by Matthew W. Bassford
If there is anything we should take away from reading through the gospels this year, it is a deeper understanding of the skill with which the Evangelists crafted their narratives. Nothing in any of the gospels is there just because Jesus did it. As John observes in John 21:25, all four writers had a nearly limitless amount of material to choose from. From this great mass of teachings and stories, each selected the small portion that best suited their purposes and those of the Holy Spirit.
This recognition should inform our understanding of the story of Jesus casting out the legion of demons in Mark 5:1-20. This is a story that many of us can remember learning about as children, jokes about pork soup, and all. Even a surface reading leaves us awed by the supernatural power of Jesus.
However, there’s much more going on here than merely that. This isn’t only a story about Jesus' power. It’s a story about Jesus’ power in the midst of uncleanness. Practically everything in the narrative except Jesus and His disciples is unclean. It takes place in the region of the Gerasenes — an unclean, Gentile people. The man (presumably a Gentile himself) has an unclean spirit. He lives in the tombs — in an unclean place (Numbers 19:16). The legion enters into a herd of swine, unclean animals. Even the pigs die an unclean death (for a couple of different reasons provided in Leviticus 17:10-16).
To put things another way, this is a story in which everything has been ritually defiled. This fact pattern is as hostile to the Son of God on earth as it possibly can be. However, even with the deck stacked against Jesus, He still triumphs. The demons are banished, the unclean animals are destroyed, the demon-possessed man is freed, the power of God is demonstrated among the nations, and the good news of the kingdom is proclaimed to the Gentiles.
To the Jews of Jesus’ day, Mark’s account would have read like a horror story, and the victory of God would have been shocking. As Haggai points out in Haggai 2:10-14, the unclean can defile the clean, but the clean cannot consecrate the unclean. However, the power of Jesus was so unprecedented, so overwhelming, that it rewrote the old rules.
For us, then, this narrative is extraordinarily hopeful. We know the defilement of sin all too well. We understand what it is like to feel unclean to the very core of our being. Indeed, some feel their sinfulness so strongly that they doubt that even Christ can help.
This is nonsense, and, among other things, Mark 5:1-20 is recorded to prove that it is nonsense. No matter how dramatically we have stacked the deck against Jesus in our own lives, if we come to Him, He will be able to cleanse and save. Nothing can stand against the purifying power of His grace. It will scour away all the uncleanness in our lives. Then, like the demon-possessed man, clothed in Christ, renewed in our minds, we will be able to proclaim to everyone what the Lord has done for us.