The moment Jesus approached a man possessed by a legion of demons, they recognized Him as the “Son of the Most High God” (Mark 5:7). Continuing his exposition of the gospel of Mark, R.C. Sproul explores this declaration of the deity of Christ.
We turn our attention once again back to the gospel according to Saint Mark, where we are beginning chapter 5. I will read a good portion of that chapter this morning. Reading from Mark 5:1–20, we have the narrative record of the deliverance of the man possessed by a legion of demons. I would ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Then they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes. And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.
When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him. And he cried out with a loud voice and said, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God that You do not torment me.”
For He said to him, “Come out of the man, unclean spirit!” Then He asked him, “What is your name?”
And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.
Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains. So all the demons begged Him, saying, “Send us to the swine, that we may enter them.” And at once Jesus gave them permission. Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.
So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that had happened. Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine. Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.
And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him. However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.” And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.
He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we ask You to help us understand this strange and amazing event that took place in the life of this man and in the life and ministry of Jesus. We ask it for His sake, the sake of our edification, and the increase of our faith. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Purpose of This Record
When I look at this account in the gospel of Mark and the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke, I cannot help but ask a speculative question: Why, in the wisdom of God, did the Holy Spirit so determine to superintend and inspire the record of this event? What purpose is there in this text for us?
I am sure you have heard sermons on this text before, and most of them deal with the consequences for Christians who put their faith in Jesus. There is an enormous psychological benefit when the presence of Christ comes to us, stills the tempest on the sea as we have already seen, and stills the same violent forces that torture our souls inwardly.
Without knowing the mind of the Holy Ghost and why He intended the recording of this dimension in the life of Jesus, nevertheless, I am convinced that the purpose of this narrative is not to give us some exercise in psychological tranquility. It is not about us. I think the purpose of this text, which follows right on the heels of the narrative of Christ calming the tempest in the Sea of Galilee, is to reveal to us the character of Jesus, just as John told us that his gospel was written that people might believe in Christ, and in Christ, have life.
So, when we look at this narrative this morning, my prayer is that it will increase our understanding of the deity, majesty, and power of Christ, who created the world, who conquers all the forces of chaos, including the demons of hell.
The Man with an Unclean Spirit
Let us look at the narrative Mark presents. He tells us they went to the other side of the sea—this is following the tempest on the sea—to the country of the Gadarenes. Sometimes the wretched person described here is called the Gadarene demoniac because the situation for his miserable existence was in the territory of the Gadarenes.
In the other Gospels, the man is called the Gerasene demoniac because the same region is known by that name. There are textual variants about the location, and the best guess we have is that it did not take place in the town of Gadara, nor in Gerasene, but in the town named Gergesa, which was excavated as recently as 1970. It was known in the church as early as the third century as being right on the eastern border of the Sea of Galilee in the middle of the Decapolis, ten cities civilized by gentiles, in which there were several Roman garrisons. If you went to Israel today to find a location that would agree with the description Mark gives in this text, this site on the eastern shore of the sea would match that description. But in any case, when Jesus came out of the boat, He did not walk thirty miles to Gadara. Rather, He immediately met this man who rushed out of the tombs, who is described simply as a man with an unclean spirit.
Let me take a moment to expand on that. To a Jew, the worst thing that could happen was to be declared unclean in the presence of God. If you are a student of the Old Testament, particularly the Pentateuch, and you read all the laws in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that God legislated to Israel to keep them a holy nation, you will see rule after rule dealing with ceremonial cleanness.
Not only is the Old Testament filled with rules and regulations to keep a person ceremonially clean, but later rabbinic traditions expanded those rules greatly for the Jewish community. We know from the Old Testament that for a person to touch a dead body would require that they go through seven days of purification to rid themselves of the uncleanness, the contamination of the touch of death. That principle was expanded among the Jews to include a requirement for cleansing if you touched any of the accouterments of death. If you touched the bier upon which a body was transported or went into a cemetery and touched a gravestone, seven more days of purification were required. The gentiles were considered unclean as a group of people, strangers to the covenant of Israel, consigned to the outer darkness, outside the scope where the presence of God was focused.
Unclean in Four Ways
In this story, we see four elements of uncleanness attached to the miserable person in the text. First, Mark tells us he had an unclean spirit; not just one unclean spirit, but a legion of them, as we will see in a moment that he was inhabited by demons. The man was tortured by the bodily presence of hell itself. So, first, he was unclean because of the spirit that dwelled in him.
Second, he lived in the tombs. He did not just touch a tombstone; he dwelled among the tombs. That was where he lived, in the worst of all possible circumstances of uncleanness. His living was among the dead.
Third, this took place in the Decapolis, in Gentile surroundings, which were deemed to be unclean.
Fourth, it took place where the surroundings were those of people raising pigs. You might remember how unclean pork was to the Jews. One of the reasons the Samaritans were so despised by the Jews was because when the Jews came back from exile and tried to rebuild the temple, the Samaritans, who despised them, threw pig carcasses into the construction site, requiring the Jews to stop for seven days while they went through the process of purification. They would resume the construction of the temple, and the Samaritans would sneak there again in the night and throw another pig in the mix to stop the construction for another seven days. Pretty soon, the Samaritans had nothing to do with the Jews, and the Jews had nothing to do with the Samaritans, and it was principally about pigs. In this text, the man was living in the middle of a pig farm.
So, there are four ways in which he was unclean: he was inhabited by demons, he lived in a cemetery, he lived among the gentiles, and he lived among the pigs.
Tormented by Hell
In all of Scripture, the only person I can think of who rivals this unfortunate wretch who came to Jesus in misery was Job. The stories in the Gospels are so brief in comparison. When you read the whole book of Job, you get a look into the misery of Job and his poor, wretched condition. We even used to say that people suffer like Job, need the patience of Job, and so on. But I wonder if even Job’s misery, as dastardly as it was, really approached the misery of this poor soul, who was tormented every moment by the focused power of hell.
Listen to the description that Mark gives about this man. He was dwelling among the tombs. No one could bind him, not even with chains. They tried that. They had put him in chains and shackles. But he pulled apart the chains with apparent superhuman strength. He broke the shackles into pieces. Neither could anyone subdue him. The Greek word “subdue,” which my translation rightly renders, “no one could tame him,” was the specific word in the Greek used for taming wild and vicious beasts of nature. This man was wild, and even the forces used to tame ferocious beasts of the field could not subdue him. There were no handcuffs strong enough, no chains tight enough to keep this man under control.
In his unbridled torture, the man would scream, yell, pick up stones, and cut himself, adding to the misery he already experienced, far worse than the condition of any leper in the land. Always, night and day, he was in the mountains, in the tombs, crying out, screaming, and cutting himself with stones.
The Demons Cry Out
One day, this miserable wretch saw a man coming in the distance whom he knew was Jesus. The poor demon-possessed man rushed to the feet of Jesus, threw himself in the dirt, began to worship Christ, and spoke. Listen to the words. He cried out with a loud voice: “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God that You do not torment me.”
Here is the question—and to be honest with you, I do not know the answer to this question—Who was speaking here? Was it the man or the demons? If we look at the other gospel records, I think the weight of the evidence indicates that the voice crying out to Jesus was coming from inside the man, from the devils. It was not just the natural voice of the poor, possessed creature. I do not know that for sure, but there is an element in Matthew’s account that tilts the balance for me in favor of its being a plea from the demons themselves.
In Mark’s record, he says: “He cried out with a loud voice and said, ‘What have I to do with you, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore you by God that you do not torment me.’” Virtually the same words are recorded by Matthew and Luke, with one little exception. Matthew adds the clause “before the time,” which I think is critical to understanding everything that unfolds in this text.
So, the voice was crying out: “Why are You here? Why are You torturing us? Why are You tormenting us before the time?” What is important about “before the time”? As the text unfolds, we see that the demons in this man try to negotiate with Jesus: “Don’t torture us. If You’re going to make us leave our host, send us into the pigs.” It was the demons’ idea to go into the pigs.
As we will see in a moment, Jesus acquiesced to their request, sent them into the pigs, and the pigs ran down the hill, into the sea, and drowned. That creates problems for animal rights activists. I have heard professors argue that this text shows Jesus was not sinless because of His wanton destruction of these innocent creatures sent to their death by the word of Jesus, since by His permission these devils from hell invaded the poor, innocent pigs. I think there is a better understanding than that. But before we get to that, let me comment on some other things.
Before the Time
Matthew’s gospel says, “Do not torture us before the time.” The New Testament makes the distinction between two types of time. There is chronos, the normal moment-by-moment passage of time, measured by chronometers or watches. Then there is the concept of time with the word kairos, which refers to a specific moment in time. All kairos takes place in chronos, but not all chronos is kairos.
In our language, everything that happens is historical, but not everything that happens is historic. We save the word historic for something that takes place in time that is of lasting significance. So, the Bible talks about history, not only in terms of the moment-by-moment changing of the hour, day, week, and year, but of those specific moments in time that are pregnant with meaning.
The exodus was Israel’s greatest kairos, their greatest kairotic moment. It was the time of their deliverance. The birth of Jesus was a long-awaited moment. We talked about this with respect to Jesus in the gospel of John speaking about His hour coming, His kairos, His moment.
The demons of hell understood that in the timetable of God, in His providence, in His plan of redemption, God had appointed a day when Satan would be bound and all the forces of hell crushed once and for all. Every junior-grade demon, every disciple of Satan knew what Satan knew: their days were numbered.
When the Messiah came in any confrontation, the demonic world would have no equality with the power of the Messiah. When they met, it was no contest. But they lived in mortal fear of that moment in history when all their demonic activity would be over once and for all. They knew that it was not yet. It was not time for their demonic activity to end.
The demons knew it, and somebody else knew it. Jesus knew it. Even though Jesus had power over them and could liberate the poor wretch, Jesus also knew that all things were in His Father’s time, and the time for the final conquest of the satanic world was not yet. So, they were afraid that Jesus was going to pull the switch before the time, and they said: “Why are you tormenting us, torturing us before the time? You can’t do that, Jesus!”
Jesus knew it was not yet time, and this explains the negotiation. Jesus could have said, “Come out of this poor man,” and sent the demons into the pit forever. He had the power to do that, but it was not time yet. However, it was time for the redemption of this poor, possessed human being.
Son of the Most High God
Another point I want you to see in the demons’ call to Jesus is how they addressed Him. I mentioned to you earlier that the demons were the first ones to recognize the true identity of Jesus. In this text, the demons cried out: “Why do you come to torment us? Why do you come to torture us, Son of the Most High God?” What I love about that phrase is not simply that they acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God, but they acknowledged out of their pagan, gentile world that they were meeting with the Son of the Most High God.
One of the great discoveries of nineteenth and twentieth-century studies of world religions, comparative religion, and the sociology of religion was chronicled by the two most impressive scholars of that ilk in the twentieth century, Heinrich Zimmer and Mircea Eliade. They agreed in their study of primitive societies that even in animistic cultures with a god in every tree, bee, cow, and totem pole, there was a deeply rooted memory. Despite their crude polytheism, there was a hazy understanding of the god who lives on the other side of the mountain. When they began to explore this, these sociologists of religion discovered the presence of the ineradicable idea in every tribe, tongue, and nation—despite their preoccupation with polytheism and animism—of one god who was most high.
The idea of monotheism is not strictly found with the Egyptians or Hebrews, but it is implicit in every world religion. Even the ones given to polytheism still have the idea of one god that transcends all the other gods, the Most High God. So, the gentile man with demons came to Jesus and said, “You are the Son of the Most High God.”
As I said at the beginning of the sermon, I am convinced the purpose of this text is not to tell us how to have tranquility when we are bothered by tempests in this world but rather to let us know who Jesus is. He is the Son of the Most High God.
I do not think that it is by accident that Mark arranged his book so that the very thing preceding this was Christ’s power over nature when He stilled the tempest. Jesus stilled the violence of the man assaulted by hell. Only the Son of the Most High God has that kind of power, that kind of authority. “Come out of the man, unclean spirit,” Jesus said. Then He asked him, “What is your name?”
I will stop here because there is too much to try to cover in the whole twenty verses. God willing, next week we will find out what happened when Jesus commanded the unclean spirits to come out of the man. But in the meantime, keep in mind the Son of the Most High God, for even the storm, the winds, and the ocean obey, and the demons from hell tremble before Him.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.