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Today’s retelling of Jesus healing the demon-possessed man from the Gadarenes comes from Matt 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, and Luke 8:26-39.
This story happens immediately after Jesus calms the storm at sea. Everywhere Jesus goes, he’s mobbed by people who want to hear him teach and to be healed. He could theoretically have stayed where he was, and ministered to thousands of people. Instead, he crosses the stormy see from Galilee to the wilderness of the Gadara—interesting for several reasons. First, it’s not part of the Jewish nation; this is one of the ten cities of the Decapolis, east of the Jordan river, and according to Josephus, it was inhabited mostly by Greeks. Jews would not have kept a herd of pigs, as they considered them to be unclean, so these were definitely Gentiles.
Second, the only thing Jesus does when he gets there is to heal this one demonized man. Immediately afterwards, the people are so terrified that they beg him to leave. It appears Jesus traveled all this way, through the storm, just for this one guy. To me, this seems like an illustration of Jesus’ three parables: of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or prodigal) son. One man is worth all of this time and effort on Jesus’ part!
We see a bit of the reason for this as soon as Jesus arrives. Despite the fact that he played host to a “legion” of demons (at least two thousand apparently!), the real man is still down there, wanting to be free. We know this because when he sees Jesus from afar, he runs toward him, falls at his feet, and worships him (Mark 5:6). All the dialogue listed appears to be between Jesus and the demons, so the man may not at that point have had use of his vocal cords. But he had enough control over his body that he could run toward the Messiah, which no doubt was exactly the opposite of what the demons wanted him to do. When he got there, the demons begged Jesus not to torment them. They knew they’d had it now.
How did the man know who Jesus was, anyway? He lived naked and alone among the tombs, and the other Gadarene people obviously kept far away from him. He wouldn’t have heard any rumors about Jesus from them. So presumably he knew who Jesus was because the demons knew. They recognized him in the spirit, and called him “Jesus, son of the Most High God”. No humans had even received this revelation yet! So perhaps the man “overheard” the demons discussing who Jesus was in his mind.
How would this produce faith in him to run to Jesus, though? Satan’s very name means “false accuser”; surely the demons would have told the man all the ways in which he was not worthy. They might have lied about Jesus’ character, and told the man that he would be tormented if he approached the Son of God. The only thing that makes sense to me is that the Father must have broken through the influence of that legion of demons, and given this man a revelation of who Jesus was (his character and his love, not just his title). Nothing else would have induced him run to Jesus and fall at his feet. That was the man’s act of faith. It was all he could do, but it was enough. Praise God that no matter how bad off we are, we are never outside the Father’s reach!
The subsequent interaction between Jesus and the demons peels back the veil between worlds, and gives a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the spirit realm. Jesus commands the demons to leave, and instead of just doing it, they argue with him: “I adjure you by God that you torment me not.” The Greek word adjure (horkizo) means “to command under oath with a threat of penalty.” They think Jesus is breaking the rules, that God gave the demons authority until a set time which had not yet arrived (Matthew 8:29). When Adam obeyed Satan in the Garden, he made Satan the god of this world (2 Cor 4:4). From that point on, outside of God’s later covenant of protection which covered the Jewish people only, the fate of individuals legally was in Satan’s hands (Job 1:12). This man is not a Jew; he had no covenant to protect him. So the demons think that even if Jesus has the power to cast them out, as God, he should not have the authority to do so: the earth isn’t His anymore.
What they don’t understand is that the earth and everything in it was given to mankind to subdue in the Garden (Gen 1:28). It’s as though God owned the property, earth, but leased it to mankind. Men then “sub-let” the property to Satan, yes—but the official authority to act upon the earth still belonged to mankind. Jesus was now a man. He had not yet died and risen again to become the “last Adam,” redeeming us from the curse we brought upon ourselves (1 Cor 15:45), but as God wrapped in a human body, he did have legal authority on earth, in a way that God the Father did not. He was basically a Trojan horse. The demons didn’t get this: they thought God the Father was intervening before the “earth lease” had run out, and they cried foul.
But whether the demons understood the source of Jesus’ authority or not, they still had to obey his power. They didn’t want to go back to the abyss, or Sheol, and asked Jesus’ permission to go into the herd of pigs instead. Presumably they needed to inhabit physical bodies in order to remain on earth. Jesus granted this. But the demons’ new home didn’t last long, of course: once the pigs lost their minds, ran off a cliff and killed themselves, the demons presumably had to go back into the abyss anyway!
Whoever owned those two thousand pigs was no doubt very unhappy, as the herd would have represented a substantial investment. The scripture says the people were afraid because of the miracle Jesus had performed, though, so this was the primary reason that the Gadarenes begged him to leave their region, rather than because of the loss of the pigs. (Interesting that they weren’t afraid of the naked guy roaming around the tombs, cutting himself and wailing and unable to be bound by any chains. But once he’s clothed and in his right mind, now they’re terrified.)
The man begged to follow Jesus after he had been set free, but Jesus did not allow him to do so. Instead, he gave the man an assignment: to go back and tell his friends and family what God had done for him. Perhaps this was the reason Jesus did not allow the man to come with him—or perhaps it was because his primary ministry was still to the lost sheep of Israel. Bringing a Gentile with him might have been an impediment to this. Regardless, the man’s testimony was evidently effective, because the next time Jesus went to the Decapolis, crowds turned out to hear him and be healed (Mark 7:31-37, Matthew 15:30).
I watched longingly as Jesus climbed into one of the boats, and as the whole small company of his disciples set out across the lake, fading into the distance. I longed to be with them… but Jesus had given me an assignment.
I turned around to face the crowd of my townspeople that watched the boats sailing away at a distance, making sure that Jesus left. Then, deliberately, I thrust both fists in the air.
“I’m free!” I shouted. “That man called Jesus set me free!”
I climbed the hill where they stood watching warily. As soon as I reached them, I told them this story.
How to explain what it was like?
I can only find words in retrospect. At the time, there were none.
Imagine that there is a parasite living under your skin. You can see it slithering around, eating you alive from the inside. That is why I cut myself with stones: I was trying to expel the creatures who had taken over my body. Yet the action was worse than useless. I never got anywhere near the source of the problem. It was not even on the plane of the physical world. Some part of me knew this, yet I couldn’t stop. It was compulsive, as if the next slice might make the difference. In the same way, anything that bound or shackled me had to come off, because to me, it was a symbol of the creatures that had bound my soul. That was also why I ripped my clothes, and why I snapped any chains that bound me.
I lived among the tombs because, where else could I go? Living humans shunned me. I cried out in torment: I had no other power over my vocal cords. I could not speak. Crying out in anguish was my only relief, and poor relief it was.
Did I sleep? I don’t know. There were large gaps in my memory, but I did not know if this was when the beings inside me took over, or when I lost consciousness.
I ate living creatures, raw and wriggling. (I’m sorry if that offends you.)
If I could have killed myself, I would have. That is the other reason I slashed at my skin with stones. But had I succeeded, my death would have banished the creatures from my body—and of course, they could not permit that. They did not mind if I mutilated myself, so long as I continued to exist.
Then one day, when dawn came, instead of roaming about among the tombs and wailing as I had done for countless years, I instead got to my feet and made my way down to the Sea of Galilee. This was not a conscious choice, either of mine or of the creatures inhabiting my body. It was as if I were compelled by something stronger than any of us.
A long way off, I saw boats docking. Suddenly the creatures exploded in my mind.
That is Him! That is the Most High God! shrieked one. Flee! Flee! Do not let Him sense us!
It cannot be, God does not walk the earth! protested another.
Do you not sense the power radiating from Him, even from here? the first one demanded. Do you not recognize Him? Look!
I turned to look with the creatures, and gasped aloud. Suddenly the world appeared in gray instead of color, mere moving shapes and shadows—except for one point of bright, radiant light, like the sun. It stepped off the boat, pulsing and radiating with palpable glory, almost painful in its beauty.
“Jesus!” the demons formed the name on my tongue. I knew then that the name belonged to the man, and that the man was God Himself. In exactly that same moment, hope bloomed in my chest.
My feet began to move. If ever I had power over my own body, I exerted every last shred of it then, though I felt the demons inside of me seizing up my limbs to try to make me stop. I tripped and fell on my face. I tasted blood, but got back to my feet and kept running. The demons in my head screamed at me to stop, to turn around and go back to the tombs.
He will despise you! they cried, you are an abomination! He will destroy you, you filthy, unclean wretch!
Good, I thought back. Better to be destroyed by Him than to live a thousand years as I am. It was not just the relief of death that I sought. If the brightness of this man’s radiance incinerated me like a ball of flame, it would be all worth it, just for that split second beforehand when I would coexist in the sphere of His glory.
My vision returned to normal. I saw color again, and the glorious radiance that had surrounded Jesus faded until he looked like just an ordinary man. He moved deliberately in my direction, apart from the others who docked several of their little boats behind him. When I reached him, I threw myself at his feet.
Jesus opened his mouth and commanded, “Come out of the man, unclean spirit!”
The demons took over my tongue to reply. The voice that rasped from my throat was not my own.
“What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure You by God that You do not torment me before the time!”
I looked up into the face of this man. He was surprisingly young, with a stern expression in his hard eyes. At the same moment, my memory overlaid the cloud of glory around him that I had seen in the spirit moments before. I raised my hands in worship; it was all I could do.
“What is your name?” Jesus demanded.
My own tongue rasped back, “My name is Legion; for we are many. Do not send us out of the country and back into the abyss!” I felt my head swivel to one side, and saw a herd of swine feeding near the cliffs overlooking the sea not far off. “Send us into the swine, that we may enter them.”
“Go!” Jesus commanded.
The sensation within me was like a rushing wind, as if I were caught up in a hurricane—and then, silence.
I collapsed, clutching the sand on the shore, gasping. I looked at my fingers in front of me in wonder. They were caked with dirt, the fingernails long and curled and filthy—but they were mine. I wiggled them in front of my face, marveling that I had no resistance.
“I can… speak,” I croaked in wonder, looking up at the face of my rescuer. Jesus smiled down at me.
“Yes, my son,” he said, his tone gentle now.
All the others who had arrived with Jesus began to gather around me, tending to my needs. Several brought basins of fresh water, sponging away the dried blood and dirt from my various swollen cuts. One trimmed my nails from my hands and feet. One draped a cloak over my shoulders. One tilted a mug of water to my parched lips. It all overwhelmed me. I was used to people running from me and shunning me. I did not know how to respond to kindness.
“Jesus, look!” one of them said, in the midst of these ministrations. The speaker pointed at the cliff where the pigs were. They scampered this way and that, squeaking and squawking in an utter chaos that seemed to me a perfect representation of the way my mind had felt for ever so long. The men who must have been tending the pigs were running the other way, down the mountain. Then, a few of the pigs ran off the cliff and into the sea. More of them seemed to notice this as a means of escape, and within moments, every single one of them flung themselves into the water. I knew exactly how they felt; anything was better than playing host to those demons.
Abruptly, the unearthly squeals of the pigs ceased.
“We do not have long now,” Jesus observed. “The people will hear the story from the swine herds shortly and will make their way here.”
“The owner won’t be happy,” muttered one of Jesus’ disciples, and Jesus shook his head in agreement.
“No, indeed,” he agreed.
The other disciples continued their ministrations to me, trimming my beard and combing my matted hair. One shared food with me: bread and cooked fish. It was the first normal food I had tasted in years.
As grateful as I was, though, I was significantly less concerned with my physical needs at the moment. All I wanted was to hear what Jesus was saying to the disciples nearest him. The man who trimmed my beard noticed that I was staring after Jesus longingly, straining to hear his words. He approached him for me, pointing in my direction, and Jesus walked over to me again. As much as I had wanted Jesus’ attention again, now that I had it, I trembled with shame. He looked ordinary now, but the sharp memory of his glory made me shrink back and drop my gaze.
Jesus must have understood. He placed a hand on my shoulder, and said gently, “Son, take heart. Your sins are forgiven.”
I dared to look up at him again, hopeful now, and whispered, “Do they all know who you are?” I pointed at all the other disciples around.
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Sometimes they know, but they forget easily. Not all have seen what you have seen.”
I was about to reply, but Jesus looked beyond me to the crowds from the town. Evidently the swine herds’ story had already reached their ears, and they came to see who had caused such a commotion. I turned, and saw all of the townspeople glancing at Jesus, then fixating upon me. I knew by their expressions and whispers that they recognized me. I stood up, pulling the cloak around me, and tried to reassure them.
“It’s okay!” I called, and attempted a smile. It was probably more like a grimace, though, given how out of practice my facial muscles were. “I’m… me again! See?” I wiggled my fingers in the air, as if to demonstrate that they were under my control. “I won’t terrorize you anymore. You don’t have to be afraid!”
Unfortunately my words seemed to have the opposite effect. They all drew back, their whispers coming fast and furious now. Some of the other disciples with Jesus stepped forward to try to explain, too.
“Jesus cast an entire legion of demons from this man,” one said, and another added, “the demons asked to be sent into the pigs. Jesus just gave them permission.” Another added, “We’re… sorry about your herds…”
The expressions in the crowd all looked terrified. One man, whom I vaguely recognized as a magistrate or someone important, cleared his throat and stepped forward.
“Please, leave us now.” His voice was low and even. He looked mostly at Jesus, but at the other disciples as well. “We do not know what manner of power can do such a thing, but we do not want it here. Please go.”
I looked back at Jesus to see how he would take this. He met the man’s gaze squarely, and did not apologize, but he did incline his head in understanding.
“As you wish,” he said, and gestured to his disciples to get back into their boats.
I leapt to my feet at once.
“Wait!” I pleaded, running after them. “Take me with you! I—I want to be one of your disciples too!”
Jesus turned back to me, his expression full of compassion. I deflated as soon as I saw it, knowing what it meant.
“No, son,” he said, and gestured behind me to the townspeople with his eyes. “You go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.”
I absorbed this disappointment, but then stood up straighter.
“I will, Lord,” I promised. “I will tell them all every day, every chance I get, whether they want to hear it or not!”
Jesus grinned in spite of himself. “I believe you will,” he said. “We’ll be seeing you again, I’m sure.”
“And now you know all that I know,” I finished, speaking to the small crowd still gathered on the hill top. I beamed, and declared again, “I’m free! The Lord has set me free!”
They all marveled at my story. The town magistrate shook his head at me in wonder, looking off into the distance where the boats had long since disappeared.
“Well,” he murmured at last. “Now I rather regret running him off like that.”
“My sister is crippled,” said another woman. “I wonder if he could have healed her?”
“And I’ve had this pain in my back for ever so long…” murmured another.
“I haven’t slept properly in thirteen years!” cried a third.
“He’ll be back,” I said to them all with confidence. “He promised! And if he can set me free from two thousand demons, all of that stuff will be nothing for him!”
“Maybe he can,” muttered the magistrate. “But will he? After we asked him to leave?”
I shook my head. “You don’t understand, he’s not like you and me! He doesn’t hold grudges.” How I knew this when I’d barely spoken to him, I couldn’t have said. But I did know it, from that glory cloud alone. Tears pricked my eyes, and I added in a whisper, “He’s absolute perfection.”
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