his miraculous word

Luke 4.31-44

Jason Procopio

I was a sci-fi geek growing up, and spent a lot of my childhood watching sci-fi, fantasy, and horror movies. I don't talk about that very often—people have strong feelings about horror movies—but I’m going to mention one for the sake of today’s subject. It’s pretty much common knowledge among people who watch a lot of movies that The Exorcist is widely considered the scariest movie of all time—it was certainly the movie that scared me the most when I was younger. (In case you don’t know, it tells the story of a little girl who is possessed by a demon.) Several years ago, I was talking about scary movies with my mother-in-law, who was not a Christian, and she said that when she saw The Exorcist she thought it was ridiculous; she was just giggling relentlessly the whole time. Her response surprised me, obviously—there is nothing funny about that movie—so I asked her why she reacted to it the way she did. “Because,” she said, “demons aren’t real.”

In a strange way, she was on to something. If you don’t believe in the supernatural, then much of what we see in the gospels loses its power. As we’ve seen, so far in this gospel Luke has gone to great lengths to convince Theophilus (and us) that these things actually happened. So we believe that these things actually happened. If you don’t believe in the supernatural, then you probably don’t believe in God either (so, to be honest, most of what we say here every Sunday will seem pretty silly). But even for those who do believe in God, the idea of demons and possession and miraculous healings still seems pretty far-fetched.

So here’s what we’re going to do. Today’s message (which will go through the end of chapter 4) and next week’s message (which will go through v. 26 of chapter 5) actually go together—we see the same basic thing in both passages. This week, we’ll see Jesus beginning to do these supernatural things, and we’re going to see why he’s doing them: why Jesus performed miracles in general. Then next week, Jesus is going to keep on doing them, but Luke is going to explain a little more fully what those miracles in particular were for.

Last week we saw Jesus rejected in his own hometown of Nazareth. After his rejection in Nazareth, Luke tells us he goes to Capernaum. Now, Jesus mentioned in v. 23 that he had already been there; it is possible that Luke has switched up the chronology a little in order to show Theophilus Jesus’s rejection first. Whatever the case, we see today what happens when Jesus goes to Capernaum, and it’s a massive contrast to what happens in Nazareth—Jesus performs miracles through the power of his word. So we’re going to see today that Jesus’s word possessed authority; that his word possessed power; and that his word had a specific goal.

His word possessed authority (v. 31-32)

Luke doesn’t immediately begin with Jesus’s miracles, but rather with his word. Let’s begin reading at v. 31:

31 And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, 32 and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.

There’s an old legend about the American theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards. Edwards once preached a sermon (undoubtedly his most well-known sermon) called “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In his collected Works, the editor added a footnote to this sermon which reads simply, “Preached at Enfield [Connecticut], July 8th, 1741, at a time of great awakenings; and attended with remarkable impressions on many of the hearers.” What exactly that means, we’re not sure; but the story goes that following his sermon the listeners were clinging to the tentposts for fear that under God’s judgment the ground would open beneath them and they would fall directly into the pits of hell. (It’s quite a remarkable sermon, if you’ve never read it.)

Whatever one may feel about that sermon in particular, one thing that everyone concedes is that Edwards preached with uncanny authority; when he preached his listeners were cut to the heart and responded with great passion and conviction.

But as powerful a preacher as Jonathan Edwards was, he couldn’t hold a candle to Jesus. With Jesus, it wasn’t just a one-time thing; he didn’t preach one sermon in particular, after which someone would add the footnote, “This sermon was attended with remarkable impressions on many of the hearers.” Every time Jesus got up to teach, people were astonished. They either loved him or hated him, but no one was indifferent to him, because as Luke says, his word possessed authority.

When I get up to preach, I pray that the Holy Spirit would use what I’m about to say to move all of you (and myself) to believe the Bible more deeply and obey God more fully. I pray that these words might carry authority. But whatever authority any human preacher may have, whether it’s someone “small” like me or a giant of the faith like Jonathan Edwards, ours is always a borrowed authority. That is, if there is any authority to what we say, it’s only because we are preaching the Word of God, and it’s the Word of God that has authority.

But although Jesus often took what was already written and explained those words (as we saw last week), he also gave new teaching—teaching that took what was already written and went further. Jesus’s words had authority. And it wasn’t the authority of a man, but of God himself—Jesus was very careful to show that the words he spoke were the very words of God. He says in John 12.49, 

I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. 

Jesus’s words had authority because he spoke the words of God himself.

And not only did his words possess authority; they also possessed power. 

His word possessed power (v. 33-37).

So Jesus is in Capernaum, preaching on the Sabbath; and again we have him in the synagogue, preaching (much as he did last week). But what happens this time is quite different.

V. 33:  

33 And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon...

In the synagogue on this particular day, there was a man possessed by a demon. The Bible takes the existence of demons as a point of fact; it tells us that demons are beings who were once angels, but who rebelled against God and were cast out of heaven along with Satan, and who now do Satan’s work in this world. Let me just say for the record: here at Eglise Connexion, we believe that the Bible tells the truth, which means that demons are not figurative; these beings actually exist, and do evil in the world. Not all evil comes from demons, but some of it does. 

It’s good to be aware of that fact, even if we don’t want to spend too much time focusing on them. C. S. Lewis famously wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” It’s important to remember that, because once you allow for the existence of demons, it becomes very easy to be overly preoccupied with them; some Christians spend a vast amount of time researching demons’ tactics and learning ways to fight them (which are almost always more mysticism than actual gospel counsel).

The reason why it’s dangerous to be too preoccupied with demons is something we actually see in our passage: even if they are real and even if they are fighting against them, ultimately, Jesus has perfect authority over them.

In the synagogue on this day, a man is there who is possessed with a demon (that is, the demon has entered his body and is controlling him):

 and he cried out with a loud voice, 34 “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 

So the first thing we see is that the demon recognizes Jesus—he knows who he is, and calls him by name. Secondly, he knows that Jesus has the power to destroy him. (No small statement.) Thirdly, he not only knows Jesus’s name; he knows his true identity—he is “the Holy One of God,” the Messiah.

The irony here is meant to strike us. Remember last week’s passage? Jesus reads the prophecy from Isaiah, which promised that God would send the Messiah, and Jesus says (v. 21), “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And the people from his own hometown of Nazareth don’t believe that he is who he says he is. But the demons… They know who Jesus is and they say who he is; the demons recognize and admit what mere human beings will not.

35 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm. 36 And they were all amazed and said to one another, “What is this word? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” 37 And reports about him went out into every place in the surrounding region. 

There we have it again—Jesus’s words have authority. And it is not simply authority to teach and to convince people that his teaching is true; it is authority which is accompanied with power. 

This is what separates Jesus from any number of occult gurus which pop up. I used to work for a guy who was extremely intelligent—received his diploma from Sciences-Po, had two masters degrees and a doctorate—and extremely charismatic. I loved working for the guy; you could listen to him talk for hours, about anything. But about six months after beginning my job with him, I learned that he was (honest) a priest in a well-known cult. They believe that the earth was created by aliens, and they were raising money for an embassy in Canada where they would welcome the aliens when they returned. They dress up in aluminum headdresses and perform weird sexual practices together as a way of purifying their aura and making themselves more receptive to the magnetic forces with which the aliens communicated with them (or something like that).

This man—whose name I won’t mention, he lives here in the city—is an extremely charismatic and convincing man; his words carry a certain authority. But there is no power behind them. No matter how convincing he may seem, in the end all he has is his own powers of persuasion. He can’t actually make good on anything he says; he can merely ask people to take his word for it.

Jesus is not like this—he backs his words up with power. When he preaches, people are impressed; but it would certainly possible for him to simply be a very persuasive man. So to show that he is not simply persuasive or charismatic, he speaks, and when he speaks his words don’t just convince—they make things happen. He says to the demon, “Be silent, and come out!” And the demon has to leave. He is under Jesus’s authority, and must obey his commands.

So the people see this, and they are completely flabbergasted—they talk about him with one another, testifying to both his authority AND his power. Here is a man who is able to prove the incredible things he talks about.

We see the same thing in the following verses, and here he’s not just proving his power and authority over demons. That is extraordinary, but in some ways logical—he has supernatural power over supernatural beings. But Jesus also has power over the natural world—in this case, over human sickness (starting at v. 38):  

38 And he arose and left the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. 39 And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them. 

He doesn’t perform a ritual; he doesn’t do a dance. He rebukes the fever! This past week Jack had a bit of a fever. What did we do? We gave him some Doliprane. Nowadays we know what to do when people are sick (for the most part). But how amazing would it be to simply be able to say to a fever, “Get out!” and see the fever break? This is the kind of power Jesus had. Still more (v. 40):

40 Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. 41 And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ. 

Now in v. 41 Luke tells us something interesting. He says that the demons knew he was the Son of God and would yell it out when they saw him. So Jesus didn’t just cast them out of the people; he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ

The demons are right; he is the Son of God; he is the Christ. So why would he tell them to be silent, if they were telling the truth? He won’t let them talk about it because that is not how the message of the Messiah was meant to be spread. The message of the Messiah would be proclaimed, first, by the Messiah. And it is this message which is the most important point: his word not only had authority and power; his word had a specific content: the good news kingdom of God.

His word was the kingdom of God (c. 42-44).

V. 42:  

42 And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, 43 but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” 44 And he was preaching in the synagogues of Judea. 

Jesus’s main priority during his ministry was the preaching of the kingdom of God. Jesus retreats to a desolate place to be alone; the people find him and crowd around and want him to stay with them; but he says (v. 43): “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” 

In many Christian circles today, miracles are the raison d’être of the church, and they are the essence of Jesus’s earthly ministry. If you asked them who Jesus is, they would say he is our Savior; but in practice, Jesus is merely a means to an end, a way to get whatever it is they want and feel they’re lacking. And they see him this way because when he was on earth going about his ministry, he’ll perform an awful lot of miracles.

When I was preparing this sermon this week, I was dreading this part. I was dreading it because we have friends who are planting a church in the 20th arrondissement, whose two-year-old son came down with a mysterious illness a couple weeks ago: some kind of hepatitis that the doctors were unable to pin down. By last Sunday, his liver was almost completely non-functioning. On the morning I was writing this section of the sermon, Harry (the dad) was in surgery to remove a part of his liver, to be transplanted into his son.

For two weeks, we had been praying for a miracle for this little boy. For a little while on Monday, the blood tests were showing that the cells in his liver might possibly be able to regenerate; but in the end, they went forward with the transplant—an arduous ordeal for a two-year-old and his parents. So what do you do with all of these stories in the gospels in which you see Jesus healing people left and right? What do you do with these things when you’re praying for a miracle for your own little boy, and no miracle seems to come?

The answer is both simple and profoundly difficult to do: we remember why Jesus was doing all of these things. He did it, in part, because he had compassion on those who were sick—this is one of the glorious truths we see in the gospels. But it wasn’t the only reason, or even the main reason. He performed these miracles to validate his teaching; to prove that he was who he said he was, and to give the people reasons to believe what he taught them.

There is a wonderful moment in Mark’s gospel which is similar to this one. Jesus and his disciples are exhausted from caring for so many people, and Jesus decides they all need to rest. So they get in a boat to go away to “a desolate place.” But when they come ashore, they see a large crowd already gathered there, waiting for him. And Mark tells us (6.34):  

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. 

Many people approach Jesus as a means to get what they want. If that were true, how would you guess Jesus would care for these people on whom he had compassion? You’d imagine he would heal them. But that’s not what he does. Look at the end of the verse: 

...and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. 

The ultimate goal of Jesus, and his main means of caring for the people who came to him, was not healing, but teaching. And because that was his ultimate goal, sometimes the miracles had to take a backseat.

In our text, Luke tells us that this crowd pressed around Jesus and begged him to stay with them… But he left—not because there were other people he needed to heal, but because there were other people he needed to teach: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” At all times, everything Jesus did was to serve the reason for which he came. 

Application/Implications

Jesus is victorious. This is the main truth of the gospel—this is the reason Jesus did everything he did: the reason he came, taught, lived, died and was raised was to defeat sin, death, and the devil. The author of the letter to the Hebrews says (Hebrews 2.14-15):

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 

Here’s why I said my mother-in-law was on to something. A movie like The Exorcist loses a lot of its punch when you realize, not that demons don’t exist, but that Jesus is always victorious over them. Popular culture always depicts a kind of battle between good and evil, between God and the devil, as if they are more or less evenly matched enemies, and we’re not sure who’s going to win out. 

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Every time a demon shows up in one of the gospels, there is no sense of danger or menace; Jesus casts them out as easily as one of us might swat a mosquito. Even before his death, Jesus had perfect authority over demons. So we needn’t be obsessively worried about their influence or their danger in our lives. They are there, and we must contend with them (as Paul says in Ephesians 6), but we must never forget that Jesus has perfect authority over them, and that we belong to him.

Jesus heals. I love so much that the first illness we see Jesus heal in this gospel is not leprosy, or ebola, or death. It’s a fever: something all of us can instantly identify with, something which has happened to all of us (to varying degrees). God is not just concerned with giant displays of power; he knows that while not all sicknesses are equal, whatever we have certainly feels huge to us. And he shows that he is not above performing what could be seen as “small” miracles. 

This is why even if healing is not his main objective, we need not run to the other extreme and imagine that praying for healing is a lost cause. Jesus is compassionate: he cares about people. And so we can, and do, come to him when we are sick, or when our kids are sick, and ask him to heal us. And we can do so with full expectancy, knowing that God is not only powerful, but he is also good, and kind, and loving. 

But even if we are invited to come to him when we are sick and ask for healing, we are called to do so with this knowledge: that his main reason for healing and his main motor for healing is the gospel.

Jesus heals through the gospel. The Bible tells us that even those of us who are well are inherently sick. We are all infected with sin, which blinds our eyes to the truth, which makes us deaf to the call of God to love him, which corrupts our desires to serve ourselves above all things. It’s a cliché, but it’s a true cliché: sin is a cancer which infects every human being. This is the main illness we need to be cured of; every other illness—whether cancer or heart disease or hepatitis or the common cold—is merely symptomatic of this deeper illness, which will in the end lead to eternal death.

And the means by which Jesus heals us is the good news of the gospel. That was his main tool, and that was his priority: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” It is through hearing the gospel that the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to the truth of what God did for us in Christ, that he calls us to faith in him, and that he gives us that faith. It is through the gospel that he heals us.

I hope none of us take this for granted: if you believe in Jesus this morning, if you have faith in him, if you trust him for your salvation, you have witnessed a miracle! A miracle every bit as real and powerful as the casting out of a demon or resurrection from the dead. You heard the gospel, and the Holy Spirit used that gospel to bring you from death to life, to literally become a new creation (cf. 2 Corinthians 5.17). It has made you an heir to the kingdom with Jesus, has made you a citizen of the new heavens and the new earth. 

So let me put it this way: when you are sick, your first instinct is going to be to simply want to be well again—and you should want that. But even more than the desire to be well, your illness should make you desire something else even more. It should make you long for the day when all illnesses will disappear, when you will never be sick again, when you will live in eternal peace and eternal joy in the presence of God. So while we pray for healing from illness, we must never forget that our faith is a foretaste of the the greatest of all miracles. It has already been achieved, and one day it will be put into effect: Jesus will return, and he will renew the earth, and all of us who have faith in him will be part of that renewal.

So if you know Christ, then thank him for the miracle you already know. And if you don’t know Christ, but you want to, then remember how easily Jesus works miracles. With a mere word, he casts out demons, heals the sick, even brings the dead to life: giving you faith is the easiest thing in the world. So if you want to know him, then ask him—come to him, and place your faith in him for your salvation. He promised that he would never turn away anyone who comes to him. So come to him. Believe in him, and trust in him. Receive the miracle, live the miracle, and be thankful for the miracle.