Dr. Ligon Duncan preaches on Jesus and Demons from Matthew 8:28-34 in part 3 of his series The Miracles of the Kingdom. The following is a lightly edited transcript.
If you have your Bibles, I would invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 8. The Lord Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is recorded from chapter 5 to chapter 7, giving us the words of life and the way of life. Chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew, miracles, mighty attesting signs of the Lord Jesus Christ, are performed so that the word of life is set side by side with the powerful deeds of Christ, thus attesting to the fact that He is indeed the very Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ, sent from God for the sins of the world
If you will scan the beginning of chapter 8, you will remember in our study of verses 1 through 17 we saw three scenes of healing. First, in verses 1 through 4, we saw Jesus’ healing of the leper. Then, in verses 5 through 13, we saw Jesus heal the centurion’s servant. And then finally, in verses 14 through 17, we reviewed Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, as well as the testimony that He had fulfilled the prophecy of the Old Testament. Then, as we reviewed verses 18-27, we saw a focus, particularly in verses 23 to the end of that section, on Jesus’ control of the physical universe. And so, the whole of chapter 8 shows us the power of Christ. The first 17 verses showing His power over bodily diseases; then, especially verses 23-27, showing His power even over the forces of nature. And now, in verses 28 to the end, showing the Lord’s sovereign power, even over the forces of evil. And so the sovereignty of Christ is set forth in Matthew chapter 8. Let us attend to the words of the living God, beginning in verse 28 of Matthew chapter 8:
Our Lord and our God, we know that this word is not recorded simply to cause us interest, nor even to give us an accurate account of the deeds of our Lord Jesus Christ, though it does that, and we praise You for it. This word is written for our instruction, for our counsel, for our admonition. So teach us the spiritual truths contained in it, and by the spirit apply it to our hearts. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I. Jesus Christ is the very Son of God
This is a strange passage. It is the first passage in the Gospel of Matthew where the Lord Jesus Christ’s encounter with the demon-possessed is described. It had been mentioned earlier in this chapter that the Lord Jesus Christ had healed those who were demon-possessed. Now, we see an incident actually depicted for us. And there are many great spiritual truths for us in this feast of the word, but I would like to point your attention to three of them. The first of them you will see in verses 28 and 29 where we learn, in fact, that Jesus Christ is the very Son of God. In Matthew 8:28-29, Matthew reminds us that even the demons acknowledge that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And so Matthew brings home to us, with particular force, the truth that Jesus Christ is the very Son of God.
The incident occurs when he crosses the Sea of Galilee, and he goes to the other side to the region of Gadera. The capital of that area was some distance from the Sea of Galilee, but apparently the town that He came upon was about six miles from Capernaum, about the middle way down on the Sea of Galilee, on the east coast of that particular sea. And He came there. It was a region predominately populated by Gentiles, as is perhaps shown by the presence of that herd of swine, not an animal that would have been particularly beloved by the Jewish people. And so the Lord Jesus comes into this region of the Gentiles preaching the gospel and the word of truth, and performing deeds of power.
And there as He lands, as He comes ashore, He meets two terrifying demoniacs, people possessed of demons. Now demon possession is a mysterious subject. I well remember a sermon by one of my fathers in the Lord that began something like this, “I don’t know much about demon possession but I’ve read a lot of books by people who say that they know much about demon possession, and they don’t know much about demon possession either.” I understand that sentiment entirely and agree with it. The word “demon” is often rendered “devil” in our Authorized Version, the King James Version. Demons are spoken of as spiritual beings at enmity with God and as having a certain power over man. They recognize our Lord as the Son of God, but they belong to that number of those angels who did not keep their first estate; they are unclean spirits, fallen angels, the angels of the devil. And they are the principalities and powers against who we must wrestle. A demoniac is one possessed of a devil.
In the days of our Lord and the apostles, evil spirits were mysteriously remitted by God to exercise influence both over the souls and bodies of men. Sometimes that reflected itself in the person not being able to speak. Sometimes the people would be blind. Sometimes the people would have epileptic seizures. Although I must point out even Matthew, on a number of occasions, distinguishes maladies like epilepsy and even lunacy from demon-possession. So very often you will hear wise rationalists of our own day say, “Oh, well the things that the people in Bible times called ‘demon-possession,’ that was just some sort of a mental illness.” The Bible distinguishes between mental illnesses and demon possession. There is a difference. And so, these two men were afflicted with this demon possession. We must say with regard to the subject of demons that C. S. Lewis’ words are wise. He says, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall in our thinking about devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe in their existence but to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” That is a salient warning as well.
But interestingly in this passage, when these two demon-possessed individuals approached the Lord Jesus, and by the way, Mark and Luke only tell us about one of these two individuals. That doesn’t mean there is a contradiction. The gospel writers often focus on particular details because they want to bring home spiritual truths of particular import by emphasizing different aspects of the same historical account. These accounts are not in contradiction, they are complementary to one another. When these demon-possessed men approached the Lord Jesus Christ they acknowledge him as the Son of God, though they rejected Him. They do not acknowledge Him as their leader, but they do acknowledge Him as the Son of God.
Now I want to remind you of something very interesting about Matthew’s quotation of the term “Son of God.” The first time the term “Son of God” is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, it comes from the lips of Satan himself. It is in the temptation in Matthew chapter 4 , verses 3 and 6, where, Satan himself tempts Christ using the term applied to him as “Son of God.” Matthew does not record that to cast into doubt whether the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but to point out to you that even Satan knows the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God. There are very many enlightened people today who will suggest to you that is like believing a fairy tale, to believe the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In the Bible, only humans are stupid enough to deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Even the demons in the Bible acknowledge that the Lord Jesus Christ is indeed the divine Son of God.
The second time, after this occurrence in Matthew chapter 8, that Matthew uses the phrase “Son of God” again is in the interrogation of Jesus by the high priest in Matthew chapter 26, verse 63. The high priest asks Him, he adjures him, “tell me if You are the Son of God.” So notice again, now for the second time, an opponent of Christ, this time the high priest, is asking if Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
The next time that “Son of God” is used in Matthew, is chapter 27 verse 40. That’s when the thieves are mocking Christ. The next time that “Son of God” is used in Matthew is chapter 27 verse 43, and that’s when the priests and the scribes and the elders are mocking Jesus Christ. The last time that “Son of God” is used in Matthew is when a Gentile, a know-nothing, a centurion, a Roman soldier, looks up at the cross and says, “surely this Man is the Son of God.” Notice where Matthew leaves the last word, in that phrase, “the Son of God.” Matthew, by reminding us that even the demons acknowledged Christ as the Son of God, is saying to you, “Do you see who this Man is? Do you realize who He is? This is not just a great moral teacher. This is not even an exalted prophet. This is someone who is on an entirely different plane than anything that you have ever known before.” Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And yet these demons say, “What business do we have with you?” He was not their Savior. He was not their leader. But they recognized that He was ultimately going to be their Judge. “Have you come to torment us before our time?” Isn’t it interesting that these demons seem to know the first and the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even Christ’s disciples stumbled with that truth. And yet the demons know, “Wait a minute, we’re not supposed to be thrown into the abyss with Satan and experience eternal torment until Your second coming. Have you come before your time?” These demons know a lot. And they say a lot. But they don’t follow Christ.
There are many truths that we can learn from this exchange. For one, this is an important testimony to the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even the demons acknowledge him to be the very Son of God. But it’s also a solemn reminder that it is possible to acknowledge Christ with your lips and not to acknowledge him with your heart. It is possible to profess Christ without possessing Him in your heart. It is possible to claim to be a follower of Christ and yet not be a follower of Christ in deed. Matthew Henry wisely said, a long time ago, “It is not knowledge but love that distinguishes saints from devils. He is the first-born of hell that knows Christ and yet rejects Him and will not be subject to Him and to His law.” We do well to reflect upon that truth when we realize who Jesus is. He is the very Son of God.
II. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is sovereign even over demons!
But there’s a second thing we learn in this passage. And that is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is sovereign even over demons. The Lord Jesus Christ is sovereign even over the forces of evil. Even in His state of humiliation. Even in His state when He walks through this world as our Prophet, Priest and King bearing our infirmities and sorrows and suffering on our behalf, He is sovereign over the forces of evil. The Lord Jesus has wandered into a region where there are many Gentiles and we are told explicitly in verse 30 that there were also pig herds in that area. These pigs were, of course, unclean animals for Jews. One was not allowed to touch that which was unclean and one was certainly not allowed to taste or eat that which was unclean. And in this region He confronts these two demoniacs, and before the Lord Jesus even begins to speak, the demons begin to speak to Him, asking Him to cut a deal, to mitigate His plans for them. The Lord Jesus’ power and authority, hence, is seen even in the requests of the demons. Even the demons know they must request of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so the Lord Jesus Christ’s sovereignty is stressed in several ways in this incident. Four in particular I would address to your attention. First of all, notice in verse 29 that the demons acknowledge Christ as the Son of God, and they know that He has the power of final judgment or torment. They know that the lake of fire awaits them. They don’t deny that. Their only concern is the timing of the matter. They don’t deny that He has the power to judge them and cast them into hell. They just say, “It’s not supposed to happen yet, is it?” The Lord Jesus Christ is sovereign.
Secondly, notice that in the first half of verse 31, it is clear that the demons acknowledge that Christ has the power to cast them out of these two poor men so afflicted. They never attempt a strategy to resist being cast out. They only attempt to mitigate where Jesus is going to send them once he does cast them out. He is sovereign.
Thirdly, notice that the demons request permission, permission, to possess a nearby herd of swine. Even their plans, even their evil desires, must be submitted to Christ. So we see in the second half of verse 31.
And notice again, fourthly, that the demons obey Jesus. Isn’t it interesting, that in contrast to Mark and Luke’s account of this experience, Matthew only records one word of Jesus. Jesus only speaks one word in this whole section as Matthew records it, “Begone.” “Go.” Matthew is showing the shear sovereignty of your Lord. “One little word shall fell them,” as Luther reminds us. The Lord Jesus Christ is sovereign over the forces of evil.
Now you may ask, “Why in the world did the demons want to go destroy a herd of pigs?” And, “Why in the world did the Lord Jesus let them?” That’s a good question, and we are not given an explicit answer to that in this passage, but there are many good hints in the context not only of this passage but of the Scriptures in general. First of all, we of course know that the demons thrive on doing harm to the kingdom of God. The Lord Jesus is in a predominately Gentile region. He is, of course, of good Jewish descent. You can see the headlines after this event: “Jewish prophet comes to land, kills pigs.” This is not going to be good press amongst the swine merchants of the region of Gadera. And the demons think, “What better way to thwart the work of the Lord Jesus Christ than to kill these pigs and to have everyone say, ‘We can’t have these Jewish prophets running around killing all our pigs all the time.’” Satan often tempts you to sin by showing you how delicious and satisfying sin is. But he, like the demons, only desires to harm you. When the demons leave those men, they are only looking for another place to do harm to you or the kingdom. Don’t ever forget that. Sin may look delicious but there’s a hook in that sin designed to drag you to hell. Don’t take the bait.
So what is Jesus doing? Why does He let them go to these pigs then? Surely He knows the effect this will cause. Is Jesus just showing cultural insensitivity here? Is Jesus showing that He doesn’t understand the mindset of the Gentiles who are going to be offended by this Jewish prophet coming in and allowing demons to possess pigs and destroy them? I’ve had one man suggest to me that this shows that Jesus really didn’t understand the principles of contextualization. He didn’t understand how to be sensitive to other cultures. You see, He went into that Gentile culture and He wiped out their pigs, and He just messed up His opportunity to witness to them. That’s a bad interpretation of this passage.
The Lord Jesus had very good reasons for what he did. I can’t tell you all of them, but I can certainly tell you this: First of all, the Lord Jesus knew that what the demons said in this instance was right. It was not yet the time that He was going to cast them into the abyss. It wasn’t that time yet. The Lord Jesus did not come, in His first coming, to clean up all demonic activity and to eradicate all sin from the world. There will be a time when He will come to do that. Now, however, is the time for the preaching of the gospel. Is that not a message to the church? Our job is not to eradicate all the forces of evil in the world. Our job is to proclaim the gospel, live as Christians, bear witness to Christ, and to do specific good to our neighbor, never thinking that we are somehow going to establish perfection on earth. When the church confuses its task in that area we are misguided.
Notice as well that in allowing these demons to possess the swine and destroy themselves, the Lord Jesus Christ rebuked the unbelieving Sadducees. You know there were rationalists in Jesus’ day who didn’t believe in spirits? They didn’t believe in demons. They didn’t believe in the after-life. They were called the Sadducees. They were the liberals of Israel’s theological scene. They didn’t believe in demons. It would be very difficult for anyone under their influence, anywhere near what the Lord Jesus Christ did there in Gadera, to deny the existence of the spiritual world. He rebuked them in this very deed.
Notice also, He gives a testimony of His power to the disciples. He is sovereign even over the forces of evil. How important would that be for His disciples to remember as they face themselves principalities and powers.
And the Lord Jesus Christ also rebukes the people of this region. These Gentiles, we’re going to find out in verses 33 and 34, were hard-hearted. They cared more about those pigs than they did about those men. And the Lord Jesus Christ gives a rebuke. Human values surpass material values by far and the Lord Jesus Christ in this action lays the groundwork to teach that lesson.
There are many things that we learn in this particular section of Matthew 8. This is an important testimony, for instance, to the sovereignty of God. It’s an important testimony to the sovereignty of Christ over the forces of evil. Even the demons know that Christ has the power of torment. He has the power of the keys. And this is not an isolated example in the Bible. We can turn to Job, chapter 1. If you were to scan Job 1: 8 and Job 2: 3, you would find Satan coming to the Lord and seeking permission to do evil. Now I haven’t actually said it right, because if you look at Job 1:8 and Job 2: 3 closely, you will find that it was the Lord Himself who brought Job to Satan’s attention. Thanks a lot, Lord! God is sovereign, and He sets the bounds on what the forces of evil may or may not do. He is sovereign. The same incident occurs in I Kings chapter 22. There, in verses 19 through 22, Micaiah the prophet tells of a scene before the throne of the Lord where God Himself says, “Who will go entice Ahab to go up to Ramoth-gilead and be destroyed?” And Micaiah tells us that evil spirits approach the throne. And they said, “We will.” And He said, “How will you?” “We will put a lying spirit in the tongues of Ahab’s prophets of Baal, and they will convince him to go up to Ramoth-gilead and be destroyed.” And God says, “Go, and have it accomplished what you desire.” God is sovereign. God is not the author of evil. He is not the responsible cause of evil, but God rules and overrules everything in this world. And that which the satanic world desires for evil, God uses for good. The title deed to this world does not belong to dictators or devils it belongs to God. And the devil’s way of extinguishing goodness is God’s way of advancing goodness.
In Genesis 50:20, we learn that though Joseph’s brothers meant it for evil, God meant it for good. God is sovereign. Christ who rules us, rules all things for us. And this reminds us that Christ is more powerful than all the forces arrayed against us. That’s an important thing to remember when the news has just come to your door that a little boy has died; when the news has just come to your door that there has been a tragedy in a high school and a sick young man has killed fellow students. And that’s an important thing to remember when the word comes that a dear friend has been in a horrible automobile accident and there is paralysis. And that’s an important thing to learn when you face the horrible difficulties of living in a fallen world. God is not out of control. God will rule and overrule for your good. Turn with me in your hymnals to hymn number 92. Martin Luther understood this. Martin Luther taught us, in the third stanza of A Mighty Fortress is our God: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure, one little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly powers no thanks to them abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours, through Him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.” Our Christ is more powerful than all the forces arrayed against us. Never forget it. It’s very tempting, isn’t it, in this world to believe the forces of darkness are stronger than the forces of life. Don’t believe that lie. One word. “Begone.” Christ is sovereign.
III. Some people so prefer earthly/material blessings that they are willing and desirous to part with Christ
There’s one last thing that I would point you to in this passage, and you see it in verses 33 and 34. In this passage, we learn that some people so prefer earthly satisfaction, earthly fulfillment, earthly success, earthly and material blessings, that they are willing to forego Christ. We can put it even stronger. There are some who so prefer earthly fulfillment and satisfaction and blessings that they are willing to part with Christ. Look at verse 33. “The herdsmen ran away, and went to the city, and reported everything, including what happened to the demoniacs. And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw Him, they implored Him to leave their region.” Notice that the herdsmen immediately go back to report this event. What is the focus of their report? Everything that happened, and then there’s sort of this little clause tacked on to the end, ‘Oh, including what happened to the demoniacs.’ You see, these herdsmen first want to report about the damage done to business. Secondly, they want to make sure that nobody blames them for those pigs going off the cliff. And then there’s this, ‘Oh, by the way, and there were two men who were healed of demon possession.’ They were more concerned about those pigs than they were about people.
And so the city comes out to meet Jesus. They meet Him. What are you expecting? I don’t know what you’re expecting, but this passage doesn’t end like I was expecting. They come out to meet the Lord Jesus who’s performed a miracle and they say, “Sir, would You get out of here as quickly as you will?” It’s unbelievable.
What is not said here in this passage, is just as important as what is said. The people, you will notice, did not rejoice at the deliverance of these poor demon-possessed souls. They did not rejoice with those who were rejoicing as the word of God commands us to do. These people did not praise our Lord Jesus Christ that He had delivered these men from their bondage. These people did not bring their sick to Jesus for healing. They didn’t bring their demon-possessed, their afflicted to Jesus for healing. All they did was ask Him to leave. It is clear from this brief description that these folks care more about their goods and their livelihood than they do for their souls and for the souls of others.
And therein, my friends, is a warning for us, because there are many in our own time who allow their desires to come between themselves and Christ. And they would rather have their fulfillment now than walk with Him in this life. You see, the devil’s weapon is the world. The way he enslaves us is that he sets our hearts and our desires on the temporal, till we love it so much that there is no room for the eternal, and that which is central is pushed to the peripheral. God no longer is at the center of our experience; He’s pushed way to the outside. He may be icing on the cake. He may be ignored entirely but He’s not the center of our experience. And when that happens, our hearts are empty. They are empty. And when they are empty seven demons may occupy them and convince us in our love of the world and we’ll go to hell, happily. The warning is for us, is it not? Will we love the sovereign Christ more than anything in this world, or will we die with our trinkets? Let us look to the Lord in prayer.
O Lord God, convince us of the truth of Your word. Encourage us by it, build us up in it. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.