Emptying Out, or Filling Up?
By Marcos Paseggi
How would you react if Jesus would come to visit and stay at your home? Would you be delighted or dismayed? overjoyed or overwhelmed?
On the other hand, have you ever hosted unwelcome guests? What did you do? Were you impatient, waiting for them to leave? Or did you get used to them and end up as friends?
When Jesus was on this earth, He told a story about a special visitor. He referred to an “old” acquaintance of ours, someone we had hoped never to see again. But yes, He said, that acquaintance is back. And chances are our old “friend” is not alone.
Jesus said: “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 that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation” (Matt. 12:43-45).
Jesus is not making a doctrinal statement here, changing the biblical teaching on the unconscious state of the dead. But He is telling a parable to communicate a lesson. What is He trying to teach us?
As It Happened
The scribes and Pharisees had been asking Jesus for a sign (see Matt. 12:38). Instead of a sign, Jesus said, “You need to act according to the light you have been given” (see verses 39-42). Signs and arguments in themselves do not make people believe or change their behavior (see John 12:37).
A moment later, in His parable, Jesus uses a powerful metaphor. What does it mean to have the house “empty, swept, and put in order” (Matt. 12:44)? First of all, what is represented by that house?
Jesus connected the story to the people listening to it (see verse 45); thus, “house” is a metaphor for our individual life. A house empty, swept, and put in order refers to a life devoted to keeping up appearances, to showing an outward image of correctness no matter what. It represents a Christian who makes every personal effort to “look good,” to “do the right thing,” even if it implies doing nothing. Jesus was referring to people too concerned with “righteousness by doctrine,” with proving a point even at the cost of disapproving of a sinner. The important thing for them was to “empty out,” not to “fill up.” They were interested in being right, in procedure over profession, in straining out a gnat even when swallowing a camel (Matt. 23:24). They were able to recite all the things godly people were not supposed to do, even when they hardly ever bothered to accomplish what they were supposed to do.
In this, they were not unusually wicked. In fact, it is a very human thing to do. When God is not the Lord of our lives, our entire set of values is disrupted. In that regard, how is our Christian walk? Are we not also in danger of being worried about paying “tithe of mint and anise and cummin,” while neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23)?
Now, if the Spirit convicts us that at times we may have joined that “wicked generation,” what can we do? How can we avoid falling into the sparkling-clean-empty-swept-and-put-in-order-house trap?
A Theology of Positive Action
As we allow the Spirit to open our spiritual eyes, we may understand that the religion of sparkling-clean emptiness is not the religion of the Bible. Jesus came to give us life “more abundantly” (John 10:10). If the religion of Jesus is more abundant than any other kind of life, how can we express it in the negative, or as a vacuum? And if we have already fallen into the negative trap, how can we get free from it to start growing joyfully in Christ?
We may begin by acknowledging that the theology of negativism and emptiness often keeps us in a vicious circle that takes us nowhere, and certainly not to heaven. The Lord invites us to get “eye salve” from Him, that we may see and understand His will (Rev. 3:18).
Jesus also invites us to be intentional about acting positively. Commenting on Matthew 12:43-45, Ellen G. White states: “It is not necessary for us deliberately to choose the service of the kingdom of darkness in order to come under its dominion. We have only to neglect to ally ourselves with the kingdom of light.”1
Above all, the Lord longs to transform our minds and motivations. Even in our outreach and missionary endeavors, it is not just important what we do, but why we do it. “There is a passion for souls,” wrote Oswald Chambers, “that does not come from God, but from the desire to make converts to our point of view.”2 It is not about us, but about giving glory to the name of the Lord.
What is required of us, then, to grow after God’s own heart? “He who says he abides in [Jesus] ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6). And how did He walk? He “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38).
Lights in the Darkness
God invites us to become lights, to stop being known for what we do not do, and to start being recognized for what we do. He bids us: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
What changes should we begin making in our lives? In the way we relate to our non-Christian colleagues, spend our leisure time, share our health message, and keep the Sabbath?
In human terms, our “house” can be spotless and sparkling clean, but if it is not filled with the Lord, it profits us nothing. Isaiah prophesied: “The moon will be disgraced and the sun ashamed; for the Lord of hosts will reign” (24:23). He was right: when the Lord reigns, no wandering spirits will be able to come back to our place, because our house will be forever filled with the presence of Jesus. And when He lives with and within us, we cannot help being “a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).
Whom do you prefer as a guest? A wandering evil spirit and his wicked companions, or Jesus?
I’d rather have Jesus.
1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 324.
2 My Utmost for His Highest (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Publishers, 1995), reading for October 27.
Marcos Paseggi is a professional translator, enthusiastic writer, and biblical researcher writing from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. He is also the translator of the Spanish edition of Adventist World.