Bible read me 2Continuing a study of the passages from Luke’s Gospel which have been omitted from the three-year Lectionary for public worship, today’s post is part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Luke 11:24-26

Return of an Unclean Spirit

 24 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ 25And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. 26Then it goes and brings 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.”


Today’s reading relates to superficial morality, present in Jesus’s day and in ours. 

Jesus’s words here are important for anyone who has ever been harmed by moralistic churches or families.

In last week’s post, some of the Judeans — influenced by the self-righteous Jewish hierarchy — accused our Lord of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebul, or Satan.

Matthew’s account, also in that post, carries Jesus’s warning about the divine condemnation of anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit.

What followed were Christ’s words about His true followers, those who display grace-filled fruits of faith (Matthew 12:33-37):

A Tree Is Known by Its Fruit

 33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

These words went over the heads of the scribes and Pharisees confronting Him. Instead of examining their own thoughts and conduct, they turned to Jesus and asked Him for ‘a sign’. Jesus responded by calling them an ‘evil and adulterous generation’ (Matthew 12:39).

Following His rebuke, He then said (Matthew 12:43-45, emphases mine):

Return of an Unclean Spirit

 43“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44Then 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. 45Then 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.”

When the early Church was being established, St Peter wrote similarly to his converts (2 Peter 2:20):

20For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.

Now on to Luke’s verses. In verse 24, Jesus referred to the demons which had been temporarily exorcised by certain Jewish priests who performed this function in His era. He was also referring, John MacArthur says, to those who converted under John the Baptist and had fallen back into sin. That was not John the Baptist’s fault but the result of the convert placing more trust in morality than grace-filled faith. The result was a moralistic hypocrite, no different to the Jewish priests condemning Jesus.

Matthew Henry explains the phenomenon of false conversion:

(1.) The condition of a formal hypocrite, his bright side and his dark side. His heart still remains the devil’s house he calls it his own, and he retains his interest in it and yet, [1.] The unclean spirit is gone out. He was not driven out by the power of converting grace there was none of that violence which the kingdom of heaven suffers but he went out, withdrew for a time, so that the man seemed not to be under the power of Satan as formerly, nor so followed with his temptations. Satan is gone, or has turned himself into an angel of light. [2.] The house is swept from common pollutions, by a forced confession of sin, as Pharaoh’s–a feigned contrition for it, as Ahab’s,–and a partial reformation, as Herod’s. There are those that have escaped the pollutions of the world, and yet are still under the power of the god of this world, 2 Peter 2:20. The house is swept, but it is not washed and Christ hath said, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me the house must be washed, or it is none of his. Sweeping takes off only the loose dirt, while the sin that besets the sinner, the beloved sin, is untouched. It is swept from the filth that lies open to the eye of the world, but it is not searched and ransacked for secret filthiness, Matthew 23:25. It is swept, but the leprosy is in the wall, and will be till something more be done. [3.] The house is garnished with common gifts and graces. It is not furnished with any true grace, but garnished with the pictures of all graces. Simon Magus was garnished with faith, Balaam with good desires, Herod with a respect for John, the Pharisees with many external performances. It is garnished, but it is like a potsherd covered with silver dross, it is all paint and varnish, not real, not lasting. The house is garnished, but the property is not altered it was never surrendered to Christ, nor inhabited by the Spirit. Let us therefore take heed of resting in that which a man may have and yet come short.

This is what Jesus means by the expelled demons seeking refreshment and a new home (verse 24).

He went on to explain that the returning demon finds a clean, tidy soul trying to be morally correct (verse 25). Consequently, the demon invites more evil spirits there, worse than he (verse 26). This multiplication of evil spirits puts the inhabited soul in a worse state than before he temporarily repented.

Recall the well-known maxim, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’. This is its spiritual equivalent.

John MacArthur explains what a clean but empty dwelling means:

That’s the problem. Cleaned up but empty. And if the living God is not present there, you have a disaster. Listen to 2 Peter 2:20, “If after people have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” people who get some idea about Christ, some idea about the gospel and they’re attracted to it and they want to clean their lives up so they escape certain defilements. “But if after that they are entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.” And Peter has to be echoing what Jesus said. If you just try to clean your life up, maybe even in the name of Jesus, but it’s empty in there, you’re going to go right back, get entangled again, be overcome and end up in a worse condition. And then Peter says this amazing statement. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than having known it turn away from the holy commandment delivered to them. He says they’re like dogs returning to their vomit and pigs returning to the mire.

MacArthur cautions us against adopting an extreme morality not in keeping with the New Covenant, i.e. ‘If you don’t do this [e.g. refrain from alcohol and eating pork], you’ll rot in hell’. Or pointing a finger at others, telling them decisively that we’re saved and they’re not. He warns:

There really is no more serious danger than the danger of morality. It’s like the leper with no sense of pain. Such a person destroys himself without knowing it. Leprosy is a nerve disease that obliterates feeling. And lepers rub off their fingers and rub off their feet and rub off their faces because they can’t feel anything. This is the deadly danger of morality.

He adds:

So to attempt to clean your life up without Christ coming to dwell there is to be exposed to an even greater danger. That statement, “The last state of that man becomes worse than the first,” is very definitive. In the end, being moral is more dangerous than being immoral. There is no benefit in reformation without regeneration. And this is exactly what the Jews did, exactly what they did. And that’s why in verse 29, the next verse, He began to say, “This generation is a wicked generation.” Well they wouldn’t see it that way at all. They thought they were a righteous generation and that’s why they hated Jesus. They were moral but filthy. They were void of the purifying presence of God. They were damned by morality, damned by religion, damned by reformation.

Some of my readers might find MacArthur’s introduction to his sermon surprising, given that he is a conservative Protestant himself. Yet, he prefaced his exposition of Luke’s verses by saying to his congregation:

We have all in our lifetime and certainly in recent years been exposed to a current trend in evangelicalism in America that we could call a trend toward morality. It is not exclusive to evangelicals. The Roman Catholic Church has always upheld morality. The Mormons have upheld morality. There are many other religious groups, cults, that make an issue out of morality. Many years ago there was a moral movement in America known as Moral Rearmament. And then more recent years there was the Moral Majority and now that Moral Majority is sort of been redefined as The Religious Right. And we’ve always heard a lot about the importance of Judeo Christian values and how critical it is to teach morality to our children and to call America back to moral living and moral conduct. There are many evangelical churches that have made a major emphasis on this issue of morality, many evangelicals, as you well know, have become involved in politicking at all levels in order to effect moral change in America through lobbying, through use of money to buy influence here and there, by pressure, politics, by protests and etc., etc.

There is a grave concern about the immorality of our world and about the immorality of our nation. And certainly I agree that morality is better than immorality, that morality has inherent in it a certain sort of human goodness. And obviously I am supportive of what is the divine standard, the moral code that God has revealed on the pages of Scripture in His very clear commandments.

Having said that, however, I want to say something that may surprise you. Morality is more dangerous than immorality. Morality is more dangerous than immorality.

Now that may shock you, it may surprise you. But it shouldn’t … There is a very serious danger in moral reformation without regeneration. There’s a very serious danger in endeavoring to live your life according to Jude[o-]Christian values without salvation. Reformation without transformation puts a person in a very, very dangerous position.

I suppose the greatest illustration that we know anything about in human history is the Pharisees. They were classic moralists down to the minutia. The Apostle Paul being one of them could even say that a…measuring his life against the Law he was blameless. They lived by a complex ethical code. They demanded that life be controlled by moral standards. They demanded this ethical moral behavior be based upon the laws of their own tradition and the hottest hell awaited them. Morality gained them nothing and it cost them everything. It was morality that caused them to reject the Messiah. That’s why Jesus said to them, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” It is the righteous, it is the moral, it is the religious, it is the self-satisfied, self-congratulating, moral people, the people who uphold the traditional values who are resistant to the true diagnosis of their spiritual condition.

So, if you’ve been hurt by church, especially via your families, that damage had nothing to do with Christ or His teachings. You were living and worshipping with modern-day Pharisees.

This is why it is important to follow a moderate course, the way Christ taught. Focus on Him, God’s grace and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Pray for the Trinity’s help and read the New Testament as often as you can. Pray for wisdom and understanding, not morality or compulsory good works. True fruits of faith are sure to follow.

Next time: Luke 11:27-28