I approach a text for preaching with three basic questions on my mind. First, what does the text actually say? Second, what is God saying to this particular group of people through this particular text at this particular time? Third, what is the best way to say it? Since a text can say many things—and usually does—sometimes this means good stuff gets left on the editing room floor, so to speak. Sunday’s sermon was one of those sermons. Since there are some important things left unsaid during the sermon, I will write about them here.
Let’s remember where we were in John 12:20–50. After raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus began to draw a much larger crowd. The Sanhedrin (Israel’s governing council under the authority of Rome) decided to have him killed rather than risk Rome fearing an uprising and taking away the Sanhedrin’s limited authority and status in Jewish society. When Jesus entered Jerusalem he was greeted by the crowds who waved palm branches and sang from Psalm 118, hailing Jesus as king. Sometime time after a group of Greeks looked for Jesus. They approached Philip. The name “Philip” is Greek; it’s likely that Philip’s appearance would have reflected more Greek culture than Jewish culture, particularly since John points out that he was from Bethsaida, which is near the Decapolis, or Ten Cities. These cities were largely Gentile cities. The style of dress in Bethsaida probably looked more like the Decapolis than it did Jerusalem, so the Greeks spotted someone with whom they could communicate.
When Philip (and Andrew) told Jesus some Greeks were looking for him he declared that his hour had come. John indicated numerous times prior to this that his hour had not yet come, but when those of other nations begin seeking him, he knows his hour has arrived. He tells the crowd that he must die by crucifixion (“when I am lifted up”). After the Father spoke audibly to Jesus so that even the crowds could hear—though not understand—Jesus said this:
Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.John 12:31 ESV
The crowds declare Jesus to be the King God promised. He affirmed this acclamation by riding a donkey so as to the fulfill the prophecy that said to Israel, “Behold, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt” (John 12:15). When the nations began to seek after him he declared the time of his death had arrived. God the Father affirmed Jesus by speaking from heaven for all to hear. Then Jesus said the ruler of this world will be cast out. And that’s it. That’s all he says about the ruler of this world.
It is clear from other Scriptures that the ruler of this world is Satan, the devil himself. In Ephesians 2:2 Paul wrote of Satan as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” In chapter 6, verse 12 of that same letter he wrote, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
What are we to make of this? John doesn’t give it much emphasis, though he included this declaration by Jesus. Luke gives us more insight in his Gospel:
The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”Luke 10:17–20 ESV
Jesus had sent them into the surrounding towns and villages to preach the gospel. When they returned they gave this report: even the demons are subject to them in his name. Notice carefully Jesus’ response: I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Now consider what Matthew wrote in his Gospel when Jesus was accused of casting out demons through the power of Satan. Jesus said in response,
But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.Matthew 12:28–29 ESV
The truth is that Jesus came to disarm the spiritual forces of evil in this world, and this was accomplished at the cross. When Jesus tells the disciples that he saw Satan fall like lightning, he was indicating that Satan’s power was being curtailed. It was being limited, restricted in some significant way. This does not mean Satan is unable to act in this world. Rather, it means that while he may be on a very long leash (or so it seems at times), he remains on a leash, and when the hand that holds the leash chooses to pull back, that dog must obey! Evil is not unrestrained in this world, and this restraint is connected directly to the death of Jesus on the cross. Paul makes this connection explicitly for us in his letter to the Colossians.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.Colossians 2:13–15 ESV
When Jesus died on the cross for our sins, he disarmed the rulers and authorities. To continue the previous metaphor, the dog was muzzled. He can still bark and scratch and charge at you, but his bark is truly worse than his bite.
As followers of Jesus we ought not parade around rejoicing that even the demons are subject to us in Jesus’ name, for that is not our doing. Rather, we rejoice, as Jesus said in Luke 10, that our names are written in heaven. We must not live in fear of spiritual forces of evil, yet we must recognize that even a muzzled dog can cause harm. A large dog can scratch and bump into you and knock you over. What it cannot do is bite. We must have a healthy respect for forces of evil in the heavenly places, yet we must not fear them, for the hand that holds their leash has a firm grip. Let us rejoice in the victory of Jesus at the cross, a victory that secures our salvation, but also protects us from the evil one who wishes to destroy us. In Jesus’ hands we are completely and utterly safe.