The Strong Man We Don’t Want to See

Some passages in the Bible seem to make easy sense so they get read over quickly, assumptions are made, and we end up retaining the insight we wanted to read as opposed to the one that was actually there.

Now take a breath after that sentence and let it settle: we end up retaining the insight we wanted to read as opposed to the one that was actually there.

In a world so full of information we can often feel like our days are under full blown “fact attacks,” and we are being involuntarily shaped and molded more than we care to admit. The lenses we look through to see the world are getting harder and harder to trust because it takes a nearly impossible amount of diligence to guard our minds from lies, scams or even just malice-less misinformation. Political intrigue, social upheaval, and quickly shifting cultural landscapes force us into patterns of thinking which are consumed with protection instead of growth – which means – for those of us who read and believe the Scriptures – we will often read the Bible with a mindset consumed with safeguarding our own present instead of reading it with the courageous humility required for truly growing up into the places and characteristics our faith is calling us to.

In Matthew 12, in the middle of a heated discussion about the source of His power, Jesus tells the Pharisees something that I believe we are tempted to listen to, assume we understand the point of and then quickly move on without actually feeling the weight and gravity of the text.

After the Lord exorcises a demon from a man the Pharisees respond with an attempt to convince the crowd of onlookers that Jesus is actually casting out devils using the power of the Devil. Jesus makes the following statement that seems to wrap up this conversation,

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.” – Matthew 12.25

Now, this seems cut and dry.

Jesus has just pointed out the obvious wisdom of division and subtraction: if you can’t work together then you will fall apart. And this comforts us. We like these kinds of statements, they console us and make us feel like we understand the fabric of reality. We can take this sort of of proverb, put it in our pocket and save it for a moment when we encounter specific types of egregious foolishness in our presence, and then draw the words of Jesus like a gun to neutralize the situation.

But what if Jesus isn’t trying to give us an aphorism so we can solve some future problem? What if He is warning us about a struggle that is going on inside our hearts every day?

Part of the key to understanding this is what Jesus goes on to say in explanation. He speaks of invading and pillaging a “strong man’s” house. A plundering which Jesus says does not, and can not, happen without the “strong man” first being tied up.

Well, obviously. It is after all much more difficult to steal from someone when they’re beating you to death.

The concern here is the perspective we take as we look at Jesus’ illustration. I’m afraid that we have seen the “strong man” as the Devil in this story and us as the one’s who initiate the binding of him so we can take his stuff. But does that actually track with what Jesus is saying? What if – and I’m just putting this out there for consideration – what if we are the strong man? Is it at least possible that we are the ones who are ineffective at holding onto our spiritual property when we allow ourselves to be bound?

There are certainly interpretations of this text that refer to Jesus as the one who is infiltrating the “strong man’s house” – the Devil – and plundering the contents. But making Jesus into a thief here, especially in the context of what else has been happening in this chapter isn’t as cut and dry as it might seem. Earlier in the text (vv. 22-24) Jesus has exercised a demon from a young man. And it is this exorcism that led the Pharisees to make the accusation that Jesus must be evil because He had used the power of evil to perform the miracle. Jesus then launches into his point about the powerlessness of disunity in a kingdom, nation or system.

But it is the words of the Pharisees that Jesus answers that hold my attention: “It is only by Beezebul… that this fellow drives out demons.” This statement is what Jesus is responding to. But in this statement the house isn’t Satan’s, nor is it God’s, it seems that the strong man’s house is the life, body and spirit of the young man who had been possessed! That man, who at one point had volitional control over his life and a sovereign choice as to who he was going to let into his heart, had allowed himself to be bound by the demonic force that had come in to steal his sight and speech (v. 22)! If it’s the man’s house, then doesn’t it track that the man is the “strong man” who is supposed to protect that house? It’s certainly not Satan’s house…and it’s a stretch to suggest that it’s God’s house considering the demon possession present in this story.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is the only way to read this text. But I absolutely am saying that it is one way to read it.

Remember where we began this discussion: the temptation to retain the insights that make us comfortable instead of the ones that lead us to change. And if the devil is the “strong man” who Jesus unilaterally binds in order to set us free then it potentially suggests that we have no responsibility to pursue freedom instead of bondage. But if it’s our house/life, and we are the strong man, then it matters that we ask the question, “what pathways or influences have I chosen that have allowed me to be bound and left my house vulnerable to the spiritual marauders who want to steal, kill and destroy me?”

This doesn’t undermine the Gospel. This doesn’t negate our need for a Savior.

What this interpretation does is press us to own up to the fact that when we allow our lives to move in a direction that is divided from God’s purposes for us we are also choosing to weaken the fidelity of our heart because divided hearts in the kingdom create the binding ropes of fractured relationships (both with God and with others). When we separate ourselves from the strength we have in unity with God’s kingdom purposes, we weaken our “house” through that division. And while the kingdom of heaven will not fail, if we are divided from that kingdom like a gangrenous limb that has been separated from the flow of nutrients and life, we will find that division leads to a fall.

So as we read the Scriptures we need to be humble and discerning. Praying through a text is a great way to allow the Spirit of God to help us understand if we are associating ourselves with the wrong character in the story. But this kind of humble reading will have at least two consequences:

  1. it will cause us to look at passages with fresh eyes and lead us to wrestle with some things we’ve either taken for granted or some things that we’ve been taught and never took responsibility to investigate for ourselves
  2. it will likely bring us to the brink of change and reformation in our beliefs and our behavior.

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