Ten times (twelve if we add the references in 16:9,17) Mark’s Gospel describes the exorcisms accomplished by Jesus or his follows as “casting out (ekballein) a demon (or demons).”1 In a short note Graham Twelftree2 says that this is “the first time it [ekballein] is used in relationship to exorcism.” Matthew used similar language thirteen times and Luke used it nine times. However, this terminology does not occur in John’s Gospel (but see John 12:31), Acts or the other New Testament writings. The use of this expression is confined to Jesus’ exorcisms and those accomplished by his immediate contemporaries as narrated in the Synoptic Gospels. Is this restrictive use just accidental, due to the number and kind of Greek materials that have survived, or is this usage something that Jesus himself introduced for a specific reason?
Within the scope of its usage in the Synoptic Gospels, Mark’s narrative never has Jesus use this terminology explicitly. The closest analogy is in Mark 3:23 when Jesus responds to the Beelzebul charge by asking “How can Satan cast out (ekballein) Satan?” The other uses arise in the course of Mark’s description of actions Jesus or others do, or are questions or accusations others state to Jesus (3:22; 9:18,28). Specifically in the contexts where Jesus appoints the Twelve (3:14-15) and sends them on mission (6:7,13), Mark notes that Jesus gave them power to “cast out demons.”
In the case of Matthew, a similar division occurs. The only occasions where Jesus explicitly claims the power to cast out demons occur in the Beelzeboul controversy (12:26-28) and the appointment of the Twelve (10:8). The rest occur in the narrative framework (8:16; 9:33; 10:1) or on the lips of other characters (7:22; demons at 8:31; 9:34;12:24; 17:19). Luke follows the same pattern. The terminology is on the lips of some characters (9:40,49; 11:15) and the narrative portion of the Gospel (11:14), but primarily it is used by Jesus in his interactions with the Beelzeboul accusation (11:18-20) and his response to the actions of Herod to arrest him (13:32). Luke does not use this specific terminology with respect to the Twelve (although Jesus gives them “authority over all demons” (9:1).
Josephus, writing towards the end of the first century A.D. retells the story of Saul’s plot to kill David and Jonathan’s intervention. Jonathan in a speech to his father Saul pleads for David’s life. He reminds Saul that David is the one who restored him to health “when he drove out (exebalen) the evil spirit and the demons” that attacked Saul, bringing him peace.3 This is the only non-Christian, first century reference I can locate to this terminology outside of the New Testament.
Given this unusual data, we could conclude that this terminology “casting our (ekballein) demons” derives from Jesus himself. Its occurrence in the context of the Beelzeboul controversy, linked with the parable of binding the strong man, indicates that expelling a hostile force in order to release a person from bondage is the fundamental concept. Jesus banished the demons, thus freeing people from their tyranny. In a manner reminiscent of a military campaign, Jesus assaults Satan’s territory and liberates those terrorized and subjected by him. The account in Mark 5 of the person who is demonized by “Legion” suggests the military flavour of these demonic attacks. As Jesus brings in God’s kingly rule, he smashes Satan’s power, destroys his hegemony, and brings freedom to those oppressed by evil. This is the power of his Gospel.
We can only speculate as to why Jesus chose this terminology to describe his exorcisms. However, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, as God leads Israel into the Promised Land, He expels (ekballein) or drives out the Canaanites so that Israel can occupy the land. “I will drive them out (ekbalō) from before you” (Exodus 23:31). The promise is repeated in Deuteronomy 11:23 and realized in Joshua 24:18 (“and the Lord drove out from before us the Amorrite”). Twice in 2 Chronicles when Asa and Hezekiah caused the temple to be restored and the worship of God to be renewed, we find this verb (ekballein) describing how the Israelites “put away (exebale) the abominable idols” (15:8) and “carried out (ekbalete) the filth from the holy place” (29:5). The house of God is restored to its rightful owner. Perhaps the parable of the strong man’s house being plundered echoes some of these sentiments. Satan has usurped God’s place in the life of a person through a demon; Jesus ‘casts out’ the demon and enables this person to worship God appropriately.
Whether a military sense or a purifying connotation lies behind this terminology, the outcome is the same. The possessions of God usurped by Satan are restored to Him through the intervention of Jesus. God’s kingly rule expresses itself in this absolute authority over Satan’s dominion.
Jesus acknowledges that some Jewish leaders also “cast out demons” (Luke 11:19). The context is the Beelzeboul controversy. Jesus wonders why the Jewish religious leaders assign his power to cast out demons to Beelzeboul, but claim that God’s power works through their own exorcists. The logic does not work according to his figuring.
William Lane concludes that “the heart of Jesus’ mission is to confront Satan and to crush him on all fields, and in the fulfillment of his task he is conscious of being the agent of irresistible power.”4
- Jesus’ ability to ‘cast out demons’ signals God’s presence for human salvation. His ability to expel Satan and restore human beings illustrates graphically the essential nature of salvation;
- to what degree do we continue Jesus’ work today as we obey the Great Commission? Do we see our ministry as the active confrontation of Satan and possessing the ‘land’, i.e. liberating people? If so, how engaged are we in this freedom work?
- we never read that Jesus experienced fear when confronting Satan. He knew he possessed ‘irresistible power’ and Satan must surrender. In our case, however, confrontations with Satan are fearful experiences. No wonder we need the powerful courage of the Spirit to live and serve boldly.
- 1Mark 1:34,39; 3:15,22,23; 6:13; 7:26; 9:18,28,38.
- 2Graham Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist. A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993): 109.
- 3Josephus, Antiquities 6.211.
- 4William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974): 143