Christ and the Demons


Matthew 8:28-34

Text Comment

 

v.28     Gadara, the city that gave its name to that area, was some five miles south-east of the Lake, not far from Abila, where Eric Illi will be working this summer on an archaeological dig under the supervision of Covenant Seminary.  The city controlled the territory up to the shore of the lake east of the head of the Jordan River.

            The demon-possessed men lived in tombs – probably the anterooms of the tombs themselves – which suggests the association of the demons with death.

v.29     The demons, in other words, recognize an authority to which they will not submit.  [France, 163]  They understand who Jesus is better than do the people.  They realize that they are subject to his rule. They seem to know both that at the judgment day they will lose their power and suffer God’s judgment and that it is not yet that time, that Jesus, as it were, has come too soon.  [Hagner, i, 227]  That the demons understand all of that is very interesting, but the Gospel writers do not elaborate.

v.30     The large herd of pigs is an indication that this was an area populated largely by Gentiles as the Jews, of course, did not eat pork.  Mark tells us that there were about 2,000 pigs in the herd.

v.31     Characteristic of the Gospel narratives, once again the evangelists show no speculative interest in demons or the life of demons. Why demons needed some place to go if they were driven out of the men is not said.  The demons spoke, presumably through the mouths of the men they possessed and whose powers they had taken over.

v.32     This is the only instance in the Bible of demons entering and possessing creatures other than human beings.  The panicked stampede of the pigs was one proof to the bystanders that the demons had left the men and were now in the pigs.  The other proof, reported in Mark and Luke but omitted in Matthew’s much shorter account of the same incident, was that the men from whom the demons were driven out got dressed and were seen by the people now calm and in their right minds.  Mark tells us that the men who had been delivered wanted to follow Jesus but the Lord told them to go home to their families and tell them what the Lord had done for them.  The men did that and more, becoming some of the very first Gentile Christian evangelists.

            Once again questions rise in the mind:  for example, what happened to the demons after the pigs drowned?  But the Gospel writers do not address what must be left mysterious for us who do not know or understand the unseen world of spiritual powers.

v.33     The main interest of the men tending the pigs seems to be to tell of what happened to the animals.  After all, they were responsible for them and wanted it to be clear that the loss of the herd was not their fault.  But they add a report of what had become of the possessed men, who were, as we learned in v.28, well known in the area.

We have, for the first time in the Gospel of Matthew, an account of the Lord’s exorcism of demons, mentioned as one form of his miraculous healings in the short summary we were given in 4:23-25.  It is not our first encounter with the realm of evil spirits, of course, as we met the Devil himself in Matthew’s account of the temptation of Jesus in chapter 4.  But the Gospels leave us in no doubt that driving demons out of people possessed by them was a prominent feature of the Lord’s ministry of healing and the exercise of his sovereign rule over demonic forces one of the great demonstrations of his Lordship.

Demon possession is very rare, if it occurs at all in the OT and there are few examples of it after the Gospels.  “In the Bible [an outbreak of] demon possession [seems rather to be] part of the upsurge of evil opposing Jesus in the time of his incarnation.”  [Morris, 208]  It was a very important phenomenon in the Gospels because the Lord’s encounter with demons revealed so much about the kingdom of God and the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth.

And this is Matthew’s interest and the interest of the other Gospel writers in this strange and appalling phenomenon.  At this remove from the Gospel history, we can often be more interested in the phenomenon itself.  We want to know, for example, how to relate demon possession to mental conditions that we are familiar with today.  Some, indeed, have suggested that what was then thought to be a supernatural phenomenon, the inhabiting and overwhelming of a personality by an evil spirit or spirits, we now understand simply as mental illness.  But it is clear that more than mental illness is meant by the Gospel writers when they describe the condition of these benighted people who were possessed by demons.  Possession could manifest itself in a variety of ways: dumbness or an inability to speak; blindness; seizures – in other words, physical ailments of one kind or another – but, also in behavior that we associate with insanity, as seems to have been the case here.  The Gadarene demoniacs were anti-social, violent, and, as Mark and Luke suggest, not in their right minds.  We might think of them today as psycho- or sociopaths. They also possessed super-human strength.  But the Gospel writers are careful to distinguish demon possession from other diseases and, of course, the behavior of the demons themselves and their conversations with the Lord – a feature of the accounts in all three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke – clearly indicate the supernatural character of this phenomenon.  Here, of course, both the conversation of the demons and their behavior in the pigs belies any thought of a merely ordinary human condition, some kind of mental illness only.

Nowadays we also want to know whether such a thing still happens in the world, a question answered in very different ways even by devout and learned Christians.  Many have held through the Christian ages that demon possession was, like the miracles of Jesus and his apostles, a phenomenon reserved for the time of the revelation of the Messiah and the Savior of the world.  They have argued that we should no more expect demon possession than we should expect to see miraculous healings or speaking in tongues or nature miracles.  Others have argued that demon possession has occurred in human history and, indeed, may still occur in certain times and places.  The classic work advocating that opinion was written by the missionary doctor and statesman, John L. Nevius, whose missionary method was employed to such splendid effect in the evangelization of Korea in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Nevius went as a Presbyterian missionary to China completely skeptical of claims being made that demon possession existed there in the mid-19th century.  His skepticism was overturned by his own experience and he wrote a deeply interesting, even chilling, book detailing the evidence for demon possession then occurring in China. 

As many thinkers have pointed out, C.S. Lewis most notably in our own time, if demon possession were to occur in the world, the last place it would appear would be in the rationalistic and unbelieving West.  The last thing the Devil wants Europeans and Americans to do is to take seriously the reality of the spiritual kingdom.  On the other hand, in places of the world where that reality is taken for granted, it would not be surprising from him to hold people in thrall by exercising his power.  One way or another, Lewis goes on to say, the more a man is in the Devil’s power, the less he would be likely to be aware of it, just as a man is still fairly sober who knows that he is drunk.  If devils exist, of course, their first aim is to put you off believing in them.  The most effective tactic in battle is always surprise, deceit, misdirection, every technique by which you are led to underestimate your enemy.  [God in the Dock, 56-57]

But interesting as these questions are and as important in their own way, they are not the interest of the Gospel writers and certainly not of Matthew.  He is interested in what the Jesus’ encounters with demons reveal to us about him and about his work in the world.  What is clear is that the Lord’s encounter with demonic powers, with evil spirits, was not a peripheral activity in the Lord’s ministry but was a manifestation, a revelation of the essential purpose of his coming into the world and a manifestation of his glory as the Savior of the world.  The activity of demons, as it is made manifest in demon possession at the time of the Lord’s ministry, is part of the backdrop of the revelation of Jesus Christ.

  1. First, here is revealed the mysterious, cruel, and powerful reality of evil that Jesus has come into the world to confront.

 

The effect of the demons upon human beings is a powerful demonstration of the condition of human beings in the world and of man’s need for the redeeming grace of God.  Throughout the Gospels we are exposed to the brute fact of an evil kingdom, ruled by Satan, who is the head of a host of inferior evil spirits called demons.  That kingdom exercises control over the life and destiny of men and women.  When Paul calls Satan “the god of this world or age” [2 Cor. 4:4) he is only saying the same thing that Jesus said when he described Satan as “the prince of this world” [John 16:11] or that Satan himself said to Jesus when, in the temptation, he promised to deliver the world to him if only Jesus would bow down and worship him.  In other words, the world is, in some real way, Satan’s to offer!  To some extent it is under his control.

There are many vastly important implications of the revelation of the kingdom of evil spirits that exercises dominion over this world.  We learn that evil is not imposed upon the world by fate or by nature, still less by God.  “Evil has its roots in personality.”  [Ladd, New Testament Theology, 50]  There is no such thing as “evil” in the abstract, as a power separate from persons.  There are only evil persons.   But some of those evil persons are greater, far greater than mere human beings:  more powerful, more knowing, more sinister.  Man is himself evil enough, but lest he think that somehow he can surmount his own evil by his own power, he is forced to reckon with an entire realm of evil beings who hold him in their power.  How greatly does mankind need the Son of God to break free from the evil in the world and in human hearts!

What is more, the nature of that evil as rebellion against God is more plainly and perfectly revealed in the Lord’s encounter with demonic powers.  In the Gospels the great interest of the kingdom of evil spirits – from its ruler Satan on down – is to oppose, frustrate, and overturn the work of salvation that Jesus came into the world to accomplish.  The Devil seeks to overthrow the Lord at the very outset of his ministry by tempting him in the wilderness.  And later, in one of the Lord’s parables of the kingdom – those parables that tell us how the kingdom of God will advance in the world – we learn that when the Gospel message is preached, Satan and his demons are there to snatch the word away so that it will not bear fruit.  Elsewhere in the New Testament the Devil is described as a deceiver of the nations of the world and as the accuser of the brethren.  His interest is to prevent the kingdom of God from taking hold in human hearts.  And the reason for this is that the demons are themselves rebels against God.  They will not submit to him.  They hate him and his purposes in the world and seek at every turn to frustrate his will.  And there is a fury to their hatred, as the destruction of the pigs powerfully demonstrates.  The further life is removed from God, the more it is lived in opposition to the Creator’s will, the worse it is.

And such is the condition of every human heart that is subject to the dominion of the evil one.  Man is a rebel in his own right – that is what sin makes of any creature, for sin is rebellion against God in its very nature – but he is more the rebel, and more defiantly the rebel, because he is also a servant of the Evil One.  The Scripture, with its teaching about the Devil and his kingdom and mankind being subject to that kingdom, does not deny that the evil that is in the hearts of men and the evil that men do is truly their own evil for which they are personally responsible.  There would be trouble enough and misery enough and rebellion enough in human hearts were there no Devil at all.  But the Bible teaches that human evil is spurred on by and gains strength from an anterior, a prior evil.  Man in his rebellion against God receives great help and encouragement from the Devil and his evil spirits.  We don’t know precisely how the Devil exercises his influence but we know that he does.  We cannot deny that, in the case of these two Gadarene men, they became so completely subject to the Devil’s power because they were, at a fundamental level, receptive to his influence.  Remember how Jesus used to tell those who hated him and opposed him that they were doing the will of their Father, the Devil.  Well so is every unbelieving man or woman.  They are not excused thereby, not at all.  Their evil is made the worse because it is seen to be part of a vast conspiracy of hatred against God and defiance of his will.  And if they are doing their master’s bidding it remains true that they were willing to do it.

We have here, in other words, a window on reality.  This is a world in thrall to evil, in the grip of the Evil One and his minions.  It does not see itself so, but when Jesus came into the world that evil kingdom rose up in opposition to his kingdom and joined furious battle.  The evil kingdom that is always behind and below the visible world of human life in those three years penetrated the thin veneer that separates our world from that evil kingdom and became more visible to men.

Now, this is not the way most human beings see the world to be sure.  They do not see themselves in thrall to the kingdom of the Evil One, they do not see themselves as subjects of Satan who do his will.  But the fact is they are as much so as were those benighted men whom demons had taken possession of near Gadara.  That is the burden of the rest of the teaching of the Gospels and the New Testament.  When Jesus says that the Pharisees were doing the bidding of their Father the Devil he was as much as saying that they were as much under the control of evil spirits as were the demon-possessed.  The only difference was that the control was exercised in a more subtle, invisible way.  The Devil does not always show his hand as he did in those cases.  Much more often, as the Bible says, he exercises his control over human beings disguised as an angel of light.

But his intentions and his purposes in human life are as cruel and as sinister as they were in the lives of those two men.  This is a lesson of the greatest conceivable importance.  Men and women tend to see many kinds of evil, they always have and do today, as liberating.  To free oneself from the constraints of God’s law they see not as rebellion against their Creator but as the way to happiness and fulfillment for themselves.  Whether it is sexual liberation – promiscuity or homosexuality or pornography – or some other sin – the love of money, fame, power, pleasure, ease – men see this as the path to the wholeness and to the integration of their personality.  Many people nowadays really believe that they are better off living in open rebellion against the law of God as it is revealed in the Bible.  They see that law as stifling them.  But, in fact, this is a lie out of the pit of hell.  The Devil is very good at making rebellion look exciting and promising but the truth is rebellion against God leads inexorably in the opposite direction, to misery and to doom.

See it here in this graphic picture of evil.  Look at these men, like all other men under the Devil’s power only more publicly and obviously so.  They are, we say, demented.  They are isolated and estranged from others.  Their violence and cruelty keeps them from happy and fulfilling relationships with other human beings.  Their separation from reality makes it impossible for them to see themselves as they really are or their need for what it is.  They live dirty, unkempt lives, howling at the moon because they have nothing better to do with their energy.  Their personalities are wrecked!

This evil is not liberating any more than any other evil is.   It is bitter, small, vengeful, sour.  No one is ever better off for the Devil’s influence in his or her life.  He is cruel; he is out to destroy.  We see the inevitable influence of the demonic world in those poor pigs that rush to their death because even they, brute beasts, cannot stand the presence of the evil spirits within them.  The Devil and his demons are enemies of everything good in human life, of everything that leads to eternal life and peace with God.  What we see in those poor men and in the pigs is what comes of the influence of the devil and what comes of the evil that is in their hearts.  It is not seen for what it is yet in many cases, but someday it will be seen for what it is, as surely as it was seen in the ruined lives of those men dwelling in the tombs.

And so, beguiled by the Devil, the world goes on as it does.  “All down the ages the world has been refusing Jesus – as these Gadarene people did – because it prefers its pigs.”  [P. Levertoff in France, 164]  And even its dead pigs!  It will continue to believe that rebellion against God liberates the soul even against all the evidence of its own eyes!  Such is the power and grip of human sin when seized and exploited by a mighty power such as the Devil wields through the spirits who inhabit his dark kingdom.

But, it is not only the reality and malevolence of evil that is revealed in demon possession in the Gospels.

  1. There is also revealed the sovereign authority of Jesus Christ over the kingdom of the Evil One and his almighty power to deliver men from it.

 

The glorious fact is that whenever Jesus encountered this kingdom of evil he subdued it.  He resisted the Devil in the wilderness and bested him in that first mortal combat.  And here, he utters only word, “Go!” and they were compelled to do his bidding.  One word and the devils’ control over those men was forever broken.  Not once in the Gospels do demons manage even to prolong the battle.  They know who Jesus is, they know they must do as he says – they hate it, but they know it is so – and they always do what he says, immediately!  The demonstration of this point is Matthew’s great interest.  That is why his account is much shorter than the accounts of this same incident in Mark and Luke.  Matthew leaves out all the detail:  the behavior of the demon-possessed men, their conversation with the Lord afterwards, and so on.  He wants you to see the demons utterly subject to Jesus’ authority and wants nothing to interfere with that impression.   What we see is demons conquered by the mere utterance of a word spoken by Jesus.

Here we also learn a great lesson.  There is no dualism here.  Good and evil are not both ultimate realities.  There is but one absolutely sovereign power in this universe and that is God himself.  At the last, as Luther memorably put it, the Devil is God’s devil.  God uses even the Devil’s raging rebellion against him as a means of demonstrating the glory of his Son and then, when the time comes, he will put a complete stop to it.  There is a mystery here, to be sure.  The Devil goes around doing much harm, but he is able to do his sinister work only because the living God permits him to do it.  Just as God uses human sin sinlessly to accomplish his will in the world, so he uses the Devil sinlessly. 

Think of it this way.  You know the Harlem Globetrotters, the very skillful comedy basketball team that tours the world delighting audiences wherever they go.  Well, for the Globetrotters to do their thing, they have to have another team to play.  That team is the Washington Generals.  The Generals go where the Globetrotters go and they lose virtually every time out.  They are supposed to lose.  They are the foil, the backdrop against which the Globetrotters display their prowess, the straight men who set up the Globetrotters’ jokes.  Now we are not talking about comedy here, to be sure.  We are talking about the most serious things in the world, life and death, heaven and hell.  But, there is a sense in which we may think of the devil and his spirits as a kind of Washington Generals, not only in that they are and must be the losers in the drama of world history, but that they are, in a way, dupes, more than faintly ludicrous in the utter futility of their rebellion against God.  He wears himself out in a constant effort to do what is absolutely impossible, but he cannot seem to accept his defeat.  His whole project is absurd, but he keeps at it nonetheless, as if he is going to prevent the Almighty, his Maker against whom he has rebelled, from doing his will.

C.S. Lewis made this point famously when he wrote:

            “…Christianity commits us to believing that ‘the Devil is (in
            the long run) an ass.”  [Cited in Plantinga, Not the Way its
            Supposed to Be, 123]

It is this that lies behind the frustration of Christians as they see human beings around them so glibly, so confidently, so gaily giving themselves to thinking and to behavior that anyone should be able to see has death written all over it.  “To rebel against God is to saw off the branch that supports us.”  [Plantinga, 123]  There is no true joy in the buzz that one gets from alcohol, drugs, or sinful sex; there is no true love in the pursuit of one’s pleasures without regard to the interests of your Creator in your own soul; there is no satisfaction in seeking the fulfillment and the integration of your personality by denying the very nature of yourself as a creature of Almighty God, made to love and serve Him.  Rebellion against God has always led, leads, and will always lead to disintegration, misery, alienation and isolation.  These results are as inevitable as death.  The Devil can hide them for awhile, but when Jesus comes, either then in the flesh, or now by his Spirit, or in the flesh again at the end of history, they can be and will be denied by no one.  What this incident with the demons demonstrates – their cruel control of two unfortunate lives and their absolute subjection to Jesus – is, then, these 3 things:

  1. The seriousness of life, of your life.  You have an adversary.  There is abroad in this world and among the world of men, all men, an evil mind of great power seeking to keep men from God, from life, from love, from joy.  Whether by sophisticated deceit or by overwhelming physical power, the result is the same:  a life in bondage to evil and to death.
  2. The evil of rebellion against God.  The Devil is cruel, hateful, bitter, utterly uncaring of the heart of human beings.  He uses them in his contest with God and cares not one whit how many are ground up in the battle.  All human beings are simply canon fodder for his kingdom.  This is the one with whom men side when they prefer their appetites to the will of God, when they set their own desires above God’s law.  Men hardly ever see this – when they do see it they become Christians – but standing with the Devil is to stand with all that is hateful, deadly, and ugly.
  3. And, finally, our need for Christ.  We cannot best such an adversary ourselves.  But he can and has.  See him here uttering a single word and casting the demons out of those two men.  One word from him and those men are once again in their right minds.  The Devil is a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour – the Bible says he is – but when Christ speaks he runs like a frightened jackrabbit!

 

The rancher, whose property surrounds our Colorado cabin, had a vicious dog some years ago.  He was named Blue.  Every time we drove through the ranch yard, as we must to come and go, he would race out to meet the car, barking and snarling.  Once, when I was standing talking to the rancher who was sitting in his truck, that dog left the cows, made a beeline for me and bit me hard on the leg, breaking the skin in a large circle through my jeans.  As the blood began to ooze from the cut the rancher said, “Blue, stop that!”  We were, I was afraid of that dog!  On our walks it is sometimes necessary to walk through the same ranch yard and we were always afraid that the dog would be there.  One day I had prepared myself.  I had a walking stick.  Sure enough, as we walked through the ranch yard old Blue came snarling off the porch and raced toward us as if he were going to have us for lunch.  I raised my stick above my head, yelled at him, and to my astonishment, he skidded to a stop, turned round and ran back to the house with his tail between his legs.  There is a picture of this world, the Devil’s world, a snarling Devil’s world, the dogs of hell at your heels, and there is a picture of what becomes of the Devil when Christ gives a shout.  He doesn’t even have to shout – he just speaks a word.  The secret of all of life is to be sure you are standing right behind Jesus Christ every step of your way through this, the Devil’s world.