I don’t look for demons around every corner (!), but I do contend they didn’t disappear with the apostles’. Think of modern history’s most brutal leaders–Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mussolini, Ida Amin, Saddam Hussein, and now a terrifying variety of Middle East terror groups. It’s impossible to prove any were (or are) truly demonized, but it’s hard to argue they weren’t (or aren’t). And there will be more. Evil and violence in these “last days” will increase before Jesus comes again. So both present and future are reasons to pay attention to a familiar, but strange event Mark records in 5:1-20.
THE LANDING. After a terror-filled night on the Sea of Galilee (4:35-41), the disciples with Jesus “ . . . came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit” (5:1,2).
This country lay in the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee. It was outside Palestine–Gentile territory under the military rule of Roman legions. The disciples beached the boat near a graveyard. As soon as Jesus climbed out a mad man ran toward him, fell at his feet and fearfully cried, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me” (5:6,7). He pleaded, because already Jesus was saying, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit” (5:8).
TWO IMPORTANT POINTS. One, Jesus diagnoses the problem as an “unclean spirit” (another term for “demon” or “evil spirit”). Two, the “unclean spirit” recognizes who Jesus is (“Son of the Most High God”), even though his disciples haven’t (“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”—4:41b).
THE NAME. Perhaps in exercising power over this spirit, Jesus asks his name. “He replied, ‘My name is Legion, for we are many” (5:9). 6,000 soldiers constituted a Roman legion. This man was demonized by an army! But,”legion” implies more than evil’s multitude; it implies evil’s victimization. Here was a man who ” . . . lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones” (5:3-5).
Millions were massacred by history’s brutal rulers, who may have been driven by demons. Here is a man driven by demons to brutalize himself. He possesses super-human power, but can’t save himself. But now the victimizers are about to become the victims.
THE RESCUE. They feverishly beg Jesus not to send them out of the country (5:10). Was Gerasene-land the lap of luxury for evil spirits? I don’t know why they begged to stay. But let’s not miss the point: a legion of demons, who have destroyed this man’s life, are pathetically cringing at Jesus’ feet!
PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) officially abhors what happens next. Frankly, I’m not sure why Jesus picked on poor pigs (although I’m sure commentators have devised all sorts of mysterious meanings). The demons beg Jesus, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them” (5:12). Jesus gives them per- mission (note that he doesn’t command them or rebuke them, merely allows them!). “And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs and the herd, numbering about 2000 (in those days pigs were about the size of a small to medium dog), rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea (5:13).
Obviously upset, the pig herders hurry into town, round up a posse and return begging Jesus to “get out of Dodge”. The rescued-from-demons man begs to go with Jesus. But Jesus tells him instead to tell his story in the ten towns nearby—which he did and “everyone marveled” (5:17-20).
THE HARD-TO-BELIEVE. In his book, Why I Am Not a Christian, the 20th century British philosopher Bertrand Russel wrote, “It is unbelievable…this story of Jesus finding this crazy man in a graveyard supposedly possessed by a countless number of demons who . . . are bidden to be released from this man and enter into these two thousand pigs. And the pigs go running down the mountainside and into the sea and they drown. And there’s this sight of dead pigs everywhere.”
Well, let’s admit (as they used to say when I was teenager), “That’s far-out man!” Yeah, it is. And it leaves unanswered questions: why the pigs? did the demons drown too? could Jesus have really held a conversation with evil spirits? and, if this really happened, so what?
THE SO WHAT. Love or laugh at the idea of demons, but evil is ravaging this world. Gun-violence. Rapes. Kidnappings. Vicious murders. The spread of nuclear weapons. The Middle East (!) “on fire”. I’m no demonologist, but I can read what the apostle John wrote: ” . . . the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19b). Who’s going to save us from all this? Washington? A Republican president and congress? Believe that and I’ve got a good deal on a bridge to buy!
Only Jesus. He’s the One whose feet a whole army of demons cringe before!