If the one who sins against us is “possessed,” then can we find compassion?

February 17, 2015

brunerLast Sunday, I preached a sermon on the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” Nearly all modern translations rightly understand that, contrary to the traditional language of the King James, Jesus is referring not to evil in general, but to “the evil one,” the devil. The ESV follows the KJV but indicates in a footnote the alternate interpretation.

The expression in Greek (tō ponērō) appears in two other places in the Sermon on the Mount. In the first (Matthew 5:37), everyone agrees that it refers to the devil. In the second, just two verses later (Matthew 5:39: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”), all translations assume tō ponērō refers to an “evil person.”

In his commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner disagrees that Jesus is only talking about evil people, offering the following insight:

I hear in the words “the evil one” [in Matthew 5:39] both (1) the human evil one and (2) the spiritual Evil One, in that order; both the possessed and the possessor, the enemy person and the enemy power. The significance of the double meaning is this: the evil ones whom we encounter in daily life are “possessed” by the Evil One; so, while we are rightly agitated by their wrong, have a heart—they are not entirely “themselves.” There is an Evil One behind every evil. In interpersonal relations we rightly “get even with” the devil by not trying to get even with evil people—that is the greatest paradox of our Command.

After citing Church Father Chrysostom, who also endorses his interpretation, Bruner writes:

While the Evil One works in the evil one, “possesses,” as we say, nevertheless the possession does not absolve the possessed of responsibility. But the possession does reconfigure one’s perception of the other person (and of oneself!). For our profoundest war, as the apostle reminds us, is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and so ultimately against the cosmic Evil One himself.[†]

So when someone sins against you, can it rightly be said that that person is under the influence of the Evil One (“possessed” seems a bit strong)? If so, then we have to also accept that when we sin against someone, we are under Satan’s influence. Paul himself hints at this when he describes the plight of unredeemed human nature in Romans 7: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Again, as Bruner says, this doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for our sins, but reminding ourselves of Satan’s influence over us helps us summon the pity or compassion that we need to forgive others (and ourselves).

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 250.

3 Responses to “If the one who sins against us is “possessed,” then can we find compassion?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    I believe this to be literally true. In my case, I was possessed by an evil spirit. The “key” that unlocks the door for this spirit comes in pints, fifths and and quarts. The “key” is not the evil spirit, just the trigger, or opening. This evil spirit was written in my DNA, and no amount of “trying” on my part was going to remove it. But, by the grace of God, I suddenly got the strength to resist it, about 12 years ago. Each day, I can feel that grace abiding in me. It has grown and spread throughout the other departments of my life. Strength breeds strength, when it comes to God’s sanctifying work.

    If you have an evil spirit(s) that is controlling your life, pray for the Holy Spirit to come and overcome it. If you don’t, pray for the Holy Spirit to protect you from them, because they lurk all about in this crazy world.

    • brentwhite Says:

      That’s a beautiful testimony, Grant. I either didn’t know or didn’t remember that you had that problem in your past.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I never did the AA thing, so talking about it isn’t something I do a lot, outside of family. But, it has become an important part of my understanding of my relationship with God, so it does come up in Bible Study and my church life.

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