The really good news of the passage in Matthew that we looked at yesterday is that Jesus can not only calm the storms that rage outside, he can also calm the storms that threaten to wreak havoc in our souls.
When Jesus and his disciples landed on the east side of the Sea of Galilee they were immediately approached by two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs. These men were so violent everyone in that region gave them a wide berth.
Many people today question the reality of demon-possession. They say, “Aren’t the people that the Gospels call demon-possessed what we today would call mentally ill?” Perhaps that is true. However, noted psychiatrist Dr. M. Scott Peck, argued about twenty-five years ago, in a book entitled People of the Lie, that there is a category which lies beyond the normal definitions of mental illness, a category properly called evil. If you need some sort of scientific proof of demon-possession, I suggest you read Peck’s book, but I think, if you read it at night, you will want to read with all the lights in the house on. All I can say is that I believe in the existence of Satan and his demons, who the Bible calls fallen angels. I believe in the existence of demon-possession and I believe I have witnessed it.
I know someone who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, both homicidal and suicidal in the teen years. This person often set fires and threatened to hurt both self and others. For some twenty years this person was in and out of mental institutions and jail. Finally, a very kind woman minister took on this person’s case and got the mental patient out of the mental institution and living somewhat successfully in an apartment. One day, during a counseling session, demons began to manifest themselves. The woman minister had never seen such a thing, nor even believed in the existence of demon-possession prior to that time. She called in a Catholic priest to perform an exorcism. That was not completely successful. Then the minister called in a team of people from an African-American church, a team experienced in deliverance ministry. After some days of work with this patient, the demons were gone. The person has been different ever since. Signs of mental illness lingered, but after the exorcism this person was no longer in and out of mental wards and jail. No longer did this person start fires or threaten the lives of others.
The Gospels assume the reality of Satan, of demons, and of demon-possession. And the fascinating thing about the Gospel of Matthew is that the demons are the first to call Jesus “Son of God”.
You may remember back in Matthew 4, Satan said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” And, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” That was the first use of this title “Son of God” in Matthew’s Gospel. Now the demons are shouting, “What do you want with us, Son of God?”
“Son of God” is a messianic title, as the high priest’s use of this title in conjunction with the title “Christ” in Matthew 26:63 makes clear. This title will later be used by Peter in Matthew 16:16 and by the centurion at the foot of the cross in Matthew 27:54. It is ironic that the disciples’ question, “What kind of man is this?” should be answered by demons shrieking, “Son of God”. But Matthew has no doubt that the demons here have an inside track on Jesus’ identity. Those who believed in the coming of the Messiah believed that he would put wrong to right, and so it should come as no surprise that the demons would recognize they were in trouble when Jesus came on the scene.
But of course the faith of the demons is not enough to rescue them. Just believing that Jesus is the Son of God is not enough to save anyone. As James 2:19 says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” The demons believe full well that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah. But such faith is not enough to save them. No. Faith in the full-bodied Gospel-sense means trusting in Jesus as Messiah to rescue us from sin. It is not enough to believe a list of facts about Jesus; we must believe in Jesus, entrusting our lives to his care.
The bit about the demons asking leave to go into the herd of pigs is, without question, a very strange part of the whole story. But demon-possession itself is strange so why should we be surprised at how this story gets weirder and weirder? I happen to think this is a sign of the story’s authenticity. Who would have made up such a thing?
Some people even find this part of the story offensive. “Why would Jesus destroy someone’s livestock?” they ask. But to ask that question is to miss the whole point. Two demon-possessed men are far more valuable to Jesus than a herd of pigs. That’s the point.
The reaction of the townspeople to Jesus’ healing of the demon-possessed men is interesting too. They pleaded with Jesus to leave their region. They didn’t ask him to heal the rest of their sick or demon-possessed inhabitants. Were they afraid that Jesus was going to destroy more of their property? Were they apprehensive at this Jewish Messiah entering into their Gentile territory? No one knows for certain.
But what is clear is that Jesus never struck people as simply being a nice guy or a good teacher. Wherever Jesus traveled, people were in awe of him. Some were drawn to follow him, others were scared spit-less, but there were no lackadaisical responses.
As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “We may note in passing that He [Jesus] was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met Him. He produced mainly three effects—Hatred—Terror—Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.”
And in another place Lewis wrote, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”