with those people who had been delivered miraculously to help set up drug rehab centres – and she wrote that subsequently people were delivered, usually not instantaneously, but through the long, hard, costly path of step by step healing.
And for us there may be moments of deliverance. when we are instantly set free from something that has gripped us. But that is rare. Most of the time we will need to constantly put our trust in God’s word, in his forgiveness and do battle with the demons. There will be times when we win and times when we lose. But we hold to his promise that one day we will be set free.
One of the desert fathers describes the teaching of Jesus, the Word of God, as like a stream falling from a height onto a rock. The water, he said, is soft. The rock is very hard. But over thousands and thousands of years, the constant fall of the water has worn away the rock and created a hollow which is filled by pool of ever-flowing, life-giving water.
All we need to do is to be faithful to that word, and faithful to that teaching, and to call people to repent and turn to God.
2. We exercise this authority by living in absolute dependence on Jesus
Jesus ‘commands’ the twelve – it is a strong word – to go out with virtually nothing in complete dependence on him.
They are to go in pairs: that is so that they could collaborate each other’s words. Jewish law required that there had to be at least two witnesses if anything was to be validated as true.
And they were to only take staff, sandals and one tunic. That really is travelling light.
When we go out for the day, Alison loves to take everything with her – a bit like Mrs Beaver in the Lion and the Witch and the Wardrobe. The baddies are coming to get them and they’ve got to get out of the house as quickly as possible and she still wants to take the sewing machine with her. That is very different to me. I just want to leave and not take anything with us. But that is not me being spiritual. That is me being impetuous and lazy. And I can’t even be smug in my laziness, because I still make sure I have my wallet and my money with me.
But they are to take nothing: no bread – so the Lord’s prayer, ‘Give us today our daily bread’ becomes for them a very real prayer; no bag and not even any money
Even the instruction about taking only one tunic is significant. During the day one tunic was sufficient, but at night you would need two tunics to keep warm if you were out in the open.
So they were really were dependent on God for their provision.
I was very struck by an article that I read about Mother Theresa after her death. Her worldly personal possessions consisted of a couple of saris and a bucket for washing.
Jesus was giving to specific people specific instructions for a specific task in a specific time. And there is an urgency here because he wants to get the message of the Kingdom of God to as many people as he can before he is crucified.
But I do not think that these instructions are for all people at all times. The dress code wouldn’t really work in Russia in the winter!
Rather the principal is that if we are to exercise our authority and see people set free from evil spirits then we need to be doing this by living in complete dependence on God.
The story is told of someone showing Thomas Aquinas around the Vatican treasury. The guide asked him if he remembered the story in the bible when the beggar came to Peter and John and asked them for money. And Peter and John had to say to him, ‘We don’t have any money’. ‘Well’, said the guide, ‘Look at this treasure. We don’t need to say that now’. And Thomas Aquinas replied, ‘I agree. But we can’t say what Peter and John then did say to the paralysed beggar: ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, get up and walk’.
The temptation, in this ministry – particularly when we speak about something like casting out unclean spirits – is to fast and confess my sins, to get others to pray for me, to say my prayers and do the rituals.
In one sense that is right. We need to do that.
But we do not do that to make ourselves more spiritually powerful. We do not do this to spiritually psych ourselves up. We do it in order to spiritually psych ourselves down. We make ourselves weaker – so that as I go into this ministry, I recognise my physical weakness, my dependence on forgiveness, on others and my dependence on God.
We have no power in ourselves to forgive sins. We have no power in ourselves to preach or persuade people to repent or to cast out unclean spirits. Who do we think we are?
But as his Church, as his people together, we do have authority over the unclean spirits, over the demons, over the forces of hell: We can be set free and set others free - when we are faithful to his teaching, and when we recognise our complete weakness and our utter dependence on him.