Who is Stronger?

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 11:21-22

Have you ever thought of religion in terms of conflict? Have you ever seen the spiritual life as a kind of power struggle? That may sound strange to us, but these are the terms in which Jesus understood His own mission. He saw His coming into the world as a test of strength. Listen to these words from the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 11, beginning at verse 21:

When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace; but when one stronger than he assails him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoil. He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.

Think with me about those words: Who is the “strong man” of whom Jesus speaks? Who is the “one stronger” who comes against him? Then comes the question that makes it personal for us: “Whose side are we on?”

WHO IS THE STRONG MAN?

First, then, who is the strong man? Just before He spoke these words, Jesus had cast out a demon from one possessed. The man had been dumb, but now he could speak freely. The people marveled. But soon a controversy erupted. How had Jesus been able to do this? It was commonly understood among His contemporaries that only God’s power could deliver victims from the demonic. But some of Jesus’ enemies turned things around. They said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons.”

Jesus tackled the accusation head on. “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and house falls upon house. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” (Luke 11:17). He was letting the light of common sense shine on their perverse charge. He was asking, “Why would Satan oppose himself? Why would the prince of demons cast out his own emissaries? Wouldn’t that be madness, self-destruction?” Now Jesus goes on to tell what the true situation is: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (v. 20).

Jesus sees here two kingdoms, two sovereignties, two expressions of ruling power. One is Satan’s, seen in a power that holds human beings captive. The other is God’s, a dominion in which people are truly set free.

The strong man, then, is the evil one, Satan, the prince of darkness. Because of sin, because of our human disobedience, his domain of evil in the world is a grim reality. Although we are not aware of it most of the time, we have come under alien rule. Hear how Paul describes our situation before Christ came. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” In a sense, we humans remain active. We “walk.” We “follow.” We “disobey.” But from God’s perspective, we are spiritually dead, captivated and led about by the powers of evil.

The strong man, according to Jesus, is “fully armed.” Remember that passage where the apostle Paul urges Christians to put on the “whole armor” of God? That’s the same expression here. Satan also has a “whole armor,” a panoply, a complete range of defensive equipment. Formidably equipped, he is said to “guard his own palace.”

Now before you dismiss all this as so much superstition, so much mythology, think for a minute about the power of evil in the lives of people you know. Think about addictions, for example. We can describe their effects chemically. We can explore their psychological roots. But we encounter a power in them which goes beyond these factors. Addicts who face their situation honestly know that they are in the grip of a bondage from which they cannot break free in any strength of their own. They are compulsive people, driven and defeated.

Think about the terrible enmities in this world between racial and ethnic groups. Study what is happening between rival factions in northern Ireland, in Lebanon, in South Africa, in Azerbaijan, or between Israelis and Palestinians. Political factors are involved in each case. There are legitimate grievances, doubtless, on all sides. But what fuels the spiraling hatred? What keeps the cycle of vengefulness going? Some dreadful dynamic of evil is at work here.

We have recently witnessed the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. What was that? An ideology? Yes. A totalitarian system of government? Yes. But it was also an enslaving system that went beyond the intellectual and the political. It became a monster, strangling all human freedoms. In systems of thought that resist the light, in dungeons of despair where people find no hope, we sense a fearful pressure hostile to human beings, destructive to their best interests, and ultimately set against God.

This is Jesus’ “strong man,” strong indeed. The evil powers do not give up their captives readily. Human efforts to overthrow the strong man are laughably inadequate, like shooting with pop guns at massive iron gates.

WHO IS THE ONE STRONGER?

But the gospel heralds the coming into this world of “one stronger.” Remember what was said of Him, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). John the Baptist announces his advent like this: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mark 1:7).

From the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus sees Himself as warring against the powers of evil. Directly after His baptism comes the time of temptation in the wilderness. It’s a power encounter, direct conflict with the adversary. Then begins His ministry. He sets the sick free from debilitating illness. He drives out the evil spirits that possess and blight human life. He even delivers captives from the grasp of death.

He comes as the agent of another kingdom. In His words and works, in His presence, the kingdom of God draws near. It’s a kind of heavenly invasion in which the rightful Lord of human life comes to set prisoners free and reign over them in love.

Jesus is the one stronger, assailing the strong man, overcoming him, taking away the armor in which he trusted, and dividing his spoil. He comes to proclaim release to the captives, the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

But wait. In the midst of this triumphant campaign, something seems to go tragically wrong. The routed enemy legions, reeling from defeat after defeat, somehow regroup and throw all their forces into a counterattack. They stir up opposition to Jesus among the religious authorities, the Roman soldiery, the fickle crowd, the traitor Judas. All of these conspire together to destroy Jesus, and they seem to win. He is falsely tried and condemned, rejected, beaten, spit upon. He is subjected to the agonies of crucifixion and after a few hours, breathes His last. It seems that the hosts of hell have prevailed; the kingdom of darkness has won.

But then, thank God, the tables are turned! On the third day, God raises Jesus from the dead and exalts Him as Lord over all. It appears now that in the seeming defeat of the cross, Jesus has conquered all His foes. He has destroyed the power of sin and Satan, and in His resurrection burst the bonds of death.

In all of this, we see a wondrous revelation of the heart of God. He sets His people free, but only at great cost. The power that redeems us is the power of a suffering love. He enters into our situation, shares our humanity, bears our sins, dies our death, and then is raised from death as the mighty Savior. In weakness His strength is manifest. In dying He conquers death. He reigns as the crucified One. Jesus, in the mystery of His weakness and suffering, shows Himself stronger than the strong.

It doesn’t mean that the powers of evil are completely out of business. Look around you in the world today. People are still in bondage to various kinds of addictions, gripped by hostilities, chained in despair. The conflict isn’t over by any means, but you can be sure of this: the decisive battle has been fought. The issue has been decided. Hostilities may still be going on. Mopping up operations continue. But there’s no doubt about the final outcome.

WHOSE SIDE ARE WE ON?

Now for the personal question. Where do we stand? Whose side are we on? Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me” and “He who does not gather with me scatters.” Think of it, friends. The whole world is the stage for a vast, unseen conflict. Every human being alive today is on one side or another. There’s no such thing as neutrality. We are with Christ or we are against Him. We’re gathering others into His kingdom or pushing them away.

We’ve all started out on the wrong side of things. Remember that picture, “Dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1-2). That’s the way of life that comes natural to us. That’s the kingdom into which our disobedience has brought us all.

But listen, friends, to the good news. “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-6). God has done something marvelous to bring us from sin to forgiveness, from bondage to freedom, from death to life.

What is our part? We repent and believe the gospel. We confess our sin and bondage. We acknowledge that in going our own way we have obeyed false lords. We turn from the darkness toward the light and welcome Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. We invite Him into our lives to save and to reign, committing ourselves gladly and gratefully to His lordship. And by His Spirit He comes to dwell in our hearts and make us fully His own.

I was reading just this week about a powerful film produced in Africa. The English translation of the French title is “The Combat.” It pits the claims of the Christian gospel against the power of traditional spirit worship and black magic in Africa.

Many Africans who come to faith in Christ still feel the pull of ancestral religion. The test of their commitment to Christ is this: where do they go for help in times of crisis? Is it to the diviner, the witch doctor, or is it to God through Christ? The question for all of them is: Who is the stronger?

As the plot unfolds in this film, crowd reaction and concentration among the watching Africans can startle a western observer. He hears murmurs, when a nephew spies the hero Dansou leaving a Christian church service. There are gasps and nervous laughter, when he yanks a charm from his neck and hurls it away, verbal disapproval when his uncle sprinkles poison powder where he will walk, shouts of warning as he nears the deadly sand.

In one scene, the showdown, Dansou sits quietly beside his nervous wife. The witch doctor is noisily calling the attention of ancestors to the fact that Dansou has just thrown all his fetishes into the fire. Most of the film’s villagers, just like most of those watching the movie, expect Dansou to fall over dead. When he walks away from the bewildered witch doctor, the audience cheers. They are watching a man who has beaten their own deepest fear.

Friends, whatever has held you in bondage in the past, there is hope. However strong the enemy is, there is someone stronger. In Christ, you can conquer your deepest fear. In His loving lordship, you can be truly free. Amen.