v.28 “Country of the Gerasenes” hides a longstanding debate. I won’t trouble you with the details, but no one can say, with certainty, precisely where these events occurred, though the fact that the pigs rushed into the sea, indicates that they were very near the Sea of Galilee’s eastern or southeastern shore.
In any case, the demon knew the answer to the question the disciples had asked at the conclusion of the previous episode (v. 25). They knew both who and what Jesus was. The fact that the man bowed before Jesus and addressed him in such a way is indication of how even the demonic realm recognizes the Lord’s authority and submit to him. They knew they were subject to him and that he could do with them what he wished.
v.29 Personal isolation, unusual strength, the demons speaking through the person possessed, disregard for personal dignity, and the recognition of Jesus as the Son of God are characteristic features of the Gospels’ accounts of people possessed by demons.
v.30 A Roman legion at full strength had approximately 6,000 soldiers. Mark mentions that when cast out and inhabiting the pigs instead, some two-thousand pigs were destroyed. [5:13] As you may imagine, skepticism regarding the overt supernaturalism of this account has led some to speculate that the man’s mental problems originated in some violent confrontation with Roman soldiers. But the Gospel history takes the reality of demons and demonic action seriously throughout. It is part and parcel of the history of the Jesus’ ministry. And given who and what Jesus is, the reality of demon possession is hardly a reach! What is significant about Legion is that the name indicates that Jesus was vastly outnumbered, but it made not one whit of difference! Many demons couldn’t withstand his authority any more than one could! All authorities and powers that stand opposed to God are helpless before him. [Bock, i, 766]
v.31 The verb is in the imperfect tense, suggesting continuous action; that is, they were pleading with Jesus over and over again not to send them into the abyss. Notice the “they.” Many were pleading with him. The abyss is that place of confinement for spirits also mentioned in Revelation 20:1-3 where the ESV translates the word “abyss” we have here as “the pit.”
v.36 You can’t lose a herd of 2,000 pigs without having to explain the catastrophic loss of property. And that explanation, bizarre as it must have sounded at first hearing, had to be confirmed. It was confirmed both by the testimony of eyewitnesses and by the dramatic transformation of a man everyone knew to be maniacal and anti-social.
v.37 By the way, we have here a subtle but very interesting confirmation of the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts. When a demon was cast out by Paul in Asia Minor we read in Acts of responses from local officials or assemblies of the citizenry who were offended in some way. But when Christ cast out a demon in the Gentile area to the east or southeast of the Sea of Galilee, no agencies of government take note. It is the people themselves who come en masse to plead with Jesus to leave them. At this time the non-Hellenistic villages of Palestine lacked a developed municipal system of government and that is reflected in the Gospel text. It is the sort of detail in both Luke’s Gospel and in Acts that had been demonstrated to be precisely true over and over again. [Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament, 66]
v.39 Why did Jesus send this man away and refuse to allow him to become one of his disciples? Well, of course, he didn’t refuse the man the right to be his disciple; the man became the Lord’s disciple. But as a Gentile he could not be among the Lord’s inner circle, as, say, Mary Magdalene, from whom the Lord had also cast out demons, for it was a principle of the Lord’s ministry that he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The ministry to the Gentiles was not to begin until he had returned to heaven, though, it may be said, this was an anticipation of that ministry to Gentiles that was, in time, to change the world. But, more than that, this man as a new disciple of the Lord had work to do. He had to tell others about what Jesus had done for him and that assignment is what the Lord gave him! When Christ saves a man or woman that person has a responsibility to become an agent of the good news. And this man did exactly that: telling everyone he could of Jesus of Nazareth and of how God was at work through him. The word the ESV translates “proclaiming” is the ordinary word usually translated “preaching” in the New Testament.
It is interesting and important to observe that Jesus told the man to tell others what God had done for him and the man went away telling other what Jesus had done for him! To say the one is equivalent to saying the other. Both “God” and “Jesus” sit at the end of their respective clauses in Luke’s Greek, so the emphasis falls on the two names.
This is not, of course, the first instance of demon possession or of exorcism by the mere command of the Lord Jesus that we have encountered in the Gospel of Luke. But it is perhaps the most dramatic of all such exorcisms in the Gospels and full of the most momentous truth, if only we will see it.
Alas, many do not. They remain more interested in the questions raised than the answers given! Much remains utterly mysterious of course. Why did the demons ask to be allowed to go into the pigs? Why was that preferable to being cast out of the man to go wherever they might please? The text seems to suggest that this was very important to the demons. They begged the Lord to let them go into the pigs. It was their idea, not his. In other exorcisms the Lord simply cast the demons out of people; he didn’t send them somewhere else. There is nothing to suggest that demons are not free to roam the earth; in fact the Bible says they do. So far as the rest of the Bible gives us any information to go by, the demons are not to be sent into the abyss until the end of history. This earth is the devil’s kingdom. The Bible itself acknowledges that. Presumably the demons could go where they pleased. So why the pigs? I have no idea and no one else does either. Some have suggested that it was simply their lust to destroy and if they couldn’t destroy human beings, because Jesus was standing there, then they wanted at least to destroy the valuable property of the inhabitants of that place. Perhaps; but who can say?
And when the demons caused the tormented pigs to rush into the lake and be drowned, what became of the demons then? Demons, so far as we know, cannot be destroyed; as spiritual beings they certainly cannot be drowned. Those same demons were somewhere else after they left the pigs. So, again, why the pigs at all? All of these questions do little more than remind us of how little we really know of the spirit-world, of the behavior of Satan and his demons, and of how and why God allows them to operate as they do in the world.
Holy Scripture is characteristically reserved in speaking about the demonic realm. What can be known is what is taught us in the Bible, but that is little enough. The realm of evil spirits is shrouded in deep mystery. I guarantee you: if someone were making all of this up, they would have answered many of these questions and made everything simpler. Myths and legends do not trade in the sort of serious truth that leaves us perplexed before deep mysteries. But mysteries or not no one who is an honest observer of human life should doubt the existence of the demonic realm. What Scripture teaches and what our own experience confirms is that evil in this world is too vicious, too inhuman – even when perpetrated by human beings – to be adequately explained alone by the selfishness of the human heart.
Let me give you an example of this. Whatever questions we may have about the role the pigs play in this incident, they do serve to reveal one fabulously important truth: human beings are far more important than animals! Later in the Gospel (12:6-7) we will read that we are more important than birds. Here we are shown that we are more important than pigs. There is nothing wrong with pigs. They are God’s creatures and ought to be treated with respect. Who has not enjoyed a ham sandwich or bacon and eggs of a morning and not appreciated what pigs contribute to human life. They are, in their own way, possessed of a certain charm, hence “The Three Little Pigs,” Porky Pig, and Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web. But, their value notwithstanding and our responsibility to treat them as God’s creatures with respect notwithstanding, an entire herd of pigs could be rightly destroyed to save a single, human life. Indeed, as ought to have been obvious to the people of that area, the deliverance of this man whose life had been destroyed by demonic possession was a far greater benefit to all of them than the lost herd of pigs could ever have been. The fact that they did not realize this is one of the deeply sad features of this incident.
T.H. Huxley complained about the “wanton destruction of other people’s property,” and blamed Jesus for it in this incident. He should, of course, have blamed the demons. But Huxley didn’t really believe in demons. How he imagined that Jesus caused 2,000 pigs to run down into the lake and drown themselves he does not say. If he really believed Jesus had power over the pigs or the demons, he would not have mocked the Lord. But, again, Huxley was a man who helped introduce the Western world to the notion that the liberation of this man was no longer worth the money the pigs’ owners would eventually earn from the hams and the bacon they would sell.
While this calculation of the supreme value of human life has been uncontroversial in Western Civilization under the influence of Christian thought for nearly 2,000 years, it is not any more. I read a fascinating and deeply depressing article this past week on some recent legal cases in which doctors were sued for what is now called, with no sense of irony, “wrongful birth.” Parents, as you know, have been suing doctors for some years now because a test mistakenly assured them that the baby in the womb was healthy only later to be born with some birth defect, Down’s Syndrome or the like, or because the product of pharmaceutical companies or other manufacturers, intended to prevent pregnancy, failed in its purpose.
When such cases were first brought in U.S. courts they were uniformly rejected and the argument used by American judges was precisely that the birth of a baby is a blessing not a curse, a boon not a bane. Children they said, everyone knows, are a gift. Childbirth, in the nature of the case, could not be considered harmful. As one court decision stated, to consider the birth of a child harmful would be foreign to the universal public sentiment of the people. The life of a human being is too valuable to be considered a loss.
That is what American judges said not so many years ago. They also worried aloud, American judges did, at the likely consequence of children learning that their parents wished they had never been born. To allow the parents to claim in court that their child’s existence had harmed them was contrary to the child’s welfare. But time marches on and the acid of the culture of the self continues to eat away the fabric of our social conscience, and nowadays it is not uncommon for parents to go into court and plead for damages by saying outright that they wish they had killed their child when he or she was still in the womb, when it could have been done legally. Hardly anyone in American courts any longer worries about what effect it may have on children to learn that their parents were so aggrieved that they were born that they went to court to seek damages. Who would have thought, at the time of Roe v. Wade, that one consequence of legalizing abortion was to be that American parents would say in public for all to hear that they wished their child were dead, or, at least, that they wished they could have killed him or her when they had the chance? The sun is setting on the day when children mean more than pigs in our country. [cf. J.V. Last, “From Blessing to Curse: the Evolution of ‘Wrongful Birth’ Lawsuits,” The Weekly Standard (April 30, 2012) 30-33]
Given how people think about babies usually, how much they love them and treasure them, how they long for them and how their lives are bound up with them, to have reached this point requires some explanation. And the Bible gives us two: the selfishness of the sinful, human heart, and the power of the demonic realm to lead men into ever deeper reaches of evil and to convince the human conscience that such evil is actually good. How is it, after all, that time and time again, human beings, whole societies, have come to do the most terrible things with a clear conscience, only later for other societies of human beings to recoil in horror from what was done so confidently before. I’m thinking of chattel slavery, of the abuse of workers in the industrial revolution, children included, mass murder for political purposes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and so on. Don’t tell me that there is not a vicious sort of evil abroad in this world! There is nothing more certain than that future generations of human beings will recoil in disgust at what 21st century Americans do today virtually without thought! And they are going to say, “How in the world could they have thought that right?”
There may be much that we do not know about the devil and his kingdom, but most people, even most Christian people, trivialize life and their own lives by forgetting what they do know and by failing to reckon with what they do observe. They live as though human life is simple, easy to understand, without mystery, deep mystery. But the immensity of evil in the world bears witness to a reality far greater than that which they can see and to a meaning of life that lies hidden from them. Fact is nothing is more likely than that there are evil spirits in this world, making matters worse always and everywhere, and that human hearts are in many ways subject to those spirits, just as the Bible says they are. We need Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, to be sure. The Bible teaches us that and our experience confirms it a hundred times a day. But we also need Christ to deliver us from evil. The Bible and our experience and our observation of the world proves that as well to us a hundred times a day. Most people don’t realize this. They have no sense that they live under the thumb of powerful and evil beings. But in the Gospels, demon possession is a picture in bold colors of all men and women without the deliverance only Jesus can give them.
If you ever think about what a preacher goes through preparing a sermon, I suspect you think that the challenge he faces is to study the passage until he understands it, so that he can explain it to you. And perhaps, since you like a heart-warming sermon or a funny sermon, you imagine him trying to find an amusing illustration or a captivating story to add interest to the lesson. But that isn’t the real challenge. Understanding the Bible has its challenges, but they can be overcome with study. Anyone can find a joke if that is really needed. But what every faithful preacher struggles to do and never feels he has done at all well enough is to make his hearers feel the force of the truth of any passage of the Word of God. That is an entirely different challenge and any preacher worth his salt will tell you he almost never feels he has met that challenge. How can he make his hearers feel the force of truth when he knows that he has scarcely felt that force himself as he ought to have felt it? So he looks and thinks and considers and reads looking for some way to make the invisible visible, the future present, the wonderful thrilling and the terrible horrifying. That is why ministers tell heart-rending stories or recite beautiful poetry or, for that matter, yell and shout. They are trying to make you feel the force of the truth and they are scrambling to find some way to do that. And so much that happened in Jesus’ ministry happened for the same reason.
But sometimes help lies right there before the preacher in the text. Because he is looking so hard for a way to do that, the preacher often finds it in a text when the casual reader might pass it by altogether. We do not talk about hell all the time, to be sure. It is too painful a subject, too difficult, and complicated and, I believe, one that cannot be treated promiscuously. Talked about too frequently, people get used to it. Hear enough hellfire and damnation sermons and sooner rather than later, they lose their power to terrify you. They can even begin to amuse instead of frighten! But we must talk about it from time to time, because it is the foundation of everything. If there is salvation, there must be something from which we need to be saved. If there is a judgment, we need to know something of what that judgment is. If it is terrible, we need to feel that terror so that we will make every effort to flee from what the Bible calls the wrath to come. If we are obliged to share the good news with others, a sometimes thankless and difficult task, we need the motivation provided by the fact that people who die unsaved face a terrible future.
Well, we have hell here in flesh and blood. This incident is a window on the reality of the world of the impenitent and unbelieving after they die. I want you to think with me for a few minutes about how cruel the demons were, how destructive of both human and animal life, and what that reveals to us about the future of mankind.
Nowadays, people are more likely to wonder over the death of all those pigs, but think again about this poor, benighted man. He had been dehumanized in every way, stripped of his dignity, separated from loved ones and friends, made into a creature that others looked upon alternately with fear, pity, and contempt. Whatever purpose he may have had in life had been stolen from him: was he a husband and a father until the demons took possession of his life? He had been earning his living in some way. But all of that was forgotten as he forsook human society and lived among the tombs, surviving on what scraps of food he might find. He walked around naked, something people do only when they are long past caring about what anyone else thinks about them. A normal life had become the barest existence.
That is what demons make of a human life over which they gain control. They ruin it. They make it pathetic and ugly and supremely miserable and hopeless. What they did to the pigs, in the final analysis, was simply another version of what they had done to this man. This man, during the time of his possession, would probably have preferred to drown in the lake, awful as his life had become. Everything that was good, fine, normal, uplifting, interesting about that man’s life the demons had stolen from him.
But this is a fact with horrific implications that human beings almost never face. You see, in a demon, or in this man possessed by demons, we see the future of a large part of the human race. The abyss is not simply a place for demons, a place prepared for the devil and his angels as we read in Revelation 20, it is the same lake of fire into which all human beings who are unbelieving and the impenitent will be cast. The demonic realm is the future of a great host of human beings. And if you wish to know what life in that realm will be like, just look carefully at this man before the Lord delivered him. The demons used to be good and live good and loving lives; but look at them now!
People generally make two great mistakes when thinking about hell and what a hellish existence will be like.
- The first mistake is that they confuse the Bible’s figures of speech with a literal description. They take, for example, the lake of fire to be literally liquid fire into which the impenitent will be cast to swim in constant physical agony forever: men and women, adults and babies, jostling together in endless, searing pain.
But, the lake of fire is a metaphor, not a literal description. So are the worm that does not die, the fire that doesn’t go out, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and outer darkness. We dishonor the Lord’s justice if we do not respect the very figurative way in which hell is described in Holy Scripture. What hell is, the Bible makes clear, is perfect justice, meted out in perfect measure to each and every human being. What the Bible does not explicitly explain is precisely what the pains of hell will be. Every serious Christian theologian has always admitted this.
- The second mistake they make is to imagine that people in hell are sorry for what they have done and failed to do. They will then wish that they could repent, but it is too late; that they could undo the damage of their lives, but the opportunity to do so has been lost forever. But the Bible doesn’t give us to believe that either.
I’ll tell you what hell is: it is this man and his life among the tombs before the Lord delivered him. No friends, no love, no purpose.
People complain about the biblical teaching of hell because they can’t imagine themselves or their friends – nice enough folk as folk go – being punished there. They don’t think people deserve such punishment. But that is only because they don’t see themselves or others as they will be when they are left to themselves and when their choice of the demonic realm rather than the realm and kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ has worked itself out into the entirety of their lives, when real evil has possessed them, as it must if Christ does not deliver them from evil.
The demons aren’t sorry. They don’t repent and wish they could go back and live their lives again, this time giving glory to God. They have no such thoughts. They are rebels against God and will remain so forever.
No; if you want to know what hell is like, take a look at this man of the Gerasenes and how he lived when he was dragged into the realm of the demons. He was utterly isolated and alone. Hell has often been described, and rightly, as the absence of God. But it’s the absence of everybody else as well, at least so far as any real human fellowship or friendship is concerned. But it is also the absence of other people, at least of any people whom you would like to be with. This was C.S. Lewis’ point when he imagined that in hell the houses will grow further and further apart.
This man’s life was pointless. The only thing that he could find to do was to make life miserable for others. No one could control him, but he couldn’t control anyone else either. His life was utterly futile. He lived in the realm of the dead, found himself comfortable only among the tombs. When evil and when an anti-God state of mind takes possession of a human life that is what it becomes: utterly lonely and isolated, miserable, pointless, and despairing. And that, the Bible says, is what everyone’s life will be who is not delivered by Jesus Christ from the influence and power of evil. Demons may be utterly powerless before Jesus Christ, but human beings are utterly powerless before them.
People are not yet like this man for several reasons. 1) There are so many influences that keep them from descending so far into the realm of evil. God is abroad in his world, his common grace and his law written on human hearts keeps human wickedness in bounds; the presence of a Christian conscience in the world is a powerful curb on what people might otherwise be and do. And the demons are hardly interested in convincing people how miserable their lives will be if they don’t follow Jesus Christ. Only from time to time do we see how horrific the life and behavior of even ordinary people can become if those influences are removed and the demonic realm breaks through the surface. But when we see that, as we do here, we are to take very careful notice. We are beholding fundamental reality. We are glimpsing the future!
Let’s be honest. There is that in every human life, in yours and everyone else’s, were it to be the whole of that life, that would make every human being disgusting to everyone else and a menace to society, just as this man was. Even those people you love most in this world – think of your husband or wife, think of your children – say things and do things from time to time that are genuinely bad, cruel, selfish, and hateful. You are very ready to forgive them because you love them and that is by no means all that they are and all that they do, but what if that were all they ever said or ever did? What if they were always what they are when at their worst? You would very quickly lose your sympathy; you would soon no longer tolerate their company. You would want, you would need to be rid of them, no matter that you once loved them. It is not as if the beginnings of such bondage to evil, to inhumanity, and to despair can’t be found in every human life. But what if those beginnings become in time the whole life? They did for this man, until Christ delivered him.
Most people are most of the time like these villagers: they would rather Jesus just leave them alone. But if he leaves them alone the day is coming when what they were at their worst – petty, jealous, cruel, thoughtless, vindictive, profane, utterly selfish – they will be with every breath they take, every word they speak, every action they perform. They will be gnashing their teeth at God but also at everyone else. No one will like them and they will like no one. They will live as the demons do and do what the demons do because they will belong body and soul to the demons as this man did.
People think, if I were to follow Jesus I would have to change my friends, I would have to change my views, I would have honestly to face my past; my whole life would have to change. It’s too much! And so they ask Jesus to go away. The scariest part of this account is that when they asked him to go, the Lord went! Take a long look at this demon-possessed man, at his life when he was under the demons’ thumb, and at his happy life after Jesus had delivered him. Those are the two futures of human beings. Take your pick; but if you choose the life of joy and goodness, and thanksgiving, and commitment to the welfare of others realize that reality being what it is, and the demons being who they are and what they are, only Jesus can give that to you!