It would be difficult to exaggerate a description of the power and control held by Satan. Extreme cases are found in the Gospel records and expressed as “possession” (Gk, daimonizomai, literally, “demonized”).
Alex Konya, in his book entitled Demons: A Biblically Based Perspective, defines demon possession as “the invasion of a victim’s body by a demon, in which the demon exercises living and sovereign control over the victim, which the victim cannot successfully resist.” Demon possession often resulted in self-inflicted torture, suicidal attempts, mental and physical disorders, and a general desire to destroy. Perhaps the most fitting word used to describe what demons did to their victims is “torment” (Matt 8:29; Mark 5:7), the very word used to describe Satan’s ultimate demise (Rev 20:10).
A search for examples of demon possession in the Old Testament will produce very little. There are no clear undisputed references to demons being cast out of people in Old Testament times. So why is there such a high concentration of demonic activity in the Gospels and in the early days of the Church? And what purposes were these exorcisms intended to convey?
These Exorcisms Announced the Arrival of the Kingdom of God
Jesus said, “If I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Luke 11:20). It is significant that as soon as Jesus was anointed by the Spirit at His baptism to begin His public ministry, the Spirit drove Him to where He would confront the king of the demons himself, Satan. And what was the devil’s offer? He offered the Lord Jesus the kingdoms of this world. But Jesus had come to inaugurate a new kingdom – the kingdom of God.
There are other connections between the arrival of the kingdom of God and heightened demonic activity. When the 70 disciples were commissioned, they were told to give this message: “The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you” (Luke 10:9). When they returned they said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” (Luke 10:17 ESV). The same commission was given to the 12 disciples by Jesus: “And as ye go, preach, saying, ’the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt 10:7). The very first thing said about the 12 Jesus chose was that “He gave them power against unclean spirits” (Matt 10:1; Mark 6:7).
These Exorcisms Affirmed the Power and Deity of Jesus Christ
One of the declared purposes of Christ’s coming in the flesh was to “destroy the works of the devil” (1John 3:8). The first promise of the Messiah’s coming included the announcement of “enmity” between the serpent and his seed, and the Seed of the woman (Gen 3:15). Bernard Schneider says in The World of Unseen Spirits, “When Christ finally appeared, Satan marshaled all his forces to oppose and hinder the Son of God. Demons could not attack Christ personally, but they centered their activities on the inhabitants of the region where He worked.” It should come as no surprise that when Jesus comes again to reign, the work of demons will be prevalent yet again (Rev 9:1-11; 12:7-9; 16:13-14).
Jesus’ power and deity were not only demonstrated in casting demons out of individuals, but by what the demons did and said when He approached them. First, they knew Who He was. On a Sabbath day in the synagogue, the demons addressed Him: “What have we to do with Thee, Thou Jesus of Nazareth … I know Thee Who Thou art, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). It is also evident that they knew the extent of Jesus’ power by asking in the same verse, “Art Thou come to destroy us?” Doubtless, the demons’ reference was to Jesus’ coming to earth, not just to His arrival in the synagogue in Capernaum. The implication is that the demons expected their kingdom to be destroyed by Jesus.
In Luke 11, Jesus described the power of Satan over his victim as follows: “When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils” (vv21, 22). Satan was the “strong man,” but our Lord Jesus was “a stronger than he.” And on every occasion when He confronted a demon, He affirmed His superior might and deity.
These Exorcisms Asserted the Authority of Christ’s Apostles
The English word “exorcist” is derived from the Greek verb exorkizo which is found only in Matthew 26:63. The word has the sense of adjuring or charging with an oath. The noun form is used only once in Acts 19:13 to describe a failed attempt by Jewish “exorcists” to cast out demons. The word is never used to describe the work of Christ or His apostles in delivering people from demons. Casting out demons in New Testament times was closely related to “gifts of healing” (literally, “gifts of healings,” 1Cor 12:9). The Greek verb iaomai, “to heal” is used in the Synoptics and in the Acts in association with the casting out of demons (Matt 15:28; Luke 9:42; Acts 10:38). Because of this, it is neither logical nor consistent with the New Testament pattern to separate the ability to cast out demons from the ability to miraculously heal the sick in general. The Lord Jesus, the seventy disciples, the twelve apostles, Philip (Acts 8:6-7), and Paul (Acts 19:11-12) were all able to heal diseases and cast out demons. An examination of Acts 5:12, 16 will show that, indeed, the ability to cast out demons was one of the many sign gifts intended to assert the authority of Christ’s apostles as they preached the gospel of the kingdom in obedience to the command of Jesus. So is this gift still prevalent today? Robert Lightner makes an excellent point in his book Angels, Satan, and Demons: “If the ability to cast out demons is still present, then so is the gift of healings. However, the sign gifts were already past for second-generation Christians (Heb 2:3-4).”