We continue now in this section of Matthew with a passage that shows that Jesus had authority over the spiritual world, or to be more precise, the world of spirits. Matthew has already recorded the account of the temptation in which Jesus overcame Satan, the prince of demons. But now in His public ministry Jesus encountered humans who had been so controlled by evil forces that they were completely out of control. We use the expression “demon-possessed” to describe these folks, because the demons took control of their faculties and tormented and twisted their lives out of control. But when Jesus came to their area, He brought deliverance for them from the powers of darkness.
28 When He arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met Him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. 29 “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”
30 Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. 31 The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”
32 He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. 33 Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they pleaded with Him to leave their region.
The so-called “synoptic gospels,” Matthew, Mark and Luke, often record the same events but slightly differently. Besides our passage in Matthew, this account is reported in Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:26-39, both of which are longer than Matthew’s account. It is important for the Bible Study to compare the passages when studying in one of them for several reasons: 1) to see if there are possible discrepancies that need to be addressed, 2) to gather more information about the event to safeguard the interpretation, and 3) to be able to understand why one gospel writer used only the bits that he did.
First, then, are there apparent discrepancies between the accounts? There are two matters that need to be dealt with. One is the fact that Matthew says that two men met Jesus and the other accounts say one met Him. Some interpreters rather quickly conclude that Matthew simply got it wrong, or invented the second man. Others think that it must be a different event, only remarkably similar. But neither of these explanations is necessary or helpful. The better solution is that Matthew, who was there, had full and separate knowledge of a second man.1_ftn1 There were two demon possessed men. But one of them spoke to Jesus; and the other two gospel writers simply report what they had been told—the conversation between Jesus and the demon-possessed man. Their focus on one man was sufficient for their purpose. Matthew will do the same thing in Matthew 20:30 where he reports two blind men who met Jesus.
Besides, where one person is more remarkable, it is not uncommon to mention that one alone. One could say, “I met John downtown today,” and later add that his family was with him. This would not be considered poor reporting.
The second difficulty is the name of the place. Matthew says it was in the region of the Gadarenes. Mark and Luke say it was in the area of Gerasa. Some of the older Bibles had Gergesa, but that was based on a later manuscript tradition.
Gadara is most likely Um Qeis, about five miles to the southeast of the lake. Josephus, the Jewish historian from the first century, says that Gadara had village settlements on the border of the lake. Remember too that these men lived in the tombs, and they would most likely be outside the city area. This is why Matthew says it was “in the region” of the Gadarenes, not in Gadara.
Mark and Luke say it was in the area of Gerasa. Some have suggested that this would be the city of Jerash. But that is thirty miles to the east, and would not fit the circumstances of the story which took place on the shore of the lake.2_ftn2 Most likely Gerasa is a reference to the village settlement of Koursi, or Kersi, located on the eastern side of the lake. The location in Matthew overlaps with this location; the two names in the gospels simply identify it differently, Matthew with reference to the main town, and the other two with reference to the local village. The area where the miracle took place was in the tomb area outside cities and villages, and could be located either way.
So what looks like some mistakes on a superficial reading really are not such at all. They can be explained easily enough by considering the perspective of the different reporters. But this passage makes us aware of something very important about studying the Bible. If you go into it with the idea that the Bible is filled with irreconcilable errors and falsifications, you can find things like this that you could explain to make your point. But if you go into the study with the idea that these are careful recorders and interpreters of history and with the intent of harmonizing difficulties, you can find reasonable explanations for what appear to be discrepancies. Too many people do not put forth the effort to see if these things can be harmonized. A fundamental rule of literary criticism is that if you find an apparent error in a good author, you assume yourself ignorant until you have exhausted all possible explanations. Too many modern “scholars” do not want to assume themselves ignorant; rather, they assume they know more than the writers.
The second purpose of comparing the accounts is to ask what additional material the other accounts give us. Since both Mark and Luke are longer, there will be a lot more information. All three accounts put this event at the same time in the sequence of events, and all three have the basic facts about the miracle and the pigs and the people from town. Matthew does not give the name “Legion,” which refers to the number of demons, nor the number of the pigs. Matthew does not give the details of the torment of the demon-possessed in the tombs. And Matthew does not record how the demon-possessed sat, clean and healed and sane, wanting to follow Jesus. So with all accounts the whole picture emerges of the nature of demon possession and the dramatic change as a result of the exorcism. When we interpret Matthew, we work with the material Matthew gives us, but knowing the details from the other accounts we may be precise in what we say about what Matthew actually gives us.
Third, why does Matthew not include these extra details? I think it is one of the evidences of the integrity of Scripture that these writers could simply include what they wanted to include for their purposes, rather than get their material together to make sure it was all the same. In that case, there would be no reason for the different gospels. But each was writing to a different audience to present a specific perspective. Matthew wants to present Jesus as the Son of God, the King of the Jews, in full authority over all the powers in the world, both physical and spiritual. This he did with the material he used. Mark and Luke are interested in this too, but they also have an interest in Jesus as the perfect man, the Son of Man, who meets all the needs of mankind. For them the descriptions of the wretchedness of a demon possessed person contrasted with his saneness after being healed are important to their audiences. Besides, since this miracle takes place in Gentile territory and not Jewish, they have added interest.
You will have to do a little bit of reading in dictionaries and theologies, whatever you have available, on this whole issue of demon-possession. To the modern skeptics of the Bible, some who claim to be Christian, demon-possession is rubbish. They might say that it was just a primitive way people had to describe psychic or social disorders. But the Scriptures are not so accommodating to popular superstitions; if they were false or fanciful, they would correct them. Rather, they clearly affirm that there is a spirit world all around us that cannot be ignored.
The revelation of this began for Matthew with the account of the temptation. Satan, or the Devil, according to the biblical tradition, was an archangel who was cast out of heaven when he rebelled against God. Apparently, he took a sizeable number of the angels with him. These fallen angels are what are referred to as demons. It is interesting in our passage that the demons instantly recognize who Jesus is and know that His presence could mean judgment on them. They remember Him from glory; they knew His mission on earth; and they know that all judgment has been given over to Him.
I will not list all the passages of Scripture on this subject because there are so many of them. But certainly the account in Genesis 3 introduces the conflict between the seed of the woman (humans, and ultimately Jesus) and the seed of the serpent, demons. Revelation 12:7-9 gives us further identification of this Serpent and his angels. Jude 8-10 gives us another window on the spiritual struggle in the spirit world, as indeed Daniel 10:13 mentions with the spirit power behind Persia. Ezekiel 28:11-19, a prophecy addressed to the king of Tyre, very quickly begins to speak of the spirit power behind him, and is one of the biblical hints to the history of Satan. And 1 Peter 3:19 seems to be referring to evil spirits who have been imprisoned since the flood for leaving their first habitation and corrupting the race, probably a reference to the horrendous hubris of Genesis 6:1-4. It was to these that Jesus while ascending to heaven to declare His great victory over them.
Well, there is enough material on this subject to keep you busy for some time. But what the Bible indicates is that some of these spirits can become aggressively active in dark areas of disobedience and corruption—where people make it easy for them to function. But where righteousness and purity exist, the demons have no desire to remain. Apparently they liked this region of the Gadarenes, and did not want to leave. As we shall see, some demons are harder to deal with than others, as Jesus explained to his disciples, and required much prayer. Accordingly, Mark and Luke tell how Jesus had been commanding these to come out.
Can Christians be demon-possessed? You need to do some reading on this issue; but I will say at this point that I think the Bible teaches that they cannot. They might be attacked and caused a great deal of trouble in the spiritual battles of life; but if the Holy Spirit is indwelling the Christian, as the Bible affirms, then demons cannot. And the Bible tells Christians to resist the devil and he will flee from them; how they resist the devil is by submitting to God (James 4:7). Apparently there are too many easier places for evil to lodge than in a Spirit-controlled Christian who is aware of Satan’s devices and resists them.
But I am reminded of a caution by C. S. Lewis. People make two mistakes in considering demons and demon activity: either they discount it and think nothing of it, or they become too fascinated and too pre-occupied with it. Demon activity is real, more active in some darker3 regions than others, but is something the Christian should not live in fear of, for Christ has won the victory over all such evil forces.
Well, with a little of that reading behind you, you can think some more about the details of Matthew’s account. One thing to observe is that the setting for the encounter is on the other side of the lake—across from Capernaum. A look at the political map of the day will indicate that this was largely Gentile territory. It was in this part of the land that the Decapolis was established—the league of ten, largely Gentile, cities.
This explains the pigs. As most people know, pigs were considered an unclean animal by the Jews. The Law of Moses strictly ruled out eating pork. There were a number of reasons for this: some animals that were called unclean were objects of pagan worship, some were scavengers on unclean carcases, some were out of the order of creation (fish that don’t swim, birds that don’t fly) — quite a number of issues involved. You can read up on Israel’s dietary laws (in the late spring my commentary on Leviticus, Holiness to the LORD, will be out and has a full discussion). But Gentiles at that time ate pork. It is possible that the Gadarenes were Gentiles, and that the owners of the pigs were Gentiles as well. It is also remotely possible that they were Jews who could not eat pork but could sell them to Gentiles. In either case, the raising of pigs in the land of Israel was something that could not be justified by the Law of Moses. Jesus’ use of the pigs in this exorcism attests to that point.
Once again the narrative is a blend between the events and the discourse. In Matthew’s account we have only one word from Jesus—”Go!” But the way it is stated, and the circumstances of its statement, indicate that it has all the authority of the heaven in it. The rest of the speeches are made by the demons in their initial address to Jesus and their appeal to Him to enter the pigs. So the structure is:
A. Meeting the violent demon-possessed at the shore of the lake
B. Demons worry that Jesus has come to judge them early and request to be sent into the pigs
C. Jesus sends them into the pigs.
B’ Pigs run down into the lake and drown.
A’ Meeting the people of the town who reject Jesus.
At the center of the story is the miracle that transformed the pathetic demon-possessed people into normal, healthy individuals again, one of the most dramatic examples of the mission of the Son of God in this world to rescue people from the prince of darkness and make them whole, physically and spiritually. But the greatest contrast is between the demon possessed who are saved from the torments of the evil one, and the “respectable” people of the town want Jesus to leave their coasts. They thought these men were the worst of humanity, but they proved to be.
We can break the passage down into several sections than that will make the study easier to analyze. The first will be the meeting with the Gadarenes. The second will be the exorcism. And the third the reaction of the people.
I. The Meeting with the demon-possessed Gadarenes (8:28,29). The text tells us that as soon as Jesus got out of the boat on the other side of the lake these men came running to meet him. Matthew simply mentions that they were so violent that no one could tame them. We know also people tried to tame them by chaining them, but they broke the chains. People then just avoided these two since they were so dangerous. They lived outside the city among the tombs, a place that was ceremonially unclean for Israel, but fitting for demons.
But there is more going on here than two men running to meet a boat. They shouted at Jesus, “What do you want with us, Son of God? Have you come to torture us before the appointed time?” Clearly, the demons had taken possession of the various capacities of these two men, and it was they who were speaking through the men.
What they say is most significant. First, they knew exactly who Jesus was. The disciples in the boat may have been trying to figure it out, but the demons knew that this was the Son of God—or as the other narratives have it, the Son of the Most High God, stressing His sovereignty over all spirits. These demons were free to be doing their worst in and through these men; but the presence of Jesus on their shores was trouble for them.
Second, they knew that Jesus had the power to destroy them, and that there was an appointed time for Him to do that. John 5:22 tells us that the Father has given all judgment over to the Son, that the Father judges no one. These spirits knew that the Judge was stepping into their territory, and they were afraid their freedom would now be cut short. What a strange phenomenon, though, to have demons knowing that they will someday be judged, but can only think of preserving their wicked little experience for the time being. And that is how they often convince people to think.
The irony is that they were afraid of being tortured before the appointed time; but in the meantime they would torture and torment these two poor souls. How this demonic activity in the region came about, we do not know. But it seems that in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts when the truth of Christ began to make significant inroads into the lives of people to rescue them from sin and death, there was plenty of spiritual opposition. We saw this at the outset of the Gospel with Herod trying to destroy Jesus. He was not acting alone.
2. The casting out of the demons (8:30-32). After this initial confrontation, the demons begged Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs that was nearby. If they could not stay in the men, they at least could stay in the area. And unclean pigs would be a natural place for the unclean spirits.
And Jesus said “Go!” The ease of the command demonstrates the authority of Christ. He had just rebuked the wind and the waves, “Peace. Be still.” Now he expels the legions of demons with one word, “Go!” It anticipates the Bible’s revelation of the judgment of people, in which He simply will say, “Depart, I never knew you.” Here is true authority—He commands illness to depart, storms to calm, and demons to leave. And Matthew wants the reader to see it in its simplicity and clarity.
The contrast in the story is wonderful. Here are these powerful evil spirits. But they are in a panic, afraid of Christ, worried their days are coming to an end, knowing that a judgment is appointed for them. They may exert power over these two poor wretches, but against Christ they have no power at all, and they are desperate.
Now, when the demons go into the pigs, those poor animals cannot bear up under their presence, and they run headlong down into the lake and drown. Mark tells us that there were about 2,000 animals. What the humans tolerated and lived with these unclean animals could not. The sudden shock to their systems of the evil spirits drove them into the sea.
We said in an earlier lesson that the sea was to the ancient world a symbol of evil, of the primordial chaos. It was fitting, then, that the demons were rushed down into the sea where the pigs died. The demons themselves would not drown, but were driven out by Jesus and knew that He was controlling them and their destiny. It is possible that when they rushed into the lake they rushed further into the abyss (see the other accounts) and were imprisoned. But the text does not say. The story is concerned with the victory over demons and the rescue of these men.
III. The rejection of the people (8:33,34). The news quickly spread to the town about what had happened, and no doubt to the owners of the pigs. Many rushed out to see for themselves what had happened, to see if these men had been truly cleansed from the demons. It was something that would have been impossible to imagine, given the history of the men.
But the amazing thing is that when they saw Jesus they pleaded with Him to leave their region. Why would they not welcome Him as the great deliverer, the one who could solve the problems and needs of the human race? Perhaps they thought only of their loss of the pigs. Or, perhaps they were more afraid for themselves, for this was no ordinary prophet in their midst, but one who judges and casts out evil. Perhaps they did not want that kind of power coming into their region, for they might have had a lot to give up as well. We do not know, as we do not understand why some believe and some do not. But they did not want Him there among them. And so the gospels record this as one of the great rejections of Christ in spite of all the evidence of who He was.
I have already referred to Old Testament passages where satanic or demonic activity first began to appear and create havoc in the world. But with regard to such evil tormenting of humans, one thinks naturally of the Book of Job. Satan had been roaming in the earth, no doubt seeking whom he might devour as Peter puts it. And God challenged him with Job. Satan could try to destroy Job’s integrity by attacking his whole life. But, to put it perhaps too crassly, God was betting on Job. In the arrangement God was sovereignly in control of Satan; He gave him permission to torment Job, but not to take His life. God was going to prove to Satan that faith overcomes suffering. In the Book of Job, then we get a picture of God’s sovereign control of Satan in what he can do in the human race.
New Testament Correlation
Outside the Gospels we have several passages that deal with the problem of spiritual conflict (and your reading will open these up). Perhaps of primary interest to us in our spiritual struggles is the fact that we are still dealing with spirit forces, even though it looks like we have struggles with humans. Paul says that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and authorities and the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms (Eph. 6:12). It may appear that we are dealing with people, but Paul says that something greater is at work in them. Therefore, we cannot fight this conflict with ordinary weapons, and certainly not with our own wits and knowledge, but we must use spiritual weapons, which he proceeds to list in the chapter.
And, as I mentioned before, the New Testament tells us that the victory over Satan and his demons is certain, because Christ has defeated them at the cross and at the resurrection (see the sermon on Revelation 12 in our archives). We need only resist the devil and he will flee from us. And, of course, we look forward to the day when Christ will destroy all such forces of evil.
The main point of the passage, then, is that Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, has absolute authority over all the spirit world, over Satan, over demons, and over those whom they control. That he expelled this legion of demons shows this authority; and it was a preview of the final judgment of these evil spirits.
But that final judgment would not occur until there was the victory at the cross when the head of the Serpent would be crushed (Gen 3:15). Interestingly enough, when his disciples tried to prevent the arrest of Jesus, Jesus made it clear that He was in control and would die. He said that He could ask His Father and His Father would send legions of angels to destroy the world. But then, the Scripture would not be fulfilled. There was a judgment to be fulfilled before the final judgment of evil, and that judgment would take place at the cross. Once that was achieved, then it would be just a matter of time before Christ would put down all enemies.
The immediate response of people to this revelation about Christ is to worship and to serve Him as the true Son of God. And they should also take great comfort and encouragement in the fact that He has complete control over the forces of evil in the world. Knowing the power of Christ casts out all fear.
We learn from other passages that humans alone are no match for such evil spirits. But we have the Holy Spirit within, and He is greater than the one who is in the world. And we have the spiritual resources for engaging in this spiritual battle. Paul does not instruct us to get involved with conflicts with and exorcisms of evil spirits; but he does instruct us on how to use spiritual weapons in our warfare--truth and righteousness and salvation and the gospel--to drive out evil and to rescue people from sin and death.
So the passage makes us aware of the problem, but it provides us with confidence and courage because of the authority of Christ. In an application we usually say to identify with people in the story to get ideas. Well, this is a little difficult here. We would say not to be like the “respectable” but “law-breaking” citizens of the town who wanted Jesus to leave because he upset their system. We would say to follow Christ and share in his victory over evil, by presenting Christ to the lost and troubled world. And while most of us were not rescued from demons like them, we can share with the Gadarenes the testimony that Christ has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and made us whole.
1 Some have tried to argue that Matthew made up the second man so he could have “two witnesses” according to the Law. But this is completely unwarranted, for there is not an emphasis in Matthew on witnesses.
2 On one of our trips to the area we were discussing the terrain, and one of the group who happened to raise pigs said that the miracle had to be close to the water at a down hill slope, because pigs are not great cross-country runners. Some wag in the group, a clever student no doubt, said, “Yes, but these were demon possessed pigs.”
3 By darker regions I do not simply refer to primitive locations with voodoo and ritual magic. It is pretty clear that Hitler’s Nazi world was driven by demon forces, given Hitler’s hatred of the biblical God and Christ, and his attachment to the occult.