“Jesus is no Ordinary
Person,” — The Demons.
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. was formerly Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas. He continues to make his home in Dallas and is currently engaged in a Bible teaching ministry at Believers Chapel, as well as ministering at various Bible conferences.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 8:28-34
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” C.S. Lewis has said. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”1 For years the devils have been hailing the materialists, for our Western world has largely ignored the devils until quite recently.
Now, however, matters have changed. We are seeing a most amazing resurgence of interest in the occult, in superstition and spiritism and Satanism. Baudelaire said that the devil’s strategy in the modern world was to get men to so concentrate on the forked tail and cloven hoofs that they could easily deny the devil’s existence. Then, Baudelaire contended, the devil could do his work more efficiently as an undercover agent.2 If Baudelaire was right, then Satan will have to change his strategy, for the contemporary world has swung to an extreme interest in the Evil One.
Why the sudden return to this curious occupation with the occult world? A number of factors have been suggested, such as the death of rationalism, the increasing recognition of mystery in modern physics, the results of current psychic and parapsychological research, the scepticism towards the supernatural in liberal theology (many seeking reality were forced to seek it outside the sceptical church), the influence of Eastern religions, the chaos of modern culture, and the conviction of the orthodox that the unseen world of angelic and demonic spirits does exist.3 William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist, and the film made from it have multiplied reports of witchcraft, Satan-worship, and demon possession. Not only have the cults taken up with the subject, but the Roman Catholic Church has become involved. Several exorcisms were performed in the church shortly after the film reached a crest of popularity. Satanic worship and marriages have become commonplace. What does Scripture say about such things?
Whatever we may say about this “age of Aquarius,” of which we are supposedly a part, and the ouija boards and horoscopes, there is no doubt that the Bible validates the existence of the world of Satan and his demons. Furthermore, and this is very important, the very heart of Christianity, the saving death of Christ, is from the beginning of the Book of Genesis to the conclusion of the Book of Revelation closely related to the Old Serpent. One of the oldest explanations of the atonement of Christ, the so-called “classic theory,” conceived of the work of Christ as terminating upon Satan (cf. Gen. 3:15; Col. 2:15).
John the Apostle expresses this plainly when he writes, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that HE MIGHT DESTROY THE WORKS OF THE DEVIL” (cf. 1 John 3:8). In other words, Jesus Christ was manifested in order that He might undo the works of the Deceiver. He who has the keys of death and Hades has overcome the occult. He is both Lord of the upperworld and Lord of the underworld!
The incident to which we come in this section illustrates the victory of the Son of God over the Serpent, adumbrating the crushing of the Serpent’s head. He overcomes disease (cf. 8:14-17), demons (8:28-34), and death itself (9:18-26).
The location of the incident of the casting out of the demons has been disputed, and the texts of the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels are in some doubt. Matthew places the event in the country of the Gadarenes, the country of the Gerasenes, or Gergesenes. Gerasa was a town thirty-six miles inland and can hardly be the location. Gadara was a town only six miles inland from the shores of the lake, and the town burying-place and pastures would naturally be some distance from the town. Further, a small village with the name of Khersa has been discovered on the lake shore, and its physical features suit the description given in the accounts. If the larger town of Gadara may be said to have given its name to the whole district, then the locality could have been described by either the term Gadarenes or Gerasenes, just as a Dallasite may be said to be both a Dallasite and a Texan. The differences in the copies of the text are no doubt due to the fact that the scribes who copied them did not know Palestine well enough to be sure where the incident occurred, and thus confusion arose.
The condition of the men (8:28; cf. Luke 8:27-29). Having reached the other side of the lake after the stilling of the storm Jesus encountered two demon-possessed men, who dwelt in the tombs of the burial caves, for they were the natural places for demons to live. Mark and Luke mention only one demoniac, but perhaps they stressed the confrontation of the Lord with the leader and spokesman of the two. The men were not maniacs, but demoniacs. That is, they were possessed men.
The ancient world believed in the existence of demons with great conviction and intensity. “The air was so full of these spirits that it was not even possible to insert into it the point of a needle without coming against one,” Barclay comments.4 It was estimated that there were 7,500,000 of them, 10,000 on one’s right hand, and 10,000 on one’s left. All were anxious to do harm to men, living in unclean places where no cleansing water was to be found.
They were especially dangerous, so men thought, to the lonely traveller, the woman in childbirth, children out after dark, and to voyagers by night. They were particularly dangerous in the midday heat, and between sunset and sunrise. It is obvious, of course, that most of these beliefs are mythical, but the essential thing is that men accept the existence of demons. And that is a valid belief according to the Holy Scriptures.
The demons were falsely held to be responsible, not only for diseases like epilepsy and mental illness, but also for other ailments. They lurked beside a man while he ate, and they gained entry into his body by settling on his food. Granted these beliefs, it is not surprising that the New Testament records contain accounts of our Lord’s dealings with the demonic world.
The demons of the Bible were originally part of the angelic hosts, and most Bible students think that the demons are those spirit beings that fell with Satan when he fell from his exalted place in the angelic hierarchy before the time of the creation of the heavens and the earth. The Scripture, however, does not have a great deal to say about their origin. That they were fallen angels is likely (cf. Matt. 25:41; Rev. 12:4, 7). They were created as spiritual beings with an intellectual and moral nature (cf. Matt. 8:16, 29 [they know Him!]; 10:1; Luke 8:27). They form part of an elaborate organization under Satan, each having a particular rank within it (cf. Matt. 12:24; Dan. 10:10-14). The free demons inhabit the earth and the air (cf. Matt. 8:29; Eph. 2:2). and their ultimate doom is the Lake of Fire (cf. Matt. 25:41). Untiringly and unflaggingly they pursue their work under their head (cf. 1 Pet. 5:8; Matt. 12:26; 13:39; Acts 10:38).
Their existence is something that a believer accepts by faith, because of the teaching of the Word of God, but it is remarkable that demonic manifestations largely cease with the coming of the Word of God to a land through evangelism. Perhaps this represents a change in the method of the archenemy of the souls of men. He is able to deceive men today far more easily and successfully as an angel of light than in the form in which our fathers portrayed him, replete as he was with horns and hoofs. In Marie Corell’s book, The Sorrows of Satan, he appears as a cultured person, emerging from the House of Commons! At least he was coming out!
The demoniacs dwelt in the tombs, Matthew tells us, while Luke adds that the leader, at least, wore no clothes, — an ancient streaker! They were generally furious and dangerous men, and our Lord showed unusual courage in stopping to carry on a conversation with them.
The cry of the men (8:28-31). An amazing thing happens; they who struck terror in the hearts of other men with whom they have come into contact are terrorized by Jesus! They who are feared fear! It was the brother of our Lord who wrote, “The devils also believe, and tremble” (cf. Jas. 2:19), and the words have their most pointed application here.
There are two important things to be noted in their cry. (1) First, the demoniacs recognize the deity of the Messiah. They address Him as, “Jesus, thou Son of God” (v. 29). And that very fact reveals a great deal about the modern cults and religions that call themselves Christian and yet refuse to acknowledge Him as the divine Son of God, “begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made” (Nicene). Now notice these facts. God the Father recognized Him as truly God. The angels recognized Him as truly God. His foes recognized Him as truly God. And even the demons acknowledge His true deity. In the light of this, can Unitarianism be called Christian? Can Mormonism be called Christian? Can Jehovah’s Witnesses be called Christian? Some years ago a friend of mine had a conversation with a local Unitarian. She asked the Unitarian if she found that her religion met her needs. The Unitarian replied, “I have no needs.” Undaunted, my friend asked, “What do you teach in Sunday School?” The Unitarian replied that the previous week the children were given a lesson in astronomy. The teachers took the children outside and showed them the sun, the sky, and the other wonders of God’s creation. My friend then asked, “And then do you tell the children that God created all these things to tie it in with the Bible?” “Why, no,” the Unitarian answered, “we let them (children, mind you) draw their own conclusions.” Such is the poverty and shallowness of a religion that fails to deal with the question of Christ as the divine Son of God and creator of all things.
(2) Second, the demoniacs recognize their own destiny and that it rests in His hands. They scream out, “Art thou come to torment us before the time?” (v. 29). It would appear from this that they both know that they face a final judgment of an unfriendly nature, that Christ is Himself their great Antagonist, and they seem to sense the difference between the first and second coming of the Lord, a fact not always fully understood by His own disciples (cf. 11:1-6).5
Seeing a herd of many swine feeding a good way off, the demoniacs asked permission of the Lord Jesus to enter into the herd. “If thou drive us out, send us into the herd of swine” (v.31).
The command of Jesus (8:32) . In response to the request of the demoniacs Jesus permits the demons to leave the men for the herd. His simple reply is, “Go”.
The consequences (8:32). With His permission the demons depart from the men and enter into the herd. The result of this new possession is that “the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters.”
Two further questions arise from this action, thought by many to be incredible and bizarre.
(1) First, how can spirit beings enter into and possess animals? Huxley referred to the incident somewhat contemptuously as, “The Gadarene Pig . Affair,” thinking little of the truthfulness of the story. But our ignorance of such matters is so great that it is doubtful if anyone of us has enough intelligence to know IF there is a problem here!
(2) The second question is more relevant perhaps. How can one explain the wanton destruction of about 2,000 animals (cf. Mark 5:13)? Is it not a heartless act on the part of the Lord?
William Barclay avoids the question entirely. He suggests that the shouting and shrieking of the demoniacs alarmed the pigs. In their terror they took flight and plunged into the lake. Water was fatal to demons, it was believed, so Jesus, taking advantage of the opportunity of this event, cried out to them, “Look, at these swine; they are gone into the depths of the lake and your demons are gone with them for ever.” Only in this way could He convince them that they were cured. So, He did not deliberately destroy the herd; He used their stampede to aid the two poor sufferers to believe in His cure!6 Of course, this can only be believed on the presupposition that the biblical account is not factual.
What shall we say? Well, in the first place, it is well to remember that the Creator is sovereign in His creation, and He has the right to do what He wills (cf. Rom. 9:14-23). And what He wills to do is right.
It has been suggested, in the second place, that the destruction of the swine was necessary in order that all might be convinced of the completeness of the cure of the demoniacs.
Finally, the swine were most likely permitted to suffer destruction in order that a very needed lesson might be taught the people of the area. That lesson is that people are of more value than pigs. The healing of the demoniacs by the Lord Jesus was a noteworthy act of great mercy. It is a remarkable thing that the people of the area urge our Lord to leave their borders rather than express gratitude for the healings. They care more for their livestock than they do for the men. Material values surpass human values in their eyes. It was the purpose of the Lord to teach the lesson that pigs are of no account in comparison with precious souls. The action of the Lord in permitting the demons to possess the swine, then, was not a wanton and heartless act. It was an act of mercy and insight.
“There is such a thing as being over-fastidious,” Barclay points out. “T. R. Glover spoke of people who think they are being religious when in fact they are being fastidious. Surely we could never compare the value of a herd of swine with the value of a man’s immortal soul. It is unlikely that we refuse to eat bacon for breakfast or pork for dinner. Our sympathy with the pigs does not extend far enough to prevent us eating them; are we then to complain if Jesus did restore sanity to two men’s minds at the cost of a herd of pigs? No one need say that this is to encourage or even to condone cruelty to animals. It is simply to say that we must preserve a sense of proportion in life.”7 He came to save men and women, and only men and women.
On the man (cf. Luke 8:35). Luke writes, “Then they went out to see what was done; and came to Jesus, and found the man, out of whom the demons were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind; and they were afraid” (8:35). Sitting, they were no longer restless wanderers. Clothed, they were no longer naked (cf. Gal. 3:27). Sober, they were no longer like raging maniacs (cf. 2 Tim. 1:7). And, finally, they were at His feet in thankfulness and fellowship (cf. Luke 8:38). It was a beautiful picture of the effects of the ministry of the Messiah among His people.
On the multitudes (Matt. 8:33-34). It was quite a different matter with the crowds. While the demoniac wanted to be with Him, they wanted Him to depart. In fact, they preferred to possess their own swine than to possess the Savior of sinners. He was ready to sacrifice the less important of God’s creatures in the interests of the highest, but they were ready to sacrifice the exalted Son of God for their swine!
That awful clause, “they besought him that he would depart from their borders” (v. 34), down through the corridors of time has proclaimed to the world that MEN REFUSE JESUS BECAUSE THEY PREFER THEIR PIGS! It is a humanism at its worst.
This incident has a message for both the non-Christian and the Christian.
To the pagan unbeliever it preaches in the ministry of Jesus the Messiah the death-knell to the forces of evil. It says, in the words of the Apostle John, that Jesus came to undo the works of the devil (cf. 1 John 3:8). In the words of Paul, “having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col. 2:15). The world of Satan and his demons has been overcome by the blood of the cross. The legal release has been presented to the jailor, Satan, and sinners are delivered from sin and death. The Savior has the giant’s head in His hand and has carried the witness of victory to the city of God. We are free from guilt and condemnation. The whole occult world is a defeated world.
To the believer there is a pressing call to return to men from the Savior’s saving presence with a call to turn to Him. Jesus said the men, “Return to thine own house, and show what great things God hath done unto thee” (cf. Luke 8:39). That message was a message of “great things,” and it was a message of a personal deliverance, as the “unto thee” indicates.
Luke adds a word of his, or their, obedience. “And he went his way, and published throughout the whole city what great things JESUS had done unto him” (v. 39). And will you notice the word, “Jesus.” The Lord had told him to publish the great things “God” had done for him. He spoke of the great things “Jesus” had done. This man, enlightened by the Holy Spirit and the recipient of the saving ministry of Christ, felt that, in praising JESUS, he was praising GOD! He was right. May God help us to do the same.
1 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast (New York, 1962), p. 3. The citation comes from the first work.
2 William J. Wolf, No Cross, No Crown: A Study of the Atonement (New York, 1957), p. 57.
3 Os Guinness, Encircling Eyes (Downers Grove, 1974; chapter 8 of The Dust of Death [1937), revised), pp. 11-16.
4 Barclay, I, 327.
5 Hendriksen, p. 414.
6 Barclay, I, 329.
7 Ibid., I, 330.