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These verses contain several quick snapshots of Jesus' public ministry during one day in the Capernaum region. The sequence highlights his miraculous activity, the most distinctive aspect of his ministry. Since these are the first miracles Jesus performs in Luke's Gospel, here we should stop to look at how miracles function for Jesus.
First, miracles are real events that evidence Jesus' authority. Since the Enlightenment it has been popular to question the possibility of miracles, because nature has been viewed as a closed world of cause and effect. But the most difficult miracle of all was the resurrection, yet its reality is the only way to explain how the disciples who were so distraught at the cross became bold proclaimers of Jesus' vindication after the third day. In sum, if a resurrection is possible, the other miracles are a piece of cake. Can God actively intervene in his creation? The testimony of the resurrection and the other miracles is that he can and does with sovereign exercise of his power. And Jesus' consistent exercise of such power testifies to his unique access to God. As Jesus will note, if his power is not from Satan, then it must represent the presence of the "finger of God" (11:14-23).
Second, miracles are audiovisuals of deeper realities. In other words, they are not merely events for events' sake, they picture something more important. This point can be seen in two key miracles. In 5:1-11 Jesus leads four fishermen into a great catch of fish. Yet immediately Jesus makes the point that from now on they will be fishers of persons. The miracle pictures ministry. Another example comes in 11:20, where Jesus says that if he casts out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon his audience. Here he is not speaking merely about the miracle of 11:14, but about all of his activity. The miracles picture a deeper reality about Jesus' authority.
In all the debate about whether miracles are real (or even whether they still occur through spiritual gifts within the church today), we in the West have lost their pictorial value, which is their major point. Those of us who live in the industrialized, philosophically sophisticated West might profit from listening to the testimony of many in the Two-Thirds World who appreciate the symbolism that these texts contain. Numerous passages show Jesus discouraging people from focusing too much on his miraculous activity (Mt 12:39; Mk 8:12; Jn 6:26-27). Sometimes he performs a miracle and asks that it not be divulged (Lk 8:56). Why does he do this? Possibly because he knows the meaning of the miracle will be lost if people focus on the event itself. In the rush to take and experience what Jesus has to offer, people can easily forget the One all the miracles point to.
Third, miracles unveil the deep cosmic struggle between the forces of evil and Jesus. If we ask what the miracles show, it is Jesus' sweeping authority. These events, especially those involving demonic forces, reveal hand-to-hand combat (Eph 6:10-12). The miracles pull back a curtain, as it were, so we can glimpse the behind-the-scenes battle within creation.
Armed with these three observations about miracles, we can appreciate even more what Luke 4:31-44 represents. Jesus tackles demons and disease to show he possesses the key to life. That authority and exercise of cosmic power is why he can speak of his mission being about the kingdom of God in 4:43. Jesus' authority shows the presence and concern of the rule of God on behalf of those who turn to God in a time of need.
This introductory summary of Jesus' ministry begins in verses 31-32 highlighting his teaching in Capernaum—his message had authority. As Jesus teaches in a city that will become his headquarters, the masses are aware that rather than citing what the rabbis had said in the past, Jesus speaks directly about God and his will. The following verses make an additional point: there is more to Jesus' authority than his ability to preach the Word; he can show the presence of God's power.
Jesus' first miracle involves a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. Demons are mentioned twenty-three times in the Gospel of Luke, but most of the references (fourteen) occur between here and 9:50, in the discussion of Jesus' Galilean ministry. It is clear that the man is threatened directly by this possessive force. Some in Judaism believed that demonic control of humans would end on the Day of the Lord (1QM 1:10-14; 14:10-11; Fitzmyer 1981:545-46). Judaism taught that demonic power would be crushed in the messianic age (Testament of Zebulon 9:8; Assumption of Moses 10:1), and Jesus says as much in 7:22-23. Here is the second face-off in the battle between Jesus and the forces of evil. With Satan already defeated in the first encounter (4:1-11), his underlings are the opponents here. Both the nature of the times and the victor are revealed in the battle.
Given the descriptions of this condition in the Gospels, it seems clear that demon possession, whatever one calls it, is the direct exercise of demonic power from within a person. If something is "exorcised" or asked to depart (v. 35), then something was present that needed removal. Mark 5:1-20 indicates how such possession can become very self-destructive. The New Testament suggests that one can distinguish between possession and sickness (Mt 4:24; Lk 4:40-41; 7:21; 9:1; 13:32), yet some overlap in terms of external manifestations can exist (Lk 8:29; 9:39; 11:14; 13:11, 16). By appearances, then, it can be hard to distinguish certain kinds of sickness from possession. Possession tends to manifest itself in very erratic behavior or physical impairment (Mk 5:1-20; Lk 8:29; 9:39, 42; 11:14; 13:10-17). The concept of possession itself (or, better perhaps, having an unclean demonic spirit, as the Greek of v. 33 puts it) indicates that the destructive and hostile force in control of the person lies inside the person and takes control of him or her from within.
Another way the New Testament lifts the veil on spiritual forces is through the dialogue that accompanies miracles. In this first miracle in Luke, the demon asks whether Jesus of Nazareth has come to destroy us. Who is meant here—all demons, or the demon's complete influence over the man so the two are tied together? If it is the former, then the point is Jesus' authority over all evil spirits, a significant admission early in Jesus' ministry. If it is the demon's strong connection to the man, then the demon thinks Jesus cannot destroy him without destroying the human he possesses. In effect, the remark, though it is posed as a question, poses a challenge. Given the note in the next verse about the man emerging from the exorcism unharmed, the latter sense seems slightly better here: the demon does not think he can be challenged without the man's being harmed as well.
But why does the demon name Jesus and call him the Holy One of God? Possibly the naming of Jesus is an attempt to gain the advantage by uttering his true name in the midst of the approaching supernatural confrontation. On a literary level, the naming serves to make clear who the combatants are—an interesting recognition by the forces opposed to Jesus that he is on the side of God. The naming makes it obvious that a battle of cosmic proportions is under way. Though it is hard to be certain about the demon's motive in naming Jesus, his remark serves to identify the significance of the battle. Jesus meets the challenge and removes the presence and power of evil on the man without destroying the man himself. What a picture of Jesus' power!
So the confession by the demon is very important. Jesus is the Holy One of God. In the Old Testament, this title or one similar to it was given to Aaron (Ps 106:16), Samson (Judg 13:7) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:9). In the context of Luke's story we know that Jesus is holy because of his regal authority (1:31-35), a point reinforced in 4:41, when the Son is called the Christ. As James 2:19 suggests, demons have knowledge about God but fail to respond to that knowledge. Here is a case of evil having great angst in the presence of active righteousness. Evil cannot stand up to righteousness when righteousness takes a firm stand. Any victory it may appear to have is fleeting.
Jesus rebukes the spirit and prevails. The term used here may well reflect Semitic terms for calling evil into submission (Fitzmyer 1981:546). In addition, Jesus silences the demonic spirit. Why does he do so? Does he want to avoid any suggestion that he is a revolutionary against Rome (Stein 1992:163)? Does he simply want his works to speak for themselves (7:18-23)? Were only certain types of proclamation appropriate for Messiah? So Longenecker (1970:71-74), who notes similar hesitations in the claims of the Qumran Teacher of Righteousness and Simeon ben Kosebah suggesting a Jewish expectation on this question.
Of all the options, the most likely is that Judaism taught that Messiah should only engage in certain types of self-proclamation. Perhaps also there is concern that the title Messiah would be understood with too political a force (Stein's view noted above). More than one reason may lie behind Jesus' command.
Regardless of the exact reason, Jesus' authority prevails, even though the demon tries to injure the man upon departing by throwing him down (Mk 1:26 mentions convulsions).
The story of this healing closes as the crowd asks, "What is this teaching?" In their amazement they recognize that something very unusual has occurred. They see that Jesus approaches evil forces with authority and power. A hierarchy of power is being displayed—what could it mean, and where does such power come from? Luke leaves the miracle as an event to ponder. The demon's confession suggests the answer, as do subsequent events: this Jesus is the Holy One of God, and his power exceeds that of the forces of evil. Needless to say, news of the event spreads far and wide.
Jesus' power over evil is not limited to spiritual forces. His healing of Peter's mother-in-law shows his authority over disease, and thus by implication his authority over life. The story is told simply. Jesus merely rebuked the fever—a verb that almost personifies the illness. Luke's unique use of the phrase he rebuked (epetimesen) parallels verses 35 and 41, linking the events of the day around the theme of Jesus' power (both verses use the same Greek verb). Immediately the woman's health returns. Again, Jesus' actions reveal special authority.
As the sabbath passes, Jesus continues to heal. People with all sorts of maladies show up. Both sick and possessed come. The healings described earlier are not one-time coincidences. Jesus possesses the power to heal consistently. Note that the order in verses 40-41 (healing, then exorcism) reverses the order of verses 31-39. The pairing shows how Luke wishes Jesus' ministry to be seen. It is a ministry of mercy to those in need, fighting to overcome evil with compassion. Jesus' compassion is pictured by his laying on of hands. In his touch are power and presence. People flock to him because they sense that compassionate element in his work. By the way Jesus reaches out to them, they know he cares.
The exorcised demons recognize his authority. They confess Jesus to be the Son of God. Luke explains that this means they knew he was the Christ. Only Luke makes this comment. Jesus' regal, anointed authority extends to overcoming the forces of evil.
When at the break of day Jesus departs, the crowd follows and tries to keep him in Capernaum. Yet again Jesus speaks of his mission: "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns." This is why Jesus has been sent. The content of this kingdom message is seen in what Luke has already supplied (4:16-30): Jesus fulfills the promise. When John the Baptist raises the question again later, Jesus' answer points to such fulfillment (7:18-23). Jesus does not proclaim who he is; he lets events explain who he is. For him, actions speak louder than words. He is more than an ethical instructor or a psychologist; he has power to overcome the forces of evil that plague humanity. His ministry is not designed for a little corner, but it extends far and wide to take the message out to others. So Jesus takes his message and ministry to the other synagogues of Galilee.