Sometimes it is hard to believe in the supernatural. But it should be obvious that there are giant swaths of reality that will never be explained as anything but supernatural. For example, take the idea of freedom. You can describe what the idea of freedom means, but you can’t study it in the same way you study what we call a “natural phenomenon” (like an eclipse). Instead, it is something “metaphysical,” or, in the old parlance, “supernatural.” There are many other supernatural things as well.
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Matthew #29 . 8:28-34
When He had come to the other side, to the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met Him as they came out of the tombs. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, “What do You have to do with us, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time? ” Now a long way off from them, a large herd of pigs was feeding. “If You drive us out,” the demons begged Him, “send us into the herd of pigs.” “Go! ” He told them. So when they had come out, they entered the pigs. And suddenly the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. Then the men who tended them fled. They went into the city and reported everything — especially what had happened to those who were demon-possessed. At that, the whole town went out to meet Jesus. When they saw Him, they begged Him to leave their region. (Matt 8:28-34, HCSB)
Mark and Luke record this same incident, but with one fairly large difference from Matthew: they tell of only one demon possessed man (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39). This is one of those places that is used by some people to suggest that the Bible contradicts itself and is not reliable. However, I think this misses the point entirely. It reminds me of an old joke. Joe and Jack went down to the lake with Joe’s dog. Joe said, “watch this!” He picked up a stick and hurled it far out into the lake. “Fetch, boy,” he said. The dog immediately went bounding toward the lake, but instead of swimming, the animal ran out on top of the water, picked up the stick, ran back, still on top of the water, and then lay down a few feet away and began gnawing on it. His fur wasn’t even wet.
“So, what do you think?” said Joe.
Jack shook his head sadly. “Pathetic. Your dog didn’t release the stick to you, and he can’t even swim.”
The point of this passage, and of the parallel ones in Mark and Luke, is how Jesus dealt with a serious case of demonization. All three of them agree about that. Changing the number of men involved does not change the message about what Jesus did and who he is.
Secondly, I think the supposed contradiction is easily resolved. First, Matthew was actually there, while Mark and Luke were not; they were reporting something they had heard from other apostles. Mark and Luke do not say “there was only one demon-possessed man.” Instead, it is just that the focus of their telling of the incident is on only the one man – that doesn’t mean there was no second man there with him.
Kari and I have been married for twenty-two years. There are certain stories from our lives and ministry together that we love to tell other people. But usually, Kari tells a story differently from the way I tell it. She focuses on details that are important to her, but don’t seem that significant to me. If you heard both of us tell the same incident, you might notice apparent discrepancies in various small details. If you probed what we were saying, however, you would find that we don’t actually contradict each other – we just tell the story in different ways, with emphasis on different things. I am quite certain that this is exactly the same kind of thing we find when we compare the gospels to each other.
What I think personally, is that there were two demonized men there, but one of them was in much worse shape than the other. I suspect that Mark and Luke decided to focus on the drama of the worst of the two, and kept the story simple by leaving his companion out of it. Matthew, however, experienced it as it happened. He probably didn’t know the back-story of the one man until later. At the time, the most dramatic thing for him was not the back-story of one of the men, but rather the person and actions of Jesus.
So let’s look at Matthew’s telling and see what the Holy Spirit tells us through it.
I find several things here remarkable, and worth looking at. First, there is something about this story that sort of pulls back the curtain, and gives us a glimpse into a corner of reality that frankly, we would often prefer to ignore. I call it the “spiritual dimension.” Others may call it the “spirit world,” or “the supernatural.” Frankly, the Bible doesn’t usually call it something special – in fact, the bible doesn’t really separate it from everyday life – it is just part of reality.
In the Western world, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that science will eventually be able to account for everything, proving at last that there is no such thing as the spiritual world. For instance, primitive peoples used to think that eclipses of the sun or moon were caused by angry spirits. Now we know that spirits have nothing to do with eclipses. But to any truly thoughtful person, it should be obvious that there are giant swaths of reality that will never be accessible to science. For example, take the idea of freedom. You can describe what the idea of freedom means, but you can’t study it in the same way you study what we call a “natural phenomenon” (like an eclipse). You may come up with some reason, based upon evolution, for the idea of freedom – but that doesn’t explain what the idea actually is. Even if someday scientists are able to isolate the proteins, chemicals and electrical impulses used in the human brain when we think “freedom” they still will not be studying what freedom actually is. If you kill someone who has the idea of freedom, somehow the idea continues to exist. I think it is safe to say that if you raised a generation of people who had never been exposed to the idea, somehow the idea of freedom would find its way into some of those people. Freedom has profoundly influenced entire civilizations – in fact the entire history of the world. Even so, you can’t touch it, or smell it or look at it under a microscope. It has no body; in fact, freedom (strictly speaking) has no physical properties at all. But any intelligent person can see that freedom is a real thing, even if we can’t quite lay hold of it with science.
We know that our reality is filled with non-corporeal things like freedom and hope and love and hate which are real things, and yet cannot be adequately explained or quantified by science. In fact these things are not “natural phenomena” at all. Strictly speaking, we might call them “supernatural,” though most modern people prefer the term “metaphysical.” If we so easily accept supernatural/metaphysical things like these, why should we dismiss out of hand, the idea of non-corporeal spirits?
In any case, if we are to believe the bible, we must realize that this is part of the reality that the bible takes for granted. Jesus, Paul, Peter, Moses, Matthew – all of the biblical writers assume that spirits – both good and evil, are part of what we call reality. In general, it calls evil spirits “demons” and good spirits “angels.” It appears that demons are actually angels who chose to follow Satan when he rebelled against God (Revelation 12:4; Jude 1:6)
I think one of the questions many American Christians have is, “if this is just part of reality, why don’t we see it more?” We always hear missionary stories from places Africa, the Middle-East and my childhood home, New Guinea, describing encounters with demons, but not often from the United States or Europe. I think there are two main reasons why.
First, this passage shows us that in a straight up, power-to-power encounter, Jesus always wins. In other words, demons, when faced with the presence and authority of Jesus, must leave. America and Europe have had, at least until very recently (and perhaps still), a strong presence of Christian disciples throughout the population. If demons operate so obviously, they will be driven out by the authority of Jesus, exercised by his followers. In a culture where there are many disciples of Jesus, it is more effective for the devil to operate through deception and moral corruption, than to risk a direct confrontation with the power of Jesus. In Africa and New Guinea and many other places in the world, the church has not been so strong or present in great numbers. There, demons are less likely to be driven out by the authority of Jesus, even if they overtly torment people.
Second, what there is of overt demonic activity in the United States is often not recognized as such. A few weeks ago I shared a story of deliverance from demonic harassment. If you remember, the individual in question had been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. Let me be clear, once again. I do not think that every psychological or mental disorder is demonic. Many, (perhaps most), of them are simply about brain chemistry or emotional injury. But I do know that there are some times when we mistakenly call something a psychological or emotional problem when in reality it is demonic.
I think is absolutely a mistake to suppose that every negative thing is caused directly by demonic activity. However, I think it is just as much a mistake to suppose that nothing is ever caused by it. For further reading I highly recommend reading The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. He weaves a compelling picture of how the demonic might work in ordinary modern life.
Back to the text, we have these evil spirits, connected with the bodies of these two unfortunate men, recognizing the Spirit of Jesus, in spite of the fact that Jesus also present in physical bodily form. Though there are physically three men involved, the confrontation is almost entirely spiritual.
The demons immediately knew Jesus as the Son of God. This is actually very important, because it tells us something significant about faith. These demons obviously knew who Jesus was. They weren’t denying that he was the Son of God. They weren’t denying his power or divinity. But they did not willingly embrace his authority over their lives. They knew who he was, but they rejected him as Lord over them. James writes:
You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe — and they shudder. (Jas 2:19, HCSB)
This goes along with the discipleship theme we spoke about a few weeks ago. Sometimes, we think that Christianity is simply about agreeing with a certain set of doctrines, but living our lives however we choose. Well, here we have demons who agree with the doctrine that Jesus is divine. But they did not follow him. They did not submit to him. With his power, he forced them to leave, but they did not leave out of willing obedience. You might say, in a narrow sense, that these demons held the correct doctrine about the identity of Jesus. But what they rejected was a relationship with him based upon love, grace and obedience. The demons weren’t wrong in their belief. They were wrong in attitude toward Jesus; specifically, they refused to willingly submit to him and obey him. They were rebellious.
So, as Jesus approaches and these rebellious spirits recognize him, they shout: “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”
The book of Revelation describes a lake of fire, where the devil and his followers are tormented forever (Revelation, chapters 19-20). Jude also predicts the final judgment of fallen angels:
And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day— (Jude 1:6, ESV2011)
These demons apparently have some sort of awareness of the great torment awaiting them. Once again, we sort of looking behind the curtain at things we might not fully understand. Even though they remained disobedient, the demons knew that Jesus had the power to force them to do whatever he commanded. That alone is worth a thought or two. We find this surprising thing: they begged Jesus to let them go into a nearby herd of pigs. The impression I get is that Jesus normally sent demons to a place of anguish and suffering; perhaps just being among themselves with no opportunity to torment anything else was a terrible punishment for them. So they ask that he doesn’t send them (presumably) to hell, but instead lets them escape into a herd of nearby pigs. Even more surprising, Jesus grants their request.
The irony, of course, is that the demons drove the pigs mad, and they all killed themselves in the lake, presumably leaving the demons with no place else to go but to the place of torment after all. Evil always finds a way to do harm not only to others, but to self also.
The reaction of the people in that area still surprises me. They ask Jesus to leave, please. Some commenters suppose that they didn’t like the fact that they lost all those pigs, which were certainly valuable economic assets. However, Matthew says that the men who told about the incident emphasized not the loss of the pigs, but the fact that the two demonized men were restored to wholeness. Even so, the townspeople begged Jesus to leave.
I think the unfortunate truth is that the presence of Jesus stirs things up, makes changes in people’s lives, and many people would rather not deal with that. In addition, many people are afraid when they realize the kind of power Jesus actually has. It was more comfortable for them if Jesus would simply leave them alone. Yes, it was a hassle that no one could go near the tombs where the demon-possessed men were, but they were used to it, and had learned to work around it. Now Jesus comes along, and anything might happen. It wasn’t a comfortable thought for them. They would rather remain comfortable and live with their issues, than have him come in and shake things up.
So what is the Lord saying to you through this scripture today? Did you need to be confronted with the reality of the spiritual dimension? Have you been ignoring the fact that we have enemies there who would do us harm?
Or maybe you needed to be reminded today that Jesus’ power is infinitely greater than that of any demon – even greater than the devil himself. One whiff of the presence of Jesus, one word spoken in His authority, sends any demonic power away. You can trust Jesus. He is Lord not only of nature (as he showed with the calming of the storm) but also of supernature – the spiritual dimension.
Perhaps for you the important thing to hear was that evil finds a way to harm itself. Maybe you’ve been toying with some sin, or some course of action that, deep in your heart, you know is not right. Maybe you think if God just leaves you alone, you’ll be fine. Perhaps you need to remember what happened to the pigs.
Or maybe you need to be confronted with the fact that you’ve been pushing Jesus off to the side in order to keep your life more comfortable. Maybe he’s showing you that, so that you can make a better, choice, a choice to let him work in your life, however painful or scary that may feel.
Another possibility is that you have been hiding behind the same faith that demons have. You believe in Jesus; you have no problem acknowledging that he is the Son of God. But frankly, you don’t want him to have much to do with your life. You want to be in control yourself, rather than let him be Lord. Don’t be fooled: that kind of faith isn’t Christian faith at all. Surrender your “right” to be in charge of your own life, and give it to Jesus instead.
Let the Spirit speak to you right now! Listen and obey.
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