43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
Roni and I were in Washington, D.C., last month and, while there, decided to go over to Georgetown to look around. I recalled—as a movie-buff nerd—that the “Exorcist steps” were in Georgetown and after having dinner in Georgetown we put it in the maps and made our way to the location to see them. These steps are actually a landmark of the city with a plaque on the wall marking their significance. In the movie “The Exorcist” the priest, Father Karras, gets the demon who is torturing the little girl to come into him instead and then he throws himself out the window and dies on the stairs below, the “Exorcist stairs.” To this day folks go to see these high, steep stairs and, indeed, when we were there, we had to wait for some folks to take pictures of them before we could.
It was a strange thing for us to do, I grant, but between those stairs and the Rocky steps in Philadelphia, Roni and I had a pretty fun time looking at famous movie steps!
Those stairs in Georgetown were spooky, to be sure. They are tall, narrow, steep, and ominous. Some poor stuntman had to go down those things twice when they filmed that movie in the early 1970s. Today, they stand as an oddity and a curiosity piece, and, in the context of the story, they remind the viewer of the ferocity of the devil and his demons. To be honest, the steps were kind of chilling.
In Matthew 12:43-45 Jesus speaks chilling words as well about the ferocity of the devil and his demons. They are curious words, words of caution, and, as they relate to the Pharisees and those seeking to attack Jesus, they are also a word of rebuke.
Demons: Anxious and Destructive
As we will see in a moment, the purpose of Jesus’ words here do not seem to be to write a textbook with exhaustive details about demons. He’s making a bigger point. But what he says about the nature of demons leading up to this wider point is interesting indeed.
43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none.
Here we learn a number of important truths about the demonic, including:
- Some suggest that this might mean that demons do not like water (remember Matthew 8:32—And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.” But we must be careful about reading too much into this. Might “waterless” simply mean “non-physical” or “spiritual”?
- Demons seek a habitation.
- Demons do not “rest” outside of a habitation.
- Demons will test again a former habitation from which they have been cast out (see v.44).
This is fascinating! Could it be that demons, seeking ever to outdo or mimic Jesus, are constantly seeking incarnation? Is this desire for “rest” a blasphemous mockery of the Sabbath? Could it be that their seeking of a physical habitation has to do with their delight in torturing human beings from the inside out?
Regardless of why, this much is clear: demons seek a host, a habitation, which they view as an abode, and in which only they can find “rest.”
Deliverance: The Need for Complete Transformation
Interestingly, Jesus paints a picture of a formerly possessed person who is apparently delivered…but only apparently so.
44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45a-c Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.
First, it is quite chilling to see the demon refer to a human body as “my house.” This is how demons view us: space to conquer and indwell. A potential home for them. And as one commentator has written of the phrase “I will return to my house…”, “The demon is ironically represented as implying that he left his victim voluntarily, as a man leaves his house to go for a walk.” There is a kind of casualness about “I will return to my house” that arrests our attention!
Jesus then says, “And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order.” And, as we can see in the words that follow, this is insufficient. Notice the adjectives:
- put in order
First, we must note that, as Craig Keener points out, translated literally, verse 44 is conditional: “And when it comes, ifit finds the house empty…” Meaning, Jesus is not saying that true deliverance is insufficient. Instead, he is assuming here that the deliverance was not true, not complete. The person’s life has taken on a semblance of order and restoration: swept, put in order. Yet, even though the demon has been cast out, Christ was not invited to move in: empty.
Craig Blomberg perceptively writes of this:
freedom from demon possession is not enough. Ownership by the devil must be replaced with ownership by Christ (cf. Rom 6:15-18). Otherwise one’s release is only temporary. Moral reform without Christian commitment always remains inadequate.
Furthermore, Warren Wiersbe observes:
There is a personal application. It is not enough to clean house; we must also invite in the right tenant. The Pharisees were proud of their “clean houses,” but their hearts were empty! Mere religion, or reformation, will not save. There must be regeneration, the receiving of Christ into the heart (see Rev. 3:20). We cannot be neutral about Jesus Christ.
Beware the assumption that just because things appear “swept” and “put in order” things have actually been transformed and true deliverance has come. The Christian life is not merely one of putting bad things away. It is a life of putting on Christ. It is possible to “have it all together” and yet to not have anything really together!
Beware empty religiosity!
Beware the packaging of a religious life!
Beware the outward semblance of order!
These things can hide inner chaos! They can mask the truly diabolical.
When the demon returns and finds that the person’s life is orderly but not indwelt by Christ, he brings his friends and then wreaks havoc! So much so that the person is much worse off.
A Comparison: Jesus Rebukes the Unbelieving Scribes and Pharisees
It is this picture of the appearance of order masquerading a reality of emptiness that leads to Jesus’ final words, His pivot to a commentary about his detractors that is truly devastating. He says:
45d So also will it be with this evil generation.”
Ah! Here is the wider point! The phrase “this evil generation” is instructive because it points us back just a few verses in Matthew 12 to the other time he uses this image.
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”
The “evil generation” appears to be, then, the unbelieving Jews, and particularly the scribes and Pharisees, who are like the poor soul in the example of our text: everything is swept and in order, but Christ has not been invited in!
This is a blistering and crushing critique of the religiosity of the Pharisees. They are the person who thinks they are safe because their religious house is swept, when, in reality, they are ripe for spiritual destruction.
Warren Wiersbe writes of our text:
The primary application is to the nation of Israel, especially that generation present when Jesus ministered on earth. The nation had been purged of the demon of idolatry, which had plagued them in the Old Testament. But reformation was not enough. Reformation could cleanse, but it could not fill. The nation should have received the Savior and been filled with spiritual life. Instead, the people rejected Him, and the end was destruction.
This is perceptive, especially the point about having been purged of idolatry.
It is a frightening and fascinating truth that we may content ourselves with removing something truly odious from our lives and convince ourselves that therefore everything is ok. And none of that may be true at all! We may ourselves be ripe for spiritual devastation. Like the scribes and Pharisees, we may use the absence of certain sins from our lives to numb us to the presence of other sins and thereby miss the real danger we are in.
The remedy and the key is clear enough: we must invite Jesus in! We must have a faith not only of negation but of embrace. We must reject sin, it is true! But we must embrace Christ. If not, the vacuum will not remain unfilled for long.
When the devil comes and leans on the door of your heart, does he find the house orderly but empty…or does Christ Jesus open the door! May it be the latter!
 Quoted in A.T. Robertson, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Gospel According to Luke. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.I (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.98.
 Craig Keener, Matthew. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p.234.
 Blomberg, Craig L.. Matthew (The New American Commentary) (p. 207). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Wiersbe, Warren W.. Be Loyal (Matthew): Following the King of Kings (The BE Series Commentary) (pp. 103-104). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.
 Wiersbe, Warren W, p. 103.