My name is Legion: for we are many
Can people really change?
Perhaps we think that, superficially, there can be a make-over. But what about an abiding shift for good in the core of a person? Mark chapter 5 gives us such a picture. In the beginning we meet a man described like this:
“A man with an unclean spirit, Who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains: Because that he had 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. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.” (Mark 5:2-5)
We will be tempted to consider this man a different species to the rest of us. But Mark presents this as an extreme example of the human condition common to us all. The phrase “no man could bind him” is meant to remind us of the Lord’s saying two chapters earlier:
“No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.” (Mark 3:27)
The “strong man” is Satan. His goods are the human race. And Jesus came to “ransom” us from our bondage (Mark 10:45). What we see in Mark chapter 5 is a dramatic example of the need we all have for Jesus to rescue us from Satan’s clutches.
We all naturally “fulfil the desires of our flesh.” In this way we are all, by nature, under the power of the devil (Ephesians 2:1-3). Right where we cannot be bound, there we are most under Satan’s control. The stronger the wilfulness, the deeper the slavery.
More than this, we are all walking through the valley of the shadow of death and in this way are making our home among the tombs. And, under the power of death and the devil we cry and harm ourselves in all kinds of ways.
This man is certainly an extreme. But he is not an alien. Our struggles are reflected and magnified in his. Therefore Christ’s victory over these powers will give us hope. If Jesus can bring peace and order to his life He can do it to any life.
Mark 5:1-20 presents the whole encounter as a battle scene. First there was the sea-crossing in which the wind and waves – forces of chaos – rise up to halt their progress. Then there is a beach landing. The man who looks like he will oppose them is called “Legion” which is a military term for thousands of soldiers. It looks as though there will be an almighty battle. But it’s a woeful mismatch:
“When he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him, And cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.” (Mark 5:6-7)
When it comes to it, the powers opposing Jesus do not fight Him but worship Him – that is, prostrate themselves before Him!
Jesus asked him, “What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.” (Mark 5:9)
This legion of unclean spirits are no match for the Strongest Man. Just as He had commanded the wind and waves, now He commands these evil forces.
They beg Jesus to be sent into some nearby pigs – unclean spirits seek unclean animals. When Jesus grants their request we see the malign power of these devils:
“The unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.” (v13)
Just minutes ago this sea looked like it would kill Jesus. Now it’s the watery grave of this army of demons. The sea is a picture of the abyss – the Abyss where the demons and Satan himself will face their ultimate doom. Here they run headlong into it. They are hell-bent. And their effect on all whom they influence is that same self-destructive death-wish.
But now that Legion is free, what is the result? The man is now
“sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15)
There are three Greek words in the original: seated, clothed, sane. A wonderful conversion.
And how does Jesus effect it?
He doesn’t boil up a secret potion or wave a magic wand. He doesn’t circle around him 9 times sprinkling the blood of a hamster. No holy water, no incantations, no hocus pocus. He just commands: “Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit.” And they come out.
The Bible never describes lengthy battles with evil spirits. In the Bible no-one ever goes on search and destroy ghost-busting missions. As the gospel goes out, people do encounter these extreme manifestations. And it does seem to happen when frontiers are being crossed. Here as Jesus crosses over into Gentile territory, there is a turf-war so to speak. When the gospel comes to a new place there do seem to be these “flare-ups” of evil. We can see this in the book of Acts and in modern missionary settings.
But in the Bible, the way people deal with these demonic flare ups is not with a series of rituals but simply with words. Either Jesus calls them out with a sentence or people pray a sentence in the Name of Jesus. And that’s it. It’s not about conjuring or cajoling the powers. It’s simply a demonstration of Jesus’ power.
And the world is terrified. When the villagers see Legion “in his right mind… they were afraid” (v15). In a sense this is very understandable. Jesus has proved Himself the Strongest Man: mightier than a tornado; taming the wild man; commanding the demons.
And so they beg Jesus to leave. Here we see that the crowds aren’t very different to the demons! The madness of those hell-bent spirits finds an echo in the madness of men who pray for Jesus to leave. They would rather be left to enslaving powers than to invite the presence of the Liberator. Devils aren’t just a problem for Legion. There is a crazed obstinacy to “normal” folk. We would rather do without the power of Jesus. Instead we are ruled by forces determined to destroy us and we ask Jesus to leave.
Interestingly, Jesus grants their request and starts to go. At that point Legion makes a request too. And he would have had high hopes for its success. After all Jesus granted the request of the demons and He granted the request of the mob. But when Legion asks to go with Jesus, He replies:
“Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.” (Mark 5:19)
Jesus commissions the craziest man in the region to be an evangelist. Why? Because he is to tell of the “compassion” of the Lord. His story is not the story of a man who pulled it all together and turned things around. It’s the story of helpless hellishness conquered by omnipotent mercy. And so Legion goes …
“and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel.” (Mark 5:20)
First possessed, then placid, then preacher. No-one is a lost cause for Jesus.