The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Jim Shaddix's Bible Exposition I class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The Bible exposition class for which I prepared this sermon involves writing but not delivering a sermon. If, at some point in the future, I actually deliver this sermon (e.g. in my sermon delivery course next semester), I will update this post with a link to the audio and/or video.
Recent estimates suggest that the United States of America currently spends about three times as much money on our military as the next biggest military spender out there, China. In fact, if you add up the military spending of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Great Britain, India, and Germany, we still spend more. And remember, China’s and India’s populations are both over four times larger than ours. What’s more, corruption and graft notwithstanding, our military-industrial complex is incredibly advanced. It’s fair to say that America has the most powerful, best equipped, most effective military apparatus in the whole world.
And yet. And yet, as a country, we are very afraid. All of that power can’t protect us from everything. And we are very feared. For all of America’s lofty ideals, we have made a mess of things pretty often. We’ve gotten it wrong. Having power, it turns out, isn’t enough. Having enough power matters, but so does having the right kind of power, and so does how you use that power.
As we look at Mark 5:1–20, we’re going to see that play out. It’s not just having power that matters. It matters who has the power, and how they use it. Do they torment? Or do they show mercy?
I’ll give you a hint: we want power coupled with mercy. You can see, if you look at verse 19, how this whole passage hinges on that. When all is said and done, the man in the middle of this story gets to go tell all his friends and neighbors how much the Lord had done for him—how powerful God is—and how the Lord had shown him mercy.
So let’s see how Mark gets us there. As we come to our text, we read: “They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.”
“The other side of the sea from what?” you might be asking. Well, from Galilee, where Jesus had been teaching. Back at the beginning of chapter 4, Mark tells us about a series of parables that Jesus taught about his new kingdom. And those parables particularly emphasized people’s response as his kingdom comes. Some reject it entirely; some look excited about it at first, but ultimately aren’t a part of it; and some, a few, really are citizens of the new kingdom.
Then, back in 4:35, Mark switched to a series of narratives—four stories. This is Mark’s basic strategy: tell us what Jesus said, and then show us what he did. Why? Well, because the parables weren’t just cryptic things Jesus said to confuse people; he was telling his disciples, the ones who had ears to hear, how things really were. Each thing Jesus did showed that what he said was true.
His kingdom wasn’t coming the way people thought, or even to the people who thought it was for them. And he wasn’t the kind of king they had in mind, either. He had authority not just over nations and troops, but (as Mark shows us in these four stories), over the sea and the sky, over demons—that’s today’s passage—over incurable illness, even over death. And in each of these events, we see that Jesus wasn’t just a powerful king. He was also a merciful king.
Now, within these four narratives, Mark breaks things down into two pairs of miracle stories which hang together: the storm and the demonized man, and the two healings back on the other side of the sea. Today, we find ourselves in the second half of that first pair. With the storm, the disciples could not save themselves, so Jesus rebuked the storm, and there was a great calm, and the disciples were afraid. We are going to see those same ideas here: someone who cannot save himself, Jesus rebuking something, a great calm as a result, and people being afraid. We will see Jesus’ power and mercy. And we will see a different response than fear—a better one.
Beat 1: A wild man – 5:1–6
So let’s follow Mark on this journey. Verse 2 tells us that “when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit”. Verse 6 reiterates the point—“And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him”—but first Mark wants us to know something about who this man was. Verses 3 through 5 tell us:
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.
In other words, this was not a man in need of a little help, an appointment with a counselor. No, here we have a man enslaved. Nothing anyone could do would help him.
What we have here is Mark establishing both the characters involved, and the “power curve” for the rest of the scene. If you’re reading a superhero comic or watching a superhero movie, you have a sense of how strong everyone is. And of course, this leads to all sorts of conundrums. Who would win in a fight? Next year’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War both hinge on this. Who is stronger? Who will win? And of course, if you let the wrong characters in, the game just becomes pointless. I saw an interview with the writers behind Captain America, where they explained why the Hulk wouldn’t be in the movie. You add in the Hulk, and it’s game over for the other team. There’s no tension in the conflict anymore. The Hulk just wins.
And that’s basically the picture Mark shows us in this passage. It’s pretty clear: the demons were stronger. Nothing anyone could do was effective. They couldn’t even keep this man imprisoned; verse 4 has him acting like, well, like the Hulk. They tried chaining him up hand and foot; he just ripped the chains on his wrists off and smashed the fetters on his feet. “No one,” Mark says, “had the strength to subdue him.” Healing him was out of the question. And the man himself was clearly totally under the demons’ control. The “super-villains” had the upper hand.
Now, the Hulk can be kind of fun to watch, but that’s not what we have here. They made a mockery of this man. We shouldn’t take that lightly. They made him run around screaming, naked, cutting himself, in the midst of the tombs. There is a reason Mark describes him as having an unclean spirit. The demons were doing everything in their power—short of killing this man—to defile what God had called “very good” and what he had promised to redeem: his humanity.
So there’s the power curve when Jesus arrives on the scene; there are the characters. As soon as Jesus gets off the boat, this man comes out to meet him. And then, perhaps surprisingly, given that power curve—but then again, maybe not so surprising given what Jesus has already done in this gospel—verse 6 tells us that the man falls down at his knees before Jesus. He goes prostrate. Flat on his face. The way you would kneel before someone absolutely more powerful than you. Jesus’ arrival is clearly a change from the status quo.
Beat 2: A merciful act – 5:7–13
So Mark has set the scene for us: here is a man who has been tormented for who knows how long, and as soon Jesus steps off the boat, he man comes running up and throws himself down at Jesus’ feet. That’s quite the welcoming party. Put yourself in the disciples’ shoes for a moment. You’ve just seen Jesus go from sleeping in the back of a boat—in the middle of the kind of storm that scared the Galilean fishermen who are with you—to standing up and telling a storm to be quiet and it does. You’re afraid. And then you get to the other side, still more than a little in shock from that, and a naked man with cuts all over his body comes up to Jesus and throws himself at his feet and starts arguing with him, shouting at him. You might be afraid all over again. And for good reason. Notice that throughout the whole passage, the disciples are just onlookers. This is out of their league, too; so they just watch.
Beat 2a: Jesus’ power – 5:7–10
Dealing with the man and his impure spirit is not, however, out of Jesus’ league. Verses 7–10 make it very clear that Jesus is absolutely and unquestionably the most powerful person in this encounter.
Notice, too, that the demonized man is arguing with Jesus because Jesus is arguing with him. Verses 7 and 8 tell us:
He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”
Jesus picked this fight, and it’s not going to go down well for the demons.
Now we know from ancient records that there were both Greek and Jewish exorcists who made it their business to drive out evil spirits. You will find the same in many non-Western cultures today, and—as an aside—I think those cultures probably have the right of it more than we do. It has been said that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people he didn’t exist, and that seems about right. How can you possibly fight something you don’t even believe exists? It’s a brilliant, devious strategic move. You can pull the North Korea strategy—try to constantly rattle your saber to keep everyone afraid of you. Or you can act like an assassin: keep a low profile, and if possible don’t even let your would-be opponents know you exist, until you’ve killed them and caused mayhem. In the hyper-secular West, that seems to be the satanic strategy of the hour, and I think it’s fair to say it’s been reasonably successful for our enemy—even if we know from passages like this one that Jesus’ ultimate victory is guaranteed.
That wasn’t the strategy of the day back then, though. And we know from those old records that the general strategy for dealing with demons was to try to use powerful command words and phrases, or to negotiate and bargain, or to use the demon’s name to get spiritual power over them, or to try to use other divine powers to bind them.
But we don’t see any of that in this passage. The demons recognize Jesus’ power and authority right away. You can see it there in verse 7: as soon as Jesus tells them to leave, they plead with him not to torment them. And you don’t plead with someone not to torment you unless they can torment you. By the time Jesus asks for a name in verse 9, the demons have already acknowledged Jesus’ power and authority in the situation. What’s more, they call him “Son of the Most High God” there in verse 7. Now, this title does double duty here.
First, it is another confirmation of Mark’s claim throughout his gospel: that Jesus is in fact the Son of God. And significantly, the early confessions to that effect all come on the lips of demons he exorcises. The spiritual forces know spiritual authority when they see it, even if the people don’t see it yet. So confirming that Jesus is “the Son of God” is the first thing this does.
The second thing it does is establish that Jesus isn’t just another player in the spiritual game. Whatever other gods someone might worship, and whatever other claims to divine power someone might offer up, Jesus trumps them all. He is the son not just of some god, but of the Most High God.
The fact that there is a legion of demons, as they admit in verse 9, simply heightens the contrast. We knew already that the “impure spirit” was able to torment the man; now we know that it is many demons. It doesn’t matter. They’re still reduced to begging and pleading with him: verse 10 tells us that the man—really, the spirits speaking through him—“begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.”
Again, the power curve: Jesus’ authority isn’t even in the same ballpark as anyone else in the story—not the demonized man, not the people who were unable to help him or even restrain him, not the silent disciples, and not even the multitude of demons. He exceeds them all.
Beat 2b: Jesus’ focus – 5:11–13
Jesus’ power is only part of the story, though. As we come into vv. 11–13, we can see his focus as well. And that focus is healing a man in need. Read with me, starting in verse 11:
A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
First, this confirms what we already know: they need Jesus’ permission. He is in charge. But, second, it also tells us that between the man and the pigs, there wasn’t a contest for Jesus. Not because he didn’t care about pigs. We know from Colossians 1 that the eternal Son of God—who Mark is taking this whole book to tell us about—is the agent of God’s creation of the whole universe; and his powerful word is the reason that the whole universe keeps existing, pigs included. Pigs were part of what he called a “good” creation in Genesis 1. Speaking as a lover of bacon myself, I’m inclined to agree with God’s assessment: pigs are good.
But, and this is important: people are more important than pigs. You can find any number of modern commentators on this passage asking about the ethical implications of Jesus’ letting the demons destroy the pigs along with themselves in this way. Neither Mark nor Luke or Matthew seem bothered by this point. Neither does Jesus. Pigs matter. Pigs are good. But they don’t matter like people do. And while it is not clear from this passage why Jesus accepted the demons’ request, what is clear is that his mercy toward this man—his compassion on him—trumped any concern for the pigs. Jesus’ focus was healing and saving people. Here, we see clearly that his powerful word is not just for creation, but also for salvation.
This tells us something about Jesus’ power and authority. It is good power and authority. He is merciful. And it is so important—extraordinarily important—that the Son of the Most High God, the king bringing in his kingdom, be merciful. Because as Ephesians 2 tells us, before God intervenes in our lives, we’re all like this man was. We start off dead in our sins, slaves to our lusts and every desire gone wrong and totally unchecked, in the domain of darkness, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit now at work in the children of disobedience. The demons, in other words. And then Jesus steps in. As the rightful king, he has the power to free us… and he’s a merciful king, so he does free us. That’s good news. That’s gospel.
Beat 3: A fearful crowd – 5:14–17
Of course, it doesn’t always look like good news to everyone when Jesus shows up and starts healing people. Remember, Mark is showing us the truth of those parables from back in chapter 4. So we see here the good king who is bringing in his kingdom—in secret now, but someday in glorious light—but we also see those different kinds of soil from the parable of the sower and the seed: some fruitful, some not fruitful.
Look at what happens in verses 14 through 17:
Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
I can imagine being one of the herdsmen, seeing the pigs drowned by demons, and being frightened—and maybe they were. But that’s not what Mark says. That’s not why these people were afraid. They were afraid because they saw this man who had been naked, clothed; who had been running and screaming, sitting calmly; who had been out of his mind, now in his right mind. That was what made them afraid.
Mark has created a sharp contrast here: between this scene and the one that preceded it, the calming of the storm.
- In both scenes, we see Jesus confronting something far more powerful than ordinary humans can handle: in the first, a terrible storm; in the second, a legion of demons.
- In both scenes, we see him exercise his powerful word for mercy: in the first, to save his disciples from the storm; in the second, to save this man from the demons who tormented him.
- In both scenes, we see the tumult of a broken world, and then calm and peace after Jesus acts.
- And in both scenes, we see people who are afraid after Jesus acts.
But there seems to be more than one way to be “afraid” when you see the power of God’s Spirit on display in the person of Jesus Christ. You can be afraid and still want to be with him, like the disciples. Or you can be afraid like these people were—they wanted him to leave.
Clearly, one of these is better than the other. Far better to be with Jesus even if his power is more than you can handle—even if you find that the Son of God is not at all safe. Because he is good.
Beat 4: An effective commission – 5:18–20
But Mark wants to take us even further than the disciples’ example. He wants us to see that we do not need to be afraid. Because Jesus’ power is expressed in mercy to his people. The disciples didn’t really understand who Jesus was yet, didn’t really grasp either his power or his mercy yet, but someone surprising in this story does: an unclean Gentile man who had been tortured by demons. The man Jesus healed. The one to whom he so very powerfully showed mercy. Look! Verse 18:
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him.
He begged! He is the third person to beg or plead in this story. The demons begged not to be destroyed yet—and Jesus surprisingly showed them mercy in that. The people pleaded with Jesus to leave—and Jesus surprisingly showed them mercy in that. And here—at last!—someone begs for the right thing: to be with Jesus. The same phrase as when Jesus called the disciples to be with him. And Jesus surprisingly… shows mercy by saying no to him. Verses 19 and 20:
Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
“Go home to your own people”, verse 19 says—some translations say “to your friends”—“and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has mercy on you.” Precisely because this man understood Jesus great power and his great mercy, he had somewhere to be that wasn’t with Jesus yet. He knew how great God’s power was, and he knew how deep God’s mercy was. So Jesus gave him a commission, and it looks familiar: go tell the nations what God has done. The nations: this is a Gentile, not a Jew; he is in the Decapolis, Gentile country, not Jewish country. “Go tell them about God’s mercy,” Jesus says to him. Because the mercy of God is not just for the Jews. Jesus was not going to be a petty little messiah, king of a corner of Palestine. God’s mercy was for the healing of the nations. And here we see the first taste of that in Mark—because what happened? “…all the people were amazed.”
Mark doesn’t tell us here what came of this, what the fruit was. We don’t know how many of those who were amazed were just apparently fruitful soil, where the seed sprung up and soon withered. But it is clear that there was at least one who was good soil. And if Jesus’ ministry in the Decapolis in chapter 7 is any indication, it seems the Spirit may well have been using this man’s seed-sowing to prepare a great harvest some day.
One more thing to see here: a detail, but not a little thing. Unlike the disciples, who hadn’t gotten it yet—this man proclaimed exactly what he should have. Notice, Jesus tells him to say what “the Lord” had done for him. From a Jew, including Jesus, that meant “Yahweh,” the God of Israel. And in verse 20, “the man went away and began to tell… how much Jesus had done for him.” And rightly so. The mercy of Yahweh, the God of Israel, is the mercy of Jesus, the Son of the Most High God—the God over every pagan deity, over every demonic power, over every human heart, over all nations.
A few years ago, John Piper was preaching a missions sermon, and he started with Mark 5:19. You can see why. It’s the heart of the gospel. And Piper summed up the heart of the gospel this way:
God sent his Son into the world to save sinners from every nation so that they would glorify him for his mercy.
And that’s right. This whole narrative is a microcosm, a little picture, of the gospel, and of the right response to the gospel. Here we have a story of a Gentile man—one of the nations, not a Jew—who was literally enslaved by the powers of hell, set free by Jesus. But not just set free; set free and given a commission. Look there at verse 19 again: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” That commission tells us what this story is about. And the center of that commission is the center of Mark’s gospel. And in fact, it’s the center of the whole Bible. It’s the center of this great story we are all part of. God’s power, expressed in mercy, to save people from every nation through Jesus Christ.
Look how much he has done for us because of that mercy! He saves people like you and me, people from every nation who can’t save themselves, and he invites them into his kingdom, and he gives them a mission.
Which is to say, he gives us a mission. If you are a Christian in this room—if you have said to Jesus, “Let me be with you”—then he has said to you, “Go and tell your friends how much the Lord has done for you and how he has shown mercy to you.” Every one of us should want others to know how God has saved us. If you aren’t doing that, I challenge you: tell the people around you! Tell your friends, your coworkers, your family members. If that’s hard for you—and I understand; it can be—then think back on your salvation. Think about how God has shown mercy to you. Pray for the Spirit to stir you up, to deepen your love for him and your joy in what he has done, so that your telling others isn’t out of guilt, but out of excitement. That’s a prayer he delights to answer.
And friend, if you are in this room and you are not in the kingdom? We have a good king, who offers you a pardon for your rebellion. You can be a citizen with us; we were all rebels, too. Come to him. Ask to be with him. Join us as we follow him. He has shown us mercy; he will show you mercy, too. All you have to do is surrender. Lay down your weapons. Ask for mercy. And call him Lord. If that’s you, please: let us walk with you. Come talk with us before you leave.
Let’s pray. Let’s pray to our powerful, merciful God.