By Peter Amsterdam
July 4, 2017
The second of two accounts of Jesus casting out demons which will be covered in this series occurred on the southeast side of the Sea of Galilee. It took place in an area called the Decapolis, which was a league of ten ancient Greek cities in eastern Palestine, formed after the Roman conquest in 63 BC. This area was inhabited mostly by Greeks, and these cities were centers of Hellenistic culture and trade. It is mentioned in the Gospels three times.1
The story of the demon-possessed man from this area is told in the three synoptic Gospels.2 The longest version, from Mark’s Gospel, will be covered here, with some points brought in from Matthew and Luke.3 In Mark (and Luke), the event follows Jesus calming the seas after being awakened by His disciples, who were afraid that the boat they were in was going to sink.4
It begins with:
They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.5
In Matthew it’s called the country of the Gadarenes.6 Bible commentators have varying theories as to why two different locations are named, based on various nearby towns between five and thirty miles away. But they all basically agree that the seaside area where Jesus came ashore was the countryside attached to a town some distance away that was part of the Decapolis—a gentile area, meaning that most of the population was non-Jewish. This is emphasized when we’re later told that there was a sizable herd of pigs. No practicing Jew would have had such a herd, as pigs were unclean and it was against Jewish law to raise pigs. By Jesus’ day, the pig had become, in a sense, the symbol of paganism.7
When Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He 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.8
We’re told that this poor unfortunate man came out of the tombs. In Luke it’s made clear that the man lived in the tombs:
For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs.
Living among the tombs would make him ritually unclean, due to contact with the dead. He was therefore considered unclean on two counts—because he lived among the tombs and because he had an unclean spirit.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that in times past he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.9 Mark goes into greater detail, telling us more about how the spirit affected the man. He was self-destructive, continually crying out and cutting himself. He also was a danger to others and had often been bound with chains and shackles. He was anti-social and ostracized from society. He exhibited the four characteristics of insanity in Judaism: running about at night, spending the night in a cemetery, tearing one’s garments, and destroying what one has been given.10 He also possessed uncontrollable strength, such that he could pull chains apart and break shackles. All of this shows the great strength of this demon—or as we’ll soon see, the multiple evil spirits—which possessed him. This poor man was suffering immeasurably and apparently had been for quite some time.
When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”11 For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”
Being controlled by the evil spirit, the man falls down or prostrates himself before Jesus. This isn’t an act of worship, but rather an act of concession in the face of Jesus’ superior power. Through the man, the demon acknowledges who Jesus is, as other demons did within the Gospels.12 The phrase “the Most High God” has particular relevance for this “gentile” setting, since it almost always occurs on the lips of or in the context of gentiles.13 The phrase “what have you to do with me” is generally used in an adversarial situation in Scripture. David said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should this day be as an adversary to me?”14 It can be understood to convey the idea of “why do you interfere with me?” or “mind your own business.”15
In pleading that Jesus not torment him, the demon used the word “adjure,” which is used in Scripture when performing an exorcism and isn’t normally on the lips of a demon who is about to be banished.16 The demon’s pleading demonstrates that the evil spirits know that Jesus’ power greatly surpasses theirs, and that Jesus has the power to torment them. This torment may refer to their final judgment, which is how it is expressed in Matthew: Have you come here to torment us before the time?17 and in Luke: They begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss.18 It can also be understood to refer to a present torment, of being sent out of their dwelling place in the man. Both cases show that Jesus has the power to torment them, and that they recognize and admit this. It’s rather ironic that the ones torturing this poor man are pleading with Jesus not to torture them.
Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.19
In ancient nonbiblical Jewish literature, obtaining the name of the demon was an important part of an exorcist’s formula, although that wasn’t the case with Jesus. This is the only exorcism described in the Gospels where the name of the demon is sought or referred to.20 In this instance the name, Legion, points to the strength of the possession of the man, as there were many evil spirits possessing him. The word “legion” is rooted in Latin and referred to a large group of Roman soldiers, numbering between five and six thousand men. This isn’t to say that the man was possessed by five thousand or more demons, but that there were multiple demons, and thus it was a formidable force. We read of multiple possession elsewhere in the Gospels:
Some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.21
Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.22
It’s not clear exactly why the demon/demons were begging Jesus to allow them to remain in the territory, but the fact that they beseeched Him to not send them far away points to Jesus having power over them.
Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.”23
It’s not clear why the demons wanted to go into the pigs. The pigs add to the general theme of the situation’s uncleanliness: the man from the unclean tomb, who has an unclean spirit, in an unclean land, with the unclean demons requesting to be sent into the unclean swine.
So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the pigs, and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned in the sea.24
Jesus, who holds the power in this situation, allows the demons to enter the swine. While He allows them to inhabit the pigs, they have no choice as to leaving the man, as Jesus’ ultimate authority over the demons is in force. The number of pigs—two thousand—which the evil spirits enter reflects the name “Legion.” It also reflects the strength and power of the forces which had taken control of the man. The death of the pigs illustrates the destructive nature of these spirits. Yet, for all of their power, right from the beginning they have been shown to recognize and submit themselves to Jesus’ superior authority.25
The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region.26
The man was completely healed! He was dressed and back to normal. Of course, two thousand pigs had died, which would have been an economic loss to the owners, but that isn’t the focus of the account. When the local people saw the man sitting in Jesus’ presence, as opposed to dwelling in the tombs, clothed as opposed to naked, and in his right mind instead of crying out, they were afraid and asked Jesus to leave.
As Jesus complies with the people’s request to depart from the area, the focus returns to the healed man.
As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled.27
The words used when the newly delivered man begged Jesus that “he might be with him” are the identical words used when Jesus appointed the twelve apostles:
He appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.28
Due to the similarity, it can be understood that the man was asking to join with the twelve in following Jesus. Although Jesus didn’t allow the fellow to become one of the twelve, He didn’t reject him from becoming a believer, a disciple. Rather, He directed the man to become a witness of the goodness and power of God, to tell others what Jesus had done for him, much the same as He had commissioned His disciples and all Christians to do as well. The man was faithful in his task, as he shared the news in the area of the Decapolis.
One author shared some interesting insight on discipleship when writing about Jesus’ response to the man’s request to stay with Him.
Instead Jesus tells him to return to his village and resume a normal life, except that in addition he is to be a witness. Jesus’ answer shows how impossible it is to have a stereotyped definition of discipleship. One person is taken away from home and family, 29 another is sent back to them contrary to his own wishes.30
This account tells us of Jesus traveling to a gentile land, which would have been considered an unclean land to the Jews, encountering a man possessed with a multitude of unclean spirits, whom Jesus casts out into the unclean pigs, who then stampede into the water and die—thus cleansing not only the man, but in a sense cleansing the land from the unclean swine and unclean evil spirits. In all of this, Jesus’ power was proclaimed. Even a “legion” of demons was no match for Him; they knew He was stronger than they were.
(This topic will conclude in “Casting Out Demons, Part Four”)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 4:25; Mark 5:20, 7:31.
2 Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
3 In Matthew’s telling of this story, there are two men who are demon possessed instead of the one in Mark and Luke. Bible commentators give a variety of possibilities as to why Matthew’s account had two demon-possessed men instead of one, but no one knows for sure.
4 Mark 4:35–41. See Jesus, His Life and Message: Miracles (Part 9)
5 Mark 5:1.
6 Matthew 8:28.
7 Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 179. See Matthew 7:6; Luke 15:16; 2 Peter 2:21–22.
8 Mark 5:2–5.
9 Luke 8:29.
10 Guelich, Mark 1–8:26, 278.
11 Mark 5:6–8.
12 Mark 1:24, 34; Luke 4:34.
13 Guelich, Mark 1–8:26, 279. See Genesis 14:18–20; Numbers 24:16; Isaiah 14:14; Daniel 3:26, 4:2.
14 2 Samuel 19:22.
15 Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 181.
16 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims” (Acts 19:13).
17 Matthew 8:29.
18 Luke 8:31.
19 Mark 5:9–10.
20 Stein, Mark, 255.
21 Luke 8:2.
22 Matthew 12:45.
23 Mark 5:11–12.
24 Mark 5:13.
25 Guelich, Mark 1–8:26, 282.
26 Mark 5:14–17.
27 Mark 5:18–20.
28 Mark 3:14.
29 Mark 1:16–20.
30 Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, 184.