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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Christians need to recognized that we are not in neutral territory. We are in the middle of a spiritual war.

1 Samuel #17 Wars within and Without. 1 Samuel chapter 18

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1 Samuel chapter 18 is part of a larger section that records the development of David as a warrior and leader, and the increasing tension between Saul and David.

In number 10 in this series, we looked at 1 Samuel chapter 14, and saw that Jonathan, son of Saul was a very different man from his father. Jonathan was a man of faith. He trusted that if God wanted to deliver his people, he could do it, whatever the odds. I have wondered at times, why Jonathan, being the man he was, did not fight Goliath. The bible doesn’t tell us, but I suspect that Saul might have forbidden him to do it. In any case, it was God’s desire to use David in that situation.

David approached Goliath with exactly the same kind of faith that Jonathan had when fought the Philistines earlier. Jonathan recognized the faith of David and recognized in him, a kindred spirit. Without any pretensions as the king’s son, and in self-confident humility, Jonathan honored David and made a covenant with him. A “covenant” was a solemn agreement. It doesn’t spell out here what exactly the covenant was. I think we can assume that it was a little bit like the old native American tradition of becoming blood brothers. Certainly, they became lifelong friends, inseparable in spirit, loyal to each other in spite of the difficult circumstances that could have come between them. In addition, after the victory over Goliath and the Philistine armies, Jonathan gave David his precious iron-age battle equipment.

Saul had made a vow to honor the giant-killer with marriage to his daughter, and riches, and exemption from royal taxes (17:24-27). But there is a great contrast between Saul and his son. Jonathan made no vow, and yet rewarded David with honor, and such gifts as he had power to give. Saul made promises, and then reneged on them.

After Goliath was killed, the armies of Israel pursued the Philistines to the gates of two of their cities. Previously, Israel had won only defensive victories – they had driven the Philistines out of the hill country when the Philistines invaded. However, this time, spurred by David’s feat of faith, they took the battle into Philistine territory. As they returned from the fight, the people celebrated and sang songs and verses. In their songs they sang that Saul had killed thousands, and David tens of thousands.

This was a faith opportunity for Saul. He could trust that God was Lord of both him and David, and that God would be merciful and good to him even now. But instead, Saul gave in to fear and doubt and insecurity – as he always did. 18:10 says this:

10 The next day an evil spirit sent from God took control of Saul, and he began to rave inside the palace. David was playing the lyre as usual, but Saul was holding a spear, 11 and he threw it, thinking, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David got away from him twice. (1Sam 18:10-11, HCSB)

Previously, when the Lord used the evil spirit to try and bring Saul to repentance, Saul was able to find hope and relief by God’s spirit working through David’s music. But this time, Saul utterly rejected God’s spirit. He chose to not live by faith. He chose to try and control his own fate, apart from God’s plans. And so when David played the lyre for him after this, there was no relief, because Saul cut off all of God’s efforts to reach him.

I want to point out a few things that come out of this particular incident. First, when we close the door on God, it means we open a door to the realm of Satan and evil spirits. I don’t mean that this happens every time we make a single mistake and choose wrongly or fall into sin. But Saul persistently and deliberately rejected God over a long period of time. It seems to me that chapter 18 records a time when Saul makes a firm, final decision to not trust God. Therefore, God had no way to reach him anymore. And since Saul put himself beyond God’s reach, he was a sitting duck for the devil.

Second, we see the intention of all evil spirits – to destroy the work of the Holy Spirit. David was the instrument of the Holy Spirit at that time. The evil spirit, when given control took the most direct route – destroy God’s chosen instrument.

I think it is important for us to recognize the spiritual war that this reveals. David was aware of it in the battle against Goliath. Jonathan was aware of it in his earlier battles. The devil wants to destroy the work of God. Jesus said, talking about Satan in John 10:10 said, “a thief comes to kill, steal and destroy.” Peter wrote this:

8 Be serious! Be alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour. (1Pet 5:8, HCSB)

This world is not neutral territory – it is a battle ground. All of us who trust in Jesus are now the chosen instruments of the Holy Spirit. The devil cannot kill us all. But he seeks to undo the work that God wants to do in and through us. We don’t need to fear the devil – Jesus told us that he has won the definitive victory over Satan.

18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:18-20, ESV)

Satan cannot harm us if we remain in Jesus. Therefore the New Testament tells us to be alert (1 Peter 5:8), to remain in Jesus (John 15:1), to resist the devil (1 Peter 5:9 and James 4:7) and to take our stand against all the powers of evil in the spiritual realms (Ephesians 6:10-18). We don’t need to be afraid, but we shouldn’t be naïve either. If the devil could, he would drive a spear through you too. Saul shows us the only way the devil can get at us – when we shut God out.

When you feel particularly angry, ask yourself – is my anger level unreasonable? Could the devil be tweaking an already tense situation? Perhaps you feel a weight of sadness and depression that is out of proportion to the situation you are in. Pay attention to it. Don’t just submit to it and let it hang like a cloud over your life – ask the Lord about it. Maybe when you try to move ahead with what the Lord has for you, you encounter continual discouragement — maybe even physical roadblocks. Don’t just accept this. Ask the Lord about it, and you may need to pray specifically against spiritual opposition. Satan’s biggest weapon is deception. If he can get us to believe he isn’t involved, we will never kick him out of places where he doesn’t belong.

Consider David for a moment. He was God’s chosen instrument. He killed the giant. But after the party, the biggest result is that now the king hates him. Reading on, we see more opposition. Saul promised his eldest daughter in marriage to the giant killer. But he reneged on it, and had her marry someone else. As it turns out, that was OK, because Saul’s younger daughter, Michal, loved David. When this came up, Saul, no doubt realizing that not keeping his promises would make him unpopular, proposes that those two marry.

Now, in those days, in that part of the world, a prospective groom was supposed to give goods and property to the father of the bride. This gift was called the “Bride Price.” They did the same thing in Papua New Guinea where I grew up. In New Guinea, the price was usually paid in livestock and other property, and ancient Israel was probably similar. In chapter 17, the wording implies that killing Goliath is more or less equal to providing the bride price. However, in chapter 18:23-25, an additional bride price was clearly part of the negotiations. David said basically, he couldn’t afford to become the king’s son in law. This means two things: first, Saul is now requiring something more from David than the death of Goliath. Second, it means that Saul also went back on his promise to make the giant killer a wealthy man (17:25) – since David had no resources to pay the Bride price.

Saul now requires a new price – that David kill 100 Philistines, and bring back a certain gruesome proof of each death. He was hoping that the extreme danger involved in doing this would actually put an end to David.

None of this is fair. None of Saul’s treatment of David from here on out is righteous or godly. David is God’s chosen instrument – and yet through Saul, the devil is continually cheating him and threatening his life.

Even so, David did not become bitter, or even disrespectful toward Saul. He did not even confront him about his false promises. He continued to trust the Lord to work in him and through him. He continued to do what the Lord put in front of him to do. And through the Lord, he was protected and blessed in his endeavors. He and his men killed not 100, but 200 Philistines. While he remained trusting in the Lord, the devil could not get to him.

So I have a few thoughts for application here. Are you engaged in the mission that God wants to accomplish through your life? If you don’t know, I challenge you to pause and ask God about it right now. If you know you aren’t, I want to warn you that you are endangering the work of God, and yourself.

In addition, when we are letting the Lord live his life through us, we ought to heed the warnings of the New Testament. We need to be alert and aware that the devil is out to attack the work of the Holy Spirit. He wants to stop you from experiencing grace. He wants to stop you from the mission God has for your life – from touching others the way God wants you to. We aren’t in neutral territory – we need to be aware that the devil will try to use every discouragement, every burst of anger, unforgiveness, hate, envy, discord – anything we do not turn over to the Lord.