Please read Mark 4:35-5:43
What does the word ‘chaos’ convey to you? What picture does it bring to mind? For some, there will spring unbidden a vision of your child’s bedroom, that moment when you open the door and you realise that there is not a single inch of floor space visible to the unaided eye. Or maybe it’s your own bedroom that’s like that – or your garage – or your desk at work! But for some, though, I suspect the picture is darker. For you, ‘chaos’ may be the word that best describes your life. This kind of chaos means that nothing makes sense; nothing fits together. Life is out of control and there is nothing you can do about it. This kind of chaos brings despair. Real chaos is something we fear. We fear it taking hold of our lives, our streets, our world: our inner world or the world around us. Chaos, and our fear of chaos, is something the Bible takes very seriously. We now come to a section of Mark’s gospel that contains three stories of miracles which all reveal Jesus’ absolute authority over hostile powers. Whether he is facing a violent storm, a violent evil, a violent sickness or even death, Jesus has the authority to overcome it; to face chaos and bring peace; to take the broken pieces of a man’s life, a woman’s life, and put them back together. Nothing symbolises chaos better than the wild waves of a restless sea – the subject of the first of these stories.
In the previous chapter we looked at the parables of the Kingdom, where Jesus explains that his new Kingdom is going to grow from very small, almost invisible beginnings ultimately to fill the whole earth. Now he will show that he has the power to make that happen. Here comes the evidence. We don’t know how much time is covered by the parables of ch 4, whether one day or many, but in v.35 evening is coming and Jesus makes the decision to move on. It’s possible that he simply stays in the boat he has been using without stepping ashore at all; that would explain the odd expression ‘just as he was, in the boat’ (v.36). As we have noticed before, Jesus does not simply go where the crowds are. This is the exact opposite of celebrity culture. Celebrities seek out the crowds, they stay with their public: publicity is their life-blood. Jesus is not like that. In fact, having taught crowds of thousands, he is now setting out for a rendezvous with one single man, and him the ultimate outcast.
Remember this lake is quite small: the journey can’t be more than ten miles. The disciples are expecting a routine crossing. There were ‘other boats with him’ (v.36): various ideas have been read into that statement, but most likely the boats are simply carrying uninvited followers who are keen to see what Jesus is up to. Various minor details are included in this story which sound very like the marks of an eye-witness account, almost certainly Peter’s. In any event, the people in these other boats are about to benefit from a miracle, because now, without warning, the storm breaks (v.37). It seems amazing that such a small lake could be prone to such wild storms, but that is in fact the case. The sea of Galilee is mostly surrounded by mountains and hills; and when the wind funnels through the gap at the southern end, where the river Jordan flows out, these violent storms occur, creating a chaos of short, choppy waves that could easily swamp a small fishing boat. Even so, from the reaction of the disciples, this storm must be exceptionally bad. Not all the disciples are experienced boatmen, of course – at least one (Levi) has come from a desk job – but panic seems to have been the response of them all (v.38).
So Jesus is asleep; and our eye-witness tells us exactly where he is. We should note that in a story that will soon show us his awesome power and majesty, we are reminded first that Jesus is completely human as well. This man needs to sleep. He’s asleep because he’s been teaching all day and he is exhausted. This is a man with physical, human needs just like us. The stern will perhaps be a little drier than elsewhere, but even so this is an open boat, not some luxury yacht with a sound-proofed cabin and stabilisers; and Jesus sleeps on through the crashing waves, the howling wind, the pitching of the boat and the yells of the disciples. He sleeps on, not because he has some magical sleeping pill, but because he is at peace even while the world around him is in chaos. When the disciples do rouse him, they say, literally: ‘Don’t you care that we are perishing?’ But that is their idea, not his. He knows they are not drowning, however fast the water is rising and whatever the note of panic in their voices. It is not clear what the disciples expect him to do – probably just to join in baling out the boat – but they want him awake.
One of the most striking points of this familiar story is the sheer casualness of Jesus’ response (v.39). He just gets up and does it. There is no ceremony, no need to gather his energies: he doesn’t even need to pray; he simply calms the storm. In the space of a moment, everything is quiet and still. And the words he uses are very interesting. In the exorcism story of 1:23-27, Mark tells us Jesus rebukes the demon: the same word is used here of rebuking the wind. Jesus tells the demon to be silenced, literally to be muzzled: just the same rather unusual word is used here. Jesus speaks to both the demon and the storm as you would speak to your dog. In both cases, the ‘dog’ obeys instantly. This man has the power to bring peace to a life torn apart by the power of a demon: he has the power to bring peace to nature torn by a raging storm – with a word!
In the boat, the disciples’ ears are still ringing with the noise, but the noise has already stopped. Their muscles are still tensed against the jolting of the boat, but the boat is not moving. Then through the dusk Jesus looks round at them and speaks (v.40). Clearly, not only the wind and the waves are out of order, but the disciples as well! Surely by now they should know they have nothing to fear when Jesus is with them. Hasn’t he told them, just in the last few days, that they are the insiders, the people who have seen what the Kingdom is really about (v.11)? It seems they still have a great deal to learn. v.41 tells us that the disciples are actually more afraid after the storm has been stilled than they were in the middle of it. ‘They feared a great fear’, the Greek says.
For the answer to the disciples’ question in v.41 we need to go back to the Old Testament, where time after time God is described as the one who brings order out of chaos. Right at the beginning, this is a keynote of the Creation story. Out of the primeval chaos of a formless universe, the Almighty God has brought order, design and life (Genesis 1:1-2). Repeatedly, as the Bible’s story unfolds, we find this picture of the God who brings order out of chaos – a chaos often represented as a turbulent, storm-ridden sea. Look at Psalm 65:7, Psalm 89:9 and Psalm 46, which celebrates the fact that even while the mountains are falling into the sea and the waters roar and foam, God’s people have no need to fear because he is the one who instructs the chaotic forces in the world: ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46:10). Psalm 107 contains the story of seafarers who are caught in a storm and cry out to the Lord in their trouble; and we read ‘he stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed’ (Psalm 107:29). For the Jews, then, the people to whom Jesus comes, their great Creator God is the one who can still the raging sea – something that as a nation they fear more than almost anything else. He is the God who quells the chaos. Now here is Jesus, doing what only God the Creator could possibly do, addressing the elements and literally putting them in their place. He couldn’t make his identity much clearer. Here on the lake, as the darkness draws in and with the disciples as the exclusive audience, Jesus reveals himself as the true God – nothing less than God in the form of man. Could it be plainer than that?
This story has something important to say to Christians. Notice that Jesus has actually suggested this journey – it is his idea and we can assume he knows exactly what is coming. The storm is violent: it is actually life-threatening. But Jesus brings them through it. Think of Mark’s first readers, facing persecution; they might be dragged off to death in the arena at any moment. They need to know that their Lord is with them, where the storm is raging, where it seems their whole world is collapsing and chaos is taking over. The early Church drew great comfort from this story. They felt they were about to be overwhelmed, they felt they were going to sink; but no, because Jesus was there in the storm with them. Why should we fear, when our Lord stands here with us? Similarly, this story gives great encouragement for the persecuted Church in many corners of the world today. And it is true for every Christian that the Lord Jesus is able to bring us safe through every trial. Jesus is not physically present with us now, of course, but he has given us his Spirit who is here with us just as surely as Jesus was there in that boat. Whatever furious squalls are frightening us, we can be sure that the Lord who is with us is in charge. He may well lead us into trials; he will certainly lead us through. Jesus says to the disciples that they have no more cause to be agitated and upset than the waves do. Their fear is quite out of place, he says. This story is not just a message of comfort for Christians who are facing trials in their lives; it’s a challenge as well. ‘Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?’, Jesus asks. If we are disciples, what is our answer? This Jesus is the same one who can bring peace out of chaos in every place. One day he will do that, in every troubled corner of the world, as he establishes his everlasting Kingdom over the whole earth.
I wonder how you get on with your neighbours? If you are like one in seven of the British public, you don’t get on with them at all. That is the proportion who have reported incidents of noisy neighbours – not to mention the many others who have feuds over parking, boundary lines or – a current favourite, this one – overgrown hedges. The whole issue has so gripped the public imagination that the concept of ‘neighbours from hell’ has inspired several TV series and most recently a popular computer game called ‘Neighbours from Hell’. It’s not much fun living next to a ‘neighbour from hell’, as you may even have experienced. There are many possible responses: on-line forums to support the victims; going to the police; and ultimately the courts. You can form a vigilante group to drive the offenders out. You can move away, or you can simply suffer in silence. And some, though not all, of these remedies were attempted by the inhabitants of the ‘region of the Gerasenes’, just next to the Sea of Galilee. Unfortunately, none of them worked. The offender in this case was the original ‘Neighbour from hell’ – in his case, the perfect description. This man – Legion, as he is known – certainly will not listen to reason. The only option for the locals in his case is the vigilante solution – until they meet the man who has the power to liberate.
It is likely that Jesus and the disciples have spent the night in the boat, because the story that follows in 5:1-20 clearly takes place in daylight. There is some confusion about the place name in v.1 here, as you can see from the footnote included in most Bible versions. There’s no doubt that Mark originally wrote ‘Gerasenes’, probably referring to a village by the lake shore: the main town of the area was Gadara, about six miles away, so to call the area ‘the region of the Gadarenes’ would be equally accurate. In any case, we are now on the east shore of the lake, the Gentile side – that’s important. As Jesus gets out of the boat, without warning a terrifying spectacle appears (vv.2-5): a man dressed in rags, at best, scarred and bloody where he has been cutting at himself in his despair. Appropriately, he lives among the tombs, the place of the dead – these would be burial caves, the only place he can live because the locals have driven him away. They have tried to restrain him with chains and shackles, but to no avail: from somewhere he has the strength to tear them off. At night and by day they hear his howling cries. This is not a man you want around. This is the neighbour from hell. He is uncontrollable, unmanageable, and totally without hope. Even by the standards of demonic activity, this is an extreme case, a man whose life is the very picture of chaos.
As he reaches Jesus he falls down before him (v.6) – the word used usually means worship. The demons who control this man are forced to recognise they are in the presence of someone totally superior. A shout is wrung out of him (v.7). ‘Son of the Most High God’ is a Gentile expression, not a Jewish one, but as we have seen before, it shows that the demons recognise Jesus far more clearly than any human does. That is why they respond to him with paralysed terror, recognising a power that is not just infinitely greater than their own, but the total opposite to theirs as well. In 3:22 the Jewish teachers accused Jesus of working by the power of Satan. These demons would hardly agree! As Jesus commands the spirit to come out, the man is forced to confess that there is not one spirit there, but a whole army of them (vv.8-9). No wonder his life has been so totally devastated. These verses show how his identity has been almost completely submerged – ‘my name is Legion, for we are many’. ‘He begged Jesus not to send them away.’ Once this man had a real name; now he’s just ‘legion’. A Roman army legion contained six thousand men. That needn’t be taken as a precise count – would you expect accuracy from demons? – but it will soon become clear that it’s not far from the truth.
Nearby there is a herd of pigs – this is Gentile country – and soon the demons are pleading to be allowed to transfer to them (vv.10-12). Jesus lets them go; they leave the man at once; and moments later there are two thousand pigs hurtling down the steep hillside to drown in the lake (v.13). It’s a vivid scene but a strange one, and many people have wondered why it happens this way. Why does Jesus let the demons destroy the pigs? Why doesn’t he simply banish the demons, as he does at other times? Doesn’t Jesus care about animals? Is it something to do with pigs being unclean for Jews? These are reasonable questions! The explanation can have nothing to do with pigs being unclean: Jesus has very little interest in the Jewish food laws, as we will see in ch 7, and he certainly won’t have the destruction of Gentiles’ pigs on his agenda. No, there are two reasons why Jesus lets this happen. Firstly, it is not yet time for the powers of evil to be destroyed. Defeated and driven out, yes; but in God’s master plan, Satan and his forces still remain at large for a little longer. So the demons are allowed to continue their destructive work, but this man himself will no longer be their victim. In God’s sight, one man is worth far more than two thousand pigs. Secondly, Jesus wants to give a dramatic visual demonstration of the reality and strength of these demonic powers. ‘Legion’ has been freed from a whole army of evil spirits. They were intent on destroying the man just as they have now destroyed a whole herd of animals. This is what demons are: they are chaos monsters. Look what happens, Jesus is saying, when they get to work.
The pigs are gone; and not surprisingly, their owners, or the swineherds, are powerfully impressed (vv.14-15). Here is the man who has terrorised their district, made their lives a misery, peacefully sitting down. He’s been running around naked, or near enough; now, somehow, he’s properly dressed. He’s been deranged by the demons, maddened, suicidal; but here he is in his right mind. He is liberated. Surely the locals will be delighted. But no, they are afraid. This is all too much for them to cope with. When they also hear what has happened to their pigs, there is only one possible outcome: they plead with Jesus to leave (vv.16-17). They drive him away, much as they drove their troublesome neighbour away. When it really came down to it, they would rather have their pigs than have Jesus around, like many people we may meet today who will not embrace Jesus because of the disturbance he will inevitably cause to their lives when he takes control – even though he brings the answer to their impossible problem.
Naturally, the man who’s been healed feels differently (vv.18-20). Today, troublesome neighbours are given a restraining order to keep them away from home, but this man can go home. It’s not his first choice. There is a striking point about discipleship in this story. Four times Jesus is begged for something: four times the same Greek word is used. Twice it’s the demons who beg (vv.10-12): don’t send us out of the area; Jesus agrees. Send us into the pigs; he agrees. The locals beg him to leave (v.17); and he agrees. The healed demoniac begs to go with him (v.18); and he refuses. This man is now a disciple; he is part of the new Kingdom; and he has to go where the King sends him. He is sent back home as a missionary; and it won’t be an easy task. Jesus may never return this way. That is why this man’s case is different from others whom Jesus heals. Generally he tells them to keep quiet, but this man he tells to speak. This is Gentile country; and now Gentiles will have the chance to hear from one of their own. He does just as he is told – right through the Decapolis region, which stretches down to the east of the Jordan river, telling what wonderful things the Lord Jesus has done for him. It is not surprising that the people are amazed (v.20).
Do you notice how similar Legion’s story is to the account of the stilling of the storm? Both stories start with chaos – the howling of the wind, the howling of the demoniac – and end with peace. Both times the Lord Jesus simply speaks a few words, and violent disorder becomes calm; and both times, people respond with fear – greater fear after the miracle than before, when they were actually in danger! The message is just the same too. This man Jesus holds the power that only God has. The same one who can restore peace to a storm-ridden lake can also restore peace to a demonised life. That’s wonderful; but it is frightening too.
Most people who read this book will be much more like the man called Legion as he is at the end of the story, rather than at the beginning. He has experienced the power of God in his life in a wonderful way, and so have we. He is qualified to go out and proclaim the news about Jesus, wherever Jesus tells him to go – and so are we. Maybe that thought makes us uncomfortable. First he goes to his own family and tells them. Then he travels, and wherever he goes he tells people what he knows about Jesus. Actually, that isn’t much. He has no theology degree. Unlike us, he has never heard a sermon, never attended a Bible study. But he knows who Jesus is. He’s experienced God’s power in his life and he knows what it means to be set free, to have his life restored. That is enough for this man to have a ministry. That’s what people do when they have met Jesus. And what Jesus has done for us is not less than what he did for Legion. He wore his cuts and scars on the outside, but our lives were just as broken and torn on the inside, until Jesus restored us.
It is not a comfortable thought, but death is inevitable for all of us. We all have the seeds of death in our system from the day we are conceived. It may work very slowly – we may never give it a thought, especially when we are young – it may even take a hundred years to finish us off, but death is inevitable. Death is the final enemy we have to face. In the double story that forms the remainder of ch 5, Jesus proves that he has victory over it! We see him here facing first sickness and then the most feared enemy of all, death itself; and proving he has the power to heal, the power to give life.
Jesus re-crosses the lake (v.21), probably back to the area of Capernaum. At once, and in contrast to the loneliness of the other shore, a great crowd gathers, as it does every time Jesus appears in Galilee. But very soon there is a special visitor (v.22). The locals all know him: this is Jairus, the official in charge of the local synagogue, an important dignitary. He’s seen Jesus before, no doubt about that. He was probably there not long ago when Jesus drove out an evil spirit in his own synagogue – and then there were all those healings that same Saturday night (1:23-34). But today it’s his own problems that fill his thoughts (vv.22-23). Whatever suspicions he may have shared with his colleagues about this new teacher, Jairus now has only one problem on his mind. Casting his dignity aside he falls to the ground in front of Jesus and begs him for help. The situation is desperate. His daughter – twelve years old, as we learn later – is at the point of death. Jesus goes with him (v.24). It’s probably only a mile or two to his house in the town, but progress is desperately slow as the great crowd relentlessly presses in. Every moment’s delay must be agony for Jairus; and soon there is a much longer one. Will the delay mean that Jesus comes too late?
For in the crowd there is another desperate case. Unlike Jairus, she has no dignity to lose. Unlike him, she approaches Jesus secretly (vv.25-28). My guess is that most men who teach or preach on this passage pass over the woman’s condition rather quickly. In case it’s not clear, this woman has been living with continuous menstruation for twelve years. That kind of problem would be bad enough today: in those times it would be far, far worse. A woman like this is in trouble for no less than five reasons. Firstly, it is embarrassing – not so much because people are coy as because it would make them despise her. She lives with constant shame. Secondly, it is physically so debilitating. She lives with constant weakness. Thirdly, her desperate attempts to find a cure have driven her into poverty. With this condition she would be poor anyway; but tragically, she has spent her last reserves on hopeless remedies
Is it any wonder, then, that she simply creeps up through the dense, jostling crowd to reach out and touch Jesus’ clothes? How could she dare to appear openly? Perhaps there is an element of superstition in her idea that she need only touch the healer’s robe to be healed; but there is a lot of faith as well. It has cost her so much even to emerge from her home and do this! Immediately she does, she is healed (v.29); somehow she knows it. Perhaps there has been constant pain, and it’s suddenly ceased; more likely it’s not just that the bleeding has stopped, but that all her weakness has been restored to strength. She feels complete again, strong again, as she has not felt for twelve long and miserable years. But her story is not quite finished. Jesus too knows something has happened: the touch may have been unconscious, but there has been a cost – he ‘realised that power had gone out from him’ (v.30). This does not mean that he now has less power than he had before, but there has been a transaction. She has touched him, by faith. There is a relationship between Jesus and the woman; power has been released.
To the disciples, the question he asks is ridiculous (v.31). Obviously, in a crowd like this, people are touching him all the time. Certainly they are touching him, but not every touch has released his power. We may want to ask, Does Jesus really not know who has touched him? Is he simply attempting to draw the woman out of the crowd and make her confess? The short answer to what is quite a difficult question is that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, was omniscient (all-knowing) in his divine nature but had limited knowledge in his human nature. We will meet this question again when we reach 13:32. As far as this story is concerned, he certainly does want to draw the woman out, but in his human nature he really doesn’t know (v.32). Finally she emerges and, just as Jairus did, falls at his feet and fearfully tells him the whole story (v.33). She knows so little of this man who stands before her: will he be angry, will he recoil at the thought that an unclean outcast has dared to lay a hand on him? What of these others who can overhear every word as the story pours out of her? Even the miracle of healing she has experienced fills her with fear – just like the disciples in the boat on Galilee, just like the crowd who saw the demoniac restored to his right mind, for the power of God is a fearsome thing.
She need not have worried (v.34). She is healed after twelve years of misery. She has peace after the torment she has known. Once more, Jesus brings in the outsider. Jesus is never bothered about becoming ritually unclean by contact with leprosy, or blood, or even death, because his touch makes everything clean. After her years as an outcast, barred from access to God, he calls her ‘daughter’. Think what that means to her! Daughter, because you have put your faith in me, you are healed, you have peace, you can go.
Still there is another daughter; and for her it does not look so good. Even as Jairus breathes a sigh of relief that at last they can move on, a delegation from his home appears with the terrible news that his daughter has died (v.35). Bringing Jesus home now would be pointless, they say – perhaps betraying their own suspicions of him. Jesus hears what they say and doesn’t bat an eyelid. He turns to Jairus with a word of comfort (v.36). Believe what, he does not say; but they push on and at last they arrive. Jesus takes with him just his inner circle – on into the house where the girl now lies dead (vv.37-38). There’s a loud commotion of people crying and wailing – the hired mourners custom demands. To judge by the speed with which they’ve assembled, the family must have anticipated the girl’s death, in which case her last hours of life have been accompanied by funeral preparations.
Jesus now takes charge (vv.39-40). They ridicule his statement, of course, because they know perfectly well she is dead. They go round mourning for people every day, it’s their job: they know what death looks like. But Jesus knows too; and he has the advantage that he knows what happens next. Sleep is something you wake up from; and so is this. So with the mourners banished, the six of them enter the room and look down at the dead body (vv.41-42). Again, the miracle is so simple. Again, here is the eye-witness record – Mark alone, informed by Peter, records the original Aramaic words which Jesus speaks as he raises the girl to her feet and to life. Mark tells us ‘they were astonished’ – of course they are! This girl was dead; now she’s walking about. Jesus says, Give her a meal, she’s had a hard day! (v.43). And don’t tell anyone – it’s hard to believe that instruction is obeyed for long: already far too many people know about it, but maybe Jesus only intends to cover his own withdrawal from the scene.
For twelve years, this girl has lived a privileged life in the home of a respected local official. But status and privilege have not protected them from death, the ultimate enemy. At the opposite end of the social scale is the woman in the crowd. If she had not had this affliction, she might have a child now just the age of Jairus’ daughter. Twelve years of privileged childhood in one case: twelve years of outcast, childless poverty in the other. Both are far beyond human help; but one Jesus heals and the other he raises from death. By the way, do notice how these two stories demonstrate the high value Jesus places on the lives of women, both adults and children.
The Lord Jesus has power over death. When Jesus died, that too was a sleep. Yes, he was dead, there was no shadow of doubt about that, but two days later, on that triumphant Sunday morning, he burst the bonds of death and rose to life. Death has no more hold on him. For everyone whose faith is in Jesus, that resurrection guarantees that we will rise to life as well. That’s why the early Church persisted in calling it ‘sleep’ when Christians died. It wasn’t some silly euphemism. It wasn’t that they couldn’t cope with thinking about death. No, they knew that for a Christian, death is something you wake up from. It’s sleep. That is why Paul could write so triumphantly: ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:54-55, filling out the meaning of the words originally used by the prophet in Hosea 13:14) – because he knew that the Lord Jesus has the power over death, and his resurrection proves it. Paul knew what death looked like – he had stared it in the eye more than once. But he knew that for a Christian, it was a beaten enemy, because of Jesus. There in the girl’s empty bed, that victory was demonstrated clearly. And in the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, our own resurrection to eternal life is fully guaranteed.