You Can’t Clean Up Your Act

43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.” – Matthew 12:43-45 ESV

With the content of three verses, Matthew seems to be inserting a topic that makes no sense within the context. This part of the conversation appears to come out of nowhere. But it actually provides a link back to the accusation leveled against Jesus by the Pharisees.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

Jesus is simply revisiting the topic that had begun this entire conversation with the Pharisees. He had cast out a demon from a blind and mute man, resulting in the man’s healing. But the Pharisees, unwilling to acknowledge the divine nature of the miracle they had witnessed with their own eyes, chose to attribute the source of Jesus’ healing power to none other than Satan. And Jesus had responded by telling them they had evil hearts, because “the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil” (Matthew 12:35 ESV). Their words gave evidence of their unbelief and their unbelief would eventually result in their judgment.

Jesus then stated that the Pharisees will not be alone in the future judgment, but will find themselves part of “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39 ESV), who will all stand condemned before God.

In these verses, we have Jesus changing the focus of the topic from Himself to the demon He had just cast out. In a sense, the incredible nature of the miracle had been lost due to the Pharisees’ unexpected and undeserved accusation against Jesus. So, Jesus circled the conversation back to the fate of the demon He had cast out. Where had it gone? What had happened to the demon after it had been forced to leave the man’s body? There was much debate among the Jews as to the answers to these questions. But Jesus doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the demon. His real point is the fate of the one from whom the demon had been cast out.

When Jesus had healed the blind and mute man by exorcising the demon that had been the source of his ailments, there is no indication that the man believed in Jesus. Yes, the man was healthy and whole, having had his sight and ability to speak restored. But he remained unchanged in terms of his spiritual condition. He was no longer demon-possessed, but he was still unrepentant and unredeemed. He was physically whole, but not so spiritually.

And Jesus indicates that in his unbelieving state, the man would make a perfect destination for the recently dispossessed demon. Jesus referred to the demon as seeking “rest,” passing through “waterless places” until it finds it. It is difficult to build a theology of demon possession from these few verses. It may be that Jesus was using the common Hebrew perception regarding demons to make His point. The book of Tobit, part of the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical scriptures, believed to have been written in the 400-year period between the Old and New Testaments, mentions demons preferring desert conditions. So, perhaps Jesus is utilizing this Jewish perception to make His point.

The only reason a demon would leave a human host would be if it were forced to do so. Jesus had cast the demon out of the man, but that demon would not be content until it possessed another human being because that was its primary reason for existence. Once cast out, the dispossessed demon will seek rest, but not find it, because its main purpose is the torment of human beings. So, Jesus suggests that the demon, driven by its demonic responsibilities, will eventually seek to return to its original host.

And Jesus indicates that the formerly possessed individual will prove to be an easy target for the demon. Why? Because nothing had changed. Yes, the man had cleaned up his act. He appeared to have his life back together. And Jesus describes the demon finding his former “house empty, swept, and put in order” (Matthew 12:44 ESV). But the man was really no different than before. His spiritual condition remained the same. And Jesus replies that the demon will return, making himself at home and bringing seven, more wicked demons with him.

It is doubtful that Jesus is attempting to provide us with a doctrine on demons. He is simply making a statement regarding the man’s need for something or someone to occupy his life. In Jesus’ story, a man whose life is swept clean and in order and free from demon possession is not safe from the attacks of the enemy. In fact, he is an easy target and will find his last state worse than the first.

Not having a demon is not enough. Having your life swept clean and in order is no protection from the attacks of the enemy. The outward appearance of righteousness is not the same as a life made righteous by faith in Christ.

Jesus once again refers to the Jews of His generation as evil. He does so because they refuse to accept Him as their Messiah. And their rejection of Him will end up condemning them. He had come to expose the darkness in their lives, and yet, they “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV).

Jesus had said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign,” and yet, Jesus was a visible sign of God’s promise of redemption. He was the Messiah, the visible image of the invisible God. But they would end up rejecting Him. They were evil and adulterous because they refused to believe in the promise of God. And Jesus’ use of that phrase would not have escaped the scribes and Pharisees.

With their superior knowledge of the Scriptures, they would have recognized that Jesus was using the very same words God had used of the Jews who refused to enter the Promised Land under the leadership of Moses.

“Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!” – Deuteronomy 1:35-36 ESV

Later on, in the very same book, Moses would speak of the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of the people of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.
They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Do you thus repay the Lord,
    you foolish and senseless people?
   Is not he your father, who created you,
    who made you and established you?” – Deuteronomy 32:4-6 ESV

The Jews had a habit of treating God with contempt, refusing to honor Him as their God. Instead, they lived according to their own desires, treating His faithfulness with disdain. They had been chosen by God. They had been rescued from slavery by God. He had promised to give them a land flowing with milk and honey. But they had refused to trust Him. They had been unfaithful to Him. And Moses described them as a crooked and perverse generation.

Now, centuries later, the people of God remained unchanged. This generation of Jews was no different. The promise of God was being fulfilled in their midst, but they were going to reject it. The Messiah had come, just as God had said He would, but they would choose not to accept His offer of salvation. Jesus had come, offering to free them from their slavery to sin and their captivity by the enemy. He came to transform their lives from the inside-out. But they were going to have to place their faith in Him, believing that He was who He claimed to be. And not long after Jesus had died, been resurrected, and ascended into heaven, the apostle Peter would preach a powerful message of redemption to the Jews in Jerusalem gathered on the day of Pentecost.

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. Acts 2:37-41 ESV

Save yourselves from this crooked generation. Believe the promise of God. Accept God’s gracious offer of salvation through faith alone in Christ alone. You can attempt to sweep the house clean and put your life in order, but only Christ can make all things new.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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