By Wayne Goforth
Until recent years, preachers often had to explain the term exorcism when we came to Acts 19:11-16. However, there has been an increased interest in this subject with the release of the movie The Exorcist. Modern day "demon possession" has also made the news. The famous 20/20 film footage of an "actual" exorcism, and reported cases of others harmed and sometimes killed during attempted exorcisms has been reported. Some Christians (including gospel preachers) have asked if there could be actual cases of such today, and some have taught that there will be a renewal of demonic activity upon the earth and a granting of the powers to cast them out prior to the second coming.
First, let me say there truly was demon possession in the first century. Some have tried to rationalize that these may have been cases of epilepsy. Accordingly, Jesus really cured them of their diseases, simply accommodating their misunderstanding of the cause. However, epilepsy was a known condition at the time. In Matthew 4:24 we find "Then His fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought to Him all sick people who were afflicted with various diseases and torments, and those who were demon-possessed, epileptics, and paralytics; and He healed them."
Second, we need to consider what the purpose was for possession. Like other miracles it was for the purpose of producing faith, Acts 2:22 and Hebrews 2:3-4. The miracles of Jesus showed His power over nature, death, distance, elements, and over Satan himself, Mark 1:21-28. Like the man born blind, the purpose of allowing possession was "that the works of God should be revealed in him," John 9:3. It is interesting that demon possession seems to be limited to the first century, as there are no clearly recorded cases in the Old Testament. This again seems to bolster our idea that it was to show Jesus' power over the devil.
Third, we want to consider the duration of these manifestations. We understand that the miraculous age was to last until the completion of the written Word, 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 and Ephesians 4:7-16. There is no reason to assume this miraculous possession would outlast the miraculous age. If so, that would mean God has left the church without a way in which to deal with it today. Zechariah 13:1-2 intimates a passing away of both the exorcists and the demon possessions. "In that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness. It shall be in that day, says the Lord of hosts that I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, and they shall no longer be remembered. I will also cause the prophets and the unclean spirit to depart from the land."
If there were true cases of possession today, that would leave us with many problems. What would that do to the idea of free will? Would not one truly be able to say "The devil made me do it?" Also, why would it be that the denominations that do not teach truth would be the ones successful at casting out demons? If there are cases of possession but we cannot cast them out, would that not mean that the devil is more powerful than God, seeing that was the purpose of the possessions and exorcisms?
Then what of those so wicked that see they must be filled with the devil? Just as there were cases of miraculous indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the first century, so there was with evil spirits. But, just as the Holy Spirit today dwells in the Christian through faith and influence, even so the devil. As there were cases of involuntary possessions, so today people may choose to give themselves over to wickedness. The devil has only as much power over us as we allow him, 1 Peter 5:8, James 4:7. Acts 19:11-16 and Matthew 7:21-23 show us the danger of performing exorcisms in His name without authority to do so. If we are filled with God, there will be no room left for the devil, "to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." Ephesians 3:19.