Jesus Christ: Exorcist

When we rush to explain away Jesus' miracles, we risk overlooking the deeper message of his liberating power.

BY: Susan R. Garrett


Belief that the world is filled with spiritual powers (both wicked and good) was widespread in the ancient Near Eastern world. Old Testament authors presumed the existence of angels. They also wrote about evil spirits, including one that tormented Saul (1 Samuel 16:14), and a lying spirit sent to Ahab (1 Kings 22:19-23). A character "Satan" (literally the "adversary") also appeared a few times, portrayed as the "prosecuting attorney" in God's heavenly court (Job 1-2; Zechariah 3:1-2; 1 Chronicles 21:1).

But in the Old Testament era the devil was not yet viewed as archenemy of God, ruler of demons, and oppressor of the peoples of the world. Such a picture developed between 150 B.C.E. - 50 C.E, partly as a consequence of


influence. Zoroastrianism taught that the world was locked in ongoing warfare between forces of good and evil. The chief evil deity ("Ahriman") commanded a host of demons, just as the god of goodness and light ("Ahura Mazda") commanded a host of angels.

Many Jews adopted this framework and reinterpreted their own traditions to fit. Invoking Isaiah 14, they identified Satan as a once-glorious angel, cast out of heaven on account of arrogance and now seeking revenge. Typically, they identified demons as offspring of errant angels (Genesis 6:1-4)-or as errant angels themselves, now twisted into demonic form and obeying Satan as lord.

Jesus, his adversaries, and many other first-century Jews assumed that all that happened in the world reflected the working of unseen spiritual powers. These powers, or "authorities," were created by God to uphold God's reign, and many of them did (Romans 13:1). But some, led by Satan, worked to thwart God's purposes (Ephesians 6:12). Indeed, the devil was viewed as not merely ruler of demons but as "ruler of this world." For eons, it was believed, he had enslaved the vast throngs of humanity: some through sickness and demon-possession; some through their practice of idolatry (which glorifies Satan); some through their adherence to false prophets and magicians (Satan's special ministers of evil).

Jesus performed exorcisms of demons. Even his enemies acknowledged that, when they said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons" (Mark 3:22). In other words, they agreed that Jesus cast out demons, but they accused him of working in alliance with Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, also known as the devil. But Jesus' own interpretation was diametrically opposed: whenever he exorcised, he liberated people captive to Satan and delivered them to God (Matthew 12:28-29). In words ascribed to the Apostle Peter, "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him" (Acts 10:38).

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