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Third Sunday in Lent: Luke 11:14-28

Christ casts out a demon as He had done many times before, yet the focus in this account is the reply of some of the crowd. Accusing Christ of utilizing demonic agency and demanding a sign from heaven, as if the sign performed in their sight didn’t count, they reveal the state of their heart. Truly in them is the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled: “Seeing they do not see and hearing they do not hear” (Isaiah 6:9-10; Matthew 13:14-15).

King Ahaziah, laying sick upon his deathbed, sent messengers to ask Baal-zebub whether he would recover instead of seeking the Lord (2 Kings 1). Baal-zebub is described as the god of Ekron, one of the five principal Philistine cities (1 Samuel 5). The word “baal,” rendered in Luke as “beel,” simply means “lord” or “master.” It was frequently used among the Canaanites to describe their gods, and even some of the Israelites adopted the practice when they sought to worship the Lord and the Baals (Hosea 2:16-17). “Zebub” or “zebul” means “flies,” as in Isaiah 7:18 and Ecclesiastes 10:1. Whether this title was legitimate or an intentional corruption is hard to say. The accusation of the crowd is not that Jesus is using a particluar Philistine god to do His work, but rather that His power is not from heaven. Jesus Himself appears to identify Beelzebul with Satan, which is fitting, since the Scriptures frequently identify false gods with demons (Leviticus 17:7; Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 106:37; 1 Corinthians 10:20-21).

Jesus answers them according to their folly. Satan would not work against himself, since casting out demons meant an end of his authority and influence over a man. It would be tantamount to civil war. More than this, the Jews also practiced exorcism, as the sons of Sceva prove (Acts 19:11-20). If their sons were doing the same thing, why would they not accuse them of collaborating with Satan? Yet wisdom is justified by her children (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:35).

Christ describes His own work as “the finger of God,” or the direct action of God. The lector-priests of Egypt, no longer able to imitate Moses through their sorcery, cry out to Pharaoh that this was no trick, but God’s action among them (Exodus 8:19). God Himself wrote the Ten Commandments on the tablets with His finger (Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 9:10). Creation is also described as the work of His fingers (Psalm 8:3). Satan remains secure in his palace until the stronger Man, Christ the Lord, to bind him. Satan does not fight against himself and plunder his own palace. This is the work of God among them.

Yet as Pharaoh saw the finger of God and hardened his heart against God more and more, so the Jews are doing the same. Nor is this a neutral thing, because there is no middle ground. To walk with God is to be like God. To attribute God’s work to something else to to walk against Him. Whoever is not with Christ is against Him, and the final result of that way is death and destruction (Galatians 6:7-8). It is not enough that a demon depart from a man. It will go into “waterless places,” the wilderness which is the abode of demons (Leviticus 17:7), but when it returns it will bring spirits more evil than itself to take up residence again.

The same is true of spiritual hardening. It is a progressive process leading more and more away from God. The heart refuses to listen to God and closes its ears, so to speak, against Him. “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as at Meribah” (Psalm 95:7-8). Pharaoh in his pride hardens himself against God. Yet this hardening is also God’s judgment against sin. God hands us over to sin in order to bring on judgment even in this life (Romans 1:26). This is why God also hardens the heart of Pharaoh (Exodus 9:12). God hardens Israel’s heart so that they would not turn to Him and repent (as He plainly says in Matthew 13:15), though this partial hardening has come upon His people in order to further His plan of salvation (Romans 11). For those who persist in sin, God hardens them so that they cannot repent, because God will not allow it.

How then should we understand this? On the one hand, it is beyond our understanding (Romans 11:33-36). The potter has the right over the clay to shape it according to His will (Romans 9:21). Yet the heart which is not hardened is the heart which listens to God. The woman in the crowd who calls for a blessing upon Mary misses the point. Even her unique status as the mother of God changes nothing. Salvation is not a matter of the flesh. “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!”

St. Michael and All Angels: Revelation 12:7-12

Revelation 12 focuses on Satan and his war against the Church. Satan previously was able to enter God’s courts, albeit briefly, as he wandered to and fro on the earth (Job 1). The Accuser—since Satan is a title like Christ and not a proper name—opposes the saints, even though his accusations are frequently false (Zechariah 3:1-5; Jude 9; John 8:44). Even if he speaks about the past, he does not speak the truth, because the saints, covered with the Lord’s righteousness, can no longer be justly accused of them. They are gone, never to be brought up again (Psalm 103:12). Satan’s accusations, then, are a direct assault on God, which is why he is rebuked for speaking against the saints.

Satan’s foolishness knows no bounds, however, because he sought to destroy the male child of Revelation 12:5. This action prompted a reaction from heaven. The war of Revelation 12:7 is against the dragon, and the dragon is in a defensive posture. His judgment has come, because the fullness of his sin flowed forth from his attempted murder of the boy. God is not deaf to the plight of His Church on earth, and all the powers of heaven wage war in her defense.

The identity of Michael is a disputed question. Some think that this refers to Christ Himself. Michael, whose name means “Who is like God?”, is described in Jude 9 as an archangel. This is sometimes rejected on the grounds that Jude is part of the antilegomena (a weak argument, in my opinion, since Revelation itself belongs to that category). Further, the corresponding passage in Zechariah 3 states that the Lord Himself rebukes Satan, a statement attributed to Michael in Jude. The two are not mutually exclusive. The Lord is often described as speaking through agents, just as we often use similar language to say things like “The king waged war on the kingdom.” Even if the king’s generals and soldiers actually carried out the war, that hardly means that the king had no part in it.

Regardless of who Michael is—and I tend to think that it is the archangel—it does not change the meaning of the passage. The outcome of this war against the devil is his utter defeat and subsequent banishment from heaven. Nor do I think that we need to figure out the timing of this war. The general message is clear: even as the devil wages war on earth against the Church, he is already defeated and his final defeat is certain. He is fighting a losing battle, and God Himself fights for His Church. Whatever he might throw at us, Satan’s doom is certain, and he cannot win.

I think it’s worthwhile to mention that the word “dragon” carries a lot of cultural baggage with it. The image of a four-legged, winged, fire-breathing lizard is a much later concept. “Dragon” or perhaps “drake” in Greek describes a large snake. It is used in conjunction with the more general term “serpent” in Revelation 12:9. He is not an ordinary snake, to be sure, since he is described as having “seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (Revelation 12:3). But we must be careful so that we do not impose our cultural images upon the Bible. Yet this imagery recalls Genesis 3, where the snake tempts Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. As Satan sought our destruction from the very beginning, he remains a “roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

However, Satan is defeated by “the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11). The death and resurrection of Jesus silenced the devil who had previously tried to tempt Him to sin. Christ’s resurrection proves that the devil is a liar, because it is undeniable proof of His righteousness. Yet Satan is also defeated by the witness of the saints, because the reign of Christ is not yet complete (Hebrews 2:8; 1 Corinthians 15:25). Bearing witness about the hope within us is an assault on the powers of darkness (2 Corinthians 10:4). This is Christ’s work within us, engaging us as soldiers in His victorious campaign to put all things under His feet.

Therefore, Satan should not make us abnormally afraid, as if he had the power to do as he pleases. “Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:9). The shield of faith extinguishes his flaming darts (Ephesians 6:16). He should not be underestimated, of course. His anger is fierce and he is unwavering in his rage. But he stood no chance against heaven. If God Himself is for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31)? Those who are with us are more than those who are with him (2 Kings 6:16).