What Did Jesus Have to Say about the Demon Oppressed?
- Vern S. Poythress
- 2016 22 Feb
The Gadarene Demoniacs – The Miracles of Jesus
In the story of the Gadarene demoniacs we see the kingdom of God extending to encompass within its power people whose humanity has been wrecked by the presence of demons:
And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon- possessed men. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. (Matt. 8:28–34)
The story shows the desperate state of the demoniacs. They were “fierce,” like beasts. They came “out of the tombs,” reminding us of death and the near-destruction of the humanity of the two men. Jesus delivered them from their affliction, and in addition accomplished judgment on the demons. The pigs perished in the sea, symbolizing how the destiny of demons is for them to be judged by God and consigned to hell.
How do we react to this story? Some people, affected by modern secularism or materialism, do not believe in demons. In their opinion, demons belong to an era of “primitive superstition” that they have left behind. But why do they believe that demons do not exist? Usually, it is because they have absorbed the belief from others around them who believe the same thing. But if so, this belief has no more substantial backing than the “superstitions” that they associate with other times, for in other times as well, many people just went along with what other people around them believed.
Most modern science focuses on the material aspect of reality. But a focus on the material cannot prove that what is material is the only thing that exists. We are better off if we recognize that all human knowledge of the spirit world is limited. And then the questions about demons depend on the questions about whether the Bible is a trustworthy source of knowledge, and whether Jesus knew what he was doing when he dealt with the demonic realm. We have already indicated why we should have confidence both in Jesus and in the Bible as the word of God. So the world of demons is real. Demons are powerful spiritual beings, and they may oppress people in ways that distort or degrade their human potential.
The key role of the demons in the story about the Gadarene demoniacs leads to reflections on the way in which the coming of the kingdom of God saves people from demonic oppression and accusation as well as from sin. The kingdom of God opposes the kingdom of evil, which has Satan as its head. Satan tries to control people through more than one method. Demonic oppression, such as we see with the Gadarene demoniacs, is only one form. In addition, Satan tempts people to do evil. And the Bible indicates that everyone who is in rebellion against God belongs to Satan’s kingdom in a broad sense:
We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.
We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 John 5:18–19)
The decisive defeat of Satan and his hosts consists in delivering not merely people who suffer the intense oppression of demonization, but all who are attacked by demons. Jesus’s resistance to Satanic temptation in the wilderness foreshadows his climactic triumph over Satan and evil in his crucifixion and resurrection. The coming of the kingdom of God is the defeat and undoing of the kingdom of Satan:
And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. (Matt. 12:26–29)
In the comparison that Jesus used, Satan is “the strong man.” The one who binds him must be Jesus himself. The fact that Jesus cast out demons demonstrated not only that Jesus and Satan were on opposing sides, but that Jesus had already bound the strong man in a fundamental sense. Yet a more complete triumph over Satan was yet to come. Satan received defeat when Jesus received “all authority” (Matt. 28:18). A similar point is made in Colossians 2:15: He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
The point at which the rulers and authorities were “disarmed” was the cross: “This [the record of debt] he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). The triumph over Satan in Jesus’s exorcisms foreshadowed the time when he defeated Satan on the cross.
Since Jesus has defeated Satan in his crucifixion and resurrection, he is able to deliver those who are held captive to sin and evil:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he him- self likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Heb. 2:14–15)
When reading the story of the Gadarene demoniacs, people sometimes worry about the poor pigs. The demons went into the pigs, who then rushed down the steep bank and drowned in the sea (Matt. 8:32). But human beings are of greater value than pigs. (In addition, even if the pigs had survived this episode, they would eventually have been eaten!) The demoniacs were delivered, and that is at the center of the story.
We must also reckon with the fact that, in Old Testament symbolism, pigs are unclean animals, and that uncleanness symbolizes sin and death. The sea is also a suitable symbol for the final abyss of hell, to which demons will eventually go. The demons did not go to hell at this point in time. But the fact that they went down to the sea, into an abyss, symbolized in a striking way that they were defeated by Jesus. This initial defeat anticipates the final defeat that they will experience on the day of judgment (Rev. 20:10).
[Editor’s Note: Content taken from The Miracles of Jesus by Vern S. Poythress, © 2016. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.crossway.org. ]
Vern S. Poythress is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he has taught for nearly four decades. In addition to earning six academic degrees, including a PhD from Harvard University and a ThD from the University of Stellenbosch. He is the author of numerous books and articles on a variety of topics, including biblical interpretation, language, and science.
Publication date: February 22, 2016