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Contemporary Western culture is highly visual. As I teach, I can hardly think of lecturing without considering what audiovisuals I might use to reinforce an idea. And we can hardly watch television or use a computer without being amazed at the visual variety and creativity in our electronic world.
Visuals are powerful. They say things that words cannot say. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures reach places that words may fail to reach, penetrating the closed vault of our hearts and allowing us to see things that words only obscure.
This passage is probably the most strategic text for explaining why Jesus performed miracles. In other miracle stories considerable attention is given to the occasion, setting and nature of the miracle. In some texts, such detail spans thirteen verses (Mk 5:1-13). But in Luke 11:14-23 all these elements appear in a single verse. The rest of the account gives the reaction to the miracle. It is a miracle story turned upside-down. Here it's the commentary on the miracle that counts. The fact that this passage's form departs from the standard shows its importance. What Jesus tells us here is that miracles are an audiovisual, a graphic display of how God's plan and power advance.
The event that leads to the discussion is an exorcism of a demon that had caused its victim to be struck dumb. The exorcism makes the man able to speak again, so the crowd was amazed. Speculation begins regarding the kind of power Jesus possesses. His healings must be explained. That they are taking place cannot be denied.
Two options are suggested by those who have doubts. First, some attribute his capabilities to Beelzebub, the prince of demons. They clearly have Satan in mind and imply strongly that Jesus is demonically controlled. The name Beelzebub in its English form comes from the Latin; it appears to refer to the Philistine god Ekron (2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, 16). In all probability the name means "Lord of the flies" (on this discussion and other options, see Fitzmyer 1985:920-21). The name was a derisive characterization of Satan.
The second alternative is a wait-and-see approach. Some want more proof through some sign from heaven. It is unclear what this might have involved—a heavenly portent or just more miracles? In any case, not all are persuaded that demonic control is the answer.
These two possibilities well summarize reactions to Jesus today. Some reject him; others want to see more from him. But clearly, those who were exposed to Jesus realized that they could not ignore his actions or claims. His ministry demanded that people consider his identity.
Significantly, the opponents did not doubt Jesus' miraculous power. The opinion of skeptics today, that miracles do not happen or that whatever Jesus did was not miraculous, was not a line Jesus' opponents took in his day. This is very significant. Surely if this nonmiraculous option existed, it would have been taken. But the opponents and those they hoped to persuade were too close to Jesus to deny that something supernatural was happening. Unfortunately, historical distance can so blur reality that explanations not considered possible at the time of the event can seem possible later. We can reject Jesus, but to doubt his miracles is to question not only him but also, curiously enough, his opponents.
Jesus, knowing their thoughts, responds. He raises the issue of the divided house. How can Satan stand against himself if he wants to survive? A divided kingdom does not stand. Jesus argues that it is a strategy of foolishness if Satan has sent one of his henchmen to undo his own work of destruction.
Then Jesus makes a second argument. By whose power do their own followers cast out demons, if Jesus casts out demons by Satan's hand? Now this argument is making one of two points. Jesus may be saying, I do the same exorcisms as Jewish exorcists do, so to attribute my exorcisms to Satan is to attribute theirs to Satan as well. Do you wish to demean the activity of your own exorcists in this way? Another possibility, and the one I prefer, is that Jesus is arguing that their "sons"—that is, his disciples—also do this work. So if the people are going to question his work, they must also question the work of those who follow him. I prefer this argument because I am not sure Jesus would endorse the activity of Jewish exorcists and, more important, predict their positive role in the future judgment, since they are currently outside God's will in their rejection of him. More likely Jesus is arguing that he is not alone in this ministry. Either way, the argument that Jesus is enabled by Satan falls like a house of cards.
So Jesus offers another alternative, in a statement loaded with theological significance: "If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you." Jesus says the miracles are evidences of the arrival of God's promised, redemptive rule. They are audiovisual testimony to God's power and rule.
The key term in the verse is ephthasen (from phthano), "has come." Theologians debate this arrival language. Some question whether arrival is in view and argue that Jesus is simply saying the kingdom has drawn near, as in Mark 1:15. They note that this term can carry that force (Mt 26:45; Lk 15:1; Jn 21:1). However, against this view is the presence of epi with the verb. Daniel 4:24, 28 (Theodotion) show the force of this combination of terms. The combination means "arrive." In addition the contextual emphasis in verses 18 and 21-23 indicates that it is current events that are pictured and current power that is described (Kummel 1961:107 n. 8). The miracles trumpet the arrival of God's ruling power in such a way that Satan's display of power on earth is challenged and is in the process of being defeated.
To say the kingdom has arrived is not to argue that consummation has come, only that its presence has begun. The process of establishing kingdom authority is a long one, as Jesus will reveal, and it will take his return to bring the full promise of the kingdom to completion (for more on the kingdom see above discussion of 9:57-62). God is breaking peacefully into the creation through Jesus to reclaim humanity from Satan's grip.
Jesus overcomes the presence and power of evil in the world. His power is greater than that of demons. He is stronger than Satan. His power and authority reverse the effect of sin. This exercise of power through Jesus is why Paul can call the gospel "the power of God" in Romans 1:16-17. The story of the gospel is the story of how Satan, sin and the flesh are overcome through Jesus' provision of the Spirit. So Paul calls the kingdom of God a matter of power (1 Cor 4:20) as well as justice, peace and joy inspired by the Spirit (Rom 14:17). And Ephesians 1:15—2:10 and 6:10-18 refer to the battle we have against the forces of evil and note how Jesus has a position of authority over them. These theological realities are pictured in Jesus' words.
The parable that follows in verses 21-23 shows that this cosmic struggle is the point and that the miracles provide evidence for Satan's defeat. The strong man in the palace at the parable's start is Satan. But someone stronger than he comes and overpowers him, takes his armor and divides the spoil.
Here is the ultimate cosmic war. Jesus and Satan stand toe to toe in battle. The miracles are an audiovisual that Satan's cause is ultimately lost. He can do great damage, as any enemy can; but the die is cast. He will lose. The picture of the "stronger one" alludes back to 3:15-16. The stronger one is the promised Messiah who brings fire and the Spirit. The dividing of the spoil recalls the imagery of Isaiah 53:12 (see also Is 49:25-26). Jesus' work means that Satan is no longer in control of the palace.
Other New Testament texts highlight this theme of cosmic victory and refer to the cross and resurrection (Eph 4:7-16; Col 2:14-15). The entirety of Jesus' first coming sets up the kingdom's coming and Satan's defeat. The spoils in these texts are the benefits of salvation distributed to those who have been redeemed. Thus Paul presents Jesus' lordship as an expression of grace as Jesus richly bestows his blessings on all who call upon him (Rom 10:9-13). Our sins can be cleansed, and Jesus can pour out the Spirit because of our Savior's victory.
There are no Switzerlands in this cosmic war. He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters. Jesus says that neutrality to him is opposition to him. To decide for God, one must decide for Jesus. In a cosmic war there are no spectators; everyone lines up on one side or the other. The implication is to be careful which side you choose. The miracles not only make a statement about Jesus' authority; they ask a question about our response.
But even where there is opposition, the opponents are not abandoned to their fate. Evangelism is infiltration into enemy lines. Rejection is not a cause for abandonment, since we never know when a Saul might become a Paul.