Mark’s first mention of the man from Gadara makes him seem harmless enough.

“A man with an impure spirit, came … to meet Jesus.” (Mark 5:2)

“To meet Jesus,” Mark says! As if this man had made an appointment with the Master! Like he wanted to shake hands with Jesus and sit down for coffee!

Mark does warn us from the first that the man had “an impure spirit.” (A description that, no doubt, would have meant more to readers-of-old than to modern, more skeptical folks like ourselves.) This tidbit about an “impure spirit,” we learn as the story unfolds, is the most pertinent piece of information Mark gives about the man in his preface to the story.

As it turns out, the man was a lunatic wrapped in a legend. He lived in a cemetery. He spent his days and nights wandering the hills, crying out in misery, and cutting himself with sharp stones. He was completely out of control, entirely out of his mind, totally out of it.

His neighbors had tried to capture him. They’d locked him up … tied him down … chained him to large objects. But he’d beaten their strong men, broken their bindings, and escaped their protective custody.

Now he roamed freely, screaming and scary, unsettling their sleep with dark dreams.

By the time we move from Mark’s mention of a man who came to “meet Jesus” (5:2) to his description of the actual approach (“he ran … shouting at the top of his voice”—5:6-7), we are better able to appreciate the scene.

The man who comes at Jesus is naked, scarred, bloodied, and hysterical. He has filthy hair, matted beard, and diseased teeth. He has been ridiculed, restrained, and (finally) reviled. He is the stuff of legend. He is the region’s bogeyman. Children have nightmares about him.

As he advances on Jesus, he is screaming at the top of his lungs. Screaming not for mercy or for healing but to be left alone.

“Go away! Don’t torture me! What are you doing here?” (5:7)

It’s what happens next that tells us just how disturbed, just how demented, this poor man actually is. Jesus asks him his name. And he replies, “Legion.” Multitude. Throng. Horde. A singular label won’t do for this individual because, in fact, he is not an individual. He is named “Legion,” he explains to Jesus, “because we are many.”

Got chlllbumps yet?

Yet this nightmare is afraid of Jesus. He wants nothing to do with Jesus. He fears torture by Jesus. He is horrified by the thought that Jesus might heal him.

It is at this point in Mark’s story that Jesus does what Jesus does—he casts the demons out. He speaks a word and the demons flee. A wave of his hand, a nod of his head, and they are gone. For a moment, the briefest moment, we see power leap out of Jesus; power to dominate and exorcise; power to turn a man’s life on a dime.

And it is with the unleashing of that power that this story gets truly interesting. Don’t get distracted by the herd of pigs, and the request of the demons, and the permission of Jesus for the evil spirits to find other (if temporary) hosts.

Focus on Legion himself. He is sitting beside Jesus, quiet and at peace. He is clothed in a borrowed tunic. Perhaps one of the disciples has lent him a comb for his tangled, knotted mane. There is calm in his eyes, calm in his heart. The lunatic is in his right mind … the madman is sane.

Now watch the people gathering from the nearby town, the lunatic’s neighbors and would-be rescuers, showing up to see what had happened. What they witness is their old friend Legion sitting calmly beside Jesus. They see their worst nightmare clothed, contained, controlled. They see a man always known to be drunk on evil spirits sitting before them sober, clean, and lucid.

They didn’t even see the miracle. They’ve only been told by others that Jesus was responsible. Yet—looking from the former-lunatic to the future-Lord—they start to connect the dots. They begin to appreciate the kind of power Jesus must have exerted to achieve such a transformation in Legion’s life.

And how do they respond? Do they congratulate Legion on his new lease-on-life? Do they throw a party in celebration?

No. They ask the disciples’ question in a different form. “Who is this?” you can hear them wondering, “that even the demons obey him?” They are afraid, Mark tells us (5:15). They beg Jesus to go away. His presence is too terrifying for them.

The Terrible Christ

In a very intense block of stories (Mark 4:35-5:43), Mark tells us about Jesus performing four miracles.

  1. He calms a storm with nothing more than a few words.
  2. He casts demons from a possessed man.
  3. He heals a long-suffering woman.
  4. And he raises a dead girl back to life.

As Mark recounts them, these are truly interesting stories … compelling … moving. In them, we see Jesus at the peak of his miraculous powers. The stories show us a Jesus whose clout is boundless. There is nothing he can’t do, nothing stands in his way, the stories suggest. Not nature or demons or disease or even death.

Although this is not the first time we’ve seen the miraculous power of Jesus—he’s done other fantastic things in this gospel to which witnesses respond with awe, amazement, and astonishment—there is a new reaction to Jesus that each of the present stories emphasizes. That reaction is not amazement or astonishment or wonder. In these stories, people see what Jesus can do and they are afraid.

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