Jesus casts our Legion. Mark 5:1-20

The literary structure Mark 5:1-21

We’re back into our series on the Gospel of Mark. Remember with me – after teaching in parables all day Jesus took a boat, along with his disciples, to the other side of the sea of Galilee. On the way a great storm arose and Jesus calmed it, leaving his disciples astounded and asking, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (4:41).

Just after this, when they arrive on the other side, our story begins.

Mark 5:1-20

5:1They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.

It’s impossible to say exactly where this took place given what the gospels tell us.

decapolis and galilee

As you can see on the map the city of Gerasa is some 35 miles away! (Matthew says, “the region of Gadara” which is much closer to the lake, but still 5 miles away.) What Mark is doing here is using the phrase, “country or region of the Gerasenes” as a way of talking about the region called Decapolis, mentioned later in the story (v. 20). He means the part of the Decapolis or region of the Gerasenes that touches the Sea of Galilee.

This was a Gentile area, Jesus’ first visit to such a place, as Mark tells the story of Jesus. It used to be a part of ancient Israel, but was now Gentile.

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 (or howling) and bruising (or cutting) himself with stones.

Three things stand out in these verses. From a Jewish point of view the ceremonial uncleanness involved is highlighted. It’s not just that the Decapolis is a Gentile area, this particular man has an “unclean” spirit and he lives among tombs – which were unclean according to the Law (Numbers 19:11, 16; Matthew 23:27). These tombs were probably caves in the side of a hill, where he could find shelter.

Second, he’s beyond anyone’s help. No one is strong enough to subdue him. And even chains and shackles, that is, handcuffs and leg irons can keep him down. He breaks them apart due to his superhuman demonic strength.

Finally, his sad state stands out. He’s not in his right mind (v. 15). He lives in tombs. He’s like a wild animal, screaming or howling – running around naked (v. 15). And he’s engaging in self-destructive behavior. And he does this, Mark tells us, “night and day.” What a terrible and miserable existence!

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!”

The demons know who Jesus is (as Mark tells us in 1:34) and so they know his superiority to them, which is why he bows. And he correctly identifies Jesus as “Son of the most High God,” that is, the one true creator God. (Similarly – 1:24, 3:11)

We learn in v. 8 that Jesus is in the process of casting out the unclean spirit, which explains the demon’s question, “what have you to do with me?” As we saw before this means something like, ‘what business do we have with each other?’ Or perhaps here, ‘why are you involving yourself in my affairs?’

But then the demon moves quickly to pleas for mercy. Usually an exorcist would say to the demon, “I adjure you by God,” but here the demon says it to Jesus. And he seems to be saying observe the boundaries that God has set for when demons are to be tormented. In other words, the Son of God and judge of the final day is already here now, but the demon is saying, it’s not time yet for the torment of the final judgment. (Or as Luke says the demon doesn’t want to be thrown “into the Abyss” – 8:31; or as Matthew 8:29 says, the demon says, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?”)

9And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

 A Roman legion is usually considered to be just over 5,000 soldiers. So here we’re talking about thousands of demons in this man! (Other examples of multiple demons – Matthew 12:45; Luke 8:2)

And then we have an interesting twist in the story –

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 were drowned in the sea.

Apparently demons are territorial (Daniel 10:13) and so the demon who’s speaking doesn’t want to be cast out/ or disembodied so that, as Jesus says, “it passes through waterless places seeking rest but finds none.” (Matthew 12:43.)

That there’s a pig herd nearby confirms that this is a Gentile area, since Jews were neither allowed to eat pigs, nor to raise them.

Notice how Jesus merely speaks and the demons must go.

There are a number of questions that come from these verses that are hard to answer:

  • Can demons possess animals? Or does what happened suggest that this doesn’t work, since the pigs immediately killed themselves?
  • Why did Jesus let them go into the pigs? Whatever the reason it did become a visible way of seeing that the demons are in fact cast out and also that there were thousands of them.
  • What happened to the demons after the pigs died? Apparently they became disembodied anyway.
  • What about the herd of pigs? Wasn’t someone mad about the significant loss of wealth? Well, it was the demons who killed them. And perhaps this was a small price to have rid the community of thousands of demons. And perhaps from a Jewish point of view pigs shouldn’t be raised in what was a part of ancient Israel anyway. We’ll never know!

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.

He is sitting, not wild. He is clothed, not naked. And he is in his right mind instead of being out of his mind. What an amazing transformation Jesus has on this man’s life! He is completely whole.

16And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 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.

There’s a lot of begging going on in this story. The demons beg for mercy several times. And then here the people beg Jesus to leave. They’re so afraid of his power that they ask him to depart. Jesus casts out demons from their region and they respond by casting him out of their region!

And then finally the man begs Jesus “that he might be with him. (He wants to be a part of the disciple group – 3:14). Interestingly Jesus grants the requests of the demons and the people, but not the man. Probably because he was a Gentile and that just wouldn’t work as he continued his ministry to the Jews.

He is commissioned for ministry however. (If Jesus silenced others who were made whole to avoid the crush of the crowds, there is no need here since he is leaving the area.) Jesus says to the man, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (v. 19).

And he was faithful telling everyone, “how much Jesus had done for him.” v. 20. Notice that what Jesus does is what the Lord does. It’s the same.

Now, it’s no mystery what this story teaches us –

Jesus is able to make anyone whole

Here is a man who was beyond anyone’s help. Who was possessed by thousands of demons. But Jesus is easily able to defeat these demons and make the man whole – “clothed and in his right mind” (v. 15)  When he was possessed he was able to break literal chains. But Jesus broke his real chains – bondage to demons.

This is who Jesus is, the Son of God. And this is the hope we have – no matter what our situation, it’s not too difficult for Jesus. There is always hope because of Jesus.

And then closely connected to this –

We are to tell others how Jesus has made us whole

v. 19 is the voice of Jesus to us this morning. “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” Once we have received of Jesus’ transforming power we are to tell others of God’s grace and mercy to us.

More stories from Jesus’ childhood. Matthew 2:13-23

Final handout

This morning we’re finishing up our Advent and Christmas series from Matthew 1-2. As we saw, after the genealogy there are five stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood. And today we’re looking at the last three, which are all quite short.

The third story tells us about how –

Jesus is taken to Egypt: Matthew 2:13-15

 It has a dream in it, as does each of these five stories.

vs. 13-14 – “Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.”

So as soon as the wise men leave God speaks to Joseph once again in a dream. They must leave because of Herod. What was suspected before is confirmed as true – Herod had no intention of finding the child in order to worship him (2:8). It was his plan all along to find Jesus in order to kill him.

It sounds like they left immediately. It says, “he rose and took the child and his mother by night.”

Egypt was a traditional place to seek refuge for Jews who were oppressed in Israel. And there were many Jewish communities in Egypt for them to go to. They stayed in Egypt until sometime in 4 BC, which is when King Herod died.

This story also has a prophetic Scripture connected to Jesus, as does each of the five stories.

v. 15 – “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”

This comes from Hosea 11:1. But please notice, this text is not a prophecy! It’s simply talking about how the people of Israel, who are often called God’s son in the Old Testament, came up out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus. But what Matthew’s doing here is recognizing that Israel as God’s son is a type or model of Jesus as God’s Son.

  • So Israel’s story can become a prophetic picture of Jesus’ life; it can foreshadow or look forward to what will happen to Jesus.
  • And also Jesus as the Son of God relives the story of Israel; he sums it up and brings it to its completion or fulfillment.

We see this here in that just as Israel entered Egypt, so does Jesus; Just as Israel came up out of Egypt in the Exodus, so will Jesus. And we could go on – Jesus passes through the waters at his baptism, like Israel went through the waters of the Red Sea and Jesus is tested in the wilderness, like Israel was.

This story, like the others we have looked at, presents a picture of the future with regard to Jesus. Israel, as God’s son failed many times. Hosea 11:2, which comes right after our prophetic text, says, “The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.” Israel never achieved the goal that God had for them.

But Jesus as God’s Son brings the promise of another try. He also is called up out of Egypt. But he will not fail. Jesus will show himself to be the faithful Son of God. He will obtain the goal that God has for Israel and the world.

Our next story is about how –

Judean Herod tries to kill Jesus: Matthew 2:16-21

v. 16 – “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”

Two words stand out – “tricked” which means duped or deceived and “furious” which means very angry.

Now this atrocity was not out of character for Herod. He killed his wife and three sons out of paranoia to keep his power. He also ordered that members of prominent families in Judea were to be killed when he died – so that at least there would be some mourning – that’s how much he was hated. This wasn’t carried out, but it was his intention for this to happen.

Certainly he would have seen the report of the birth of a “king of the Jews” as a threat to his power. And so Herod seeks to kill all the male children in Bethlehem, harkening back to the story of Pharaoh in Egypt.  It’s hard to say, but given Bethlehem’s size, which was quite small, perhaps 20 children would have been killed in this terrible episode.

A prophetic Scripture connected to Jesus

vs. 17-18 – “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.’”

This Scripture is Jeremiah 31:15 (LXX 38:15). Again, it’s not a prophecy. It refers to when Israel was carried off into exile to Babylon. They departed for Babylon from the city of Ramah. (Jeremiah 40:1). Jeremiah speaks poetically of Rachel, the wife of Jacob, who represents the mother of Israel, lamenting this tragedy.

Again, by way of a typological connection, Jesus relives this part of Israel’s history, that is, the exile. (If the trip to and out of Egypt was seen as the Exodus in the third story, here is it is seen as the Exile and return.)

  • Israel’s evil kings led to a tragedy – Israel’s exile to the sound of weeping and loud lamentation
  • So now an evil king, Herod, has led to a tragedy – Jesus’ exile to the sound of weeping and loud lamentation due to the massacre of the children

Once more, Rachel, the mother of Israel, laments for her children and her true child, Jesus. 

A dream

vs. 19-21 – “But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.”

And then we have another picture of the future. In this story we see that the Judean Herod and the Jerusalem authorities opposed Jesus and sought to kill him as a child. In the future, the Judean authorities will oppose Jesus and seek to kill him – and will succeed this time.

Notice also the contrast here with the second story. The Gentile Magi honor Jesus as King, which looks forward to many Gentiles responding to Jesus. Here we see, perhaps, a hint of the general Jewish rejection of Jesus.

Our final story has to do with –

Jesus’ home and name: Matthew 2:22-23

And it begins with a dream.

vs. 22-23 – “But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth.”

 Jesus may have been two years old by this point.

After Herod died his territories were split up between three of his sons. Archelaus had rule over Judea. He was evil and oppressive, like his father.

Prophetic Scriptures connected to Jesus.

v. 23 – “And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’”

Things really get interesting here because there is no prophecy that says the Messiah will be called a Nazarene. Nazareth is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. However, we do have Isaiah 11:1, a text that was seen as Messianic by many. It says, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”

This idea of a descendant of David, called a branch, originally applied to king Hezekiah, (just as Isaiah 7:14 did as we saw in the first story.) But it was also seen to transcend him to speak of the Messiah. And there are other prophets who speak of a “branch” in a Messianic way (although with a different Hebrew word). Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12.

What we have here is a Hebrew wordplay, which were very common in ancient Judaism, between the word “branch” in Isaiah 11:1 and “Nazareth.” In Hebrew, which did not write vowels at this point, “Branch” = NSR and “Nazareth” = NSRT.You can see how close they are. Also, the vocalization for branch in first century Hebrew apparently was Nazar (Davies and Allison, Matthew, v. 1, p. 278) which certainly sounds like Nazareth.

Now Nazareth was an insignificant place. As Nathanael said in John 1:46, speaking of Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (also John 7:41-42;52). But by making this connection between “Nazareth” and the “branch,” spoken of by several prophets – Matthew counters this. Jesus’ home does not make him insignificant, or unable to be the Messiah, it ties him to the prophetic promises of the branch of David. Indeed to call him “the Nazarene” is to also speak the word “nazar” – the promised branch. In a kind of paradoxical irony, even his enemies would be saying this.

And then we have a final picture of the future. This turns on a contrast between appearance and reality. Since Nazareth is unimportant, Jesus appears to be unimportant, as we saw. So he can’t be significant. And there’s no need to listen to him. He can’t be the Messiah. This accurately portrays the future – Jesus will be despised and rejected because of his hometown. But the reality is that the very name that is applied to him with scorn – Nazarene, contains within it the name of the Messiah.

There’s so much in these stories in terms of content, as I hope you’ve seen. And even the way the stories are put together, their form, is elegant. God is in this – in these events and in this text that speaks of them. And the point of all of it, including the genealogy, is the same – Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God. He is the true king. May we all submit our lives to him, and honor him with all that we have and all that we are.