Dancing With Devils


Two weeks ago at our small group we began a study of the Gospel of Mark. As we were reading, we got to the story in Mark 1:21-28 where Jesus is teaching in the synagogue and casts out the unclean spirit in the man who begins making a ruckus. But Mark tells it better than I could:

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “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!”

“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.[1. Mark 1:21-28 NIV]

This has always been a curious story to me, for two reasons.

Firstly, there is the confession made by the demons concerning who Jesus is, which has always seemed odd to me because one would expect the opposite- that they would lie about who he is, say something slanderous against him, etc. Yet, here the demons speak of him in terms that are absolutely truthful, for Jesus is truly the ‘Holy One of God.’ For the church fathers, this was an indication that the ‘confession’ made by the demons was not motivated by truth, but was rather something they couldn’t help, because the overpowering force of God’s presence in Jesus compelled them to speak the truth. St. Chrysostom comments on this passage as such:

Does no demon call upon God’s name? Did not the demons say, “We know who you are, O Holy One of God?” Did they not say to Paul: “these men are the servants of the Most High God?” They did, but only upon scourging, only upon compulsion, never of their own will, never without being trounced.[2. St. John Chrystostom, Homilies on First Corinthians]

This sort of compelled confession of truth in the face of ultimate truth seems to be what Paul has in mind when he states:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.[3. Philippians 2:9-11 NIV]

St. Augustine indicates that the demons not only knew who Jesus was, but that they were expecting him. Thus, the Incarnation did not catch them by surprise; instead, it was the fulfillment of their inevitable doom. Augustine says this:

Unclean spirits knew that Jesus Christ would come. They heard it from the angels, they had heard it from the prophets, so they were expecting him to come. For if not, why did they cry out, “What have we to do with you? Have you come to destroy us before the time? We know who you are, the holy one of God.”[4. St. Augustine, Tractate on John]

The second oddity of this story is that immediately following the confession, Jesus compels them to be silent. This has been curious to me because it would seem that a hostile witness is generally the best proof one can have in regards to testimony. In regards to corroboration, there are three tiers: friendly testimony, which carries the least weight because of its potential bias; neutral testimony, which carries greater weight because of its lack of bias; and hostile testimony, which carries the greatest weight because of its bias. (That is, if someone biased against you corroborates your testimony, it means that even someone opposed to you agrees that you are speaking the truth.) Thus, why would Jesus have them be silent when they are speaking the truth?

The church fathers saw this as a corollary of James’ thought that even the demons believe in God, and shudder. (In fact, it is very likely that James has this account in mind) Thus, the demons’ confession of Christ should be silenced because it flows from compulsion, rather than love. Augustine contrasts the demons’ confession of Jesus with that of Peter; the former came from fear, the latter from love. St. Irenaeus sees the very act of confession without love and belief as a form of judgment:

Even the demons cried out, on beholding the Son: “I know who your are, the Holy One of God.” Later the devil looking at him and tempting him, would say: “If you are the Son of God.” All of these recognized the Son and the Father, yet without believing. So it was fitting that the truth should receive testimony from all, and should become a means of judgment for the salvation not only of those who believe, but also for the condemnation of those who do not believe. The result is that all should be fairly judged, and that the faith in the Father and the Son should be a matter of decision for all, so that one means of salvation should be established for all, receiving testimony from all, both from those belonging to it who were his friends, and by those having no connection with it who were his enemies. For that evidence is most trustworthy and true which elicits even from its adversaries striking testimonies on its behalf.[5. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies]

Thus, the way in which one confesses who Jesus is becomes the crucial decision point. Mere words are meaningless, for even Jesus says that

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’[6. Matthew 7:21-23 NIV]

We must therefore be sure that our confession comes from love, and is not simply words. There is in this an interior posture that must be assumed, not mere outward manifestations of piety. Just as it would be meaningless to tell my wife over and over that I love her if I did not orient my life around the actions and conditions of actually loving her, so faith is equally meaningless if it is not accompanied by love, which is not a feeling but rather an act of the will, a decision that necessarily orients your life in a certain direction and compels actions in keeping with that. We must make sure, as Augustine says, that our faith does not put us on the same level as the demons:

Faith is mighty, but without love it profits nothing. The devils confessed Christ, but lacking charity it availed nothing. They said, “What have we to do with you?” They confessed a sort of faith, but without love. Hence they were devils. Do not boast of that faith that puts you on the same level with the devils.[7. St. Augustine, Tractate on John]

*All church father citiations from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume II

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