In any good summer blockbuster movie, our intrepid hero stares down overwhelming opposition in a final showdown. Vastly outnumbered, he relies on his wits and skill to emerge victorious from the battle. We cheer him on because we love to see the good guy win, especially if he’s the underdog.
It’s a little different in Jesus’ case. He’s about to be vastly outnumbered by the enemy, but it doesn’t even faze him. Jesus is not the underdog; he is never the underdog. But he likes to help people who are underdogs.
Immediately following the terrific windstorm from the night before, Jesus and his followers reach land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. This region is inhabited by the Gerasenes, who were Gentiles. It’s the first time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus ventures into Gentile territory. As soon as he steps onto the land, he is confronted by a powerful foe.
A man rushes down the beach to meet him, and he isn’t coming with friendly intent. He is a wild beast of a man, an unclean Gentile, controlled by an unclean spirit, living among unclean tombs. No one can tame him and chain him down; the unclean spirit gives him phenomenal strength to break his bonds. But now we see this monster falling down on the beach before Jesus, shrieking, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” In other words, he is pleading with Jesus, “Leave me alone!” Why? Because Jesus had begun to confront the spirit controlling the man, saying, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” It’s a showdown between spiritual forces, and there’s no question who is going to win.
Then the big reveal takes place. Jesus ignores the man and confronts the unclean spirit inside him, demanding, “What is your name?” And the spirit replies, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” A legion was a roman army unit comprised of 6,000 men; it represented a force of astounding size. There were innumerable demons oppressing this man—but they are reduced to begging Jesus for mercy. They beg him to let them stay in the country and enter a herd of (unclean) pigs; Jesus gives them permission. This is an act of defiance on the part of these spirits; they have been embarrassed and want to save face by demonstrating their power. They represent such an overwhelming force that, in their fury, they are able to drown the entire herd of 2,000 pigs into the lake like so many lemmings.
When the pig herdsmen witness this incredible show of force, they run to tell the news to whomever will listen. Those who hear it run to see it for themselves, and there they find Jesus—and the demon-possessed man, sitting there calmly, “clothed and in his right mind.” And then, Mark tells us, “They were afraid.” They know that these spirits have tremendous power; the spirits had turned this man into an untamable beast, and they had just driven a massive herd of pigs to their death. Yet Jesus had dismissed them all with a simple command. These spirits were frightening enough—how much more so the man who mastered them!
But here’s the thing about fear: it doesn’t guarantee faith. As the legion of spirits begged Jesus, so now the people beg him for a favor as well—“to depart from their region.” Why? Because Jesus is a threat to them. When someone with this power shows up, he changes the status quo. That’s great news to people who are outcast or oppressed, like the demon-possessed man. But it’s bad news for people like the herdsmen, who have nothing to gain when the King comes to exercise his authority. If Jesus is in command over the spiritual realm, there is no stopping him. So they plead with him to leave, and Jesus obliges them.
As for the demon-possessed man, he too begs Jesus for a favor. He asks “that he might be with him.” This is what Jesus had asked his disciples to do (3:14). So will he grant the man’s request, just as he had granted the request of the unclean spirits and the request of the man’s Gerasene countrymen? Strangely, he does not. He has a better plan for his new recruit: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
If you’ve been following along for the first four chapters of Mark, this order should surprise you. Jesus has repeatedly tried to hide himself and his message, ordering unclean spirits and a cleansed leper to keep quiet about him, and speaking in parables to conceal the good news of God’s kingdom. As we keep reading in Mark, we will find that he continues to value secrecy. But here, he orders the man to tell everyone about what had happened. Why?
Take a look at what Jesus asks the man to say. “Tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” That’s all. The message the man is to deliver is simply this: the Most High God of the Jews has come to deal kindly with the Gentiles. This demoniac was an unclean man among unclean men. If Jesus feels compassion for him and rescues him, how much more will he do so for his countrymen! The man travels throughout the region, telling how much Jesus has done for him, and everyone marvels over the news.
We saw last week that Jesus had authority over the natural world, and now we see that he has command over the spiritual realm. And once again, he uses that authority with a meekness, a gentleness, a pity for the outcast and the oppressed. A madman in agony, loneliness, and despair—now clothed and in his right mind and jubilant with news of a great Savior.