Open Matthew 8:28-34.
Matthew is proclaiming Jesus’ kingship. His people are surprised at his authority (7:21-29). His authority extends to outcasts (8:1-4), officers of their oppressor’s army (8:5-13), even beyond the borders of the land to the turbulent sea (8:23-27).
What about the land across the sea ruled by non-Jews? Does Jesus authority extend there? What if they don’t want him as their king?
In Old Testament times, the area east of Galilee had been part of Israel, but in Jesus’ time it was under gentile control. Call them Gadarenes, Gerasenes, or Gergesenes (the name varies among the ancient copies of the Gospels), but the point is the same: in crossing the sea, Jesus has entered gentile-controlled territory.
Good Jewish people like the disciples would be edgy about this region. People eat unclean food here, so they’re likely to be full of uncleanness. They don’t follow ritual cleansing, so the uncleanness spreads from one to another through the whole community.
Their worst fears are realized as two people step out of the shadows of the tombs where they live among the bones of the dead. Why is there no one else around? The disciples were right to be on their guard. These guys are dangerous. This area is unsafe (8:28).
The demonized people address Jesus, “What business do you have with us, son of God? Have you come here before your time to torture us?” Son of God? No Jewish person has used that title for Jesus yet in Matthew’s Gospel. At Jesus’ baptismal anointing, the Father declared Jesus to be the beloved Son who would restore his kingship (3:17). Israel’s enemy tested him, “If you are the Son of God” will you misuse your authority (4:3, 6)?
Satan and the demons are not giving us teaching about Jesus being the second person of the trinity. That understanding arises later. At this stage, the phrase Son of God must be understood as an acknowledgement of the authority given to Jesus as the earthly representative of the heavenly sovereign. It’s the sense we see in Psalm 2, where the one who rules in the heavens gives authority to the sons of David to represent his rule on earth, decreeing, “You are my son” (Psalm 2:7).
But Jesus has not yet received authority over the whole earth. Like David during Saul’s reign, he has been anointed as king, but his kingship has not yet been established. On the basis of this technicality, the demonized men plead that Jesus doesn’t really have any business with them yet, that he has come here before his kingship has been established (8:29). On this basis, the men hope to avoid facing an exorcism, which they describe as torture (i.e. the misuse of Jesus’ kingly authority).
But the demons know they’re in no position to make a stand against God’s appointed ruler. They agree to go, if they have somewhere to go. They’re desperate, so the pigs grazing in the distance will do. It’s strangely fitting: unclean spirits, granted temporary reprieve in unclean animals, in this unclean place (8:31).
Jesus orders them to take their leave. The pigs can’t cope with the twisted demonic presence in their bodies. They rush down the bank and into the sea. Pigs can swim, but these pigs don’t want to live in that state. They’re driven to drown themselves (8:32).
The local townsfolk hear what happened from the pig herders. A Jewish man has come, and he’s cleaning up the area. The unclean spirits are gone. The unclean pigs are gone. The dangerous men are fine: released from torment, cleansed, clothed, sane (8:33).
The pigs had considerable financial value, but that’s not what frightened the locals. They don’t want a Jewish king taking authority in their region. They plead with him to leave their territories, to go back where he came from (8:34). Jesus complies: he steps back into the boat, and retreats to his own town (9:1).
Imagine a delegation telling Caesar they didn’t want him over their area! They’d be hanged for treason. That’s not how Jesus operates his authority. Jesus has authority alright, but they weren’t ready for him yet. And Jesus doesn’t take authority where he’s not welcome.
That’s the problem with the kingdom of God: God has all power, but he won’t force his reign on people who don’t want him. Can the Jewish Messiah restore the world as the kingdom of God? Will the world submit to him? He’s ready to help, to cleanse from uncleanness and to free from oppression. But do they want him?
Do you think this will work? Can this gentle king’s approach save the world from abusive control and restore the earth to its true sovereign?
What others are saying
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 94–95:
The best explanation of the phrase ‘son of God’ here is that it refers to Jesus as Messiah. Those who believed in a coming Messiah regarded him as the one who would judge the world and put all wrongs to rights. That is why the demons instantly suspect they are in trouble. If the Messiah is here, the end of their time of freedom has come.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 343:
Matthew is concerned rather with the impression left on the local population by Jesus’ awesome authority. This is not a story about mission but about power. But whereas among the Jews his miracle-working power has attracted people to follow Jesus, here in the Decapolis they want to get rid of him. For them he is not a messianic figure, but a wandering Jewish “holy man” whose activities have already caused a great deal of damage; he will be safer back among his own people.
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