Text: Luke 8:26-39
What a day this is turning out to be! That really was the mother of all storms, a hurricane from hell.
The sheer violence of that storm…the way the Master spoke to it…the fact that it completely subsided as soon he did so…It was almost as if something (or someone) didn’t want us to get to the other side of that lake.
Anyway, it’s over now. I just hope the Master lets us turn the boat around, sail back the way we came, and change into some fresh dry clothes. That’s quite enough excitement for one day. After all, we’ve got a lot to think about. Who is this man who can command the winds and the waves, and they obey him?
But no: the Master has other ideas. He’s determined to complete the voyage and get to the other side of the lake. We reach the shore. Jesus steps out of the boat. Immediately, a man rushes up. Well, I say ‘a man’, but this is none other than the ‘wild man of the Gerasenes’. He’s completely out of his mind. All day he wanders around, exposing himself, shouting abuse at the top of his voice. At night he sleeps in the tombs, among all those dead bodies. He’s really violent, and so strong. They used to be able to restrain him, but not any more.
He’s making a bee-line for Jesus.
Jesus speaks to him. The man shouts back: “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” But this is not a man speaking; this an evil spirit that has taken the man over.
Jesus addresses the demon: “What is your name?”
“Legion.” A whole army of demons has infested this poor man.
And then they start pleading with Jesus. “Don’t send us into the Abyss,” they plead, as if they know that they are ultimately doomed. “Let us go into that herd of pigs instead.”
“Go,” commands Jesus. The demons leave the man, and rush into the pigs. The pigs are so startled that they stampede, rush headlong down the steep slope into the lake, and drown.
When the pig-tenders see this, they run off and tell everyone in the neighbourhood. Before long a crowd has gathered around Jesus, but they are not happy. They can see the man who had been demonised. He’s sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, in the posture of a disciple, clothed and in his right mind. They can see what has happened to the pigs. But they’re not so much angry that the price of bacon has just shot up, as afraid of the power of Jesus. “We don’t want you around here,” they say to Jesus.
And so we all get back in the boat, and set off again.
The man who had been demonised wants to come with us too. He pleads with Jesus: “Let me come and be a disciple.”
“No: go and be a missionary. Go home and tell everyone what God has done for you.”
In his preface to The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis wrote that there are two equal and opposite errors that people can make in their thinking about demons. The first is disbelieving in their existence altogether, and the second is taking an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. Either way, Satan is delighted – scepticism and superstition serve his purposes equally well.
For an example of a sceptical approach, here’s statement from a noted NT scholar, Rudolph Bultmann: ‘It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and scientific discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of daemons and spirits.’ In other words: ‘Science disproves the supernatural.’ To which we must reply: ‘It does no such thing.’
For an example of the opposite approach, I refer to a book called Pigs in the Parlour: A Practical Guide to Deliverance. Here, the author asserts that everyone needs deliverance from demons: “Personally, I have not found any exceptions”. He lists nearly 300 different demons, including resentment, stubbornness, bickering, faultfinding, envy, procrastination, pride, self-righteousness, greed, gossip, shyness, daydreaming, discouragement, headache, retardation, forgetfulness, heartache, embarrassment, sexual frigidity, and intellectualism. To which I say: Why stop there? What about ignorance, stupidity and an over-active imagination?
In the light of such widely divergent teaching, it’s not surprising that many of us retreat into pious agnosticism when it comes to demons. We resort to using use the word merely as a metaphor for psychological disturbance, just like most other people do. Thus we speak of Paul Gascoigne’s ‘demons’ or Michael Jackson’s ‘demons’ without committing ourselves to any kind of statement about the unseen world and its inhabitants.
Amidst such confusion, what I think we need is a good dose of biblical realism. And there’s no better place to go than this evening’s Scripture passage. I draw from it two propositions.
1. Demons are real
Luke certainly seems to think so, doesn’t he?
Now Luke is the man who tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that he set out to give us an orderly, well-researched, and accurate record of what Jesus said and did. And, do you know, every time that Luke’s information can be checked against sources outside the New Testament, he gets 10 out of 10. That gives us great confidence that he is factually accurate even when we don’t have other sources to check him by. [See here for supporting evidence for this statement]
Yes, you say, Luke was a conscientious researcher, but he wasn’t actually there. True: but an account of the Gerasene demoniac can also be found in Matthew’s Gospel and another in Mark’s Gospel. And you don’t have to be a highly-trained secret agent to detect that Mark’s Gospel is covered with the finger-prints of someone very interesting. These are the finger-prints of Simon Peter. He was there. He saw everything.
Well OK then. Maybe historical research and eyewitness testimony do indicate that all this really happened. But, surely, what Luke took to be demonisation was just what we now would recognise as mental illness. But no: the New Testament writers know the difference between demonisation and ordinary disease. Matthew 4:24 ‘…and people brought to Jesus all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralysed, and he healed them.’ And, in any case, if this was just a case of mis-diagnosed mental illness how do we explain why this poor man, who presumably had never met Jesus before, addressed him as ‘the Son of the Most High God’, and how do we explain his instantaneous and complete recovery? Demons are real.
Most of us here this evening have probably never seen a case of outright demonisation. But many credible examples have been recorded, both in Scripture and in history. And these seem to occur especially when the kingdom of God is extending into new territory. It is then that you find these ‘power encounters’ taking place. Look into the history of spiritual revivals, and of Christian missions, and you will find this to be so. I give just one example.
I was sent for to one in Bristol…She lay on the ground, furiously gnashing her teeth, and after a while roared aloud. It was not easy for three or four people to hold her, especially when the name of Jesus was named…In the evening…she began screaming before I came into the room; then broke out into a horrid laughter, mixed with blasphemy grievous to hear. One who from many circumstances apprehended a preternatural agent, asking, ‘How didst thou dare to enter into a Christian?’ was answered, ‘She is not a Christian. She is mine.’ We left her at twelve and called again about noon on the 26th. And now it was that God showed he hearest the prayer. All her pangs ceased in a moment; she was filled with peace, and knew that the son of wickedness was departed from her. (Wesley, Journal, October, 1739.) [See here for more on demonic activity in revival]
Such cases of outright demonisation may well be rare in our own culture, but this is not to say that demons are idle. Leaving to one side the whole area of the occult, I want to move on to a more general comment about demons in the world today.
The consistent teaching of the Bible is that wherever moral evil can be found, there is an ‘unholy trinity’ at work. There is, first of all the world (those persons, places, pleasures and pursuits where God is left out), second, the flesh (sinful human nature), and thirdly, the devil, along with his motley crowd of demons.
Paul refers to this unholy alliance of the world the flesh and the devil at the beginning of Eph 2. The apostle says to his readers that before they came to Christ they were ‘dead in their transgressions and sins (the flesh), in which they used to live when they followed the ways of this world (the world) and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient (the devil).’ I infer from this that wherever we find wrongdoing, moral evil, godlessness, call it what you will, the devil and his angels are not far away.
Demons, then, are real. And from this passage alone we learn that they are (a) numerous; (b) clever; (c) powerful; (d) destructive. More, much more, could be said. [To anyone who would like to follow this part of the subject up, I can recommend Sense & Nonsense about Angels and Demons, by Ken Boa and Rob Bowman.]
I move on now to my second proposition. Demons may be real, but
2. We do not need to be afraid of them
Jesus was not afraid. Those who belong to Jesus do not need to be afraid either. Why not? Because Satan is a defeated foe.
Although a whole army of demons has utterly overwhelmed this poor man, they are no match for Jesus. They are reduced to begging him not to punish them, v28 & v31. When Jesus asks them their name, they have to tell him, v30. Before they can enter the heard of pigs, they must ask permission. And when Jesus commands them to leave the man, they have no choice.
It is a remarkable fact that in just about every passage in the New Testament where Satan and his demons are mentioned, there is also an affirmation of Christ’s victory over them.
I mentioned Eph 2, which refers to ‘the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient’. But that passage goes on to talk about the greatness of God’s love and the richness of his mercy, because of which he ‘made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions…and raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.’
Or we can turn to 1 Pet 5:8, where it says, ‘your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.’ But without stopping to draw breath, Peter adds that ‘the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.
Or we can look at 1 John 3:8 ‘He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning.’ But John goes on immediately to inform us that ‘the very reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.’
‘All that can disturb or injure us is under the control of the Christian’s Friend. The very inhabitants of hell are bound, and beyond his permission they can never injure us. In spite, then, of all the malice of malignant beings, the friends of Jesus are safe.’ (Barnes)
So, let us ‘be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Let us put on the full armour of God so that we can take our 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 in the heavenly realms.’
And let us rejoice to know that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. And be convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
For ‘he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.’
Thanks be to God.