Subordinate agents of Satan are called “demons” (Matt. 12:24), “evil spirits” (Luke 7:21), “unclean spirits” (Matt. 10:1), and “the devil’s angels” (Matt. 25:41). The term “unclean” is used 22 times in the New Testament in connection with these demonic creatures, interchangeably with the modifier “evil” (Matt. 12:43, 45).
Demons are real personalities, described as speaking (Luke 4:33-37; 8:30-31), recognizing Christ and being afraid (Luke 4:33-37, 41; Mark 5:6-7), and trembling (Jas. 2:19). God created all things (1 Cor. 8:6), including free-will spirit beings, and everything he made was good (Gen. 1:31). But some of his creation have rebelled against him, including the devil (1 Tim. 3:6) and the devil’s minions (Matt. 25:41; 2 Pet. 2:4).
Demonic spirits afflicted people in the first century AD with the inability to speak (Matt. 9:32-33), blindness (Matt. 12:22), insanity (Luke 8:26-36), and epilepsy (Matt. 17:14-20), although the same maladies had natural causes as well (cf. Matt. 4:24; 8:16). Not all mental illnesses are attributed to demons, and not all illnesses attributed to demons are psychological in nature (Matt. 12:22-29). Demon-possessed persons were regarded in the same manner as sick people and are sometimes said to be “healed” right along with those suffering from natural diseases (Luke 8:36).
Demon possession always required supernatural power to expel the demons (Matt. 10:8; Luke 4:36; 11:20) and apparently only occurred in New Testament times, as there are no recorded instances in the Old Testament. With the exception of four occurrences in Acts (chaps. 5, 8, 16, 19), all references are in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (total 26).
Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), and the devil’s angels were fearfully aware of the Lord’s purpose and their ultimate doom (Mark 1:24; 5:7; Matt. 8:29; Luke 4:34; cf. Jas. 2:19). By casting out demons, Jesus demonstrated his authority and power over evil forces, signaling the approaching kingdom of God (Luke 4:36; 11:20). His disciples exhibited the same power by the authority of Christ (Matt. 10:8; Luke 10:17; Acts 5:16; 8:7; 16:18; 19:12-17).1
Perhaps demon possession was part of an all-out attack the devil made against Jesus and against the establishment of his kingdom, somewhat of a mock incarnation with the devil’s forces seeking to take on human form as God did in Christ. There were attempts to prematurely reveal Jesus’ identity, potentially causing him to be put to death before the completion of his work (Mark 1:34; Luke 4:41). But Jesus is greater and more powerful than Satan’s forces and brings complete deliverance from evil in all its forms (Col. 2:15; Eph. 1:20-21; 1 Pet. 3:22).
Does demon possession still occur today?
The biblical evidence indicates that demon possession occurred only during Jesus’ earthly life and for a brief period afterwards (on a much smaller scale) during the time of the apostles. There is not a single case of demon possession mentioned in the New Testament beyond Acts 19. Neither are there any warnings against demon possession, nor instructions or spiritual gifts to deal with it. Even in the lists of miraculous gifts recorded in 1 Cor. 12:8-10, 28 and Eph. 4:11, there is no mention of the power to cast out demons. This suggests it was not a common occurrence in the early church, it was not expected to continue, and it is therefore no longer happening.
There is a big difference between demon possession as recorded in the New Testament and modern-day claims of demon possession. In the New Testament cases, there was no doubt as to the cause; Christ and the apostles simply ordered the demons out, with immediate results.2
Despite many post-apostolic claims of demon possession and exorcisms, nothing comparable to what is depicted in the New Testament can be confirmed. While no clear explanation is provided in scripture, it is reasonable to conclude that demon possession was a limited phenomenon allowed by God to demonstrate and confirm the power and authority of his Son over the spiritual realm of Satan (cf. Matt. 12:28-29; Luke 10:17-18; 11:20-22).
The devil’s real work today is not possession but temptation (Matt. 4:3; 1 Cor. 9:27; 1 Thess. 3:5). If you are in Christ and faithfully serving him, then the devil and his agents are overcome in your life and you need not fear (John 10:27-30; 1 John 2:13; 4:3-4). Do not be concerned about the devil or demons taking you away from God; they cannot (Jas. 4:7).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 The sign of casting out demons, promised to “the ones having believed” (Mark 16:17), is contextually referring to the Lord’s immediate disciples, who had just been rebuked for their unbelief (v. 14), afterwards fulfilled in them (v. 20).
2 Many today profess to “cast out demons” and to do “many wonderful works” in the name of Jesus, but they make this claim without the Lord’s sanction (Matt. 7:21-23). Here is a sample <Link>.
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