Jesus and the Legion of Demons (Mark 5:1-13)

This is a series about the Trinity. It explores this doctrine by brief expositions of different passages from throughout the Gospel of Mark, showing how the Trinity is the explicit and implicit teaching and assumption of Scripture.

Jesus and his disciples have finished their perilous crossing of the Sea of Galilee. There was a ferocious storm during the night. It was so bad, the men with him feared for their lives. Frantic, they woke Jesus up, probably because they were exasperated that He slept while they desperately bailed water from the boat. Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves, demonstrating His power, jurisdiction and authority over the forces of nature.

Though He had added a human nature in the incarnation, Jesus still retained all the properties of His divine nature and continued to uphold all things in creation as He lived as a man in His own creation (cf. Col 1; Heb 1).1

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had come out of the boat, there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who lived among the tombs; and no one could bind him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the fetters he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising himself with stones (Mark 5:1-5).

Their little fleet has docked on the eastern shore of the lake, and Mark tells us all about the strange man they meet. Mark often includes more detail than the other Gospel writers, and he paints a sad picture here. The man is clearly mad; demon-possessed. He lives in a cave in the hills, near the road. He cuts himself, screams at odd intervals, and roams about freely, no doubt terrorizing the locals. They’ve tried to subdue him; it didn’t work.

This is Gentile country; a place no teacher who followed the Pharisaical school of interpretation would deign to go.2 Yet, the Messiah went. He rejected the racist, exclusivist attitude so many Jewish people in His day had been infected by.

And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped 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 had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” (Mark 5:6-8).

The Demons Worship Jesus as God

The demoniac saw Jesus from far away, likely as the fleet docked. He ran to Jesus and worshipped or gave Him reverence (προσεκύνησεν αὐτῷ). It’s clear the various English translations are split on whether this was deliberate worship of Christ as God, or simple reverence of an inferior to a superior. A lexicon will only get you so far; context is the key. Here, there is a strong case for deliberate worship of Christ as God. We know this is likely deliberate worship, because the demons immediately confess Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” It is possible the man came at Jesus and His little band, planning to attack them, but fell in worship once he realized who Christ was.3

Who’s doing the worship? The demons are.

This man is clearly not in control of his faculties; he is not his own person. He’s completely controlled by the forces of darkness. Why else would he live in caves, scream like a madman, cut himself at random intervals, and terrorize the local community?

The Demons See a Distinction Between Jesus and the Father

They don’t see Jesus as the highest creation of God (i.e. the Arians). They also don’t see Him as identical to the Father (i.e. the Modalists); they admit a functional distinction between divine persons. He is not the Father; He is “the Son of the Most High God.”4 To be sure, the demons don’t explain their understanding of this distinction, but they clearly acknowledge it’s there.

The Demons Beg Christ for Mercy

The word here has two senses, and context matters. It can mean to solemnly command somebody to do something (i.e. “Tyler, swear this series will be over one day!”). Or, it can mean to beg somebody. I think the context makes it clear the demons are begging Jesus for mercy (cf. NASB, NKJV, NET, NLT).5 More than that, to heighten their plea, they invoke God’s name (i.e. “I’m begging you, in God’s name, don’t torture me!!”). Notice, they didn’t invoke Christ’s name (which they know); they called on God.

Why do they beg? Because Jesus had commanded them to leave the poor man. They have no capacity for defiance, for even a pretense of rebellion. Instead, they shriek and beg Him for mercy. “Undeniable proof that Jesus is the Son of God and inaugurator of the kingdom of God comes from those whose evil empire is under assault.”6

What does God have to do with their torture? It’s probably a desperate plea for a delay of judgment (cf. Mt 8:29). All fallen angels will have an eternity in hell, along with Satan (cf. Rev 20:10-14; 2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6). These fallen angels, terrified as they stand in the incarnate Son’s presence, beg for a delay. They know their time has not yet come. So, by invoking God’s name (i.e. the One who decreed their eventual eternal torment later), they beg Jesus to leave them alone for now. It is also interesting that the demon’s sentence was decreed by God (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6), yet the demons apparently attribute God’s power to Jesus. They don’t fear that Yahweh will torture them; they’re afraid God the Son incarnate will torture them!

And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” And he begged him eagerly not to send them out of the country. Now a great herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him, “Send us to the swine, let us enter them.” So he gave them leave. And the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea (Mark 5:9-13).

The man kept begging Jesus over and over again (παρεκάλει αὐτὸν πολλὰ)7 to not send them out of the area. This is extraordinary; the demons are clearly at Jesus’ mercy. Finally, in desperation, they seize on a new idea – will Jesus allow them to enter into the pigs? One can hardly imagine a more pathetic scene of complete domination.

As Jesus said elsewhere, “if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” (Lk 11:20). They had to get Jesus’ permission (καὶ ἐπέτρεψεν αὐτοῖς) before they could go.8 In a real sense, the demons were His prisoners.

Conclusion

The demons:

  1. Worship Christ as God
  2. Admit a functional distinction between Jesus and the Father
  3. They beg Jesus for mercy; which means they admit He is their superior.
  4. They invoke God’s name to heighten their pathetic pleas for a delay of sentence, and (incidentally) show they distinguish between Father and Son.
  5. They admit Jesus can torture them, and they beg for mercy from this fate. They believe Jesus will carry out God’s sentence of eternal torment on them.
  6. They keep begging Him, again and again, to not send them away. This shows they know Christ has the power to do just that.
  7. Finally, out of options, they beg Jesus for permission to enter a herd of pigs, which He grants them to do.

Those who oppose the doctrine of the Trinity will have to reckon with all this evidence. It cannot be done.

Notes

1 For a wonderful discussion on classical Christology in contrast to various evangelical kenotic theories popular today, see Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016); especially 353 — 465.

2 R.C.H. Lenski suggests this is actually Jewish territory (Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel [Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1946], 201-212). He argues this neatly solves the moral problem of the destruction of the herd of pigs. That is, these Jews were keeping pigs (i.e. unclean and forbidden animals), so they deserved to have their illicit herd destroyed.

This is an extraordinarily minority interpretation. It is far more likely this is a Gentile community, in a Gentile area. Jesus even told the man to tell everybody in the ten cities (“in the Decapolis,” Mk 5:20) what He had done for him. See especially these two articles, (1) David M. May, “Decapolis,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016), and (2) R.E. Ciampa, “Decapolis,” in Dictionary of the New Testament: Background, ed. Craig Evans and Stanley Porter (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), 266-268.    

3 Mark Strauss suggests this, but still believes the sense is not worship, but prostration. “The verb used here (προσκυνέω) does not always mean “worship” (contra KJV, NKJV) but can also mean ‘bow down, do obeisance to, fall prostrate before.’ Since Jesus demonstrates complete mastery over the demons throughout this scene, the sense here seems to be ‘fell on his face.’ Though rushing out to challenge Jesus, the demoniac instead collapses in a heap of submission before him,” (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 217).

4 Of course, this passage needs to be tempered by the numerous places where Jesus speaks of Himself and the Father as One.  

5 Many translations render this as “adjure” (cf. RSV, ESV) which can carry either meaning (see Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. [Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2003], s.v. “adjure,” 1,2). Add to it, “adjure” is not a word that really means too much to normal people. I think translations that actually take a stand for one meaning or the other do a better job. Tyndale, for example, went all in for the sense of “make them swear.” He rendered it, “I require thee in the name of God …”

6 Strauss (Mark, 217).

7 Some translations understand πολλὰ as an adverb here (e.g. “earnestly, intensely;” RSV, ESV, NASB, NKJV). Others see it as a repetition (“over and over,” KJV, NET, NIV, NLT). Coupled with the imperfect (which I take as a iterative; e.g. “he kept begging”), I think it’s best to render the begging as a repetitive action.

8 Contra. James Edwards, who wrote the demons did this “[o]n their own initiative,” (The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002], 158).

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