One of the most dramatic stories told in the Gospels is the one where Jesus heals the demoniac. Found in Mark 5:1-20 and Luke 8:22-39, this story leaves us marveling at Jesus’ divine power over the angelic world and the lengths He will go to save a lost soul.
When we read this story without understanding the biblical context, though, we end up losing much of the story’s meaning. One of the most important principles of biblical interpretation is to keep in mind the context of what you are trying to interpret. There is a wise adage that says, “A text without a context is a pretext.” But, grammatical context is not the only context we need to be aware of, as there is also cultural context, historical context, and geographical context, among others.
In order to better understand the context surrounding the amazing story of Jesus healing the demoniac, we invited a special guest to our television program, Christ in Prophecy. Doug Greenwold is an expert on the biblical context. He is a down-to-earth Bible scholar who serves as the Senior Teaching Fellow for a ministry called Preserving Bible Times. Doug kindly filled in the contextual details we were missing and shed some new light on our understanding of Christ’s miraculous act of love.
Why Context Matters
Doug Greenwold: Context matters because transformation matters. The Bible writers when they wrote their scrolls assumed that their readers lived when, where, and how they did. So, they had no need to explain what everyone knew to be true. They just assumed you knew. Well, 2,000 years later, 90% of their experience is missing from our Western way of thinking. Context then fills in the white spaces between the lines.
What we do at Preserving Bible Times is equip people to read in the white spaces between the lines. We wish to understand the Scriptures like they were originally understood. That gets us closer to the original meaning of the passage. And, if we want to get closer to the original meaning of the passage, we must get closer to the epicenter of the always intended transformation by the Holy Spirit. That’s why we do what we do with our books, publications, seminars and conferences. They are wonderful resources we provide at preservingbibletimes.org. I highly recommend to those people who are interested in reading the Bible just as the people who first heard those words to come and check us out.
Calming the Sea
Doug Greenwold: Let’s begin looking at the story of Jesus healing the demoniac. The story actually begins with what would seem like another event starting in Luke 8:22. Let’s read the passage!
“One day Jesus got into a boat with his disciples and said to them, ‘Let’s go across to the other side of the lake.’ So they set out, and as they sailed He fell asleep. Now a violent windstorm came down on the lake, and the boat started filling up with water, and they were in danger. They came and woke Jesus, saying, ‘Master, Master, we are about to die!’ So Jesus got up and,” [interesting word here] “rebuked the wind,” [we are going to return to that], “and the raging waves; they lied down, and it was calm. And then He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?'”
We’ll explore a little bit later the nature of that question, “Where is your faith?” For now, though, let’s hop on over to Mark 4:35 where there’s a collateral passage that deals with that same encounter.
“On that day, when evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let’s go across to the other side of the lake.’ So after leaving the crowd, they took him along, just as he was.”
“Just as he was.” That’s an idiomatic phrase that we are going to open up here. So, let me set the stage. We are about 18 months into Jesus’ earthly ministry and so halfway into the time of the training of Jesus’ disciples. Maybe it is time for their mid-term exam. Are they getting it? Are they truly understanding this vision of the Kingdom of God, this bringing mercy to people who have been systematically deprived of it? Are they getting it? I think this is part of what’s going on here.
This is also the first time when Jesus is going to leave the friendly confines of the northwest quadrant of the Sea of Galilee, where the religious Jews live, and go on the offensive into enemy territory down into the southeastern quadrant of the Sea of Galilee called the Decapolis.
It’s late in the afternoon. You’ve been standing around watching Jesus teach and heal, heal and teach, teach and heal, heal and teach. You’re probably kind of tired, because standing around is often the most tiring thing we can do.
It’s about 5 o’clock in the afternoon when Jesus stops His teaching and healings and finally says, “Get in the boats. We’re going to the other side.” Observant Jewish men upon hearing the phrase “the other side” would recognize it as the code word for the Decapolis, which is a word that cannot be spoken because even saying the region’s name will make you ritually unclean. There are words you can’t say in this world of observant Judaism, and “Decapolis” is one of them.
Why? Because the Decapolis is what’s left from Alexander the Great’s conquest of this part of the Middle East. There Alexander established wholesale Macedonian city-states in order to conquer the area, and this region is what’s left of the pagan Greek Empire. It’s not only pagan, but the region is also viewed as the kingdom of evil, with Satan as its chief operating officer. An observant Jewish man is forbidden from going there.
Okay, we can start to get the same feelings the disciples were feeling. They were about to travel to a place where Jews were forbidden to go.
So, again, it is late in the afternoon, and this phrase from Mark, “just as he was,” means “Now!” Not “as soon as possible.” Not “after you leave a note for your wife,” or “after you get a snack.” No! “Get in the boats and get in the boats right now!”
If you were one of Jesus’ disciples, you are not going to be too pleased with this order. But, you set off. You start sailing southeast from Capernaum down to the Decapolis.
Then a terrific wind arose from the east and began blowing the boat off course. The disciples were sailing along, and this wind starts to pick up. But, no problem, many of the disciples are fishermen and they have seen this kind of wind before. They must think, “We can handle this.” But, the wind picks up a little bit more, then a little bit more. And, suddenly, it’s a wind unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. They realize they are all going to die. Somebody sensible finally says, “I guess it’s time to wake up Jesus.”
Why did the disciples wait so long before doing that? They were fishermen, right? They should have been pretty good sailors, right? It can be real troublesome to lean on our own self-competency, can it not? Rather, they thought, “We can handle this. We’ve seen this before.” I think there’s a little implied message here: go to Jesus sooner rather than later. Why do humans wait so long thinking that we can handle our own overwhelming problems when Jesus offers to carry our burdens for us?
Jesus wakes up and commands, “Calm. Peace.” We have a miracle! Not only does the wind stop blowing, but the waves are completely suppressed. I grew up near Lake Michigan. I tell you, when a wave gets set in motion it keeps going until it hits the shore. Not these waves! No, these waves suddenly fell flat.
After performing this miracle, Jesus then turns to His stunned disciples and asks the question, “Where is your faith?” That’s an interesting question. Let me fill it in. The disciples are going to a place they know they are forbidden to go. It’s the land of Satan. They expected some kind of response. As the wind comes up, they would be reminded of Hosea 12:1 because these observant Jewish men had memorized most of their Torah, their Old Testament. This passage talks about “the wicked winds from the evil empires of the east,” and that’s the very direction in which they are sailing. This is a sharqia wind. Those people who live in California understand Santa Ana winds. This is semi-arid land on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. It gets very hot during the day and gets very cold at night, producing wind inversions. It’s not that unusual that in 15 minutes you can suddenly have 6-8 foot waves on the Sea of Galilee. I actually have pictures.
The disciples have embarked on a mission to where they know they shouldn’t be going. It’s to the land of the Adversary. They expect a negative response. They know about the wicked winds from the evil empires of the east. They see this as a demonic wind!
The issue of faith here, therefore, is not that Jesus doesn’t have control over nature. He proved that with the great catch of fish. Rather, that’s why the word “rebuke” is there in Jesus’ command to calm the wind and waves. Jesus is going to rebuke His adversary who is high-jacking nature to try to stave this offensive from penetrating his territory, his domain, his kingdom. The disciples know this, but they were not with Jesus during the 40 days of temptation. They do not know that Jesus had already triumphed over the Adversary. So, this is a showdown at the O.K. Corral and they’re not sure who is going to win.
I would suggest to you that’s the context of Jesus’ question: “Where is your faith?” Jesus was telling them, “Don’t you know, in the Word, I AM? I AM will conquer the Adversary and triumph over him.”
After the Storm
Doug Greenwold: The disciples have a new problem now. The wind has stopped, but they’ve still got a ways to travel to get to the other side. How are they going to get there when they have no wind to push their sail? Row, row, row your boat! The fisherman’s boat at the time would have been a 28-foot boat and some 7 feet across and 4 feet deep. It’s a minimum four-person boat. They must have started to row, row, row their boat. Jesus has an interesting way of getting us involved in His ministry, right? They can’t just sit there. Instead, they have to become active participants.
While the disciples were reluctantly rowing to this pagan land, they would have been pondering over how they had almost lost their lives in the voyage. They would have also worried about becoming totally ritually unclean. They didn’t desire to be stuck in the purification baths for 30 days and get dry rot in their armpits. Were the disciples happy campers? Not at all!
So here the disciples were, exhausted and wet and rowing and on a journey they didn’t want to go on. And, by the way, Jesus decided to do this late in the day. That raises an interesting question: Does Jesus’ call always come when we’re fresh and ready? No, not at all. See? There are lots of insights here when you know the context.
The disciples would also begin to worry that, due to the late hour, they may have to stay overnight in Satan’s territory. Could they get back in time? Frankly, they don’t know. It’s all the part of the great unknown here. They have to follow Jesus without knowing where they’re going. But, that is what a rabbi does. A disciple follows his rabbi. He submits his authority to him, and so happy or not, they’re going to do what He says.
By the way, welcome to the way Jesus makes disciples – shock therapy! And He does so just about every day. Jesus started shocking His disciples by touching a leper. You’d think that would blow their minds right there since leprosy was communicable by touch, at least in their way of thinking.
So, there the disciples were rowing their boat. If you’ve been around water you know that sound travels over water. All of a sudden, you start to hear shrieks and screams. Somebody turns and sees in the ambient light of the moon a naked man on the hill shrieking. Observant Jews are forbidden from observing the nakedness of another person.
Next the disciples realized, “Wait a minute! There are some caves there. They could be tombs. We as Jewish men who are forbidden to get too close to tombs. We can’t set foot on the land because it is demonic land.”
As you can see, the ritual impurity issues were really building up. We are talking about baths for three months. Just how happy are we now? You can almost hear Peter and John whispering to each other, “Is it time for an intervention? We’ve seen some strange things, but this is over the top. We really cannot do this.” But, no, they’re disciples, so they need to submit to their rabbi.
In the second and last part of Doug Greenwold’s teaching about Jesus healing the demoniac, now that the disciples have finally reached the Decapolis, we will see what happens when Jesus at last encounters the demon-possessed man as well as a town full of angry people.