The Unclean Spirit Returns: Jesus and the Tragedy of a Generation Lost

When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it roams through waterless places looking for rest but doesn’t find any. Then it says, “I’ll go back to my house that I came from.” And returning, it finds the house vacant, swept, and put in order. Then off it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and settle down there. As a result, that man’s last condition is worse than the first. That’s how it will also be with this evil generation. (Matthew 12:43–45)

With this final story, Jesus brought the heated interaction of Matthew 12 to a close. After promising the Pharisees that he would soon show them the greatest sign in history — the sign of the prophet Jonah — — he left them with a final warning.

It was a deeply sobering, even frightening, one.

Unclean Spirits and Waterless Places

Before we discuss Jesus’s final point, it’s worth unpacking the details of his warning a little — if only because they are full of unfamiliar concepts that doubtlessly raise a lot of questions for us, who are generally less familiar with open demonic activity and exorcism than his original audience was. When a demon leaves a human host, he told them, it wanders through arid places looking for a new home. When it doesn’t find one, it comes back to the original host — bringing all its friends with it.

It’s pretty safe to assume that this whole concept wasn’t foreign to his original audience. They’d probably seen this happen before. So they also understood an underlying implication that’s not really spelled out here — that nothing else had occupied the original person in the meantime. Rather than becoming God’s, through repentance and faith and faithfulness to God, the person had simply remained empty and open.

Jesus, who regularly threw demons out of people, wasn’t dooming all of those people to become possessed in even worse fashion. The people he delivered stayed delivered, or at least, most of them did.

But what’s meant, you may wonder, by “waterless places”?

Well, even in the Old Testament, demons were believed to dwell in desert places — arid wilderness regions (see Leviticus 16:8 for example, especially in the footnote where alternate translations are listed). So this may be quite literal. Or it may be a metaphor: a waterless place is an uninhabitable place; no one can or will settle where there is no water. The point is, whether the dry places are physical or spiritual — desert rocks or human beings who simply aren’t fit for demonic habitation — the homeless spirit Jesus described didn’t find a ready welcome anywhere.

So, it ultimately returned to the last well-watered, welcoming, hospitable place it had lived — the original human host. Taking with it seven more spirits even worse than itself.

Again, it’s very possible the Pharisees — who were exorcists themselves — had seen this kind of thing before. Perhaps they’d tried to drive the demons out of the Gadarene demoniacs back in Matthew 8, before they moved into the tombs and started howling at the sky. Before their problems became legion.

More prosaically, in ways that don’t necessarily involve demonic possession, most of us have seen this too — if you try to work a quick fix for any major personal problem, without actually dealing with the underlying issues and filling the empty spaces that problem was trying to medicate, a lot of things are apt to come back worse the second time.

Anyway, after reminding the Pharisees of this unpleasant reality, Jesus leveled the reality at them: “That’s how it will also be with this evil generation.”

Remember How This Began

To understand this closing, we have to remember where the conversation started. This entire confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees began when he cast a demon out of a man who was blind and mute due to demon possession. The Pharisees reacted by accusing Jesus of using satanic power to exorcise demons: “The man drives out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24).

If that statement wasn’t blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, it was the closest to it the Pharisees had ever come (which is why Jesus took the opportunity to warn them about that particular sin). And Jesus was not soft in the way he responded to them.

But notice something: Jesus did not simply tell them that their hearts were evil (although he did say that) or warn them about crossing the eternal line (although he did do that) or rebuke them for their lack of logic (although he did that too).

In his response, he actually did something eschatological — except that in this case, his eschatology (his doctrine of last things) was early. He revealed to them something astonishing about the time in which they lived:

“If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you. How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.” (Matthew 12:28-29)

Jesus’s exorcisms were not just a case of a man exercising extraordinary power; they were a sign of the times. A new era had arrived. The long-awaited messianic kingdom had come — and the proof of its arrival was Satan bound, demons fleeing, the bonds of wickedness loosed and the oppressed set free.

With Jesus present on the earth, baptised for ministry, and on a mission, the kingdom of God was here. The Pharisees could actually see it at work. And for their entire generation, there was an opportunity to experience true deliverance and restoration on an unprecedented scale.

But that opportunity wouldn’t last forever.

This Warning Is Not About Individuals

For us, so many years in the future, it’s natural to read what Jesus said here in isolation — as though what he was doing was issuing a warning about how exorcism works for individuals.

But what Jesus says here, while it might have held true in some individual cases, is not about individuals. Although he began his illustration with “when an unclean spirit comes out of a man,” it was an illustration. He wasn’t talking about a man but about a generation. To hear his warning properly, we need to recall that context.

As one who always played fair, Jesus was warning the Pharisees and their entire generation in Israel that if they did not embrace the kingdom of God as it had actually come to them, their experience of deliverance and healing through the power of Jesus and his followers would be temporary and their final state would be worse than the first.

Is it any wonder his message wasn’t popular?

The Pharisees, the Zealots, and the rest did not at all expect to end up in a state of being oppressed and overrun. Exactly the opposite. Because they believed God was on the side of their political vision, they expected to end up free and in power. They fully expected God to show up for them with miracles and might to rival the days of the exodus or of David killing Goliath. They fully expected him to bless their plots and their plans.

They thought they were going to overthrow Rome.
They thought they were going to fight their way to freedom and power.
They thought God was going to bless anything they did in his name, because they thought they were entitled to his favor through their birthright as Israelites and through their zeal for the law.

But Jesus told them that if they did not receive him as messiah and king — despite the fact that he wasn’t on their political page at all — the future wouldn’t shape up the way they expected at all.

Rather than getting their country back and being exalted to power and independence, their last state would be worse than the first.

In many ways, this statement from Jesus was just the first in a series of pronouncements he would soon make regarding the judgment to come — not far off in the future, in the last judgment day when the Ninevites and Sodomites and the queen of the south would arise and condemn those who rejected Jesus, but in their own day — in their own generation.

Jesus came gentle and humble, meek and winsome, a friend to sinners and a companion of the lowly. He healed and delivered and saved. But the stakes for his generation could not have been higher.

It’s worth asking — are they any less high for us?

If nature abhors a vacuum, so, Jesus tells us, does the spiritual world. If we will not receive God when he comes to us, there are plenty of other players waiting in the wings.

But it’s also worth asking whether our expectations are truly aligned with God’s. Do we, like the Pharisees, think God is coming to bless our political programs and our freedom fights? Do we assume he will bless and rubberstamp anything we do in his name simply because we’re doing it in his name?

Or are we looking to see where the kingdom of God is among us, and humble ourselves in light of it — to open our hearts and our arms and embrace Jesus in our midst?

There’s an old song we used to sing in church: “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary / Pure and holy, tried and true.” Each one of us was designed to be a sanctuary, a habitation.

The question is who will dwell there.

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This is Part 219 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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2 responses to “The Unclean Spirit Returns: Jesus and the Tragedy of a Generation Lost”

  1. Nina Avatar

    Thank you Rachel for your insight. I was looking for some clarification and understanding on the “waterless places” in Matthew 12:43 when I came upon your blog post. You dissected the encounter of Jesus and the Pharisees in a way that left me realizing how “the last state will be worse than the first” applied to more than the blind and mute man, but an entire blind generation who rejected the one who came bringing with him the kingdom of God. As for waterless places, I suppose I put too much emphasis on its meaning, rather than the goal of Jesus’ teaching which was to warn the Pharisees that Jesus had come as their Savior and many did not recognize him because their expectations were not satisfied by Jesus’ gospel of repentance. Therefore they were in great danger of missing their last opportunity to experience his healing and salvation, and would instead face the greatest kind of judgment for their neglect and rejection. The last state would indeed be worse than the first. A sobering thought!

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Nina! I’m glad to have you here!

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