Jesus Has Authority Over Demons – Matthew 8:28-34

After calming the storm, his disciples asked, “what sort of man is this, that even the winds and sea obey him?” (8:27). In the next demonstration of Jesus’s authority, he commands demons and they obey him.

Jesus and Legion

Two men with demons confront Jesus as his boat arrives on the shore. Since this is the first exorcism in Matthew, it is important to talk briefly about what exorcism was in the first century. As with his healings, Jesus commands the demons to leave without invoking any other authority. Exorcists in the first century invoked powerful names in order to force demons out, In Acts 19:13-16 the seven sons of Sceva used the names Jesus and Paul as power names to cast out demons. In a passage obviously shaped by Matthew 8:28-34/ Mark 5:1-21/Luke 8:26-40, the Testament of Solomon 11 describes a lion-shaped demon with a legion of demons at his command who can only be cast out by the name Emmanuel.

T.Solomon 11.6 So I said to him, “I adjure you by the name of the great God Most High: By what name are you and your demons thwarted?” The demon said, “By the name of the one who at one time submitted to suffer many things (at the hands) of men, whose name is Emmanouel, but now he has bound us and will come to torture us (by driving us) into the water at the cliff. As he moves about, he is conjured up by means of three letters.

Jesus does not have any elaborate preparations or rituals for an exorcism. In other Second Temple literature, casting out a demon was often a complicated process. In Tobit 8:1-3, for example, Tobias is instructed to place a liver and heart from a fish, mix it with live ashes of incense in order to make smoke, and then the demon will flee “to the remotest parts of Egypt” where an angel will bind him.

In order to cast out the demon Kunopegos (a demon who controls the waves, “I cause a type of seasickness when I pass into men”), Solomon learns he can only be cast out by the angel Iameth (possibly related to the Greek word for healing). The demon is then cast into an elaborate arrangement of bowls and ropes:

T.Solomon 16.6–7 So I said to him, “Tell me by what angel you are thwarted.” He replied, “By Iameth.” 7 Then I ordered him to be cast into a broad, flat bowl, and ten receptacles of seawater to be poured over (it). I fortified the top side all around with marble and I unfolded and spread asphalt, pitch, and hemp rope around over the mouth of the vessel.

Matthew’s description of the men is brief: they are so fierce no one can pass by the tombs.  In Mark this strength is further described: the man was often chained but he always broke his chains, and no one was strong enough to subdue him (Mark 5:3-4).  “Very fierce” (ESV, NRSV) or “so violent” (NIV) translates the adjective χαλεπός. This word describes an animal that is so violent and dangerous it is difficult to deal with. Although it is used only here in the New Testament, it is common in classical Greek, describing violent dangerous men (Thuc. 3.42.3) as well as a difficult enemy (Thuc. 3.40.6) (BrillDAG).

These two men are therefore described like wild animals, attacking anyone who tried to pass by the cemetery on the road. Think of these demon-possessed men as something like a “junkyard dog.” Nolland calls them a “public menace” (Nolland, Matthew, 375).

The demons know who Jesus is, the Son of God.  “What have you to do with us” is an idiom which means something like “we have no common interests.” Like the demons in Acts 19:13-16, these demons attempt to demonstrate power over Jesus by using his real name. They intend to use this knowledge to stop Jesus from tormenting them.

They identify him as the Son of God, or the son of the Most High God in Mark/Luke. Satan himself used this title for Jesus in Matthew 4:3, 6 and eventually the disciples will use the title for Jesus (after Jesus walks on the water, 14:33; Peter’s confession, 16:16) and a centurion who witnesses the death of Jesus uses the title (perhaps ironically, 27:54)

The demons ask if Jesus has come to “torment us before the time?” In the pseudepigraphic Testament of Solomon, the fate of the demon is usually to be bound or tormented, often put to work gathering material for the Temple.

There is an appointed time for these demons to be judged and tormented. For example, in Matthew 25:41 the Son of Man will return with all of his holy ones to judge. In 1 Enoch 1:9 the God of the universe will come out of his dwelling with a great display of power (1:3-7) and render judgment on the righteous and the wicked (1:8-9).

1 Enoch 1:9 Behold, he will arrive with ten million of the holy ones in order to execute judgment upon all. He will destroy the wicked ones and censure all flesh on account of everything that they have done, that which the sinners and the wicked ones committed against him.

The demons ask Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs rather than simply casting them out.  Why is there a herd of pig nearby? The population on the east side of the lake is Gentile, an area known as Decapolis.

The herd of pigs is some distance away, since they are tended by pig-herders who would not keep the herd to a cemetery with demonic menaces! Pigs are not taken out into the pasture to graze, so it is likely this is a small farm raising pigs for the Greek and Roman population of the region. In addition, they go back to their village and report what has happened and then return, so they must be closer to the village.

Jesus commands the demons and they open, entering the herd of pigs. Matthew adds the command, “Go” (an imperative form of ὑπάγω). The word also appears in Matthew 4:10 Jesus when tells Satan to go, and the same word is used in 16:23 in response to Peter’s rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!”

The pigs destroy themselves by rushing down the steep bank into the sea and drowning. What is the point of destroying the pigs? People who are possessed are usually self-destructive, perhaps this is simply a reflection of this tendency.

Matthew omits the reaction of the two men. In Mark and Luke, the man wants to follow Jesus, but Jesus sends him back to his own people. In Matthew, we have no idea what the former possessed me thought of Jesus.

The herdsmen, however, go back to their town and report what Jesus did, “especially what happened to the demon possessed men.” It may be the case the farmers are more concerned at the loss of their pigs than the restoration of the two demoniacs! Mark 5:13 says there were 2000 pigs in the herd. If this is the case, this is a major financial loss for a wealthy Gentile farmer. However, even though we do not know what they reported, the focus is on Jesus’s power over the two men no one else was able to control.

Rather than react to Jesus’s power over the demons with amazement like the Jewish people at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (7:28-29) or after he casts out a demon in a Jewish region (9:32-34), the townspeople beg Jesus to leave their region.

The reaction of the people of the village to Jesus’s authority over demons is surprising, but it anticipates the reaction of the Pharisees in Matthew 12:22-24.

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