It must have been in sober silence on a calm sea here in verse 28 and following of Matthew 8 that this subdued bunch of men returned to their oars and resumed rowing their small craft across the lake to the land of the Gadarenes. This was the western border of an area known as the Decapolis (a Greek word meaning “ten cities”), and most of its inhabitants were Gentile. The people Jesus and the disciples met in the region were obviously Gentiles, because they kept pigs, and no Jew would have kept such unclean and greatly detested animals.
We know what the disciples were thinking as they crossed the lake because it was stated at the end of the preceding story. They were asking themselves, “What kind of a man is this?” If we keep that in mind, it is amusing to discover in this story that while they were asking themselves this question, the demons came out of the tombs to tell them. The demons had possessed two men, according to Matthew’s account, and they addressed Jesus boldly, crying, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? … Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Mark and Luke add that they called Jesus “Son of the Most High God,” and Luke says “they begged Him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.”
It is worth reflecting on what the demons knew and were not afraid to announce, since their words reveal that they knew and believed more about Jesus than most human beings either know or acknowledge today. The demons recognized the following: Jesus is the Son of God. The disciples were only beginning to get a glimpse of this truth and will not actually articulate it fully until Peter’s great confession of faith in chapter 16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Demons know there is a final judgment – they will suffer torment when it comes. Humans cherish many dangerous illusions at this point: (1) there will be no final judgment; or (2) if there is, they will be spared the judgment; or (3) they are without any serious shortcoming in God’s sight; or (4) if they are to be blamed for anything, God will be too kind to judge them for it; or (5) if there is a judgment, the place to which they are sent will be pleasant-just a matter of spending some quality time with old friends. The demons do not have such illusions. They know there is a hell, and they know they will be sent there at the proper moment. In this story their greatest fear is that they will be sent to hell before the final judgment.
The demons know that most human beings either do not know or deliberately reject that Jesus has authority to do with them as He wishes and when He wishes. This is an acknowledgment of the utter sovereignty of God and that Jesus, being the Son of God, has that sovereignty.
If we are to be saved from hell, we must take refuge in Christ’s sacrifice for sin. Have you done that? To bow before the sovereign authority of Jesus Christ is another expression of what it actually means to be a Christian.
We do not know a great deal about demons, only what the Bible tells us about them – not much. Yet, it is clear from this story that the demons are spirit beings that abhor a disembodied state. This seems to be why they try to possess the bodies of human beings. Here, when Jesus is about to drive them from the demon-possessed men, the demons beg Him at least to send them into a herd of pigs feeding nearby. Jesus sends them into the pigs, and when He does, the entire herd rushes down the steep bank at the side of the lake and perishes in the water that He and His disciples had just safely crossed.
Why did Jesus allow the demons to go into the pigs and let the pigs perish? Some have complained that Jesus was inconsiderate of those who owned the pigs. In this story the destruction of the pigs showed that the demons had indeed left the two demon-possessed men and that the men were completely healed. There was no question of whether the demons would trouble the two men again.
All this is actually about faith in Christ, salvation, and discipleship, of course. When we read about the possession of the men by demons, we are to understand that we are like them apart from the work of Jesus Christ. We may not be possessed by demons literally, but we are possessed by an evil spirit of sin, that is, by our own evil natures. Our sin leads us to various acts of violence, as the demons did in the case of these poor men, and it drives us from the company of other human beings. It is even right to say that we are dying people living among dead people, for life apart from Jesus Christ is a graveyard. There is no natural hope of being saved.
Mark and Luke record that He left the men who had been delivered to be witnesses to their countrymen, saying, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how He has had mercy on you.” They did, and again we are told that “the people were amazed.” If people are not amazed at Jesus today, might it be because you and I have not witnessed adequately to His wonderful power and great grace? If you have been saved from sin, that is an amazing act of God. Don’t you think you should tell other people about it?