Sermon on Matthew 8:28-9:1 [cf. Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-32]
Cleansing the Cosmos—5th Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Everyone has experienced evil—either directly or indirectly. Definitions and theories about evil abound. But evil, both experientially and biblically, is complex—because evil is, ultimately, chaotic.
According to Karl Barth: “Evil is neither really something... nor really ‘nothingness’ “.
But nothingness is NOT nothing (in Greek μηδὲν, mēden) [cf. Philippians 4:6-8]. Evil is disharmony. It is ambiguous, unstable, and variable. The essential reality of evil, revealed in the ‘powers of darkness’, is that evil is chaotic, non-relational, depersonalizing, and non-ontological --that is, evil defies classification in terms of its existence because it transcends physical reality.
Evil is challenging to define
Therefore, in spite of its prevalence, evil is challenging to define. Theologians and philosophers have long struggled with the problem of evil—particularly in terms of ontology, that is, in terms of its existence and the classification of the reality that it reflects. According to the Holy Scriptures, evil stands in binary opposition to goodness. The Lord hides His face from evil—which He cannot countenance [cf. Deuteronomy 31:18; Habakkuk 1:13]. God’s people are instructed to hate evil and love good [cf. Job 2:3; Psalms 97:10; Amos 5:15]. The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil [cf. Proverbs 8:13]. Evil is the antithesis of holiness, and hated by God—who loves righteousness and hates wickedness [cf. Psalms 5:5; 45:7; Zechariah 8:17]. Evil can be overcome by good [cf. Romans 11:21]. And whosoever does evil has not seen God [III John 11].
The Gospels affirm the existence of evil spirits—which stand in binary opposition to Christ. The impact that evil spirits have on humans is also documented. In the Holy Scriptures, humans are not helpless victims, but have responsibility. Responsibility becomes an increasingly prominent theme in the later part of the Old Testament—but is present even in the Genesis creation narrative. The freedom that God gives to man entails risk—and the possibility of rebellion.
From a three-dimensional perspective, man lives in an intermediary zone between Light and darkness. He can choose to turn towards that center of Light or the periphery of darkness. The first couple is given only one prohibition—one boundary—: they are not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They choose, however, to follow the deception of Satan, personified in the serpent, and disobey God—with tragic consequences for all of creation. The evil in man has a routine pattern—whenever he mistrusts and asserts himself over God—he imitates Lucifer.
Evil defies classification in terms of its existence because it transcends physical reality.
The Bible contains abundant metaphors for evil—but does not provide an elaborate demonology. Numerous terms are used to describe spiritual forces of evil, some are straightforward such as ‘demons’, others are more obtuse such as ‘powers’, some are metaphorical such as ‘darkness’, and others are personal such as ‘Satan’. In the New Testament, there are 48 references to Satan and 102 references to evil spirits in the Gospels. These evil beings are always depicted in opposition to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Fallen angels, or demons
The term demons refers to the fallen angels of Satan’s cosmic system. These fallen angels or demons are manifested and embodied in all of the false gods that have been, and indeed are, worshiped by humans. Indeed, these fallen angels or demons are the real powers behind all false gods [cf. Exodus 12:12; Isaiah 19:3; Psalms 96:5]. Although such demons are superhuman beings, they are inferior to God and are even subject to Christ’s disciples. They promote idolatry [cf. I Corinthians 10:20], and they often cause mental and physical illnesses (sicknesses) or other diseases and pathologies [cf. Matthew 12:22; 17:15-18; Mark 9:18].
Nevertheless, not all mental and physical illnesses (sicknesses) or other diseases and pathologies are caused by demons. This is evidenced in the demoniacs referenced in the New Testament—which in contrast to those with physical or mental illnesses who seek prayer and deliverance—reveal or manifest demonic possession in their outbursts of satanic opposition to God’s work through the Lord Jesus Christ.
In addition to the metaphors for evil that were used in ancient Israel, the synoptic Gospels use Judaic and Greco-Roman terms to describe, or refer to, evil. For example, ‘Satan’ (a transliteration of the Hebrew שָׂטָן—Saw-tawn meaning ‘adversary’) is often referred to as the Devil, which is derived from the Greek διάβολος (diábolos, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Saw-tawn). Diábolos therefore signifies ‘opponent’, ‘adversary’, ‘resister’, ‘slanderer’, or ‘the one who divides’. The word Beelzebub —a derogatory form of Ba’al Zəbûl or ‘lord of the heavenly dwelling’ and ‘god of Ekron’ [cf. II Kings 1:2]—is used synonymously with the terms ‘Satan’ or the ‘Devil’. In the Gospels, Satan is a stumbling block [cf. Matthew 16:23]. He causes illnesses and can ‘enter into’ a person [cf. Luke 13:16]. Satan enters Judas as narrated in Luke [cf. 22:3] and John [cf. 13:27]. The Devil is the enemy [cf. Matthew 13:39; Luke 10:19], the ‘ruler’ of this world [cf. John 12:31; 14:30, 16:11], a liar and murderer, who incites sin [cf. John 8:44; John 13:2]. The appellation ‘murderer’ refers to the serpent in Eden [cf. Romans 5:12-15; Wisdom 2:24] who brought death into the world.
Evil spirits are able to enter people and animals, as seen in today’s reading in which evil spirits possessed the Gadarene demoniacs. The Lord Jesus Christ cast out these demons, after which they entered a herd of swine [cf. Matthew 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39]. Other examples of possession and the symptoms thereof can be found in other Gospel narratives such as Matthew [cf. 17:14-20]; Mark [cf. 1:23-26; 9:14-29]; and Luke [cf. 4:31-36; 9:37-43].
Stages of demonic activity
The first stage or level of demonic activity and influence in humans is called ‘demonic oppression’. In Acts, we read: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with Him” [cf. 10:38]. In this stage, evil spirits urge (seduce) man into committing sin. The demons tempt man to deny or reject the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Tradition (often making the excuse that these are antiquated and no longer applicable). They afflict man with despondency in which he feels listless and spiritually ‘cold’ or ‘dead’. The demons lead man to a state of prejudice that results from repeated acts of hamartema, or sin—which predispose a man to yield to a particular temptation. This is a pre-possessional state, or prolipsis, and is otherwise referred to as spiritual bondage or captivity to sin [cf. Jude 6]. Notwithstanding, these demonic assaults come from outside of man. Both carnally-minded Orthodox Christians, unbelievers, and non-believers can fall into this state of oppression.
The second stage of demonic activity and influence is referred to as ‘demonization’, and those afflicted are described as daimonizomai, or demonized. In this stage, oppression turns into an acute personal attack. It involves the rudimentary control of the person’s psychological and psychic system through demonic manipulation. It incites an appetite, impulse, habit, or obsession, such as anger, desire, jealousy, lust, and other passions, that increasingly and violently dominate the psyche. This again is a pre-possessional state—and the activities of dark energies are still working outside of man. Both carnally-minded Orthodox Christians, unbelievers, and non-believers can fall into this state. For the Orthodox Christian—this is the last possible scenario. However, the ungodly can move on to the next stage or level—demonic possession.
The third stage—demonic possession—follows demonization. It is a foretaste of the ‘doom’ or destruction and ruin of hell. In this stage, demons possess, or own, a man. In this realm, only unsaved men and women are prisoners. Demons cannot own or possess an Orthodox Christian who has already been purchased—and bought with the price of the Blood of Jesus—for such a man belongs to God [cf. Acts 20:28; I Corinthians 6:20; Galatians 3:13-15; I Peter 1:19]. Moreover, demons have limited influence on the true Orthodox believer who “lives in the Spirit'' [cf. Galatians 5:16-25] and guards the door of his heart and soul through nepsis (watchfulness), askesis (ascetic struggles), and hesychia (silence-focus and ‘Prayer of the Heart’). Therefore, only unbelievers and non-believers can be seized and possessed by demons. Demon possession is manifested in a man’s body and personality. The demonic spirit is in total control of the man’s actions. Descriptions of the experience of demon possession do not separate the actions of the possessed person from the actions of the demon [cf. Mark 1:23; Luke 8:28]. The power of the demon dominates the personality of the possessed person. Such bizarre behavior as masochism [cf. Mark 5:5] or unnatural voices [cf. Mark 5:7] stem from the demon’s control of a man’s self-expression. The characteristics of demon possession can be as varied as the activities of demons—ranging from mild to severe, and even bizarre.
Outward signs of demon possession in the New Testament include:
Dumbness (speechlessness), deafness, blindness, convulsions, and foaming at the mouth as in the Gospels of Matthew [cf. 9:32-33; 12:22; 17:15-18], Mark [cf. 1:26; 9:20], and Luke [cf. 9:39]
Self-destruction as in the Gospels of Matthew [cf. 17:15], Mark [cf. 5:5; 9:5], and Luke [cf. 9:42]
Violence or fierceness as in the Gospel of Matthew [cf. 8:28]
Suffering, illnesses, and deformities as in the Gospels of Mark [cf. 9:20] and Luke [cf. 9:29; 13:11-17]
Insanity as in the Gospels of Mark [cf. 5:5], Luke [cf. 8:26-35], and John [cf. 10:20]
Nakedness in public as in the Gospel of Luke [cf. 8:27]
Grinding of teeth as in the Gospel of Mark [cf. 9:18]
Living among graves and dead bodies as in the Gospel of Mark [cf. 5:3]
Superhuman strength as in the Gospels of Mark [cf. 5:3-4] and Luke [cf. 8:29], and in the Book of Acts [cf. 19:15-16]
Occult powers as in the Book of Acts [cf. 16:16-18]
The demon-possessed men in today’s Gospel reading represent the gentiles -in Hebrew, goyim ( גוים ) and in Greek, éthne (ἔθνη)- who were enslaved to the worship of idols and false gods. The cities of Gerasa and Gadara, to the east of the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan, in the “Country of the Gadarenes” were gentile cities whose citizens were culturally more Greek than Semitic. This accounts for the herding of pigs in today’s narrative.
A man can be possessed by more than one demon. In the parallel account of today’s Gospel in Luke, the demons say: “Let us alone! What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” [cf. 4:34]. Notice the use of the plural pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’. This means that there was more than one demon in possession of this particular demoniac—as also noted in the account by Mark [1:21-28]. In the Gospels of Matthew [cf. 8:28-34], Mark [5:1-12], and Luke [8:26-32], a ‘legion’ of demons (and incidentally, a Roman legion consisted of 5,400 soldiers) possessed this demoniac. Jesus exorcises the demons—and sends them into a herd of swine, or pigs. Demons are described as ‘unclean spirits’ (akathartos pneuma, ἀκάθαρτον πνεῦμα) in Luke [cf. 4:33] and elsewhere. Pigs were the prototypical ‘unclean’ animal of the Law. Our Lord sent unclean spirits into unclean animals which then proceeded to kill themselves.
The Lord Jesus Christ cleanses the cosmos
The Lord Jesus Christ cleanses the cosmos. He sets boundaries on evil; and therefore healing, exorcism, cleansing, and deliverance are thus intertwined. Entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven—the Empire of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—is redefined by Jesus, and, in comparison with the notions of the Jews, is made more inclusive. Human boundaries are flexibilized. However, the boundaries for the demonic are reinforced and evil is surgically separated. Men and women are healed and cleansed from demonic activity; and demons are ‘relocated’.
In ancient Israel, ceremonial and actual impurity resulted in the departure of the Divine presence. Yet Jesus, the Word of God—filled with the Spirit—reasserts His Divine presence by going forth from ‘sacred space’ into ‘profane space’. He expels demons, and expands ‘sacred space’. This becomes abundantly evident in Jesus’ passion, death, burial, and resurrection. The Lord Jesus Christ did not require the Gadarene demoniacs to earn their deliverance—neither does He require that of us. Instead, the Savior has graciously taken upon Himself the consequences of all human corruption and sin to the point of His passion, death, burial, and descent to Hades so that He could conquer them all in His glorious third-day resurrection. He has ascended into heaven—in full and completely glorified humanity—and sent the Holy Spirit to empower His Body, the Church, of which we are members. He lives within our hearts by the Holy Spirit, casting out our demons, forgiving our sins, and enabling us to share in His eternal life even now—as healed and transformed persons in relationship with Him and one another. By His grace, Christ restores us to the dignity and freedom of those who bear the Divine image and likeness.
The Lord Jesus Christ did not require the Gadarene demoniacs to earn their deliverance—neither does He require that of us.
Therefore, like those Gadarene demoniacs, it is time for us to leave behind the graveyard of evil and instead become who we are called to be in Christ. It is time to embrace our true identity as those created in God’s image and likeness and called to ἕνωσις (enosis, union) with Him through participation in His Divine energies. By sincere faith, honest confession, and genuine repentance, let us accept the infinite mercy of the One who loves us so much that He conquered sin and death in order to bring us from the despair of the tomb into the joy of the Kingdom.
Now is the time to turn our backs on the degrading delusions of the idolatry of this world and to enter into εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia or spiritual well-being as per St. Nektarios of Aegina) and the unspeakable state of ‘blessedness’ to which Jesus calls us. Now is the time to confess and believe in Christ as we offer every dimension of our lives to Him for deliverance and transformation that knows no bounds. Now is the time to turn from the isolated misery of sin for the joyful communion of those who have been set free through the mercy of Christ.
The cure for demon possession in the New Testament always comes through faith in the power and Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus or the Apostles never used magical rites to deliver the afflicted from demon possession. Whenever Christ spoke the Word—demons were forced to obey Him [cf. Mark 1:27; Luke 4:41]. The Lord entrusted this same power of exorcism to His disciples as they went out on mission for Him [cf. Matthew 10:8].
The exorcism of the Gadarene demoniacs in Matthew [cf. 8:28-34], Mark [cf. 5:1-20], and Luke [cf. 8:26-9] is extremely significant. The demons recognize Jesus. They are resigned to their fate. They beg not to be sent out of the area [cf. Mark 5:1-20] or to the abyss [cf. Luke 8:26-32]. Although their plea to enter the pigs is granted—they end up in the Sea of Galilee, otherwise called Lake Tiberius. The lake typifies the apocalyptic images of the devil and his followers being thrown into the ‘Lake of Fire’ [cf. Revelations 20:10-14, 21:8]. In Matthew [cf. 8:29], Mark [cf. 5:7], and Luke [cf. 8:28], the word ‘torment’ used by the demons is βασανίζω (basanizo, which means ‘examine by torture’). Therefore, “[the demons also] begged Him that He would not command them to go out into the abyss” [cf. Luke 8:31]—for the ‘abyss’ is the temporary holding place for criminal demonic angels [cf. Revelations 9:11; 11:7; 17:8; 20:1-3]. These references to ‘torment’ and the ‘lake of fire’ give us a vivid view into the suffering of the Eternal Lake of Fire. The “fire, prepared for the devil and his angels”, that is, the demons, will ultimately destroy the dominion of evil [cf. Matthew 25:41], and God will condemn them to the punishment of eternal fire [cf. Jude 6]. This tells us that the demons all know that there is a coming Day of Judgment for them—in which they will be thrown into that ‘Lake of Fire’ forever.
It is indeed lugubrious that unbelievers and even carnally-minded Christians have not yet come to terms with the reality of this Day of Judgment—but the Apostle James warns: “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” [cf. James 2:19].
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.