Can a Christian be Possessed by Evil Spirits?
The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on August 20, 2008 that about 25 students in a public high school in Calapan City, Mindoro province have suffered seizures and shortness of breath due to what the principal of the school has attributed to being “possessed by evil spirits.” The victims, mostly girls, pointed to evil spirits apparently angered by the cutting of a 30- to 40-year-old tree at the school backyard.
A mass was offered by a Catholic priest at the request of frightened students, and local shamans have sacrificed two black pigs to appease the angered spirits. The school administration is now appealing for help.
Because Christianity in the Philippines, both Roman Catholic and evangelical, is syncretistically mixed with superstition and paganism, many Filipinos are terrified of demon-possession, and readily believe in exorcisms. While I’m not discounting the possibility that these students are actually “possessed,” but just from reading the account, I suggest that this is a case of mass hysteria. Why do I say so? The answer is in the following sermon I wrote on Mark 5:1-20.
The Son of God, Our King, Releases Satan’s Captives
When I was teaching at a seminary just outside the Philippines last year, I usually arrive about half an hour before my class starts. One day as I was waiting in my car, reviewing my class notes, I heard loud ranting by a male student from a house in which they were boarding. Sometimes it was loud, and sometimes it was soft. Sometimes, he would burst out in singing, sometimes in lament. Once, I made out what he screamed, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” A crowd of students and staff gathered before the house.
Later, I saw him kneeling in the office before a couple of teachers, praying loudly. Some of the teachers told me that he probably suffers from depression because of his state of poverty. But not a case of being possessed by an evil spirit.
I’ve heard many stories like this. Even my wife has witnessed an exorcism done by one of the women in the church who was known to have power to cast out evil spirits. Many people in the church today believe that a person, even Christians, can be demon-possessed. Yet, other Christians, particularly in the West, don’t believe that demon-possession occurs today.
What does Scripture say about demon possession? Does it still happen today? Can Christians be possessed by evil spirits? Should believers fear demon possession? If someone acts crazy and violent, how do we distinguish whether he is mentally sick or demon-possessed?
Our text this morning has much to say about demons and about being possessed by evil spirits. Scripture tells us further that when Jesus the King inaugurated his Kingdom, he accompanied it with miraculous signs of healing the sick, raising the dead, preaching the gospel, and casting out demons. Jesus has power and authority over them, so the demons feared him. He has victory over Satan and all his evil hosts. And our text also tells us what Christ the King wants us to do after we are released from the tyranny of the devil.
I submit to you this morning that the Son of God, our King:
The Son of God Is Fearsome Yet Amazing
In Mark 4, multitudes of people on the western shore of Galilee pressed and crowded Jesus to hear him teach. He taught them about the Kingdom of God through many parables. The crowd was so big that he had to get into a boat by the shore, and teach from that vantage point. He used the boat for a pulpit!
After Jesus taught the people by the sea of Galilee, we read that in the evening, he and his disciples took the boat to the eastern side of the sea. Jesus needed some rest after a full day of teaching, and he fell asleep on the boat. In the middle of the sea, a great storm arose, and the boat was tossed to and fro by violent waves. The disciples feared that they would all die at sea, but Jesus rebuked the wind to be still. The wind and the waves immediately were still. But instead of rejoicing and thanking Jesus for saving their lives, the disciples were in great fear. “Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
After escaping the storm, Jesus and his disciples landed in “the country of Gadarenes,” on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Here’s fodder for those who say that the Bible is full of contradictions. Matthew says that the event took place in “the country of the Gadarenes, and that there were two demon-possessed men (8:28). Mark (5:1) and Luke (8:26), on the other hand, say it happened in the country of the Gerasenes. Other manuscripts locate it in the place of the Gergesenes. Which one is correct?
Let’s look at the map. Gadara is a city about six miles on the southeast shore of the lake. Gerasa is in the hills, about 35 miles from the lake. So both cities are not suitable as the place of the event, since the pigs ran downhill a short distance from the shore to the lake. A more suitable place would be a small village called Gergesa, now called El Kursi, located near the shore. This village has a steep bank leading down the lake. I believe the most logical explanation for the variances is that Gerasa is the most prominent city in the area, followed by Gadara. So when people recount the event, the place is referred to by the most prominent city, that is, Gadara or Gerasa. When our family lived in Escondido, we usually refer to it as San Diego, because people know where San Diego is, but not necessarily Escondido. How about Gergesa? I believe that the name is an attempt by some scribes to locate the event in a place by the lakeshore.
What about the two demon-possessed men in Matthew? This is not a contradiction, either. There may truly have been two men, but Mark and Luke focus on the more dramatic exorcism, and probably on the man who responded to Jesus in faith.
The Bible is divine Truth. It is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible word of God.
Now, when Jesus and his disciples landed on the shore, they were probably expecting to get some needed rest. But alas! Here’s a man with an “unclean spirit,” screaming, naked, violent and bloody, coming to “meet” them. He was not meeting them with hugs and a big welcome, but he was there with hostile intentions. The man ran towards him, but instead of a violent confrontation, the man fell down before Jesus. Was he worshipping Jesus? No, he was acknowledging Jesus’ power and authority over him. It is more of a mocking worship, like the Roman guards falling down before Jesus as the “King of the Jews” as he was being prepared for crucifixion (15:19). The leader of the demons cried out in fear, and begged Jesus not to torment them. In Matthew’s account, the demons cowered in fear, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (8:29). They knew that when the Kingdom of God comes in perfection on Judgment Day, Jesus the King would throw them and their leader Satan into the lake of fire to be tormented forever and ever (Rev. 20:10). The demons knew that they are hopeless against Jesus’ power over them, and they could not prevent their judgment from being executed.
But it was not only evil spirits who feared Jesus. When the disciples saw Jesus had more power than a raging storm at sea, they also cowered in fear: “What kind of a man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” When the herdsmen of the pigs saw Jesus’ power over the demons, they fled in terror, and told the townspeople. When the people saw the demon-possessed man as normal as a man could be, they too were afraid. Luke elaborates that the people were also “seized with great fear” (8:37). Even the Pharisees, in their hostility against Jesus, feared him (11:18).
They all feared the power of Jesus.
But other people not only feared Jesus; they were also amazed at His power and authority. Earlier at a synagogue in Capernaum, after Jesus healed a man with an unclean spirit, the people “were all amazed” at his power over unclean spirits (1:27). After the Gerasene man was healed, Jesus raised from the dead the daughter of a ruler of the synagogue. And the people were “overcome with amazement” (5:42). The people not only marveled at this power, but also at the authority of his words (1:22, 27; cf Matt. 7:28-29).
From where does his power and authority come? The demons know: from “the Most High God.” Paul says that in Jesus, “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things were created through him and for him.” Because he is the sovereign Ruler of the universe, all rulers and authorities, even in the Satanic kingdom, are under his power and authority.
When you see his mighty works in your lives, do you acknowledge his power and authority over you as Lord and Savior? Do you give thanks to him for releasing you from the tyranny of the devil? from the bondage of sin and death? from the wrath of God’s coming judgment?
Do you cower in fear at the name of Jesus? If you do, then it is time for you to confess and believe that Jesus is the Son of the Most High God. He is the only one who can give you victory over the darkness of sin and death. He is the only one who can release you from Satan’s bondage.
Which leads us to our next point:
The Son of God is Victorious Over His Enemies
Mark’s description of the man with an unclean spirit is very vivid. He is “demon-possessed” in that he is violently in the power of a demon. Actually, a legion of 6,000 demons control him (a Roman legion consists of 6,000 troops). He lived among the tombs, which are caves carved out in the hills above the lake. Because of his violence, men tried to subdue him and bind him. But no one could subdue him. Nothing could bind him, not even shackles and chains, because he broke them in pieces. Night and day, his terrifying shrieks from the hills could be heard by the townspeople. The demons, bent on destroying him, made him cut and bruise his body with stones.
After Jesus healed a demon-possessed man, the Pharisees were jealous because the people wondered if he was the Messiah they have been waiting for. So they accused Jesus as having the power of Satan. Knowing their thoughts, Jesus asked them, “How can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Matt. 12:29). Who was Jesus referring to as the “strong man”? He was referring to Satan, the prince of demons. In this event, Jesus was clearly relating demon-possession as being bound in the house of Satan. It is only when Satan is also bound that the captives in his house can be released from their chains.
In Luke 10:17-20, after the seventy-two disciples came back from their preaching, they told Jesus that even the demons obeyed them in Jesus’ name. Jesus’ comment must have sounded strange to them: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” Jesus is telling them that Satan and his angels were already suffering defeat after defeat as many people believed in him. His ministry, his death, and his resurrection meant the end of Satan’s deception of whole nations. That’s why he said that his death means Satan’s defeat: “Now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31). That’s why John’s vision of Satan being cast down from heaven means salvation for God’s people (Rev. 12:9-11).
As Jesus performed his miraculous signs, his kingdom assaulted the Satan’s kingdom. He first bound Satan, entered his house, and released the captives from the bondage of sin. As he healed the sick, cast out demons, and preached the gospel of the Kingdom of God, Christ plundered the devil’s kingdom. He told his disciples upon entering a town, “Heal the sick in it say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near you’” (Luke 10:9), and “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28).
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t wait for the Second Coming for the Kingdom of God to be inaugurated! It’s already with us! And it’s already victorious over Satan. When Jesus started his ministry on earth, when he died on the cross, when he arose from the grave, the Kingdom of God has triumphed over Satan’s evil forces. They’re retreating in fear of the Son of the Most High God. They know that their time is short, and that their torment in the lake of fire is surely coming.
Don’t wait for the thousand-year millennium for Satan to be bound! Satan is already bound today. He was bound when Christ first came on earth, and he will be bound until Christ comes again in victory. That’s why John says in Revelation 20:2-3 that Satan, the strong man, was bound for a thousand years so that he might not deceive the nations anymore. The thousand years is only symbolic of the long time when the gospel will be preached to all the nations from the time of the apostles until Jesus comes again.
Some Christians today believe that demon possession is a common occurrence. Many missionaries in the jungles and deserts and mountains in foreign lands affirm seeing people possessed by evil spirits. But is this an occurrence that Christians should fear? No, we should not, because these supernatural healings of diseases and casting out demons accompanied the ministries of Jesus and the apostles. They were accomplished to validate the authority of Jesus and the apostles. Even during the time of the apostles, casting out demons didn’t occur as much as when Jesus was alive. And church history attests to the fact that these supernatural gifts practically disappeared after all the apostles had died. I’m not saying that demon possession absolutely does not occur in our day, but that it is a rare occurrence.
But we also affirm that unbelievers are under the authority of Satan. Yes, they’re in Satan’s house of bondage. They’re under God’s wrath. Jesus says this to the Jews, who were not “demon-possessed” – “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:44). Paul says so in Ephesians 2:1-3 – that when we were unbelievers, we followed Satan, the prince of the power of the air. We speak today of exorcising the demons of murder and alcoholism. These are manifestations of sin in unbelievers.
Clearly, Scriptures tell us that there are only two kinds of people: those who are possessed by Christ, and those who are possessed by Satan. You belong to one or the other kingdom. But the Bible also says that Christians can never be demon-possessed. How can the Spirit of God and an unclean spirit dwell within a person at the same time? What fellowship has light with darkness? How can the temple of the Holy Spirit be the temple of unclean spirits?
On the other hand, there are some people who discount the Biblical stories of demon possession. They say that all of these stories can be accounted as common mental and physical diseases. As examples, the Gerasene demoniac was suffering from mental illness; the boy who had convulsions and who was deaf and mute had epilepsy, not an unclean spirit. But the Gospels clearly distinguish demon possession from other diseases in listing those who were healed by Jesus (Matt. 4:24; Mark 1:32). When someone has an unclean spirit, people knew that they were not just mentally ill or epileptic.
Do not fear Satan and his demons! They have no power over us. He who is with us, Jesus, has infinitely much more power than 6,000 demons! He who is seated at the right hand of God is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21). Christ is already victorious over Satan. That’s why Paul could exclaim: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” And that’s why Martin Luther could sing:
And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure;
One little word shall fell him.
Satan and his devils can not do anything without Jesus’ permission. He knows his doom is sure when Jesus comes again with great power and authority.
Do not fear the demon-possessed man wandering about in rage and violence! Fear the false teachers within the church, because Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. And he prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking those whom he will destroy. Fear those who preach a false gospel, because they are seeking to destroy Christ’s church.
And so, after he was healed, the Gerasene demoniac did not fear Jesus. In contrast to all the other people, he rejoiced in Jesus’ victory over Legion. He rejoiced that he was able to sit still at Jesus’ feet, clothed, and in his right mind. He rejoiced so much at what Jesus had done for him that he wanted to be with Jesus wherever he went. But Jesus had other plans for him. Which brings us to our last point:
The Son of God Commissions Us to Preach the Gospel of His Kingdom
Gadara, Gerasa, and Gergesa were in the area east of Galilee known as the Decapolis. This area of “ten cities” are inhabited mostly by Gentiles. That’s why they raise pigs there, which are unclean to the Jews. Roman soldiers stationed there probably ate pork. It is interesting to note that a man with an unclean spirit, living in unclean tombs, would be healed by sending the demons to unclean pigs.
This is the audience which saw what Jesus had done there: a demon-possessed Gentile man living among Gentiles in a town occupied by Gentile Roman soldiers. What a fertile territory for the gospel of Jesus!
“Let me go with you,” said the healed man. A scribe said the same thing to Jesus earlier, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus answered his request, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The scribe did not understand the high cost of following Jesus.
But the healed man probably understood. When Jesus did not permit the healed man to go with him, Jesus instead commissioned him for a different task: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” And the man from Gerasa obeyed and proclaimed what Jesus had done for him, not only in his hometown, but all over the region of the Decapolis.
What a difference in reaction from the herdsmen of the pigs and the townspeople! They were all seized with fear of Jesus. Instead of rejoicing over the salvation of the man, as a thousand angels in heaven did, they begged Jesus to leave them alone. Maybe they didn’t like what he did to the pigs. But what they didn’t really like about Jesus was the power that he has shown over the demons. If one man can have power over 6,000 demons, he can surely have power over them who were mere mortals. Only a holy God can have authority over accursed demons. And the unholiness and unrighteousness of the people were exposed by the holiness and righteousness of the Son of the Most High God. Leave us alone. Don’t meddle in our affairs. We want to do whatever is right in our own eyes.
So Jesus complied with the people’s request for him to leave them alone. But he did not agree to the man’s request to be with him. Because he had something better for him to do. Jesus wanted him to preach the gospel to all the Gentiles in his region. To preach Christ’s victory over all kinds of diseases and demons. To preach the mercy and grace of Christ in the forgiveness of sins. To preach the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus.
Being saved by grace in Christ means that God prepared good works for us to do. That we are set free in Christ to serve him. That we are a people chosen, not to sit on our hands, but to proclaim God’s excellencies.
Jesus told the man to go home and proclaim God’s salvation and mercy to his people. This commission is in contrast to the Jews whom he had healed. To most of them, Jesus’ instruction was to keep quiet about what God has done for them (Matt. 8:4; Luke 8:56). Why the difference? It wasn’t time yet for Jesus to be revealed as the Messiah who would die for the sins of his people. Here in the Decapolis, there was no expectation of the coming Messiah. So Jesus can safely go about the region even when some people proclaim him to be the Messiah.
Are some of you called to preach the gospel in your home places? Are some of you called to foreign lands? Whatever your calling, the more important thing is that you obey the call of Christ to proclaim him as Savior and Lord. He commands us to “go home to our friends.” But he also commands us to “make disciples of all men.”
People of God, we know that Christ is the Son of the Most High God, our King, who has power and authority over all creation. Even over Satan and his demons. Do not fear Satan and his angels. Christ has defeated them at the cross. And when he comes again, Satan and his angels will suffer the ultimate judgment – the eternal lake of fire. Their persecution of God’s people will surely end on Judgment Day.
But until then, Christ commands you to be holy and blameless, to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” And he also commands you to go home to your friends and to all the nations to proclaim God’s salvation, mercy and grace which he has abundantly showered on you. Amen.