Jesus Journey: 40 Days in the Footsteps of Christ

Day 28

The Dark Side

Read Mark 5:1–20

I race my son across the Byzantine ruins, through a thicket of trees, and up weathered stairs to the top of the hill at Kursi, an archaeological site right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Crumbling ancient arches made of black basalt — instead of the nearly ubiquitous white limestone — lend a sinister air to the scene here, more so when we realize where we’re standing: The probable site of the tombs of the Gerasene region, where Jesus encountered a demon-possessed man.

I tell my son the story as we sit down to catch our breath.

Jesus was exhausted. He’d had a very busy day, and he tells the disciples he needs some rest, so please let’s sail to the other side of the lake.

Night falls. That famous storm hits. Jesus is so tired he sleeps through the waves swamping the ship until the disciples wake him up in alarm. He frightens them even further by calming the wind, and there seems to have been a very awkward silence as the rattled fishermen skim over the suddenly calm surface of the lake until their boat bumps the shore.

Owls screech. Insects whir and click in the dark. Something rustles in the distance. And then rapid footsteps approach.

“And guess what’s waiting for them right here, in the blackness of the night?” I ask my son. He’s leaning forward, half-waiting for the bogeyman to jump out of the ruins.

I tell him to imagine the hair standing up on the neck of every single disciple as the night is shattered by a sudden shrieking and rattling of chains — and then they see him in the moonlight: A madman, naked except for some useless shackles, rushing down the hillside toward them, screaming at the top of his lungs as he points to Jesus.

To complete the creepiness, note where this takes place: The boat apparently went a little off course in the storm, and it seems they landed right here, in a cemetery, at night.

It’s like a horror movie. After all they’ve been through, the disciples’ nerves must have been stretched to the breaking point. Their adrenalin is pumping. They’re probably grabbing oars, ready to defend themselves.

But not Jesus.

He calmly and firmly orders the demons out of the man, and, strangely, into some pigs, which rush down the hillside and are drowned. Maybe he does this because the people there were Jews who shouldn’t have been raising pigs anyway, or maybe there was another reason now known only to Jesus; in any case, the man is instantly cured. There’s no tension, no complicated ritual exorcism. Jesus just gives orders. And they are obeyed.

The people from the village gingerly approach when they hear the weird old guy in the cemetery isn’t running around wailing anymore. And when they see how well he’s doing, but mostly how all their pigs are dead, they don’t exactly rejoice; they beg Jesus to leave! They aren’t inspired. They’re freaked.

So is my son. And you know what? This story kind of freaks me out too. In modern Western cultures, most people feel pretty uncomfortable with stories of Jesus driving out demons.

How are we supposed to understand these verses? Again, it’s important to see what is happening here in historical context.


In those days, the more orthodox Jews near Jerusalem were the least likely people to have detailed beliefs about evil spirits. The Sadducees, the leaders of the Temple, didn’t believe in any spirit beings at all, angels or demons.

But here in the north near Galilee, especially on the east side of the lake, people were more likely to believe in demons, possibly because they were influenced by the pagan religions of the surrounding countries.

Remember how the Sea of Galilee was politically and culturally divided in half, with the west side being the more religiously observant Jewish side, and the right side consisting of much more pagan, Greco-Roman culture? Temples to all sorts of pagan deities dotted the landscape there: Greek, Persian, Roman, and Egyptian cults devoted to all sorts of gods and demigods.

If you look on a map, you’ll notice that the area where this particular story takes place — Kursi — is on “the other side of the lake,” as the gospel writers call it. The eastern side. The dark side.

The large, Greek-inspired Decapolis cities of Hippo and Jerash were near Kursi; in fact, we travelled into Jordan and walked through the astoundingly impressive ruins of Jerash (or Gerasa in Greek; it gives its name to the “region of the Gerasenes” in the Bible). The streets there are still lined with amazing columns and stunning architecture dating from the time of Christ. But on every corner, and on every hilltop, there’s something that would have made an observant Jew wince: A pagan temple.

How was a first-century Jew going to make sense of all these religions, when Judaism taught there was but one God? One alternative: To assume that these were not temples to gods but “spirits,” some of them malevolent.

Of course, not all Jews made this assumption; some considered the pagan cultic sites as shrines to nothing at all. But for the semi-religious Jew who saw the temples to the gods as potentially enshrining demons, fear and superstition were a part of daily life.

This may help explain why Jesus is not described in the gospels as delivering anyone from demons near Jerusalem, or anywhere far into the west side of Galilee. The demon exorcisms all happen on the east side — or right on the border, at Capernaum. This is where people were the most afraid of demons; this is where their daily lives were ruled and ruined by the evil spirits. Jesus meets them where they are.

Demons to them represented the uncontrollable side of the spirit world. And in their religious culture, the only way to gain some control over demons was through learning more about the arcane occult arts. In other words, magic.

Descriptions from the first century show exorcists relying on elaborate rituals using magic words, magic gestures, and special magic tools. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, described one exorcism (obviously with some skepticism) performed by a Jew named Eleazor before the Roman emperor Vespasian:

The manner of cure was this: He put a ring that had a root of one of those sorts mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, after which he drew out the demon through his nostrils; and when the man fell down immediately, he adjured him to return unto him no more… reciting the incantations which he composed. And when Eleazor wanted to persuade and demonstrate to the spectators that he had such power, he set a little way off a cup or basin full of water, and commanded the demon, as he went out of the man, to overturn it, and thereby to let the spectators know that he had left the man. 34

My point: The freaky thing for us in our culture is to read stories about evil spirits. The striking thing about these stories for people in the first century would not be that there were demonic spirits. The unusual element here, the plot twist, is just how easily Jesus is able to dispatch them. He has instant, permanent authority. He does not need to use any mumbo-jumbo, no incantations or posturing or rings or cups. He says, “Out!” and they’re gone. It’s not a magic show.

Jesus wasn’t the only exorcist the people had seen. But he was the only one who didn’t make a theater of it, and the only one with this kind of authority, the only one with immediate, 100% success. He was something else, something entirely new and unique in terms of his spiritual power.


The inclusion of these episodes in the gospels is clearly meant to demonstrate that Jesus has power — if he wishes to use it — over every realm of and every aspect of human experience:

In the gospels he is shown as intellectually superior to the wisest men in the country, who repeatedly try to trick him with no success.

He is shown to have power over physical human needs when he multiples food.

He is shown to have authority over the realm of nature as storms and sickness flee at a word from him.

And here the Messiah demonstrates that he has ultimate authority even over the spiritual realm, over powers of darkness — the most frightening, evil, unpredictable, nightmarish side of life.

Between Jesus and any other power, it’s just not an even match.

Later, when Pontius Pilate shouts at him, “Don’t you realize I have the authority to release you or kill you?!” Jesus basically laughs and says, Authority?! If you realized who I am, you would not talk about authority. You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. (John 19:11)

One caveat: These stories are meant to inspire you about the Messiah; they are not meant to teach you methodology about demons. This is the difference between prescriptive and descriptive passages of the Bible. The prescriptive passages explicitly prescribe behavior; that is, they teach. The descriptive passages relate descriptions of events as they were witnessed and remembered.

When the Apostle Paul wants to prescribe to the early church how to win in spiritual warfare, he talks about weapons such as truth, peace, the Word of God, and the gospel of grace (Ephesians 6:10–18). There are never any prescriptive passages with instructions on exorcism — beyond the words of Christ to fast and pray, which is always good advice.

Of course I am not saying that I don’t believe in a spiritual realm; I do. Definitely.

But I suspect that when Paul was writing to the developing church, he saw the error of gnosticism begin to creep in. The Gnostics believed that there were many spirit beings (“emanations,” they called them) and to communicate with God you needed to learn mystical secrets to getting through these layers of good and evil spirits. A generation after Jesus, Christianity under the influence of the Gnostics was slipping away from a simple emphasis on grace, and back to magic.

That’s why Paul says, essentially, keep it simple. Stay focused on Jesus. Remember, it’s about grace, not your knowledge of occult spiritual secrets.


Back to the story: After the man is “in his right mind” as the gospel writer describes him, he wants so badly to travel with Jesus and leave his pagan-influenced area. Hey, Jesus, I see you’ve got twelve disciples — let’s make it a baker’s dozen!

But Jesus wants him to stay right there, and tell his friends and neighbors, who knew him when, what happened to him.

I have heard so many people tell me Jesus “freed me from my demons.”

Sometimes they’re speaking metaphorically, other times literally, and most of the time, it’s a mix: In physical, psychological, and spiritual ways, these people were oppressed and out of control. But Jesus came into their lives, and set them free. With a word.

Were you once living in the tombs, among the dead and dying, but now you’re alive and free?

It’s tempting to want to just cluster with the other delivered people, to huddle with the healed and holy. But don’t forget to tell those who knew you before. Jesus says to you:

“Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

But Jesus is not done with the dark side. He is about to go from the man of the tombs to the Gates of Hades. To tell us not to panic.


How does believing that Jesus has mastery over the spiritual realm impact your confidence?