A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/23/1995

Luke 11:14-36

The Craving for Signs Luke 11:14 And he was casting out a demon, and it was dumb; and it came about that when the demon had gone out, the dumb man spoke, and the multitudes marveled. 15 But some of them said, "He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons." 16 And others, to test him, were demanding of him a sign from heaven. 17 But he knew their thoughts and said to them, "Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a house divided against itself falls. 18 And if Satan also is divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if by Beelzebul I cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? Consequently, they shall be your judges. 20 But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God is come upon you. 21 When a strong man fully armed guards his own homestead, his possessions are undisturbed. 22 But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder. 23 He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. 24 When the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and not finding any, it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' 25 And when it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. 26 Then it goes and takes along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go and live there. And the last state of that man is worse than the first." 27 And it came about that while he said these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed." 28 But he said, "On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and observe it." 29 And as the crowds were increasing, he began to say, "This generation is a wicked generation; it seeks for a sign. And yet no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so shall the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South shall rise up with the men of this generation at the judgment and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. 33 No one after lighting a lamp puts it away in a cellar or under a peck-measure, but on the lampstand, in order that those who enter may see the light. 34 The lamp of your body is your eye. When you eye is clear, your whole body also is full of light; but when it is bad, your whole body is full of darkness. 35 Then watch out that the light in you may not be darkness. 36 If therefore, your whole body is full of light, with no dark part in it, it shall be wholly illumined, as when the lamp illumines you with its rays." INTRODUCTION

Have you ever wondered why God doesn't make it easier for us to believe? We know we walk by faith and not by sight, but we still wonder, if he is really there, why doesn't he show himself more plainly and remove all doubt? Doesn't he want people to believe? Why doesn't he give us a sign? This passage gives us some answers to those questions, and it also shows us how the Lord's progress towards the Cross was increasingly provoking confrontations with the Jewish establishment. While it may not be evident to a cursory reading, the Lord's words here are not just an arbitrary collection of sayings but constitute a careful, step by step refutation of the challenges presented to him which focuses attention on the sign God did give and shows us the response of rational faith that is appropriate to it. Therefore we want to look carefully at the intricacy of the argument, the sufficiency of the sign, and the function of faith.


This passage consists mainly of a series of sayings and parables that might at first seem unrelated. But if we notice the comparison between verses 16 and 29, both of which deal with the issue of signs, we see that it is one dialogue with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that the middle is pertinent to the topic; it is not a digression. (This is why I have read such an unusually long passage this morning.) We can see this most clearly if we break this dialogue down into the eight units that make it up.

A. The Challenge (vs. 14-16)

"He casts out demons by Beelzebul!" "Give us a sign!" To fully understand what is happening here we must realize that the crowd consists of three different groups of people. First are Jesus' supporters. They are not mentioned, but they are here, represented by the disciples and by part of the crowd. Second are the opposition. These people--probably the Scribes and the Pharisees and their disciples--had already made their minds up that Jesus is a dangerous heretic, and therefore his miracles, impressive though they may be, must be using demonic power. (We see that miracles by themselves don't prove anything. If you believed Jesus was wrong and dangerous, they would only confirm you worst fears about him.) Third, there is a "neutral" group, or a group that would like to have thought of themselves that way. They want further evidence. These are the people who ask for another sign. But their neutrality is really an illusion. They've already seen enough evidence to "demand a verdict," as Josh McDowell would put it. What difference is one more bit going to make? One more sign won't do anything to resolve the dispute between the two ways of interpreting the miracles--they are divine or they are demonic--that are already on the table. It just asks the question that they are already faced with over again. And that question has to be answered on the basis of Jesus' character and his faithfulness to the Word of God. The demand for a sign sounds reasonable, but it was really just a delaying tactic, an evasion of their responsibility to deal with the evidence with which they had already been presented. At any rate, these are the challenges to which the Lord will now respond.

B. The Response, Part 1: The Opponents (vs. 17-20)

Jesus first responds to the first group that spoke, to his opponents. To answer the charge that his miracles are being worked by demonic power, he offers what we may call "the house divided defense." A house divided against itself cannot stand. First this highlights the absurdity of the charge. Why would Satan want to thwart and hinder and mess up his own work? Look at the people who have been delivered. Are they more in Satan's power, deeper in bondage to him as a result? Or are they now glorifying God? The tables are subtly being turned. Those who are putting forth the theory that Satan is behind Jesus' miracles now have the burden of proof: They must show that these miracles are advancing Satan's interests, not God's; they must explain what possible motive Satan could have for doing such things. Then Jesus really turns the tables on his opponents. Why is it his miracles that are being attributed to Beelzebul? Why not those of other Jewish exorcists? The opponents must now explain why, if they object to Jesus delivering someone from Satan, they support others who are claiming, at least, to do the same thing. They must now show cause why Jesus' exorcisms should be treated differently. This is an explanation they will not wish to give, for the only difference they will be able to find is that Jesus is doing the same thing with greater efficacy, using simple commands rather than complicated rituals, and having better success. Go ahead, talk to this dumb man and then ask yourself, is Jesus doing the work of God or of Satan? It has to be one or the other, and Jesus' opponents now have a burden of proof they will not be able to bear.

C. The Parable of the Strong Man (vs. 21-22)

The parable is an elaboration of the house divided defense. In context, then, the strong man is clearly Satan; his goods are the demon possessed people; the stronger man is Christ, and the plunder is the people delivered from Satan's grip. Thus the picture of opposition between the kingdoms of God and Satan is reinforced. But something else is happening too: Jesus' own claim to be the Messiah is being advanced. For Satan is the strongest of all created beings. Who could possibly be stronger? Obviously, no mere created being could fit this role. Only the divine Son of God incarnate in human flesh will do. And the implication is that this is exactly what Jesus is.

D. The Response, Part 2: The "Neutral" Party (vs. 23)

"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters." Jesus now turns to address those who want further evidence. In a transition to his full response to them, he shows that he considers their claim to neutrality suspect at the very start. In the war between God and Satan that he has been talking about, there is no room for neutrality. Think back to World War II, when the very survival of the Free World was at stake and very much in doubt. Imagine someone saying to the draft board, "Well, I refuse to serve--but that doesn't mean I'm for Hitler." It would have seemed a very unimpressive response even then; in the conflict of which Jesus is speaking, it is utterly ridiculous. As C. S. Lewis once put it, "Every single part of creation is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan. In all the vast reaches of the universe, there is not one square inch of neutral ground." According to Jesus himself in John 3:18, those who have not believed are condemned already. In other words, "neutrality" is the practical and moral equivalence of rejection. I am not saying that there is no place for people to consider the evidence and ask questions before committing themselves to faith. After all, false religions abound, and careful critical thinking is therefore a requirement for God's people. But for people like the ones in this dialogue, people who have the Scriptures and have already been confronted by the claims of Christ and given sufficient reason to believe, it is a mere evasion of responsibility.

E. The Parable of the Swept House (vs. 24-26)

The purpose of this parable is to illustrate the point just made about the ultimate impossibility of neutrality. It shows that the impossibility of neutrality flows not only from the wartime situation, but also from the very nature of human beings. We are spiritual beings. The throneroom of our souls is going to be occupied by someone or something. Ultimately, it can only be the Spirit of God or the Spirit of Iniquity. You say, "But I'm leading a perfectly good moral life without all those religious trappings. I believe in God, but I don't have to be a fanatic about it. I'm just as good and decent as you 'born again' people." Well, you may be right. Your house my be swept and in pretty good order. But there is a crucial question you are neglecting: Who holds the key to it? There is no neutrality! Unless Christ occupies the throne of your heart, its last state will be worse than the first.

F. An Interruption (vs. 27-28)

We've all met examples of the woman who chooses this moment to break into the discussion: emotional, voluble, irrepressible, she cannot resist trying to wrest the attention to herself--though no doubt she would not have seen it that way. "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed!" And suddenly every head turns to look--at her! I cannot resist the impression that she is trying just a little bit too hard to sound "spiritual." Is she sincerely praising Jesus or is she wanting everyone to notice what a devoted follower she is? Perhaps I am being unfair to her. Whatever her motives, she creates a potential distraction from the point Jesus is trying to make, which has nothing to do with his mother. But Jesus skillfully turns the interruption into an opportunity to advance the discussion into which it intruded: "On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and observe it." We are talking about the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of Satan, here, and the bottom line is the issue of your allegiance!

G. Summation (vs. 29-32)

A wicked generation seeks for a sign. You've already had better signs than the Queen of the South or the Ninevites, and what are you doing with them? Nothing. You're going to get just one more, so don't miss it. The "sign of Jonah" as explained further elsewhere involves the parallel between Jonah being three days in the belly of the fish, as Jesus will be three days in the belly of the earth. But, as we know again from the Parable of Dives and Lazarus, if people will not believe the Word of God, they will not believe even if one came back from the dead. Once again, the supposed neutrality of the audience is nailed as the wickedness of rationalization, even as they are graciously given one more opportunity, when they are in a position to remember the sign of Jonah, to repent.

H. Conclusion (vs. 33-36)

Perhaps the hardest part to connect to the dialogue as it has unfolded, the part whose relevance is hardest to see, is the Parable of the Lamp, which also appears in other contexts such as the Sermon on the Mount. Why does the Lord reprise it here? I think he is saying, "Open your eyes!" You say you want further evidence? The problem is not with the evidence but with the fact that you are not seeing what you've already been given. As long as your eyes are closed, as long as you continue to be willfully blind, what's the point of giving you any more? Open your eyes and look at what you've already been given!


Well, then. The theory that the signs have been wrought by Satan has been refuted and the people who ask for further evidence have been sent back to the evidence they have already been given. So what are we to make of that evidence? First I want to head off at the pass a possible misapplication of this rebuke, which was delivered to people who were refusing to deal with the evidence that had been presented to them. For there is a false spirituality abroad that would use this passage as an excuse to attack any use of evidence at all. And that is clearly not the issue here. It is not wrong to demand evidence for faith; it is wrong not to! We are commanded to test the spirits and not swallow every religious claim that comes down the pike. The problem here was not that people demanded evidence, but that they were refusing to deal responsibly with the evidence they had been given. The problem was not with the evidence but with their hearts.

God has given us good and sufficient reasons to know that he is God and Jesus is his Son. First there is the created universe with its form, its complexity, and its beauty. It could not just have happened. Then there is the nature of man, his aspirations for goodness, truth, and beauty, for meaning and relatedness, for love. If evolution were true, why would the universe evolve a being with unslakable desires for so many things a purely secular universe cannot provide? Then there is Christ himself, who fulfilled the sign of Jonah by rising from the dead in solid and verifiable history. And finally there is the Gospel, a set of Answers that fits the problem of who we are like a key fits the wards of an intricate lock. The signs are all around us. They are good; they are sufficient; they are compelling. To ask for more is wicked ingratitude. Open your eyes!


Finally, this exchange between the Lord and his critics can help us see what true faith is. Faith is not believing without evidence, much less believing in spite of it. It is a personal trust in and commitment to Christ as the Son of God in accordance with the evidence. The disciples, the Pharisees, and the "neutral" crowd of curious onlookers all saw the same evidence. There was adequate evidence for those who chose to trust Christ. But there were people there who were not prepared to trust him no matter what the evidence said. Faith is that trust. Having compelling evidence does not keep you from needing to trust; it just makes that trust justified. But the trust still has to be exercised. That is what it means to be human, to be a person. Our brains are not automatic logic machines drawing conclusions dispassionately and inevitably. They present us with reasons for choices, but the choices are still ours to make, and we often make them against our better judgment. Do you see? We can appreciate the solidity of the foundation laid for our faith, the sufficiency of the evidence provided for it. These are reasons to trust, reasons to have faith, but they are not faith. Do not despise the evidence. Be grateful for it. But then act on it, and trust Christ. That is faith.


What we see here is that the ultimate issue is not the evidence. It is helpful to see how strong it is, and I would be happy to share it with you in greater detail when we have time. But the ultimate issue is not the evidence. There was plenty of evidence available, but people dealt with it in different ways. Why? Because some wanted the truth, and some wanted their preconceived notions confirmed. Some wanted to know what was right, and some wanted to justify themselves and their own lifestyles. The evidence is important, but the ultimate issue is not the evidence. It is whether in your heart you are willing to listen to the evidence and follow where it leads. The ultimate issue is allegiance. Won't you give yours to Christ today?

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated Oct-15-2005