Mark 5:1-20. “My name is legion, for we are many”.

“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And 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 bruising himself with stones. And 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.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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 marvelled.”

Jesus has been teaching about the kingdom of God. He has taught the crowd in confusing parables, so that they may see and not perceive, and hear and not understand. Jesus has explained the parables privately to his disciples, to whom the secret of the kingdom of God is given. Mark now (from 4:35-5:43) records for us four more of the signs of the kingdom which Jesus wrought; visibly bringing the kingdom of God into a fallen world. We looked last time at the calming of the storm, to which the disciples responded in fear and amazement.

 

Jesus casts out many demons from a man

1) Where does this miracle take place? Is the location significant? What does it mean for Jesus to do this miracle where he does it?

2) What do we mean when we describe someone as “demon possessed?

3) Is “demon possession” a helpful term?

4) What are the features of those who have unclean spirits?

5) Do we see demon possession today?

6) If so, how should we deal with it?

 

Discussion:

1) This is the first instance in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus goes outside Jewish territory. This is very significant. We don’t immediately see why it matters, but that is partly because we are Gentiles, partly because we live in a Western democracy, and partly because we are used to cheap flights, easy travel, and finding Coca-cola and McDonald’s in every nation. As with understanding so much of the Gospels, one huge obstacle for us is that we do not have 1st century Jewish mindsets.

In this case, we are used to thinking that location is relatively unimportant. We can fly to the other side of the world in less than a day. Some of us teleconference with colleagues in the U.S.A or Sweden every week. And as far as we are concerned, there is a global culture. We all speak English. We are all aware of Hollywood movies. We all know what a cheeseburger tastes like. In one sense, that would have been true within the Roman Empire. But in Israel, the dominant culture was Jewish, and location was very important. If you were a true-born Israelite, then had everything run smoothly, your family farm should have been in the family ever since Joshua first conquered the land. The disobedience of Israel, and the exiles, made all this very complicated, but land as a fixed inheritance was a much more vital concept in Israel than in modern-day England.

A more important difference between our mindset and that of a Jew in Jesus’ day would be our views on church and state. We almost automatically think of church and state as separate institutions. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, as he himself said to Pilate (John 18:36). Our churches do not have physical borders, or flags, or currencies in the same way that nation-states do. For the Jews, things were different. They would be used to thinking of their religious views as at least coterminous with their national and ethnic identity, if not inextricably bound up with it. They would have looked back to the promises to Abraham, and to David- promises God made to his people that he would give them a land and a king. The Jews would have seen Canaan as the holy land, and “the nations” as unholy. Had you asked a Jew where you should go to meet with God, then he would have told you to go to Jerusalem, to the holy city, and to God’s own house, the temple, where God dwelt. And they would have been right. God really had set his name on Jerusalem. It really was holier than anywhere else in the world.

 And Jesus here goes to a place inhabited by Gentiles- a place where they herd pigs (think of the “far country” in the parable of the prodigal son- a place where uncleanness is rife). It is not a holy place. But Jesus does something which would have shocked the disciples rigid. Given that the miracles were signs of the kingdom, then to the extent which this was understood by the disciples, they would be amazed to see Jesus casting out demons from a man in this Gentile place. Jesus was extending the blessings of the kingdom of God to a Gentile land, an unclean place.

The disciples thought of God’s kingdom as being something for Israel. It was not for the Gentiles. Sure, maybe it would extend to the Gentiles too- but not to the Gentiles as Gentiles. They would have to be proselytised, and become Jewish, like Rahab, or Ruth or Caleb. We can see this in the way the disciples express their hopes about what Jesus will do. Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, their question to him is, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). If the Gentiles wanted a piece of the blessings of God’s kingdom, then they would have to take the route that Gentiles had always taken to God; they would have to become part of Israel.

Jesus changed that. With the incarnation, Jerusalem was no longer the pre-eminent place to meet with God. Rather, at Jesus’ feet was the best place to meet with God. Israel was no longer the holy land. Wherever Jesus chose to walk- that was holy ground. And so this episode is a foretaste of things to come. Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, people (Gentiles? Jews living in exile?), have come to hear him from Tyre and Sidon, but they have had to make pilgrimage to the holy land in order to do so. Now, the holy land comes to the Gentiles.

 

2-4) When Jesus and the disciples reach the other side of the sea, they are met by a man who has an unclean spirit. He has seen them coming across the water, and has run down from his den in the tombs to meet Jesus. This is the longest section in any of the Gospels about a demonised man. So it is probably worth our stopping a moment to think about demons and “demon possession”. I’ve put the phrase in inverted commas, not because I don’t believe it happens, but because the phrase doesn’t appear here. Our translations have it, but the Greek does not. The usual Greek construct is that a man has a demon, not the other way round.

There is a spirit realm, a part of creation which we cannot always see (although men have seen angels- Abraham, Elijah, and Rhoda the servant girl among others). This part of creation is populated by beings which have personality. There are good spirits and bad spirits, clean and unclean. They are sometimes called “angels”, which simply means “messengers”. God’s angels are described as holy, and these spirits in Mark 5 are described as “unclean”.

And we all have spirits ourselves. There is a part of us which is not material. When our physical bodies die, part of us- our spirits- will still live, waiting to be re-united with our bodies at the resurrection. There is a ghost in the machine. If your body, including your brain, can be thought of as a machine, then there is something that animates the machine. There is something in there which cannot be touched or seen, but which is alive and is pulling the levers to make the machine work. Something that is “you”, but which can be thought of apart from your body.

And other spirits apart from yours can also pull levers in the machine. Normally, your spirit and your body are in harmony, your spirit driving your body (apart from when you’re asleep. And let’s take a moment to reflect on how bizarre sleep is). But in some cases, we see evil spirits coming in and taking over a body, invading it, pushing the native spirit out and taking the wheel, or coming in where the native spirit has abdicated the wheel.

The phrase “demon possession” can be unhelpful. It carries the sense of total ownership. “Demonisation” is better. Some people are more demonised than others. This man is very demonised indeed. He has a whole legion of unclean spirits, and they are defacing the image of God in him. This we would expect. They hate God, and so they hate to see him even in a cracked and distorted mirror. They can’t destroy the mirror utterly in this world, but they can warp it ever further. This demonised man is obsessed with death and unnatural things- he chooses to live among the tombs. He loves destruction, and is addicted to self-harm, injuring his body with stones. He doesn’t care about wrecking the machine. He will wrench chains apart regardless of the damage he does to himself in the process. He isn’t himself any more. If you were sufficiently impervious to pain, and sufficiently uncaring about the state of your forearm, you could probably punch your way through a brick wall. Your arm might be a bloody stump afterwards, but fourteen inches of bone and muscle are probably stronger than four inches of brick and mortar. And why should the unclean spirits care if they break the man’s body?

In cases like this, demonisation does not mean that medical care is useless. We will read in Mark 9 of a boy who has an evil spirit which convulses him and throws him on the ground, making him froth at the mouth. Today, this would be diagnosed as epilepsy, and the boy would be given anticonvulsants. And I think that this would be an accurate diagnosis, and that the anticonvulsants may well stop the boy convulsing. Just because the behaviour has a demonic cause, does not mean that it cannot be physically treated. The body is still physical. Cut the tendons, and the arm won’t move. Shut down the neurotransmitters, and the convulsions won’t be happening. If you disable the transmission and siphon off the fuel, the car isn’t going to move, no matter whether a demon or a man is behind the wheel.

Not all cases of demon possession will be like this. Judas, we are told, had an unclean spirit at some point. During the Last Supper, Satan “entered into him” (John 13:27). But in his case, he didn’t become obviously destroyed. It didn’t suit Satan’s purpose to erode Judas’ rationality to the extent that he became a gibbering madman. Judas acted irrationally, even going so far as to double-cross the omniscient omnipotent Lord, but no doctor would have certified him insane.

 

5 & 6) There would be a coherent argument to be made for the amount of demonic activity in the New Testament to be considered abnormal. After all, Jesus is breaking down Satan’s kingdom. Demons are being cast out from their strongholds. There will be an obvious clash between Jesus and the evil powers in the heavenly places. We would expect to see Satan’s troops gather where their line threatens to break.

But whether or not there was unusual demonic activity in the days of the Gospels, it is undeniable that we still see demonic activity today. In one sense, everything wrong with the world is demonic. Evil men do evil because they are the children of Satan, the father of evil. And there is no reason to believe that the illnesses and natural disasters we see all around us are not in any sense caused by spiritual agents- think of the case of Job, and how Satan caused his livestock and his children to be wiped out in a series of disasters including military raids, fire from heaven, and something like a tornado, and then later caused Job himself to contract a painful case of all-over boils. It is a category error to assume that just because we have some understanding of the immediate physical causes of an illness or a pattern of weather, it is therefore removed from the spiritual realm.

And even in the more specialised sense of demonisation- of evil spirits actually pulling the levers of certain men, to the extent that the spirit of the man is no longer active- I would argue that we still see cases very similar to those in the Gospels. People do harm themselves. I’ve known a man who imagined he heard voices, and who spoke back- either to the voices or to himself or to both, and who eventually tried to kill himself with an overdose of pills and alcohol. I’d describe him as demonised. Ditto a lad I’ve met on a street corner, shivering and begging my friend and me to buy him some cider. What he told us of his life was wholly joyless. Peter Sellers was the man of a thousand voices, but I don’t think he knew which of them was his own. “My name is legion, for we are many”.

 All of these men, I would pity. Those of them I met, I would pray for. In no case would I attempt an “exorcism”. Jesus had authority over the demons, and so could cast them out from people. Those who haven’t such authority shouldn’t attempt to use what they don’t have.

Jesus shared his authority with certain men. Mark says explicitly that Jesus gave to the Twelve the authority to drive out demons (Mark 3:15). Matthew and Luke add to the powers shared with the Twelve the authority to cure diseases (Matthew 10:1, Luke 9:1). After the resurrection, the apostles continued to do these things. But they were plenipotentiary representatives of Jesus. He had given them this authority to act as his representatives, with all his power.

The Twelve held a special place in other ways too- they were given Jesus’ authority not only over demons and diseases, but also over churches. Their words were authoritative over churches. I would argue that believers today have no more authority to command a demon to come out of a man than we have to write to a church and tell it what it ought to be doing in various matters hard to determine. Paul feels free to do both, because he can do so with Jesus’ authority, as an apostle.

The obvious rejoinder to this view is to say that other men apart from the Twelve were also given special authority. There were the seventy-two sent out by Jesus who returned joyful that the demons submitted to them in Jesus’ name (Luke 10:17), and an unidentified man appears to be doing the same thing in Mark 9:38. Philip in Acts 8 is not an apostle (assuming that this is Philip the Jerusalem deacon rather than Philip the apostle), but is still doing miraculous signs. And isn’t every believer an ambassador of Christ? Don’t we all have authority to act in his name?

My answer would be “no”. Paul doesn’t call every believer Christ’s ambassador- if you’re thinking of 2 Corinthians 5:20, it is Paul and his fellow ministers who he has in mind. And an ambassador isn’t the same thing as an apostle anyway. And all the other men who performed signs and wonders in the early church, did so either under the direct approval of Jesus himself, or under the approval of at least one of the apostles. The whole phenomenon of healing, driving our demons, and performing other signs and wonders is all linked to the coming of God’s kingdom. These were guarantees, proofs, of the character and power of the new kingdom as it came. They were like the bread and the cakes of figs and of raisins handed out as freebies by David when the ark of the Lord first came “home” to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). These goodies were symbolic foretastes of the time of blessing and plenty which could be expected now that God’s presence dwelt in the capital city. It was understood that there would not be handouts again the next day and the day after that. I would argue that Jesus has authority, and the apostles were given authority, and other men exercised authority under them. After the initial foundation of the church, we see the exercise of this authority in signs and wonders decline. And with the death of the last apostle, it died completely.

This is why Matthew and Luke both link healing with driving out demons, putting both authorities in the category of “things Jesus said that the Twelve could do”. But when James writes, perhaps in about 40-50AD, to believers about sickness, he doesn’t say, “Is any one of you are sick? He should find a healer, and be made well”. Rather, he says “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord”. Surely, if every believer- or even if some believers- in the churches James wrote to had “healing ministries”, an injunction to pray and do no more would be a little odd.

The fact of the matter is that we don’t see exorcists or healers doing things like Jesus and the apostles did. We see charlatans like Benny Hinn putting on a show for money, but we don’t see them restoring genuine maniacs to normal in a moment, or raising the dead as Jesus and Peter and Paul did.

It seems to me that a charismatic reading of the scriptures is inconsistent here. On the one hand, there is the appeal to the Gospels to support healings as part of Gospel ministry The argument for this is very straightforward- “People listened to Jesus because he went around healing people and casting out demons and doing miracles. So we should do the same as part of our evangelistic efforts”. But though it is a simple argument to follow, it is also simple to knock down. There is the obvious fact that lots of people remain resolutely ill and demonised. This is accounted for by saying resignedly “Well, this is the Lord’s will.” or “Maybe it is better for some people that they shouldn’t be healed, or at least not yet” or even “I’m afraid you need more faith, brother”. Now surely it is indeed better for some people to be ill sometimes, and these things certainly happen under God’s control, and according to God’s good and wise purposes, and we all need more faith. But as an explanation for Gospel healers being unable to heal, these are pretty thin. If Gospel healers are healing just like Jesus and the apostles did, as a continuation of their ministry, then they should be able to heal everyone. It is a fact that EVERYBODY who came to Jesus asking for healing was healed. We do not read of a single occasion of someone coming to Jesus saying, “Lord, heal my daughter” or whatever, and Jesus saying, “Nope, afraid not. It wouldn’t be good for her, you know. She’ll be able to minister to other sick people if I let her continue to be ill. And anyway, she’ll grow in patience and holiness on her sick bed.” The disciples weren’t able to cast out a demon once, but this was so far from being a regular occurrence that it was a matter of considerable perplexity for them (Mark 9:18,28). And Jesus himself didn’t turn anyone away. Everybody who asked him was healed indiscriminately and without exception. Even some of those who didn’t ask him were healed. Even those who were only out for themselves and were not remotely grateful were healed. Jesus healed ten lepers, and as far as we know, nine of them ran off and never wanted to see him again. Only one of them was interested in the kingdom, but all ten were given some of the benefits of the kingdom coming. God’s grace was extended to the unworthy. We see nothing like it in the modern charismatic movement.

The Pentecostals can’t have it both ways. If the Gospels are the model for ministry today, and if that means that we ought to be healing and driving out demons as Jesus and the apostles and those associated with them did, then why are some people not healed? Jesus never told anybody that they didn’t have enough faith to be made well, so why should we be allowed to?

If we are allowed the get-out clause of “it wasn’t God’s time”, then we should recognise that this represents a significant difference from the situation in the Gospels, when, funnily enough, it was God’s time for everyone. But then that starts to sound less like charismatic theology and more like cessationist arguments that the signs of the kingdom were for the specific time of the inauguration of the kingdom.

This does not mean that we are powerless. Far from it. We have recourse to the one who sits upon the throne of the universe. We can pray to him to drive demons out. Believers can try to drive out demons in the same way that we would try to heal a broken leg- by non-authoritative practical steps; setting and plastering the limb in the case of a broken leg, trying to speak peace and truth in the case of a broken mind. But above all, we should pray.

We can be sure that whatever we ask for, in Jesus name, it will be done for us. When we ask for something which Jesus legitimises, that thing will be done. Nothing and nobody can stop it. Satan himself is bound and powerless. When a policeman arrests somebody “in the name of the law”, then he expects that the law will back him up when the case goes to court. And insofar as his actions have been upholding the law he invokes, the law promises to back him up. Assuming he isn’t a shonky copper making an illegal arrest, then arresting “in the name of the law” means that the full power and authority of the law are the guarantors for his arrest. If the criminal resists arrest, he is guilty of a further transgression of the law.

When we pray “in Jesus’ name”, this isn’t just a magic formula which we say at the end of a request because that’s the way we Christians do things. When we say those words, we are calling on the limitless authority of the king of all kings to underwrite our prayers. And if our request is in line with his will, then he has promised to act on it.

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