Jesus said, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armour in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters”. Luke 11:21-23
Jesus liked to say puzzling things. He used illustrations, parables and figures of speech. Sometimes he helped his hearers by adding a clear explanation of what he was getting at – the classic example being his parable of the sower, where he spells out exactly what he meant by the seed and the different kinds of soil (Luke 13:1-23).
But other times he left it hanging, so to speak, presumably to prompt his hearers to think it through for themselves and come to their own conclusions. This saying about the “strong man” is a good example.
We read these verses and end up scratching our heads. Who is this “strong man”? What is the “armour” referred to? What does “his house” represent? What are his “possessions”? Above all, who is the “someone stronger” who “overpowers” him, “takes away” his armour and “divides up his plunder”?
Good questions. And if we want to find good answers we need to set Jesus’ words in their wider context. So, if we look at verses 14-26 as a whole, what do we find?
Simple answer: it’s all about demons and Satan (called here “Beelzebul”).
The casting out of demons was a known feature of Jewish life in Jesus’ day. He was by no means the only person who exercised this power – he readily concedes (verse 19) that the disciples of his opponents did so too, and the story of the “seven sons of Sceva” in Acts 19:13-16 gives dramatic confirmation of this.
But his opponents claim that it is “by the prince of demons” that he casts out demons (verse 15). In other words, all is not as it seems. Oh yes, on the surface Jesus seems to be doing a wonderful thing in releasing people from dark powers. But in reality he himself is in league with Satan, and deceiving the people. In verses 17-20 Jesus points out that this idea is simply absurd: why would Satan help him, Jesus, to overcome Satan’s own agents!
It’s at this point that we get the story of the strong man. And in the light of this background it’s not too difficult to answer the questions we posed earlier.
The strong man is Satan. His armour is his demonic powers. His house is his evil empire in the world. His possessions are the people enslaved to him (that’s the whole human race). And the stronger one who overpowers him and divides up his plunder is, of course, Jesus himself.
In plain terms, Jesus is declaring that his mission in this world is, among other things, a waging of war against the powers of evil. And this is why he adds (verse 23) the challenge that “whoever is not with me is against me”. There is a war going on in which neutrality is not possible: we are called to take sides and to identify ourselves wholeheartedly with Jesus. No fence-sitting!
In our modern world, talk of demons and Satan can make us feel uncomfortable. Do we really believe in these things in our scientific, technological society? Different people take different views, some of them seeing demons as purely symbolic representations of evil. Well, whoever is right on that, the presence of evil in our world is undeniable.
I wonder if anyone reading this feels you are especially in the grip of the “strong man”? If you do, I can only encourage you to cry out in prayer to Jesus, the “someone stronger”.
Throughout his earthly ministry he did great deeds of deliverance – from sickness, from demonic powers, even from death itself. We have to face the fact that today such deeds tend to be a lot less immediate and a lot less dramatic. But the power is still there, and there are millions of people all over the world who can testify, “Yes! Jesus set me free!”
What all of us need is not just a bit of cosmetic tidying up on the outside, but a deep and radical re-creation of our very lives and personalities. And this is something that only Jesus can do.
He calls us all to join him in waging this war, whether it’s in the world outside or in the world of our inner beings. How serious are we about putting on what Paul calls “the armour of light” (Romans 13:12) and, day by day, putting the powers of darkness to flight?
Thank you, oh God, that you sent the Lord Jesus to overcome the power of the evil one. May that power be daily destroyed within me, and may I allow the greater power of Jesus to flow out of me. Amen.