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Matthew 8:28-34 “Authority over Demons”

“And after He came to the other side, into the country of the Gadarenes, two who were demon-possessed met Him as they were coming from the tombs, who were exceedingly difficult so that no one was able to pass by that way. And behold! They shrieked saying, ‘What to us and to You, Son of God? Have You come here before the time to torment us?’ Now, there was far from them a herd of many pigs grazing. So, the demons exhorted Him saying, ‘If you are casting us out, send us into the herd of pigs.’ And He said to them, ‘Get!’ So, coming out they entered into the pigs. And behold! The whole herd rushed down the precipice into the sea and died in the waters. But the herders fled, and departing to the city they reported everything and that of the demon-possessed. And behold! The whole city came out to a meeting with Jesus and seeing Him, they exhorted that He might pass on from their borders.”

 

The theme of Jesus’ authority continues with this second wondrous work in Matthew’s second block of miracles. While this text certainly illuminates the extent (both geographically and dimensionally) of Jesus’ authority, the main thrust is to introduce the reception of Jesus’ authority. Namely, that Jesus’ authority is opposed. This opposition begins in the spiritual realm but circulates to the physical realm as well.

 

Spiritual Opposition (vv. 28-32)


Though Jesus has dealt with demoniacs (δαιμονίζομαι) on several previous occasions (4:24; 8:16), this is the first account that details the exchange between those demonically possessed and the divine deliverer.

 

Context (v. 28)


This verse sets the context for the conflict that follows. It is important to observe several things before diving into the text. First, there is a question of geography. Jesus has entered into realms unknown in the sense that He is no longer in Galilee but in the region of the Decapolis. What does this shift in scenery mean for the events about to take place?

Second, there is a question of demons. Granted, Jesus remains the star of the show. Matthew does not mention the disciples at all (though they were certainly present) and the demoniacs are mentioned only when necessary. In fact, it is doubtful that the men speak at all as those demons who possess them do most of (if not all) the talking. This is a showdown between Jesus and the demons. There may be a necessity for a crash course in demonology in the near future.

Geography

And after He came to the other side, into the country of the Gadarenes.


By coming to the “other side” Jesus has completed the mission He set out to accomplish in v. 18, but what is this “other side”? The region east of the Jordan River and southeast of the Sea of Galilee was known as the Decapolis, a district that was something of a leftover from the Greek Seleucid kingdom. Its name “the Decapolis” comes from the fact that there were ten main cities (deca = 10; polis = city) functioning as more or less county seats. The Decapolis was never within the bounds of Herod’s kingdom and at this point was an autonomous region under Roman protection. The citizenry and culture were thoroughly Greek in nature and origin. Their Hellenistic temples and amphitheaters provided a stark contrast to the Jewish fishing and agricultural settlements just across the lake.[1]


By stating that Jesus came to the country of the Gadarenes (εἰς τὴν χώραν τῶν Γαδαρηνῶν), Matthew does not mean that Jesus is visiting the city of Gadara (some six or seven miles southeast of the lake), but into the territory associated with that city.[2] The point is that they have arrived on the eastern shore, roughly 8 miles from Capernaum their point of origin and are now in Gentile territory. Israel’s Messiah has entered into foreign domain. 

 

Demonology

Two who were demon-possessed met Him as they were coming from the tombs, who were exceedingly difficult so that no one was able to pass by that way.

 

Regarding demon possession. Unless we are to totally disregard the language of the New Testament, demon possession is real and is exactly what it sounds like. The one being possessed is indwelt and controlled by the demon(s) in question and is no longer in control of his/her person or faculties. One might say that this is the ultimate counterfeit to a believer being filled by the Holy Spirit.[3] This is a serious condition that cannot be over-emphasized: the demon-possessed individual has become a personified temple of Satan, bent to his will, and used for his purposes.


It is interesting that out of the 13 occurrences of the verb δαιμονίζομαι (demon-possessed/demoniac), none are found in the LXX of the Old Testament. Within the New Testament, all 13 references are contained within the gospels (Matt. 4:24; 8:16, 28, 33; 9:32; 12:22; 15:22; Mk. 1:32; 5:15, 16, 18; Lk. 8:36; Jn. 10:21). Likewise, the noun δαιμόνιον (demon) is found 70x in the Bible, 63 of which are in the New Testament with only 10 occurrences outside the gospels (Acts 17:18; 1 Cor. 10:20, 21; 1 Tim. 4:1; James 2:19; Rev. 9:20; 16:14; 18:2). In other words, while demons and demon possession are real, the Bible records an intense increase in this specific activity during Jesus’ first advent. The Eternal Word of God has become visible for all to see as He took on flesh. It seems that the demonic forces have likewise become visible (as far as they are able) to carry the struggle that has always been raging in the spiritual realm to the earth.[4] The coming of Messiah was answered by an increase of Satan’s influence and activity through his minions. This is evident in our present scene with the two men introduced by Matthew.


These two men met (ὑπήντησαν) Jesus upon His arrival. Again, notice that Matthew does not mention the disciples, placing all the emphasis upon Jesus. The demoniacs (δαιμονιζόμονοι) emerge from among the tombs, one of several signs the ancients deemed as symptoms of demon possession.[5] The eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee has many sheer cliffs where the locals cut tombs for their dead. Having made themselves a menace to society, these two men likely sought shelter here. These unclean spirits are at home in unclean places. As such, the path leading along the shoreline was no longer accessible, for these two preyed upon all who ventured there. It is possible that a boat with fresh victims provided the motivation for them to emerge from among the tombs and meet Jesus in what will become a conflict of epic proportions.

 

Conflict (vv. 29-32)


This conflict demonstrates at least two major points. First, Jesus’ authority is on full display. The nervous chatter of the demons takes up most of the text while Jesus utters a single word (an allusion back to the faith of the centurion?). Likewise, the fact that the demons make no move without Jesus’ permission admits that they are in fact subject to Jesus’ authority.


Second, the theme of opposition to Jesus here takes full form. Unless one counts the storm (vv. 23-27) and the Herodian persecution (2:16) (as one probably should) this is the first overt account of opposition mounted personally against Jesus. The following conflict flows from the demon’s initial aggression (v. 29), ebbing to a negotiation (vv. 30-31), only for Jesus to have the final say (v. 32).

 

Demonic Aggression (v. 29)

And behold! They shrieked saying, ‘What to us and to You, Son of God? Have You come here before the time to torment us?’

 

Once again Matthew introduces this verse with his go-to attention getter: and behold! (καὶ ἰδοὺ). It is not the demoniacs themselves that are worth beholding, but that (1) they speak rather than attack and (2) the content of their speech that Matthew wants his readers to notice. This is no normal means of communication. Matthew uses the verb from κράζω meaning to scream, shriek, or cry out. The term carries a nuance of emotion, vehemence, and volume. Their screech contains two questions. The first addresses the propriety of this meeting while the second questions the purpose.


The Greek τί ἡμῖν καὶ σοί literally translates to “what to us and to you?”. This is a common expression captured in several texts of the LXX (Judg. 11:12; 2 Sam. 16:10; 19:22; 1 Kings 17:18; 2 Kings 3:13; 2 Chr. 35:21) with the basic meaning: what do we have in common with you?/what do we have with each other? The basic understanding is that the demons have no desire to tangle with Jesus and would much prefer to be left well enough alone.[6] That the demons are speaking through these men rather than the men themselves is evident by how they refer to Jesus: Son of God (υἱὲ τοῦ θεοῦ). The question that the disciples asked among themselves in the boat (v. 27) is answered here by the demons. They know precisely who Jesus is, and they want nothing more than to see Him leave.


Their second question inquires after Jesus’ intentions. The emphasis on “here” could indicate with Jesus’ advent to earth or His arrival in Gentile territory. The meat of their question concerns Jesus’ purpose[7] in tormenting them. Is this the reason Jesus has come here? What the demons have in mind is the eschatological judgment where Satan and his demons will be taken from the earth and their confinement to be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14-15). This appointed time had not yet arrived and so they inquire as to Jesus’ intentions. “Are You here to condemn us to hell already?”


If the demons mean “here” as in “to earth”, then they are extremely slow on the draw. Jesus has been on earth for about three decades and has already exorcised many demons (4:24; 8:16), none of which were sent to be tormented in hell. Ever since the Magi blasted the news of His arrival (2:2), Satan and his horde have known of Jesus’ terrestrial presence and have sought to destroy Him and His mission (2:16; 4:1-10; 8:23-27). But if they mean “here” as in “this other side of the lake” (i.e., Gentile territory), they betray their keen observations of Jesus’ movements and activities. Jesus has been building up a base in the Galilee, northern Israel, where He has been teaching, preaching, and in all other ways eradicating Satan’s presence from the region. Conquest of the Galilee as the mark of a completed conquest under Joshua (Josh. 11) and of national independence under the judges (Judges 4-5). Could it be that Jesus is now taking the fight outside Israel to begin a conquest of the nations? The time for this is not right, yet the King is here. What does this mean?


Matthew does not record any reply from Jesus but is content to let the question hang in the air. The tension seems too much for the demons, for they soon wilt from their aggressive stance to take up a position of a negotiated surrender of sorts.

 

Demonic Negotiation (vv. 30-31)

Now, there was far from them a herd of many pigs grazing. So, the demons exhorted Him saying, ‘If you are casting us out, send us into the herd of pigs.’

 

Matthew here breaks from the scene to describe a few necessary points for the reader’s benefit. In the distance was a herd of domestic pigs. Their presence only highlights the fact that Jesus is in Gentile country as pigs were considered unclean (Lev. 11:17; Deut. 14:8) and therefore not kept as livestock by the Jews. In fact, the keeping of swine was outlawed in the last days of the Hasmonean kingdom in the mid 60’s BC.[8] Jesus is undoubtedly not in Israelite territory. That there were many (πολλῶν) of them will become important as the narrative unfolds as well as the fact that they were far off (μακρὰν) rather than close at hand. Later, we learn that they were accompanied by herdsmen, who certainly would not be tempted to draw near the place where these demoniacs were known to dwell. The fact that the herd was grazing (βοσκομένη) indicates a settled herd, hardly prone to stampede.


With the pigs in view, the demons (δαίμονες – the men are no longer in view) petition Jesus much as the centurion did (παρακαλέω – 8:5). Their petition is cast in the form of a first-class conditional statement which assumes the first part to be true. They assume that Jesus is going to cast them out. In such an event, they plead to be sent into the herd of pigs. This is certainly a curious request. Why would the demons desire to be sent into the pigs? Perhaps it is not so much that they desire to possess swine so much as they desired not to be sent to the abyss[9] or to the place of confinement which Peter dubs Tartarus[10] (2 Pet. 2:4). To be sent into the pigs means to not be sent to torment or confinement. Again, the unclean spirits seem to prefer unclean abodes. The demons recognize that they can make no move without Jesus’ permission. They cannot impose their will autonomously from Him and are forced to negotiate terms.

 

Divine Conclusion (v. 32)

And He said to them, ‘Get!’ So, coming out they entered into the pigs. And behold! The whole herd rushed down the precipice into the sea and died in the waters.

 

Matthew records only a single word slipping from Jesus’ lips: Ὑπάγετε! The present tense imperative (Go!) emphasizes the immediacy of execution (Get going!) as well as the continued state (and stay gone!). Perhaps the best English translation of the idea is with the imperative “get!”, as one would drive away a stray dog. Jesus agrees to the terms and they enter the pigs.


A second “behold” (ἰδοὺ) draws attention to the disastrous results. The whole herd of pigs rush over the edge of the cliff, into the sea, and drown. That there were multiple demons is evident from the fact that Matthew refers to them in the plural (δαίμονες – v. 31) and that more than one man was demon possessed. But that there were enough demons to possess the whole herd (πᾶσα ἡ ἀγέλη – v. 32) of many pigs (χοίρων πολλῶν – v. 30) indicates a vast number of demonic forces. Jesus expelled an entire host of demons with a word. It is interesting that the same waters which, when raging, threatened the life of Jesus are now calm and consume the lives of the demon possessed swine.


This scene is puzzling on the surface, for what purpose does the destruction of pigs serve Jesus’ mission? Before venturing further, several points need to be made. First, Jesus did not kill the pigs, the demons did. Demons are bent on destruction at all costs. Second, Jesus was not taken by surprise by the demon’s actions. This was not a chance encounter but a purposeful conflict in which Jesus emerges as the victor. Even through their negotiations, the demons were still deprived of a host. The demons did not circumvent Jesus’ authority but proved it all the more. Third, within the grander scheme of Matthew’s gospel, this is the first major step of Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles. The gospel concludes with a mission to make disciples of all nations (28:19). The kingdom of heaven when ruled by Messiah from Jerusalem will extend from sea to sea (Ps. 72:8; Zech. 9:10) and this region of the Decapolis will certainly be included within those boundaries. In short, Jesus is leaving a calling card. Here is proof not only of the extent of His authority over the demonic forces but also the extent of His authority beyond the bounds of Israelite territory. His realm and dominion extend beyond Galilee to the “other side”. This land will one day be under the kingship of Messiah and no amount of demonic opposition can thwart His plans.

 

Physical Opposition (vv. 33-34)


With the demons out of the way, Matthew turns his focus to the local inhabitants. As the narrative continues, Matthew shows that they too, like the demons, oppose Jesus’ authority in their country. Though the king has arrived, this is not the time of the kingdom. A second conflict is brewing, but first Matthew provides its context.

 

Context (v. 33)

But the herders fled, and departing to the city they reported everything and that of the demon-possessed.

 

Needless to say, this even gave quite a shock to the herdsmen in charge of the pigs. It’s not every day that an entire herd commits mass suicide on your watch. Taking the prudent course of action, they fled to the nearest city, likely the place where the herd was from, to report what occurred. Matthew states that they told everything but adds that they also (καὶ) told what happened to the demoniacs. The implication is that they destruction of the pigs was the main focus of their account and only mentioned the exorcism as an aside. It is likely that these men were hirelings, not the owners of their charge. It is important that their employers understand that the fault is not theirs but Jesus’.[11] 

 

Conflict (v. 34)

And behold! The whole city came out to a meeting with Jesus and seeing Him, they exhorted that He might pass on from their borders.

 

A third “behold!” clues the reader in to a truly curious scene. Matthew presents the crowd from the city in much the same way as the demoniacs as they encounter Jesus. The demoniacs met (ὑπαντάω) Jesus. Matthew uses the cognate form from the same root to describe the meeting (ὑπάντησις) which the townsfolk had with Jesus. Both the demons and the townsfolk exhorted (παρακαλέω) or plead with Jesus. The former that they might pass on to the pigs, the latter that Jesus might pass on from their borders. Jesus exorcised a legion of demons from the region and as a “thank you”, the locals desire Jesus to exorcise Himself from their land. If given a choice, they preferred the demons. 


The time is not yet come for Gentile deliverance. Jesus’ authority will not yet be exercised to make these knees bow and these tongues confess that He is Lord. Something must happen first. The king must suffer before He can conquer. Nevertheless, Jesus has proven the extent of His authority extends beyond the physical to the spiritual dimension as well as beyond the sea to Gentile lands.



[1] Edward M. Blaiklock, “Decapolis,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), 2:81-84.


[2] Mark and Luke associate this event with Gerasenes as they point to the specific city to which the herdsmen flee. It is possible that this city is what is known as Khersa today, or that the specific site has not yet been discovered by modern archeology. Regardless, there is no need to think that there is any contradiction within the three synoptic accounts.


[3] John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, eds., Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Biblical Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2017), p. 707-8.


[4] John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 190.


[5] Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck, A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud & Midrash, trans. Andrew Bowden and Joseph Longarino, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2022), p. 550.


[6] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 351.


[7] The infinitive βασανίσαι (to torment/torture) complements the indicative verb ἦλθες (come) to express the purpose of Jesus’ arrival.


[8] Strack and Billerbeck, p. 551.


[9] A place of temporary confinement where such inmates will be released for a short time (Rev. 9:1-3). This will also be the place of Satan’s temporary confinement during the 1000-year reign of Christ (Rev. 20:1-3).


[10] A place of confinement where demons await their judgment in the eschaton.


[11] Morris, p. 211.

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