“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.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then 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” (Luke 11:24-26)
This passage has been explained in more ways than one. It has been used in sermons to warn of backsliding or to emphasize our need to be cleansed from sin or the dangers of demonic possession and need for exorcism, all to the disservice of the original audience. What did this passage mean to them? Lets look at the surrounding context. Backing up two chapters, in Luke 9:51-53 we read these words:
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”
From this point forward, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. The NET Bible states “he set out resolutely to go to Jerusalem.” He had a resolve to proclaim to Jerusalem its faithlessness, rebellion, and coming destruction.
“During the journey that followed the turning point in Luke 9:51, Jesus told at least 14 politically charged threats of judgment in parable form. Before the great divorce Jesus would lay out the whole case. Here is how we should understand the relevant parables in this section of Scripture” (Joel McDurmon).
Jesus was bringing a covenant lawsuit to Jerusalem, culminating with the announcement of its destruction in chapter 21.
Immediately preceding our text, Jesus was accused of casting out demons by Beelzebul. He then tells a parable about a strong man. He states that a kingdom divided against itself is laid waste and falls. If he casts out demons by Beelzebul, Satan would be divided against himself. How will his kingdom stand? Jesus then presents the alternative and gives the Jewish audience one of two options: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (v.20). “Whoever is not with me is against me..(v. 23). Either the stronger man or the man who is bound (see Matt. 12:29). If they reject Jesus, the Stronger man, then their house is left swept and susceptible to an attack from Satan. A kingdom divided against itself is laid waste (v. 17).
So back to our text. What do we make of it? What would our original audience have thought? Joel McDurmon, in his book Jesus v. Jerusalem, explains,
“Four times in Leviticus 26 God promises that if the rebellious Jews do not respond to his chastisements, He will punish them seven times more for their sins (Lev. 26:18, 21, 24, 28). In Jesus’ parable in Luke 11:26, the cast-out demon goes and finds seven more demons to return and possess the desolate house. In announcing this seven-fold worse punishment, God phrases it this way: “I will set my face against you” (Lev. 26:17). The Greek phrase in the Old Testament Greek (Septuagint) is the same as in our turning-point passage here (Luke 9:51): Jesus “set His face” to go to Jerusalem. In Leviticus 26:17, God says His face will be set against the people. This Greek phrase eph’ humas “against you” obviously designates judgment in this context. The exact same phrase appears in the Strong Man parable: “the kingdom of God has come upon you [eph’ humas]” (Luke 11:20). In the person of Jesus, the Strong Man, the kingdom had indeed come not only “upon” but literally “against” the unfaithful people.”
This is an indictment against the Jewish people, who would be well familiar with the reference to Leviticus. God would punish them seven times more for their sins. They are either with Jesus or without him. Rejecting him leaves their house empty, to be re-possessed not just by one but eight demons. It will ultimately leave their house desolate. This is not a passage that gives us an immediate charge to go and cast out demons today or simply to pursue holiness. It’s interpretation is in the first-century context of unbelieving Israel. How else do I know this? Because in Matthew’s parallel passage, he adds the following words: “So also will it be with this evil generation.”
Expectation and repentance came with John the Baptist. Yet when the Messiah came, he was rejected by his people. The unclean spirit returned with seven more, a seven-fold worse punishment.
I will let William Hendrikson conclude:
“Religiously things had not always been as bad as they were now. There had been a time when the positive note, “Be converted,” sounded by John the Baptist, had gained many followers (Matt. 3:5; Luke 3:7)……..It may have seemed for a while that a demon had been driven out of the Israel of the day. But under the influence of scribes and Pharisees, envious men, the picture was even now rapidly changing…..And at last the Jewish people as represented in front of the cross will cry out, “Crucify, crucify.” They will do so prompted by their leaders. The one demon was being replaced by eight.”