Becoming Human (again)

Luke 8.26-39

Jason Procopio

We’re well into our series on the gospel of Luke, which we began at the beginning of the school year. Last week Arnaud taught us from the previous text, Luke 8.22-25, where Jesus calmed a storm on the sea with a single word; he proved his authority over the natural world that he had created. That story was the first of a loose trilogy of stories showing Christ’s authority: today we’ll see the second.

Rescued from Demons

Our text today picks up immediately where it left off from last week (v. 26):

26 Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. 

Now, we’ve seen demons before in this gospel, in chapter 4. I won’t go back over everything I said back then, except to repeat that the Bible takes the existence of demons as a point of fact. That’s not to say that all behavior of this sort comes from demonic activity (it could be just a profound mental disorder), but that sometimes it does: the Bible says that demons do exist, and they do things like this.

V. 28:

28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” 29 For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.) 

The sight of this man was entirely pitiful—in Mark’s gospel, he goes a little further in his description, saying this man would scream, and cut himself with sharp rocks. He was naked, and on his naked body were likely dozens of bleeding cuts, infected scabs, scars and filth. He was a terrifying, terrified sight to behold—a shadow of the human being his once was.

This is the first important thing to note here: the demon has dehumanized this man. He has transformed him from a man into a monster. This is what nearly always happens in the biblical stories of possession—the possessed person no longer resembles a human being, but an animal. His will is no longer his own; he has lost nearly all volitional power; his consciousness is likely compromised.

And the demon has done this to him because the fundamental war at work here is not between this man and the demon, but between the demon and God himself. Satan and his demons hate God above all things, but they have no power over him directly; so what do they do? They attack him through the beings created in his image: humans. By dehumanizing their prey, they are doing their worst: they are attempting to corrupt and wound the image of God, and thus his glory. 

(Incidentally, this is why as Christians we should fight against any actions or any speech which dehumanizes any person we see: anything which degrades humans is perfectly in line with Satan’s plan. This is why we don’t just want to give money to homeless people, but speak to them; smile at them; offer a kind word. In many of our encounters with the homeless in our area, we’ve noticed that what they are most thankful for is not material help, but any conversation or attitude that lets them know we still know they are human.)

So Jesus has told the unclean spirit to come out of this man, and the demon has responded with a plea for Jesus not to torment it. The demon recognizes Jesus’s power, and is afraid. 

V. 30:

30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 

This is a verse that sends chills through me every time I read it. At this time, Israel was occupied by the Romans. In the Roman army, a legion consisted of over 6,000 soldiers. All Jewish people at the time knew this fact, so the very word “legion” called to mind great strength in massive numbers. 

Can you imagine being this man? Filled to the brim with an untold number of invading spirits who control him? Can you imagine being the disciples, coming off their adventure on the boat, and seeing this beast (they must have thought, Come on—what NOW?), hearing him say there were thousands of demons inside of him? 

This is a terrifying sight.

Which of course means that it is the perfect time for Jesus to act. 

Just the night before, he had been awakened by his terrified disciples in the middle of the storm, and had calmed the storm with a single word. Here was something potentially even more terrifying than the storm. 

So what will he do? The demons have a new request for Jesus:

31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 

“The abyss” is their way of describing hell. The fact that they don’t want to go there is profound. I don’t know if you’ve heard things like this, but there are those who write off the fear of hell by imagining heaven as a place filled with stuffy, puritanical losers who pride themselves on not being “dirty,” whereas hell is a “fun” place filled with bons vivants and libertines who won’t conform to prissy ideas of right and wrong.

This idea, besides being silly, is woefully off the mark. Even the demons are afraid to go there. They want to stay as long as they possibly can on earth, for while they hate God and his image, what scares them even more than being close to him is being tormented far from his presence.

So they come up with a compromise. V. 32:

32 Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission.

This is so far from our own idea of the threat demons pose. The demons are terrified of Jesus and the judgment he can inflict on them. They ask him permission to go somewhere else—and not simply be cast into the abyss—like spoiled children asking their neglectful dad for just five more minutes on the playground. And Jesus seems to play along—he gives them permission.

But in so doing, Jesus exacts swift and appropriate judgment on the demons for having so long tormented this man. (He prefigures their final destiny, seen in Revelation 20.10, in which God defeats Satan and throws him in the lake of fire.) 

V. 33:

 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned. 

Now we could stop there, and still have much to talk about—Jesus’s driving out this demon teaches us volumes about his power and authority. But there’s more to the story.

V. 34: 

34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind...

So the man who had been utterly dehumanized before has seen his humanity restored. He is “sitting at the feet of Jesus,” no longer wandering in the tombs and cutting himself. He is “clothed,” no longer naked. He is “in his right mind,” no longer raving like a madman. He has regained control of himself; he can listen attentively; he can respond coherently; whereas five minutes ago he was a monster, he is now once again a man—a fully alive human being. 

Now, what must have been the reaction of the disciples? Luke doesn’t tell us, but we know what their reaction was to Jesus’s calming of the storm, don’t we? He tells us in v. 25 that they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?”  They’re afraid, but it’s a healthy fear—it’s the kind of fear you have when you’re watching a mother lion devouring a predator that has come to eat her cubs.

They know Jesus, and they know what motivates him; so although they must be filled with fear, we can assume it’s that same admiring fear as before—“Look at this power, set to work to protect someone who was weak!” That’s the right reaction; it’s a proper reaction.

But what about the people in the surrounding villages? They come out to see Jesus, and they see this man whom they all knew as a monster, now clothed and in his right mind, and Luke tells us (v. 35):

...and they were afraid. 

Perhaps at first it was that same admiring fear as the disciples…but if so, it didn’t last.

V. 36: 

36 And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed. 

That’s important. How had the man been healed? By Jesus allowing the demons to go into the herd of pigs, who all rushed into the sea and drowned. So it wasn’t just that the man was healed that filled them with fear, but how he was healed—and that how characterizes their fear, as we see in v. 37:

37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. 

Rather than worshiping Jesus for his power and thanking him for bringing this poor man back from the hell he was living in, they ask him to leave. Why? 

Because they know that if this Jesus stays around here, it’s going to cost us. It’s already cost us a herd of pigs—a substantial amount of income. If he stays here any longer, who knows what his presence will cost us? So they ask him to leave.

The same thing happens in Acts 16, when Paul casts a demon out of the slave girl—her healing costs her owners a lot of money (she told fortunes through the demon), so a riot begins in the city over their loss of income. 

Here’s the point: in the end, some people who see and recognize Jesus’s power will still reject him because of what they think they’ll lose if they let him stay.

So what does Jesus do? He leaves, just like they asked. V. 37b:

So he got into the boat and returned. 

Now, before concluding, Luke adds what happened to the man who was healed. V. 38:

38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him [Jesus]...

We can understand his desire. Why would he want to stay here, where the memories of his torture were so acute? Why would he want to stay with people who had rejected the One who had healed him?

But Jesus had work for him. V. 38b:

...but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him. 

So this man, fully human for the first time in who knows how long, and visibly emboldened by his newfound humanity, sets to work, proclaiming how much God had done for him, to people who don’t want to hear about it.

So essentially there are two parts to this story—we have the healing, and we have the aftermath. And in each part, we have a problem, and a response from Jesus to that problem. 

Corrupting the Image of God: “How Am I Like This Man?”

The first problem is obvious. The man is possessed by the demon and turned into a completely unrecognizable animal. He is completely dehumanized. Unable to go after God himself, the demons go after God’s image in God’s creature. And they do a bang-up job of it.

This is the way the devils have always functioned. If they can’t go after God directly, they go after God’s image and his glory.

Think of the first time the creation of man, which we find in the first chapter of the first book (Genesis 1.26-28). God creates the man and the woman in his image—perfectly, fully human. 

But then, in chapter 3, Satan shows up, and immediately goes after that humanity. He tempts the man and the woman to disbelieve in God’s promises and to disobey him. And their rejection of God separates them from God. (That’s all sin is—it’s disbelieving that God really is the highest good possible, that his will is the best will possible, and acting on that disbelief.)

So sin came in and corrupted the image of God in man, and in all of his descendants—including you and I. 

But even that’s not enough for Satan—it’s not enough to see man separated from God; he wants to add insult to injury, by degrading that humanity even further.

So what does he do? Well, sometimes he acts like the demons in today’s passage: he possesses people in an attempt to turn them into something less than human. Or sometimes, he simply torments them, like he did to Job—taking away everything that was dear to him (his family, his wealth, his health) and leaving him in a state of sickness and pain in which he was thoroughly dehumanized. 

Most often, however, he goes about it much more simply. You see, any talk of demonic activity that does not go after their motivation is missing the point. The only reason why demons do what they do is because they hate God and want to see his creation corrupted. And how better to do that than by going after those creatures whom God created in his image? It’s not enough to simply talk of the metaphysics of it all, because when we don’t consider why they do what they do, then we forget to consider all the ways in which we participate in their work. 

Sometimes Satan and his demons do things like we see in our passage; but most often, the means by which he most effectively does his work of corrupting the image of God in human beings is by simply encouraging humans to do what their sinful nature tells them to do—to not believe that God really is the highest good possible, that his will is the best will possible, and to act on that disbelief. 

Or, to put it another way, every time we sin, we do to ourselves exactly what the demons were doing to this man: we make ourselves less human. We pull ourselves further and further from what God created us to be. We actively go in Satan’s direction.

And we all do it in different ways. Have you ever been in an argument with someone you love that was so intense and mean-spirited that you looked at the person in front of you and didn’t recognize them anymore? Have you ever been so ashamed after sinning that you looked at yourself in the mirror, and it felt like you were looking at an entirely different person? Something happens to us when we let ourselves pursue our sin: we fight against the image of God in us, that which makes us fully human.

So the first question this text should cause us to ask is, How am I like this man? How do I do this to myself? What attitudes, what habits, what thought patterns have I let develop in me that pull me away from the fully human being God created me to be?

Deceptive Value: “What Do I Love More Than Him?”

The second problem we see in this text is that of deceptive value. The people who see the miracle Jesus performs are afraid—not merely of his power, but of losing that which they value. They see that if this miracle-worker stays with them, it could well cost them a lot (it already has, for at least a handful of herdsmen). 

What is striking here is that Luke makes no mention of anyone in the town being happy about the fact that this man, previously monstrous, has been made whole again. No one sees the good; they see only their potential loss.

We do this too. We look at what the gospel promises, all the future joy that is set before us, and we cannot deny that it sounds good. But then we look at what it will cost us to get there. We’ll see this in chapter 9, in a few weeks (Luke 9.23-24):  

23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

We know he says that if we lose our lives we’ll end up saving it; but far too often, all we really see is, “You will lose your life.” The things you love today, you’ll have to let go of; something will have to take their place as most important in your life, that which you value more than anything. And it is so hard for us to believe that whatever it is we feel we’re losing, what we gain is infinitely better.

So we fight it. We hold on to the things that we love—the sins we know are displeasing to God, but which are still pleasing to us—the attitudes we know are displeasing to God, but which feel so good when we let them come out in us—the material desires we know are vain and egocentric, but which we can’t bear to let go of.

The miracle: Jesus is victorious.

So what’s the solution to these problems? In both cases, it is the same, and it is simple: Jesus is victorious. 

The demons possessing the man don’t stand a chance. Notice the attitudes of the two sides. The demons are weak and cowardly when confronted with Jesus; they beg him to not torment them, they beg his permission to enter the pigs. Jesus, on the other hand, is calm and collected, knowing the power at his disposal, knowing his own authority. With one single word of permission to the demons, they flee from him. And the monstrosity before him once again becomes a man.

Whatever it is in your life that has corrupted the image of God in you—whether it comes from your own sin, or someone else who has abused you, or Satan himself—doesn’t stand a chance against your Savior. However far you have wandered from the image of God—however far you have wandered from God’s will for your life—whatever you have let your sin turn you into… Jesus has the authority and the power to restore.

When he saves us, he makes us into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5.17). Since the fall, mankind has been enslaved to sin; but when Christ saves us, he frees us from that sin. We are not yet perfect, but we become more fully human than we have ever been, more like what God intended when he created the world. And after that, now freed from sin, we can grow into that image of God; we can become more and more like Christ, instead of less and less like him. 

So identify those areas of your life which are not in line with God’s character; identify those areas of your life which mar the image of God in you; and by his Spirit, with his help, put them to death. 

Paul says in Galatians 5.24 that those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. So if you belong to Christ, if you have crucified the sinful person you were, then act like it. Put your sin to death. Putting our sin to death is nothing less than becoming human once again, by the power of Christ in us.

In the same way, in regards to the things that we value more than God, Jesus is victorious there too. Notice that when the people in the city ask him to leave, he does just that; he leaves. But he doesn’t leave the people of the city alone in their mistake. He sends the healed man back to the city to keep proclaiming what God has done. Though they did not receive Christ, he was not finished with them. His grace kept coming, through the testimony of this new man.

It is hard for us to really believe that Christ is better than the things we love, because the things we love seem so much more immediate. They are visible, in our face, all the time. We can touch them, feel them, hear them. It is hard for us to believe that the promises of future joy are actually better than the present joys which surround us, which are smaller, yes, but which are there. 

This is, once again, why we need to know God’s Word and live God’s Word. As we expose ourselves to the Bible…as we discover the depths of God and his promises in his Word…as we live out those promises by obeying him… We discover little by little that his promises are not just promises for tomorrow, but for today. That Christ really is better, TODAY, than whatever it is we love. 

Brothers and sisters, believe that whatever it is he is calling you to let go of is nothing compared to what you gain in return. You may not have all the material possessions you want; you may not indulge in every whim of your desires; it may feel like obedience is fasting, starving something in you that needs to be fed. But you’ll find, every time, that whatever you leave behind is nothing compared to what you gain in return. 

Jesus is victorious, and he is better than anything. Better than the sin we love, and better than the good things we love more than him. 

Trust his victory. Put your sin to death by his grace, and become fully human.

Trust his victory. Make him that which you value more than anything. As the psalmist said (Ps. 37.4), if you delight yourself in  the Lord, he WILL GIVE YOU the desires of your heart—namely, himself.