The Gauntlet

I imagine if the Apostles Luke and John were to meet in a college town coffee house to discuss over caramel macchiatos whether truth was in art or art was in truth, it could end with a fist fight. John would have the upper hand in the debate, having so skillfully blended art and truth in his account of Jesus, but Luke would appeal to accessibility, reminding John that Truth is useless if it’s only half understood. Then John would raise his voice and reply that a deep truth half understood is better than a shallow truth fully grasped. Then Luke would take offense at the word “shallow,” make fun of John’s turtleneck, and…

No, friends, they would agree that each account complements the other, and so they do. But as we continue through Luke chapter four, I think it’s interesting to note a particular difference between the two accounts. According to John, the first miracle of Jesus takes place at the wedding in Cana, when he turns water into wine. It takes place before his baptism by John the Baptist, before his temptations from Mr. Scratch, before he does anything in his adult life to claim his place as fulfillment of prophecy. In fact, he says exactly that to his mother:

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” — John 2:4

Luke, on the other hand, doesn’t bother with this account. And I think I finally understand why. It’s not because Luke believes it didn’t happen, or even that it’s unimportant. No, friends, I believe Luke saves Jesus’ first miracle for after his confirmation as fulfiller of prophecy for the sake of sweet, sweet irony.

As we saw in the previous post, in the comment that almost gets him thrown from a cliff, Jesus says the following to his synagogue audience:

And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ — Luke 4:23b

And then, after walking from the precipice unharmed, he fulfills his little prophecy by going to Capernaum to do exactly what the mob on the brow of the hill demanded he do in Nazareth but for all the wrong reasons.  And unlike John, I believe Luke thinks this point is worth so much emphasis that he decides to draw a line:

Before the brow of the hill, no miracles. After the brow of the hill, miracles.

I think this line is made all the brighter when we contrast the initial responses of Jesus’ audiences before and after the hill. In Nazareth, after reading Isaiah’s prophecy in the synagogue, the people are “amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (Luke 4:22a). And in Capernaum, after teaching in the synagogues there, the people are also “amazed at his teaching” (Luke 4:32a). But it’s the second half of each verse that sets the two crowds apart, turning one into an angry mob and the other into disciples:

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. — Luke 4:22

They were amazed at his teaching, because his words had authority. — Luke 4:32

Both crowds think Jesus remarkable, but only the second thinks his words have authority despite the social status of the speaker. In other words, only the Capernaum crowd recognizes Jesus’ words as an absolute truth, as something outside the realpolitik of Mr. Scratch. They recognize Jesus as someone who does not need to receive the world from its principalities and powers in order to save it. They know, somewhere deep down, in a way that causes an unknown joy to zip up their spines and electrify their thoughts, that Jesus has passed Satan’s second temptation, that he is at least halfway to becoming the savior of the world, which is farther than any man in history has ever come.

But that still leaves the third temptation, that rule by religious power Satan suggested from the pinnacle of the temple. That kind of angel-swooping, fire-from-heaven power is not dependent upon social status. It requires no line of authority, no government agency credentials. You either have it or you don’t. And it’s here, at Capernaum, where Jesus receives his first opportunity to eschew that kind of socio-religious power, which is itself only another form of realpolitik. It happens almost immediately upon his arrival, just after the people note the authority of Jesus’ words despite his stature:

In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an impure spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, “Go away! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” — Luke 4:33-34

Which leads us to a question. It’s a question that I’ve been asking myself for upwards of twenty years, and the answer has always seemed present but distant, as if I’ve been circling around it from 10,000 feet and the plane refuses to land. The question is this:

Why does Jesus tell demons to be quiet?

“Be quiet!” Jesus said sternly. “Come out of him!” — Luke 4:35a

Every time a demon tries to call Jesus out before an exorcism, Jesus angrily tells it to be quiet. They recognize him immediately and proclaim him to be the Son of God, and he shuts them up. Isn’t that counterproductive? When Jesus rebukes a fever or restores sight or raises someone from the dead, there is no cover-up. Occasionally Jesus tells someone to keep their healing quiet, but usually there is no stopping the healed from proclaiming what great things God has done for them. And yet, the demons must be silent every time. We see it even more concretely just a few verses later, after Jesus heals many of Capernaum’s citizens:

Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Messiah. — Luke 4:41

But why would Jesus want them to be quiet simply because they know who he is? The most common answer is that Jesus wants people to have faith, and if they know Jesus is the Son of God because of what they see, faith wouldn’t be necessary. Yes, there’s certainly truth to that. But I think there’s something deeper here, friends. First, I think it’s important to note that the demons do actually know Jesus is the Son of God, just as their master, Mr. Scratch, knew when he took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple only a few verses ago. I don’t believe they’re simply making accusations, trying to trap him in his words as the chief priests will try to do after Jesus’ betrayal (Luke 22:66-71). No, friends, they know exactly who Jesus is, and for some reason they want everyone to know it. In fact, they pretty much point the finger and call him out, as if he’s been breaking the rules by not openly proclaiming himself to be the Messiah. They ask if he will break the rules by tormenting them before the appointed time (Matthew 8:29). Essentially, they throw down the gauntlet.

Yes, this is certainly an act of spiritual warfare. But I don’t believe it’s in the way many people think. Demons don’t stand a chance against the Son of God and they know it, so what do they have to gain from challenging Jesus directly? Perhaps there is a degree of pettiness or cowardice involved, but again, I think there’s more going on here than a simple lashing out. I think, in fact, that it is nothing less than a full frontal assault with the only weapon left to them: us.

Just as the teachers of the law in Nazareth tried to kill him because of his refusal to claim his civil authority, every evil spirit Jesus encounters tries to place Jesus back on the pinnacle of the temple. They try to frame every exorcism not as a form of healing or an act of love or an advancement of the Kingdom of God, but as a flexing of socio-religious muscle. They try to dupe every onlooker and ex-demoniac into a faithless worship of raw power. That, friends, is why I think Jesus commands every demon to be silent. And that, friends, is the final nail in the coffin for the third temptation of Mr. Scratch. Between Nazareth and Capernaum, Jesus has said no to every earthly, realpolitik means of taking dominion, leaving himself only one recourse, only one way to free us from Satan without exchanging one tyrannical demigod for another:

The Cross.



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