Matthew 8:28-34

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Matthew 8

28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” 32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. 33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region.

Allow me to share with you a number of headlines I have selected from the last twelve months:

Woman killed during exorcism (August 19, 2019)

Was There Really an Exorcism at Fort Bragg? (October 2, 2019)

Priest mercilessly whips ‘devil-possessed’ woman before she faints during exorcism (October 18, 2019)

‘I could see the demons’: An exorcism in Arkansas (October 30, 2019)

‘I Was Possessed’: How One Man Was Freed From Satanic Possession (November 19, 2019)

The priest who had the number of the beast: As the Vatican’s chief exorcist for 30 years, Father Gabriel Amorth claimed to have dealt with the devil 60,000 times. Now a new book tells his head-spinning story (April 8, 2020)

Abp Viganò asks bishops, priests to pray Exorcism ‘against Satan’ on Holy Saturday (April 9, 2020)

San Francisco Archbishop Holds Exorcism At Golden Gate Park Site Where Serra Statue Was Toppled (June 30, 2020)[1]

The common theme should be obvious: exorcism. I do not know, of course, that every situation described in these articles are examples of legitimate demonic possession and exorcism. I only mention these to show that the issue has staying power and is very much alive and well. As a Christian who believes in the existence of the devil and demons, I obviously do not discount the above headlines out of hand, though I am cautious. Why? Because there is a lot of weirdness advanced by those who seem unhealthily preoccupied with these issues. One must be careful! On the other hand, again, the devil and demons and possession and exorcism are realities.

How, then, do we navigate these issues? How do we know what to think about demonic possession? Well, we go to the standard, to the source: the scriptures. And, at the end of Matthew 8, we see one of the classic instances of demonic possession. But the point of this passage is not merely about demons. It is moreso about Jesus. It ultimately touches on a number of issues: demonology, anthropology, sociology, and Christology.

Let us consider our text closely so that we will be able to discern truth from error.

Demonology: The maneuvering demons.

Our text gives us a basic theology of demons. The details emerge from Jesus’ encounter with two demon possessed men. Let us remember that Jesus and the disciples have just gone through the horrifying (to the disciples!) storm on the Sea of Galilee that Jesus had rebuked and stopped. But the evidence suggests that that storm was no mere storm but rather a demonic attack. This is important because it means that our text represents a continuation of Jesus’ confrontation with Satanic powers.

28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.”

Let us consider the basic components of a biblical theology of demons. First, see how the demons seek to inhabit a host. The two men are “demon-possessed.” The demons say, “If you cast us out…” Meaning, that they are inside. Demons seek a host. They desire to be embodied. In Matthew 12, Jesus gives further insights into this reality:

43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 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. So also will it be with this evil generation.”

This is a somewhat mysterious passage (i.e., “passes through waterless places”), to be sure, but one thing is clear: demons seek a “house” to occupy, a physical presence, and they can “rest” only in a host.

Second, let us observe that demons are bent on pain and destruction. They inhabit these two men, lead them to live in tombs, and warp them into “fierce” men of destructive violence. In other words, there is a degradation that comes with possession, a deterioration of both the inner and outer person.

Third, notice the theological knowledge of demons. The statement, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”, is theologically rich. The demons acknowledge, rightly, that Jesus is the “Son of God.” They also recognize that He has power over them. They also recognize that He stands in opposition to them (i.e., “Have you come here to torment us…?”) They also recognize that their days are numbered and their doom is certain. James Montgomery Boice makes the interesting observation that “it is amusing to discover in this story that while [the disciples] were asking themselves [“What kind of a man is this?”], the demons came out of the tombs to tell them.”[2] It is amusing, to be sure.

One other thing we surmise from this is that theological knowledge in and of itself does not save. The demons have knowledge, but they do not have a relationship. In James 2 we read:

19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!

So there is a kind of belief that damns and another that saves. The kind that damns is mere assent to propositions without grasping those propositions in a relational sense, without receiving them in faith. To know that there is a God and that Jesus is His Son while yet opposing and rejecting these truths in one’s own heart leads to fear and destruction: “…and shudder!”

We are able, therefore, to construct a basic demonology from our text. That is, we can tell certain things about demons and how they operate.

I have on my shelf the commentary of one writer who seems to struggle with the idea of demons and possession in the modern world. “Modern science would describe these as deranged, hostile, and suicidal,” he writes. Fair enough. It surely would. But he continues:

In the ancient world men lived in daily fear of evil spirits or demons. Although the Western world today is divided between those who substitute a psychological analysis for “demon possession” and those who retain the idea doctrinally, few Christians if any today live in daily dread of attack by demons.

            Whatever is meant by demons, Jesus freed the world, or much of it, from that fear.[3]

I must say that the fact that “few Christians if any today live in daily dread of attack by demons” says more about modern Christians than it does about demons. And, to be sure, the emotional and psychological postures of modern Christians toward what is clearly taught in scripture should not be given great weight. What matters is not how Christians “today” feel about this or that. What matters is what scripture says regardless!

Yes, demons exist and we must be aware and careful, no matter how much modern people, including some Christians, may find the idea embarrassing.

Anthropology: The delivered men.

There is an anthropological reality in our text as well. We see it in what happens to the possessed men.

32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. 33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men.

Simply put, wounded and possessed and fallen humanity can indeed change and be liberated by the power of Jesus Christ. The fact that “they came out” is a powerful fact. The fact that “the herdsmen” told everybody “what had happened to the demon-possessed men” further highlights the radical nature of the change that Christ can bring about. When people see this transformation, they marvel.

We can be set free!

This is not said enough: we can be set free! We can be changed, liberated, delivered. Human beings need not stay how they are. The possession can end as can any lesser malady. Christ Jesus is capable of altering the basic constitutions of human beings and of delivering them from oppression.

There is, in other words, a note of profound and beautiful hope in our passage! We should be encouraged before this text, not troubled by it, for Christ gives us victory!

Sociology: The terrified populace.

There is a sociological note here as well. We see it in the reaction of the people.

34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region.

The people of the town are perhaps understandably frightened. They realize they are in the presence of a great power that they do not understand. They are unsettled by the presence and power of Jesus.

There is something else, however. It is hard to deny that there is also likely a bit of resentment on their parts at the economic loss represented in the death of the pigs. Yes, Jesus delivered these two men, but he struck the local economy quite a blow in the process. So it is almost certainly the case that the locals were concerned that the presence of Jesus may mean further loss to them

This is the position that Richard Wilbur took in his 1961 poem, “Matthew VIII 28 ff,” in which he depicts the Gadarenes as ancient types of upwardly-mobile modern Americans.

Rabbi, we Gadarenes
Are not ascetics; we are fond of wealth and possessions.
Love, as You call it, we obviate by means
Of the planned release of aggressions.

We have deep faith in prosperity.
Soon, it is hoped, we will reach our full potential.
In the light of our gross product, the practice of charity
Is palpably non-essential.

It is true that we go insane;
That for no good reason we are possessed by devils;
That we suffer, despite the amenities which obtain
At all but the lowest levels.

We shall not, however, resign
Our trust in the high-heaped table and the full trough.
If You cannot cure us without destroying our swine,
We had rather You shoved off.

The sociological principle appears to be that humanity, en masse, appears to prefer what they want more than what they need. Success is more important to us than salvation, it would seem. History would seem to bear that idea out. But this is how Jesus works: He brings life, but He busts some stuff up in the process. Encountering Jesus is transformative and life-altering, but it is also destructive as far as our idols and comforts go.

I ask you: if Jesus delivering you meant the destruction of your means of wealth, would you want Him to do it? Do you want Him to save without breaking some things down? Do you want Him to build without first doing some demolition work? That is now how salvation works. The Gadarenes should have marveled and celebrated instead of counting what they lost. But, alas, human beings can be amazingly short-sighted.

Christology: The sovereign Lord.

Once again, however, we see that the main character in our story truly is the Lord Jesus. Jesus is the main character of all of scripture! Our text fleshes out a number of Christological principles. The first has to do with the location of this exorcism.

28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes…

Remember that Jesus and the disciples were travelling eastward over the Sea of Galilee. For our purposes it should be noted that the region to which they went was a predominantly Gentile region. Michael Card has offered some truly interesting historical insights on the area.

The region, known as the Decapolis, or Ten Cities, was founded by the Roman General Pompey the Great to be a thorn in the side of the Jews in the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee…Scholars disagree as to the exact location [of the city]. The location is almost certainly Gedara and not the nearby Gergesa. Because Gadara is six miles from the lake, many argue against it being the location of the miracle. But in 1985, at a time when the water level of the Sea of Galilee was exceptionally low, a massive harbor was discovered near the city of Gadara. It was the largest harbor on the eastern shore of the lake, with a breakwater over 250 feet long. The harbor was so large that a mock naval battle was once put on there by the Romans for the residents of Gadara. The event was commemorated on a second-century coin minted in the area. So the image of Jesus’ boat being dragged up on to the beach is probably not accurate. Most likely they piloted the boat through the breakwater and tied up along the six-hundred-foot pier.[4]

Fascinating! So this city was strategic to the Romans. Most importantly, it was strategic to Jesus. Why? Because it was considered a Gentile region. Therefore, by going there, Jesus was revealing one of the key tenets of any biblical Christology or theology of Jesus: God is a missionary God. Jesus travels over there! In doing so He went to a region the disciples would have found a bit nerve-wracking, being good Jews.

Jesus travels to those who need deliverance. God is indeed a missionary God!

What is more, Jesus demonstrates, once again, His amazing power!

29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” 32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.

The demons quake. The demons know the authority of Jesus! And, wonderfully, Jesus casts them out with only one word: “Go.” That is all it takes. Jesus need not bicker or trade words with demons. Jesus is in complete control. “Go!” And they went! It brings to mind Luther’s powerful lyrics in “A Mighty Fortress”:

And though this world,
with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear,
for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;

The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.

“One little word.” That is all Jesus needs. And the word “Jesus” is the “one little word” before which all of hell trembles. May we never forget his fact: Jesus Christ holds unassailable and unquestioned power over all forces of darkness! The devils must flee before His word!

There is one more observation we need to make here and it has to do with the demonic storm on the Sea of Galilee that immediately preceded this. Michael Card astutely observes that “[t]he bodies of the dead animals floating on the lake reveal the original intention of the storm. What happened to the pigs is what Satan had intended for Jesus and his disciples.”[5]

This is a profound insight. The precise destruction that Satan intended for Jesus and the disciples is put back on the hosts of hell by Jesus Himself: the physical hosts of the demons, the pigs, are dead in the waters. The devil is always a day late and a dollar short when it comes to Jesus. Jesus is not drowned but the demon-possessed pigs are, and so the demons must once again go through “waterless places” as they arrive from their watery tomb.

Jesus is victorious! Christ is the victor! He is Heaven’s champion! His word is strongest and best and none other may match it. See the glory of Jesus! See and marvel and believe!

 

[1] https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/state-editions/woman-killed-during-exorcism.html; https://www.military.com/off-duty/2019/10/02/was-there-really-exorcism-fort-bragg.html; https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/priest-mercilessly-whips-devil-possessed-20647712; https://katv.com/news/local/i-could-see-the-demons-an-exorcism-in-arkansas; https://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/i-was-possessed-how-one-man-was-freed-from-satanic-possession; https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8202129/Head-spinning-story-Vaticans-chief-exorcist-30-years-Father-Gabriel-Amorth.html; https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/abp-vigano-asks-bishops-priests-to-pray-exorcism-against-satan-on-holy-saturday; https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2020/06/30/san-francisco-archbishop-exorcism-golden-gate-park-junipero-serra-statue-toppled/

[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), p141.

[3] Frank Stagg, “Matthew.” The Broadman Bible Commentary. Gen. ed., Clifton J. Allen. Vol.8 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1969), p.127. “Many conservatives wanted the seminary to fire Frank Stagg…,” writes Gregory Wills, “A committee of trustees investigated Stagg for heresy in 1956, but could reach no unanimous conclusion. Stagg apparently rejected verbal plenary inspiration, the objective character of the atonement, the orthodox under- standing of the Trinity, and the penal wrath of God.” “Progressive Theology and Southern Baptist Controversies of the 1950s and 1960s.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. 7/1 (Spring 2003) 21-22.

[4] Michael Card, Matthew. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), p.83-84.

[5] Michael Card, p.84.

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