The Importance of Ministering to People Afflicted by Demons – Part 1, The Biblical Data
When the Lord Jesus was on earth, healing people afflicted by demons formed a major part of His ministry.
References to this aspect of His work can be found in Matthew 4:24; 8:16, 28-34; 9:32-35; 12:22, 28; 15:22-28; 17:14-18; Mark 1:23-27, 32-34, 39; 3:10-11; 5:1-20; 6:13; 7:25-30; 9:14-29; Luke 4:33-36, 41; 6:18; 7:21; 8:2, 26-39; 9:37-43; 11:14-22; 13:32.
Nor was freeing people from evil spirits something that was done by Jesus alone. He sent out the 12 to perform ministry that included this (Matthew 10:1-8; Mark 6:7-13; Luke 9:1-6). And he also sent out a much larger group of followers to do likewise (Luke 10:1-20).
Then later, after Jesus had ascended to heaven, Acts makes it clear that the early church was involved in delivering people from demons too (Acts 5:16; 8:6-7; 16:16-18; 19:11-12). Acts also includes a number of general references to miracles (Acts 2:19, 43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 8:6, 13; 14:3; 15:12), and it is almost certain that some of these involved deliverance from demons through the ministry of Christians.
In the first century, then, Jesus’ followers were often used by God to free people who were afflicted by evil spirits. But what about today? Is this something that Christians today should be doing?
I am sure that it is, and in what follows I hope to show convincingly that this is the case. In part 1 of the article I will look at important biblical passages that have a bearing on this topic. And then in part 2 I will discuss some other relevant matters.
When considering any topic, the most important thing we must do is see what the Bible itself has to say about it. Scripture is ‘The Manual for the Human Life’, and what it teaches is key. So we will begin with this.
An important passage on our topic is Luke 4:18-19.
Here Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2 to the synagogue in Nazareth. He tells the Jews gathered there:
‘18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to announce release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
In view of the accounts of Jesus setting people free from demons that will follow in Luke’s Gospel, the releasing prisoners and freeing the oppressed in v. 18 surely refer in part to deliverance from demons.
Importantly, in this passage there seems to be a strong implication that Jesus’ proclamation of good news is inseparably connected to the other things He mentions, including the releasing and freeing. He isn’t just saying that He will proclaim good news and also do these other things. These other things are all bound up with His proclamation of the good news. Jesus seems to be strongly implying, then, that His message of good news is closely connected to freeing people from demons.
In v. 18 the Greek verb I have translated ‘proclaim good news’ is euangelizomai. This word is used often in the New Testament, especially in Acts, which was also written by Luke, to refer to the proclamation of the good news of the Christian message (see, e.g., Acts 5:42; 8:4, 12, 25, 35, 40; 11:20; 13:32).
It is not an accident that Luke uses this word both of Jesus’ message and of the Christian message. Crucially, the message of good news that the church proclaims should be seen as a continuation of the message of good news proclaimed by Jesus.
There are admittedly significant differences between the two messages. Ours centres around the death and resurrection of Jesus, which obviously didn’t form part of His own message. But nevertheless, it is very important to understand that the message proclaimed by the church is an outgrowth of and continuation of the message proclaimed by Jesus. They are not separate messages.
Given, then, as we have seen, that Jesus’ message was closely connected to freeing people from evil spirits and other afflictions, in all likelihood we would expect the same to be true of the church’s message.
Like Jesus we proclaim good news to the poor. Like Him we proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. Like Him we, in God’s power, set free those who are oppressed. And like Him we proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. It would be surprising if the church’s message didn’t involve all these things that Jesus’ message involved.
Importantly, when we read the book of Acts, we find that the early church did indeed carry on a ministry of freeing people from demons, and working other miracles, as it proclaimed the good news.
That is not to say that the early Christians were as successful as Jesus in freeing people from demons. Nor, for that matter, did they proclaim the good news as successfully as He did. But they certainly carried on from where He left off in combining proclamation and deliverance from evil spirits. And it makes sense to think that the same should be true of the church in every century.
Luke 10:17-19 is also a key passage.
In Luke 10:1, 2, 9 we are told:
‘1 After this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them in pairs ahead of Him to every town and place where He Himself was going to come. 2 And he told them, “. . . 9 . . . heal those . . . who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.'”‘
There is some doubt about whether Luke wrote ‘seventy’ or ‘seventy-two’ in v. 1. Our Greek manuscripts differ. But because this difference isn’t important for our purposes, I will just assume that ‘seventy’ was original.
In verses 17-19 Luke continues:
‘17 The seventy returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons obey us in Your name.”
18 And He told them, “I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Look, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will in any way harm you.”‘
‘Snakes and scorpions’ in v. 19 is a metaphor referring to demons. ‘The enemy’ is Satan and all his demonic followers.
Verse 19 portrays the 70 as continuing to have authority over demons even after returning from the mission they have just been on. Two things show this. First, the Greek verb underlying ‘I have given’ in my translation is in the perfect tense, denoting a present state that results from a past action: Jesus gave the 70 authority that they still have. And second, the future tense in ‘nothing will . . . harm you’ also shows that the authority is an ongoing one.
The 70 don’t reappear in Luke’s Gospel or anywhere else in Scripture, so this verse is not given to pave the way for further exploits of theirs. Why, then, does the passage portray the 70 with continuing authority over demons even after their mission has finished?
The answer seems to be, in part at least, that the authority given to the 70 points to similar authority that is given to Christians throughout the church age. If this wasn’t Luke’s intention, it is difficult to know why he included these words in his Gospel. Similarly, it is difficult to know why the Holy Spirit included them.
I think we are probably supposed to understand that all Christians have this authority over demons to a certain extent. But it also seems reasonable to think that some Christians have more ability than others to free people from demons. Perhaps some believers actually have greater authority over demons than other Christians do. Or maybe they just have greater ability to use the authority that every believer has in equal measure. In any case, regardless of who has how much authority or ability to use authority, this passage suggests that ministry to people afflicted by evil spirits should continue throughout the church age.
John 14:11-12 is another relevant passage. Here Jesus states:
‘11 Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me. Otherwise believe because of the deeds themselves.
12 Truly, truly, I tell you, the person who believes in Me, the deeds that I do, he will do also . . .’
The deeds of Jesus that He refers to in both these verses surely include the miracles that He is found performing throughout John’s Gospel, as commentators widely agree.
It is true that this Gospel never refers to any ministry of Jesus to people afflicted by demons. Nevertheless, as I have noted, Matthew, Mark and Luke provide many examples of Jesus performing this kind of ministry. So it seems reasonable to think that the promise in these words in v. 12 applies in part to the ability to minister to those afflicted by demons.
It would certainly be a mistake to take these words in v. 12 literally. Jesus surely can’t be saying that we should expect every Christian to work the sorts of miracles that He Himself worked. This is true even if Luke 10:19, discussed above, means that all Christians have some authority to free people from evil spirits.
Instead, the idea in these words of v. 12 seems to be that being a believer in Jesus is all the qualification that people need in and of themselves to work miracles. For someone to actually work a miracle, God would still need to take the extra step of granting the ability to perform the miracle in that specific case. But believing in Christ qualifies us to potentially work miracles if God enables us.
Importantly, these words in v. 12 strongly imply that it is God’s will to grant the ability to work miracles to some Christians. If this were not the case, the words would seem to be meaningless.
Importantly too, what Jesus says here cannot be restricted to apostles. ‘The person who believes in Me’ won’t allow us to make this restriction.
Similarly, those who want to restrict the words to Christians living in the first century are also clutching at straws:
First, that would be an extremely unnatural interpretation of the words.
And second, there is the date of John’s Gospel to take into account. Scholars broadly agree – rightly in my view – that this Gospel was written around the end of the first century. If this is right, then if the words I have quoted in v. 12 were only supposed to apply to Christians living in the first century or thereabouts, these words would have become obsolete almost as soon as they were written. But what would be the point of that? Instead, we can be confident that v. 12 applies to Christians throughout the church age.
John 14:11-12, then, is a strong piece of evidence that we should expect some Christians today to work miracles. And because this miracle work apparently includes ministry to people with demons, this passage suggests that Christians in our day should be ministering in this way.
Acts 1:8 is a verse that fits awkwardly with the idea that Christians today should not minister to people afflicted by demons. Here the risen Jesus tells the 11 remaining apostles:
‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the furthest reaches of the earth.’
In Acts 1:20-26 we are told how Matthias, a replacement for Judas Iscariot, was appointed as a 12th apostle. And although Jesus’ words in 1:8 were given to the 11, they apply just as much to Matthias. In the following discussion, then, to avoid complication, I will imagine that Jesus spoke the words in 1:8 to the 12 including Matthias.
The receiving power Jesus speaks about in Acts 1:8 doubtless refers to the events on the day of Pentecost described in Acts 2:1-41. At that time the 12 received power from the Spirit, which remained with them afterwards.
Importantly, in the book of Acts there are several references to the 12 working miracles. And it seems a very unlikely interpretation that would separate the power the 12 received from their miracle work. The power that Jesus refers to in Acts 1:8 therefore surely includes power to work miracles.
But this miracle work of the 12 certainly included freeing people from demons. Acts 5:12-16 makes it clear that the 12 were used by God to minister to many people in this way. And Acts 2:43; 4:30 also fits well with this. So the power Jesus refers to in Acts 1:8 includes power to free people from demons.
Although Acts 1:8 was spoken to the 12, it seems natural to broaden its application to the whole church:
To begin with, we need to recognise that this verse strongly implies that the 12 will be Jesus’ witnesses in the power they will receive. Jesus is not just telling them two separate things, one, that they will receive power and, two, that they will also be His witnesses. There is a much closer connection between the power and the witnessing than that. The witnessing will be done in the power they receive.
Secondly, note how Jesus tells the 12 that they will be His witnesses ‘to the furthest reaches of the earth’. However, the good news was not taken this far before the 12 were all dead. So it makes sense to think that the witnessing in power would be continued by other Christians after the 12 had died. This is supported by the fact that in Acts itself we find Christians other than the 12 receiving power from the Spirit and acting as Jesus’ witnesses.
Most naturally, then, Acts 1:8 suggests that witnessing in power will last until the good news has gone to the furthest reaches of the earth, which really means until Jesus returns. And because, as I have noted, this power includes the power to free people from demons, most naturally we would expect this kind of ministry to continue until the Lord returns.
Peter’s quotation of Joel in Acts 2:16-21 is also awkward for the view that God no longer wants to use Christians to free people from demons.
Here is the text of verses 16-18:
‘16 But this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “And it will be in the last days”, says God, “that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. And your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy.”‘
Peter is saying that the events of the Day of Pentecost are the beginning of the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. Joel prophesied that God would pour out His Spirit, says Peter, and this has now happened.
It is true that Joel and Peter make no specific mention of freeing people from demons. Nevertheless, it makes sense to think that God’s pouring out His Spirit partly involves this. In 1 Corinthians 12:9 healing is said to be a gift of the Spirit, and much of the healing we read about in the New Testament is healing from demonic affliction.
Importantly, we should note the time reference in Acts 2:17. It states that God will pour out His Spirit ‘in the last days‘. The last days here is the period of time that began with the crucifixion-resurrection-giving of the Spirit complex and will end with the return of Christ.
But if healing, and other gifts of the Spirit, ceased in the first century, this would mean that in fact it was only in the very first part of the last days that God poured out His Spirit as Joel and Peter describe. And this does seem a rather awkward interpretation of the text. Acts 2:16-21 therefore reads most naturally if freeing people from evil spirits is something that Christians should be doing throughout the church age.
Another relevant text for our discussion can be found in the so-called ‘Longer Ending’ of Mark’s Gospel.
We know that in the first centuries of the church, this Gospel circulated with a number of different endings. The earliest surviving Greek manuscripts end at Mark 16:8. Most manuscripts contain the Longer Ending that a majority of English speaking readers of the Bible will be most familiar with, concluding at what is known as Mark 16:20. And there are also manuscripts that have a variety of other differences and additions.
There is a passage in the Longer Ending that refers to freeing people from demons. The text that is commonly referred to as Mark 16:15-17 reads as follows:
‘15 And [Jesus] said to [the eleven], “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation. 16 The person who has believed and has been baptized will be saved. But the person who has not believed will be condemned. 17 These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will expel demons . . .”‘
Discussion of which ending or endings of Mark should be considered Scripture is complex. Personally, I prefer the view that this passage shouldn’t be regarded as Scripture. But I don’t want to get into a long analysis of the issue here.
Instead, let’s look at this passage under two scenarios, firstly assuming that it is Scripture and secondly assuming that it isn’t.
So, first, let’s suppose that the passage I have cited should be regarded as Scripture.
If we do this, it should be clear that the passage strongly implies that expelling demons is a Christian ministry that we can expect to continue throughout the church age:
In v. 15 Jesus refers to evangelism in ‘all the world’ and ‘to all creation’. So from His point in time He is clearly thinking about evangelism that will continue on long into the future around the world.
Therefore, when in verses 16 and 17 He refers to ‘the person who has believed’ and ‘those who have believed’, by far the most natural way of taking His words is as a reference to Christians of all times and places. Those who say that in these verses Jesus is speaking only of Christians living in the first century or thereabouts are taking an extremely unnatural interpretation of the text.
Verse 17 says that expelling demons is a feature of those who believe. So, since those who believe are Christians of all times and places, expelling demons is something that should be a continuing activity of the church.
If these words are Scripture, then, this passage strongly implies that ministering to people afflicted by evil spirits is something that applies to the whole church age.
Second, let’s assume that this passage is not Scripture.
If we do this, it still seems reasonable to regard the passage as quite strong evidence that Christians today should be ministering to people with demons:
Importantly, there is no doubt that in the last 2000 years large numbers of Christians have understood the passage we know as Mark 16:9-20 to be part of Scripture. In fact, it seems highly likely that most believers have regarded the passage as Scripture.
The vast majority of these Christians have known nothing about Greek manuscripts or even that Mark’s Gospel once circulated with a variety of endings. Most, or at least very many, Christians in the last 2000 years have been told by their church leaders that Mark 16:9-20 is Scripture, and they have accepted this in good faith.
It is surely very unlikely that God would have allowed so many Christians to have an ending of Mark’s Gospel that misled them. If He had, then through no fault of their own they would have been reading as Scripture something that was actually misdirecting them. But we would expect God, in His love, not to have allowed this to happen.
Even if, then, Mark 16:9-20 is not Scripture, it makes sense to think that it contains good Christian teaching.
We saw above that if we take this passage as Scripture, it very strongly implies that freeing people from demons is something that Christians should be doing today. So, even if we don’t take the passage as Scripture, because it apparently contains good teaching it still supplies us with quite a strong piece of evidence that Christians today should be ministering in this way.
Various other Bible passages are relevant for the topic we are considering. However, to prevent the article from becoming too long, I won’t discuss any more of them.
The above discussion has shown that Scripture suggests, strongly at times, that ministry to people afflicted by demons is something that should be ongoing today.
In part 2 of this article I will move on to discuss some other relevant aspects of this topic.
Read more articles by Max Aplin