The Conspicuous Absence
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
The Pharisees were impressive to view on the outside. They were not idol worshipers, talked very religiously, and had all the outward trappings of legalistic behavior under control, plus, at the temple, all their ritualistic ducks were in order.
Despite the convincing facade, something was terribly wrong inside them. They would soon commit the worst crime ever, Deicide, by crucifying God’s Son.
The Pharisees did not have a monopoly on goodness gone bad. In our day, a preacher at one time more famous than Billy Graham renounced his faith, saying a loving God would not allow suffering. He wrote a book denouncing Christianity.
An athlete’s walk with Christ was once so intense that a book was written to tell his testimony. He later denied his faith, writing it off to youthful exuberance.
Jesus used a story (vv. 43-45) to help explain what happens to people who polish their religious act, but then end up much worse off than when they began.
Matt. 12:43 (Holman) “When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it roams through waterless places looking for rest but doesn’t find any.”
In Jesus’ story, a man was inspired to better himself spiritually. In a moment of strong resolve, he won a victory, ridding himself of an unclean spirit.
It was at first glance a good win, but one huge unseen problem remained unfixed. The demon had been conquered and cast out, but not destroyed.
Evil can be expelled, but not eliminated. It always lives, ever returning to attack again. “Be sober! Be on the alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour” (I Peter 5:8).
When we cast off demons, they are forced out of their comfort zone. Jesus pictured them as restless, roaming around in a barren, joyless, depressed state.
Demons don’t want to be unattached. They crave a body, for at least three reasons. One, only people can sin, and become spiritually unclean, like the demons themselves. This is what evil spirits relish. They like to live in moral uncleanness, spiritual pig sties, religious squalor. Unable to wallow in evil in inanimate, lifeless things, they want a human body to give expression to their evil.
Two, they crave a body to strike at God through. In my youth I watched a science fiction show “Way Out.” A hateful, cheap, domineering husband was injured. All that was left of him was put in a fish-bowl. He was helpless, a brain connected to a floating eyeball and to panels monitoring his emotions. The set-free widow taunted him, lavishly spent his money, and blew cigarette smoke in his eye. When the needles on his emotion monitors flew off the chart with ballistic anger, she laughed at him deliriously. The man needed a body. Demons do, too. What better way to hit God’s heart than through humans, the ones He loves most?
Three, evil spirits crave a body because they wish to harm its owner. “No grass grows where the Devil dwells” (Trapp). Demons want to make people unhappy, yea miserable. Sin makes people sad. Our hellish pain is the Devil’s heaven (Gurnall). Evil spirits are arch-sadists, coming to maim, kill, and destroy.
Matthew 12:44a “Then it says, ‘I’ll go back to my house that I came from.’”
Evil spirits are nostalgic. They like to return to the place that once provided them comfort and ease. Demons make sly efforts to come back to former habitats.
Evil returns to knock on the door of our temptations, peer in the window of our desires, wiretap the phone of our words, intercept the emails of our thoughts, eavesdrop on how well we are or are not doing daily in the spiritual disciplines.
Evil is persistent, always trying to come back. Like a never ending ooze, evil slides our way, looking for chances to counter-attack, to regain ground it lost.
Matthew 12:44b “And when it arrives, it finds the house vacant, . . .”
In one word, Jesus summarized the whole problem. Vacant. Where was the One for whom this and all other human hearts were created? God was missing.
The man in Jesus’ story made a fatal mistake. He tried to better himself through his own effort. This is a secularist’s only approach to self-improvement.
It sometimes works. Habits occasionally are beatable by human resolve. People clean up their act due to fear of punishment or going to jail, to save a marriage, to be a good parent, peer pressure, desire for a job promotion, etc.
We laud these efforts. Self-help is the only remedy a secular society can offer. Unfortunately, this approach leaves our basic sin nature undealt with.
We all have in us a deep-seated flaw. We need a supernatural power, yea, a supernatural Person, Jesus. He alone can confront our moral problems at the root.
When Jesus enters a heart through the new birth, He comes not only to save, but also to wield control, to take possession, to jealously guard what He owns.
Without Him fighting for us in us, a huge conspicuous absence undermines our spiritual warfare arsenal. When we fight evil on our own, no one is within us to fight with a power mightier than Satan’s.
Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, The Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth, His
From age to age the same, And He must win the battle (Luther).
Jesus must win because only He can win. Without Him our striving is losing.
Only one thing, yea one Person, can satisfactorily fill the house of a human heart, and ward off evil. We were created for God to enter us in love, and for us to respond to Him in love. Only this bonding stream of fire flowing two ways, Him to us and us to Him, can be intense enough to burn away everything different from its own nature. Mathematician/preacher Thomas Chalmers, 200 years ago, called this ousting the expulsive power of a new affection. The most effective way to expel one love is to be controlled by a stronger love. This is what Jesus offers us.