The Great Emancipator

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 8:28-34

Abraham Lincoln was called “the Great Emancipator” for his role in freeing the American slaves, but Jesus Christ truly is the Great Emancipator. He came to set people free from every kind of bondage: spiritual, emotional, and physical.

You might have seen stories in the news media about the work of the “Jesus Seminar” that met periodically for several years. They were a group of liberal New Testament scholars who gathered together to decide (by voting with colored marbles if you can believe it!) which details in the gospels are historical and which were invented by the early church.

It turns out that, according to the liberals, not much of Jesus' ministry actually happened the way the gospels say it did. Jesus didn't say most of the things recorded in the gospels as coming from his lips; those were made up by the gospel writers. Jesus didn't do most of the miraculous deeds attributed to him; he didn't walk on water or multiply the loaves and fish, for example, and he certainly didn't rise from the dead. Those stories are myths that were added to the record to heighten Jesus' reputation, or so these scholars claim.

Frankly, I'm not all that interested in what these types of people say about the New Testament. There's nothing terribly new in any of it; secularists with an anti-supernatural bias have been making similar claims for 200 years. If you approach the Bible with a materialistic philosophy that says nothing is real except what we touch and feel, that rejects the possibility of miracles, then those are the kinds of conclusions you are going to reach.

But what makes me mention this group here is one thing that they do affirm about the historical Jesus. They say he must really have healed the sick and cured people of emotional disorders. Even skeptics who read the New Testament carefully can't help but conclude that Jesus really was the Great Physician. The evidence is so overwhelming that even unbelievers are forced to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth healed the sick and delivered the oppressed.

He Came to Set Us Free

Abraham Lincoln was called “the Great Emancipator” for his role in freeing the slaves, but Jesus Christ truly is the Great Emancipator. Even though his primary purpose in coming into the world was “to seek and to save the lost” and “to give his life as a ransom for many,” Jesus regularly released individuals from bondage to demons or healed them of infirmities during the years of his ministry. His purpose in doing this was to offer us signs of the Kingdom of God. God's rule has come into the world in a direct way in Jesus Christ, and when God's kingdom comes in its fullness with Christ's return, then things like evil and sickness and suffering and death will be finally vanquished.

The miracles of healing and deliverance our Lord performed illustrated this truth. When he healed the sick or raised the dead Jesus was pointing to what life should be like, and what it will be like someday when God's work of salvation is fully accomplished and evil, sin, and death are forever banished from God's new creation. When he cast out demons, he was signifying the arrival in his own person of God's omnipotent power and God's superior claim on lives. The exorcisms he performed were a direct assault by Jesus the Great Emancipator upon the kingdom of Satan, the Great Usurper.

Lessons from the Gadarenes

A story told by each of the first three gospels makes this point in a most memorable way. Here is the way Matthew describes the incident.

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region.

Matthew 8:28-34

What are we to make of this remarkable story? At the end of Matthew 8 Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee with his disciples and entered the territory known as Gadara. It was a wild and harsh country, a Gentile area that contrasted sharply with Jewish Galilee on the opposite side of the lake. The Jews considered Gadara to be evil and unclean, a fact illustrated not only by the demon-possessed men but by the large herd of pigs that figures so prominently in our story.

When Jesus healed these two men, he demonstrated several important truths that every Christian should understand. First of all, he showed that Satan is real, and his power is indeed terrible.

In the New Testament, every form of mental illness was attributed to demon possession. Even disorders such as epilepsy were considered to be signs of oppression by the demonic. Today we understand that many of these illnesses have a physiological component or cause. But mental or spiritual disorders do remain deeply mysterious. Who can really claim to understand the human psyche? Who knows the full explanation of such suffering?

Biblical Christians should be very cautious in attributing demon possession to any disturbed individual. I, for one, would find any such diagnosis far beyond my capacity or experience. But neither should we too readily dismiss the reality of “the spiritual forces of evil,” as the apostle Paul called them (Ephesians 6:12).

The great commentator J.C. Ryle has some wise words about the reality and power of the devil:

There is an unseen spirit ever near us, of mighty power, and full of endless malice against our souls. From the beginning of creation he has labored to injure man. . . In the days when our Lord was upon earth, it is clear that he had a peculiar power over the bodies of certain men and women, as well as over their souls. Even in our own times there may be more of this bodily possession than some suppose . . . But that the devil is ever near us in spirit, and ever ready to ply our hearts with temptations, ought never to be forgotten.

And then consider the condition of the men who were being tormented by the demons. They lived among the tombs, away from all human society. They threatened all who came near. They were “so fierce that no one could pass that way” (v. 28).

Another of the gospels says that the demon-oppressed men went about naked, and that the townsfolk near where they lived had tried to restrain them with chains, that the men screamed continuously and bruised themselves with stones. It's a horrifying and frightening picture. These violent and self-destructive men were both pitiable and terrifying.

In their condition we see the true nature of Satan and all his works. The only thing the devil wants to do is to hurt. His chief delight is in inflicting pain and watching suffering. And all that he does is to that end only. He has no other interest or purpose; that's what it means to be utterly evil.

But finally, remember this point. If it's true that Satan and his power are terrible and real, it is equally true, and even more important to realize, that the Lord's power is infinitely greater. We are not the playthings of demons. If we know the Lord we belong to the Lord, and if we belong to the Lord we need not fear the enemy.

Listen to what the demons said when they saw Jesus approach: “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (v. 29). The devil is no match for the Lord; the contest between good and evil is not a struggle between equals, between evenly matched opponents. The outcome is never in doubt. The demons cringe and cower at the sight of the Son of God. They know who is Lord.

They realize what their end will be. In the day of judgment they will be cast into the abyss (see Luke 8:31). And here and now they cannot hurt even a herd of swine without Jesus' permission. Remember, Christian, he who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). Even Satan knows that he is defeated and helpless in the presence of Almighty God. The very demons realize that there is an hour coming when they shall be utterly destroyed. So let's look forward to that and take heart, and in the meantime let us stand firm in the Lord's strength against all the temptations and assaults of the evil one.

One last point before we leave this story. Did you notice the reaction of the neighbors of these two men whom Jesus delivered. “And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region” (v. 34). So here is this marvelous miracle of healing and restoration, a tremendous demonstration of both the power and mercy of the Lord Jesus, and all these folks can think about is the loss of their pigs. The saving presence of God is just too disruptive for them; it upsets the status quo. The values of God's kingdom come into conflict with the economics of their society, and Mammon wins out over Jesus.

May God preserve you and me from ever loving the things of the world more than the works of Christ!