This is a bizarre passage. But let’s not dismiss it on that basis. After all, much of the Christian faith (and life itself!) can seem bizarre. And let’s not dismiss it because it may seem irrelevant (I doubt you’ve dealt with extreme demon possession this week…). Let’s look at it carefully and see what we can learn.
Although the demons and the pigs may be the most immediately intriguing aspect of this passage, I believe the most important aspect is Jesus’ authority. This is a topic Mark has already mentioned several times and it’s emphasized by the fact that three different parties beg Jesus in these verses.
The Demons Beg Jesus
Portrait of Possession
1They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.2And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4for 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. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. (Mark 5:1-5)
Try to picture this man in your head. He’s isolated from society, in constant misery, screaming out 24 hours a day and cutting himself with stones. He’s naked (5:15), with open cuts, smeared with blood, living in the tombs by himself. Many have tried to subdue (if not help) him to no avail. This is a picture of extreme hopelessness.
6And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7And 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.” 8For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” (Mark 5:6-8)
Filled with unclean spirits, “no one could bind him” and “no one had the strength to subdue him.” Yet rather than trying to overpower Jesus in aggression, he falls down before Jesus in submission. Then he addresses Jesus respectfully as “Son of the Most High God.” And finally, the tormentors of the entire town adjure Jesus not to torment them as they reside in the possessed man. They who caused so much fear are afraid of Jesus. This is not a story of how scary demons are. It’s a story of how solid Jesus is.
The Demons Beg Jesus
10And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13So 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 drowned in the sea. (Mark 1:10-13)
Now I know you’re wondering, “What’s with the pigs?!” I worked really hard to answer that question in my preparation for this sermon. But no one knows. There are some plausible theories, but Jesus never explains it, so we can only guess. I believe the fact that it’s unexplained means it’s unimportant.
So let’s take our eyes off the pigs and notice the permission. Jesus permits the demons to have their way. This is significant. Jesus is permissive toward the demons.
The People Beg Jesus
Afraid Rather than Angry
14The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15And 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. (Mark 5:14-15)
The people are not outraged at the death of 2,000 pigs. Nor are they happy for the formerly possessed man. They are afraid. Though meek, Jesus is not a weakling. Though lamblike, he is also lionlike. And in this moment, he is fearsome!
The People Beg Jesus
Though they are many and Jesus and his disciples are few, they cannot throw him out of the city. They beg him to depart. And guess what: he does. Verse 18 begins, “As he was getting into the boat.” Again he is permissive, this time with those who are rejecting him.
The Man Begs Jesus
18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him.19And 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.” 20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. (Mark 5:18-20)
Permission or Direction
The demons beg to enter the pigs; Jesus permits it. The people beg Jesus to depart, he permits it. The man begs to go with Jesus and his disciples; he denies it. Jesus permits the demons and those who reject him, but directs the man who wishes to follow him. All three parties experience Jesus’ authoritative lordship. The demons and townsfolk experience his permissive lordship. The man experiences his directive lordship.
This continues to be a key difference between non-Christians and Christians. Non-Christians may do as they please without redirection from God. They do not have the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin or the Father to discipline them or call them to certain ministries. Christians do have these things. Christians cannot continue in sin without feeling conviction. They cannot rebel against the Father without being disciplined. They cannot plot their own course without guidance from God.
This is a good test for those who are insecure about their salvation. If you’re able to do what you want without the Lord’s directive influence, you’re probably not saved. If God tells you what to do, you probably are saved.
This also provides insight for prayer. We ought not to pray for permission, but direction. We ought to expect redirection as we plan and move forward because his ways are higher than ours. In this way, ‘no’ may be a more common answer to the believer’s prayer than ‘yes.’
As in prayer, so in life: It isn’t about our will accomplished though God. It’s about God’s will accomplished through us.
- Read the passage together.
- What has been your experience with unclean spirits? (See Ephesians 6:10-20 and 2 Timothy 2:24-26 for reminders of more mundane demonic activities.)
- Based on this passage, how is Jesus’ permissive lordship different from his directive lordship?
- How have you experienced Jesus’ lordship in your life? Were there things you used to be allowed to do that God has directed you away from as you’ve grown in your walk with him? Are there prayers that you’ve prayed that God has answered with ‘no?’
- How should this passage influence the way we think about prayer?
- Take some time to pray for one another.