New interest in Jesus’ Kingdom teaching is occurring, particularly within the Emerging Church and Missional Church movements. While retaining the truth that the Kingdom will only be completely experienced when Jesus returns, Jesus’ teachings about the presence of the Kingdom reality are receiving new attention. In particular people are asking how Christian faith communities can be expressions of Kingdom reality.
One of the clearest statements by Jesus that the Kingdom is a present reality occurs in Luke 11:20.1 The author records Jesus’ claim to ‘drive out demons by the finger of God’ and this fact marks the presence of the Kingdom reality. Jesus is mounting an argument to refute the accusation that he drove out demons by the power of Beelzeboul, ‘the prince of demons’. In Jesus’ view it is totally illogical for the prince of demons to drive out demons and thereby erode his own power. It is tantamount to civil war! Jesus’ exorcisms, rather, should become evidence to the observing crowds, including the Jewish religious leaders, that ‘the kingdom of God has come’ to them.
As background to Luke’s use of the phrase ‘the finger of God’, scholars often point to Exodus 31:18 and Deuteronomy 9:10 in which the phrase describes God’s inscription of the Ten Words on the two tables of stone for Moses. However, in Luke 11:20 the context focuses on exorcism and this would suggest that the occurrence of this phrase in Exodus 8:19 is more likely to be the background to Jesus’ usage in this story.2 In Exodus 8:19 the key religious leaders in Pharaoh’s court tried to imitate the power of God expressed through Moses and Aaron. These ‘magicians’ were successful in the first three contests. Just like Moses and Aaron they turned wooden rods into snakes (Ex. 7:11-12), converted water into blood (Ex. 7:20-22), and cause frogs to multiply in the land of Egypt (Ex. 8:7). The source of their power is never defined. However, when Moses caused the dust to become gnats, the Egyptian magicians failed. They exclaimed to Pharaoh that ‘this is the finger of God’3 (Ex. 8:19), presumably with this explanation seeking to avoid Pharaoh’s anger at their inability.
We should note that in the Exodus narrative the pagan magicians identified the handiwork of the powerful god who was supporting Moses and Israel. They knew the limits of their powers and comprehended the source of Moses’ power as divine (elohim). Moses described these acts as God’s “miraculous signs and wonders” (Ex. 7:3). God intended these extraordinary deeds to compel Pharaoh to acknowledge that Israel’s protector, Yahweh, was powerful and His power far exceeded anything Pharaoh or the Egyptian gods might do. As a result Pharaoh should accede to Moses’ demand to let Israel journey into the wilderness to worship Yahweh, their God. Although Pharaoh’s magicians seem to appreciate to some degree the One Whom Moses represents, the Egyptian ruler refuses and they all suffer the consequences.
When we consider the larger context of Luke 11, we discover that this reference to the finger of God is one of several statements which Jesus used to warn people not to reject his work. He draws attention to the Ninevites’ acceptance of Jonah’s message (11:30) and the Queen of Sheba’s acknowledgement of Solomon’s wisdom (11:31). These non-Israelites heard God’s word spoken through God’s servants and they recognized it. Jesus describes his Jewish contemporaries who refuse to accept his words as ‘a wicked generation’ because they ‘ask for miraculous signs’ (Luke 11:29; cf. Luke 11:16 ‘Others tested him by asking him for a sign from heaven’). As the chapter concludes Jesus proclaims a series of curses against the Pharisees and law experts (11:42-52) because their teachings and actions bind them and hinder their acceptance of Jesus’ teaching as God’s new word to Israel. They refuse to acknowledge God’s Kingdom authority at work in Jesus.
Throughout this section of Luke’s narrative Jesus continually challenges his contemporaries to hear God’s voice in and through his activities. If they ascribe these astonishing miracles and prophetic words to Satan and refuse to accept Jesus’ works as sufficient indicators of God’s presence and power, then God will regard them as worse than pagans. And here is where we need to hear something of the irony involved in Jesus’ use of the phrase ‘the finger of God’.
In Exodus it was the pagan magicians of Egypt who testified freely to Pharaoh, their king, that god (the Hebrew word for god in Exodus 8:19 is the generic ‘Elohim’) was at work through Moses and Aaron. When they reached the limit of their authority and power, they knew only another god, more powerful than theirs, could possible cause these surprising signs and wonders. Jesus claims that demons flee at his command because God’s (i.e. Yahweh’s) power operates through him. He is ‘the finger of God’. Surely God’s own people, Israel, should recognize God’s finger! After all God’s finger had written their constitution (Ex. 31:18) and acted to create their nation (Ex. 8:19). When they ask for more convincing signs, Jesus names their request as unbelief, sheer wickedness. If they cannot and will not recognize the casting out of demons and the healing of the sick as God’s power at work in him, then they will find ways to dismiss even more extraordinary signs. If the pagan magicians of Egypt, who had no direct revelation from God such as Israel had received in the Torah, could recognize the finger of god, then what hinders Israel from discerning their God’s power evident in the works of Jesus? It can only be deliberate hardness of heart.
Woods hints at this nuance in Luke’s Gospel:
It follows that the final force of Jesus’ ‘finger of God’ statement would be that even the pagan Egyptian magicians had the good sense to finally recognize that this was the work of God in their midst, and not that of demons. Yet ironically and tragically you Jews cannot recognize God acting in your midst (Acts 2.22).4
Jesus calls them to open their eyes and hearts to understand what God is doing through him. If they succumb to the ‘yeast of the Pharisees’ (Luke 12:1), they will find themselves the enemies of the Son of Man and disowned by God (Luke 12:8-10). The narrative places at this point the strong warning about blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
Whether Jesus and Luke who records this interchange expected their listeners to identify the Holy Spirit as ‘the finger of God’ perhaps is not really the question.5 If there is a connection with the demand for signs and Jesus’ references to the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba in Luke 11:29ff, then it is probable that Jesus’ use of the phrase ‘finger of God’ is intended to remind his listeners of the pagan Egyptian magicians’ acknowledgement of God’s power exercised through Moses. With deep irony he seeks to encourage the Jewish religious leaders to acknowledge God’s finger at work in Jesus – with all of the attendant implications.
Perhaps a key learning for us today would be similar. Let us be careful to discern the presence of God’s Kingdom work among us today. Sometimes we are quick to condemn or despise the work that other believers are doing in Jesus’ name. We must balance carefully our desire to protect the reputation of Jesus and the need to recognize the cup of cold water given in his name.
- since the Kingdom of God is a present reality in our world, how does the local church function as an expression of this Kingdom reality? What is the best way your local church today is demonstrating its inclusion in the Kingdom work of God?
- Are you consciously looking for evidence of God’s Kingdom at work in your life and that of your church community? When you discern it, do you give thanks to God for it?
- If God’s Kingdom is at work in the lives of other believers associated with different segments of God’s family, how do we honour that?
- 1. Luke 11:20 is the only place in the New Testament where this phrase occurs. The Matthean parallel (12:28) has the expression ‘the Spirit of God’. Interpreters debate whether Luke or Matthew record Jesus’ authentic voice. The fact is that we have ‘finger of God’ in Luke’s narrative and must seek to understand the use of this expression in this segment of his story.
- 2. See for example David Tiede, Augsberg Commentary on the New Testament. Luke (Minneapolis: Augsberg Publishing House, 1988):217; Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke. Sacra Pagina Series Volume 3 (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1991):181-183; I Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke. New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1978):475; Darrell L. Bock, Luke. Volume 2: 9:51-24:53. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1996):1079. Other studies on this text include R. Wall, “’The Finger of God’: Deuteronomy 9.10 and Luke 11.20”, New Testament Studies 33(1987):144-150; Gerald Klingbeil, “The Finger of God in the Old Testament”, Zeitschrift fϋr die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 112(2000):408-415; and Pieter W. van der Horst, “’The Finger of God’. Miscellaneous Notes on Luke 11:20 and its Umwelt” in Sayings of Jesus: Canonical and Non-Canonical. Essays in Honour of Tjitze Baarda. Supplements to Novum Testamentum LXXXIX(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997):89-103.
- 3. Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978) includes “an ostracon of the later Empire from Achmunēn in Egypt in which pagan and Jewish elements are mixed.” Although the text was “not yet fully established” he reports that part of it read “…]orkizō kata tou daktulou tou theou I adjure…by the finger of God that…” (p.306). The text is a spell to prevent one person from speaking to another person.
- 4. E. Woods, The ‘Finger of God’ and Pneumatology in Luke-Acts. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 205 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd., 2001): 177. While Woods notes this as an implication, he does not, as far as I can see, develop this idea in relation to the Lukan context in any significant fashion.
- 5. Given Luke’s otherwise considerable emphasis upon the work of the Spirit in his two volume Luke-Acts, it would be surprising to discover him replacing a reference to the Spirit in this text with the phrase ‘finger of God’. Matthew 12:28, of course, explicitly used ‘the Spirit of God’ in the parallel passage. Perhaps Matthew wants to make clear to his readers that Jesus is talking about the Spirit Who is at work in him and the dangers of rejecting the evidence of this. It is also possible that Jesus in this teaching context himself used various expressions in order to make clear his intentions and these variations are reflected in the narratives of Matthew and Luke.