“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man…” (Matt 12:43)
If Jesus’ interactions with the Jewish leaders could be described as combustible, then Matthew 12 is when the match was lit. In relentlessly caustic terms, Jesus heaped scorn on them for their wicked attitudes. They had “condemned the guiltless” (Matt 12:7) of violating the Sabbath, “went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him” (Matt 12:14) for His miraculous healing on the Sabbath, and accused Him of casting out demons by Beelzebub (Matt 12:24). They were a “brood of vipers” (Matt 12:34). Jesus asked how they, “being evil”, could speak good things (Matt 12:34). He labeled them “an evil and adulterous generation” (Matt 12:39) for seeking a sign from Him. In this context, Jesus utters a confusing and misunderstood little parable about an unclean spirit and its journey and applies it to “this wicked generation” (Matt 12:45). It holds an important lesson for us.
“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none” (Matt 12:43). Jesus speaks from the point of view of a demon evicted from its home. He has been displaced, and is obviously unhappy about it. He travels, “seeking rest, and finds none”—a miserable, unsatisfied existence. “Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order” (Matt 12:44). The unclean spirit attempts to again possess the man who was his home—and finds the man more than willing to have him back! Not only is he allowed entry, but the house is empty, swept, and put in order—ready for demon habitation! “Then he goes and take with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first” (Matt 12:45). Finding his home far better than he left it, he decides to bring seven worse spirits so they can all live together and torment this man. Truly does Jesus say, “the last state of that man is worse than the first”. Jesus makes the application: “So shall it also be with this wicked generation” (Matt 12:45).
God is willing to bless us—as He allowed the demon to be cast out of the man—yet those blessings do not insulate us from further problems. The demon came back and tormented the man again. The Jews of Jesus’ day were allowed to see His glory, benefit from His miracles, rejoice in His teaching, and learn from His example. Yet all this did not make them holy—that was a decision they had to make. If “this generation” was unwilling to truly change after all the blessings Jesus brought, it would have been better for Him not to come. “The last state” of rejecting God’s Son would be “worse than the first”.
God expects true reform from sin. John came preaching, “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matt 3:8), and Jesus demanded “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”(Matt 4:17). God will take away our sins—He will cast out the demons, so to speak—but still expects us to make changes in our lives. And this is the key: change is not something God can do for us! We must fill up our house rather than leaving it empty, swept, and put in order ready for sin to return. We must keep our hands busy in good things so that sin does not return in greater measure. But when we accept God’s blessings without accepting our responsibility to change, it will be said of us: “the last state of that man is worse than the first”.
The call to Christians is to replace formerly wicked behaviors with righteous ones. It will not do to leave the time and energy we once used for sin to sit unused—sin will soon return, and in greater measure. We must “put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts” (Eph 4:22). But take note! We must also “put on the new man, which was created according to God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24). Paul explains this in some detail: where we once lied, we must stop and instead speak truth (v. 25). Stealing must end, and work take its place (v. 28). Corrupt language is replaced by words that build up and impart grace (v. 29). It has been said, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”, and this principle is confirmed by Scripture. Fill up your life with the works of Jesus, or don’t be surprised when sin returns in spades.
Sadly, Jesus was right. Many of “this wicked generation” basked in the glory of the Son of God, only to turn away unchanged. They rejected Him and returned to their evil ways. Yet for a precious few, the blessings of God were seized and appreciated. Permanent change took place, and they now rest in righteousness. How will you respond to the blessings of our God? Which camp will you be in?