Mark 5:2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. (ESV)
Jesus didn’t even have time to stretch his legs and look around. As soon as his foot touched the shore, a ferocious man, overridden with demons, rushed aggressively towards him. Darkness has a way of being overwhelming, pushing its way onto people. If confronted with a scene like this, most people would have immediately jumped back on the boat and sailed for safer places. Not Jesus.
Can I Come?
Before we explore that chilling encounter any further, let’s take a quick flashback to see more of the whole story. Just prior to his journey, certain people had expressed interest in joining Jesus on mission to the other side. They wanted to follow him and watch him work, helping with what they could. Two such people are mentioned in Matthew 8:19-22, and it would do us well to consider what Jesus told them.
The first man, a religious leader, said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go” (v19). Here was a brave soul, one willing to leave ordinary life behind and serve with Christ. He would have loved the Chris Tomlin song, I Will Follow:
Where you go, I’ll go.
Where you stay, I’ll stay.
When you move, I’ll move.
I will follow you.
Droves of churchgoers sing this song to him today, or the older hymn, Wherever He Leads I’ll Go, but few are actually willing to follow where he leads. Why? Because he often directs our steps to places we don’t wish to go! We’re often guilty of liking the idea of following Jesus more than actually following Jesus. We enjoy lifting up songs about it, but the thought that he might call us to actually leave our comfortable homes behind seldom crosses our minds.
In a 2002 sermon, John Piper asked a series of penetrating questions regarding whether people are sincerely willing to follow Jesus:
“Will you follow him? What about your home, your furniture, the security you enjoy there, your comforts in the climate controlled year-round perfect atmosphere, your roach-free, mouse-free, ant-free, totally automated kitchen, your new surround-sound home entertainment center? Jesus says, ‘Follow me. Am I more precious, more satisfying than these?’” (John Piper, “The Radical Cost of Following Jesus,” Desiring God, www.desiringGod.org, Oct 27, 2002.)
When put like that, it seems clear that thousands of Christians proclaim their willingness to follow Jesus, but only a handful would actual follow him somewhere dark, dangerous, or uncomfortable.
Jesus was honest with the religious leader, informing him through a proverbial statement that the mission wouldn’t be easy: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (v20). Jesus wouldn’t guarantee that there would be no harm to those who join him. He didn’t even promise a decent place to sleep.
Did this brave scribe realize that joining Jesus on mission meant that he might be homeless in a dark land? Did he understand that Jesus was about to confront a massive horde of demons? Did he know what he would be risking if he boarded the boat?
My church in Alabama takes an annual mission trip to Arequipa, Peru. Our goal is to care for orphans and children in poverty, plus to support churches, orphanages, and schools that take care of these children. These are considered safe trips to a fairly large modern city. Even still, our short-term missionaries must understand what is involved. Mission work can be risky, and things can go wrong.
For example, Arequipa is home to Mount Misti, a relatively quiet and calm, but still active volcano. In years past, Misti has produced explosive eruptions, and though not likely during one of our visits, it is always possible this sleeping giant might awaken and erupt again. Besides Misti, there are other volcanoes that surround the city, ever looming on the horizon. These volcanoes exist because western and central Peru is a major hotspot for seismic activity, giving rise to some of the deadliest earthquakes ever to occur. In 2001, Arequipa was shaken by an 8.2 magnitude quake that devastated the city and left at least 75 people dead.
Not only do our teams face these natural threats, but there is also the potential of physical violence. Though it is a safe city full of friendly people, there are some who do not appreciate our work. Some would even take advantage of us, robbing us if given the opportunity. Plus, there are times in Arequipa when political issues give rise to violent protests. In the Spring of 2015, many farmers, college students, and others were vehemently protesting the government over mining operations. Many parts of the city were shut down and several people were killed as protestors and police clashed in the streets.
These are the risks involved in taking a relatively safe mission trip! But what if Jesus calls you to follow him to certain places in China or Iran or North Korea, where proclaiming the gospel might quickly lead to imprisonment or execution? Mission with and for Jesus can be dangerous, and there are no promises that safety and security will win the day.
Jesus does not hide this truth from us or from the man who said “I will follow you wherever you go.” The world is a very dark place and needs light, but there is a cost to bringing light into darkness. Any illusions of ease and comfort a missionary has must be overridden by this reality.
I Have to Bury My Dad
Another follower expressed his desire to travel with Christ to the other side, but this fellow had a problem. Apparently, his father had just died or was dying, and he felt a compulsion to make sure there was a proper funeral for him: “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (v21).
Anybody with a heart would feel compassion for him. The death of a family member is one of the greatest losses people face, and having a proper funeral service for the deceased is important. That’s why Jesus’ response is surprising, often interpreted as insensitive. He said, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (v22).
Judging by common sensibilities, perhaps Jesus was a bit harsh. But in replying to the man this way, Christ made clear his priorities and the priorities he expects his people to have. To go on mission with Jesus in a dark world is to operate on a new level of understanding. The burial of dead physical bodies takes a back seat to the revival of spiritually dead souls. Jesus was not being insensitive to this man, but rather was inviting him to that higher level of understanding.
The very fact that you are reading a book like this reveals that you are interested in the work of Jesus. You may have already joined his mission team, or you might be considering it. Certainly you can do nothing better with your life than serve the world as a beam of Jesus’ light. But being a part of his mission means your heart and mind must be elevated to a higher level of understanding, putting the knowledge of God at the center of your thinking. Those on mission with Jesus must “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). Only then will it make sense that you should risk comfort, safety, and even life itself so that others can come to know Jesus.
Jim Elliot, the impassioned martyr who gave his life for the cause of Christ, understood the loss and sacrifice involved in the mission. Elliot and three of his fellow missionaries were speared to death in 1956 while reaching out with the gospel to the Quichuas of Ecuador. In his journal, he wrote the following words:
“Surely those who know the great passionate heart of Jehovah must deny their own loves to share in the expression of His. Consider the call from the Throne above, ‘Go ye,’ and from round about, ‘Come over and help us,’ and even the call from the damned souls below, ‘Send Lazarus to my brothers, that they come not to this place.’ Impelled, then, by these voices, I dare not stay home while Quichuas perish. So what if the well-fed church in the homeland needs stirring? They have the Scriptures, Moses, and the Prophets, and a whole lot more. Their condemnation is written on their bank books and in the dust on their Bible covers. American believers have sold their lives to the service of Mammon, and God has His rightful way of dealing with those who succumb to the spirit of Laodicea.”
In a sense, Elliot was simply saying, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Followers of Christ have more important work to do, even if it’s often uncomfortable work, and even if it can be deadly. Being on mission with Jesus necessarily involves this higher kind of thinking and understanding, based in seeing things from God’s perspective. Fittingly, Elliot wrote in another place: “I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you Lord Jesus.” And his wish was granted.
Elliot’s words and life are a convicting illustration of what Christ meant as he spoke to the two men who desired to travel with him. For those who follow Jesus into mission, everything else must take a backseat. Priorities must be reorganized. Comfort, convenience, ease, riches, reputation, and even life itself must all play second fiddle to the goal of the mission, which is to bring the light of Christ to a dark world.
Who Is This Man?
Though we are not told directly, it seems the two men both stayed home. They are not mentioned again in the text. But those who did leave behind lesser priorities boarded the boat with the Light of the World. This group was comprised only of Jesus’ disciples, and they were in for a mighty object lesson as they traveled with him to the dark land of the Gerasenes.
While sailing on their way, one of those well-known, fierce, and fearsome storms, which often plague the Sea of Galilee, hit their boat (Mark 4:35-41). The sky grew dark, the waves lifted the boat and shoveled it across the surface of the lake, and the wind heaped water by the gallons into the wooden vessel. Sinking was imminent, and the poor disciples screamed in panic. So much for mission with Jesus! It appeared they would be drowning instead. From their perspective the Light of the World would soon be snuffed out, dead on the bottom of the Sea of Galilee.
However, nothing can stop the mission of Christ to a dark and dying world. While his followers shouted in desperation for help, Jesus calmly woke up from his nap. His soul was secure in the will of the Father, and he expressed no fear. He then rebuked the storm, and the wind and waves ceased. There was “a great calm” all around. He asked his men, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”
The disciples were overwhelmed with fear and astonished at the power of their Teacher. They asked, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”
Understand the lesson: Going on mission into darkness and leaving behind all the lesser priorities of life can be daunting, but Christ is the Master and Lord of all things. His voice brings complete peace and calming security to those who serve with him. There will likely be danger and discomfort, but his sovereign hand will guide the journey, placing every missionary right where he wants them to be.
Culture Swap and Loss of Light
Finally, the boat arrives at its dreaded destination. The land of the Gerasenes was populated by people who had severely compromised the Law of God, evident immediately when the demoniac rushed at Jesus. Though there must have been some faithful individuals among them, as a group these people had abandoned the Lord. They were obviously uninterested in the light of God’s Word and the obedience required of them. They were open sinners with dark and rebellious hearts.
The Jewish historian Josephus describes the citizens of this region, called the Decapolis or Ten Cities, as having been thoroughly Hellenized, meaning they had adopted the culture of the Greeks. This happened after the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), who sought to spread Greek culture to every place he conquered. Indeed, most of the ten cities, with the exception of Damascus, were founded as Greek cities.
At the time of Christ, the Decapolis, like all of Israel, was under Roman rule. Unlike most of the neighboring communities, however, the people of the Decapolis welcomed Roman control and were happy to call Caesar their king. By and large, the people living in this land all but ignored Judaism, having embraced the culture and principles of the Greeks and Romans. This culture swap, along with other factors, led to great spiritual darkness in the region during the days of Jesus. This is revealed in the text in two ways: by the presence of demons and by the presence of pigs.
How Many Demoniacs?
As to demons, Matthew informs us that two men filled with evil spirits came running out of the graveyard, confronting Jesus (Matthew 8:28).
Here we must briefly deal with the question of how many demoniacs were there. Mark and Luke only refer to one man meeting Jesus from the tombs, while Matthew indicates there were two. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction? To do so, we must understand how selective storytelling works.
Matthew says there were two men, so we know there were (at least) two. But Mark and Luke are only interested in one of these two, and do not even mention the other. These authors are selecting material to include based on their purposes for telling the story. Matthew’s version is more general, covering a wider spread of details. Mark and Luke tell the story more specifically, bringing focus to the one man about whom they want to inform their intended audiences.
To illustrate how this works, imagine that I attended a birthday party with about fifty people present. But later, while telling my wife about the party, I only mentioned the three I personally conversed with.
She asked, “Who was at the party?”
I answered, “Bill, Bob, and Brianna.”
When I answered this way, I wasn’t lying to my wife or attempting to hide anything from her, even though there were actually fifty people present. Rather, I was only interested in telling her about Bill, Bob, and Brianna, since these were the only three I had serious interaction with.
Imagine that you were at the same party. Afterwards, you had a conversation with a friend that went something like this:
Your friend asked, “Who was at the party?”
You answered, “At least fifty people!”
It is clear from your answer that you wanted to convey how big the crowd was in general, and you were not interested in sharing about your interactions with individuals. Even though our answers were very different, neither one of us told a lie, and we did not contradict one another. We were each telling the story in a selective manner for certain purposes.
Obviously, selective storytelling is common (just watch or read the news). When we recount events, we often share and emphasize certain details, while omitting others. The gospel writers did the same. Matthew does not contradict Luke and Mark. He was sharing a detail that Luke and Mark thought was unnecessary for their intended audiences.
For the record, in this book I am following Mark’s account, and so I will focus exclusively on the one demoniac he highlights.
Demons and Swine Farming
More important than the number of men is the fact that demons were there, living in this land. The very presence of demons reveals that the people were opened to demonic influences. We don’t know how opened they were (these could have been the only two demoniacs in the area), but it seems demons often go where they are wanted or tolerated. Apparently, these people had collectively kept the door unlocked for the presence of such dark and torturous beings.
In addition to the presence of the demons, we also find a second major clue as to how dark this land was – swine farming.
Keep in mind, these people were living in the Promised Land of Israel. Though they had swapped cultures, appearing much more Greek and Roman than Jewish, nonetheless, they still would’ve had access to the Law and the Prophets. They would’ve known the holy requirements of God for their lives. They certainly should’ve known that pigs were declared unclean animals, not fit for eating. But not only were they consuming pork, they were also raising pigs to be sold and consumed by others. They didn’t merely eat swine, they were farming swine.
In Leviticus 11, we find a list of unclean animals that God strictly forbade the Israelites from eating. Included in this list is, of course, the pig:
Leviticus 11:7-8 The pig, because it parts the hoof and is cloven-footed but does not chew the cud, is unclean to you. You shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall not touch their carcasses; they are unclean to you. (ESV)
Since Jesus is one with the Father, he was directly involved in providing that law to his people. It was his directive, and it was given for good reason, though most modern people may not be able to comprehend that reason. It was the law of the living God, and the people in the land of the Gerasenes were ignoring that law.
To understand Jesus’ disgust for the swine farms, read his parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). When describing the despicable life choices the younger son had made and the consequences of those choices, Jesus used a pigpen as a picture of his lowest point.
Luke 15:15-16 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate. (ESV)
To the Jewish mind, at least for those who took God’s Law seriously, this scene was unthinkable. These filthy creatures were not to be touched and certainly not eaten. But the prodigal was wallowing with them in the mud and was eating their food with them! It would have been bad enough if he’d merely wished he could eat the pigs, but even worse, he actually dined with them on their slop. It doesn’t get any lower than that!
When Jesus wanted to communicate that this younger son had strayed far, far away from his father, he simply described him sitting and eating with pigs. To the Jewish mind, this was all that had to be said. Pigs are detestable and unclean, and those who hang out with them are too.
Don’t miss this vital point. Modern people do not think of swine farming (or swine eating) as a dark and sinful activity, and for good reasons which will become clear later. But in Jesus’ day, this activity revealed openly dark and rebellious hearts. The people who lived in the land of the Gerasenes were walking far from the light of the Lord, entertaining demons and wallowing with the pigs.
But the Light of the World was now walking in their land, and when the missionary Jesus steps foot somewhere, things can quickly get interesting. Indeed, things can get downright revolutionary.
This post is Chapter 2 of the book Drowning Swine.
Read Drowning Swine Online
Click the chapter links to read now
- Jesus the Missionary
- Here Be Demons (and Pigs)
- Darkness Is Dark
- Among the Tombs Crying Out
- Darkness Kills Itself
- Who’s the Boss?
- Team Affiliation
- Naming Your Demons
- Fighting Fire with Consuming Fire
- Why God Made Pigs
- The Idolatry of Economy
- Holiness, Sanity, and Missions
Appendix: Synoptic Harmony