Christian Articles Archive

Demonization and Deliverance in Jesus' Ministry

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Part of Appendix 1B of Discipleship Training in Luke's Gospel

Note: The subject of demonization is a huge topic, and I'm only scratching the surface in this essay. The purpose here is to provide some background and perspective to Christians studying Jesus' life and ministry in the JesusWalk Bible Study Series. This essay should be studied along with Lesson 8, Luke 4:31-37, 41 or Lesson 31, Luke 8:26-39.

'Is Frued Dead?' cover of Time Magazine, November 1993.It amuses me to see how "scientific" theories about mental illness change from one generation to the next. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed in any way to science. I spent five years of my life doing viral, biochemical, and genetic research, three years of it at Cal Tech in Pasadena. But I've learned there's a difference between research and theory.

Our time is full of "knowledge" about psychological illness, following the lead of pioneers such as Sigmund Freud and his students. The demon theory of mental illness was thrown by the wayside as quaint and worthless. But by November 1993, Time Magazine's cover story asked "Is Freud Dead?" The Freudian vocabulary is alive and well in America, but its theoretical basis is in ruins.

The modern psychological movement operates on an untested assumption that there is no demonic element in mental illness. Some branches of Pentecostalism operate on an untested assumption that there is no biochemical or psychological basis to mental illness, that it is all demonic. I want to suggest a middle view.

It is clear, however, that Jesus believed there was a demonic element in some of the people he ministered to.

The Bible Vocabulary of Demon Activity (4:33-36)

The familiar Bible term "demon-possessed" has controlled our thinking about people troubled with demons. But the word "possessed" is one of those final, all-or-nothing expressions. And it prevents us from understanding the mechanisms involved in demon activity within humans. Let's study further:

  • "Unclean spirit" (20 references in the NT, including Luke 4:33; 6:18; 8:29; 9:42; 11:24). The Greek word pneuma (the same word used to translate Holy Spirit) is modified by akatharos, "unclean." NIV uniformly translates "unclean spirit" as "evil spirit" with a footnote.
  • "Evil spirit" uses pneuma modified by the Greek word ponēros (only 4 times in the NT: Luke 7:21; 8:2; Acts 19:12-13; 15-16)
  • "Demon" (Used 50+ times in the NT, such as Luke 4:41), Greek daimonion, "demon, evil spirit." Always translated by the KJV as "devil" or "devils."1416
  • "Demon-possessed" (Luke 8:36; in Matthew 4:24; 8:16, 28, 33; 9:32; 12:22; Mark 1:32; 5:15f; John 10:21; Acts 19:14). The Greek word is daimonizonai, literally "to demonize" from daimonion, "demon, evil spirit."
  • "Lunatick" (KJV) or "have seizures" (NIV; Greek seleniazomai, Matthew 4:24; 17:15)
  • "Bind," Greek deō, used in the context of demons twice (Luke 13:16 and Matthew 12:29=Mark 3:7, cf. Luke 8:22 "assails and overcomes"). It is also used in connection with the power of prayer (Matthew 16:19; 18:18).
  • "Healed" (Greek therapeuō or iamai or sōzō) is occasionally used to describe the state of a person from whom a demon has been driven out. (Luke 8:2, 36; 9:42; Matthew 12:22; Mark 16:9; Acts 10:38).
  • "cast out" (Greek ekballō)
  • "rebuke" (Greek epitimaō, Luke 4:41; 9:42). The Greek word means "rebuke, reprove, censure," also "speak seriously, warn" in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end."1417

Let's examine the word daimonizonai, often translated "demon-possessed." The word isn't a compound word. It is the word "demon" with an ending -izonai, a class of imitative verbs, where the ending -izo indicates "acts like, imitates."1418 While the lexicons translate it "to be demon-possessed," perhaps from the world view represented in early Judaism, all the word requires is a meaning such as, "to be influenced, oppressed, or controlled by a demon, to be like a demon." Some have coined the word "demonization" to describe this demonic activity.

The reason this is important is that when your categories are limited to "demon possessed" or "not demon possessed," then we all agree that it is impossible for a Christian to be demon possessed, since by definition a Christian has the Holy Spirit.

Degrees of Demonization in the New Testament

However, experience and careful theological reflection on the Scriptures indicate the need for a more thoughtful terminology. Missionaries and others who work commonly with people afflicted with demonic problems affirm that indeed Christians can be affected. Even though Christians have the Holy Spirit in them, there may be various places in their life where demon oppression is strong. Consider the following passages:

The Apostle Paul instructs us,

"In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold (Greek topos)." (Ephesians 4:26-27)

The implication is that, if you give in to anger often and carry a grudge, then the devil will gain a place in your life. The word topos means "place," but can have the special meaning as in the Ephesians passage of "possibility, opportunity, chance."1419

Though Satan has "filled" Ananias' heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, yet Ananias and his wife Sapphira are held morally responsible for their action, and thus punished for giving in to Satan (Acts 5:1-11). Judas, too, had a similar experience: "Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve" (Luke 22:3). "The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted (literally "put into the heart of," Greek ballō) Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus" (John 13:2). "As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into (eiserchomai) him" (John 13:27a). Was Judas morally responsible? Of course. He was tempted by money and probably other motives (Luke 22:3-6). Just because Jesus' betrayal fulfilled prophecy doesn't absolve Judas of responsibility for his actions. "Woe to that man by whom he is betrayed..." (Luke 22:22). Even though Satan's temptations can be strong, especially when he gets a foothold of sin in our heart, we can't pass off responsibility by saying, "The devil made me do it."

Peter is certainly influenced by Satan when he betrays Jesus:

"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:31-32).

Was Judas demonized? Probably. Couldn't Jesus have just cast out the demon that had "entered" Judas? Yes and no. Jesus had the power, but Judas had set his will to sin, and Jesus could not have cast out the demon without violating Judas' will. Of course, we can get bogged down with predestination and free will, and all that. But ultimately the New Testament teaches us that we are responsible for our sins, and if we continue to sin we make a larger "place" for the devil in our lives, which will ultimately hurt or destroy us if we continue in it. Forgiveness deals with relationship to the Father, but that doesn't mean sin doesn't exact a price in our lives. Sin is not free -- or freeing.

Characterizing Degrees of Demonization

I see a gradation of demonic influence or demonization. Whether you agree with the exact words I use, I think you'll recognize the truth of the progression from temptation to possession:

  • Temptation. Appeal to our sinful desires. Temptation can be rejected.
  • Influence. Sin has a foothold in our life, and it is harder to say no. We may have developed habits of anger or unforgiveness or lust. To say "no" requires a determined act of our will.
  • Oppression. Satan has some degree of control over us, and we don't seem to be able to break free. We find ourselves acting compulsively sometimes, and wonder why we don't have power to resist temptation more, though we resist to some degree.
  • Obsession. The degree of control is greater. Our sinful habits are so clearly established that we find it hard to even recognize or discern them as wrong. We may be acting willingly, but because we are fully deceived.
  • Possession. We are puppets under Satan's control, and have little or no will remaining, or no desire to resist. People who "channel" or give voice to other spirits claiming to be spirits of the dead, are dangerously close here, though they must willingly place themselves into this state. But this state is rare. Few people are utterly possessed.

Sin is a prime cause, but not the only cause of demonization. We can be victimized, too. Sometimes children who are traumatized can become demonized. We can be duped into occult practices that we don't realize are wrong, and be victimized. Satan doesn't feel obliged to read us our rights before deceiving and taking advantage of us. There have also been some reports of spiritual bondage being passed down through family lines -- we can only speculate at the reasons.1420

Deliverance and Recovery

We see in Jesus' ministry some dramatic examples of exorcism, casting out of demons. But let's not be naïve. People who have lived under a demonic delusion or obsession for a significant period of their lives need a period of recovery, even though the root demonic cause of the problem has been dealt with. Let me explain. In order for a person to live with the demonic delusion or obsession, he is forced to develop a whole series of coping mechanisms that aren't appropriate to the free and open life of a Christian. These coping mechanisms must be gradually unlearned. They didn't develop overnight and they seldom disappear overnight. I believe that counseling by skilled, trained, and committed Christian counselors, pastors, or laypersons can be extremely helpful to help delivered people experience full recovery. The Body of Christ is not a place where we are to judge our recovering brothers and sisters, but to love and encourage and bear with them. The church is supposed to be a supportive, loving environment where people -- including you and me, my friend -- can find full healing from sin and deception, and their entrapping consequences.

Demonization and Healing

We see in scripture that some illnesses Jesus healed had their roots in demonic influence: blindness and dumbness (Matthew 9:32-33; 12:22; Luke 11:14), scoliosis (Luke 13:10), seizures (Luke 9:37-48), etc. But it is important for us to recognize that nowhere does the New Testament teach that all sickness has demonic origins. Yes, in one sense sickness is the work of the devil, but not all sickness has a direct demonic cause. When Jesus healed the sick, only sometimes did he cast out a demon to do it. Most of the time it was with a word or the laying on of hands.

Not all people who are mentally ill are demonized. Some are, certainly. But many are not. There is a biochemical basis for some mental illness. Just as there is a truth basis for healing of other kinds of mental illness. Until some individuals are capable and willing to face truth, and adjust their own presuppositions to get in line with that truth, they will not be healed from the maladjustments that cripple them so severely. Jesus' ministry to the oppressed is two-fold: truth and power. Power without truth does not bring lasting deliverance. And truth without power doesn't reach within the soul to bring about change. We desperately need the anointing of the Holy Spirit to minister effectively!

Jesus Came to Set Us Free

Certainly Jesus came to set us free. This is explicit in Jesus' commission that he read from Isaiah 61:1-2:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)

Setting people free from demonic oppression and captivity is Jesus' core ministry. Jesus desires to release the oppressed. He came to "destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). It was his central purpose. His ministry was characterized this way by his chief Apostle, Peter:

"... How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him" (Acts 10:38).

That is our role, too, as Jesus' disciples. First, we must seek to break free ourselves. We probably don't need exorcism to do this. We need truth and we need repentance. Deep, heart-felt repentance that brings about change. Jesus said,

"If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)

There is no freedom apart from embracing the truth in Jesus. And as we fearlessly embrace truth, the Deceiver loses his power over us. That's how Satan began with Eve (Genesis 3:4-5), and he's been doing it ever since -- to Jesus in the wilderness and to you and me.

Jesus came teaching. Teaching the truth. And we are to continue this, for teaching is not weak. The truth we share has explosive seeds in it that can break people free. Paul instructed his protégé Timothy:

"And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

A few people will need some kind of direct command of release such as Jesus gave. Occasionally the apostles would do this -- but only occasionally. Truth was usually all that was necessary.

What are the lessons we disciples are to learn from these passages?

  1. Satan is a powerful opponent that Jesus faced again and again (Luke 4:1-13). We his disciples will never get spiritual victory until we stop trivializing Satan and denying his influence.
  2. Satan is the agent of oppression that Jesus came to oppose (Luke 4:18-19). His mission is to set the oppressed free!
  3. Jesus confronted Satan and his demons with spiritual authority whenever they tried to attack him or others (Luke 4:33-36, 41).
  4. Jesus' focus was on wholeness and freedom, not on Satan and his work. He dealt with Satan when he had to, but he didn't fear him or obsess over the spiritual battle. Jesus' focus was positive, not negative.


Abbreviations and References

[1416] Werner Foerster, daimon, ktl., TDNT 2:1-20. Foerster observes that in the NT, "angels and demons are antithetical. Indeed, it is only in the NT that we have a full and radical distinction." (p. 16). He notes, "In the NT demons are complete subject to Satan, who is called 'the prince of the power of the air' (Ephesians 2:2).... Demons are angels and instruments of Satan" (p. 18-19).

[1417] Epitimaō, BAGD 303.

[1418] Blass, Debrunner, Funk, §108 (1), p. 58. They cite J.H. Moulton and W.F. Howard, A Grammar of the New Testament Greek, II. Accidence and Word Formation (Edinburgh, 1919-29), p. 409, for the expression "imitatives."

[1419] Topos, BAGD 822-823.

[1420] There is a great deal of literature in this field in the last couple of decades. I recommend Ed Murphy, The Handbook for Spiritual Warfare (Thomas Nelson, 1992, revised and updated, 2000); ISBN 0785245308. C. Peter Wagner has written extensively on the spiritual weapon of intercessory prayer and spiritual warfare. Neil T. Anderson's classic The Bondage Breaker (Harvest House, 1990, ISBN 0890817871) rightly contends that embracing truth is essential for freedom from demonic oppression.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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