If you are ever tempted to think that nobody has a worse life than you, you don’t even get into the semi-finals against the man we meet in Luke 8:26-39.
They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” For Jesus had commanded the evil spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places. Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” “Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss. A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into them, and he gave them permission. When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left. The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.
Neither Luke nor Jesus explain or define demon possession – it is a given. The man is possessed by demons – no, it wasn’t just ancient superstition, and Jesus is not just accommodating their outdated misunderstanding – he takes seriously demon possession and the condition of this man. It was real and this man is possessed.
Let me set a bit of context before we go further: What are we to make of demons and demon possession, and does it occur today?
The most thorough and informative discussion of the issue that I have ever read was written by Alexander Campbell back in 1811. And in that paper he documented ancient beliefs and experiences, both pagan and biblical, and laid out a very convincing argument for his conclusions. Let me share some of those conclusions with you:
In the NT, we find the term “demon,” in one form or another, 75 times, and in all but one or two exceptions, it represents a wicked and unclean spirit. He further demonstrates that these demons were considered to be the spirits of dead men separated from their bodies who have been enlisted by Satan to do his work.
Campbell demonstrates that all of the ancient pagan writers from Hesiod to Plutarch believed them to be such. The OT seems to confirm that contention. The Jewish historians, Philo and Josephus believed that. The early Christian fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenæus, Origen, and others all held to that common belief. And most convincing are the indications in scripture that the apostles and Christ himself understood demons to be the separated spirits of dead men. But not all spirits become demons – other NT passages indicate that the spirits of the dead have other destinations.
Now, that is not the exclusive view of scholars. Some believe that demons are the fallen angels of scripture – and those certainly are a part of the world of spiritual beings. But the fact is, there is a distinct difference between angels and demons in the Bible. Angels are created beings who have a form of their own and never appear to inhabit or desire to inhabit another living being. Demons, however, seem not to have a form of their own and only appear to inhabit other living beings. And demons seem to desire to inhabit another living being rather than to be disembodied spirits. There in vss. 28-29, the evil spirits begged him not to torture them because of Jesus’ command to them to come out of the man. Demons, in spite of their desire to inhabit a person’s body, then use all their power to harm that body (drowning, throwing in the fire, cutting with stones). Demon possession seems to endow that person with greatly increased strength and at times the ability to see future events (which would explain a lot of the OT issues with divination, necromancy, sooth-sayers, etc.)
Demons have great influence and control over the person whom they inhabit. Not only are the inhabited persons powerless to defend themselves, they often become the vessel through which the demons expand their influence. One instance, especially is interesting, where Paul writes to Timothy – The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. (1 Tim. 4:1-3)
Is there present day demon possession? There is no biblical indication that it would cease, though obviously we don’t seem to encounter it with as great a regularity as seems to have been present in the time of Jesus. And some scholars suggest that it is precisely because of Jesus’ presence that we see a surge of demonic activity during his life. Satan was throwing everything he had into the battle. And with Jesus’ departure, the demonic activity subsided.
Even by the time of writing of the epistles in the latter half of the 1st century, the writers don’t regularly refer to demon possessions or give instructions to Christians regarding the casting out of demons or warn against the inhabitation of demons. Paul does warn us of one thing: Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil (literally, evil spirits) in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:11-12)
A corresponding question might be more relevant: do demons have spiritual influence externally? That is, short of internally inhabiting a person, can they externally influence and guide a person? And the answer to that seems to be an unequivocal yes.
It is a dangerous and foolish thing to underestimate our spiritual enemies, or to foolishly leave ourselves vulnerable to Satan’s influence or control in any form or fashion.
One thing does seem clear – demons have no ability to inhabit where there is not an opening or an invitation. I think immediately of Jesus’ parable in Luke 11:24-26 – “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.”
It’s not enough to clean out the sin in your life, you must also replace it with the things of God. The Christian who has the Holy Spirit dwelling in him cannot be possessed by a demon. But we can leave ourselves open and vulnerable to their external influence by not constantly being vigilant against them.
How did this man in Luke 8 come to be demon possessed? We’re not told. It may have been innocently enough – sin that he refused to deal with, hypocrisy or bitterness that Satan twisted and exploited to produce a fertile ground for his demons to take up residence.
And this man’s condition is so extreme that when Jesus asks his name, he replies “Legion” and then Luke explains: “because many demons had gone into him.” Legion is a word referring to the size of a Roman military regiment, numbering 6,000 men – he isn’t just possessed, he is overrun. The townspeople are so afraid of him they have chained him, hands and feet, among the tombs outside of town. That doesn’t help much because he can easily break the chains. But still he wanders the graveyard, naked, bruised, cut and bleeding – a terrifying sight.
And though he is frightening, his condition is also pitiful. He apparently had, at one time, been a normal, respected member of his community. He had a job, a family, a life. But all that was gone. The demons had robbed him of that and made his life so miserable that he longed for death.
When Jesus steps off of the boat, the man comes rushing toward him crying at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” As we have seen before, the demons have a spiritual knowledge and awareness that makes them immediately aware of who Jesus is and what he is capable of doing. James isn’t being flippant when he dismisses the claim of uncommitted Christians to have faith: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” The demons definitely have acute knowledge of the spiritual world – they are aware that Jesus is the Son of God, and he terrifies them.
It is at this point that a negotiation begins. The demons beg Jesus not to send them to the Abyss – the place where ultimately all evil will go until its final and complete destruction. It must be a frightening place – even to demons. Luke says they “repeatedly begged him” not to send them there. Nearby to the tombs was a hillside occupied by a massive herd of pigs – 2,000 of them. And the demons begged Jesus to let them go into those pigs. Notice here, that Jesus does not send them, but allows them to go. And when the demons enter the pigs (the first case of deviled ham?), a stampede erupts and the herd plunges headlong into the sea and drowns.
Two things happen – the men who had been herding the pigs head for town, and townspeople, when they hear, head for the lake. What they find is this man, of whom they had been terrified for so long sitting beside Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. Now, you would think a celebration would erupt – a welcome back party. You would expect his family to be overjoyed, hugging and kissing him, dragging him by the arms back home. But the townspeople stand there staring. They stare at the man; they stare at the thousands of dead pigs washing up on the shore, and Luke says, “they were afraid.” In fact, in vs. 37 he writes, “Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear.” They were afraid of the man, they were even more afraid of Jesus.
To be fair, that herd of drowned pigs represents their livelihood for a lot of them. The pigs were more important than the man. They had written him off, but these pigs were going to be sold at market and provide for their families for months to come. And now all that was gone. Jesus had only brought trouble as far as they could see. He had gone to changing things that didn’t need changing. “Yeah, I’m glad the man isn’t crazy anymore, but who’s going to take care of my family? And who’s going to clean up all those pigs when they start stinking in a few days? Trouble – that’s all he is. Be gone, Jesus. Leave us alone. We were fine without you.”
Well, all of them were fine except one. There’s the man who, in a matter of a few minutes, has had his life turned upside down and inside out. He has lived in terror and horror and misery for who knows how long, and then Jesus comes – and with a word, the demons have fled and he has his life restored. What would you do? If you owed your life to Jesus, you would never want to leave his side. I would follow him till the day I died. And that’s exactly what this man is thinking. In fact, he begged Jesus to let him go with him.
But Jesus has a bigger plan in mind. He tells the man to “return home and tell how much God has done for you.”
It would be more exciting to follow Jesus – to follow him and experience danger for him and give your life serving him. But Jesus sends him back where people know him – back where people have seen him at his worst – who know what kind of life he lived possessed by the demons, and who can see what Jesus has done. And when your words are backed up by your changed life, what an impact that can have on others. It’s not just religious words by somebody going door to door; it’s not just an impersonal invitation to come sit in a church building. It is “see what Jesus can do when he comes into your life.” And there you are, a living object lesson.
And so the man returns home. Luke says he “told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.” In Mark’s telling of the story he says he began to tell all over the Decapolis how much Jesus had done. Decapolis means “ten cities” – it is a region on the north shore of Galilee that was partly Jewish, largely Gentile – and this man began in his hometown and worked outward. Everybody he met, he had to tell them how much Jesus had done for him. He had been possessed by a legion of demons, now he was possessed by a mission. And by the time Jesus returned to the area Jesus was a household name – everybody had heard of him. Do you want to guess why?
And I wonder, what would it take to get some of us disconnected from the “demons” that possess our lives? If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, you’ll remember that the most powerful weapon of demons is not evil, but distractions – things that keep us from focusing on and investing ourselves in the things of God. If they can keep us busy, and especially too busy for God, they have accomplished their purpose.
And some of you are so busy with good things that are second best, you can empathize with the man whose demons were “Legion.” You meet yourself coming and going. You don’t have time for family, you don’t have time for church, you don’t have time for God. And Satan wins. No, you’re not running around a cemetery, chained and bleeding. But the thought of Jesus showing up and demanding you give it all up to follow him scares you to death.
The biggest threat from demons isn’t little kids running around dressed up on Halloween; it is a man in a business suit who neglects his family and God because his Day-Timer is packed from morning to night.
If Jesus was to cast out all those things that keep you from following him with an undivided heart, what would you do next?
Jesus gives you a mission – the same mission he gave this man who wanted to follow him: “go home and tell how much God has done for you.” All the doctrine in the world won’t go as far as telling what God is doing in your life. You are a living breathing object lesson – a testimony to the power of God to change and transform a life.