Jesus—His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 14)

July 11, 2017

by Peter Amsterdam

Casting Out Demons (Part 4)

In this last article about Jesus’ exorcisms and His authority to cast out demons, the focus will be on His response to the religious leaders’ claim that His ability to expel demons indicated that He was in league with Satan. His response to the Pharisees gives insight into how Jesus viewed His power to exorcise demons. While each of the synoptic Gospels1 includes this account,2 the Gospel of Matthew will be used as the basis of the story, with points from Mark and Luke brought in.

A demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”3

The healing and exorcism of this blind and mute man brought differing opinions about Jesus to the fore. The common people were filled with wonder, asking “Can this be the Son of David?” These words infer that some people were beginning to consider that Jesus might be the Messiah, as the phrase Son of David had messianic overtones. As is noted elsewhere in the Gospels, the Pharisees’ reaction when they heard an indication that people saw that Jesus might be the Messiah was negative. For example, Matthew states that when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant.4

It’s clear from other passages that the religious leadership was trying to discredit Jesus by attempting to link His ministry to the Devil, likening Him to Satan.

If they have called the master of the house [Jesus] Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household?5 

In the Gospel of John we read of Jesus being accused of having a demon:

The crowd answered, “You have a demon! Who is seeking to kill you?”6

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”7

Many of them said, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?”8

In this instance, the Pharisees didn’t dispute the reality of Jesus’ supernatural power, but attributed that power to Satan. Their goal was to defame Him and thus destroy His credibility among the people. They wanted to keep any notion that Jesus might be the Messiah from taking root in the minds of those seeing His power, so they made the claim that Jesus did this miracle by Beelzebul, the prince of demons. The source of the name Beelzebul (Beelzebub in the KJV) is debated. The possibilities include “lord of the dwelling,” “lord of the dung,” and “lord of the height.” It’s unclear how the title came to be applied to Satan, but Beelzebul seems to have been a popular alternative name for Satan. So here we have the Pharisees claiming that Jesus casts out demons by the power of Satan.

Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?”9

Jesus responds to their accusation with two counterarguments. First, that when an entity such as a kingdom, city, or household is united in common cause, it succeeds; but if the people within such an entity are divided, then the factions fight each other to the detriment of the entity. They waste their energy fighting with those who should be their allies. When this occurs, the kingdom, city, or family will fall. If Beelzebul—the Devil—were to cast out demons, he would be casting out his allies, which would mean his kingdom would be in disarray, and as a result his kingdom would fall. Thus, the Pharisees’ accusation that He was casting out demons by the power of Satan was illogical and untrue.

Jesus’ second argument is, If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges.10 Jesus acknowledges that there have been others within the Jewish faith who successfully cast out demons. R. T. France wrote:

Accounts from both the Jewish and pagan words of the time show that exorcism was an accepted feature of the ministry of those who claim to be men of God.11

Craig Keener adds:

Jewish exorcists were common and employed a variety of magical techniques, quite in contrast to Jesus, who merely commanded authoritatively and the demons obeyed in fear.12 

As there were other Jews, possibly members of the Pharisees’ community, “your sons,” who successfully cast out demons, Jesus asks by whose power they were able to do so. The Pharisees believed that their peers who performed exorcisms did so by the power of God and not Satan. If some Jews could cast out demons by the power of God, why would Jesus’ successful exorcisms be any different? Jesus pointed out that the Jews who successfully performed exorcisms would “judge” the Pharisees for ascribing to Satan the power that these exorcists knew came from God.13

Jesus then stated, But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.14 In the three synoptic Gospels we read about the Spirit of God visibly descending upon Jesus, empowering Him for His ministry.

When Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him.15 

Because of this empowerment Jesus, by the Spirit of God, had the authority to cast out demons and do the miracles He did. In the Gospel of Luke we read, But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.16 The phrase “the finger of God” was also used in the book of Exodus, in the account of how Pharaoh’s magicians couldn’t duplicate one of the miracles wrought by Aaron, showing that the miracle was done by God.

The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them.17

Jesus expressed that His casting out demons was rooted in the Spirit of God, therefore the Pharisees were demeaning not just the works that Jesus had done, but the power of God Himself. He went on to say that since He was casting out demons by God’s Spirit, it meant that the kingdom of God had come.

This deployment of the Spirit’s power is not merely a means of combating demonic possession, but also a sign of something more far-reaching, the establishment of God’s kingship in place of that of Satan.18

Jesus continued, Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.19 In parable-like language, Jesus made the point that He had defeated the strong man, the Devil; He had tied him up so that He could then plunder the strong man’s goods. Having defeated Satan, He could rescue those who were held captive through demon possession and other means. Contrary to the accusations of the Pharisees, Jesus was not working in the power of Satan. Instead, He had directly attacked him and had overcome, and now was plundering Satan’s goods.

The tying up represents … the comprehensive superiority of Jesus’ authority over that of Satan, and so the coming into force of the kingship of God. It is that “tying up” that distinguishes Jesus’ all-out assault on Satan’s kingdom from the little local forays of other exorcists of the time.20

The inference is that there was some specific time before the start of His ministry when Jesus had bound Satan. Some, though not all, Bible commentators feel that Jesus was making reference to His defeat of Satan when He was tempted in the wilderness.21

Jesus is saying that His integrity before God in defeating temptation had given Him power over Satan. In establishing the first stage of His kingdom Jesus had already defeated the Devil and had delegated His authority over evil spirits to those who were truly His followers, those submitted to His reign.22

Having established that His exorcisms were a work of God, Jesus then drew a line in the sand between those who believe in Him and those like the Pharisees, who opposed and sought to discredit and defeat Him.

Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.23

Those who oppose Jesus are like those who scatter the sheep rather than gathering them together. Jesus is telling His listeners that the Pharisees, and any who oppose Him, are working to defeat God’s goals of bringing salvation to the world.

In a different situation, in Mark’s Gospel, we read another statement from Jesus about how there is no middle ground, but from the positive angle.

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.”24

Through both of these expressions, Jesus taught that people choose sides in the conflict between good and evil, and those who choose against Him, or who choose not to make a choice, ultimately line up against Him.

In the case of the Pharisees, they chose against Him. Because they credited the work of the Spirit of God to the Devil, according to Jesus they have sinned grievously, to the point that they won’t be forgiven.

Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.25

It’s important to view the blasphemy against the Spirit within the context of this verse. This is speaking specifically of the situation where the Pharisees are crediting the work of God’s Spirit to Satan. France wrote:

It is thus a complete perversion of spiritual values, revealing a decisive choice of the wrong side in the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan. It is this which has shown these Pharisees to be decisively “against” Jesus. And it is this diametrical opposition to the good purpose of God which is ultimately unforgivable.26

Morris explains:

It is not that God refuses to forgive; it is that the person who sees good as evil and evil as good is quite unable to repent and thus to come humbly to God for forgiveness … They called good evil. People in such a situation cannot repent and seek forgiveness: they lack a sense of sin; they reject God’s competence to declare what is right. It is this continuing attitude that is the ultimate sin.27

It’s tragically sad that some people make such a choice, for they pay a steep price for doing so.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus cast out demons. He commissioned His disciples to do the same. When accused of casting demons out by the power of Satan, Jesus strongly rebutted that accusation, backing up His position by pointing out that even Satan wouldn’t cause division within his own kingdom by empowering Jesus or anyone else to cast out other demons. He also wisely asked, “By whom do other Jewish exorcists cast them out?” Jesus was more powerful than Satan, being stronger and having bound Satan, and plundering his goods. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Satan’s power has been ultimately defeated. Jesus stated this when He responded to the disciples who had just returned from preaching the gospel, healing the sick, and casting out demons:

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.”28


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.

Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Carson, D. A. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.

Charlesworth, James H., ed. Jesus’ Jewishness, Exploring the Place of Jesus Within Early Judaism. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997.

Chilton, Bruce, and Craig A. Evans, eds. Authenticating the Activities of Jesus. Boston: Koninklijke Brill, 1999.

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Elwell, Walter A., ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.

Elwell, Walter A., and Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Evans, Craig A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27–16:20. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Evans, Craig A., and N. T. Wright. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

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Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

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Guelich, Robert A. World Biblical Commentary: Mark 1–8:26. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989.

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Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus and the Message of the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

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Jeremias, Joachim. The Prayers of Jesus. Norwich: SCM Press, 1977.

Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume 1. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.

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Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Lewis, Gordon R., and Bruce A. Demarest. Integrative Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

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Manson, T. W. The Teaching of Jesus. Cambridge: University Press, 1967.

McKnight, Scot. Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Michaels, J. Ramsey. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010.

Milne, Bruce. The Message of John. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992.

Ott, Ludwig. Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960.

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Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

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Talbert, Charles H. Reading the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

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Witherington, Ben, III. The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

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Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

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Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

2 Matthew 12:22–32; Mark 3:21–30; Luke 11:14–26.

3 Matthew 12:22–24.

4 Matthew 21:15.

5 Matthew 10:25.

6 John 7:20.

7 John 8:48.

8 John 10:20.

9 Matthew 12:25–26.

10 Matthew 12:27.

11 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 338.

12 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 363.

13 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 316.

14 Matthew 12:28.

15 Matthew 3:16.

16 Luke 11:20.

17 Exodus 8:18–19.

18 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 480.

19 Matthew 12:29.

20 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 481.

21 Matthew 4:1–11. For more information, see

22 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 364.

23 Matthew 12:30.

24 Mark 9:38–40.

25 Matthew 12:31–32.

26 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 482.

27 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 318–319.

28 Luke 10:17–18.