When Jesus arrived on the other side of the Sea of Galilee (he landed in the region of the Gadarenes), two demon-possessed men came from the tombs to meet him. The men were violent and no one could pass by them. The men shouted,
“What do you want with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”
“If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”
Jesus said to them, “Go!”
The demons left the men and went into the pigs. The entire herd rushed down the steep bank and into the lake where they drowned.
Those tending the pigs ran into town to report what they had seen. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. They pleaded with him to leave their region.
What the story means to us today
The awareness of the demons
No sooner had Jesus withdrawn from the crowds on the other side of the lake than he was met by demons who recognized him on sight. The demons not only acknowledged Jesus’ status as the “Son of God”, but showed they were clearly aware of an “appointed time” in which they will be judged and ultimately destroyed. By their comment, “Have you come to torment us before the appointed time?”, we can see that Jesus’ arrival appears to them as a deceitful change of God’s plan.
The power of faith – and the danger of false religion
Jesus drives the demons out of the men with a single word. The same incredible power is available to us today – if we possess true faith.
Unlike portrayed in movies, it is not the name “Jesus” that provides the power but rather, the authority granted to us by God through our faith and belief – in his name. The danger of misusing Jesus’ name is humorously illustrated in Acts 19. A group of “Jewish priests” travelled around the country driving evil spirits from people. In one instance, they attempted to use the name of Jesus to facilitate the exorcism of a demon-possessed man. The demon inside the man responded, “Jesus I know and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Scriptures tells us that the demon-possessed man then jumped on the priests and overpowered them all “giving them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.”
The requirement of faith needed to drive out demons is confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 17:19-20 when the disciples ask Jesus why they could not drive out a demon. Jesus explained, ‘Because you have so little faith.”
This is reinforced in Mark 16:16 when Jesus tells of the near-endless potential through unwavering faith:
“These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Additional thoughts and considerations
One demon-possessed man or two?
Although Mark and Luke include much longer accounts of the event, the narrative of the demon-possessed men occurs in all three books. All agree that the event took place after the boat landed on the shores of the Sea of Galilee but Matthew’s account says there were two men while both Mark and Luke say there was a single man possessed by multiple demons (the demons told Jesus their name was Legion). It’s one of those instances where some cringe at the discrepancy while others marvel at the Bible’s honesty.
There are various explanations for the divergence. It is possible that Mark and Luke felt no compulsion to mention the second man since one man for the story would suffice. This is common in scripture just as it is frequent in modern times to draw a story upon a single person despite the presence of others during the event.
There are other equally feasible explanations. It may be that Matthew had knowledge of a second man while Mark and Luke did not. Or possibly Matthew was not present as the event unfolded and recounted it from a second-hand source. Some think that two men were present but only one of the two was possessed (hence, Matthew mentions both while Mark and Luke focused only on the demon-possessed man).
Regardless, all three agree on the main point of the story – that there were multiple demons and Jesus drove them out and into a herd of pigs.
Why do demons require a host?
Jesus discusses demon-possession in Matthew 12:43. According to Jesus, when an evil spirit comes out of a person, it goes through “arid places seeking rest”. The “arid” or “waterless place” Jesus mentions in not entirely clear. There are several passages in the Bible, including the creation story in Genesis, that mention water and waterless places using phraseology we cannot comprehend today. It may be that there is some sort of ethereal substance, dimension, or time that we are unaware of.
Jesus tells us that a driven-out demon will attempt to return to its previous host and potentially with help from other demons, may be able to repossess a prior host. Thus, Jesus’ lesson seems to imply that demons prefer arid places and if none are found, prefer to be in a human host. Given this, we can conclude that demons can sustain themselves outside of a host, but existence outside a host is excruciating to them – they would much prefer to be in a human host where they can inflict spiritual damage.
Why would Jesus allow the demons to enter the bodies of pigs?
Readers may wonder why Jesus didn’t simply cast out the demons, forcing them to seek refuge elsewhere. First, understand that in historical context, Jewish customs considered pigs “unclean” beasts. Casting demons into a pig could be considered an affront to the evil spirits.
It is more likely however, that Jesus used the pig hosts to confirm (1) that the man was indeed possessed, and (2) that the demons were truly cast out. If the demons had not been sent into the pigs, witnesses would have to take the word of the possessed man that he had been freed.
Given this possibility, it is interesting that the Gentiles of the area seemed perfectly content living beside a demon-possessed man but took affront when their pigs were destroyed.
The science and history behind the story
The area known as Gadarenes
The region of Gadarenes, a district controlled by the city of Gadara, is believed to be located about midway on the lake’s eastern shore, possibly near the village of Gerasa, across the waters from Galilee. The area is primarily populated by Gentiles which would be evidenced by the presence of pig herders.
As the biblical account attests, the area is known for an adjacent hillside peppered with caves and ancient tombs. Gadara was a prominent city in the area until its conquest by Muslims. Today it is represented by the ruins of Umm Keis.
Notes on Biblical translation
“What do you want with us”
Most translations say the demons asked, “What do you want with us?” The original phrase here is a common ancient colloquial expression, “What to us and to you”. It was an oft-used phrase in the Near East somewhat equivalent to “What have I done to you to deserve this?” Or “This is not my business so how am I involved?” Various modern translations render the phrase as “What do you want with us?” or “Leave us alone” both of which are clearly implied.
28 When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. 29 “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”
30 Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding. 31 The demons begged Jesus, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.”
32 He said to them, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. 33 Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
31 They landed in the country of the Gadarenes and were met by two madmen, victims of demons, coming out of the cemetery. The men had terrorized the region for so long that no one considered it safe to walk down that stretch of road anymore. Seeing Jesus, the madmen screamed out, “What business do you have giving us a hard time? You’re the Son of God! You weren’t supposed to show up here yet!” Off in the distance a herd of pigs was browsing and rooting. The evil spirits begged Jesus, “If you kick us out of these men, let us live in the pigs.”
32–34 Jesus said, “Go ahead, but get out of here!” Crazed, the pigs stampeded over a cliff into the sea and drowned. Scared to death, the swineherds bolted. They told everyone back in town what had happened to the madmen and the pigs. Those who heard about it were angry about the drowned pigs. A mob formed and demanded that Jesus get out and not come back.
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
28 When he came to the other side, to the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were extremely violent, so that no one was able to pass by that way. 8:29 They cried out, “Son of God, leave us alone! Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 8:30 A large herd of pigs was feeding some distance from them. 8:31 Then the demons begged him, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.” 8:32 And he said, “Go!” So they came out and went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep slope into the lake and drowned in the water. 8:33 The herdsmen ran off, went into the town, and told everything that had happened to the demon-possessed men. 8:34 Then the entire town came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
28 And when he was come to the other side into the country of the Gergesenes, there met him two possessed with devils, coming out of the tombs, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way. 29 And, behold, they cried out, saying, What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? art thou come hither to torment us before the time? 30 And there was a good way off from them an herd of many swine feeding. 31 So the devils besought him, saying, If thou cast us out, suffer us to go away into the herd of swine. 32 And he said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters. 33 And they that kept them fled, and went their ways into the city, and told every thing, and what was befallen to the possessed of the devils. 34 And, behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus: and when they saw him, they besought him that he would depart out of their coasts.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.