A Few More Thoughts from Sunday's Sermon

Hey everyone, it’s Josh. On Sunday, I had the nearly impossible task of preaching 27 verses! A consequence of that kind of length is that there are some things that are left out. I hated doing it. I also didn’t want you to listen to a 55 minute sermon!!!! So I wanted to give us just a few paragraphs of depth for Mark 5.6-9, a segment of this past Sunday’s story that I painstakingly skimmed. 

Two sources I often use while studying Mark: R.T. France and Mark Strauss. They are wonderful thinkers. 

Brevity is my goal. You can judge my success.

In Mark 5.1-5, Jesus and his disciples pull up to Gentile land. Meeting them is a demon-possessed maniac screaming at Jesus. The scene is intense, even frightening.

Verse 7, along with verse 9, stirs up quite a bit of conversation. It is clear from v 9 that it is the demon who is speaking through the man. So in v 7, notice that it is the demon who recognizes Jesus’ true identity. The title he gives is important: The Son of the Most High God. Now when we look across the Bible, the phrase ‘Most High God’ is used in many places. And importantly, it is used four times in the Old Testament in Gentile contexts (see Gen 14.18-20; Num 24.16; Isa 14.14; Dan 3.26, 42). In the “country of the Gerasenes,” using a phrase like ‘Son of the Most High God’ may be important. Not only is Jesus the coming Jewish Messiah (which was described by demons in Jewish lands as ‘the Holy One of God’ and ‘the Son of God’: see Mark 1.24 and 3.11), he is also Messiah to the Gentiles. 

Then the demon does something interesting: he “adjures by God.” That is, he swears, like an oath, by God for Jesus not to torment him. What is fascinating is that, in ancient times, it is not the demon that makes typically swears by God, it is the exorcist. It is the one casting the demon out that calls upon the living God to complete the task. Yet here the roles are reversed; is the demon trying to bind Jesus? Is he attempting to gain control over Jesus? 

Some scholars say ‘yes’ and some say ‘no.’

Some say its obvious! He is using the kind of language that is used to bind; therefore, he is trying to control Jesus. (My favorite Markan scholar defends this view.) What are the strengths to holding this view? Well, the strongest defense is the use of names in the story. When an exorcist or demon was trying to gain control over an opponent, he would assert his enemy’s name. There is plenty of evidence in documents near Jesus’ time: to know and declare the name of a person or spirit was believed to give power over them. In our story, Legion uses Jesus’ name, and Jesus uses Legion’s name. With this view in mind, it looks like both parties are attempting to exercise control over the other. This makes a lot of sense, and if you go with this interpretation, I completely understand.

But I will say this: there is a possible weakness to the above argument: notice by whom he adjures/swears. It is “by God” that Legion swears. Why would a demon, a spirit of darkness, attempt to have power over Jesus, the very divine Son of God? That is, isn’t the demon is asking for help from the wrong team? Surely God is on the side of Jesus in this potential battle for control. In fact, we see this throughout the Gospel of Mark: a key aspect of Jesus’ kingdom-of-God agenda is domination over the demon world. Jesus is not just here to overthrow Rome, right? He is here to overthrow the forces of evil: Satan and his demons.

But the skeptic must ask, ‘Okay, if this is true—if the demon(s) is not trying to gain control over Jesus—then what is he doing? What is Legion attempting to do by using swearing/adjuring language? You’ll need to be convincing, Josh.’ And you’re right. That’s why I am not proposing an absolute right answer in this little monologue. 

So here it is: Perhaps let’s look across the Gospel tradition to see if we can get some help. That is, let’s look at another version of the story: Matthew’s version. In Matthew, the demons ask, “Have you come to torment us before the time?” (Matt 8.29) That is, there is “the time” coming in the future when God will eternally damn them. They will be expelled forever. And according to Matthew, they are aware of that future time. And so they are essentially begging Jesus to cast them into the pigs in the mean time. They know it is coming, but they don’t want Jesus to send them to that final judgment now. They want to prevent it for as long as they can. So pigs are their alternative plea. 

Therefore, for Mark, scholars argue, using the phrase “I adjure you by God” is a shortened version of the same request. Mark is surely known for being brief, and perhaps that is what is going on here. Legion is accusing Jesus of jumping the gun, so he attempts to make Jesus swear by his own Father that he’ll hold off on a final punishment. And if this is true, it helps us make a little more sense of Jesus’ willingness to negotiate with Legion’s plea in Mark 5.10-13. Moreover, the language of begging/pleading makes more sense too. Could a demon possibly try to assert power over a person whom he must prostrate himself and beg?

If we go with this second option, then the demon is not trying to gain some sort of control over Jesus—at least not in the fullest sense. He is desperately trying to escape some sort of punishment that would be (and will be) worse than being cast into a herd of pigs.

So I’ll finish with this: either option is okay. As you can probably tell, I lean toward the second option. But if you say, ‘No. I like the first option better,’ that’s totally fine with me. Here’s why: neither interpretation changes the most important meaning of the passage, which is this: Jesus is Lord over the darkness. Maybe Legion is trying to exert power, maybe he isn’t. Regardless, he isn’t the one in control. As Mark has made abundantly clear for the fourth time in five chapters, Jesus has authority over demons. As David preached three Sundays ago: Jesus has bound the strong man (Satan). The evil one’s regime has come to an end. Jesus has come to set up God’s eternal kingdom. Believers, rest assured that God is sovereign and authoritative over all spiritual forces. That encourages me; hopefully it does the same in your heart.

(If you have questions, bring it! I love this stuff.)

Much love, church. Praying for you this week.