Everyone whom Jesus has rescued from sin is granted a profound privilege: to proclaim the great works of Christ to the world. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke by considering Jesus’ deliverance of a man in bondage to a legion of demons.
We will continue now with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We are still in the eighth chapter, and I will read to the end of that pericope, Luke 8:26–39:
Then they sailed to the country of the Gadarenes, which is opposite Galilee. And when He stepped out on the land, there met Him a certain man from the city who had demons for a long time. And he wore no clothes, nor did he live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out, fell down before Him, and with a loud voice said, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me!” For He had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For it had often seized him, and he was kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles; and he broke the bonds and was driven by the demon into the wilderness.
Jesus asked him, saying, “What is your name?”
And he said, “Legion,” because many demons had entered him. And they begged Him that He would not command them to go out into the abyss.
Now a herd of many swine was feeding there on the mountain. So they begged Him that He would permit them to enter them. And He permitted them. Then the demons went out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the lake and drowned.
When those who fed them saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country. Then they went out to see what had happened, and came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. They also who had seen it told them by what means he who had been demon-possessed was healed. Then the whole multitude of the surrounding region of the Gadarenes asked Him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. And He got into the boat and returned.
Now the man from whom the demons had departed begged Him that he might be with Him. But Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your own house, and tell what great things God has done for you.” And he went his way and proclaimed throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him.
In this text, we have the record of an event in Jesus’ earthly ministry that is recounted in the other Synoptic Gospels with minor variations but referring to the same event. It is a strange event to our ears in our day, and we are not sure exactly how to comprehend it, but the record you have just heard is not a cleverly devised myth from antiquity. Rather, it comes to us as the veritable word of Almighty God, being sealed with His truth. Please receive it as such. Let us pray.
Our Father, when we consider this moment in Jesus’ ministry, we ask for Your help as we seek to understand it and find its application for our own lives in this time. Be merciful to us by visiting us this morning with the Holy Spirit, that He may illumine this text for our understanding. May He take its message and use it to pierce our hearts for our sanctification and for the glory of Jesus. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
Terror after Terror
The last passage we examined in the gospel of Luke was the account of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. On that occasion, prior to Jesus’ calming of the storm, the disciples were afraid they would perish. After Jesus performed this astonishing act, instead of the disciples’ fear being removed, it was intensified. They became very much afraid and cried out, “What manner of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?”
We do not know what happened immediately after this scene. Luke does not take up the narrative until the boat in which Jesus and the disciples were sailing reached shore. I cannot help but wonder if there was any conversation among the disciples or with Jesus after they asked their question, “What kind of a man is this?” I wonder how long the terror they experienced in Jesus’ presence remained with them.
I can only imagine that as the boat on the Sea of Galilee came nearer to the shore in the Decapolis area, they were feeling a great sense of relief because they wanted to get out of that boat. For a time at least, they wanted to get out of the presence of Jesus, because for them this was one of the most traumatic and terrifying days of their lives. However, what immediately followed was only more trauma and more terror.
An Active Demonic World
As the boat landed on the shore, it was greeted by the wild man that Luke describes in the text. We read that when they sailed to the country of the Gadarenes, which is opposite Galilee, and Jesus stepped out on the land, there met Him a certain man from the city who had demons for a long time.
This is not the only incident of demon possession in the New Testament. It is not the only case where Jesus cast out demons from people who were so sorely afflicted. We are not generally accustomed, in our day, to seeing people who are demon possessed, at least in this part of the world, though there are occasional accounts of that. Nevertheless, we see in the New Testament a heavy concentration of this phenomenon.
One explanation given for this concentration of demon possession is that, during the earthly ministry of Jesus, all hell broke loose. That is to say, Satan, whose power was under attack with the presence of Jesus, marshaled all of his minions, his whole host of demons, to manifest his satanic power in the region where the Son of God carried out His ministry.
Another theory is that when the writers of the New Testament talked about people being demon possessed, that was simply a pre-scientific diagnosis of dementia or insanity. In other words, we now recognize that this kind of erratic behavior from people who were said to be demon possessed was simply due to some form of lunacy, and not some actual inhabitation by alien spirits. However, when you look at the pages of the New Testament carefully, the authors made a clear distinction between the category of lunacy and the category of demon possession. They did not blend the two into a confused mass. Rather, the biblical account is a sober one. The demonic world is real, it was extremely active then, and it is active today.
Red Suit, Long Tail, Pitchfork, and Horns
When I was doing my doctoral work in the Netherlands, my professor, G.C. Berkouwer, observed, “There can be no theology without demonology.” This is because the New Testament looks at the matter of invisible, wicked spirits and takes it very seriously.
I remember teaching a college course in philosophy many years ago, and the question of Satan’s reality came up in the class. I asked the students, “How many of you believe that there really is a devil?” There were about thirty students in the class, and three raised their hands. The other twenty-seven voted in the negative or not at all. I then asked, “How many of you believe in God?” To my astonishment, all thirty hands in the room went up in the affirmative. I said: “Now, let me define God as an invisible, supernatural being who can influence men for good. Do you believe in that?” They answered, “Yes.” So, I responded: “If I define Satan as an invisible, supernatural being who can influence men for evil, twenty-seven out of the thirty of you don’t affirm that. Why is that? It seems to me there is more evidence for evil, even in this room, than there is for goodness.”
One of the reasons the students gave for their denial of the devil’s existence was that they did not believe in the devil as a grotesque character in a red suit with a long tail, pitchfork, and horns. I asked them, “Where does the Bible describe Satan in that manner?”
Scripture describes the devil in the very opposite way from how my students saw him. He is described as an angel of light who goes about seeking to devour whom he will. He appears, as we say in theology, sub specie boni, that is, under the auspices of the good. He will look much more like Billy Graham (and that is no reflection on Billy Graham) than a strange fellow in red pajamas with a pitchfork.
You might ask, “Where did the idea of Satan with a pitchfork and horns come from?” This idea came from the Middle Ages when the church was acutely conscious of the reality of Satan. They wanted to ward off his influence, and they said that the point of vulnerability of Satan was his pride. So, to attack his pride, they would invent wild caricatures of him, making him look ludicrous. Later generations said, “I don’t believe in that devil.” Nobody did when that image was first projected; it was done to insult Satan.
The Demon-Possessed Outcast
In any case, we have in this text the record of a man whom we are told is demon possessed, but he differed from other demon-possessed persons. To what degree? Anyone who is demon possessed is in a serious state. It is a horrible thing to experience or contemplate, but if demon possession can admit to degrees, this fellow was severely demon possessed. If for no other reason, it was from the number of demons that had entered him. The New Testament sees the possibility of demon possession as involving more than one demon on any occasion. In this case, we are told that the man was possessed by a multitude of them.
We read that this man, who had been in the city and demon possessed for a long time, now wore no clothes. He ran around naked and did not live in a house. He was not living in the city anymore but in the tombs. The area described in this text is right on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, where a steep cliff rises. On that cliff was a cemetery with multiple graves and tombs, most of which were filled, but some of which were still vacant. This poor soul was homeless, living not in the streets of the city he was from in a cardboard box, but rather had been banished from his hometown, sent out into the wilderness, and was living naked in a tomb.
The Most High God
The demon-possessed man was up on a hill and saw a boat coming to the shore. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and rushed down to Jesus as He stepped foot on the shore. With a loud voice, he screamed at Jesus this question, “What have I to do with you Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” The voice coming out of the man was not his own voice. It was the demonic voice asking the question: “What do we have to do with you, Jesus? What are you doing here, Son of the Most High God?”
I see supreme irony in the demons’ question. The last question in this text was the one raised by the disciples when Jesus calmed the storm: “What manner of man is this? Who is this fellow?” The answer to that question was provided by the demons. The demons did not have to say, “What manner of man is this?” They knew exactly what manner of man He was, and they recognized what the disciples did not—they were in the presence of God incarnate. They used the title, “Son of the Most High God.”
When I read the phrase “Most High God” in the New Testament, I sort of get chills. It is not a description of God that we normally use, but it is in the realm of anthropology and sociology. Scholars have gone around the world, discovering religion among the most remote people in the world, such as animistic tribes. For the most part, the religion of the animists is completely negative. There are evil spirits that they must appease, spirits that indwell the alligator, crocodile, rhinoceros and so on, and their religion does not focus upon a monotheistic deity. But the anthropologists have said that when they probe the people about their religion, they are able to discover that they have a vague memory of a god on the other side of the mountain, the god who is not a part of their daily lives.
The animists refer to the god on the other side of the mountain as the “Most High God,” which verifies what the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1: God reveals Himself plainly and clearly to all people everywhere. All the false religion we have cannot extinguish the revelation that God gives of Himself. In every tribe, tongue, and nation, there is an awareness, repressed as it may be, not only of a God, not only of the God, but of the Most High God. That has significant theological implications.
There is a Latin term used in technical theology to describe God, calling Him the ens perfectissimum, the “most perfect being.” Even there, the theologians of the Middle Ages who invented this kind of language were prone to stutter and use redundancy to talk about the superlative degree of perfection. I did not know that perfection admitted to degrees. If something is perfect, it cannot be most perfect, because most perfect gains nothing over perfect. If you are perfect, you have reached the ultimate limit of what can be.
As a matter of intentional hyperbole, the medieval theologians spoke of the “most perfect being” because they could not find an adequate way to extol the perfection that resides in God. The demons understood that, and they recognized Jesus.
At this point in the text, it was not the men in the boat who were terrified, but the demons, saying, “What are You doing here? Have You come to torment us?” For Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.
A Host of Demons
At the text continues, Luke supplies more background: “For it had often seized him, and the man had been kept under guard, bound with chains and shackles while he was still in the town.” The demon-possessed man behaved in a wild manner while he was in the town, so much so that he was a threat to the well-being of the citizens, so they bound him as tightly as they could. But no matter how tightly they bound him, the man found a way to break his bonds and free himself. So, the people drove him into the wilderness.
Jesus then asked him a question. The demons had acknowledged that they knew Jesus and what His name was, so He asked them: “What is your name? You know My name; now tell me your name.” The text continues: “And he said, ‘Legion,’ because many demons had entered him. And they begged Him that He would not command them to go out into the abyss.”
In the demon-possessed man, whoever was the spokesman for the demons identified himself by the name Legion. A legion in Roman categories consisted not of a handful of soldiers, but a multitude of soldiers numbering six thousand. So, if you take this literally, the demonic being is saying, “Our name is Legion because there are six thousand of us in this man.”
I doubt there were six thousand demons crammed into this one poor man. Rather, here we have another instance of hyperbole. The demon was saying: “We are so many that we are like a legion. There is a whole host of us.” Maybe when we are in heaven we can get the exact number, but for now the message is clear: this man’s possession was from a multitude of demonic spirits.
Not Yet Time for the Abyss
After the demons told Jesus their name, the text says that they begged Jesus. What was it that they begged Him? This is significant: they begged Him that He would not command them to go into the abyss. The abyss is a bottomless pit and symbolic of hell itself.
If we compare Luke’s account with the other Synoptic Gospels, there is another element added, in which they begged Jesus not to command them to go into the abyss “before the time.” These demons knew what their future held. They knew their destiny. They knew that God in His sovereignty had appointed a day in time when the demons would be shut up forever in the abyss, but that time had not yet come. The atonement had not yet been made, the kingdom of God had not reached its consummation as it would at the end of the age. In fact, the demons knew that the day in which they would be sent into the abyss was way off in the future. At least, that was the theology they had been taught by the prince of demons, Satan himself.
Jesus knew that the kairos, the time God had appointed, was not yet there. On the surface, it seems as though Jesus was negotiating with the demons, because they were reminding Him that it was too early to be sent into the pit. Then, Jesus did not send them into the pit. Some commentators see that and say, “What was Jesus doing surrendering to the pleas and to the wishes of these evil beings?” But He was not.
Jesus acknowledged, by His actions, that it was not the time to send them into the pit. It was, however, time for them to come out of the man. Luke tells us: “There was a herd of many swine feeding there on the mountain. And they begged Him that He would permit them to enter them, and He permitted them.”
“Save the Swine”
Jesus’ actions cause a cry among people who say: “Jesus wasn’t such a good man after all. He was unfair, unjust, and gave cruel and unusual punishment to those animals.” In fact, there were those in the town who wanted to start a movement called “Save the Swine” and make the swine a protected species, lest Jesus ever come back into their village again.
Jesus understood the difference between human beings and the beasts of the field. Jesus created the world, and He knew that the animals were created for man, not man for the animals. Jesus knew nothing of a world where fish eggs were protected while unborn human beings were destroyed. That was as foreign to His way of thinking as anything could be.
I read in the paper recently about a lady who wrote a letter and criticized a man for questioning the legitimacy of abortion. She knew before she read the article that it was a man who wrote it because men know nothing about pregnancy and, of course, men are obviously incapable of making any kind of analyses of ethical issues—only women can do that. She recited the common mantra, “Abortion is a matter between a woman and her doctor.” Now there is an intelligent observation, and I wanted to hear her say next: “And bank robbery should be a matter of choice. It is a matter between the robber and the banker. Homicide should be a matter of choice between the murderer and the victim.” What madness that people use these statements and people take them seriously.
Back to the story. There are people upset that Jesus harmed the poor pigs. As you know, the Jews considered pigs to be unclean animals. There were a lot of Gentiles who lived in the Decapolis, and this was a probably a gentile herd of swine. Here is the point: if it took invading the pigs with demons to rescue one human being from Satan, Jesus would sacrifice the whole herd of pigs.
Jesus told us that God notices the landing of every bird in the air. Every sparrow that lands is noticed by God, and are you not worth more than a bird? Are you not worth more than a pig? Of course we are, in the scheme of creation. So, Jesus sent the demons out of the man and into the swine, and immediately the herd ran violently down the steep place into the lake and drowned.
Afraid of the Holy
Luke continues: “When those who fed them saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and the country.” They went running back home and said: “You won’t believe what happened—this fellow came along and cured that wild man who kept breaking his bonds. He sent the demons into our pigs, and then the pigs went over the hill into the water and drowned. Now we’ve lost the whole herd.”
The text says, “Then they went out to see what had happened, and came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” Not only had Jesus calmed the sea, but He healed a human being who was tormented by demons, who now was of sound mind. What was the response of the townsmen? It was the same response the disciples had in the boat on the Sea of Galilee: “And they were afraid.”
The reason the townsmen sent the demon-possessed man out to the tombs in the first place was because they were afraid of him. Now they came and found him calm, clothed, and in his right mind, and they were scared. What does this tell you?
“They also who had seen it told them by what means he who had been demon-possessed was healed. Then the whole multitude of the surrounding region of the Gadarenes asked Him to depart from them.” When townsmen heard how the man was healed, they did not ask Jesus to come into their city and set up a practice. They said, “Please leave.” Nothing terrifies a human being more than the presence of the holy. When the townspeople realized that they were in the presence of One who was holy, and they were not, they wanted Him out. If you wonder why Jesus was killed, He was not killed because He was bad; He was killed because He was holy. Because He was holy, He had to be done away with.
Rescued from Bondage
Jesus got into the boat and left, but the man from whom the demons had departed begged Him that he might be with Him. The man went up, grabbed the gunwale of the boat, and said, “Please don’t leave; stay, or take me with You.” Jesus responded, “No, return to your own house and tell what great things God has done for you.” So, the man went his way and proclaimed throughout the whole city what great things the Son of the Most High God had done for him.
I do not think I was ever possessed by demons, but I was certainly in bondage to sin, like every unbeliever, and served Satan rather than God, as every unbeliever does. But once God rescued me, He gave me the duty—and you the duty—to proclaim His great works to the whole world.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.