A listener named Calvin from Singapore writes us today with a Bible question on Matthew 8. “Pastor John, my question is over Matthew 8:28–34. In this text, why did the demons ask Jesus’s permission to be sent into the pigs, when those pigs would be immediately drowned? Where else would they have gone? And where did they go after ‘the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters’? This has always perplexed me!” Pastor John, what can you tell Calvin?
Not everybody knows this story, so we should probably read that section from Matthew 8. This is starting at verse 28:
And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. (Matthew 8:28–34)
What? Oh my goodness! The great liberator has come — and they tell him to get out.
Of Spirits and Swine
Before we get into the less clear and more perplexing parts of the story, let’s just be sure that we don’t miss what is crystal clear.
1. The demons know who Jesus is. They call him the “Son of God” (Matthew 8:29).
2. They know that he has absolute power over them and can choose either to cast them out or not, and to decide where they go. There’s no negotiation here as if they were equal partners at the negotiating table; Jesus is superior, and they know it.
“Christ conquers the devil. He sets the prisoner free. He presents himself as a great deliverer.”
3. They know that in the future they are appointed for final torment. They wonder if Jesus has come to start that final judgment. They say, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Matthew 8:29). We know there’s a time coming where we’re going to get final torment, but not yet, Jesus. Or is it?
4. The fact that there was a herd of pigs nearby shows that we are in Gentile territory, since the Jews regarded pigs as unclean, and did not raise them for food or anything (Deuteronomy 14:8). In other words, this is one of those rare moments when Jesus is reaching out into the Gentile world as a pointer to the fact that his ministry is going to result in a global mission to all the peoples of the world (Matthew 28:19–20).
5. The number of pigs isn’t mentioned in Matthew like it is in Mark 5:13 (“about two thousand”), but the herd is called large so that when the demons go out from the two demonized men into the herd and they all perish, we get the very clear sense of how big, how large, how serious these men’s bondage was, and how even this was no problem for Jesus.
6. The fact that the demons pleaded to be sent into the pigs shows how much they hated roaming about in the world without any habitation. This seems to point to how evil they are, and how the maximizing of their evil comes from entering into any kind of being they can get their hands on to ruin their lives.
7. The demons could not have seen that their new habitation, the pigs, would suddenly run down the hill and all drown because if, in fact, they saw that coming, they wouldn’t have asked for it. That’s not what they were trying to do; they were trying to get a new place to live and do damage, not a place to be destroyed in the sea.
And from what we know of Jesus in the Gospels, he would have known what was about to happen, so that what they feared — namely, that he was here ahead of time to begin their final judgment — was, in fact, true. He had not let them escape into some lesser being for the misery they had brought on this couple of men, but he had appointed them to depart, as it turns out, without any habitation. The fact that it was lost in the sea points to the fact that he was sentencing them probably to the abyss.
Now, all that seems more or less clear, but is there more that can be said as to why Jesus would bring about the destruction of the pigs? The last two verses are very surprising, and I think they encourage us to go further in our thinking: “The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men” (Matthew 8:33). It doesn’t say, “especially about the pigs.” It says, “especially about what had happened to the demon-possessed men.” In other words, they foregrounded deliverance, and liberation, and freedom, and healing. “Behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region” (Matthew 8:34).
“Jesus demands a choice: love him and his salvation, or love your prosperity and your wealth.”
Two amazing things have happened in this Gentile region suddenly, and by the power of Jesus. The first amazing thing that happened is two demon-possessed men were now free, and their humanity was restored. Their relationships were restored. I wrote a poem one time, just making up the fact that they were married, perhaps, and had children. Their lives were ruined, and their families’ lives were ruined — maybe; I don’t know. They were ruined, and now they are not ruined anymore. Their humanity is given back to them.
The second amazing thing that happened was a large herd of pigs was destroyed. Now this causes me to ponder another situation in the Bible where Satan attempted to negotiate with God — namely, in the first two chapters of Job. Satan asks permission to afflict Job, and God gave Satan permission, which proved to be a test of Job’s faithfulness to God. Job would face the choice: you can love God and trust him, or you can love your possessions and your family and your health more, and curse God for taking them away. In other words, God used Satan to test Job.
Now, it seems to me that’s more or less what’s going on here: Jesus comes into this Gentile world. He conquers the devil. He sets the prisoner free. He presents himself as a great deliverer, able to restore life and hope. But he also takes away a herd of pigs — the livelihood, the wealth, from some in the community. He forces a choice: prosperity over love, money over Jesus, human resources over divine power — that is, the power and grace of Jesus to give life and hope, or the love of possessions and wealth to be had from these pigs. And to our utter amazement, they beg Jesus — the life-giver, the devil-defeater, the hope-maker and hope-giver — to leave their region.
It seems to me that the story has several levels of meaning.
- Jesus is the Son of God.
- Jesus is triumphant over unclean spirits.
- Jesus liberates the captive, and gives hope to hopeless people — even Gentile people.
- But Jesus demands a choice: love him and his salvation, or love your prosperity and your wealth — namely, your pigs. They failed; they failed the test. Matthew reports it, I think, in the hopes that we will not fail that test.