The Man from the Tombs: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Spiritual Bondage

Mark 5:1-17

“You can only believe in God if you believe in the devil as well."—Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch

 

This is the story of Jesus and a man with a “legion” of demons. It is one of those unforgettable biblical encounters that many of us first heard about as children in Sunday School. I should say right up front that I am not going to preach every sermon that could be preached from this passage. There is a great deal here that we will leave basically untouched. And there are some questions raised by the text that I will only touch very briefly—and some I won’t touch at all.

The summary of the story goes like this. When Jesus and his disciples come to the mostly-Gentile region of the Gerasenes, they are met by a man whose life has been destroyed by demonic infestation. The demons in the man recognize Jesus and the man bows before him. After the man confesses (or the demons confess, depending on how you look at it) that there are many demons within him, Jesus casts out the demons and sends them into a nearby herd of 2,000 pigs. The pigs promptly rush off a cliff into the Sea of Galilee and drown. When the townspeople learn what has happened, they ask Jesus to leave. Jesus agrees to leave, but not before refusing a request by the formerly demonized man to go with him. The man is instead told to go back home and tell his family and friends what Christ has done for him. This he does, word spreads throughout the region, and everyone who hears what happened is amazed.

Where Three Worlds Meet

Suffice it to say, almost everything in this story is a little bizarre:

• A man comes to Jesus in a shocking condition.

• Jesus agrees to a surprising cure.

• The townspeople come to Jesus with a strange request.

• Jesus gives the man an unexpected answer.

Three worlds meet in this strange story: the underworld of evil spirits, the visible world of human experience, and the upper world of divine control. Evidently this encounter made quite an impression on the disciples because it is found in three gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke. The disciples never forgot how Jesus liberated a man infested with demons.

Before we look at the details of the text, an underlying issue deserves our attention. In reading this story, some people downplay the reality of the demonic, calling it symbolic of the evil in the world today. Others see it as an ancient way of saying that this man had a severe mental illness. But we must not say this. Demon-possession was real to this man and it was real to Jesus. It is no compliment to our so-called enlightened age, if in our thinking we have gone beyond the Bible. My purpose is not to argue this point. I simply submit to you that this story—however bizarre it may seem—is presented as sober reality, and that is how we should take it. To say that this man was insane or mentally ill completely misses the point and evacuates the story of its primary meaning. This is not a story about Jesus curing mental illness; it’s a story about Jesus defeating the demons.

People in Asia and Africa read this story and nod their heads. People in Haiti know what this is about. What seems alien to us is commonplace and very believable to them.

Jesus has come to the region of the Gerasenes on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. This is Gentile territory, the region called Decapolis, which means “Ten Cities.” He has come to this area to rest and to seek relief from the crowds of people following him on the other side of the lake. If you ever take a tour of the Holy Land, your guide will probably show you a place on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee where there is a limestone cliff and some old tombs not far away. This is evidently the location of this amazing miracle.

A study of the text reveals four different “prayers” or requests made to Jesus in this passage. The demons make the first two, the townspeople make the third, and the liberated man makes the fourth. We can group the details of the story around these four “prayers.”

 

Prayer #1: Do not torture me!

The background to the story is found in verses 1-5: “They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones” (Mark 5:1-5).

We do not know how this unfortunate man came to be infested with demons. The Bible does not say and it is useless to speculate. It is sometimes said that demon possession is the result of certain kinds of sinful activity. That may be true, but the Bible never presents demon possession as the result of a particular sin or set of sins.

What we can say for certain is that the demons are spirit beings created by God to serve him. They were originally good angels who followed Lucifer in his rebellion against God. They are powerful spirit beings who now serve Satan and his evil purposes on the earth. Their purpose is entirely negative. When they infested this poor man, they drove him from society, gave him incredible physical power, and caused him great personal torment. People tried to chain him and to shackle his hands and his feet for his own safety, but somehow he broke the chains and the shackles and roamed free. They put him under guard but the guards could not restrain him. The demons caused the man to act in increasingly bizarre ways so that he ended up living in the tombs. He was wild, dangerous, naked, tormented, isolated and violent. No one could help him and he could not help himself. He had been this way for a long time. Humanly speaking, he was a hopeless case.

This is the most severe case of demon possession in the entire Bible. It was extreme then and now. And very rare then and now. To be more precise, we should speak of this man as being “demonized.” He had in his person the actual presence of evil forces. This is different from an evil nature or an evil disposition. Luke’s version tells us he was “driven by demons.” His personality was somehow under demonic control. Evidently the attacks would come and go. When he was under demonic control, he acted in an irrational and dangerous manner.

The most shocking fact, and one worth thinking about, is that the demons knew who Jesus was. There is no debate here about the “real Jesus.” The demon called him by his divine name—"Son of the Most High God.” When the man came to Jesus, he fell down because even the “demons believe” (James 2:19) and they tremble before the Son of God.

1) He knows Jesus’ name.

2) He knows who Jesus really is—Son of the Most High God.

3) He knows what Jesus can do—torture him eternally.

Demons are not atheists. They fear Jesus even though they do not worship him. Why did the demon ask Jesus not to torture him? Because he knew Jesus could send him into the pit of torment (called “the Abyss”) forever. He asks Jesus not to send him (and his accomplices) there prematurely.

Prayer #2: Send us to the pigs!

Now we come to the most controversial part of this passage: “When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!’ For Jesus had said to him, ‘Come out of this man, you evil spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name is Legion,’ he replied, ‘for we are many.’ And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned” (Mark 5:8-13).

When Jesus commands the evil spirits to come out, they know they must eventually obey him. What happens next is a round of negotiations between Jesus and the demons. First, he asks the demon who speaks through the man, “What is your name?” This is more than a simple request for identification. It means something like, “Do you know who you are?” The man (or the demon speaking through him—it’s difficult to make a proper distinction) answers, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Evidently one demon answers on behalf of all the evil spirits within. Note the change from singular (“my name is”) to plural (“for we are”). The word “Legion” refers to a Roman military unit of 6000 soldiers. Is the man saying there are 6,000 demons inside him? Not necessarily. He merely says there are “many” spirits at work inside him. In effect he is saying, “I am so full of demons I don’t know who I am.” An invading army has taken over his personality and that’s all this man knows. How did he end up with thousands of demons? We don’t know, the text doesn’t say, and it evidently doesn’t matter for our understanding of this story.

When the demons realize they are about to be cast out, they beg not to be sent out of the region. Perhaps this part of the Decapolis was “fertile soil” for their activity. Perhaps it was a hotbed of pagan religious practices. The Greek emphasizes that they repeatedly begged Jesus not to send them somewhere else. Since there was a herd of 2,000 pigs nearby, the demons ask to be sent into the pigs.

Perplexing Questions

A number of questions arise at this point. Whose pigs are they? We know that pigs were considered unclean under the Old Testament Law. If a Jewish farmer owned the pigs, he was in direct violation of the Law. Since this was mostly Gentile territory, it seems more likely that the pigs were owned by a Gentile farmer. If so, he would not be subject to the Old Testament Law. A second question often asked is how demons can enter animals. Although much has been written on this point, it is nearly all speculative. We simply don’t have enough information in the Bible to answer a question like this. We know that it happened one time during Jesus’ ministry and that’s the only clear record we have in the Bible of something like this.

Note that the demons must ask permission of Jesus before they can enter the pigs. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that demons are greater than Jesus or that Satan is more powerful than God. And don’t fall into the trap of treating Satan as if he were a kind of “Junior God” with almost-but-not-quite divine powers. That is not true. Satan is a created being who can do nothing without God’s permission. And in this story, we see that Jesus has absolute power over what the demons do and where they can go.

The actual miracle itself happens quickly. At the command of Jesus, the demons leave this man, he regains his sanity, the demons enter the pigs, and the pigs rush down the steep bank in the water where they drown.

Now we come to several perplexing questions. Why did the demons ask to be sent into the pigs? The text doesn’t answer this explicitly, but here are several possibilities: 1) So they wouldn’t be sent to the Abyss, 2) So they would have a bodily home for their evil activity, 3) Because they wanted to destroy the pigs, 4) Because they knew that destroying the pigs would stir up trouble for Jesus. If they can’t inhabit a man, they will inhabit a group of pigs. Remember that demons are bent on trouble and destruction.

The greater question is why Jesus agreed to this plan. After all, doesn’t this involve destruction of someone’s personal property? Presumably the answer is yes. Why send the demons into the pigs? Why not just send them into the Abyss? Again, the text doesn’t tell us everything we would like to know. This much is clear. The point of the story is not to destroy the demons but to deliver the demonized man from their power. The pigs are purely secondary. Jesus manifests his authority precisely where the demons manifest theirs—in the life of this poor tormented man.

We can also say that by sending the demons into the pigs, Jesus was providing proof positive that the demons had left the man. When the townspeople saw those pig carcasses floating in the lake and when they saw the man clothed and in his right mind, no one could deny what had happened. Beyond that, this story is a lesson in relative values. He who is the master of nature is also its ultimate owner. Those pigs belonged to Jesus because he created them. By his actions, Jesus was saying that one man is worth far more than a herd of pigs.

The words of Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress” come to mind at this point:

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us.

The Prince of Darkness grim,

We tremble not for him,

His rage we can endure,

For lo! His word is sure;

One little word shall fell him.

Prayer #3: Leave us alone!

The miracle is over. The demons have left the man, the pigs are floating in the water, and the demons are nowhere to be found. (Two people asked me after the sermon what happened to the demons after the pigs died. The answer is, we don’t know because the text doesn’t tell us.) Jesus has been proved the absolute master of the spirit world. Even the most powerful demons must do his bidding. Almost immediately word begins to spread about the remarkable goings-on with the former madman and the floating herd of “deviled ham.” Surprisingly (or not, depending on your perspective), this miracle was not greeted with approval. “Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region” (Mark 5:14-17). The end of verse 17 is one of the saddest sentences in the entire Bible. Jesus came to bring life but the people chose death. He came to bring freedom but the people chose bondage. He came to bring light but the people preferred to walk in darkness. You would think they would be grateful that this dangerous man has been healed, cured, and is fully clothed and in his right mind, delivered by Jesus Christ. But it was not so. As word spread like wildfire, a great crowd gathers, amazed by what they see. The former madman is a new man. He now sits quietly at Jesus’ feet, calm, clothed, and in his right mind.

The man they had called crazy was now perfectly normal. The man who had run around naked was now fully clothed. The man who broke their chains was now sitting quietly. The man who once had a legion of demons now sits at the feet of Jesus.

The response of the people can be told in three words: “They were afraid.” Change bothers people, even change for the better. This explains why dysfunctional families often stay as they are. And this is why people stay in destructive relationships year after year. “At least we know what to expect,” they say.

When people looked at the man, there was no doubt that a miracle had occurred. Evidently the pigs mattered more than the man. But to Jesus the man mattered more than the pigs. They couldn’t handle the transformation. Instead of rejoicing, they were afraid. Of what? Of the man? Possibly. Of Jesus? Definitely! They were afraid of anyone with that kind of power. What will he do next? C. S. Lewis once remarked that Jesus is not safe, but he is good. He does not always do what we expect, but what he does is always for the best.

Dysfunction Yes—Jesus No!

There are many parents who weep for their children when they are on drugs and alcohol or living in sexual sin, but those same parents get angry when their children come to Christ and their lives are radically changed. Some of you have experienced that. You were far gone in sin and your friends and family despaired for you, but now that you’ve found Jesus, those same people are bothered by the change in your life. Some of them can’t handle it at all. Sometimes they want you to leave because they don’t have a place in their lives for a truly changed person. Dysfunction they could live with, but redemption by Christ is too much for them.

Fear, ignorance, and selfishness combine in the request that Jesus leave their area. He does. Jesus doesn’t stay where he isn’t wanted. As far as we know, he never went back there again. That’s something to think about. When Jesus knocks on the door of your heart, run quickly to let him in. Do not think that he is obliged to come back again and again.

The townspeople didn’t like it when Christ disturbed the status quo. They weighed the evidence and concluded that the healing cost too much. “Would you please leave, sir? We’d rather have a few crazies around than to have our property destroyed.” It is easy to make them look bad but we might have done the same thing. Many people are open to Jesus as long as he keeps his distance. But when he comes too close, they get uncomfortable. They like the gentle Jesus of the picture books but not the powerful Christ of the gospels. They like a marble Jesus they can touch for good luck, but they recoil from a Christ who demands their total allegiance. And some are against Christianity because Christianity threatens their business, their lifestyle, their habits, and their personal morality. They are against Christianity because Christianity is against them. All of us are apt to ask Jesus to depart when he comes too close and crimps our cherished plans. We want a gentle Jesus who will keep his nose out of our business and who will take us to heaven but won’t interfere in the way we live on the earth. We want a Jesus who builds our self-esteem and makes us happy, but we want nothing to do with the Lord from heaven who calls us to take up our cross and follow him. And more than a few people today hear the gospel and then say, “If Jesus comes in, something else will have to go, and I don’t want to let go of it.”

The people who came to investigate the miracle asked Jesus to leave because he was bad for business. They were right! When Jesus comes into your life, it will never be business as usual again.

Before his conversion, St. Augustine said that he sometimes prayed, “Save me, O Lord, save me, but not now!” He’s not the first or the last person to pray that way.

Prayer #4: Let me go with you!

Now we come to the end of the story: “As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’ So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed” (Mark 5:18-20).

Think about the various “prayers” in this passage:

§ He granted the request of the demons—He sent them into the pigs.

§ He granted the request of the people—He went away.

§ He refused the request of the new convert—He did not allow the man to come with him.

Answered prayer is not always a blessing and unanswered prayer is not always a burden. In this case it was better for the man to stay there among his own people. They needed him and he needed to be there. No doubt his request was sincere. He may have feared, “If you leave, I’ll fall back into the old way of life again.” That’s a very natural fear. But he didn’t understand that the best defense against renewed satanic attack was to occupy his mind with the great things God had done for him. Nothing would steady him in his new life like continuing to tell the story of his deliverance.

Children love to play “Show and Tell.” Jesus instructs the man to “Go and tell.” Go to the people you know best and tell the thing you know best—what God has done for you. Jesus did that kind thing by leaving him behind. He would be a living reminder of God’s power. This is where all missionary outreach begins. Start where you are and tell what you know. Jesus found a demoniac and left behind a missionary.

Go and Tell!

Go and tell. That’s what Jesus said to do. Anyone can do that. Don’t let anyone tell you can’t do that.

§ You don’t have to learn a lot of verses or memorize a complicated outline.

§ You don’t have to be a good speaker or a winsome personality.

§ You don’t have to get permission from anyone to tell your story.

§ You don’t have to write a book or a sermon.

§ You don’t need a big audience.

§ You can start with one person.

This leads to a very simple question: What has Jesus ever done for you? Has the Lord ever touched your life and changed you? Or have you been a bystander all these years while others came to Jesus? Can you tell anyone what Christ has done for you? Maybe if you can’t, it’s because your life has never been changed. Perhaps you need to come to a definite moment of personal commitment. If you have never come to Christ personally, I urge you to pray a prayer like this: “Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner. I need you in my life. I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins. I believe you rose from the dead on the third day. With all my heart, I trust you as my Lord and Savior. Come into my life and save me. Amen.” Prayer isn’t magic, and those words are not a formula to get you to heaven. But if you truly desire to know Christ, come to him with all your heart and he will save you right now.

Right Where You Are!

This passage also helps us answer the question, “Where does God want me?” The answer is, he wants you right where you are. And if he wants you somewhere else, he can move you at any time. What if you are the only Christian in the shop, the office, the factory, the store, the club, the classroom, or in your family or your neighborhood? All the better. No cause for despair. God has put you there as a missionary. And the people all around you are your mission field. The challenge is the same for you as it was for the man in our story. “Go and tell what great things the Lord has done for you.” The best missionary work always begins at home. Everyone is either a missionary or a mission field. Which are you?

Go back to your classroom.

Go back to your factory.

Go back to your office.

Go back to your shop.

Go back to your company.

Go back to your classmates.

Go back to your family.

Go back to your neighborhood.

Go back and tell them what great things the Lord your God has done for you. Tell them and then tell them again.

Needed: A Close Encounter with Jesus

One final question about the story and then we are done. Can this happen today or is this story merely a relic from the pre-scientific era?

Yes, men and women can be demonized today.

Yes, demons can drive people from society.

Yes, demons can be cast out.

Yes, demons recognize spiritual authority.

Yes, those in spiritual bondage can be radically changed.

How? By a close encounter with Jesus Christ. It’s not a matter of geography and you don’t have to be demonized to experience the liberating power of Jesus Christ.

No evil habit is beyond the power of Jesus.

No sin is beyond his forgiveness.

No human situation is beyond his healing touch.

If your life is a mess, ask Jesus to deliver you. Admit you can’t change and then cry out for his mercy. Ask him to chase the demons out of your life. Ask him to take away the torment. Ask him to change you from the inside out. Come humbly to Jesus and ask him to be your Lord and Savior. Run to the cross. Lay your burdens, your cares, your worries, and your fears upon the Son of God. Lay your sins and faults and failures on his strong back. If you come to Christ, he will not turn you away. And when Christ answers, and he always does, go and tell others what he has done for you.

Many years ago John Oxenham wrote a poem about this story from the viewpoint of the townspeople who asked Jesus to leave. It seems like a fitting place to end this message.

Rabbi, be gone! Thy powers

bring loss to us and ours!

Our ways are not as Thine–

Thou lovest men - we, swine!

O get Thee gone, Omnipotence

And take this fool of Thine!

His soul? What care we for his soul,

What good to us that Thou hast made him whole

Since we have lost our swine?

The Christ went sadly,

He had wrought for them a sign

Of love and tenderness divine–

They wanted swine!

Christ stands without your door and gently knocks,

But if your gold or swine the entrance blocks,

He forces no man’s hold, He will depart

And leave you to the treasures of your heart.

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RAY PRITCHARD

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