We all like stories and we’ve got a story to consider this morning. It is a story that was told by the Master Storyteller himself – the Lord Jesus Christ. Let me read it to you:
Lk.11:24-26 "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first."
There it is. It is simple and the details are clear.
But why did Jesus tell it?
Instinctively we realise that Jesus hasn’t told the story out of a concern for evil spirits and demons. He has told the story out of concern for his listeners then and for folk like us today. But what is it he wants us to grasp?
And so we need to ask: What does this story really mean? If it has any lessons to teach us what are those lessons?
While the most important thing for us today is to grasp what Jesus wants to say to us we will only be able to do that by first understanding what Jesus was saying to the people of his own day. For this reason we will have to begin by looking at the general spiritual condition of the Jewish nation in the first century as well as considering the immediate context in which Jesus recounted the story.
If we do that well then we will be well-placed to hear what Jesus would say to us today.
So let us get to work and think about the people of Israel in the 1st century.
A Nation in Disarray
Things had not been going well for Israel.
The nation had lost its freedom and politically was dominated by the heavy hand of the Roman Empire. It was also a divided nation where some tried to organise resistance movements while others were very happy to feather their own nests by collaborating with the foreign invaders.
Spiritually matters were even worse. For three hundred years there had been no voice from heaven and this was a particularly dreadful thing for Israel. Israel was a nation that had been:
brought into being through divine activity.
sustained throughout its history by divine intervention and
instructed by divine revelation
But now silence reigned and with it the nation’s spiritual state had declined. Some were outwardly religious but most were not spiritual at all.
When Jesus looked out on the crowds that swarmed about him at times he saw them "as being like sheep without a shepherd". They were defenceless, directionless and in very great need.
Into such a muddled state burst the prophet we know as John the Baptist. John’s message was electrifying. The crowds recognised that there was something special about him and went in their droves to hear him preach. The religious leaders too knew that something was afoot and although they didn’t much care for this firebrand of a preacher they too had to pay attention and they too went to keep an eye on what was going on.
John preached a stern uncompromising message. He warned of divine wrath and called for his hearers to repent and to produce fruit in line with their repentance.
John’s preaching stirred his hearers; it chastened them, challenged them and frightened them. As a result all kinds of folk asked him what they should do and John responded with appropriate guidelines for:
the common people
for the quisling tax collectors who were dishonestly lining their own pockets, and
for the soldiers who, as agents of an occupying force, could all too easily abuse their position.
Not long after, Jesus too began to preach and his message of repentance was identical. His popularity quickly outgrew that of John the Baptist. The crowds followed him to such an extent that his enemies might declare, doubtless with a measure of exaggeration, that the whole world had gone after him (Jn.12:19).
But what did this all amount to? Was the change that had taken place in the nation’s life in any way profound and lasting? It would appear not.
As time went on and Jesus progressively made the nature of the gospel call to discipleship clear the crowds began to thin out.
How fickle human beings can be! How easily their emotions can fluctuate! One minute full of enthusiasm and resolve and then the next it’s a totally different story. What was true 2000 years ago has hardly changed since, has it?
Jesus knew that if a spiritual work was to be genuine it had to involve far more than the turning over of a new leaf and he said so openly:
Jn.6:63 "It is the Spirit who gives life;" he said "the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life."
This sort of straight talking was not appreciated by many who heard him and so we read:
Jn.6:66 "After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him."
This then is the general background of the spiritual state of the nation. Now let us remind ourselves of the immediate context that gave rise to Jesus sharing his story.
Jesus had just exorcised an evil spirit from a poor man who had been rendered dumb by the demon but instead of rejoicing and glorifying God the religious leaders accused Jesus of being in league with the devil. Thoughts of demons were prominent in everyone’s mind so Jesus tells a story involving a demon. Putting these various factors together we can see that Jesus’ story was addressing the spiritual state of the nation.
The nation, which had recently been exposed to God speaking to it through John the Baptist, had more recently been spoken to by Jesus the Messiah himself. Not only had Jesus spoken but he had performed the mighty works of his Father before them.
Early reactions to such preaching as this and to such activity as this had involved a certain amount of reform, of reformation of character and behaviour. It was as though the ‘uncleanness’ of the nation was being tackled. The evil spirit had left and the mess it had left behind had been tidied up and the messy house put in order to a certain extent.
But – and it is a very big but – the house which had been spring-cleaned as it were, was nevertheless left empty.
This particular evil spirit had not been cast out with divine orders never to return again. No, this evil spirit had just gone out for a time. This evil spirit had not given up its claims to the house and indeed still referred to it as his own.
The Pharisees with their remarkable and ever-increasing hostility towards Jesus had been growing ever bolder in their attacks against him. After the initial good effects brought to bear upon the nation had begun to cool the Pharisees’ hostility began to turn the people against him: it would continue to do so until the crowds would cry out brazenly "Crucify him, crucify him"!
This is what it is like when seven evil spirits worse than the first take up residence. Now not only is the nation guilty of moral failure it is guilty of crucifying the Lord of Glory, the very One, the only One, who could bring them the help they so desperately needed!
The nation of Israel rejected its Saviour and in large measure has gone on down through the centuries doing exactly the same. Today about 50% of Israel’s Jewish population consider themselves ‘secular’ – religion if followed at all is done so for cultural reasons.
Are you in Disarray too?
Well it is time for us to turn from thinking about the people of Israel in the first century to thinking about ourselves in the 21 st. What are we like? Are we in spiritual disarray too?
All of us come into this world as imperfect beings. When Adam rebelled against God’s rule in the Garden and choose to plough his own furrow his decision had momentous consequences for the rest of us. Adam stands at the head of the human race as our representative – when he fell we fell too. Adam was condemned and we too stand condemned before God. If nothing changes then we will be lost.
This sorry condition into which we are born is what the Bible calls sin. Our individual acts of rebellion against God, our sins, are the natural outworking of our sinful condition. Put simply, we sin because we are sinners – and this state is comparable to the condition of the person in Jesus’ story, the man indwelt by an unclean spirit. Our condition is serious.
And then something happens! We begin to think about the state our lives are in – perhaps we do something of which we’re utterly ashamed and we’re shocked that we were capable of such mean behaviour and thoughts and we resolve to do something about it. Perhaps we begin to learn what the Bible has to say about sin and we’re made aware that perhaps our own life is not quite as respectable as we once thought it was. Maybe we see a close friend become a genuine Christian and we notice significant changes taking place in their life. We decide that we too must make some improvements to our way of living.
We might decide, for example, to put a curb on our tongue and stop swearing or telling blue jokes. We might have our own personal list of things that we will stop doing this and we’ll stop doing that. Somehow we convince ourselves that this must be the way to improve the moral fibre of our lives.
And for a time it seems to work; it is as though that unclean spirit of sin has lost its influence; it’s as though it has gone completely out of our lives.
But my friends this is merely the sweeping and tidying of a house that is in need of a much more radical makeover. Even were you able to lay aside open sin and to stop doing what is evil you would only succeed in brightening up the home when what is needed is for a new tenant to come in and take up his residence!
To turn over a new leaf, to make endless new-year resolutions, is not nearly thorough enough. To add to your life a few of the trappings of religion is not enough either. What you really need is to know and experience the power of vital religion in the inner man. Unclean spirits must not only leave they must be replaced by the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus Christ must come to dwell in your heart by faith.
Moral reformation may turn you into a nicer person to live with but that is not Christianity. Listen to those words of Jesus’ which I’ve already quoted once:
Jn.6:63 "It is the Spirit who gives life;" he said "the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life."
Christianity is concerned with spiritual regeneration and it is spiritual regeneration that we all need. We need a new heart, a new love for God, a new concern for his glory, a new life to live. This is what is addressed by Christianity don’t be fobbed off with some imitation which is only interested in outward appearances. It is all too possible to hold on to an "outward form of our religion, but reject its real power." (2Tim.3:5) and the Bible urges us to avoid such self-satisfied folk.
If indeed you have been brought by one means or another to consider your standing before God and the quality of your life as seen by him then you must do something about. But not just anything will do – you must do the right thing.
The right thing to do is to confess your sin to God and to ask your forgiveness on the grounds that Jesus died for sinners. This is the way not only to see the house swept and put in order but also fully occupied – this and this alone is the way of safety.
There are several warnings in the Bible of the dangers of knowing and to an extent experiencing the power of the truth but then of pulling back and not going on to whole-heartedly committing yourself to Jesus. Jesus couched his warning here in Luke’s gospel in terms of a newly swept house that was left unoccupied. This house was soon taken over by seven of the worst occupants you could ever imagine. (The number "seven" is used in the Bible to signal completeness – the presence of these seven meant that the end state of this person’s life can only be understood as absolutely awful).
The writer to the Hebrew dealt very solemnly with this matter in two distinct sections of his letter:
Heb.10:26-29 "For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?"
Heb.6: 4-6 "For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt."
Similarly the apostle Peter wrote of how failing to go all the way in faithfully persevering in one’s faith in the Lord Jesus would prove disastrous. Here Peter indicates that even a certain reformation of character is insufficient:
2Pet.2:20-22 "For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them."
Friend, know this. As Jesus was able to transform the life of the man rendered mute by the unclean spirit he is well able to transform your life if only you will call on him to do so. Don’t try to sort your spiritual life out on your own – you’ll only fail – believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.