Battling a Legion

“The Swine Driven into the Sea,”
James Tissot, c. 1886.

When following Jesus’ ministry during its early stages, it is important to see how certain events are linked together in the Gospels. Sometimes when we read stories in the Bible, we focus on a single event and miss the connection to what proceeds or follows a certain encounter. This is the key to the miracle I will look at in this post.

In my last post, “Crossing Enemy Lines” (April 15, 2013), we saw how Jesus calmed a vicious storm on the Sea of Galilee and demonstrated his power over nature to his frightened disciples, many who were competent fishermen and knew this sea very well. I agree with Biblical scholars who see this event as an attack by Satan on Jesus.

What happens when Jesus and his disciples approach the shore on “the other side” of the lake is directly linked to the struggle with Satan during the storm. While three Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark and Luke) describe what happens next, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to read the fullest account in the Gospel of Mark (5:1-20).

You might remember from the first part of this story that the disciples would never have gone to this region, called the Decapolis (Ten Cities), because the Gentiles who lived there were engaged in all the things that observant Jews hated – idol worship, sexual promiscuity, forbidden foods, etc. — yet their rabbi tells them to come with him, so they do.

Think about the setting. They’re approaching the shore, it is getting dark and they hear screams and see a naked man who lives in a cemetery coming toward their boat. They have been taught never to enter this territory, never to look at a naked man, and never to be around tombs in order to stay ritually pure.

Both Luke and Mark make it clear that Jesus is the only one to get out of the boat – not the disciples. I think we can identify with their reluctance. What are they doing here? Why did they come? What is he going to do?

The naked man, possessed by demons, approaches Jesus and falls down in front of him, but not as an act of worship. The demons that control him recognize that they are in the presence of someone who has superior power. In fact, the demons speak through the man who screams out, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High?” Mark tells us the demons are making it clear that they know who Jesus is (1:24).

When Jesus asks them their name, they respond, “Legion – for we are many.” It is interesting to note that nearby are pigs or boars – obviously this is not Kosher territory. Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian who worked for Rome, records that this area was occupied by the Roman Tenth Legion and their mascot was a boar. It would be stretching the story too much to say that Jesus was taking a prophetic action with strong political overtones by sending the demons into the boars who then ran into the sea and drowned, but it does make me wonder. By the way, some historians are convinced that boars are good swimmers, so the fact that 2,000 of them drowned would then be rather remarkable.

What is amazing about this story is that Jesus completely rescues and restores this man. Now the disciples have seen him win two amazing battles against evil, the second lesson they could easily see even from the boat that they refuse to leave! Mark tells us that after the boars run into the sea and people come running to see what had happened, they are frightened by Jesus’ presence. They see this wild man who lived in the tombs and who could break chains, sitting there by Jesus in his right mind and fully dressed. Where did he get his clothes? None of the Gospel writers tell us, but I would sure like to know!

After he is rescued and restored, the man asks Jesus if he can go along with him and his disciples, to leave this place where he had been so isolated and feared. But Jesus has another plan. He tells him to go back to his own people and “report to them how much God has done for you” (5: 19). He has been healed and now he has a mission, a purpose, a task to be done.

What many of us fail to notice is that when Jesus returns to this region several months later, thousands of people come out to see him (Mark 7:31-37). This man has become the first missionary of the New Testament to the Gentiles!

So What?

  • One powerful lesson from this story that I learned: We may have someone who we have been praying for who needs to be rescued and restored by Jesus, yet it seems like nothing is ever going to change in their life. As Doug Greenwold (Senior Teaching Fellow, Preserving Bible Times) reminds us, remember this man with a “legion” of demons and be encouraged. Jesus can bring healing, but in his own timing, so don’t despair.
  • A humorous footnote: When I learned about Josephus’ record of the Roman Tenth Legion having a pig or boar for a mascot, I thought what a choice – until I remembered that my graduate school (The University of Maryland) has a turtle for its mascot. Who am I to laugh at the Romans!
  • My former pastor, Dr. Craig Barnes, commented on this passage as follows: “It seems that the guiding principle for Jesus’ decision about who should leave and who should stay is that he always sends us to the place where we are most dependent on a Savior. If your demon is the fear of change, that means you will be hitting the road more than you want. Yet if you are tormented more by the thought of settling into a difficult place, it means you will be staying right where you are. In either case, your hope will come not from where you are, but from whom you find mercy.”