Last week we looked at the account of Jesus calming the storm. After He rebuked the wind and waves, the disciples were terrified and found themselves asking, “Who is this man?” Today we are going to look at another testimony that Jesus is more than just a good man. But the source of this testimony might surprise you.
We turn our attention this morning to Matthew 8:28-34, to the account of Jesus healing two men who were possessed by demons. Matthew includes this story to show us about the power of Jesus, and this unique passage teaches us that Jesus has power and authority over all things, and reminds us that we should worship Him as such.
Let’s look at how Matthew records this encounter.
28 When Jesus arrived on the other side of the lake, in the region of the Gadarenes, two men who were possessed by demons met him. They lived in a cemetery and were so violent that no one could go through that area. 29 They began screaming at him, “Why are you interfering with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before God’s appointed time?” 30 There happened to be a large herd of pigs feeding in the distance. 31 So the demons begged, “If you cast us out, send us into that herd of pigs.” 32 “All right, go!” Jesus commanded them. So the demons came out of the men and entered the pigs, and the whole herd plunged down the steep hillside into the lake and drowned in the water. 33 The herdsmen fled to the nearby town, telling everyone what happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 Then the entire town came out to meet Jesus, but they begged him to go away and leave them alone. (Matthew 8:28-34, NLT)
As we have mentioned before, many of the stories we read in one gospel are also recorded in one or more of the other gospels, so in order for us to gain the greatest understanding we need to look at all of the accounts. This story is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels. Luke and Matthew both basically give overviews of this event, but Mark’s gospel gives a greatly expanded version, which gives us some additional details. So this morning we will pull in some of the details from Mark as we look at this story.
There are, however, some differences in these accounts that sometimes trip people up. Critics of Christianity look at these differences and conclude that the Bible can’t be trusted, but I want to address some of these concerns so you can see that these differences can be easily explained and should not cause us to question the Bible.
First is the difference in location. Matthew says they were in the Gadarenes, and Mark and Luke refer to the place as the Gerasenes. These are likely different ways of describing the same place. It is possible that one name referred to a large region, and the other referred to a much more specific town. It would be like saying someone was from Oak Park (a Chicago suburb) or saying they were from the Chicago area. Both are accurate descriptions, even though one is much more specific. This difference in names of locations isn’t a contradiction; it is likely just a difference in how the writers described the setting.
The second difference is that Matthew describes two demon possessed men while Mark and Luke only mention one. Critics declare this to be a contradiction or evidence of fabrication, but it’s simply a difference in eyewitness testimony. Mark and Luke were focused on relaying the story about one of the men (possibly the one who spoke), while Matthew mentions both of them. There isn’t a contradiction here, because if there were two men present, there was also one. Eyewitnesses may not describe a scene the same way based on what their emphasis was in relaying the story. Mark and Luke may not have thought it was as important to mention the second man, while Matthew did. The three gospel accounts are harmonious, and when taken together they give us a fuller picture of exactly what happened.
Demons are Real
Some people dismiss the accounts of demon possession in the New Testament as ancient superstition. They conclude that these men were simply mentally ill, and that if they would have had access to modern medicine and psychiatric treatments they could have been healed. But that view has a few issues: first is that it ignores what the Bible says. The Bible says they were possessed by demons, not that they were mentally ill. Generally speaking, we should read the Bible at face value, especially when it relaying information from a story. Second is that this view assumes that demons are a figment of our imagination—a superstition from an ancient and primitive time. But that isn’t true. Demons are real, and this story records Jesus’ encounter with two men who were under the control of demons. Third, this view doesn’t explain the pigs! The pigs didn’t suddenly decide to run to their deaths because of an imaginary demonic force. The only explanation that makes sense is exactly what the Bible says.
The Bible doesn’t teach us a great deal about demons, but there are a few things we piece together about them in Scripture. First, demons are fallen angels. Demons are beings that were created by God (just as angels in heaven were), but who rebelled against Him and were banished from heaven (Jude 6). When Satan rebelled against God he also led astray 1/3 of the angels with him (Revelation 12). These fallen angels are what we refer to as demons. We don’t know exactly how many there are, but it seems that there are many.
The second thing we learn is that demons are active in this world, and their goal to lead people away from God. If you remember back to the book of Ephesians, Paul talked about the importance of putting on the full armor of God. His reason was that we should wear God’s armor because,
12 For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, NLT)
He says we are at war with evil forces—demons who are at work in the world around us. Demons are a real enemy, and they are still active in the world today, even as they were in the ancient world. They are not mere superstition.
I need to issue a caution here, however. It is wrong for us to conclude that demons are imaginary, but it is equally wrong for us to conclude that everything bad that happens is a result of demonic activity. Though it is true that demons continue to be active in our world, we should not be looking for demons around every corner. Their goal is to lead us away from God, and when we become fixated on demons or completely ignore them, we are easy targets. They can exploit either extreme. We must strive for a balanced view. Their goal is to draw us away from God, so the best way to defend against the attacks of demons is to follow hard after God.
We don’t know how these men came to be possessed by demons, but we are told they were inhabited by many demons, and they had made the men so violent that no one could pass through the area. Mark and Luke tell us that these men lived naked and were incredibly strong. They were so strong that they couldn’t even be bound by chains, because they simply broke loose. Mark’s account also tells us that Jesus spoke to one of the men and asked the demons to tell him their name. The demon responded by saying, “My name is Legion, because there are many of us inside this man.” (Mark 5:9, NLT). Legion was a Roman military term. A Roman legion consisted of 6,000 men. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this man was possessed by 6,000 demons, but the description gives us a sense that there were many demons present in this man.
Jesus Has Power Over Demons
The real point of this story, however, is not the demons, but rather Jesus. Jesus demonstrates that He has authority over the demons. They fear him, and when He tells them to go, they do.
It is interesting that in the previous account after Jesus calmed the storm the disciples found themselves questioning, “Who is this man?” as they marveled at his power, but when they step off the boat, the men possessed by the demons come running toward them and rightly identify Jesus!
29 They began screaming at him, “Why are you interfering with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before God’s appointed time?” (Matthew 8:29, NLT)
These demons understood exactly who Jesus was. They referred to him as the Son of God. They feared him, because they were afraid that he was going to torture them before God’s appointed time.
There is so much about that statement that is interesting. First, it tells us that though demons have power and some measure of freedom now, there is coming a day when God will punish them and eradicate them forever. The book of Revelation talks about how God will throw Satan and his demons into the Lake of Fire where they will be tormented forever, and 2 Peter talks about the punishment reserved for demons. Though demons have some measure of power now, God is going to punish them once and for all. They will be defeated.
Second, it tells us that demons know they are defeated! These demons knew that God was one day going to punish them for their rebellion. They also knew that the day had not yet come for their final punishment. It is important for us to remember that though demons are a powerful enemy, they are also an enemy that has already been vanquished, and they know it. Satan himself is a demon, and he knows he is defeated and can do only what God allows him to do.
Many people have this idea of God and Satan being equal and opposite forces. They are opposite, but they are not equal. Satan is a created being just like all the other demons. Though Satan is more powerful than you or me, he is not more powerful than God. In the book of Job, Satan had to ask permission to attack Job. God allowed Satan to inflict great hardship on Job, but not to harm him physically. Later Satan asked to attack Job physically, and God allowed him to, but still put limits on him. Satan is a vanquished enemy, as are all demons.
Which leads to Matthew’s main point: Jesus has power over demons. Matthew is showing us that Jesus is God in the flesh. The demons recognized this and they begged Jesus not to torture them. Their request is that if Jesus was going to cast them out, he would send them into the nearby herd of pigs. Jesus agreed (again, the demons had to ask permission, they could only do what Jesus permitted), and the demons left these two men and entered the herd of pigs, causing them to run down a cliff and into the sea where they drowned. Why did the demons ask to go into the pigs? Many have speculated, but no one really knows for sure. Regardless, Mark’s gospel tells us that after this, the men who had previously been possessed were instantly back to normal! When the townspeople came out to investigate what had happened, they saw these men sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully clothed, and back in their right minds. Jesus had set them free!
The Response to Jesus
Though it is interesting to talk about angels and demons and it is fun to read a story like this that is so vivid in its description of Jesus’ power, the point of the story isn’t really to teach us about demons. It is to teach us about Jesus and how we should respond to Him. I think the most important lesson we can learn from this passage is that how we respond to Jesus’ power is everything.
Notice how the townspeople responded. They came out to see what had happened, saw the dead pigs floating in the sea, and also saw these two men who had been healed. Their response was not to worship Jesus because they saw his power, but rather to ask Jesus to leave. We don’t know exactly why the people asked Jesus to leave. It’s possible that they were mad because he was responsible for the death of their livestock (those 2,000 pigs surely belonged to someone). It’s possible they wanted him gone because they feared him. Regardless, they asked Jesus to leave. And he did.
There are many today who want to keep Jesus at arm’s length. They have an understanding of His power and authority, but they see it as a threat. These people rebel against Jesus not because they are convinced He is not God, but because they don’t like the implications if they concede He is God. They know that if Jesus really is God, then He has the right to control their lives. And if Jesus is in control, it means I am not. So many push Him away rather than surrender to His control.
It’s not enough to believe that Jesus is God. The demons knew Jesus was God. They even feared Him! But that knowledge did nothing to change the way they lived.
It’s interesting how people change when they find out I’m a pastor. Many try to impress me or show they are good people, even though they may not necessarily be churchgoers. One of the most common phrases people say to me in this context is simply, “I believe in God”. When people say that, I immediately think of James 2:19.
19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. (James 2:19, NLT)
We need to learn a lesson from the demons. Knowledge of who Jesus is isn’t enough. The demons knew who Jesus was—they even feared Him! But they did not worship Him as God. We must not fall into the same trap. It is not enough to simply believe that Jesus is who He said He was—that belief must impact the way we live our lives.
So how should this passage influence our lives? How should the truth that Jesus has power over demons change the way we live?
First, it should drive us to obedience. There are three ways to respond to the power of Jesus. The first is to run away from Him as the people from the town did. The second is to be indifferent, believing in the power and authority of Jesus, but not living like it’s true. This is the response the demons had. But the third response is to run to Him and worship Him. If we recognize Jesus as the One who has power over all things, then we will follow Him. We will live in a way that seeks to honor Him and strives to be obedient to Him. We will submit our will to His, because we know that He is ultimately in control, and that His will is best.
Second, it should make us willing to get dirty. Jesus was willing to reach out to these two men who were abandoned by the world. These men were unclean under Jewish law for three reasons: 1) they were Gentiles, 2) they were living in a cemetery, and 3) they were demon-possessed. Everyone in the boat with Jesus would have completely understood if he simply avoided these two men. They would have made him ceremonially unclean and disqualified him from worshiping in the temple. But Jesus didn’t avoid them. Rather, he went to them and brought them healing.
There are a lot of people the world says aren’t worth our effort: people who are mean, people who are living in open rebellion to the things of God, people who have years and years of baggage. As Christians, we should be like Jesus, and run to these people rather than running away from them. The world gives up on these kinds of people because they think there is nothing they can do to help them. And they’re right! As human beings, we can’t change people. We can’t break the power of sin and darkness in a person’s life. But the Christian knows an even bigger truth: Jesus can! Rather than giving up on people, we should ask God to do what only He can. We should ask God to break addictions, to change hearts, and to restore what they have lost.
Practically speaking, it means that not only will we pray for people the world has given up on, but we will love them even if they don’t love us back. We will try to help them to the best of our ability while trusting God to bring ultimate healing. We will continue to share the gospel message with them even if they don’t seem to show any interest. We care for the people the world ignores because we believe God can change anyone. He changed these men who were demon-possessed and a danger to themselves and others. He also changed us. Jesus can change anyone.
Third, we need to love people more than pigs. There are some who look at this story and are appalled that Jesus would allow the demons to enter into the pigs. They see Jesus’ actions as being cruel to animals and evil. This may have been the case with the townspeople—and some were surely upset at the economic impact of Jesus’ actions. This attitude misses the big picture! Jesus changed the lives of two human beings forever—that outcome was easily worth the lives of 2,000 pigs.
My point is this: sometimes we are so focused on hanging onto the things of this world that we miss the big picture. We are more concerned about missing out on a ball game, our leisure activities, or our favorite TV show than we are about caring for the people around us. We are unwilling to serve in the church because of what we might have to give up. We don’t give to the Lord because we’d rather have that money to spend on ourselves. We value our reputation more than we do the souls of those around us.
When we do these things, we are loving the things of this world more than people. We are paying more attention to the “pigs” than we are the bigger picture. Jesus reminds us that sometimes it’s worth sacrificing some of the things of this world to accomplish something much greater. We must learn to love the things of God more than we love “pigs.”
This passage reminds us of Jesus’ power. That knowledge should drive us to worship Him more fully because He is the one who has power over everything, even the evil forces around us. This truth is of little value, however, unless we actually take it to heart. Jesus is more powerful than anything we may face physically or spiritually—so let’s live like it.