by Mike Bowling
Too often we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. Time after time Jesus announced the presence of God’s kingdom and displayed actions consistent with his announcement. His actions were perceived by some as hopeful signs of God’s presence, but for those who were “protectors” of the religious system governing first-century Judaism, Jesus’ words and actions were heard and seen as threat. The scribes and Pharisees were part of “an evil and adulterous generation” which “craves a sign;” they were looking for certainty.
When we believe something or someone, we’re placed in a vulnerable position. The something may be false and the someone may be untrustworthy. Acting on the false something or trusting the untrustworthy can result in disastrous consequences. Certainty removes the vulnerability; it makes belief and trust unnecessary. However, the problem with certainty is its impossibility; there will always be the presence of doubt. We can have hope; we can have confidence; we can have conviction; we can have faith; but we can’t have certainty. We can’t know the mind of God with certainty; we can only know what God chooses to reveal. (See Jn 1:18; 1 Jn 3; 1 Cor 13:8-13; Heb 11 and 12)
The “sign of Jonah” was the sign of new life, and it was the foreshadowing of the ultimate sign from God: the resurrection of Jesus. The people of Nineveh believed God’s message of judgment delivered to them by a reluctant Jonah, and repented through prayer and fasting with sackcloth and ashes. The Queen of the South came from the other side of the known world to hear the wisdom of Solomon. These actions of faith based on inferior sources of revelation cried out against those who had witnessed the revelation of God in Jesus. They were looking for certainty.
Jesus, from this point on, continued to speak and act consistent with the presence of God’s kingdom, but no more “signs” were given except that of his own resurrection from the dead. And as we know, even the evidence of new life which resulted from Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was not enough for those who did not have “ears to hear or eyes to see.” Jesus ended his response to the request for a sign (repeated in Matthew 16) with an odd parable.
Jesus compares sign-craving generations to a person who has received liberation from a demonic spirit. The restless demon, not finding an appropriate place to occupy, returns to its previous abode. The old place of occupancy is empty, swept clean and set in good order. Finding such a welcoming space, the demon invites seven demon friends to share the place. Jesus points out the obvious conclusion: the once-liberated person is now in worse condition than before. This text ends with an ominous assessment from Jesus: That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.
The craving for a sign, or the desire for certainty, is demonic in nature; in the language of 1 John, it is anti-Christ and originates from the Evil One. Demons are agents of “the big lie” or more specifically “the big liar” (the personification of evil). Demons are those powerful spiritual forces which occupy our mental processes with destructive and enslaving results. While many mental health professionals do not share these thoughts or this language, great strides have been made by them in understanding the dynamics of human behavior. Many years ago, psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck started the work of building a bridge between religion and psychology in understanding human evil: People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. His insights and examples bear many marks of similarity with the works of theologians Walter Wink, Marva Dawn and lawyer/theologian William Stringfellow. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day demonstrated deep-seated fear and doubt. They feared Rome; they feared their own people; they feared losing their own power and prestige. These fears were void of God’s presence; they had swept clean the challenges which come with loving God’s people; they had a neat and orderly religious system which promised certainty. The inevitable result of their fears was the joy of demons: death and destruction.
The parallels to our own age are too many to point out in this limited space. However, here are a few suggestions: demons are agents of lies; they were cast out by words of truth spoken by the One who was the embodiment of truth. We live in a truth-challenged age; if our tribal identities take precedence over the way of Jesus, manifestations of the demonic will flourish. The search for certainty is a hangover from extremes in the age of Enlightenment. This present generation’s fear of commitment and conviction has become a downward spiral leading to rampant depression and hopelessness. The demons have found “houses” empty of conviction, swept clean of sacrificial love and ordered with desires which are ultimately self-destructive. These demons require an exorcism of prayer and fasting (practices of discernment) and houses filled with the spirit of Jesus!