Demon Possession Today
“When Jesus was come out of the ship, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit…And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid.”—Mark 5:2, 15
Those two verses fling a boundary around one of the many instances in the New Testament in which our Lord encountered men possessed by evil spirits, and we must beware of imagining that we are facing in this story something that is exceptional, or something that happened long ago, as though the adversaries and conditions related here do not exist today. As a matter of fact, we are considering this subject at a time when we are moving rapidly towards the climax of this age, to the day when Jesus Christ Himself shall come and His kingdom shall be established.
All along the journey we are surrounded and beset by evil hosts of every possible kind. The way they express themselves may vary, but their deadly activity is more rampant, more powerful, more poisonous, more foul, more deadly than ever; and this, of course, is exactly what our Lord said would happen on the very eve of His return. Now this is a great challenge to us and it is also a great comfort for it is perfectly clear that in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in Him alone, there is the force of authority over all this evil power.
Before we get to grips with this particular passage, I would begin by saying a word or two concerning what the Bible has to say about demon possession. The Gospel of Mark gives a great deal of space to this incident and, indeed, I would say that Mark’s Gospel has as its major emphasis the fact of the dreadful experience of human beings being in the grip of demons. To trace this quickly through the gospel, in chapter 1:23–27 is recorded our Lord’s first encounter with a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue. Please notice that, immediately the unclean spirit encountered Christ, it cried out saying, “Let us alone; what have we to do with Thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth?” There follows the record of our Lord dealing in authority with the powers of darkness.
You have the same thing in v. 32–34 of the same chapter: “At even, when the sun did set, they brought unto Him all that were diseased, and them that were possessed with devils.” “He preached in their synagogues throughout all Galilee and cast out devils (v. 39). Again in chapter 3:11, 12 you read this: “Unclean spirits, when they saw Him, fell down before Him and cried, saying, Thou art the Son of God. And He straightly charged them that they should not make Him known.”
You will observe that in v. 15 of the same chapter, in sending His disciples out before Him, He gave them power over unclean spirits and to cast out demons. Also in v. 22–30 is recorded the Lord’s rebuke to the scribes who accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons, and His stern rebuke and warning that while every sin could be forgiven, there was one sin which would never be forgiven, and this was attributing to the devil the work of the Holy Spirit. Moving beyond the incident which we are soon to consider, in chapter 6:7 we find Him sending out the disciples two by two and giving them power over unclean spirits. In chapter 7:25–30 is the incident of the Syrophoenician woman who had a young daughter with an unclean spirit. Immediately following the story of the Mount of Transfiguration, our Lord descended into the valley and met a man whose son was possessed by an evil spirit (9:17–27). You will recall in 16:7–9 the story of the Lord’s resurrection appearance, that “He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven devils”; and in verse 17 the risen Christ sent out all His disciples with power to cast out demon spirits.
Here then is the major emphasis of the whole Gospel. This is something you cannot ignore. It is right at the very heart of the message of the Christian faith. Now, of course, I know that some people suggest that Christ was using the language of His age and these people were not really demon-possessed at all. That would mean He was taking the side of superstition, and we could never accept that suggestion. Other writers and theologians suggest this is merely the language of the writers of the Gospels, trying to explain something that Jesus did, that He never talked with demons, that He merely produced the kind of quietness in the minds and attitudes of people, and this is the way that the disciples interpreted it. If you go on that road, you immediately destroy all the authority of the New Testament.
I believe that this is a subject we have to face realistically in the light of all that the Word of God has to say about it. May I underline this point: in the Revised Version of 1901, the translators always observe a distinction between the devil and demons. The word “devil” is the one word that is used of the one, strange, powerful, spiritual personality called Satan, which word means adversary; the word “demon” is always used in relation to the evil or unclean spirit which inhabits human beings. The scribes charged the Lord with casting out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons (Mark 3:22). In other words, they recognized this principle, that there was a host of evil spirits who had a leader. Christ, of course, denied that He did this, but He never corrected that suggestion. Indeed, His whole argument was based upon their accuracy when He said: “If Satan cast out Satan, then his kingdom is divided and cannot stand.” Our Lord admits the fact that there is an underworld of evil, foul, spiritual beings who are controlled, ordered, governed, and at the disposal of this one master-satanic-personality, Satan himself.
We might ask ourselves, who are these strange, spiritual, evil forces? Nothing can be dogmatically said about this, but the New Testament makes it perfectly plain that they were always seeking some material resting place. They could not exist except within human personality or some kind of physical being, and they were always hankering after something or someone through whom they could express their foul, devilish ways. The generally accepted view (into which I have no time to go, but which I believe is an accurate one substantiated from the Word of God) is that these are evil spirits who, long before the fall of man described in Genesis, were led in revolt against the authority of God by their leader, Satan himself, Lucifer the son of the morning. Reference would be found to this in Isaiah 14 and Revelation 12 where we are told that no less than one third of the whole host of heaven were involved in the revolt which Satan carried out in his attempt to usurp the authority of the throne of all the universe, and for this was cast into hell. I believe that we have scriptural authority for this suggestion. Certainly, the New Testament clearly reveals the existence of these beings, their access to human people always, please note, with a view to creating havoc and destruction and ruin. You will find no instance in the whole of the Bible of a good spirit possessing anybody except it be the Holy Spirit of God.
Now these are some of the things that are taught in the Word of God concerning this whole matter of demon possession. But I want you to see them operating in the incident which is described for us in Mark 5. This is a terrifying subject, but a very wonderful one; I believe that this thing is one of the most common, most dangerous, and most unrecognized factors of this modern world situation, which more often than not is being tackled completely superficially by the psychiatrist who is not a Christian. Let me be perfectly clear about this. I believe that a Christian psychiatrist has a great ministry, and it is my privilege constantly to cooperate and have fellowship with such; but I believe that a psychiatrist who is not a Christian could be a great menace to humanity.
What then is the condition of this poor man? Let us look at him: “He was a man with an unclean spirit” (v. 2). Now the terrifying thing about this is that the literal translation of this word would be “a man in an unclean spirit.” In other words, when you meet him, you are much more impressed with the unclean spirit than with the man. He was it. Just as the Christian would claim that his life is “hid with Christ in God.” Just as when you meet a genuine, born-again believer filled with the Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit possessed, you become conscious most of all not of the man but of the Lord. So in the life of this man, his personality was completely buried, and he was absolutely involved from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot in being possessed by this evil spirit. The Revised Version puts it: a man possessed with, or possessed by, an evil spirit.
Let me select one or two up-to-date words which describe this man’s condition from this portion of Scripture. First, a condition of isolation, v. 3: “He had his dwelling among the tombs”—as far away from society as he could get.
Second, a condition of lawlessness, v. 3: “No man could bind him, no, not with chains: because that he has been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him.” This man broke through every restraint that was put upon him. Nothing could hold him—he just snapped it in pieces.
Third, a condition of restlessness, v. 5: “Always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying.”
Fourth, a condition of self-inflicted suffering, v. 5: “cutting himself with stones.”
My final word would be that he was a danger to society, for Matthew tells us (though Mark does not record this in exactly the same words): “He was exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass that way” (8:28).
I want to pause to say that the picture that is in my mind of this is almost, indeed it is, terrifying. What a hideous picture of the effect upon a man when he is possessed by an unclean spirit! What a revelation of the impotence of everything apart from the power of Jesus Christ to tame him, to save him, to set him free! Review these words again: isolation, lawlessness, restlessness, suffering, a danger to other people. Is that out of date? Is that so far removed from us today? Are not the symptoms of this thing everywhere? Is not that the condition of multitudes of people in Chicago right now? This is vivid twentieth century demon possession. But it is nearer than Skid Row. It may be as near as someone reading this today.
Notice not only the condition of the man, but also the character of the demons. I think that the most significant thing of the whole incident is the attitude of these demons when they met Jesus Christ. This is true not only in this instance, but of every instance when He encountered them. “When he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped Him” (v. 6): an attitude of submission. Notice his question in v. 7: “What have I to do with Thee?” or putting it literally, “What have we in common, Jesus Thou Son of the Most High God?”
I pause to underline some things in passing that I do not want you to miss. The devil is a good enough theologian to acknowledge the deity of Jesus Christ, and if you recall for a moment those who did—demons, angels, men, friends, and foes alike, all who acknowledged His deity—we might ask ourselves, what right has a Unitarian to be called Christian?
Observe the language of this unclean spirit, as a legion of them spoke through this man: v. 7: “I adjure Thee,” which means, I beg you. Verse 10: “He besought Him…” v. 12: “They besought Him…” that if indeed they were to be driven out of the man they might enter into the swine, and so revealing their desire for some material influence to satisfy the strange, hellish appetite of their nature.
I would press this home to you again, that you see the picture here. The legion of demons had so possessed the man that he was almost unrecognizable. His personality was shrunk as they held him in their power. He was absolutely impotent and helpless, crushed beyond recognition, the poor wretch. But there came a moment when demons and all met Jesus Christ and they began to cringe. I see the picture here of a man helpless, desolate, lonely, desperate, tortured, and yet in the presence of Jesus he begins to yearn for deliverance, but he is unwilling to be set free. He bows in adoration and in prayer, but he is defiant and fearful the next moment. With one breath he is longing for liberty; with the next he is clinging to his past. At one moment he pleads to be set free; at the next moment he holds to the thing that grips him.
Is this far away, or is it desperately, terrifyingly near? In your life do you know anything about two voices, two forces within you? Do you know anything of a love of evil, and yet a longing for good? In other words, do you know something about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?
There is a tremendously solemn word in verse 15, where the story concludes by telling us that the man was “in his right mind.” He had been driven absolutely mad by the spiritual battle in his own soul. May I venture to say that insanity is far more often connected with spiritual demons than we recognize. What about our mental institutions today? They are over-crowded, and I humbly suggest to you that the reason why the vast majority of people are there is that they have been driven out of their minds by the rush of evil at one moment and the next moment a longing for good, and no answer to the problem. Now, of course, may I respectfully say that the psychiatrist who is not a Christian will play down that situation. He will say that sin is merely an unfortunate reflex which can be cured by medical process, or something of this kind. He will play down the root and deal with the mind; he will go back into infancy and trace back into the individual records to see how this situation has built up. In the name of heaven, I can tell him how it has built up! It has built up because that poor soul has lived for years fighting a battle with sin and self and evil and a depraved mind, longing for deliverance, but nobody has got alongside to tell him that Jesus saves.
You see this whole business on an international level. You see it in men like Hitler and like Khrushchev. These men are unchecked by any moral standards. They don’t know any law, except the laws they create and break. How futile are all the pacts and all the attempts to reconcile that situation! They don’t live on that level. You see this in family life where love is no more than physical appetite and passion, where tempers get out of control, the harsh tongue is unchecked. You see it in personal life where a man or a woman is governed by a whole legion of evil inside them.
Do not think of a minister above that which he ought to be thought about: but for the mighty power of the indwelling Jesus in my heart, my life would be a playground for hell every day. I can look back over years when I didn’t know the answer to this, and many times I attempted to put on the chains of self-discipline and self-effort, and so-called moral rearmament, but I put them on in vain. Before long an unclean spirit would snap them asunder. The flash of temper, the passionate outburst, the uncontrolled spirit, all the outcome not of some mental derangement but of satanic power in my heart. I tell you, this is terrifying indeed. Oh, but there is the song of a soul set free in my heart as I minister to you. How I love that hymn of Charles Wesley’s.
Finally, I would point you to the conquering Christ. He spoke one word, and I think He spoke it quite quietly: “Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit” (v. 8). Oh, I wish I could have been there and seen it happen! One quiet word from the Master before Whom already the powers of hell had cringed in fear, one word was enough!
Will you please notice that Jesus did not begin by clothing him but by saving him. The only way to get a man out of the slum is to get the slum out of the man. Social reform is very good, but the only hope for the human heart is not changed circumstances but a new nature. See how Jesus talked to him: He asked him, “What is your name?” And I believe He was just probing through all the unclean spirits in this poor wretched soul, right inside him, and calling tenderly, lovingly, affectionately, “What is your name?” He was calling him to a sense of his personality, of what God intended him to be. Notice the answer—what a struggle is going on! “My name is legion for we are many.” My name—then the devil shuts him up: we are many. A man who for a moment was almost free again is held in the grip of the unclean spirit. Then with one word of authority that you have in Matthew 8:32 (in Mark 5:13 Jesus gave them leave to go out), the Lord chased them all and said “Go.”
They asked for another lodging place; they knew they were being put out, and that they had met their Mater, so they said, “O Thou Son of God, if we must be put out of this man, send us into the swine.” Now I’m fully aware of the problems about that. You may have read what Huxley has to say, and others, but I don’t care what they have to say about it. This story is not told to inform us about the destruction of a thousand pigs for the salvation of one soul. It has been told to remind us that in that command Jesus was rebuking the traffic of the Jew with forbidden goods.
What is the conclusion of this? In v. 17 the crowd prayed Jesus to depart. In other words, they preferred the swine to the Saviour. They were much more concerned about their material loss than the salvation of a soul. Here is a mystery. Let your spiritual ears be wide open! Let the Holy Spirit plant a seed never to die out in your hearts! May it sound the word of warning in your soul! Jesus commands devils, He only pleads with you. The prayer of the people who wanted Him to go was answered. I think of the authority of Jesus Christ as He faced that demon-possessed man and spoke with such absolute finality to all the demons as He said “Go.” Then I think of Him turning His back upon that country and district, walking away from them, and answering their prayers to depart. There was equal authority in the back that turned away as in the face that said “Go.”
You know how far I’ve brought you along, I don’t; but I’ve brought you to this point: it is a dreadful thing to tell Jesus to depart. In preferring sin to salvation, that is exactly what you are doing; in listening to the one voice that wants to retain that which has held you in its grip, instead of listening to the voice of Jesus Who says, “Come. Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me and you shall find rest instead of restlessness.” You can bid Jesus depart this moment. In the words of Matthew 7:21: “Not every one that says unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, in Thy name we have done mighty deeds, we have cast out demons. I shall say unto you, Depart from Me, for I never knew you.” Let it be said with solemnity, with love, with conviction from heaven that when a man says to Jesus, “Depart,” one day Jesus is going to say exactly the same to that man.
What about this man? As we conclude with a picture of him here, we find him sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. The storm is over, the isolation is ended, the resting is in his heart instead of restlessness, the chains have fallen off and there is peace. He prays also that he might be with Him, but Jesus didn’t answer that prayer: “Jesus suffered him not, but said unto him, Go home to thy friends, and tell how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.”
It is one of the biggest mistakes of our day to hawk around a new convert to as many youth meetings and such as possible to display the story of his conversion, until he has gone home to tell and live the changed life right there; and there are some movements today that are doing more harm than good by doing that very thing. Oh, but that man wasn’t sent from Christ, nor are you. He was sent for Christ back to a home. I have often pictured that homecoming in my mind and wondered what it was like. Would there be some little children playing outside the door, and a wife perhaps doing the washing inside? Suddenly from outside the door, there is a scream of terror, “Mummy, help! Daddy’s back!” and they fly into the arms of their mother. Is he going to harm them? The mother is terrified too. The door opens and she hasn’t to do more than look in his face before she sees she has a new husband!
All the hounds of hell inhabiting that man knew that Jesus was Lord. Do you know that? However desperate the condition of a soul may be, there is close at hand a mighty Saviour. He is more powerful than a whole legion of devils. Do you believe it? Then what must you do? Claim it. Don’t cry one moment for His deliverance and the next moment hate it. Cease listening to one voice one minute and the next to the other, and then sink under the control of the legion that possesses you. Let Him hear you say, “My name is…” Lift your heart to Him and bid all the powers of darkness retreat, and by faith step to the throne of God in the name of Jesus and say, “Thank you, Lord. Your blood was shed to deliver me from this.” Claim the victory that His blood and risen life secured for you.”
Jesus, the name high over all,
In hell, or earth, or sky:
Angels and men before it fall,
And devils fear and fly.
Jesus, the name to sinners dear,
The name to sinners giv’n;
It scatters all their guilty fear,
It brings them peace of heav’n.
Jesus the prisoner’s fetters breaks,
And bruises Satan’s head;
Pow’r into strengthless souls He speaks,
And life into the dead.