Soul for Rent

Matthew 12:43-45

July 30, 2016 | Ray Pritchard

Listen to this Sermon

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation” (Matthew 12:43-45).

Every word in this little story serves a purpose.
Evil lives in the heart, then leaves, then returns.
The man ends up worse off than in the beginning.

If we say, “But I am in church so this could not be me,” let us not be so sure.

This story has a tone of shock and sadness

Each story Jesus told has its own tone. This one has a tone of shock and sadness meant to produce a disquiet in our soul. The warning springs from love and comes from the One who reads every heart. He knows how easy it is to give the appearance of devotion and yet have an empty heart.

When Joseph Parker of London preached on this text over a century ago, he began his sermon by commenting that Jesus rarely said no. He almost always said yes.

He said yes to the hurting.
He said yes to the guilty.
He said yes to the confused.
He said yes to the hopeless.
He said yes to the downtrodden.
He said yes to the rejected.

Jesus nearly always said yes. He delighted to encourage and to console. He fulfilled the words of Isaiah 42:3, “A bruised reed he will not break.” He did not come to heap more pain on those who suffer. He came to lift the load and bear the burdens of those whose lives had been ruined by sin. Joseph Parker put it plainly: “He never frightens without a reason.” Every word has a purpose.

Jesus nearly always said yes

That’s why this story startles us.
Here is a time when Jesus said no.

This little parable is not about prostitutes. Jesus never said a harsh word to a prostitute. He met them where they were and pointed them to a new and better life.

When Jesus said these words, he wasn’t talking to those addicted to some enslaving habit. Jesus never had a harsh word to say to those unfortunate souls. He loved them, and they loved him. He was a friend of sinners.

When Jesus told this story, he was talking to the most religious people in ancient Israel. These words were not directed at notorious sinners but to religious people whose religion had hardened their hearts. They stood in danger of hell every day, and they didn’t realize it. Jesus was talking to men who made their living studying the Torah of God, and he doesn’t sound very friendly. This parable was for the scribes and the Pharisees and the whole religious establishment. Lest they miss the point, he even says, “The last condition of this man is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this evil generation” (v. 45).

No prostitute ever blasphemed his name, but the religious leaders did

Jesus takes dead aim at the people who thought these words could never apply to them. Here’s a shocking thought:

No prostitute ever blasphemed his name.
But the religious leaders did.

No addict ever blasphemed his name.
But the religious leaders did.

What should we learn from this little story? If we ponder it carefully, we can see how the devil captures a soul in three steps.

Step # 1: Reformation

Remember the trajectory of the story. In the beginning there was a man under the grip of an evil spirit. If you want to call him demon-possessed, that would certainly be true. Sin has a stranglehold on his life. It would not be wrong to say he was a slave to sin. His life had no positive meaning. He sinned and sinned again and then sinned again. That was his life, his pattern, and he could do nothing about it.

At some point the demon leaves the man. Jesus doesn’t explain how or why that happens, and it is useless to speculate. The evil spirit leaves the man and begins to wander in the waterless desert.

This man was enslaved to sin

Now things start to improve. When you get to the middle of the story, he has cleaned up his life. The self-destructive habits suddenly are gone. Perhaps we should make it more literal. In our day there are many men and women enslaved by pornography. It flows across the Internet like a vast, filthy stream. No matter how wise and good and strong you are, you are always only one click away from disaster. It flows freely from the polluted springs of perverted, depraved minds. It has captured and enslaved so many people inside and outside the church.

So let us suppose pornography has a grip on this man. It controls and enslaves him. Then one day he is set free. The evil spirit leaves and the desperate urges leave with it. One day the habit loses its hold. One day the compulsion disappears.

Suddenly he was free!

The man lives for days and weeks and months and never goes back to those hidden, dark corners of the Internet. Oh, the freedom he feels. The urges that were dragging him down to hell have disappeared.

Upon a day, someone says something slightly suggestive to him. Or someone sends him an email. Or he hits a moment of weakness when he is tired and angry and discouraged. He remembers what he used to look at. And just like that, the memories come flooding back. In less time than it takes to tell the story, the flood overwhelms him, and he is back in the pit again.

In the end, what he never thought possible has happened. He is far worse off than he ever was before. Shame overwhelms him even as he plunges deeper and deeper. What has happened? Satan called a retreat to set up an ambush, and the man walked right into it.

He  got rid of the evil, but he never replaced it with the good

He made one fundamental mistake. He got rid of the evil, but he never replaced it with the good. Once the evil spirit left him, he made a sort of moral reformation, but his heart never changed.

He swept the house clean.
He got rid of the dirt.
He wiped the crud off the walls.
He cleaned the vomit out of the sink.

He made the house look good, but he didn’t put anything in place of the evil. The house was furnished and ready for someone to move in. It was clean but empty.

Jesus said this man was worse off in the end than he was at the beginning. It happened so subtly that onlookers knew nothing about it. That leads me to an important point: Many people who seem free struggle terribly on the inside. That fact should not surprise us or discourage us. The Apostle Paul said as much in Romans 7 when he talked about the inner struggle between the pull of good and evil. We like to think we are doing better than we are. We clean up pretty well on Sunday morning. We look good, we’re dressed up, pressed up, and we’re all smiles. We know the routine. We know what to say. But behind every smiling face there is a story. If you get to know people long enough, you discover everyone is having a hard time. We all fall short in many ways. I’ve often said if we knew the naked truth about each other, we would run screaming from the auditorium, and we’d never come back.

We clean up pretty well on Sunday morning

If I knew the truth about you . . .
And you knew the truth about me . . .
And we all knew the truth about each other . . .

Well, we’d all be in for a big shock.

Many people who appear to be free struggle with anger, resentment, rage, bitterness, a critical spirit, lust, dishonesty, cruelty, fear, doubt, unbelief, and unforgiveness. We go to church and nobody knows our story. We’re scared to say anything about it because we’re church people, and what would the other church people say about us?

The man in this story ended up in a very bad place and most of his friends didn’t know it because the battles of the heart are rarely seen by others.

Step #2: Relief

Give this man his due. When the demon came back and saw the house he had left, it had been swept clean. The clutter was gone, the dirt had been swept up, the walls had been repainted, the windows repaired, the graffiti washed away, the locks replaced, the carpet shampooed, the lawn mowed, and the flowers replanted.

Everything looked great.
Give this man all the credit he deserves.

Change is hard

We all understand change is hard, and it seems like the older wed get, the harder change becomes because we get set in our ways. This man, by hard work and deep resolution, had managed to vastly improve his life.

It’s always good to get rid of outward disorder. God bless all those organizations that exist to help men and women break free of the destructive patterns of addictive behavior. God bless all those who help hurting people and try to restore those who have been broken by life. It’s hard work, and they deserve our prayers and our support. They do tremendous good in the world.

This man’s triumph didn’t last because it was incomplete. Let me give you something to ponder. Small victories can be a curse. They can lead us to pride and to ultimate destruction. Incomplete success makes us look in the mirror and congratulate ourselves on something we haven’t really done. It makes us think we’re the one who made it happen, that we deserve the credit for breaking the habit, that we somehow managed to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps.

Success is a lousy teacher

Whenever you see a turtle on a fencepost, you know one thing for certain. He didn’t get there by himself. Someone had to put him there. Bill Gates remarked that success is a lousy teacher. It makes smart people think they can do no wrong.

So this man did some admirable housecleaning. He got his life in order—to a point. He changed his habits and made things better on the outside. But nothing changed on the inside.

Step # 3: Relapse

The problem was not pornography—and it never is.
The problem was not alcohol—and it never is.
The problem was not drug abuse—and it never is.
The problem was not sexual immorality—and it never is.

The problem is deeper

Those things are terrible, but they point to a deeper problem. Many years ago I knew a young man who was struggling mightily with a certain form of sexual sin. He was far gone down the path of destructive behavior. Here’s the kicker. His father was a Baptist minister. That meant he had been exposed to the gospel and to biblical teaching. I recall one thing he said to me that came from the words of Jesus in Matthew 3:10, The ax is already at the root of the trees.” The young man said when it comes to breaking sinful habits, you have to lay the ax at the root of the tree. You can’t just chop off the branches because they will grow back. You have to get down to the root of the matter. That’s hard to do because the roots are hidden. It’s much easier to hack off the branches of bad behavior while leaving the roots in place.

In the story Jesus told, cleaning the house was like hacking away the diseased branches. It left the evil root system intact. So while the house superficially looked better, it was still empty. That’s why the last state of the man was worse than the first. His life was like a furnished apartment, ready for rent.

No soul can stay unoccupied

No soul can stay unoccupied for very long. Either the Lord will come in, or the evil spirits will return. We know this is true because the demon says to himself, “I will return to my house (v. 44 ESV). Somehow he knew all that outward reformation counted for nothing. The house was still empty, and an empty house meant the demon could go back any time.

So he did. Only this time he brought along seven of his buddies—seriously bad demons, much worse than himself. It would be like a gang of hoodlums finding an empty house and making it their own, only this is happening in the spirit realm.

So I imagine the demon going back to the house and knocking on the door: “Hello. Anybody there?” When no one answered, the demon would say, “Hello. Jesus? Are you there?” If Jesus comes to the door, the demon has to leave. But if Jesus doesn’t answer, the demon is free to enter.

In this case, the demon enters, calls seven of his buddies, and says, “I found a house we can live in.” So eight demons move in to the house because the man has cleaned himself up by moral reformation, but he has not filled the empty house with Christ.

Religious people need this story

This story stays in the mind because it applies to you and me. Jesus aimed his words, not to prostitutes or addicts, but to morally upright religious types.

Folks like you and me.

If you go to church long enough, you stand in great danger of believing you are better than you really are. You start to believe your own PR, and you go to church, hear a sermon, and say, “I wish so-and-so could hear this,” when in fact you need it more than they do.

Something in all of us wants to substitute moral reformation for genuine salvation. The more religious we are, the more likely we are to clean up the outside and leave the inside empty. When you leave the house clean but empty, you have opened yourself up to seven devils worse than the first.

When Christ Comes In

When George Morrison of Scotland preached on this text, he commented that we talk about the indwelling Christ as if it were an abstract doctrine. But it is not abstract. It is the truth that sets us free.

It’s easy to substitute moral reformation for faith in Christ

When we come to Christ, he comes to us.|
When we trust in Christ, he dwells with us.
When we believe in Christ, he takes up residence within us.
When we say yes to Jesus, he makes our heart his home.

No amount of moral reformation can accomplish that. Only the new birth from above can bring Christ into the human heart. No amount of religion can do what conversion does. We may stop our bad habits and become better people, but that will do nothing to fill the God-shaped vacuum in the heart.

Christ alone makes the difference

Christ alone makes the difference.

Jesus never says, “Clean yourself up, and I will come in.” No, the invitation is always, “Believe in me, and I will give you a brand-new life.” The gospel gives you something much better than what it drives away.

We discover the power of the indwelling Christ in the moment of bitter temptation. When we feel pulled to take the downward path, Christ within says, “No, there is a better way.” He not only points us in a new direction, he also gives us the power to walk that way. An old chorus points out the difference between moral reformation and the gospel:

“Do this and live,” the Law commands,
But gives me neither feet nor hands.
A better word the gospel brings,
Bids me fly and gives me wings.

That last part—bids me fly and gives me wings—is a pure miracle.

Don’t be like this man!

Every sermon should have an application, so here’s mine. Jesus told a sad story about a man who cleaned up his life but left his heart empty and ended up much worse off.

Don’t be like him!

When it comes to your works, don’t just run away from your bad works. Run away from your good works and run to Jesus.

Believe in him!
Trust in him!
Welcome him into your heart!

That way when the devil comes and knocks at your door—and, my friends, he comes again and again and again—when he comes, send Jesus to answer in your place. The devil will flee for he cannot enter where Jesus has already moved in.

The devil flees when Jesus shows up

Oh, the wonderful truth of the indwelling Christ. It is fine and good to go to church and to live as a Christian. But it will not help you unless Christ is living in your heart. Some people have cleaned up on the outside, but they have never been washed in the blood of the Lamb. We need to meet Jesus. Here’s a little chorus we used to sing that brings the truth home:

Into my heart, into my heart,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Come in today, come in to stay,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

May God help you to open your heart and say, “Lord Jesus, you are welcome here.”

Lord Jesus, come and slay the enemy within.
Come and crush the devil in my soul.
Come and defeat the enemy who would destroy me.
Come and fill my heart with your indwelling power.
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?