Evil's presence in our world is a fact of life. Every evening news report and every newspaper tells of the damage people do to one another. In fact, evil grabs our attention. The proverb about television news—"If it bleeds, it leads"—indicates how stories about acts of fallenness leap to our attention.
The account of the Gerasene demoniac is such a story. Here is a man in the grip of evil's power. Other human forces and agencies have been unable to contain him. So he lives a destructive and isolated life among the tombs outside the city. Luke is in the midst of presenting a series of miracles that reveal the extent of Jesus' authority. How does he stack up in a showdown with evil?
The account is a fully developed miracle story, giving a clear development of the need, Jesus' response and then the reaction to what took place. The man's condition is serious. First, he is possessed by several demons (note the Greek plural, echon daimonia, "who had demons," in v. 27). Later it will be said that a single demon speaks (vv. 28-29), but this is simply a single voice for the multitudes that indwell this man. Second, he is naked and has been so for a long time. This would make his behavior offensive. Third, the man lives in isolation among the tombs. The German scholar Adolph Schlatter has been quoted as saying, "Only deranged people have a desire for death and decay" (Geldenhuys 1951:258 n. 4). This certainly summarizes well the picture Luke has painted here. Everything about this man shows how the presence of evil in his life has left him deserted and alone.
Jesus' presence alone is enough to stir the forces inside the man to react. The demonic power reacts to Jesus' command to leave the man by causing the man to fall before him and say, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don't torture me!" Several details are important. The evil force recognizes Jesus' authority and ability to exercise judgment (4:34, 41). As in 4:34-41, there is a confession. In Luke 8 the confession is of Jesus' unique sonship. The demons desire to be left alone, to avoid torment. In an aside in verse 29 we are told that this possessed man had often been led into the wilderness by what possessed him—a statement that has both literal and figurative force. Numerous times this diabolical power had enabled the man to break bonds that had trapped him. Such ancient fetters could have been made of hair, cloth, rope or chains, but the Mark 5:4 parallel suggests that these had been chains. This foe is so powerful that other people have been unable to control the man. So they have left him in the solitary confinement of the tombs.
Jesus' request for the name of the demon brings the response Legion, a reference to a unit made up of thousands of soldiers. No doubt the name indicates the extent of the possession and the difficulty of Jesus' task in dealing with it. Luke makes this explicit: many demons had gone into him.
The demons feared Jesus. They did not want to be thrown into the Abyss, a reference to the abode of the dead in the Old Testament (Ps 107:26; compare Rom 10:7). Only Luke uses this term in the New Testament, though Hades, Gehenna and Tartarus may be parallel concepts (on Hades see Lk 16:23). In the Old Testament and Judaic writings this term referred to the "depths" and was often associated with the sea (Ps 71:20; Jubilees 5:6-7; 1 Enoch 10:4-6; 18:11-16). The demons feared permanent confinement, so they asked to be allowed to inhabit the swine on a nearby hill. The choice of pigs is interesting, given their association with uncleanliness in the Old Testament (Lev 11:7). It is not clear why the demons made such a request, other than to escape total confinement and judgment.
The demons' request is granted, but their relief is short-lived. The pigs apparently are startled and rush headlong over a cliff and into the sea. In Judaism the sea was a symbol of potential evil (Testament of Solomon 5:11; 11:6), so this becomes an illustration of evil's destructiveness, especially since the demons have not only harmed the man but now have led to the pigs' death.
Needless to say, this is not an everyday event in the Gerasene region, so the herdsmen run to tell others in the city and countryside what has happened. When the people travel out to the scene of the miracle, they see a transformed man sitting at Jesus' feet dressed and in his right mind. The story of how this change occurred is told, but the people cannot take it; they ask Jesus to go. Luke does not tell us why, although Mark 5:16 suggests that the economic impact of the loss of the swine is a concern. Evidently, however, the encounter with Jesus' power is too threatening for them (v. 37, because they were overcome with fear).
The newly healed man wants to go with Jesus, but instead Jesus tells him to remain behind and testify to what God had done for him. He obeys and tells the whole city what Jesus had done for him. This man, now of sound mind, makes no distinction between Jesus' actions and the workings of God's power.
This miracle account is full of teaching. The miracle itself shows the extent of Jesus' authority over the forces of evil and his ability to transform people's ties to evil. The Gerasene man had been a totally destructive agent under the force of the demons. As a result of Jesus' work, he has been restored to full life. The image of him clothed and seated before Jesus at the end of the account contrasts sharply with the earlier picture of his sojourn among the tombs. The miracle pictures how Jesus can erase the power and effects of evil in a person. This transformation and the ability to overcome evil is why Paul calls the gospel "the power of God" in Romans 1:16-17.
The man's reaction shows that after God's grace works, our attention should be directed to Jesus. He longed to serve Jesus and even assumed that he should join his traveling band of disciples. Such devotion is commendable. Jesus made it clear, however, that this man's testimony should remain in the region. He was to be a "missionary in residence" for God. Of course the man understood that to tell God's story, he must mention Jesus as well.
The demons show how impotent evil ultimately is when confronted with Jesus' authority. The account also reveals how destructive such unseen forces are.
The people's reaction is also instructive. For some people it is very difficult to let God and his power get close to them. These people recognized that Jesus had power. It aroused fear in them, and they chose to have nothing to do with it.
Jesus possesses authority so great that he can reverse the effects of evil. Some are transformed by that power—turned from a path of uncleanliness, destruction and death to life and testimony. But others fear it and want God's presence to be distant from them. They fear what involvement with God's power might entail.
Jesus' authority is a given for Luke. It forces choices of association. The world is full of destructive forces, but Jesus is the means for overcoming them. Luke raises a question here. Shall we sit at his feet and let his power free us? Or will we quake at Jesus' authority and ask him to go? Finally, those who have experienced the freedom Jesus gives are called to testify to what God has done.