Sermon Video: https://youtu.be/ktvIpAijRZc
Sermon Discussion Questions:
1. What stood out to you most? Anything confusing? What was the most interesting part of the text, Mark 5:1-20?
2. In CS Lewis’ preface to his Screwtape Letters he writes, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves (the devils) are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
If you had to say you were more inclined to “disbelief” or an “unhealthy interest in them,” which would you be?
3. What is Satan’s main purpose? See John 10:10.
4. What does Satan’s primary activity look like in the New Testament? See: 1 Pet 5:8-9, James 4:7-8, Eph 4:26-27, Eph 6:10-12, 1 Tim 4:1, 1 John 4:1-6, 2 Cor 4:3-4.
5. Why do you think we often feel so uncomfortable talking about things like spiritual warfare? What is the danger of ignoring these realities? What is the danger of overemphasizing them?
6. When thinking about relational or familial conflict, how does Eph 6:10-12 affect your perspective? Do you tend to think about the presence of the demonic in your life playing a role in your temptation, suffering, evangelism, etc?
7. What does Colossians 2:14-15 tell us that the cross did to the kingdom of Satan? See also 1 John 3:8.
8. If one of the most frightening beings (demons) are terrified of Jesus, and Jesus is now untied to us, how should that affect our own fears?
In our text today we are told one of the most harrowing, dramatic stories of the gospels. Normally, in my sermon introductions, I try to think of something interesting to grab your attention and think about the text in light of the world we live in. But this passage is so dramatic in of itself I simply want to read it to you. In ancient warfare it was often common, like in the story of David and Goliath, to have two champions face off in hand-to-hand combat. The two individuals stood as representatives of the army that stood behind them, and thus the battle could be determined by one fight. Each army would choose their strongest, doughtiest soldiers for this fight. As we read this story, it looks something like that: two individuals facing off in battle, each representing opposing kingdoms. As we read we will see: (1) the power and purpose of Satan, and (2) the power and purpose of Jesus.
5 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for 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. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. 6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And 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.” 8 For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So 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 drowned in the sea.
14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 And 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. 16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And 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.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled. – Mark 5:1-20
The Power and Purpose of Satan
In this story we are told of an alarming account. Jesus’ boat has just touched the shore of this Gentile region; the disciples and Himself are still stepping onto the beach when an unsettling figure steps forward, “a man with an unclean spirit,” Mark 5:2. This man is apparently unclothed (cf. Mark 5:15), which would expose his marred body, covered in self-inflicted wounds from sharpened stones (Mark 5:5). The townspeople had tried to bind him with chains and shackles, but he, with an inhuman kind of strength, wrenched the chains apart (Mark 5:4)—perhaps leaving chains dangling from his naked body. His home is where the dead are held. He peers out at the boat from the cool, dark tomb and sees Jesus. An animal kind of rage and fear flare up inside of him and he rushes out of the tomb, screaming, headed for Jesus and the disciples (Mark 5:6-7)! If you were one of Jesus’ disciples, how would you respond? GET ME THE HECK OUT OF HERE!
I remember a conversation I once had with a homeless man in Portland. He looked, smelled, and acted like someone who had been homeless for quite some time. The conversation was difficult to follow because his mind seemed to frantically jump from one topic to another with no apparent logical connections between them. Eventually, he stopped talking, rolled his head around, and then slowly peered upwards under his dark, furrowed brows and growled through clenched teeth, “Now is the hour to blow up the tower!” I wasn’t sure what tower he was referring to, but I knew immediately: I need to get away from this guys as soon as possible. So I said, “Oh, cool. I gotta go!” And I walked away as quickly as I could without looking like I was running.
That’s kind of how you would expect Jesus and His disciples to respond. I’ve never had a naked crazy man run, screaming at me, but I feel like if I did, I would maybe get back in the boat, Okay, cool mission trip, guys, let’s go back home now. But, Jesus stands His ground. And like the mighty wave crashing against the cliffside, the demoniac rushes Jesus, only to fall in submission to Him (Mark 5:6). Jesus then interrogates the demon-possessed man and asks him what his name is, which we are told is “Legion, for we are many,” (Mark 5:9). A “legion” was a Roman military term which denoted a troop of about 6,000 soldiers. Whether or not the demon meant that there were literally 6,000 demons within him is unclear; he simply could have meant that there were many demons (cf. Luke 8:2). This is further demonstrated when Jesus casts the demons out of the man they enter 2,000 pigs, “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 drowned in the sea,” Mark 5:13. There is much more left in this story to unpack, but let’s take a moment to consider two things: the power of Satan, and the purposeof Satan.
Demons are not mythological constructs that represent the struggles we all face: addictions, depression, familial strife, etc. The “Legion” of demons that controlled this man was not just a metaphor for the skeletons in his closet or his poor life decisions. These were actual, personal beings under the dominion of Satan who, in some way, took over this man’s life. How did that happen? We don’t know. “Satan” is not just a personified form of our deepest fears that we project onto some imaginative figure. He is a fallen angel who has other fallen angels (demons) under his control, and they possess a supernatural kind of power. We see this in the story in Mark 5. Demons have power to control this man’s life, they have power to control what he says, and control over what he does with his body—they even have power to give this man some kind of superhuman strength (he rips apart chains, cf. Acts 19:16). It is worth noting that in the book of Jude we are told that when Michael, the archangel, was in a dispute with Satan he didn’t argue with him directly, but simply said, “The Lord rebuke you,” (Jude 9). An archangel didn’t even want to enter into a direct fight with Satan, but called on God to intervene.
Satan’s purposes can be summed up easily by John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” This man was driven to live in the tombs near the dead and he gashes his body with sharpened rocks. As soon as Jesus drives the demons into the pigs, they all immediately drown themselves by running headlong into the water. What is Satan’s mission? Total destruction—especially of humanity. Who does Satan hate most? God, of course. But he can’t do anything directly to God, so what does Satan turn to? He attacks the closest thing to God he can get—those who bear God’s image, humans. Like an angered, ex-employee who runs around the office, smashing every picture of the boss he can find, Satan runs around looking for every image of God he can ruin. So he leads people to inflict self-harm, like this man has done. He leads them to denigrate their bodies through addictions, promiscuity, gluttony, or anxiety. Or he leads them to make mince-meat of their souls and consciences by thousands of little compromises, or makes their hearts like stones through self-righteousness so they remain like he is: alienated with God.
If you have never read it, the classic book Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, by the puritan Thomas Brooks, is a must read. In it, Brooks details the countless devices that Satan employs to tempt people and Christians in particular to sin. Satan is described as a powerful, master thief, who is constantly and desperately trying to break into your home from every angle possible. It is a sobering book because it reminds you that Satan and his demons are always at work, 24-7, 365 days a year, employing all of their angelic wisdom and infernal power to steal, kill, and destroy. Brooks writes in his preface, “Beloved, Satan being fallen from light to darkness, from felicity to misery, from heaven to hell, from an angel to a devil, is so full of malice and envy that he will leave no means unattempted, whereby he may make all others eternally miserable with himself; he…makes use of all his power and skill to bring all the sons of men into the same condition and condemnation with himself.” Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that Satan and demons are what lay behind all of our temptations. We have our own flesh and the world that brings up their own fair share of temptation. But, Satan does work in cahoots with these two other entities in his endeavors, which is why the Bible is full of so many warnings about Satan.
1 Peter 5:8-9a tell us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” James 4:7 similarly tells us, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Finally, Paul warns us in Ephesians 6:10-12, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In 2 Cor 2:11 Paul encourages the Corinthians to forgive one another so that they would not be “outwitted by Satan” because we aren’t ignorant of his diabolical schemes. The book of Revelation describes Satan as an enraged dragon who knows he is doomed (Rev 12:12) and is hell-bent on destroying the church as much as possible (Rev 12:13-17). Do you feel the sense of warning in these passages? As you go about your life, week in and week out, do you have the sense of caution and preparedness: Resist him, be watchful, be strong, take your stand?
A Big Rabbit
Maybe, you do. But, if you are anything like me, thinking often about Satanic opposition or demons or spiritual warfare feels, well, kind of weird. It’s like talking about being afraid of monsters under your bed or alien abductions—it seems sort of childish. Why do we feel that way? I want to go on a sort of long-ish rabbit trail here, so bear with me. The gospel of Mark records more exorcism and demonic accounts than any other gospel. So, I knew that at some point we were going to need to talk about this and I thought this sermon seemed like a good place to plug this “rabbit trail” in. I think this is worth taking our time to talk about because: the Bible talks about it, and because there are SO many bad examples of how Christians should think about demons out there in the church world. I want to think about (1) why we feel uncomfortable talking about something that seems so prevalent in the Bible, and (2) why our experience with the demonic is so different from the Bible.
Why We Feel Uncomfortable
This week my wife asked me how my sermon was coming along and I said, “Well, its kind of strange. I’m preaching about demons.” “Oh,” she said, “yea, that sounds pretty weird.” Why are we reluctant to talk about this? I think its for a number of reasons:
1. We come from a church tradition that doesn’t tend to emphasize this, so it feels unfamiliar.
2. The churches and traditions that do tend to emphasize this usually do so in a fairly ridiculous manner. They irresponsibly blame everything on demons, find a demon hiding under every rock, and try to cast demons out of anything and everything. We know of “faith healers” on TV who play parlor tricks on poor audiences, casting out the demon of lower back pain or the demon of cancer. This week I watched a video of Kenneth Copeland, a famous prosperity gospel preacher, exorcise the demon of COVID-19 out of America. The majority of people who regularly discuss this seem to do so with almost no guidance or oversight from the Bible whatsoever, but just let their passion and desire for supernatural phenomenon get the best of them. So, we don’t want to be like them, and we avoid the issue entirely.
3. We live in a modern, Western, materialistic culture that champions science, psychology, and biology as the ultimate determinative factors of our lives. While we reject this worldview, it still bears its weight of influence on how we think. We are slower to accept a “spiritual” cause for something that can have a material explanation behind it.
4. Hollywood has made “demons” something somewhat preposterous. In CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, the senior demon advises the junior demon, “The fact that ‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him since he cannot believe in that…he therefore cannot believe in you,” (Letter VII).
5. Many churches today have reduced the problem of “spiritual warfare” down to basically a battle with bad habits, negative thoughts, or poor decisions. Sermons emphasize self-actualization—getting Your Best Life Now—over supernatural transformation. It is what sociologist Christian Smith famously called therapeutic moralistic deism. Talking about demonic opposition doesn’t really fit into that “positive habit forming” model, so it is either ignored or turned into a metaphor for negative habits.
It goes without saying that those are all bad reasons for why we shouldn’t discuss the real presence of Satan and demons.
Why Our Experience is So Different
But, you may be thinking, if Satan and demons are something that we should be thinking about, why do we see so little evidence of their presence today? In the gospels, it seems like Jesus is encountering these remarkable stories with demons and exorcisms on every page! Why don’t we see that? I can think of a few reasons:
1. Jesus was the Messiah and God in the flesh and His apostles were the unique foundation on which the entire church was built. Their presence in history was a non-repeatable event in the history of redemption. It would make sense that when they are on the scene, Satan would be pulling out all of the stops to try and hinder Jesus. You send the strongest troops to the most important battle. I think this is why we see such an unusual amount of demonic and Satanic activity in the gospels and the book of Acts. In the rest of the Bible, we see drastically fewer accounts of demonic or Satanic activity, at least in the overt way we see it with Jesus and the apostles. Satan and his demons are not omnipresent, omnipotent, or omniscient like God. They are limited and can only be in a certain number of places at once, only know certain things, and can only do limited things.
2. It is worth noting that outside of the gospels and the book of Acts, there is no command given or explicit teaching on exorcisms. Rather, all of the teaching on spiritual warfare in the epistles emphasize resisting Satan generally through resisting temptation (1 Pet 5:8-9; James 4:7) and resisting false teaching (1 Tim 4:1; 1 John 4:1-6). Further, conversion is described as an act of spiritual warfare, where Satan’s work of blinding is defeated by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 4:3-6; 2 Tim 2:25-26). If the kind of sensational experiences of demonic exorcisms were to be normative in the Christian’s life, we would anticipate more specific teaching or commands to do so. We have a great deal of descriptions of exorcisms by Jesus and His Apostles, but little prescriptions given. Does that mean that we should never expect to encounter this more sensationalistic manifestations that require exorcisms? No—but the paucity of New Testament teaching on it should make us more cautious and less cavalier.
3. In letter VII of CS Lewis’ wonderful Screwtape Letters, Screwtape answers a question of the junior demon, Wormwood, “I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence…Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Or course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism, and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists or skeptics.” What is Lewis getting at here? That just because you do not see the sensational manifestations of the demonic the same way we read about in the gospels, it does not mean that Satan and his demons are not at work. Perhaps, due to our cultural assumptions in the West, demons have found it more advantageous for their cause to remain working “under the radar.” Whereas in the global south, with cultural assumptions that are much more open to spiritual realities, there is a much higher percentage of reports of demonic manifestation.
4. Finally, an alternate and more critical hypothesis: it may be that we see such an absence of demonic activity in the church in the West because the church in general doesn’t appear terribly threatening to Satan. Dr. Esther Acolaste, an African professor who teaches up at the University of Toronto in Canada, wrote a book called Powers, Principalities, and the Spirit: Biblical Realism in Africa and the West. In the book she compares the differences between the church in Africa and the church in the West and its starkly different experience with spiritual warfare. In it she makes this razor-sharp critique, “Could it be that in the West the presence of the demonic is muted not because demons have ceased to exist or never were, but for the precise reason that no one fights against nothing? Perhaps, as long as lukewarm faith exists, perhaps the demons need not be troubled nor trouble themselves. While the purpose of the Christian life is not to irritate demons and incur their wrath through spiritual attacks, a quasi Christianity that is washed out and bears little resemblance to what is epitomized in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles and demonstrated in the account of Jesus in the Gospels is also bankrupt in holiness and power. It is probable that the lack of knowledge and experience of the presence of the demonic in modern times—through to our current times—has made it easy to turn Christianity into a primarily cerebral morality-infusing code for civilizing humanity, rather than the life-transforming, Satan-crushing, God-glorifying powerful religion or lifestyle that was intended,” (pg. 77).
If you have been following along, you’ll notice that I kind of sound like I am speaking out of two sides of my mouth. On the one hand, the Bible is not terribly clear about how Christians cast out demons nor are we given enough evidence in the Bible that this is something we should expect to be a regular part of our spiritual warfare, and churches that try to make this a part of the Christian’s everyday life or follow guidelines about spiritual encounters and experiences that are not explicitly explained in the Bible do so to their people’s detriment. I fear that some Christians’ and churches’ fascination with exorcism and demons is ironically leading them into spiritually dangerous places. On the other hand, the Bible does clearly teach that there are spiritual entities known as demons that are actively at work to hinder the church, tempt Christians into sin and despair, and sweep away non-Christians through false teaching. If we practically act like there isn’t a supernatural enemy out there and that our Christian life is basically a project of positive habit forming, than we fall prey to Esther Acolaste’s criticism of a “cerebral morality-infusing code for civilizing humanity, rather than the life-transforming, Satan-crushing, God-glorifying powerful religion that was intended.” The Bible warns us to NOT be ignorant of Satan’s schemes—this means that we must be aware of his presence, his devices, and our need to resist him. Satan isn’t only working when stuff is floating around the room—after all, Ephesians 4:26-27 tells us that it is just basic unresolved anger gives Satan an opportunity.
The Power and Purpose of Jesus
For as much as this story (and the rest of the Bible, for that matter) tells us of the power and purpose of Satan, it only ever does so just to highlight the even greater power and the more beautiful purposes of Jesus Christ.
As soon as the demoniac rushes towards Jesus, he falls down and cries out with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” (Mark 5:7-9). The demon (1) recognizes Jesus’ divinity immediately. This is true for nearly all of the demonic encounters in Mark. (2) He pleads with Jesus, invoking (ironically) God, to not torture or punish him—recognizing that Jesus is the one who has both the right and the power to. This powerful outpost of the kingdom of Satan is afraid of its imminent destruction.
Sometimes, when I put my son to bed at night, right as I go to turn off the lights, he cries out, “Wait! I’m scared…” And most of the time, I just say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of, go to bed. In fact, if you don’t go to sleep a monster will climb out and eat you.” Just kidding. I don’t do that. Well, at least I’ll never do it again. But, on my better nights, when Jack tells me he is feeling scared, I remind him: “Bud, you know God loves you and is here with you, right? You know He keeps you safe? Did you know that God isn’t scared of anything? And did you know that all of the things you are most scared of are all scared of God? God is SO much bigger than anything you are scared of, buddy.” And friends, as comforting as that is for my three-year-old at bedtime, it should also be comforting to you. If the demoniac in Mark 5 was walking down our neighborhood street at night, we would all be terrified. The idea of a legion of demons possessing a man is frightening. But the kingdom of darkness crumples like dry leaves under a boot when Jesus is present. The greatest forces at work to destroy you in the universe, flee in terror from your Savior.
Colossians 2:15 tells us that at the cross Jesus, “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Jesus made a public spectacle of Satan and his minions at the cross and His resurrection. Satan has been decisively defeated because his greatest asset, his greatest weapon in his arsenal was our condemnation, our guilt. And at the cross, Jesus cancelled the record of debt that stood against us (Col 2:14). So, Satan no longer has any room for condemnation. And, we are told that soon Jesus will return and finish off Satan and his works will be wholly destroyed by Jesus (Rev 19:11-21, 20:7-10). Thus, as Martin Luther told us, “His rage we can endure, for lo his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.”
What is Jesus’ purpose in demonstrating this invincible power of our greatest enemy? We see it in the restoration of the man. When the townspeople come out they find this man clothed and in his right mind, talking with Jesus (Mark 5:14-15). As Jesus begins to depart from the region, the formerly demon-possessed man begs Jesus to take him, “that he might be with him,” (Mark 5:18). Interestingly, Jesus denies his request, but tells 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.” And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled,” Mark 5:19-20. Instead of bringing this man along with him back to the Jewish land, he encourages him to go throughout the region of the Gentiles and to spread the good news of what the Lord has done, which is precisely what he does. Jesus’ exorcisms and miracles are not ends in themselves; Jesus is working to create witnesses to His power and mercy. So he leaves the man there in this Gentile region to be a testimony to the surrounding region. This is Jesus’ overall purpose—to create witnesses to His power and mercy who will go throughout the earth to spread the good news of the gospel of the kingdom of God. This is what we hear from Jesus after He has resurrected and gives His final charge to His disciples before He ascends, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth,” Acts 1:8.