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.

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