Majesty and Mercy
When I was in elementary school, happiness was walking into gym class and seeing two dozen balls lined up along the center line because that meant we were playing dodgeball. Dodgeball was my favorite game in gym class but it’s really weird when you think about it. It’s basically putting kids in two groups and trying to get them to injure one another. I think most kids intuitively feel like it’s the one time when misbehaving is not just ok but required. I remember thinking, “So, all day long I get in trouble for throwing stuff at the other boys in class. Now I’m commanded to throw balls as hard as I can not only at the boys but at the girls too. I don’t get it but let’s do this!” It didn’t make sense but I wasn’t about to argue.
I also remember the primal, fight-or-flight adrenaline rush that came when the gym teacher would count down before blowing the whistle to start the game. Both teams line up on opposite walls. Everyone has one foot barely touching the wall and the other stretched out as far as possible so they’re that much closer to the ammunition. Then, as the teacher counts down, you have a precious few moments to come up with a strategy. The athletic kids always had the strategy to run to the line because they thought they were the fastest child in the universe. As a chubby kid, my strategy was to run half way, wait for one of my athletic teammates to get hit in the opening seconds and pick up that ball. Others had the strategy to stay motionless at the back wall, hoping everyone would forget they were there. But there was one strategy no one ever chose. No one ever sprinted from one wall to the other before the game even started to beg the other kids for mercy. No one ever did that but today we are going to read a story in Mark 5:1–20 that describes how not a kid in gym class but a whole legion of demons actually uses that strategy when facing Jesus.
Knowing Jesus is so powerful they can’t even retreat from Him, let alone make any kind of stand against Him, they run to Him and beg for mercy. And they aren’t the only ones who do so in this story—there are three different people or groups in this passage that see Jesus’ majesty—His royal authority as King of the universe—and beg Him for mercy of very different kinds. Their requests divide this sermon into three points. First we will look at how The Demons Beg in vv. 1–13. Second, at how The Decapolans Beg in vv. 14–17 (“Decapolans” meaning the people who live in the region called the Decapolis, where the story takes place). And, lastly, at how The Disciple Begs in vv. 18–20. Let’s read the text, ask God to help us learn it, love it, and live it, and then get started.
“They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 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. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 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.” For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 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.
The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 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. And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 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.” 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).
Point 1: The Demons Beg (vv. 1–13)
If you remember from the last few weeks, the average Jewish person in Jesus’s day would have considered the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Decapolis, to be enemy territory. It was a Gentile or non-Jewish region that most Jews perceived as an evil kingdom God was planning to demolish when He finally established His kingdom on earth through Israel.
Yet, Jesus set His sights on bringing His disciples there to the outskirts of a town called Gerasa (or “the country of the Gerasenes,” as Mark wrote it). Mark doesn’t tell us for sure but they may have followed Jesus there thinking it was a military mission rather than a mercy mission. In truth, it was both. It was a military mission because Jesus warred against spiritual forces of darkness and won a no-contest victory over them. It’s actually a stretch even calling it a war because not only did the enemy immediately surrender but even begged for mercy without even attempting an attack. It was also a mercy mission because while defeating His spiritual enemy Jesus simultaneously rescued a severely broken and lost man.
Last week we imagined ourselves as one of the 12 disciples on the boat with Jesus as He stilled the wind and waves. Today we will do the same, this time imagining ourselves with Jesus on the shores of Gerasa.
Still feeling the effects of the great fear that filled you after witnessing the wind and sea obey Jesus’s commands like obedient soldiers, your boat makes it ashore at dawn. Jesus steps out last and as soon as His foot touches the land, you hear a distant shriek in the direction of the tombs you see on the horizon. Everyone instinctively turns to the alarming noise, especially since it’s getting louder, which means it’s headed your way. A minute later, you finally see the source of the shriek: it’s a man.
One of your fellow disciples tells you, “I’ve heard rumor of a man in these parts who lives in the tombs. They say he cannot be subdued even by the strongest of men and rips chains and shackles to pieces like they were made of parchment. He terrorizes the townspeople by roaming the mountains like a howling wolf.”
As your friend finishes the description, the man bounds over the final hill, charging full speed right at Jesus. Your friend’s description wasn’t exaggerated; it was understated. Old scars and new cuts cover his body. His skin is caked with filth and his hair is disheveled, long, and knotted. His clothes are torn and tattered and he reeks of decay. He is unclean from head to toe, inside and out. You and the other 11 disciples start backing away but Jesus stands immovable, like a mountain facing a gentle breeze. He has a puzzling expression of anger mixed with compassion on His face. Expecting an extremely violent, terrifying, possibly unstoppable attack, you instead witness the exact opposite. This man ends his full-speed sprint not with an attack but by throwing himself at Jesus’s feet, begging Jesus not to torment him. Jesus has a brief conversation with this man possessed by a legion of demons right before casting them out into a giant herd of pigs in the distance that responds by running into the sea and drowning.
There are a lot of strange and perplexing things in this passage that might lead us to ask all sorts of questions like: How did this man become possessed? How could he be possessed by multiple demons? Do all demons have names? Who names them? What attachment did they have to that area that made them earnestly beg Jesus “not to send them out of the country”? How can demons possess pigs? Why did they want to? Why did Jesus give them what they asked? Why did the pigs commit suicide? What happened to the demons after the pigs died?
It’s natural to wonder about questions like these when reading this passage but two dangers face us if we get carried away with them. The first danger is overlooking Jesus. The most important question the passage clearly answers is, “What does this tell us about Jesus?” That is God’s primary concern in this passage and we will miss it if we run down a rabbit trail of other questions. Jesus is the main character, not Legion—so be sure to focus your attention on Jesus.
The second danger is inventing answers. God does not give information about demons in this passage so we can catalog what they are like or develop systems on how to cast them out (“First, command them to come out, then figure out their name, their area of influence, and its boundaries, then repeat these specific words you need to say or things you need to do in order to break their geographical or generational strongholds, etc.”). There are many who attempt to do this and I’m calling us to be very careful not to.
The demons in this story serve one purpose: they are merely objects showcasing the invincible power of Jesus Christ so that we will be awestruck by His majesty. Don’t fix your eyes or minds on the enemy, even with the intentions of trying to destroy him. Fix your eyes and minds on Jesus, the one who has destroyed, is destroying, and will destroy that enemy. The power is His and effective in our lives by faith in Him, not by figuring out the right methods of spiritual warfare. This is a war story in which Jesus is the victorious hero. Don’t turn it into a war manual in which Jesus is just a tactical instructor.
The most powerful, dangerous, lost, and fearsome person we could imagine feared Jesus. That is the main point of the story and God gives it to us in the Bible to tell us something about Jesus. Not only is Jesus more powerful than evil, He is the opposite of evil—He is loving, good, pure, kind, a protector, a helper. The enemy might try to get you sidetracked with fearing him or devising tactics against him—don’t give in. Stay on the path toward marveling at Jesus’ majesty while worshiping and seeking Him. Kids—if you get scared at night, what do you do? Who do you call? Daddy or mommy. If any of us get even a little scared about demonic powers, call for your Daddy in heaven. It’s a lesson for all of us as God’s children
Point 2: The Decapolans Beg (vv. 14–17)
“The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 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. And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. And they began to beg Jesus to depart from their region” (Mark 5:14–17).
If we go back to vv. 3–4, we read that the demon possessed man “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.” So, it was a known fact that nobody had the strength to subdue this man. That could only become a known fact if many people had tried and failed, which makes me ask three questions. First, who tried and failed to subdue this man? Who were they? Where did they come from? Probably not from the other side of the globe, right? It must have been people who lived close enough in the Decapolis to know who this man was—the same people in the city and country of Gerasa who heard the eyewitness story of the herdsmen, came to see what happened, and, out of fear, begged Jesus to depart in vv. 14–17.
My second question is, why did they want to subdue him? No one would try to subdue a man like this because he’s minding his own business but quite the opposite. No one likes to enter underground burial chambers to wrestle violent, inhumanly strong maniacs just for fun. Tomb wrestling demon possessed people will never be a hobby. There must have been a very urgent and extreme reason for their attempts. The word “subdue” implies that this man used his strength in very threatening, unpredictable, out-of-control ways. So, I think they attempted to subdue him because he was a serious threat to their safety.
Third, what do they do after he’s subdued and no longer a threat? They ask Jesus—the one who subdued Him—to leave. Jesus just saved not only the demon possessed man but the town that man was terrorizing. I would have expected them to beg Him to be their king, not beg Him to leave town. I really racked my brain this week trying to find an explanation. Did they really like pork and fear that this Jewish rabbi was going to fill all of their pigs with suicidal demons? I doubt it—they saw the man clothed and in his right mind. So, they must have known Jesus’s mission was to rescue this man, not to commit genocide against pigs. For the same reason, I doubt they thought Jesus had come to conquer their lands. He wouldn’t have started His conquest by rescuing the town and one of its citizens from spiritual terror. I think they simply did not want Jesus to be their king.
But what’s more surprising than the Decapolans begging Jesus to leave is the fact that He actually did. Jesus allowed the Decapolans the ability to refuse Him. He didn’t attempt to force Himself on people who wanted nothing to do with Him. That doesn’t mean rejecting Jesus has no consequences—it has the most severe circumstances imaginable. But it does mean that we should follow Jesus’ example and not be forceful with the gospel because evangelism also has consequences, oftentimes far beyond what we can see.
The gospel is a seed, not a bullet, which makes us planters, not police. We don’t threaten people with the gospel as though we were eager for their condemnation or as though their conversion depended on our persuasiveness, passion, or force of argument. We plant the truth in their heads and hearts through our words and works while trusting and pleading with God to cause the growth.
So, take comfort in two truths: First, God is honored by your sharing regardless of how it is received. Second, God can even make a refusal bear fruit.
Point 3: The Disciple Begs (vv. 18–20)
The demons saw Jesus’s majesty and said, “Please don’t make us stay in your presence” and, amazingly, Jesus gave them what they wanted. The Decapolans saw Jesus’s majesty and said, “Please don’t stay in our presence” and, amazingly, Jesus gave them what they wanted. But the disciple—the brand-new Christ follower formerly known as the demon-possessed man—saw Jesus’s majesty and said, “Please don’t make me leave Your presence” and, amazingly, Jesus refused to give him what he wanted.
So, we have three beggars in the story and the only one who begs for the right thing doesn’t get it. Why did Jesus refuse? “I’m sorry, there’s just no more room on the boat… we bought the 13-passenger boat and I’ve already got 12 disciples—I knew I should have gotten the extended deck edition! If only I had rescued you earlier.” No! Jesus sends this new disciple out not because He’s a mean God but because He’s a missionary God.
Up to this point in Mark, Jesus sternly silenced everyone that identified Him. Demons identified Him as the Son and Holy One of God but Jesus commanded them to be silent and cast them out (Mark 1:23–25, 1:34, 3:11–12). He also charged people not to share His identity or what He had done for them. He did this because Galilee was a Jewish region where people were familiar with concepts like “kingdom of God” and “Son of God.” However, they had all sorts of wrong ideas about what those things meant. Jesus silenced those who tried to identify Him in Galilee because He wanted to correct those wrong ideas before people attached them to their understanding of who He was.
However, this was not the case on the “other side,” in Decapolis, where this story takes place. The Decapolis was a mostly Gentile or non-Jewish region where they didn’t have those long-established misconceptions about the kingdom and Son of the God of Israel. That’s why Jesus doesn’t silence this disciple but sends him out to proclaim what the Lord had done for him in places that had never heard the good news of God’s kingdom.
Jesus left after so short a stay in the Decapolis not because He gave up but because He accomplished His mission of planting the gospel there. Don’t underestimate what God can do through one person with a testimony of God’s majesty and mercy. As Jesus taught in the parables of chapter 4, when planted in good soil, the gospel will “bear fruit, thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” (Mark 4:20). It will, of its own inherent power, grow to a maturity that unimaginably exceeds the humble circumstances in which first began. It is not the power of a legion of demons that cannot be subdued or chained—it is the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through the gospel that cannot be subdued or chained.