Saturday, October 27, 2007

Jesus - Lord Over the Unclean, Part 1

The good people in the Sunday evening service @ Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in my community have been studying the Gospel of Mark. Brother Ben Milner, a TE there, has been leading them. This past Sunday, he commented that "People always ask about the pigs," and that he wasn't really sure why the demons went into the swine. I've even heard men dispute the authenticity of this account, castigating Jesus for destroying the livlihood of the herdsmen, as if this constitutes an ethical objection to the Gospel. Indeed, if anything, it makes those today who say this sort of thing agree with the herdsmen, not Jesus. What does say about their own character?

This prompted me to study over this passage myself, and I communicated them to Ben in writing. He found these observations useful, so I thought I would post them here too, in hopes others will as well. Also, should anyone from RPC drop by - Welcome!

Let's begin with the text:

Mark 5

The Gerasene Demoniac
1They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes.

2When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him,

3and he had his dwelling among the tombs. And no one was able to bind him anymore, even with a chain;

4because he had often been bound with shackles and chains, and the chains had been torn apart by him and the shackles broken in pieces, and no one was strong enough to subdue him.

5Constantly, night and day, he was screaming among the tombs and in the mountains, and gashing himself with stones.

6Seeing Jesus from a distance, he ran up and bowed down before Him;

7and shouting with a loud voice, he said, "What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God, do not torment me!"

8For He had been saying to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!"

9And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Legion; for we are many."

10And he began to implore Him earnestly not to send them out of the country.

11Now there was a large herd of swine feeding nearby on the mountain.

12The demons implored Him, saying, "Send us into the swine so that we may enter them."

13Jesus gave them permission. And coming out, the unclean spirits entered the swine; and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, about two thousand of them; and they were drowned in the sea.

14Their herdsmen ran away and reported it in the city and in the country. And the people came to see what it was that had happened.

15They came to Jesus and observed the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the "legion"; and they became frightened.

16Those who had seen it described to them how it had happened to the demon-possessed man, and all about the swine.

17And they began to implore Him to leave their region.

18As He was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed was imploring Him that he might accompany Him.

19And He did not let him, but He said to him, "Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you."

20And he went away and began to proclaim in Decapolis what great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

I think the key to answering the question about the swine lies in 5:2. He is said to have an "unclean spirit."
1. I'd say that the traditional reference to this pericope (The Gerasene Demoniac) is a bit off base. I've always heard this name for this text, and I've always heard sermons that focus on the demons. I think this is a bit too narrow a focus. While true, it is part of a larger theme that Mark is discussing here. I would call it "Jesus, Lord Over the Unclean," since it has broader implications.
2. Note that this pericope's setting is outside the covenant community, ergo in an "unclean" region. The tombs, as you noted, were viewed, so to speak, as an unclean place. So, here, we have Jesus in an unclean region, around unclean people, in an extremely unclean place (tombs with a herd of swine nearby), and who "immediately" comes the Lord - the most unclean person there, for he is possessed the most unclean thing imaginable - a horde of demons.
3. Of course, in the narrative, they realize that Jesus is about to make the man "clean." Thus, they implore him to go where? Into the swine - the nearest, most "unclean" thing in proximity. I would say that this is the best reason for imploring to enter the swine that the text offers. It's a broadly "sacramental" sign - that is, the literal swine signify the unclean dwelling places that the demons require.
4. The herdsmen are tending swine. These are, of course, not Jewish men. They were, in the eyes of the Jews, "unclean." It seems to me that there's a parallel here between the herdsmen and the demons. The demons were certainly toying with the demoniac and dehumanizing him, but they were also "tending swine" themselves, using the demoniac as a representative to terrorize the people in the process. They are by no means benevolent "herdsmen." They were, as it were, the local governing representatives of the kingdom of Satan. Their name as you noted, is the same as that for a Roman legion, so they signify the spiritual equivalent of a Roman legion tasked with a Roman occupation. The man is their chosen instrument of domination, like Herod, the Idumean, in Israel and his Roman counterpart were viewed in the eyes of the Jews. Jesus comes and announces by demonstration that this authority and this occupation was at an end.
5. The herdsmen report that their livelihood has been destroyed when the swine runs over the cliff. I don't think it's at all straining the sense of the passage to draw a parallel to the demons here as well. Once they run the swine over the cliff, they have nowhere to go. So, what do you think they did? I think the implication is that they ran to "their countrymen" and told them that their livelihood had just been "destroyed." What has happened to the man has, from their perspective, destroyed their livelihood, and Jesus leaves him behind, foreshadowing that this was only the beginning.
6. The point of this pericope is therefore to demonstrate the incursion of the Kingdom into the unclean - literally beyond the borders of Israel itself into the Gentile world, and spiritually to signal the beginning of the end of the rule of the powers of hell over the (Gentile) world in particular.
It's a common OT theme that to leave the covenant community's borders was to place yourself in peril, cf., for example, the opening of Ruth. Also, to be carried into exile was to be placed under the yoke of Gentile powers, and they, of course, were viewed as under the power and authority of their gods. Upon return to the land, these Gentiles still ruled over them, anticipating of course, the coming of the Messiah, but on another level, signifying that even in their Restoration, the covenant community was still under the thumb of these pagans, and thus we have the award situation of the people of God ruled on earth by pagans, who in turn served foreign gods. By the time we get to the end of the Old Covenant epoch and the coming of Christ to institute the New, we see that this "rule" has had an effect - the people are in a state of general apostasy. The "rule" of the forces of darkness has made serious incursions into the covenant community itself. The remnant is threatened. The true King comes to drive out these forces by bringing His rule to bear Himself.
There is some "peril" here too. I've always paid close attention the way the Evangelists structure their pericopes. That is to say, there's a reason, I think, that this one is placed after the calming of the storm. They face a storm as they pass over the Sea of Galilee. They are leaving the relative safety of the covenant community's land for a strange, foreboding place. The people had for centuries believed that to leave the land itself was AWOR. Jesus willfully undertakes this journey. The 12 are terrified by the storm, but Jesus calms it. It is no real peril for Him at all.
So Israel had been a battleground for quite some time, but here, we have Jesus beginning a "holy war" (to borrow an OT concept) outside the orders of Israel. Note the contrast with the OT: The Israelites didn't wage war for personal aggrandizement. In the case of holy war, they were forbidden to take any booty. That's how King Saul got into trouble (1 Sam 15).In the case of conventional war, they were allowed to take booty, but conventional wars were defensive rather than offensive. They were not wars of conquest. Jesus is, by leaving the borders of the covenant land @ that time, declaring that the covenant of grace is about to emerge from the confines of Israel in a way that it had not until then ever really done. He is placing Himself in peril, but there is, really no peril at all. The peril is now reversed. All of this, of course, foreshadows the events of Acts (to the present day) and the demoniac is left behind having been made clean to proclaim the Gospel as a representative. Jesus is now beginning a war of conquest, as it were, beyond the borders of Israel. As we know, one of the effects of the Gospel in the NT narrative is to exorcise the land - of sin, demons, disease, death, etc. This, of course, has eschatological, as well as soteriological considerations.
7. So at the conclusion, we have the demoniac, who had been possessed and used to "tend swine" by demons, once out of his mind and able to break the chains of men with the strength of "Legion" left behind to "tend" this land with the strength of "One," the One who truly possesses what we might figuratively call the strength of many. Unlike the demons, who were there to govern the land and keep them perpetual disarray and fear, he is now there to proclaim the Gospel. He is "tending swine" not in a negative sense, as the demons were doing, but positively, to guard them and proclaim the Gospel to them until the time that Jesus ministry was complete and the Gospel reached outside Israel en masse. He wishes to cross back to the other side with Jesus, but the Lord tells him to stay behind, but the point of the previous pericope (and the one in which the reader now stands) is not simply to show that Jesus is Lord over the elements, but His authority (and covenant presence, to borrow from Dr. Frame) extends well beyond the land of Israel. The man is by no means alone - and he rightly connects "Jesus" to "Lord," signifying this truth as we leave this account.
The Kingdom, here, is moving outside of Israel and the distinctions (literal and figurative) - as between the food laws and their figurative use by the Jews extending to unclean people, eg. nonJews is being broken down, as the two peoples are made into one in Christ. As we will see, of course, later on in chapter 7, we see the food laws appear again as does the clean/unclean distinction.

I'm not advocating a theology of "territorial spirits," ala Pentecostal theology - I do after all subscribe to a fairly standard Reformed (Baptist) systematic and biblical theology. Rather, these are images drawn from the OT / Jewish tradition that appear in the narrative, that I think lend to the understanding of the overall drift of the pericope. The "unclean" motif itself will appear several times in Mark from this point on (the woman with the issue of blood, the declaration concerning foods, for example).


  1. This does support the idea Jesus is Lord over Heaven and Hell.

  2. Good analysis and I agree.

    A tangential speculation: The "Sea" of Galilee is actually quite small. There are much larger lakes in the world and this would classify as a smaller one. The swine could merely be for use among the non-Jews of that land, but I've often wondered if the proximity of the herd of swine to the Galilean Jews was because they were for sale to Jews who did not follow the Law of Moses and sought the sinfully delectable ham from just across the border.

  3. And be careful of those sailors-- Who knows where they have been. They can get you stuff that is not approved-- Oh, Jesus called the sailors! He uses the unclean for His purposes! Now WHAT do I have from those sailors! (Can God use me?, I am unclean too- gentile from a foreign land)