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Sermon Message


"The Unoccupied Heart"

Matthew 12:43-45
Theme: Jesus' parable teaches us the danger of mere 'moral reformation' without a true relationship with Christ.

(Delivered Sunday, August 27, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

Early one Sunday morning some years ago, I and another leader in the church were getting things ready for a baptismal service.

As you know, our church uses a large, free-standing baptismal tank downstairs, which we fill with a hose from the downstairs faucet. On this particular morning, we got the tank all filled and everything ready, set the baptistery aside, and started working on some other things that needed to be done. But without thinking, I had left one end of the empty hose in the water of the baptismal tank, and allowed it to hang over the side and on to the floor. When we came back about a half an hour later, we found water slowly trickling out of the hose from the baptismal tank and onto the basement floor—creating a large puddle of water that now needed to be cleaned up.

This other church leader was very patient. He happened to be an engineer; and he just smiled, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Well, Greg; that just goes to show you the remarkable efficiency of a siphon.”

After that, it was time to prove the efficiency of a mop.

* * * * * * * * * *

There's a principle involved in this . . . one that we all recognize from everyday life in the physical world. It's the principle that nature abhors a vacuum and naturally seeks to fill it.

There was an absence of water in that hose; and since one end was in the water, the water was naturally, irresistibly drawn into the hose to fill the vacuum. The more the water poured out of the other end of the hose, the more the water from the baptismal tank filled the vacuum it created—until, of course, it made a big mess on the floor!

And just as this principle applies in the physical realm, it also applies in the spiritual realm. We were not made to be empty in our inner being. We are made to be “indwelt” by someone other than ourselves. Our souls cannot exist in a vacuum. If we do not allow Jesus Christ to occupy His proper place in our inner being through the Person of His Holy Spirit, then—no matter what else we may believe—we are not simply living in a state of spiritual neutrality. We have, in fact, created a vacuum in our own souls; and that vacuum will inevitably, irresistibly, be filled by something or someone other than Jesus Christ.

To support this, let me remind you of what the apostle Paul once wrote to the Ephesian believers. He wrote to them and prayed to the Father for them that, among other things,

He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ my dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes all knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us, to Him be the glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:16-21).

What a wonderful prayer that is! And throughout Paul's glorious prayer for his brothers and sisters, he revealed his confident belief that each member of the Trinity truly could dwell in them and fill their inner being: that they would be strengthened for the trials and tribulations of life by the Holy Spirit in their inner man; that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith; that they would be filled with all the fullness of God. And, in it all, He expressed thanks for the exceedingly great power of the God who worked in them as His people.

We have a great privilege as believers—that is, to be indwelt by the Triune God! What a glorious relationship! How awesome it is to have Him take residence in our inner being! But what about those who do not have that relationship? What about those who do not believe on Christ and are still in their sins? Since God does not similarly take up residence in them, do they operate as spiritually neutral beings? Are they simply “empty” and “unoccupied”?

Well; here's what Paul says to those same Ephesian believers elsewhere in his letter:

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Whatever else they may think about themselves, unbelieving people do not live as spiritually neutral 'vacuums'; unoccupied in their inner beings. If Christ does not dwell in them, then someone else is there and is actively at work in them. This being that Paul calls “the prince of the power of the air” is no one else than the devil. He is “the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience”. Though the devil is not omnipresent, as God is, he nevertheless brings his influence to bear within the lives of unbelieving people through the host of unclean spirits who operate under his control. He truly is “working” in “the sons of disobedience”.

In other words, either Christ dwells in us, or we are under the influence of the devil. That sounds rather “black and white”, doesn't it? But that's what the Bible teaches us. The Bible recognizes only two kinds of people in this world—“the children of God and the children of the devil” (1 John 3:10). The apostle John, for example, said, “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19). Paul wrote to the Corinthians that, if the gospel is veiled or hidden from anyone, “it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). I still shudder every time I read of Judas at the last supper—of how our Lord dipped the bread and gave it to His betrayer; and of how we're told, “Now after the piece of bread, Satan entered him” (John 13:27).

So, get it fixed firmly into your minds that the principle applies just as much in the spiritual realm as in the physical—that 'nature abhors a vacuum'. If Jesus Christ does not dwell in our hearts, something else—or someone else—most certainly will!

* * * * * * * * * *

And this all brings us to this morning's passage. I believe it is a vivid expression of this important spiritual principle.

Our Lord had cast a demon out of a man who was blind and mute; and, as a result healed him so that he could both see and speak (Matthew 12:22). The religious leaders—the scribes and Pharisees who saw this miracle—dared to say that Jesus had cast the demon out of the man “by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (v. 24). In other words, they claimed that He did this by the power of the devil. Jesus responded by disproving their ridiculous and blasphemous accusation, and by warning them that they were demonstrating themselves to be evil men who speak from evil hearts.

And then, He spoke these sober words to the religious leaders who had opposed Him;

“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. 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. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of the man is worse than the first. So shall it be with this wicked generation” (Matthew 12:43-45).

* * * * * * * * * *

Jesus didn't treat the demonic realm as if it were a mere symbolic thing, or as if it were a mere superstition on the part of the people. He treated it as if it were a very real realm; and as if demons truly could indwell a man. We've already seen in Matthew's Gospel that, very often, our Lord was presented as having cast demons out of people and healing them. In fact, in the context of this morning's passage, He had just done so for a man (v. 22). The whole Bible treats the demonic realm as if it were very dangerous spiritual reality.

In Jesus' parable, then, a demon—here called “an unclean spirit”—is said to have gone out of a man. How it came to be that he went out of the man is not told to us. But whatever the reason might have been, the demon is presented in this passage as having thought of the man as his own “house”—his own dwelling place. The demon may have left the man for a time, but it doesn't seem that the demon gave up ownership of the man when he left. (I can't think of a more horrible condition to be in than one in which an evil spirit considers you to be “home-sweet-home”!)

Perhaps God had shown great mercy to the man, and allowed him release from the bondage and oppression of this demon. Perhaps God allowed the man some time to temporarily turn away from sin, and to 'reform' his life. Perhaps the man even began to be 'inclined' toward God, and to search after spiritual things. In fact, it may even be that the man heard the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ and began to be drawn to it. And perhaps God even went so far as to prohibited the devil from interfering with the man's developing faith . . . for a time. Perhaps it could be said that this man was among those that the Bible describes—people who “were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:4-5).

But there's one thing we can know for sure—and this is very important to notice. Whatever else may have been true of this man, he clearly fell short of a genuine relationship with God, and the Holy Spirit had not taken up residence within him. The demon had departed from him, and he remained “empty”. But he only remained “empty” for a short time. A vacuum had been created in his inner being; but that vacuum would not be a vacuum for long.

Once out of the man, the demon was said to be restless and dissatisfied. Jesus said that the demon went through “dry places”—seeking rest, but finding none. The Bible seems to suggest to us that it is a kind of torture for a demon to roam about without inhabiting someone. One story from the Bible even seems to suggest to us that a demon would rather inhabit “a herd of swine” than to be wandering about without a “home” (Matthew 8:31). We can't possibly imagine what a dreadful judgment it will be for demonic spirits to be cast into the lake of fire—a place that our Lord Himself told us was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41)! Just the thought was enough for demons to cry out in terror at the presence of Jesus and say, “What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29).

So then; this restless demon began to think back on the man that he had left. “I will return to my house from which I came”, he said. And when he returned, he found that the man has made it a very comfortable home to return to! The man had apparently made some moral reforms in his life. He had cleaned up his act. He may even have decorated it up a bit with a few new religious habits and pseudo-spiritual practices. But in spite of all the things done to “clean up”, there was still no one else taking residence within him. The man's inner being was a spiritual vacuum. The demon returned to find it “empty, swept, and put in order”. What a dreadful and dangerous thing mere 'moral reform' is when Jesus is left out of it!

You might say that the demon's old house had experienced a diabolical version of “Extreme Makeover”. And so, Jesus told us that he then goes and takes with him seven other spirits “more wicked than himself”. He gets a group of roommates; and they all come back and enter the man and dwell in him. They fill the vacuum that he had left in his own inner being.

Jesus says, “and the last state of that man is worse than the first”! It's not just that his condition became as bad as it once was when only one demon indwelt him. Nor is it that his condition became merely seven times as bad because, now, seven more demons dwelt in him than before. Rather, his condition became unspeakably and indescribably worse; because the demon brought in seven others “more wicked than himself”!

What a living hell it would have been for the man in this parable! The spiritual realm abhors a vacuum; and yet, the man sought to live with a vacuum in his inner being—keeping Christ out, and leaving the door open for multiplied evils to inevitably come and make their home in him instead!

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; this parable is meant to teach us a lesson about what a perilous thing it is to live with a spiritual vacuum in our inner being. It is an unspeakably dangerous thing to think that we can just “clean up our act”, and reform our lives here or there, and do it all while avoiding a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

As I read this story, I can't help but put it in the context of the history of the Jewish people. In the centuries that preceded the time that these words were first spoken, the Jewish people had fallen into the sin of idolatry. They had even gone so far as to turn the temple in Jerusalem into a house of idolatry. They had grown to worship the false gods of the people groups that lived around them; and they had grown to embraced their debase and paganistic practices. And, as a result—just as He had warned them that He would—God had cast His people out of their land and allowed them to go into exile in the land of Babylon for seventy years.

After the seventy years were over—again, just as God promised—the Jewish people were restored to their own land. Historically, they never again fell into the sin of idolatry as they once had. They had, you might say, “cleaned up their act”. They had reformed. They made very sure that their former idolatrous practices had no more place in their culture; and that they would, from then on, be devoted followers of the God of Israel.

But by the time of our Lord's earthly ministry, it had all become a mere outward 'moral reform'. They had become strict followers of the law of God through Moses. They had become very “religious”. They had developed, and had carefully articulated, all the "do's" and "don't's" of the law. But it was not a matter of the heart. It was not a matter of “relationship” with the living God. They had drawn near with their mouths, and honored God with their lips; but their hearts were far from Him (Matthew 15:8). They were “empty, swept, and put in order”; but were living with a spiritual vacuum in their inner beings.

And what's more, I think of the remarkable circumstances in which these Jewish people were living right then! They had heard the preaching of John the Baptist as he fulfilled the promises of the Scriptures concerning himself, and pointed to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). They even saw Jesus prove Himself to them; and beheld His miracles and heard His teaching. And yet, even as He was—right then—offering Himself to them as their long-awaited and long-ago promised Messiah, they rejected Him. They saw Him work miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit; and yet they dared to accuse Him of working in the power of the devil.

The dreadful vacuum remained in them—even as their King stood before them. At the end of this parable about the return of this demon, and the dreadfully worse condition of the man he again occupied, Jesus says, “So shall it be with this wicked generation.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Clearly, the primary point of this parable was to serve as a condemnation of that generation who would not receive the Savior. But we can't fail to see the implications this parable has for us today.

It warns the 'moralist', for example, that it is dangerous to give the 'evacuation notice' to sin in his or her life and not—at the same time—invite Jesus Christ to take up residence in his or her heart! It warns us that no one can exist with such a spiritual vacuum within them. It warns us that such a vacuum must and will be filled by something diabolical; and that such a person's last condition will prove worse than the first.

The apostle Peter describes such people in this way:

For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: “A dog returns to his own vomit,” and, “a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire” (2 Peter 2:20-22).

It also warns us as believers of the danger of trying to deal with sin in the power of the flesh. So often, we try to deal with spiritual problems in our lives through the resources of this world. We buy into the lies of our culture, and try to better ourselves through “self-help”—while the whole time long, we utterly disregard the unsearchable riches and resources that are ours in Christ. As Jesus has already told us:

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5).

It should also serve as a warning to us in our daily duty of presenting Christ to the lost people of this world—to our family members, our friends, our workmates, and our neighbors. Our goal is not to simply help the people around us to live “better lives”. That's certainly a good thing in the right context; but if that alone is all that happens, then it's a dreadfully bad thing!

I feel I need to make myself clear. It is a good thing—a very good thing—to help people live better lives. But our goal is not merely to “reform” people morally as an end in and of itself. If that's all we do—if all that we do is help them live moral lives, but do not help them to set Jesus Christ up as Lord in their hearts—then all we've done is, as our Savior has put it, made them “empty, swept, and put in order” . . . and also dangerously open and vulnerable to the re-occupation of the devil. We will have—as it says in Jeremiah 6:14—only healed the hurt of people “slightly”; and will have told them, “'Peace, peace!' when there is no peace”. We will have left them with an inner vacuum that will inevitably become filled with something even worse than what we had helped “reform” them from.

How important, then, that we learn the great implication of this parable: that the void in our soul must be filled with a personal, love relationship with Jesus Christ! He is the Person that this parable is meant to point us to. He is the only one who can fill that inner vacuum.

Jesus is, in fact, all that we ever truly need! He Himself said, “If any thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38). He will eternally satisfy us with Himself. As Paul has said, “for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power” (Colossians 2:9-10). He will progressively perfect us in Himself.

* * * * * * * * * *

Let me close by suggesting to you that, just it is true both in the physical and the spiritual realms that 'nature abhors a vacuum', so it is also true in both the physical and the spiritual realms that there is such a thing as a principle of 'displacement'.

I'm not particularly smart when it comes to physics; but as I understand it, 'displacement' occurs when a physical object occupies a space in such a way that it pushes another object out of that space and takes its place. And spiritually, this occurs when we welcome Jesus Christ into our lives in an ongoing, personal, and loving way; so that He makes Himself at home in our hearts, occupies it, and pushes out any evil thing that would attempt to come in.

You can put it this way: The demon, as it were, may come back to us—thinking to return to his old home; and he may find his old home swept and put in order. But he no longer finds it empty! Instead, he finds Jesus Christ occupying our hearts.

And the former tenant will not dare to come in so long as Jesus makes His home there!

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